How powerful can it be to believe in something

Religious Experience -

A person has religious experience with his individual being and his specific biography in a certain situation of his life. And yet all the experiences described have something in common: in them, the boundaries of the everyday are broken. All of the experiences described are “disclosures”, development situations in which the size and depth of the world and people light up for a moment.

When people interpret this experience of the extraordinary in the ordinary with the help of religious views and categories, they speak of religious experience. In this context, religious studies speak of contrasting experiences in which for a moment the contrast between the ordinary and the extraordinary, between the profane and the sacred, between the secular and the sacred, becomes clear.

Depending on the cultural context, these religious experiences are experienced with different intensities. B. between transcendental experiences (transcendere = Latin "to exceed") in spiritual or mystical moments, being charismatic by religious powers and forces and absolute ecstasy (ecstasy = Greek "stepping out of oneself"), as dervishes, medicine men and shamans through can bring about certain rituals.

Characteristic features

According to Peter Biehl (note 1), however, all forms and levels of encounter with the extraordinary usually have the same characteristic features:

1. The borderline experience: The encounter takes place in moments of great existential density, i.e. when we experience joy and happiness, the beautiful and sublime, but also crises, suffering and death.

2. The development character: The encounter illuminates our reality anew and lets life appear "in a different light".

3. The nature of the event: the encounter with the extraordinary is unavailable, it is beyond human planning and calculation. We can prepare for it, but we cannot bring it about.

4. The chronological structure: The encounter has a dimension that points back to the past in the sense that such experiences place what we have experienced and suffered in a new, often meaningful context. And it has a future-oriented dimension in the sense that through the encounter we can find security, inspiration and courage for future life tasks.

5. The religious interpretation framework: The encounter requires reflection and interpretation in a reference system through which the experience can be symbolically interpreted and thus interpreted as religious. In this respect, religious groups and communities are required which, with their specific interpretation patterns, designate and identify the special, extraordinary experience of an individual group member as a religious one.

Religious experience in the Bible

To illustrate this, an example from the Bible: In chapter 9 of the Acts of the Apostles it is reported how the Pharisee Saul had an intense religious experience: This experience is so powerful that Saul can no longer see, eat or drink for three days. Finally, with the help of a Christian named Ananias, he succeeds in interpreting his experiences and returning to life. From now on he calls himself Paul. - Regardless of the question of the extent to which these descriptions of Luke as the author of the Acts of the Apostles correspond to the historical experiences of Saul (cf. Paul himself in 1 Cor 15, 8-10 and Gal 1, 15f.), The structural features of religious experience can be found in this tradition be made clear:

In the crisis of grappling with the Christian movement
(1st borderline experience) Saul experiences an extraordinary encounter, which allows the followers of Jesus and him as their persecutors to appear in a new light (2nd developmental character). This encounter hits him unexpectedly and unprepared (3rd unavailability). It gives his past as a law-abiding Pharisee a new meaning, as does his future, which he wants to shape from now on as the Apostle Paul
(4. Chronological structure). The actual religious meaning of his experience only becomes clear to him when a member of the Christian community - as a kind of representative of the relevant community of interpretation - helps him to understand what actually happened and how it can be understood (5th interpretation framework). What could be interpreted by a doctor or neurophysiologist as classic symptoms of a violent epilepsy attack is now assigned a religious meaning - here in the sense of an apparition of the sacred.

Spectacular and commonplace

We can calm down: religious experiences do not always have to be as spectacular as with the Pharisee Saul, who through them became the apostle Paul. For example, the “Tower Experience” of Martin Luther or the “Sicilian Experience” of John Henry Newman seem to have been much less dramatic. But all religious experiences are based on the same phenomenological structure. Because the encounter with the saint in a liturgical celebration, in an extraordinary experience of nature or in an exemplary person can be experienced as crisis, illuminating, unavailable, future-oriented and religiously symbolic.

Note 1 see Peter Biehl, Art. Experience, in: Lexikon der Religionspädagogik, ed. V. N. Mette and F. Rickers, Neu-kirchen-Vluyn 2001, Vol. I, 421-426.

Author (s): Clauß Peter Sajak