What is the phenomenology of an experience of God?

Over at Prosblogion, Robert Gressis is trying  to answer a challenge of what a religious experience (one grounding a “properly basic” experience in Reformed epistemology) is like. Here is my answer.

There is more than one kind of experience, but the clearest examples of religious experience are the transcendent ones.  Transcendence is the unity of things on a higher level that are many on a lower level. The eyes can see but not hear, the ears can hear but not see. Considered on this level, we can speak of the five senses. But the brain has a unified experience of seeing and hearing- it sees and hears the same thing at the same time. The cognitive experience of the brain transcends that of many particular senses. Maturity also involves the formation of various transcendent concepts. I remember knowing, when I was young, that it was impossible and contradictory to love someone and discipline them. At best, I figured that you could love someone at time X, then turn off this feeling to discipline them at time Y. Assume my son now thinks the same thing. As far as he is concerned, any attempt to speak about discipline and love co-existing is simply a bunch of shifty dialectical tricks used to justify ones motives. The only reason I can see the unity of these two, and not dismiss any attempt to show their compatibility as a bunch of hollow language games, is because I have somehow seen a concept that can see all the truth that was in the lower concepts and a greater unity to them besides. In discovering that love includes discipline, I do not destroy my old idea of love (in fact, my later ideas of love were all based on it) rather, I attain to a concept that transcends my older ideas of love and discipline. Things that are seen as opposed on a lower level of development are seen as united on a higher one.

Here are some transcendent concepts from my own tradition which I see as experiences of the union with God.

1.) The awareness of ones life being simultaneously worthless and of infinite worth. Pascal struggled throughout the entire Pensées to give his reader a vision of this transcendent concept (and show how it corresponds to human nature). It is a basic teaching of Christianity and the Scriptures. You are the image of God, purchased with God’s own blood, and the crown of physical creation; and yet you are also sin, dust, vanity, and ashes.  Now as a philosopher I feel the knee-jerk reaction to make a distinction: we are worthless in respect X and worthwhile in sense Y. This is all fine, but it is not the experience of the unity of the two, and it is the experience of unity that we are speaking about here. Tied to this experience are the experiences of being both a terrible sinner and a saint (as every saint as called himself) of being unable to do anything and yet being able to do anything, etc.

2.) A sense of peace, calm, and joy existing at the same time as one sees nothing in himself of value. This is simply a scandal to the world. Who can rejoice when he sees nothing of value in himself, or even hates himself? Isn’t self-esteem essential to a healthy self-image and a sense of joy in one’s life?

But isn’t this going too far? Doesn’t the second commandment demand that we love ourselves? Well, yes. We must despise ourselves too. How is this possible? Taste and see, as the Psalm says. You have to bring Christianity into your  own substance (taste) before you get access to the experience that transcends what is divided at a lower level (see).

3.) The joy of the cross. This is the ultimate stumbling block- even sign of contradiction. What sense can we make of the kind of transcendent concept that allows both for one to experience the beatific vision and to cry out “God! God! Why have you abandoned me!” The whole Christian life is a participation in this ultimate transcendence. I certainly cannot form this ultimate concept, though through the religious experience I can see it as a limiting concept that mine are relating towards, though light-years distant from.

Notice that there is no question here of believing contradictions. Were I convinced that there were a contradiction in the faith, I could not believe it- not simply as a moral matter, but simply because belief is not the sort of thing that one can exercise towards contradictions. That we can say “I could believe a contradiction” only proves that we can say some things that we can’t  think or do- which everyone already knew. For this reason, arguments to establish that there is no contradiction in the faith have a real place. But to establish that there is no contradiction in SP is not the same thing as establishing how SP is possible, still less is it to have an experience of the possibility of SP.

Last of all, the experience of faith is a transcendent concept. We assent with certitude to a proposition that is, of itself, at best only possible. What reason shows us as- again, at best- only possible is seen as one with what is reasonable to assent to. But this is blind assent! Irrational activity! A crime against the necessity of evidence! How can we arbitrate between truth claims! Well, I suppose all this is true, unless you can see that it isn’t.


  1. AT said,

    February 24, 2010 at 1:52 pm

    Assuming a transcendent experience of God is equivalent to contemplation here is something Maritain says:

    “Those souls whose style of life is active will have the grace of contemplation, but of a masked and unapparent contemplation; perhaps they will be capable only of reciting rosaries, and mental prayer will bring them only a headache or sleep. Mysterious contemplation will not be in their conscious prayer, but perhaps in the glance with which they will look at a poor man, or look at suffering.”

    I don’t claim to have had any religious contemplative experiences but many is the time I’ve fallen asleep at early morning Eucharistic Adoration.

    Your post puts me in mind of Chesterton’s paradoxes. What is paradox to us is analogy to GKC except he saw the analogy and we didn’t (until he showed it to us).

  2. Sigbjørn Sønnesyn said,

    February 24, 2010 at 2:18 pm

    This was a beautiful, inspirational post, which explains in simple language ideas I have been longing and struggling to express. Thank you.

  3. John said,

    February 25, 2010 at 11:24 am

    Some of these experiences seem to be a direct realisation that our experience is our own mind. The experience of “oneness” with the perceptual space of our minds seems to be in this category.

    The experiences that involve faith that the content of our experience overlaps the content of something wider are more interesting. Being one with compassion or Christ is harder to understand because the understanding does not seem to be entirely our own. These experiences are also rarer.

  4. John said,

    February 25, 2010 at 11:26 am

    PS: have you seen William James’ Varieties of Religious Experience?.

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