Experience as Knowledge

I just started a new unit with my students on Mythology AND Short Stories. Usually these genres are studied separately, but I thought it would be cool to discover what is most essential about human storytelling by looking at the chronological extremes — the most ancient human stories and the most recent ones. Why do we tell stories, anyway?

Before diving into our first myth as a class — the story of Prometheus — we did a “fishbowl discussion” in which we explored four main ideas. For bell work, my kids had to respond to these ideas (“I agree / disagree and this is why…”) and so they were able to gather their thoughts before the conversation began.

1. The best way to learn is through experience.

2. In the end, virtue is always rewarded.

3. To understand good, one must understand evil.

4. The purpose of the story is to entertain.

Here are the results:

1. Most of my students (unsurprisingly) agreed with this statement.

2. We actually skipped over this one, but I’m hoping we will talk about it later.

3. Again, unsurprisingly, most of my students agreed with this one too. Some of them went even so far as to claim, “Without good, there can be no evil; and without evil, there can be no good. Good and evil need each other.” (I was slowly dying inside, but I guess they are just in high school).

4. They were more divided on this one. Apparently they learned last year that stories/written works generally have three possible purposes: 1) to entertain 2) to inform and 3) to persuade. Their responses to this statement were therefore more nuanced, for the most part.

source: brandigirlblog.com

I think #1 and #3 really go together. Even when I proffered a more extreme example in my honors class – “Well, if you need to understand evil in order to understand good, does that mean that a sinner knows more about goodness than a saint does? Like, for example, Hitler knows more about good and evil than St. Therese does?”

Surprisingly (and somewhat disturbingly), a lot of my kids said yes. Because to them, knowledge = experience. If you haven’t experienced something yourself, how can you possibly know what it is?

For my honors class I paraphrased this statement by C. S. Lewis in response:

No man knows how bad he is till he has tried very hard to be good. A silly idea is current that good people do not know what temptation means. This is an obvious lie. Only those who try to resist temptation know how strong it is. After all, you find out the strength of the German army by fighting against it, not by giving in. You find out the strength of a wind by trying to walk against it, not by lying down. A man who gives in to temptation after five minutes simply does not know what it would have been like an hour later. That is why bad people, in one sense, know very little about badness — they have lived a sheltered life by always giving in. We never find out the strength of the evil impulse inside us until we try to fight it: and Christ, because He was the only man who never yielded to temptation, is also the only man who knows to the full what temptation means — the only complete realist. (Lewis, Mere Christianity)

Well, the “lie” may be “obvious” to Lewis, but it is certainly not obvious to most of the students I teach. I think a few of them saw what I (or rather, Lewis) was getting at, but not all of them.

What’s rather disturbing is that the idea that experience is the best teacher is so ingrained in all of us. There is, of course, a lot of truth to it — that’s why we have all these cliches about learning from your mistakes and walking a mile in someone else’s shoes. But it’s also the source of some big problems.

The cult of experience as knowledge, when taken to its extreme (as it usually is these days), ends up ignoring all other types of knowing or disregarding them.

“You’re not me! You don’t know what it’s like to be me!”

Although that is true, that does not necessarily mean another person cannot have some insight into your condition. Experience as knowledge often disregards sympathy. No, I do not know exactly how you feel, but I can put myself in your place imaginatively – without actually having to do what you are doing.

How many times did I experience this (see what I did there?) as a high school student? So many of my friends/acquaintances did not want to take me seriously because I hadn’t “experienced” enough things. I did not drink or smoke or have sex, therefore (they concluded) I could not possibly understand what they were going through.

And although in some sense that is true, in another way it is a lie –

The same lie that the snake told Adam and Eve in the garden.

For so many of us, mere “witness” or “sympathy” or “word” is not enough. The only thing (we say) we will listen to is Experience.

“Ah, but did God say ye may not eat of that tree? It’s only because He doesn’t want you to be as powerful as He is, and to know (i.e. experience) good and evil! Come on… taste and see for yourself…”

And so, because Eve became enamored of Experience – the Knowledge of Good and Evil – she hate the fruit and gave it to her husband.

Genesis tells us that indeed they learned something – “their eyes were opened” and “they saw that they were naked.”

But they also lost something – knowledge of a profound intimacy with God.

source: squareone-learning.com

Which is why faith is so difficult for us now – whether it’s having faith in another person or in God. We think we need to EXPERIENCE God before we will believe in Him.

Even certain (more modern) branches of Christianity fall into this trap. Faith itself becomes so much of an “experience” that they can even tell you the time and place it first happened. I know God is real because I have experienced Him.

But does that mean that those who *have not experienced* God, in the popular sense, are therefore off the hook?

One last thought:

God seems to get our whole need for experience thing. After all, He decided the best way to save us would be to *experience* being human for Himself – even though, being God and omniscient, He already knew what it was like. And furthermore, Jesus was able to reveal the Father to us because He Himself had *experienced* the Father from all eternity:

“No one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal Him” (Matthew 11:27).

“No one has ever seen God; only the Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, He has made Him known” (John 1:18).

But the problem is, we do not trust Jesus’ experience. Nor do we trust the experience of the apostles who experienced Him. Nor the disciples of the apostles who experienced them. Nor the experience of the ones who came after that… and so on. Because experience, at this point, has turned into witness. And witness means believing what someone else says, whether or not you have directly experienced what they are telling you for yourself.

Like Thomas, we won’t believe our friends when they tell us, “He is Risen!” Nope, we have to put our fingers in His hands and side in order to believe.

Or we think we have to taste the fruit in order to have “knowledge of good and evil.”

But “bad people, in one sense, know very little about badness — they have lived a sheltered life by always giving in” (Lewis).

9 thoughts on “Experience as Knowledge

  1. When I read Mere Christianity, it was thanks to the recommendation, or rather prescription, of a friend who said it would help me encounter the “basic tenets” of Christian living during times of strong temptation. Though reading is no replacement for saving grace, I will always remember that book as a real antidote during a difficult period of my life, and I appreciate seeing that passage from it again.

    On a different note, the apotheosis of “experience” is very pervasive in educational circles, where people should really have a more nuanced, critical understanding than high-schoolers. I feel like a symposium is an order: “toward an understanding of knowledge”. Sounds kind of solipsistic, but it would be awesome.

  2. Reblogged this on Retrievals and commented:
    I always feel like I am shirking some sort of duty when I reblog someone else’s work. However, in this case I could not resist, for this post by Maura Shea is the best diagnosis I have yet read of a tendency to idolize experience, a tendency I have noticed in my students and in American society as a whole (here’s a snarky example: “We have to pass this bill to find out what’s in it”). Please consider giving it a read and following her blog, Mysteries and Manners.

  3. Maura, you are the best teacher EVER. Those are some really fantastic questions, and I’m so impressed by the Hitler/St. Therese example you used. Your students learn so much from you. And even if oftentimes you don’t see the fruit of your labor — be assured you are planting valuable seeds!

    I do have a slight quibble, though, because I actually think practically everything humans know *except* the truths of Revelation is mediated through human experience (read: the 5 senses). Experience is the point of departure for philosophy; Revelation is the point of departure for theology. At least, that’s what I’ve always learned from dogmatic Thomists. I certainly don’t consider myself a dogmatic Thomist, but I do think that you have to give experience its due in order to avoid some kind of Cartesian mind-over-body dualism or rationalism. I love your example of sympathy, and you are right that we sympathize because we have imagination — but the “images” in our imagination are derived from experience, too.

    So, that’s really just a nit-picky complaint from someone who spends too much time reading ancient Greeks. Your core insights about the “cult of experience” and its implications for faith are dead-on (and believe me; I received those same exact criticisms in high school), but maybe I would just be more comfortable with a more precise definition of the *kind* of experience you’re referring to here. Or maybe a more precise distinction between what humans can know through philosophy and what we can know through theology, because the two are so different!

  4. To say that #3 has always been a pet peeve of mine is an understatement. It boils my blood. I blame sloppy film-writing (like Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince.)

    The good news is that you are their teacher. Perhaps all hope is not lost in the future generations.

  5. Hi, I am from Australia.
    Please find a set of references which throughly discuss at a profound depth level, all of the uninspected presumptions about “knowledge” and experience upon which Western culture (in particular) is based, whether in its secular or so called religious forms.
    By a unique “Philosopher” who thoroughly examined at a profound depth level every proposition about the nature of Reality ever made by human beings in all times and places.

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