The Problem of Perception and the Perception of God: John McDowell and the Theology of Religious Experience

Thumbnail Image




Griffiths, Paul J

Journal Title

Journal ISSN

Volume Title

Repository Usage Stats



A fundamental problem in Christian theology has been that of determining whether God is available to us in experience, and if so how to account for the nature of that availability and the role that putative perceptions of God have in informing and justifying our theological claims. In addressing this matter, it has become widely assumed amongst Christian philosophers and theologians that this problem - the problem of Christian religious experience - cannot be adequately addressed without also confronting some problems about the nature of perceptual experience per se. How does our ordinary perceptual experience manage to make the world available to our thinking, such that what we think, say and do manages to reach out to the world - to be "about" it? Conversely, how does the world manage to "reach in" to impress itself on us in our experiences, such that our experiences manage to be "of" it? In what way does the world's bearing on us in experience determine whether what we think, say or do is correct?

These have all come to be regarded as thorny philosophical worries about perceptual experience per se, and they all cluster around the fundamental question of how it is that experience makes possible the rational answerability of our intentions to the world. Clearly, it would seem, we cannot address the theological problem of God's perceptual availability to us without also confronting the philosophical "problem of perception." Accordingly, contemporary Christian philosophers and theologians have invariably appropriated various theories addressed to the problem of perception in the course of accounting for how it is that our theological talk manages to be "about" God.

Such theories are then incorporated into one of two kinds of stories, either a cataphatic one in which God's bearing on us in experience is mediated into our language in a straightforward and ordinary way or an apophatic one in which God's entry into thought and speech in experience is an exception to the ordinary situation. The thesis I defend in this dissertation is just that our theological interest in the question of God's perceptual availability can and should be thoroughly disentangled from the problem of perception. Prima facie, that claim seems utterly counterintuitive. If there are difficulties that attend the concept of perceptual experience itself - difficulties about how any mind-independent realities can be made available to us in experience - then any question about what it is to perceive God must confront those difficulties. But the central claim I entertain is just that - contrary to all appearances - there in fact are no such difficulties. Rather, the assumption that we are in fact confronted with genuine philosophical worries about how experience can possibly inform and guide our thinking is false. Moreover, this has led to theological claims about the nature and modes of God's self-revelation which are not merely correspondingly false, but instead they have failed to be so much as coherently intelligible.

In order to address the problem of the nature and theological significance of the perceptibility of God, therefore, we must first free it from the philosophical problem of perception. Chapter 1 sets up this problematic and identifies the aim of disentangling our theologies of religious experience from the problem of perception as an exercise in theological "therapy." That therapy involves five steps, which occupy the remainder of the work. The first is to offer some reasons for thinking that the philosophical problem of perception is in fact a pseudo-problem and that the theories addressed to it are necessarily incoherent. Here I look to John McDowell's recent deconstruction of the problem of perception, on whose strategy I elaborate in Chapter 2. McDowell argues that the problem of perception is ill-conceived just insofar as its various formulations require a solution of one of two sorts, what he calls a "Givenist" or else a "Coherentist" solution. Givenism names the world's giving or impressing of a mental content upon the norms of our thinking which is itself independent of those norms, while Coherentism claims no need to acknowledge any standards of correctness as inhering in the world itself in any sense independent of humanly established norms. Instead, the rational answerability of our thinking to the world in experience can be accounted for precisely in terms of our irreducibly norm-governed dispositions to respond both to it and to one another.

But neither Givenism nor Coherentism can possibly succeed in characterizing "experience" as making us rationally answerable to the world, McDowell argues, because Givenism necessarily requires that our answerability fails to be a properly rational one, while Coherentism necessarily requires that our rational responses fail to be properly answerable to the world, rather than merely to our own responsive dispositions. Since each view has what the other lacks in order to minimally make sense of "experience" as a kind of rational answerability to the world, they have been locked in a vicious and "interminable oscillation." To hold together both Givenism's conception of answerability and Coherentism's conception of the irreducibly rational constitution of that answerability in the most minimally consistent way, however, does not yield a new philosophical theory of "experience" so much as simply returning us to our naïvely held view that in experience our thinking is capable of directly taking in or being presented with the way the world is anyway, the way it would be for humans even if no humans were in fact equipped to recognize it as such.

Having singled out the problem and entitled ourselves to ignore it as failing to surface any genuine philosophical worry, my second task is to show that contemporary approaches to the problem of God's perceptual availability to us in experience are in fact essentially wedded to the pseudo-problem, and as such that they are inheritors of its incoherence. In Chapters 3 and 4 I deploy the McDowellian strategy to critique some recent and influential accounts of our perceptual relation to God, both cataphatic and apophatic. Accordingly, I argue that Jean-Luc Marion ought to be regarded as offering us a theological Givenism of an apophatic sort, while William P. Alston relies on a theological Givenism of a cataphatic sort. Victor Preller and Kevin Hector, on the other hand, present us with theological Coherentisms of an apophatic and cataphatic sort, respectively.

Once we manage to see how these theologies of religious experience are implicated in the incoherence of the problem of perception, however, we can turn from the more critical and ground-clearing deconstruction to a more positive direction in Chapter 5. My third task is therefore that of determining just what we must minimally affirm in order to avoid falling into the oscillation between Givenism and Coherentism. Here again I follow McDowell in holding that such a minimal empiricism is best captured by what he calls a "naturalized platonism." Having "backed into" a naturalized platonism, however, we can see that it simply articulates our naïve realist conception of experience as directly "taking in" the world itself as a normative standard of correctness for our experiences of it and responses to it. This raises the question, however, of how we were ever tempted out of this "naiveté" and into the compulsion to theorize the world's presentations to us in a Givenist or Coherentist way.

The fourth task I take up in Chapter 5 is therefore that of giving a broad sociological explanation of the wide cultural impact of that compulsion, not only upon philosophers, or even theologians, but across diverse registers of society in the modern Western and secular social orders. McDowell, for his part, gestures toward a Weberian genealogy of the problem of perception as a particularly modern prejudice which arises from a disenchanted conception of nature that arose in and around the birth of the sciences. That genealogy however, is inadequate to account for the nature and scope of the problem of perception as a religious problem. I therefore look to Charles Taylor to show how his narrative of disenchantment offered in A Secular Age can serve to correct and buttress McDowell's genealogy. Integrating McDowell's story with Taylor's turns out to have a mutually chastening effect on one another which helps us to distinguish between a genuine freedom from the characteristically modern problem of perception in our theological reflection and the nostalgic fantasy of a return to the "innocence" of a premodern conception of nature as a desirable or achievable aim.

Fifthly and finally, we must be able to see how the newly clarified freedom of theology from the problem of perception secured in the foregoing chapters actually reorients us toward the titular question which the problem of perception has served to obfuscate: the theological question of how to properly characterize our perceptual relation to God. Chapter 6 offers a critical retrieval of Gregory of Nyssa's theology of the "spiritual senses" as a performative display of how we might theologically account for our perceptual relation to God in a way cut free from the problem of perception. In Gregory I find a viable contemporary theological empiricism - an account which characterizes both tasks of theological contemplation and spiritual formation in terms of a receptivity and responsiveness to the perceptible presence and agency of God in the world. The constructive account I appropriate from Nyssen requires further elaboration, but my aim in articulating it is not so much to demonstrate its correctness as to show how it manages to surmount a minimal obstacle that the most influential accounts do not manage to clear - that of consistency with a minimal empiricism which is neither Givenist nor Coherentist.


Doctor of Theology




Yadav, Sameer (2014). The Problem of Perception and the Perception of God: John McDowell and the Theology of Religious Experience. Dissertation, Duke University. Retrieved from


Dukes student scholarship is made available to the public using a Creative Commons Attribution / Non-commercial / No derivative (CC-BY-NC-ND) license.