Science in Christian Perspective



Experiential Learning, Experiential Science
and Experiential Religion

Fuller Graduate School of Psychology
Pasadena, California 91101


From: JASA 30 (March 1978): 10-13.

The role of the experiential is crucial, particularly in the religious quest. Obviously I need to define what I mean by the term. The dictionary talks of an actual living through an event or events. The emphasis is on closing the psychological distance between that experienced and the experiencer. I am differentiating it from intellectual knowledge and secondhand knowledge. It is a direct knowing with an emotional component and a focus on the subjective.

Experiential Learning

Learning, as every beginning textbook in psychology says, is much more than committing a lot of facts to memory in the context of a schoolroom or the like. Learning is so broad as to include almost every more or less permanent change in a person not due to maturation. If you pay attention to yourself for the next few moments, you can experience the comprehensiveness of the term. For example, you may be biting your fingernails, falling asleep, tapping your foot, sniffing your nose, thinking of the mountains or God or breakfast, creasing your forehead, breathing rapidly, feeling depressed or happy. All of these have learned components.

Psychologists are light-years away from understanding learning. We know that contiguity is important (as with Pavlov's dog), reward and punishment are important, and we know a relatively few facts about how memory and problem-solving work, but the most important things are little understood or researched, e.g., the part emotions play in learning. We don't really understand experiential learning, how it comes about, or what the parameters are.

Allow me to take a minor incident as a prototype. Some time ago we bought a house. The real estate agent had shown us a number of houses on the day we first saw it, driving around an area with winding streets. My sense of direction was fairly good until we got to the house we decided to buy, but somewhere before we arrived I lost track of directions, and I ended up thinking north was in the east and south in the west. Now that seems like a minor matter but do you think I can change it? Not on your life. I have watched the sun, gazed at the north star, looked at maps, toyed with compasses, and looked at basic landmarks from afar and near. With all this, the best I can say is that when I stop momentarily to think about it, north is north, but when I reflexively respond with my sense of direction, north is in the east. Now that is something learned, but how did it become so indelibly impressed, and why is it so resistant to change? Concepts like "readiness" or "critical periods" help focus our thinking about this problem, but basically there is no satisfactory explanation. Clearly learning involves much more than contiguity and reinforcement. It seems we hardly understand learning at all.

But in another way, we have made some significant beginnings. Psychotherapy is learning (I do not mean that it is comprehended by learning theory in its usual meaning). Therapists, especially from the psychodynamic tradition have struggled with the question of how to bring about significant learning in their patients. One basic proposition from Freud on, is that an intellectual understanding of abnormal psychology or one's own personal psychodynamics does not come close to insuring health and growth. Insight is a key term, but for insight to be real, it has to be "gut-level," i.e., the emotion or drive or conflict has to be freed enough from repression so that it is deeply felt in awareness together with the cognitive element, the intellectual construction. From this merging (emotion and cognition), a genuine "aha experience" can take place. Following Alexander and others, what occurs is a "corrective emotional experience," i.e., experiential learning has happened. Now suppose in our classroom, parental or therapy teaching, we were to say the right thing at the right moment in a pithy, potent and meaningful way so as to tie into the ongoing subjective experience of the person and stimulate growth. This vision excites me.

Education has incorporated similar principles in a few of its processes. Audiovisual aids, for example, help create a deeper experiential (cognition and emotion) awareness of the material to be learned. Free schools, (Summerhill and the like) capitalize on the experiential. Still our knowledge of how all this works is primitive, and obviously you can't apply primitive knowledge very satisfactorily.

Personality theorists have long spoken of the importance of some crucial learning experiences in infancy, especially of what the human world is like; an indelible impression is left if the parents are warm, relaxed, acceptant, and loving. Now, consider experiential learning of God. Certainly, the usual pattern of Sunday Schools, confirmations, etc., approach the task mostly intellectually; experiential learning rarely takes place. The fact that many people later toss out or let their religion die is thus not at all surprising.

Values, preferences, attitudes and the like seem particularly to require experiential learning. Maslow states it well,

And it will be just as true for educators when they will finally be forced to try to teach spirituality and transcendence. Education for patriotism in this country has been terribly disappointing to most profoundly patriotic Americans, so much so that just these people are apt to be called un-American. Rituals, ceremonies, words, formulae may touch some, but they do not touch many unless their meanings have been deeply understood and experienced. Clearly the aim of education in this realm must be phrased in terms of inner, subjective experiences in each individual. Unless these experiences are known to have occurred, value-education cannot be said to have succeeded in reaching its true goal [1964, p. 35].

Experiential Science

Philosophically and historically, science is simply a way of knowing, of learning, if you will. Objectivity in observation was crucial. Unfortunately, objectivity became like a god; it became an end, not just a means. And with this, the importance of the subjective, the experiencing of the scientist, faded. The scientist excludes himself from his data. If possible, he is so distant from his data that machines do all the observation and recording (they are more objective, reliable and accurate). If this is impossible (or even when it is), the researcher is to become as much like a machine as possible, i.e., mechanistic, objective, nonemotional, nonvaluing, nonhuman. It's not surprising, then, that science itself has often become nonhuman, even antihuman. Scientists are no longer scientists but technicians; science is no longer process and product of the deeply self-actualizing quest for knowing, but just an elaborate, dehumanizing technology which could very well bury us.

But some fresh winds are blowing. Polanyi (1958, 1966), Deese (1972) and others are helping us understand that science is partly art. Discovery is not only a well-defined technique, mechanically taught and wrought, but also an indefinable process going on deep inside the knower. The scientist participates deeply, experientially into his objects of study.

My purpose is not to elaborate on current philosophy of science (Polanyi's scholarly and extensive writings superbly present the case), but to emphasize the significance of the experiential in what has been considered the bastion of intellectuality, mechanism and objectivity.

Experiential Religion

I have already cited the severe shortcomings of the usual approach of institutional religion in helping us develop our awareness and knowing of God. Lessons

Religion and peak experiences are as much a learning or knowing as science or other scholarly pursuits.

about God just will not suffice, Similarly, Laski (1961) has noted that typical religious exercises such as prayer, worship services, etc., seldom lead to profound experiential awareness of God.

To me, a very important element in a meaningful experiential religion is that particular kind of experience which Maslow (1964, 1970) calls a peak-experience. What is this? It has been called by other names: mystical experience, a profoundly religious experience, a God experience, ecstasy, etc. There are

feelings of limitless horizons opening up to the vision, the feeling of being simultaneously more powerful and also more helpless than one ever was before, the feeling of great ecstasy and wonder and awe, the loss of placing in time and space with . . . the conviction that something extremely important and valuable has happened, so that the [person] is to some extent transformed and strengthened even in his daily life by such experiences [Maslow, 1970, p. 164].

In a peak, the whole universe is perceived as an integrated and unified whole. There is the sense of design, that every minute detail "fits," is "right."

This is not as simple a happening at one might imagine from the bare words themselves. To have a clear perception (rather than a purely abstract and verbal philosophical acceptance) that the universe is all of a piece and that one has his place in it-one is a part of it, one belongs in it-can be so profound and shaking an experience that it can change the person's character and his Weltarsschauung forever after [Maslow, 1964, p. 59].

In a peak, things tend to become equally important. Comparing this with our usual perceptions will help understanding here. Typically, we attend to the stimulus or configuration while the remainder fades into a background. We tend to feel some things are significant or important, others unimportant. But in a peak, somehow the totality becomes equally important. Every single part, one as much as another, is valued and prized.

In addition, each part has intrinsic worth, not because it might be useful to us or because we were "conditioned" to respond positively to it because of its association with some other valued object. Instead, the person more readily looks upon nature or whatever as there in itself and for itself, and does not project human purposes on it. The perceiving is relatively ego-transcending, unselfish, desireless, detached. It is felt as self-validating, highly valuable, It "proves" life is right, worthwhile, meaningful.

There is a disorientation of time and space in the sense of lack of our usual hyper-awareness of it. It is like experiencing universality and eternity, spacelessness and timelessness. The world is accepted, it is right, even evil seems to have its proper place in the whole of things; pain, disease and death are just there, unavoidable, part of the totality of things, meaningful, acceptable. Facts and values fuse, the secular and the sacred are inseparable. The person feels profoundly a sense of awe, reverence, wonder, humility, surrender and even worship. There is a sense of being passive, receptive, open. Past (and present) conflicts dissolve, resolve, evaporate. Unity, harmony, integration is the norm. One's own self unfolds. He feels less like an object, less a thing in the world living under the laws of the physical world, more a person, a spiritual being, less driven by needs and wants, more loving and accepting, more a free agent, having free will, more a perfect identity with one's own uniqueness, more nonstriving, more selfless, more spontaneous and honest and innocent. The experience easily moves into worship, giving thanks, adoration, giving praise to God (if there are religious overtones) and to an all-embracing love for everybody and everything, leading to an impulse to do something good for the world.

As Maslow notes, "practically everything that happens in the peak-experience ... could he listed under the headings of religious happenings [1964, p. 59]." Indeed, for me to think of it as an encounter with God has been illuminating, integrative and growthproducing.

What kinds of circumstances lead to a peak experience, i.e., what are the triggers? Here Laski (1961)
helps us. She found that people responded most frequently to nature; especially water and heights. Climbing mountains, trees and flowers, flight and songs of birds, the odor of flowers, trees, the earth, the stars, blue sky, clouds, weather including storms, sunrise and sunsets, all of these are some common triggers. Art-if of good quality-is an important stimulus, especially music but also sculpture and other art forms. Architecture is less so except for religious edifices and ruins, but towns or cities viewed as a whole are important. Sometimes private prayer, but more often meditation or contemplation, is significant. Rhythmical movement such as walking, jogging along on a horse, dance, the rhythm of waves lapping at a shoreline, etc., may induce ecstasies. Science, literature, poetry, art, sex, memories, introspection, foods and meals are other triggers.

But negative or desolation experiences are often triggers. Death and illness, ugly people (e.g., "a street-violinist with grey, unbrushed and tangled hair, a hare-lip, and a lame dog"), dirt and squalor, had weather, loneliness, feelings of falling or drowning or being crushed or overpowered, war, cold and darkness and gloom.

In contrast, certain situations are inhibitors or antitriggers. "Generally speaking they consist in anything that is inalienably associated with ordinary social life [Laski, p. 176]"-cares, commerce (e.g., advertising), conventionality, worldly enjoyments, crowds, the exercise of reason. Individual differences are paramount; what is a trigger for one person may have no effect on another (or to the same person at a different time) or may he an anti-trigger (especially with desolation triggers). Indeed, it seems possible to identify something as a trigger only retrospectively; to attempt to induce a peak experience is rarely successful. Drugs, of course, have long been used as triggers but with mixed results, often as artificial in result as in cause. Still, an openness, deep and pervasive, a quietness of spirit yet with a hunger or tension or need, the absence of hurrying, and being with oneself will probably, sooner or later, result in a peak experience.

Two final things should be noted. First, Maslow places peak experiences on a continuum, ranging from a very mild mystic experience to the acute, very intense experience where there is loss of self or transcendence of it. Secondly, while peak-experiences tend to characterize selfactualizing people, there are numerous eases of self-actualizing people who are "nonpeakers." Maslow notes these people tend to be practical and effective and are probably the social world improvers, the politicians, the workers in society, the reformers,the crusaders, whereas the transcending peakers are more apt to write the poetry, the music, the philosophies, and the religions. Nevertheless, the tendency for self-actualizers to have peak-experiences is Maslow's finding.

Maslow wants to view peak-experiences as naturalistic, i.e., without positing a God who is experienced and he emphasizes this at length. Bertocci (1966), however, is critical of this stance.

Why not let "peak" experiences joust with "religious" experiences without begging deeper epistemological and metaphysical issues? For the fact must still remain for the radically empirical psychologist that millions have had peak experiences which for them (on whatever epistemology) were connected with an encounter with (a certain kind of) Ultimate Being or God, and that this nnitive feeling was integral to the very being of the peak experience for them. It may well be that their peak experiences can, as Maslow thinks, he described generically in a more universal language, but their psychological state and behavior at core include the belief that their experience would not be possible if another kind of Being than the one they believed in were encountered. If Maslow is to he faithful to his own concern for non-reductionism, he may need to keep his humanistic-naturalism from tempting him to reduce the phenomena of religious experience into what might well be the lowest-common-denominator of a humanism that still is rather arbitrarily defined. The question: What is the nature of the total environment that stimulates, challenges, or impinges on Man? cannot be answered satisfactorily simply be describing human experience phenomenologically and without raising questions in religious epistemology and philosophical psychology.

Beyond this I would simply like to say that positing a God whom I encounter seems like a much more accurate reflection of my experience than his naturalistic framework.

Here, then, is an experiential content in religion. It is as old as religion itself; it is deeply embedded in the Christian's awareness of a personal God. Man has sought to find and to know God. God can be known. He has revealed Himself in nature and especially in Christ, but also, the Bible records the accounts of man's direct experiences of God. God can be known through these experiences. I would like to share such an experience, simple but profound. Walking down a quiet street a few years ago, I had a peak experience. In the midst of it, I began wondering about God and quickly realized the personal quality of a peak: the world/universe around me was not only right, good, desirable, unified, holistic and all the rest which Maslow describes, but permeating in and through, around and beyond all was Being which I can only describe by saying it was much more like relating to a person rather than an object. Tillich's "Ground-of-all-being" came to mind, and at that moment, the theological concept of omnpresence became experientially meaningful to me. Even more than that was the sense of personality, omnipresent, but person-characterized, as if I were in communication with the omnipresent person of God.
To summarize, I have emphasized the importance of the experiential in learning and knowing. I regard religion and peak experiences as much a learning or knowing as science or other scholarly pursuits. I am saying that whether one is a child, (watching an insect, exploring a toy or understanding geometry), or a scientist (examining a bit of the universe), or a person reaching out to know God, there must be an experiential living into and through that which is to be known.


Bertocci, P. Review of A. H. Maslow: "Religions, Values and Peak Experiences, " Contemporary Psychology, 1966.
Deese, J. Psychology or Science and Art, New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1972.
Fisher, S. "Experiencing Your Body: You Are What You Feel," Saturday Review, July 8, 1972, 27-28.
Laski, M. Ecstasy, London: Cresset Press, Ltd., 1961.
Maslow, A. H. Religious, Values end Peak-experiences, Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1964.
Maslow, A. H. Motivation and Personality, New York: Harper and Row, 1970.
Polanyi, M. Personal Knowledge, New York: Harper and Row, 1958.
Polanyi, M. The Tacit Dimension, New York: Doubleday and Co., 1966.