Religious Experiences Are Common. Which Ones Should We Trust?

Religious Experiences Are Common. Which Ones Should We Trust? INTERVIEW BY TRAVIS DICKINSON| for Christianity Today

Reports of divine encounters aren’t always legitimate, but they shouldn’t be lightly dismissed.

Many religious people report vivid or otherwise memorable religious experiences, which they regard as compelling reasons to believe. But why assume God is actually at the other end of the experience? Harold A. Netland, a professor of philosophy of religion and intercultural studies at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, explores this question in his new book Religious Experience and the Knowledge of God: The Evidential Force of Divine Encounters. Travis Dickinson, professor of philosophy at Dallas Baptist University, spoke with Netland about religious experience and how divine encounters may justify our Christian beliefs.

You are a unique scholar because of your work in both philosophy and intercultural and religious studies. You also have a unique background. How do these things motivate and inform the book?

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I grew up in Japan, where my parents were missionaries. So I had that cross-cultural experience early on. I eventually ended up doing doctoral studies at Claremont Graduate University with a scholar named John Hick, who by that time had completely rejected historic orthodox Christianity for pluralism. For Hick, justification of our religious convictions is based upon our experiences.

Then I spent 10 years as a missionary in Japan and became increasingly interested in Buddhism and its experiential component. And finally, as I spoke with fellow Christians, I came to see the significant role that personal experience plays in their commitments. There are important philosophical issues involved in basing our commitments on religious experiences, although not many evangelicals have been addressing these issues.

What makes an experience a religious experience?

My first two chapters try to unpack that question, because the concept of a religious experience is ambiguous. As I define it, a religious experience is an experience that someone takes to be religious or to have religious significance. But this of course pushes the question back, because we have to ask, “What is religion?”

The concepts of both religion and religious experience are modern concepts. People were religious prior to the modern era, but these concepts were shaped during the transformations of the past several centuries. In any case, we can understand a religious experience as an experience which is taken to be of powers, beings, spirits, or forces that transcend the space-time world. Or an experience that provokes someone to interpret things religiously or discern some form of spiritual significance. Some experiences are clearly religious, while others are more ambiguous. For example, at the birth of one’s first child, even very secular people can suddenly sound very spiritual. This can be understood as a religious experience.

Since religious experiences involve interpretation, many people caution against using them to confirm and support our religious beliefs. What do you say in response?

It’s clear to me that interpretation figures into our religious experiences, but there are degrees of interpretation. It’s important to understand that even with ordinary nonreligious experience, we interpret things in light of a wide array of prior beliefs, assumptions, values, and experiences. Determining whether a given experience is trustworthy will depend in part on the background beliefs one brings to it.

In the case of a more ambiguous experience, there is a weaker sense of rationality, such that one can reasonably believe it to be a genuine experience of God even though someone else, with different background beliefs, might reasonably conclude otherwise. So we cannot really address the authenticity of a particular experience without also examining the background beliefs that shape one’s judgment.

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