Arthur J. Deikman

Women Who Hear Voices: The Challenge of Religious Experience

Review by Susan Scully Troy, 2008

Callahan, Sideney. Women Who Hear Voices: The Challenge of Religious Experience. New York, Mahwah, N.J.: Paulist Press, 2003.  114 pages.

Women Who Hear Voices: The Challenge of Religious Experience by Sidney Callahan, Ph.D. was originally presented as part of the Madeleva Lecture Series in Spiritually sponsored by St. Mary’s College, South Bend, Indiana. Inaugurated in 1985 this lecture series focuses on issues of spirituality with special emphasis on women’s issues. Callahan is a clinical psychologist, lecturer, long time columnist for Commonweal magazine, former McKeever Chair of Moral Theology at St. John’s University, NYC, and author of Good Conscience: Reason and Emotion in Moral Decision Making. Callahan delivered this lecture in 2003 and joins an eminent group of former Madeleva lecturers that has included Monika K. Hellwig, Joan Chittister, O.S.B., Elizabeth A. Johnson, and Sandra M. Schneiders.

In Women Who Hear Voices, Callahan addresses the issue of religious experience, especially as it relates to women. She begins her lecture with gusto stating from the start: “Suspicions that religious beliefs and fervent religious experiences are a form of mental pathology still prevail in our world” and “Christian women in particular have been more generally accused of being neurotic and subject to illusions and delusions. But why should we be surprised that women’s experiences have been discounted? (Callahan, 1.)” This sets the tone for the first part of her lecture that gives an excellent and concise overview of the degrading treatment of women and women’s religious experience throughout Christian history. She uses the treatment of Mary Magdalene as an example of how all women’s religious experience tends to be regarded. Revisionist history changes Mary Magdalene, disciple of Jesus, apostle to the apostles, first witness to the Resurrection, into a repentant whore. “The history of Mary Magdalene’s reputation is symbolic of the tendency to subsume women’s religious experience in feminine stereotypes of erotic neurosis (Callahan, 7.)” Callahan goes on to give an account of the many other examples of “reductionist dismissive views” she finds including contemporary “elaborate” therapeutic psychological, psychosocial, sociological and neurological, reductive explanations e.g. the Oliver Saks-Hildegard of Bingen- Migraine Explanation of women’s religious experience.

At the end of this first part of her treatment of women’s religious experience Callahan adds what she terms “An Autobiographical Confessional Note.” Here she puts forth her credentials as a believer (Catholic convert) and a scientist “who endorses the scientific search for truth (Callahan, 30.) Still further she states her two-fold “agenda” in taking on the defense of women’s religious experience.

I would like to be able to demonstrate that the general and automatic suspiciousness of women’s religious experience as illusionary and inauthentic is mistaken. I content that there is growing evidence that human beings are innately religious, innately capable of intense religious experience and that this is a normal and positive psychological capacity. (Callahan, 41)

Callahan goes onto to discuss the need for a continued examination of the nature of religious experience based on a multi-disciplinary approach that includes the scientific and social sciences as well as theological disciplines. She begins with what she terms as the “controversial” concept of experience and then moves to a description of religious experience. She clearly operates from a transcendental God-centered understanding that includes the essential interaction of faith and reason. The existence of God is fully accepted and the existence of God “as the source of all reason, rationality and truth inspires human inquiry and the search for understanding (Callahan, 42)” is accepted by Callahan.

Callahan tackles questions of subjective experience, consciousness, memory, perception and thought in terms of defining what in the realm of experience can be observed, analyzed, understood in a scientific sense. She addresses what she calls “skeptical deterministic” or “radical reductionist” thinking which she says incorrectly dismisses the concept of “free will” as “illusory.” For Callahan, such thinking makes it easy to dismiss religious experience and religious behavior. She seems to equate “free-will” with active, subjective, consciousness. Moving from an examination of experience Callahan states that “religious experience is some aware, conscious participation in religious phenomena (Callahan, 51.)” She makes the claim that “human beings are innately predisposed to have transcendent experiences and to be conscious of realities that go beyond the concrete her and now of daily life (Callahan, 52.)” Such broad, declarative statements clearly show that Callahan comes down on the side of the transcendent experience no matter what inter-disciplinary findings are available.

Callahan refers to the work of William James and Rudolf Otto as authoritative in her understanding and is very supportive of the work of Rodney Stark who she sees as providing a “contemporary instance of a broader and more inclusive analysis of religious experience (Callahan, 59.) She expounds upon Stark’s understandings.

Callahan seems to believe that “religious experience” arises within the operation of human consciousness … yet …

no one in either science or theology understands how human consciousness emerges or operates. Fitting together the incompletely understood pieces of the psychological mind/brain puzzle with the mystery of God’s inspiration is a formidable challenge…Wrestling with the difficulties presented by understanding how human consciousness arises from the brain is going to continue for years. (Callahan, 84)

Women Who Hear Voices is a combination of Callahan’s scholarship in psychology and theology and also reflects a great deal of the author’s spirituality. Indeed the Mandeleva Lectures are a lecture series devoted to spirituality. The combination makes very interesting and informative reading for those open to or interested in the intersection of these three disciplines. Given the title of the lecture in its published form (it is a particularly great title!) one might regret that women’s religious experience in a contemporary context does not receive broader treatment. Gender is not a central issue once Callahan steps into the experience v. religious experience debate.