An interesting question in theology and religious philosophy, at least for me, is why certain individuals and cultures opted for a particular religious framework. While this is certainly a complex issue, one can speculate at what might have been happening with seminal figures (i.e. Elijah, Moses, Jesus, Siddartha, Lao Tsé, etc.) in history who for some reason formulated their religious thinking as they did. One way to approach this question is, I think, from the standpoint of religious experience. Now, what I mean by religious experience is any experience that is interpreted as revealing something about the ultimate basis or structure of reality. I believe the issue of religious experience as a basis for forming religious sentiment has become particularly acute in this age of religious pluralism. Prominent Christian theologian Langdon Gilkey wrote:
If I were asked what are the biggest changes in theology since the first half of the twentieth century, since the great neo-orthodox days, I would mention, first, the concern for the issue of the pluralism of religions, and second, the deep, and very new, theological concern with nature.
Religious pluralism calls into question the truth and authority of a particular tradition. A survey of religious sentiment throughout history reveals both similarities and differences between religious traditions. If religion, in some way, taps into and characterizes ultimate reality this begs the question why there are differences? There are, of course, adherents who just claim that the others just got it wrong. To an objective observer, these claims will, in my view, be almost always circular.
Another thing that might bother this observer is the vast amount of detail in religious philosophy that is claimed to be authoritative. Typically this authority is granted to religious scriptures. It can come in at least two varieties. For many people, it is granted because the scripture is thought to have come directly from ultimate reality. In Christianity, this is biblical literalism and in Vedanta Hinduism, the Vedas are often thought to be sruti (“what is heard”). However, this view presents a problem for many educated individuals because of what we now know of neurobiology. This amount of detail would seem to require lots of diddling by God with synapse gaps, dendrites, etc. The more moderate and liberal branches of these traditions grant them normative authority and do not take scripture as “holy writ” but some still claim that many striking events are literally true (i.e. Virgin birth, bodily resurrection). But even in this case, religious pluralism raises its ugly head.
For Christian theologians, the problem of authority for religious sentiment was particularly acute in the 19th and 20th centuries. This was a time of higher criticism (historical-critical method) in biblical studies and it presented a very human view of the Bible. There were contradictions, inconsistencies, multiple authors of books, intermingled theological views, etc. So if biblical literalism could not be the source of authority what could? The solution that Friedrich Schleiermacher, Rudolf Otto, and others came to was religious experience. They claimed it was sui generis. While the irreducibility of religious experience has been contested by scholars, it still remains, in my opinion, probably the strongest contender as a valid source for religious sentiment. But even if religious experience is considered the only fundamentally sound basis for religious formulations, why are there differences in religious philosophy? I suggest that although the source of religious experience may be sui generis, the interpretations are not.
If this is true, it can create quite a quandary for the objective seeker who, for whatever reasons, seeks some religious grounding in their life. Perhaps the best we can do is seek some sort of explanation why even if religious experience comes from the same source, the interpretations may vary.
To do this it is first necessary to explore how religious experience might be the basis for a religious framework. This could, of course, be a vast undertaking (particularly if my definition is employed), but if only a few fundamental types of these experiences are examined some light might be shed on the issue. I would like to focus on reports of two types of religious experience, oneness and negativity.
One common type of religious experience is the experience of oneness. Reports abound on this type both from the mystics and everyday people as they experience life in many various ways (i.e. In nature, personal relatedness, prayer, meditation, love, etc.) Now, these experiences can be taken as an illumination of some aspect of ultimate reality, but they can also be interpreted differently. These interpretations are, in my view, informed by the complete milieu of life experience, psychology, cultural influences, cognitive and emotive factors, etc. Now while this experience is of oneness it is also the experience of an individual. How is this to be resolved? How it is resolved forms an ontology that can provide a profound basis for what follows in the religious formulations. For instance, in classic theism, this oneness does not point to an ontological unity but a unity across some divide. For Buddhism, the experience is taken to mean that individuation is an illusion (maya). For the Vishistadvaita school of Hinduism, the dichotomy of unity and individuality is taken to represent a qualified monism where there is no ontological divide but that God has “qualifications”. I call this an aspect monism. Whichever way this experience of oneness is interpreted it has extensive consequences for what follows. In the ontological-distinction interpretation, any divine action will be an intervention across this divide. In the individuation-illusion model detachment and the dissolution of illusion becomes paramount. In an aspect monism model relations between God and the world are not interventionist but self-relations (i.e. No god of the gaps). All these interpretations come from the same type of experience but their interpretation forms a fundamental basis for the religious philosophy that ensues.
Let’s take another common religious experience, negativity. This can come in many forms. For the mystics, reports indicate terrifying experiences like the dark night of the soul. For others, it may be the experience of evil both personal and in the world. If this experience points to ultimate reality how is it to be taken? It can be interpreted that this world is, in some way, a corruption of being or a tragic consequence of the transition from essential being to existential being as Tillich describes it. This interpretation leads to the need for salvation schemes. Witness the soteriology of Christology and in Eastern thought the drive toward enlightenment. The ultimate goal will be some type of escape from this reality to a perfect one, a cosmic healing, or enlightenment to eliminate suffering. If, however, this experience of negativity is not taken as an indication of corrupt being, the religious philosophy changes dramatically. In this view, the negativity is seen as a necessary consequence of life. The presence of evil does not indicate a corrupt ontology, but a necessary component of what it means to live. If life is fundamentally a wonderful thing then the potential for evil is an acceptable consequence. The goal here will not be escape but action to promote the good.
There are, of course, other religious experiences (i.e. The personal/impersonal nature of ultimate reality, etc.) which also have profound influences on a religious philosophy. Granted what I have examined are but two examples of religious experience, a minimalistic snapshot.
What I think is that from a few basic interpretations of religious experience an adequate metaphysical foundation can be extrapolated as needed without getting into excess. Unfortunately, many religious thinkers succumb to the temptation of excess. For the critical seeker, this can be rather disconcerting. The problem with excess is that it calls into question the credibility of what otherwise may be soundly based on fundamentals. If religious experience is the only reasonable resource for a religious framework and neural-diddling is rejected then when extrapolations go beyond those based on fundamental experiences this is, in my view, problematic. Ultimately it will be up to the person to decide which, if any, interpretations they accept.