Tuesday, October 19, 2010

William James on Religious Experiences as Authoritative

Jerusalem, in the Church of the Nativity
In my MCCC Philosophy of Religion class I am teaching a section on "religious experience" and philosophical responses to such experience. My text is Philosophy of Religion: Selected Readings (Peterson, Hasker, Reichenbach, and Basinger). I'll teach the following essays:
  • :Religious Experiences, St Teresa of Jesus (Avila)
  • Religious Experience as the Root of Religion, William James (from The Varieties of Religious Experience)
  • Religious Experience as Perception of God, William P. Alston
  • Critique of Religious Experience, Michael Martin
  • Buddhist Religious Experience, William James & Merold Westphal
I lecture on these, invite dialogue, and prepare students for their oral exams where they will asked to explain each of these, one-on-one and face-to-face, with me.

The William James oral exam questions will be:

  • State and explain James' four characteristics of mystical experience.
  • What is the authority of religious experience according to James? Explain.
Here's the answer to the second question.

Are mystical experiences (MEs) “authoritative? Briefly, James's answer is this.

1. Mystical states, when well developed, usually are, and have the right to be, absolutely authoritative over the individuals to whom they come.

2. No authority emanates from them which should make it a duty for those who stand outside of them to accept their revelations uncritically.

3. They break down the authority of the non-mystical or rationalistic consciousness, based upon understanding of the senses alone. They show it to be only one kind of consciousness. They open out the possibility of other orders of truth, in which, so far as anything in us vitally responds to them, we may freely continue to have faith.

I agree with 1. That is, BTW, how it works with me.

I agree with 2, if this means “logically” so. There are MEs of other people that function as authoritative for me. E.g., my wife Linda. She is, for me, a credible witness. As have been a number of other people.

I agree with 3. Rationalistic consciousness (empiricism) does not explain all of experience and reality. E.g., consider the statement “The only things we can believe in are things we can see, smell, taste, touch, or hear.” Since that statement itself (viz., the truth of that statement) cannot be seen, smelled, tasted, touched, or heard, it is self-contradictory. That statement itself, called by A.J. Ayer the "verification principle," cannot itself be empirically verified. So it cannot be true.

Persons have experiences that have a noetic quality yet transcend logical or scientific description. If they try to express the quality and content of their experience they resort to the arts - poetry, painting, music, theatre. So, e.g., I saw Thornton Wilder's "Our Town" performed last spring, and was confronted with issues of life, life after death, and life's meaning in ways logic and science cannot convey.