Religious Experience And Language

William J.Wainwright

Modern philosophers have focused almost exclusively on two aspects of the spiritual life—spiritual states and their epistemic status. What is the reason for this? A remark made by William James in 1902 suggests an answer. 'Feeling is the deeper source of religion . . . philosophic and theological formulas are secondary products, like translations of a text into another tongue.' While 'conceptions and constructions are.a necessary part of our religion', 'these intellectual operations. presuppose immediate experiences as their subjectmatter. They are interpretative and inductive operations, operations after the fact, consequent upon religious feeling, not coordinate with it, not independent of what it ascertains' (James 1902:423-4). This kind of emphasis on religious experience is new. Traditional Christianity explored the nature of the spiritual life in detail. It also believed that (some) spiritual states involve perceptions. But the epistemic status of mystical states was not an issue, and there was little interest in other spiritual traditions. Nor were religious experiences appealed to to justify religious belief.

The modern belief that sui generis religious feelings are the primary source of religious beliefs and concepts has several sources. One is an eighteenth-and nineteenth-century emphasis upon 'heart religion' and Romanticism's valorization of feeling. There are historical connections, for example, between James and Edwards who, with other leaders of the Great Awakening, insisted that 'true religion consists, in great measure, in vigorous and lively actings of the inclination and will of the soul, or the fervent exercises of the heart' (Edwards 1959:99). Friedrich Schleiermacher and Jacob Friedrich Fries were both educated by Moravians. James's attitudes towards Romanticism are ambivalent but the affinities are real. Another source is the Enlightenment's preoccupation with natural religion—the belief in a 'religious a priori which is part of human nature and underlies the diversity of religious belief and practice. Deism identified the religious a priori with reason's ability to establish basic religious and moral truths. The Romantics identified it with feeling or intuition. In either case, the religious a priori could be used to explain and evaluate the historical religions. A third source was the widespread conviction that Kant had demonstrated the bankruptcy of natural theology and that, therefore, religious belief lacked justification or could only be justified by appealing to the exigencies of practical life or feeling.

Modern philosophers, then, have frequently held that religion can be adequately explained by religious feeling. Many have also thought that religious feelings are its only justification. So their interest in the varieties of religious experience, and in its cognitive validity (or lack of it) is not surprising. Nor is it surprising that much of their attention has been devoted to visions, raptures, and other ecstatic experiences with a pronounced perception-like quality. For these would justify religious beliefs and practices if they were veridical.

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