Is Religious Experience Irrational?

Last year, David Sessions wrote an essay about his “deconversion” from Christianity, drawing on some of the ideas we aired last week about religious experience in a secular age. In particular, he noted that “something else besides just theories and arguments was driving the shift” and that, in addition to reading and thinking, he “was pulled along by massive changes in experience.” Dreher compares this to the story of Rosaria Champagne Butterfield, a lesbian academic who became an evangelical Christian (eventually marrying a man), and who admits to praying “that God would give me the willingness to obey before I understood.” Rod considers what this says about the limits of reason in our lives, especially with regard to religion:

The willingness to obey before I understood. Yes, this. Reading that line reminded me of my own slow, keep-calm-and-obey-god-10winding, herky-jerky path to conversion, and how I kept hitting a dead end because I wanted to understand it all before I obeyed. This doesn’t work.

I was thinking about Rosaria Champagne Butterfield’s point this morning, listening to our priest’s sermon about fasting …, and about how, when I first became Orthodox, I didn’t understand why we fasted, and fasted so strictly. But I did it because that’s what one does as an Orthodox Christian, and everybody in my church was doing it. Now I deeply get it, and as hard as it is, I’m grateful for it, because it’s exactly the medicine I need for my soul. But it took the experience of doing it for years before I really understood it.

What’s interesting about the Butterfield story of conversion in light of Sessions’s story of de-conversion is the role experience plays in both. It is epistemologically humbling, no matter what side of the belief/unbelief divide you are on.

Sessions argues that Rod takes the comparison too far:

There is a superficial similarity in the sense that Butterfield and I both had experiences that changed us before we had a full explanation or argument for what happened. What Butterfield describes … is essentially her embrace of obscurantism, a “truth” that either defies or ignores well-established scholarship—and even her own previous experience—on human sexual orientation. But the fact that experience drives intellectual transformation is not a license to abandon intellectual rigor.

For example, how does she know God has a point of view about homosexuality, or that it’s negative?

Why does she think Christianity requires her to obey it before she understands? What if Christians disagree about what that view is, or think that view is something that’s obviously misinformed? Does it make sense that a Christian God would want a convert to break up a happy family? For a former scholar, Butterfield shows remarkably little philosophical skepticism; she also seems to cast aside her training in how to review and evaluate the available evidence to determine if these views she’s been introduced to are reasonable or even widely considered to be Christian.

Millman make a distinction between Butterfield’s religious experience and the kind Sessions describes having, calling the former “the experience of divine command,” believing you won’t get very far in understanding religion “if you start from the proposition that God’s commands ought to be reasonable.” He defends this approach with an analogy:

the experience of falling in love.

Can we trust it? How should we understand it? How should we respond to it? These are not easy questions to answer. Should you marry the person for whom you experience that feeling? What if the feeling doesn’t last? What if you’re already married – should you leave your spouse for this new love? What if you never experienced that feeling with your spouse – now should you consider leaving them for this other person? Should you shun this person you’ve fallen in love with, lest the experience cause you to do something irrational or morally wrong? Or should you cultivate that feeling of blind devotion while, simultaneously, abjuring any socially or morally forbidden expression of affection? …

These aren’t easy questions to answer – unless you answer that the experience of falling in love is a bad one, to be shunned, categorically, which, it seems to me, devolves into answering that experience as such should have no bearing on our actions. Which, to my mind, is an untenable approach to life.

Dreher agrees with Millman:

This is a fundamental point. Millman explains well why you cannot understand Biblical religion if you expect everything to make perfect sense, especially (he might have added) to a 21st century Westerner. What is reasonable about God commanding Abraham to sacrifice Isaac? What is reasonable about God incarnating as a Palestinian Jew and willingly suffering torture and dying, humiliated? God cannot be contained by human reason. This is not to deny the power (and the importance) of reason, only to put it in its proper place.