Sumner B. Twiss and Walter H. Conser, Jr.

Experience of the Sacred: Readings in the Phenomenology of Religion

Review by Todd Willison, 2008

Sumner B. Twiss and Walter H. Conser, Jr. Experience of the Sacred: Readings in the Phenomenology of Religion. Hanover: Brown University Press, 1992.

In “Experience of the Sacred,” editors Sumner Twiss and Walter Conser set out to “provide a collection of accessible and representative readings” (ix) on the phenomenology of religion, making special effort to familiarize their readers not only with both classic and contemporary texts, but also with non-Western and feminist samplings as well as select interdisciplinary offerings from the fields of philosophy, anthropology, and psychology. They structure these readings according to a three-fold division they identify within the phenomenology of religion, a division between the three “voices” of the field: the essentialist voice, the historical-typological voice, and the existential-hermeneutical voice.

The representatives of the essentialist voice (Rudolph Otto, Max Scheler, William Earle, Katsuki Sekida, Carol Christ, and Louis Dupre) all concern themselves with the question of the “essence or true nature of the religious consciousness of the believing soul.” (7) The representatives of the historical-typological voice (C.J. Arthur, W. Brede Kristensen, J.M. Kitagawa, Mircea Eliade, and Ake Hultkrantz) are interested in both the “distinctive ethos and worldviews of particular religious traditions” and in the “persistent or recurrent patterns shared by those traditions.” (24) Finally, the representatives of the existential-hermeneutical voice (Paul Ricoeur, John E. Smith, Merold Westphal, Caroline Walker Bynum, and Paul W. Pruyser) are preoccupied with the “structures and problems of human existence” and with the fact that “all human experience is mediated by language.” (44)

Each of these voices, according to Twiss and Conser, has strengths and pitfalls. The essentialist tradition can pride itself on its serious attempts to “evocatively describe” and to “reflectively elucidate” the essence of religious experience in a way that suspends or “brackets” prior judgments and attempts to sympathize and empathize with the one having a religious experience. But it tends to view religious experience as an isolated, static phenomenon, thus failing to account for the dynamic, historically conditioned features that the historical-typological and existential-hermeneutical voices place greater emphasis on. The historical-typological voice may be more historically sensitive and diachronic in its approach, but it is accused of forcing misrepresentative typologies onto historical data and of biasing specific interpretations of the traditions it studies. And both the essentialist and historical-typological voices are accused by the existential-hermeneutical voice of feigning a false sense of “detached objectivity” when they are in fact helplessly bound by temporal, social, and linguistic constraints. But the existential-hermeneutical voice has to concede, that while it succeeds in acknowledging the existential characteristics of religious experience and in casting appropriate suspicion upon the other voices, it is so methodologically oriented toward this suspicion that it often fails to appreciate what other perspectives on religious experience can bring to the table.

By combining these three voices together, and highlighting the strengths and weaknesses of each, Twiss and Conser succeed in presenting a variegated and multifaceted approach to the phenomenology of religion for the novice student to engage with. The aims, methods, and potential criticisms of each voice are clearly and sensitively outlined, and the representative offerings of non-Western, feminist, and interdisciplinary contributions to the field round off the discussion nicely and provide an appreciated extra layer of concerns to this fascinating topic of study. All considered, Twiss and Conser have presented an excellent introduction to the study of the phenomenology of religion that will be easily accessed and readily returned to by students in the field.