The psychology of religious experience : a qualitative approach
Fick, Carol Marie
This study examined religious experience in ten evangelical participants recognized by peers. Supplementary information was obtained from two additional participants, one a mentor to a participant, and one religiously uninvolved. Through qualitative approaches in analyzing interview transcripts, a core category of religious experience emerged, and its relationships to other factors were delineated in a model. Typical questionnaire approaches measure linear relationships among religious and psychosocial variables. Such studies are limited because of extraneous effects of factors such as age or religious affiliation, because questionnaire items may not accurately reflect experiences, and because some relationships among variables are nonlinear. In contrast, the present study used an open-ended approach, with minimal pre-imposed structure. The core category of religious experience is conceptualized as a synergizing process, which includes elements such as cognitive learning, personal faith application, collective spiritual insight, complementary interactions with God, or being healed. It is a holistic, meaning-making process whose components cannot be meaningfully separated. Furthermore, it is embedded in a context of individual and cultural variables which effect considerable variation among individual religious experiences. Study findings challenge aspects of some theories of religious development, which propose hierarchical development, invariant sequence of stages, and universality. Although religious experience is presented as an ongoing process, the study emphasizes the uniqueness of individual experiences, variations in development, and influences of contextual variables. It is proposed that individuals are either engaged in or disengaged from the synergizing process, with an emphasis on the fluid processes leading to these states, rather than on placing persons into trait-like categories. Regarding generalization of results, it is proposed that the present model may represent the ideal evangelical experience or that of highly committed evangelicals. Persons may be affiliated with an evangelical denomination and not be actively involved in the process of religious experience identified by the model. Application of the model to dissimilar religious groups and to nonreligious processes is discussed. The study is relevant to broader issues of ontology, epistemology and methodology. Because it takes a postpositivist position in studying material typically associated with constructivist ideology, assumptions from both of these views are challenged and clarified.