Academic journal article Theological Studies

Religious Experience, the Hermeneutics of Desire, and Interreligious Dialogue

Academic journal article Theological Studies

Religious Experience, the Hermeneutics of Desire, and Interreligious Dialogue

Article excerpt

IN THE RECENT HISTORY Of theological discourse the notion of religious experience has proven to be attractive, complex, polemical, and, perhaps most curiously, persistent. As I point out below, the "culprits" responsible for this state of affairs are many and represent a diversity of confessional backgrounds. One consequence of such diversity is that the range of viewpoints concerning the meaning of this notion as well as its use as a theological category is vast and multivalent. To avoid getting lost in a maze of ambiguity when dealing with the notion of religious experience, it is helpful to (1) mark out clear parameters for how it is going to be used and (2) consider it in light of a specific situation or question. Following these directives, I propose to reflect on religious experience in relation to the notion of desire and in the larger context of the problematic of religious diversity and the challenges posed by interreligious dialogue. More specifically, I will concern myself with two basic questions: (1) how might we conceive of the relationship between religious experience and desire, and (2) to what extent can reflection on these two themes be used to facilitate and perhaps even promote dialogue among persons committed to different religious traditions?

In proposing some answers to these questions I proceed as follows. First, I begin with a sketch of how the notion of religious experience emerged onto the theological landscape with Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768-1834) and the rise of theological liberalism. I then focus on how religious experience has been understood and critiqued (especially in regard to its possibility as a category for interreligious dialogue) by several theologians who have worked in the postliberal or postmodern era. I then highlight some recent reflections on the notion of desire that draw out two of its distinct, though intimately, related dimensions, namely, the spiritual and the sensitive/psychic dimensions. I then take up the question of the relationship between grace and desire, with special reference to the Roman Catholic tradition and its sacramental system. Finally, I conclude with some questions intended to encourage further reflection on these themes from a comparative perspective.


Historically speaking, the notions of experience in general and of religious experience in particular are relative newcomers on the theological scene. It is widely acknowledged that Friedrich Schleiermacher, commonly referred to as "the father of modern theology," inaugurated the "turn to experience," which was itself responsible for the corollary "turn to the subject." (1) Thomas Kelly observes that in promoting these "turns" to "a subjective, relational faith emerging from human experience," Schleiermacher challenged Enlightenment skepticism and rationalism. (2) James Fredericks summarizes Schleiermacher's initial concern with religious experience:

Schleiermacher set for himself the task of rendering religion credible once again by freeing Christian piety from its eroded foundations in metaphysics and historical claims to authority. Religion, he claimed, is a matter of intuition, sense, or feeling and should be considered a matter of doctrine only secondarily.... Even before it is doctrine, religion is an experience, what Schleiermacher in the Speeches [1799] called the "sense of the Infinite." (3)

Fredericks helpfully draws attention to Schleiermacher's claim that the "sense of the Infinite" is ineffable, and summarizes the significance of this claim:

Epistemologically, the Infinite is experienced prior to Kant's categories. This claim allows Schleiermacher to arrive at two conclusions: (1) this experience is one of sheer immediacy which is only later sundered by thought, and (2) this experience ultimately defies final description and definition and is thus knowable only by direct personal acquaintance. …

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