Experientialism is the philosophy or approach to life that sees experience as the most valuable source of knowledge. Some experientialists would give weight to other ways of knowing, but experience is the most important. In reality, this is the way that many people live whether or not they would identify experientialism as their “philosophy” or “worldview.” In the final analysis, experientialism makes the individual—and his interpretation of his experience—the sole authority for himself.
Experientialism complements the postmodern rejection of absolutes. While some people may use limited experience to extrapolate universal principles (e.g., “I ate at a restaurant one time, and the item I ordered did not taste good; therefore, I know that the restaurant never serves good food”), most experientialists are simply content to let their experiences provide them individual knowledge without making any universal claims (e.g., “My experience has taught me that it is not a good idea to cheat on my taxes, but, if your experience is different, who am I to judge?”).
Certainly, experience can be a valuable source of knowledge. Trial and error is based on experience, and it is a common learning tool. Most people learn best when they not only hear about a topic, but also get to experience it firsthand. It’s what gives value to school field trips. However, any one person’s experience is extremely narrow in scope, and we cannot rely on experience alone as the source of truth. Some topics are completely beyond the realm of our experience. Biblical teaching about heaven and hell tells us facts about things and places that are impossible for us to experience in this life. We have to rely upon an authority outside our experiences to gain any knowledge about them. Consequently, some would discount such topics as heaven and hell for the very reason that they are beyond our ability to experience them.
In some branches of the church, Charismatic theology places more weight upon experience than upon doctrinal teaching, sometimes uniting Charismatics of vastly different and even contradictory creeds. This type of experientialism becomes spiritually dangerous when someone discounts what the Bible says in favor of a “more genuine” personal experience.
Christian witnessing is based on sharing our personal experience of what the Lord has done for us. After all, a witness tells what he or she has experienced (Acts 4:20). As Asaph wrote, “As for me, it is good to be near God. / I have made the Sovereign LORD my refuge; / I will tell of all your deeds” (Psalm 73:28). And the Bible even invites people to experience the Lord for themselves (Psalm 34:8).
Learning from experience is good. The school of hard knocks has many fine graduates. However, making limited individual experience the sole (or even the most important) source of knowledge is an inadequate foundation for knowledge. God has given us His Word so that we may learn about things we could never experience, so that we may properly interpret our experiences, and so that we may learn other things without having to experience them.