Discussing the Role
of Religious Experience

Recently our Wednesday night study class listened to an audio lecture by Luke Timothy Johnson on The Role of Religious Experience. This lecture is part of his online course, Early Christianity: The Experience of the Divine. As often happens, the lecture content became a springboard for a lively discussion.


Saul's Conversion on the Road to Damascus

Synopsis of Lecture

Luke Timothy Johnson's lecture points us back to the initial religious experience from which Christianity started. As a scientist he wants to look at the data and interpret the transformative experience that changed the early believers. He is asking us to do the work of integrating religious experience into our perception of religion, a perception which is usually doctrine-based. He suggests it is allegiance to an experience rather than even the experience itself that determines whether it becomes an organizing centre for people, and thus truly a religious experience. Johnson differentiates between an aesthetic experience (involving a person's body, mind and emotions without changing behaviour) and a religious experience, which transforms lives.

Religious Experiences

Johnson affirms that experience is a key element in religion, but not the essence. Speaking about any human experience in scientific terms is difficult because it is:
  1. individual - each person experiences an event uniquely
  2. somatic - individual body sensations are involved, located in specific time and place
  3. interpretive - we perceive our experiences through familiar symbols and cognitive framework made available through participant testimony
This is the emic, first-person individual perspective. Science prefers etic analysis: detached, measurable data. Thus science misses a section of reality in dismissing the experiential dimension. Without the experiential stories of significant events we can’t fully understand history. Thus, without looking at religious experience, we cannot understand religion.

However, it is very difficult to detect and affirm religious experience. Religious experience is part of a continuum of human experience. Religious experience is always contextual and interpreted with available symbols. We said that because it is our interpretation that gives an experience meaning, there may be a problem with our imagination or language being too limited by our base materialism. We then end up not even having an experience because we lack plausibility structures. Because we have no words for things, the experience dissipates and becomes less true or because we can’t interpret it because we won’t let ourselves think beyond certain linguistic constructs, then we end up not having the experience at all. An atheist's or materialist’s plausibility structures are quite narrow to only that which is testable.

When we’ve talked about scripture, we’ve always talked about the experience behind the words, so does the critique of imagination apply to us? We have assumed that the early Christians did encounter something. Because we are believers, we have the plausibility structures, but standing outside belief and in skepticism, it’s impossible to enter into the phenomenological experience of religion. It will always be reductionism.

It’s interesting to hear people who don’t believe, who are objective, and yet to hear the subjectiveness in their voice. As they reduce it, they are having their own religious experience.

Can It Mean Too Much?

Can a religious imagination expand things too much? Both the Thou and the Not Thou need to be acknowledged. An experience can remind us of Jesus’ presence even if the event has a natural explanation. See as much as can possibly be seen. Society does not invite us to see this way. There are many dimensions of an event to measure.

Our greatest danger is our inability to incorporate religious thought: not being able to take up the religious experience and critique it, or not having a religious experience at all. Our aim is to see everyday life through a faith perspective.

Paul’s experience of looking at Jeremiah Burroughs on Sunday was a religious experience for him. He felt close to Burroughs, having had similar discontented experiences and having solved those at one level, Paul had a sense of connectedness with the writer. Everything that we experience is like that; it holds the potential of meaningfulness. It’s connected to a narrative, a whole history of experience. Life is sacred; our eyes can always be opened to it. It is our choice as to whether we will enter into the experiences around us. Through our studies we have packages of words and symbols that deepen our understanding of experiences. Studying scripture helps to open our plausibility structures.

We are trying to articulate our own religious experience to ourselves. Can we receive what we are experiencing? We need resources to hear the words to help interpret our experiences -- gifted people, community discernment, authors. As we soak in the contexts of learning over time and gain more information, we build up a repertoire of perceptive symbols through which we see reality.

There is difficulty in maintaining detachment, both for and against religious bias. The challenge is to speak about religious experience in a way that neither mystifies nor maintains a bias for certain traditions.

A Working Definition

Johnson proposes a new definition of religious experience to address the above concerns: religious experience is the response of the whole person to what is perceived as ultimate, characterized by a peculiar intensity and issuing in appropriate action.
  1. Response: personal response to an other/reality - not the stimulus - involves the whole person: more than feeling/ more than will/ more than mind.
  2. Ultimate: important to note that it’s a person’s perception of what is ultimate. Peculiar intensity: the peak experience aspect.
  3. Action: religious experience leads to discipleship of Christ and changes our behaviour. One’s life becomes organized around that experience.
We don’t know in the experience whether it is religious or not. In time we see how it has formed us. We test the experience to see if it makes us more like Christ.

Patterns of activity can point us to our power source. When we look at early Christianity, Johnson will be looking for patterns of behaviour and organization to find the kinds of experiences that begin a religion.

Paul questioned Johnson’s understanding of the developmental levels of addiction. Addictions tend to get refined. When we ask what our addiction means, it can start to point to something beyond itself, to an ultimate source. If you don’t risk the idolatry then you risk not taking a step toward an ultimate experience. You can’t go from an unconnected, unreflective life to giving your life over to God: you need to have some failures at trying to find the ultimate, identifying the sins in your attempts and realizing that it is only Christ in God that is the ultimate power that we need to organize our lives around.

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