A Response to The Study of Religious Experience conference held at Lampeter on 4th July 2014.
I have recently retired to the Lampeter area and was pleased that this 'relaunch' for the Alister Hardy Centre was to take place just after we moved here. My background is in counselling and ordained ministry and in 2008 I completed doctoral research into the relationship between the spirituality of the Person-centred approach to counselling and Christian spirituality, and the implications for Christian ministry and pastoral practice. I had quoted from David Hay's work in defining spirituality and religious experience, and I was delighted to discover that the Alister Hardy Centre is now based in Lampeter.
The first presentation, by Fiona Bowie on 'How to study religious experience? Methodological reflections on the study of the afterlife and other examples of religious experience', made me realise how oppressed I feel as a British citizen in espousing spiritual and religious experience in the climate of polite scepticism and dismissal that characterises so much of our public discourse. This recognition came in response to Dr Bowie's fearless declaration of her evidence based conviction of the realities underlying so many of the experiences to which she referred.
As the day progressed I perceived there to be an interesting 'fault line' between the academically credible study of such experience, akin to anthropology - 'this is what the natives believe' - but without any claim to affirm the ontological reality of the experiences, on the one hand, and those such as Fiona Bowie, who took the further step of crediting the source of the experiences beyond a simple subjectivism. (She made more than one reference to the difficulty of receiving academic respectability for such views, particularly at early stages of promotion, and suggested that perhaps academic staff only felt 'safe' to hold such views when they had secured a tenured post!).
It seems to me that there is a real challenge here for this area of study. The nature of spiritual and religious experience when experienced at any kind of depth is that it is transformative, life-changing and life-shaping. There could be said to be a danger for the researcher, if he or she maintains the required scientific distance and objectivity, of recording others' accounts of powerful spiritual experience while maintaining a detached and therefore uncommitted attitude towards that to which their accounts refer: an 'out there' reality with the power to change lives for the good.
In saying this I do not mean to suggest that every experience be given equal credibility, or that scientific objectivity is unnecessary or undesirable in such research. But if one engages in some depth with the experience of others with 'a form of cognitive, empathetic engagement (which) implies openness to the other, critical awareness of one's own perspective, and reluctance to move too quickly to explanation' (from Dr Bowie's abstract for her talk), then one may indeed find oneself sufficiently respectful as to accord their experience, when viewed alongside one's own, as suggestive of, at least a shared reality, or even a level of experiential truth, and with 'anthropological wonder' (ibid).
Dr Schmidt's presentation on spirit possession and trance in Brazil was tantalising in just this regard. Her account of being present to such experience, accompanied by visual illustrations, inspired more than one of her audience to try to ask what she had made of it personally and not purely objectively - and indeed whether she had been touched by it in the sense of beginning to experience something subjectively at the time - but she wouldn't be drawn, maintaining an impressively scientific stance towards her subject matter.
Dr Jansen's presentation in relation to Chinese culture was also tantalising in leaving me, at least, wanting to hear much more of substance about his extensive experience of contemporary Chinese culture, behaviour and attitudes in relation to historical perspectives.
Dr Pope's session led into the later one by Dr Williams, in that both were concerned with the place of experience in Christian tradition. His presentation helped explain the almost distrust of personal spiritual and religious experience in relation to the 'surer ground' of systematic theology and scriptural authority. Dr Williams took our focus to Early Christian beliefs in relation to personal religious experience, and in particular St Paul's own accounts of his experience, especially in 2 Corinthians 12, his 'third heaven experience'. It is tempting to interpret Paul's third-party self references: 'I know a man ..' as proceeding from both humility and a diffidence about claiming such experience, a diffidence that could be said to continue today.
In the question time following her presentation I asked about the dividing line between scripture and later Christian experience. I have long been intrigued by the question of why the NT ends where it does in Acts. In an obvious sense Acts is 'The Acts of the Apostles', and when they died out their acts were over, but I believe there is some merit in considering whether there might not have been continuing acts by their successors which could have been deemed worthy of record? In this sense my question was simply about the closure of the Canon.
But in the context of the conference theme, I think it might be argued that by enshrining only the foundational documents and accounts in the Canon, and making no equivalent space for continuing revelation and testimony, the early Church made inevitable the separation of doctrine from ongoing experience, and the longer the time lapse the greater the potential discrepancy between teaching and experience. In this way one might argue that the attempt to affirm the value of researching religious experience is in conflict with the legacy and modality of tradition.
In conclusion I should like to make one further observation. It seems to me that a great deal of the study of religious experience is formulated in terms of individual experience. The particular focus of my research has been into the spirituality of therapeutic experience, that is when two or more persons are engaging at relational depth. I would be interested to develop this perspective further in the context of the Alister Hardy Centre's explorations.
(Rev Dr) Jeff Leonardi