Shaping debate on religion in public life.

Book Review: Religious Experience and its Transformational Power, by Sabrina Muller

25 Oct 2023

Open Access and De Gruyter, Berlin, Germany. 2023. Pp1-x111. Pp1-243. ISBN: 978-3-11-100005-3.

As Muller says in her preface (vii), this is the text of her habilitation thesis of autumn 2021, made possible thanks to the cooperation of the 20 co-researchers who were part of this project. She also adds her thanks to the academics and examiners who supported this work throughout. At the heart of this book is the concept of religious experience and a focus on individual personal religious experience rather than on the collective and institutional dimensions. Specifically: “the explorative, empirical study presented here is a search for traces of how young urban adults understand and interpret their religious experiences and relate them to their everyday lives” (P3). Muller refers to three key theologians to validate this approach: William James; Friedrich Schleiermacher and Paul Tillich and goes on to explore their contributions at later stages in the text. As a practical theologian she admits that the concept of religious experience can only ever be fragmentary and incomplete and must be contextualized (P5). As a result, this study is inductive and discursive and represents a narrative, practical theology from below.

In greater detail as Muller explains: “Specifically, I empirically investigate how and why urban people perceive their experiences as religious and how they categorize them and put them into language. In addition, I ask inductive questions about transformation logics in religious processes, which can be mapped, for example, concerning self-perception and perception of the world, identity or personal theologizing. Based on this, I reflect on theological implications and action-guiding principles for practical theology” (P6). The structure of the study reflects this broad agenda and includes sections on sensitizing concepts; grounded theory; detailed responses to the surveys and then a more theological summary of the results, in particular revealing the importance of the Christian concept of hope. Given her own experience as a pastor and youth worker, Muller is accustomed to both listening to and interpreting the experiences of others in this context.

As already mentioned, Tillich is a key conversation partner in this process, particularly as he emphasizes the personal dimensions of the theological task. So commitment to context rather than detachment is essential. The theologian is determined by their faith (P8) as this is an existential engagement and cannot be taken to be purely theoretical. What follows is in no way “armchair research”, but fully engaged through one’s own personal experience and background.

The first section on sensitizing concepts is understandably detailed and demanding, particularly as there are different interpretations of “experience” within the German and English languages. The study refers to Aristotle, making it clear that introducing religion into the mix is itself not straightforward (P18). This is further developed with reference to Monasticism, Luther, and then into Pietism and Schleiermacher. The introduction of the German term “widerfarhnis” is important as it points towards a more life-historical setting than is familiar from a UK context (P21). It suggests that other disciplines need to be taken into account, notably sociology and psychology. The work of Ann Taves and the Alistair Hardy Religious Experience Centre at Trinity St David in Wales becomes part of this discussion. It is the relational and personal dimensions of religious experience that come to the fore in these debates.

How though does “the urban” feature in this project? Muller states that the phenomenon of urbanity has not often featured in practical theological discussion (P31) which I think those of us involved in the work of the William Temple Foundation in the UK might find a little surprising as much has been written about this subject, for instance, by my colleague Prof Chris Baker at Goldsmiths. But perhaps this reveals differences between practical theology in the UK and in Germany? Bauman’s work on Liquid Modernity and Spirituality are brought into the discussion, but one wonders whether the distinctions between the urban and the rural are quite as solid as sometimes suggested ? The role of the digital in creating virtual spaces becomes a factor which crosses those boundaries, for instance. As myself both a participant and leader in zoom church following the pandemic this reflects a practice which overcomes such a sharp division. As Muller notes, one result of this is that the influence of institutional religion is declining as the role of individual and personal religious experience begins to increase (P37). People are far more likely to interpret for themselves than to rely on external church authority or tradition.

The study then takes us in greater depth into empirical research into the prevalence of the urban and debates and controversy into definitions of “the City”.

The next section on grounded theory is a methodological excursus bringing into conversation qualitative social research and practical theology. Once again Muller draws upon Tillich as a source for this (P65). In terms of the actual research, the emphasis is upon co-researchers who were trusted to understand the nature of the exercise and to be a source of specialized knowledge during the data collection process. Urban young people who have had religious experiences in the Christian system of meaning were chosen as the focus group. The desired age group was between 15 and 25 years although 3 older people were also included (P70). Participatory Action Research provided an overall model for the process. This is then presented in considerable detail in Chapter 4. Chapter 5 continues with individual case presentations which include drawings as well as text. What emerges from this is that transcendence and interpretation are not mutually exclusive in the personal descriptions of religious experience, but that the two go hand in hand (P118). So any form of dualism is brought into question. An awareness of and relationship to God become central to this process. In the background to this is the idea of religious imprinting, understood as diverse and as a liquid phenomenon under the conditions of a pluralist and late-modern society (P121).

To what extent though and with what evidence can it be argued that this leads to changes in personal frames of reference, which, after all, is meant to be at the heart of the research project? Muller talks about “the aha moment” (P137), or the moment of happening ( “the penny dropping”?) the point at which the boundaries between the profane and sacred, the immanent and the transcendent are brought into question, particularly as it is often the profane places where the sacred begins to break through. The everyday becomes the locus of transition as God is experienced as present and alongside. “Religious experiences are perceived as something that gives hope and confidence in everyday life” (P154). This is the reorientation and shift in the frame of reference that emerges from the research, but rather than a linear event it is more of a circular-narrative process (P168). It is now possible to see both oneself and the world differently.

The final two chapters take us into more explicit practical theology territory which is another area where differences between a UK and German approach come to the fore. I am less familiar with the latter than I am with the former and this needs to be acknowledged. The experiences of recognizing and being recognized are central to Muller’s interpretation (P187), and these reflect the changing frame of references discussions which emerge from this research. Faith as an existential experience widens ones’ range of engagements and offers different perceptions of both the individual and the collective. This is closer to a “doing theology” approach with which I am familiar from a UK perspective (Laurie Green and my own “Local Theology” SPCK 1994 etc). This is where the “wilderfahnis” idea comes into its own, expressing a wider experience of the religious, one which is relational rather than institutional (P205). In turn this leads into a discussion of “Lived Theology” (P211) and other approaches which are close to a UK interpretation in the works of Astley and Ward. This is a practical theology “from below”, both contextual and liberating as it challenges more traditional and orthodox approaches which come from a Catholic rather than a Protestant perspective. As this is the approach on which I have been working for some years I am happy to sign up to this and to recommend Muller’s book as an excellent contribution to this contemporary form of theology.

Revd Dr John Reader. Senior Research Fellow. William Temple Foundation.

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