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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Rational Learning

“Behold, I have set before you an open door,
which no one is able to shut. I know that you
have but little power, and yet you have kept
my word and have not denied my name.”
(Rev 3:8 ESV)

Earlier in my preface, I argued that the act of knowing brings us closer to a holy God because holy means both sacred and set apart. Rational thinking sets us apart from the object of our reflection just like God was set apart from his creation, not part of it. Yet, knowledge is also at the heart of sin, as we learn in Genesis 3 when Satan tempts Eve. Scripture praises knowledge when its object is God, but cautions us when it leads to pride.[1] So we should take the attitude of the Apostle Paul vigorously defending the faith and pointing people to God (2 Cor 10:5-6).

So what is rational thinking?

The word, rational, implies that a conclusion comports with reason or logic. Rational thinking is thinking logically while thinking has to do with the work of the mind. Using logic and experience to judge rightly. In this context, rational thinking starts with making reasonable comparisons and associations.

Rational thinking benefits directly from logic, such as mathematics and mathematical relationships. We might argue, for example, that 1+1 = 2 which simply states that adding one to one makes two. Alternatively, we might argue that 1+1+1 > 2 which says that one plus one plus one is greater than two. Simple comparisons, like these two equations, make rational thinking extremely powerful in ordering our thinking and quickly admit substantial complexity.

Rational learning, which is based on comparisons, differs from behavioral learning because we need to stand back from simple responses to stimuli. For example, suppose I am a high school student trying to decide whether to take a full-time job or to enroll in college. From a behavioral learning perspective, the job provides an immediate benefit while college enrollment requires an immediate expense for tuition and living expenses so the obvious decision is to take the job. From a rational learning perspective, the lifetime earnings in the job may be only a small fraction of the lifetime earnings after completing a college degree, even accounting for costs involved so the decision likely is to enroll in college. While both alternatives involve uncertain outcomes, the behavior learning model focuses on short-term costs and benefits, while the rational learning model employs more information than simply immediate costs and benefits.

From a faith perspective, how we learn clearly affects our attitude about our faith, especially when it comes to future events. Think about our attitude about children. When our children are young, they require a lot of expense and attention. Even if they care for you in your senior years, such benefits are far into the future. Considering only the short-term costs and benefits, the behavior learning model suggests that having children is only a present cost, while the rational learning model weighs the current costs against future benefits. The calculation applies to living out our faith today in view of our future life in Christ. The sacrifice of praise on Sunday and of living a moral life the rest of the week has both present and future benefits, but only a rational evaluation sees beyond the sacrifice. Trust in God’s goodness and provision for our needs is also required

If blind response to stimulation leaves the exclusively behavioral learner at risk of addiction and of missing out of benefits preceded by costs, the exclusively rational learner falls prey to analysis paralysis. The rational learner patiently considers all available options, comparing costs and benefits. We all know Christians who get stuck evaluating all their options in life decisions and spend more time studying their faith than living it out. Coming to closure on decisions is frequently a problem for those specialized in rational decision making.

How do we come to closure on decisions? When should options be limited and a decision made?

In my experience, this is an opportunity to pray for God’s guidance. Where the behavioral decision maker needs to focus on developing patience in decision making, the rational decision maker needs to pray for guidance to be satisfied with the doors that God has already placed in front of them.[2]


Ortberg, John . 2015. All the Places to Go—How Will You Know? God has Placed Before You an Open Door: What Will You Do? Carol Stream: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc.

[1] Compare, for example, (Prov 1:7; Isa 11:1; 2 Cor 4:6; Phil 1:9) with (1 Cor 8).

[2] John Ortberg (2015, 257) sees the opened door is a fitting metaphor for how God invites us to step out in faith and service rather than having us wait for confirmation and comfort. He writes (10): “It’s an open door. To find out what’s on the other side, you’ll have to go through.” This opened door invitation always appears riskier than it really is because of who offers the invitation and for what purpose. The purpose that Ortberg sees is intensely interesting: “God’s primary will for your life is not the achievements you accrue; it’s the person you become.” (15). As God tells Abram: “I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” (Gen 12:3; 9, 35). In offering such blessings, God invites us to decide which doors to go through as part of our sanctification (16) and our decisions form our character and mold our identity (8).


Other ways to engage with me online:

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

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