Discuss the varieties of religious experience

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Discuss the varieties of Religious Experience (35)

William James in ‘The Varieties of Religious Experience’ defines religion as “the feelings, acts, and experiences of men in their solitude, so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they may consider the divine”

Ninian Smart defines religious experience as “a mystery which is awe-inspiring and fascinating and points towards the Transcendent”

  • Here James suggests that religious experiences were solitary events in which the person experiences the divine.
  • Subjective

Can be criticised as cannot be empirically analysed. Can’t be falsified scientifically.

  • James argues that religious experience stands at the heart of religion. Superior to the teachings and practices which he regards are secondary.
  • It is the actual experiences themselves that can be regarded as true religion.

In Religious Experience Today David Hay published research from the Religious Experience Research Unit which included figures that show that about a third of British people and approximately a third of the American population have felt close to a powerful spiritual force, or have had what they consider a religious experience. Descriptions of these experiences include: short time frame, unlike anything ever experienced, and they’re thought to have given awareness that there is a greater reality from what we experience in our physical world.

  • Though there may be individual differences between these experiences there does seem to be recurring themes and accounts, and considering how prevalent religious experiences seem to be (according to surveys). It seems they are not something to be dismissed as nonsense.

Hay points out the variety of different religious experiences, including;

  • Mystical experiences – experience of direct contact or oneness with God or an ultimate reality
  • Numinous experiences – Experiences of awe and wonder in the presence of God.
  • Corporate experiences – religious experiences that happen to a number of people at once in the same location e.g. The Toronto Blessing.
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James breaks down religious experiences into three categories:

Mystical – This is the experience of having apprehended an ultimate reality which is too difficult to express using normal vocabulary.  An example of a mystic is Teresa of Avila who wrote about her experiences, which were mainly visions. Some of which was published. Her most famous vision was of angel with a beautiful face and spear alight with fire, which he thrust into her heart. “it penetrated into my entrails when he drew out the spear he seemed to be drawing out with it leaving me all on fire with wondrous love ...

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