William James is a name you will hear a lot in this unit on religious experience. In his seminal text, ‘The Varieties of Religious Experience’ he says ” . . . in a world in which no religious feeling had ever existed, I doubt whether any philosophic theology could ever have been framed.”In other words, without religious experience, there is no religion, and no religion would mean no religious theology and no religious studies.
Do we have evidence to support this idea that without religious experience there would be no religion? Well, let’s look at some of the major religions of the world.
Having struggled with the question of why there is unhappiness and suffering, Siddhartha Gautama sat under a tree to meditate. During his meditation, he experienced many evil thoughts that sought to destroy his concentration. As his meditation continued he began to realise the true nature of reality and existence. This enlightenment experience saw Siddhartha become the Buddha. His teachings, which are the result of his experience, are the foundational teachings of Buddhism.
Moses was tending his sheep when he met an angel of God who appeared as flames in a bush. Without this experience, we would not have one of the key patriarchs of Judaism.
Saul was intent on arresting and murdering Christians when he met the risen Jesus in a vision on the road to Damascus. Paul, as he now called himself, spent the rest of his days spreading the gospel message of Jesus around the known world. We would not have a worldwide Christian religion without him.
Muhammad was a market trader frustrated by the injustice he saw around him. His encounter with the Angel Jibril, bringing him a message from God, gave us the Qur’an. Without this experience, there would be no Islam.
Nanak Das was presumed drowned when he disappeared into a river for 3 days. He had been in the presence of God in this time and without his return from this experience, there would be no Sikhism.
And so it seems very clear that at the very centre of the history of religion lies religious experience.
But it is not just the history and foundation of religions that are asked by an emphasis on experience.
For many religious believers, theological and philosophical study is not what their religion is about. They are unlikely to believe because they have been persuaded by strength of argument. What is far more likely is that their belief is experiential at its base. They believe because of their experiences and in this unit we will be studying both he may and various forms of religious experience but also the strength of the claim that religious experience shows us that God exists.