RE1b The nature of religious experience

Defining religious experience can be very difficult.  There are many different religions and an enormous number of different types of religious experience.  Furthermore, religious experiences, like all experiences, are private and subjective, so comparing and grouping them can be very difficult.

Richard Swinburne

Swinburne (b. 1934) in ‘The Existence of God’ (1979) identifies 5 different types of experiences of God.

  1. a normal experience that can be described using everyday language e.g. a dream – in the Nativity story, Joseph has a dream of an angel warning him about Herod’s plan to kill the baby Jesus
  2. an experience that cannot be described using everyday language e.g. a mystical experience
  3. a non-sensory experience – a conviction that they ‘just did’ experience God.  Someone might say “I felt God’s presence”, but there is no specific evidence
  4. perceiving a public and perfectly natural event, but feeling God ‘in’ that event e.g. a sunset
  5. perceiving a very unusual public event e.g. the resurrection of Jesus

Though Swinburne tries to classify different types of religious experience, others ahem tried to define what religious experiences are.

William James

James defend religious experience as ‘the feelings, acts and experiences of men in their solitude, so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they consider the divine.’  In other words, the private experiences of people that they understand to be religious, or, if you think you had a religious experience, you did have a religious experience.

Rudolph Otto

Otto (1869-1937) thought that James’ definition was too open and broad.  He suggested that all religious experiences have one common factor, the numinous.  To explain this word, Otto used the Latin phrase mysterium tremendum et fascinans’, the fascinating and tremendous mystery.  If we analyse this statement, that is, look closely at these words, we find the following:

  • mysterious – we don’t really what what it is we are experiencing, or understand it
  • tremendous – the correct use of the word ‘awesome’ here works well here; a feeling of awe, reverence, admiration, but also fear.  What we experience is so overpowering and mysterious, that there is profound unease in the experience.
  • fascinating – the mystery of the experience that we don’t fully understand means it is fascinating; we are caught up by it, drawn in by it, similar to the effect of a horror movie, when we say we can’t look, but you also can’t not look.

Martin Buber

The final definition of religious experience to study is that of Martin Buber (1878-1965).  He distinguishes between ‘I-It’ relationships, that is, the impersonal relationship between a person and an object, say a pen or a table; and ‘I-Thou’ relationships, the personal relationships between people, between me and you, or ‘I’ and ‘Thou’.

Buber’s point is that ‘I-Thou’ relationships can’t be fully explained by the scientific facts of the relationship, they go much deeper than that.  There is much more to a personal relationship between two people than the look, feel and use we find in the relationship between a person and a pen.  I and Thou are much closer that I and It.  Buber said that religious experience was an ‘I-Eternal Thou’ relationship, a close personal relationship where we directly relate to God.  Buber wants to stress the relational aspect of religious experience – it is not an experience of something, it is a shared experience together with God.