Religious Experience

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Religious experience

Defining religious experiences:

William James defined religious experience as “the feelings, acts and experiences of individual men, so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they may consider the divine”.

Two groups of religious experience:

·         Direct religious experience – God reveals himself directly to a person without them choosing to have the experience

·         Indirect religious experience – thoughts/feelings about God that arise from everyday experiences

Otto split an ‘apprehension of the holy other’ into three requirements:

1.       Numinous – a sense of awe

2.       Sense of fascination after initial fear

3.       Feeling of mystery and wonder

Swinburne distinguished between different types of public and private experiences:

Public experiences

1.       Ordinary experience, e.g. the night sky

2.       Extraordinary experience, e.g. a miracle

Private experiences

3.       Describable in normal language, e.g. Jacob’s ladder

4.       Not describable in normal language, or mystical

5.       No specific experience, e.g. generally experiencing the beauty of nature

Visions and voices:


Three forms of visions:

·         Corporeal visions – an object is externally present and some kind of knowledge is gained

·         Imaginative visions – visions that happen in dreams, maybe communicating knowledge

        Intellectual visions – an experience rather than an observation of an external object, i.e. feeling the presence of something

Teresa of Avila stated that her visions were not seen with the eyes of the body, but the eyes of the soul – intellectual vision.


Often voices are the whole aspect of a voice religious experience, however there are three different aspects to a voice experience:

·         Revelatory – the voice reveals something about God

·         Authoritative – message communicated has God’s authority

·         Disembodied – the voice doesn’t come from a physical thing

Evaluations and issues

·         Vision/voice could simply come from your subconscious and therefore have psychological explanations – hallucinations, schizophrenia, etc. It could even be a psychological response to trauma (people having visions at near death)

·         The vision may simply be drug-induced, or the voice is hallucinatory related to drugs

·         Dreams can seem real to the person who had the dream

·         Mental health conditions could explain voices, e.g. schizophrenia

·         For the vision/voice to be from God, it has to fit in with church teachings and also leave the person with a sense of peace. What if someone experiences something that they perceive as God but doesn’t comply with church teachings?

Numinous and mystical experiences

Numinous religious experiences

Otto claims that a religious experience is numinous – it leaves a person aware of the relative insignificance of human beings in comparison to the ‘wholly other’. Otto called this the ‘mysterium tremendum’, i.e. mysterious and beyond description.

Those who have religious experiences should be convinced that they happened, and interpret the world around the things that they gathered after the experience. Any theological interpretations of the experience…


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