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"The Religious Experience in the West and the East: A Comparative Reflection" by Giovanni Filoramo

The concept of ‘religious experience’ has enjoyed varying degrees of prominence in religious studies, influenced partly by shifting interpretive trends and partly by the diverse ways in which these studies have engaged with, and been influenced by, different religious traditions.
MSA esperienza religiosa Filoramo
a detail of Light Circle (1922), Wassily Kandinsky (Russian, 1866 - 1944)

The concept of ‘religious experience’ has enjoyed varying degrees of prominence in religious studies, influenced partly by shifting interpretive trends and partly by the diverse ways in which these studies have engaged with, and been influenced by, different religious traditions. Although its meaning and history are inevitably tied to the changing fortunes and interpretations—beginning with the psychological understanding of experience—the interplay between this concept and the various ideological uses it has been subjected to within the realm of religious studies has been crucial in shaping its possible meanings.

Although the use of the Latin term experientia in Christian contexts is ancient, with a long tradition in monastic circles from Cassian to Bernard, and it holds significant importance in thinkers like Thomas Aquinas; and although, in the Protestant context, spurred by movements like Pietism, its usage dates back at least to the 17th century, it became a prevalent term towards the end of the 19th century, particularly in English-language religious studies. This adoption drew from a Protestant tradition that emphasized the centrality of conversion experiences typical of the "revivals." Having become a technical term, it has been employed by scholars essentially in three primary senses: 1) To refer to the subjective aspect of a specific religious tradition or of religion in general. This began with the Judeo-Christian tradition, signifying the fundamental experiences of notable figures like Moses, Abraham, Jesus, and Paul in their encounters with God. From these specific instances, the term was then extended in a comparative perspective to denote transformative encounters with the divine present in other religious traditions, including non-theistic ones. In this first sense, the expression often competed with (and was perilously confused with) analogous terms such as piety, devotion, spirituality, and especially mysticism. 2) This comparative extension facilitated a second use of the term, to indicate an essential and permanent element of religion, a sort of hard core or essence that could be found at the basis of the most diverse traditions. This usage, for example, underpins the concept of the so-called 'perennial philosophy.' 3) Finally, the term has been employed to define the very source of religious knowledge, as in Rudolf Otto's The Idea of the Holy.

These usages are accompanied by fundamental concerns of modernity and the secularizing processes that characterize it. In the first case, where the emphasis is on the individual's subjective experience, the connection with the rise of modern religious individualism is evident. In the second case, where the focus is on the problem of the universality of religion, the driving force has been the growing religious pluralism fostered by globalization. Finally, in the third case, where the cognitive dimension and the epistemological aspect prevail, this usage has been encouraged by the challenge to the truth claims of revealed religion posed by critical rationalism.

Turning now to the case that interests us here, the concept of experience has been used by some Western and Eastern scholars to build a bridge between the two worlds. To provide a significant example of the first case, I will limit myself to citing the comparative work on Western and Eastern religious experiences conducted in the first half of the 20th century by Friedrich Heiler (1892-1967), beginning with his fundamental work on prayer (Das Gebet. Eine religionsgeschichtliche und religionspsychologische Untersuchung, München, Reinhardt, 1918; Italian trans. Brescia, Morcelliana, 2016). The religious experience between East and West, as interpreted by the young Heiler in light of the fundamental rite of prayer, is interesting in several respects. Heiler identifies prayer as an experience, if not the fundamental religious experience. As a believer (having converted shortly after the Great War from Catholicism to Lutheranism) and theologian, he must contend with the revealed data and its claims of truth and absoluteness. Hence, the typical recourse to natural theology and a typification of the prayer experience based on the different conception of God in Christianity, Hinduism, and Buddhism (Heiler also wrote a significant work on Buddhist meditation). This also leads to a certain interpretation of mysticism, which cannot be explored in depth here, but is nonetheless revealing of the central role that mysticism and mystical experience have played in delineating an elusive concept like that of religious experience. Finally, thanks to firsthand knowledge of Eastern sources, Heiler's comparative study of Eastern (Hindu and Buddhist) and Western religious experiences builds a bridge between these two profoundly different, yet at the same time common, ways of experiencing the religious.

Indeed, the concept of religious experience played a significant role in the mediation of Hinduism and Zen Buddhism in the West throughout the 20th century. What has become increasingly clear from historiographical reflection, which has been favored in recent decades by the deconstructionist wave and has led to a better understanding of the origin and ideological use of certain key categories, such as "religious experience," in comparative analysis, is that the importance of this category does not have a substantial textual basis in ancient Eastern sources from Hinduism and Buddhism. Instead, it owes much to the mediating efforts of certain Eastern intellectuals, both Indian and Japanese, who were attuned to modernization processes and the influence of Western culture and religious studies. These intellectuals employed the concept to reinterpret their own religious traditions in light of Western engagement, against the backdrop of colonial processes and the issues they induced, such as burgeoning nationalism.

Regarding Hinduism, it is sufficient to recall the mediating work of one of its most celebrated intellectuals, Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan (1888–1975), who, following in the footsteps of predecessors associated with Hindu reform movements like Rammohun Roy (1772–1833), Debendranath Tagore (1817–1905), and Vivekananda (1863–1902), embraced the concept of religious experience as central to his understanding of religion in general and Hinduism in particular. His conception of religious experience is situated within a typical perennial philosophy, blending a neo-Hindu view of Vedanta with Western philosophical idealism. In a lecture on religious experience delivered in 1926 (later included in his most significant work for our discussion, The Hindu View of Life from 1927), he emphasizes Hinduism’s unique capacity, throughout its millennia-long history, to hold together heterogeneous religious elements and traditions, allowing them to coexist peacefully. Hinduism’s ability to discover and foster unity amid diversity is founded on its peculiar religious experience: in Hinduism, "intellect is subordinated to intuition, dogma to experience, and outer expression to inward realization. Religion is not the acceptance of academic abstractions or the celebration of ceremonies, but a kind of life or experience. It is insight into the nature of reality (darsana), or experience of reality (anubhava)." Religious experience is a total experience, "a type of experience which is not clearly differentiated into a subject-object state, an integral, undivided consciousness in which not merely this or that side of man’s nature but his whole being seems to find itself." This religious experience is equated with a form of intuitive knowledge. To explain how the Absolute can be directly experienced, he resorts to the unconscious: the immediacy of this experience does not mean the absence of psychological mediation but the absence of conscious mediation. Ideas that seem to come to us with compelling force, without a conscious intellectual process of mediation, are generally the result of education in a particular tradition in which we were formed during our youth. Something can be directly experienced, but it is unconsciously interpreted in terms of the tradition in which the individual was formed. Thus, religious experience is not pure experience but always a culturally mediated experience.

A similar mediating role was played in Japan, around the same period, by Daisetz Teitaro (D. T.) Suzuki (1870–1966). His interest in the theme of experience seems connected to the publication in 1911 of his friend Nishida Kitarō's (1870-1945) essay Zen no kenkyū (An Inquiry into the Good), a work influenced by William James, whom Kitarō had come to know through Suzuki. This work represents a rethinking of Japanese philosophy in light of the concept of 'pure experience,' a notion derived directly from the American philosopher's work. While James employed this concept to transcend the ontology of substance, which he believed continued to taint classical empiricism, proposing instead a pragmatic view of experience aimed at avoiding the reification of the subject or object, Kitarō, and later his friend Suzuki, adopted it to integrate his reinterpretation of Western philosophical tradition with his vision of Zen. In his interpretation, the notion of pure experience seems to function as an ontological foundation aimed at identifying subject and object based on a psychological state of radical self-awareness. Suzuki, starting from the 1920s, also adopted this concept, making it the core of his interpretation of satori. According to this reinterpretation, the doctrine of enlightenment is an inner experience where enlightenment is grasped immediately without conceptual mediation. Strengthened by this interpretation, he emphasizes the centrality of Zen in the Buddhist tradition and criticizes those who seek to grasp the spirit of Buddhism through the study of Buddhist doctrines rather than penetrating the inner essence of enlightenment as experienced by the Buddha himself. In this way, enlightenment becomes for Suzuki the main interpretative category. From this center, he then highlights, in a comparative key, the difference between Zen experience and the meditation practiced in India or analogous forms in the Christian tradition; if satori is "the fountainhead of Buddhist thought and life," it is also present in similar forms in Christianity, Islam, Taoism, and other religious traditions. Satori, in this way, becomes not only the heart of Zen experience but also of other religions: more than a religion, it is the quintessence of religious experience, transcending institutional forms and ritual concretion. Historically, it is connected with monasteries, forms of worship, and literary and artistic works; but these are superficial connections, pointing to an immediate inner experience of the Absolute, in which the dualism of subject and object is transcended. In conclusion, the Zen presented by Suzuki is not a historical reality, but a practice that has remained unchanged for centuries: far from being comprehensible through intellectual means, it can only be experienced.

As had happened shortly before with Catholic modernists, these two 'modernists' from India and Japan also resorted to the idea of religious experience to prioritize individual experience and thereby undermine the foundations of traditional religious authority. The rhetoric of religious experience they constructed, in fact, does not have true roots in their native religions but is rather the result of their encounter and confrontation with colonialist Western interpretations of religion. In this way, they not only assert the experiential foundation of their own religious traditions but also present them, through comparison, as more intuitive and mystical, and thus 'purer,' than the discursive and practical faiths of the West. This constructs a dichotomy that has persisted until recent years: while the capitalist West excels materially, the East excels spiritually. In this way, in the challenge between East and West, the value judgment given by Heiler is ultimately reversed, as he viewed Christianity (Lutheranism) as the pinnacle of religious evolution.

In conclusion, against the backdrop of colonial processes and the confrontation between Western and Eastern cultures, which saw the latter fall victim to orientalist prejudice from the perspective of the former, intellectuals like Radhakrishnan and Suzuki used their knowledge of Western philosophical and religious traditions in an apologetic manner. They crafted a rhetoric of religious experience that was as poorly founded on sources as it was effectively constructed to convince Western interlocutors. According to this rhetoric, the Eastern religious traditions to which they belonged were based on a purer, more intuitive, mystical, and original experience than that characteristic of the more discursive, dogmatic, and ritualistic religious traditions typical of the West. This policy of religious revitalization was intended to also promote an appreciation of religious experience in the West.

The idea of religious experience, whose formative moments we have attempted to reconstruct, has long lost its centrality in religious studies, under the barrage of multiple critiques of its ideological assumptions and methodological limitations. Today, it is the very impossibility of living 'authentic' experiences that renders the use of this idea problematic even in the field of religious phenomena studies. For instance, consider the increasingly widespread phenomenon of religion on the internet and digital spirituality. When an internet user immerses themselves in the fluid reality of their screen in search of some absolute, what kind of religious experience are they having? But this is another discussion, which I gladly leave to someone more expert than myself.

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focus on june 2024
focus on june 2024