Theory, Experience And “The American Religion” -- By: Stephen Cox
JETS 36:3 (September 1993) p. 363
Theory, Experience And “The American Religion”
Today, as everyone knows, it is theory that counts in the American university, especially in the humanities departments. Post-structuralist, deconstructionist, neo-Marxist and new historicist theories have reshaped the study of literature, history, art and law. In these circumstances it is possible that the academic study of religion will be similarly reshaped.
The area of religious studies that may feel the strongest influence from currently fashionable theories is the study of religious experience—as distinguished, for example, from the study of theology or Church history. All currently fashionable academic theories harbor a deep skepticism about the mind’s capacity for arriving at objective truth, whether that be the truth of history, the truth of God, or any other truth. The domain that is most amenable to current theory is the domain of assumption, opinion, subjectivity, the domain of belief with no necessary connection to truth—in a word, the domain of experience.
Yet this may also be the domain in which current theory most clearly exposes its limitations. The study of religious experience presents the difficult problem of determining what can be identified as true about experience when experience is regarded from the perspective of theories deeply inscribed with skepticism about all truth-claims. Such skepticism naturally raises the question of anyone’s ability to know and report even the truth of his own experience.
If in fact there is a dominant theme in the academy’s current romance with theory it is the assumption that what people think they believe, have faith in, quarrel about, even die for, is not what they actually experience. It is the assumption that the experience that individuals think they have is merely a mask by which deeper and wider forces—political, ideological, psychological, “textual”—simultaneously hide and express themselves. This is the ironic or paradoxical worldview that inspires the hundreds of radically new interpretations of seemingly commonplace (but hitherto “misread”) experience that issue annually from the academic press.
But when skeptical theory is invoked in the study of religious experience, the effect is paradoxical or ironic in another way. When theory’s concern with religious “experience” excludes a concern with the truth-claims embedded in this “experience,” the result is a denaturing of experience itself—not
* Stephen Cox is professor of literature at the University of California—San Diego, 9500 Gilman Drive, La Jolla, CA 92093–0306.
JETS 36:3 (September 1993) p. 364
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