What is Religious Experience?

Religious experience refers to any experience of the sacred within a religious context. These may include visions, mystical, and numinous experiences during religious practices such as ritual, prayer, meditation, worship, or chanting (1). Three features are ascribed to religious experience:

  • Universality: Religious experience is a universal phenomenon as many people have had such experiences.
  • Diversity: Religious experiences are diverse. There is a variety of such experiences experienced by adherents of various world religious traditions and faiths.
  • Importance: Religious experiences are often considered hugely important in an individual’s life. It causes a transformation that changes the way one lives, views life, and reorientates himself.

There are at least three types of religious experiences: regenerative, charismatic, and mystical (2).

Regenerative religious experience engenders a life transformation. The individual finds that his life has changed dramatically. He experiences a feeling of newness and being filled with new meaning. It also involves a moral transformation. In a Christian context, the individual may feel sinful and guilty, and subsequently feel the need to place a new emphasis on moral duties and changing his life. 

Charismatic experience is a type of experience in which special abilities, gifts, or blessings are manifested. It is particularly apparent in Pentecostal Christianity and charismatic movements that emphasize the “gifts of the Holy Spirit” such as healing, speaking in tongues, prophesying, dreams, and visions. Religious leaders are often charismatic and holy figures with captivating qualities, gifts, and powers. These can include pastors, gurus, sadhus, sheiks, and more.

mystical religious experience is an experience granting the individual an acquaintance with realities not accessible by way of sense perception or standard introspection. It includes four distinct characteristics: ineffability (the experience cannot be adequately described, if at all), noetic quality (the experiencer believes she has learned something important from the experience), transiency (the experience is temporary and the experiencer soon returns to a “normal” state of mind), and passivity (the experience occurs without conscious decision or control and it cannot be brought to happen at will). These experiences can involve a union with God, Brahman, an Absolute Reality, or the dao. Important figures in the mystical tradition include Ibn al-‘Arabi, Meister Eckhart, Saint John of the Cross, and others. 

Historical theorists have expressed important concepts regarding religious experience. Rudolf Otto (1869-1937) described religious experience as being the apprehension of the “Holy” or the “numinous”. The numinous is an intangible and unseen yet compelling reality that inspires both fascination and dread within human beings. Otto posited the numinous to consist of two elements bound together, the tremendum mysterium and the fascinans. By tremendum mysterium he meant awe, majesty, and urgency. By fascinans he meant something wholly other and distinct from everything else but, despite such distinctiveness, still attracts and fascinates. 

Friedrich Schleiermacher referred to religion as “the feeling of absolute dependence”. He saw feeling as being an expansive and inclusive reality, something similar to deep sensitivity perhaps by how something beautiful can move one on a very deep level. Religion is the experience of “being absolutely dependent, or, which is the thing, of being in relationship to God” and the longing to be absorbed by something or someone greater.

References

1. Meister, Chad. 2009. Introducing Philosophy of Religion. Oxfordshire: Routledge. p. 170.

2. Meister, Chad. 2009. Ibid. p. 171.

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