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A Response to Ellen Leonard

Catholic Theological Society of America
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  • Logic
  • Political Science
  • Religious Science


A RESPONSE TO ELLEN LEONARD Experience is such an elusive yet evocative term. Presumably, the term refers mainly to the actual living through of an event, the actual enjoyment of suffering and, hence, the effect upon our human judgment and feelings produced by direct and personal knowledge through impressions. We speak of a special knowledge by experience of pain, delusion, joy, love as opposed to inference or hearsay or mere external authority. We also use the term, experience, to refer to practical knowledge and practical reason, the skilled knowing of embodied, "tacit ," knowledge. The resonance of experience turns Newman's notional into real as- sent. Yes, of course, we know there is no unmediated, unthematized or unsym- bolized experience but experience adds something to the themes, symbols and languages which are its necessary medium. In some sense, all of theology, as wisdom, is reflection on experience. Indeed, experience is the foundational test of revelation and tradition because the latter claims to bear a universal message to humanity, to represent the normatively hu- man. Hence, theologians speak of a necessary method of mutual critical correla- tion between experience and revelation. And when revelation and the tradition do not jibe, something is a-kilter. Perhaps if we did not divide spirituality and theology in the artificial ways we often do, we would have long since mined the personal experience of our own prayer and discerned feelings and faith narratives and that, too, of the saints and mystics as theological test and source. Recently, one of our members, William Thompson has carefully and brilliantly appealed to this religion of experience in his new book, Fire and Light: The Saints and Theology, to show how experience in prayer does more than merely confirm or illuminate by giving depth to what we already really know.1 Ellen Leonard asserts in her very good paper that' 'the recovery of present ex- perience in its full social and political dimens

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