Religion as Experience: On the Way to an Interpretive Psychology of Religion

Religion as Experience: On the Way to an Interpretive Psychology of Religion

Another paper presenting an approach to interpretive cultural psychology of religion is finished. The underlying theoretical and methodological approach is located within a hermeneutical, interpretive framework of the psychology of religion grounded on action and experience theory. It emerges from recently accomplished empirical research on religious self-concepts of Protestant missionaries and focuses on the evaluation, interpretation and comparative analysis of autobiographical narratives that supplied a rich fund of substantial experiences, events, and themes ranging from motivational factors for their mission over experiences during their current activities to post-mission reflections. This theoretical and methodological framework facilitates the sensitization for the complexity and diversity of individual religiosity and spirituality. Besides that, it addresses the methodical principles of comparative analysis in empirical research on religion from a cultural psychological perspective. In this sense, the paper opens the study of articulations of subjective (first-hand) experiences in everyday life and at hand links perspectives of narrative psychology with qualitative social research in the psychology of religion.
The following elements are constitutive to this approach:

  1. It is based on the ‘interpretive paradigm’ (Wilson, 1974) and interested in generating a grounded theory based on empirical data.
  2. With the means of reconstructive, qualitative research methods, it aims at investigating religious interpretations and explanations of individual religiosity and spirituality.
  3. ‘Experience’ is seen as a holistic concept that contains both cognitive modes of ‘to-accept-something-as-true’ as well as personal attitudes, emotions and affective states and it is inextricably associated with the practical and communicative relations of an individual to the world (Joas, 2002).
  4. ‘Experience’ is embedded in an action-theoretical framework: The focus is on mutual relations between experience and action, expectancy and unexpected events. Hereby, the individual ability to articulation is emphasized. Language as a medium to express subjective qualities of experiences cannot resolve the tension between the ‘sayable and the unsayable’ (Castoriadis, 1984), but has the ability to articulate this precarious tension in certain ways. One possible approach for the exploration of these tension lies in the analysis of autobiographical narratives. In story-telling subjects can reveal different perspectives about their own life and self. Therefore, the perspective of ‘first-person’ (the so-called ‘first-hand experience’) is captured in the approach presented.
  5. Reductionist positions that remain in ‘critical distance to validity claims of religious belief’ (Jung, 1999: 364; trans. MA) are incorporated productively: First, verbal descriptions of individual-related experiences are developed as close as possible to the reality of the subjects’ understanding and meaning (their ‘first-person-relationship’) without having to ensure that their normative or validity claims to be commonly acceptable. Second, the experiences of the subjects need to be reconsidered by showing possible alternative explanations and modes of (re-) reading and (re-) interpreting narratives. The used terms and explanations do not necessarily emerge in the self-interpretations of the individuals, and even need not be of common consent. Third, for the purpose of comparative analysis an external explanation and interpretation perspective is included by reference to horizons of comparison and counter-horizons (‘Vergleichs-, Gegenhorizonte’; cf. Straub, 2006).


Castoriadis, Cornelius (1984). The Sayable and the Unsayable: Homage to Merleau-Ponty. In idem (Ed.), Crossroads in the Labyrinth (pp. 119-144). Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press.

Joas, Hans (2002). On Articulation. Constellations, 9(4), 506–515.

Jung, Matthias (1999). Erfahrung und Religion: Grundzüge einer hermeneutisch-pragmatischen Religionsphilosophie [Experience and Religion: Formation of an Hermeneutic-Pragmatic Philosophy of Religion]. Freiburg i.B., München: Alber.

Straub, Jürgen (2006). Understanding cultural differences: Relational hermeneutics and comparative analysis in cultural psychology. In Jürgen Straub, Doris Weidemann, Carlos Kölbl & Barbara Zielke (Eds.), Pursuit of meaning: Theoretical and methodological advances in cultural and cross-cultural psychology (pp. 163–213). Bielefeld: transcript.

Wilson, Thomas P. (1974). Theorien der Interaktion und Modelle soziologischer Erklärung. In Arbeitsgruppe Bielefelder Soziologen (Hrsg.), Alltagswissen, Interaktion und gesellschaftliche Wirklichkeit (pp. 54-59). Reinbek bei Hamburg: Rowohlt.

Publication: Arnold, M. (2011, in review). Religion as Experience. In H. Westerink (Ed.), Constructs of Meaning and Religious Transformation. Vienna University Press (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht).

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Dr. Maik Arnold is Professor for Non-Profit-Management and Vice-President for Research, Innovation and Transfer at University of Applied Science Dresden.