The Study of Religious Experience

Approaches and Methodologies

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Bettina E. Schmidt
  • Sheffield, England: 
    Equinox Publishing Limited
    , August
     2016.
     256 pages.
     $100.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9781781792575.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

The Study of Religious Experience: Approaches and Methodologies, edited by Bettina E. Schmidt, is a compilation of essays that accomplishes a variety of tasks relating to the study of religious experience in a multitude of academic disciplines. Many of the authors within this volume acknowledge the novelty of the field of religious experience in the Western academic tradition: that it arose from as a turn-of-the-20th century turn toward an empirical methodology and psychological analysis, arguably beginning with William James. However, the writers who are responsible for each unique contribution display the intricacies of the promising work yet to be mined in this field.

Divided into four main sections, the book first takes into account issues raised by anthropological approaches to studying religious experience. Fiona Bowie reflects on ethnographic means of studying the paranormal, and Michael Winkelman’s chapter argues for a more universal, cross-cultural approach to topics of soul flight, meditation, and spirit possession. The second section delves into the methodological challenges that are inherent in documenting, describing, and analyzing religious experiences from spirit mediums of Brazilian Vale do Amanhecer to near-death and out-of-body experiences in shamanic religions. At this point in the book, it seems that Bettina Schmidt’s own chapter is a pivot point between older, more generalized methods of analyzing religion, to a newer view in favor of a deictic, or contextual approach that combats the blind-spots of traditional empirical studies. Next, Robert Pope and Tristan Nash open up the interdisciplinary doors when addressing the problems inherent in longstanding traditions within formal theology and religious studies proposed by Thomas Aquinas, Friedrich Schleiermacher, Rudolph Otto, and William James. The final section brings forth concrete instances of how religious experience is present in different pockets of academic fields, yet also within popular culture: sacred texts like the Gospel of John, music that promotes ecstasy and liminality from medieval Hildegaard von Bingen to sounds for New Age trance, and the landscape of technological cyberspace from the Dark Web to common social media platforms.

In accomplishing its goals of informing audiences about the difficulties in methodology experienced by psychologists, anthropologists, and ethnographers of the modern context, each chapter of the book seems to be carefully selected to address not only the pitfalls and biases of documentation and analysis, but also many suggestions for a more thoroughgoing future for the the study of religious experience. In conjunction with the trends of scholarship that critically reflect upon a former “us-them” approach, this book strongly promotes a more embedded and open-minded reflection through a poly-methodic prescription.

There seems to be a lack of diversity regarding the educational institutions of the contributors; most are affiliated with the University of Wales Trinity Saint David. And perhaps given the inherited tradition of Western methodology and context, there seems to be more attention given to experiences originating from a Christian Western framework. Interestingly, however, the compilation does address Eastern and South American religious experiences when speaking of more intense paranormal and spiritual encounters.

This book is absolutely ideal for experienced researchers or writers who seek a scholarly interpretation on how the study of religious experience has been incorporated into fields as diverse as psychology, anthropology, theology, and religion.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Lucinda Yang is a doctoral student in religion at Baylor University.

Date of Review: 
December 5, 2017

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