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Religious Experiences
What does the phrase ‘Religious Experience’ mean?
There are many definitions of religious experience which can in a general way be divided into two groups; direct and indirect experiences.
Direct religious experiences; Refer to events where God reveals her/himself directly to the person having the experience. The religious experience is not chosen or willed by the person; the person experiences or observes God in some way.
Indirect religious experiences; Experiences, thoughts or feelings about God that are prompted by event in daily life, for example observing the stars in the sky and having thoughts about the greatness of God the Creator.
Types of Religious Experiences
Richard Swinburne in his The Existence of God has suggested that there are five recognisable types of religious experience, which he divides into two groups; public experiences and private experiences.
Public experiences 1. Ordinary Experiences – Experiences where a person interprets event as having religious significant. (e.g. the beauty of nature or the natural world.) 2. Extraordinary Experiences – Experiences that appear to violate normal understanding of the workings of nature. (e.g. Jesus turning water into wine an Cana).
Private experiences 1. Describable in ordinary language – Experiences such as dreams. 2. Non-describable experiences – This refers to direct experiences of God in which God/the wholly other/the divine is revealed to people. These experiences go beyond human powers of description. 3. Non-specific experiences – These experiences could include things like looking at the world from a religious perspective.
Vision experiences
A vision experience is one in which God or the divine is ‘seen’ or ‘observed’. In the vision information may be revealed, so dreams are described by theologians as noetic and revelatory.

Voices
In Christian tradition, religious experiences of God can often be associated with the idea of hearing. Hearing in this case means more than an audible voice, but also the communication of knowledge. The voice is usually linked to God. Often the voice of God is one aspect or a religious experience which could, for example, be a mystical experience.
William James
William James in his book ‘The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature’, investigated a large number of accounts of religious experiences. He was interested in exploring the nature of the wide variety of religious experiences that people have. This interested James because he assumed that religious experience was the source of religious institutions such as churches. Churches, for James, were secondary to each individual person’s religious experiences. James suggested that religious experiences were events which were ‘solidarity’ and in which individuals experienced the divine or God – the religious tradition to which the person belongs is relatively unimportant.
One of James’ achievements was to identify some of the characteristics of religious experiences as wide-ranging as visions to feelings of God’s presence. Four characteristics were found to be particularly prominent in mystical religious experiences of God; 1. Ineffable – The direct experience of God goes beyond human powers of description. 2. Noetic – Noetic refers to the fact that mystics receive knowledge of God that is not otherwise available. In this sense religious experiences are direct revelations from God. 3. Transient – Religious experiences are described as transient as they are not permanent; further more transient experiences often involve a different perception of time and duration of the event. The effects of the transient experience are long-lasting and involve a changed view of the universe and the mystic’s place in the universe. 4. Passive – Mystical experiences were found to be passive, meaning that the experiences were not under the control of the mystic. Instead, the religious experience is something that happens to the mystic and is from God.

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