With normal experience, we will be more certain of something if many people can all verify and agree on what it is. So if we can all see a blue table and describe it as such, we are able to confirm the truth of our experience. In rel exps we cannot do this so it follows that we should be less certain of the truth of what has been purportedly experienced. Combined with this ‘private’ element to rel exp is their variety, such that the report of one rel exp often conflicts with the report of another – this is called the conflicting claims challenge, and Hume said that it leads to a complete triumph for the sceptic, as all rel exps cannot be true, as they affirm different and mutually exclusive versions of truth. (eg. The experience of sunyata, or impersonal emptiness of the Buddhist appears to conflict with the personal theistic experience of St. Paul of the Risen Christ, not just in the form it takes, but in the radically different theology that it affirms).
In Varieties of Religious Experience, William James aims to show that the awareness of the divine is primary to all religious belief and as such that there is a commonality to all rel exp – he boils this down to 4 qualities, and in doing so counters the conflicting claims challenge by showing that apparent differences in rel exps are actually reconcilable on the basis that they all contain certain universal elements. He claims they confer insight (noetic quality) which is fundamentally beyond language (ineffability), and involve a relinquishing of the normal ego-control of the personality for a short time (passive and transient).
If this is the case then there would be a ‘common core’ to all rel exps which transcends the culture and religion of each, a pure, unmediated experience which like colourless, flavourless water takes on the taste and hue of the tradition of the person who has it, and is expressed in the terms of that tradition. This idea is often called the Perennial Philosophy, and has been proposed as a natural result of deep study of different traditions and the similarities between them. Many philosophers like James have attempted to classify theistic and non-theistic experiences and thereby show them to be aspects of one reality, as Karl Jaspers says: “despite all the contradictions and mutually exclusive claims to truth, there is in all philosophy a One, which no man possesses”
The problem for those who claim this is that there do appear to be real differences between different experiences. As Vardy puts it, if you and I both claim to have had the “same experience really” when I’ve had a twinge in my elbow and you’ve had a pain in you’re head, then we might be stretching the definition of the words “the same experience”. Surely James’ 4 qualities are too broad to have any real application to rel exps? It all seems to come down to whether you want to emphasise the differences or the similarities.
Nonetheless, the attempts to show a ‘common core’ get at something important about rel exps, in that they reveal the conflict between the belief that there is a primary experience we have which we then interpret and put into words, and the belief that a significant part of ‘reality’ is actually constructed by the language and culture that we are in, and that all experiencing is really ‘experiencing-as’ (John Hick), ie interpretation is not secondary to experience but is there in the very way we perceive things. As we will see, both views can provide important support to defenders of rel exp.
For example, Steven Katz argues that as all experience is culturally mediated, ie there is no ‘pure’ experience, rel exp is the same. So the experience itself as well as the form in which it is reported is shaped by concepts which the mystic brings to it, and which shape his experience. So as I am trained to see through the cultural lens in which I live I will (if I’m Catholic) have a vision of Mary rather than Kali (which I would have if I was Hindu). But there is no underlying reality outside of the religious context in which I have the exp. Nicholas Lash, in Easter in Ordinary, says something similar – we learn to see the world in a religious way, indeed this is one of Swinburne’s types of ‘public’ rel exps.
This would seem to pose a problem for defenders of a common core approach, and it certainly reveals one of the weaknesses of this stance – we know from psychology that perception and experience are not passive processes – the brain constructs a picture from a very small amount of data given to it by the eye – so it’s surely likely that rel exps are also like this, at least partially constructed by our own brain, perceptual processes, history, culture and so on? James’s stance appears to be the one of the naive realist.
Katz and others have taken rel exps out of the special category in which people like James sought to put them and shown them as embedded within cultures and belief-systems. But to what extent are rel exps like other experiences? And to what degree does the context govern the experience? Taking this theory to its extreme would bring us very close to the conclusion that the context creates the Object itself, and that there is in fact no objectively real Object. The anti-realist view.
Something very similar to this is proposed by Don Cupitt. A post-modernist, thinker and founder of the ‘Sea of Faith’ movement, Cupitt believes that mystics ‘create’ rel exp by writing about them in profound acts of rebellion against orthodoxy. He points out that many mystics have been highly literary figures – poets like John of the Cross or the Sufi Rumi, and writers like Theresa of Avila or Augustine, or Meister Eckhart. Such writing creates the mystical experience for the mystic, and is the primary experience. On this view there is no pure, culture-neutral rel exp such as James tried to find – language forms events, it goes “all the way down” as Cupitt puts it.
So it appears that, by showing that there is a cultural context to all experience, philosophers like Katz and Cupitt destroy the claim that a common core to rel exp can point to its truthfulness. But they have not shown that the cultural context completely defines the experience, and indeed if it did, it would be hard to see what exactly is being experienced. If language creates experience completely, then our experience is simply a self-referential process that needs no reference to any external reality. Even Wittgenstein, when he said “whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must remain silent” surely meant that the set of things that one could speak of had a reality of their own outside of language.
So it seems likely that culture and language plays some (perhaps large) partial role in rel exp but this leaves open the possibility of a core beyond the cultural interpretation that is unmediated. This would explain the very real similarities between the different experiences, whilst giving an explanation for the differences.
Finally, John Hick has explored how all experience is really interpretation – this has implications for rel exp in that if there are really no experiences that are not experience-as something, then why should my claim to have had a rel exp not be believed to be true? I believe your claim that you’ve had an experience of a blue table- but I know it is a construct of your brain, culture and so on, so you believe my claim to have had an experience of union with God even though it is a construct of my brain, culture and so on.