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Is it possible to argue about religious experience?

Recently, the release of Mother Teresa of Calcutta’s religious journal entitled “Come be my Light” sparked a fair amount of interesting debates and discussions. Paramount to these is the question about the tenability of religious experiences.

Captured perhaps in a very succinct manner by Time Magazine’s September 3, 2007 issue, it is plain to note that the detailed account of Mother Teresa’s very personal religious journey, which had not been made public until the release of the book, has once again invited inquirers to ponder on whether or not religious experience is something that is truthful – and therefore has to be believed in – or is just merely fabricated – and therefore has to be shunned. Generally, it is by right of commonsense that one is led to question religious experiences. Why? Firstly, it is because they are not empirically verifiable.

Apart from the subject experiencing the religious experience himself/herself, there is no way for any third person to verify what happens within it. Secondly, religious experiences, when asked to be described, too often do not fit in how we ordinarily experience reality. Odd images, messages, and even prophecies accompany many religious experiences, and they can be very difficult to understand. But is it correct to completely disregard the truthfulness of religious experiences simply on the basis of one’s seeming inability to rationally interpret or verify them?

Using William James and Soren Kiergegaard’s respective proposals to understand religious experiences, this paper attempts to shed some light into the dilemma at hand. The Nature of Religious Experience What happens in a religious experience? Elmer O’Brien believes that there are three ways to describe it. First, he states in a religious experience, the object of one’s experience is always about the ultimate – meaning, about God (whoever one’s faith may conceive of It to be). Second, O’Brien argues that a religious experience is always an “immediate confrontation. ” Simply put, it is intuitive and direct.

It is an experience of deity not through some mediating signs or images, but a God that manifests as God Itself. The third is that, a religious experience leaves a kind of knowledge about God which is arrived at not from sensory perception or reasoning, but from an experience that is different from otherwise ordinary human way of experiencing reality. (O’Brien, p. 4) There is a need to take these aspects with utmost care and consideration. Most often than not, these characterizations already throw light into the fact that religious experiences are not like many of our ordinary manner of experiencing reality.

Put simply, religious experiences are essentially beyond the ordinary. As such, they must be subjected in an inquiry which takes into account the peculiarity surrounding one’s experience of the divine. If one fails into account the substantial difference between man’s ordinary way of experiencing reality (which is mediated, rational and highly sensory) and the whole tonality of religious experience (which, as mentioned, is intuitive, direct, and beyond perception and reason), one may fall into dismissing religious experiences as all together untenable, if not illusory.

The fact that religious experiences most often fall outside the reasonable bounds of sensory knowledge and rational cognition, some thinkers have been led to treat them as they naturally are – beyond what human reason alone can prove. Along this vein, two philosophers from the modern era, namely Soren Kiergegaard and William James, did try to submit their respective theories in order to help understand the case in point. It shall help to briefly expose their ideas. Soren Kiergegaard’s (1813-1841) philosophy is centrally about existentialism.

His ideas were geared towards finding the authentic way for man to exist. Kiergegaard’s philosophy, as such, is diverse. But what may prove to be helpful in this study is to take into account his teachings about religious experience as a “leap of faith” supposedly by individual believers. Kiergegaard was an ardent critic of the Church during his time. As a way to protest the prevalent ecclesiastical culture (of that time), he attempted to recover the “authenticity” of religious experience as something that is different, if not wholly independent, from the usual church-regulated religious practices.

F. Copleston argues that Kiergegaard has endeavored to ‘free’ one’s notion of faith from the stifling practices of Christianity (Copleston, p. 149). By focusing on the individual ascent to faith, Kiergegaard believes that one’s submission to the Absolute is the only way by which one can arrive at an authentic faith. He seems to imply that one does not need engage in the rational discourses of having to prove the existence of God, as one simply needs to “abandon” oneself into the embracing reality of the Absolute God (Copleston, p. 106).

Kiergegaard moreover argues that one’s personal submission to God is characterized by an inward feeling of “dread” or “anxiety”, as opposed to one’s outward need to adhere to certain moral or ecclesial laws. Kiergegaard’s stance about religious experience is unique in that he tried to express the tonality of faith quite independently from the human faculty of reason. This is quite consistent, albeit extremely taken in certain respects, with the earlier assertion made by O’Brien, that religious experience is something that is oftentimes beyond reasonability.

Kiergegaard’s novel entitled “Fear and Trembling” seems to support this point. In what appears to be an effective re-appropriation of Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac at Mt. Moriah, Kiergegaard argues that one’s faith must be peppered with religious experiences which resemble that of Abraham – a faith that is ready to submit everything as one’s ultimate act abandonment, even when reasonable purposes are absent. William James (1842-1910) – a philosopher espousing the doctrine of Pragmatism – meanwhile chose to understand religious experience within the context of “its practical consequences.

” (James, p. 143) F. Baumer believes that, like Kiergegaard, James wanted to underscore the importance of “personal religion” as opposed to “dogmatic and theological religion” (Baumer, p. 284). Yet since W. James was influenced by the teachings of Pragmatic philosophy, which interprets everything according to its “practical consequences”, he was not surprisingly proposing to look at the effectiveness of religion on the basis of the concrete consequences that it engenders. In a sense, James accepts the fact that religious experiences may not be provable as such.

In fact, there are many things about religion and religious experiences that shall not be grasped by human reason, let alone touched by human understanding. But that is not what matters, to be sure. One can always test the truthfulness of religious experiences by testing the fruits – when it manifests in one’s moral life and in the goodness that makes of the believers. The benefits that one can gain from adhering in a religion are what will determine its authenticity, and not the essentially futile rational arguments that try to prove the existence of the divine to no avail. Such stance figured well in his book The “Will to Believe.

” Conclusion Gathering from the ideas which have been developed, there are a few things that must be pointed out to help answer the problem hereinabove stated: “Is it possible to argue about religious experience? ” These points shall in turn serve as the conclusion of this work. First, in dealing with religious experience, it is imperative that one must treat it as a matter for one’s faith, and not as though it’s tenability rests on the categories of reason alone. As previously noted, one’s religious experience does not, in many cases, fall under normal experiential circumstances.

It does not follow that when one is unable to empirically verify a religious experience, one is to completely disbelieve in it. This is pretty much like being in a relationship. One does not usually get to see one’s boyfriend or girlfriend round the clock. But in many instances, one finds trusting in his/her partner even without actually knowing where he/she is at the exact moment when one is not with him/her. Trust is kind of an element that is present in religious experience. One cannot look at it under the lenses of reason and sensory perception. One has to trust, or have faith in what otherwise is difficult to rationally perceive.

As the old adage goes, “faith begins where reason ends. ” In fact, this is the aspect of religious experience which Soren Kiergegaard wished to emphasize – a leap of faith or an embrace of the unknown. Second, there is a need to clarify that it is one thing to say that religious experience is at times beyond reason, as it is another thing to say that it is all together unintelligible. There is a difference in claiming that there are certain things that cannot be explained when one deals with religious experiences, as opposed to saying that there is nothing that can be understood in it.

Religious experience is not a wholly irrational exercise or phenomenon. It may seem to be beyond reason, but it is not illogical for sure. The fact that O’Brien attempted to synthesize the general manifestations of religious experiences is already a statement that there are many things reasonable about the experience itself. Lastly, the most probable way of arguing for religious experience is to learn from William James – that there is a need to see the fruit that one’s religious experience engenders.

It has been generally accepted, if not normative, to learn that most mystics (those who claim to have religious experiences, be it Christian, Moslem or Buddhist) have been converted by the experiences that they have had. Their lives seem to follow the visions they are gifted with. This is a point to consider well too. It may be difficult to argue the rationality behind religious experiences. But when there are tangible fruits that emerge from the experiences – holiness, integrity, generosity, sense of mission, etc. – there are certainly good reasons to believe that the religious experience is authentic, and therefore truthful.

Van Biema writes that in Mother Teresa’s journal, she claims to have seen Jesus himself, asking her to establish the Missionaries of Charity in a manner very categorical and precise (Van Biema, p. 38). Strictly speaking, it is difficult to establish the authenticity of her claims, especially since there are absolutely no ways of recovering her experience to be investigated by whatever means. But looking back at all that she had accomplished, it may make a lot of sense to claim that she may have experienced an authentic religious experience in the very first place. Besides, an apple does not fall far from the tree.As indeed one’s acts of sympathy and generosity do not fall far from the benevolent and providential source.


Baumer, Franklin. Religion and the Rise of Scepticism. New York: Hardcourt and Brace Company, 1960. Copleston, Frederick, SJ. Contemporary Philosophy. Studies in Logical Positivism and Existentialism. London: Burns and Dates, 1956. James, Williams. Pragmatism. A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1975 Van Biema, David. “Her Agony. ” Time Magazine, Volume 170, Number 10, September 3, 2007)

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