Recently (on the 26th June, 1969) in a theological discussion on television the subject was what was called "religious experience." This sounds ordinary enough and it was, for it left the subject quite inconclusive. No definition of "religious experience" was attempted. Instead, its meaning was taken for granted; yet the principle supposed instances of it that were cited were so remarkable that they instantly captured my attention. Usually "religious experience" is supposed to be something that occurs in the mind so vividly as to challenge, if not change, a person's whole attitude to life in general. Often the term used is "spiritual experience"; but in the usual confused thinking no distinction is made. Either is supposed to be an experience of a strictly personal nature and consequently incapable of being directly presented to others.
Only those who have had such an experience, or who think they have had it, can discuss this matter in a meaningful way; and I am not one of them, at any rate in the usual sense. I have, however, met people who make this claim; and invariably it has proved to be something that cannot be directly passed on to me. That is a perfectly understandable state of things, if, as is usually declared, the experience is strictly inward and personal.
Such matters are really not open to general discussion, as there is nothing definite about them that others can grasp mentally and so experience themselves. Consequently, at the start of the discussion, I awaited some examples with interest, and I was not disappointed; for not one of those put forward complied with the expectation aroused. They turned out to be the vision of the Apostle Paul an the Damascus road, the journey to Emmaus and he Transfiguration.
That set affords a characteristic and striking example of the confused sort of thinking which is generally called "the modern mind." On the surface, it seems to mean some thing; but when we attempt to analyse the concept it proves to be as intangible as a rainbow. The speakers all seemed to talk as if each of those alleged examples were the wholly personal experience of one individual only, special to that individual, and not events in any way at all. Yet when we come to consider the records of them we find that they all were events observed by more than one person, not purely subjective experience at all. On the Damascus road several people saw the light and heard the sound, even if only one, Saul, became aware of the actual message. In the other two, more than one person took part. Consequently, all three were real events and happenings in the everyday world, and certainly more than "religious experience" in the usual sense of the term.
However, that central aspect of the matter never came into view; nor, curiously enough, the question whether the accounts of these events were real history or mere fiction. All the significant issues were, as usual, quietly by-passed, with the result that the discussion became utterly uninteresting and sterile.
The truth about the discussion is that what is in these days called "religious experience" is itself pointless and sterile. If a person says he or she has seen and conversed with an angel or some individual named in Scripture, there is nothing one can usefully say or do about it. Even if it were true, it would be valueless as evidence, because no confirmation by a second witness is possible. Even if someone else were to claim to have had the same experience, his claim would not be legitimate evidence, because there is no way of testing whether it was actually the same in every respect.
A generation ago, "the evidence of religious experience" was much more talked about than it is now. Possibly mare people have come to perceive that there cannot be any "experience" unless something exists to be experienced, and a growing proportion of nominal Christians has came to the conclusion that there is nothing. So those who think in that way drop the shallow pretence, and satisfy themselves by believing what they want to believe, as do all heretics when they betray themselves to the observer. That is much less trouble than actually probing down into facts and thus sincerely seeking for truth. That is invariably so, for truth in spiritual matters is always extremely painful to those who prefer the soft bed of illusion. For themselves they are correct, because spiritual things are spiritually apprehended; and if a person is spiritually blind and deaf such apprehension is impossible. It can be accomplished only when the Holy Spirit elects to open the mind to spiritual things through the Word of God. Then, indeed, "spiritual experience" becomes a reality for them. But this sort of experience, being genuine and not illusion, can always be tested by reference to firm and permanent Authority—the Sacred Scriptures themselves! These are not open to change, and can be eluded only by ignoring them or by covering them up with the stains of tradition.
So it all comes round to the same old, unchanging truth that spiritual life, spiritual understanding, spiritual experience, come only through the one source on earth of all spiritual things, the Word of God. There is no other.
R.B.W. Last updated 28.6.2006