Can we talk about religious experience?

Can we talk about religious experience?

In today’s Wall Street Journal, Wesleyan President Michael Roth comments that, when he teaches his students the history of ideas, they draw a blank when he asks them to understand – to sympathetically imagine—another’s religious experience.  In this intellectual history class, we talk about sexuality and identity, violence and revolution, art and obscenity, and the students are generally eager to weigh in. But when the topic of religious feeling and experience comes up, they would obviously just prefer that I move on to another subject.”

Yet, that is the topic of Twelve Adult Studies,  the religious experience of others: the experience of the Gospel writers; the experience of those suffering evil today and in biblical times; the experience of our own study members. 

The words we study point not only to past religious experience, but as important, they suggest how we can experience life, now.  Framing our lives through these accounts of Jesus, through news stories and ancient stories about the crushing and confounding experience of evil, we come to that place Jesus calls, “abundant life.”  This is religious experience!  

William James addressed the “this world” impact of our beliefs, when he wrote:  “. . .we belong in the most intimate sense wherever our ideals belong. Yet, the unseen region in question is not merely ideal, for it produces effects in this world.  When we commune with it, work is actually done upon our finite personality, for we are turned into new men. . .so I feel as if we had no philosophic excuse for calling  the unseen or mystical world unreal.”   

Religious experience?  Perhaps what makes these young people uncomfortable is that they have no transcendent ideals and sacred stories that bathe their lives in a transformative light,  making religious experience real.