The Structure of Religious Experience

A Summary by Michael Edwards

Working Copy: 2nd edition 1946 published by Faber & Faber, London, 74pp. (First published 1936.)



1. The Field of Religious Experience

2. The Self in Religious Reflection

3. The Reference of Religious Ideas

This little book started life as the Terry Lectures at Yale University in April 1936. It is full of strong Macmurrian themes which are to be found in most of his writings produced throughout his life – such themes as the forms of human reflection being science, art and religion; their particular fields of interest; the capacity of all of them for objectivity — and so the capacity of all of them for error or badness; the mutuality of the self; religion’s need to develop into maturity. For this reason it has a subsidiary value as a quick reference to Macmurrian thought in a small compass, similar in this respect to Religion, Art and Science, a later work (1961, 78 pp.) Its explicit purpose, however, is to demonstrate the structure of religion as compared with the structure of other forms of human reflection. This it does clearly, succinctly and valuably with only a small amount of implicit evangelism. Religious people, wanting some guidance in their lives, may wish he’d said more about certain things, e.g. the reality of God, prayer, how certain traditional Christian doctrines stand up when looked at through his particular lens. However, it is a philosophical work. And having used enough examples to establish a point he rarely says more. The philosophy is, of course, carried out for a practical purpose – Macmurray’s contribution to the transformation of religion necessary if it is not to fade away. The Introduction gives the details.

The first chapter establishes the field of religious experience and could be selectively summarized as follows. Man is a creature capable of reflection and there are three main forms of reflection in which he indulges: science, art and religion. Each form can be brought to bear upon the whole field of human experience. However, each form has its own peculiar or particular attitude of mind and this attitude of mind determines which part of the whole field of experience is most interesting to it. The attitude of mind of science is interested in the world as different sorts of ‘stuff’ which we can use to achieve our ends. It is interested in causal properties, in generalities, in how much things resemble one another. The attitude of mind of art is interested in the intrinsic value of things, their particularity and uniqueness. The religious attitude of mind overarches the other two. It is, of course, interested in the usefulness and value of things, but it is also aware that part of our field of experience is other people. And that we are part of their field of experience. We can be mutually aware of one another and, inevitably, then mutually evaluate one another. The relationship is reciprocal and is, as far as we know, the only type of such relationship. We cannot live without relating to other people and religion realizes that we have to enter into fellowship with one another and so create community. We can pass judgement on ourselves and in doing so are both transcendent of experience and immanent in it. Transcendence and immanence are not just qualities of God, as some traditional doctrine has it, but of any person. The field of religion is the whole field of common experience organized in relation to the central fact of personal relationship.

In Chapter 2 Macmurray addresses the self in religious reflection and a central example he uses in the explication of this is that of a married couple – a couple who are attempting a fully personal relationship, that is, not a couple who have married merely for e.g. dynastic reasons. In describing the everyday experience of their common life he finds that he has had to use such words as fellowship, communion, enmity, estrangement, guilt, forgiveness, reconciliation. Such terminology is, of course, the common currency of religion, and Macmurray adduces this as evidence that the field of religion is the field of personal relationships. The chapter ends with an account of how the (true) idea of God arises. And the reality of God, like the reality of men, is verified, not primarily in ideas, but in action.

Chapter 3 deals with the reference of religious ideas. Reflective ideas of all forms gain their significance by being referred to the objective field that they are about. If they are referred correctly then you get true or good ideas. If they are referred incorrectly then you get false or bad ones. The field of religious reference is the field of personal relations. If, instead of referring religious ideas to the field of human relations in the world in which we actually live, we instead refer them to an imagined ‘other world’, a supernatural world, then this leads to one of the most widespread and vicious misdirections of the religious reference. And the religious attempt to bring about the communion of all men in the world will be vitiated. “It is one thing,” says Macmurray, “to realize that the world in which we live is wider and deeper than we know, and that there may be whole reaches of it and aspects of it which are hidden from our normal consciousness. It is quite another thing to hold that there is another world which is not this world at all. It is one thing to say that religion is about the other world. It is a very different thing to say that it is about an aspect of this world to which we are usually blind. The first is a falsification of religion which makes it unreal. The second is the truth of real religion.”