Wednesday, May 19, 2010

What is the difference between Christian Faith and a “religious experience”?

NOTE: This is one in a series of posts from my moral theology assignments. They are intended to be brief responses. In many cases, the topics could be extensively explored, but that was not the intent of the assignment.

Christian faith involves an act of the intellect, as well as an act of the will. We must first discern, through our personal experience and our objective observations, as well as through the guidance of authoritative parties, that there is something in which to have faith, namely God and His promise to us. We next must invest ourselves in this knowledge—entrust ourselves to His care, to the Church which He established, and to the moral instruction it provides us. Our intellect perceives both material realities that evidence God’s existence, but also can deduce realities and be taught truths about God through the Church. In this intellectual knowledge, we gain the firm footing to will ourselves into commitment.[i]

The term “religious experience” is used frequently by Protestants to talk about an internal emotional or intuitive experience of God, often in Jesus Christ or the Holy Spirit. Such experiences often bring people to conversion. However, such experiences are limited in several ways. First, they are subjective. They cannot present an objective basis for faith but can stir the emotions in a way that might help people seek objective confirmation. In that sense, a religious experience can be a motivator, but as a subjective experience, it only motivates the one who receives it. Second, a religious experience is largely a material or sensible experience. We know it happens because we feel it. While again such experiences can be motivators for faith, they are fleeting and unsustainable. If we constantly chase the emotions, we lose track of the complete experience of faith as an acceptance of an objective reality rather than merely a subjective experience. Finally, a religious experience might feel good, but it is no guide for moral living and could even be a hindrance if it is not tempered by intellect and sound doctrine.[4] Christian faith also requires an objective, public witness.

i. Benedict Ashley, “The Theological Virtues: Faith,” Moral Theology: Biblical Foundations, (Catholic Educational Television, 2006).
ii. Benedict Ashley, “Moral Theology: Lecture 5B—Lesson Ten,” International Catholic University, 18 March 2010
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