Notre Dame and UNC-Chapel Hill philosophers to examine religious and transformative experiences

Author: Carrie Gates

The Experience Project

Whether as dramatic as the divine visions that inspired Mother Teresa’s work or as commonplace as the decision to have a child, certain events have the power to transform us.

To explore aspects of these religious and transformative experiences, philosophers Michael Rea and Samuel Newlands of the University of Notre Dame’s College of Arts and Letters and philosopher L.A. Paul from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s College of Arts and Sciences will co-direct “The Experience Project.”

With a generous grant from the John Templeton Foundation, the project will examine questions such as: When and why do people have experiences that transform them? What effects do specific transformative experiences have on a person’s identity, values, beliefs or behaviors? How might a religious experience affect a person’s concept of God? How are religious transformative experiences different from other sorts of transformative experiences?

The $4.8 million project encompasses four major research initiatives. The first seeks to support scholars in philosophy, theology and religious studies who will explore various aspects of religious experiences. The remaining three initiatives will focus on the philosophy, psychology and sociology of transformative experiences.

In total, The Experience Project will award funding to as many as 30 research teams. In addition, it will offer residential fellowships at both Notre Dame’s Center for Philosophy of Religion and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and invite scholars to a series of collaborative workshops.

“I am genuinely excited about the potential for interdisciplinary dialogue,” Rea said, “and for cross-fertilization — people discovering ideas and results from other disciplines that will be of real use to them in their research.”

Evidence of God

The University of Notre Dame is the ideal place to engage in questions of religious experience and transformation, noted Rea, a professor in the Department of Philosophy who also co-directs the Center for Philosophy of Religion with Newlands.

“This project will naturally immerse the researchers in the Catholic intellectual tradition,” he said. “And, the questions are significant not only to Christians, but to anyone whose beliefs and interests include religious experiences.”

Michael Rea Michael Rea

Led by Rea, the religious experience component of the project will evaluate what constitutes a religious experience, whether these experiences provide evidence of the existence of God, and how such experiences alter the course of an individual’s life.

Researchers will explore the commonality of various types of religious experience — from historic examples like Blaise Pascal’s “night of fire” to a modern churchgoer feeling awash in divine love during a Sunday service.

Rea also plans to examine the implications of not having a religious experience. In a world of religious ambiguity, he said, the phenomenon of “divine hiddenness” is often cited as evidence that God does not exist or does not care. While he does not expect to find a definitive explanation for the absence of religious experience, Rea hopes to “undercut the inference” that a hidden God is not a loving God.

“If divine love is only analogically related to human love,” said Rea, “then perhaps you can’t infer from the fact that God is hidden that God doesn’t love us.”

Ordinary, but momentous events

Religious experiences are just one type of life-changing event The Experience Project will examine. Other components of the project focus on the broader realm of transformative experiences — from a student joining the Peace Corps to a person hearing music for the first time after a cochlear implant.

Samuel Newlands Samuel Newlands

“A transformative experience,” said Paul, “is an enduring reorganization of a person’s thinking — for instance, his or her beliefs, attitudes, traits or emotions — that substantially alters life as one experiences it or lives it.”

Connecting these “ordinary, but momentous events people face every day” with precise philosophical and social science research, she said, has the potential to impact the decisions people make and the way they live their lives.

Paul, a professor in the Department of Philosophy at UNC-Chapel Hill, said she is particularly interested in examining life-changing choices — whether having a baby or entering the priesthood — whose impacts can only be truly understood after they occur.

To make such a decision rationally, Paul argues, requires a different mindset.

“You can’t know what the lived experience is going to be like, because it’s going to be so radically different from your previous experience,” she said. “What we have to do when we approach these big decisions is to think of it explicitly in terms of a discovery or a revelation.

“So, life involves taking the plunge by discovering what kind of person you’re going to be when you become a parent, for example. That’s what living your life authentically is all about.”

Life-changing experiences

Transformative experiences may be sudden or gradual, intentional or imposed, positive or negative, solitary or social. Whether they occur in the context of religion, family, social movement activism or another setting, they have the power to change not only our lives, but also our knowledge of what life can be like, Paul said.

L.A. Paul L.A. Paul

“Where an experience is both radically new and personally transformative — that’s where the interesting questions come up,” she said.

While Rea and Paul’s work will focus on philosophical questions, The Experience Project will also include research led by psychology director Fiery Cushman from Harvard University and sociology director Stephen Vaisey from Duke University.

Paul said she is particularly looking forward to jointly developing the project alongside psychologists and sociologists. This innovative approach, she said, “is making it possible for us to really push the frontiers of the idea forward.”

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Contact: Joshua Seachris, program director, Center for Philosophy of Religion, 574-631-5377,