- The Schleiermacher Gambit and the Desacralization of Culture:Retrospective Remarks on Wayne Proudfoot’s Religious Experience
When Religious Experience went into production with the University of California Press (Berkeley 1985), I was still in residence as a graduate student at Columbia, where I was working with Wayne Proudfoot on issues in the philosophy of religion and philosophical theology. Although this is now more than thirty years ago, I distinctively remember having a conversation with him about whether Religious Experience should have a subtitle and, if so, what. Proudfoot’s disposition as a writer is hardly baroque, and so he decided, heedless of his student’s youthful love of circumlocution, to do without the ornament of an explanatory or at least cautionary subtitle. Naked Religious Experience it would be.
The Press, no doubt daunted by the vast emptiness left on the cover by those two lonely, but robustly marketable words, decided to get creative. The word Religious, bold and upright, can be seen hovering above a line that divides Religious from Experience; meanwhile, the word Experience has slipped into italics, an effect that suggests mutability and the press of something higher. Below the word Experience there is a lattice-like pedestal that appears to be two infinity signs having gotten into a car accident with a treble clef. The whole effect is very esoteric, and if I were a bookstore owner trying to sell Religious Experience based on its cover alone (and, really, what else counts?), I would tuck the book between Deepak Chopra’s The Seven Spiritual Laws of Success and Eckhart Tolle’s The Power of Now and hope that browsers would assume that Proudfoot is a Native American name.
But I am not in the business of selling books, as is clear from my own literary productions, and I know something of the reception that Religious Experience has garnered from readers whose esoterism is academically well-heeled and less new age in ambition than ageless. If I could travel back thirty years and convince Proudfoot to add the appropriate subtitle for this kind of reader, I would first test out Religious Experience: Abandon All Hope, You Who Enter Here. But that is only because I bring an exaggerated sense of drama to the making of theory and because I read Dante when I get bored by the bare “something more” of an overly theorized religious ecstasy. A more suitable, better behaved [End Page 20] subtitle for Religious Experience would doubtless be “Naturalism in a Drop of Philosophical Grammar.”
Most of the theoretically inclined readers of Religious Experience have read Proudfoot either to be bringing a naturalistic frame of reference to the study of religion or to be constructing one out of the ruins of an inner house of cards, once taken to be a sanctuary for divine things. But the relation of the argument of Religious Experience to a philosophical or pragmatic naturalism, where human beings are value-positing animals living alone in their interpreted worlds, is neither easy nor obvious, and it is precisely that imprecision that has given the book much of its enduring fascination. I take the basic argument of Religious Experience, freed briefly from its inevitable entanglement with naturalism, to be an ingenious counter to the Schleiermacher gambit of religious apologetics.1
The gambit goes something like this: first completely give up the doctrinal casting of an authentically religious experience, thereby rendering the experience into the spiritual equivalent of a blank check; now ground doctrinal authority on the spiritual freedom and fecundity of an originary experience, the mother of all piety. If you still want to play the game of “my religion is better than yours,” you can always claim that your doctrines and the spirit in which you hold them are closer than mine to the inconceivable source of all sacrality. Meanwhile, the scientist who arrives on the scene to tell you that your religious experience is really about your brain chemistry or your sublimation of childhood fantasies or your ecstatic identification with your social self has arrived too late. All of these possibilities and many more have been preempted by your willingness to connect conceptually with what begins as...