Learning from Experience

Stephen W. Hiemstra, Simple FaithBy Stephen W. Hiemstra

From the fourth century before Christ, philosophers have distinguished experience (Aristotle) from theory (Plato). Experience has the characteristic of being concrete and personal while theory transcends individual experience to distinguish relationships and general trends.

Personality Types

In developing a classification of personality types, psychologist Carl J. Jung (1955) further refined the distinctions made in the process of reflection. Jung (1955, 90-92) distinguished introvert from extrovert, sensation from intuition, thinking from feeling, judging from perceiving. Using these distinctions to classify an individual’s preferred reflective tendencies, sixteen different personality types can be identified.

One can develop hypotheses about how that each of these types would learn and respond to particular challenges. For example, Myers and Myers (1995, 149) write:

“The five types that favored the stable and secure future were all sensing types. The warmest of the sensing types, ESFJ, characteristically favored service to others. Seven of the eight intuitive types favored either the opportunity to use their special abilities or the change to be creative…”

Personality types are not predictive in a deterministic sense because people do change their classification over time, but they indicate tendency or probability.

While individuals often prefer one or the other yielding classified personality traits, our experiences are shaped by the theories that we hold and these theories may even permeate our language. An Eskimo language may, for example, distinguish many kinds of ice and snow while an African language might make no such distinctions having relatively few opportunities to experience ice and snow.

Presuppositions Matter

Plato took interest in this influence of theory on language and asked the question: how do we perceive the idea of a horse? If you had never seen a horse, how would you describe one? In the Bible, one of the first things that God did with Adam was to create new creatures and show them to Adam to see what he would name them (Gen 2:19). Naming is often interpreted in the Bible to indicate authority or sovereignty over the items being named[1]; naming also provides form—the idea of a horse or the prior experiences with horses—to our experiences. In a broader sense, culture shapes our language and thinking the same way, providing form to outline and bear our experiences.

Example of Police Shootings

Philosophers call this idea of culture providing form to our language and thoughts a presupposition. Presuppositions can take the form of cultural assumptions, even racial stereo-types. In recent months, presuppositions have been controversial in the context of police shootings where in ambiguous and threatening situations police are more likely to shoot suspects from one racial group than another, even when they themselves come from the same racial group.

The presumption that a person from one racial group may be more dangerous than another is discriminatory because information about a group is being substituted for information about the individual. But the source of this presupposition is unclear—does it reflect experiential knowledge (the group is objectively more dangerous) or theoretical (discrimination). If this presupposition is experiential, then no amount of police training will make it go away, because police officers would have to place themselves in greater danger to comply with their training. But if it is theoretical, then training will presumably change future police behavior because the presupposition is unconscious discrimination. Obviously, we care a lot about the source of this presupposition, but to date the public discussion has simply assumed a theoretical source.

Presuppositions in Church Attendance and Biblical Interpretation

Presuppositions influence our attitude about church attendance and how we read our Bibles.

For most Americans in the 1950s, American culture presumed that women worked primarily in the home and families attended church on Sundays. The “blue laws” mandated that most retail stores were not open on Sunday. In my grandfather’s home town, a farmer combining his corn on Sunday would likely have received a pastoral visit the following week. Today, the stores are legally open seven days a week because the culture presumes that women and men both work during the week away from the home and church attendance is no longer assumed.

Biblical interpretation is also informed by our cultural presuppositions. Today, for example, many people read their Bibles without believing the miraculous events that are recorded. Behind this skepticism is the metaphysical presupposition that the physical world is the only world and science has not been able to reproduce many of the miracles recorded in the Bible.

Luke 10, for example, reports that Jesus restores the sight to a blind Bartimaeus (Luke 10:46-52). Was the miracle the restoration of sight or something else, like a restoration of faith? If Jesus restored Bartimaeus’ sight, then Jesus’ status as the Son of God is validated. If he merely restored his faith, Jesus may be nothing more than a great teacher or prophet, as many have claimed.

Christians who have experienced God’s hand on their lives have no problem believing that Bartimaeus had his sight restored, a counter-cultural presupposition. How do you interpret the miracles recorded in the Bible?


Jung, Carl J. 1955. Modern Many in Search of a Soul (Orig. Pub. 1933). New York: Harcourt Inc.

Myers, Isabel Briggs and Peter B. Myers. 1995. Gifts Differing: Understanding Personality Type (Orig. Pub. 1980). Mountain View: Davies-Black Publishing.

[1] The power of words is again emphasized in a biblical context when we see how serious blessings and curses are taken. For example, after Jacob is caught stealing his brother, Esau’s, blessing from his father, Isaac refuses to take back the blessing—much like God creates the heavens and the earth with spoken words, blessings—once conferred—cannot be retracted.

Learning from Experience

Also see:

A Roadmap of Simple Faith

Christian Spirituality 

Looking Back 

A Place for Authoritative Prayer 

Other ways to engage online:

Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net, Publisher site: http://www.T2Pneuma.com.

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