Is Science the Only Sure Path to Truth?
(can religious experience count as evidence?)
Religious Experience in the Semitic Traditions
In most religions, there is an important place for experience. In fact, if there were no distinctively religious experiences, it is doubtful if religions would exist.
Ninian Smart proposed a seven-dimensional analysis of religion (1997, 10—11). Most religions are distinctive in the experiences they favor and seek to sustain, in their myths or stories, in rituals, doctrines, ethical codes, social institutions, and material artifacts like temples or mosques. Different religions stress different dimensions, though most religions contain some elements in each dimension. Some religions do not place much emphasis on the occurrence of experiences and may even regard them with distrust if they lead to a questioning of orthodox beliefs. Yet it is rare to find the experiential dimension lacking entirely.
In Judaism, it is sometimes said that the most important dimension is that of keeping the Torah, or the moral and ritual tradition, and the cohesion of the community. Some Jews may be suspicious of undue introspection or of an exaggerated concern with one's own personal experiences. What matters is the community and the tradition.
Nevertheless, the community exists because it keeps the tradition and central to the tradition is belief that there is a creator God from whom the Torah derives and who, for the orthodox, gave the Torah to Moses. Moses is certainly said to have had distinctive visionary experiences. "The angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of a bush; he looked, and the bush was blazing, yet it was not consumed" (Ex. 3:2— 3). God spoke to Moses out of the burning bush, and Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God.
Many theophanies are recorded in the Hebrew Bible, and these are generally depicted as visions of a God who manifests and speaks. The content of revelation may consist of a set of laws (though it is not only that). But the laws are given through a prophet who sees and hears God. Whatever seeing and hearing amount to in these contexts, they seem to refer to direct apprehensions, analogous to or even mediated by means of sensory perceptions.
When personal experiences are distrusted in such traditions, it is because they may claim to contradict or supersede the original prophetic experience or because they may lead to an unhealthy concentration on some sort of emotionally powerful "peak experience" to the detriment of social and ethical commitments.
The prophet's vision of God and the prophet's mediation of God's message are taken to be absolutely normative, and nothing that threatens them can be encouraged. The stress in religion tends to be on authoritative experience, which mediates knowledge of God's being and will in a form with which all other alleged experiences must be consistent. The point is, perhaps, that adequate experience of God requires the fulfillment of specific conditions in the experient. The experient (in this case, the prophet) must be mentally well balanced, wise, morally pure, spiritually mature, and conversant with a set of concepts that are capable of conveying the nature of God with reasonable adequacy. It is because most people do not fulfill these conditions that the claims they might make about their experiences or the interpretation they may give to them are not necessarily to be trusted.
Christianity is quite reticent about Jesus' experience of the God whom he addressed as "Abba," Father. But Mark's Gospel recounts that, when Jesus was baptized, "He saw the heavens torn apart and the spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, 'You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased' (1:10—11). In John's Gospel, Jesus says, "I am in the Father and the Father is in me" (14:10). This is the strongest sense of personal union, and it is one in which the disciples can share: "I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you" (14:20). But the disciples' experiences are always dependent upon and shaped by the primal union of Jesus and the Father, so again it depends upon a normative pattern established by one who was believed to be uniquely and consciously related to the Primal Reality.
The Prophet of Islam began his mission when he had a visionary experience in the cave, when he saw the archangel Gabriel and heard a voice calling him to recite the Qur'an. It seems that all the main Abrahamic faiths derive from the teachings of persons taken to have had a unique, intense, and direct visionary and auditory experience of God, an experience that gave them unique authority to proclaim the wisdom of God in their lives and teachings.
Even those Abrahamic traditions regarded as "heresies" by the orthodox, like Bah'ai, derive from the teachings of inspired prophets who claimed direct experience of God. It is misleading to separate "revelation" too sharply from "experience," as though revelation just consisted of words imparted to people who had no particular experience of God. The words may have authority. But that authority derives from the normative power of visionary experience of God and the unity with God such experience brings about, so that the prophet can become a living mouthpiece or even a human image of the eternal God.
It may seem like a problem that the authoritative experients—Moses, Jesus, and Muhammad—disagree with each other. They all claimed to apprehend one creator God of justice, mercy, and loving-kindness. But they provide differing accounts of what God wills and how to achieve it. This situation reinforces the point, which all traditions accept, that most religious experiences are fallible, and many are mistaken. That does not mean that they are not genuine experiences of God, but it does reflect the fallibility of most religious experiences and the great difficulty of deciding which, if any, are correctly described.