In my previous post, I highlighted the reality that all cultures have blindspots. One of the best ways Christians can approach that is through the ministry of listening (James 1:19). Find out what life has been like for someone who isn’t part of your culture. You’ll discover more than you ever thought possible.
Having said that, believers do need to be aware of an emerging worldview which elevates lived experienced to the level of unchallengeable insight. We need to remember our experiences and the insights they provide us ought to be placed under the microscope of Scripture. God’s Word is the final arbiter of truth not lived experience.
In addition to this, one can sense in the cultural air we breathe a shift in how we think about identity. An illustration may help.
Most of you are old enough to remember September 11, 2001. Islamic extremists attacked and killed nearly 3000 Americans in a single day. While the acts of flying planes into highly populated buildings were pure evil, there was a subtle evil that wormed its way into daily life. I even noticed this on the college campus I was attending at the time. We came to label it as “profiling.” Because the terrorists were Muslims, suspicion in this country grew over the Muslim people as a whole. I suppose the line of thought, albeit irrational, was “The 9/11 terrorists were Muslims, therefore what’s true of them is true of the whole group.”
I’m a pastor in a worldwide denomination. I have friends who are missionaries. Many of them to Muslim people and they would say, “Just because the 9/11 terrorists were Muslims, doesn’t mean all Muslims are." It is unfair, uncharitable, and even sinful to treat a whole group of people as though they are guilty of the sins a small number within their group have committed.
Even the Scriptures would defend them. When we have not individually and personally committed the sin of our fathers or those with whom we share the same group space, God has determined that we do not bear the guilt of those people (Ez. 18:24; Deut. 24:16; Jer. 31:29-30). (Reflections on "corporate guilt" and "corporate repentance" will be a future blog, but here's a hint: DO NOT equate Israel with the United States).
As an example, consider what a denial of this claim would entail for Jesus’ sinlessness since he was part of many groups (males, Jews, Galileans, etc). Would we want to claim that he was guilty of the group’s sin even though he was individually sinless?
This is where we could use a healthy dose of individualism. Not the lone-ranger, maverick, “I did it my way” kind, but the kind that can allow a fellow image-bearer to stand before us as an individual before she is defined or deemed representative of some broader group.
“...no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, these things ought not to be so." - James 3:8-10
Experience is the best teacher. No doubt you’ve heard that one before. There are many things one can learn as they are encountered in life. What should I do if my vehicle breaks down in the middle of nowhere? How does one go about buying and maintaining a house? What do I do if I mess up my tax return? Living within a community of people tends to create a type of “crowdsourcing” dynamic wherein each individual learns from the collective life-experience of the group. This is good and healthy.
These are matters of “epistemology.” Epistemology is the theory of knowledge; or, how do we discover truth? For the Christian, this is an important area of consideration because God is very concerned with intellectual virtuousness. This is why he gave us the Scriptures!
Emerging within our 21st century American culture is an epistemological approach that spins life-experience in a slightly different way. At the center of it is the belief that certain cultural groups have special access to truth while others are blinded to truth by virtue of the group they’re a part of. What accounts for the difference is lived experience.
There are grains of truth in this idea. It is wise to be aware we all have cultural blindspots and translate that awareness into listening to the life experiences of others. As Christians, a general rule of thumb is: listen more, talk less (James 1:19).
However, lived experience should never rise to the level of unchallengeable insight. This undermines Sola Scriptura (Scripture alone). The truths we glean through life experience ought always be placed under the microscope of God’s Word. Our authority to speak about the plethora of topics that arise throughout a lifetime ultimately comes from God’s Word, not our experiences.
One of the encouraging outcomes of this is that no one individual or one group has special access to truth (To say some particular group of people has special access to truth is another form of ethnocentrism). If Scripture is the final arbiter of truth, then truth is accessible to all people regardless of their demographics (Ps. 119:130, 160; 2 Tim. 3:16-17; 1 Cor. 2:12-14; Heb. 8:10-12).