Experience, Religious

views updated


In its primary signification experience denotes the impression and immutation of a conscious rational subject resulting from actual contact with things, from living through an event or events. The actuality and concreteness of the contact distinguishes experience from what is ideal or imaginary and locates it largely in sensation and feeling, not, however, to the exclusion of intellectual and volitional elements, as long as direct intuitional contact with reality is involved. Every experience would seem to involve at once cognitional and appetitive (both emotional and volitional) elements, with the latter, however, predominating; experience is not mere knowing but more a matter of being affected by the object. As such it is largely subjective, with emphasis upon affectivity. The experience is not limited to the mere passive immutation of the subject but includes as well his vital responses, especially the spontaneous ones. A secondary meaning of the term extends it to signify a state of accumulated experiences, representing achieved habitual attitudes of a cognitional, volitional, or emotive kind. The kinds of experience are numerous and varied. It may be individual or collective; conscious or subconscious; natural or supernatural; and in terms of the area wherein the experience occurs aesthetic, moral, metaphysical (e.g., the intuition of one's own being), religious, etc.

Religious experience is thus some sort of awareness of and response to the divine, largely achieved in terms of discerning the divine presence or one's total dependence upon divinity. This may be immediate or mediated, but is necessarily subjective either entirely so or with varying degrees of foundation in external reality and history. It is in opposition to abstract rational thought and not infrequently accompanied by such phenomena as revelation, inspiration, voices and visions, conversion, etc.

The Term in History. Religious experience is doubtlessly as old as man himself; yet it is only from the time of the Protestant reformers that it assumes a singular and predominant role in religious life. In the four centuries from Luther to William James there is one common note in all of Western Christianity aside from Catholicism, namely, that religious experience is the ultimate criterion and rule of faith. Every constraint of dogma, authority, and speculative reason is to give way to it.

The Reformers. Martin luther took as his point of departure the doctrine of the Fall as radically corrupting man, despoiling him of even the proper use of his natural powers. Religion is man's experience first of his own sinfulness and then of the bestowal upon him of justification that comes to him from without by an exterior imputation of the merits of Christ. Man, then, is purely passive in his justification, of which, however, he experiences a personal conviction. Faith is no longer a belief in dogmas but a faith in salvation, a sort of confidence or trust. John calvin acknowledged this same corruption of man in the Institutes of the Christian Religion and explained salvation by recourse to the Holy Spirit, who "touches" interiorly the heart of man. The affective satisfaction accompanying these illuminations and inflammations of the Spirit attests to their authenticity against deceptive experiences.

Jansenism. Cornelius jansen, M. de Bay (see baius and baianism), and P. Quesnel, loosely grouped together in the movement known as Jansenism, represent a sort of semi-Protestantism within Catholicism. To human nature there is assigned only weakness and corruption; all good originates in the order of grace. But Jansen in the Augustinus described grace as an experienced delectation that determines the assent of the will. This was an excessive depreciation of theoretical reason with an extolling of affective life and sentimentality. The soul was represented as capable of an immediate feeling of the rapport between itself and God. The writings of all three of these authors were condemned by the Church (H. Denzinger, Enchiridion symbolorum, ed. A. Schönmetzer, 190180, 200107, 201012, 24002502). Blaise pascal, without being committed to the Jansenist position, did come under its influence and insisted upon salvific knowledge of God as "felt by the heart, not reason."

I. Kant and F. D. F. Schleiermacher. The writings of these philosophers introduced a new phase in the Protestant understanding of religious experience. Kant's idealism and agnosticism enhanced religious subjectivity and gave philosophical justification to the Lutheran position on the powerlessness of reason. The norms of religious faith were made to be purely practical and subjective. schleiermacher made the very essence of religion to consist in sentiment. According to him, concepts of the speculative reason are no more than superstition. Religious experience is a purely emotive state resulting in an immediate impression of the divine; each experience is at once valid but deficient so that the only authentic form of piety is tolerance. Later writers attempted to regulate this experience by the norms of Scripture (H. Plitt, Evangelische Glaubenslehre, 2 v. Gotha 186364) or to situate it in the moral crises precipitating conversion (F. R. Franck, Christian Certainty, tr. M. J. Evans, Edinburgh 1886).

S. Kierkegaard. Reacting against the pantheism inherent in Hegelian metaphysics, Kierkegaard concerned himself with the personal predicament of man "existing before God" (The Concept of Dread and Christian Discourses, tr. W. Lowrie, London 1944, 1940). In anguish and despair man becomes aware of his lack of self-sufficiency and is thus led to religious experience that consists in an act of commitment to God. This act rests upon an awareness of God that amounts to a personal encounter; historical faith is of no avail here, and the experience cannot be rendered in concepts. Ultimate truth is pure subjectivity, demanding that God "break in" upon the soul.

Modernism. A. loisy and G. tyrrell were prime spokesmen in a movement that maintained that dogmatic formulas were not valid norms for truth, these being merely the product of a sociological and humanistic experience of the Christian community reflecting upon a revelation it could not grasp. The variance of this from Catholic teaching is noted in the condemnatory decree of the Holy Office Lamentabili issued under Pius X (Enchiridion symbolorum 340166).

Pragmatism. H. bergson (The Two Sources of Morality and Religion, tr. Andra and Brereton, New York 1954) and W. james (The Varieties of Religious Experience ) reduced religious faith to the order of subjective utility. Bergson's anti-intellectualism led him to locate religion in experiences arising out of practical activity. Their value is entirely a pragmatic one in a philosophy of pure "becoming." James's contribution consisted in the analysis of the content of such experiences, largely in terms of their psychological manifestations. These occur in the "subliminal self," are largely instances of "psychological automatism," require no belief in a personal God, and are primarily therapeutic in value.

Contemporary Thought. The social crises of the times have provoked even greater concern with subjective religious experience. This is manifest in the purely philosophical writings of many existentialists and phenomenologists, such as E. Husserl, M. Heidegger, and K. Jaspers; it continues to animate the mainstream of orthodox Protestantism as in the crisis-theology of Karl Barth; in Catholicism it has earned the increasing concern of G. Marcel, L. lavelle, R. Guardini, K. Rahner, E. Schillebeeckx to mention but a few.

Positive Analysis. Genuine religious experience does hold a place within Catholic theology, never, however, so as to deteriorate into complete subjectivism. Such experience is not, then, a criterion for belief except in a secondary sense, that is, by reference to a historical faith and especially with regard to the Incarnation as a historical event, which is an objective precondition to experience. Three instances will illustrate how such experiences may occur. (1) Human crisesthese occur under God's providential guidance effecting those dispositions of soul in which man becomes acutely and intuitively aware of his limitations, his sinfulness, and his need for God. Such experiences can be either preparatory for grace or conducive to further advancement in grace already possessed. They can involve the direct intervention of God (as in the case of Saint Paul struck down on the road to Damascus) but need not do so. (2) Charismatic gracesthese are graces that do not as such sanctify the individual but are given rather for the common utility of the Christian community. As visions, private revelations, prophecies, and miracles, they manifest in extraordinary fashion the purposes of God and can occasion a heightened sense of the divine. (3) Faith and the Sacraments at the very heart of Christianity, common to all in varying degrees of intensity, is a personal awareness of the interrelationships and exchanges with God achieved in an act of belief mediated by the Church and given loving expression in the liturgical acts of shared community worship. This contact depends upon God's saving act toward man realized in the Incarnation, Passion, death, Resurrection, and Ascension of Christ. These events are also utilized by God as instrumental causes in the communication of that grace, which they express symbolically. Religious experience is not this ontological reality introduced into the soul by God with the initial assimilation it achieves; it is rather the personal and quasi-intuitive awareness of what occurs psychologically in man's consciousness. The donation of grace depends (God willing it) upon man's free cooperative response. God's invitational love effects a passive immutation of the soul obscurely open to experience, in which the divine presence is discerned. It then appears possible within the obscurity of faith to know and love in some highly personal and more concrete way the Triune God. The soul thus moves beyond the abstract concepts of faith to a true experience involving interpersonal relationships. This experience is not direct and immediate, not an intuition properly speaking; only the beatific vision is such. Here there is only, at the most, a contuition, a contact in knowledge and love, with God in His very presentiality, but only through the medium of experiencing His created effects within the soul. Saint Thomas characterizes this as quasi-experimental knowledge (In sent. ad 3; De virt. in comm. 12 ad 11). In its more sublime instances this becomes infused contemplation elicited by the gift of wisdom (cf. Summa theologiae 1a, 43.5 ad 2), which may, but need not be, accompanied by mystical phenomena.

The content of this experience is varied: a sense of sin, of the presence of God, of the victory of Christ, of freedom from the spirit of fear, of fellowship with Christ, of being begotten of God, of sonship, of the indwelling of the Trinity, of entering upon relationships to the Father, in the Spirit, through the Son (Rom 6.4; Gal 2.20; 1 Jn 3.6; Rom 8.15; Col 1.2; Gal 4.6; Rom 5.5).

Faith is not only an intellectual assent to conceptually formulated truth; it is at the same time a loving surrender to a Person. The believing act is an encounter with God, in Christ, and not merely as object but as subject. What is known obscurely is not merely what, but who God is. Such encounter, moreover, cannot be unilateral. The sacramental act, then (above all, in the Eucharist), is first of all a symbolic expression of belief and free acceptance, the vital, conscious response of man to God's initiative in the dialogue of grace. This is undergone in a dark but authentic quasi-intuition of the Person and time transcending presence of the God-Man.

Bibliography: h. pinard, Dictionnaire de théologie catholique, ed. a. vacant 5.2:17861868. h. m. hughes, j. hastings ed., Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics, 13 v. (Edinburgh 190827). f. schleiermacher, The Christian Faith, ed. h. r. mackintosh and j. s. stewart (Edinburgh 1928; Torchbook 2 v.1963). w. james, The Varieties of Religious Experience (New York 1902; repr. 1963). j. mouroux, The Christian Experience, tr. g. lamb (New York 1954). h. pinard, "La Théorie de l'expérience religieuse: San évolution de Luther à W. James," Revue d'histoire ecclésiastique 17 (1921) 6383, 30648, 54774.

[w. j. hill]

About this article

Experience, Religious

Updated About encyclopedia.com content Print Article