Different forms of Religious Experience
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  • A vision experience can happen when a person is awake or in a dream
  • St Teresa of Avila having ‘inner visions’ of Christ i.e. intellectual visions which are seen with the mind as opposed to the eyes. She described how she could not discern the ‘form’ of the vision but she was aware Jesus was there
  • The Prophet Muhammad receiving the Qur’an from the Angel Jibrail was a vision experience
  • Imaginative visions are those who occur in dreams such as when Joseph, while engaged to Mary, had a dream telling him not to be afraid of marrying Mary, even though she was pregnant and he was not the father


  • Hearing God’s voice or, in Prophet Muhammad’s case, the angel
  • The voices carry authority and have a profound affect
  • Hearing in this sense means more than an audible voice but also the communication of knowledge and is often one aspect of the religious experience – it could also be a mystical experience
  • It does not have to be a literal, audible voice, it could be, as some Christians refer to it as the ‘still small voice’ of the Holy Spirit which speaks in the mind of the believer
  • St Bernadette both saw and heard the Virgin Mary at Lourdes and could describe what she had been wearing and recorded the words that had been spoken to her
  •  A biblical example is at Jesus’ baptism when God says that Jesus is His son – “you are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased” (Mk 1:11)

St Teresa offered two tests to determine whether these experiences were genuine:

  • does it fit in with Christian teachings?
  • does the experience leave the individual feeling at peace?

She suggested that if the experience did not have these effects it was a sign that the experience was not from god but from the devil i.e. if someone claims that God is telling them to kill someone then this is not from God because murder goes against Christian teaching

Objections to Visions and Voices

Some thinkers have observed that experiences such as visions and voices are often linked to physical factors such as fasting. Could putting the body into a weakened state lead to a person having an auditory or visual experience they believe to be a genuine religious experience?

Some observers have raised the issue of how we might prove that an experience is from God i.e. some schizophrenics hear voices telling them to kill people, which they believe are genuine messages from God.

People have gone on to kill in the name of God based on what these voices apparently tell them i.e. Cult leaders Jim Jones and David Koresh


  • An experience which happens simultaneously to a number of people.
    • Example: the Toronto Blessing of 1994 when members of the congregation reported feeling the presence of, and being affected by, the Holy Spirit.
    • The subsequent phenomena of the meetings was laughing, rolling on the floor, making animal noises and uncontrollably weeping
    • Supporters saw such events as the sign of a ‘new move’ of God
  • Examples include:
    • Fatima - the Virgin Mary, appeared 6 times to 3 shepherd children and told them messages of wanting peace in Russia, its conversion to the Catholic faith and an end to war
    • Medjugorje – Our Lady appeared to several teenage girls and gave messages of conversion, faith and prayer


  • More impressive as a number of people have experienced it together
  • More verifiable – more eye witness testimonies so more veridical
  • Experiences are usually private so are impossible to verify but this apparently is not
  • The affects produced can be life changing – surely they should be judged on this merit?


  • Sceptics suggest that it was more likely to be mass hysteria
  • Some people may say that they can see and hear something and others might want to join in to be part of something
  • Many have suggested that in the case of the Toronto Blessings it may have been caused by a whipped-up hysteria in a heightened emotional atmosphere, rather than by the Holy Spirit
  • Some critics suggest that these experience do not match with sacred texts and what is revealed about God i.e. it contradicts the idea that the Holy Spirit does not bring disorder to public worship - 1 Corinthians 14


  • Experiences of awe and wonder in the presence of an almighty and transcendent God
  • It is an awareness of human nothingness when faced with a holy and powerful being
  • It comes from ‘numen’ = to bow the head
  • Such experiences are key to understanding the spirituality of many religions
  • Rudolph Otto – “there is no religion in which it does not live as the innermost core and without it no religion would be worthy of the name”
  • Biblical example - Isaiah 6:3-5 - Holy, holy, holy is the LORD Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory." At the sound of their voices the doorposts and thresholds shook and the temple was filled with smoke. "Woe to me!" I cried. "I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the LORD Almighty”
  • Blaise Paschal had a numinous experience in 1664 “From about half past ten in the evening until half past midnight, Fire!....God of Abraham....Certainty, certainty, heartfelt, joy, peace.....joy, joy, joy, tears of joy...let me never be cut off from him!”

Rudolph Otto (1869-1937) and the numinous experience

  • Book – ‘The Idea of the Holy.’ He was a Protestant Theologian
  • He tried to identify what it was about a religious experience that made it religious, rather than just an experience
  • He wanted to show that it was fundamental to religion that individuals should have a sense of a personal encounter with the divine
  • He describes it as ‘mysterium; tremendum’
    • mysterium - mystery of the experience – felt but cannot be described
    • tremendum - because of the awe inspiring terror, almost a sense of dread in the presence of an overwhelming being
    • fascinans – being drawn into the experience with a strange fascination

These experiences provide a reference point and from then on, believers interpret the world through the experience and beliefs attached to it.  Ultimately, the encounter with God is inexpressible

Otto on God

  • God could not be known through sensory experience or logical argument
  • Ordinary language cannot do justice to religious experience, because it is an experience beyond normal sense-experience
  • Religious language is a ‘schema’ – an attempt to find clusters of words which approach the idea of expressing an inexpressible idea
  • God is ‘wholly other’ – completely different and distinct to humans
  • Humans are not able to know God unless he chooses to reveal himself
  • The numinous is where God reveals himself and his revelation is felt on an emotional level


  • Confusing regarding the issue of whether knowledge of God is gained through experience
  • He says the theological ideas come after the experience
  • He implies that numinous experience is a ‘once and for all’ experience – implies there can be no further experience
  • To suggest that all religious experiences are numinous is limiting as other forms are so well documented

Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768-1834) – inspired Otto

He agreed that religious experiences are primarily emotional and that every person has a consciousness of the divine. These emotions are deeper than reason and it is ‘self-authenticating;’ not requiring testing to see if it is genuine.

Doctrines such as the creed were attempts by individuals to understand their religious experience. He disagreed with this because the experiences should have priority and statements of belief should be formulated to fit them. He contended that the experiences are not numinous but are at their core a feeling of absolute dependence upon the divine.They are an awareness of a dependence on a ‘source of power that is distinct from the world’ that is at the heart of religion.

  • Theology arises afterwards as people reflect on their experiences
  • Religion is a ‘sense and taste of the infinite’
  • Christianity is the highest religion as Jesus was the only example of someone who was completely ‘God-conscious’


  • Too much emphasis on the subjective, reducing religion to emotion and removing the possibility of showing that religious claims are based on fact
  • Some critics argue that there has to be the possibility of testing experiences again the Bible/Church doctrines, otherwise any experience would count (even those caused by drug induced hallucinations or mental illness)
  • Research by Prof. VS Ramachandran (University of California) He discovered that heightened activity in the temporal lobe of the brain floods all senses with over whelming emotional experience similar to the account by believers of numinous experiences
  • How can we know if it is God? The difficulty lies in defining God (Aquinas argued that we can never really understand God.
  • AJ Ayer- it is impossible to verify the existence of God because religious experiences are unverifiable and thus it is unreasonable to believe them


  • Meaning to change in form, character or function; to cause a person to change beliefs
  • Examples: John Pridmore, Nicky Cruz, St Paul
  • Conversion experiences tend to follow a pattern although some can be dramatic and intense and others slower to develop:

1. The individual is dissatisfied with their current ‘system of ideas.’ People who are content are less likely to be converted

2.  The person searches, at an intellectual and emotional level, for a basis on which to make a decision i.e. turning to the Bible or going to church

3. There is an emotional crisis point where the person often feels God’s presence as well as a feeling of sinfulness and then repentance. Sometimes the experience is described in terms of visions, voices and bright lights

4. The person feels a sense of peace and joy and they lose their worries. They have a desire to talk to others and share their experience

5. In the longer term they may experience a change in direction in life (new career) and a new sense of purpose

Conversion and psychology

We all experience transformations in terms of our life priorities but the changes are usually gradual. ‘Crisis’ type events can cause rapid transformation.

Edwin Starbuck (1866-1947) studied conversion and found parallels between them and the normal process of finding our identities in adolescence as most experiences occur between the ages of 15 and 24. He noted that non-religious adolescents also go through similar anxieties and depression before finding ‘happy relief’ and a sense of identity.

Psychologists John Lofland and Rodney Stark conducted a study of conversion in 1965 and noted the pattern which can be seen in all kinds of conversions. There is an element of ‘passivity’ to conversion experiences as believers often speak of something or someone acting upon them.

To simply reduce the experience to a psychological phenomena fails to fully address the question of the cause of the experience.

William James on conversions

  • James believed the truth could be found in the results and because conversion often results in dramatic changes in character and lifestyle, this counts as empirical evidence in favour of spiritual claims  - remember that he puts a great deal of emphasis on the end result of the experience
  • He argued that sudden conversion is very real to the recipient which God has caused
  • He contended that those having a sudden conversion felt it to be a miracle rather than a natural process
  • Even when James saw conversion as being a natural process, he maintained that it was inspired by the Divine


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