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Methodological Challenges of Studying Personal Experience in Early Christianity

Robyn Walsh

Overview: This paper describes some of the methodological problems with studies centered on the question of an individual’s religious or “lived” experience in the ancient world, and traces the roots of this approach to (German) Romanticism. It then examines the imagined “communities” represented by the early Christian gospels as a case study on how contemporary concerns with reclaiming the experience or experiences of historical individuals can often skew our data, generating misleading claims about the social circumstances that gave rise to our body of textual evidence.

Abstract: Approaches to the study of religion (both ancient and modern) that focus on the question of an individual’s personal experience have been roundly critiqued in the field on a number of fronts. Among the issues that arise from such studies is the tendency for scholars to treat the question of “experience” as an implicit category. By “implicit category,” I mean to say a concept understood to be somehow innate to human beings and, therefore, highly subjective and often described in critical literature with mystifying language such as “belief” or “the sacred.” Not only does such scholarship fail to achieve the kind of definitional clarity prized by history and the social sciences, its results tend to lack propositional content, therefore, risking simply reproducing the practitioner’s own folk understandings of their activities, rather than treating them as objects of social analysis.  In other words: the “content of religion is said to be an ineffable experience or an incomprehensible pre-rational something or social structure that is then expressed in a uniquely self-referential symbolic form.”  The result is an approach that creates a false dichotomy treating religious language (about gods and other non-obvious beings, for instance) differently than one would treat any of kind ordinary language about economics, politics, science and so on.

Theories of religion that trade on notions of experience also largely represent contemporary concerns with “lived” religions and religious thought, not historical understandings of what we might term religious life. Arguably, this tendency within scholarship stems from romantic-era thinking which privileged a certain “pure meaning” (e.g., “the sacred”) behind the language used by various writers, poets and other literate specialists to communicate their understandings of their practices—even if these writers did not use such terms themselves. Such treatments have also resulted in studies that import onto the historical data a mirror-reading of sorts that seeks to use an individual author’s descriptions of religious life and practice as a synecdochical representation of a group’s—or imagined group’s—shared experience.

A prime example of this misjudgment is the early Christian gospels. In no other area of ancient studies do we seek to reclaim the “community” of an author with such precision. Yet, in New Testament/Early Christian studies, it is commonplace to attempt to scrutinize the individual author or redactor’s words for evidence of the “experiences” of the reputed early Christian group in question that lead the author to select the various teachings and biographical details represented in their writing(s). This approach, therefore, assumes a number of factors: (1) that a group or community is the most probable of social environments for the production of the gospels; (2) that the author was functioning as a mouthpiece of sorts for their “community,” and not as an autonomous actor; (3) the literary choices made by the author were in service of their religious “experience” and/or that of their community, not simply the strategic choices of a literary specialist. This paper challenges this traditional methodology and offers alternative options.

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Practice and Personal Experience

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