Eva Kelley, a Ph.D student in UCSB’s Department of Religious Studies and friend of ours, graciously agreed to write a response to both the chapter we discussed this week, “Experience” by Robert Sharf, and to the podcast itself. We at TSR thank her for her thoughtful work here! Her post follows below. References in her post refer to the actual page numbers of Critical Terms for Religious Studies rather than the PDF version which Lucas and I used for the podcast.

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Robert Sharf argues that experience ought not be a critical term for religious studies because experience, as something private and ineffable, will always remain inaccessible to the scholar. His objection then is not just to the term experience but to the pursuit of the thing it supposedly denotes. Sharf’s issue is not simply with scholarly terminology—that in some languages and cultures there may be no conceptual equivalent to the English word experience which we could somehow refine by discovering terms native to various traditions and languages. Rather, he makes a stronger claim: other people’s interiority is just not something we can ever get at publicly, so it should not be the object of scholarly inquiry. Proper objects of religious studies inquiry are texts, sacred rites, and oral traditions—i.e., all publically accessible displays of human culture.

Some accuse religious studies scholarship of being reductionistic when it fails to consider experience or the inner dimension of religious practice, that it elides the living, breathing, dynamic, personally affecting dimension of religion. To such critics, Sharf answers that considerations of such an inner dimension usually end up as one more form of ideological appropriation, because the category of experience, as it is wielded by scholars, is “a mere placeholder that entails a substantive if indeterminate terminus for the relentless deferral of meaning.”[1] Experience can mean whatever the scholar wants it to mean, precisely because the term has no observable content—we have no standard or data against which to measure one person’s consciousness and interiority against another’s, so we load the term experience with whatever meanings we need it to bear for us. Thus Sharf’s critique of method is closely tied to his position on philosophy of mind.

Interpretation is no doubt a central part of our work in the humanities, but it is hard not to agree with Sharf that “scholars of religion are not presented with experiences that stand in need of interpretation but rather with texts, narratives, performances, and so forth,” which is why “it is ill conceived to construe the object of the study of religion to be the inner experience of religious practitioners.”[2] My job is to interpret, for example, the texts of the medieval Kabbalists, Julian of Norwich, and Bonaventure, which contain visionary accounts, not to try to interpret their experiences of such divine visions because I have no access to the latter (the experience), only to the former (the text about the experience). It is fruitful for me to examine the neoplatonic and Talmudic influences on the Zohar, or the blending of Franciscan and Dionysian themes in Bonaventure’s Itinerarium. It is pointless for me to ask, using the tools of RS scholarship, “What did the Kabbalists or Bonaventure in fact experience during an out of body union with God, the creator of the universe?” Attempts to answer that kind of question take us all too quickly into the domain of theology.

This is where Sharf’s implicit scientific materialism strikes me as odd and out of place. Sharf rebukes Felicitas Goodman for her agnosticism about the reality of extraordinary experiences such as spirit possession or divine visions, calling her agnosticism “a small step away from John Mack’s qualified acceptance of the existence of alien abductors.”[3] First of all, agnosticism in no way approximates qualified acceptance; agnosticism properly refrains from making a judgment, so it is precisely not acceptance. Goodman is simply arguing that “whether these changes [in the bodies of those who report spirit possession] are internally generated or created by external agencies is not something discoverable,” which sounds much like the position for which Sharf himself is arguing.[4] The object of religion scholarship is not inner experience, but rather the stories, myths, and practices about such experiences. To be faithful to his own prescription, Sharf would be obligated to remain agnostic about the veracity of alien abduction accounts, or at least would be obligated to refrain from the attempt (which would be futile, according to his own assertions about philosophy of mind) to establish or disprove their veracity through scholarship.

Joel and Lucas pick up on this tension, though there seems to be bit of confusion about which of the many camps within the religious studies discipline are allies on these issues. Joel and Lucas note that the interesting question for RS scholars is not “did this person really experience alien abduction, or touch the wounds of a bleeding Christ, or become demon-possessed” but rather “how do these discourses of experience function in their social context? What power do they wield? What institutions and values are being critiqued or reshaped by these discourses?”

Joel reads Sharf’s critical approach as one amenable to cognitive science assessments of religion and as at odds with critical theory, but on my reading, it is the reverse. Sharf’s position is much more amenable to analyzing religion according to power dynamics, values, and institutions than to cognitive science. Sharf’s own explanation of the rise of the term experience in Japanese and Chinese contexts as a response to western imperialism is a great example of exactly this kind of work. He looks not at whether Theravāda and Zen masters have in fact achieved enlightenment, but rather at the terms for enlightenment (satori or kenshō), the techniques used to achieve it (samatha versus vipassamā), and the authorities attempting to define authentic forms of it vis-à-vis Christian missionary activity. Whereas Sharf says the religion scholar ought simply to investigate and catalogue religious artifacts and leave well alone the inevitably ineffable domain of religious experience, cognitive science takes inner experience as its primary object of investigation. It seems to me that it has to presume from the get-go that inner experience is accessible to us, is quantifiable, and can be mapped according to neurological activity and blood flow to certain brain tissues. This is precisely the kind of work Sharf is most roundly rejecting, relying as it does not on literary and artistic representations but on the “numinous inner realm” to which those representations supposedly refer back.[5]


[1] Robert H. Sharf, “Experience,” in Critical Terms for Religious Studies, ed. Mark C. Taylor (Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 1998), 113.

[2] Ibid., 111.

[3] Ibid., 112.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid., 113.