In my last post I provided general evidence that most religious experiences of God or the Ultimate are of a loving, good, or blissful Reality.
In today’s post I will look in more detail at the spectrum and history of religious experience to show how the vast majority of them support God’s benevolence. The reader should keep in mind the qualifications I made about this benevolence in my last post.
In my next post I will examine negative religious experiences that do not easily fit into this way of seeing things.
There are many ways one could categorize types of religious experience. In his essay on religious experience, Kai-Man Kwan lists eleven different types. He then lists thirteen types of specifically theistic experience.
The eleven categories are (summarized) as follows: 1) noetic experience of a theistic God; 2) ecstasy and peak experience; 3) near death experiences (NDEs); 4) experiences of good or evil spirits or departed saints; 5) experiences of the world as contingent and dependent on something beyond; 6) experiences of beauty and intricacy in the world as subjectively powerful indicators of design; 7) a spontaneous and powerful feeling that the universe and oneself are one; 8) a mystical state of consciousness without any intentional object and uncolored by any concepts (“pure consciousness event” (PCE)); 9) experiences of minor deities; 10) Hindu monistic mysticism; 11) Buddhist experience of Nirvana (Kwan in Craig and Moreland, 513).
It is debatable if Hindu and Buddhist unitive experiences are compatible with theism, per se (I think they are). But they are uniformly of a blissful Ultimate Reality.
At some stages in Buddhist progression in meditative discipline practitioners might have fragmented, terrifying experiences (for an example, see Malkovsky 116-17). But these are transient, surrounded by and giving way to more blissful and joyful ones.
Hindu religious experiences of some minor deities can be terrifying or oppressive/evil, but others are benevolent and so far as I can tell, the unitive ones with Brahman are virtually always described in positive terms of love and bliss.
“Peak” experiences are arguably often just a natural, physiological phenomenon. But they are, almost by definition, states of heightened “aliveness” and often goodness.
Intense states of seeming unity with nature are also almost uniformly states of heightened “aliveness,” goodness, and exquisite beauty. The same could be said of more peaceful and mundane perceptions of transcendent beauty, contingency, and design in nature.
Feelings of longing for something or somewhere more are generally good if “bittersweet” experiences (see Lewis 156-58). This first twinge as well as a more advanced stage of longing separation from the Beloved before final unification with it are associated with mysticism, which is widely characterized by perceptions of divine love.
Pure consciousness events (PCE) that seem to have no intentional object are (at the very least) neutral. But, these experiences seem to be typically perceived as positive and deeply meaningful.
Ostensible spirits that are encountered range from good to bad to in-between. But good spirits could be good angels or a theophany from a good God. The same could be said about experiences of minor deities. From a theistic perspective, they could be good or bad angels experienced as minor deities based on preconceptions (or deception). Or, possibly, they could be a theophany of a good God.
While some traditional religions are open to either good or bad spirits/deities, so long as they can access their power; some seek only good spirits and/or power for benevolent ends.
Although there are negative near death experiences (see next post) and some features of NDEs more generally raise questions about their veracity, most are a of a loving Being full of light and moral concern.
Rudolph Otto has written about the cross-cultural experience of the Sacred as one of “mysterium tremendum et fascinans“—that is, as one of “otherness” that is at once fearful and gloriously fascinating. Otto placed a strong emphasis on the transcendent and fearful aspects of these experiences of the Sacred. But he also saw it as bearing a vivifying and attractive quality and being able to be experienced beneficently (e.g. as loving, merciful, joyous, etc.) – particularly in later, more developed religions. (Otto, 31-40).
In my next post I will write about negative religious experiences. I think some fearful religious experiences are either not truly from God or are misinterpreted because of toxic cultural preconceptions. However, as I wrote in my last post, in my view God’s dominant disposition of love is not incapable with him also being holy, immense, and just. C. S. Lewis’ picture of God in “The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe” as profoundly good, but not tame/safe gets the balance right.
Many religious experiences include a sense of unconditional acceptance and love. But others include a holy unsettling and conviction of sin. Virtually all prompt the participant to be transformed toward more fully living out the Love they encountered.
Let’s look more at theistic religious experience, specifically. I think most experiences where people feel God’s presence in a real way are experiences of profound goodness. To illustrate this, I will refer to Kwan’s thirteen types of theistic experience and show how each one tends toward perceptions of divine benevolence.
Borrowing from Otto, Kwan first lists experiencs of God as numinous; that is, as an awesome, majestic, even fearful Other; but also as vivifying and strangely attractive. I think my discussion of Otto above shows that there is much room here for God’s love and goodness.
Second, Kwan lists theistic mysticism which he (following most experts on mysticism) characterizes as a “love mysticism” accompanied by love, joy, bliss, and a progressive sense of union with God (Kwan in Craig and Moreland, 516).
Third, Kwan lists a more commonplace intuitive awareness of God’s presence. He explains that such an awareness is usually “fused with a feeling of calm assurance and peace” (ibid., 516).
Fourth, Kwan lists experiences of God as a personal “Thou” (presumably drawing from Martin Buber). These experiences are “fused with characteristic emotions which accompany personal interaction (e.g. warmth, gratitude, joy of communication, sense of being personally addressed).” (ibid., 516).
Fifth, Kwan lists conviction of sin and profound experiences of forgiveness and reconciliation with God.
As I’ve said, I think God’s goodness certainly includes moral judgment and conviction of sin. However, there is clear evidence that people can feel guilt over things that are clearly not wrong (from any perspective) and an oppressive sense of shame and terror that I do not see as reconcilable with a good God. There is good evidence that oppressive, ignorant, or legalistic cultural norms and/or ideas about God can have a strong affect on people.
In any case, whether in genuine forgiveness or God’s love breaking through artificial obstructions created by ourselves; experiences of God’s grace are characterized by intense relief, peace of forgiveness, and the joy of liberation (ibid., 516).
Sixth, Kwan lists experiences of personal growth in God. As noted in my second post on religious experience, religious realists use moral and spiritual transformation as a test of genuine religious experience. In most traditions such transformation is understood to be one from selfishness toward love and compassion toward others and devotion toward the Ultimate (Hick, 299-315). Kwan lists, “heightened sensitivity to people and moral values, a revitalized conscience, a greater concern for people and willingness to sacrifice” as examples of such growth (Kwan in Craig and Moreland, 516-17).
Seventh, Kwan lists experiences of being baptized in the Spirit. Under this category he also includes speaking in tongues. Quoting D. Dorr, Kwan explains such an experience as “an overwhelming sense of being set free from sinful selfishness…deep interior peace…the gift of tongues” (ibid., 517). Lee, Poloma, and Post also narrate such intense experiences as being love saturated (47-50).
There is reason to approach tongues with caution as well as renounce abuses of the practice. But it seems to me that in at least some cases, God uses it to truly meet people and transform them. Whatever the case, both tongues and baptism in the Spirit more generally also suggest God’s love, bliss, and goodness.
Eighth, Kwan lists conversion experiences. Kwan sees overlap between these and other types of theistic experience. Conversion experiences are most marked by the dramatic and sudden change they bring. William James’ characterization and examples of conversion experiences emphasize their positive qualities (James, 150-70). Most other examples I know of also strike the participants as profoundly good.
Ninth, Kwan lists corporate theistic experiences. That is, purported religious experiences by multiple people in community. Kwan lists corporate worship and prayer as examples. In that these experiences are most likely recognized in moments of extraordinary unity, ecstasy, peace, and other positive developments; this kind of experience also fits with God being primarily loving, good, or blissful.
Tenth, Kwan lists theistic experiences that are mediated through other more mundane kinds of experience such as “experiences of nature, art, conscience, fellowship with others, and saintliness of others” (ibid., 517). Both my own experiences here and most others I’ve read or heard about are ones of sublime beauty, peace, connectedness, and joy.
Eleventh, Kwan lists experiences of God that seem to come to the participant through a sensory experience (e.g. visions, auditions, dreams, stigmata) (Kwan in Craig and Moreland, 518).
It seems to me that these can be either good or bad; possibly truthful or demonstrably false. We will look in my next post at some examples of bad sensory religious experience that people have taken to be from God. But for our purposes here it is worth noting that many of them seem to testify to God’s love, bliss, and goodness.
Twelfth, Kwan lists interpretive theistic religious experiences. It seems to me that there is significant overlap between this category and that of mediated theistic experience. Kwan describes interpretive experiences as “a spontaneous interpretation of an event as God’s action or message but the event can be clearly described without using religious concepts” (ibid, 518).
Like sensory experiences, these seem to include both good and bad experiences and good and bad interpretations. For example, someone could interpret sickness or a natural disaster as God’s judgment, and that might not actually be true. Our interpretation of events will be colored to some extend by the preconceptions we bring into them (both good and bad). And these in turn are influenced by our culture and environment.
That said, many interpretive theistic experiences also suggest God’s love, bliss, and goodness. Kwan lists answers to prayer, guidance, miracles, healing, and tongues as examples (ibid., 518).
Thirteenth and last, Kwan lists an intuitive intellectual apprehension of God in which all feelings and phenomenal content is absent. As the theistic equivalent of Kwan’s “pure consciousness event” (PCE) from above, such experiences are neutral (at the very least) but seem to be typically perceived as positive and deeply meaningful.
Implicit in Kwan’s categories are the means (prayer, meditation, spiritual disciplines, etc.) and places (nature, places of worship, loving community, etc.) in which people tend to perceive God. I think that the breadth, depth, and (general) consistency of these benevolent impressions is striking.
Before going on to consider religious experiences that don’t seem as good in my next post, let me here address the issue of historical sweep. Some people might argue that contemporary experiences of God that seem benevolent or benign simply mirror modern views of God which strip him of his awesome fearfulness. Naturalists might make this argument, but even many conservative believers do as well.
For example, in my own Christian tradition conservative theologians often compare firsthand accounts of benevolent religious experiences and see them as not measuring up to the awesome, unnerving, and even wrathful encounters with God chronicled in the Bible. But there are good reasons to see normative love, goodness, or bliss as more than just a modern phenomena.
The Buddha’s experience of enlightenment (c. 6th century BCE) was one of joyful bliss.
The theistic experience of Guru Nanak, founder of Sikhism (c. 16th century CE), was one of ecstatic beauty and love.
Zarathustra, the founder of Zoroastrianism (c. 12th century BCE), experienced his call when he purportedly encountered a heavenly realm of shining beings characterized by wisdom, justice, and good intention (Armstrong, 8).
Ancient Taoists describe mystical experiences of the Tao as joyous and full of colors (Fiesler and Powers, 178).
The heightened Hindu experiences of identity with Brahman described in ancient sources such as Mundaka Upanishad or by important leaders such as Shankara (c. 8th century CE) were ones of love and bliss. The same could be said about the Bhakti movement and some other streams within Hindu spirituality.
Jesus seems to have been a mystic of sorts. He reported encountering evil spirits and he believed that God was an apocalyptic judge. Nevertheless, his view of God seemed to be primarily benevolent. And the benevolent parts of his view of God seem the most connected to his direct religious experience of God (as well as similar experiences common to mystics more generally).
For example, in the vision at his baptism, he heard God say “this is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased” and saw God’s Spirit descend on him in the form of a dove – a symbol of peace and hope in the Bible. The Gospels indicate in other places too that Jesus saw himself and his Father as united and lovingly related to one another. Like other mystics, he seems to have seen God’s hand in nature and inferred from it the Father’s gracious intentions toward all – righteous and wicked alike – and his loving care for his creatures.
There are many other aspects of Jesus’ view of God and His mission that show God’s love predominating. And there are a range of reasons to see this as directly related to his religious experience of God (see Borg, 109-36).
The Psalmist’s evident firsthand experiences of God were of a loving, forgiving, saving deity.
Because of historical-critical problems with the Hebrew Bible, it is hard to know how many of the visions and other such purported encounters with God are based on genuine remembrance, and in what context, if any, they actually occurred. I will say a little more about these problems and evidence that undercuts harsh views of God from the Bible in a future post on miracles.
As I said in my last post, divine goodness is not incompatible with awesomess, overwhelming glory, or moral purity and judgment. But I think it is inconsistent with a feeling of persistent oppressiveness and with supposed calls to unjust violence.
As I noted above, people’s religious encounters with the divine are at least partly structured and colored by their preconceived notions about it. In a violent culture where earthy rulers were often tyrannical and where many saw God as the direct cause of both good and evil circumstances, it would be natural to be terrified at meeting such an awesome, overpowering, “kingly” Being. This insight could also have relevance toward Islam (see below).
It is interesting that when God or an angel appear to people in the Bible they tend to begin by saying “fear not.” Even today, even in experiences more sharply characterized by love, people often feel overwhelmed by the immensity of God.
It is also possible that some encounters where misinterpreted (or misremembered). For example, Wall ponders the possibility that Samuel heard God speak in a general way about his judgment on the wicked and Samuel himself translated that into a specific call for revenge on the Amalekites (Wall, 276). Also, some “encounters” could have been purely fabricated as a rhetorical pretext for oppressive or violent teaching.
There are elements of Muhammad’s religious experiences that seem less than benevolent. His first purported encounter with the angel Jibril (Gabriel) was one of being overwhelmed by an outside power. He reportedly first presumed that he was going crazy or was being harassed by evil spirits. Later, in moments of alleged revelation, he was reported to sweat and seemed to be in pain. Some of Muhammad’s actions and alleged revelations also strike me (and many others) as far from perfect.
That said, God as revealed in the Qur’an is predominately gracious and merciful. Undoubtedly the Qur’an’s social ethic was progressive for its day – in many ways emphasizing mercy, compassion, and equality. Muhammad seems to have had many good traits such as honesty, forbearance, and mercy.
Certain passages in the Qur’an – for example, ones that glory in the wonders of God’s creation or one that speaks of God being closer to the believer than their own jugular vein – seem to fit a benevolent sort of mysticism. Interestingly, accounts of Muhammad’s mystical Night Journey seem to show an accommodating God who is willing to lower prayer requirements to make them easier to observe for ordinary humans.
Whatever one makes of Muhammad’s own religious experiences, many Muslims throughout history have had vivid experiences of God’s love, beauty, and grace. One need only mention the Sufi movement, with roots going back at least to the 9th century (and probably earlier).
Again, as I mentioned in my last post, this is not to say that all of these experiences are necessarily trustworthy or of the same Entity. Rather it is to show that 1) benevolent religious experiences of God or the Ultimate go back to ancient times and 2) (more controversially) they arguably played a central role in the founding of many of the world’s great religions.
In my next post I will consider a range of negative religious experiences and to what extent, if any, they are compatible with love as God’s primary attribute.