The delusion of experience

Trying to enter a discussion/debate with someone using reason vs experience, I realised the power that experience has to fix ones mind on a religious doctrine regardless of the reason for that religious doctrine. Because someone experiences “the divine” it immediately seems to fix for him the truth of the particular belief system that he already holds or to which the experience is associated. This connection, I believe, is used expressly by Mormons in the process of making new converts.

From experience hearing/reading a number of experiential stories from people of many different faith backgrounds and my own personal experiences, I can see that, regardless of belief, people dedicated to spiritual matters have almost the same experience of the divine, at least to a certain, yet very deep, extent. Thus, I have heard testimonies from Japanese Buddhists that profess very similar experiences as Evangelical Christian testimonies. Also the experiences of Buddhist monks are very close to experiences of Orthodox Christian monks.

How can we explain this? Given that the experience is genuinely perceived, many may say that this proves that no matter which path one takes one will meet the divine and so religious doctrine, which speaks of a right way to God, must be ultimately false, although participation in any religious group is often seen as nevertheless more beneficial than rejecting particular religious affiliation altogether. Others may state that religious doctrine that teaches of a divine being transcendent to the universe is therefore obviously not true and that these experiences are normal to humans that act in a manner as to be able to experience them. Those committed to a particular religious path may see such experiences as being perhaps of the devil, a delusion, or even of God, but that the experience is not in itself conclusive of being on the correct path. There may also be many other nuances of explanation or combinations of explanations.

What is clear is that experience in itself is unable to define the truth of a particular religious path to salvation without that path also being tested by other means of determining truth, such as reason. This does not mean that experience of the divine is not an essential part of one’s life nor that there is no particular path to salvation but only that the experience in itself cannot be said to be enough of a reason to guarantee the truth of the particular religious path that one follows. So, to say that one has decided to believe in Jesus and that due to this decision one’s life has changed for the better, an experience which may very well be true, does not mean that one is necessarily saved or even on the right religious path; this will depend on one’s doctrine, the truth of which requires reason as well as experience.

This is a perspective on what the Lord meant when he said that it is necessary to us to revere God in spirit and truth. Thus, the orthodoxy of our reverence is as important as any experience of our reverence, even if the experience seems to be beneficial and like that expressed in the Scriptures or seen in the Saints. It would seem that one cannot rest on experience with the first doctrine that seems to explain it but one must ensure that one is revering God in truth even if this means to some extent questioning the validity of one’s experience.

26 Responses to The delusion of experience

  1. Kevin says:

    “From my understanding, the evidence for monism can support Orthodox theology, especially if one works with St Dionysius the Areopagite and St Maximus the confessor. Evidence of union of all in one provides a strong support for deification; same evidence slight change of interpretation. If one keeps the proper distinctions between creator and creation and essence and energies then monist evidence can be very useful in showing how the universe can be united as one in Christ and how He taking on a single human body is also able to bring the whole created material and immaterial universe into Himself.”

    Thank you! This thread has been helpful and thought provoking. I especially benefitted from the thoughts expressed above.

  2. Kevin,

    Yes, I think we are on the same page and I agree that most of the early Patristic arguments would not convince a modern unbeliever. However, I think that Orthodox theology has a depth and wealth that can present some powerful arguments to non-believers and raise some real challenges to certain assumptions. It can connect with and challenge non-Christian religious thinking and it can bring a valid critique to any worldview. I also think that there are many timeless and cross religious issues that the modern world continues to address today and for which the traditional Orthodox Christian answer is still the best, while other issues need some creative tailoring of Orthodox truth to fit the modern audience.

    From my understanding, the evidence for monism can support Orthodox theology, especially if one works with St Dionysius the Areopagite and St Maximus the confessor. Evidence of union of all in one provides a strong support for deification; same evidence slight change of interpretation. If one keeps the proper distinctions between creator and creation and essence and energies then monist evidence can be very useful in showing how the universe can be united as one in Christ and how He taking on a single human body is also able to bring the whole created material and immaterial universe into Himself.

    Thanks for the comments. I appreciate your thoughts and the difficulties that there is in engaging across world-views where the shared base of thought is very limited but, as I said, I do believe that Orthodox truth is universal and it is valid in all fields, areas etc and with God’s help it is able to reach all people. The best reasons why people become Orthodox may vary widely and be largely through acts of love, friendship, or intuition but there is also the availability for those inclined to need reason to engage with Orthodoxy meaningfully at this level.

    Also, as Orthodox I think that we also need to continue applying reason to examining ourselves at various levels, personal, parish, diocese, region and Patriarchate in that we introduce thoughts, teachings, practices that are contrary to Apostolic Tradition and fall under the condemnation of the Pharisees for putting human customs above the commandments of God or, God forbid, become cut off from the Church after failing to repent of these things, such as happened to the western churches. Just pointing to recent saints does not necessarily mean all is well.

  3. Kevin says:

    Agreed. We are really not on different pages. I won’t continue to beat the dead horse! I guess I am struggling with arguments as you say of reason that would convince a Mormon, an atheist or a New Ager of traditional Christian doctrine. Even St Basil writes” “The church has proof concerning these things; it has faith more sure than proof.” (On The Human Conditon Para. 3). Then after speaking of proofs for the creation of humans, St Basil goes on to make what I believe is an a priori and classic theistic philosophical argument – hardly “proof” a modern would buy – The Craftsman argument: since all things have a Maker, then humans must have a Maker and since Scripture (he writes) tells us “Let us make the human being according to our own image and likeness…”, THAT is offered as proof there is a Craftsman, God. Seems like a circular argument to me: There must be a Maker (must there be – do we know that for certain?), Scripture says there is a Maker, so we assert there is a Maker.

    I think our Tradition has sound arguments for those who already know Christ — but we do not have powerful arguments for non-believers, or believers of other traditions. For example, St John Chrysostom essentially calls idiots those who believe in the transmigration of souls rather than – so far as I have seen – a coherent anti – reincarnation argument. We know Our Lord spoke of a judgment and not of future lives, but that argument does not work for those who are not already believers of Christ! I do agree that the combination of sound doctrine, right belief etc. coupled with the experiencesof Christ, the Apostles and their successors in the church are compelling for those who are already leaning towards faith in Christ.

    Monism is a problem for Christianity it seems to me because it supports the “all-is-one” theory of Hinduism.

  4. Kevin,

    Thank you for your comments, it is interesting to have this conversation because it isn’t simply academic for me also.

    I agree that most arguments based on evidence can be made by those outside the Church; hence the reason for saying the experience alone is not sufficient and that one needs to ensure that their interpretative framework is sound. I don’t have an issue with modern physics in terms of a challenge to reason because it is no more a challenge than apophatic theology but that did not stop the Fathers using reason. I also think that many of the arguments of the Fathers are just as relevant today so I am not willing to write them off as pre-modern but there are certainly some aspects that need updating for a modern audience; being in a modern world doesn’t negate reason for faith. I am convinced that unlike the opinion of some, who think that theology or metaphysics means anything goes, that there is as much room for reason to be used to determine truth in this matter as there is for reason to be used in science. Mormon theology can be shown to fail at the metaphysical level, as well as historical level and other levels, to be a sound worldview or theology through reason, which may explain why its seems like fantasy to you. I doubt I may convert anyone by proving that but it is still legitimate and perhaps useful to do so if one is committed to the truth.

    What, by the way, are you meaning by monistic and why is this a problem for you?

    Apostolic Tradition as a hook is a hook of reason; it is going beyond saying I have an experience of God therefore I must be saved or on the right path so I don’t need to think anymore even though someone presents good reasons why I should. It is asking for a reliable framework with which to gage one’s experience rather than the unreliable Bob. The example you provide supports the aim of the post was to challenge resting on experience alone of which I am sure the New Age convert had plenty. The Fathers’ consistent experience grounded in consistent sound doctrine over two thousand years of Tradition clearly traced to the Apostles and Christ is a very powerful reason to be an Orthodox Christian even if one had not shared the Orthodox experience yet or even if one has experienced something outside the Church.

  5. Kevin says:

    Fr Patrick,

    Thank you. I appreciate your time and thought in replying. I do not mean to be argumentative. This issue for me is not simpy an academic one, as I talk to people outside our Tradition and outside of Christianity often. The trouble is that the arguments most often made which are, as you say, meant to transcend experience and subjectivity — the miracles, the healings, observations about the natural world — can ultimately be reduced to subjectivisim, or such phenomena can be mirrored in other religious systems. We have several newly illumined from Yogananda’s SRF at our parish and they all read his “Autobiography of a Yogi”, which is filled with miraculous events. So it is harder to make the argument that “our miracles (weeping icons, the miaracles of Our Lord, etc.) are truer than yours” – without of course resorting to the Christian “ace in the hole”…that is that they are demonic. Frankly modern physics seems to tilt towards – not away from – a monistic and offer a very limited, externally verifiable epistemology (Heisenberg’s theory of uncertainty and the notion of the observer becoming a part of the observed system) making it more difficult for “modern” people to accept or believe “objective” metaphysical narratives, or to believe that one can be proven to trump any other. The Church Fathers were living in a pre-modern world and their reasonings made sense to others in a pre-modern milieu. In the end it seems to me that what distinguishes Orthodoxy is that doctrine has been experienced and consistently confirmed by the neptic fathers in a systematic but experiential way up to the present. A recent convert from the New Age wrote to me: ” In the end, what put the hook in me is that here was the Apostolic tradition. Not Bob the corner preacher’s interpretation and somewhat muddled pronouncement of the Bible. Here was The Faith, as it was intended. Staffed by humans with all their warts. No holier than thou need apply.” It was the ancient and consistent reference point of the Tradition fleshing out the doctrines of ancient and proclaimed Tradition and the Holy Spirit working in him that confirmed for him that Christianity was true and the Orthodox Tradition is its most reliable.

  6. Kevin says:

    Fr Patrick,

    Thank you. I appreciate your time and thought in replying. I do not mean to be argumenttaive. This issue for me is not simpy an academic one, as I talk to people outside our Tradition and outside of Christianity often. The trouble is that the arguments we often make which are, as you say, meant to transcend experience and subjectivity — the miracles, the healings, observations about the natural world — can ultimately be reduced to subjectivisim, or such phenomena can be mirrored in other religious systems. We have several newly illumined from Yogananda’s SRF at our parish and they all read his “Autobiography of a Yogi”, which is filled with miraculous events. So it is harder to make the argument that “our miracles (weeping icons, the miaracles of Our Lord, etc.) are truer than yours” – without of course resorting to the Christian “ace in the hole”…that is that they are demonic. Frankly modern physics seems to tilt towards – not away from – a monistic and very limited, externally verifiable epistemology (Heisenberg’s theory of uncertainty and the notion of the observer becoming a part of the observed system) making it more difficult for “modern” people to accept or believe “objective” metaphysical narratives, or to believe that one can be proven to trump any other. The Church Fathers were living in a pre-modern world and their reasonings made sense to others in a pre-modern mileau. In the end it seems to me that what distinguishes Orthodoxy is that doctrine has been experienced and consistently confirmed by the neptic fathers in a systematic but experiential way up to the present. A recent convert from the New Age wrote to me: ” In the end, what put the hook in me is that here was the Apostolic tradition. Not Bob the corner preacher’s interpretation and somewhat muddled pronouncement of the Bible. Here was The Faith, as it was intended. Staffed by humans with all their warts. No holier than thou need apply.” It was the ancient and consistent reference point of the Tradition fleshing out the doctrines of that Tradiiton and the Holy Spirit working in him that confirmed for him that Christianity was true and the Orthodox Tradition is its most reliable.

  7. Kevin,

    The Apostles and the Fathers used reason and externally verifiable experiences, such as healing the lame, to proclaim the Gospel. I do not recall any record of them pitting subjective experience vs subjective experience, such as St Paul preaching the Gospel based on his conversion experience. So, they were pointing to a standard of truth transcending their own experience and subjectivity. Also, the Fathers believed that they could defeat heresies (and other religious systems) by reason, so there must be value and possibility in this approach. So, it seems that the Fathers believed that one could make an argument that our dogma is truer than your dogma and they did so without resorting to an experiential argument as you suggest is necessary or at least I cannot recall seeing such an argument made by the Fathers. Thus, the evidence seems to run contrary to your thought. Were the Fathers mistaken trying to argue against falsehood? Certainly their arguments were not accepted by all nor convinced all and as such were not guarantors of converting someone, nevertheless they made them and the arguments that were accepted at an Ecumenical level were regarding as “silver bullets” slaying a number of falsehoods and proving one dogma truer than another.

    If one accepts there is an absolute truth that transcends subjective truths then one can accept reason can be used to find that truth. This is where I think that your reasoning has problems. You define all religious systems (including atheistic world views?) on subjective experience/revelation rather than on absolute objective truth, i.e. a human system rather than a divinely manifested system. Your definition may be true for almost all religious systems but this does not mean that there is not one system that is derived from absolute objective truth that can use reason to show the falsehood in other systems that are contrary to the truth.

    Nevertheless, as limited beings there is always an element of faith in our choice of religion because we don’t know everything. Thus, any recourse to reason needs to start from a common shared accepted ground based on a shared faith for a conversation of reasoning about truth to begin or to be of use, unless it is to prove an internal inconsistency given a certain starting point.

  8. Kevin Allen says:

    David,

    I am trying to understand the argument of Fr Patrick when he says that “What is clear is that experience in itself is unable to define the truth of a particular religious path to salvation without that path also being tested by other means of determining truth, such as reason.” How and why is Christianity more reasonable than, say, the claims of the Buddha, or for that matter Joseph Smith (although to me his claims seem like fantasy)? We can of course refer to holy tradition; so can (and do) Buddhists. We can appeal to revelation; so can Mormons. What I think differentiates Orthodox holy tradition is precisely that we have a well-trodden path of experience and context to follow and refer to. However I have not found a way – a magic bullet if you like – to disprove the validity of the religious claims of another religious system except…by referring back to personal experience or the experience of others. So one could make the case, for example, that Elder Sophrony was adept in yoga in Paris, but later on the holy mountain wrote that there was no salvation in it, that yoga does not open the door to the divine life. But one is essentially (then) relying on the experience of Elder Sophrony to disprove the claims of yoga and the validity of Christian truth, no?

  9. David Lindblom says:

    Kevin, there’s always the blessed 2-by-4!

    But seriously, I agree, there is no magic bullet. I heard it once said that the vast majority of people are in the church they are in as a result of someone they trusted invited them. Not on account of any kind of evangelistic crusade, media or arguments. So, perhaps, relationship and then giving them an eyeshot of the historicity of the Church and then use that as a platform to set our experiences in. Otherwise our experiences are, as you said, one of many that to the people experiencing them are more than enough to keep them in their faith.

  10. Kevin Allen says:

    This is a fascinating thread. Certainly the context of Christian religious experience must be within the dogmas of our faith (because we have accepted that context); and the context of Orthodox Christian religious experience must be that of our noetic fathers and the Church (for the same reason). However, when we speak to those outside our Church, or non-believers especially (IE. eastern seekers or New Agers) I have not found a “silver bullet” that strikes at the heart of the problem: how does any religious system – all based to varying degrees on personal experience, personal revelation and experientially-based dogma (“the experience of the Church or the holy fathers… the revelation of Scripture…or The Buddha or Paramahamsa Yogananda”) “prove” one is “truer” than another? I am not sure how “reason” makes a better case for the Christian narrative than the Hindu narrative of the Vedic rishis. There are plenty of recent theories that would argue in favor of monism, for example (a Hindu view). It seems to me that all religious systems are based in the end on revelation, a form of “experience”. How do you get beyond an argument that “my dogma is truer than your dogma”, without resorting to some sort of experiential argument – IE, “I tried religious system A and I can tell you it did not change my life like religioius system B…” ?

  11. David Lindblom says:

    I’ve been thinking along these lines ever since I became Orthodox (2.5 years). The reason being is that if the Orthodox Church is, in fact, the Church of the Apostles and every other church is somewhere along the lines of heretical, heterodox or not even Christian at all then what are we to make of all the experiences of God’s working in these people’s lives? Especially Protestant. I’ve come to a similar conclusion as you. These same kinds of experiences happen to non-Christian religions as well. I believe it is Sam Harris, one of the “new atheists”, that practices some form of meditation that sure looks like some eastern religious practice. As I understand it, neurologist can pinpoint specific areas of the brain that are involved w/ these kinds of religious experiences making them of possible purely organic/earthly origin. I’ve seen this used to try and discount God. To me, while these kinds of things can be purely earthbound, that doesn’t mean that they explain all types of experiences. I see no reason why God didn’t design this sort of thing into our brains as a mechanism to give us some kind of felt experience. But how to tell the difference between the illegitimate and legitimate I think is, as you state, all about context. No other group has what we have. One Church. A direct connection to the Apostles and their teachings. We’re not some homegrown or recently splintered off group. I would think that an Orthodox Christian living in good conscience w/ both God and their fellow man w/ the guidance of a spiritual Father can have these experiences and have a lot more assurance that it is legitimately from God as opposed to those outside the Church kinda winging it.

    Anyway, I’m starting to blather. Good and important write up.

  12. Terence says:

    Fr. Patrick,

    If that’s what you meant by reason I misunderstood you. I think you are quite right.

    When I said that the experiences of a Buddhist are the result of ascetic practice and not conceived of a priori, I didn’t mean that a chinese monk, for instance, might start world-view neutral. What I meant that faith is not the cornerstone and the starting point as it is in our faith. Since we’ve used Zen as an example, I will point out that it in particular is quite anti-creedal.

    I base this only on claims made to western seekers, that one can be a Christian, Jew or Atheist and still enter into these experiences: No faith required. After struggling with Faith it’s seductive to just try it and see! And there are such people. I am very ignorant about Buddhism in general. I don’t know how or when a Buddhist world-view is introduced. I am ignorant of the REAL nature of Buddhism.

  13. Thomas says:

    Joe wrote:

    What do you think of St. John of Damascus using Aristotle’s “unmoved mover” (Orthodox Faith: Bk. 1 Ch. 4) argument for the existence of God?

    Not much. 🙂

    Is St. John making an argument for God’s existence?

    Sure.

    St John was a polymath and among his countless areas of knowledge was philosophy. Thus, I don’t think it strange that he employed philosophy, but I doubt it was decisive for him.

    Even when I was (pre-Orthodox) really into intellectual arguments for the existence of God I recognised the gulf between philosophical ‘proofs’ for the existence of God and the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; the God of Jesus Christ. One of the wonderful things about Orthodoxy was that it allowed me to simply accept there was no need to try to bridge that which is unbridgeable. (A big assistance to that acceptance was the Orthodox emphasis on the fundamental difference between the Uncreated and the created; something which is typically ignored in Western Christianity.)

    It looks like you have just tried to give a rational apologia for “experiential faith”.

    I absolutely do not think there is something wrong with rationality (other than its fallenness — something I believe is ignored in ‘rationalistic Christianity’.)

    What do you mean by “experiential faith”. Does it lack rational content? Does a person have to use his reason to determine if a “spiritual father” is a true one or not? I am just trying to understand what you are trying to say.

    Whew, that is a lot. But I think the following passage may help:

    … dogmatic faith, even as a faith of the mind (an intellectual faith), precedes experience. In asserting this, we are merely underlining the fact that dogmatic faith is necessary for Baptism. Once one is baptized and chrismated, the energy of the Holy Spirit can create an inward faith through experiences. For this to take place, however, ascetic struggle and the implementation of Christ’s commandments are required. Healing of the soul begins with the formation of the faith of the mind, since this faith heals the reason. …
    … the personal experience of the untrained [those who have not reached a stage of illumination or glorification] can neither judge faith, nor the genuineness of the proclaimer of the Gospel, “for false Christs and false prophets shall rise, and shall show signs and wonders to seduce, if it were possible, even the elect.” … “… a person must be in the religious search not for the sake of religious experiences that can deceive, but for the sake of the Truth.” Ultimately, however, the believer must establish the house of his soul on the bedrock of the teachings of Christ, the faith of the heart based on the genuine experience of grace, rather than the sand of an intellectual faith (that philosophy can overturn).
    The centrality and priority of Orthodox dogmatic faith over individual logical explanations means that doctrinal relativism … is perhaps the most dangerous of deceptions, for it erodes away the very Rock capable of protecting the faithful from delusion. [pp. 157-158 of In Peace Let Us Pray to the Lord by Fr Alexis Trader]

    I think true experiential faith — and whether it is true is always judged by the teaching of the Church and, wherever possible, by one who has at least attained illumination — is ‘extra-rational’ or ‘supra-rational’. It is the ‘ineffable words which it is not allowed for a man to speak’, it is an experience which very few can describe (and describing something is most certainly a rational process!).

    There is certainly a rational process in finding a spiritual father, but once one has found one it is not rationality one employs in testing/judging him: obedience is required.

    I hope that helps a little.

  14. Joe,

    I agree that there reason and experience go together. I believe that they both support and reinforce each other, so it is a both/and situation.

    I have not studied views of reason in Orthodox Tradition to see if there are different views but from my reading I believe that that Fathers are committed to reason, hence all the brilliantly argued defences for the truth and critiques of falsehood using reason. In the time of St Cyprian of Carthage at least one Bishop said that “reason triumphs over custom”. (Not to attack Tradition but to say that local customs at times need by reason to be changed to conform with Tradition.) This use of reason I see throughout the ages and used by Orthodox Fathers, such as by St Gregory Palamas in his defence of Hesychastic experience. The Fathers are also committed to the consistency of Truth and that contradiction is falsehood. Thus, they don’t just accept apparent contradictions but rationalise solutions that make apparently contradictory yet God inspired sayings consistent. St John Chrysostom was known for this and St Nicodemus the Hagiorite also did similarly.

    What I understand is not accepted by Orthodox Fathers is the type of rationalism that we can see in the Enlightenment and in certain Protestant sects and at times manifested in Roman Catholic thinking and in some ancient Greek theology. This is where the chief or only relationship with God is an intellectual relationship; that knowing God is an intellectual experience, where we know God through reason alone. I understand the Fathers to reject this reason alone approach to God but not reason itself. Some in recent times may have set reason against experience but I have not seen such a thing in the Fathers. Bringing our mind into the heart is to unite reason and heart(experience/motivation/intuition), not to lose reason to experience.

    Overall, I haven’t recognised different views to reason in Orthodox Tradition other than in critique of a reason alone approach and also critique of any anti-reason approaches.

  15. Joe says:

    Thomas,
    What do you think of St. John of Damascus using Aristotle’s “unmoved mover” (Orthodox Faith: Bk. 1 Ch. 4) argument for the existence of God?Is St. John making an argument for God’s existence? It looks like you have just tried to give a rational apologia for “experiential faith”. What do you mean by “experiential faith”. Does it lack rational content? Does a person have to use his reason to determine if a “spiritual father” is a true one or not? I am just trying to understand what you are trying to say.

  16. Joe says:

    Fr. Patrick,
    I appreciate your comment and certainly agree with it. I guess what I am trying to get at is that I often hear in conversations with my Orthodox brothers the pitting of reason against experience when I don’t think it is either/or but both/and, meaning that reason and experience go together and are not to be separated.( Yes, I agree that theosis is beyond reason but not contrary to it.) I even read it in some of the more recent Orthodox elders that seem to pit experience against reason which does not seem to be the case when I read the Cappadocians or St. John Damascene. One can find this dichotomy between reason and experience in some of the Desert Fathers. So there appears, at least in my reading, to be throughout Orthodox Tradition Saints and monks who hold to a very high view of reason and argument without compromising experience and those who pit reason against experience out of fear that reason is dangerous to faith. I know I am being a little overly general here, but do you sense some different ways of viewing reason and reason’s use in Orthodox Tradition? Is there just one view?

    Also, even a Thomist, like AG Sertillanges, makes the point a number of times in his book “The Intellectual Life” that without living a repentant and virtuous life one’s reason easily falls into delusion. So even Western Christianity has historically understood the importance of the relation of the virtues (add experience) to reason. Now there are some presuppositions concerning things like “ADS” and “energies” in the west that leads to certain kinds of theological errors in theology at least from an Orthodox perspective. I think there are better ways to engage western Christians than just calling them “rationalists” and telling them they just need the right experience to know the Truth.

  17. Terence,

    When I am speaking of reason, I am chiefly referring to correctly understanding and living to the written and unwritten teachings, Tradition, of those that have gone before us from the time of the Apostles as found in the Scriptures and other patristic writings as well as the continuing Tradition expressed by theodidactic Bishops/Elders today. Reason alone without reference to these teachings will not help much in preventing deception because reason is not self-inspired knowledge of the truth but a means of establishing the consistency of explanations regarding the truth from a given and fixed basis, such as revelation. The Evangelical Protestant, who claims to be born-again and saved because he has found great joy in knowing Jesus and great love for Jesus and that this as changed his life for the better regardless whether such a claim is consistent with Scripture and the consistent, in time and space, experience of those going before us in the faith, the Fathers, is putting experience above reason and is not testing his experience or only testing it against others whose tradition of experience is only relatively recent and not a tradition that can show continuity back to nor consistency with the Apostles.

    Could you please explain further how experience forms a world-view, that is why does experience generate a particular world-view without reference to received world view? If ascetic experience in itself forms world-view then how does a Buddhist monk form a consistently different view from the Orthodox Christian monk? I know that Orthodox monks start with a world-view and consistently test their experience against that world-view and insist firstly on having an Orthodox belief, world-view, as important for their salvation even should they fail to achieve any profound deifying experiences. Are you suggesting that a Chinese monk, for example, starts world-view neutral, if such a state is possible, and then becomes a Zen Buddhist monk necessarily through his ascetic experience? I am taking Zen Buddhist to mean a particular world-view rather than a label for one, neutral of world-view, deciding to live an ascetic lifestyle. I agree that experience may give an insight or realisation of a particular doctrine that one cannot really know without experience but that the experience in itself generates the doctrine free from the influence of a world-view held before, or growing with, the ascetic experience is something that you may need to demonstrate.

    I agree that there may be concrete observable differences in religious experience and that one may reject similarities from personal experience (although from personal experience I see certain similarities in different religious experiences and observations in at least some aspects even if the experiences are not the same in all aspects). However, unless one has learnt through reason how to distinguish one experience from another and how to know what is experience that is a result of deification or which is merely human spiritual experience, or demonic experience or even deifying experience to a level that all may share regardless of being united to the Church then one cannot merely by observing the experience or participating in the experience know that they are on the correct path or what that path is.

  18. Terence says:

    Sorry, I meant “theodidactic”.

  19. Terence says:

    To run with your example, the Zen Buddhist will come to the knowledge of his self as illusory and the distinction between good and evil illusory. Also, he may see nibbana as something positive or negative. These are the result of ascetic practice, not conceived of a priori.

    These things are quite foreign to a Hesychast who for example, retains the distinction of what is good and bad. In fact, unlike the Buddhist, discernment is one of the chief traits of a deified person.

    So, there’s a failure here to distinguish that there are concrete differences in religious experience from only outward observation. I, however, reject the similiarities, from personal experience.

    You say that the experience can’t define truth without being tested by another means, such as reason but our theology says that our reason too is injured by an impure life. So I would say that the other means of testing is the corroboration with others who have lived the same life and a theodactic (not simply experienced) teacher. Afterwards our reason will become better.

  20. Thomas says:

    (I don’t remember what tags can be used — is there a list somewhere? — so this may be a mess…..)

    Why I think people may be downplaying reason is that knowing about God by reason is not knowing God. We know God through acting like God, that is through the virtues and through prayer then we experience God in a manner beyond rational thinking via His energies working in our life.

    I think this is important. It seems to me that far too much Christian apologetics (esp. from Western Christians) places too much emphasis on ‘proving’ God’s existence, and I think there are three dangers in so doing: (1) one can only ‘prove’ the ‘god of the philosophers’, not the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob; and certainly not the Triune God; (2) philosophical proofs cut both ways: there seem to be as many arguments against the existence of God as there are for His existence; and (3) basing one’s ‘faith’ on intellectual ‘proofs’ leaves a person vulnerable to having such ‘faith’ destroyed by a ‘counter-proof’.

    Thus, I think experiential faith is essential — but as Father Patrick rightly points out, relying on one’s personal experience (without a spiritual father who can provide a dispassionate examination and discernment) is an almost certain path to delusion.

    Unfortunately, in contemporary culture, where people are accustomed to almost instant gratification of desires, reluctant to engage in spiritual struggle (ascesis), believe what ‘feels’ right is good, and have the pride of fallen man constantly reinforced and fed (by things such as advertising and psychology), contemporary man can very easily be deceived by the demons who appears as ‘angels of light’. It is extremely easy to fall into a pride-generated spiritual delusion (prelest, planē); I suspect it is easier than in previous generations and will be still easier in subsequent generations.

    I never even heard of the concept of prelest (not just the word, but the concept) before encountering Orthodox Christianity. And if one isn’t even aware there is a danger, how much more likely it is one will become a victim!

  21. Joe,

    There are a number of characteristics of Orthodox experience that can be read in the Scriptures, in the lives of Saints, and particularly in the experiences of the recent elders; if you don’t mind me not listing things here.

    I am also reluctant to list things that are unique Orthodox experiences because many experiences, to a level of depth that I am still coming to realise, happen outside the Church. It is very hard to draw definite lines as to what is unique to Orthodox. Whether these other experiences are genuine experiences in Orthodox terms, I don’t know.

    Any experience though is always treated with suspicion and monks do not trust the experience without the all clear of their elder. Part of the process is not necessarily what the elder knows but the humility of the monk in going to him in obedience; God often then helps the elder to gain insight. It is easy to be deceived by experience that feels like the genuine experience. A genuine experience taken in pride or vain-glory can lead to a downfall and importantly experiences don’t guarantee salvation; passing the end of this life in faith and repentance in communion with the Church are the important issues. Many without any exceptional experiences may achieve salvation, whereas some having great experiences may fall into pride or other sins and die in a bad state.

    Miracles clearly identified with one after death can be a very good sign that they are saved. Then it is about realising that someone else is saved after they pass away not us thinking we ourselves are completely saved and safe before death.

    Why I think people may be downplaying reason is that knowing about God by reason is not knowing God. We know God through acting like God, that is through the virtues and through prayer then we experience God in a manner beyond rational thinking via His energies working in our life. This post is to say that while this is true one must ensure that while we live the experience remains within the guidelines learnt by reason as taught by the Fathers and summit ourselves to the truth in humility and not rely on experience in itself as a guarantee to salvation.

    I hope this helps a little even if I have not directly answered your questions.

  22. Joe says:

    Fr. Patrick,
    I believe you bring up a very interesting point of contemporary Orthodoxy where many downplay reason and emphasize that proof is rooted primarily in experience. What are the particular unique characteristics of Orthodox experience? How does an Orthodox Christian, Saint, Elder know if they have had that experience or a delusion?

  23. Robert says:

    We see this even with the disciples who experienced Christ in the flesh. Not until Christ explained and Pentecost did any of it make sense to them. It is even so with us today.

  24. James,

    The “easy enough to say” comment still requires a doctrinal context to allow the “therefore” for the “trajectory towards salvation” or even why one uses the word “salvation.”

    In the context of Orthodox faith, I believe the reason is found in theosis. Our eternal life depends on participating in the life of God and God being all in all in us. Among other things that we are permitted to say positively about God is that God is truth. So, to participate in God mean participating in truth. We know that God will not force himself on us else we could not participate in his freedom. Therefore, we are responsible not to reject the truth by remaining fixed in a falsehood or accepting what is false as true.

  25. James says:

    Though I’m inclined to agree with you that “right experience” is not enough to indicate that one is on the right path (the path that ends in salvation), and that right belief and practice are also necessary, I think you need to explain why. It seems easy enough to say, ‘I am experiencing the divine so that means I am growing closer to the divine; therefore I am on a trajectory towards salvation. Why then do I need correct doctrine, etc.’ My guess is that it has something to do with wholeness as integral to salvation, and that the whole human person must be saved, and that includes the body, mind, soul, spirit, rational faculty etc.

  26. Canadian says:

    This applies, I think, to non religious but extraordinary experience as well. I have theological reasons why I do not think there are superior alien beings (besides angels and saints) in the universe, yet on a couple occasions I have had quite unusual visual experiences of ufo activity. Whatever they may have been, I cannot let my uncertain experience change a worldview that comes from the Tradition and scriptures of the church.

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