Religious Experience Reconsidered: A Building Block Approach to the Study of Religion and Other Special Things

By Ann Taves | Go to book overview
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INTRODUCTION The Problem of “Religious Experience”

The idea of “religious experience” is deeply embedded in the study of religion and religions as it (religion) and they (religions) have come to be understood in the modern West. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, many modernizers in the West and elsewhere advanced the idea that a certain kind of experience, whether characterized as religious, mystical, or spiritual, constituted the essence of “religion” and the common core of the world's “religions.” This understanding of religion and the religions dominated the academic study of religion during the last century. Key twentieth century thinkers, such as Rudolf Otto, Gerardus van der Leeuw, Joachim Wach, Mircea Eliade, and Ninian Smart, located the essence of religion in a unique form of experience that they associated with distinctively religious concepts such as the sacred (Eliade 1957/1987), the numinous (Otto 1914/1958), or divine power (van der Leeuw 1933/1986).

This approach has been heavily criticized over the last thirty-five years on two major grounds. First, it sets religious experience up as the epitome of something unique or sui generis,1 which must be studied using the special methods of the humanities. As a unique sort of experience, they argued that scholars should privilege the views of believers (the first person or subjective point of view) and should not try to explain their experiences in biological, psychological, or sociological terms for fear of “reducing” it to something else. Second, it constituted religion and the religions as a special aspect of human life and culture set apart from other aspects. Critics claimed that this approach isolated the study of religion from other disciplines (Cox 2006), masked a tacitly theological agenda of a liberal ecumenical sort, and embodied covert Western presuppositions about religion and religions (McCutcheon 1997; Sharf 1998; Fitzgerald 2000a; Masuzawa 2005).

The critics are basically right about this. Around 1900, that is, at the height of the modern era, Western intellectuals in a range of disciplines were preoccupied with the idea of experience (Jay 2005). This spilled over into theology and the emerging academic study of religion where thinkers with a liberal or modernist bent, mostly Protestant and a few

1 “Sui generis” is a Latin phrase meaning “of its own kind.” It refers to a person or thing
that is unique, in a class by itself (The New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy, 3rd ed. 2002).

-3-

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