Experience Philosophical, religious, theological, and geopolitical considerations


By the end of this chapter, you will be able to

  • • Understand definitions and notions of philosophical, historical, psychological, and religious experience as these relate to sources and methods of theologizing;
  • • Evaluate the contemporary elevation of the subjectivity of experience as an authority and basis for theology and intellectual thought;
  • • Explain and evaluate the value of experience in the Wesleyan Quadrilateral as a component in conceiving it as a method and a source for theology.


Chapter 7 examines the various issues related to the use of experience in theology. After a broad overview on defining and reviewing paradigms in interpreting religious experience, the chapter takes a narrower focus to tease out various uses of experience in theology and in continental European contexts. How these then contribute to the development of experience in what came to be known as the Wesleyan Quadrilateral for theologization will be considered. In a nutshell, the chapter helps readers appreciate the subjective turn to experience in its historical backdrop and contemporary development, thereby enabling readers to recognize religious experience as an authority and a source for theology. However, readers will have to form their own opinions as to the weight of their reliance on experience in their theologization vis-à-vis the other choices such as accepting yet weightier source and authority, or depending on scripture, or tradition, or reason, or a combination of these sources as the sole and/or the final authority and source in the construction of theology.

Defining experience: a broad overview

Experience is a much misunderstood term in theological reflection, in part due to the controversies that have emerged from medieval, modern, and postmodern development in European intellectual history and in the history of Christianity. In medieval Christianity, the discovery of various religious encounters and ecstasies led some to pure delight while causing others in leadership to fear that spiritually immature believers may gravitate towards the more spectacular gifts and encounters, and unwittingly lead God’s flock away from God and God’s community. Religious experience came to be received as useful for theology insofar as experience expresses and confirms the dogma, and not for the experience of visions, ecstasies, prophecies, and the mystical. Nonetheless, in affirming the mystical traditions of the Church, known also as mystical or spiritual theology, especially between the tenth to the sixteenth centuries, the mystical encounter of Christ or the mystical experience of union with Christ and the Spirit is said to be the epitome of Christian maturity (cf. Bernard McGinn’s essays in The Oxford Handbook of Mystical Theology, ed. Edward Howells and Mark A. McIntosh, Oxford University Press, 2020, Chapters 4 and 21). Christian mystics in the middle ages broadly followed a three-stage process of spiritual growth understood as purgation, illumination, and mystical union; the process shows their acceptance of the validity of religious experience in the growth towards knowing and experiencing God/Truth.

Religious experience was not always named as a source in theology, though spiritual experiences have always had a part in dogmatics, or, at the least, spiritual experiences confirm the practical value of dogma. After John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, expressed his eclectic view about experiences as a source for theology, which he observed to be implicit in the theologies of the Church of England (his mother church), the Magister Reformation, and the Roman Catholic Church, experiences became a category in Practical Divinity. Seventeenth-century thinkers like William Law or the other Puritans were not so much interested in systems of theology as they were in the practical value of studies in divinity (though in different ways, the preference for practical values is like today’s theological curriculum in practical theology). Gradually, experience was given a place as a source of theology. 1 will say more about experience in Wesley’s Quadrilateral later in this chapter.

With the rise of humanism and the quest to distinguish spiritual from nonspiritual, the humanities stream critiques a theological account of religion and experience as inherently subjective, and a narrative of human fabrication for the experience of the divine (cf. Ivan Strenski, Understanding Theories of Religion: An Introduction, Wiley-Blackwell, 2nd ed., 2015). The European quest for religion in the seventeenth century was to ascertain the objective truth of revelation (cf. Chapters 3 and 5 of this book). In Feuerbach’s famous explanation, the divine is merely the imagination of “the childlike condition of humanity” (cf. Feuerbach, The Essence of Christianity, Trübner & Co., 1881, 13). Feuerbach’s skepticism about divinity or divinizing (that is, to make or understand the divine, as in the whole enterprise of theologizing) resembles the spirit of secular, humanistic streams of learning today. Or in the narrative of psychology, William James’s The Varieties of Religious Experience (Longmans, Green & Co., 1901/1902), Sigmund Freud’s The Future of an Illusion (1927, repr. 1961) and Civilization and Its

Discontents (1930; repr. 1962, W. W. Norton, 2002), and publications by still others, argued that claims of religious experience were nothing more than human expression of their innate desires and appetites. For Freud, claims of religious experience reveal the innate human drive for libido, sexual desires, and the delusional projection of a desire for a benevolent father-child relationship, to help humanity cope with the recalcitrant forces of nature that lie outside of humanity’s control (cf. Freud’s Illusion, 19, 30; Civilization Discontents, 28). Freudian social anthropological reader and early psychoanalytic movement enthusiast Bronislaw Malinowski (1884-1942) extended Freud’s argument and asserted that religious folks deceived themselves with claims of religious experiences and the afterlife as nothing more than “the sublime folly of hope” (cf. Malinowski, Magic, Science and Religion and Other Essays, The University of North Carolina Press, 1948, 90). For William James, pragmatism (which is a philosophy) rather than the quest for the veracity of the origins of religion is more important in interpreting the significance of a religious experience. For James, when one claims a religious encounter, the experience influences the person’s life courses long after the encounter has receded into the memory. Thus, religious experience can be positively channeled towards happiness if religion is rightly received and interpreted through what James calls a healthy mind. But in the hands of an unhealthy, morbid and sick soul, religion will become an instrument of nurturing discordant personalities’ morbid desire to seek out sins and pursue compunction, and dependence on the sagacity of spiritual directors instead of helping one attain wholeness, health, and happiness (cf. James’ Varieties of Religious Experience, Lectures IV—VII, XVI and XVII). Accordingly, experience becomes an illusion. The illusory and negative effects led some others to not only remain skeptical about religious experience but also to bring experience under the rule of reason, as was observed in the medieval church doctors and their desire to impose limits to experience for theology.

Despite the severe critique about the value of religious experience as a genuine source of theology, Transcendental and Existential theologians in the twentieth century (and 1 limit my discussion to only theologians here) such as Karl Rahner argued that religious experience expresses the human person’s orientation towards the holy that will fundamentally shape his or her identity and essence as a person (cf. Rahner’s Foundations of Christian Faith, Herder & Herder, 1985). As religionist Rudolf Otto claimed, one begins to conceive the possibility of the idea of the holy as a real entity and being (cf. Otto, The Idea of the Holy, Oxford University Press, 1923, 2nd edn, 1950, repr. 1958). Accordingly, with Rahner’s and Otto’s views, there is no experience that is not “religious” since the meeting occurs “in the consciousness of the knowing subject” and “the subject’s openness to the unlimited expanse of all possible reality.” As Bernard Nausner argues, human experience is the platform upon which all human knowledge, including discourse about God, occurs. Difficulties abound on thinking theologically about human experiences, no less because revelation (which is the basis for theological discourse) does not depend on experience. Still, one cannot deny that experience and revelation are connected in the web of theologizing for safeguarding the connection between transcendence and immanence in theological construction even though revelation and experience are commonly regarded as opposite ends of the spectrum in regards to their respective credibility for theologizing (Bernard Nausner, Human Experience and the Triune God: A Theological Exploration of the Relevance of Human Experience for Trinitarian Theology, Peter Lang, 2009, 58-59).

Readings on experience of transcendence of experience of the person’s inferiority

Required: 1 recommend reading either of the two chapters in L. Boeve, Y. de Maeseneer, and S. van den Bossche, eds, Religious Experience and Contemporary Theological Epistemology (Leuven University Press, 2005):

Francis Schussler Fiorenza, “The Experience of Transcendence or the Transcendence of Experience: Negotiating the Difference,” 183-218 or

Johannes Zachuber, “Religion vs. Revelation? A Deceptive Alternative in Twentieth Century German Protestant Theology,” 303-316. Both chapters discuss aspects of experience and how experience has been conceived in accordance with criteria of truth-making of religion.

Optional: read Jean-Luc Marion, “Seeing, or Seeing Oneself Seen: Nicholas Cusa’s Contribution in De visione Dei,” The Journal of Religion 96. 3 (2016): 305-331.

Consider whether the experience of transcendence reveals the divine or the interior condition of the person experiencing transcendence. To what extent does the experience mediate the transcendental and in what ways does the experience illuminate the condition of the person experiencing revelation? And in what ways are claims to religious experience then a form of revelation or deception?

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