Religious Experience in a Secular Age
- ISBN: 9780802881885
- Published By: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company
- Published: July 2022
In Encountering Mystery: Religious Experience in a Secular Age, Dale C. Allison Jr. addresses the pervasive phenomenon of religious experience that he variously describes as “magical, mystical, affectionate reality” (7), “out-of-the-ordinary” (18, 26) and “metanormal” (193). These experiences occur throughout the world to normal, everyday people, irrespective of their religious beliefs and backgrounds. Though a world-renowned New Testament scholar, he approaches this issue pastorally—“as a sort of journalist, a popularizer writing in informal prose” (ix). By the end of the book, he asks, “How weird is our world?” (165) and finally concludes that the “world must be far odder than we regularly take it to be” (167). Nevertheless, his critical professionalism is evident throughout, accompanied by good introductory research and data. Though he belongs to the Christian tradition, Allison writes from a more broad and sympathetic position.
In chapter 1 Allison shares three of his own religious experiences, each lacking internally specific religious affiliation. This is perhaps important for readers who fear that this book is just another academic attempt at proselytizing. Chapter 2 discusses the reticence of people to share their metanormal religious experiences.. Eliminating the cultural shame engendered by such experiences comes through as a major motivating factor in this work. Chapter 3 explores testimonies about, and the discernible patterns of, two specific metanormal religious experiences that are related by their experiential polarity: love and terror. Chapter 4 is an unusually honest essay about the apparent mystery of the ineffective role of prayer in creating metanormal religious experiences of change and healing. Chapters 5 through 7 discuss experiences of angel-like beings, end-of-life experiences, and near-death experiences, respectively. Chapter 8 tackles issues of a critical, rational nature, such as the anecdotal character of testimonies; the role of science and causative factors; and issues of perceptual experience and memory. Chapter 9 gives pastors advice on how to react to those who entrust them with their testimonies of these sorts of experiences.
Allison’s primary objective is to demonstrate that there is a legitimate database of metanormal religious phenomena that must be taken seriously as measurable, empirical data. These phenomena cannot be explained, he argues, via scientific materialism nor ignored via conservative, orthodox religious traditions. Instead, Allison contends, the scientific and religious communities should remove the stigma attached to such experiences so that they can be empirically studied for what they are. Though he acknowledges that evidence by testimony is anecdotal, he writes that “we do not ordinarily reject a claim because it is anecdotal. We usually reject a claim because it deviates from our general sense of what goes on in the world” (154). Throughout the book Allison even suggests various criteria for assessing claims of this sort: Many of the experiences recounted arrive unexpectedly and out –of nowhere, and are not connected to an individual’s personal religious views. The experiences are also often witnessed by multiple people, but are kept private for fear of social humiliation, and leave their subjects in “genuine puzzlement” (80). Finally, the experiences are understood as real with “near Cartesian certainty” (131), and lead to significant life and/or worldview changes (as was the case with Allison himself).
What makes Allison’s arguments interesting is that he, as a well-respected critical scholar of more than thirty years across various subjects, recounts many of his own firsthand metanormal religious experiences or those of his family. Regarding one of his own experiences he writes, “It is the experiential foundation upon which I have built everything else” (3). These experiences clearly impact the motivation for his arguments both positively and negatively. For example, none of the experiences he recounts were Christocentric and he appears, therefore, to steer clear of trying to interpret experiences in general as being religiously particular. In his chapter on prayer, he concludes that prayer doesn’t impact these religious experiences in any observable way, and the reason he concludes this is driven primarily by his own lack of observable phenomena in response to prayer.
One concern with Allison’s book is that he fails to distinguish his own experience from that of the data. In every chapter except chapter 3 (on prayer), he interchanges his and his family’s experiences with that of other testimonials when weighing them against a criterion of authenticity. When discussing the efficacy of prayer, however, he does not include any testimonials that contradict his own experience. Surely there is some significant data in this regard, but if not, the absence of such data could have itself been explored. The reader may sense that perhaps some personal disappointments have been allowed to influence the chapter on prayer negatively, in the same way that his personal experiences influence the other chapters positively.
Allison’s mild bias also impacts his desire to remove the stigma attached to metanormal experiences. In his chapter on prayer, he produces the very shame culture he is so eager to avoid in his chapter on “the pastoral imperative” (194). He writes that “long ago I wanted to believe that God answers our prayers. Real life, however taught me otherwise” (58). He recalls a specific incident in which a close friend was in a car accident. Being pregnant and having a severe head injury, he recalls the confidence he had that God would heal her: “Although to admit it today embarrasses me acutely, I remember feeling confident, despite the severity of her injuries, about her recovery” (58). For a reader who has experienced an apparent metanormal phenomenon involving a prayer and healing experience, this sort of dismissive language might make them feel “embarrassed” as well.
Encountering Mystery will be valuable for anyone interested in the growing recognition of metanormal religious experiences reported all over the world. At times it appears that Allison’s own experiences unduly shape his interpretation of the data, and that some objectivity is lost. Nevertheless, the value of this work should not be underestimated. Bias is not a reason to reject an argument. His arguments are supported by good research and critical thinking and support his overall conclusion that it “is human to have mystical and other hard-to-classify experiences” (17) and that “commitment to the materialist view among academic elites [has] obscured knowledge of a real phenomenon” (130). This work will add to other professional voices calling for a reevaluation of the phenomena of metanormal religious experiences.
Rev. Kenny R. Johnston is an independent scholar and the lead pastor at First Wesleyan Church and Christian School in Gastonia, North Carolina.Kenny R. JohnstonDate Of Review:December 15, 2022