Re: Hurtado—To What End Experience?

In the West, mystical experience enjoys a paradoxical place of honor and disdain. On the one hand, we view mysticism as suspect, unfounded on our celebrated rationality, our Enlightenment heritage. On the other, we celebrate the radicality of mysticism, its inherent challenge to authoritative institutions and its genuineness. We also find ourselves drawn to the exoticism of the “mystic East” and Western men fantasize about mysterious and “different” Asian women, even as Westerners have sought to correct the agency of objects in Asian subjective experiences.

Proudfood's Religious ExperienceIn the study of early Jewish and Christian texts, the study of mysticism taps into this paradox, affording a certain privilege to interpreters who find authentic experience within the texts. Wayne Proudfoot has underscored the the role of Schleiermacher in bolstering internal experience as a way to defend “religion” against its “cultured despisers.” Schleiermacher declared that the essence of religion could be found in “neither thinking nor acting, but intuition and feeling.” According to Proudfoot, Schleiermacher sought to single out experience as autonomous, to separate it from metaphysical beliefs and ecclesiastical institutions. In so doing, he provided a safe place where the cultured despisers had no grounds to critique. The big bad wolf could not blow that house down.

In his influential essay, “Experience,” Robert Sharf picks up this thread, noting that Western theologians have found a way to save their livelihoods in the concept of experience:

By emphasizing the experiential dimension of religion—a dimension inaccessible to strictly objective modes of inquiry—the theologian could forestall scientific critique. Religious truth claims were not to be understood as pertaining to the objective or material world, which was the proper domain of science, but to the inner spiritual world, for which the scientific method was deemed inappropriate. (95)

Sharf also notes how Western theologians and secular scholars of religion actually become strange bedfellows here. While these scholars of religion have no interest in making truth claims, they do however have an interest in demarcating the contested field of religious studies. In religious experience, they find “the existence of irreducibly religious phenomena over which they can claim special authority” (95).

The problem with religious experience is that we have no access to it. All we have are reports of experience. To debate about whether these reports testify to “genuine experience” is pointless because authentication is impossible.

It is with this perspective that I read Larry Hurtado’s blog post from yesterday, ”‘Revelatory’ Experiences and Religious Innovation.” His post summarizes his lecture series at Rice University, which summarized some of the work he’s been publishing for over twenty years. Hurtado has found surprising that early Christ-followers would develop what he calls “dyadic” worship of both Christ and God. (Surprising for us, maybe. But I believe this shouldn’t really be that big of a surprise if one does not accept a certain monolithic and normative “Judaism” out of which came “Christianity.”) He seeks to explain this curious phenomenon. Why did this innovation come about? He offers a suggestion: experience.


I emphasize that we don’t have to grant the religious/theological validity of the claimed revelation; we simply have to recognize the genuineness of the claim to having such experiences and the efficacy of such experiences in generating religious innovations.

Following David Aune, Hurtado calls upon “charismatic exegesis,” which “likely involved experiences in which bursts of new insight about certain biblical (OT) texts suddenly emerged, probably in circles of early believers as they prayed and expected such revelations and pondered their scriptures.” Possible, perhaps. I have to wonder, though, why must we appeal to experience? Why must we “recognize the genuineness” of experience? (And can we really do this “simply”?) Are there no social or cultural explanations for why groups adapt over time, why they might reinterpret their traditions in the midst of social and cultural controversy? And, why not look to textuality and scribal practices to explain common motifs in visionary literature? In other words, why couldn’t it be exegesis in the midst of certain social and cultural circumstances and not “bursts” of mystical and mysterious “charismatic exegesis”? To what end experience?

Update (same day): I’d like to note that one of the reasons that I have asked these questions relates to the growing interest in this area of religious experience, as Hurtado notes in his post. Obviously, as my post should demonstrate, I disagree with the approach. However, they are real questions. I’d like to hear from those who do believe that emphasizing ecstatic experience is academically productive.

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Posted in Method and Theory in the Study of Religion, Religious Experience
  • Kevin McGinnis

    There are a lot of interesting things here, both in what you’ve written and in how you’ve chosen to write about it (I’ll leave comments on the latter for a pm or for a time over drinks in Baltimore).

    First, it’s always so troubling to me how much work we have to do to police the boundaries within our own field. I would prefer to just ignore Hurtado’s stuff on experience for the most obvious of reasons, but I know that I can’t. At least not entirely.

    Methodologically, though, I would propose that the problem is with the “charismatic” in “charismatic exegesis”. Charisma is a concept that unfortunately still holds too much power over earlier generations of scholars, and it’s one we need to move away from. Bourdieu’s criticisms of it and of speech act theory offer us a better way of thinking about how such insights come about and come to be received as ‘truth’.

    To answer your question (because you posed it as a question and not because you don’t already know the answer), we absolutely do NOT have to recognize the genuineness of experience. Or, put differently, it doesn’t matter if it really was because of a genuine experience. All experiences are human experiences. Bourdieu’s concepts of habitus and doxa should allow us to understand that such experiences, while being ‘real’ to the person experiencing them, are still the epiphenomena of particular material, cultural, and psychological processes. We can allow for the possibility that Paul experienced something on the road to Damascus, but we cannot then allow for the fact, at least not from the perspective I have and which I think you are advocating for as well, that the experience was caused by an encounter with Christ.

    • Pat McCullough

      Preach it, Kevin!

  • Mike K.

    Hey, good to see you back in blogging and I look forward to reading a blog more about method & theory in Religion. When I was doing a MA in Alberta, my advisor there was big into the myths and modern origins group at SBL with JZ Smith & Mack and I remember sitting in on a session critiquing the category of “experience” at SBL in New Orleans. I guess I wonder what you would recommend for the religious believer who is also a scholar of religion – is it legitimate for such scholars to privately believe in the genuiness of numinous experiences with the holy Other even if they admit that such claims cannot be empirically tested and should not be admitted as evidence in scholarship on Christian origins? Also, have you seen Luke Timothy Johnson’s “Religious Experience in Earliest Christianity”?

    • Pat McCullough

      Thanks, Mike! I look forward to your return to blogging :)

      There are a couple issues at stake. First, Hurtado says, “we simply have to recognize the genuineness . . .” We need to define the “we” here. Our discipline is diverse and complex. There are those within the discipline of what is often called “biblical studies” who read the texts from a confessionally-rooted theological perspective. Scholars here are often faculty members or students at theological seminaries, divinity schools, Christian colleges, or even pastoral staff at congregations. Far be it from me to deny the entire theological project, seeking meaning in the biblical texts in a way that assumes the texts testify to genuine experiences and miracles.

      But if one chooses to operate as a scholar in the realm of theological interpretation, in a way that must assume the genuineness of religious experience, then I believe that person no longer really operates as a historian. Furthermore, to suggest that religion must be defined by experience, as does LTJ’s book, or that religion has any singular “essence” ignores the major shifts in the academic study of religion (at play before LTJ’s book was written). So, when NT scholars advocate that “we” must explore the “religious” aspects of early Christianity, and what they mean is that we must underscore subjective ecstatic experience, and they suggest that “we” (all scholars of early Christian works?) must accept the genuineness of such experiences, these scholars are not operating within the bounds of historical research or even the academic study of religion. Rather, I believe they seek to dress historical research in theological clothing.

      Getting back to your question, I cannot deny the legitimacy of a person’s private belief. But I can contextualize the discourse of that person’s public declarations associated with that belief.