1. Introduction to the Mystical Experiences of Jesus
As a religious experience researcher for the past 20 years, I have long asserted that the religious /transpersonal /mystical experiences of Jesus related in the New Testament Gospels were no different than those of the rest of us, except in degree. While most of us feel blessed to have received the light of a lone “candle” and others describe a more impressive “incandescent bulb,” Jesus perceived a “beacon!” The most consistent finding to know about all religious experiences is that they change people’s lives.
Modern scholarship has devised some methods to separate myth from reality regarding Jesus. In The Five Gospels and Acts of Jesus, the Jesus Seminar attempted to uncover what is authentic about Jesus, including his mystical experiences and healings, as well as the visionary experiences of him following his death. Throughout this paper, I will site their conclusions to provide a current theological perspective.
2. Religious Experience and Aftermath
There are two ways to sound profound about God. One is to study religion, and the other is to have a religious experience. Jesus would have learned something of Hebrew Scripture during his Jewish childhood; later, he witnessed the inspired preaching of John the Baptist. But this secondary kind of knowledge paled in comparison to what must have been a profound spiritual experience of God that transformed his own life and, unknowingly, affected the course of history for the next 2000 years! The Jesus Seminar members were skeptical that Jesus’ primary religious experience occurred at his baptism by John, but they did acknowledge that Jesus, “had visionary experiences on occasion” and they did not rule out the possibility that his “baptismal experience involved a vision of some kind.”
The Alister Hardy Religious Experience Research Centre (RERC) files contain ample evidence of the life-changing effects of religious experience. For example, in The Spiritual Nature of Man, Sir Alister Hardy sites the life-changing effects of Rev. Leslie Weatherhead‘s religious experience at age 19 that sealed his commitment to a life in ministry (case 385). Neuropsychiatrist Richard Bucke had a profound spiritual experience at age 35 which led him to research and write a major book on mystical experience, Cosmic Consciousness. Additionally, Bucke continued the path of service, becoming the head of a psychiatric hospital in London, Ontario, Canada. Mary Austin was a prolific author of the late 19th and early 20th centuries who wrote about the plight of women and American Indians. In her book Experiences Facing Death, she not only describes her spiritual experience of the presence of God at age 5 or 6, but also that it was “the one abiding reality” of her life and that she would recall it throughout her life as a source of comfort.
In An Introduction to Religious and Spiritual Experience, Marianne Rankin tells the story of St. Thomas Aquinas who stopped writing theology altogether following his profound mystical experience:
“He proclaimed his theology mere straw in comparison to what had been revealed to him.”
When people have a profound spiritual experience, they characteristically require some time to process its meaning and implications. The Gospels tell us that Jesus went into the wilderness for 40 days (which is “Bible talk” for “a long time”). Following his spiritual experience of Jesus, St. Paul spent three years in reflection before deciding how his life’s work should proceed (Galatians 1:18). In his book, The Power of Now, modern-day mystic Eckhart Tolle tells that after his spiritual experience:
“For the next five months, I lived in a state of uninterrupted deep peace and bliss … I knew, of course, that something profoundly significant had happened to me, but I didn’t understand it at all.”
He goes on to tell how it took years of reflection and study to make sense of it.
Religious experiences are usually positive, but many are not. Jesus must quote Scripture to counter the proposals of Satan (Matthew 4:1-11). The Jesus Seminar was evenly divided as to whether Jesus was tested in the wilderness. Nevertheless, 4% of the first 3,000 cases gathered by the RERC were negative, and in Negative Spiritual Experiences, Merete Jakobsen notes that:
“[Religious] rituals are the only protection against horror and darkness of the soul.”
In other words, what worked for Jesus works for the rest of us.
Similarly, modern people are often puzzled about who they can trust to share their profound experience. Fear of being thought mentally ill by friends or family is nothing new. When Jesus starts to preach, his family thinks he is “out of his mind, and went to restrain him” (Mark 3:21, NRSV). In Something There, David Hay notes a 1985 study found 40% of religious experiencers have never told anyone of their experience.
In Seeing the Invisible, Meg Maxwell and Verena Tschulin note that, in addition to fear of being thought insane, modern spiritual experiencers often relate being rebuffed when they shared their experiences. This was especially distressing when the rejection was by their minister.
3. Faith Healer (Placebo Effect)
We know Jesus was a faith healer because his cures were contingent on the person’s “belief” or “unbelief” (Matthew 13:54-58). Also, the Gospels tell plainly that some of his exorcisms were not permanent (Matthew 12:43-55). The Jesus Seminar acknowledged that Jesus was a faith healer and an exorcist and considered some of his cures genuine; of course, examples of the supernatural healing, such as Jesus’ reattaching a severed ear (Luke 22: 50-51), were dismissed. Unlike the descriptions detailing the crude resuscitation techniques of Old Testament prophets Elisha and Elijah (2 Kings 4:32-35, 1 Kings 17:17-23), the Gospels do not describe Jesus’ method of resuscitation of near-death experiencers (Luke 7:11-17, Matthew 9:18-26, John 11:38-44). The Jesus Seminar did not consider any of his resuscitations genuine.
Today, there is a large body of literature demonstrating the effectiveness of the placebo effect/faith healing. In Timeless Healing, Hubert Benson lists a variety of physical ailments receptive to the placebo effect. In Irreducible Mind, Edward Kelly and Emily Williams Kelly, et al., devote 124 pages to psychophysiological influences, including religious practices like prayer, faith healing, and voodoo.
4. Separating the “Super” from the “Natural”
St. Paul is one of the few ancients who left his own first-hand account of his religious experiences. Most significantly, he describes his after-death communication with Jesus (1 Corinthians 15:8) and states frankly that the Gospel he preaches did not come from humans but was communicated to him by Jesus from beyond the grave (Galatians 1:11-12, Galatians 1:15-17). Paul both acknowledges and encourages the religious experiences of others (1 Corinthians 12:8-11; 1 Corinthians 14:26-33). He describes an out-of-body experience in which he is taken to the third level of Heaven (2 Corinthians 12:2-4). While he says that others have the ability to heal (1 Corinthians 12:9), his letters do not tell of healings; in fact, Paul writes that he was not even able to heal himself (2 Corinthians 12:7-9). Contrast Paul’s own words with the stories about him in the Acts of the Apostles in which it is claimed that he performed miracles and even raised the dead (Acts 20:9-12)! Unfortunately, Jesus was not so lucky as to have control over his own writings.
The “transfiguration” (Matthew 17:1-8, Mark 9:2-8, Luke 9:28-36) is pregnant with theological symbolism. Nevertheless, part of modern religious experience includes reports of two or more individuals seeing an apparition of a dead person or religious figure at the same time. A 1970s study (N=434) in Los Angles, California, USA, found 2% of the residents had reported a vision of a dead person that was part of the reality of another person (Kalish, 1973). In Seeing the Invisible, a male and female both share a vision of light and then Jesus (case 3015). In Spiritual Encounters with Unusual Light Phenomena: Lightforms, Mark Fox notes that 10 of his 400 cases were shared experiences, including two soldiers in Northern Ireland seeing a light that gradually took the form of the Virgin Mary (case 3008). At the transfiguration, Jesus’ face:
“… shown like the sun and his clothes became dazzling white.”
In another of Mark Fox’s examples, a woman reports:
6. Psychic Ability
The Gospels relate several episodes in which Jesus exhibits psychic powers, namely, his telepathic ability with the “woman at the well” (John 4:4-42), and two cases of precognition, one regarding the miraculous catch of fish (Luke 5:4-7) and the other, the fish with the coin in its mouth to pay the Temple tax (Matthew 17:24-27). In A Measure of Heaven, Vince Miglorie analyzes reports (N=787) sent to the International Association of Near Death Studies (IANDS) website of which 24% were individuals who did not have a life-threatening condition. In other words, they had religious experiences similar to a near-death experience, but they were not dead or near death. One of the after-effects reported was an increase in psychic ability. While 75.5% of the clinical death group reported the development of healing and psychic abilities, the non-life-threatening spiritual experience group reported a 61.9% increase. The existence of reported psychic abilities is not proof of psychic powers which are notoriously hard to validate. Nevertheless, Ralph Hood, Peter Hill, and Bernard Spilka note that inevitably, surveys of paranormal experience and mystical experience are highly correlated (Hood et al, 2009).
Most modern liberal theologians hold with St. Paul (1 Corinthians 15) that the resurrection of Jesus was a visionary experience (Jesus raised up by God in a spiritual body rather than a physical body). The empty tomb does not solve the dilemma, since no one saw Jesus’ body rise spontaneously or be removed by others. A treasure-trove of after-death communications from ancient times to the present RERC files can be produced that resemble the appearance stories of Jesus in the Gospels, but this topic is to huge to cover here.
The Gospels are not “pure Jesus.” Instead, they are a mixture of mythic lore and supernatural miracles, intermingled with his genuine words and religious experiences. Nevertheless, as a liberal Christian, I take comfort in the continuity of religious experience from Jesus’ time to the present. Jesus knew God, and my belief is that the difference between Jesus and the rest of us is not one of difference but one of degree.
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