Saturday, February 21, 2015

What can experience mean?

We continue here our explorations into St. John Paul II’s series of Wednesday Catecheses, which eventually became known as Man and Woman He Created Them: A Theology of the Body (TOB, for short). To see other posts on this topic, click here.

The first part of the Wednesday Catecheses, sometimes called the first “cycle” of TOB, concentrates on what John Paul II calls the “original experiences”: solitude, unity and nakedness. Each of the three warrants its own post so for now I’ll just concentrate on opening up the word “experience,” and what John Paul II is drawing out of it here. Using the creation accounts in Genesis as his guide, John Paul II contemplates the first experiences of man. In these reflections, the late pope leads us to an incredibly deep and rich understanding of man’s place in the world as creature, as worker, and as male and female. In a word, thinking about the original experiences helps us understand what it means to be human.
Michelangelo's "Creation of Eve" is in the Public Domain.
It’s important to remember that these original experiences are not fairy tales. The Genesis accounts are mythic in structure, but mythic in the sense that they recall something common to all mankind—a memory, so to speak, that we all have within us. John Paul II speaks of solitude, unity and nakedness as original not simply because they are first temporally, but because they are at our origin: these three experiences are common to us in our very humanity.

John Paul II spends most of his time in this first cycle on the original experiences exegeting the second creation account in Genesis, though always keeping the first in view as well. This second account, called “Yahwist” on account of its using that name to refer to God, is older, and John Paul II notes, has a more subjective tone. That is to say, in the second creation account we see creation more from man’s point of view, as it were. Therefore, John Paul II refers explicitly to this second account more often in order to contemplate man’s original experience of his body, which in turn helps man understand his relationship to the world and God.

Let me reiterate that last point: John Paul II is proposing here that it is mankind’s having a body and his experience in that body, that allows man to know himself, the world and God. “The body reveals man,” says the late pope in the 9th Catechesis.  In the very same paragraph, he also says of the person that “man as a person, that is, as a being that is, also in all its bodiliness, ‘similar’ to God.” Our lived experience in and through the body opens us up to God. Indeed, it is also where we are similar to Him.

Perhaps this seems like common sense: of course my experience is how I know things, since knowledge first comes from the senses. But maybe it’s not so evident to us—we have a tendency, I think, to regard our day-to-day lives and experiences as having little to do with the laws of the universe or the truth of the world. What could my body help me to understand about those things? Well, John Paul II avers, everything. Without the body, there would be no experience, and therefore nothing to know.

We tend to think in a false dichotomy of subjective vs. objective. My subjective experiences only accidentally connect with what is objectively true, but the two aren’t intrinsically connected to each other. In fact, “subjective” has become a bit of an epithet.* But if what is objectively true about the world, man and God doesn’t have everything to do with how I (subjectively) experience such things, then the world (and man and God) becomes foreign to me, a place in which I don’t really belong. That is problematic and deeply divisive, but it’s the situation we find ourselves in when we pit subjective against objective and vice versa.

John Paul II is trying to cut through this dichotomy by recovering experience as a means to know the true, good and beautiful, rather than as something incommunicable that traps us in ourselves. Experience and meaning are not opposed. The original experiences help us to see this more fully because they are at the basis of every other experience, and therefore something which we all share. Solitude, unity and nakedness, as John Paul II articulates them in TOB, are the abiding presence of “the beginning” in the midst of our lives. And as we have this deep memory of creation within us simply because we are human (and therefore bodily), surely our lived, bodily experience is also what helps us to understand the transcendent.

*the Dude abides.


  1. It's always amazed me how the experience debate works into Theology of the Body a different way too .. "How can a celibate man in Rome know anything about marriage or family?" Likewise, "How can anyone who is single have anything to say about marriage or children?"

    It's such a frustrating view because, as St. John Paul II pointed out in the beginning of "Love and Responsibility," one can have a wealth of "secondhand experience" through conversations, reflection, observation, etc. If we could only base our statements or worldview on what I personally have "experienced," things would be so much more limited!

    Thanks for this look at experience that doesn't "trap us in ourselves."

    1. Thanks Em. Something I've been thinking about lately with regard to JPII's emphasis on the original experiences in TOB is how, if not properly integrated, experience can become tyrannical.

      When our world is governed by largely impersonal laws (whether scientific or juridical) that have nothing to do with my interiority, then my experience becomes merely anecdotal, and therefore keeps me silent, unable to really go beyond beyond myself.

      On the other hand, when one is trying to articulate a philosophical/anthropological/social principle about humanity, anyone who has an experience that trumps this principle get to trump said articulation.

      I have to think about this connection more, but I do think this tyranny of experience is what leads to the affective illiteracy touched on in Called to Love. If experience doesn't mean anything, why bother to be able to articulate it?


We would love to hear from you! Please keep comments respectful and relevant to the topic at hand.