Nat Hentoff said that “Fiction is sometimes more real than fact … it can tell you more than facts.” What follows is a fictional conversation.
Conference Speaker: Thank you for attending the “Lived Experience and Racial Reconciliation” conference. I’ll be available for more discussion about the journey of creating a culture of diverse justice in your church.
Cherry: Your talk left me with a question.
Conference Speaker: What kind of question?
Cherry: Mainly about your emphasis on lived experience.
Conference Speaker: Yes, it’s so important to empathize with each person—each minority’s—lived experience. It’s the path to racial reconciliation.
Cherry: How so?
Conference Speaker: Since oppressed groups have special access to injustice, sharing their hard-earned understanding is the only way privileged groups will be awakened to the injustice all around them.
Cherry: What do you mean by hard-earned understanding?
Conference Speaker: A black kid learns when he is growing up that to stay out of trouble he has to be on his best behavior. That’s a truth that the abstract rationality of Western society doesn’t have access to.
Cherry: What is the problem with rationality?
Conference Speaker: It’s not just rationality, but all the hegemonic categories of Western civilization that blind white people—history, philosophy, logic, theology, and mathematics.
Cherry: What’s the problem with those things?
Conference Speaker: Within Western civilization, they have combined to create invisible systems of oppression. The social location of oppressed groups gives them the ability to see through the unjust structures.
Cherry: In your talk, you also said you believe the Bible is the true Word of God.
Conference Speaker: That’s correct.
Cherry: The way you combine lived experience with belief in the Bible raises a question.
Conference Speaker: What question?
Cherry: Is there a difference between the subject and the object?
Conference Speaker: I don’t see how that relates?
Cherry: Humor me. Does the objective truth of Scripture hold authority over the subjective experience of man?
Conference Speaker: It depends.
Cherry: Depends on what?
Conference Speaker: Since the Bible was written from the perspective of the marginalized, that means marginalized persons read the Bible’s description as their own experience.
Cherry: What does that mean?
Conference Speaker: They can step inside the text better than a privileged person.
Cherry: Wait, do you see a difference between the acquisition of knowledge and the content of it?
Conference Speaker: For a black person in America, there is little difference, as far as I see it.
Cherry: You know a tree exists because you touch, see, and smell it. Does that mean you are the tree?
Conference Speaker: That’s nonsense.
Conference Speaker: Because I’m a person and it’s a tree. Just because I see a tree doesn’t erase the distinction that exists between the tree and me.
Cherry: So, there is a difference between the subject and the object?
Conference Speaker: God is not like a tree. He is immaterial, as are people’s feelings and lived experiences, which combine into the category of personal knowledge. God and I have a relationship in the context of my lived experience.
Cherry: Is a person’s personal knowledge of God derived from subjective experiences or delivered to them by revelation?
Conference Speaker: It’s both.
Cherry: If that’s the case, which is first, objective reality or the subjective conditions of knowledge?
Conference Speaker: God gave humans five senses for a reason. All personal knowledge begins with the activity of the human mind. Think of it like this: Each person is a flashlight. Their life takes them into different experiences, shining a light on the different injustices in the world. God gave the oppressed groups the biggest flashlights because they are surrounded by more darkness of oppression. For example, oppressed Moses saw the truth of God’s promises, but Pharaoh didn’t. Since God gave oppressed people more insight, we must listen to the experiences their life has illuminated. How else will we correct injustice?
Cherry: It sounds like your supreme authority is lived experience rather than the Bible.
Conference Speaker: We believe in the inerrancy of Scripture. Lived experience is only a secondary tool of analysis. My church’s doctrinal statement says, “We believe the Scriptures, the 66 books of the Old and New Testaments, are the inspired Word of God and are therefore without error in their original writings. These writings alone constitute the verbally inspired Word of God, which is utterly authoritative and free from error. The Scripture is sufficient for all that God requires for us to believe and do.” I’ve signed the doctrinal statement and say to you that I believe it.
Cherry: What should define racism and diversity? The Bible or lived experience?
Conference Speaker: Racism is simply evil. And God mandates diversity. Revelation 5:9 tells us that the blood of Christ “ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation.” Each local church is disobeying God when they don’t match the diversity of their local community.
Cherry: Is racism the root of ethnic divisions in the local church?
Conference Speaker: Yes. Minorities feel internalized oppression that makes them never want to darken the door of a white church. It’s the responsibility of white churches to take the first steps.
Cherry: Could it be that heavenizing earth looks different than every single congregation looking like a Crayola box?
Conference Speaker: What do you mean?
Cherry: If Revelation 5:9 is mandating diversity in the church, maybe fulfillment is found in the Church Universal, in which case the mandated diversity has already been accomplished.
Conference Speaker: The divisions in the church are because of racism and that is a social sin that the church needs to correct.
Cherry: Are issues of race, gender, sexual orientation, and social class framed by Scripture or lived experience?
Conference Speaker: Scripture, of course, but the Bible was written a long time ago in a vastly different culture. The meaning doesn’t change, but how the meaning is contextualized does change.
Cherry: Doesn’t this mean you are imposing meaning on the text?
Conference Speaker: No, of course not. I believe in the inerrancy of Scripture. It just means that words have no meaning apart from context.
Cherry: Whose context?
Conference Speaker: The only way a person can read the Bible is from their lived experience. And the Bible is only true if it is interpreted rightly—in light of that lived experience.
Cherry: If meaning is derived from the personal story of the reader, then what is normative about the Bible?
Conference Speaker: Everything! The Bible is inerrant and infallible. Here, let me show you the inerrancy statement from my church’s website.
Cherry: No, thanks. Is the reality outside the person allowed to have any constraints on lived experience?
Conference Speaker: Comparing external and internal realities is like comparing apples and oranges. The lived experience of the oppressed is their internal reality. The truth of lived experienced is inexplicable if God doesn’t exist.
Cherry: How so?
Conference Speaker: The knowledge of God is accessible through lived experience.
Cherry: It sounds like you are conferring divinity on lived experience when you relocate authority to the subjective experience from the external objective source of Scripture. This is an unraveling epistemology.
Conference Speaker: How so?
Cherry: What if the lived experience of one oppressed person says another’s lived experience is a lie? Is it still true?
Conference Speaker: It just means the one person’s flashlight is lighting up different kinds of things than the other persons. Listen, it sounds like we don’t disagree on anything. The problem is that you are preoccupied with intellectual categories. I’m not a seminary professor. There are too many regular people in the world that are lonely and alienated, and too many minorities abused and under-served, to have the luxury to dwell on abstract philosophy. When I attend a racial reconciliation meeting in my town and listen to the experiences of the oppressed, my responsibility is to listen, not try to make someone’s personal truth thread the needle of Western theology. All I know is that God doesn’t stand outside of human experience. God is too compassionate to impose limitations on the meaning of the deeply felt experiences of minorities.
Cherry: Unless there is a clear distinction between the object and the subject, you simultaneously diminish God and heighten the self. When one’s lived experience determines meaning and morality, then the self is fulfilling the role of God, and the confounded chaos roars. It belittles the transcendence of Christianity if the narrative of truth is shaped by the self. Not only does God lose His meaning, but so does human experience.
Conference Speaker: It sound’s like you haven’t been reading the right books. Maybe you should start with Readings for Diversity and Social Justice.
Cherry: Christians must include in their cultural analysis something that Critical Theory, in its essence, excludes: That the God of the Bible exists and the Bible is His Word. Yet, there are many Christians at this conference who see the atheistic presuppositions of lived experience as no pause to immersion in “social justice” as a legitimate Christian category. The church is the people of God, which means it is the office of the church to belong to God. The church’s awareness of this office is dependent on the belief that God stands outside any lived experience, and in some cases against it. The problem isn’t just that the objective melts into the subjective, but that transcendence disappears into immanence. When this happens, God is just a tool to satisfy the fond impertinence of the narrative of grievance. All human experience must submit to transcendence. Better to think of lived experience as the caging of God.
Jason Cherry is an elder at Trinity Reformed Church in Huntsville, Alabama, as well as a teacher and lecturer of literature, American history, and economics at Providence Classical School in Huntsville. He graduated from Reformed Theological Seminary with an MA in Religion and is the author of the book The Culture of Conversionism and the History of the Altar Call, now available on Amazon.
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