What are religious experiences and whence do they arise? I raise the question because certain observations seem to challenge the adjective “religious” as being produced by spirit forces outside oneself. Here are the first two observations:
If God is spirit (John 4:24), then God is not an entity existing in space and time, as we human beings do. We humans are existents, bound in space and time during our brief lives. God, on the other hand, appears to be nothing more than a concept, an invention of the human imagination, whose nature and character changes with each religious group and/or individual. Hence, it appears that God, however conceived, has no independent being, which exactly corresponds to any of those ideations of the human mind.
The rationale for this surprising statement is self-evident when viewed from the perspective of the history of world religions. Each religion (and there have been a lot of religions through human history) conceives God differently, yet the adherents of this or that religion believe that God is exactly like what they conceive. In short, they believe their view is the only accurate and true view that captures the essence of God. But, alas, different understandings of God do exist in other religions and the adherents of these other religions likewise think that their understanding of God is exactly how God is.1
Here is the third observation:
Spirit may still be “tangible,” however; depending on how it is conceived. If spirit is conceived as an entity that takes up space, like visible steam from a tea kettle, or the nearly invisible vapor arising from a heated substance, or the taste left in the rum cake when the “spirits” have evaporated, then it is tangible. If spirit is not left-over taste, or vaporous mist—or something barely visible to the naked eye; that is, if spirit does not leave an image on the retina of the eye, what is it?
I would suppose that God, as intangible spirit, is likely a denizen of a parallel spirit(ual) universe, a complex that does not occupy space and time. In this case, God is not part of the physical universe, but “over there” in the spirit(ual) universe, along with other invisible spirits (good, evil, and unclean), demons, devils, Satan, and other spiritual forces, such as angels, the Prince of the Power of the Air (Eph 2:2), the Principalities and Powers in heavenly places (Eph 3:10), the world rulers of the present darkness (Eph 6:12), the spiritual hosts of wickedness in heavenly places (Eph 6:12), angels, principalities, powers (Romans 8:38), etc.,2 and including the myriads of other spirits humankind has invented through time.
I boil these three lengthy observations down into three propositions: (1) God, if God there be, does not occupy space and time and (2) is not part of our universe; (3) our human inability to access God directly renders any description of God completely subjective and idiosyncratic.
If these propositions have any merit, then what we think of as a “religious” experience is simply a human response to a perceived “attraction” from a putative spirit world,3 and the “substance” of our religious experiences is all of our own making; it arises from within an individual and is formed by human experience; that is, it derives from what we have been taught by others, from our personal reading, from social conditioning, and the like. In other words, we humans create at a subliminal level “religious” experiences for ourselves out of our personal experiences.
William James, in his Varieties of Religious Experience. A Study in Human Nature, examines religious experiences by beginning with individuals who claim to have had such experiences. He examines “the feelings, acts and experiences of individual men in their solitude, so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they may consider the divine.”4 For an experience to qualify as religious, James cites three criteria: it must reflect religious luminousness, philosophical reasonableness, and moral helpfulness. He finds that the essence of religion is human feeling “characterized as a zest for life” coupled with a sense that there is something wrong with us that requires a solution whereby we can be saved from wrongness by connecting with higher power. There are two types of religious psyches: the healthy minded who are unburdened by a sense of sin, and the sick souls who are burdened with a sense of sin. Conversion occurs for the latter person, whereby the divided and unhappy self becomes unified and happy. James has been criticized for relying too closely on liberal-Protestant sources and citing insufficient non-Christian anecdotes. This brief statement of the analysis of religious experience sounds very similar to what I stated in the preceding paragraph.
I realize that many will object that I have gone off the deep end by claiming that spirits, Holy or otherwise, are not found in our universe. Spirits, however, like God, can only be analyzed indirectly through the anecdotal claims of human beings who claim to have experienced them. Our inability to examine spirits directly renders any attempt to describe them completely subjective and idiosyncratic. In short, the evidence for spirits, Holy or otherwise, derives from the psychological makeup of the human beings who claim to have experienced them.
Something to think about!
Missouri State University
1Hedrick, “God Does not Exist” pp. 168-70 in Unmasking Biblical Faiths, 168.
2Hedrick, “From Where does a Sense of the Divine Come,” pp. 170-72 in Unmasking, 170.
3Hedrick, Matter and Spirit: Making Sense of it All,” pp. 174-177 in Unmasking, 176-77.
4Varieties of Religious Experience. A Study in Human Nature (New York: Longmans, Green and company, 1905). I am following a review of the book by Tim Knepper: http://people.bu.edu/wwildman/relexp/reviews/review_james01.htm