The Role of Religious Experience

Scope: Good reasons exist to explain why students of religion are ambivalent about the topic of religious experience. Science generally has trouble with human experience as evidence, and the more religious studies tries to be scientific (using etic methods), the less attractive claims to religious experience (using emic discourse) seem. Excluding personal experience, however, means distorting any analysis of human activity. And personal experience—both individual and communal—is such a fundamental aspect of religion that its role must be considered. An analysis of Joachim Wach's definition of religious experience provides a framework for approaching early Christianity and suggests how both etic and emic evidence can enrich such study.

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