Religious experience constitutes the only reasonable basis for religious belief. Apart from personal religious experience, or trust in a second-hand religious experience (i.e., another person's religious experience), religious belief—of any type or form—seems unreasonable.
Karl Barth, a leading twentieth century theologian, argued that without the Bible no one could know that God truly existed, much less enter into relationship with God. The Bible is obviously a human book. Apart from personal religious experience, such as hearing God speak or God guiding a biblical author to speak or write certain words or ideas, the Bible could not connect anyone with God. In other words, Barth maintained that the basis of Christian belief is second-hand religious experience: contemporary Christians trusting the experience of biblical authors and editors to describe God and God's message for humanity accurately.
Although Barth exemplifies dependence upon second-hand religious belief, he is far from alone in holding that position. Great swaths of the Christian tradition agree with him.
Dependence upon second-hand religious experience begs two important questions:
- Why did people once, but no longer, directly experience God?
- Which, of all the numerous allegedly second-hand experiences of God, whether from one's own religious tradition or another tradition such as Buddhism, second-hand religious experiences are reliable? Why trust those experiences and distrust other ones?
At the opposite end of a spectrum of thinking about religious experience lies atheism, which maintains that whatever religious experience may be, it is not an experience of the divine because God does not exist. Since God does not exist, genuine experience of the holy or the ultimate is manifestly impossible.
The great difficulty with atheism is that proving God's non-existence is impossible because nobody can prove the non-existence of anything. Nobody can be every place (remember how gigantic the cosmos is), experience every aspect of all that exists (think of the present impossibility of directly apprehending a quark or other sub-atomic particle, too small to observe directly so known only by their effect).
Between those two extremes lies a vast assortment of types of experience that may suggest or represent a personal encounter with a force (or something) that humans variously call God, Spirit, the ultimate, etc. William James in his classic study, The Varieties of Religious Experience, contended that science should take those experiences seriously. The experiences are too pervasive and too powerful in their positive transformative effects on humans to ignore. James denied that he believed in God, yet saw in religious experience evidence of something that exists but is not amenable directly to scientific observation or study.
Nicholas Lash, Emeritus Norris-Hulse Professor of Divinity at the University of Cambridge, in his book Easter in Ordinary, commented about James' ideas:
In religion, as elsewhere, genius held an inordinate fascination for James, who was not much interested in more humdrum personalities. The case studies, in Varieties, are not drawn from the ranks of 'your ordinary religious believer, who follows the conventional observances of his country, whether it be Buddhist, Christian, or Mohammedan. His religion has been made for him by others, communicated to him by tradition, determined to fixed forms by imitation, and retained by habit. It would us little to study this second-hand religious life. We must make search rather for the original experiences which were the patter-setters to all this mass of suggested feeling and imitated conduct. These experiences we can only find in individuals for whom religion exists not as a dull habit, but as an acute fever.' Some like it hot, and James was much more interested in those 'intenser experiences' that occur in 'the hot place in a man's consciousness … the habitual center of his personal energy,' and in the type of person who operates from this center at fever pitch, than he was in 'the experiences of tamer minds, so cool and reasonable that we are tempted to call them philosophical rather than religious.' (p. 45, quoting James' The Varieties of Religious Experience, pp. 15, 44, 162, 44.)
Religious experience may take the form of an interior journey that leads one ever deeper, until one experiences what some described as the ground of being (Tillich) and others characterize as groundlessness (Buddhism). Alternatively, one may journey outwards, experiencing the unity nature of all that exists (e.g., Eckhart, Lao Tzu, or Sankara) or the in the unity of one with another (Buber's I-Thou relationship). In addition to experiencing the unitive nature, either through an interior or exterior journey, other characteristics of religious experience are that the experience is noetic, ineffable, transient, and liberating. These qualities of religious experience cut cross religious traditions, as evidenced by the citation in this paragraph's first two sentences of six different religious traditions.
Seeking personal religious experience also offers a more promising approach to scriptural interpretation than does Barth's reliance upon second-hand experience. We believe Scripture inspired not because God dictated or guided its writing but because readers have traditionally experienced scripture as a window through which the light of God shines, illuminating the spiritual path. Authors of the Bible were human, exactly as we are. God acted then, in their lives, as God acts today, in our lives. This view of Scripture accommodates religious pluralism better than other perspectives on the Bible's inspiration do. Also, this view better accords with our understanding of how God acts in the world today, luring or nudging, rather than controlling or intervening in spectacular ways.
If you hold religious beliefs, what is the source of those beliefs? Is it your own personal religious experience or is it second-hand? In either case, why do you trust the experience?