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On Religious Experience

April 16, 2010

When I was an evangelical Christian I regularly had what I would have called religious experiences—they almost always came in group worship oriented around music.

Because I’m persuaded by Russell McCutcheon’s critique of the language of “religious experience,” I’m not sure that that phrase is all that useful. I’d be much more likely to redescribe those experiences as moments of elation caused by sentiments of affinity or solidarity.

When I was an evangelical, I of course attributed the feelings of elation to God or the Holy Spirit or whatever—I understood there to be a supernatural cause. For obvious reasons I’m disinclined to do the same now.

What is interesting to me is that I still have what subjectively feel like exactly the same experiences. I had one just a few weeks ago when I went to see a musical put on by the students at my college.

We had all the right ingredients: 1) moving music, and 2) an audience and cast with which I had strong sentiments of affinity.

Is it any surprise that I felt elated?

24 Comments leave one →
  1. April 16, 2010 11:46 am

    Ah, so you were once an evangelical. Speaking of things that are interesting but shouldn’t really surprise!

    I’m not sure the religious experience/elation bit is so interesting, though. Did your previous pneumatological understanding not incorporate material aspects of divine action? Charles Finney is perhaps the easiest (if a more coarse-grained) theological analogue one could mention. But I do note that you say you’re simply “disinclined” to theological explanation, rather than that you avoid it for any reasons particular to the theory you presently hold. But surely theologians working on theological aesthetics have as much to say about college musicals as they do about tent revivals? Would you see the scope of their theorizing as different than that of others, like McCutcheon (not that I know the first thing about McCutcheon’s work… I’m just going off of how you situate him here, and a brief glance at his personal page).

  2. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    April 16, 2010 12:42 pm

    My prior account was not informed by any sort of sophisticated theology—as one of my friends has said, the closest evangelicals usually get to theology is C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity.

    I’m “disinclined” toward my prior explanation because I think that the framework I used to interpret the experience was superficial, unsophisticated, broke Occam’s razor in about a million ways, and depended on highly problematic and/or refutable assumptions.

    I sort of assume that most evangelicals probably wouldn’t think their god was manifesting himself in our college musical (especially given its risque nature). If that experience can be adequately explained without any sort of supernatural causation, can’t evangelical experiences be equally explained without supernatural causation?

    The McCutcheon thing is this: what counts as religion or religious is variable, but we tend not to see it that way and therefore reify religion. We talk about religion in ways that are animistic: religion influences politics; religion contradicts science; religion makes people moral/immoral. To talk about religious experience has the tendency to reify those experiences as somehow fundamentally different than other types of experiences, and without justification.

  3. April 16, 2010 2:15 pm

    Well, okay, but evangelical anti-intellectualism is sort of a red herring, don’t you think? I mean, the closest most people of any metaphysical commitments get to critical thought is rather abysmal. That you employed a crappy framework to reach certain theological explanations in the past doesn’t (necessarily) reflect poorly upon those explanations, but rather upon you. Let’s not project here.

    I would hesitate to dismiss evangelical attitudes or the idea that they may be related to McCutcheon’s thesis, too… “All truth is God’s truth” and all that. This sort of sentiment is precisely why we’re seeing so much push for a theological account of the public sphere by evangelicals… because the idea of a particular category of experience in church that doesn’t apply elsewhere is untenable for most. And it’s beside the point whether a particular evangelical will see a particular musical as God-glorifying. Augustinian accounts of the good, ordered loves, etc. can quite readily be summoned to explained what is beautiful about even risque spectacles, and these Augustinian tools are quite familiar to evangelical thought.

    I think you’re trading in stereotypes and bad memories here, and over-estimating your mileage.

  4. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    April 16, 2010 2:28 pm

    Evangelical intellectualism is NOT a red herring. Evangelicals are among those in America who most insulate themselves from critical reflection. I’ve even had evangelicals tell me outright that they know there are good objections to their beliefs, but they consciously choose to ignore them. I’ve got family members who transferred out of “secular” colleges and into conservative evangelical schools precisely because they didn’t want exposure to outside views.

    I’m not sure what you’re saying in your second paragraph. On the fact that evangelicals could offer some sort of explanation of my experience at the musical as somehow divine, I’ll concede the point in principle. However, their account still won’t do it without dubious assumptions, and it wouldn’t pass Occam’s razor. Even the most sophisticated evangelical theology is weak.

  5. April 16, 2010 5:06 pm

    Simply reaffirming evangelical anti-intellectualism and offering some extra anecdotes doesn’t explain its relevance for the present point. Indeed, I haven’t bothered to disagree with you on that. But so what if evangelicals shelter themselves within like-minded institutions? Plenty of non-evangelicals waste away their college career drinking beer. In other news, the sky is blue. Who gives a damn? What’s the relevance of all this to the acceptability of a pneumatological explanation of human sensational experiences?

    I’m intrigued by your continued reference to Occam’s razor as well… you seem to think it’s an absolute sort of litmus test rather than a rule of thumb, but this strikes me as a rather flatfooted application of the razor. Heavy-handedness can turn even the virtue of parsimony into a vice. In any case, it’s not at all obvious that the sine necessitate adequately describes the present situation. In fact, that’s quite simply what the theological explanation argues against, yet you seem to assume your own conclusion based on… what? Common sense? I recognize that a catchy tune and some personal affinity is sufficient explanation for you, but I don’t have a sense of why that’s the case, or why anyone else should think the same way. Nor have you begun to explain the basis of the power of these two things. How does music or affinity affect sentiment? No one’s questioning whether it does… what’s being offered are different accounts of how it does.

  6. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    April 16, 2010 6:00 pm

    I wasn’t aware that I needed to offer an account of how. I’ll leave that up to the cognitive scientists.

    Either way, a pneumatological account just won’t do. I spent three to five years of my life trying to work out a Christian point of view while giving it the benefit of the doubt, and I was never able to make it work. From my perspective, it’s not worth the time or effort to reconsider its merits now, and just in order to explain why I feel elated at concerts.

    The reason I keep mentioning Occam’s razor is that a pneumatological account posits a lot of unnecessary—and improbable—junk to account for this sort of effect (spirits and the like, obviously), while a cognitive scientist’s account, by contrast, probably would not. I prefer more parsimonious worldviews.

    You don’t really expect me to take a pneumatological account seriously, do you?

  7. April 16, 2010 10:10 pm

    Do I expect you to take pneumatological accounts seriously? Well, I don’t expect to convince you of anything with regard to theological account of things, if that’s what you’re asking. But if you’re asking whether I expect you to be serious about those religious frameworks with which you seek to engage critically, then yeah. Otherwise I don’t see why you’d bother engaging with them.

    I get that your default is parsimony, and I applaud that. My concern, however, is that you’re fetishizing the Razor as a methodological gatekeeper or trophy… you talk of how it can’t be “passed”, or shouldn’t be “broken”. Now come on, MfM! Of course it can! It’s just a useful principle. Let’s not get all sentimental about it. Also (and more importantly), let’s not get lazy and assume that we can just play the “Occam’s razor” card to conclude a debate. It isn’t a law, or a logical proof.

  8. Beelzebub permalink
    April 17, 2010 2:50 am

    I used to be quite the church-goer, but I never had any “religious experiences” during that time. Now I seem to have them fairly often (not too often, but not too rare, either) while reading books, watching films, listening to music, etc.

  9. April 17, 2010 8:39 am

    This is an exacerbating trend in religion studies that Ms Marx has stepped into. There’s Weber’s old observation that aesthetic practices challenge and substitute for religion in modernity (and then, say, Ranciere and other’s concern that they substitute for politics in postmodernity), but I’m increasingly coming across this in the context of discourses of ‘holistic spirituality’ that is articulated in much the same register as Marxists would mock the self-defensiveness of the old haute bourgeoisie.

    Do I not cry at the Opera? Am I not moved by the plight of plague victims? Do I not love my children, enjoy a good sunset, etc, etc.

    In my merely academic context in the UK, I’m seeing this amongst ex-religious (“but-I-am-still-spiritual”) and middle class liberal Christian folks who are simply more comfortable dealing with, say, Tony Sopranos search for transcendence than with “actual existing” Christianity.

    This is much as the egghead left is more comfortable dealing with, say, rhizomes of the non-actual than getting its hands dirty.

    I also encounter it from nu atheists here who have gone on the defensive, recognizing the image presented by the faces of militant humanism – from Dawkins’ Oxbridge liberalism to Fallacci’s neo-fascism – are not the most edifying.

    I also think Ms Marx discourse is actually far closer to the tendencies in US American orthodox Evangelicalism, and quite apparently so, than might be comfortable to admit, but then I always got along a little too well with ‘post-evangelicals’ who I saw working through the contradictions in a self-critical but sympathetic manner.

    And my football team lost.

  10. April 17, 2010 9:45 am

    You like musicals? Wow… ‘fraid you went down a few rows in my excel spreadsheet right there…

  11. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    April 17, 2010 12:14 pm

    Sophia: I actually don’t like musicals that much. I think my affinity with the students performing and the general audience was more important in this case—I felt similar feelings at the recent play as well, but music of any sort seems to kick it up a notch.

    VM: I see what you’re saying, but I’m not actually employing that defensive, “I’m still spiritual, I promise!” rhetoric you rightly identify out there. This post is one that registers surprise, and plus I friggin’ hate the “I’m spiritual” language. I think what I was saying was more Durkheimian—sentiments of solidarity, etc.

    Evan: with your last comment I think I’m starting to see where exactly you’re trying to press me. As concerns your first comment: I’m not intending to engage with evangelicals here. As concerns the razor: I agree that we shouldn’t fetishize it. My continual reference to it was shorthand for my parsimony. I rarely (if ever) refer to Occam’s razor in my research, teaching, or on this blog. I certainly don’t take it as absolute or anything. Though I do place a high priority on parsimony.

  12. Joe Catch permalink
    April 17, 2010 2:43 pm


    I agree with you (and Miss Marx) that Occam’s razor should not be taken as an absolute rule. There’s no need to dismiss pneumatological explanations for “religious” experiences out of hand simply because they violate Occam’s razor. Still, the fact that people have subjectively identical or very similar experiences outside the context of religious rituals or events (and even in contexts that would meet with the strong disapproval of many religious believers/traditions) does seem to be at least prima facie evidence against the pneumatological explanation, no? That is, we may not be able to discount the pneumatological explanation automatically, but we can point out that the burden of proof falls squarely on those who appeal to it.

  13. April 17, 2010 5:03 pm

    Joe Catch, describing a theological explanation as “pneumatological” may have been unhelpful… you bring up, and MfM did above… the point that the Holy Spirit probably wouldn’t approve of getting warm fuzzies over some things that folks get warm fuzzies over. A theological explanation of certain sensational experiences isn’t limited ecstasies blessed by God, that is… the point is simply to say that these sensations have an erotic basis that is spiritually significant (hopefully that makes sense… again, we can go back to Augustine’s talk of ordered and disordered loves– a disordered love is still based on a framework of divine origin).

    I’d be happy to say that a burden of proof falls on someone offering a theological explanation, but not necessarily because it’s theological. A neurological explanation also bears its own burdens… presumably that’s why MfM references the work of cognitive scientists. That sort of requirement just seems to follow any very robust claim of explanation, theological or not.

    On another note, I ran across this post, which I thought was pertinent.

  14. April 17, 2010 5:05 pm

    *Isn’t limited to ecstasies blessed by God

  15. fuzzytheory permalink
    April 17, 2010 6:11 pm

    I dunno. I’ve been mostly convinced by scholars of Zen Buddhism that the notion of religious experience (in zen rhetoric it has transformed to “pure experience:) is 1) a very recent development, and 2) deployed in many contexts for productive use, and 3) ahistorical in its use to explain historical phenomenon.

    Katz and Robert Sharf are good reads on this.

  16. fuzzytheory permalink
    April 17, 2010 6:17 pm

    Oh, and this is probably an aside, but I also dislike the notion of religious experience because as it has been used until the 90s (at least in the scholarship that I read) it has followed the model of: all religions have religious experience, therefore all religions are saying the same thing. Whereas in every single case that I have examined first hand accounts in history of what people would call today ‘religious experience’ I have found the same thing. Everyone is saying something different, so are they all have ‘religious experiences’? This is all also setting aside the “protestant presuppositions” (to use Gregory Schopen’s term) that are the foundation for this idea of ‘religious experience’. For more on that: Richard King’s Religion and Orientalism. The whole thing smacks to me like a quagmire of over-determined categories and unexamined assumptions. I just try to stay away from the whole thing.

  17. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    April 17, 2010 9:30 pm

    fuzzy theory: I completely agree—that’s why I said I’m with McCutcheon when he suggests the language of “religious experience” is not that useful. I think that what I’m describing is probably completely different from what Zen Buddhists experience during Zazen …

  18. April 17, 2010 9:44 pm

    What seems a bit overwrought to me is… isn’t this just a lumping/splitting dilemma? Surely your experience at the musical is different than that of a Buddhist in certain contexts or a Christian in others. But surely we can also “lump” it to a certain extent… it’s an “experience” of some sort. We call it “religious” insofar as it’s useful, and we stop calling it that when something else makes more sense… but granting that we avoid the abuses of such categories that fuzzy theory rightly points out from previous decades… is it really a big deal? I guess I’ve just never understood why these category debates are such a fuss. I’m not denying that these things are worth questioning, but I suppose I’m a bit more optimistic at our critical ability to overcome the shortcomings of shorthand, and to negotiate different ways of talking about things with one another. Sometimes I wonder whether religious studies folks are just looking for an excuse to feed the publishing monster another manuscript.

  19. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    April 17, 2010 9:45 pm

    But how is calling them “religious” useful?

  20. fuzzytheory permalink
    April 18, 2010 3:32 pm

    “But how is calling them “religious” useful?”

    That’s the crux of it really. It’s like a bunch of studies from the early naughts (2000s) about ravers and their religious experiences. Having been a raver in my younger days, I can attest to some sort of eksesis (sp?). Some religious studies scholars (the ones I knew were from UQAM) are using the category of religious experience to delve into it. One way or another, the category of ‘religion’ here gets a kick in the teeth.

    Evan: I sympathize with your concerns about the category debates. Trust me. In my Introduction to Hinduism class, we spend a significant time discussing and examining the factors that contribute to the construction of the term “Hinduism”. It is NOT a native category, and basically Hinduism is only a few hundred years old. So, there are no easy answers. We can keep ‘Hinduism’ as a term with the proviso that one must be cognizant of all the bullshit about its constructedness, but that too often just covers over significant issues of both modelling the data and ethico-political presuppositions that are important. There is no real easy answer, because the alternative, which is to ditch the terms or make new ones is just as problematic for other reasons.

    As another aside, and just a mini-rant/observation: I doubt that one can really grasp the insolubility of the notion of religion, and just how deeply problematic the term is until one does some significant exploration towards how the term has deeply affected both the study of Asian traditions and the traditions themselves. It is a far more naturalized term coming from the study of Judeo-Christian religion. It was made for Christianity. The application of it willy-nilly to every other tradition under the sun is a real eye-opener.

  21. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    April 18, 2010 8:06 pm

    I agree that we can use words with the sorts of provisos you mention, but all to often the response to these category critiques is: “Yes, I get it, we have to be careful—now I’ll just go back to talking EXACTLY THE SAME WAY we did before.” That is, the provisos are shed once the critique is put down.

  22. April 19, 2010 3:19 pm

    That’s all fair enough, and I’m not trying to advocate for the use of “religious” as a descriptor of any experiences here… indeed, though I didn’t get back to MfM’s question, my thought when I read it was, “well, from the vantage of my competence I’d reasonably call an experience in a Christian worship service ‘religious’… but I honestly couldn’t tell you for the other cases”. I’m not a religious studies person, and this means that I’m relatively ignorant of other traditions with which you are concerned. But that also means that I’m not trying to speak as if I do have a concern for them. That is, you shouldn’t take my comments here as support for a certain side of debates in the religious studies guild, because more than likely I haven’t followed and don’t care too much about those problems, at least as they are raised by that certain set of academics. So I gladly grant your comments on Hinduism, fuzzytheory… I don’t doubt that you’re correct on that.

  23. April 19, 2010 3:23 pm

    …and you’re probably thinking, “Well, why the hell do you come by here and cause confusion in our conversations if you’re not interested in religious studies?” The answer, of course, is that religious studies and the theological studies of various traditions very often experience a bit of overlap… sometimes constructive, sometimes rather messy. For that reason it’s important for theologians and religious studies scholars to argue with one another about experiences, at least insofar as these experiences are pertinent to the study of both groups. And if my comments from a particular tradition can work as a critical push against comparative religious scholars, then that’s great. It’s not great, as you say, when categories natural to one tradition are overlaid on another… but that’s why you also push back against me in critical fashion. At least that’s what I take to be the values of these conversations, even if we’re working largely at cross-purposes.

  24. April 20, 2010 5:59 am

    @fuzzytheory. Yeah Graham St John’s Rave Culture & Religion and there was some stuff in the J for the Scientific Study of Religion on the same topic. Much like any study of dance music, you know the absurd over-theorizing of it is necessary to make it interesting and to make out that what was written about the first wave of disco must be added to.

    @Mz Mx. I know you’re not spiritual, Ma’am. You are “critical”.

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