The Evidential Value of Religious Experience
An Interview with Harold Netland
What is religious experience? Does religious experience provide evidence that God exists? How should we think about claims of religious experience from believers in non-Christian religions? In his new book Religious Experience and the Knowledge of God: The Evidential Force of Divine Encounters, Harold Netland, professor of philosophy of religion and intercultural studies at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, proposes answers to these and related questions, and considers their implications for apologetics, missiology, and Christian theology. Bulletin contributor Dr. Naomi Reese interviewed Dr. Netland about the book’s key themes and proposals.
In your book, how do you define the term “religious experience”?
This is an ambiguous term, in part because of lack of clarity in the concept of religion. The concepts of religion and religious experience, as we use them today, are largely modern concepts which were shaped by the developments of the past four centuries, including increased awareness of the diverse religious traditions around the world. In chapter one I propose an understanding of religion which draws upon scholars such as Ninian Smart and John Hick.
In a general sense, a religious experience is any experience that the subject or someone else regards as having religious significance. These can be further divided into hard religious experiences and soft religious experiences. Hard religious experiences are experiences that have clear religious overtones and that are difficult to explain in strictly naturalistic terms. Thomas’ encounter with the risen Jesus, in which he is told to place his hand into Jesus’ side (Jn 20:27), is a hard religious experience.
Soft religious experiences are more ambiguous; they can plausibly be interpreted by someone as religious but also can plausibly be regarded by someone else as non-religious. Suppose that Jim is anxious because he needs to make a difficult decision about his future. He reads Scripture, fasts, and prays for God’s guidance. He then is overwhelmed by a deep sense of peace and he becomes convinced that God is directing him to take a particular path. Given appropriate background beliefs, it makes sense for Jim to understand his experience as God communicating with him, even though it would also make sense for a strict naturalist, with very different background beliefs, to interpret the experience differently.
Religious experiences come in many different forms, and one chapter is devoted to mystical experience and recent debates over mysticism. But when considering the evidential force of religious experiences, the most significant experiences are those which are perceptual in structure.
What significant developments have taken place in philosophical approaches to religious experience in the past few decades?
Theologically, an increased emphasis on personal experience can be traced back to the Puritans and Pietists, and the Great Awakenings in North America and the Wesleyan revivals in Great Britain. The liberal nineteenth-century theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher influenced modern theology to ground doctrine in experience, and the link between experience and theology has been important in liberal theology ever since.
Religious experience did not receive serious attention from Anglo-American analytic philosophers until the mid-twentieth century. John Hick’s Faith and Knowledge (1957, 1966) was a very influential attempt to ground the justification of religious commitments in religious experience. Religious experience plays a significant role in Richard Swinburne’s The Existence of God (1979, 2004). But perhaps the most influential treatment of religious experience in the past fifty years is William Alston’s Perceiving God (1991). Although it is not usually placed in the religious experience category, Alvin Plantinga’s proposal about the properly basic nature of belief in God is also grounded in experiences of a particular kind.
How would you respond to skeptics who say that an individual’s religious experience has no objective evidential value? Does the fact that millions of people claim to have experienced God provide evidence for theistic belief?
If we were never mistaken in our judgments about experience, then skepticism about experience would not be so attractive. But we often are mistaken, even in judgments we make about ordinary sense experience. So the skeptical challenge must be taken seriously. In terms of the general challenge of skepticism, I adopt the critical trust approach, which maintains that what seems to be an experience of x can be accepted as an experience of x unless there are compelling reasons not to do so. This is the approach we normally adopt in everyday experience, as well as in courts of law, scientific investigation, history, and even in doing biblical exegesis. The question then is whether the same approach can be applied to religious experiences. I argue that the arguments given for rejecting use of the critical trust approach with religious experiences are unpersuasive and that we can adopt this stance toward what appear to be experiences of God. What seem to be experiences of God can be accepted as such, unless there are good reasons to believe otherwise. Factors that might call a particular experience into question can come from general principles (if an experience occurs under conditions that we know produce unreliable experiences, then we have reason to question this experience) or from criteria specific to the Christian tradition (if an alleged experience of God is somehow incompatible with what Scripture clearly teaches, we have grounds for concluding it is not of God).
In chapter eight I pick up an ancient argument, the consensus gentium argument, for the existence of God based upon what seems to be widespread belief in God’s reality. It fell into disrepute in the early modern era, as Europeans became aware of the great diversity in religious beliefs around the world. More recently, it has been defended in modified form by a number of prominent analytic philosophers. I adapt this argument to experiences of God, and argue that the fact that large numbers of people throughout history and across cultures claim to have had experiences of God (almighty Creator) provides some modest support for God’s existence. This is best seen not as a standalone argument but rather as a significant fact that requires some explanation, and thus it can be an important part of an inference to the best explanation argument for theism. There are, of course, a number of potential defeaters that need to be addressed in this context.
What role do you think religious experience should play in the formation of a Christian’s theological beliefs?
On the one hand, particular experiences by themselves should not provide the primary material from which theological conclusions are drawn. Theology should be based upon what God has revealed in the Incarnation and the Scriptures. It is the revealed Word of God, and not personal experience, that is foundational for theology. But doing theology involves bringing the authoritative Scriptures into conversation with current issues and realities, and this should include reflecting theologically upon the fact that many people—Christians and others, in many cultures and religious traditions—have religious experiences. Theologically, how do we account for this? Finally, if we think more specifically about personal experience of God within the Christian tradition, then it seems to me that development in theological understanding should include a deepening awareness of God’s reality and presence, a growing intimacy with God. And this is another way of speaking about experiencing God.
You have a chapter in your book on Jonathan Edwards and John Wesley. What were their contributions to understanding religious experience?
Edwards and Wesley lived at a time when many people claimed to have had dramatic experiences of God. This was the time of the Great Awakening in the American colonies and the revivals throughout Great Britain. In addition to the more sober experiences one might expect, there were also many extravagant and bizarre experiences, including claims to receiving new revelations from God. Both Edwards and Wesley addressed the question, How are we to distinguish between what is a genuine experience of God and what is not? In answering this question they also gave significant attention to the “testimony” of the Holy Spirit in bringing about conviction of the truth of the gospel. Both used the language of a special spiritual “sense” for discerning the truth of Christian convictions. Their discussions are rich, and they raise some important theological and philosophical issues.
In a chapter on mysticism, you talk about the need for conducting research on ordinary people’s religious experiences. Why is this kind of research important?
There is a tendency to focus on the dramatic experiences of the great mystics or saints as somehow providing the paradigm for what religious experiences are like. But many ordinary people have experiences which, although less dramatic and perhaps more ambiguous, can also be regarded as religious. These should be taken seriously, alongside the more extraordinary cases.
Christians routinely speak of God’s presence in their lives, God “speaking” to them or guiding them, God convicting them of something sinful, God’s special peace in the midst of trials, etc., and all of this involves experience. Many others report having dreams, visions, or encountering appearances of what is taken to be Jesus. We need careful phenomenological descriptions of such experiences as well as philosophically and theologically appropriate analyses, so that we can understand better what is occurring and the significance of this.
Since people from all religious backgrounds have religious experiences, does a Christian’s religious experience lose its evidential or persuasive power?
This is a complex issue. At what point does awareness of the diversity of religious experiences provide negative evidence against one’s own position or require some rethinking of one’s commitments? There has been some very helpful recent work on the epistemological implications of religious disagreement, and it is clear that the question is more complicated than often assumed.
We need to distinguish the issues as they pertain to the subject herself from the questions that are relevant for an observer who is trying to make sense of both the ubiquity of religious experiences and the differences among such experiences. Awareness of disagreement and diversity of experiences need not mean that the subject cannot be entitled to conclude that her experience is veridical. Much depends here upon her background beliefs and the nature of the experience itself. But the individual who perhaps has not himself had a religious experience but is trying to make sense of the phenomena of religious experiences will have a somewhat different set of questions. Are there good reasons to believe that, for example, theistic experiences are more likely to be veridical than the “pure consciousness event” experiences often identified with versions of Hindu or Buddhist mysticism? Here too, any overall assessment of the evidential force of religious experiences will depend upon broader questions about the reality of God and God’s interaction with people and the kind of universe we live in.
Can we attribute non-Christians’ religious experiences to the Holy Spirit? How might we understand the religious experiences of unbelievers in light of missions and evangelism?
This depends upon how we understand the presence and activity of God throughout the world. It seems to me that we should avoid two extremes. The first is the insistence that the Holy Spirit is only present and active and within the church and among those who are regenerate (genuine believers). While the focus of the Holy Spirit’s work in the NT is upon the Spirit’s relation to the ministry of Jesus and the empowering of believers, it is also clear that the Spirit is present and active more broadly as well. The Spirit is involved in convicting people of sin and drawing people to God. In the OT God is presented as revealing himself in unusual ways to some people outside the covenant community. So we need to be careful about restricting what God does. Do people in other religious traditions, as well as secular people with no particular religious affiliation, have experiences of God? There are certainly many reports of such experiences and I see no reason for concluding that none of these are genuine experiences of God.
But while we must be careful about restricting God’s activity among humankind, we should also be careful about speculating beyond what Scripture affirms. God is undoubtedly active in the lives of people around the world, including adherents of other religions, but we should be cautious about drawing conclusions about the nature and extent of such activity. Even among Christians, not every experience is what it might seem. There can be many causal factors involved in religious experiences, some strictly natural and others perhaps involving demonic forces. So there need to be criteria for identifying genuine experiences of God, and these often include consistency with the teachings of Scripture and the manifestation of Christ-likeness (fruit of the Spirit) in the lives of those having the experiences.
— Naomi Reese (PhD) is a Lecturer in Christian Doctrine for Trinity International University’s Online Program. She has contributed to the Lexham Survey of Theology (Lexham Press, 2018) and the Dictionary of Christianity and Science (Zondervan, 2017), and has authored articles for academic journals.
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