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The Promise and Perils of Preaching Experience

This post continues a series of essays on preaching from the perspective of lay people. Previous entries may be found here.

By Tim O’Malley

I often hear two critiques of Roman Catholic preaching. The first is that the sermon has nothing to do with human experience at all. It’s a series of pious claims by a priest, far removed from day-to-day life. At times, the sermon might consist of astute biblical exegesis, it could attend perfectly to the imagery of the feast’s prayer, but it doesn’t provide concrete guidance for living the Christian life. The Christian is left to her own devices to discern what the Word of God is saying. In this case, the homily becomes a learned (or more likely a semi-learned) recount of theology for us lay Christians to digest, before we go back to the world to live our non-theological lives. There are kids to be raised and books to balance. It’s pleasant to think of divine things occasionally.

The other critique is related to an overemphasis on experience in preaching. It is presumed by many homilists that experience is a separate category from the Word of God proclaimed in the liturgy and the scriptures. The homilist knows the Word of God, and therefore must also prove equally competent in the domain of experience. So, the homilist begins with a story from a recent vacation, recounts experiences from seminary, or recalls something from childhood. Only after the preacher has proved how much he or she shares with us mere mortal church attenders does the preacher turn to the Word of God. Often, the transition between the two goes something like this: “And so it is too in the gospel.” At best, the critical listener of such homilies understands that the story of the homilist is not related to the gospel — it is simply a rhetorical device to keep our attention. At worst, the non-critical listener unconsciously concludes that the Gospels are a series of quaint stories with equally quaint messages. They teach the same lessons that the priest learned in seminary or while on vacation in Florida.

What is one to do? These two fallacies seem to be opposite of one another, the first bracketing out experience, the second turning experience into the guiding hermeneutic of the homily. In fact, both fallacies operate out of the same faulty understanding of experience. Experience is necessarily integral to human life, but it is not reducible to the need to tell stories about the experiences that one has undergone.

Human beings experience because we are embodied creatures with a rich interior life. We have the capacity to sense, wonder, remember, ponder, reflect, desire, act, and then to further reflect on that action. We can’t bracket out our previous sensing, wondering, remembering, pondering, reflecting, desiring, acting, when we approach the gospel. We bring that to the Word of God.

Or perhaps better, the Word of God brings its power to our world of experience. The second fallacy seems to rely on an assumption inimical to Christianity. The gospel presents a world that is inaccessible to us, available to our understanding only through previous narratives that can make sense of it. The over-reliance on experience as narrative, as the hermeneutic by which we approach the gospel, risks turning the gospel into a living image of ourselves. What makes the gospel powerful is that it invites us to encounter a God who is not quite like us. This God wants us to experience a new kind of world, a new kind of narrative that we human beings could not have constructed on our own. It’s a world where the sick are healed, where those on the margins are beloved, where self-emptying love is the only way to defeat violence, and where death leads to new life.

Lest this argument not become concrete enough, let me suggest two ways that a preacher might avoid both fallacies in his or her preaching:

  • Human experience and the gospel: Human experience is integral to the gospel. When we’re dealing with Christianity, when we’re preaching the gospel, there is always something existential at stake in the preaching. If it’s true, it changes everything. And sometimes, you have to actually acknowledge this as preachers. But this doesn’t mean that the preacher must be some sort of expert storyteller, constantly discerning how his or her life is full of stories that an assembly must hear in order to make sense of things. We’re not your therapists, and we know that you’re a human being just like us (even if you wear funny clothes sometimes). The kinds of experience that must be brought to bear in interpreting the gospel are those which reflect the deep questions lay Christians ask every day. What does it mean to fall in love? To get sick and die? Why am I lonely? How do I heal (or at least deal with) the brokenness of my family? If the preacher learns to explicitly deal with these “depth questions,” his or her preaching will immediately become more relevant. After all, most of us did not spend time in seminary, but we do wake up in the middle of the night afraid of dying.
  • The strangeness of the God of the gospel: It’s rare to find a medicine that is likable (excluding the bubble gum penicillin many of us grew up with). Yet, many preachers shy away from the strangeness of the God of the gospel, reducing both the Old and New Testaments to the measure of our experience. Ironically, this takes away the healing power of our preaching, since what is presented is but a summation of wisdom that was already accessible without spending an hour and fifteen minutes at church. The creation and redemption of the world is strange beyond belief. We can’t figure out on our own that God created a very good world, that we’re created in the image and likeness of God, that God is both just and merciful entering into solidarity with us from the very beginning. The Word of God provides us with a way of discerning what’s wrong with us, and how we can be healed, and as it turns out, it’s weird. We are to give up the logic of power and prestige, of grasping and seizing, and die to it all. We are to be plunged into the death and resurrection of the God-man Jesus Christ. We are to become divine, not through a series of expensive surgeries or through gaining infinite knowledge of the world around us, but through self-emptying love, love unto the end. The words of the gospel are far more powerful than our stories about ourselves, about our vacations and that time we visited New York City. If these words don’t speak, we don’t offer the only medicine that can heal the human race.

If preachers will attend to the depth questions of human experience, answering these not through their own experiences, but through the wondrously strange and thus salvific logic of the Word of God, preaching would improve in the Church. You won’t necessarily attract a congregation of Joel Osteen devotees with this kind of preaching. But you’ll do something more. You’ll preach the foolishness of love unto the end, the only thing in the end that the human heart desires.

Plus, there are only so many places to go on vacation. I think I’ve heard them all by now.

Dr. Timothy P. O’Malley is the academic director of the Notre Dame Center for Liturgy at the University of Notre Dame’s Institute for Church Life. He is also a professor in the Department of Theology at Notre Dame.


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