Religious Experience, Miracles and Revelation

Understand the varieties of religious experience; consider religious experience as proof of God’s existence; look at the importance of the Russell-Copleston debate; revise the points of view of James, Buber, Vardy and Swinburne. With advice on past questions and essay tips.

About Religious Experience

Religious Experience can be one of the more accessible topics when studying Philosophy of Religion. After all, everyone has experiences, and some of them can be unusual, even inexplicable – so there is, for many students, a connection with their own life that is absent from say, Religious Language. However, this topic is also a wide-ranging one, bringing in an immense variety of different types of experience, and many different theories.

About Miracles and Revelation

Any discussion of miracles, and whether they could ever happen, must first begin with a discussion of the DIFFERENT DEFINITIONS that could be given of a miracle. In order to discuss a subject, you have to understand what the subject is. If you do not know how to define justice, how do you know what a just person is? If you do not know what is meant by knowledge, how do you know if you have it? It is just the same for miracles. If we do not know what we mean by the miraculous, then how can we know whether it is reasonable to think miracles happen?

Key words and terms relating to Religious Experience

The following list of keywords are relevant to religious experience, miracles and revelation. These are all key terms that you could use when revising for your exams.

  • A POSTERIORI – Applied to reasoning from experience, from effect to cause
  • ANALOGY – A correspondence in certain respect between things otherwise different
  • COGNITIVE – Capable of truth or falsity
  • EPISTEMOLOGICAL – Relating to knowledge
  • FALLACY – An apparently genuine but really illogical argument
  • INDUCTION – Reasoning from particular cases to general conclusions
  • MATERIALIST – One who holds the theory that there is only one substance, namely matter
  • PEAK EXPERIENCE – An experience infrequent and emotionally charged. (Maslow)
  • PHYSIOLOGICAL – Relating to the body
  • REDUCTIVE (OF A THEORY) – Narrowing, limiting or making simpler in order to understand
  • THOUGHT EXPERIMENT – Hypothetical situation used by philosophers to demonstrate argument
  • VERIDICAL – Coinciding with fact; an experience that corresponds to a true state of affairs
  • COMMON CORE – Belief that there is one divine reality which is common to all religions and is discoverable in religious experience
  • CONVERSION – Experience in which someone turns to belief in a divine reality
  • CRITICAL REALISM – In epistemology, a theory holding that sense data can tell us about the world, but that we cannot assume that the picture given by that data is fully representative of reality
  • EMPIRICIST – Someone who accepts only knowledge based on direct experience
  • ENLIGHTENMENT – The spirit of the French philosophers of the 18th C; belief in reason and human progress, and questioning of tradition and authority
  • INEFFABLE – Incapable of being described adequately
  • MYSTICAL EXPERIENCE – Direct experience of a divine reality
  • MYSTICISM – System of mystical thought and experience
  • NOETIC – Relating to knowledge (usually non-factual, intuitive)
  • PASSIVE – A religious experience that the experiencer is unable to exercise control over
  • PHENOMENOLOGICAL – Relating to to a philosophical theory which is concerned with describing personal experience without seeking to arrive at metaphysical explanations of them. (Edmund Husserl)
  • PRAGMATISM – Philosophical methods which makes practical usefulness the test of truth.
  • REDUCTIVE MATERIALIST – Someone who holds that there can be nothing else than matter. (See also MATERIALIST)
  • TRANSIENT – Fleeting, limited in time
  • AWEFULNESS – Characteristic of numinous experience, provoking overpowering feelings of awe
  • CHARISMATIC – Relating to spiritual power given by God
  • COGNITIVE – Capable of truth or falsity
  • CREATURE-FEELING – The consciousness of being a creature
  • NON-COGNITIVE – Incapable of truth or falsity
  • NORMATIVE – Relating to what should occur; prescriptive – often used in the field of ethics
  • AXIOMATIC – Describing an assumption made for the sake of an argument; a universal, self-evident truth
  • LOGICAL GAP OBJECTION – Also known as the certitude/certainty distinction – the gap between feeling sure that an experience is veridical, and it being veridical
  • OCKHAM’S RAZOR – Principle that states that in a situation where two competing theories both fit the facts, the hypothesis that assumes the least (or is the least complex) should be chosen. Also known as the law of parsimony
  • PRIMA FACIE – On the face of it; at first sight. (Latin)
  • DISANALOGIES – Differences between two things
  • DOXASTIC PRACTICES – William Alston’s term for belief-forming practices within a religion
  • EVIDENTIALISM – The theory that knowledge can be built on a foundation of evidence from sense data
  • FOUNDATIONALISM – Epistemological theory which holds that knowledge can be built on some self-evident foundation (such as sense-data), without need for further justification, thus stopping infinite regress of explanations
  • PARADIGMATIC – Held as the paradigm for a situation, an exemplar, or framework within which theories work
  • PERCEPT – That which is perceived
  • PROPERLY BASIC – Describing a belief which is held by a person as self-evident or evident to the senses
  • QUESTION-BEGGING – Describing a fallacious argument that assumes the situation it is intending to prove
  • SELF-AUTHENTICATING – An experience in which the perception entails the existence of the percept
  • VICIOUS CIRCLE CHALLENGE – Challenge relating to religious experience in which the experience is formed by the prior beliefs of the person, and vice versa

Key words and terms relating to Miracles and Revelation

  • MIRACULUM – Latin, meaning “wondrous”; the word from which we get our word “miracle”
  • TRANGRESSION – A breaking of a law or limit of some kind; in this case, we are talking of a law of nature, but we could mean a law of the land, a religious law or even just social convention
  • VOLITION – An archaic word meaning “want” or “will”. Comes from the same root as “omnibenevolence”, which literally means “all good wanting”
  • RELIGIOUS SIGNIFICANCE – The importance of an event beyond its purely surprising or extraordinary nature. The significance of a miraculous event might be that it shows who Jesus is, or that it relates to key themes in that religious tradition
  • CHRISTOLOGY (Christological) – The study of the nature of Jesus. If a miracle has a Christological element to it, it tells us something about Jesus
  • SIGN-EVENT – Tillich’s term for the symbolic status of miracle narratives. Stories of miracles, to him, are important because of what they reveal, symbolically, about the nature of God
  • ECSTATIC – Literally, standing outside yourself. An ecstatic experience is one above and beyond a normal way of existing. This is the third aspect of miraculous occurrences that Tillich focuses on
  • NATURAL – How something intrinsically is; how something is without human interference; being part of nature
  • SUPERNATURAL – Being beyond nature; above nature
  • NATURALIST – Generally, someone who is interested in nature. As CS Lewis defines it, this is someone who believes that nature is all that exists
  • SUPERNATURALIST – CS Lewis’s term; someone who believes that there is a supernatural, as well as natural, aspect to the world
  • VERIFICATION – Showing something to be true
  • FALSIFICATION – Showing something to be false
  • INDUCTION – Inferring, based on what has happened, what will happen in the future
  • RELIABILISM – The view that we can know things if and only if we obtain them using a reliable method
  • RELIGIOUS NARRATIVE – Stories within a religious context, or indeed the story, the central concepts, ideas, or world view that is encompassed by that religion
  • RELIGIOUS TRADITION – A combination of the narratives, core beliefs, religious thinking and practice that together creates a certain tradition
  • RELIGIOUS SIGNIFICANCE – Importance within a certain religious context, perhaps the illumination of truths in certain narratives, or an addition of a new concept within a certain tradition
  • SYNOPTIC GOSPELS – The Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke, which were written before John, and share a common source
  • Q – Short for “QUELLE”, which in German means “source”; “Q” is the common source that the Synoptic Gospels share
  • DYNAMIS – Greek, meaning “power”. This is the word used to describe the miracles in the Synoptic Gospels
  • SEMEION – Greek, meaning “sign”. This is the word used to describe the miracles in John
  • LOURDES MEDICAL BUREAU – A group of medics who work at Lourdes, and sift through claims of the miraculous, to find what might be true cases of miracle cures
  • LOURDES INTERNATIONAL MEDICAL BOARD – A group of internationally recognised doctors, including agnostics and atheists, who meet to discuss cases put forward by the Medical Bureau, to establish whether there is a known medical explanation for cures that reportedly happened at Lourdes
  • PLACEBO EFFECT – Healing that takes place when the patient beliefs that the cure is working, or will work. Sugar pills, if a patient believes them to be the drugs they need, can have some effect in curing them
  • CREDIBLE – How believable something is
  • CREDULOUS – How believing a person is, e.g. I will be credulous, if you are saying something credible
  • GROUPTHINK – The psychological phenomenon where people report, and are even persuaded by, different things if they are part of a group
  • WEB OF BELIEF – Quine’s view that our beliefs are an interconnected web, where we reject things based on the fact that they do not cohere with the rest of the web. Some things, such as the truths of Maths and Logic, are more central to this web, and hence less easily given up, than other things
  • PRINCIPLES OF CREDULITY AND TESTIMONY – Swinburne’s principles that support the idea that we can generally believe what we see and what is reported to us by others
  • WHOLLY  SIMPLE    Not  composed  of  parts;  wholly  one substance and indivisible
  • IMMUTABLE – Unchanging and unchangeable
  • ETERNAL – Outside of time; timeless
  • SEMPITERNAL – In time, but always existing
  • PRIME MOVER – Aristotle’s idea of God. The Prime Mover is pure act, and immutable, but is unaware of his creation
  • ARISTOTELIAN    In   the   tradition   surrounding   Aristotle’s philosophy
  • SCHOLASTIC – The medieval tradition from the 13th C that centres around the writings of Aristotle
  • A PRIORI ARGUMENT – An argument that relies on no premises from the world of experience, but proceeds from definitions and unequivocal truths to inferring conclusions
  • AD HOMINEM ATTACK – A critique based not on what the opponent is saying, but on things about the opponent. This form of attack is usually seen to be fallacious
  • EMPIRICISM – The world view that we can know the world through the data that comes to us through our senses
  • APPORTION – To dole out; to portion. To apportion x to y is to dole out x in accordance with y. In the context of what Hume is saying, the wise man’s belief is proportionate to what the evidence shows
  • CONTRARY FACTS – Facts that contradict or rule each other out
  • OMNIBENEVOLENT    Literally,   “all   good   wanting”;   the property of being wholly good
  • MALEVOLENT – The property of wishing evil
  • INCARNATION, (The) – When God became man in the person of Jesus Christ
  • RESURRECTION, (The) – When Jesus rose from the dead
  • SALVATION – The saving of mankind
  • REDEMPTION – The healing and forgiveness of mankind







Past Questions