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Professors begin research project on transformative experiences

| Monday, September 21, 2015

The Experience Project intends to shed light on religious and transformative experiences and their respective effects on people’s lives. The project is supported by a $5.1 million grant, co-directed by Notre Dame professors of philosophy Michael Rea and Samuel Newlands, as well as professor of philosophy Laurie Ann Paul of University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and awarded $1.7 million to 22 research projects in order to explore the long-held questions of these experiences.

“The psychology and sociology that we’re funding is all focusing on the concept of transformative experiences,” Rea said.  “Transformative experiences, in the sense that we’re interested in, are ones where you have no real access to what it’s like to have the experience or really what its value or disvalue might be to you until you have the experience.

“ … So what the psychologists and sociologists are exploring is, ‘What are some experiences that are transformative in this way? How do people make decisions about them? What kind of transformations are brought on by them?’”

Rea referred to an argument of his colleague, Paul, to illustrate one type of this experience.

“She’s argued that no amount of just being told what it’s like to have a kid … no amount of research of the topic is really going to tell you what the value or disvalue of that experience will be for you, or really what it would be like for you in particular to have a child, because it’s such an impactful event in your life. She thinks that there’s no way, really, to kind of make rational decisions whether to undertake this.”

According to a University press release, the Experience Project is funding a non-residential project called “Receptivity of God through Ritual,” by Terence Cuneo, a professor of philosophy at the University of Vermont.

“He’s exploring religious experience in liturgy,” Rea said. “ … sort of talking about the way in which the liturgies of the church help to kind of cultivate a sort of sense of the presence of God, a capacity for experiencing God, experiencing the presence of God, and so on.”

Rea hinted at the rarity of this type of research.

“We have a whole liturgical studies program here, but there aren’t many people that are doing the philosophy of liturgy,” Rea said. “So that’s one kind of exciting project.”

Rea described a funded residential project by a colleague that is exploring the nature and experience of divine forgiveness.

“One question he’s asking is what it is to be forgiven, what forgiveness consists in, what kind of standing God has to forgive our sins,” he said. “If I commit a sin against somebody, you couldn’t walk in and forgive me for that unless you’re the somebody I sinned against. So why can God walk in and forgive us for that? So [Cueno] is exploring those issues and also questions about just how it is that we experience God’s forgiveness.”

Rea said the project is still in its beginning stages and a lot of research is still in its infancy.

“We just had a big collaborative workshop with our scientists last weekend, where we … got summaries of all the psychology and sociology projects that are being done,” Rea said. “Some of the psychologists have actually started taking data already. I mean it’s all the very beginning stages, but they’ve got at least a month’s worth of data now.”

Rea said the project will develop in many forms including a book and a lecture series.

“My research project, under the auspices of this grant, is a book on divine hiddenness,” Rea said. “I’ve got a third to half of that book drafted. And that’s going to become [the] Gifford Lectures in 2017.

“ … Laurie and I are supposed to write an article together on religious experience and transformative experience that … draws on some of those connections.”

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About John Lombardo

Native of Munford, Tennessee. I'm a freshman living in Keenan Hall. I'm majoring in Italian (for now) and I play the baritone (oose) in marching band. I love to read, write, and explore.

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