Religious Experience Reconsidered

There is an interview with Ann Taves, professor of religious studies at the University of California, Santa. Her latest book is Religious Experience Reconsidered: A Building-Block Approach to the Study of Religion and Other Special Things.

Her first book was a great analysis of religious experiences from the eighteenth to the early twentieth century Fits, Trances, and Visions: experiencing religion and explaining experience from Wesley to James. “From the mid-18th to the early 20th century, believers and skeptics clashed over the question of whether God was supernaturally present in these experiences, or whether they were merely natural expressions of physical disease or psychological disorder. William James, who argued that charismatic spirituality was both natural and religious.” She showed how American charismatics waiting for grace to move their souls moved to a more external revivalism. She also showed that religious experience became identified with the psychological unconscious, which was opposed by those who believed we only have Locke’s conscious mind.

This was great because it helped explain in detail the unfolding of Eastern European Hasidut and Mitnagdut as the nineteenth and twentieth century progressed. Besht, Maggid of Mezerich, Kotzk, and Rav Kook could all be placed in a sequence in the domestication of the supernatural. The eastern European topics of devekut, a sense of providence, God as immanent in the mind each found a similar chapter in Taves. She was also very good for dealing with topics like the angelic visitors –maggid of the Vilna Gaon and the rejection of much of the Gaon’s thought by Neo-Orthodoxy and Modern Orthodoxy, the latter basically following Locke. The Jewish tradition had the supernatural ever present in the 18th and 19th centuries.

In her new book, she writes from the current perspective in which mysticism and religious experience are outdated terms. She wanted to reframe the discussion to special experiences that we frame as religious. In this book she is now theologian-theoretician. We do not have the traditional supernatural sense of God anymore, so what do we label as religious? She works on the psychological and the social together.

In the last 20 years or so that approach came in for sharp criticism. Many scholars wanted to get away from it because it seemed to suggest an experiential essence of religion and turned instead to analyzing discourses about experience. But I don’t think we can afford to throw experience out, because embodied experience is where culture and biology meet.

First of all, rather than “religious experience,” we can talk about “experiences deemed religious.”

Next, I locate experience under the broader heading of consciousness studies, ranging from highly reflective, self-aware meta-consciousness to unconscious processes. Once we can put experience in that kind of framework, it is possible to look at the interpretive processes, or what I call attributional processes, to understand how certain kinds of experiences in certain kinds of contexts come to be understood as religious.

In my “building-block” method, I distinguish between single experiences and the way that those experiences get caught up in more complex formations. I was challenged by Robert Sharf’s writes about a Buddhist ceremony in which an abbot turns into the Buddha. I compare it with the Eucharist in Christianity; in both of those rituals, there is an experiential dimension. But the wafer turning into Christ or the abbot turning into the Buddha, according to each tradition, happens regardless of whether a given person who is present at the ritual has an unusual sensory experience. The social dimension, therefore, cannot be ignored; the event’s significance can’t be understood by focusing only on individuals.

It is interesting to me, for example, that researchers are finding parts of the brain that they can stimulate to cause people to have out-of-body experiences. While probably everybody who has an out-of-body experience is going to think it is unusual and interesting—if not scary—they will probably interpret it differently if they know that they’re sitting in a laboratory having neurological tests done than if they have that experience in the context of a religious worship service.

I’ve agonized a lot about the second-order terms that scholars should use, and I finally came upon the idea of “specialness.” Specialness has to do with ascriptions of value. In other words, it signifies how important something is to people. In some cases these things have a kind of Durkheimian sense of sacredness; they are considered so valuable that they’re set apart and protected by taboos. Specialness is a term that allows us to investigate where people position things along a continuum of value rather than simply assuming that people consider things in terms of binary oppositions such as “sacred” and “profane,” or “religious” and “secular.”

The idea of specialness will capture most of the things that people on the ground would describe with terms like “religious,” “sacred,” and sometimes even “secular” as well.
There are, inevitably, some practices that scholars would think of as religious that are so much an everyday part of practitioners’ lives that they don’t think of them as special. But if we look carefully at how people behave in relation to those things, we might be surprised. For instance, the practice of crossing oneself with holy water when entering a Catholic church may be so habitual for longtime Catholics that it feels totally ordinary. But if the practice were challenged or questioned in some way, they would probably have a sense that, in fact, this is a thing that sets them apart from other kinds of Christians. It is thus a special sign, so to speak, of participation within that tradition.

OK, so what is labeled as special in Judaism? Where are the things or rituals that seem to have a specialness even if they seem mundane? For some negel wasser in the morning may be more special than saying blessings and prayer, for others learning Gemara in the beit midrash has that quality- but they do not get the specialness outside of the beit midrash. What are the habitual rituals of special importance? Which are the rituals that are “special” and used to demarcate the “tradition”? And to return to her first book, which of these are rejections of the traditional supernaturalism and which are transformations? I would suspect that some of the most halakhic have the least continuity with the traditional moments of religious experience. Does experience show up more now as magic and fetish? Do all the various groups of modern orthodoxy have the same or different senses of special moments?

7 responses to “Religious Experience Reconsidered

  1. What makes this more than a banal phenomenologization along a very slightly different axis? I am not seeing the specialness.

    • Read the first book first, she is filled with a keen eye for how people relate to phenomena. She is not a phenomenologist but a historian with a good eye. She is good on topic like how the religious can treat psychology, Freud, pop-psych as religious experience and giving the historical narrative of why they choose to do that.

      • I see that, but at what point do the categories– “special” in this case, just become too thin?

  2. I know a frum MD therapist who tells me he still gets people with magidim and other phenomena. In our culture there is no criteria for treating them as special but many less exotic things are treated as special. The MD wants to write an article at some point with me on these phenomena – Taves offers the cultural observations.

  3. In a religion where so many aspects of everyday life carry some halakhic valence the question is why certain things become ‘special’.

    Does study in the bet midrash become more special when it is an elitist enterprise? does it lose that when it is more open to the masses and everyone is learning something yomit.

    Does tzniut become special, at least in rhetoric, because it is special for women, or because there is a unique frisson of an embodied religious duty that also makes one conscious of an almost panoptic sexual gaze?

    Is there a connection between the loss moments of religious experience and increased fundamentalism? Regular ritual and belief is no longer special enough to produce a feeling of spiritual engagement so there is a turn to more chumrot and extreme levels of observance that must constantly be shifted to redeem ritual from habit?

    I am also concerned that the category that she attempts to introduce is overly thin and broad, and not very useful. We want to know what symbolic/performative/rhetorical/etc aspects make things “special” not merely that they are.

  4. For those who think it is too thin-
    Here is chapter one of the book
    http://press.princeton.edu/chapters/i9060.pdf
    She defines herself on pages 9-14.
    I wait to comment further on specifics until I take the book out of the library after winter break.

  5. How about Mikveh, for either men or women.

    It’s rooted in Halakha. Has a “magical” or transformative aspect. But if you go there every day or every week, it becomes just a place to hang out.

    As for a special practive, Metzitzah B’Peh become more special when it was challenged, if only for medical reasons.

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