In an attempt to understand the human condition, one of the areas of study, particularly in psychology, is personality types. This endeavor has been going on for millennia. We have Hippocrates (460 – c.370 BCE) with the four humours, Plato (circa 348/347 BCE) suggested a classification of four personality types or factors: artistic (iconic), sensible (pistic), intuitive (noetic), and reasoning (dianoetic), and the four temperaments in Galen (129 AD – c. 200 AD ). More recently popular models include the Meyers Briggs model, Big Five personality traits, Type A – Type B, and the popularized “Men are from Mars, and Women are from Venus”. The bottom line is that each of us has a somewhat unique set of biological factors, as well as cultural and personal histories. Those factors have shaped our choices, inclinations, and personality to make us who we are. So, what does this have to do with religious experience/religious intuition? I think a lot.
What’s It Like?
Religious experiences or what could also be called meta-experiences are often understood as some dramatic, over-the-top experiences. This is understandable considering how religious experience has been talked about in the literature and from personal anecdotes. William James in his landmark book “Varieties of Religious Experience” describes very strikingly, unusual experiences. Theologian Rudolf Otto in “The Idea of Holy” says these experiences invoke a mysterium tremendum — fear and trembling. Many other accounts in the literature also reflect this notion that religious experiences represent a dramatic departure from our normal experiences. Then, we have the anecdotes from mystics throughout the ages who describe experiences as ineffable and beyond reach through normal sensibilities. The list goes on and on, including the dramatic portrayals as demonstrated within charismatic religious groups.
What might be inferred from these characterizations is that for those who do not have these dramatic experiences, they may wonder if there is some deficit within them — something is missing or they just don’t get it. I recall just such a sentiment from a woman in a discussion group who lamented that she had never had a religious experience. My guess is that she was expecting that over-the-top experience and didn’t think she’d had one. Although I have had a theistic sensibility all my life, I thought, well, I haven’t had an over-the-top experience either. My experiences have been more muted and subtle but still influencing. Perhaps that reflects my personality type. All experiences manifest themselves within the context of the person — their biological and psychological makeup as well as personal and cultural history. So, if we all are unique and religious experiences don’t necessarily have to be so striking, then how might we consider them?
This brings me to the question of what to consider a religious experience. I think the common idea that a religious experience must be something vastly different from ordinary experiences is wrongheaded and unfortunate. Meta experiences certainly can be that way, but as unique individuals, we relate to our experiences differently. For some, participating in a charismatic gospel service invokes strong emotions that could be considered a religious experience. Mystics report their experiences that for most of us seem foreign. Even regular folk can have dramatic experiences that have a profound impact on them. So, what about the rest of us who with our own unique personality don’t seem to have these one-off, over-the-top experiences? Are we somehow deficient in that realm? I don’t think so.
First, let’s examine what might be considered a religious/meta experience. What do I mean by “meta”? I’m using this term in a similar sense to that in metaphysics. There have been many uses of the term in metaphysics over the centuries but here, to put it simply, I mean the “something more”. We go about our everyday lives and perceive life as it typically presents itself. For the most part, this could be rather mundane. There may be heightened events that occur from time to time but they remain just a part of life as we typically experience it. Sometimes, however, we may have an experience that just doesn’t seem to fit in with these typical experiences. This need not be something over-the-top but still somehow unique in the grand scheme of things. They could come about in the normal course of life but they strike us differently than with normal events. It might occur when out in nature — pondering the beautiful night sky or the rhythmic breaking of the waves on the beach. Perhaps a piece of music or art evokes this experience. Or, it could be the elegance of a mathematical proof or finding something beautiful in a scientific theory. More personal experiences could include seeing your child for the first time in a hospital nursery or the embrace of a friend when you are feeling troubled. These happen to us as individuals, each with our own personality type, predispositions, and history. They occur within that context and may be very different from those of others.
Now, these events may occur within the normal course of life but there is something special about them. They seem profound in some way. They may be subtle and nuanced instead of dramatic, but there is something unique about them. Some might just chalk these up to the unremarkable firings of the neurons in the brain but perhaps they do feel remarkable.
Could these types of experience, no matter how subtle or non-dramatic, be considered religious experiences? To answer that I would pose the question: are they meta-suggestive. Do they suggest something about the “something more” in life — something profound and deep? If so, then I think they could be considered religious or meta experiences.
However, what they suggest can vary widely. Since they can occur within many contexts, what is suggested can also depend on the context. Theologian Paul Tillich said that anything could be transparent to the divine. Perhaps you are an art lover, a philosopher, a factory worker, a scientist, a business person, a musician, a custodian, a mother or father, a priest, and on and on. No matter your situation there could be moments when within that context an experience becomes meta-suggestive. It suggests something to you about reality in its depth.
These meta-experiences are just that — experiences. In the philosophy of mind, these are called phenomenal experiences — the “what it’s like to have them”. When we see a color or smell a rose there is something it is like to have those experiences. What does “what it’s like” mean? This is notoriously difficult to describe as has been discussed often in the philosophical literature. However, we have those experiences and they make an impression on us. For meta-experiences “the like” might be beauty-itself, unity, grace, vitality, elegance, power, peace, awe, and on and on. Here again, the “what it’s like” comes to us as individuals with our own unique context of who we are, our history, and culture.
However, I also think it is important to say that meta-experiences aren’t necessarily always positive or uplifting in tone or feeling. Often they are, but not always. The mystics talk about the dark night of the soul. Or the “not-self” experience of meditators that may be disturbing. When we see or experience evil those can also be experiences that are meta-suggestive but also disturbing or negative in nature. A meta-experience speaks to the full range of how reality is constituted. This world is a mixture of good and evil and that mixture also speaks to what the “something more” is about. I talk about this in the essay “The Problem of Evil“.
So, we have these meta-what-it’s-like experiences but what do they mean? They make an impression on us but the question is can they be incorporated into a worldview that informs us about our life and its decisions? This is where, I think, religious intuition can come in.
Instead of meta-experiences just “sitting there” perhaps they can be integrated into our worldview. Philosopher Michael Polanyi wrote about intuitions in his book, “The Tacit Mode”. There he talks about “knowing more than we can say”. We have intuitions all the time. They are a “gut” sense or feeling about something that isn’t well definite or analyzed but does help us navigate life quickly. They are born from the totality of our experiences in life. Often our intuitions turn out to be right, but sometimes they are wrong, resulting in unfortunate consequences. With the successes and failures, they become informed. They are adjusted as time goes on, just as we adjust ourselves based on our experiences and learning about the world and how it works. I think this can also apply to religious/meta intuitions. We have meta-experiences that feed into the breath of our other experiences and knowledge. So, religious/meta intuitions can also change over time as we experience more of life and integrate those experiences into everything else within us. Now, this doesn’t necessarily mean these intuitions find their way into a happy alliance with the full breadth of our experience and knowledge. Often there can be conflicting knowledge and intuitions. For instance, if we have an intuition that we have free will, does that conflict with our thinking on how reality is constituted? At times does the universe seem meaningless in contradiction to an intuition that life has some deep meaning? Does the presence of evil conflict with an intuition that the “something more” cares about us all? All these conflicts can prompt a reevaluation of our intuitions or thinking. Forming a deep sense about reality is a process that goes on for a lifetime.
The question is, what do they tell us? Do those experiences and our feelings about them have a powerful impact on us, even if subtle? How do they make us feel about the universe, our place in it, and its foundations? Is there a profound meaning to our lives and the world or not? Is this reality beneficient with some caring purpose playing out, or not? These are questions each of us can ask. The answers may also change over time. As we experience the world, ourselves, and others our sense of things will also change. If we long for some deep meaning to life then perhaps we can take a spiritual journey to discover, learn, feel, and think about things more deeply. Our religious experiences and religious intuitions can inform this journey.