Photo courtesy Mathieu Jarry – https://www.flickr.com/photos/impactmatt/502363271
Does ‘religious experience’ derive from God?
Often Christians will say they are such because they have personally encountered Christ, and this is why they are Christians. Muslims will often dismiss this as subjective experience, and claim that these Christians are not being rational (unlike Muslims, who base their faith on supposedly superior ‘evidence’, like the miraculous nature of the Qur’an).
In the modern age we have all heard the argument that religious experience can be explained away as sheer emotionalism, the rush of chemicals/hormones/something-sciencey around the body.
I am no scientist, and am not qualified to deal with this on a scientific level. But I would simply say that I have experienced all different kinds of sensations and emotions in my life, and they all differ from one another – but yet they are similar. All of them feel as if they derive from within, self-contained. My experience as a Christian is unlike any other – it feels like being plugged into a spiritual socket entirely other than me, but yet immediate to me. It is unique. Were my religious experience simply physiological/biological/chemical, I would expect it to resemble (in broad genre, not in details) my other experiences – but it does not.
Not only does it feel completely different, but it has a different effect. As a Christian I have many failings, and though I strive hard to do good, I constantly fall. I increasingly realise as time goes on that ‘that good itself does not dwell in me, that is, in my sinful nature.’ (Romans 7:18, NIV). Yet when I turn to God, I feel a surge of strength, of love, of transformation, of hope, of faith, of everything good that I can never stir up within myself – and I know because I try. This strength comes not by striving, but by faith. This external-yet-immanent, genuinely transformative (in the inside not only the outside) sounds a lot like the power of God to me.
Combined together, I am faced with both an experience and a transformation unlike anything else I have known in this world – I therefore reject the notion that this is merely some internal emotion or inner resolve – to me the most rational conclusion is that it is the very power and love of the Holy Spirit.
But what about religious experiences claimed by individuals of other religions?
Muslims often point out that other religious groups make similar claims – for example, Hindus too claim to experience the divine, and this could be used as evidence for the truth of Hinduism.
Is this Muslim (yea also secular) critique valid? Do the competing claims cancel each other out? Not necessarily.
First of all, we must distinguish between for whom a personal encounter provides evidence. There are two possibilities: the person claiming the experience, and the enquirer.
The above Muslim critique works better from the perspective of an enquirer. The person asking questions of the Christian may be able to see no distinctions between the claim of a Christian and the claim of a Hindu. They would be justified in rejecting such an argument for why they should become Christian (or Hindu, for that matter).
Unless, of course, they find the transformed character/presence of God within the Christian/Christians to be beyond that of competing individuals of other religions – then they might be prompted to consider why the Christian(s), or Hindu(s), is different from individuals of other religious groups.
But even if to the outside observer there is no tangible distinction, can an appeal to religious experience justify the faith of the one claiming such experience? I would argue yes.
The common argument that religious believers from other religions have similar religious experiences is not only improvable, it may not even be true, if indeed God does bless one group of religious believers alone with genuine religious experiences. To stick to the first point, the individual religious believer (individual A) knows they have had a powerful, sometimes internally transformative, religious experience. Though others may claim the same (e.g. individual B), individual A does not know that individual B (of another religion) has had a religious experience so genuine, so intense, or so internally transformative as they have had.
I would argue the religious believer is justified in not discarding his/her own, powerful and transformative experience (see the first section of this article), which he/she knows he/she has had, based upon the claimed religious experience of another. Not only does individual A not know the honesty of individual B (though usually this would be granted), individual A does not know that the experience of individual B is as powerful, as unlike anything in the world, and as internally transformative. The issue is not therefore personal experience vs. human testimony – it is also the inability of humans to articulate and communicate precisely what they feel. A person who claims to be experiencing a 9 on the pain chart cannot claim to therefore have the same experience as another person experiencing 9 – a common label can be applied to two very different experiences (in this analogy based on pain tolerance) by different people).
Do (non-Sufi) Muslims claim the same experiences as Christians?
I honestly do not know the answer to this question. The Muslims I speak to do not claim a personal relationship with and to know the love of God in the way my Christian friends do. This is not to say my (non-Sufi) Muslims don’t claim this – it’s just I’ve never heard them. If you’re reading this and you do, please share your experiences below. Would you claim the kind of other-wordly-yet-immanent and internally-transformative experience I and other Christians do?
I know Muslims claim to be awed by the uniquely beautiful nature of the Qur’an – but would you count this as religious experience, or as a natural (rather than supernatural) exercise of the human aesthetic faculties?
Why I wrote this article
I do want to (and pray that I) convince you of the transforming nature of a relationship with God in Christ, and the amazing joy of the Holy Spirit living within you. But even if I do not do so, I hope at least you might consider this argument of mine for my faith (though not my only one by any means) to be reasonable, even if you reject it). As I said above, I understand that a claim to religious experience may rationally be rejected (by an outsider) – but the corollary is not that a claim to religious experience can rationally be made (by the one experiencing it).
Just to add a few things in light of the comments below (thank you for your comments, I’ve actually managed to reply to them all this time 🙂 ):
- I believe spirits must be tested (1 John), and they should never be believed if they contradict scripture.
- I do not solely believe in religious experience by any means – I believe also in more conventionally ‘rational arguments’, e.g. historicity of the resurrection of Jesus. This article was not meant to focus on those other approaches.
- Following on from the last point, religious experience should be weighed against the rational conclusions of the mind. A holistic conclusion should be reached.
- At least one of the comments below seems to point out that what I’m arguing in this article may not be helpful from a third person perspective in discerning between religions. I agree. This article was not meant to do that. I am trying to point out why I think an individual is justified to keep his faith based on religious experience, not use religious experience as a way to choose a new \/change one’s religion.