RCIA Presentations

1. Religious experience



As far back as our records go, people who experienced the sea have been moved with a profound reverence for what they have experienced and have found ways of worshipping the ‘god’ of the sea. The name given to the sea-god varies from language to language. The experience, too, varies. Sometimes the aspect of power dominates. Sometimes it is the amazing variety of moods that has captured people’s imagination. Sometimes fear seems to play a huge role, and sometimes faith is put in magical rituals and rites that are believed to win the favour and avert the anger of the powerful sea-god. Peoples channel their experience into hundreds of different understandings and practices, but I suspect that there is one fundamental experience that lies at the basis of the various religious responses, and it is a sense of communion that people experience. In ways that are too profound for understanding, we sense that there is a connection between us and the sea: that somehow we belong to each other. When we experience the various moods of the sea, we experience the various moods of our own heart. Tragically, human frailty, including hunger for security and power, can obscure this primal experience of communion, and the religions of the world witness to dreadful human behaviour done in the name of worshipping the sea-god. However, if we can abstract from these, I suspect that believing in the sea-god, by whatever name, is acknowledging a profound sense of wonder and awe, and, even more importantly, an experience of communion.

Parallels can be drawn with people’s experience of a grove of trees, a spring, a mountain, a storm, light and darkness, birth and death, bird and animal life, the seasons, the many and varied harvests, mother, father, sexual union, childbirth, dancing, music, painting and the myriad human experiences that have given rise to worship. Since there is no obvious connection between the sea and a grove of trees, throughout human history the norm has been polytheism. People have had their favourite ‘god’, but have sensed in various ways a communion with the mysterious, awe-inspiring, ‘gods’(divine presences) in all their experiences.


Some people, and consequently some cultures, have come close to monotheism, close, that is, to the amazing insight that the mysterious divine presence with whom they experience a profound communion is the one ‘God’ present and revealed in different ways in all the varied experiences indicated in the previous two paragraphs. Ancient Judaism is sometimes spoken of as a monotheistic religion, and there are indications of a gradual movement towards monotheism. However, their writings give no evidence of the kind of profound respect for other peoples that is surely essential to genuine monotheism. If one genuinely believes that it is the one God who is at the heart of, and is expressed and revealed through, everything, then one would not disrespect others just because they are different from ‘us’. We would still have to deal with error – our own and other people’s, but surely monotheism includes the insight that everything is fundamentally an expression of the one Source and so is fundamentally sacred. The failings of classic Judaism can be seen in the behaviour of others who claim to be monotheistic, including among the followers of Jesus of Nazareth, or Muhammad.

At the same time, history is full of genuine monotheists who have recognised that the communion which they experience at the heart of their varied experiences is with the one sacred Presence who is at the heart of and at the same time transcends everything. An outstanding example is Jesus of Nazareth who refused to live within the limited thinking and practice of the religion of his contemporaries, and who gave expression to his communion with God in a life of love that was all-embracing. Those among Jesus’ followers who have grown to share Jesus’ experience have done the same.

In the light of Jesus’ example, perhaps we could answer the question posed here by saying that, for a true monotheist, to believe in God is to believe that everything belongs to everything else, because everything that exists is held in existence by the one Source and is part of an explosion of love radiating from this Source and revealing different aspects of the Source. If we use the word ‘grace’ for the action of this Source, to believe in God is to believe that grace acts like gravity, drawing everything to everything else. Paradoxically, grace is also experienced as a centripetal force drawing everything into the beyond – into communion with this Source who is immanent in creation but who transcends it, who is, in the words of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, ‘the heart and the beyond of everything’. To believe in God is to believe that genuine religious experience is the experience of being drawn into communion with everything that exists in such a way as to be drawn through everything and beyond everything into communion with the One who is the Source of everything that exists – into communion with the Source, one name for which is ‘God’.

Variety of Religious Experiences

The wide range of religious experiences is affirmed by the sacred scriptures of all the major religions of the world in whatever way they conceive the ultimately Real to be. It is affirmed by the Vedas and the Upanishads, the sayings of K’ung-fu-tzu (Confucius), Lao Tzu and Gautama the Buddha, by the oracles of the Hebrew prophets, the New Testament and the Qur’an. It is of this that the mystics of all cultures speak, as do the poets and artists and lovers of our world. Paul hints at this in his speech at Athens: ‘From one (probably meaning ‘one source’ and referring to God) God made all nations to inhabit the whole earth … so that they would search for God, even grope for God, and find God – though indeed God is not far from any of us.’ Paul goes on to quote from Epimenedes, a sixth century BC poet from Crete: ‘For in him we move and live and have our being’(Acts 17:26-28; quoted n. 28 of the Catechism).

There are as many examples of religious experience as there are people who have longed for love. These experiences have found expression in inspired music, inspired painting, inspired poetry and inspired action: the ordinary inspired action of loving that every mother, father, aunt, uncle, teacher and nurse knows in his or her daily life. Every time we are genuinely in contact with religious experience, analyse it accurately and express our insights truthfully, we expand, refine and correct the concepts that attempt to give precision to the notion of God with which we begin our questioning.

In the history of humankind, people have always looked towards those whose lives have been particularly free from the distractions that lead to sin and whose religious sensitivity led them to an attractive wisdom. Every people has its saints, its wise men and women who have been especially sensitive to the inspiration of the ‘spirit of God’, and who have responded creatively and often heroically to this inspiration, living lives that have mediated God in a wonderful way to others. They have been a ‘word of God’ to their contemporaries, connecting them in a remarkable way with life, connecting them with God.

The Numinous and the Mystical

All major religious movements must have achieved a degree of harmony to have appealed for so long to so many people. But some religions concentrate on the revelation of the transcendent God that is mediated through nature and history. This is called the ‘numinous’ dimension of religious experience (from the Latin ‘nuo’, meaning ‘to nod’). The divine presence and the divine will (the divine ‘nod’) are revealed through nature and history. Such religions have high regard for the prophetic for they treasure the words received from those who are judged to have been especially sensitive to the divine presence. Obedience and submission to God’s will are of central importance. Notable examples of such religions are Judaism and Islam.

Other religions concentrate on the revelation of the transcendent God that is mediated through the movements of a person’s mind and heart. This is called the ‘mystical’ dimension of religious experience, for the focus is on an inner enlightenment and transformation that cannot be adequately expressed, and remains ‘mysterious’. Some religions give priority to this inner enlightenment. Notable examples are Hinduism and Buddhism.

On the one hand, Christianity is like Judaism and Islam in that it takes the world and its history seriously, recognising that God is present in the world speaking his word to us through nature and through the events of our life. To encounter God we must listen humbly and at depth to God’s ‘word’ speaking to us from the heart of creation and in the events of our history. Christianity sees Jesus as God’s focal word. Listening to him we are able to avoid distraction and get to the heart of God’s self-communication, for in him God’s word is made flesh (John 1:13).

On the other hand, Christianity is like Hinduism and Buddhism in that its focus is on the heart. Jesus is the one who has and gives the Spirit of God without reserve (John 3:34), a Spirit that he shares with his disciples, enabling us to experience in our hearts the enlightenment and transformation that is the fruit of divine communion. As Paul writes to the Romans: ‘God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us”(Romans 5:5). In Jesus the numinous and the mystical come together. Authentic Christianity does not neglect or consider as illusory either the outer ‘word’ or the inner ‘spirit’.

For Christians, God remains transcendent, so we need to be attentive to the way in which he is revealed to us in the world, and especially in Jesus (God’s ‘Word’). As in Judaism and Islam, obedience is basic. The Christian, however, is also invited to enjoy the wonderful indwelling of God revealed in Jesus and experienced as we are drawn by grace to share in his intimate communion with God. As in Hinduism and Buddhism, enlightenment, inner transformation and communion are essential dimension of religious living. We find both these elements in the opening words of John’s First Letter: ‘Something which has existed since the beginning, that we have heard and have seen with our own eyes; that we have watched and touched with our hands: the word who is life - this is our subject. That life was made visible: we saw it and we are giving our testimony, telling you of the eternal life which was with the Father and has been seen by us. What we have seen and heard we are telling you so that you too may be in union with us, as we are in union with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ. We are writing this to you to make our own joy complete.’

Jesus: the revelation of God

All this points to the need for constant correction and purification of our concepts of God. Christian tradition does this by focusing on the person and the life of Jesus, drawing on the experience of his contemporaries, who found in him a perfect human expression of God. Their experience has been re-affirmed by the countless millions of those since who have looked to Jesus, and committed themselves to live as his disciples. They have found him to be indeed the ‘Way’ (John 14:6): the way to connect with their deepest yearnings, and the way to connect with God. Reflection on the person, life and significance of Jesus has been for Christians the richest source for their reflections on the meaning of God, and so for their reflections on the meaning of human experience.