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Spiritual Experiences: A Quantitative-Phenomenological Approach

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AbstractThis essay concerns the specific benefits for empirical theology of hybrid quantitative-phenomenological approaches to the scientific study of spiritual experiences. These benefits are conveyed through the consideration of several quantitative techniques newly emerging at the current time. One such technique is the generation of multi-dimensional profiles of individual spirituality, which helps manage the semantic vagueness surrounding the word “spirituality” and thereby yields empirically more robust constructs for use in scientific research studies. Another technique is the creation of quantitative phenomenological signatures of recalled spiritual experiences that penetrate as deeply as possible into the neuropsychological hierarchy of structures, subject to what can be made accessible to human conscious awareness. By hewing close to the shared biological nature of our species’ emotional and cognitive capacities, this type of quantitative phenomenology generates a number of breakthroughs in the scientific study of spiritual experiences. These breakthroughs apply to areas such as developing neuropsychological models of spiritual experiences, studying spiritual experiences cross-culturally, stabilizing descriptive classifications of spiritual experiences, and rendering more exact the experimental study of spiritual experiences. For theologians, there can be no question of the scientific study of spiritual experiences proving or disproving extant theological interpretations. Rather, the theological payoff of quantifying spirituality is the generation of constraints that can render characteristically normative theological interpretations more and less plausible. This underlines the fundamental contention of this essay: that empirical theology requires a partnership in which the importance of distinctively theological questions is respected and the value of empirically derived constraints is prized.

Affiliations: 1: Boston University School of


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