Objectivity in Religious Experience

    Thomas D. Davis's fictional story entitled "The Vision" raises the question of objectivity with regard to religious experience. The narrator of the story relates his experience of seeing a woman's visage in a brilliant shimmering of light, and which, after repeated attempts to dismiss the experience as an illusion, was accompanied by a high-pitched humming voice with which the narrator in time became engaged in conversation. A trip to the neurologist resulted in a diagnosis of "atypical psychosis" which simply meant that the doctor was unable to determine an organic cause and that the hallucinations defied neurological classification. When he was about to take the prescribed pills, the phenomenon reoccurred with the humming voice warning him not to take the pills lest he become a zombie. Following an extended time of hallucinatory interaction and quasi-religious experience, the narrator popped the pills, and the visions ceased (1993, 37-43).

    What constitutes valid religious experience, if there is such a thing? This was the subject of two classic treatises by two different American authors.  The first written in the mid-eighteenth century was entitled Treatise on Religious Affections by Jonathan Edwards, the second written in the early twentieth century, was entitled Varieties of Religious Experience by William James. Thomas D. Davis, the author of our textbook, included an excerpt from this classic study by James to deal with the question "Is mystical experience veridical?" (1993, 65-67).  The question of religious experience, of course, is a broader than the issue of mysticism which, by definition, practically eliminates human rationality. For this reason the question "Is mystical experience veridical?" almost defies answering, at least from a philosophical perspective where reason is practically tantamount to virtue.  If we are to get to the nub of the issue, we must take a more comprehensive look at James's study, as well as that of America's first philosopher, as Will Durant describes Edwards (Durant 1926. 365).  James includes Edwards's wife Sarah as one of his case studies and relates his own perspective on the subject of religious experience to that of Edwards.  Since the Jonathan Edwards Institute at Yale University has been engaged for over ten years in publishing the works of this noteworthy alumnus, his views on the subject cannot be overlooked.

    Edwards, a pastor, philosopher, and graduate of Yale College, was writing in the aftermath of the Great Awakening, which Harvard's Perry Miller described as America's "first colonial event" and which featured the itinerant preaching ministry of George Whitefield, Benjamin Franklin's favorite preacher who addressed crowds of twenty and thirty thousand people in a day when there were no microphones. The Great Awakening, a deep religious stirring, is said to have directly impacted fifty percent of the population of the thirteen colonies.

    Edwards cited numerous psychological phenomena commonly associated with such an event as "showing what are no certain signs that religious affections are truly gracious, or that they are not." Among these were the raising of religious feelings to a fever pitch, great physical effects, great fervency or fluency in speech, the fact that the persons themselves did not excite these feelings by their own endeavors, that they come with texts of scripture, that there is an appearance of love in them, zealous engagements in the externals of religion, verbal praise of Deity, exceeding confidence, or that the reporting of these events is very affecting of others. While these signs could not establish the validity of religious experience either positively of negatively, there were certain indicators that served as "distinguishing signs of truly gracious and holy affections" (1879, 1:245-263).

    Edwards stated that "the first objective ground" of religious experience was the "transcendently excellent and amiable nature of divine things, as they are in themselves; and not any conceived relation they bear to self, or self-interest." The nature of authentic religious experience accordingly was to move a man away from self-centeredness, not to cater to it. He further stated that authentic religious experience was "primarily founded on the moral excellency of divine things." If religious experience did not center upon God's moral perfection, i.e., His holiness, but was nothing more than an infatuation with Deity's power or wisdom, the religious experience was spurious, as far as Edwards was concerned. 

    For Edwards, true religious experience established a divine sense and relish in the heart, a kind of holy taste that recognized things for their true worth and recoiled from worthless things. It was also characterized by a genuine humiliation and tenderness of spirit effected by a contemplation of the cross, as distinct from a charade of legalistic, outward pretense of humility. Genuine religious experience was characterized by beautiful symmetry and proportion, that is having the total image of Christ impressed upon the heart, and not merely a half or a portion. Love for neighbor needed to be rooted in a love for God, while love for God needed to be expressed by love for neighbor. Concern about the sins of others needed to be balanced by a fitting concern about one's own sin ( 1879, 264-312). For Edwards true religious experience was affectional and rational, as well as moral. No light in the understanding was good which did not produce holy affection in the heart, but the converse was true as well. Edwards, however, was careful to distinguish between "a mere notional understanding, wherein the mind only beholds things in the exercise of a speculative faculty; and the sense of the heart, wherein the mind not only speculates and beholds, but relishes and feels."

    That sort of knowledge, by which a man has a sensible perception of amiableness and loathsomeness, or of sweetness and nauseousness, is not the same sort of knowledge with that, by which he knows what a triangle or a square is. The one is more speculative knowledge; the other sensible knowledge, in which more than the intellect is concerned. The heart is the proper subject of it, or the soul, as a being that not only beholds, but has inclination, and is pleased or displeased. And yet there is the nature of instruction in it; as he that has perceived the sweet taste of honey, knows much more about it, than he who has only looked upon and felt it (1879, 1:283).

    William James, writing his Varieties of Religious Experience as an empirical psychologist, had a more scattered approach to the subject of religious experience than that of Edwards.   The bulk of clinical examples cited by James, to be sure, were of the evangelical Protestant model and included George Whitefield the prominent preacher of the Great Awakening, and as has been mentioned, Sarah Edwards, the wife of Jonathan Edwards. But James also included the account of a Jew who was converted to Roman Catholicism and whose religious focal point was an image of the virgin Mary, the conversion of a man to Islam, the religious experience of Emerson the transcendentalist, who like Walt Whitman, was enraptured by the beauty in nature, and even cited the committed atheist as enjoying a conversion of sorts.  

    One thing which highlights the subjectivity of James's approach, by way of contrast, and for that reason makes James's study facinating reading, is his quotation of Edwards's perspective on religious experience. 

Those gracious influences which are the effects of the Spirit of God are altogether supernatural--are altogether different from anything that unregenerate men experience.  They are what no improvement, or composition of natural qualifications or principles will ever produce; because they not only differ from what is natural, and from everything that natural men experience in degree and circumstances, but also in kind, and are of a nature far more excellent. From hence it follows that in gracious affections there are [also] new perceptions and sensations entirely different in their nature and kind from anything experienced by the [same] saints before they were sanctified. . . . The conceptions which the saints have of the loveliness of God, and that kind of delight which they experience in it, are quite peculiar, and entirely different fronm anything which a natural man can possess, or of which he can form any proper notion.

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    Surely it cannot be unreasonable. . . that before God delivers us from such a state of sin and liability to everlasting woe, he should give us some considerable sense of the evil from which he delivers us, in order that we may know and feel the importance of salvation, and be enabled to appreciate the value of what God is pleased to do for us.  As those who are saved are successively in two different states--first in a state of condemnation and then in a state of justification and blessedness--and as God in the salvation of men, deals with them as rational and intelligent cretures, it appears agreeable to this wisdom, that those who are saved should be made senisble of their ]B]eing, in those two different states.  In the first place, that they should be made sensible of their state of condemnation; and afterwrds, of their state of deliverance and happiness (James [1901-02] 1990, 212-13).

    James regarded conversion as primarily the surrender of the conscious self to the subliminal or unconscious self. He regarded the discovery of the subliminal consciousness by psychologists in 1886 as that which opened the door to the study of the phenomena of religious biography, for there, totally apart from rational consciousness, was where conversion took place. He spoke freely of God. Yet that religious experience in which the reality beyond the conscious self was mystically experienced as "Nothing" or "No-God" was to be considered equally valid--different strokes for different folks. It is interesting that he preferred conversions of the "sick soul" type, as distinct from the "healthy-minded," "everything-is-beautiful" type represented by Walt Whitman, as it provided a better clinical demonstration of the experience of "grace."

    For James, conversion was a surrender of the conscious self to the "More," that world of reality which lay beyond the rational. He had no use for "metaphysics" or "dogma." While he could accept the "moral attributes" of God's holiness, his omnipotence, omniscience, love, and immutability because these had connection with human experience, he rejected the notion of God's metaphysical attributes such as his immateriality, personality, indivisibility, self-sufficiency, self-love, absolute sufficiency in himself, and self- existence. To be so rationally caught up in the metaphysics of Deity was to be so locked into the rational conscious self that the soul was prevented from entering into union with God. The objective truth was that the "More" really did exist; however,

it would never do for us to place ourselves offhand at the position of a particular theology, the Christian theology, for example, and proceed immediately to define the "more" as Jehovah, and the "union" as his imputation to us of the righteousness of Christ. That would be unfair to other religions, and, from our present standpoint at least, would be an over-belief (James [1901-02] 1990, 456).

    William James's view of the reality beyond the conscious self was fragmented, a pluralistic, egalitarian view of deity approaching polytheism--hence, the title of his subsequent work A Pluralistic Universe. It could be fairly argued that if the bulk of the subjects of his clinical study held to such a nebulous, fragmented view of reality as James held, they would never have experienced religious conversion, and hence would not have qualified to be the subjects of his study. In fact, many had been converted from a fragmented existence. James knew this and in fact maintained that conversion represented the overcoming of the divided self. While he regarded religion as a unifying experience, he apparently was not bothered by his inconsistency. Such an approach, in which conversion is regarded as the breaking down of the rational consciousness, represents the death of reason and the demise of philosophy in the classical sense.

    William James could even speak of God's holiness, but it was rooted in empiricism rather than ontology; hence, it was limited by the very scientism he was trying to overthrow.

    Edwards understood the thinking of a man like James, though James lived 150 years later. As Edwards viewed reality, James started at the wrong end. James started with human happiness or self-interest. Edwards started with God whose chief virtue of holiness consisted in God's making himself his own highest good. James's study accommodated "the god who isn't" of atheism and the reality of "Nothingness," which characterizes so much of Buddhism and eastern mysticism, if "Nothingness can be considered reality. Edwards' philosophy of religious experience was based upon the God who "is" and who is the foundation of all existence.

    Edwards, no doubt, would have considered James philosophically bankrupt, and the conclusions of his empiricism skewed, since his system did not have as its ultimate end the supreme love of God. For William James, religion was valuable for its pragmatic effect--its "cash value," as he put it. William James did not believe religious conversion was the only answer to man's spiritual need but one among many.

    It was not that James was unfamiliar with the classic metaphysical and theological arguments, for he quoted John Newman at length to illustrate the "metaphysical attributes" of God and then to draw a line between them and God's "moral attributes" the latter of which he accepted in that they were, in his mind, directly related to religious experience. Newman was saying precisely what Edwards had insisted upon, but James rejected it. Edwards, like James, underlined the importance of religious experience. But for Edwards, "the first objective ground of gracious affections" was "the transcendently excellent and amiable nature of divine things, as they are in themselves; and not any conceived relation they bear to self, or to self-interest."

    For Edwards true virtue was defined as "consent to being" and that Being who was the foundation of all created being, and hence, "infinitely the greatest and best," was in the same proportion entitled to the greatest consent. Indeed, God's holiness consisted in the Divine Self-Love, or the mutual love eternally subsisting among the persons of the Godhead.


Reference List

Davis, Thomas D. 1993. Philosophy: An Introduction Through Original Fiction, Discussion,   

          and Readings. Third Edition. New York: McGraw-Hill, Inc. 

Edwards, Jonathan. 1879. The Works of Jonathan Edwards. Revised and Corrected by Edward    Hickman. 2 vols. 12th Edition. London: William Tegg & Co.

James, William. [1901-02] 1990. The Varieties of Religious Experience. New York: Vintage Books.