Religious Experience

Religious experience refers to the moment in which a believer has a revelation from God or another religious figure. Apart from conversations with God, religious experiences include miracles and other hard-to-explain phenomena. Theologians make the distinction between religious experiences and paranormal phenomena. While both experiences are extraordinary, the former is interpreted as an act of God, whereas the latter can be attributed to ghosts or poltergeists. Religious experiences can be achieved through the process of meditation or prayer.

Numen is a form of religious experience, described as a holy feeling by German theologian Rudolf Otto (1869-1937). According to Otto, numinous experiences are fundamentally different from any other kind of experiences. He identified two aspects of numinous experiences: mysterium trendum and mysterium fascinans. The former describes the tendency to invoke fear, whilst the latter stands for the tendency to fascinate. Other psychologists describe religious experiences as states of ecstasy, mystical experiences or spiritual awakening.

The Bible, the Christian holy scripture, gives a number of examples of religious experiences of Christians. For instance in the book of Exodus, God appears as a burning bush to Moses and orders him to lead the Israelites out of Egypt. In another example, Jesus appeared to Saul, who later became known as Paul the Apostle. Before the encounter with Jesus, Saul persecuted Christians but this event led to his conversion from Judaism to Christianity. Likewise, in the prison on the island of Patmos, John the Divine had a vision of the apocalypse, which he described in the Book of Revelation, the last book of the New Testament in the Bible.

Islamic scriptures also describe similar cases of religious experiences. Muhammad, the Prophet of Allah, was in a cave when he received his first revelation from Allah (Qur'an 96). The holy book of Islam, the Qur'an, was also verbally revealed by God through the angel Jibril to Mohammad from 610 CE to 630 CE. The surrounding world plays a major part in Muslim religious experiences. Muslims see signs of God in nature, in the community and in themselves. The instances where God reveals himself are referred to as "signs on the horizons" in the Qur'an.

Buddhist adherents go through religious experiences through detachment from the world. Buddhism describes religious experience as eight stages of Samadhi, or concentrated meditation. Hinduism also describes Samadhi as a religious experience. In Yoga Sutras, it is presented as complete control over the mind and consciousness. Samadhi has a vague definition of achieving awareness of existence without a conscious mental process.

Another central concept for the understanding of religious experiences in the East is nirvana, which is used both in Buddhism and Hinduism. Some sources define nirvana as the state of freedom from suffering or the complete peace of the mind. In Hinduism, nirvana is the liberation from the cycle of birth and death.

Religious experiences can take various forms. According to descriptions in the Bible, the presence of God often inflicts the sense of awe and wonder. Sometimes God reveals himself to people through miracles, which are events which go against the laws of nature. Such miracles include the unexpected recovery of sick people as a result of prayers. Other miracles can lead to the conversion of a person into the belief. Religious experiences include also mystic phenomena witnessed by the so-called mystics, who use mediation and other spiritual practices to reach God.

Catholic pilgrims flock to the French religious shrine of Lourdes in their thousands every year in search of religious experiences. Lourdes is where the Virgin Mary reportedly appeared to a Bernadette Soubirous, a 14-year-old girl in 1858. The Virgin Mary is reported to have said: "Pray and do penance for the conversion of the world." Up to 7,000 people have claimed they have been cured of their illnesses by visiting Lourdes since records began in 1883. However, religious experiences such as revelations are extremely difficult to prove and have been the subject of major debates.

Religious experience falls under the scope of contemporary science. Swiss psychiatrist and analytical psychologist Carl Jung (1875-1961) was particularly interested in spiritual phenomena and studied their occurrence in different religions. The field of medicine also studies religious experiences and attempts to explain them through functions of the brain. Some findings even suggest that neurological disorders can result in religious and mystical phenomena.

Selected full-text books and articles on this topic

The Significance of Religious Experience
Howard Wettstein.
Oxford University Press, 2012
Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature
William James.
Routledge, 2002
Religious Experience Reconsidered: A Building Block Approach to the Study of Religion and Other Special Things
Ann Taves.
Princeton University Press, 2009
Types of Religious Experience, Christian and Non-Christian
Joachim Wach.
University of Chicago Press, 1951
The Evidential Force of Religious Experience
Caroline Franks Davis.
Clarendon Press, 1999
Perceiving God: The Epistemology of Religious Experience
William P. Alston.
Cornell University Press, 1993
Religious Experience, Justification, and History
Matthew C. Bagger.
Cambridge University Press, 1999
Every Time I Feel the Spirit: Religious Experience and Ritual in An African American Church
Timothy J. Nelson.
New York University Press, 2004
The Life of Torah: Readings in the Jewish Religious Experience
Jacob Neusner.
Dickenson Publishing, 1974
How Religious Experience "Works": Jamesian Pragmatism and Its Warrants
Robinson, Daniel N.
The Review of Metaphysics, Vol. 56, No. 4, June 2003
Understanding Mysticism
Richard Woods.
Image Books, 1980
Eternal Values in Religion
James Bissett Pratt.
Macmillan, 1950
Librarian’s tip: Chap. VII "Knowledge and Religious Experience"
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