The Differences Between Storyfaith and Experifaith

According to Ken Wilber, there are two types of faith.

One is narrative in nature. It explains who did what, where, when, with whom, what that means, and it often includes unverifiable explanations about cosmology and origins. This type of faith is heavily reliant on scripture. We’ll call it storyfaith.

The other type of faith is experiential in nature. It has several faces, but, as the description implies, it relies heavily on experience and can often be verified through practice. Properly presented, the experiential approach plots out a path for the spiritual aspirant to follow. We’ll call it experifaith.

Most religions include both types, although Eastern paths have traditionally focused more on experifaith while western paths have placed an emphasis on storyfaith.

Both types are valid and both include positive aspects and potential pitfalls.

The Promises and Pitfalls of Storyfaith

Storyfaith provides the believer with instant identity, which is an important psychological element. The storyfaith believer instantly knows his or her place in the world. A story not only provides identity but also access to a community and a code to live by, both of which are important in a chaotic and lonely world.

The potential pitfall related to storyfaith is well known. It is fundamentalism—an absolute belief in the infallibility of the word as written. In most cases, a story or scripture is written during a certain period in time. Once committed to paper, however, the story quickly solidifies and rarely, if ever, does a scripture-based faith include methods of updating the story, even in the face of overwhelming evidence. In fact, doubting one part of the story, as originally written, is often equivalent to doubting the whole story and can become grounds for excommunication.

This insistence on not doubting under any circumstances puts many people in a bind, especially in the present information age, and anti-doubting becomes doubly troubling when you consider the case made by M. Scott Peck in his book Further Along the Road Less Traveled that doubting opens the door to a more mature faith and should therefore be encouraged at the right time, not the other way around.

The Promises and Pitfalls of Experifaith

Experifaith is distinctly different from storyfaith. It does not provide answers to life’s big questions. Rather, it proposes a path of discovery through practice, where a person can come to his or her own conclusions. As such, it has more in common with the modern scientific method than storyfaith does, and, when practiced properly, experifaith can often be verified within a community of practitioners.

The two major pitfalls related to experifaith are confusion and hallucination. Because experifaith relies so heavily on experience, one needs either a practice manual (scripture) or a community of practitioners to orchestrate with in order to stave off confusion and counteract hallucinations. Peer review is of utmost importance, because if spiritual practices are not producing the same or similar outcomes for all practitioners they are typically not authentic. Not all experiences labeled as spiritual are of the same quality. Without proper guidance there is a good chance for one to get lost.

In an Ideal World…

In an ideal world, both experifaith and storyfaith would provide spiritual aspirants of all faiths with guidance. Storyfaith would preserve tradition and teach morals through parables and examples. Experifaith would provide the blueprint for a personal path to follow.

In the context of chocolate, storyfaith would be a lecture about chocolate, including information about origins and fables about positive attributes, while experifaith would be the literal act of tasting the chocolate.

Why I Feel Drawn to Experifaith

I have felt drawn to the experifaith my entire life, especially the meditative aspects of Eastern origins and the prayerful and moral aspects of Christian origin, and yet I have repeatedly found that experifaith is severely underserved in Western religions. We, in the West, overemphasize storyfaith but too often fail to offer guidance on the experiential path, which is sad, because, from what I have learned, many people crave experience — as the growing number of people who label themselves as spiritual but nonreligious shows — and when people don’t find experience within their own tradition, they are forced to look elsewhere.

When all is said and done, however, I believe that experifaith is the more essential of the two. You can read brochure after brochure about traveling the world, you could even become an expert about a certain area of the world without ever going there, but nothing compares to actually going on the trip yourself.

When all is said and done, nothing can substitute for direct experience.

Gudjon Bergmann
Author, Teacher & Interfaith Minister

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Experifaith: At the Heart of Every Religion