What is Religious Experience?

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A religious experience (sometimes known as a spiritual experience, sacred experience, or mystical experience) is a subjective experience which is interpreted within a religious framework.

The concept originated in the 19th century, as a defense against the growing rationalism of Western society. William James popularised the concept.

Many religious and mystical traditions see religious experiences (particularly that knowledge which comes with them) as revelations caused by the divine agency rather than ordinary natural processes.

They are considered real encounters with God or gods, or real contact with higher-order realities of which humans are not ordinarily aware.

Skeptics may hold that religious experience is an evolved feature of the human brain amenable to normal scientific study.

The commonalities and differences between religious experiences across different cultures have enabled scholars to categorize them for academic study.

Origins

The notion of “religious experience” can be traced back to William James, who used the term “religious experience” in his book, The Varieties of Religious Experience.

It is considered to be the classic work in the field, and references to James’ ideas are common at professional conferences. James distinguished between institutional religion and personal religion.

Institutional religion refers to the religious group or organization and plays an important part in a society’s culture. Personal religion, in which the individual has a mystical experience, can be experienced regardless of the culture.

The origins of the use of this term can be dated further back. In the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries, several historical figures put forth very influential views that religion and its beliefs can be grounded in the experience itself.

While Kant held that moral experience justified religious beliefs, John Wesley in addition to stressing individual moral exertion thought that the religious experiences in the Methodist movement (paralleling the Romantic Movement) were foundational to religious commitment as a way of life.

Wayne Proudfoot traces the roots of the notion of “religious experience” to the German theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768–1834), who argued that religion is based on a feeling of the infinite.

The notion of “religious experience” was used by Schleiermacher and Albert Ritschl to defend religion against the growing scientific and secular critique, and defend the view that human (moral and religious) experience justifies religious beliefs.

The notion of “religious experience” was adopted by many scholars of religion, of which William James was the most influential.

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A broad range of western and eastern movements have incorporated and influenced the emergence of the modern notion of “mystical experience“, such as the Perennial philosophy, Transcendentalism, Universalism, the Theosophical Society, New Thought, Neo-Vedanta, and Buddhist modernism.

Related terms

  • Ecstasy – In ecstasy, the believer is understood to have a soul or spirit which can leave the body. In ecstasy, the focus is on the soul leaving the body and to experience transcendental realities. This type of religious experience is characteristic for the shaman.
  • Enthusiasm – In enthusiasm – or possession – God is understood to be outside, other than or beyond the believer. A sacred power, being or will enter the body or mind of an individual and possesses it. A person capable of being possessed is sometimes called a medium. The deity, spirit or power uses such a person to communicate with the immanent world. Lewis argues that ecstasy and possession are basically one and the same experience, ecstasy being merely one form which possession may take. The outward manifestation of the phenomenon is the same in that shamans appear to be possessed by spirits, act as their mediums, and even though they claim to have mastery over them, can lose that mastery (Lewis: 1986).
  • Mystical experience – Mystical experiences are in many ways the opposite of numinous experiences. In the mystical experience, all ‘otherness’ disappear and the believer becomes one with the transcendent. The believer discovers that he or she is not distinct from the cosmos, the deity or the other reality, but one with it. Zaehner has identified two distinctively different mystical experiences: natural and religious mystical experiences (Charlesworth: 1988). Natural mystical experiences are, for example, experiences of the ‘deeper self’ or experiences of oneness with nature. Zaehner argues that the experiences typical of ‘natural mysticism’ are quite different from the experiences typical of religious mysticism (Charlesworth: 1988). Natural mystical experiences are not considered to be religious experiences because they are not linked to a particular tradition, but natural mystical experiences are spiritual experiences that can have a profound effect on the individual.
  • Spiritual awakening – A spiritual awakening usually involves a realization or opening to a sacred dimension of reality and may or may not be a religious experience. Often a spiritual awakening has lasting effects on one’s life. The term “spiritual awakening” may be used to refer to any of a wide range of experiences including being born again, near-death experiences, and mystical experiences such as liberation and enlightenment.

Perennial philosophy

According to the Perennial philosophy, the mystical experiences in all religions are essentially the same.

It supposes that many, if not all of the world’s great religions, have arisen around the teachings of mystics, including Buddha, Jesus, Lao Tze, and Krishna. It also sees most religious traditions describing a fundamental mystical experience, at least esoterically.

A major proponent in the 20th century was Aldous Huxley, who “was heavily influenced in his description by Vivekananda’s neo-Vedanta and the idiosyncratic version of Zen exported to the west by D.T. Suzuki. Both of these thinkers expounded their versions of the perennialist thesis“, which they originally received from western thinkers and theologians.

Transcendentalism and Unitarian Universalism

Transcendentalism was an early 19th-century liberal Protestant movement, which was rooted in English and German Romanticism, the Biblical criticism of Herder and Schleiermacher, and the skepticism of Hume.

The Transcendentalists emphasized an intuitive, experiential approach to religion. Following Schleiermacher, an individual’s intuition of truth was taken as the criterion for truth.

In the late 18th and early 19th century, the first translations of Hindu texts appeared, which were also read by the Transcendentalists, and influenced their thinking.

They also endorsed universalist and Unitarianist ideas, leading to Unitarian Universalism, the idea that there must be truth in other religions as well since a loving God would redeem all living beings, not just Christians.

New Thought

New Thought promotes the ideas that Infinite Intelligence, or God, is everywhere, the spirit is the totality of real things, true human selfhood is divine, divine thought is a force for good, sickness originates in the mind, and “right thinking” has a healing effect.

New Thought was propelled along by a number of spiritual thinkers and philosophers and emerged through a variety of religious denominations and churches, particularly the Unity Church, Religious Science, and Church of Divine Science.

The Home of Truth, which belongs to the New Thought movement has, from its inception as the Pacific Coast Metaphysical Bureau in the 1880s, disseminated the teachings of the Hindu teacher Swami Vivekananda.

Theosophical Society

The Theosophical Society was formed in 1875 by Helena Blavatsky, Henry Steel Olcott, William Quan Judge and others to advance the spiritual principles and search for Truth known as Theosophy.

The Theosophical Society has been highly influential in promoting interest, both in west and east, in a great variety of religious teachings:

No single organization or movement has contributed so many components to the New Age Movement as the Theosophical Society […] It has been the major force in the dissemination of occult literature in the West in the twentieth century.

The Theosophical Society searched for ‘secret teachings‘ in Asian religions. It has been influential on modernist streams in several Asian religions, notably Hindu reform movements, the revival of Theravada Buddhism, and D.T. Suzuki, who popularized the idea of enlightenment as insight into a timeless, transcendent reality.

Another example can be seen in Paul Brunton’s A Search in Secret India, which introduced Ramana Maharshi to a western audience.

Orientalism and the “pizza effect”

The interplay between western and eastern notions of religion is an important factor in the development of modern mysticism. In the 19th century, when Asian countries were colonized by western states, a process of cultural mimesis began.

In this process, Western ideas about religion, especially the notion of “religious experience” were introduced to Asian countries by missionaries, scholars and the Theosophical Society, and amalgamated in a new understanding of the Indian and Buddhist traditions.

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This amalgam was exported back to the West as ‘authentic Asian traditions‘, and acquired a great popularity in the west. Due to this western popularity, it also gained authority back in India, Sri Lanka and Japan.

The best-known representatives of this amalgamated tradition are Annie Besant (Theosophical Society), Swami Vivekananda and Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan (Neo-Vedanta), Anagarika Dharmapala, a 19th-century Sri Lankan Buddhist activist who founded the Maha Bodhi Society, and D.T. Suzuki, a Japanese scholar and Zen-Buddhist.

A synonymous term for this broad understanding is nondualism. This mutual influence is also known as the pizza effect.

Causes of religious experiences

Religious practices: traditions offer a wide variety of religious practices to induce religious experiences:

  • Extended exercise, often running in a large communal circle, which is used in various tribal and neo-pagan religions.
  • Praying
  • Music
  • Dance, such as Sufi whirling
  • Extreme pain, such as mortification of the flesh
  • Meditation: Meditative practices are used to calm the mind, and attain states of consciousness such as nirvikalpa samadhi. Meditation can be focused on the breath, concepts, mantras, symbols.
  • Questioning or investigating (self)representations/cognitive schemata, such as Self-enquiry, Hua Tou practice, and Douglas Harding’s on having no head.

Drugs: religious experiences may also be caused by the use of entheogens, such as:

Neurophysiological origins: Religious experiences may have neurophysiological origins. These are studied in the field of neurotheology, and the cognitive science of religion, and include near-death experience and the “Koren helmet” Causes may be:

  • Temporal lobe epilepsy, as described in the Geschwind syndrome;
  • Stroke
  • Profound depression or schizophrenia

Christian mysticism

Christian doctrine generally maintains that God dwells in all Christians and that they can experience God directly through belief in Jesus, Christian mysticism aspires to apprehend spiritual truths inaccessible through intellectual means, typically by emulation of Christ.

William Inge divides this scala perfectionis into three stages: the “purgative” or ascetic stage, the “illuminative” or contemplative stage, and the third, “unitive” stage, in which God may be beheld “face to face.

The third stage, usually called contemplation in the Western tradition, refers to the experience of oneself as united with God in some way.

The experience of union varies, but it is first and foremost always associated with a reuniting with Divine love. The underlying theme here is that God, the perfect goodness, is known or experienced at least as much by the heart as by the intellect since in the words of 1 John 4:16:

“God is love, and he who abides in love abides in God and God in him.”

Some approaches to classical mysticism would consider the first two phases as preparatory to the third, explicitly mystical experience; but others state that these three phases overlap and intertwine.

Hesychasm

Based on Christ’s injunction in the Gospel of Matthew to “go into your closet to pray“, Hesychasm in tradition has been the process of retiring inward by ceasing to register the senses, in order to achieve an experiential knowledge of God.

The highest goal of the Hesychast is the experiential knowledge of God. In the 14th Century, the possibility of this experiential knowledge of God was challenged by a Calabrian monk, Barlaam, who, although he was formally a member of the Orthodox Church, had been trained in Western Scholastic theology.

Barlaam asserted that our knowledge of God can only be propositional. The practice of the Hesychasts was defended by St. Gregory Palamas.

Islam

While all Muslims believe that they are on the pathway to God and will become close to God in Paradise – after death and after the “Final Judgment” – Sufis believe that it is possible to become close to God and to experience this closeness while one is alive.

Sufis believe in a tripartite way to God as explained by a tradition attributed to the Prophet:

“The Shariah are my words (aqwal), the tariqa are my actions (amal), and the haqiqa is my interior states (ahwal)”. Shariah, tariqa, and haqiqa are mutually interdependent. The tariqa, the ‘path’ on which the mystics walk, has been defined as ‘the path which comes out of the Shariah, for the main road is called Shar, the path, Tariq.”

No mystical experience can be realized if the binding injunctions of the Shariah are not followed faithfully first. The path, tariqa, however, is narrower and more difficult to walk.

It leads the adept, called Salik (wayfarer), in his Suluk (wandering), through different stations (maqam) until he reaches his goal, the perfect Tauhid, the existential confession that God is One.

Buddhism

In Theravada, Buddhism practice is described in the threefold training of discipline (śīla), meditative concentration (samādhi), and transcendent wisdom (prajñā).

Zen-Buddhism emphasizes the sole practice of meditation, while Vajrayana Buddhism utilizes a wide variety of practices. While the main aim of meditation and prajna is to let go of attachments, it may also result in a comprehension of the Buddha-nature and the inherent lucidness of the mind.

Different varieties of religious experience are described in detail in the Śūraṅgama Sūtra. In its section on the fifty skandha-maras, each of the five skandhas has ten skandha-maras associated with it, and each skandha-mara is described in detail as a deviation from correct samādhi.

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These skandha-maras are also known as the “fifty skandha demons” in some English-language publications.

It is also believed that supernormal abilities are developed from meditation, which are termed “higher knowledge” (abhijñā), or “spiritual power” (ṛddhi). One early description found in the Samyutta Nikaya, which mentions abilities such as:

… he goes unhindered through a wall, through a rampart, through a mountain as though through space; he dives in and out of the earth as though it were water; he walks on water without sinking as though it were earth; seated cross-legged, he travels in space like a bird; with his hands he touches and strokes the moon and sun so powerful and mighty; he exercises mastery with the body as far as the brahmā world.

Hinduism

Building on European philosophers, Radhakrishnan reduced religion “to the core experience of reality in its fundamental unity“.

According to Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, “Hinduism is not just a faith. It is the union of reason and intuition that cannot be defined, but is only to be experienced.

This emphasis on experience as validation of a religious worldview is a modern development, which started in the 19th century and was introduced to Indian thought by western Unitarian missionaries.

It has been popularized in Neo-Vedanta, which has dominated the popular understanding of Hinduism since the 19th century. It emphasizes mysticism.

Swami Vivekananda presented the teachings of Neo-Vedanta as radical nondualism, unity between all religions and all persons.

Meher Baba

According to the syncretistic Indian spiritual teacher Meher Baba, Spiritual experience involves more than can be grasped by mere intellect.

This is often emphasized by calling it a mystical experience. Mysticism is often regarded as something anti-intellectual, obscure and confused, or impractical and unconnected with experience. In fact, true mysticism is none of these.

There is nothing irrational in true mysticism when it is, as it should be, a vision of Reality. It is a form of perception which is absolutely unclouded, and so practical that it can be lived every moment of life and expressed in every-day duties.

Its connection with experience is so deep that, in one sense, it is the final understanding of all experience.

References:

*This article was originally published at en.wikipedia.org.

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