Despite widespread skepticism on the matter, a significant number of people today have stories of religious experience—moments of inexplicable terror or rapturous joy, visions, near-death experiences of the afterlife, encounters with angels, heavenly voices, and premonitions. How should rationally minded people respond?
What would your reaction be if someone told you that, one night while sitting alone, she saw through the window a brilliant light descend from the sky until it was so large that it filled the room—and that it radiated a feeling of “pure love”? And what would you say if a friend confided that one night he woke up and could not move, felt he was being suffocated, and sensed an evil spirit in the room?
By default in the secular age we are skeptical about anything mysterious or supernatural. More likely than not, most people would respond to the stories above with embarrassment and concern about the person’s grasp of reality, or they would attempt to explain them away through rational or scientific means. But the truth is that religious experiences like these are not as uncommon as they seem—although talking about such experiences often is. This is the case even in a faith tradition such as Christianity, despite the Bible’s numerous accounts of miraculous and mysterious happenings.
In Encountering Mystery, noted biblical scholar Dale Allison makes the argument that stories of religious experience are meaningful and not to be marginalized—and that we have a moral prerogative to lovingly engage with such stories regardless of whether we have had similar experiences. Through a close look at phenomena such as moments of inexplicable terror or rapturous joy, visions, near-death experiences of the afterlife, encounters with angels, heavenly voices, and premonitions, Allison shows how ordinary practices of faith need not be at odds with individual religious experiences. Above all, he enjoins us to be honest about the persistence of religious experience in a secular age and to make space for those who encounter mystery in their lives.
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