The Framing of Religious Experiences

This quarter I’m auditing a philosophy course, Science, Religion and Democracy, which aims to address some of the tensions between science-based and religion-based beliefs and methodologies (not that the two are mutually exclusive). During the introductory session, the difference between testimony and evidence was highlighted, and a question arising out of that was whether religious experience could be considered as evidence of something.

Though the question was rhetorical, I contemplated it for some time after. My first thought was: why should the inquiry be restricted to religious experiences? After all, it can be (and has been) imposed on human experience in general. Then I wondered whether the religiosity of religious experiences might distinguish them from other human experiences, which makes for complicated study.

And, because I’ve also been reading about the epistemological framing of knowledge-producing interviews, I started to reflect on how one could study religious experiences.

When we study something like learning experiences, we might employ theories and approaches from several relevant disciplines such as education or psychology. So how can we frame religious experiences? In the study of religion and all things related, the discipline that immediately comes to mind is theology. But, is it methodologically acceptable to utilize theological texts and approaches when conducting qualitative research?

In his seminal work The Varieties of Religious Experiences, William James (1902) studied religious experiences, making it clear at the outset that his methodology isn’t anthropological or theological; rather, because he is a psychologist, he has approached the experiences from that angle. For him, religious experiences were simply experiences that needed to be examined as such.

In contrast, Tanya Luhrmann’s (2012) When God Talks Back explores the religious experiences of evangelical Christians from historical, anthropological, psychological and theological perspectives. In one chapter, she uses Christian literature and traditions to contextualize the experiences of her informants, referencing the Bible, St. Augustine, St. Ignatius of Loyola and Pope Benedict XVI.

Luhrmann’s inclusion of theology in examining religious experiences is an important methodological consideration because it appropriately situates religious experiences within their respective religious traditions. This, I think, is key because it contributes to the anthropological commitment of describing and understanding a human experience, as much as possible, on its own terms. But when we do so, do we risk limiting or overdetermining its meaning?

James Spradley (1979) writes in The Ethnographic Interview, “Human behavior, in contrast to animal behavior, has various meanings to the actor. These meanings can be discovered” (1979, 12). The operative term is meanings (plural). As there are multiple meanings of a human experience, employing multidisciplinary approaches to examine it is entirely reasonable. In attempting to discover the meanings of a religious experience, then, can we afford to ignore its theological overtones?

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