Origins and Ideas

by Robert Brow

Religious Experience

THE GERMAN PHILOSOPHER Schleiermacher (1768-1834) made it respectable to include religious experience as an object of philosophical study. He had been brought up among the Herrnhuter Brethren, whose deep pietistic devotion and missionary spirit influenced so many Christian minds in the eighteenth century. In university circles Moravian Brethren, Lutheran Pietists and English Methodists had been despised for their emphasis on a personal experience of Jesus Christ. Now suddenly the direction of attack was changed. Schleiermacher thought he was saving Christianity from the attacks of reason. He learnedly described the feelings of dependence and union with ultimate reality, which men experience from time to time, and he argued that these experiences had more authority than reason. Unfortunately the philosophers seized upon his too broad definition of religious experience and used it to point out that this vague experience belongs to all religions and even to many who have no religion. Christianity need no longer be attacked for being different: it was now sufficient to say that it was commonplace, one of the many forms of emotion which man enjoys and from which he suffers.

The problem faces us in its acutest form in India. When Western missionaries first arrived in India, Hindus tried to deny the truth of Christianity and to defend traditional Hinduism. Now they accept Christianity as a valid type of religion, but they strongly object to its claim for uniqueness. The argument has been expressed in its classic form by Dr Radhakrishnan, Oxford University professor, President of India, and the leading exponent of Vedanta Monism. In his hands Schleiermacher's defence of religious experience has become the most dangerous weapon against Christianity. His argument may be stated simply in four propositions.

The first is that religious experience is both real and universal. The Muslim prostrated in his mosque, the Hindu rapt in meditation by the banks of the Ganges, the Christian mystic, the Quaker in the silence of his meeting, the Buddhist monk at prayer, all these and many others have religious experience. In the words of Schleiermacher they all have a feeling of dependence, a taste for and a sensation of union with the infinite. No-one denies that the Christian convert has a genuine experience, but Hindus, Buddhists and other sects have had similar experiences in India for thousands of years before and after Christ.

Radhakrishnan's second proposition is that all religions are based on the religious experience of their founder. Buddhism began when Buddha found enlightenment under the pipal tree after many years of seeking. Islam originated when Muhammad responded to Allah and began receiving his revelations. The Gospels describe Jesus' religious experience at his baptism, and this was immediately followed by his temptation and three years of preaching. The same can be said of Lao-Tse of China, Guru Nanak the founder of the Sikhs, and most of the founders of Christian denominations like Martin Luther, George Fox and John Wesley.

The third point is that we must make a distinction between the religious experience of these great men, which is obviously valid, and the interpretations which they and their disciples have added. The point is that religions are basically one in their experience, but contradictions appear when their theology is written. Religious experience is so deep and indefinable that even two people belonging to the same culture and age will express it differently. Naturally therefore we must expect variations in the explanations of theologians scattered across continents and the long stream of history.

Radhakrishnan then goes on to say that every true religious experience is a sense of unity with the Absolute. All saints, sages, prophets and mystics have spoken of their feeling of being taken out of themselves into oneness with God. Jesus himself speaks of this experience when he says that he is one with the Father.[1] The simplest and most universal statement of this experience is found in Vedanta Hinduism, where the oneness of man and God is asserted, and the way to this unity is provided through the Yoga discipline.

Obviously if Dr Radhakrishnan is right in his analysis of religious experience, there is nothing unique about Christianity, and in fact the only honest thing to do would be to become Hindu Vedantists. There are already many Christians and theological teachers who have conceded the arguments of Schleiermacher and Radhakrishnan, and in their opinion missionary work should concentrate on discovering and sharing the religious experiences of different religious groups. Before accepting this amorphous syncretism we should however be prepared to subject the argument to a deeper scrutiny.

As we begin to talk about religious experience, the first thing to ask is, 'Religious experience of what?' if, for example, someone made a statement about the reality and universality of love, we would have to ask love of what, or what kind of love? There is a mother's love and lustful love, good Samaritan love and love of poetry, cinema love and the love of God. Each of these six types of love is quite different, and scientific method would require different names before we even began to talk about them. Even within married love we would need to distinguish several types, such as lustful love, duty love, admiration love, companionship love, possessive love, and the Christian love described in Ephesians 5:21-33. After labelling and carefully defining each kind of love, it would then be proper to discuss their value for different purposes. Similarly a blanket statement about religious experience is valueless and usually mischievously misleading. Unfortunately the basic scientific work of observing, cataloguing and comparing the different types of religious experience has hardly begun.

Among genuine religious experiences we might begin with some of the following. There is the cathedral experience which visitors sense as they enter the silence of an ancient and beautiful building. The self-righteous experience was depicted by Jesus Christ in the Pharisee who stood in the temple and thanked God that he was not a sinner 'as other men are'. The Vedic scholars of India, the Jewish and Christian schoolmen, students of prophecy, and the denizens of our seminaries, all have a common intellectual experience as they contemplate the intricacies of their theological systems. The animistic experience has been well described by missionaries and anthropologists who have come to intimate grips with witch-doctor religion. The monk in a silent order can hardly have the same experience as the dervish who dances and cuts himself till the blood gushes, though both experiences are undeniably religious by Schleiermacher's and Radhakrishnan's definition. The 'belonging' experience of a small 'in' group of enthusiasts is found in Christian and Communist religious circles, while the mass-singing emotion has helped forward the armies of both Christ and Hitler.

Even if we take one particular area of religious experience we will find that subdivision is necessary. Within mysticism, for example, we must distinguish at least three completely different varieties. Nature mysticism has a feeling of oneness with the life of the universe. We have seen the characteristics of Vedanta mysticism, where there is a loss of identity in a sense of oneness with the Absolute. A third variety is genuine Christian mysticism which is always an 'I and Thou' conversation where the Christian remains very much a person and has personal contact with a supremely personal God. Evidently, therefore, it is dangerous logic to begin a discussion of religions with a statement about the reality and universality of religious experience. Religious experiences are of at least a dozen different and contradictory kinds.

We must also take issue with Dr Radhakrishnan's statement that religions are based on the religious experience of their founder. This is pre-eminently true in the case of Buddha. Muhammad, on the other hand, claimed to be in a long line of Jewish prophets, and he certainly intended his followers to continue in the biblical revelation. We have argued in the first section that the original religion of man was the one Creator-Father-God approached on the basis of animal sacrifice. The New Testament writers make it clear that Jesus Christ did not come to found a new religion. He spoke of the same God, he upheld the same law, and his disciples had the same experience as Abraham, David, Isaiah and Jeremiah. The newness was that the Son of God was now visible in human flesh, and he died as the antitype and fulfilment of all animal sacrifices.

Dr Radhakrishnan's third point was that we must make a distinction between the genuine religious experience of a religious leader and the theological explanation which he and his disciples will formulate. This is obviously true in some cases, but we cannot use it to assert that the religious experience of a Christian and a Hindu Vedantist are the same though their theology may differ. If the basic experiences are quite different, the more exact the work of the theologians the more the differences will appear. For nineteen centuries Christian theologians of many churches have agreed on an astonishingly large area of theological truth expressed in the Apostles' and Nicene creeds. Every new generation of Christian converts has grown to see the truth of these statements, and there is a constant return to the Bible as God's revelation. Any careful student of the Trinitarian experience expressed in the Bible and the Christian creeds will see that it grows from a completely different root than the experience of a Buddhist, or a Confucianist, or a Muslim or a Vedantist. The cause of honesty or of charity is never served by labelling different things by the same name.

Dr Radhakrishnan's fourth point seeks to imply that the only genuine type of religious experience is the monistic experience described in Hindu Vedanta. If man is truly religious he will lose his personality in a sense of oneness with the World Soul. Obviously if God is merely a World Soul, or the life principle of the universe, then a sense of merging with this principle is all man can aspire to. If, on the other hand, God is supremely personal, and wants man to be supremely personal and to know and love him, then the monistic experience is personality suicide. Those who know the God of Abraham, and David, and Isaiah, and Paul, and John, can deny neither their own significance as persons, nor the distinctive personality of the God whom they serve.

Whether therefore we approach the question from the point of view of the nature of the universe (metaphysics), or the nature of God (theology), or the nature and end of man (ethics), or, as in this case, religious experience, philosophy forces us back to the same basic choice. Either man has ultimate significance as a person or he is essentially not a person. Man can be a person in the real sense only if there is a personal God to give, and perfect, and continue his true personality. True religious experience is therefore a vital experience with a personal God.

Chapter 14...


1. John 17:11, 21-23.

Chapter 14...