Religious Experiences

Trying to put life in perspective makes me curious about the experiences of others. How do people relate to—or wrestle with—God and all things spiritual?

The Varieties of Religious Experiences by psychologist and philosopher William James is one of the few books I’ve read multiple times. Originally given as a series of lectures at the University of Edinburgh and published more than a century ago, the language is academic and arcane but the insights are timeless.

Based on encyclopedic research, James concludes that religious experiences are ubiquitous and essential:

When all is said and done, we are in the end absolutely dependent on the universe; and into sacrifices and surrenders of some sort, deliberately looked at and accepted, we are drawn and pressed as into our only permanent positions of repose. … Religion thus makes easy and felicitous what in any case is necessary; and if it be the only agency that can accomplish this result, its vital importance as a human faculty stands vindicated beyond dispute. It becomes an essential organ of our life, performing a function which no other portion of our nature can so successfully fulfill. – Lecture II, Circumscription of the Topic

Distilled into one sentence, James is saying: religion is our attempt to come to grips with the universe in which we find ourselves. The expressions of this primal urge vary depending on one’s temperament, training and worldview.

It makes a tremendous emotional and practical difference to one whether one accepts the universe in the drab discolored way of stoic resignation to necessity, or with the passionate happiness of Christian saints. – Lecture II, Circumscription of the Topic

Personal mysticism and scientific materialism are opposite ends of this continuum. The mystic seeks intimacy with a personal Creator; the materialist seeks understanding of the first principles of creation. Differing a priori assumptions lead to different conclusions and disparate lifestyles but the search is the same.

Prominent among the treasures we seek above all else are happiness and truth. More about these in future posts.


10 thoughts on “Religious Experiences

  1. May I comment? I’m not a theologian; am commenting as a believer and also a scientist.
    Saying that all religions contain truth and none has all the truth is NOT condescending precisely BECAUSE it is not predicated on any “and i know which is which” perspective. Rather, it seems to specifically allow the possibility/likelihood/certainty that only God knows which is which–only God has a lock on Truth with a capital T. We humans,despite our very best efforts, are ( or have been to date) unable to discern truth to the extent necessary for agreement even among a single family or church or denomination, let alone an entire population, world, or universe.
    Is it not a humble position to say “this is what I believe, based on thus &so (science,scripture, personal experience, reason), and I surely hope I’ve got it right”. To the religious and scientific perspectives, I think we’d do well to add the gambler’s perspective–what are the odds ANY one view has it exactly right?

    1. Hi, Lynne —
      I must say I feel a bit funny responding to you here, since this is Mike’s blog, not mine. I don’t know whether he’ll appreciate two visitors to his blog using it as a venue for their own theological discussion. But I’ll try a response here for now. After that, if you’re interested, I would invite you over to my blog ( I haven’t written anything on it in over a month, but I still maintain it. 🙂
      A further concern I have about responding is that I don’t want to be misunderstood as trying to win an argument. I honestly think I see something that you are missing, and if I can help you see it, I’m happy to serve. Perhaps the reverse is true, and I would be glad to be corrected, if that’s the case. To the response then…
      You have said, “it seems to specifically allow the possibility/likelihood/certainty that only God knows which is which–only God has a lock on Truth with a capital T.” This actually shows the problem. Which is it? A possibility, a likelihood, or a certainty? And more importantly, how would we ever know which it is? There could only be one way: God Himself must tell us.
      He could say any of the following:
      1. “There is truth in all religions, but only I know what that truth is. I will not tell you humans.”
      2. “There is truth in all the religions, and I will teach you humans what that truth is.”
      3. “There is truth in all the religions. The point is for you to decide where that truth lies.”
      4. “There is truth in all the religions, and anyone who is enlightened enough to realize this will naturally be able to understand what that truth is.”
      5. “Not all religions have truth, but you will not know this.”
      6. “Only one religion has the truth, but you must guess which one it is.”
      7. “I am the Truth, and I have revealed it to humanity through My Son. He and He alone is the way to Me.”
      And there are other possibilities, of course.
      It will not come as a shock, I suppose, for me to say that I believe God has said the 7th one. Most people who say the “truth in all the religions” line, it seems to me, are operating with the assumption that #3 or #4 is the case.
      But here is the thing–God has not actually said #3 or #4! Does anyone actually claim to have heard God say something like that? Oh, maybe some New Ager who thinks he ran into to God in the forest while on shrooms, but most people wouldn’t such a claim. And why not? Because they don’t think they need God to say it. They can see it for themselves.
      And, voila! There is the arrogance.
      You see, it is only a strong confidence in their own ability to perceive truth that causes people to say things like “there is truth in all the religions.” Do you see how such a statement strongly implies that they are claiming to know the truth for themselves?
      If you and I are outside on a sunny day and I say to you, “There are several clouds in the sky,” whatever your response, you are probably going to assume that I have looked and believe that I have the power to make such an observation and that I am one who can put it forward as fact.

      The greater question is, then: Has God spoken? I, for one, will answer with confidence, “Yes! He has spoken to us in various ways and various places by the prophets, and in these last days He has spoken to us by a Son. This Son is spoken to us in the pages of the Bible.”
      You see, Truth is REVEALED by God, not discovered or innately known by human beings. You may say that that is a narrow and uppity claim for me to make. All I can say is that I am not making it up myself. I am believing someone else for it.

      Thanks for the provocative words, Lynne!

      1. A thoughtful post, KC. What is assumed in your acceptance of #7 is that the record of such revelation contained in the Bible is reliable–and that’s a whole ‘nother discussion. And in the end there’s no escaping the importance of faith; a trust in the truth at the core of one’s beliefs.

        1. Mike,

          1) Do you believe the Lord Jesus Christ is God?
          2) Do you believe the Lord Jesus Christ was born of a virgin?
          3) Do you believe the Lord Jesus Christ was perfect (keeping every law that we have broken)?
          4) Do you believe the Lord Jesus Christ died, was buried, and rose again, bodily, to life, on the third day?: showing his hands and side that had been pierced three days earlier?
          5) Do you believe that God is not a liar?
          6) Do you believe?:

          Revelation 21:8 But the fearful, and unbelieving, and the abominable, and murderers, and whoremongers, and sorcerers, and idolaters, and all liars, shall have their part in the lake which burneth with fire and brimstone: which is the second death.

          7) Do you believe the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ accomplishes what it claims?:

          John 3:15 That whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life.
          16 ¶ For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.
          17 For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved.
          18 ¶ He that believeth on him is not condemned: but he that believeth not is condemned already, because he hath not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God.

          8) a) Would you presume to call yourself a Christian if you didn’t believe that ALL the words of God are true and that he has preserved them for us according to his promise:

          Matthew 24:35 Heaven and earth shall pass away, but my words shall not pass away.

          b) Are you ashamed of the Lord Jesus Christ and his words?:

          Mark 8:38 Whosoever therefore shall be ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation; of him also shall the Son of man be ashamed, when he cometh in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.

          9) If you question the true words of God how are you any different than Lucifer when he inquired:

          Genesis 3:1 NOW the serpent was more subtil than any beast of the field which the LORD God had made. And he said unto the woman, Yea, hath God said, Ye shall not eat of every tree of the garden?

          10) I believe the King James Bible is the true word of God for English speaking people; If you don’t have a standard of truth, then, you don’t have a standard of truth! You’ve been complaining about your distance from God: the way I see it, it’s not his fault!

          With love and an honest concern, your Nephew,

          1. Hmmmmm… Wow… So it’s 2011, and KJV Only-ism is still alive and kicking.
            I suppose that’s sort of fitting, since this year marks the 400th anniversary of the KJV.
            But then, it might be worth mentioning that James, the king who financed the project, was a flagrant homosexual.
            Oh well, it’s still A good translation. 😉

          2. Ten questions are more than I can answer in this reply, Andrew. I believe the Bible is the Word of God, but not that it is infallible. God used human authors and human language; neither are precise. Especially the Queen’s English from four centuries ago.

            To question Scripture doesn’t make one the same as Lucifer. Questioning is the beginning of learning.

            Yes, I am the one who has moved. I moved from Catholicism to Protestantism and I’ve moved from that to find a better perspective on God, who is, after all, unknowable in his essence. We have Jesus, but knowing him can be as dry as knowing an historical figure like George Washington unless he makes himself real.

  2. Thanks for writing, KC. William James is a psychologist who studies the psyche the way a physician studies the body. I would say he’s neutral in that sense. He also studies the range of human experience from pathological to normal, more to catalog and understand than to judge.

    I assume you would accept treatment from a doctor who didn’t have your same illness if you thought he was competent, as opposed to a faith healer who shared your theology but was a quack. Why not the same from a secular psychologist who might help you better understand the mind?.

    James is certainly clinical but he isn’t condescending. He also isn’t everyone’s cup of tea.

    1. Sure… That makes good sense.
      I haven’t read James myself. He is one of hundreds of thinkers I’ve read about but never read. And in the case of James, that has occurred in the context of general philosophical studies. So my original awareness of him had to do with his “pragmatism,” which means, for me, he is pretty well pegged as a poster-boy for modernism.
      What I often seem to pick up from modernist thinkers is that they are doctors who forget that they too have bodies that age and get sick.
      Even people who are more pomo in their orientation can tend to pull this stuff — e.g. Notice how so many people today say something to the effect that “There is truth in all the religions, and no one religion has all the truth.” Invariably, they are also saying that THEY are the one(s) who can see and know what the truth is which all the religions share, else how would they be able to make such an assessment? When you think about it, the arrogance of such statements is astounding.

  3. Is James not just another modernist operating from the assumption that he can stand in a place of neutrality and accurately assess the points of view, the experiences and the beliefs of others? I’m not sure what is meant by “encyclopedic research,” but I’ll bet it doesn’t give James the neutral, objective vantage point he and other 19th-20th century modernists think they have.
    Please correct me if I’m wrong, but doesn’t this amount to saying, “I have stood outside the sphere of religious thought and experience and have researched it from the outside. Therefore, I know what it’s all about.” Not only does this assume that such a vantage point exists (which it doesn’t), it obviously also denies the experience of the researcher himself.
    Personally, as a man of faith, I am not warmed by a pat on the head from a modernist academic just because his “rational” conclusion is that my “religious” experience is necessary and good. He might as well have been one of the many whose “research” led them to say that religion is unnecessary or harmful. It’s just as condescending either way.

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