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Experiments with Experience: Experimenting with Religions and Spiritual Practice as Experimentation

English title Experiments with Experience: Experimenting with Religions and Spiritual Practice as Experimentation
Applicant Schlieter Jens Uwe
Number 182846
Funding scheme Project funding
Research institution Institut für Religionswissenschaft Universität Bern
Institution of higher education University of Berne - BE
Main discipline Religious studies, Theology
Start/End 01.02.2019 - 31.01.2023
Approved amount 476'718.00
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Keywords (7)

Religious experience; autobiography; 19th-20th century; spiritual seekers; Yoga; experimentation (discourse); Spiritual Practices

Lay Summary (German)

Lead
Seit etwa zwei Jahrhunderten beschreiben Akteure in spirituellen Autobiographien ihre religiöse Praxis als Experimentieren mit eigenen Erfahrungen, oder als ein Experimentieren mit verschiedenen religiösen Traditionen
Lay summary

Titel des Forschungsprojekts

Experimente mit Erfahrung: Experimentieren mit Religionen und spirituelle Praxis als Experiment

Expériences avec l'expérience: expérimenter avec les religions et la pratique spirituelle comme expérimentation

Experiments with Experience: Experimenting with Religions and Spiritual Practice as Experimentation




Inhalt und Ziel des Forschungsprojekts

Vom 19. Jahrhundert an finden sich autobiographische Schilderungen, die den eigenen spirituellen Weg parallel zum Aufschwung der experimentellen Methode in den Naturwissenschaften als „Experimentieren“ beschreiben. Die spirituelle Suche wird in diesen Quellen im wissenschaftlichen Ethos als rigoroses Überprüfen von Erfahrungen mit christlicher, jüdischer und islamischer Askese und Mystik, Techniken des Spiritualismus und Okkultismus, oder Praktiken des Yoga und Buddhismus beschrieben. Spezifische Merkmale dieses neuen Selbstverständnisses der Praktizierenden sind einerseits die Offenheit für Erfahrungen in verschiedenen religiösen und spirituellen Traditionen, und andererseits die Übernahme eines an den empirischen Wissenschaften orientierten Modells von Erkenntnisgewinn. Das Projekt widmet sich zentral autobiographischen Schilderungen des 19. und 20. Jahrhunderts, in denen sich diese Auffassungen manifestieren. Die Analyse dieser Texte verfolgt zwei Hauptfragen: Handelt es sich im Kern um eine Verwissenschaftlichung von religiöser Praxis? Oder verweist die Sprache des Experimentierens auf den Verlust von Glaubensgewissheit und damit auf eine neue Sicht von Religion, in welcher der eigenen religiösen Erfahrung und der Selbstkultivierung höchste Bedeutung zukommt? Um diese Fragen zu beantworten, werden vorrangig die Erzählstrategien und Metaphern autobiographischer Berichte und Abhandlungen analysiert und mit zeitgenössischen Entwicklungen des Verständnisses wissenschaftlichen Experimentierens in Bezug gesetzt.

Wissenschaftlicher und gesellschaftlicher Kontext

Das Projekt analysiert Berichte eines experimentellen Umgangs mit spirituellen Praktiken und religiösen Traditionen, welche auf die zunehmende Bedeutung eigener religiöser Erfahrung im Kontext moderner Lebenswelten verweisen. Damit trägt das Projekt zu einer Vertiefung des Verständnisses des religiösen Individualismus der Moderne bei, die auch für das Feld alternativer Spiritualität in der gegenwärtigen Schweiz charakteristisch ist.

 

Direct link to Lay Summary Last update: 09.01.2019

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Abstract

Over the last two centuries, many prominent religious actors from India and the West have described their religious practice as “spiritual experimentation,” “experimental metaphysics,” or “experimental religion.” Although the thread of experimentation runs through a considerable number of autobiographies and other works depicting spiritual practice, its significance has only occasionally been noted. A closer look at these narratives reveals that the discourse on religious “experimentation” develops in parallel to the rise of scientific experimentation in the natural sciences. Drawing on the latter, spiritual practice has been conceptualized as a continuous experimentation according to the modern understanding of the scientific ethos - as a rigorous process of pursuing new methods of discovery. Yet, “experimenters” are at the same time consciously aware that the outcome might differ from their predictions or expectations, and may ideally capitalize on failed experiments as new points of departure. In autobiographies of “spiritual seekers” (cf. Sutcliffe 2016, Franklin 2018), descriptions abound of experimentalist attitudes in relation to religion\s, of trying ever new practices of, for example, Buddhist meditation, Christian ascetic lifestyles, Yogic visionary or bodily techniques, or Sufi mysticism. In sum, experiments in religious practice can be preliminary defined as experimenting with “technologies of the self” (Foucault), or as “experimental systems” (Rheinberger) of experiential bodily states. In addition to the scientific understanding of experimentation, the religious discourse on experimentation also draws on earlier resources of Neoaristotelian, Theological, Mystic and Occult conceptions of experimentum and experientia as epistemic access to hidden dimensions of (the practitioner’s own) true nature. Even though the above-mentioned aspects have been stressed in recent contributions (e.g., as “scientification” of religion, “unchurched spirituality,” “faith without certainty,” or “religious consumerism”), the interrelated topics of “religious experimentation” and “spiritual experimentalism” have rarely been treated as an object of research (cf. Wuthenow 1978). A thorough collection and systematic analysis of descriptions that conceptualize religious practice as experimentation will offer important insights into religious self-conceptions of Western and Asian modernity, or the emergence of “multiple modernities” (Eisentstadt). It will outline how specialists of spirituality drew on ideas and practices of scientific experimentation in order to strengthen the claim that their practices produce verifiable knowledge, which sets themselves apart from (modern naturalist criticism of) “religion” as (irrational) belief system.Scope and Methods: This research project will investigate descriptions of “experimentation” with different religious practices/traditions, and self-conceptions of spiritual practice as “experimental,” in Western and Indian sources of the 19th, 20th, and 21st century. The project will approach the topoi mentioned above in two closely cooperating subprojects. The first, entitled Religious Practice as Experimentation: Autobiographical Sources in India and the West, will collect and contextualize autobiographical descriptions of “experimenting” with religion/s. The second subproject, Experimental Systems, Spiritual Practices, and Religious Experience, will take a theoretical and systematic interest in the practices of spiritual experimentation as described by their protagonists. Both subprojects will combine narratological analysis with metaphor theory (Lakoff/Johnson, Blumenberg, Slingerland) in order to interpret autobiographical narratives, and to analyze relevant cognitive metaphors used to describe the process of experimentation with experience. In addition, the first subproject will contextualize the narratives in their religious, historical, and biographical settings. In particular, it will show how this specific discourse emerged in 19th century Europe, how it gained traction in Western Spiritualism and in the reception of Indian Yoga and Buddhism, and, finally, how “spiritual seekers” of the 20th and 21st centuries regarded themselves as “experimentalists.” The inclusion of modern Neo-Hinduist and Neo-Buddhist sources is of special importance, as it is, for reasons to be analyzed, in these widely read works that religious practices are prominently conceptualized as “experimental.” The second subproject will focus on the systematization and critical reappraisal of the discourse of experimenting with spiritual practices. For systematizing purposes, it will use recent models of scientific experimentation as theorized in Science Studies. It will ask how experimentalists in the religious field can be described as developing “experimental systems” (Rheinberger) of, e.g., magnifying, minimizing, accelerating, or decelerating processes in the experiential subject, as actors in the religious field hold in regard to meditation techniques, fasting, etc. Yet, it will also critically examine if, and in which examples, these parallels in spiritual practice are functional analogies, or more metaphorical in nature. Given that in religious experimentation the epistemic object, the “experiences,” can be assessed only through the actors’ descriptions (including their first-person depiction of these as either “spiritual” or “religious”), the project will explore to what extent the narratives of a continuous process of “experiments” that enable practitioners to “assess” failed experiments, to conduct new experiments with revised goals, etc., has its structural parallels in scientific experimentation. Or should the narratives of spiritual experimentation themselves be a constitutive part of the “experimental system?” Exploring these aspects, the project will contribute to the ongoing discussion of a “scientification of religion.” In particular, it shall assess whether the assumed “scientification” pertains to the spiritual practices themselves, or may, in contrast, display a discursive, “modernist” positioning of largely traditional religious practices and attitudes.Impact: The project will analyze the “scientification” of the religious discourse on experience, outline strategies of verifying salvific and “spiritual” effects of religious practice, and highlight the discursive self-positioning of being spiritual in a modern, contingent, and scientifically explored “life world.” As such, the project will add a crucial aspect to the understanding of the genesis and current understanding of religious individualism. According to the guiding paradigm of research, in religious individualism the reference to “one’s own experience” is essential, and declared to be more relevant than epistemic certainty, “official” revelations, or scholastic interpretation of scriptures. The specific modes of initiating and reassuring experiences under the conditions of religious individualism are, however, still less well understood (cf. Fuller 2001; Stolz et al. 2014, 2016). The project will allow to amend current concepts of religious experience as appraisal processes (Proudfoot 1985, Taves 2005) and “event cognition” (Asprem, Taves 2017) that still portray “religious experiences” as single, outstanding, and overwhelming events with crucial aspects of long-term “experimentation with experiences” as systematic “self-cultivation,” or experimental “technologies of the self.”
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