Religious Experience

Key thinkers and ideas for A2 Philosophy of Religion topic Religious Experience

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  • Created by: abii247
  • Created on: 24-05-12 09:55

William James and "The Varieties of Religious Expe

  • religious exp. at the heart of religion
  • teachings, practices and attitudes "second-hand" religion - develop as individuals reflect on their common experience
  • conversion experiences = a transformation from a divided or imperfect self to a more unified consciousness
  • recognised the difficulty of defining mystical experience, so proposed 4 critera to summarise the characteristics:

1. ineffable - beyond description, cannot be put into words    

2. noetic - reveals a deep and direct understanding of Gods

3. transient - the experience is fleeting, but may have a lasting impact

4. passive - not initiated by the mystic, but being acted on

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Rudolf Otto and the numionous

  • experiences of awe and wonder in the presence of a transcendent and almighty God
  • must dervive from a completely separate "wholly other" being
  • awareness of human nothingness & "creatures of God"
  • the object of religious exp. can be described as: mysterium, tremendum et fascinas...
  • MYSTERIUM - the mystery of the experience
  • TREMENDUM - awe-inspiring terror
  • FASCINAS - drawn to the exp. with a strange fascination
  • numinous exp. key to understanding the spitituality of other religions: "there is no religion in which it does not live at the innermost core and without it no religion would be worthy of the name."
  • greatly influenced by Kant - phenomenom and numenom. Otto argued religious exp. is of the noumenom because we cannot know God (e.g. through reason) unless He chooses to reveals himself through exp.
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Other understandings of religious experience

Fredrich Schleiermacher (1768-1834)

  • agreed with Otto that religious exp. are primarily emotional
  • these emotions are deeper than reason
  • not numinous but a feeling of absolute dependence of the divine
  • this dependence is at the heart of religion
  • theology arises as people reflect on their experiences

Martin Buber (1878-1965)

  • religious exp. analogus to I-thou relationships
  • differes from I-it relationship that we have with objects or when we treat people as objects
  • I-thou relationship is mutual interaction that we may expereince when we ecnounter nature, in deep friendships or when we experience God





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Occur in a variety of forms and in different religions...

Muhammed's vision:

  • angel Jibril appeared to him in a cave
  • gave the prophet messages to recite and proclaim to the people of Makkah

St Teresa of Avila:

  • had an "inner vision"/"intellectual vision"
  • "I was conscious of Him, for niether with the eyes of the body or of the soul did I see anything."
  • didn't see anything externally but in her minds eye
  • people who have had this type of exp. argue that its far too profound to be imagination
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  • usually the voice of God or an angel (in the case of Muhammed)
  • need not be an audible voice -  e.g. Paul's conversion in Acts 9
  • voices carry authority and have a profound effect

Augustine's experience

  • hears a child chanting "take it and read, take it and read"
  • could not think of a childrens game that uses thus chant
  • interpreted it as a "divine command" to open his "book of scripture"
  • voice may have been the natural voice of a child (uncertain to even Augustine) interpreted in a religious way
  • religious experiences may not always be supernatural (link with R.F. Holland's definition of miracles)
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Are voices and visions genuine religious experienc

St Teresa provided a "protocol" for identifying religious experience:

1. the exp. should fit with Christian teaching & traditions of the church?

2. the exp. should be discussed with a spiritual advisor, e.g. Teresa referred her experiences to her Priest Confessor

3. the exp. should leave the individual feeling at peace and cause some sort of change in their life, e.g. become more spiritually aware etc.


  • how can we prove the experience is actually from God? e.g. schizophrenics
  • could visions and voices be linked to physical factors such as fasting which puts the body into a weakend state?
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