Outline

I. Although religious experience is a key element in any religion, the difficulties of analyzing any human experience make it a subject that science prefers to avoid if possible.

A. In contrast to public events that are open to description, experience is irreducibly individual, somatic, interpreted, and made available through participant testimony.

1. For experience to be made available to others, it needs emic expression, that is, it needs to be expressed by the individuals having the experience.

2. Science always prefers the universal, abstract, and objective fact that is available to etic analysis, that is, the tools and observations of scientists.

B. Refusing to take the experiential into account means losing critical knowledge of reality.

1. Some dimensions of human reality are almost entirely constituted by the experiential, for example, the arts.

2. When the experiential is eliminated, the very essence of some historical events is lost, for example, the Holocaust.

II. The problems associated with religious experience are of an even greater magnitude.

A. Religious experience is notoriously impossible to verify.

1. It is analogous to claims to the experience of pleasure or pain.

2. Even if sincere, it involves entities not available to the perception of observers.

3. All too frequently, it can be faked for the sake of gain or influence.

B. What is distinctively "religious" about religious experience is especially hard to detect.

1. Religious experience lies on a continuum of experiences that more or less resemble it.

2. Religious experience is invariably contextualized by cultural conditions and the symbols available for interpretation.

C. Scholars have difficulty maintaining detachment in this area, because they all have a stake.

D. Scholars refusing to use such terms as "transcendence" and demanding only etic methods sometimes are ideologically opposed to the truth of any claims concerning "ultimate power."

E. In contrast, some scholars who privilege the emic and use language about transcendence are biased toward the truth of religious claims.

F. The challenge is to find a way of speaking about religious experience that neither confuses accurate analysis (that is, mystifies) nor contains a built-in bias for certain traditions (that is, privileges).

III. Joachim Wach provides a working definition of religious experience that has genuine heuristic value.

A. The definition: Religious experience is a response of the whole person to what is perceived as ultimate, characterized by a peculiar intensity, and issuing in appropriate action (e.g., becoming a Good Samaritan).

B. An analysis of each of the terms of the definition suggests how it can become an important analytic tool, particularly the element of "issuing in appropriate action."

1. All power organizes around itself; the greater the perceived power, the greater the capacity to organize (e.g., falling in love).

2. It is possible to move from patterns of organization ("way of life") that are accessible to observation to the "experience of power" that is not.

IV. The category of religious experience is particularly important in the analysis of early Christianity.

A. It is essential if we are to make sense of the claims made by the earliest Christian literature itself, which are essentially claims about power being exercised and experienced in people's lives.

B. It is the only way in which the emergence of Christianity out of the contexts of paganism and Judaism—similar to each, different from both—can be made intelligible.

C. It provides the key to behavior—as in the case of the Apostle Paul— that in other terms remains incomprehensible.

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