Thursday, June 5, 2014

Religious experience is essential for religious belief

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:

  1. Why did people once, but no longer, directly experience God?
  2. 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?

1 comment:

Samuel Maynes said...

If you are interested in some new ideas on religious pluralism and the Trinity, please check out my website at It previews my book, which has not been published yet and is still a “work-in-progress.” Your constructive criticism would be very much appreciated.

My thesis is that an abstract version of the Trinity could be Christianity’s answer to the world need for a framework of pluralistic theology.

In a constructive worldview: east, west, and far-east religions present a threefold understanding of One God manifest primarily in Muslim and Hebrew intuition of the Deity Absolute, Christian and Krishnan Hindu conception of the Universe Absolute Supreme Being; and Shaivite Hindu, Buddhist, Taoist apprehension of the Destroyer (meaning also Consummator), Unconditioned Absolute, or Spirit of All That Is and is not. Together with their variations and combinations in other major religions, these religious ideas reflect and express our collective understanding of God, in an expanded concept of the Holy Trinity.

The Trinity Absolute is portrayed in the logic of world religions, as follows:

1. Muslims and Jews may be said to worship only the first person of the Trinity, i.e. the existential Deity Absolute Creator, known as Allah or Yhwh, Abba or Father (as Jesus called him), Brahma, and other names; represented by Gabriel (Executive Archangel), Muhammad and Moses (mighty messenger prophets), and others.

2. Christians and Krishnan Hindus may be said to worship the first person through a second person, i.e. the experiential Universe or "Universal” Absolute Supreme Being (Allsoul or Supersoul), called Son/Christ or Vishnu/Krishna; represented by Michael (Supreme Archangel), Jesus (teacher and savior of souls), and others. The Allsoul is that gestalt of personal human consciousness, which we expect will be the "body of Christ" (Mahdi, Messiah, Kalki or Maitreya) in the second coming – personified in history by Muhammad, Jesus Christ, Buddha (9th incarnation of Vishnu), and others.

3. Shaivite Hindus, Buddhists, and Confucian-Taoists seem to venerate the synthesis of the first and second persons in a third person or appearance, ie. the Destiny Consummator of ultimate reality – unqualified Nirvana consciousness – associative Tao of All That Is – the absonite* Unconditioned Absolute Spirit “Synthesis of Source and Synthesis,”** who/which is logically expected to be Allah/Abba/Brahma glorified in and by union with the Supreme Being – represented in religions by Gabriel, Michael, and other Archangels, Mahadevas, Spiritpersons, etc., who may be included within the mysterious Holy Ghost.

Other strains of religion seem to be psychological variations on the third person, or possibly combinations and permutations of the members of the Trinity – all just different personality perspectives on the Same God. Taken together, the world’s major religions give us at least two insights into the first person of this thrice-personal One God, two perceptions of the second person, and at least three glimpses of the third.

* The ever-mysterious Holy Ghost or Unconditioned Spirit is neither absolutely infinite, nor absolutely finite, but absonite; meaning neither existential nor experiential, but their ultimate consummation; neither fully ideal nor totally real, but a middle path and grand synthesis of the superconscious and the conscious, in consciousness of the unconscious.

** This conception is so strong because somewhat as the Absonite Spirit is a synthesis of the spirit of the Absolute and the spirit of the Supreme, so it would seem that the evolving Supreme Being may himself also be a synthesis or “gestalt” of humanity with itself, in an Almighty Universe Allperson or Supersoul. Thus ultimately, the Absonite is their Unconditioned Absolute Coordinate Identity – the Spirit Synthesis of Source and Synthesis – the metaphysical Destiny Consummator of All That Is.

For more details, please see:

Samuel Stuart Maynes