Though there are dizzying amounts of sociological data from sources such as Pew, I find it’s significant that as of this writing 13% of all adults are former Catholics, while only 2% of adults are converts to Catholicism (Masci & Smith, 7 Facts about American Catholics, FactTank, 10/10/18). Thus, many Catholics may have been exposed to the creed, but don’t stay with sacraments, the moral life, or prayer as Catholics.
Karol Wojtyla, later St. John Paul II, in his book, The Acting Person, (1969) examined the human need to constantly “unravel human mysteries and find more mature expressions of his nature.” His emphasis on the lived experience of the individual person infused all his work and that emphasis is, I believe, part of why all he did spoke to so many millions.
Every good teacher knows the value of touching and drawing on the experiences of listeners because the character of that experience influences how believers act. Wojtyla/John Paul II wrote early on that as we humans search for meaning what shifts for better or worse are changes in consciousness based on both our human and religious experiences.
Several paragraphs in the Catechism (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1985, #302-327) speaking of human experience in the world have a bearing here. The Catechism names two types of experiences: awareness of God’s providence, or scandal in the world. However, each of the sacraments presumes a lived experience and increased awareness that led to the celebration of that sacrament. The experiences and consciousness that contribute to living a moral life, or not, may be even more complex. Even prayer presumes a shift in consciousness and some sort of lived experience that plays a part in moving the person toward or away from the next step in a person’s interior religious development.
Note please, that while I believe that God’s Spirit touches all persons, how each person understands and expresses those encounters with God is “linguistically mediated.” Or, in simple terms we express that contact with God in the religious terminology, words and culture, that surrounds us. As Shushan (2016, in B. E. Schmidt, The study of religious experience: approaches and methodologies, p. 73) “…religious experience cannot be independent of its cultural-linguistic context, and indeed that experience per se is entirely culturally and/or linguistically constructed.”
Accordingly, I’m limiting this work to Catholics because I am a Catholic deacon and a student of Catholic creed, sacraments, moral life, and prayer. I confess that I have only a passing familiarity with on other faith’s language, beliefs, moral codes, and practices.
As we go along I’ll introduce a few of the other authors both Catholic authors who have written of religious experience. However, William James, deserves a special introduction. In 1904-1905 James gave a series of lectures at the University of Edinburgh. In what became his Varieties of Religious Experience he stood apart from his fellow mostly a-religious early psychologists and maintained that religious experience was a suitable domain for psychology to study. He also outlined how to approach the subject and offers many useful categories that I’ll introduce as we go along. After him have come very many other psychologists, sociologists, and cultural anthropologists who have studied religious experience. I’ll also share some of their insights as we go along.
Deacon Ray Biersbach, PhD.