The Bible claims that God can be directly experienced and philosophers such as William James saw religion as essentially based on experience and that such experience should be the primary basis of study of religion as opposed to practices and dogma. Indeed many of the world’s major religions are based on experience or revelation of the transcendent to mankind. Yet religious experience is intrinsically enormously subjective. Arguably two of the most complicated issues to discuss in any context and reach an objective opinion on are God and personal experience.
As individuals we are incapable of personally experiencing things which happen to somebody else, it is impossible. If we add this to the fact that religious experience is of the divine and the transcendent it becomes apparent that by its very nature it is extremely difficult to assess or comment on anything viewed as a ‘religious experience’. One thing which may make it an easier phenomenon to understand is the theory that there is a common core to all these, this could be seen as something within the nature of religious experience such as a numinous feeling or the sheer individual quality, or something that happens after the event such as a drastic life change. However do comparable aspects of different experience make them any more valid? Does positing a God make God more likely to exist?
James put forward four qualities to consider when assessing the validity of religious experience: Passivity, that is the recipient, is passive and the experience is happening to them from an outer source, ineffability, noetic quality and transiency. Bibilical examples may include the ineffability of Ezekiel’s visions or Moses experience of the burning bush as well as Isaih’s vision of God in the temple (which fits with Otto’s idea of such an experience being ‘mysterium tremendum et fascinans’). Arguably if religious experiences are to be taken as valid they should all share these qualities to some extent. Mysticism within religious experience provides many examples. The mystical and deep prayer experienced by people such as St Teresa of Avila and St John of the cross seem to share some similarities. Other examples may include near death experiences, where a common theme tends to be the idea of light and a feeling of being ‘out of oneself’.
However it must be considered that perhaps there is a certain social and cultural aspect to these, our ideas of what it is to die and experience dying are informed by things we see and hear around us. The perhaps stereotypical description of tunnels, light and family members may seem less convincing with the backdrop of hundreds of other people saying they felt the same thing. Yet to be less cynical perhaps they genuinely did experience the same occurrence and this should be the test of its authenticity. Other forms of religious experience include visions, revelation, prayer, auditory experiences, miracles and mysticism. Within Catholicism images of the Virgin Mary are common such as those in Lourdes, France and Knock, Ireland. These apparitions have appeared frequently elsewhere in the world, and although treated sceptically by the Catholic Church and subject to rigorous testing, those judged as genuine do seem to share stark similarities. However these are direct religious experiences, a person can also experience indirect religious occurrences, such as a numinous feeling which doesn’t fit James’ criteria as well.
Another key aspect of religious experience is the after effects, the idea that as a result of such an experience one’s life is changed. For the non believer this is usually conversion, and for somebody who already believed in God a religious experience would reinforce faith and perhaps inspire a deeper devotion. St Paul is perhaps the most famous biblical example of this; renowned for his persecution of Christians and a practicing Jew, Saul was converted upon seeing a vision of Christ on the road to Damascus. This experience fits James’ description of religious experience to an extent, it was a passive experience, ineffable, brought new knowledge and a life change and was presumably transient.
The complete change of individual central attitude within Paul was evident to himself and those around him. Other well known examples of converts include C. S Lewis and Tolstoy. Should the change of opinion and religious conviction of these people provide a ‘common core’? Sociologists and Psychologists such as Jung would argue that there is perhaps a degree of repression and wish fulfilment, i.e. Paul’s subconscious guilt for his zealous persecution of Christians. However this explanation does not cover those who are converted after near death experience or major life changes. It is common for a genuine life change to happen after somebody has claimed to have a religious experience and maybe this should reflect that they believe their experience to be fully real. However, Coplestone described religious experience as ‘a loving but unclear awareness of some object….transcending the self’ if such experiences are ‘unclear’ this makes them somewhat vague and it is much easier to draw similarities and common themes between ambiguous things than clear states.
A major issue within the religious experience debate is corporate experience. Religious experience is often described extremely individual and self authenticating. If this is so then how can the issue of corporate experience be dealt with? The Toronto Blessing and other occurrences of being ‘slain in the spirit’ are examples of multiple numbers of people claiming to experience God at the same time. These of course demonstrate an obvious ‘common core’ and could be interepreted in two ways: as more than one person is experiencing it, this should in theory add weight to the argument. However on the other hand it contradicts the initial description of religious experience as personal.
In terms of verification there appears to be an inherent contradiction. For the empiricist experience is the main means by which to test and come to conclusions about the world. Experience is a test of objectivity and validity. Thus sense experience should, on a basic level, in theory produce the same results to all who experience it. Yet religious experience by its individual nature does the opposite. It is using empirical experience to access the objective and divine.
However in contradiction to this one could argue that there is a distinct difference, the verificationists and empiricists are talking of physical measurable things e.g. ‘that book is black’ ‘that object is larger than this object’ whereas religious experience is of a different realm. One of the obvious problems of empiricisms has always been that it cannot be used to test emotion, belief or psychology and in a sense this is what religious experience is. And so although experience is often used in the empirical sense that we can all objectively experience the same thing and see/hear/touch the same thing, in terms of religious experience it is not as earthly and transient, it is of something bigger that, although termed ‘experience’, is not as collective as the term suggests.
Swinburne argued in his principle of credulity that unless we have no obvious reason to doubt someone, we should believe what they say, and thus by this principle we should take religious experience to be true. Yet although there may be a common core, some comparisons between religious experiences can appear contrived and there are anomalies, corporate experience for example contradicts the view that religious experience is individual. Ultimately, whether an experience is emotionally or psychologically motivated, a form of wish fulfilment or a genuine religious experience, it is self authenticating, real and objective to the person who has experienced it. However, Rudolf Otto described religious experience as ‘an apprehension of the wholly other’ and if this is taken to be true, one cannot gain any knowledge of something completely removed from everyday life from somebody else’s experience, even if there are similarities between multiple experiences. Thus whether one person, or ten people, have an experience of God it is not cumulative, it does not make it any more believable.