Preliminary empirical classifications
The Sense of 'Religious'
The Senses of 'Experience'
Something Undergone versus Noetic
Episodic versus Enduring StateMysticism and Prophetism
It is impossible to completely separate these three sets of issues. Religious experiences are cross cultural, take place within all the religious traditions, take different forms in different places though perhaps with enough similarities to allow some general groupings?? Problems posed by the existence of a number of large and apparently quite viable religious traditions are differently construed, depending on one's position on the cognitivity of religious language.
To give some context to our exploration of religious experience, it will be helpful to return for a moment to the problem of religious language. As our project proceeds, I think it will become even more evident that the various issues are not entirely unconnected.
To set this preliminary discussion of religious language going, I will re-state a position which I hope is sophisticated enough to function at least as a starting point. Following such people as Frederick Ferre and James Ross, religious talk/religious symbolic behaviour generally, might be thought to serve a number of distinguishable but related functions, including at least the following:1
Religious language has accordingly been likened to or modelled as a
variety of "craft-bound discourse" (esp. James Ross), with the craft goal
as holiness, life in the spirit, divine sonship, eternal life, entrance
into the Kingdom of God, rather than to make shoes or to play or watch
cricket or football.
But also, and very definitely and nowadays widely recognized at least as a claim:
What kind of vision? A vision at the comprehensive level, like a very general theory or super-paradigm or system of metaphysics (Ferre),
--more likely to be expressed in metaphorical and even mythic language; and
--more directly related to a certain class of experience(s), called "religious" experience. It is this aspect which among other things may help to explain the seemingly inevitably metaphorical character of religious discourse?? The experience is very difficult to describe in everyday language, as is what it portends about the way things are.
The vision is typically revealed in or a response to or strongly motivated by the content and the power of certain "originating experiences", e.g those of Abraham and Sarah, or Moses and Miriam and the key Prophets, or Jesus, Mary Magdalene, Peter, James, John, Paul and Mary of Nazareth. It is partly validated by certain kinds of experience which people standing in the tradition may have, to some extent because they happen to be standing in the traditions, which by contrast we might term "founded experiences". Religious traditions, then, among other things are developing traditions of experience and interpretation, experience motivating interpretations which enable or at least provide an agreeable context for further experiences in people who live out of these interpretations, and so on.
But what is this business about "religious experience"?
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The following short list from Ninian Smart (1965):
William Wainwright distinguishes:
Michael Stoeber mentions a rather similar list: nature mysticism, numinous experiences, paranormal experiences and experiences characteristic of introvertive mysticism. (Stoeber, 1992, p. 115)
This is just for starters, to get the ball rolling. The big distinction is between prophetism and mysticism. These also are the two that have most interested scholars. As Wainwright argues (ibid), if these, the more extraordinary varieties of religious experience, do not deliver the goods, there is not much hope for the others. This may or may not be so: the more extraordinary ones, precisely by being more extraordinary, may be all the more suspect, and we may be better off relying on the more common and more 'normal' ones (cf. Esp Vergote). Whatever about this, even Ninian Smart2's key distinction, between prophetism and mysticism, is not accepted by everyone. Rudolf Otto still has his defenders, over against Smart and others (cf. Leon Schlamm, 1991), opting for a much wider definition of mystical experience, incorporating experiences of religious devotion and awe, seeing it in fact as a variety of experience of the numinous.
As Smart himself makes clear, religious phenomena in the concrete are very complex and rarely exist in a pure form: prophetic, devotional and sacramental religion are often intermingled and interwoven with mysticism and vice versa. There is a numinous-mystical spectrum, with Islam and Theravada Buddhism at the two poles and everything else as mixtures in various proportions of the numinous and the mystical.
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One fairly obvious approach is to regard an experience as a 'religious' experience if it is closely associated with the practice or practices we call 'religion'. We can follow Ninian Smart once again (Katz collection pp. 10ff.) to make this more precise. First up, 'religion' is to 'religions' more or less as 'sport' is to 'sports'. To this extent, there is no such thing as 'religion' or 'religious' as such. So we should be talking about association with a religious tradition of some kind. "A religion is a given tradition of a religious kind, and so religious experience is often picked out by considering crucial experiences in the lives of those who belong to such traditions." (in Katz collection, p. 11)
Such a definition would include most of the phenomena on the lists above. However, as Smart immediately points out, while close association with a religion in the sense of a religious tradition is a good place to start in pinning down 'religious' experience, in practice it is rather too confining. Rather similar experiences are had by people who do not belong to a given tradition. In the case of conversions, "often the experiences occur at the frontier between belonging and not belonging to a given tradition." (ibid) Furthermore, the notion of 'religious tradition' itself is not a very precise concept. Is/was Maoism a religion? Is free-market economics a religion? There are dramatic events in human life, like facing death (Smart) or the experience of love (cf. Vergote 1969, p. 71), which in many cases take on religious significance. Certain everyday human practices, such as our ethical practice or our aesthetic practice, each with its quota of experience, while they may exist in their own right may also be interpreted religiously. In summary, the connection with 'religious tradition' ends up being a focal point for explicating the sense of 'religious' in 'religious experience' rather than a confinement or definition of it. Unfortunately, this may be all we are likely to get.
Another possibility is to concentrate on the practitioners
rather than the practice itself or the 'object' of the experience or concepts
involved in its constitution. Mystical experiences are the experiences
we associate with people we call 'mystics', such as John of the Cross or
Teresa of Avila; just as prophetic experiences are the experiences we associate
with the call of the people we call prophets, such as Moses or Isaiah or
Jeremiah. And so on. There are true and false prophets, and also genuine
and spurious mystics, but we have (at least tradition-specific) criteria
for telling the difference, so that this is not an insuperable problem.
See Walgrave and Moyaert, Mystiek and Liefde, first few pages, for this
way of doing things. However, this is faced eventually with the same problem
as the others: once we try to generalize to 'religious' experience as such,
the so-called (Hick) 'family resemblance' character of 'religion' and 'religions'
rears its head once again. Who is religious??
There is yet a third and indeed fairly obvious way for trying to pin down the notion of 'religious' experience: in terms of the object of the experience. A 'religious experience' is an experiential act whose intentional object in the precise sense of noema (cf Vergote, 1969, p. 36) or noematic correlate is or includes the divine or the sacred or, to go beyond Vergote 1969 itself, some other key Reality defined within a religious tradition (such as Brahman or the Absolute or Nirvana). This without worrying, for the moment, about how the particular experience with its noematic correlate came to be constituted that way with the noema that it has.
In respect of extension, however, this would have exactly the same problems as the others. It appears we are condemned to 'focal' meaning. Objects definable within a religion or occurrence in close association with a religion or incorporated religious concepts, our next candidate all take on the same family-resemblance status as does 'religion' itself.
For a final approach to defining the notion of 'religious' in 'religious
experience', see Hick 1989, pp. 153ff. For John Hick (Hick 1989), all experience
involves interpretation and such interpreting always employs concepts.
(For further discussion of this see Topic 3.) This allows him to describe
experiences as "those in the formation of which distinctly religious
concepts are employed." (Hick 1989, 153). "The denotation of the term
is however less easily settled. For the notion of a religious concept reduplicates
the family-resemblance character of the notion of religion itself. Thus
the range of religious concepts, and hence of the experiences that they
inform, is not fixed and there can sometimes be no definitive answer to
the question whether this or that experience should be classed as religious
rather than non-religious." (ibid.) In line with this way of proceeding,
the experiences supposedly grounding the other "ways" to God, such as the
experiences of contingency or of design and purpose might or might not
be classifiable as religious experience, depending on how much their "formation"
in the specific case depended on the specifically religious concepts of
the subject. We will come back to this in a moment.
None of the approaches so far is entirely adequate. Sometimes 'nature mysticism', which is included by almost everyone as among 'religious' experiences and indeed one of the more common such experiences, will satisfy none of the criteria. Sometimes it neither takes place in a religious context nor to particularly religious people, nor is it such as "in the formation of which distinctly religious concepts are employed". And yet it has sufficient family resemblance to other paradigmatically religious experiences to make most people want to include it.
For this and other reasons, one is tempted to follow Antoine Vergote (Vergote, 1969, pp. 76ff.) in complementing the notion of 'religious experience' with another designation, "Pre-Religious Experience". The direct object of these latter experiences would be neither the divine nor even the sacred (Vergote), nor yet the Absolute, or Nirvana, or Nothingness. The focus is rather on the world or its or our existence or the loved person or the ethical quest. But these are "seen as something supported and penetrated by a transcendent" (ibid., p. 77), they have become "indices of an Other, which is not just pure negativity", albeit "only known indirectly, through the medium of the visible upon which all awareness is founded" (ibid., p. 78). In contrast to this, 'Religious Experience' is the immediate presence or givenness of the divine or the sacred (cf. Vergote 1969, p. 45), at one and the same time immanent in the human and terrestrial and transcendent to it. (Ibid., 42-44.)
Before we finish this heading, it may be useful to compare the Way of Religious Experience with the other classic so-called Ways or approaches towards the divine. We would probably like to be able to keep these apart. The other classic ways or approaches towards the divine are also allegedly based in experience, with the exception of the self-consciously a priori 'ontological argument'. The experience of contingency can happen even to people who are not prepared to infer God from it (e.g. J. J. C. Smart, referred to by Eugene Thomas Long, 1992, pp. 123-124). That there is an element of experience at the back of the design argument is something that even David Hume is prepared to admit (Dialogues concerning Natural Religion, Part XII). Even with the ontological argument it may be that the argument itself is not based on experience, but still the idea of God from which it departs is almost certainly derived from a certain kind of experience. The difference is that the experiences which function as starting points for the other ways or approaches can and frequently do take place outside a specifically religious context and happen to people who do not belong to specific religious traditions, e.g. change, coming to be and passing away, design, imperfection, moral experience, the experience of freedom (Long, 1992), the striving for truth, goodness and beauty, or the experience of love. Nor need they incorporate religious concepts or have God as either direct or indirect objects. Though of course they also may well provoke specifically religious speech, attitudes and behaviour and happen to people who do happen to belong to specifically religious traditions. They can have God as object in an almost immediate fashion also (cf. Hume on the Design Argument, Dialogues, Part XII), at least as 'indirect object' in a Vergote, 1969 sense; and consequently incorporate religious concepts in their very formation. Here again the ontological argument is the exception --the experience from which the idea of God it uses is derived is paradigmatically religious, the experience of worship, the response in worship to the experience of the all Holy One, supremely perfect, than which nothing greater can be conceived.
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In my impression, for our purposes in respect of religious experience
there is a need to make at least two distinctions.
This is a distinction made by almost everyone who takes religious experience seriously, from William James onwards: mystical experiences and many other religious experiences have a 'noetic' character, unlike itches and pains and pleasures, they present themselves as a variety of intuitive or 'perceptual' knowing. Experience in the latter, epistemic sense is essentially intentional, directedness towards, being opened out onto by, being disclosed to by or apparently disclosed to by something other than itself. E.g. in the theistic traditions, typically directed to or opened out onto 'God', or to something else as a manifestation of God or of the divine realm, in some Hindu traditions the Absolute, in some kinds of Buddhism the 'emptiness' of everything.
[For consideration later: the only problem with this is that with so-called 'pure empty consciousness' experiences one is not actually opened out onto anything specific. The mystic remains conscious, but conscious of nothing. (Wainwright, 1981, p. 36) They are still, however, noetic in the sense of 'perception-like', a kind of opening out, without content, without being opened out onto anything in particular. Perhaps what we have here is experiences of pure non-reflective, i.e. non-thetic self-consciousness, consciousness (de soi) full stop? (cf. Wainwright 1981, p. 121). But once the object goes, so does the 'self'?? the implicit self-consciousness needs the contrast with the object in order to be sustained. This would mean that these experiences were neither like pains and pleasures nor like ordinary cases of perception but something quite unique.]
Religious experiences even in the noetic sense, in fact have a wide variety of intentional structures. R. Swinburne, "The Evidential Value of Religious Experience", in Peacocke, ed., pp. 183--185, makes some useful distinctions here, classifying the diversity of religious experiences in the latter, epistemic or noetic sense into 5 kinds, depending on their intentional structure.
We might perhaps take this over and perhaps build on it a little:
Do you feel that you have ever been aware of or influenced by a presence or power, whether you call it God or not, which is different from your everyday self?
from his post-graduate students, David Hay got a yes response of 65%. From a nationwide public opinion poll, this went down to 34.6%. Interestingly, however, yes responses increase significantly with degree of education (to 56% for people educated beyond the age of 20), social class and psychological well-being as well as age; it also tends to increase significantly when the research is made more intimately and in greater detail. This calls into question certain attempts to explain it away, e.g. as opium for the poor, the mythology of the uneducated or the project of sick minds, without of course eliminating these alleged explanations completely in all cases.
There has been similar work elsewhere. There is, for example the work of the sociologists Rodney Stark and Charles Y. Glock, American Piety: The Nature of Religious Commitment (Univ. of California Press, Berkeley and L.A., 1968), referred to by Alston 1992. According to their research, three-fourths of a sample taken from a wide variety of Christian churches took themselves to be experientially aware of God at some time (Alston 1992, p. 69), either sure of it (almost half) or enough to say that they 'think' they were (28%). See also Andrew Greeley and suchlike. Since the 1960's there has been quite a lot of research by sociologists and psychologists and neuropsychologists and such-like. This is by the way: this is not a seminar in sociology or psychology. As long as we don't think we are dealing only with a few high-class individuals shut up in monasteries and convents.
Experiences in the epistemic sense ((a) above) may as well be
and frequently are, perhaps even always and necessarily are, experiences
in the former sense ((b) above) --nice, neutral or sometimes horrible things
to happen to one. It is the understanding and evaluation of the potential
of religious experience in the epistemic sense of experience that is of
most interest to philosophers. On the other hand it may be that experience
in the epistemic sense always, even in common life, has an emotional tone.
An example might be the experience of different colours. Such an emotional
tone might even be epistemically important. It might be regarded, for instance,
as an element of the interaction of the whole being with the externality
and as intrinsic to the epistemic contact rather than an addition to it
--we are not only intellect and it is not only brain which has a reality
revealing function probably. So while we keep this important distinction
between different senses of experience in mind, we should not think of
them completely in separation. This is in addition to the fact that experience
in the epistemic sense is (normally, always, necessarily?) a conscious
state, which may as such have characteristics of its own (pleasurable to
be in this state or perhaps just tolerable or perhaps tiring if it goes
on too long).
In respect of affectivity itself, however, we need immediately to make a distinction corresponding to the distinction between the two senses of experience:
Rudolf Otto's 'awe' is fear of and attraction to the sacred, not fear of and attraction to a certain experience. The awe, the fear of and attraction to the sacred may in turn be nice or not so nice to have or undergo, convenient or inconvenient, something we want to happen again or something we would run a long way to avoid.
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Contemporary philosophers usually construe experience in the former, episodic sense, also when it comes to religious experience: "Mystical unions, prophetic visions, psychic ascents to heaven, ecstasies, auditions, intoxications - it is such things that typically get bracketed as religious experiences..." (in Katz collection, Smart 1978, p. 13). We may do well to remember how these are contextualized by the religious people themselves, however important they may be in themselves - for the religious people also. It may even be that the existence of the latter, experienced enduring 'religious' states analogous to being in love with someone, provide a better, more reliable kind of evidence for the value and validity of a particular kind of religion than transient episodes in the way of visions and ecstasies which happen to religiously imbued people. However, while making the distinction we probably should be careful not to oppose them to each other: the episodes are important for the person in relationship of loving communion or whatever, each is in the heart of the other.
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By way of some working definitions of mysticism, the following:
Mysticism: the attempt to realize the perfection of a religious tradition in the interior dimension. Compare Carl A. Keller, in Katz, ed., pp. 96--97.
This tends to eliminate nature mysticism, which sometimes occurs outside religious traditions, but at least it is sufficiently formal to be cross-cultural. A mystical experience, then, would be: the kind of experience which is had in the latter stages of such an attempt. Ninian Smart (1969) gives examples: Miester Eckhart, Teresa of Avila, Sankara and the Buddha, not Muhammad, not the O.T. prophets, not the theophany in the Bhagavad-Gita (though some people include these as well).
The definition of Mysticisme in Lalande, Vocabulaire Technique et Critique de la Philosophie, is also very useful (loosely translated):
A. Properly speaking, belief in the possibility of a union, intimate and direct, of the human spirit to the fundamental principle of being, a union consisting in a mode of being and a mode of consciousness other than and superior to normal existence and normal consciousness.
B. the ensemble of dispositions, affective, intellectual and moral, which attach themselves to this belief. "The essential phenomenon of mysticism is that which is called 'ecstasy', a state in which all communication is cut off with the exterior world, the soul has the sentiment that she communicates with an object within, which is perfect being, the infinite being, God. But to concentrate all on this phenomenon which is the culminating point of mysticism, would be to have an incomplete idea of it. Mysticism is essentially a life, a movement, a development with a determined character and direction" quoting E. Boutroux... The steps in this development are, says M. Boutroux, the aspiration for the absolute, the effort of purification and the ascesis, the ecstasy, the return on the previous life and the new organization of the judgement and the conduct, the realization (individual or social) of the perfect life.
One calls more especially mystique the ensemble of practices conducive to this state, and the doctrines expressing the knowledge which is considered as the fruit.3
Both of these are probably too aristocratic. As long as we do not forget to include ordinary people, including, perhaps, ourselves.
The extension of the word 'mysticism' in the philosophical literature
is in fact extremely varied. At one extreme, John Hick is prepared to use
it more or less interchangably with the words 'religious experience', "a
general name for religious experience, together with part at least of the
network of religious practices which support it", "the experiential core
of religion", "firsthand religion as such" (Hick, 1980, in Woods Collection,
pp. 422-423). Otto and Ninian Smart have already been mentioned, with Otto
regarding mysticism as a variety of experience of what he calls the 'numinous',
and Smart being very careful to distinguish the two and to distinguish
both from a variety of other kinds. At the further extreme to Hick beyond
Ninian Smart there is William Wainwright, according to whom 'mystical experience'
properly refers only to unitary states of consciousness. (William Wainwright,
Mysticism, Brighton, 1981. pp. 1, 5-7). To some extent, it is determined
by the interest of the scholar in question. Precise distinctions important
for a phenomenologist of religion or a worker in comparative religions
need not be so important for a philosopher for whom similar problems may
arise whatever the variety of religious experience may be. As Wainwright
states in respect of even more than two kinds of introvertive mysticism,
it may be that "[T]he resolution of these issues is intrinsically interesting
but philosophically unimportant." (Wainwright, 1981, p. 40)
For further introductory familiarization with the phenomena, read, for example: M. Dhavamony, Phenomenology of Religion, Chapter Twelve, pp. 268--287. Or anything else you find interesting in the first part of the bibliography. One also needs at least a preliminary knowledge of other religions, otherwise much of the literature will not make sense. Philosophy has to be in touch with what manifests itself as it manifests itself, to bring to speech what presents itself as it presents itself (equals 'phenomenology'), before it does anything else. In other words, it helps to know what one is talking about before talking about it. However, we cannot afford to spend too much time during the seminars themselves on this initial familiarization, which is left to the initiative of the participant. A reading of Otto and William James will already help some along this path, in so far as they both include extensive citations of first-hand material, as does Evelyn Underhill.
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'Religious Language/symbolic behaviour: its multiple functions:
This vision a response to the content and power of certain ORIGINATING EXPERIENCES,
and partly validated by FOUNDED EXPERIENCES
A Religious Tradition then = a developing tradition of experience and
interpretation, experience motivating interpretations which enable further
experiences in people who live out of those interpretations, and so on.
Problems (with all of these), including the 'family resemblance' character of the notion of a 'religion' (cf. Smart, Hick)
Some important distinctions:
1: the distinction between
Cf. just about everyone from William James on.
Related distinction: 'affectivity' as intentional response to
object and as response to or quality of the experience itself. E.g. in
the experience of the numinous.
2: the distinction between
For the latter, see especially Grace Jantzen and Louis Dupre.
Scholars' concentration on Mysticism and Prophetism as probably quite inevitable. For a rationale, see Wainwright.
We will be doing the same.
Some definitions of 'Mysticism': extremely varied.
Experience in the cognitive sense as (regularly, usually) determined by
which is to say, it is usually mediated.
A major problem for Religious Experience: is this always the case - are there species of r.e. which are not at all mediated by pre-existent interpretative structures? If so, what follows? If not so what?
[mention of the next three Topics]
1. I'm taking what I regard as a fairly standard position, drawing particularly on the work of Frederick Ferre and James Ross. 2. It actually goes back much earlier: see the article by Leon Schlamm in Religious Studies, Vol. 27, No. 3, Sept. 1991 pp. 389-391. Since Smart's influential work, however, it has become almost second nature. 3. Andre Lalande, Vocabulaire Technique et Critique De La Philosophie (Librairie Felix Alcan, Paris, 1932), Volume I, article on Mysticisme, pp. 496ff.
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