The threshold of mystery: Religious Experience

by frankbeswick

Religious experience is a mode of experience that cannot be reduced to any other kind of experience and is at the heart of religious belief and practice

In the Scriptures of the great religions we read many accounts of profound experiences when recipients felt themselves to be in the divine presence or experienced visual and/or auditory encounters with one whom they thought was a deity. There are other, less dramatic experiences, but all are significant. Some people write these experiences off as hallucinations or delusions, but others, including some great thinkers, have taken them seriously, and they lie at the heart of religion.

The idea of the Holy

While religious experiences were taken for granted by the ancients on grounds that the gods were capable of revealing themselves, the first academic study of religious experience came from Otto in the nineteenth century. This was "The idea of the Holy" though Holy might equally be translated as sacred. Writing when rationalism was very influential in Germany, he demanded that the non-rational in religion must be taken seriously. By non-rational he did not mean irrational. He meant the kind of experience that precedes reason on which reason must reflect, pre-rational, it might be called. It is the ineffable core of religion, wihout which no genuine religion exists.

The numinous, as it is called, can come to us in a variety of ways. It may be sensed through ceremonies and liturgies, through sacred buildings or holy places. It may be powerful and dynamic, but it may be peaceful. It is the mysterium tremendum atque fascinans [the tremendous and fascinating mystery] and it is wholly other, irreducible to any reality in the physical world.

For Otto the numinous has three characteristics. It inspires awe; it is overpowering; and it creates a sense of vigour. Otto's work was original, and he had the courage to deal openly with a mode of experience that many wrote off as hallucinatory. His is a seminal work.

William James

The next major work on this subject was Varieties of Religious Experience,by the American psychologist William James. James was an exponent of pragmatism, the belief that as truth was a form of goodness you could always tell truth by its positive effects. He was convinced that religious experience had positive effects in the lives of its recipients, and this spoke to him of truth. He believed that something real was being disclosed in religious  experience, and that it was therefore a way of accessing a kind of reality other than the normal, material world. When reading James you become aware that you are reading the works of an open-minded, tolerant man who had general good will to others

James did important work analysing mystical experiences. He identified four characteristics of mysticism. They can be remembered by the acronym UNIT. They are unitive, which means that the mystic experiences a sense of union with the object of experience. They are noetic. The noetic sense is what we have when we are convinced that an experience is genuine and not imaginary. The experience is ineffable, which means that it cannot be fully expressed in language. This is a general characteristic of religious experience. It is transient, by which he meant that such states are but brief. 

Mystical experiences come in a range of kinds. Wordsworth, writing in Tintern Abbey, speaks of a sense of the divine presence in nature. John Muir, the pioneer of national parks and a great lover of wilderness, writes about his sense of oneness with nature. This is what we call nature mysticism. Yet Buddhist mystics speak of finding sunya, the void, and Jewish mystics used to aim for the ascent of the soul to the experience of God. Mystics in general speak of a loss of sense of self and its union with the One or the Universe. 

Alister Hardy

Some of the most important work in religious experience was done by Alister Hardy,  who founded the Religious Experience  Research Unit at Manchester College, Oxford.Hardy's technique was to perform a scientific analysis of the phenomenon.

He identified quasi-sensory experiences and divided them into kinds. He distinguished quasi-visual phenomena, in which there are visual experiences, quasi-auditory phenomena, in which the individual experiences in an auditory way, and  quasi-olfactory phenomena, rare occurrences in which there is sensed what the mediaevals called the odour of sanctity, which is like the scent of flowers. Visual phenomena are rarely visions, which create many difficulties, but often can be a sense of being surrounded by bright white light and sense of goodness. One example of bright light is the Transfiguration of Jesus in the gospels, when three apostles saw him as a source of brilliance, which Simon Peter sensed was good. This experience was linked to some quasi-auditory phenomena.  

The auditory phenomena are a sense of words arriving in the mind [it is not hearing] but there are some instances of people experiencing musically. The English mystic Richard Rolle underwent religious experiences in which he heard exquisite music.

Beardsmore, of the Religious Experience Research Unit, argued that behind all genuine religious experiences there is a sense of presence. This is akin to Otto's sense of the numinous and Wordsworth's presence that pervades all things. Anothe writer, Martin Buber, argued that religious experience involves a sense of being in an I-Thou encounter, a personal encounter of an existentially significant kind with a great Thou. For Buber the Thou of the encounter could be experienced as presence or power, so he coined the term presence-power to speak of it. 

One important element in Hardy's thought is his differentiation of religious experiences from hallucinations. He noted that hallucinations are always grotesque and are individual to the sufferer, whereas religious experiences are not grotesque and display a consistent pattern across the whole range of the phenomena, so consistent that he could group them into a taxonomy. Hardy also performed research on the mental well being of subjects reporting religious experiences and discovered that they compared well in terms of mental well being with the general population. Whether this is cause or effect is unclear, but it is always hard to differentiate cause and effect in human affairs. The psychologist David Hay also produced research which indicated that the subjects of religious experiences compared well with control groups on measures of intelligence and emotional well being

Reflections on religious experience

There are several categories of religious experience. We can distinguish between mystical and numinous. Numinous experiences involve an awareness of a presence/power which is distinct from humans, whereas mystical experiences involve a sense of union with the divine and a loss of self on a temporary basis. Numinous experiences include what we might call charismatic experiences.. In these experiences recipients, who may have been at prayer or liturgical worship, feel guided and empowered by what  they believe is an external spiritual power.

A sense of presence can be encountered in prayer, and there are people who claim that it is encountered often in life. Recently the retiring Pope Benedict stated that he felt the presence of God with him, and the book, The Practice of the Presence of God, an eighteenth century text by Brother Laurence, teaches that this presence can be sensed throughout life. This would indicate that for some individuals religious experience is not just a momentary matter, but a dimension of life.  

We must ask ourselves what is the status of religious experiences, do we experience the transcendent as it is, and if not, what are we experiencing? It is important to realize that we experience nothing "raw" or as it is. We always experience in an interpreted way. When we experience we are touched by an influence, but our minds interpret what these influences are and do so through a lens of concepts. Thus in quasi-sensory experiences recipients do not see things as they are, but things as interpreted. Thus when the apostles saw Jesus transfigured the white light which radiated from him was the sensory way through which they experienced his goodness 

The vision of Isaiah

 I am using the following case as an example of religious experience.

Isaiah was one of the earliest writing prophets. Prior to the eighth  B.C. no prophet had, as far as we know, committed his works to writing. Prophets always had a commissioning experience, and in Isaiah 6 we read of a powerful visionary experience that occurred in the temple of Jersualem. The young Isaiah "saw" God. His train filled the sanctuary and he was attended by Seraphim. These should not be regarded as the modern day archangels, but huge winged beasts well-known in Middle Eastern mythology and iconography. Now it is clear that as God has no form you cannot see him, and I cannot see that he is surrounded by winged beasts, so what Isaiah "saw" was God as visualized through a cultural lens. This is not to deny that there was a genuine religious experience, but to say that the visual component is, as always, culturally shaped.

Note that in this experience there are quasi-auditory and quasi-tactile experiences. The prophet dialogues with God in response to God's call. A seraph touches Isaiah's lips with a burning coal to purify him. These were ways in which his mind imaged the unimagable in the encounter.

We must also recognize the spiritual/moral dimension of the encounter. Isaiah is purified and commissioned to service by it. Without any kind of call/urge to moral improvement a religious experience is suspect. There can be false experiences, and these can be dangerous. Religious experience should always give rise to some kind of service to others. A purely private experience that does not urge to service is probably not genuine.   

Mediated experience

Metropolitan [Archbishop] Anthony Bloom recounts his conversion  from atheism to orthodox Christianity. Having heard a talk by a Christian about Mark's Gospel, he angrily begun to read it, but by the third chapter he was surprised. "I became aware of a presence. I saw nothing. I heard nothing. It was no hallucination. It was the simple certainty that the Lord was standing there" [We believe in God, page 26.] Bloom knew that the one whose life he had begun to read in revulsion and ill-will had made himself known to him.  

What is significant is that the experience was mediated/occasioned by reading Scripture, but Scripture is not the only possible medium. Wordsworth spoke of the presence that permeates all things, in the natural world that he loved, which became for him a medium of presence. Others have sought God in the desert and in silence. Yet others might find religious experience mediated through music or religious ritual. It may well be mediated through sacred places,such as shrines and churches, or sometimes holy people. For Isaiah it was mediated/occasioned by the temple and its services. Religious experience is often a personal matter, but there can be occasions when several people have one at once, e.g. the alleged visions of Mary at Knock in the nineteenth century.

The reason that religious experience needs to be mediated is that in religious experience is an encounter with a person, and as Roger Scruton points out in "The Face of God" we know persons only in a mediated way. I only know a person through their bodily acts or some channel of communication. For Scruton the Face of God is mediated through the social community of the church, which becomes the vehicle of divine influence.   


Religious experience is known across all religions and across all cultures, so no single religion can say "It is exclusively found in adherents of my religion, so my religion must be the true one." The examples that I have used are drawn from Christianity, because, while I have studied all faiths, Christianity is my specialism and is the one that I know most about.

Religious experience can be an uncomfortable affair, because its very occurrence challenges conventional wisdom that we can only experience the empiricaly knowablel world. There are two approaches to the challenge that it raises. We can say, "My world view/epistemology does not allow for this kind of experience, so it does not happen." Or we can say, "Religious experience  happens, so I will expand my epistemology/world-view to account for it." The former view shrinks the world to fit the theory; the latter expands the theory to fit the world. Only exponents of the latter view are able to make progress in the growth of knowledge.

However, let us be clear. Religious experience confers no authority on those who have had it, as I had to tell a seventeen year old Religious Studies student, who told me [her teacher] that I had to accept statements on her authority as she had had the baptism of the Holy Spirit, an intense,ecstatic experience that occurs in some charismatic services. This was an occasion when I had to lay the law down. Furthermore, religious experience cannot be used as an argument for God's existence, as both sides in the argument have to have had what they can agree to be a religious experience for the argument to begin. However, it serves as a narrative to account for faith/religious belief. A recipient of religious experience can explain, like Anthony Bloom, why he believes. If it has made a difference in his life then his narrative can have force.


We believe in God, Ed. Rupert Davies, Unwin Forum Books, 1967

The Idea of the Holy, Rudolf Otto, Oxford University Press, 1923

Varieties of Religious Experience, William James, Penguin 1960

A Sense of Presence, Beardsmore, Religious Experience Research, Manchester College, Oxford.

The Practice of the Presence of God, Brother Lawrence, Whitaker Books, 1982

Exploring Inner Space, David Hay, Mowbray Books,1987  

Wordsworth: Complete Works, MacMillan 1888

The English Mystics: an anthology, Rowan Williams and Tarej Park, 1988

The Spiritual Nature of Man, Alister Hardy, OUP

The Divine Flame: an essay in the natural history of religion, second of two Gifford lecures, Alister Hardy,

The Face of God, Roger ScrutonGifford Lectures, published by Continuum, 2010 

Jerusalem Bible, Dartman, Longman and Todd, 1985

Updated: 03/07/2013, frankbeswick
Thank you! Would you like to post a comment now?


Only logged-in users are allowed to comment. Login
frankbeswick 13 days ago

An excellent question. I do not think that there is such a hierarchy, for the numinous acts as it sees fit. Some people experience it in ceremonies, but others in silence and there seems to be no pattern to its occurrences in daily life.

DerdriuMarriner 14 days ago

The second sentence in the second paragraph to your first subheading, The idea of the Holy, considers numinousness as "sensed through ceremonies and liturgies, through sacred buildings or holy places."

Is there a hierarchy in that sensing? For example, might you have listed first ceremonies and liturgies, then sacred buildings, then holy places as the order of their impact and importance?

(Where would holy, sacred people -- ;;-D -- fit?)

frankbeswick 15 days ago

This usage seems sensible and makes sense.

DerdriuMarriner 15 days ago

Thank you for the grammatical/stylistic lesson ;-D!

Do you have "a hard and fast rule" about a space BEFORE the colon?

Your title has no space between the word "mystery" and the colon -- my tendency -- even as it has a space -- my tendency too -- between the colon and the word "Religious."

The grammatical/stylistic tradition on this here -- ;-D --, western-pond side is no spacing BEFORE -- but yes, spacing AFTER -- the color.

My European- and Latin American-located education contrastingly trained me -- at least there and regarding their publications -- to put a space BEFORE and a space AFTER the colon.

What would be your preference or would it be serendipitous?

DerdriuMarriner 15 days ago

Thank you!

The Frank Beswick differentiation between religious and spiritual experiences does so most adroitly and helpfully!

frankbeswick 15 days ago

Religious and spiritual experiences overlap, but I use religious to identify a sense of the divine presence, and religious experiences qualify as spiritual experiences, but someone like Buddha, who had a profound experience that did not involve God, had a spiritual experience, but not a religious one.

frankbeswick 15 days ago

I am used to putting a space after the colon, but I don't think of it as a hard and fast rule.

DerdriuMarriner 15 days ago

Your title inspires a grammatical, stylistic question that I mean from time to time to ask you.

The red book of English grammar that Unitedstatesian high schoolers in the 20th century had to read and test passingly on looked at the colon in a title in one way.

There must be no space between it and the last letter in the last word before it (in your title: mystery no-space colon) even as there must be a space between it and the first letter in the first, following word (in your title: colon space Religious).

My education in Latin American and west European countries presented the colon as immediately preceded and immediately succeeded by a space (in your title, it would be mystery space color space Religious).

Recently, I see this grammatical rule or this style more and more in internet sources, such as Unitedstatesian English, that seem a bit unexpected.

Would you always do what you've done in your title (mystery no-space colon space Religious) or would there be reasons for you to precede and succeed a colon with a space?

DerdriuMarriner 15 days ago

Online sources -- like non-digital books and journals and magazines -- sometimes clearly differentiate between religious and spiritual experiences even as I do not agree always with the clear demarcation that different authorities create or defend.

So may I ask for the Frank Beswick differentiation between religious and spiritual experiences?

DerdriuMarriner 20 days ago

I know from your wizzley about understanding faith that the image to the left of your title is of St. Peter's.

So it makes me feel that progress is being made since I asked about it in the aforementioned wizzley, you named it and I remember it here.

So there'll be no questions this time around about the image's proper identification ;-D!

That will let me move on to other questions ;-D!

You might also like

Who was Jesus

To understand Jesus you must realize that he was a mystery that theology trie...

Ministry in the church:women bishops

The long awaited decision to have women bishops is major progress.

Disclosure: This page generates income for authors based on affiliate relationships with our partners, including Amazon, Google and others.
Loading ...