Sunday, June 22, 2014

Are "Religious Experiences" hijacked by our existing understanding?

How does a religious experience fit into our existing understanding, our conceptual framework? Or does it? Does the assumption that it should fit cause us to force a fit?

Many (not all) people who have a religious experience are strengthened in their existing beliefs. They see the experience as a validation of what they knew or understood before then, or a validation of the religion in which they had the experience and understood the experience. While there are a number of known exceptions to that general rule, still the general rule raises the question: Did we understand the religious experience on its own terms, or does that "validation" phenomenon mean that our existing understanding reinterpreted whatever we may have experienced, and made that experience fit within that understanding?

I'd like to consider two trends that Hinman documents in his book, The Trace of God, that have some relation to the question.

First, Hinman (among others) has documented that religious experience or mystical experience is notoriously difficult to describe in words. One of the commonly-observed characteristics is that mystical experience is "ineffable" -- beyond expressing in human language. But if the religious framework interpreted the religious experience to fit itself, why would we find anything that we couldn't describe in the language provided by that framework? Doesn't our struggle with the vocabulary suggest that there is something more going on, something that our existing concepts and vocabulary have difficulty grasping? It seems that, if the framework had been able to fit the whole of the religious experience into itself, we should have no problem describing that experience in the terms provided by that framework. But in peoples' religious experiences, we find that there are consistent problems with finding the words to describe it. That suggests that the framework was not able to reinterpret or assimilate the religious experience completely. The ineffability itself suggests something beyond the framework's vocabulary.

Next, religious experiences and mystical experiences often cause a transformation. That is to say, it can change peoples' lives, and often does change peoples' lives. But if religious experience is wholly a function of someone's prior religious understanding which they had all along, then where does the transformation come from? If everything was already there in that person's religious understanding -- if the religious experience added nothing new -- then how did it cause a change? And there is still another facet to the question, "Where did the change come from?" If someone puts forward an alternate explanation that the religious experience didn't cause the change, that the experience was the product of the religious system -- then that may mean that the power to transform lives is already present in the religious system itself. On that view, we would then have to consider whether a "religious experience" is the religious system's breakthrough moment with a person, in which it crosses the threshold needed to change someone's life.


Martin LaBar said...

I saw an article today (I didn't keep the reference) concerning what were referred to as spiritual experiences experienced by astronauts.

Weekend Fisher said...

That sounds interesting. You'd have all kinds of opportunity, in a setting like that.

Take care & God bless
Anne / WF