More on Experiential Religion

In my previous essay, I began to discuss how science and religion are not as radically different from one another as we are often taught to think. We are taught that science is based on sense experience and religion is a matter of faith. Many people today think of faith as unjustified dogmatic belief, or perhaps wishful thinking, but theologians tend to see faith as grounded in reason and revelation, and revelation is understood as originating in direct experience of divine reality (divine inspiration) and then communicated through traditional church teachings and sacred writings.

Experience includes so much more than sense perception alone. Today, "empiricism" is understood to refer just to sense perception, but early empiricists such as John Locke and David Hume had broader understandings of empiricism, including internal forms of perception as well as the external forms we now call sense perception. While Locke and Hume did not initially include divine inspiration as a specific kind of internal perception, Locke did consider the possibility in a later chapter he added to his famous Essay Concerning Human Understanding.

What if we had kept this broader understanding of empiricism? Then our epistemology (our theory of knowledge) could have held religion and science in a more comfortable relationship to each other. Science would still be based primarily on external sense perception, with religion based on other kinds of experience. In my previous essay, I argued that many of our religious insights are experientially grounded, and I focused in that essay on relational experience, promising next to discuss additional kinds of experience that inform our religious thought. There are at least four additional kinds: ethical, aesthetic, teleological, and religious or mystical experiences. We sometimes even speak of these experiences in sensory terms: for example, we sometimes speak of having an ethical or moral sense, an aesthetic sense, a sense of purpose, or a sense of the presence of the divine.

If we consider the ethical sense first, it is interesting to note that several philosophers have talked about morality in sensory terms. For example, Hume included emotions among his "internal senses," and grounded his ethical theory in the view that at least some of our emotions function like a moral sense. We have basic shared emotional responses to certain kinds of situations: we tend to feel a sense of satisfaction or approval when we witness acts of goodness or kindness, and we tend to feel a sense of anger or revulsion when we witness cruelty. Plato defined wisdom as "perception of goodness" (see especially his sun analogy in the Republic), suggesting that the wise person not only sees the world as it is, but also sees how it is illuminated by the "sun" of goodness. The Quaker astronomer, Arthur Stanley Eddington, also noted this double-vision: we do not rest content learning just "what is," but always see it also in light of "what should be." In his Science and the Unseen World, he notes that science only covers one aspect of our understanding, but we are in touch with the "unseen world" as well through our moral sense, aesthetic sense, and mystical sense.

By our "aesthetic sense" we catch glimpses that there is more to reality than meets the eye. We experience beauty transcendently -- not as something merely given by sensory qualities, but as suggesting a greater depth or dimensionality to reality than what our senses alone reveal. Light shimmers with a reality greater than color alone; music can evoke feelings and insights that we would not expect mere vibrations of air to evoke.

Even though we have removed teleology from science, teleology dominates our normal lived experience. We are purpose-driven beings. Our most basic strivings are the biological ones: survival and reproduction. But when those purposes are reasonably satisfied, we work towards the fulfillment of other purposes as well. We have a sense that our lives are or should be meaningful. We care beyond ourselves, our own happiness, and the well-being of our loved ones -- we long to contribute to the well-being and enlightenment of humanity as a whole.

Finally, let us consider what is called mystical or religious experience. William James found that these experiences are more common than people previously realized. He also found that it was inappropriate to classify these experiences as manifestations of mental illnesses because in many cases these experiences have positive effects on people's lives. What are religious experiences? Because they can take different forms, it is risky to try to generalize. They can be experiences of awe, awareness of the profound interconnectedness of all life, or a sense of comfort or reassurance, or surges of clarity and strength during times of great difficulty or grief. They can be dreams that feel more real than ordinary waking life. They can be moments of profound insight or inspiration that defy ordinary explanation. They can be glimpses of the thinness of the veil between what we call normal life and a greater reality of which this life is just a small part.

Scientists have tried to explain all of the kinds of experience I have described in purely naturalistic terms, but to me this is like trying to draw a three-dimensional object on a two-dimensional sheet of paper. We can do that, but even the most impressive two-dimensional representations of 3-D reality fail to fully capture what it is really like to dwell in three-dimensional space. Isn't it more scientific to take the fullness of our experiences seriously than to try to reduce them to something less, under an a priori hypothesis that material reality is all there is? If we take all of these experiences seriously, the simplest explanation seems to be that there is more to reality than meets the eye. If we let our experiences of meaning, purpose, love, goodness, and beauty inform our theologies, then this experientially-grounded religious belief becomes harmonious with our scientific understandings of the world.