, ">

“The Language Of Religious Experience”

I shall begin with four quotations from Unamuno:

"Scepticism, uncertainty—the position to which reason, by practicing its analysis upon itself, upon its own validity, at last arrives—is the foundation upon which the heart's despair must build up its hope."[1]

"These two powers can never conclude peace and we must needs live by their war. We must make of this war, of war itself, the very condition of our spiritual life."[2]

"Feeling does not compound its differences with middle terms."[3]

"Reason and faith are two enemies, neither of which can maintain itself without the other. The irrational demands to be rationalized and reason only can operate on the irrational. They are compelled to seek mutual support and association. But association in struggle, for struggle is a mode of association."[4]

It would not be difficult to find similar statements in other works by the same writer. Unamuno, who had no fear of contradicting himself and who, in fact, claimed that whatever is alive is contradictory, was at the same time very consistent in his thinking. He was consistent, above all, in maintaining that contradiction is the very essence of human life.

In this article I intend to carry out a project which Unamuno himself would have dismissed as plainly un-Unamunian: I shall try to show that his intuitions concerning the nature of religious experience are fundamentally correct. The method I shall use to emphasize the value of Unamuno's insight is the analysis of language, and specifically the analysis of some crucial terms in ordinary language. There is, in principle, nothing too un-Unamunian in this approach since Unamuno himself was a skillful practitioner of some form of "linguistic analysis," in particular that kind of analysis which attempts to disclose the original—or supposedly original—meanings of words. To be sure, there is something not very Unamunian in the way in which "linguistic analysis" will be practiced here, for "plain" rather than "original" meanings will be considered. On the other hand, there is something perfectly Unamunian about the way in which the term "religion" will be understood here, namely, as "religious experience." Religion at large includes theology and indeed, for some, is primarily theological, but I shall deal with theological language only in so far as it encroaches upon the language of religious experience.

The problems which I am going to discuss in the spirit (but not necessarily in the letter) of Unamuno are the following: (1) What kind of experience is religious experience? (2) In what ways is it similar and in what ways does it differ from other types of experience? (3) Why does it resemble and at the same time not resemble other kinds of experience? This last question will permit us to emphasize the conflicting character of religious experience and it is above all here that our opinions will be seen to meet Unamuno's.

It is best not to be too hasty in giving definitions—which would soon prove to be pseudo-definitions—of religious experience, such as "It is the experience of a transcendent reality or one that would be transcendent if it existed," "It is the experience of some truth revealed, either directly or indirectly, by an authority, a church, or a sacred text," "It is an experience which transcends all others, including the ethical, because it focuses upon a set of irreducible values," "It is an absolutely personal experience of something which appears to be strangely familiar or familiarly strange," etc. I am not asserting that none of these definitions apply to religious experience but I suspect that they characterize the latter only in so far as they are abstractions and interpretations of human experiences in general.

I cannot avoid presupposing a number of things. To begin with, I presuppose that it is possible and fruitful to describe human experience by scrutinizing the language in which it is expressed. The latter assumption, in its turn, presupposes that certain linguistic expressions can be viewed as "condensations" of experience.

The linguistic expressions which seem to be particularly suited to our purposes are a number of verbs, and in particular certain verbs expressing "actions" which men normally perform in the course of their everyday life. Many such action verbs come to mind: "to eat," "to sleep," "to work," "to walk," "to fall in love," "to greet,'' "to hesitate," "to become angry," etc. If we specify the action which the verb denotes, we obtain an almost indefinite number of expressions: "to sleep soundly," "to go barefoot," "to sweat profusely," "to join a political party," "to go on strike," "to declare war," etc.

The above expressions describe common experiences, but they could easily describe more "specialized" ones. Let us consider the verb "to work." One works, willingly or not, on many different occasions and under varying circumstances. In this sense, work is a very ordinary "experience" for the great majority of humans. This experience is not necessarily incompatible with others. To work as a scientist or an artist is to have some scientific or artistic "experience." Without becoming in any way "extraordinary," the scientific and the artistic experiences are, in a way, less "ordinary" than the simple experience called "working." On the other hand, although scientific experiences can be described by means of such terms as "classifying," "observing," "inferring," calculating," "testing," "objecting," etc., etc., it is obvious that these operations are also practiced in our daily life: by the dim light which filters through the window we infer that it is daybreak; from the dust that covers the furniture we deduce that the house is deserted; from the change which is returned from a ten dollar bill we figure out how much the book cost. In principle, there is no way of knowing what type of experience we are confronting on the basis of the words used; most words can be used to describe more than one type of experience. Yet, certain fundamental forms of experience tend to "collect" expressions which are particularly suitable in describing them. Such is the case with religious experience, where expressions such as "to believe," "to entreat," "to hope," "to curse," "to blaspheme," "to worship," "to be converted," "to repent," are of paramount importance. To be sure, these expressions are also used in ordinary situations. "I believe that James will be late," I hope that the picture will be good," "I entreat you to listen to me carefully," "I worshipped my mother," etc. Also, one can blaspheme without taking the name of God in vain, one can be converted to socialism or to capitalism, one can repent having smoked too much. It is therefore necessary to use the expressions in question in given situations, so that what really matters is not so much the expression used but the use to which it is put. Yet, expressions like the ones mentioned are particularly relevant for the description of religious experience.

Some expressions appear to have a religious connotation by themselves. A conspicuous example is the distinction, proposed by Gabriel Marcel, between "to believe that" and "to believe in" where "to believe in" is an expression that can be used impersonally ("to believe in progress"), but which is frequently personal ("to believe in friends"). According to Marcel, this distinction holds even within the religious sphere: "believing in God" is very different from "believing that God exists" or "believing that God will punish sinners," etc.[5] In some cases, such as "to blaspheme" and "to adore," the "profane" use of the word seems to be derived from a primarily religious use rather than the reverse. On the other hand, "to be converted" seems to be primarily a religious expression when it is a question of "being converted to" as opposed to "being converted into." It seems more appropriate to speak of one being converted to Catholicism or Buddhism than say, liberalism. Certainly one can be converted to communism or to anarchism, but it is precisely here that a strong note of "religiosity"—although a "profane religiosity"—is suggested. Although terms such as "to repent" are used in our common and ordinary life, they acquire a "stronger" meaning when they are applied to religious experience for no one would repent unless guilt and sin were at stake. If we say, for example, that only the repentance of sin can lead to salvation, we understand that it is not a question of ordinary experience, even if we deny that there are specifically religious experiences.

From now on I shall use the expression "religious words" as an abbreviation of "words by means of which experiences and activities linked to situations considered religious are described or expressed. As a rule, religious words cover a number of human "activities." Some, such as "to believe" seem to refer to "dispositions"; others, such as "to hope" refer to experience proper while still others such as "to entreat," "to curse," etc. refer to actions. Nevertheless, as it is not always easy to distinguish between types of "activity," let us put them all under the same heading of experience.

All religious words express mental states or acts as opposed to descriptive expressions of common and ordinary experience, which may or may not express such states or acts. Thus, for example, "to fall in love" or "to become angry" express mental states or acts, but such words as "to walk" or "to eat" do not necessarily do so, for although they may imply such states or acts, they can also rule them out. Religious words are thus clearly intentional but this feature does not suffice to distinguish them from other words normally used in a non-religious sense; after all, "to desire," and "to study" are also intentional. The intentionality of those states or acts expressed by religious words does possess, however, a unique feature.

On the one hand, the so-called "intentional object"—what one believes in, hopes for, what is adored—seems to be less precise and straightforward than the object of other intentional expressions. If we want a glass of water, that is what we want; it may well happen that we are deceiving ourselves and that what we really want is something else, of which the glass of water is only the symbol, but in some manner we still desire the glass of water—or the glass of water in so far as it is symbolic. The object of desire is, in every case, something. On the other hand, we may not know what kind of an "object" the intentional correlate of acts of religious believing or hoping is. We may not even know whether or not there is such an "object." It could well happen that the intentional correlate of such acts is the very subject who performs them—in which case, of course, it would be reasonable to stop using the expression "intentional correlate." Now, if there is no intentional correlate, there is, strictly speaking, no intentional act either. The verbs "to believe" and "to hope'' would describe psychological states of the subject, or—assuming that such states were basic enough—ways of being of the subject. In the latter case it might be said that the subject would not only be "someone who believes in" or "someone who hopes for," but "something whose being consists in believing, or hoping."

On the other hand, it may be claimed that there is no intentional correlate of the acts of believing and hoping on account of the "absolute" character of the "object" supposedly intended. Now, if such is the case, then again there is no intentional subject-object relation. If there is no object, there is no intention, and, as we pointed out earlier, the act is a state of being, of the subject. If the object is "an Absolute," the subject is, as it were, "annihilated" by its object, and whatever intentionality had been originally assumed, dissolves entirely.

In order to avoid both pitfalls, and maintain the subject-object relation in religious experience, it is necessary to assume that religious words describe experiences—or, more precisely, experiential acts—of "something" whose existence is left in doubt while at the same time it is strongly "postulated." This accounts for the fact that the object of religious experience is apprehended neither directly nor indirectly. It is not even a question of something that could be apprehended if it proved to exist. Unicorns do not exist, but if they did, we would be able to see them. Nor is it a question of objects whose reality is inferred. Inferred realities may not be empirically verifiable, but are, after all, "demonstrable" within the conceptual frame of a theory. There is in this respect a difference between a theological object and an object of religious experience; the former may be inferred, but the latter is certainly not.

It has sometimes been contended that there can be no authentically religious experience except as an awareness of "the completely and absolutely Other," but the question, then, is whether there is "something'' experienced, or even whether anything is really "experienced." To say that one "sees" the sacred, the numinous, the divine, is, as C. B. Martin has pointed out, a modus dicendi similar to that used by mathematical intuitionists when they declare that one can "see" a logical connection or to that proposed by a number of moralists when they speak of "hearing" the voice of conscience. Strictly speaking, nothing is heard or seen; nor is there any word to express the act of a sixth sense for the simple reason that there is no word to designate such a "sense."[6] All we can say in this respect is that it is "other" and thus completely different from any other sense.

Whereas religious words are perfectly "normal," it would seem that what they aim at describing is "abnormal." Hence the peculiar mixture of sublimity and nonsense in everything pertaining to religious experience, and the well known difficulty in distinguishing between a "true believer" and a "naive person," and between a mystic and a lunatic.

It would seem, thus, that the crucial question concerning religious experience is whether there is any way of distinguishing it from other types of experience.

Two doctrines are in conflict here. According to one, religious experience is similar to other experiences, and in particular to common and ordinary experiences; the former differs from the latter only in so far as it emphasizes some of the less "normal" features of human experience.

Those who argue in favor of this doctrine maintain that all feelings—to which they reduce all experiences—possess the same basic character and differ only by such features as being more or less frequent, more or less intense, etc.

Let us consider, for example, the word "faith." Faith in God, it is said, is fundamentally the same as any other kind of faith provided, of course, that it is maintained with the same intensity or the same profundity. According to this view, we can have faith in the divinity in much the same way as we can have faith in humanity, in science, etc. To say that faith in humanity is a profane transposition from faith in divinity is neither more nor less true than to affirm that faith in divinity is a religious transposition from faith in humanity. What is true for the word "faith" holds for other expressions. Consider, for example, "to love." "To love x" and "to love God" differ only in that if God exists, He is more "important" than x and, therefore, it is more important to love God than to love x. It might be asserted that it is not only a question of "importance" but also and above all, of disinterest, purity, etc. and that one can love x with perfect disinterest and purity only because of the love of God. This, however, seems to beg the question, for it assumes that only the love of God is disinterested and pure. Furthermore, if it is God who makes faith and love possible, what can we say about distrust, hate, and envy? One of the characters in a novel by Graham Greene has made this point quite clearly. When one loves, it is God who loves for us. But what happens when one hates? Is it also God who hates for us? Bulky volumes have been produced about Christian love but who has even mentioned Christian envy? Should we then conclude that the God of the Christians is not—nor has He any necessity to be—Christian?[7]

According to the other doctrine, religious experience is incomparable with any other. This point is emphasized by Rudolf Otto in his conception, which was alluded to earlier, of the experience—or rather, the "awed encounter with"—-the "absolutely Other." It is, Otto contends, a unique experience: the rapture in the adoration of the divine is not the same as the exaltation of the soul in the contemplation of a good deed; religious awe is not the same as fear, no matter how profound or intense; dependency on the divine cannot be reduced to the feeling of human dependency, etc.[8] To be sure, there seems to be an analogy between the divine and the human; after all, the words used to describe religious feelings are the very same words used to describe non-religious experience. William James opposed so-called "medical materialism" as a simple-minded system of thought: "Medical materialism finishes up Saint Paul by calling his vision on the road to Damascus a discharging lesion of the occipital cortex, he being an epileptic. It snuffs out Saint Teresa as an hysteric, Saint Francis of Assisi as an hereditary degenerate. George Fox's discontent with the shams of his age, and his pining for spiritual veracity, it treats as a symptom of a disordered colon. Carlyle's organ-tones of misery it accounts for by a gastro-duodenal catarrah."[9] Yet, the same author claimed that there is no specific religious sentiment. "There is religious fear, religious love, religious awe, religious joy, and so forth. But religious love is only man's natural emotion of love directed to a religious object; religious fear is only the ordinary fear of commerce, so to speak, the common quaking of the human breast, in so far as the notion of divine retribution may arouse it; religious awe is the same organic thrill which we feel in a forest at twilight, or in a mountain gorge; only this time it comes over us at the thought of our supernatural relations."[10] Now, although Rudolf Otto might not quarrel with these descriptions, he would certainly claim that they are utterly insufficient for an understanding of the "numinous emotion." In the last resort, all analogies between descriptions of non-religious and religious feelings break down when we take into account the difference of quality which is tied to the character of the "object." When religious experience is at stake, we are no longer concerned with another thing, not even with "the other" as "another person"; we are facing the completely Other as a mysterium tremendum, where, as Otto says, the term tremendum ("awesome"), adds something not necessarily inherent in the term "mysterium."[11]

The experience (and feeling) of which Rudolf Otto has spoken has as its "object" an absolute, irreducible, transcendent and fully unique reality. Rather than being a frequent experience, it is extremely rare and occurs only in exceptional circumstances. There is no way of conveying what kind of an experience it is except indirectly and by means of "purely external" analogies.[12]

Neither of these doctrines seems to be entirely acceptable or unacceptable, for each conforms to a number of facts while failing to account for others. We cannot, therefore, accept either of them. On the other hand, a compromise between the two doctrines would probably do little more than dilute them, without thereby gaining any new insights.

A new approach has been taken by various authors who have examined ordinary human situations and have come to the conclusion that within their contexts new and hitherto unsuspected dimensions may appear. The latter are still tied up to the common situation from which they emerge, but they are not entirely explicable in terms of this situation. Thus, for instance, Ian T. Ramsey has followed Samuel Butler in suggesting that "religion claims (a) a fuller discernment, to which we respond with (b) a total commitment."[13] Commitment without discernment is bigotry; discernment without commitment is hypocrisy. Ramsey has examined a number of cases of human relations which seem to be perfectly "normal," but where suddenly something happens which can only be described by means of odd and peculiar phrases like "comes alive," "the light dawns," "the ice breaks," etc.[14] Whenever these phrases serve to describe the change in the situation, they also serve to describe a "new dimension." In a similar vein, John E. Smith has described and analyzed "the religious dimension of experience," which is different from a religious experience stricto sensu but which is nonetheless a new dimension irreducible to ordinary experience. He has thus maintained that there is a "polar relation" between the holy and the profane: "In one sense they are antithetical because what is holy stands over against the profane and cannot be dissolved into it, and yet the two must not be interpreted so that all relations between them are severed."[15]

Interesting as the above attempts are, they fail, in our opinion, to emphasize the main characteristic of religious experience—or, if one wishes, of the religious dimension of experience—, namely, its fundamentally "mixed" and above all conflicting character.

This character is revealed in the way in which a number of words constituting the language of religious experience function. Let us consider such words as "faith," "hope," and "supplication." These words have many uses. Thus, we can say that we have an unbounded faith in someone—meaning that we have complete confidence in him or that we rely upon him completely. We can also say that we have faith in someone despite doubts which may assail us or, as it is sometimes said, "against all odds." In the latter case faith is linked with doubt, so that the word "faith," has a "mixed" character. It has not, however, a conflicting character such as the one we find in religious experience. For in the latter experience not only is faith accompanied by doubt; it is, as it were, made up of doubt. Authentic religious faith is, as Henry Duméry has said, foi sans repos—the exact opposite of the formerly much talked about Kohlerglaube or of the self-complacency of the ordinary Sunday morning churchgoer.[16] The case is similar with hope and supplication: in the same sense in which faith without doubt is inert belief, hope without despair is superficial optimism, and supplication without imprecation is affected piety. We might even hyphenate these words: "faith-doubt," "hope-despair," and "supplication-imprecation," in order to show that they are not only correlated but fused together.

Some religious words express what Schleiemacher described as the most outstanding feature of religious experience: the "feeling of dependence," namely, the feeling on the part of the finite creature of absolute dependency in respect to the infinite. This feeling makes us recognize ourselves as pure creatures; in comparison to the Infinite Being, we have the impression that "we are nothing." Schleiemacher noted that in feeling dependent the finite creature also feels, so to speak, "exceptional." Only human beings can feel absolutely dependent and when they do, they feel that they are, in some way, indispensable to the infinite Being on which they are dependent. No wonder then that the supreme object of religious feeling (whether it is a personal God or "the divine," "the numinous," etc.) is experienced as part of oneself and at the same time as something absolutely remote and trancendent. This is, of course, rationally unacceptable unless we construe this experience on the basis of an interpretation of the ambivalent and conflicting character of religious terms.

Such a character is also revealed when we ask the question whether the object of religious experience exists or not. I admit that this question may have a meaning in theology and even in philosophy of religion where the predicates "is true" and "is false" function normally. In so far as the concept of religion includes that of theology, this is a legitimate question. In the sphere of religious experience, however, there are grounds for believing that it misses the point. In any case, this question does not possess a definite meaning. To ask, for example, if the God in which we believe (or do not believe) exists is to ask if it is true or not that the God in which we believe (or do not believe) exists. We cannot answer this question with either "yes" or "no" for as soon as either an affirmative or negative answer is given, it becomes obvious that the question asked on the level of knowledge in which there is room for doubt, uncertainty, probability, analogy, etc., but not for ambivalence and conflict. It is not that the question is unable to have either a "yes" or "no" answer but rather that the "yes" and "no" are given together. "Feeling," said Unamuno, "does not compound its differences with middle terms." We must add that feeling does not compound with one extreme term; it can compound only—if we continue to use this vocabulary—with two terms.

I began with four quotations of Unamuno and I have just repeated one of them. Let me conclude by bringing up another: "Is there?" "Is there not?"—these are the bases of our inner life."[17] As theology, perhaps it is unacceptable, but as a description of religious experience, it is not bad—not bad at all.

(Translated from the Spanish by Dr. Priscilla Cohn)


  1. M. de Unamuno, The Tragic Sense of Life (trans. New York, 1951), p. 106.
  2. Ibid., p. 106.
  3. Ibid., p. 107.
  4. Ibid., p. 111.
  5. Gabriel Marcel, The Mystery of Being. 2 vols. ( London, 1949-1951), vol. 2, lect. 5.
  6. C. B. Martin, "A Religious Way of Knowing," in Anthony Flew and Alasdair MacIntyre, eds., New Essays in Philosophical Theology (New York, 1955), p. 80.
  7. "And I tell you the truth I was ashamed when this man said to me, 'You Klistians are all big thieves—you steal this, you steal that, you steal all the time. Oh, I know you don't steal money. You don't creep into Thomas Olo's hut and take his new radio set, but you are thieves all the same. Worse thieves than that. You see a man who lives with one wife and doesn't beat her and looks after her when she gets a bad pain from medicines at the hospital, and you say that's Klistian love. You go to the courthouse and you hear a good judge, who says to the piccin that stole sugar from the white man's cupboard, 'You're a very sorry piccin. I not punish you, and you, you will not come here again. No more sugar palaver,' and you say that's Klistian mercy. But you are a mighty big thief when you say that—for you steal this man's love and that man's mercy. Why do you say when you see man with knife in his back bleeding and dying, 'There Klistian anger?' . . . 'Why not say when Henry Okapa got a new bycicle and someone came and tore his brake, "There's Klistian envy." You are like a man who steals only the good fruit and leaves the bad fruit rotting on the tree.' When you love, it is Yezu who loves, when you are merciful it is Yezu who is merciful. But when you hate or envy it is not Yezu, for everything that Yezu made is good . . . " (Graham Greene, A Burnt-Out Case).
  8. Rudolf Otto, The Idea of the Holy (London, 1928), pp. 9ff.
  9. William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience, chap. 1.
  10. Ibid., lecture ii.
  11. Rudolf Otto, op. cit., pp. 12-13, and 25-30.
  12. Ibid., p. 25.
  13. Ian T. Ramsey, Religious Language (London, 1957), p. 14.
  14. Ibid., p. 19ff.
  15. John E. Smith, Experience and God (New York, 1968), p. 57.
  16. Henry Duméry, Philosophie de la religion. 2 vols. (Paris, 1959), vol. I.
  17. M. de Unamuno, The Tragic Sense of Life, p. 119.
Ferrater Mora, José. “The Language Of Religious Experience.” International Journal for Philosophy of Religion 1 (Spring 1970): 22-33.