Sometimes abstract theological ideas that rely on philosophical ideas are boring to read and difficult to get through. Sometimes, though, boring and difficult ideas are also important ideas. Sometimes, working through to the end of an idea is worth the commitment no matter how slow the progress.

An example is the important distinction between conceptual principles and experiential principles. This distinction is something I made up, over the years, in my journey with theology; I do not think there is a book about these terms specifically, but generally many authors have made this point. Hopefully, this distinction, which is not immediately exciting, is worth thinking about.

Religion and, generally, popular understandings of religion primarily rest on conceptual principles. Science and, generally, popular understandings of science primarily rest on experiential principles. The two principles work together and are interwoven. Let me explain what they mean.

Conceptual principles consist of the way an idea or a vision guides the understanding of the world. In religion, an example of a conceptual principle is that God is good. This conceptual principle is present in virtually every religion that holds there is a God. The principle orients religious thinking and statements.

In Christian theology, throughout its history, from its earliest philosophical expressions to its postmodern explorations, it has always been necessary to explain evil because the conceptual principle of Christianity is that God is good. To explain the presence of evil while holding the conceptual principle that God is good creates a need for a theology of God that addresses the power of God (is God powerful or not powerful?), the knowledge of God (did God plan or not plan the world?), and the presence of God (is God here or absent?). When the Psalmist cries, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Ps 22), the statement is understandable because it reflects a contradiction between the goodness of God (conceptual) and the presence of God in a world where evil exists (experiential).

Experiential principles consist of ways situations in life impress ideas upon us. The simplest way to explain this, in my view, is to imagine how an individual might experience a particular situation. For example, I go to the store hoping to buy a gadget that I really want and finally have the money to purchase. I worked hard to save that money, and now I get to the store, the only store where the gadget is available, and it is sold out.

I will interpret that experience as disappointment, but I could go further. I might say, “Why does this always happen to me?” I might find some way to punish myself, according to a negative habit I have picked up in life, by interpreting an everyday experience personally.

In this example, what guides interpretation is the physical experience, not the abstract idea. The experience provokes an idea or a way of thinking, but the experience is the primary factor.

Science first works experientially. In science it is necessary to start with experience, then move to an idea that reflects upon the experience. In my example, I am using a psychological experience, and if I were to go to a trained counselor, the question I’d face is, “Why did you interpret the experience of a sold out gadget as a criticism of yourself?” As a social science, psychology starts with experiential principles, then moves to the conceptual.

Religion starts with conceptual principles, then moves to the experiential. This means that religion has a worldview first, and then it uses that worldview to interpret experience. The nature of religion, accordingly, is somewhat problematic for theology because theology, as an academic subject, wavers between acting as a social science and acting as an art.

When theology is practiced as a social science, it too starts, or tries to start, with experience. For example, a common experience of nature is that nature will always do what nature does. Nature does not care about my opinion. Starting with the experience of nature, theology as science moves to the conceptual question about God. Is God in control of nature? Is there a God at all? Is God equal to nature (which was Baruch Spinoza’s conclusion: God and nature are the same thing). However, note the difference between the scientific study of theology and religion.

Religion on the everyday level is not science but belief. It is a worldview that interprets experience. If I hold the religious belief that God is all powerful, then I must interpret the experience of nature accordingly. I might believe in the devil in order to explain how an all-powerful God permits evil. Or, I might have to believe very deeply in sin because my beliefs demand that I protect the reputation of God.

Religious beliefs start with conceptual principles, a characteristic that sometimes—but not always—makes them troubling and misleading.

The historical Jesus talked about the kingdom or empire of God through parables. The empire of God is a conceptual religious principle that portrays a vision of the experiential world. The world Jesus sees is an alternative world to what he experienced as the Roman imperial world. Jesus struggles to live in a counter-imperial world in the midst of the Roman imperial world.

The conceptual values that Jesus wants to promote are different from the conceptual values of the Roman Empire. In the empire, hierarchical and privileged social relationships are paramount. The Senate appoints a Governor, the Governor privileges estate families, and estate families tax landless peasants based on their productive value (money gained through labor or through crops).

In the parable of the sower, the crop yielded is poor. Most of the yield will be given over to the estate family. The laborer’s family will starve. It’s a tragic parable, but it raises this conceptual question: Ought we not to see that this Roman Empire is the opposite of God’s empire? In parable Jesus invokes beliefs different from the religion of empire. Jesus invokes alternative conceptual principles.

Interestingly, religion as primarily a set of conceptual principles can shed a lot of light on politics. As it turns out, politics is also first a set of conceptual principles. Trained political scientists try to place the priority on experiential principles in the study of politics, but at a popular level most people, including myself, view politics primarily as a set of conceptual principles.

Viewing politics primarily as a set of conceptual principles is not necessarily bad. Afterall, those principles can be about justice, community building, the address of poverty and homelessness, the inclusion of diversity, and the equal voice of all.

The problem with politics, which is the same problem with religion, is that conceptual principles can overpower experience and force experience to conform to the concept. If the political conceptual principle is based on estate capitalism, which was the Roman economy and is how the American economy is sometimes described, where traditionally white estate holders depend on slave labor, then the conceptual principles will defend racism, money, and the exclusion of diversity. I would argue that that defense is or was Trump’s America.

The struggle for America in its politics today is a struggle for the heart of conceptual principles. The division in the country, even with Biden’s win, remains remarkable. There is a great need in the US (but of course, not only the US) for a set of conceptual principles that include decency, healing, patient listening, and a sense of the common good. A shift from the base of common divisions to the base of the common good requires a shift in conceptual principles. It requires a lot of imagination about a new country and a new world. Such new visions are like a Jesus parable that attempts to escape the empire of Rome for the empire of God.

David Galston

David Galston is the Executive Director of the Westar Institute and an Adjunct Professor of Philosophy at Brock University.


Academic Credentials

  • Ph.D., McGill University
  • M. Div., Vancouver School of Theology
  • B. A., University of Winnipeg
Image by Fra Angelico entitled noli me tangerePublic Domain