These are transcripts of lessons on “Reality of Revelation and Religious Experience” delivered by Shaykh Haider Hobbollah once a week in 2021.
Lesson 9 – June 8th, 2021
We are trying to offer a very brief explanation of the concept of religious experience, without going to go into extensive details.
Phase 3: Nature and Foundations of Religious Experience
What is the reality and nature of religious experience? What is it made up of? There are many different opinions amongst philosophers of religion and scholars of theology – both Muslim and Christians – but we will mention two opinions and only allude to a third one.
The first interpretation says religious experience is a feeling. Friedrich Schleiermacher in two of his works The Christian Faith in Outline and On Religion argues religious experience qua experience is nothing but a sincere and pure feeling which has nothing to do with experimental knowledge or a mental existence of a concept, or a proposition and knowledge. Rather, religious experience is a special feeling where one feels connected to a limitless absolute.
The question is, if religion’s core is religious experience, religious experience is a feeling, and a feeling has no epistemic value, then what is the point of religion? Schleiermacher responds by saying none of those religious beliefs are the crux of religion rather they are subsequent to religious experiences. What we define as religious identity, beliefs, ideas, concepts, are all secondary and marginal when it comes to what constitutes religion. These secondary matters are essentially an interpretation of one’s religious experience and manifest its self in societies and communities. As such, according to Schleiermacher, one cannot critique religious beliefs and concepts as they are not a product of experimentation or argumentation, rather it’s a product of religious experience.
Since Schleiermacher’s discussion, we have seen a change in definition in all important terms such as, religion, Prophets, revelation, experience in the Western world. This specific definition of religious experience impacts the importance of Bible as far as it makes it a secondary aspect of Christianity. The Bible or other religious works are not religion itself, rather they are merely relaying in words one’s religious experience and their role is primarily motivational, not one of knowledge or truth.
An example that is often given is a soccer team and fans in the stadium. The players on the ground are the ones experiencing the game, but the fans in the stadium with all their chants and cheers are the ones giving motivation to the players. The fans do not offer any truth, they do not have any epistemic value, and nor can they advise on how to tackle the game.
It seems Schleiermacher was influenced by the atmosphere of Germany which was dealing with debates over Protestanism and Enlightenment, and when the concept of Pietistic Lutheranism as well as Romanticism were emerging.
The second interpretation is one offered by Wayne Proudfoot (b. 1939), rejecting the interpretation of William Payne Alston (1921-2009) who said religious experience is similar to an empirical experience. Proudfoot says if religious experience was an empirical experience, then you would have to assume your own existence and the existence of another entity that actually exists besides you, whereas that would mean religious experience is only connected to an external existing entity which is not the case.
For Proudfoot the second assumption is false, given it negates religious experiences that are not connected to external entities. The religious aspect of experience – according to Proudfoot – is not linked to what it is connected with, rather the one who is experiencing, the subject. Experience as an interpretive account from the perspective of the subject, and requires a religious explanation. If they explain their experience in the framework of material entities, then that is not a religious experience, but if they interpret it as something outside of the physical realm, then that constitutes a religious experience. In other words, what makes something a religious experience or not is the subject’s own interpretation and whether it was connected to the physical realm or metaphysical realm.
According to both interpretations, a Prophet’s revelation can be considered a religious experience because as for the first interpretation, then Schleiermacher would argue revelation is one of the purest and sincerest experiences a human can feel, and as per the second interpretation, Proudfoot would argue revelation is an experience whose subject interprets it as a religious experience and it cannot be explained by the subject in any other way.
Phase 4: Types and Kinds of Religious Experience
This is the second last phase of our introduction to religious experience, before beginning our discussion on how religious experience explains revelation. In this fourth phase, we will discuss the various types kinds of religious experiences people may experience. There are two prominent camps with respect to explaining the kinds of religious experiences.
The first camp believes religious experiences are all based upon one kind of substance. The nature and essence of all religious experiences are the same, whether it is experienced by a layperson or a Prophet or a mystic, their nature is the same. What differentiates these experiences are accidental attributes, and those are the interpretations of these experiences. Whether interpretation is part of one’s religious experience or not is highly debated by specialists.
The second camp believes religious experiences are essentially different from one another. Some say there are three types of religious experiences, some have said six, some more, and some less. One of the popular divisions was offered by Caroline Franks Davis in her The Evidential Force of Religious Experience and they are Interpretative Experiences, Quasi – Sensory Experiences, Revelatory Experiences, Regenerative Experiences, Numinous Experiences and Mystical Experiences. In the next lesson we will expand on these six types, and the lesson after we will go over the popular opinions regarding revelation in light of what we have explained regarding the phenomenon of religious experience.
Sayyid Ali studied in the seminary of Qom from 2012 to 2021, while also concurrently obtaining a M.A in Islamic Studies from the Islamic College of London in 2018. In the seminary he engaged in the study of legal theory, jurisprudence and philosophy, eventually attending the advanced kharij of Usul and Fiqh in 2018. He is currently completing his Masters of Education at the University of Toronto and is the head of a private faith-based school in Toronto, as well as an instructor at the Mizan Institute and Mufid Seminary.