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.
In 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.