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What's a Religious Experience?

Despite a belief in the supernatural being ever-present among Americans, the unknown remains a topic we rarely discuss.
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(Photo: Cococinema/Shutterstock)

(Photo: Cococinema/Shutterstock)

A 17-year-old goes walking before dawn in Lone Pine, California. It is the summer of 1959, and she has been restless and sleepless for two nights. “At some point in my predawn walk,” she recounts years later, “not at the top of a hill or the exact moment of sunrise, but in its own good time—the world flamed into life.”

The girl is the journalist and political activist Barbara Ehrenreich, and she is recounting her experiences in a new book, Living With a Wild God: A Nonbeliever’s Search for the Truth About Everything. As the title suggests, Ehrenreich insists that her experience as a teenager was not religious, meaning readers should understand that much more weight is placed on “nonbeliever” than “God.”

There is so much beauty and mystery and terror hidden in the statistics surrounding our belief in the supernatural. Hopefully, Barbara Ehrenreich has made speaking of such experiences more "respectable."

After describing the world aflame in Lone Pine, she writes: “there were no visions, no prophetic voices or visits by totemic animals, just this blazing everywhere.” Even the language of mysticism, she makes clear in the book’s preface, is “a vocabulary and framework foreign to [her], if not actually repulsive.” A committed atheist, Ehrenreich labors to reconcile these experiences with her convictions that they are not religious.

And yet, the most comfortable way of understanding them is through religious terms. Ehrenreich herself compares what happened to her as a teenager to the “burning bush,” one of those definitive encounters with the holy that fueled the biblical prophets. In that way, Ehrenreich’s encounter with the blazing world resembles the beliefs and experiences of a majority of Americans.

Religious experiences of the kind she describes are integral to the beliefs of many. The 2007 Pew survey of the American religious landscape found that 79 percent of adults believe that miracles occur today just as they did in the past and that 68 percent believe angels and demons are still active in the world. Our belief in the supernatural isn’t just historical; it’s active and contemporary.

Ehrenreich’s wrestling with such an experience and her acrobatic attempt to account for it with neuroscience contrasts with the easy acceptance of such mystical encounters by many believers. Anthropologist Tanya Luhrmann cataloged this sort of acceptance in her remarkable book When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship With God.

Through four years of interviews with members of the Vineyard Christian Fellowship in Chicago and Palo Alto, California, she assembles pages and pages of direct, personal encounters with the holy. Sometimes God comes to Vineyard members as goose bumps or a feeling of warmth; other times Jesus shows up on their television or speaks to them in the grocery store. One woman insists that God sent a bird to poop on her in a parking lot.

Numinous experience, it seems, isn’t always beautiful, but it is bountiful. From Luhrmann’s anecdotal evidence and the sorts of data routinely gathered by surveys like those of Pew, there are many, many Americans who believe they encounter the holy in their everyday lives. Indeed, by the end of her book, however antagonistic she remains to a religious explanation of her experience, Ehrenreich writes: “It took an inexcusably long time for me to figure out that what happened to me when I was seventeen represents a widespread, if not exactly respectable, category of human experience.”

That word “respectable” is one that pains me. It is that very word that kept Ehrenreich silent about her experiences for more than five decades. While our culture is obsessed with mystics and saints, we seem only to tolerate them centuries after the fact, and even then we excise their teachings and wisdom from its explicitly religious contexts.

It may be that the believers at Vineyard are right and their encounters are with the holy, or that Ehrenreich is right and her experiences were only a different kind of consciousness. Whichever understanding you accept or explanation you seek, we all benefit from acknowledging these uncanny, otherworldly experiences. To speak of them helps not only the scientists who might register them on a brain scanner but also the pastor who might connect them with historical patterns of belief.

If the majority of Americans have such experiences, then why, as Ehrenreich writes, are they not considered “respectable?” When I served as a hospital chaplain many patients, of all faiths and no faith at all, used to tell me these sorts of stories every day. We talked about them the way most people talk about the weather. Those were cherished months for me, when it seemed that there was the opportunity for everyone and anyone to acknowledge how deeply mysterious much of life is.

There is so much beauty and mystery and terror hidden in the statistics surrounding our belief in the supernatural. Hopefully, Barbara Ehrenreich has made speaking of such experiences more “respectable.” These shouldn’t be stories we save for five decades or confess only from our deathbeds, but rather complexities of human experience that we welcome as often as they occur.