Book Extract: Interpreting Experience

The following is an extract from Philosophy for Believers by Edward W. H. Vick, pp. 122-123. I’m the publisher. I was reading this section as I was thinking about my study in According to John tonight (Jan. 22, 2015). How does experience relate to the development of religions doctrine?

8   Experience and Interpretation

Question: How shall we decide between interpretations of something that happened, whether unique public experiences e.g. a thunderstorm, or private ones e.g. visions, inner voices?

You and your friends are given a sheet of paper on which a lot of lines have been drawn. You are each asked what it is you see in the jumble. Replies will be different. One will see a horse drinking. Another will see cloud formation. Yet another will see the lines as a jumble of graffiti. We see things differently.

There has been murder in the town. Those people who are aware of it will have very different experiences. The relative, the detective, the editor of the sensational newspaper, each has his different view point of the event based on his unique experience of the event. Since they each experience the same event in different ways, let us call the phenomenon ‘experiencing as’. One experiences it as a personal loss, another as a case for investigation, another as the prospect of sensational front page headline and report.

Now think of different ways of experiencing the same events. As the Chaldeans approached Jerusalem and threatened its destruction, the Jews in the city experienced it as intense fear of coming catastrophe. The prophet experienced the events as the prospective judgment of God on the city. The Chaldean soldier experienced it as prospect for slaughter and booty. The experiences are different because each brings their own immediate background into the process of interpreting the meaning of the event.

So there is an analogy between ‘seeing-as’ and ‘experiencing-as’. Believers see the world as a world where God is present. Non-believers see the world as a series of purely natural events. We must consider that (a) there can be alternative characterisations of the event of ‘seeing’, ‘experiencing’. (b) Something more than the fact that I experience X as Y is required to establish the validity of my interpretation. For when I try to establish my belief in its significance I must explain both what the experience was and in addition contend that it has the significance I give it. This means that I must make explanations, use arguments, give reasons. When others have similar experiences to mine and do not interpret them as I do, it appears that it is the argument I produce to support my interpretation that is the important thing. So the notion of the existence of God can collapse into something that looks like the notion of being convinced by an argument. But the argument is to be seen as the instrument leading to an interpretation. That interpretation makes possible the belief in and so the assertion of the reality of God. It also, when articulated, enables the believer to give some account of his belief.

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