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Religious Experience
(Advanced Higher)

September 2000


Religious Experience
(Advanced Higher)

Support Materials
RMPS: Religious Experience (Advanced Higher)



Introduction and tutors guide


Student introduction and outcomes


The nature of religious experience




Faith perspectives on religious experience



Mystical experiences
St Theresa of Avila
Jacob Boehme
Simone Weil
Mysticism from a faith perspective
Personal conversion experiences
St Paul
St Ignatius Loyola
C S Lewis
Personal conversion from a faith perspective
Questions and activities

Secular perspectives on religious experience



Main features of religious experience

William James
Rudolph Otto
Religious experience today
Alister Hardy Research Centre (AHRC)
Richard Swinburne
Questions and activities

Psychological perspectives
Sigmund Freud
Carl Gustav Jung
Sociological perspectives
Emile Durkheim
Bryan Wilson
Questions and activities

Contemporary case studies


Toronto blessing




Useful web sites

RMPS: Religious Experience (Advanced Higher)

RMPS: Religious Experience (Advanced Higher)


This document must be read in conjunction with the National Unit Specification for
Religious Experience (Advanced Higher) and all associated literature.
The Unit requires a broad study of religious experience. This will involve a knowledge
and understanding of specific types of religious experiences, together with the ability to
analyse and evaluate them from a variety of perspectives. These perspectives will include
the religious perspective of those who have such experiences, together with their religious
traditions, as well as some secular perspectives.
These materials can provide no more than an introduction to a subject that requires a
certain expertise in a variety of disciplines. Much useful and relevant material resides in
books that are out of print and difficult to obtain. Some of these books, which are classic
texts in their respective fields, are available for perusal on the Internet. The Internet is a
rich source of information for this Unit. A list of useful web sites is given in section 8.
Students will find this a fascinating, if complex and sometimes confusing area of study.
The Unit attempts to chart a pathway through the morass of material. It is recommended
undertaking this journey in the order contained herein. You may wish, however, to begin
by engaging students in considering the writings of religious mystics and converts, before
considering the nature of religious experience. An excellent place to start would be the
Mysticism Resource web site at
If students have completed the RMPS course, such writings could be drawn from the
particular world religion that they have studied. They may well, equally, be drawn from
different world religions. These materials consider religious experiences from within
Christianity. The literature for religious experience from this perspective (for example
GCE A Level textbooks) is extensive and easily accessed, and is the reason for this
particular focus.
As they progress through the Unit, students should take care to isolate relevant issues that
arise from the material. Some of these issues are flagged up below. They need to bear in
mind that it is not just knowledge, but analysis and evaluation of this knowledge that is
important. Teachers will wish to consult the NAB exemplars for more details.

Learning and teaching approaches

Discussion is an important aspect of learning at this level. Students presenting papers to
the class (although classes will tend to be small) could achieve this. This procedure will
enable students critically to analyse each others work, which is likely to prove a
considerable motivating factor.
Use should be made of primary and secondary sources, for which see the bibliography in
section 7. All the books in the bibliography are in print and are up to date. Extensive use
should also be made of the Internet.

RMPS: Religious Experience (Advanced Higher)

RMPS: Religious Experience (Advanced Higher)


The unit is about the phenomenon known as religious experience. Studies have shown
this phenomenon to be more widespread than many people tend to think. You will be
exploring a variety of religious experiences, and in particular conversion and mysticism,
from religious traditions.
You will consider religious experience under three headings:
Nature of Religious Experience
Faith Perspectives on Religious Experience
Secular Perspectives on Religious experience.
The Unit requires you to consider issues raised by your study of religious experiences
under these headings. Some of these issues are indicated in the bullet points below.

Nature of religious experience

Religious experiences can be understood differently, and you will need to be able to
analyse various understandings and explain various points of view. This means
understanding, first of all, what is meant by religious experience.

How are religious experiences studied and classified?

What, if anything, makes a religious experience religious?
How important is religious experience for humanity?
How useful or relevant or legitimate is its study?
Apply this to your own situation do you see any evidence of religious experience?
Is it confined to those who can be identified as religious?
Is there such a thing as a core religious experience?
Is it a rare, widespread or common phenomenon?

Faith perspectives on religious experience

Secondly, you need to examine a range of different religious experiences, and their
interpretation, from within religious traditions themselves. Just because a religious
experience is of central importance to some (perhaps many) members of a religious
tradition, for example, does not necessarily mean that all will see it as central. A particular
focus will be on conversion and mysticism.

RMPS: Religious Experience (Advanced Higher)

Is conversion a one off experience for someone, or else an ongoing one?

How do converts explain their conversion experience?
Is conversion something confined to religion?
To what extent is conversion a requirement for a religion?
How important is mysticism within religion?
Is it a cause, or an effect of religious faith?
Is it an exclusively religious phenomenon?
Do such experiences prove the existence of God?

Secular perspectives on religious experience

To be secular means to be concerned with this world only. Some Psychologists,
Sociologists and Philosophers claim to explain religious experience in purely natural
terms. They deny that God, the divine, or the supernatural is required to make sense of it.
What alternative theories do they propose? Are they right?

How convincing are secular interpretations of religious experience?

To what extent are secular interpretations of religious experience scientific?
In what ways might secular theories be tested or demonstrated?
Do secular interpretations taken together make a compelling, cumulative case against
religious experience being true?

What will you need to do?

To pass this Unit, for two of the above areas you will need to complete an essay of around
800 words of an appropriate standard. For each, you will:
demonstrate a detailed explanation of aspects of religious experience
refer to sources to support this explanation
analyse in detail issues relating to, and explain different viewpoints on the issues
apply a range of sources to this analysis
evaluate issues relating to religious experience by assessing the relevance or validity of
the evidence and/or viewpoints
present a coherent and balanced conclusion.
If you are studying this unit as part of the Advanced Higher course in RMPS, you will also
sit the examination paper. For this exam you will have to answer one question, from a
choice of three. You should be prepared to refer to all three areas of the Unit in the
What skills do you need to learn and develop?
Knowledge and understanding involves providing facts, definitions, references to source
material, and any point of information which explains the main features of the selected
topic accurately and to a degree appropriate to the level.

RMPS: Religious Experience (Advanced Higher)

Analysis involves a further stage of examining the main aspects or viewpoints of the
religious experience from different perspectives which might include highlighting points
of comparison between them. Reference to sources might be made once again. It should
break down the topic into its various parts accurately and appropriate to the level.
Evaluation involves making suitably supported judgements about these various parts with
reference to a given standard such as:
How meaningful are religious experiences for modern believers and non-believers?
How relevant are they to todays world?
How credible are they in todays society?
Presenting a conclusion which is personal and which is supported by evidence is
expected to be of a standard appropriate to this level. You will be asked to make value
judgements about religious experiences, deciding what significance they have to todays
world. It will not be enough simply to make judgements these will need to be supported
by cogent reasons.

RMPS: Religious Experience (Advanced Higher)

RMPS: Religious Experience (Advanced Higher)



3.1 Main features of religious experience

Trying to define the main features of religious experience can be a frustrating matter. This
is because a great deal of time and effort can be invested in trying to define what is meant
by the term experience. Different disciplines, psychology, sociology, philosophy,
theology, biology, all have something to say by providing their own understandings of the
meaning of the word. The truth, someone said, does not lie in one opinion, or in none of
them, but in them all. Perhaps the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. Without
distracting ourselves at this early point with the futile attempt to arrive at a foolproof
definition of experience, we would do well to listen to the wise words of Augustine of
Hippo. He is reputed to have said, when considering the meaning of time, we know what
it is until we are asked to say what it is!
Almost any experience (in an undefined capacity) could be described by someone as
religious. By religious is meant, for the purposes of our Unit, to do with God, the
supernatural, beyond this physical world. Just about anything might be said to be an
experience of God. Demonstrating this, of course, is another matter. Two commentators
on religious experience will be considered below. The first, William James (1842-1910),
is a giant in the field. He saw religion as being based essentially on experience, and his
writings discuss a huge range of detailed, overt religious experiences. He has much to say
about conversion and mysticism, the two specific areas outlined for study in this Unit.
Rudolph Otto (1869-1937) is the second figure discussed. He had a more general, indirect
approach to religious experience, but has nevertheless been very influential in the study of
religious experience.

3.2 William James

William James is one of the best known, if not the best known writer on religious
experience. A philosopher and psychologist, James had an enduring interest in religion
and religious experience. He is famous for writing what is still a prescribed text for many
college and university courses: The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902). Here he
defines religion, famously, as that which a person does with their solitude, in relation to
whatever they consider the divine. He is, however, less succinct when it comes to defining
religious experience.
Rather than outlining a general theory of religious experience, James employs a
descriptive approach, drawing examples from many religious traditions, not only
Christianity. He has little sympathy for what might be called institutional religion. He
prefers, in general, to cover private or personal religion and related experiences.

RMPS: Religious Experience (Advanced Higher)


His central contention concerning the origin of religious experience was that it is located
in what might be called nowadays the unconscious. He derived this from the work of F.
W. H. Myers, who developed the conception of the subliminal self. This has some
similarities with the ideas of Sigmund Freud, particularly in that James hinted that
religious experience might be the subconscious continuation of our conscious life.
The sick soul
Much religious experience, says James, is related to what he called the sick soul. Many
people seem to be afflicted with a joylessness, dreariness and sense of dejection a lack
of taste and zest and spring. He likens this to that outlook brought on by seasickness. It
can lead to self-distrust, self-despair, anxiety, trepidation, fear and torment. This results in
the loss of any sense of meaning and purpose in life. James calls this not uncommon
condition anhedonia. James argues that anhedonia (or the sick soul) can and does lead to
personal religious experience. He quotes the example of Leo Tolstoy who, at the age of
fifty, manifested anhedonia and became suicidal. Tolstoy developed a craving for God
which came from my heart. This thirst for God kept him going during his darkest hours.
A second example is John Bunyan, whose life consisted of melancholy, self-contempt and
despair. Bunyan (and Tolstoy) interpreted this in a religious, that is to say a Biblical way,
that he was a miserable hell-bound sinner. In both cases James says that here is the real
core of the religious problem: Help Help!.
Anhedonia is thus an essential aspect behind religious experience. James says The
completest religions would therefore seem to be those in which the pessimistic elements
are best developed. Buddhism and Christianity are the best known to us of these. They
are essentially religions of deliverance: the person must die to an unreal life before they
can be born into the real life. From one point of view, therefore, certain personality types
with their associated propensities are likely to lead to specific kinds of religious
experiences. The type of religious experience that James has in mind here is conversion.
James believed that the essence of the human condition lay in the divided self. Religious
experience provides, for some, an answer to this condition. He observed that most people
could be classified as having a heterogeneous personality, or divided self, like Saul of
Tarsus, and that most people could identify with the struggles of the later Paul the Apostle.
Conversion, James claimed, can lead to changed or unified lives: the unity of the divided
self brought about by conversion can bring happiness, happiness.
Such conversion might take place either gradually or suddenly. Tolstoy and Bunyan are
examples of gradual conversion. Paul is an example of sudden conversion. Some
religious groups, James said, appear to require sudden conversion. He cites the examples
of New England Methodism, the Moravians and what he calls revivalism (perhaps similar
to some contemporary Charismatics or Pentecostals). Most conversions are, however, of
the gradual variety.

RMPS: Religious Experience (Advanced Higher)


James is concerned to increase the degree of human happiness in the world. Anything that
can achieve this has value and is to be commended. It is important to recognise that James
was a pragmatist, and as such, he was not so much interested in matters of truth. He was
more interested in what worked, in what makes for happier and more fulfilled living.
Whatever conversion is, it may have fruits associated with it. It is the fruits that are of
value to humanity. Among such fruits, he includes:
a feeling of assurance
a feeling of loss and worry
a sense of perceiving things not known before
a feeling of ecstasy.
These can bring about what he calls human excellence.
Not all conversions, however, lead to happiness. The intellectually cold or barren cannot
be converted. Most conversions do not result in a characteristic that makes the converted
person immediately recognisable as a converted person: there is no such radiance. Even
after conversion, some converted people like Paul and Bunyan still had a profound sense
of being divided, and there was still the imprint of melancholy in their lives. Conversion,
therefore, may have profound spiritual and psychological importance for the convert, but it
is never so complete that permanent bliss results.
Some psychological types are more likely than others to experience conversion, James
said. Following the work of the psychologist Edwin Starbuck, he accepted that some
stages of life are more productive when it comes to conversion, adolescence being the
prime example. James is content to leave it there, without drawing any further
conclusions. Real conversion, he said however, is when the heart becomes patient and
love for self eradicated; James posited that this could be achieved through hypnotic
suggestion. The link, therefore, with religion is to some extent a tenuous one.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Christ said that the difference between the converted and the
unconverted was a visible difference. The former are compared to a green tree which is
laden with fruit. The latter are likened to a barren tree. Anyone could see the difference.
James now asks what are the practical fruits of conversion. He summarises the ripe fruits
of religious conversion under a one-word heading saintliness.
The highest flights of charity, devotion, trust, patience, bravery to which the wings of
human nature have spread themselves have been flown for religious ideals. Thus, James
begins his chapters in the Varieties on saintliness. Conversion can lead to remarkable
lives. James considers some choice examples of such remarkable lives. A starting point
for him is the lives of Christian saints. He looks for common patterns, for similarities
amongst his canonised examples. Many saints, he says even as energetic ones as Teresa
and Loyola, have possessed what the church traditionally reveres as a special grace, the
so-called gift of tears.

RMPS: Religious Experience (Advanced Higher)


Amongst other features of saintliness, where spiritual emotions are the habitual centre of
the personal energy are:
a feeling of being in a world over which is an Ideal Power
a sense that this Ideal Power is friendly
a willingness to surrender to this Ideal Power
an elation and sense of freedom
an emphasis on love and harmony, on yes, yes rather than no.
Such inner conditions lead to practical consequences. James considers the practical
consequences under four headings:

Self-surrender may reach such an extent that it might turn into self-immolation. That
is, pleasure and fulfilment might be found in denial of even modest physical needs.

Strength of soul
Fears may be overcomes, because (as the New Testament puts it) perfect love casts
out fear. Love for the Ideal Power drives away all else.

A desire to feel spiritually clean and to remain clean is keenly felt. Heavenly
mindedness is more important than earthly satisfactions.

As concern for self decreases, there is a shift of emphasis towards tenderness towards
others. The saint loves his [sic] enemies, and treats loathsome beggars as brothers.
Charity and brotherly love, however, are not (as James rightly says) specific to

James seems to applaud some of these characteristics whilst being critical of others. In a
chapter of the Varieties on the value of saintliness, James considers the characteristics
from his pragmatic standpoint.
For St Teresa of Avila, the highest experience was of mystical union, the spiritual
marriage of the soul to God. This was more than an esoteric experience. It led her back
to active service of God among her fellow human beings. A classic case, one might think,
of religious experience being counted as valuable because it leads to practical fruits, as
William James said. James does admit that Teresa was one of the ablest women of whose
life we have the record. He says of her that she had a powerful intellect of the practical
order; she wrote admirable descriptive psychology, possessed a will equal to any
emergency, great talent for politics and business, a buoyant disposition, and a first-rate
literary style; she was tenaciously aspiring, and put her whole life at the service of her
religious ideals.

RMPS: Religious Experience (Advanced Higher)


It comes as somewhat of a surprise, therefore, to see that James immediately goes on to

say that his only feeling in reading her has been pity that so much vitality of soul should
have found such poor employment. He considers her to be superficial, egoistic, and
having no human interest. Her idea of religion was that of an endless amatory flirtation
rather than service to others and general human betterment. Perhaps this says more about
James arguably excessive devotion to pragmatism than Teresas devotion to prayer and
the spiritual life.
James has little time for asceticism and purity. He has a much greater interest in charity.
Charity, which James says is found in all the saints, even to excess (if such a thing is
possible), is a genuinely creative social force. Saints are authors and increasers of
goodness. They improve things. In this sense, James can say economically, the saintly
group of qualities is indispensable to the worlds welfare. Later, The Beatles would sing
that All you need is love.
This being said, James moves on in the Varieties to consider personal religious experience
in more detail. He suggests that such experience has its root and centre in mystical states
of consciousness.
In his lectures, James attempts to define mystical states of consciousness as real
experiences, that is to say a valid topic of investigation and study, and to show them as
available to most people. He begins with the crucial point of definition; without a clear
idea of what is being discussed, misunderstandings are bound to occur.
Many things can be referred to as mystical, but James uses the term mystical states of
consciousness to encompass a spectrum of experiences, from the non-religious to the
most religiously profound. They include:
sporadic mystical experiences
dj vu
chemical intoxication
nature experiences
cosmic consciousness
cultivated mystical experiences.
James identifies four marks of mystical religious experience:

Beginning with the simplest sort of mystical experience, James notes the strong sense
of significance and knowledge associated with the experience, its noetic quality.

RMPS: Religious Experience (Advanced Higher)


Ineffable is another characteristic that marks an experience as mystical; the
experience defies expression. Due to its subjective nature, the experience is much like
state of feeling. James asserts that these two qualities entitle any state to be called
mystical. However, there are other qualities usually associated with the experience.

He explains that the experiences are generally transient. Fading quickly, it is hard to
recall the quality of the experience in memory; they remain just out of reach.
Nevertheless, some memory content always remains, and this can be used to modify
the inner life of the subject between the time of their recurrence. When having a
mystical experience, however, individuals do not seem actively to process the

Instead, it is a passive experience James fourth characteristic mark. Even though
many people actively study and/or practice techniques to produce mystical states of
consciousness, once occurring the experience seems to happen without their will.

Later, James goes on to suggest that these experiences occur as our field of
consciousness increases. One can assert these simple experiences connote a slight
widening of this field, whereas the more profound experiences come when consciousness
expands to include items usually filtered, hidden, or just out of reach. Such could include
memories and sensations. As awareness increases to include more external and internal
information, a sense of self, a boundary between self and environment, expands, and
seems to dissipate. The experience is one of unity with information formerly defined as
This expansion of the self, often referred to as loss of self, may not be beneficial for
someone who does not have a strong sense of self to begin with. To these people, a
mystical experience can be frightening and confusing, to say the least. James calls this a
diabolical mysticism; half of mysticism, he explains, is not religious mysticism, but
cases where mystical ideas are seen as symptoms of insanity. He refers to these as
lower mysticisms, springing forth from the same psychological mechanisms as the
classic, religious sort. However, the messages and emotions are experienced as negative.
They might be the result of delusional insanity or paranoia.
James points out the importance of keeping the definition of mystical states of
consciousness value-neutral. All mystical experience, he explains, whether experiences as
positive or negative, deserves recognition as available states of consciousness. He does
not debate whether they are a superior form of consciousness; instead, he suggests that,
like our rational states, mystical states encompass truth and deception, pleasure and pain.

RMPS: Religious Experience (Advanced Higher)


He cites the examples of St Teresa and Jacob Boehme that, in their own ways, they both
overcame all the usual barriers between the individual and the Absolute. This, says
James, is the great mystic achievement. It is applicable to all religions, and to spirituality.
He quotes the Upanishads in this respect: That art Thounot a part, not a mode of That,
but identically That, that absolute Spirit of the World!.
James draws conclusions from this. Such experiences, found throughout humanity, are
absolutely authoritative for those who have them. They cannot, however, and must not be
made a norm, a standard, and a requirement for anyone else. They are private, and should
remain so. They also demonstrate that there is a consciousness and a reality beyond the
rationally scientific world. There is a reality of the unseen. Does this prove anything,
other than there is a realm of religious experience? Do mystical experiences prove that
God exists?
Religious experience and belief in God
James said God is real because he produces real effects. For many, of course, religious
experiences have absolute veracity for those experiencing them. Examples include those
already cited Luther, Bunyan, Tolstoy, St Theresa et al. Nevertheless, these people
already believed in God. The religious experience adds to and confirms an existing
theistic faith.
For others, however, the effect of religious experience might be to confirm agnosticism, or
atheism. That is, a pre-existing worldview or belief system, whether theistic or
rationalistic, is likely to continue. A firm believer in the reality of the unseen, James
acknowledged the limitations of science when it comes to speculations on the nonphysical. He recognised that religious feeling precedes arguments, and that philosophy
tends to be interested in a philosophical construct, whereas religious experience is
concerned more with encounter. The task of demonstrating by purely intellectual means
the truth of religious experience is absolutely hopeless.
Perhaps by the truth of religious experience is meant the reality of the existence of God
as the cause of, for example conversion. By God James does not, however, necessarily
mean the God of classical theism. The word could refer to Emersons impersonal God,
or a sense of something outside of oneself. James pragmatism is evident in his
conception of God- the gods we stand by are the gods we need and can use, the gods
whose demands on us are reinforcements of our demands upon ourselves and on one
another. His emphasis on the gods we can use is very revealing. He has little time for
classical and traditional formulations of God, whom he tends to caricature as a childish
deity, a god of merits who must be placated by toy shop furniture, tapers and tinsel.
God, for James, is the supreme reality: I will call this higher part of the universe by the
name of God. God is not necessarily the Creator of heaven and earth, but is there in the
sense that for God to be real in a practical sense, his existence must make a difference.
Does God therefore exist? No, in the sense that one cannot argue a cause from an effect.
No, if by God is meant a traditional theological and/or philosophical formulation. Yes, if
by God is meant something akin to James something larger than ourselves, and yes, if
this makes a difference to our lives.

RMPS: Religious Experience (Advanced Higher)


Some have argued that this question becomes more meaningful if another word or a
different term substitutes the value-laden word God. Rudolph Ottos work provides us
with a more developed language register for this task.
3.3 Rudolph Otto
Ottos The Idea of The Holy is another classic text for the study of religious experience. It
takes as its object the non-rational factor in the idea of the divine, and in this sense has
similarities with James Varieties, since both deal with the experiential aspects of religion.
This experiential aspect is considered by both James and Otto to be the essential, living
core of religion.
Otto felt that this non-rational or feeling element was neglected, perhaps because of the
dominant role that language played in religious traditions. Doctrine, sacred texts and
sermons all use language, at the expense of experience and feelings. Whereas these
aspects are important, they necessarily diminish the experience of the holy, if not
exclude it completely. The idea, indeed the experience of the holy must be recovered, said
Ottos study has as its focus the numinous consciousness. By this is meant a state of
feeling, as well of knowing, in relation to the holy, before it is rationalised and put into
words, or fitted into a doctrinal scheme. In fact, such a consciousness cannot be put into
words because it is ineffable. Numinous experiences cannot be comprehended by any
other than the one who has the experience, and is in every respect unique. They are
unutterable. This makes their study problematic, to say the least.
He uses a two-fold instrument to describe the numinous consciousness. The object of this
consciousness he calls the mysterium. By this term Otto meant the wholly other, that
which lies beyond our ordinary experience and which fills us with dumb amazement. This
is, from one perspective, an object evoking awe, even fear and terror: mysterium
tremendum. From another perspective, it is intensely fascinating, attractive and merciful:
mysterium fascinans. This strange harmony of contrasts of opposing qualities forms a
twin structure that is at once the strangest and most noteworthy phenomenon in the whole
history of religion mysterium tremendum et fascinans.
Mysterium tremendum
Three elements were distinguished by Otto:

Found in all religions, and elsewhere, it is characterised by a religious or a mystical
dread of the numen, which has absolute unapproachability.

In the face of which there is a crushing feeling of personal nothingness and
insignificance, of encountering absolute overpoweringness.

The numinous object is alive and active, demanding a personal response.

RMPS: Religious Experience (Advanced Higher)


Mysterium fascinans
The holy is not just dreadful in a literal sense, it is also captivating, and an object of
yearning and desire. Elements related to this alluring characteristic are:

The holy, numinous object can admit the one who approaches to a state of salvation.

There is a personal I-thou rather than an impersonal I-it relationship.

Feelings of release, satisfaction and fulfilment may follow.

Still struggling to communicate what he means, Otto suggests to his readers that they go
away and read the Book of Isaiah. If a person does not feel what the numinous is when
they read the sixth chapter of Isaiah, then no preaching, singing, telling, in Luthers
phrase, can avail him. Isaiah chapter 6 reads as follows:
In the year the King Uzziah died, I saw also the Lord sitting upon a throne, high
and lifted up, and his train filled the temple. Above it stood the seraphim: each
one had six wings; with two he covered his face and with two he covered his feet
and with two he did fly. And one cried unto another and said, Holy, Holy, Holy
is the Lord of Hosts: the whole earth is full of his glory. And the posts of the
door moved at the voice of him that cried, and the house was filled with smoke.
The said I, Woe is me for I am undone; because I am a man of unclean lips, and
I dwell in the midst of a people with unclean lips: for mine eyes have seen the
King, the Lord of Hosts.
The aftermath for Isaiah was a feeling of being cleansed, or purged:
Then flew one of the seraphim unto me, having a live coal in his hand, which
he had taken with the tongs from off the altar: And he laid it upon my mouth,
and said, Lo, this hath touched thy lips; and thine iniquity is taken away and
thy sin is purged.
Significantly, Otto said that if the question is asked Who is the Lord of Hosts? the answer
is that in whose presence we must exclaim aaaah!. The Lord of Hosts is therefore not a
philosophical formulation, the construct of systematic theology or a literary device. The
Lord of Hosts is an experience, and experience of mysterium tremendum et fascinans, both
awesome and attractive.
The numinous consciousness cannot be taught to another, Otto claimed. It does, however,
exist in everyone as an inborn, innate capacity. In this sense it can be induced or
awakened. Art, music, architecture, even silence and darkness may bring an experience of
the holy.

RMPS: Religious Experience (Advanced Higher)


These numinous experiences by definition involve the feeling of being in the presence of
someone or something sacred or holy. But they shade into another larger group of
experiences, which are often called mystical, following the classification and typology of
William James. A difference is that in a mystical episode the experiencer tends to think
that, in an extraordinary way, all things are One. At its profoundest it is totally
indescribable, since the language and thought which would be used in a description have
already divided the world into you, me, that thing over there, and so on.
The shading from numinous into mystical experience is poignant for religious traditions
because they tend to emphasise the separateness of God. Otto has been criticised for
suggesting that religion must derive from a being that is totally separate from this world.
This would make God, the divine, or the Absolute impersonal. This does injury to
religions that posit the existence of a personal God, rather than an impersonal wholly
other. Some Christians, for example, are unhappy with what they see as Ottos undue
emphasis on divine power at the expense of personal encounter.
There is the other extreme, or pole. The distinction between God and his creation
becomes a very fine one for some mystics. David Hay cites Jalal al-Din Rumi, a Sufi
mystic of the thirteenth century, who says in a poem:
What is to be done O Muslims? For I do not recognise myself.
I am neither a Christian, nor a Jew, nor Gabr nor Muslim.
I am not of the East, nor of the West, nor of the Land, nor of the sea
I am not of this world, nor of the next, nor of Paradise, nor of Hell.
My place is the placeless, my trace is the traceless.
Tis neither body nor soul, for I belong to the soul of the Beloved.
I have put duality away, I have seen that the two worlds are One.
One I seek, One I know, One I see, One I call.
This type of religious experience fits in well with the findings of William James. For him,
a sense of union with God is a central mystical tenet, as exemplified in the life of Teresa,
not to mention Boehme. Such mystical experiences seem to lack Ottos claimed sense of
terror and fear. There is, instead, self-surrender to a familiar and desired deity.
James and Otto approached religious experience by using a descriptive method. We will
now turn to different approaches scientific and philosophical.

RMPS: Religious Experience (Advanced Higher)


3.4 Religious experience today

There appears to be renewed interest in religious experience. Bookshops stock more and
more books on the subject, and research institutes and centres for its study are growing.
Just why this might be is an interesting question. Some see it as part of a developing
interest in, and concern for spirituality. Spirituality is another of those almost impossible
terms to describe. It is finding increasing employment, however, in official documents, for
example those dealing with aspects of education in schools. Spiritual health is now
considered to be as important as physical health or emotional health. Institutions are being
required to provide mission statements that include reference to spiritual values. This
could all be part of a process that involves a rejection of the cold materialistic rationalism
of several decades ago. The former confidence in the abilities of science to establish and
sustain a better world for everyone has been shown to be misplaced. This better world is
still over the horizon. There is a desire, a yearning, for something more.
The Alister Hardy Research Centre has uncovered evidence that suggests religious
experience is more prevalent in our so-called rational society than hitherto thought.
Conclusions similar to those by James are drawn, namely that (some, at least) religious
experience can be understood as the resolution of an inner conflict. James suggested that a
resolution to a previously experienced uneasiness is the thread from which all religious
experience is woven. It is not the nature of the experience, but its results that define it as
religious. Richard Swinburne is a philosopher who asks whether such a naturalistic
explanation is sufficient to explain the apparent high level of religious experience. He
concludes that it is not.

3.5 The Alister Hardy Research Centre (AHRC)

The AHRC was founded, as the Religious Experience Research Unit, at Manchester
College Oxford in 1969 by Professor Sir Alister Hardy, after his retirement as Professor of
Zoology at the University of Oxford. The purpose of the Centre is to make a disciplined
study of the frequency of religious (or transcendent) experiences, and to investigate the
nature and function of such experiences. A premise of this research is that first-hand
religious experiences continue to occur, not only within traditional religions but outside as
The Centre seeks answer to questions such as:
How many people in the modern world report religious or transcendent experiences?
What do people mean when they say they have had one of these experiences?
What sort of things do they describe?
How do they interpret them?
What effects do they have on their lives?

RMPS: Religious Experience (Advanced Higher)


At the time the AHRC was established, almost no answers were available to these
questions. There was, and continues to be, a widespread popular belief that religious
experience is seldom found in contemporary society. People who do report such
experiences are often dismissed as poorly educated, coming from socially deprived sectors
of the community, unhappy, somewhat mentally unbalanced or, perhaps, members of an
obscure religious sect.
The Centre believes that certain scientific accounts of these experiences tend not to
explain them, but rather to explain them away. Freud, for example, is seen to interpret
religious experience as a neurotic or temporarily psychotic phenomenon. Durkheim sees
religious experience as the product of social effervescence at large religious meetings.
It was because of a doubt about the widespread dismissal of religious experience that
Hardy founded the Centre. He asked whether it needed to be the case that an experience
of the transcendent be necessarily understood as nothing but a symptom of personal or
social disturbance. Could it be the case, as Hardy argued, that it has a major role to play in
the happiness and survival of the individual and the community? In this, there are clear
links with the thought of William James, and some see Hardy as the natural successor to
James and his positive, sympathetic, descriptive approach to religious experience.
Preliminary findings have been published. The Centre says of them, they are sufficiently
unexpected to cast considerable doubt on the plausibility of the reductionist explanations
of others. They appear to open the way for a dynamic new approach to the scientific study
of religious experience in the modern world.
Since its foundation, the Centre has built up a body of research data consisting of more
than 5000 case histories of individuals who claim to have had some form of religious
experience. Repeated national polls indicate that between a third and a half of the adult
populations in Britain and the United States would claim to have been aware of or
influenced by a presence or a power, whether they call it God or not, which is different
from their everyday selves. This is called the Hardy question. Parallel studies in the
United States and Australia (e.g. by the National Opinion Research Centre, Chicago, and
Gallup international) have produced similarly high figures.
A number of in-depth studies in Britain have also been undertaken, in which random
samples of particular social groups have been interviewed personally and at length about
their experiences. In all these groups, the positive response rate has been 60%.
The preliminary findings, the Centre believes, appear to overturn the widespread
stereotype which has created the taboo on admitting to such experiences. The Centres
surveys indicate that people reporting transcendent or religious experiences are most likely
to be:
well educated
not suffering deprivation
mentally well balanced
concerned about social justice
from a wide variety of religious and non-religious backgrounds.

RMPS: Religious Experience (Advanced Higher)


The great majority of people report that their experiences occurred when they were
completely alone. Very few took place in the context of a crowded religious service. This
would seem to be congruent with Jamess mystical category, and Ottos insistence that an
encounter with the wholly other cannot be manufactured.
In conversation, people also claimed commonly that their experiences affected their lives
by leading to some of the following changes:
a reduction in feelings of alienation from other people and from their environment
an increase in the sense that life is meaningful
an increase in the ability to cope with and survive life crises
an improvement in psychological balance and happiness
a decrease in dependence on material goods as a source of security
an increase in concern for the good of others
a development and maturing of religious faith.
In The Spiritual Nature of Man (1979) Hardy published an extensive classification of the
major defining characteristics of religious experiences form an initial pool of 3000
reports. He found it very difficult indeed to classify the reports and responses into any
concrete and unimpeachable scheme. Hardly any experience could fail to qualify as
religious or spiritual under some framework. In this sense it would be futile to attempt to
try to define elements that all religious experiences have in common. A more loose,
generic or family resemblance scheme is the best one can hope for. Hardys
classification scheme with nearly one hundred categories, is complex, sophisticated and,
therefore, cumbersome.
Such a detailed scheme of classification would not have appealed to William James, who
was content to let the experiences speak for themselves, rather than see them subject to the
tyranny of classification schemes. It is very interesting however, and significant, that
Hardys conclusions are so similar to those of James. Both concluded that religious
experiences have evidential value. They suggest that there is, indeed, a transcendental
reality, experienced in different ways. This is not, however, necessarily the God of
classical Christian theology, or indeed of any theism.
David Hay, following up Hardys work, conducted a survey in Britain in 1987. This is
known as the Hay and Heald Survey. In this survey the first three categories of religious
experience, that is those that were most common, all reflect transcendent experiences.
These categories were:
awareness of the presence of God
awareness of receiving help in answer to prayer
awareness of a guiding presence, not necessarily God.

RMPS: Religious Experience (Advanced Higher)


It is interesting to note that what appears to be missing from the religious experiences, as
reported by the people who claim to have had them, is any specific reference to religion.
Classic Christian conversion experiences, for example, are noticeably absent. So are
theologically interpreted mystical experiences along the lines of those described in these
materials. It could be that a person who may have had such an experience did not wish to
report them; or else perhaps the researchers did not look for such reports.
Is there a core religious experience?
Whereas William James identified a number of Varieties of religious experience, Hardys
research suggested to him that there is such a thing as a core religious experience. He
noticed that nearly all reports of religious experiences were positive, bringing feelings of
safety, security, love and contentment. Can there be a cause, or a mechanism behind all
Hardy was a biologist who was interested in, amongst other things, the relationship
between the science of biology and religion. As a committed Darwinist, he proposed the
hypothesis that religious experience has evolved through the process of natural selection,
because it has survival value to the individual. What Hardy meant by religious experience,
his younger colleague David Hay understood to be spirituality.
In Exploring Inner Space (1987) Hay concludes similarly that religious awareness is
probably natural to the species and has evolved by natural selection. He bases this claim
on the similarities between peoples descriptions of their experiences. It is such
similarities that suggest to Hay that religious experience can be studied by science. Hay
says there is a slightly unnerving moment for someone who, for the first time, examines a
large number of accounts of apparently spontaneous religious experience; it is when the
realisation dawns that they are not simply random descriptions they can be classified
satisfactorily. The basis of classification, Hay believes, is through the detection of
patterned relationships with other phenomena. Though at the individual level religious
experiences have unique and even paradoxical features, when studied as a group they
exhibit a considerable degree of uniformity, consistency and comparability. Patterning of
this sort, he goes on to say, is what we expect when we come across a phenomenon which
is part of the real, objective world of scientific investigation.
Religious experience, then, is a natural phenomenon, arising from a core experience,
manifested in a broad range of ways. It can be studied scientifically, precisely because it is
natural on account of its evolved nature. As a function of spirituality, it underpins ethical
behaviour and encourages social cohesion. (There are marked similarities with Bryan
Wilsons functionalist view of religion, discussed below.) Herein lies the true importance
of religious experience.
James, Hardy and Hay all emanate from the scientific stable. As such, they are more
concerned with the study of observable phenomena than unobservable causes. The
Scottish philosopher David Hume said that a cause is impossible to see. We turn now to
another philosopher to see whether religious experience can prove anything about its

RMPS: Religious Experience (Advanced Higher)


3.6 Richard Swinburne

Swinburne (Professor of Philosophy at Oxford University) states that there are many
reports of occasional strange experiences, often events that seem to violate laws of nature.
Unreliable witnesses, he says, no doubt false, spread some of these reports. Examples of
what might count as false reports of unusual, or miraculous events would include when
some have claimed to see others levitate (float on air), or recover from an amputation by
growing a replacement limb. At other times, when people have reported correctly some
very strange event, although it seemed to be a violation of natural law, it was not.
Magnetism might once have seemed miraculous to some people, but it is a perfectly
orderly scientific phenomenon. Religious experience is different.
In his book The Existence of God (1982), Swinburne defines a religious experience as one
which seems to the subject to be an experience of Godor some other supernatural
thing. He says that such events are brought about by a God has a reason for bringing
them about. An example would be a spontaneous cure of cancer in answer to sustained
Within Christianity, there is the centrally important miracle of the Resurrection of Jesus
Christ from the dead. A more profound claim for a religious experience would be difficult
to find.
For the believer, in so far as there is good historical evidence for the physical resurrection
of Jesus, it provides evidence of the occurrence of an event which quite clearly violates the
laws of nature. It therefore calls for an explanation different from the scientific. Such an
explanation is available, Swinburne says. God raised Christ from the dead to signify his
acceptance of Christs atoning sacrifice, to give his stamp of approval to his teaching, to
take back Christ to Heaven where he belongs, and thereby to found a church to draw all
people to himself. It is obvious that such an explanation belongs more to faith than to
scientific demonstration. It is also, says Swinburne, eminently reasonable.
Principle of credulity
The basis of Swinburnes support for religious experience as being reasonable is as
follows. He says it is a basic principle of knowledge, which I have called the principle of
credulity, that we ought to believe that things are as they seem to be, until we have
evidence that we are mistaken. To so many people, he suggests, it has seemed at different
moments of their lives that they were aware of God and his guidance. If it seems to
someone that they are seeing a table or hearing a friends voice, they ought to believe this
until evidence appears that they have been deceived. If you say the contrary never trust
appearances until it is proved that they are reliable, he adds, you will never have any
beliefs at all. People clearly do have beliefs, so appearances are to be trusted if they are
reliable. After all, what would show that appearances are reliable (or unreliable) except
more appearances? Just as you must trust your five ordinary senses, so it is equally
rational to trust your religious sense.

RMPS: Religious Experience (Advanced Higher)


An opponent might reply that you trust your ordinary senses (e.g. your sense of sight)
because it agrees with the senses of other people. What you claim to see they claim to see;
but your religious sense does not argue with the senses of other people. They do not
always have religious experiences at all, or of the same kind as you do. However, it is
important to realise that the rational person applies the principle of credulity before they
know what other people experience. You rightly trust your senses, Swinburne says, even
if there is no other observer to check them. In addition, if there is another observer who
reports that they seem to see what you seem to see, you have thereafter to remember that
they did so report, and that means relying on your own memory (again, how things seem)
without present corroboration.
Someone who seems to have an experience of God should believe that they do, therefore,
unless evidence can be produced that they are mistaken. Religious experiences, claims
Swinburne, often coincide with those of many others in their general awareness of a power
beyond us guiding our lives. If some do not have such experiences, even when my
experiences coincide with those of others, that suggests to Swinburne that the former are
blind to religious realities. Similarly a persons inability to see colours does not show that
many of us who claim to see them are mistaken, only that they are colour blind.
Swinburnes argument is based upon the premise that it is basic to human knowledge of
the world that we believe things are as they seem to be in the absence of positive evidence
to the contrary. It is another basic principle of knowledge that those who do not have an
experience of a certain type ought to believe many others when they say that they do again, in the absence of evidence of mass delusion. He concludes my conclusion about
the considerable evidential force of religious experience depends on my Principle of
Credulity that apparent perceptions ought to be taken at their face value in the absence of
positive reason for challenge.
Swinburne considers another way in which the veridicality of religious experiences might
be impugned by appeal to the conflicting claims that are made on the basis of religious
experiences within different religious traditions. Swinburnes strategy is to argue that the
extent of the conflict has been exaggerated, and that for the most part these claims can be
shown to be compatible, since God could choose to present himself under different guises
to persons who are in different cultural circumstances.
Religious experience should therefore be accepted as authentic. Like the varnish that does
exactly what it says on the tin, religious experience is a reliable encounter with God.

RMPS: Religious Experience (Advanced Higher)


3.7 Questions and activities

1. Read some of William James examples of religious experience. You can find the
entire text of The Varieties of Religious Experience at
and notes on the book are available at
Make use of the search facility to find anything or particular interest to you.
2. Take a look at a Rudolph Otto Home Page at
and follow the links to read about Ottos encounter with the holy? Was this a
mystical experience, or was he converted, or both?
3. Conduct your own survey in school using Hardys question:
Have you ever been aware of or influenced by a presence or a power, whether they call
it God or not, which is different from their everyday selves?
Try to classify your results.
4. Produce your own classification scheme for religious experiences. How does it
compare with that of Hardy?
5. Explain the Hardy-Hay view that religious experience is a natural phenomenon that
operates according to the laws of natural selection. What survival value might
religious experience have?
6. How relevant do you think is the study of religious experience today?
7. Are there any experiences that could not be classified as religious? If so, what might
they be? If not, why not?

RMPS: Religious Experience (Advanced Higher)


RMPS: Religious Experience (Advanced Higher)



4.1 Mystical experiences

The word mysticism is derived from the Greek language, and refers to that which is
closed, hard to access, something more disclosed than discovered. Mysticism is concerned
with the nature of reality, the individuals struggle to attain a clear vision of reality, and the
transformation of consciousness that accompanies such a vision. All religions have their
mystical traditions. Islam, for example, has Sufism, Judaism the Kaballah and Hindiusm
the writing of Ramakrishna.
There are, perhaps, elements which mystical traditions in all religions have in common.
These may be summarised as follows:
There is a reality beyond the material world, which:
is uncreated
pervades everything
but remains beyond the reach of human knowledge and understanding.
This reality may be approached by:
distinguishing ego from true self
understanding the nature of desire
becoming unattached
forgetting about preferences
not working for personal gain
letting go of thoughts
redirecting attention
being devoted
being humble
invoking that reality
One can be transformed to embody that reality by:
dying and being reborn
seeing the light
experiencing union
experiencing freedom.
The following three examples of mystics are taken from the Christian mystical tradition.

RMPS: Religious Experience (Advanced Higher)


4.2 St. Teresa of Avila

Early life
Teresa Sanchez Cepeda Davila y Ahumada was born at Avila, Old Castile on 28 March,
1515 and died at Alba de Tormes, 4 October, 1582. She was of mixed Jewish and
Christian background. She was the third child of Don Alonso Sanchez de Cepeda by his
second wife, Doa Beatriz Davila y Ahumada, who died when Teresa was in her
fourteenth year. Her father, a lover of serious books, and her devout mother brought her
After her mothers death, and the marriage of her eldest sister, Teresa was sent for her
education to the Augustinian nuns at Avila. Due to illness she left at the end of eighteen
months, and for some years remained with her father and occasionally with other relatives,
notably an uncle who made her acquainted with the Letters of St. Jerome, which
determined her to adopt the religious life. Unable to obtain her fathers consent she left
his house unknown to him in November 1535, to enter the Carmelite Convent of the
Incarnation at Avila, which then had 140 nuns. The wrench from her family caused her a
pain that she ever afterwards compared to death. However, her father at once yielded and
she became a nun, taking the name Teresa of Jesus.
After her profession in the following year she became very seriously ill, and underwent
such unskilful medical treatment that she was reduced to a pitiful state. Even after partial
recovery, her health remained permanently impaired. During these years of suffering, she
began the practice of mental prayer. However, fearing that her unspiritual conversations
with some relatives, frequent visitors at the convent, rendered her unworthy of God, she
discontinued it, until she came under the influence of the Dominicans, and afterwards of
the Jesuits.
Meanwhile she came to believe that God had begun to visit her with intellectual visions
and locutions. These were manifestations in which the exterior senses did not seem to
affect the things seen and the words heard were directly impressed upon her mind, giving
her strength in trials, reprimands for unfaithfulness, and consolation in times of trouble.
Unable to reconcile such graces with her own shortcomings, Teresa had recourse not only
to the most spiritual confessors she could find, but also to some committed laymen, who
believed these manifestations to be the work of evil spirits. The more she endeavoured to
resist them the more powerful her visions and locutions became. The whole city of Avila
was troubled by the reports of the visions of this nun. It was reserved to some Jesuits, and
other religious and secular priests, to interpret them as the work of God.
She gives an account of her spiritual life in the Life written by herself (completed in 1565,
an earlier version being lost), in the Relations, and in the Interior Castle. Together they
form a remarkable spiritual biography. Some consider this to be surpassed only by the
Confessions of St. Augustine.

RMPS: Religious Experience (Advanced Higher)


In the Interior Castle, she describes the souls journeying to God, passing through seven
mansions, each of which has many different rooms. The soul progresses from the outer
courtyard of a crystal globe in the form of a castle to the innermost of its seven mansions.
The beginner enters these mansions by means of mental prayer, and they represent
different stages of prayer life. Prowling beasts symbolise the obstructions and distractions
of the earlier stages, but their power diminishes as the soul approaches its centre.
The first three mansions correspond to the way of purgation, whereas the fourth teaches
the prayer of recollection, which comes before the prayer of quiet. The fifth leads to the
prayer of union and the spiritual betrothal, and contains the eloquent picture of the soul as
a silkworm emerging from its cocoon as a white butterfly. The sixth mansion represents
the stage of spiritual betrothal. This is a transition to the fullness of union with God,
experienced in the spiritual marriage of the seventh, and final mansion.
Mystical experiences
She describes in detail, in her writings, how her mystical experiences developed as a result
of her prayer practices. She often contemplated the image of Christ. Sometimes, when
reading, there would come to her such a feeling of the presence of God as made it
impossible for me to doubt that he was within me, or that I was totally engulfed in him.
To this period belong also such manifestations as the piercing of her heart by Christ with a
spear, or transverberation. A vision of the place destined for her in hell in case she should
have been unfaithful to the grace of God, made her determined to seek a more perfect life.
Teresa never claimed that experiences like her own were essential to the religious life.
They were not even essential for spiritual growth. Instead, she said quite clearly that
dying to self, and submitting the will to the Will of God were the anvil upon which faith
was fashioned. This emphasis on union with the divine fits in perfectly with Jamess
understanding of mysticism, although he would look for more obvious practical fruits as
proof of true saintliness.
Later life
After many troubles and much opposition St. Teresa founded the convent of Discalced
Carmelite Nuns of the Primitive Rule of St. Joseph at Avila (24 August 1562), and after six
months she obtained permission to take up her residence there. These nuns not only led a
contemplative life, they also involved themselves in work amongst the poor. This
combination of deep spirituality and practical service has inspired many men and women
since her death. Her influence has been such that she was made a Doctor of the Church in
the last century.

RMPS: Religious Experience (Advanced Higher)


4.3 Jacob Boehme

Early life
Jacob Boehme, chosen servant of God, was born in Alt Seidenburg, Germany, in 1575.
Born of poor, but pious, Lutheran parents, from childhood Jacob was concerned about the
salvation of his soul. Although daily occupied, first as a shepherd, and afterward as a
shoemaker, he was always an earnest student of the Bible; but he could not understand the
ways of God, and he became perplexed, even to melancholy, pressed out of measure.
He said I knew the Bible from beginning to end, but could find no consolation in Holy
Writ; and my spirit, as if moving in a great storm, arose in God, carrying with it my whole
heart, mind and will and wrestled with the love and mercy of God, that his blessing might
descend upon me, that my mind might be illumined with his Holy Spirit, that I might
understand his will and get rid of my sorrow. His dreamy and introspective disposition so
annoyed his master that he dismissed him. Boehme then began a long period of
wandering as a travelling shoemaker.
Mystical experiences
In 1600, at the age of twenty-five, he had a profound religious experience where he
believed he saw the origins of all things in a vision. Looking into a burnished pewter dish
reflecting the sunshine, he fell into an inward ecstasy whereby he saw the heart of
things, . . . the true nature of God and man, and the relationship existing between them.
He had other Religious experiences. No word can express the great joy and triumph I
experienced, as of a life out of death, as of a resurrection from the dead! . . . While in this
state, as I was walking through a field of flowers, in fifteen minutes, I saw through the
mystery of creation, the original of this world and of all creatures. . . . Then for seven days
I was in a continual state of ecstasy, surrounded by the light of the Spirit, which immersed
me in contemplation and happiness. I learned what God is, and what is his will. . . . I knew
not how this happened to me, but my heart admired and praised the Lord for it. From
this, and other Religious experiences he derived the principle that in yes and no, all things
Ten years later the divine order of nature was opened up to him, and he was inspired to
write what had been revealed to him. I had always thought much of how I might inherit
the kingdom of heaven; but finding in myself a powerful opposition, in the desires that
belong to the flesh and blood, I began a battle against my corrupted nature; and with the
aid of God, I made up my mind to overcome the inherited evil will, . . . break it, and enter
wholly into the love of God in Christ Jesus . . . I sought the heart of Jesus Christ, the
center of all truth; and I resolved to regard myself as dead in my inherited form, until the
Spirit of God would take form in me, so that in and through him, I might conduct my life.

RMPS: Religious Experience (Advanced Higher)


From 1612 to 1624, he wrote thirty books, My books are written Boehme said only for
those who desire to be sanctified and united to God, from whom they came . . . Not
through my understanding, but in my resignation in Christ . . from him have I received
knowledge of his mysteries. God dwells in that which will resign itself up, with all its
reason and skill, unto him . . . I have prayed strongly that I might not write except for the
glory of God and the instruction and benefit of my brethren.
In one of his tracts, The Way To The Cross, he has a dialogue between a scholar and his
master on how to see God and hear him speak. Boehme is heard trying to escape from the
confines of scholastic Lutheranism and institutional Christianity, with its many divisions.
Everything has come, he wrote, from the No-thing, the ungrund, to which everything will
also return. This ungrund is likened to a bottomless pit, unfathomable, containing the
possibilities of good and evil. If one wants to hear and see God, one must forsake this
world of images and claim no things as ones own. Then one becomes a no-thing among
no-things, and it is in this no-thingness that true live resides. Heaven and hell are not
places which human beings enter after death, but represent present states in their souls.
Later life
Jacob Boehmes persecutions and suffering began with the publication of his first book,
Aurora, at the age of thirty-five. Then notwithstanding five years of enforced silence,
banishment from his home town, and an ecclesiastical trial for heresy, his interior
wisdom began to be recognized by the nobility of Germany. At this time, at the age of
forty-nine, Boehme died, happy, as he said, in the midst of the heavenly music of the
paradise of God in Silesia in 1624.
There are obvious echoes in his writings of panentheism, Eastern mysticism and
existentialist theology, to name but three. His undoubtedly difficult and complex writings
have exercised a profound influence on later intellectual movements and personalities, for
example on idealism and romanticism, on William Blake, Isaac Newton and even Hegel.
John Wesley, in his day, required all of his Methodist preachers to study the writings of
Jacob Boehme; and the Anglican theologian, Willam Law, said of him Jacob Boehme was
not a messenger of anything new in religion, but the mystery of all that was old and true in
religion and nature, was opened up to himthe depth of the riches, both of the wisdom
and knowledge of God.
Boehme is becoming increasingly popular as an inspiring writer whose religious
experiences exert powerful, alluring influences: I stood in this resolution, fighting a
battle with myself, until the light of the Spirit, a light entirely foreign to my unruly nature,
began to break through the clouds. Then, after some farther hard fights with the powers of
darkness, my spirit broke through the doors of hell, and penetrated even unto the
innermost essence of its newly born divinity where it was received with great love, as a
bridegroom welcomes his beloved bride.

RMPS: Religious Experience (Advanced Higher)


Boehme was a typically Protestant mystic. Unlike the Catholic Church, Protestantism did
not possess the necessary institutional and doctrinal structures to support the growth of
mysticism in the ways that medieval Catholicism had done through its monasteries and
convents. Some Protestants, indeed, were strongly anti-mystical, like (perhaps) the pastor
in Boehmes town who denounced him as satanic.
There was, however, a widespread desire to develop a personal relationship with God,
irrespective of any religious superstructure or institution. Protestant mysticism, therefore,
tends to be individualistic. One particular feature of Protestant mysticism is the emphasis
on the divine element in the human being, the spark, centre of ground of the soul, the
divine image, the inner light.
Mystics within Protestantism tended to state that the supreme authority lies not in human
constructs, or even in the written word of scripture. It lay rather in the Word of God
himself. The guiding light and freedom of inner experience and conscience replaced
dependence on external authority. Not surprisingly, such an attitude often led to conflict
with Protestant church authorities, as happened in the case of Boehme.

RMPS: Religious Experience (Advanced Higher)


4.4 Simone Weil

Early life
Simone Weil (pronounced vey) was born to a secularised Jewish family, but was deeply
drawn to the Catholic Church during her short life. It has been said that she wrote with the
clarity of a brilliant mind educated in the best French schools, the social conscience of a
grass-roots labour organiser, and the certainty and humility of a Christian mystic. Despite
the fact that she never became a professing Christian, some consider her a true Christian at
heart. Andre Gide called her the saint of all outsiders. She never ceased to study the
beliefs of the religions of the East.
Mystical experiences
She had several profound, life-changing mystical experiences. She observed the
celebration of a saints festival in Portuguese village, and an occasion of prayer in Assisi.
These intense religious moments culminated in her experience whilst a guest at the
Benedictine Abbey of Solesmes (near Le Mans, France) in 1938. The exquisite beauty of
the chanting of the monks captured her. This was followed by her experience of Christ
coming down and seizing her she felt as if the Passion of Christ had entered her whole
She wrote the following to a friend: In 1938 I spent ten days at Solesmes, from Palm
Sunday to Easter Tuesday, following all the liturgical services. I was suffering from
splitting headaches; each sound hurt me like a blow; by an extreme effort of concentration
I was able to rise above this wretched flesh, to leave it to suffer by itself, heaped up in a
corner, and to find a pure and perfect joy in the unimaginable beauty of the chanting and
the words. This experience enabled me by analogy to get a better understanding of the
possibility of loving divine love in the midst of affliction. It goes without saying that in the
course of these services the thought of the Passion of Christ entered into my being once
and for all Moreover, in this sudden possession of me by Christ, neither my senses nor
my imagination had any part; I only felt in the midst of my suffering the presence of a
love, like that which one can read in the smile on a beloved face.
Weil believed strongly in the spiritual value of suffering and in waiting with patience for
God in an age of atheism. Her book which develops these themes, Waiting for God, is
considered by many to be a modern spiritual classic. She wrote it is not for man to seek,
or even to believe in God. He has only to refuse to believe in everything that is not God.
This refusal does not presuppose belief. It is enough to recognise, what is obvious to any
mind, that all the goods of this world, past, present, or future, real or imaginary, are finite
and limited and radically incapable of satisfying the desire which burns perpetually with in
us for an infinite and perfect good... It is not a matter of self-questioning or searching. A
man has only to persist in his refusal, and one day or another God will come to him.

RMPS: Religious Experience (Advanced Higher)


In her writings, Weil is concerned to show how all aspects of experience can be creatively
transformed into channels of waiting for divine presence and grace. All human activities
can become a way and means for loving God. She uses, as Teresa of Avila had done, the
image of the soul as a garden and God as the gardener who puts a seed into the ground of
the soul. The religious believer has to wait upon this seed, whose growth, however, is
accompanied by pain and suffering. This image is not so dissimilar to that of St Paul in 1
Corinthians 15, where the seed has to die before it can bring forth life.
Later life
She stayed outside of any church, but her passionate need to share the sufferings of others
led her to fight with the anarchists in the Spanish Civil War, to work as a field hand and an
unskilled labourer, and ultimately to die in England at the age of 34. She died from
tuberculosis complicated by her refusing to eat more than Hitlers rations allotted to her
fellow citizens in occupied France. After her death, writers as diverse as T S Eliot and
Albert Camus declared her one of the twentieth centurys foremost thinkers.

RMPS: Religious Experience (Advanced Higher)


4.5 Mysticism from a faith perspective

The word mysticism has a particular heritage within the Christian tradition. In the New
Testament, it has a specific usage to the mystery of the love of God as revealed in Christ.
It is not a mystery because it is kept secret. Rather it is a mystery because it has to be
revealed, and when it is revealed it is still, to an extent, hidden. This is because the love of
God is inexhaustible. The height, depth, length and breadth of Gods love can never be
fully known. In that they can ever be known to any extent at all, they can be known only
in the life, death and resurrection of Christ.
Christians mystics are those who are widely acknowledged to have had deep experiences
of Gods love as revealed through Christ. Mysticism is found in the Bible, for example in
the visions of Zechariah and Ezekiel in the Old Testament, or the experiences of the
apostle John in the book of Revelation in the New Testament. The Christian mystical
tradition as commonly understood, however, is often considered to have begun with
Dionysius the Areopagite (c.500).
Dionysius addressed the question, how can God be known? He concludes that God cannot
be known in the ordinary sense, but he can be experienced, reached and found, if sought
on the right path. From his writings, later Christian writers derived a three-stage pattern
for the mystic way: purgative, illuminative and unitive. The first of these stages is to do
with preparation by prayer and the via negativa denying oneself through ascetic
practices. The second is the mystical experience itself. The third is the result of the
experience a sense of oneness with God.
The influence of these ideas has been immense. A central emphasis in Christian mysticism
is the possibility of direct experience of God, usually expressed through the imagery of a
lover and the beloved, resulting in a mystical union between the two. This emphasis is a
Biblical one. God and his beloved, the children of Israel are depicted in precisely this way
in the Song of Songs in the Old Testament. God is said to have married his people in
Jeremiah. The Church is the Bride of Christ in the New Testament, awaiting the
consummation of the Wedding Supper of the Lamb. Christian mysticism aims to
experience something of the reality of these truths. The Second Vatican Council (1962)
reflected an ever-growing interest in mysticism when it stated that mysticism was part of a
general call to holiness. As such, it is available to all.
There are, however, some difficulties associated with mysticism:

One of these difficulties relates to the relative low incidence of mystical experiences.
They seem to occur only for a minority of Christians. Research undertaken by the
Alister Hardy Research Centre and by David Hay backs this up mystical experiences
are very much in the minority. Some might infer from this that God shows some kind
of favouritism in the way he deals with people. Other could just as easily respond that,
like all worthwhile things perhaps, it takes sustained effort and application: straight is
the gate and narrow is the way that leads to eternal life.

RMPS: Religious Experience (Advanced Higher)


Another issue is that of authority. For many Christians, the Church is the institution
that possesses the magisterium. God revealed himself through Christ, and the Church
is the guardian of that revelation. It is the steward of the sacraments, through which
God is to be met. Mystics could be seen to be loose canons on the ship of the Church.
In claiming direct revelation of and from God, the sacramental and authority system
appears to be short-circuited. There is always the danger of fanaticism, not to mention
delusion, when someone claims that God has spoken directly to him or her. Some
claim that this is how cults and unorthodox Christian movements begin. Roman
Catholics would say that anyone claiming to have a direct revelation should submit
themselves to the scrutiny of the church authorities. Protestants, in a not dissimilar
vein, maintain that anything like that should be subject to scripture.

A third concern for Christians is the claim that religious experience all religious
experience including all mystical experiences has evidential value. For some,
mysticism is simply a delusional belief that a person has united with God or has
experienced some ultimate reality. For believers, however, mysticism is an experience
that provides sufficient warrant for belief in God. This is the meaning of the term
evidential value. Such a claim, however, appears to undermine any particularist
claim to truth. The uniqueness of Christianity is untenable if people from all over the
world, from all religions and indeed none, have mystical experiences.

Quite apart from these theological difficulties, there are also philosophical problems for
Christianity raised by mysticism:

One of these is the issue of causation. Most philosophers doubt that one can argue a
cause from an effect. If one has had a mystical experience, well one has had a
mystical experience. Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) asked whether there was a
difference between saying God spoke to me in a dream and I dreamed that God
spoke to me. Not all mystical experiences, however, take place in dreams.
Zechariahs eight mystical visions, for example, despite the fact that they came at
night, occurred when he was wide-awake.

A further philosophical problem relates to the ineffability of mystical experiences,

which was one of James four categories. If such an experience is ineffable, then,
literally, to talk about it is to talk gobbledegook. It is to say nothing. One cannot
argue against anything that supplies no actual information. This was the position taken
by the Logical Positivist school of philosophers, championed by A J Freddie Ayer
(1910-1987). The impact of logical positivism has, however, declined markedly since
Ayers death, and for reasons which are complex, this seemingly fatal objection to
mystical experiences is no longer regarded as such.

RMPS: Religious Experience (Advanced Higher)


4.6 Personal conversion experiences

The word conversion means to change. All religions have a view of the human condition.
They are at one in seeing this condition as somehow flawed defective and unfulfilled.
Similarly, they all have a view of how life could, or should be, and provide means by
which one can progress from the one to the other. Put another way, religion is to do with
transformation: from something, to something, by something. Conversion may be said to
encompass that which is involved in this process of change.
The examples below are all taken from the Christian tradition, which is probably the
tradition with which you are most familiar. If you have studied for the Higher RMPS
Course, or Unit on World Religions, you may very well have detailed knowledge of a
religion other than Christianity. Examples of conversion within these religions are, of
course, equally appropriate for consideration.

4.7 St Paul
Early life
Saul as he was originally known, was born at Tarsus in Cilicia, but probably came to
Jerusalem with his parents while still young. Luke speaks of him being brought up in
Jerusalem, sitting at the feet of Gamaliel, an authority on the Torah, the Jewish Law, and
of being a member of the strict sect known as Pharisees. He called himself a Hebrew of
the Hebrews, born from the tribe of Benjamin. He was, as such, as Jewish as they came.
Since neither Luke nor Paul himself ever refers to any occasion on which Paul actually
saw Jesus, it is generally agreed that he did not even know what Jesus looked like and
certainly never met him. Not long, perhaps weeks rather than months, after Jesus death,
Luke reports Saul as being present at the execution and stoning of Stephen, the first
recorded Christian martyr. He was also presumably at Stephens trial before the High
Priest and his colleagues, when Stephen spoke of the significance of the death of Jesus,
the just one, at their hands (Acts 7).
Outraged like his fellow Pharisees at what seemed to them plain blasphemy, Saul took a
leading part in hunting out adherents of this sect that made a mockery of Jewish
orthodoxy. It is known from his own later admission that many saints suffered
imprisonment, interrogation and death because of his police action. He wrote of these
killing times that his zeal persecuted the church. Anxious, according to Luke, to stop
the Christian rot from spreading in major centres of Jewish settlement outside Jerusalem,
Saul went with a special mandate to continue the heresy hunt in Damascus and send all
suspects back to Jerusalem to be punished. Some critics claim that he never had such a
mandate and was in fact resident in Damascus rather than Jerusalem, but all agree that he
was a notorious persecutor. On the road to Damascus or nearby Saul experienced a
literally blinding revelation as a result of which he joined the very sect he had so savagely
persecuted and in due course became its most influential exponent.

RMPS: Religious Experience (Advanced Higher)


Conversion experience
Exactly what happened is uncertain, but the details of the three accounts given in Acts
(chapters 9, 22 and 26), corroborated by various statements in Pauls epistles, provide the
verbal and imaginative pattern which ever since has typified sudden and complete
conversion. All the accounts in Acts, written after Pauls death and up to fifty years after
the event, agree that about noon a bright light appeared, Saul fell to the ground and heard a
voice asking, Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me? In answer to his question as to
whom it was who was speaking to him, he was told I am Jesus whom you persecute.
Two of the versions add the Greek saying, it is hard for you to kick against the pricks.
He is then said to have been temporarily blinded, so that he had to be led into the city.
There a Christian named Ananias, instructed to that end by God, visited him, and despite
his hostile record was almost at once accepted among the community that he had set out to
persecute. Whether Luke invented or arranged the actual details is immaterial for the
subsequent influence they had. Paul says that he had a sudden conversion, and ever since
Acts was written Lukes account has been accepted and repeated without question.
Paul, to give him the more familiar Greek name by which he is known as an apostle, at
once began preaching his new faith in and around Damascus. He was soon as much
anathema to his former orthodox brethren as he had been up until then to the Christians.
The long record of punishments received and dangers borne began to take shape, and in
the epistles written some twenty years later, he speaks as though the transition from
persecutor to persecuted had been virtually instantaneous. An important element in the
story of Paul is the way in which his credentials were accepted at Damascus.
It is also significant that it was more than two years before he made the not very long
journey to Jerusalem. Here, in the course of a stay lasting only two weeks, he at last met
Peter and James, but apparently no other Christian leaders. Peter, too, accepted his
credentials, and when Paul set out on his first missionary journey (usually dated c.46, but
perhaps as early as 37) he clearly did so with full apostolic authority. After an interval
variously explained, he went back to Jerusalem (c.49) for a second and in his own view,
far more important visit when most of the Christian leaders gathered in what is sometimes
called the Council of Jerusalem to resolve major points of policy.
Later life
The chronology is not too clear, but it seems most likely that fourteen years elapsed
between the two visits to Jerusalem (or possibly between his conversion and the second
visit). He spent some or all of this period in Syria and his native Cilicia, or also possibly
accomplishing the greater part of his ministry in the Eastern Mediterranean. In other
words, the point underlined by, Paul in the Epistle to the Galatians containing this
information is that during that time he was giving, not receiving, instruction in the faith.
When he was executed in Rome (c.67) he left as the oldest surviving documents of the
Christian faith that portion of his total correspondence known as his epistles, antedating all
four Gospels as well as Lukes account of Pauls ministry in Acts. The preponderant
influence that those few letters have exercised on Christianity ever since underlines once
more the question of his credentials and the significance of his conversion.

RMPS: Religious Experience (Advanced Higher)


Pauls experience on the road to Damascus is part of the Christian heritage. He became a
changed man. The difference is that before his conversion he lived a moral and devout life
according to the Law. When he turned his back on the past it was not simply, or mainly,
against the persecution he had so ruthlessly conducted, but against the cause in the name
of which he had acted: the Law. His conversion marked the final collapse of his trying to
uphold the letter of the Law in order to achieve salvation. Salvation, he would write, is a
free gift of God.
All we know about Pauls conversion comes from the Bible. There are two sources for the
Damascus Road event: the indications of the apostle in his letters and the three reports in
Acts (9.1ff, 22.3f and 26.10f). In his letters, he relates his revelation of Jesus Christ
(Galatians 1.12) who had risen from the dead (1 Corinthians 9.1, 15.8). All that mattered
to Paul after this was to be in Christ (Philippians 3.8-14). Out of his experience grew all
the chief features of Pauls spirituality.

RMPS: Religious Experience (Advanced Higher)


4.8 St Ignatius Loyola

Early Life
Inigo de Loyola was born in 1491 in Azpeitia in the Basque province of Guipuzcoa in
northern Spain. He was the youngest of thirteen children. At the age of sixteen, he was
sent to serve as a page to Juan Velazquez, the treasurer of the kingdom of Castile. As a
member of the Velazquez household, he was frequently at court and developed a taste for
all it presented. He was addicted to gambling, argumentative, and not above engaging in
swordplay on occasion. Inigo had for years gone about in the dress of a fighting man,
wearing a coat of mail and breastplate, and carrying a sword and other sorts of arms,
perhaps accounting for his name of Ignatius.
Eventually he found himself at the age of 30 in May of 1521 as an officer defending the
fortress of the town of Pamplona against the French, who claimed the territory as their
own against Spain. The Spaniards were terribly outnumbered and the commander of the
Spanish forces wanted to surrender, but Ignatius convinced him to fight on for the honour
of Spain, if not for victory. During the battle, a cannon ball struck Ignatius, wounding one
leg and breaking the other. Because they admired his courage, the French soldiers carried
him back to recuperate at his home, the castle of Loyola, rather than to prison. His leg was
set but did not heal, so it was necessary to break it again and reset it, all without
anaesthesia. Ignatius grew worse and was finally told by the doctors that he should
prepare for death.
On the feast of Saints Peter and Paul (29 June) he took an unexpected turn for the better.
The leg healed, but when it did the bone protruded below the knee and one leg was shorter
than the other was. This was unacceptable to Ignatius, who considered it a fate worse than
death not to be able to wear the long, tight-fitting boots and hose of the courtier.
Therefore, he ordered the doctors to saw off the offending knob of bone and lengthen the
leg by systematic stretching. Again, all of this was done without anaesthesia.
Unfortunately, this was not a successful procedure. All his life he walked with a limp
because one leg was shorter than the other.
Conversion experience
During the long weeks of his recuperation, he was extremely bored and asked for some
romance novels to pass the time. There were none in the castle of Loyola, but there was a
copy of the Life of Christ and a book called The Golden Legend, on the lives of the saints.
Desperate, Ignatius began to read them. The more he read, the more he considered the
exploits of the saints worth imitating. However, at the same time he continued to have
daydreams of fame and glory, along with fantasies of winning the love of a certain noble
lady of the court. He noticed, however, that after reading and thinking of the saints and
Christ he was at peace and satisfied. Yet, when he finished his long daydreams of his
noble lady, he would feel restless and unsatisfied. This experience was the beginning of a
profound religious conversion. Eventually, completely converted from his old desires and
plans of romance and worldly conquests, and recovered from his wounds enough to travel,
he left the castle in March of 1522.

RMPS: Religious Experience (Advanced Higher)


Following this, he travelled to the town of Manresa near Barcelona. He stayed in a cave
outside the town, intending to linger only a few days, but he remained for ten months. He
spent hours each day in prayer and worked in a hospice. It was while here that the ideas
for what are now known as the Spiritual Exercises began to take shape. It was also on
the banks of this river that he had a vision, which is regarded as the most significant in his
life. T he vision was more of an enlightenment, about which he later said that he learned
more on that one occasion than he did in the rest of his life. Ignatius never revealed
exactly what the vision was, but it seems to have been a religious experience of an
encounter with God as he really is. All creation was seen in a new light and acquired a
new meaning and relevance, an experience that enabled Ignatius to find God in all things.
Later life
Ignatius travelled to Paris and set his conversion and mystical experiences within a
teachable intellectual framework. In 1540, in Rome, he founded the religious order called
the Society of Jesus, or Jesuits. They had a particular interest in education and service to
others. By the time he died, in 1556, there were already over 1000 recruits to his already
world-wide order.
Ignatius recorded and systematised his experiences (rather than his vision) in his famous
Spiritual Exercises (1548). These have become a classic, and they are still widely used
today. They give an insight into the nature and character of his conversion, although they
tend to be used today by people who would already classify themselves as converted,
irrespective of whether they have undergone such a profound experience as Ignatius.
The Exercises are very practical. They provide a specific programme of exercises and
meditations that are to take place over a four-week period. The purpose of undertaking
such a task is nothing less than to have a first-hand experience of God to allow the
creator to work directly on the creature. A focus in this respect was to be the practical
application to daily life of a deep-seated spirituality

RMPS: Religious Experience (Advanced Higher)


4.9 C S Lewis
Early life
Clive Staples Lewis was born in Ireland in 1898. He was brought up in England and went
to school at Malvern College, a boarding school. A boy of ability, he gained a triple First
at Oxford, and became a Fellow and Tutor at Magdalen College between 1925 and 1954.
Conversion experience
In Surprised by Joy, which tells of his conversion, Lewis speaks of his quest for what he
describes as joy. Lewis defined joy in a narrow, deep sense, as a recurring stab of
longing that nothing in this world will satisfy. He describes it as a desire for God and
heaven that God himself has built into the human race, though many fail to focus upon it
and grasp its message. Lewis called it joy because in the longing itself, there is greater
delight than in any of this worlds pleasures. Lewis said that such joy leads a person to
seek God and keep seeking, till God himself through making that person inwardly honest,
humble, consciously chastened and radically penitent, leads them to find God in Christ.
Lewis sought to show how discipleship to Jesus Christ leads to the fullness of joy as
defined above. Hence his pervasive orientation to God and heaven, and his recurring
raptures of rhetoric whereby, calculating his effect as writers do, he seeks to make the
reader feel the reality and desire the enjoyment of both. His strategies for evoking and
reinforcing joy give his treatments of the event and life of conversion a unique and
charming flavour.
How did Lewis arrive at such a commitment to a religious position? He says that he lost
the faith of his childhood whilst at public school. He was educated under the close
supervision of an atheistic and rationalist tutor, who taught the young Lewis how to think
philosophically and rationally. Lewis greatly admired and respected his tutor my debt
to him is very great, my reverence to this day undiminished. Lewis soon came to have
the same outlook on life as his tutor. He took this outlook with him to university. As an
undergraduate at Oxford, Lewis came to believe in an Absolute, a cosmic Logos. He
sought a religion that costs nothing. He found it in the religion of rationalism, of which
he said, there was nothing to fear; better still, nothing to obey.
C S Lewis seems to have been converted several times. He was converted from his
childhood religious beliefs to materialism and idealism. Lewis credits his tutor at school
with a pervasive influence. At university, he progressed to belief in an impersonal
Absolute, which Lewis called theism. This is the conversion to which he alludes in his
famous dejected and reluctant convert passage quoted below. However, it must be
understood that the conversionwas only to Theism, pure and simple, not to Christianity.
I knew nothing yet about the Incarnation. The God to whom I surrendered was sheerly

RMPS: Religious Experience (Advanced Higher)


It was reading the Bible that appears to have moved Lewis along from simple theism to a
committed Christian faith. Reading the Gospels in particular, he knew that they described
real events: I was by now too experienced in literary criticism to regard the Gospels as
myths. One day, soon after this, he was driven to Whipsnade zoo. When we set out I did
not believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, and when we reached the zoo, I did. He
likened this to an awakening from sleep. He had been converted to Christianity.
Later life
Lewis spent his life writing, teaching, broadcasting and undertaking research. From 1955
until his death he was Professor of Medieval and Renaissance English in Cambridge. He
died a widower at his home in Oxford in 1963.
He wrote many books, some of which are well known. He is the author of, for example,
the famous Narnia series of stories, including The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe,
which was televised a few years ago. Lewis also enjoyed science fiction, and his book
from the Perelandra series, Out of the Silent Planet, has been set as a prescribed text for
school English examinations. He was a popular and influential academic, as portrayed in
the successful film about his life, Shadowlands, starring Anthony Hopkins.
The book The Great Divorce presents several fictional conversions that mirror the
conversion Lewis relates in his autobiography Surprised by Joy. These reluctant
conversions share at least five common points:
the presence of a mentor to guide the convert
the convert exercising free will
the presence of supernatural forces which, optimally, drive the convert to submission
pain associated with the conversion process
a blessing or curse as a consequence of the choice.
These common elements reveal Lewis perception of the essential details of conversion
and show that his fiction mirrored his life.

The presence of a mentor to guide the convert

For Lewis, there were several mentors, books and friends. He recounts in his
autobiography the role Phantastes by George MacDonald played in his conversion.
The romantic fantasy book illuminated his perception of Joy and his imagination
was . . . baptised by the experience. However, Lewis claimed that this experience did
not affect his intellectual understanding of religion or his obedience to its precepts.
Further reading and other men effected these changes in his intellect and obedience.
Through Christian friends and writers, over several years, Lewis was led to a belief in
God: You must picture me alone in that room at Magdalen, night after night, feeling,
whenever my mind lifted even for a second from my work, the steady, unrelenting
approach of Him whom I so earnestly desired not to meet. That which I greatly feared
had at last come upon me. In the Trinity Term of 1929 I gave in, and admitted that
God was God, and knelt and prayed: perhaps, that night, the most dejected and
reluctant convert in all England.

RMPS: Religious Experience (Advanced Higher)


Perhaps the most life-changing conversation Lewis had was with Hugo Dyson and J.
R. R. Tolkien in 1931. Already converted to theism, Lewis was resolving the
intellectual barriers to his faith in Christ. One night the three met at Oxford University
and discussed myth until the early hours of the morning. Tolkien and Dyson helped
Lewis see that he could accept the Christian redemption myth just as he accepted
redemption myths in other folklore, with the exception that the Christian version
actually happened. After this evening, Lewis wrote to his friend Arthur Greaves
confessing, How deep I am just now beginning to see. I have just passed on from
believing in God to definitely believing in Christ in Christianity.

Free will
Despite the intellect, love, and power of mentors, the necessity of a free choice by the
convert is essential. In the months leading up to his conversion, Lewis wrote, I felt
myself being . . . given a free choice. I could open the door or keep it shut. . . . I am . . .
inclined to think that this came nearer to being a perfectly free act than most that I
have ever done. Furthermore, in his account of the night he came to belief in God,
Lewis shows that conversion was ultimately his choice. After feeling the influence of
God in his life, Lewis met Him whom [he] so earnestly desired not to meet when he
gave in and knelt to pray. It was not until Lewis chose to submit that the conversion
was effected. For Lewis, God will not or cannot convert a soul against the converts

Supernatural forces
The third similarity in conversion stories is the influence of a higher force than the
convert. The convert cannot fully understand this supernatural influence, yet it prods
and pushes them towards God if they will only submit. Although the potential
proselyte has the choice, something higher than themselves is working on them to
make the choice a dichotomy. In dealing with this influence, Lewis learned that he
could not achieve Joy directly and [he] . . . could not produce or control it at all.
Lewis further conveys this idea of a supernatural influence with his imagery of God
winning a cosmic chess game. With the loss of the intellectual beliefs that supported
his atheism, Lewis reported, all over the board my pieces were in the most
disadvantageous positions. . . . [Then] my Adversary began to make His final moves.
In the conversion process, the only optimal choice for Lewis was to submit. He could
argue or run, but the reality was that he was, as he described, in checkmate. It was his
only intelligent option. The converts position becomes a choice between two options,
misery or joy.

RMPS: Religious Experience (Advanced Higher)


To Lewis, conversion was not a thing of ease. The involvement of pain in the
conversion process is the fourth aspect. Lewis himself was converted kicking and
screaming. Some of the pain came because in fixing his faith on God, Lewis also
discovered ludicrous and terrible things about [his] own character including immense
pride. One of the pains associated with conversion involved the realisation that he
must repent and change. In his book, Mere Christianity Lewis explained why he
thought pain is necessary in conversion. He proposes, God [will force a Christian] to a
higher level: putting them into situations where they will have to be very much braver,
or more patient, or more loving, than they ever dreamed of being before. It seems to
us all unnecessary: but that is because we have not yet had the slightest notion of the
tremendous thing He means to make of us. Suffering, for Lewis, can make a saint.
The pain of conversion is meant only to bring the convert closer to God.

Blessing or curse
The convert is faced with the decision between life and death. Salvation can be both a
daily event and an ultimate destination. Lewis exhibits the life-giving nature of his
belief when he writes, I believe in Christianity as I believe that the Sun has risen not
only because I see it but because by it I see everything else. His faith became his life.
Lewis conversion was a continual process and his faith continued to be tried,
especially when his wife Joy died. If we do not choose God, Lewis believed, then we
choose misery.

Apart from the above five elements implicitly identified by Lewis as being necessary for
conversion, he singles out one. He identified the need for a mentor, or mentors, for
conversion, of which one was reading books. Lewis would say that he has the best mentor
of all Jesus Christ whose book (the Bible) brought him to a living faith.

RMPS: Religious Experience (Advanced Higher)


4.10 Personal conversion from a faith perspective

These three examples from the Christian tradition follow the common understanding of
conversion. This understanding is that conversion, of whatever kind, follows a period of
emotional confusion and disturbance often, but not always, accompanied by intellectual
doubts. Of its nature, it involves a break with the past to which the emotions refer. In
certain branches of Christianity, this first stage has been called conviction of sin. It is
followed by vocation or calling, the feeling that an unmerited love marked the sinner out
for salvation. This stage is followed in turn by justification, achievement of a saving
faith, and sanctification, the growth of holiness of life. The ultimate end is
glorification, in the world to come.
Examples of conversion testimonies following this scheme could be drawn from the
seventeenth century Puritans, the Methodist revivals of the eighteenth century or from
evangelical revivals in the Isle of Lewis during the last century. The names of Martin
Luther, John Bunyan and George Whitefield are prominent in this regard. It is still a
central aspect of Christian religious experience, particularly within Protestantism.
A J Krailsheimer, in his book Conversion (1980), claims that Roman Catholic converts
such as Ignatius Loyola, Blaise Pascal and Thomas Merton can be seen to have gone
through these stages in a broad sense. They are, however, subject to a different
understanding. The stage of conviction of sin, he suggests for example, is replaced by one
of acceptance of Christs love, what Simone Weil called gravity and grace. Sin is seen
not so much as a fault of commission (the performing of evil acts), but rather as one of
omission (failing to perform good acts).
In whatever way sin is understood, conversion is seen to be a turning from it, by a decisive
choice and act of the will. The sin of which these people were so convinced varies greatly.
For Augustine of Hippo, the sin that prevented him from experiencing conversion appears
to be intellectual pride. A generally aimless and self-indulgent life seems to lie behind the
conversion of Francis of Assisi and Ignatius Loyola. Luther and Bunyan were moved
more by profound misgivings about the state of their souls rather than specific misdeeds.
All these examples, with the exception of Augustine, explicitly link their conversion
experience with a realisation of Christs saving love for them. Augustines silence does
not, of course, mean that he felt differently from these others.
These examples of converts reveal people who were unusually self-willed. They all
revolted against the insatiable demands of self and submitted to Gods love as revealed in
the sufferings of Christ. They could all say, with Paul, the Son of God who loved me, and
gave himself, for me. In one way or another, self-love, usually in the form of pride, was
the sin of which they all became aware. Those who felt justified in the technical
theological sense, and those who in a more general sense felt a surge of new strength and
purpose, were at one in ascribing their grace to Christ and not to their own merit or good
works. None of them, moreover, were any more converted by another person than Paul
had been. Conversion was an entirely private, almost passive affair. The defeat, and
surrender, of their pride and self-will was the outcome of a direct transaction between each
of them and God.

RMPS: Religious Experience (Advanced Higher)


The stage immediately following the conversion experience involves a visible act and
change of life, what the New Testament calls metanoia, or repentance. The vocation and
sanctification stages are, however, much less clearly defined. Conversion is often
followed by times of testing quite different to the confusion and emptiness experienced
beforehand. Luther suffered spiritual anguish and Bunyan was tempted to despair.
Loyola had his trials at Manresa. Lewis agonised over the cancer of his new bride. Paul
himself was afflicted by his thorn in the flesh the messenger of Satan to buffet me and
could call himself the chief of sinners even after many years as an apostle. The call of
conversion in no case ever led to unclouded serenity or spiritual bliss. It led to the Cross.
It leads to the Cross every day. Replacing self-love with love for God involves a daily
repentance, almost a daily conversion, in the sense of a daily decision to live the new life
of faith.
Conversion thus requires steadfast commitment. This commitment is not to an abstract
ideal or a material programme. It is a commitment to a living relationship with the risen
Christ. Paul, alone of the examples of conversion cited, saw the risen Christ. All the
others have seen his presence not with their physical eyes, but with their inner eyes of
faith. Conversion is therefore a response to an encounter with the Risen One. This Christ,
who said, you must be born again also said, follow me. Conversion, from a Christian
perspective, is precisely that. A Christian is a follower of Christ. A convert is one who has
set out on that journey.
There are, notwithstanding, problems arising from this Christian understanding of

First, there is the question of who can be converted, or saved. Some Christians say
that anyone can turn to God, anyone can be converted. Others say that only a special
group can be converted, usually known as the elect. God has chosen the elect, the
elect have not chosen God. Pauls vision was passive, for he did not actively seek to
meet Christ. Christ met him. Just as some make the case that certain psychological
types or particular sociological conditions must pertain for conversion to take place, so
there must also be suitable theological conditions. This raises many issues for
believers. One of these is the issue of volition. If God has already chosen those who
will be converted, why bother? Why evangelise, have churches, undertake missionary
activity if God, not humans, do the choosing?

A second issue is the emphasis that conversion should have. Not all Christians have
had a profound conversion experience like Paul, Ignatius or, perhaps to a lesser extent,
Lewis. Some Christian denominations, however, seem to require such an experience.
That is, one becomes a member of such a Christian church or group by having a
conversion experience. This requirement would seem to prevent those who cannot
claim a conversion experience from being accepted as Christians. By contrast, many
professing Christians cannot point to a time when they were not Christians. For them,
conversion is that regular discipline of dying to self which forms a habit, thus
moulding a character. This is active, rather than passive.

RMPS: Religious Experience (Advanced Higher)


Thirdly, there is the issue of pluralism. In a multi-cultural society, some ask, is

conversion to any religion acceptable? All religions have their converts, and have
similar stories to tell of changed lives, a different focus and a higher plane of living.
Some Christians ascribe this to there being just one God who is revealed in different
ways. This seems to be Richard Swinburnes position. Such a view would seem to
take away from the particular claims of each religion, none of which claim only to be a
way to God, but the way. There seems to be a difference between a conversion
experience in terms of personal encounter with the divine, and the interpretation of that
experience according to a theological system.

RMPS: Religious Experience (Advanced Higher)


4.11 Questions and activities

1. How central are the following within religion?

(Answer with reference to at least one world religion.)
2. Look up examples of mystics and their writings using the web-sites in section 8. What
are the similarities and differences between the different accounts?
3. Interview someone who has had a mystical experience. Analyse the interview to see
whether the experience fits into the scheme of James (passive, ineffable, noetic,
transient), or whether it is more akin to Ottos numinous classification.
Does it have a religious context?
4. Find some examples of religious conversion. Use the examples in these support
materials, surf the net or interview people from a local religious congregation.
Draw up a table to compare the different accounts. Use the following three headings:
from what
to what
by what.
How do you account for any similarities of differences?
5. To what extent can conversion be considered to be a specifically religious experience?

6. Conversion, of whatever kind, follows a period of emotional confusion and

disturbance often, but not always, accompanied by intellectual doubts.
How far do you agree with this statement?

RMPS: Religious Experience (Advanced Higher)


RMPS: Religious Experience (Advanced Higher)



5.1 Psychological perspectives

Religious experience from a psychological perspective is usually studied within the
discipline known as Psychology of Religion. This discipline has a large literature
associated with it and many helpful web-sites and associated links are available. It is
probably true to say, however, that the psychology of religion is to be found very much on
the edge of mainstream psychology. Many psychologists are suspicious about well-known
terms used in the psychology of religion. Terms such as spiritual, numinous and sacred
suggest a realm of reality beyond that which can be studied empirically by science. This
causes difficulty for many psychologists, since science is supposed to be an empirical
activity it works by undertaking experiments. It is difficult to experiment upon a spirit,
or a soul. Consequently many psychologists tend to doubt the validity of the psychology
of religion as a legitimate field of study.
Not all psychologists, however, hold this view. Not all psychologists are secular, and not
all psychologists of religion are religious. By secular is meant a concern for this world
only, and perhaps a denial of what might be called trans-empirical reality. There is a
difference between being a religious psychologist and a psychologist of religion!
Inevitably, ones presuppositions are likely to determine ones conclusions, or at least to
influence the way one understands and views the data.
The stakes, however, are high. If demonstrable mechanisms can be discovered which are
held to be responsible for religious experiences such as conversion and mystical
experiences, then such an explanation might be used to explain away such experiences,
without recourse to this trans-empirical reality. The psychology of religion is therefore
seen in some religious quarters as a threat. As Peter Connolly says, psychological studies
of religious phenomena have the potential for profound influence upon the beliefs and
practices of religious people. Religious people might counter that one cannot posit a
cause from an effect.
Some psychologists have attempted to do precisely this. Sigmund Freud (1856-1939)
made the bold claim that religion is an illusion based upon human wishes. Religious
experiences, although genuine experiences, were nothing more than wish fulfilment, the
resolution of inner psychological conflict. Freuds one time colleague and later
competitor, Carl Gustav Jung (1875-1961) disagreed with Freuds negative and almost
scathing estimation of religion and religious experience. Both agree, however, that
religious experience is a normal phenomenon Freud said it was for the worse, whereas
Jung said it was for the better. Both suggested psychological mechanisms to explain it.
Both theories suffer from the generic problem common to all psychological theories: how
can it be substantiated?

RMPS: Religious Experience (Advanced Higher)


5.2 Sigmund Freud

Freud, a Viennese doctor, noticed connections between what he called abnormal
psychological conditions and religion. Freud applied primitive religion to his
psychological picture of humanity and found parallels between abnormal behavior and
religious rituals. If a ritual or habit is not performed in the same way each time, then the
person feels uncomfortable and goes wrong; he or she develops a neurosis (a term coined
by Freud). In Freuds first paper on the subject, Obsessive Acts and Religious Practices
(1907) he describes such obsessive practices as having to fold clothes in a certain way
before going to sleep as a sacred act it is like a religious ritual. In this paper he said
in view of these similarities and analogies one might venture to regard obsessional
neurosis as a pathological counterpart to the formation of a religion, and to describe that
neurosis as an individual religiosity, and religion as a universal obsessional neurosis.
Religious experience as a neurotic symptom
This was a shrill conclusion to many that religion was a neurosis. Religious
experiences, therefore, amount to nothing more than neurotic behaviour, or psychotic
delusions. Freuds negative valuation of religion persists throughout all his later writings
on the subject. His writings, notwithstanding, are not value free. He based his work (as
all work must be based) upon assumptions, yet these assumptions themselves are neither
identified nor tested. He assumed, for example, that humanity was evolving intellectually,
in discrete and discernible stages. The first stage was theological (where the world was
understood in terms of gods, spirits and demons). The second was the metaphysical
(dominated by philosophical ideas of essence and substance). The world was on the
verge of entering the third great stage, the scientific, where the world would be understood
in terms of scientific principles.
His own work, Freud thought and hoped, would be a major contributor to this process.
His writings were produced, Freud stated later, to encourage humanity to take this next
Freuds general theory of human behaviour is a psycho-dynamic theory. This means that
the mind, or psyche, is not one homogeneous whole, but is rather composed of separate
elements, or subsystems. These elements are in dynamic relationship with one another. In
other words, they are in conflict. It is the conflict that causes behaviour. Put simply, the
psyche comprises three aspects. The first is the conscious, or that which is aware of the
time of day, ones favourite book programmer and so on.
Then there is the preconscious: whilst not at one particular time being conscious, it can be
made conscious by an act of the will. An example of this might be recalling an address, or
the name of a street. Thirdly there is the unconscious. Freud was careful to say that the
unconscious is repressed from awareness, and is not normally available to it. Crucially,
the unconscious is in conflict with the conscious mind, possessing a sort of semiautonomous life of its own.

RMPS: Religious Experience (Advanced Higher)


Religion as projection
An example of the importance of the unconscious part of the psyche is exemplified by
Freuds concept of projection. Freud argued than when we are young, many people make
an impression upon us. We are so young, however, that we do not consciously remember
who they were. These significant others, however, lie dormant in our unconscious,
repressed memories. Memories of them might be repressed because our childhood
experiences of these significant others may be painful, or traumatic. Freud suggested, to a
chorus of outraged opposition, that many children suffered what would now be called
child sexual abuse, for example child sexual seductions. If such a child then encounters,
in later life, a person who triggers in some way the memory of that significant other
person, our internal image of the other is projected onto the new person. Our behaviour
in relation to that person then becomes distorted by the projection, because we are not just
dealing with them, but also with the person from the past. The application of such a
theory will resonate with many today.
The oedipus complex
His child seduction views were not tolerated. Changing his position , and arising from this
emphasis on projection and on the importance of sexuality in childhood (which he would
not drop), Freud developed what he called the cornerstone of his psycho-dynamic theory
of the personality and behaviour. This cornerstone (Freud called it his shibboleth) was
the Oedipus Complex. The name comes from the ancient Greek myth of Oedipus, a
prince of Thebes, who unwittingly kills his father and marries his mother. When boys
become aware of their own sexuality, Freud said, they also become aware of the sexual
relationship between their parents, and begin to desire their own mothers. At the same
time, and as a consequence of this new desire, boys become jealous of their fathers and
harbour the unconscious wish to kill them, in order to possess their mother for themselves.
Being aware that their mothers lack the same genital form as themselves, boys conclude
that their fathers have castrated their mothers, and they then fear lest the same should
happen to them. They therefore repress their desire for their mother, together with the
desire to dispatch the father, and instead identify with the father, whose own ego
becomes the super-imposed ego (or superego) of the boy.
It might well be asked at this stage what has all this speculation to do with religious
experience? Freud employed his discovery of the Oedipus Complex in his interpretation
of religious phenomena. Religious rituals, with their obsessive characteristics, protect
human beings from becoming neurotics by protecting them from the forces of repressed
oedipal desire.
In The Future of an Illusion (1927) Freud views religion to be an individual response to
the pressures of life, a response which needs to be understood in the context of a boys
resolution of the Oedipus Complex. The young boy resolves his oedipal conflict by
accepting paternal authority, and integrating it. The adult male resolves his helplessness
by submission to a god or gods. This usually takes the form of projection of a father
figure onto the cosmos.

RMPS: Religious Experience (Advanced Higher)


Freud and conversion

Freud thought that religion is born from humanitys need to make his helplessness
tolerable. Thus when confronted by the hostile elemental forces of nature, we
anthropomorphise them into a fearful yet benevolent god, or gods, and strive to have a
relationship with them. In the face of a feeling of helplessness when surrounded by an
unfriendly and frightening world, we resort to strategies that have worked before. Such a
stratagem is submission to a male authority figure. Freud would understand the impulse
for religious conversion in such a way. Conversion, particularly within evangelical
Christian groups, is a way of resolving inner conflict and neurosis by submitting to the
rules, precepts and rituals required by a God who demands that you must be born again.
A conversion experience, Freud would contend, consists of the universal neurosis that has
temporarily slipped into a hallucinatory psychosis.
Freud and mysticism
Freud also considered the loss of self experience characteristic of mystics, particularly by
Eastern mystics. Freud called such experiences the oceanic feeling. This, he said, is
nothing more than a regression back to childhood, a kind of acting out in fantasy of the
desire to get away from this threatening world, back to a place of complete safety. They
are often linked to a Father figure, which Freud saw as lending support to his Oedipus
theory. Just what he might make of the mystical experiences of, for example, St Teresa is
unclear. Firstly, she was a woman, and Freud is more or less silent on how the Oedipus
complex might relate to females. Secondly her visions and mystical experiences were
primarily about Christ, the Son of God, rather than the Father. Thirdly, in the stated
absence of any such experiences himself, Freud is considering religious experience (as far
as he does) from the outside; he is a stranger to it.
Evaluating Freud
In The Future of an Illusion Freud uses the term illusion to stand for a belief system
based on human wishes. He pointed out, however, that such a basis did not necessarily
imply that the system was false. He did, as it happens, believe that the religious system of
ideas was false, not because it was based upon wish fulfillment, but because he believed it
had no other support. Religion has served a useful purpose, providing a sense of security
in a hostile environment and a buttress for civilisation. But this buttress could no longer
serve the needs of modern humanity it must enter the new scientific age. He regarded
religion as an interim social neurosis out of which humanity must grow by secular
Freud was concerned, amongst other things, to explain why, given the unsoundness of its
theoretical foundations, the religious attitude (including religious experiences) is so widely
held. Freudianism, rather than Freud, has claimed that religious experience is untrue, and
that psychoanalysis has demonstrated this to be the case. Religious experience cannot
however be rejected, neither fully explained, simply by repeating the view that it meets
our needs.

RMPS: Religious Experience (Advanced Higher)


Neither can religious experience be shown to be false by the demonstration that it might be
a product of the unconscious wishes of a person. The possibility that there might be an
unconscious origin for a belief does not show that the belief is untrue. It merely shows
that the truth of the belief cannot be inferred from the fact of people holding it.
Interestingly, the case (if it is a case) against religion based on the possibility of a
psychoanalytical explanation of the origins of the religious attitude can be turned the other
way. An argument, like a mathematical formula, works in both directions. Psychoanalysis
is a two-edged sword. H C Rmke undertook exactly this, in his book The Psychology of
Unbelief (1952). The standard Freudian treatment of religion is to consider unbelief as the
normal attitude to religion and to ask what unconscious (often repressed) forces drive
people to belief. Rmke, conversely, took religious belief as the normal attitude and asked
what unconscious forces drove people to unbelief! Psychoanalysing Freud, however, is
open to the same limitations as psychoanalysing anyone: it may provide an explanation for
why some people do not believe in religion; it cannot be a ground for deciding whether or
not they are right to do so.
Some have been more scathing. The Cambridge theologian John Bowker quipped that the
problem with Freuds theory is not that it cannot possibly be right, but that it cannot
possibly be wrong. If one does not believe or accept it, well then it must be due to some
repressed childhood experiences! This ramshackle machine, assembled from odd bits
that Freud found lying around in his library, complains Bowker, was quite incapable of
flying. But it did fly, and it flies still, although far less people are on board: Freuds
influence in psychology has declined over the years. Fewer than 10% of the American
Psychological Association describe themselves as having psychoanalytic perspectives. In
the American Psychological Society, that figure drops to less than 5%. Notwithstanding,
the psychoanalytic interpretation of religion remain popular in some circles. It certainly
has not resulted in the disappearance either of religion or of religious experience. As the
Alister Hardy Research Centre has shown, religious experience (if not necessarily
traditional religious belief) is not an insignificant phenomenon.
Freuds declining influence may be due in part to his lack of scientific objectivity and
rigour. What is the difference, when it comes to scientific method, of attempting to study
an ego or an id instead of a soul or a guardian angel? Freud seemed to have replaced
religious unseeable, untestable things with equally unseeable and untestable scientific
ones. This seems ironic in view of his insistence that humanity must enter the scientific
age. Humanity did enter that age, but just how successful an age it has been remains to be
seen. The original (and some say best!) series of Star Trek had, as the second in command,
one Mr Spock. Mr Spock was the Science Officer. By the time the show had evolved into
Star Trek The Next Generation, the role of the Science Officer had been supplanted by
that of a psychologist - Counsellor Troy. Pure science and logic have been deposed by
social science! Significantly, Counsellor Troy tends to use Jungian psychology to explain
the universe.
To this further psychological perspective we now turn our attention.

RMPS: Religious Experience (Advanced Higher)


5.3 Carl Gustav Jung

For a time, Jung was Freuds pupil, but left Freuds following when they disagreed over
the importance of sexuality and spirituality to psychological development. Another area of
disagreement was the nature of religious experience. As you have seen, Freud viewed it as
a neurotic illness arising from infantile sexual experiences, and as such was illusory,
dangerous and negative. Jung, on the other hand, had a far more positive view of religious
experience, accepting it as a far more beneficial phenomenon. One area of agreement, was
the acceptance that religion was a psychological phenomenon which had a great deal to do
with the unconscious part of the personality. Like Freud, Jung was concerned with the
interplay between conscious and unconscious forces.
The importance of the unconscious
Jung said that the unconscious is everything of which I know but of which I cannot at the
moment think; everything of which I was once conscious but have now forgotten;
everything perceived by my senses but not noted by my conscious mind; everything which
involuntarily and without paying attention to it, I feel, think, remember, want, and do; all
future things that are taking shape in me and will some time come to consciousness. All
this is the content of the unconscious.
He proposed two kinds of unconscious: personal and collective. The personal
unconscious includes those things about ourselves that we would like to forget, for
example painful memories. The collective unconscious refers to events that we all share,
by virtue of having a common heritage as members of humanity, and does not depend on
the personal experience of the individual. The collective unconscious is inherited, and it
provides everyone with the tendency to conceive similar kinds of images. Jung called
these images primordial images, and he found evidence for them in the similarities
between peoples dreams. Jung claimed that the God-image is one of these primordial
images, that is to say that people from every tribe, nation, kindred and tongue share an
inherited and latent understanding of God. The image generators, as it were, are given
the name archetypes. It is important to recognise that archetypes are different to
primordial images the one produces the other.
The God archetype
Jung said that the unconscious is the only accessible source of religious experience. The
ultimate source is taken by religious believers to be God, but Jung does not provide much
theological speculation in this respect. For Jung access to the unconscious was primarily
through dreams and fantasy, where images of God, gods, angels and saints abound. It is
dreams and fantasy containing religious themes, therefore, which interest him as far as
religious experience goes. Whereas Jung does not seem to be overly interested in
theology, he was certainly interested in religion and religious experience. In his book
Psychology of Religion (1938) Jung draws a distinction between God as commonly
understood in dogma and creeds, and God as an archetype.

RMPS: Religious Experience (Advanced Higher)


In Psychology of Religion (1938), Jung said It is the fault of the everlasting contamination
of object and image that people can make no conceptual distinction between God and
God-archetype and therefore think that when one speaks of the God-archetype one is
speaking of God and offering theological explanations. It is not for psychology, as a
science, to demand a hypostatisation of the God-image. But the facts being what they are,
it does have to reckon with the existence of a God-image. . . . It is equally clear that the
God-image corresponds to a definite complex of psychological facts, and is thus a quantity
which we can operate with; but what God is in himself remains a question outside the
competence of all psychology.
What mattered to Jung was experience only that which acts upon me do I recognise as
real and actual. Unless God matters, therefore, it doesnt matter whether or not there is a
God. If God does matter, then we should be concerned about him. As a psychologist,
Jungs interest was the religious dynamic operating in the psyche. The archetype of God,
which resides in the collective unconscious, is an unknown and unknowable psychic force.
This psychic force should be the object of worship, Jung said. It should also be the subject
of meditation. He had a particular admiration for Eastern religious traditions for their
expertise in meditation.
Jungs religious outlook
Jung was labelled an agnostic, even an atheist because he did not want to discuss
metaphysical questions. As a psychologist, he could say nothing more of God than is
given in the human psyche that the idea of God exists. He endeavoured to approach
psychological matters from a scientific and not from a philosophical or theological
standpoint. In as much as religion has a very important psychological aspect, he dealt with
it from a purely empirical point of view, that is the observation of phenomena. He said, I
refrain from any application of metaphysical or philosophical considerationsI do not
deny the validity of other considerations, but I cannot claim to be competent to apply them
When Jung was asked if he believed in God, he replied I dont need to believe, I know. I
have had the experience of being grasped by something stronger than myself, something
that people call God. Later, in 1952 in a letter written to a young Christian minister, he
said I find that all my thoughts circle around God like the planets around the sun, and are
as irresistibly attracted by Him. I would feel it to be the grossest sin if I were to oppose
any resistance to this force. He was, however, also careful to state elsewhere that It
would be a regrettable mistake if anybody should understand my observations to be a kind
of proof of the existence of God. They prove only the existence of an archetypal image of
the Deity, which to my mind is the most we can assert psychologically about God.
The importance of religious experience
Jung agreed with William James that religious experience was important because it could
be productive, helpful, and beneficial. He also suggests similarities with James concepts
of the divided self, sick soul and religion of healthy-mindedness. Among all his patients in
the second half of their lives, i.e., over thirty-five, there has not been one whose problem
in the last resort was not that of finding a religious outlook on life.

RMPS: Religious Experience (Advanced Higher)


He concluded that every one of them fell ill because they had lost what the living religions
of every age have given to their followers, and none of them has been really healed who
did not regain their religious outlook.
From Rudolph Otto, Jung derived his definition of religion and his understanding of
religious experience as an encounter with the holy, of the numinous. A religious
experience, Jung said, is always due to a cause external to the individual. Any
experience of the numinous, as Otto had said, which is archetypal is de facto a religious
Religious experience has, however, tended to become petrified in the form of religious
dogmas, creeds and codes, Jung said. The content of religious experience has become
sanctified and congealed in a rigid, often elaborate, structure. I am not . . . addressing
myself to the happy possessors of faith, but to those many people for whom the light has
gone out, the mystery has faded, and God is dead. Jung wanted to help people get behind
their dogmatic beliefs to real religion and authentic experience. Psychology, unbounded
by creeds, can help people understand true faith. The psychologists task lies in helping
people genuinely to see, to recover the inner vision that depends on establishing a
connection between the psyche and the sacred images. Rather than attacking or
undermining religion, psychology provides possible approaches to a better understanding
of these things, it opens peoples eyes to the real meaning of dogmas, and far from
destroying, it throws open an empty house to new inhabitants.
Jung agrees with Freud that religious experience is real experience insofar as it is a
psychic reality. There is, however, no reference outside of the mind. In a radical departure
from the dismissive conclusions of Freud, Jung saw positive value in religious experience.
Rather than being the cause of neurosis, religious experience actually contributed to
preventing it. Neurosis can be caused by an unhealthy imbalance between different parts
of the personality, for example between the conscious and the unconscious. The process
of achieving this balance Jung called individuation. Expressed briefly, individuation
means to become ones true, or own self. Religion is an essential part of the individuation
process, because religious images are present in the personality. To ignore them, or deny
them, is thus to ignore or deny part of oneself. Such a denial will prevent the
individuation process. Neurosis is likely to occur as a result.
The influence of Jungs views
Jungs work struck a chord in many other scholars and there is a growing secondary
Jungian literature, most of it with an explicitly religious focus. Jung was convinced that
modern human beings are living in an age of inner and outer crisis. One characteristic of
the modern period is the difficulty people have relating to traditional religious forms. Jung
saw analytical psychology as useful in fostering a rebirth of religion both on the individual
and institutional levels. Religion is not dying out but is changing; organised religion is
giving way to spirituality. This is reflected in the growing importance of spirituality in,
for example, school curricula and policy statements. Spirituality is considered by some
to be taking the place of organised religion. Jung would have welcomed such a move.

RMPS: Religious Experience (Advanced Higher)


Jungian psychology has been influential within the feminist theology movement. Some
have suggested that Jungs work is very appealing to women, largely because it is a
meaning-making psychology, which values feminine preferences. It is free from what
some consider to be male stereotypes of God as Father, and so on.
Evaluating Jung
While Jung saw himself as an empiricist, he repeatedly admitted that his writings were
also a subjective confession. He was writing, as it were, his own private myth: a vast
collection of illustrations, not data; modes of support rather than actual testing. Being
subjective, he did not consider the objective reality of God to be a valid question, even
though it is a popular and even a pressing one. Like James before him, his focus on
the inner life at the expense of objective reality. It might therefore prove to be
frustrating for any who ask the question does God exist? An objective answer will
be elusive. He is hence accused of being indifferent to the striving for truth that lies at
the heart of religion.

Jung is also somewhat selective in his use of religion, taking from it what conforms to
and is illustrative of his theory and forcing other phenomena to conformity with it.
Some religious myths, such as Mesopotamian legends about past floods, seem to be
responses to particular and specific concerns of a particular community at a particular
time. They are thus far from being part of the inherited collective unconscious
common to all humankind. This is why some have argued that Jung is wrong to argue
for a God archetype. It is accepted that many people believe in God. On the other
hand, many people do not. Jung would reply that atheism is itself a religion. But this
merely begs the question, and is a subjective rather than an empirical judgement.

Another criticism of Jungs views on religious experience is that it is hardly obvious

that such experiences are religious. If the experience has no reference to an objective
reality, commonly called the Divine, how can it be called religious? Adherents of
religions themselves often find difficulty in recognising their own experiences as
interpreted by Jung. If their function, moreover, or perhaps their consequence, is to
elicit individuation, then this, too, appears to remove or ignore the objective reality of
God. If religious experience is (merely) about being more integrated and harmonious
in ones inner life, what has this to do with God, traditionally and practically the
business of religion?

Jungs views would diminish the distinctions between religions. For this reason, he is
either commended or criticised, depending upon ones existing standpoint. Atheists
will approve of Jungs approach because they appear to make a personal spirituality
possible without the need to belief in an exterior God. Such a spirituality may lead to
increased happiness, purpose, meaning and fulfilment. Theists will also approve if
they are of the persuasion that there is one God, but many religions. They might say
that religious experience is the way that such a God reveals himself to everyone.
Followers of a particular religion, however, may lament the relegation of particular
truth claims to the extent that their religion is hardly recognisable at all.

RMPS: Religious Experience (Advanced Higher)


5.4 Sociological perspectives

Whereas psychology is primarily to do with the individual and the mind, sociology is more
to do with individuals together, in groups.
Many sociologists have approached religion as some kind of collective delusion. They
bring to bear a similar secular approach to that of some psychologists. They claim not
only to explain religion, but also explain it away. This explanation is based upon the view
that it is a social device used to reinforce collective identity. That is, religion serves a
function. Some have gone so far as to say that religion is a tool of class exploitation, an
attempt to escape from this world, an illusion to ease pain, an attempt to come to terms
with the inexplicable.
There are three broad approaches to the study of religion and religious experience from a
sociological perspective:

Religion is an ideology that exists so that an elite can oppress the masses. If this is so,
then the growth of science and rationality will one day abrogate the need for religion.
Religious experience is thus the sigh of the oppressed creature. The religious person is
hence falsely conscious and unaware of the true nature of the social world as a human

A second approach begins with the person who is engaged in religion. It tries to
employ empathy, to get inside the shoes of someone who has a religious experience, to
see things through their eyes. This approach often assumes that we can discuss,
analyse and explain religious phenomena from the point of view of the actors
involved. The question of truth never arises, because it is simply not important. What
is important is the ways in which religious experience (whatever it is) affects human

A third method is to assume that religion has a degree of truth, but that sociology can
aid understanding of the consequences of religious belief. Thus although conversion
experiences may bring an individual closer to God they may also integrate members of
society together or ease the problems of worldly life. There is therefore no conflict
between religion and sociology since both help to understand and give meaning to the

As you read on, ask yourself which categories the following two sociologists fall into.

RMPS: Religious Experience (Advanced Higher)


5.5 Emile Durkheim

Emile Durkheim (1858-1917) is the founder of the discipline known as sociology of
religion. Integral to this discipline, and indeed basic to Durkheims theory, is the stress on
religious phenomena as communal rather than the individual. Durkheim wrote a religion
is a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things, that is things set apart
and forbidden beliefs and practices which unite in one single moral community called a
Church and all those who adhere to them. In contrast to William James, for example,
Durkheim was not concerned with the variety of religious experience of individuals. He
was interested in the communal activity and the communal bonds to which participation in
religious activities give rise. Religion has a societal function, and that function is to
integrate and stabilise a society.
In a well-known summary, the Durkheimian scholar Harry Alpert has conveniently
classified Durkheims four major functions of religion as disciplinary, cohesive, vitalising
and euphoric social forces.

Religious rituals prepare people for social life by imposing self-discipline and a code
of morality, together with a certain measure of asceticism.

Religious ceremonies bring people together and thus serve to reaffirm their common
bonds and reinforce social solidarity.

Religious observance maintains and revitalises the social heritage of the group and
helps transmit its enduring values to future generations.

Religion has an euphoric function in that it serves to counteract feelings of frustration
and loss by re-establishing a sense of well being and a sense of the essential rightness
of the moral world of which the believer is part.

More generally, the function of religion in society is to serve society as a social institution.
Religion does this by giving meaning to humanitys existential predicaments by tying the
individual to a sphere of values which lie outside of the individual, and which reside
instead in society.
A foundational idea to Durkheims theory of religious experience is his concept of social
facts. A social fact is an objective phenomenon that exists beyond the individual.
Religion is a social fact because it is an expression of social reality: the believer has
discovered from birth, ready fashioned, the beliefs and practices of their religious life; if
they existed before the person did, it follows that they exist outside of the person.

RMPS: Religious Experience (Advanced Higher)


Social facts are methods of acting, thinking and feeling external to a person, which also
have coercive properties by which they control the individual. Religion, said Durkheim,
exercises such an effect on people by encouraging them to conform. This pressure to
conform he called socialisation, and it helps to explain, said Durkheim, religious
experiences such as conversion (as we shall see shortly).
In order for human behaviour to be understood, said Durkheim, society has to be
understood. This was a bold step to take, because it went against the prevailing tendency
to reduce all explanation of human behaviour, and therefore of religious experience, to the
levels of individual psychology (as Freud) or biology (as Hardy). As far as religion goes,
Durkheim suggested that religion was the progenitor of social institutions. In this sense,
then, religion (in its elementary forms) is nothing less than the worship of society. God
and society are one.
Religious experience and social effervescence
The power that society has over its members is awe-inspiring. It is superior to the
individual and therefore takes on the role of a god. Religion is the expression of society.
His emphasis on society (rather than the individual) led Durkheim to stress the importance
of what he called the collective consciousness (not to be confused, of course, with Jungs
collective unconscious!). An example of collective consciousness is what he calls
effervescence, where (in terms of religion) beliefs and sentiments are generated and
recreated. He cites the example of primitive Aboriginal religion in Australia. Acceptance
into, and support for Aboriginal society is demonstrated by initiation into the totemic cult
by religious rituals. The Aboriginal clan, during such totemic rituals, creates a kind of
hysteria (i.e. effervescence) which provides a focus for the religious ritual. In other words,
there is tremendous pressure to conform, in order to satisfy the requirements of the society
and indeed to belong to it.
Religious experience as sacred activity
His later studies took him to consider forces of control that were internalised in individual,
rather than collective consciousness. He was convinced that society has to be present
within the individual. As such, he considered the proposition that religion creates within
individuals a sense of moral obligation to adhere to societys demands.
Durkheim argued that religious phenomena emerge in any society where a separation is
made between the sacred and the profane. By sacred is meant that which pertains to the
numinous, the transcendent, the extraordinary. The correlation with Rudolph Ottos views
should be obvious. By the profane, he meant the realm of the everyday. In themselves,
Durkheim argued, objects are neither sacred nor profane. It becomes one or the other
depending upon whether people choose to consider the objects utilitarian value, or else
certain other attributes that have nothing to do with this value.
He gives the example from Roman Catholicism where the wine at the mass has a sacred
ritual significance to the extent that it is considered by the believer to be the blood of
Christ. In this context, it is plainly not simply a beverage.

RMPS: Religious Experience (Advanced Higher)


Sacred activities are valued by the community of believers not as means to an end.
Instead, they are valued because the religious community has bestowed upon them their
meaning as part of its worship. Groups who band together in a cult and who are united
by their common symbols and objects of worship always make distinctions between the
spheres of the sacred and the profane. Religion is thus a social creation, but it is more. As
we have seen, it is society divinised. The deities that are worshipped are only projections
of the power of society. Religion is essentially a social thing it occurs in a social context
and, more importantly, when people worship sacred things they unwittingly worship the
power of their own society. Society, said Durkheim, is the parent of us all. Therefore, it is
to society that we owe a profound debt of gratitude heretofore paid to the gods.
Durkheim and conversion
Some people apply Durkheims theory to contemporary religious experiences such as
evangelical crusades. An example of this might be the familiar Billy Graham campaigns
where, for instance, an entire football stadium might be filled with people. Typically, a
series of personal testimonies of conversion by the converted will be followed by a sermon
pleading with the unconverted to make a personal religious commitment. The heady
atmosphere (accentuated by music), activity and buzz provides a classic example of the
collective effervescence to which Durkheim refers. Some sociologists would say that the
pressure mounts, and that there is great coercion, or at least encouragement, to follow the
accepted religious rituals of the socialising group, which in this case would mean going
forward and making a personal confession of faith. Once this happens, the confessor then
becomes identified with the religious community and is a member of it. It is claimed by
certain sociologists of religion that this mechanism is what lies behind such contemporary
religious phenomena as the Toronto Blessing.
Durkheim did not view such ritual events as generating ideas of the sacred. He saw them
rather as the means by whereby social facts are reaffirmed and given authority. Religious
ritual and institutions, therefore, represent and sanctify social reality and social relations,
and legitimise them. Thus Durkheim sees religion as an expression of the reality of the
everyday world.
Evaluating Durkheim
Durkheims theory has proved to be very influential. This has especially been the case in
relation to his emphasis on the socially cohesive aspects of churches and his focus on the
importance of religious symbolism. It is not, however, without its critics. The major
criticisms of his work fall into three areas: his subject, his method and his conclusions.

Durkheim set out as a scientist to explain religion and society. A significant aspect of
his work was the study of primitive Aboriginal clans in Australia. He claimed that
these represented the most basic form of religion in the most basic form of society.
This was simply an unsubstantiated and untested assumption, which Durkheim took to
be a fact. He also excluded practices that may be seen by some to be religion, but they
have no church (or mosque or gurdwara), no social institutions and so they are not
considered to be religions.

RMPS: Religious Experience (Advanced Higher)


Durkheim therefore tended to find what he set out to find, at the expense of religious
experience and practice that did not fit into his predetermined criteria of what
constitutes religion. He had, therefore, a somewhat narrow definition of religion. This
has been very damaging to the rest of his work, since it means that his own theory can
only be validated by the elimination of alternative explanations. An alternative
explanation, however, might be true. With regard to religious experience, it means that
his theory has more to say about communal experiences such as conversion rather than
individual ones such as mysticism.

One of Durkheims claims is that collective effervescence generates religious beliefs

and rites. Some see a methodological flaw in this. They would say that Durkheim
presupposes those beliefs and rites supposedly produced by collective effervescence.
In effect, therefore, Durkheim offers a chicken and egg thesis: which comes first
religion or society? His charge that religion is an expression of social solidarity,
furthermore, rejects any cases of religion being a socially divisive force. The
mechanical solidarity that Durkheim claimed was brought about by primitive religion
is questionable. There is plenty of evidence that, for example, primitive religious
gatherings were places of conflict. This is also true of certain contemporary religious
movements. Liberation Theology, by way of example, is an expression of
dissatisfaction within the society. The numerous religious sects around the world have
presented ample evidence for studies showing that religion can be world rejecting
rather than society affirming. Religious experience associated with such religious
phenomena are, likewise, illustrative of rejection of society. Indeed, many who have
had, for example, mystical experiences find themselves rejected, temporarily or
otherwise, by the dominant religious society of the day. This is one way in which
religious sects have their genesis.

Durkheims conclusions, someone said, provide lush ground for critics. He proposed
that his findings could be used to understand present day religion and society. One
problem with this view is the sheer number of religions in society, particularly in
Western society. Religious pluralism means that there are many religious influences
on society, not just one. These compete with many secular and ideological influences.
The secular influences are particularly important; the secularisation thesis
(championed by sociologists such as Bryan Wilson) takes away the potency of the
argument that religion is of integral importance in stabilising society to the degree that
Durkheim stressed. In other words, there is a myriad of influences on society, not just
the one of religion.

RMPS: Religious Experience (Advanced Higher)


5.6 Bryan Wilson

In common with many sociologists of religion, Bryan Wilson ascribes a function to
religion. This function is soteriological. Religion is essentially to do with salvation, and
exists to provide people with the necessary guidance to achieve it. Salvation is, of course,
understood in different ways by the various religions and religious movements. In
contemporary, sophisticated religions, salvation has been removed from the empirical
sphere. This means that it is more than, for example, being delivered from the hands of a
physical enemy such as the Amalekites. Reincarnation, Nirvana, the life of the soul and
the Kingdom of God are what may be termed spiritual concepts of salvation. The goals
of human life are themselves metaphysical, and the means to their attainment are not open
to rational justification or pragmatic test.
Most religions maintain that salvation is universally available for all. Each person must,
however, make some kind of personal effort or choice. The result of a positive choice for
a religion is called conversion. The major religions envisage, for the converted, a body of
believers who have chosen to follow a path and who have become a worshipping
community recognisably seeking salvation. The religious community becomes the model
of the context in which conversion will be experienced. In the West, such communities are
no longer coterminous with local communities. Rather, they are drawn from wider areas
and tend to take the form of religious fellowships. This has redefined the idea of what it
means to belong to a community, or society: for many, they are no longer bound by ties of
kin, neighbourhood and a shared past. For others, however, particularly immigrant and
derivative populations in Britain, they do.
The idea of salvation, according to established sociological understanding, offers a deep
sense of present reassurance. Such reassurance is required in a world of uncertainty, threat
and fear. Psychological reassurance is an element common to all religions, says Wilson,
and is one of the clear functions of religion. Conversion is to a religion, and it is the
manifest function of religion to provide reassurance in a variety of ways. He also accepts,
to an extent, Durkheims analysis of the latent functions of religion discussed above. In
particular, as Durkheim argued, religion functioned to legitimise the purposes and
procedures of society itself. Wilson concludes religion sustained people in their
commitments; reinforced their resolve in struggle; justified their wars; explained
misfortunes; provided a final court of appeal for disputes; sanctified specific relationships
and courses of action; and prescribed a variety of reassuring techniques with which people
could equip themselves psychologically. This is an impressive list of functions claimed
for religion.
Wilson cites the work of other sociologists of religion who attribute further functions of
religion. One of these functions is to confer identity on individuals and groups. Religion
answers the question, Who am I?. Religions provide full and final answers to this
question. Similarly, other sociologists say that religion has functioned as an agency for
emotional expression and regulation. In religious acts and occasions, for example, there is
the opportunity for the expression of emotion, an opportunity not afforded in many other
places in society.

RMPS: Religious Experience (Advanced Higher)


Society usually prevents and prohibits people to express deep emotions. Certain religious
practices encourage legitimise and facilitate such emotions. Thus religion serves the
further function of allowing what is inside to come out as a way of release of the real
The functionalist view of religion is attractive to many, says Wilson. It seems to explain
practices that might otherwise appear to be meaningless and arbitrary. Wilson questions
this functionalist approach. The basis of his criticism is that many of the latent functions
claimed for religion have been taken over by other agencies. Religion no longer fulfils (if
it did at all) the functions that sociological theory has in the past ascribed to it. Religious
pluralism is a case in point. There are so many religions and sects in Western society that
it ca hardly be said that they contribute to social stability. They are all competing for
converts and offer conflicting worldviews. They cannot all be correct. So how can they
lead to stability, when to believe one is to disbelieve the others? Furthermore, religion is
seen to be less and less important in public morality and the process of law making. The
religious lobby does not speak with one voice, but with many, often conflicting, voices.
Modern technological advances have raised a plethora of moral questions for which there
is no obvious religious stance, or even consensus. Where is the unifying characteristic of
religion here? The rise of post-modernist thinking, moreover, has accentuated the role of
the individual at the expense of society. Meaning making is a personal matter, and
personal choice is paramount. The question is no longer what must I do?, but rather
what do I want to do?. The former has traditionally been the preserve of the religion,
whereas the second has not.
Wilson is a prominent advocate of the secularisation thesis. This well known
sociological theory states, simply, that society is becoming increasingly secular, which
entails not only change in society, but also change of society. Secularisation relates to the
diminishing influence and social significance of religion. He argues that in the
increasingly secular and technological modern society, ancient religious forms appear
increasingly incongruous. Religion necessarily speaks another language, offers itself in
different forms and by different criteria, from those that prevail in the technological world
of modern society. Contemporary Western societies function with little recourse to
religion as a social institution, since the functions it used to exercise have been supplanted
by secular institutions. Hospitals, schools and universities, founded by Christianity, have
been incorporated into the secular state. The European Court of Human Rights has taken
over from the Bible as the arbiter of right and wrong, and it needs no heavenly mandate to
have done so. Even Christianity itself, for example, has become secularised from within,
Wilson believes.
Secularisation is, furthermore, a concomitant of the process of societalisation. This term,
coined by Wilson, refers to a process involving a large collectivity of different
communities and individuals, such as political, judicial, economic and educational,
which are drawn into a complex relation of interdependence.

RMPS: Religious Experience (Advanced Higher)


In this process, human life is increasingly enmeshed and organised, not at a local level (as
in the past), but societally. In the West, this tends to be the nation state. The local
community gets lost in all of this. Hence local crafts, products and dialects have all
diminished rapidly. Religion, if it succumbs to this centralising, will become detached
from its local community and hence secularised.
Durkheims claim that religion and society are in effect one is no longer sustainable, says
Wilson. All is not well in contemporary Western society, despite the, welcome for some,
separation of religion and state. Some might, indeed, say that the one leads to the other.
Addiction to alcohol and drugs, marital breakdown and violence are generally accepted to
be on the increase. Many attribute this to factors that cause the breakdown of society, and
see links between it and the increasing irrelevance of traditional religious belief and
practices. The emphasis on rationality in modern society has brought many benefits, but
rationality alone does not supply specific substantive values. It might, perhaps, provide
abstract values such as justice and fairness, but these do not necessarily provide happiness
for people. They are vague and general, and do not help people that much. People do not
appear to be very happy and fulfilled in our society.
The social system, Wilson proposes, operates without reference to the supernatural, and
yet many people find themselves seeking answers or, more accurately, seeking
reassurances which this system does not provide. Modern society rejects religion on
intellectual and rationalistic grounds, and fails to see what the cost might be in terms of the
emotional sustenance that people need in order to live. Here then, says Wilson, might
be a place for religion. Religion can serve a function. Like minded people might
associate in order to obtain fuller satisfaction and build a community of love which quite
transcends the impersonal neutrality of the social system. This endeavour is a substantive
search for positive, rather than neutral values. Religion can provide such values, and
traditionally has provided them. They are, however, not always associated with traditional
religion, but are increasingly found elsewhere.
New religious movements and conversion
In the West, the religious groups that tend to show the largest growth over the past decade
or two are the new religious movements, house churches, and religious sects. There has
been a marked decline in support for the more orthodox manifestations of religion, for
example attendance at Sunday services of the established Church. Membership of these
groups is increasing. In other words, conversion is taking place. Conversion is for Wilson
a process of resocialisation to distinctive ideas and values. He suggests that there are a
variety of common characteristics regarding such conversions:
potential members are given great attention
great care and concern are shown towards them
a strong community is able to give warmth and support
there is an identification with a purpose wider than the persons previous social
the provision of meaning for living
new opportunities for expression via a new language register, of non-verbal means
the availability of answers to specific questions.

RMPS: Religious Experience (Advanced Higher)


These features available to a convert may provide renewed self-respect and self-esteem,
not to mention acceptance by others in a manageable group or community setting. Shape
is given to a life whereas before there was shapelessness and lack of form. A common
feature of new religious movements, Wilson says, is the emphasis on a clearly defined
scheme of ultimate salvation. A new and complete way of seeing the world ensues. This
way provides a sustaining reassurance in the face of a hostile and meaningless world.
Traditional religions are increasingly failing to deliver these features. They tend to remain
aloof, irrelevant and remote from the emotional and social needs of confused and alienated
people. Conversion, therefore, is not a familiar concept or experience within them, says
Wilson. Precisely because the new religious movements meet these needs, conversion is a
key experience within them.
The modern social system leaves no space for a conception of ultimate salvation, any
more, claims Wilson, than modern scientific anatomy leaves space for an individual soul.
Today, religious perceptions share an uneasy and shrinking frontier with rational
precepts. In modern, rationalistic life, an individual who merely plays a role when they
undertake any action with the exception of certain kinship concerns. Playing the role of
parent, employee or homemaker will occupy many people for most of their time.
Conversion to religion, by contrast, has the believer engaged not in playing a role, but
rather immersed as a totally committed being, in personal relationship. In Christianity,
for example, the saviour is Christ, a person. Salvation requires a personal relationship
with the living Christ. In Buddhism, despite the more abstract principles of a law by
which people may be saved, obligation to others to persons figures prominently. Even
if, in Buddhism, the concept of a personal deity is absent, there have been tendencies for
deification of a particular Buddha or bodhisattva. New Age religion has it that people may
be saved through a personal relationship with a deified earth, the earth mother. All call
for a total, personal commitment, elicited by a conversion process.
Evaluating Wilson
Wilson argues that there is a progressive movement towards rationalisation, a
desacralising of society. This has effectively undermined religious belief and influence.
This has a ring of truth about it, but it can be accused of being too simplistic. We should
be cautious of adopting an over-rationalised view of contemporary society. A number of
reservations may be made against Wilsons arguments:

Why should we assume that in the past, so-called primitive religious beliefs were not
rational? The Hindu veneration of cows, for example, can be explained by their
importance to life (they provide fuel, food, traction, floor covering and leather, for
example). Some of the Jewish food laws are eminently practical in a hot desert
situation, for example the prohibition of eating blood. Marriage laws prevent incest,
which is detrimental to the gene pool. These three examples are all rational.

RMPS: Religious Experience (Advanced Higher)


Science and rationalism have patently not replaced religious belief. As you have seen,
a high percentage of people claim to have had a religious experience. Most people in
the worlds follow a religion. The widespread practice of superstitions, for example
horoscopes, clearly shoes that rationalism does not have it all its own way.

Not everything is explicable by science. Science may propose mechanisms for how
people die, but not why they die. People want to know why they have to die. Religion
gives rational answers to such questions. They are not rational because they can be
empirically demonstrated, but because they make sense to people.

Wilson interprets the increase in sects and new religious movements to be a

consequence of secularisation. Others, however, while accepting what Wilson says
about the development of religious pluralism, interpret it somewhat differently:

Pluralism can be understood as confirmation of the vitality of religion and the need for
it. Rather than being in a state of decline, religion is in a state of change. Interestingly,
some see in this proof for an evolutionary theory of religion, such that it is a natural

The growth of religious groups could equally be understood in terms of a religious

revival. Far from being a desacralisation, it could be seen to be a resacralisation
instead! There may well be a decline in institutional religion, but not in religion per
se. Berger and Luckmann, for example, have suggested that religion is an
indispensable aspect of human existence, because it gives meaning to life. The study
of religion requires far more, therefore, than simple analysis of church attendance

RMPS: Religious Experience (Advanced Higher)


5.7 Questions and activities

1. What did Freud mean when he described religion as an illusion?
2. Explain how Freud would understand:
3. How far are Freud and Jung agreed that religious experience is to do with meeting
psychological needs only?
4. What did Jung understand when he emphasised the importance of God as an
archetype? How convincing do you find his argument?
5. Do Jungs observations on religion support or undermine the view that religious
experiences are real because God is real?
6. God and society are one. (Durkheim)
To what extent is religious explained by Durkheims views?
7. Durkheim has more to say about communal religious experiences like conversion than
individual ones like mysticism.
8. Compare the views of Durkheim and Wilson regarding the nature of religious

RMPS: Religious Experience (Advanced Higher)



You will by now have a broad understanding of religious experience, as well as some of
the issues involved. What follows are two case studies of contemporary religious
experiences. The first is a critical discussion of a widely supported mystical phenomenon,
whereas the second relates to a growing movement with an emphasis on conversion. Both
of these are controversial. Many people believe in and support them, and many do not.
They do serve to show, however, the breadth of understandings which are brought to bear
on such religious experience, particularly from within the faith traditions themselves.
It is hoped that these two case studies will be of interest to you, and provide a focus for
some of the material you have studied so far. They might even spur you on to investigate
other case studies of your own. As you read on, try not to forget that religious experience
provides the beating heart for many peoples faith, meaning making and life. You can
pursue the issues raised by accessing the relevant web-sites suggested in section 8.

6.1 Medjugorje
Medjugorje is a small village in Bosnia where many people believe Gospa (which is
Croatian for the Blessed Virgin Mary) appeared in a series of apparitions beginning in
1981. She suddenly appeared to two teenagers who were out for a walk. Frightened and
confused, the teenagers fled, but the next day they and four others (ranging from ten to
sixteen) saw her again at a place now known as the Apparition Hill. Gospa told the
visionaries that this is her final apparition on earth. The visionaries claim that she told
them a series of secrets concerning the end of the world. She prayed for them, and took
some of them to see heaven, hell and purgatory. Three of the visionaries continue with
daily apparitions, whose recurrent theme is peace on earth and reconciliation with God.
About twenty-six million pilgrims have been to Medjugorje (including cardinals and
bishops), with many followers in Britain.
The apparitions tend to have a simple message Jesus invites everyone to put God first in
life, to pray daily, to fast on bread and water on Wednesdays and Fridays, confess sins and
go to Mass. In this way, according to a 1982 apparition, wars and natural disasters can be
prevented. These are all normal aspects of Roman Catholic teaching. The Medjugorje
Magazine quotes the Archbishop of Salzburg to say the visions must be real because when
a mother raises her child, she repeats the same thing simply, which is why Gospas regular
messages are so similar brief and uncomplicated. Moreover, what mother would not
want peace for her children?

RMPS: Religious Experience (Advanced Higher)


Cases of transformed lives are reported from many of the millions of pilgrims, for example
from the Drug Rehabilitation Centre in Medjugorje, where lives have been changed by
Gods love. There is also a Medjugorje Godparent scheme to help children. The Pope,
whilst not specifically endorsing it, is generally understood to be sympathetic. There is
extensive support for the visionaries to be seen as authentic: the retired Archbishop of
Split, for example, says that he was given a message specifically for him by Marija (one of
the visionaries) which came to pass later on.
Not all take this view. Frank Albas, who claims that the apparitions are false and
deceptive, runs an extensive anti-Medjugorje website. He alleges manipulation, lies and
money scams. He has particular theological difficulties with many of the messages, which
he aims to show contradict established church teaching. He does not doubt much of the
good fruit resulting from pilgrimages, but points out that a person can do the wrong thing
(believe in false teaching) for the right reason (to love God more). Gospa declared
(through the visionaries) that all religions are equal before God, but this is not what the
Roman Catholic Church teaches. Albas protests that Medjugorje actually teaches against
true doctrine by its use of charismatic elements, which he calls a protestant innovation. It
also teaches against true doctrine by its emphasis on Pentecostal style worship, a revival
of an ancient heresy of Montanism. The ecumenical tendencies are also a concern,
because they conflict with the exclusive claims of the see of Rome. Some of the visions
are, furthermore, unseemly and not in accord with other vision of the Blessed Virgin
Mary elsewhere, for example those of Fatima or Lourdes.
In Medjugorje A Warning another Roman Catholic critic Michael Davies suggests that
the messages are in any case pedantic, puerile and vacant of any meaning. They are more
about peace than salvation which is not the Gospel, he says. Another Michael (Jones),
editor of the Catholic magazine Culture Wars, analyses the Medjugorje apparitions as a
New Age, thus a non-Christian phenomenon. Bishop Zanic (the local bishop in 1981) is
quoted as saying that Medjugorje is the greatest deception, the greatest swindle in the
whole history of the Church. The increasingly lavish lifestyle of the visionaries (some of
whom now live abroad) is also quoted as suggestive of the false nature of the apparitions.
There is clearly diametrically opposed interpretation of Medjugorje amongst Roman
Catholic Christians. Millions believe it to be true, sceptics declare that it is satanic. Such
lack of agreement is nothing new. Ignatius Loyola and Teresa of Avila, both now
canonised as saints, had sustained difficulty during their lifetimes, particularly in their
early days. Marian devotion is an important part of belief and practice, since she is coredemptrix with Christ and mother of all Christians. Interestingly, may of the sceptics
do believe that Mary has appeared at other times, such as at LaSalette or Bayside, but
these apparitions did not result in messages contradicting Roman Catholic doctrine.
Sir Alister Hardy included visions as one of his classification for religious experience.
Neither his research, however, nor that of his successor David Hay (himself a Roman
Catholic) uncovered anyone claiming to have had a vision of Mary.

RMPS: Religious Experience (Advanced Higher)


This might suggest that these visions of Mary are authentic, since they are unique. On the
other hand, they could imply that they are manufactured because the regular nature of the
apparitions (usually expected at 1840 BST) finds no correspondence in any of the
research. The Medjugorje Magazine clearly says, however, that experts have carried out
many scientific and medical tests, and all have concluded the visionaries to be normal.
Sociologists like Durkheim have proposed that mass hysteria can often result from certain
kinds of religious group dynamics. Studies here have, however, tended to concentrate
more on evangelistic revival meetings rather than the more meditative visionary
experiences of Medjugorje.
For Roman Catholic Christians, the question is not does Mary appear? but did she
appear at Medjugorje? Perhaps those with more theological literacy are justified in their
theological critique: the Church decides doctrine centrally, and the magisterium lies with
the proper authorities rather than in eclectic visions whose veracity cannot be proven.
They cannot, of course, be disproven either. This conclusion is suggested by the Church
itself, which has declined to recognise Medjugorje (unlike, say, Lourdes) as a shrine.
One way in which the probity of the visions could be demonstrated is if and when the
permanent sign is given: Gospa promised to leave such a sign (which will be seen, but
not be able to be touched) until the end of the world. Until such a sign appears, a suitable
conclusion might be not constat de non supernaturalitate (the non-supernaturality is
proven), but rather non constat de supernaturalitate the supernaturality has not been

RMPS: Religious Experience (Advanced Higher)


6.2 The Toronto blessing

The renewal came in 1994 to what was then the Toronto Airport Vineyard through
visiting pastor Randy Clark of St. Louis, Missouri. What was originally planned as a
series of four meetings exploded into a marathon of services that are still being held every
night of the week except Monday. In its most visible form, it overcomes worshippers with
outbreaks of laughter, weeping, groaning, shaking, falling, drunkenness, and even
behaviours that have been described as a cross between a jungle and a farmyard.
Perhaps the most important consequence is the changed lives. The effects of the Toronto
Blessing quickly became international in scope. The author of the alpha courses, Nicky
Gumbel, was himself slain in the spirit because of the Toronto Blessing.
Many Charismatic Christians see in the Toronto Blessing a Biblical experience of Spirit
baptism and the accompanying gifts, along with the role of the gifts in renewing and
spreading orthodox Christianity. The stance for receiving the Toronto Blessing is found in
Jesus admonishment whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not
enter it (Mark 10:15). The physical manifestations (laughing, jerking, shouting, rolling,
etc.), understandably the focus of media reports, are regarded by some simply as signs that
the Heavenly Father is playing with his children. Changed lives, renewed joy and
purpose are interpreted as Gods plan for his people.
The late John Wimber, leader of the Vineyard Organisation, suggested that the Toronto
Blessing renewal actually produced uncontrolled emotions accompanied by extra-biblical
and un-Biblical teachings. The Toronto fellowship was hence expelled from the Vineyard
group of Christian organisations in 1997. This reflects wider unease about the Blessing
amongst other Charismatics, who claim that rather than resulting in spiritual maturity, the
Toronto Blessing actually promotes the opposite. They cite Ephesians 4.14, where Paul
says that spiritually mature Christians are not like children, (who bark like dogs).
Another problem is that the Toronto Blessing includes acceptance of the Latter Rain
movement (popularised by William Branham et al), which some see as heresy. Others see
an unhealthy emphasis on spiritual warfare: the Toronto Blessing website has an extensive
section on road warriors and warrior anointing, with the film Braveheart commended
as illustrative of the Christians warfare! False signs are also criticised, for example the
inexplicable appearance of gold teeth (again from the website), angels feathers, people
oozing olive oil and clouds appearing inside churches. It is objected that, as in 2
Thessalonians 2.9, these are counterfeit miracles and cannot come from God.
Many who support the Toronto Blessing say that these experiences are essential. They are
more than a second blessing subsequent to salvation. They are salvation itself. Hence,
the experiences may be sought as a means in themselves. They distinguish between those
in the river and the hard to receive. Critics (amongst them Charismatics) say that the
Toronto Blessing devalues Scripture, leads to spiritual pride rather than humility and relies
on false prophecy (thus says important pastor rather than thus says the Lord). The
significance of these varying viewpoints must be that these manifestations either come
from God or they do not: both groups cannot be right!

RMPS: Religious Experience (Advanced Higher)


The sociologist Margaret Poloma has investigated the Toronto Blessing. True to
sociological theory, she views the Toronto Blessing as a social psychological phenomenon,
and one that is rooted in a collective history and experience. Like the charisma of the
Pentecostal / charismatic movement that began at the turn of the century, this latest wave
represents a protest against modernity, being but one contemporary example of a
collective effort to bend the iron cage of a rationalistic one-dimensional society. The
majority of people, she said, who benefit from the Toronto Blessing were spiritually
empty before they went: they were looking for something. In Ottos terms, Toronto
Blessings content has aspects which shows itself as something uniquely attractive and
fascinating. Religious beliefs and practices were once at the centre of societies, providing
a kind of sacred canopy against the calamities of life.
In modern times, however, religion has been seemingly rendered powerless by rational
thought and the rapid growth of science and technology. For many people the sacred
canopy is pierced with holes. Sociologists claim that the Toronto Blessing fills these
holes. Emotive rock music sets the mood for making a joyful noise unto the Lord (Psalm
89) during which many enter into the collective effervescence that Emile Durkheim
recognised to be the heart of ritual.
Like James before her, Poloma admits that truth claims cannot be part of any scientific
examination of religious experience, and like James, she takes the pragmatic view that if
something is beneficial, it is good. Harvey Cox writes about the traumatic cultural
changes in the modern world and religions response to them in his recent book Fire from
Heaven, saying that the Toronto Blessing returns to the raw inner core of human
spirituality and thus provides just the new kind of religious space many people needed.
One might conclude that the spirituality reflected in the Toronto Blessing is one that is
balanced: a healthy sense of personal sin in the face of Gods holiness, a willingness to
forgive and to be forgiven, and an ability to accept Gods love and the love of others. It is
a spirituality that is post-modern in that it reflects the wholeness of the human being an
integration of the human spirit, soul (mind and emotions) and body. As always, there can
be excesses, but in general the effects of the Toronto Blessing can hardly be doubted to be
It must be ironic that the Toronto Blessing has received a fairer treatment by the secular
press than by many sectors of the religious press. Although its leaders desire legitimacy
from the orthodox sector of the culture war, it is the progressive sector that often has been
more open and less critical in its reporting. The future of the Toronto Blessing is
dependent upon to which voice its adherents listen.

RMPS: Religious Experience (Advanced Higher)


RMPS: Religious Experience (Advanced Higher)


The following books are in print.
Beit-Hallahmi, Benjamin &
Argyle, Michael (1997)

The Psychology of Religious Behaviour, Belief and

Routledge, London.
0 4151 2331 3.
Detailed chapter on religious experience, with survey
figures etc.

Clark, Patrick J. (1999)

Questions about God, A Guide for A/AS Level students,

Stanley Thornes, Cheltenham.
0 7487 4340 5.
Useful sections on religious experience, conversion and

Connolly, Peter (1999)

Approaches to the Study of Religion,

Cassell, London.
0 304 33710 2.
A comprehensive textbook, dealing with psychological
and sociological approaches.

Davis, Caroline F. (1999)

The Evidential Force of Religious Experience,

OUP, Oxford.
0 1982 5001 0.
Using contemporary and classic sources from the world
religions, she gives an account of different types of
religious experience and, drawing extensively on
psychological and sociological as well as philosophical
literature, deals with sceptical challenges about
religious experiences.

Holt, Bradley P. (1997)

A Brief History of Christian Spirituality,

Lion, Oxford.
0 7459 3721 7
A sympathetic and somewhat superficial survey.

Hood, Ralph W. Jr, et al (1996)

The Psychology of Religion an Empirical Approach,

Guildford Press, New York.
Reference work.

RMPS: Religious Experience (Advanced Higher)


Jordan, Anne et al (1999)

Philosophy of Religion for A Level,

Stanley Thornes, Cheltenham.
0 7487 4339 1.
Useful sections on religious experience and psychology
of religion.

King, Ursula (1998)

Christian Mystics,
B T Batsford, London.
0 7134 8107 2.
Focuses on 54 men and women mystics. Beautifully

Wulff, David M. (1997)

Psychology of Religion,
John Wiley & Sons Inc., New York.
0 4710 3706 0.
Reference work with extensive sections on religious
experience, William James, Freud, Jung and many

RMPS: Religious Experience (Advanced Higher)



Please note that these web-sites have extensive lists of links. A wealth of useful and
interesting information is to be gleaned from investigating these links.
C S Lewis

Jacob Boehme

Medjugorje (pro)

Medjugorje (anti)

Mysticism resources

Psychology of Religion

Rudolph Otto

Toronto Blessing (pro)

Toronto Blessing (anti)

Whos who in the history of Mysticism

William James

RMPS: Religious Experience (Advanced Higher)


RMPS: Religious Experience (Advanced Higher)