What Is Religious Experience?

Most religions do not purport to be simply a system of doctrines that people follow. There is also a strong experiential component to religion. People report everything from a sense of peace and well-being that comes with religious belief, to spectacular visions and experiences that are tied to religious belief. Many cite these experiences as being that which once and for all confirms the doctrine of the religion, or the God of the religion. We have to recognize that there are several kinds of religious experience we could be talking about here:

1. Interpretive Experiences

Sometimes a person sees an experience as religious not because of any unusual features of the experience itself, but because it is viewed in light of a prior religious framework.

- For instance, someone might see an illness as an opportunity to learn through suffering.

- Or, one might suffer injustice in silence because they see this as the same as Christ's silent suffering.

- Some experiences seem to be an answer to prayer. William James reports a sailor in 1689 whose ship had been overcome by pirates. The man fought the pirates, but came to a point where he needed something to strike with. He prayed "Lord, what shall I do now?", and at that point, remembered a knife in his pocket. He broke free from those holding him, got the knife, and killed some pirates.
There are lots of examples like this in religious literature. People get jobs, find objects, have their lives saved by some coincidence.

- Some people connect paranormal experiences that have no specific religious content as being religious. One woman went to a movie with her husband, leaving her baby in the care of a sitter. When she got to the movie, she felt very uneasy and smelled burning. She went home, and saw that the baby-sitter had fallen asleep, dropped a cigarette, and the house was on fire. Both baby and sitter were saved, and the woman ascribed this to God's intervention.

The point here is that none of these cases had any intrinsic religious content, but were interpreted religiously.

2. Quasi-Sensory Experiences

Here we have experiences in which the primary element is a physical sensation from one of the recognized senses. This includes visions, dreams, voices, and other sounds, smells, etc. It also includes the feeling of rising up (levitation).

a) One type of experience we might talk about is a direct vision or presence of a spiritual entity. Paul on the road to Damascus, Sadhu Sundar Singh's vision of Christ before he became a Christian, disciple's post-resurrection encounters with Jesus.

b) More commonly, there is a sense that a divine entity sent a message, like a picture. No one considers that there really is anything there (therefore, this is like an hallucination), but this sort of vision is often seen as a valid source of religious insight. The author of The Cloud of Unknowing says that this type of vision is given to illuminate religious truths.

c) There are also experiences which have no religious content at all. Light is the most common sensory experience here. R. M. Bucke reports an experience of a flame-coloured cloud. Most mystics see this sort of vision as trivial.

3. Revelatory Experiences

This is what the subjects might call sudden convictions, conversion, inspiration, revelation, enlightenment, the "mystical vision", and such like. They are not just mystical experience (we're coming to that one), but have other characteristics:

a) They are sudden and of short duration, although the effects may last a lifetime;

b) The new knowledge was acquired immediately, and not through logical or perceptual means;

c) The new knowledge has been "poured upon" the subject by an external agency;

d) The revelations carry with them utter conviction, more even than comes with sense perception;

e) The insights gained are often impossible to put into words.

There is a sense, then, of "knowing". This occurs wherever there is religion. The knowledge may be a prophecy of some sort, easily expressed, or it may be completely comprehensive, and impossible to express. Often there is a sense of "understanding everything" -- like with Boehme's pewter dish experience of 1600.

This is not necessarily an emotional experience, although sometimes it is very emotional. These experiences are also often treated with skepticism by the church or religious bodies in general. They are often subjected to scrutiny, and the experience of knowledge has turned out to be incorrect.

4. Regenerative Experiences

This is the most frequent type of religious experience among ordinary people (that is, non-mystics, prophets, psychics). It includes a wide range of experiences -- new hope, joy, strength, comfort, peace, security. They are seen as religious because they are obtained during a religious exercise such as prayer, and they are apparently brought about by divine agency. The experience could be sudden or gradual, strong or weak, vague or specific.

The regenerative experience is fundamentally a meaning-bearing experience. Victor Frankl, in Man's Search for Meaning, talks about getting through a Nazi prison camp. He said that the only thing that gave him strength was the conviction that there is meaning in life. He felt hopeless, and his hopelessness was met with the assurance that there is an ultimate purpose.

5. Numinous Experiences

Rudolph Otto, in The Idea of the Holy, attempts a phenomenological description of "the holy". The holy is a combination of supreme moral goodness, and something more fundamental -- the "numinous". The feeling of numinous consists in two things:

A. "creature-consciousness": that is, the feeling that humanity is despicable before eternal majesty;

B. "mysterium tremendum":
a) awe or dread before the numen;
b) the sense of being completely overpowered in the presence of such majesty;
c) an experience of intense, almost unbearable energy or urgency;
d) the sense that the numen is "wholly other";
e) a fascination or with or attraction to the numen, and rapture upon contact with it.

A numinous experience may exhibit one or all of these conditions. There are lots of historical examples of creature-consciousness, although there are fewer in recent years. (What is man, that though art mindful of him?) As for the mysterium tremendum, examples can also be found all over the place -- Isaiah, the revelation of Krishna to Arjuna, recorded in the Bhagavad Gita. Sometimes evil has a similar numinous quality to it.