In a study of 2,500 Finns, one in three (37%) said they had received help from God (Church Research Centre, 2001). Whatever you call this kind of encounter, it would be very difficult to even begin to discuss it at all without a language code to do so. Through “The Varieties of Religious Experience”, William James gave scholars a framework through which to discourse on religious experience. For example, one of James’ four characteristics of a mystical experience is ineffability, that Paul the Apostle’s religious experience transcends language. However, Pahnke’s features disagree. Alleged ineffability seems far more accurate, as Paul did speak of his experiences, using metaphor to share his conversion story through his epistles. Though the language has helped us to have a more tangible grasp on religious experiences, if those experiences were truly as ineffable as the characteristics claim, we would not be able to speak of them at all.
The largest problem with the variety of scholarly definitions is just that, the variety. A discourse between the intimate differences that arise in religious experience provides the topic with a larger context, but it has reached the point of pure self involvement. The language seems more important than its use. The story of the blind men and the elephant, present in Jain, Hindu, Buddhist, and Sufi writings summarises the problem with the language of religious experience. The men are so concerned with talking about what part of the elephant they are holding that they do not see the elephant for what it actually is. Terms like ineffability, noetic quality, transciency, and passivity are defining religious experience into being something specific, rather than capturing its range.
Scholarly definitions work in the metaphysical, and accounts of religious experience hardly qualify as empirical evidence. Verificationists like the early Wittgenstein disregard a priori knowledge. Though religious experiences like Saint Bernadette at Lourdes have been “verified” by the Catholic church, their process for evaluation cannot exactly be called scientific. Private revelations are assessed by clergy and bishops before the Catholic church will give them liturgical recognition, but these men are the link with which we receive God, so there is no stand that could possibly be made against them. The later Wittgenstein would say, however, that the language games of “religion” and those of “science” can exist within their own parameters. The way that the Catholic church recognises religious experiences is not scientific, but it sits within its own language game. Even so, an unfalsifiable claim based in metaphysics is hard to place any importance on, as the language required to retell it changes the experience itself.
Wittgenstein had another argument, that of “private language”. Private religious experiences that happen to a single individual, like Sundar Singh’s vision of Jesus, are impossible to recount because they exist in a separate language, not because they are ineffable. A private language is not coherent because it only exists in one person, so we cannot use James’ (or Happold, Otto, or Panhke’s) classification of religious experience to describe it. The only language we can use is our own individual one, and that is not something we can ever share. Some religious experiences happen to multiple people, though. For example, other people were present during Paul’s mystical experience. His travelling companions “saw the light but did not hear the sound,” but even then, they would all remember the experience differently between those who were present.
As well as individual interpretation of events, there is a clear cultural influence. When surgeon Pierre Barbet concluded that a more likely place for nails to be located during crucifixion was in the wrists, the location of alleged stigmatas changed. By simply changing the definition, subsequent religious experiences were altered. Nothing is ever clearly passive due to primary and secondary socialisation. The existence of things in our unconscious, according to Freudian psychology, can lead them to manifest in other ways, so passivity can be seen as nothing more than an illusion. The language that scholars has given us to describe religious experience made it possible for discourse to be had, but is problematic in its usage. As these definitions have become more culturally important they have transcended the purpose of language, which is to retell experience. Instead, we are left with an unclear image of what a religious experience actually is, because it will not fit into the guidelines that have been drawn up.