Are religious experiences real?

Someone asks: So do you believe that religious experiences are real?

Well, we are humans. Everything is always mixed – our hopes, fears, desires, and history are always tightly integrated into everything we do and I do not think there is really any such thing as a “pure” religious experience, though perhaps it can be close for some people on occasion. Even the writers of scripture who received inspiration and even direct instruction from God – they are not hermetically sealed away from their humanity. Their personality and intellect and history (family, education, culture) come through on every page. Yet despite that, I believe scripture is entirely faithful.

So yes, I believe that religious experiences are real in the sense that the creator God or other spiritual forces are interacting or affecting people on the ground, in time. It doesn’t mean that every part about the experience is in fact, the voice of God (or angels or demons), but it’s very possible that a significant part of it is. When someone prays to God and suddenly feels a “peace that passes understanding”, is it the work of the Lord or angels comforting our psyche and emotions? I will say, yes, it certainly could be. You may say that the same thing can be accomplished with a couple of White Russians. I will acknowledge that drinking will accomplish something of the sort, but it’s not really the same thing. Don’t assume you know what religious people feel like when you are not religious yourself.

When a person has a salvation experience of the “born again” variety, it is usually first described as an awareness of a great weight of sin upon them. Then, they are stunned by the way in which Jesus takes all this burden of sin away and leaves one free and reconciled to God. You may say that the first part of this equation comes about due to a preacher rambling on about “hellfire and damnation” and pushing the listener to feel guilty. Then, once they buy into the idea, they are offered a way out of it – some sort of confession and subsequent dedication of one’s life to service and church participation. One can see this religious experience through a lens of raw, manipulative psychology. I will be the first to say that I do not appreciate manipulative preachers (who, unfortunately, are not uncommon). Nevertheless, I believe this sort of message “works” because the underlying reality of our human condition is that we really ARE guilty of sin and long for and desire a savior. We may not be able to articulate it as some theologian would, but it is deeply rooted in our very being. Our conscience is not just a product of social conditioning (though it is that also) but when stripped down to the elements, contains an awareness of good and evil – the ability recognize love and justice – that transcends all of our life’s memories. This is at the heart of the salvation experience.

The preacher need not be manipulative to awaken this occasion in the hearts of his listeners. He needs only to do a barely competent job of communicating the good news of Christ for our spirits to be awakened. I think that the psychological manipulation comes into play when the preacher wishes to see a conversion experience NOW, or in a short time frame. For many, it will take time, sometimes even years. That’s OK. Their imagination needs to be awakened to grasp life in spiritual communion with Christ for it to be something they can desire specifically.

Their imagination you say? See, isn’t all this religious experience imaginary? No, some of it is imaginary because you are a person, a man or woman, and that is how your mind works. It is how your body works. This is the very medium that God is interacting with when he speaks to us. There is no other medium. Many people have often said that if only they could hear the audible voice of God (with their ears) they might believe he was there. I’ll admit that on some level, this would provide a sort of separation from your own imagination such that you could put your finger a little more firmly on what was of God and what was not. But that is not how He works or apparently the spirit world works. He is more intimate than that. “Sometimes your further than the moon, sometimes you’re closer than my skin.” pens the songwriter (Marti Smith). I don’t believe that hearing the audible voice of God would “help” the situation along near as much as some think it would.

Is this real? Or has this been happening inside my head? To borrow from fiction, Harry Potter asks the same thing of Dumbledore during a vision. He replies, “Well of course it is happening inside your head, but why on earth should that mean it is not real?” Why indeed. Where else is it going to happen?

Some people who have had more “charismatic” religious experiences have been accused of emotionalism. Well certainly, there can be emotions run amok surrounding instances of divine healing, speaking in tongues, visions, etc. But once again, we are human. This is the medium. If God is going to speak to us, then it has got to happen to us, inside our own cracked heads. God may have spoken to you while quietly studying a passage in the book of Romans. Or he may have spoken to you while you kept vigil during Easter week in front of a statuary. Where else is he going to find you than where you are at this moment? Wisdom can discern what is of God and what is of man, but only so far. It is easy for us to twist everything, and we will – even the grace of God. But I will give the benefit of the doubt as often as I can.

When I sat down to write few notes about this, I really wanted to explore the broader field of religious experiences in general but here I am giving primarily Christian examples. They are, obviously, the first thing that comes to mind. This can be expanded though. The Buddhist emptying himself in meditation may have seemingly valid religious experiences too. So can the Muslim or the Hindu. When they do, what portion of their experience is the result of 1) Their own imagination, 2) The Lord, 3) Demons? I would say, mostly 1, sometimes 2 and sometimes 3. This could deserve a book-length treatment. Not today though. Oh well.

Photo credit (Miracle of the Cross of St. Thomas Aquinas)