The debate over religious experience in the past few decades has been framed in terms of the relationship between experience and representation. With the discursive turn in the humanities, many humanists turned a suspicious gaze on the concept of experience, questioning whether it was possible to speak of experience at all apart from the way it is represented in and shaped by discourse. Within religious studies, Steven Katz (1978, 1983) and Wayne Proudfoot (1985) were two of the most forceful advocates of this constructivist view, which emphasized the role of language, tradition, and culture in constituting experience. Their work, along with that of many others who participated in the general discursive turn, sharply challenged the tacitly perennialist views advanced by many of the classical figures (for example, Otto, van der Leeuw, Wach, Eliade, and Smart) discussed in the previous chapter.
In the 1990s a group of scholars led by philosopher of religion Robert Forman responded with a new perennialism that claimed, contra the constructivists, that there were certain mystical experiences that shared underlying commonalities across time periods and traditions. Referring to themselves as “psychological perennialists,” they singled out the “pure consciousness event” as chief among these common underlying experiences (Forman 1990, 1998, 1999). During the 1990s, scholars tended to one extreme or the other; the key features of so-called religious or mystical experiences were either constituted through language, tradition, or culture or were in some sense universal, albeit perhaps only psychologically. For those holding to the former viewpoint, meaning was attributed to experience discursively; for those holding to the latter viewpoint, meaning was inherent in the experience itself.
Then, in 2000, in a special issue of the multidisciplinary Journal of Consciousness Studies, a journal he cofounded with three others in the early 1990s, Forman called for “a truce in the twenty-years' … war … between constructivists and perennialists in the study of religion.” He claimed that both sides had made some good points, but he seems to have sensed that the debate had reached a dead end. In calling on scholars of religion to drop their swords, he urged them to start reading more broadly in the burgeoning research on consciousness. Fearing that scholars of religion