Religious Experience and Scientific Method [Book Review]

Review of Metaphysics 26 (1):178-179 (1972)
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Abstract

In this, his first book, originally published in 1926, Henry Nelson Wieman sets forth a view on the relationship of religious experience and scientific method which in substance he has maintained ever since. According to Wieman, our knowledge of the concrete world consists of immediate sensuous experience as interpreted through some set of concepts. Religious experience is the richest form of immediate sensuous experience. It is our awareness of God, who is as much an object of experience as are tree and hill and stone. And scientific method is the systematic procedure by which the conceptual network for interpreting immediate sensuous experience is clarified and corrected, with the experience-concept compound thus becoming "science." Religious experience, therefore, receives its most adequate interpretation in science; while science, in turn, receives its most stimulating input from religious experience. In principle, the highest of the individual sciences is theology; in fact, however, the very complexity of religious experience and the difficulty of distinguishing it clearly from other types of immediate sensuous experience have prevented more than merely minimal progress in achieving a truly scientific theology. On the whole our ideas about God are marked by confusion and controversy, therefore, despite the fact that some of these notions probably are true. Wieman’s book serves as an excellent example of the liberal thought which dominated much of theology and philosophy-of-religion during the last part of the nineteenth century and the first part of the twentieth. The religious thinker with a liberal perspective conceives his primary challenge as developing a scientifically acceptable interpretation of religious experience, taking that experience itself as being obvious and almost universally recognized. One need not be particularly well read to know that current judgments regarding the obviousness of religious experience are hardly so sanguine, however, and that the religious thinker typical of our own age therefore conceives his primary challenge quite differently.—J. M. V.

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