Can the religious experience be proven to another person outside of personal experience? We live in the information age where with a click of a button we get instantaneous access to more information than has ever existed. It is easy for us to think that if we possess knowledge of a topic we in effect know the subject, but “knowing” in terms of facts is not the primary way that the Divine was “known.” (I will use the words God and Divine interchangeably here.)
In early Judaism and Christianity, unlike modern forms of the religion, direct experience was the way to know God. The word, “know” when used with God in the ancient texts was an explanation of a type of knowing. It was about direct experience.
For instance, the verb root yada appears almost 950 times in the Hebrew Bible and is the word that was used in Genesis when it said that Adam “knew” Eve (Gen 4:1). It was a euphemism for sexual intimacy. It was not that Adam knew information about Eve. It was that he experienced her, he knew her by experience. This idea is extended to their idea of a relationship with God. God was to be “known” by experience as in “be still and know that I am God…” (Ps. 46:10)
As Greek language impacted their world, the early writers of the New Testament books chose a Greek word for “know” that communicated the same idea. The Apostle Paul said in Philippians 3:10, “That I may know Him…” which means by direct experiences. HELPS Word- Studies shows us the meaning:
1097 ginṓskō – properly, to know, especially through personal experience (first-hand acquaintance). 1097 /ginṓskō (“experientially know”) is used for example in Lk 1:34, “And Mary [a virgin] said to the angel, ‘How will this be since I do not know (1097 /ginṓskō = sexual intimacy) a man?’1
Fast forward to the early 1900’s to a pendulum swing that we are still feeling the effects of today. Researchers, archeologists and “liberal” theologians were dismantling many of the claims to historicity and inerrancy of Christianity and Protestant conservative Christians reacted by developing what we now call Fundamentalism. In trying to protect their view of the Bible resulted in a form of religion in which affirming a credal statement was more important than direct experience of God. If you believed the right creed then you were guaranteed entrance to heaven which supplanted having a personal experience with the Divine. Case in point, Fundamentalists must affirm the “virgin birth” to be called Christians, yet neither Jesus nor Paul ever mentioned this as a criteria for salvation. In this case “information” confessed was more important than the experience with the Divine itself. This wasn’t the first time this happened in their religious history, but it gives us some contrast to understand the subject.
Interestingly enough, the mystics throughout history chose intimate personal experience over bland confessions and wordy pontification about the Divine. This is true within all the streams of religion.
The Muslims have their Sufi mystics such as Ibn Arabi (1165 – 1240) who appealed to personal experience,
When the mystery of the oneness of the soul and the Divine is revealed to you, you will understand that you are no other than God. Then you will see all your actions to be His actions and all your attributes to be His attributes and your essence to be His essence….
Thus, instead of [your own] essence, there is the essence of God and in place of [your own] attributes, there are the attributes of God. He who knows himself sees his whole existence to be the Divine existence but does not experience that any change has taken place in his own nature or qualities. For when you know yourself, your sense of a limited identity vanishes, and you know that you and God are one and the same.2
The Hindu’s invoke direct personal experience as well as we see in the article Direct Experience of God,
The ultimate goal of salvation from the shackles of samsara can be gained only by seeking refuge in God’s feet. Whatever we eat, whatever we see, whatever we experience in worldly terms are all manifestations of Him, says the Azhwar. What greater alternative for meditation than this mental state that is always sensitive to God’s all-pervasiveness? His supremacy may be awesome; yet He is accessible to the humble and the devout.3
One of the reasons, at least in my opinion, for the explosive growth of Pentecostalism and charismatic Christianity (groups who believe in the charismata, ie, grace gifts of the Spirit) is that they offered a direct experience with God through the baptism of the Spirit with speaking in tongues, healing through the laying on of hands, and prophetic utterances. We all crave that which is real and experiential, not ivory tower theology and these streams simply filled the void left by Fundamentalism.
Direct experience of the Divine within the mystic community has always used “means” or methods to enter into those states. It is not uncommon to read about ecstatic dance, extended fasting, intercessory prayer, deep meditation, breathing exercises and even self-flagellation to get into a state to connect with the sense of the Divine. The use of “means” to an end has never really been contested, rather it is an accepted pathway. So while the experience itself is direct, it was usually through the use of these types of means. For example, the Catholic Church believes that the wine and bread literally become the blood and body of Christ after the prayer of the priest, through which the presence of Christ is mediated.
One of those means, unbeknownst and often unacknowledged by modern theologians, was the use of entheogens by many religious groups. Astute Greek classics student turned attorney Brian Muraresku, recently authored a compelling book, The Immortality Key: The Secret History of the Religion With No Name, where he details how the early Church with their sacrament fought against streams of Christianity that used what appears to be psychedelic sacraments for their communion with Jesus. Of course, let us not forget that the intoxicant alcohol is used within the Holy Communion wine by the Church as a means to experience God by millions of Catholics every week around the world.
In The Witches Ointment, Thomas Hatsis points out with stunning detail how the use of entheogens for medicinal purposes and spiritual growth was attacked by the stronger competition group called the Church. The Church was at war, not only with Christian groups, but with local folk medicine healers for the same reasons, ostensibly to force one direct means of experience as the superior one onto the masses. There were clear efforts they used to demonize these folk healers as satan worshippers who were accused of using their “witches ointment” to fly on their brooms to secret ceremonies with the devil. This mindset led to the witch trials of which we are all familiar.
This begs the question, “why use laws and demonization to stop their use?” Could it be the Church was peddling their sacrament as a superior experience and it was a power play all along? Yes, probably so.
For our purposes, though, I would point out three important larger truths:
1. Groups throughout religious history recognize that direct experience is superior and secondary experience through story was always a poor substitute.
2. Groups throughout religious history recognize that means such as dance, fasting and sacraments are normal for that direct experience of the Divine.
3. It was not unusual for religious groups to use entheogens as their sacramental means for direct experience with the Divine thus demonstrating its efficacy.
How would we recognize a “Divine” experience? Philosopher and psychologist William James admitted that he was not a theologian or scholar of religion, but his work, Varieties of Religious Experiences, is a great starting point. He was concerned that institutional spiritual messages were often communicated by those with nothing more than secondhand experience so the direct approach was better, more personal and universal. In order for an experience to be mystical (spiritual) then it would contain four elements. It would be ineffable, noetic, transient and passive. While we might debate the nuances of his definitions, it is the fact that it must be personal and direct to be of value that is of importance to our discussion here. In other words, one of the most important works on the religious experience rests its argument solely on a direct experience.
What if we could only speak of that which we have experienced? Do you know God? By experience? Our invitation to you is to find out for yourself. Then imagine a world where we could compare our experiences with each other for the sake of growth rather than fight one another with proclamations that our information about God is superior! Imagine if religious institutions were dogma free because they only discussed that which is personally experienced. Maybe then we see the classic saying fulfilled that… “a man with an experience is never at the mercy of a man with an argument.”4
The important question for each of us is do we want to experience the Divine for ourselves? Entheogens offer an opportunity to escape the world of illusion built on stories about the Divine and introduce us to our own direct personal experience. We may define the context of our experiences with different terms, but the experience itself can only ever be known personally. It cannot be ultimately proven to another.
Our sacrament, Psilomethoxin, is one of the ways that I have first-hand experiences. What about you? What have been your experiences through entheogenic sacraments, and have they connected you to the Divine?
- Strong’s Greek: 1097. γινώσκω (ginóskó) — to come to know, recognize, perceive. (n.d.). https://biblehub.com/greek/1097.htm
- Carpenter, K. (2022, January 19). Mystical Experience of Sufi Mystic Ibn Arabi at IMERE.org. Institute for Mystical Experience Research and Education (IMERE). Retrieved January 5, 2023, from https://imere.org/third-party-story/mystical-experience-of-ibn-arabi/
- The Hindu. (2016, May 21). Direct experience of God. https://www.thehindu.com/features/friday-review/religion/direct-experience-of-god/article5944383.ece
- John Bytheway Quote: A man with experience is never at the mercy of a man with an opinion. (n.d.). https://quotefancy.com/quote/2415770/John-Bytheway-A-man-with-experience-is-never-at-the-mercy-of-a-man-with-an-opinion