The Experience Project awards $650,000 in second round of research funding

Author: Brian Wallheimer

Michael Rea Michael Rea Samuel Newlands Samuel Newlands L L.A. Paul

More than $650,000 has been awarded to 15 projects in the second year of a research collaboration aimed at building new understanding about how religious and transformative experiences occur and shape lives.

The Experience Project, a $5.1 million project supported by a grant from the John Templeton Foundation, awarded $1.7 million to 22 projects last year. The research program aims to answer questions about how religious experiences affect a person’s concept of God; how transformative experiences can affect a person’s identity, values, belief system and behaviors; and how religious and other types of transformative experiences differ.

It is co-directed by Michael Rea, a professor of philosophy, and Samuel Newlands, the William J. and Dorothy K. O’Neill Collegiate Associate Professor in Philosophy—both of the University of Notre Dame’s College of Arts and Letters—and L.A. Paul, a professor of philosophy at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s College of Arts and Sciences.

“Religious experiences can make a profound difference to how people experience their lives and understand their relationship with the divine, and they are among the most frequently cited sources of evidence for people’s religious convictions,” Rea said. “Understanding their nature and significance is consequently of prime importance not only for the academic study of religion, but also for everyday life.”

The Experience Project looks at different aspects of religious experience through the lenses of philosophy, theology, sociology, religious studies and psychology. There’s a special emphasis on “transformative experiences,” Rea said, which bring about remarkable transformation in people’s lives.

Paul said the work done to date, and the projects funded this year, are garnering attention. New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote about her book, and several more books will be published as a result of research supported by the program.

“Over the last year, we planted a seed, the plant grew, and now we’re starting to see it flower,” Paul said. “We feel like we’re changing the questions that people are asking, raising new questions and developing a conceptual framework for asking what’s important for people’s lives.”

Projects in this funding round include:

  • “Transcendence, Ineffability, and Mysticism,” by Lorraine Keller, from the Department of Philosophy at Niagara University. Keller will present a conception of divine ineffability, as well as explore the Carmelite mystic idea of the soul undergoing a purgative process in which an individual comes to grasp God’s nature.
  • “Ecstatic Vision: The Moral Perception of Human Value,” by Stephen Bush, an associate professor of religious studies at Brown University. Bush will write a book exploring human beings as the objects of mystical experiences, specifically the ways in which several authors tie human value to sacred or transcendent value.
  • “Religious Experience and Desire,” by Clare Carlisle of King’s College, and Fiona Ellis and John Cottingham of the University of London. The team will examine the connection between religious and spiritual experience and desire.
  • “Religious Trauma as Religious Experience,” by Michelle Panchuk, a fellow at Notre Dame’s Center for Philosophy of Religion. Panchuk will look at religious trauma from a philosophical perspective.

For a complete list of the projects receiving funding, or to learn more about the project, visit