Religious Experience is a non-empirical occurrence which may even be perceived as supernatural. It is a “mental-event” which is undergone by an individual, and of which that person is aware – a subjective experience. Such an experience can be spontaneous, or it may be brought about as a result of intensive training and self-discipline. Recipients of religious experiences usually say that what has happened to them has “drawn them into” a deeper knowledge or awareness of God. It is very important to remember that the experience itself is not a substitute for the Divine, but a vehicle that is used to bring people closer to the Divine.
The experience that each individual has is absolutely unique and cannot be shared with anyone – they usually find it difficult to describe. In examining the different types of religious experience, a good place to start is prayer. Prayer includes every kind of inward communion or conversation with the power recognised as Divine. This includes adoration of God (praising God), confession, thanksgiving and petition (asking). Prayer in this wide sense is the very essence of religion – it is prayer which distinguishes the religious phenomenon from other phenomena such as the purely moral.
Many religious people claim that through a prayerful life they experience “coincidences” that make it seem that their life is guided, for example George Muller of Bristol who ran an orphanage and lived by prayer – his custom was never to run up bills, not even for a week; his biography reveals the vast number of times when it seemed there would be no food but someone would provide some. Another key form of religious experience is conversion. Conversion denotes the changing from one set of beliefs to another.
In religious terms a person can convert from one faith to another: from being an atheist to being a theist; from being a believer to a non-believer. Conversion can be a sudden process or a gradual one – often it involves feelings of guilt (a conviction of “sin”), a search for faith, sometimes voices but usually at least some sort of divine communication, and a resulting assurance or feeling of certainty. An example is the Apostle Paul on the Damascus Road – in Acts 9v1-18 Paul described himself as a new man, a “new creation”. John Wesley expressed similar sentiments: “I felt my heart strangely warmed.
I felt I trust in Christ, Christ alone, for salvation; and an assurance was given me, that He had taken away my sins, even mine… ” William James concludes that persons who have passed through conversion, tend to feel themselves identified with it, no matter how much their religious enthusiasm declines. One of the least understood aspects of religious experience is mysticism. This term has been used to cover everything from the experiences of the Great Mystics of each religious tradition, to mildly ecstatic, mysterious or occult experiences. Mysticism involves the spiritual recognition of truths beyond normal understanding.
It has been said that there are certain features which accompany such experiences which enable their recognition: the gaining of knowledge of the “Ultimate Reality” – this is knowledge which is normally hidden from the human intellect; a sense of freedom from the limitations of time, space and the human ego; a sense of “oneness” or unity with the Divine and a sense of bliss or serenity. Mysticism is seen as the closest a human being can ever come to actually meeting the Divine in this life. Mystical experiences can also be classified into two areas.
Firstly, the extrovertive variety is outward looking, and the plurality of objects are transfigured into a single entity. An example of an extrovertive mystic is Martin Buber. In his book Ich Es Ich Du he encourages people to engage with the wider world without agenda and seeking only to understand and form relationship, what he termed an ‘I-thou’ relationship. Secondly, mysticism can be introvertive – inward looking – when the person loses their identity as a separate individual and slowly merges into the divine unity. An example of an introvertive mystic is Teresa of Avila.
Whenever she had mystical experiences, she wrote, “When I return to myself, it is wholly impossible for me to doubt that I have been in God, and God in me. ” William James wrote that there are four qualities that make up religious experience. Firstly, ineffability means that the experience is unlike anything else the person has experienced, and cannot be conveyed to others. Then there is a noetic quality, meaning the person gains an insight into truths unobtainable by the intellect alone – they are revelations of eternal truths. Thirdly, religious experiences are transient. They do not last for long, usually half an hour or so.
Though they are remembered, they are imperfectly recalled, but recognised if they reoccur – the recipient usually feels a profound sense of the importance of the experience. Finally, religious experiences, especially mystical kinds, are passive. Mystical states can be helped by such things as “fixing the attention” or “going through certain bodily movements”, but when the state occurs, the mystic feels as if they are taken over by a superior power. This can result in a phenomena that suggests alternative personality states, such as prophetic speech, speaking in tongues. The scholar Rudolf Otto wrote about numinosity in religious experience.
This is when the person feels as if they are in the presence of an awesome power and yet they feel distinctly separate from it. However, some theologians are unhappy about such a concept being used to refer to the experience of God since it makes religion impersonal. Overall, religious experience is central to any religion and has been the basis of the establishing of many major religions, such as Christianity and Islam. It has a purpose of affirming God’s existence and engendering belief. To quote Joseph Barbera, “I’m anything but immune to the power and the majesty of the religious experience. ”