Quasi-sensory experiences: religious visual and auditory phenomena

by frankbeswick

Visual and auditory religious experiences have been an occasional feature of religious life over millenia, but they can neither be uncritically accepted nor rejected.

Let's be clear, I have never had a religious vision, and do not have any great enthusiasm to have one, or indeed any need, as my religious life has proceeded quite well without such experiences. But I am aware that quasi-sensory phenomena occur in the world. While some are clearly hallucinations born of drugs or schizophrenia, to write them all off as drug-born or schizophrenic hallucinations is an error, springing from reductionism, a desire to reduce difficult phenomena into terms that the narrow world-view of the reductionist can handle. An open minded, but critical approach is vital, both for the phenomena in general and specific instances.

Photograph courtesy of Alswart

What are quasi-sensory experiences?

The term quasi-sensory experiences was coined by Sir Alistair Hardy, a Nobel prize winning biologist who took a deep interest in spiritual matters and who founded the Religious Experience Research Unit to further his interests. He used this term to classify certain experiences that seemed sensory but which could not be sensory because they do not derive from objects capable of being sensed.  Hardy distinguished visions, auditory phenomena and the quite rare olfactory phenomena, which resemble a sense of smell. Visions often combine more than one of these, as they are accompanied by messages.

An uncritical approach of acceptance or rejection is quite common, but is not acceptable. Uncritical rejection on the grounds that the critic's world-view, generally a materialistic one, does not allow that realities beyond the material exist is a way to be close minded and to lock oneself in a petrified understanding of the world. Similarly, uncritical acceptance is a form of credulity, and mature religious systems, such as Catholicism, are adamant that visions must be tested by religious experts to ensure that they are not the product of madness or something demonic. A third approach is to be open minded, yet critical. We are  dealing with odd phenomena here and so we must be careful about the way we relate to them. 

Hardy, writing in "The Spiritual Nature of Man" dismisses those who repudiate all visionary phenomena as merely hallucinatory.  He observes that while hallucinations are grotesque and confused, displaying no pattern, spiritual experiences are often simple and seem to conform to the established patterns that we find in genuine experiences. Hardy also makes the telling point that while hallucinations are often, almost always damaging and possibly frightening to those who have undergone them, spiritual/religious experiences are generally positive and life-enhancing, and his researches have established that this is so. This positive  aspect of spiritual/religious experiences is supported by David Hay, a psychologist of religion who researched at Nottingham University. Hay confirmed that those reporting these experiences tend to be slightly higher in intelligence than the control group, while significantly higher positive scores of mental well being were reported in the religious experience group as opposed to the control groups. 


Problems with visions

There are certain persistent problems with visionary experiences. Take an example. I am sitting here at the computer. My wife can see the computer, so there is a public character to the perception. If I, however, can see the Virgin Mary standing in the corner, but she cannot, then we have some explaining to do. The following possibilities occur:either I have special powers that she does not; or we both have the same powers, but only I have been chosen to receive the vision; or I am hallucinating, due to temporary or permanent  impairment of my sanity [she is convinced of the latter!]  No one can prove that visionaries in these cases have not experienced something, but the status of what they have seen is difficult to ascertain. 

The problem is the relationship between image and reality. Many people do not realize that we do not see the world, as it is, but as it is interpreted by the mind. Even when we are observing realities in the physical world we do not perceive them as they are. We perceive in an interpreted way. The reason is that what strikes our eyes is merely light, which is converted into electrical impulses by the brain. We are not born with a developed perception. Perception must be learned by the child. Kant was aware that we see not the noumenon, the thing as it is, but only the phenomenon, the thing as it appears to us. 

Now a thinker called Tennant argued that our brains have evolved to get our view of the world right. Otherwise our species would be unable to cope and would have become extinct. But this applies to the common sense, everyday world, which we can agree we see aright. But what of the world revealed  by religious visions? It is not as easy to handle, because the common sense on which we rely does not apply here. The phenomenon is essentially mysterious, so we must be more chary.  

So what is happening when we have a religious vision? If it is  a genuine vision, we are in some kind of non-sensory contact with a religious reality.As the religious reality is spiritual it has no visible form, but our minds impose a form upon it, for this is the only way in which we can handle the phenomenon. Yet the form imposed may not be visual. Richard Rolle, one of the fourteenth century English mystics, enjoyed religious experiences in the form of exquisite music. 

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Let us look at a specific religious experience. If you open the Bible and go to Isaiah 6 you will read the tale of the prophet's commissioning experience, in which he sees and hears God in the Jerusalem temple, and thus is chosen to deliver God's message. 

The temple is filled with smoke, but none other than  Isaiah see or hear anything. God sits enthroned escorted by winged beasts known as seraphs, well known in the mythology of the Middle East. The seraphs declare God's holiness,  and God calls for one to deliver his message. Isaiah responds and becomes a prophet.

Is this a vision of heaven as it is? No! God has no form and need not sit on a throne. It is heaven as the mind of the prophet perceives it. This does not imply that there was no genuine encounter between Isaiah and God. It implies that the prophet visualized the spiritual reality in contact with him through his stock of culturally derived images. This principle goes for the language of the experience. Did God use Hebrew to speak, or did He communicate through ideas that Isaiah heard in Hebrew? This vision can be true, and its message can be true, but they are basically forms of metaphor to express the sacred. 

The noumenon of God is transcendent mystery; but the phenomenon is the product of the interaction between the noumenon and the recipient's mind. Thus a genuine religious experience can be cloaked in culturally derived images. Note that when Mary appears she is always dressed, though in heaven no one needs wear anything. The visionaries' minds see her as clad traditionally, because that is part of the imagery in which we see the sacred. 

According to Alistair Hardy some quasi-sensory experiences are simply an awareness of being surrounded by beautiful white light. This generates a sense of peace and holiness. Yet often only the recipient sees it. Others in the vicinity see nothing. What is happening is that in the human psyche light is linked to truth and goodness. So when someone has a religious experience his mind might apprehend  the sense of truth and goodness through the metaphor of light.  

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Problematic Experiences.

Yet some quasi-sensory phenomena are problematic. One problem is that while the imagery is clearly the product of the mind of the recipient, in the way that all minds create visual images, some may be more the product of the recipient's mind, including their fertile imagination, than others. These visions only have value if they are to be reasonably taken as encounters with the divine. But if some are merely the products of the human capacity to visualize and project they are of little or no value. 

Yet what really concerns the churches are those quasi-sensory phenomena that seem to come from sources inimical to God. Ologsinquito recently highlighted concerns about the Medugorje apparitions, which seem to come at an alarmingly high frequency. The church is concerned when a visionary has many visions. Bernadette of Lourdes  had only a few, then no more. What concerns the church are visions/voices that appear to give a confused moral/religious message. Take Mohammed for instance, who regularly got messages, some of which permitted Jihadis to enslave enemy women and have sex with them: rape with a religious excuse. This is not a message from God, and it makes us seriously worry about Mohammed, however worthwhile other messages of his were, for there were some very noble moral messages in his work. 

In such cases the principle expounded by Beardsmore is vitally important: any genuine religious experience must involve at some level a sense of divine presence, the holy power/presence, the great Thou, which is so alien to evil that evil thoughts and intentions cannot live with it and shrivel when it is present. It is not the visual appearance of the vision that marks it as holy, but the moral message.

There are, of course, hallucinations born of mental illness or drugs, and these can usually be identified by their wild inconsistency, grotesqueness and sheer ugliness. But to reduce all such visionary phenomena to forms of mental illness is to evade the issue. There are quasi-sensory phenomena that cannot be thus reduced and which must be taken seriously if scholarship is to adequately account for them, rather than merely explaining them away in the manner of academics trying to retain their prejudices.  

Updated: 01/07/2015, frankbeswick
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frankbeswick on 08/10/2016

You are right that we must make religion a life-long study. I have made a point of knowing something about all the world's religions, but the subject is vast and full knowledge unachievable. At the moment I am starting to re-read some religious books that I read in yesteryear to refresh and deepen my knowledge.

blackspanielgallery on 08/10/2016

Frank, I found this article as it now appears in the sidebar of one of mine. I was intrigued with the title and had to open it. Once again it was a sound piece of informative work. I appreciate you writing on religion, as I believe we are all compelled to make religion a lifelong study. Thanks for providing the article.

frankbeswick on 01/14/2015

Yes, people seeking profits from supposed experiences is a danger. These experiences will generally be fictitious. However, even genuine experiences need to be treated with caution, for the following reasons: 1, we can delude ourselves; 2, something nasty might be trying to delude us;3, we can misinterpret our experiences.

WriterArtist on 01/13/2015

I view any quasi sensor experience, vision and illusion with a cautious eye, though I believe in spiritual experiences of extreme nature which science cannot explain. The reason is very obvious, people who have achieved higher stages of spirituality do not boast of it. The propaganda and claims are made by persons who want to make it a case for personal profits and are seeking popularity for financial gains.

frankbeswick on 01/07/2015

I believe that God communicates by inspiring us with ideas, which our minds apprehend through the medium of language. But we always have to be aware that we are fallible people, so we must be ready to discuss our experiences/inspirations with people who are wise, holy and experienced in spiritual matters.

ologsinquito on 01/07/2015

Hi Frank, you are right. We have to be very discerning when someone claims to have a vision, even though, throughout history, God has spoken to his people. This is why I rely upon the local bishop to investigate and discern.

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