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The Nature of a Religious Experience and its Underlying Roots

Updated on December 27, 2017

Satisfying your natural curiosity about the prophets

When reading the bible about the incredible prophets that existed in the days of yore, predicting the future and performing miracles, have you ever wondered what kind of people they were, or how they were able to master the art of prophecy in a day when there were no schools and universities? Or sometimes your questions were more deep and philosophical and maybe a bit unorthodox, and you wondered: were these prophets mentally deranged? Can we really believe their claims that they spoke with god?

If you are looking for answers to these questions, then you have come to the right place, read on and enjoy!

A short history of Prophecy and Mysticism

Prophets and diviners have existed since time immemorial. The belief that some lucky individuals have the power to communicate with the deities, and may receive revelations in dreams, visions and trance-states can be traced back to the most ancient civilizations including Egypt and Mesopotamia. In primitive societies the diviners played an important role for the local tribe in obtaining food and well-being and victory over the enemies. The revelations were usually associated with spirits or ancestors. The seers or shamans learnt how to acquire these ecstatic states through the use of music, dancing, fasting[1] or even alcohol and drugs. However, rarely would they prophesy, because most of the time they will not even remember what they saw, their visions may be compared to the mystical experiences of the great mystics which they considered ineffable. Shamans like these still exist nowadays in Siberia and other primitive societies around the world.

Prophecy occurs later in advanced civilizations like Mari in northwest Mesopotamia. There the prophets were said speak in the name of Dagan (18th century BC). The prophets of Mari, both male and female, were concerned with ethics as well as they were with other political establishments. They admonished the people in the name of their gods, warned about plots against the king, and assured them of military victory. Like the better known prophets of Israel they were said to fall into a trance state and speak the words of their gods.

A thousand years later the prophets of Israel emerge challenging the political rulers and the economic elite who were taking advantage of the poor. They didn’t even hesitate from criticizing their kings for their evil deeds, and continuously rebuked the nation about the foreign pagan influences that had infiltrated into the Hebrew religion. They were also the first poets of Israel, they spoke about the Messianic age where only god will reign and the world will be filled with peace. The prophets of Israel had the power to anoint kings and even advised the kings in war, they were so revered by the people that they were able to overthrow the evil kings and organize rebellions[2]. In Greece too the prophets flourished and guided the kings and philosophers in mundane and religious matters. With every generation new prophets sprang forth, endowed with their prophetic gifts, to enlighten the world with their divinely inspired oracles, to teach the world about ethics and morality, about the nature of the divine about the meaning of life etc. Moses, Jesus and Mohammed are the most famous ones because they were founders of the big western religions. But they were numerous other prophets and mystics that flourished in Greece and later in medieval Europe that most of us have never even heard about. Among these are the famous Greek philosophers Plato and Plotinus who were themselves great mystics. Later in the Christian tradition we find Meister Eckhart (1260-1328), St Catherine of Siena (1347-1380), Francis of Assisi (1182-1226). They were all great mystics/prophets and were active during the Middle Ages. Closer to our modern age we have, William Blake (1757-1827), William Wordsworth (1770-1850), Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768-1834), Rudolf Otto (1869-1937), they were all (excluding the latter) great poets and mystics and flourished during the Romantic era.

[1] See Exodus 34:28.

[2] See 2 Kings 9; 2 Chronicles 18.

Ancient Hebrew prophet stands next to his scribe
Ancient Hebrew prophet stands next to his scribe

The relationship between Mysticism and Prophecy

Before I start discussing the nature of prophecy and the varieties of religious experiences I would like to take a minute to explore mysticism a bit and its relationship with prophecy. Though prophecy and mysticism are both related to each other in the sense that they both advance the idea that knowledge of god “is obtainable through intuition or insight in a manner differing from ordinary physical sense perception[1]” they differ in a few fundamental ways. For example, the experiences of the mystics are said to be ineffable, meaning that their experience cannot be described or put into words. The mystics of old claimed to have had experienced the divine in a way that all the physical sensations in their body ceased to work, their soul was fixed on the knowledge of this cosmic mind/god to the point that their experience paralleled the physical experience. This experience is considered by the mystics the most wonderful experience they ever had, and the most beautiful of all experiences, they call this mystical experience ineffable for they cannot put into words what they saw or came to understand through that experience[2]. The mystics were deeply affected by their experiences but they carried no message to the world. But prophecy is the opposite of an ineffable experience, it comes to the prophet as an idea, it guides the prophet, it instructs him to teach, to rebuke the nation for their evil deeds; in other words it is presented as a divine message, a message to be given over to others. Furthermore, mystical experiences may not be interpreted religiously depending on the person experiencing them, whereas prophecy is almost always associated with a divine being.

The similarities between them

However in other ways the prophet is similar to the mystic. Prophets and mystics alike are deeply affected by their experiences, they cannot see the world anymore as they used to prior to their experience; it completely transforms them, and all the sensual pleasures seemed to have lost all their luster, they are nothing compared to the divine experiences that they are all too familiar with. They devote their whole life to attain those mystical experiences, and to preach their philosophy to the world. The prophet is similar to the mystic that he perceives those visions to be divine and of critical importance to society. Another striking similarity is that the mystics teach “that the final source of ethical values lies within mysticism. It is a basis for moral precepts. Its most important contribution to the welfare of the individual and to society is that it stands as a source of all ethics. Morals and behavior can and will be governed by the concept of mysticism.[3]” This concept is all too familiar to the Hebrew and Christian prophets; they preached thousands of years ago that god is the basis for all ethical behavior, and that it is what all human beings should strive for[4]. So though we have seen that there are some major differences between them, they both seem to be somewhat related to the divine and the infinite, and both share a similar philosophy. I consider these experiences to be different manifestations of the same god. For our purposes here I’ll consider them to be one kind of experience since they are both of religious nature[5]. And since the terms “religious experience” and “mystical experience” are too vague, I’ll be using the term “prophecy” instead, but it should be taken as a reference to all kinds of different religious experiences including the mystical ones.

[1] Cecil A. Poole, Mysticism: The Ultimate Experience.

[2] For a fuller discussion on mysticism see Williams James, The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature, Lectures XVI and XVII Mysticism. It is worthy to note that not all mystical experiences are concerned with a deity (in a theistic sense), some mystical experiences will be about the universe, and they will feel a sense of unity and infinity. But those experiencing them will almost always interpret them in a spiritual or religious manner.

[3] Cecil A. Poole, Mysticism: The Ultimate Experience.

[4] See Micah 6:8.

[5] “Mystics and prophets are similar in nature in that they both claim a special intimacy with the deity. But while many religious traditions hold that the mystic strives for a union with the deity, who usurps control of his ego, the prophet never loses control of his ego. On occasion mystics have delivered messages from the deity, thus acting in the role of a prophet, and have been known to use ecstatic trances to reach the divine or sacred world; e.g., many Roman Catholic Saints and Sufi Muslims (Islamic mystics).” Britannica/prophecy.

Elijah the prophet on Mount Carmel.
Elijah the prophet on Mount Carmel.

What is the nature of Prophecy?

Now I want to explore the nature of prophecy? What is it? Is it a natural phenomenon or a supernatural one? When I say prophecy is a natural phenomenon I mean to say that it is a natural science that we can study like any other natural science (For example, Neurology, Psychology, Psychiatry etc.); a phenomenon that is somewhat predictable; an art that can be acquired through practice and study. On the other hand, if prophecy is entirely a supernatural phenomenon that would mean that it is not a natural science, and is not subject to human study nor can it be acquired by humans; it would mean that it is something entirely under god’s dominion. But when I say natural I don’t mean to question the validity of prophecy as a genuine divine disclosure of timeless truths, I am mainly concerned with the nature of prophecy and its relationship with Science and Neurology.

In Greek mythology Morpheus is the god of dreams and visions. He is depicted on the left with wings.
In Greek mythology Morpheus is the god of dreams and visions. He is depicted on the left with wings.

Saint Teresa might have had the nervous system of the placidest cow, and it would not now save her theology, if the trial of the theology by these other tests should show it to be contemptible. And conversely if her theology can stand these other tests, it will make no difference how hysterical or nervously off her balance Saint Teresa may have been when she was with us here below.

Some misconceptions people have regarding the study of Religion and Neurology

I find that people tend to confuse these things. They incorrectly assume that if we can get to the bottom of the prophetic condition, or if we can establish that there is a connection between religion with neurology that will undoubtedly prove that prophecy is empty and useless, and its message irrelevant and devoid of any significance, it would mean that prophecy is an institution that has no bearing on mankind. They think that if we can provide a scientific explanation, it would surely undermine the premise that god inspires and directs the human thought process. But this way of thinking we shall see is entirely misguided and unfounded. Williams James a noted philosopher and psychologist wrote extensively on the psychology of religion. He possessed a brilliant mind and in his book The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature he explores all kinds of religious experiences and the effects they have upon humans. In his first lecture he attacks those religious reductionists (which he calls “Medical Materialism”) who maintain that all religious experiences stem from physical abnormalities in the brain and are nothing but a disorder in the brain and a perversion of the mental faculties. They label them pathological, schizophrenics and hysterics and other degrading names and think that they have successfully undermined their importance.

“Medical materialism finishes up Saint Paul by calling his vision on the road to Damascus a discharging lesion of the occipital cortex, he being an epileptic. It snuffs out Saint Teresa as an hysteric, Saint Francis of Assisi as an hereditary degenerate. George Fox’s discontent with the shams of his age, and his pining for spiritual veracity, it treats as a symptom of a disordered colon. Carlyle’s organ-tones of misery it accounts for by a gastro-duodenal catarrh. All such mental overtensions, it says, are, when you come to the bottom of the matter, mere affairs of diathesis (auto-intoxications most probably), due to the perverted action of various glands which physiology will yet discover. And medical materialism then thinks that the spiritual authority of all such personages is successfully undermined.

Then he goes on to undermine this position:

“If we adopt the assumption, then of course what medical materialism insists on must be true in a general way, if not in every detail: Saint Paul certainly had once an epileptoid, if not an epileptic seizure; George Fox was an hereditary degenerate; Carlyle was undoubtedly auto-intoxicated by some organ or other, no matter which—and the rest. But now, I ask you, how can such an existential account of facts of mental history decide in one way or another upon their spiritual significance? According to the general postulate of psychology just referred to, there is not a single one of our states of mind, high or low, healthy or morbid, that has not some organic process as its condition. Scientific theories are organically conditioned just as much as religious emotions are; and if we only knew the facts intimately enough, we should doubtless see “the liver” determining the dicta of the sturdy atheist as decisively as it does those of the Methodist under conviction anxious about his soul. When it alters in one way the blood that percolates it, we get the methodist, when in another way, we get the atheist form of mind. So of all our raptures and our drynesses, our longings and pantings, our questions and beliefs. They are equally organically founded, be they religious or of non-religious content.” [All emphasis added].

In other words, what right do we have to discredit religious experiences as hallucinatory more than we should discredit all of our mental faculties as hallucinatory, and mere symptoms of adolescence and our sexual development[1]?

“The two main phenomena of religion, namely, melancholy and conversion, they will say, are essentially phenomena of adolescence, and therefore synchronous with the development of sexual life. To which the retort again is easy. Even were the asserted synchrony unrestrictedly true as a fact (which it is not), it is not only the sexual life, but the entire higher mental life which awakens during adolescence. One might then as well set up the thesis that the interest in mechanics, physics, chemistry, logic, philosophy, and sociology, which springs up during adolescent years along with that in poetry and religion, is also a perversion of the sexual instinct:—but that would be too absurd. Moreover, if the argument from synchrony is to decide, what is to be done with the fact that the religious age par excellence would seem to be old age, when the uproar of the sexual life is past?” [All emphasis added].

Indeed there are atheists that take materialism this far and claim that consciousness and the human “self” is nothing but an illusion of our ill minds and the product of physical processes in our brain. They kind of resort to extreme Cartesian skepticism (I’m referring to his famous dream paradox) that we can’t trust our own senses. But I won’t waste my time refuting their claims now. The consensus of philosophers and great thinkers that we can trust our senses, and that subjects like mechanics, physics, chemistry, logic are real objective entities. In a similar vein, argues Williams James, should we take religious experiences seriously and not discredit them as mere mental disorders that lack any objective substance.

[1] Of course I am not advocating that every hallucination should be taken seriously for that would be foolish. There are two major differences between a schizophrenic that suffers from hallucinations and a mystic that has visions. 1. The former does not attach any significance to these hallucinations, but consider them bothersome and annoying, while the latter consider them beautiful, enlightening, life changing and divine. 2. The former does not consider his hallucinations to represent some objective reality of a different world, while the experience of the latter possess a Noetic quality (coined by Williams James), which means that they consider them to be states of knowledge, very real, and of utmost importance. These revelations usually have a big effect upon them and completely transform them. These two differences, i think, prove that they are not the same and shouldn’t be confused with each other. But as Williams James and others have pointed out, we should not judge their experiences by their pathological origins because they won't reveal much about their significance. The only relevant question should be "how do they interpret these experiences and what effect do they have upon them?" If they have a positive effect upon them and enhance their lives significantly, then we must accept their experiences as genuine and true. In other words, the fact that these experiences have the power to transform those people, that should be good proof that they are the work of some higher power, for nothing else would account for such impressive work, and a theory of a broken disordered brain can hardly account for such awe-inspiring life changing encounters.

The Ecstasy Of Saint Francis by Giovanni Baglione.
The Ecstasy Of Saint Francis by Giovanni Baglione.

More on Religion and Neurology

The skeptic however may argue that this argument is not sound. The history of religion has shown that there is correlation between mental disorder and religious experience, and that throughout the ages most of the religious geniuses have suffered from some kind of mental illness, that should be enough to discredit their divine revelations as simple hallucinations. But this argument I believe cannot stand up under scrutiny, for the savant syndrome also stems from certain neurodevelopmental disorders, yet no one dared discredit a savant simply on the ground that his brain is not stable. But with the previous line of reasoning we should discredit all the savants and their achievements since neurology has shown that there is correlation between the savant syndrome and brain disorder. We don’t do that because we recognize their genius and their profound abilities in the academic fields. For the same reason we need to recognize the genius of the religious founders and admit that they possess something we don’t have, and disregard their origin of truth or, if you will, their underlying medical conditions. This is how Williams James continues:

“It is, however, a discordancy that can never be resolved by any merely medical test. A good example of the impossibility of holding strictly to the medical tests is seen in the theory of the pathological causation of genius promulgated by recent authors. “Genius,” said Dr. Moreau, “is but one of the many branches of the neuropathic tree.” “Genius,” says Dr. Lombroso, “is a symptom of hereditary degeneration of the epileptoid variety, and is allied to moral insanity.” “Whenever a man’s life,” writes Mr. Nisbet, “is at once sufficiently illustrious and recorded with sufficient fullness to be a subject of profitable study, he inevitably falls into the morbid category…. And it is worthy of remark that, as a rule, the greater the genius, the greater the unsoundness.”

Now do these authors, after having succeeded in establishing to their own satisfaction that the works of genius are fruits of disease, consistently proceed thereupon to impugn the VALUE of the fruits? Do they deduce a new spiritual judgment from their new doctrine of existential conditions? Do they frankly forbid us to admire the productions of genius from now onwards? and say outright that no neuropath can ever be a revealer of new truth? No! their immediate spiritual instincts are too strong for them here, and hold their own against inferences which, in mere love of logical consistency, medical materialism ought to be only too glad to draw… But for the most part the masterpieces are left unchallenged…

Saint Teresa might have had the nervous system of the placidest cow, and it would not now save her theology, if the trial of the theology by these other tests should show it to be contemptible. And conversely if her theology can stand these other tests, it will make no difference how hysterical or nervously off her balance Saint Teresa may have been when she was with us here below

Dr. Maudsley is perhaps the cleverest of the rebutters of supernatural religion on grounds of origin. Yet he finds himself forced to write: “What right have we to believe Nature under any obligation to do her work by means of complete minds only? She may find an incomplete mind a more suitable instrument for a particular purpose. It is the work that is done, and the quality in the worker by which it was done, that is alone of moment; and it may be no great matter from a cosmical standpoint, if in other qualities of character he was singularly defective—if indeed he were hypocrite, adulterer, eccentric, or lunatic…. Home we come again, then, to the old and last resort of certitude—namely the common assent of mankind, or of the competent by instruction and training among mankind." [All emphasis added].

Back to the original inquiry about the nature of Prophecy

Now I think this will suffice to defend the position that prophecy even if it is a natural phenomenon can still be of divine nature, real and substantive and of human importance. As I have attempted to show it really should not matter whether Saint Paul or Muhammed suffered from epilepsy or if we label Saint Teresa a lunatic. Ineffective minds and eccentrics may possess the gift of discerning the divine much like the savant possesses a remarkable ability to compose music or invent beautiful scientific theories. So now we can return to our original inquiry is prophecy natural or supernatural?

King David dancing ecstatically before the Ark of the Covenant.
King David dancing ecstatically before the Ark of the Covenant.

In the Dionysian mysteries initiates also use intoxicants to induce the ecstatic states. And there is more recent evidence of people using drugs (Nitrous oxide) to induce mystical and religious experiences in them

The Evidence: Prophecy is somewhat natural

I think that the evidence point towards the natural account. When we study the history of the prophets we find that the prophets have used natural means to induce trance-like states in them[1]. For instance, in the bible we find a few references to bands or guilds of prophets gathered together dancing and playing music as to induce religious ecstasy within them[2]. Samuel himself is said to have been master of such a group[3]. Late on in the book of Kings[4] we find the schools of Elijah and Elisha. It is thought that in these schools students were taught how to master the art of prophecy, they were called the “sons of the prophets”. As we have already discussed the Shamans used similar methods to induce trance-like states within them, this is the only way they would get to experience their sacred visions. There is evidence that the ancient Assyrian prophets used similar methods of dance and music to attain those states of ecstatic frenzy. In the Dionysian mysteries initiates also use intoxicants to induce the ecstatic states. And there is more recent evidence of people using drugs (Nitrous oxide) to induce mystical and religious experiences in them[5]. If prophecy is a supernatural event not subject to human study and learning, how do we explain the use of natural means to bring about prophetic visions? This I think is strong proof that prophecy is more of a natural phenomenon that comes about through the cooperation of the mediator with the divine, and can be acquired through mental exercises and proper training.

This changes our whole understanding and challenges our traditional perception of prophecy and divine revelation. When reading the bible and the extraordinary tales about the prophets we sometimes imagine the prophet being seized in a frenzy by the spirit of god while he’s talking and walking or doing his daily chores, much like the spirit of god that seizes Saul on his way to Samuel[6] (1 Samuel 19). But from studying the evidence a different picture emerges, a picture that is more realistic and less fantastical. It turns out that it is not god that seizes the prophet but it is the prophet that seeks god. The prophet, not god, is the one who decides whether there should be a divine encounter. The prophet can only experience the divine in trance-like states, that’s why he uses natural means to attain these altered states of consciousness and only then can he perceive the divine. This is analogous to an inspiring dream that is taken to be divine. The phenomenon (dreaming) itself is completely natural, but the dream is too enlightening to be denounced as another “non-sense dream”, this is why people sometimes interpret their dreams religiously. Or when the dream predicts something and it comes true, the dream here is surely not merely a dream, it is a divine disclosure sent to him in the form of a dream. I think prophecy works similarly. The trance and the altered state of consciousness experienced by the prophet is completely natural induced by natural means, but his visions/hallucinations are full of meaning, they instruct guide and inspire him, the prophet can feel (the feeling is not sensual but a different kind of feeling that only those who experience it can understand) the presence of god and his visions are most wonderful and enlightening, that is why they are considered to be of divine nature! We are not yet able to tell which state of consciousness is conducive to discerning the divine message, or even how the prophet’s mind can interact with the divine realm (scientists don’t know much about the spiritual world and don’t believe that it exists either), but the evidence strongly suggests that such mystical encounters exist, and that they can be studied and acquired by the masters of prophecy[7].

Other forms of prophecy

(However, I must point out this isn't always the case. Some prophets may receive divine revelations without any notice and in a totally unprepared state. A good example to this is Amos who is a simple shepherd and woodcutter, he is not the son of a prophet, nor does he have any aspiration to become one, suddenly out of nowhere the word of god comes to him urging him to prophesize to Israel[8]. Another example is George Fox. In one of his divine encounters, he writes that, he was walking with his several friends, suddenly the word of god came to him urging him to prophesy to the inhabitants of Lichfield. Intoxicated with the spirit of god he took off his shoes and ran through the streets of Lichfield crying “Woe to the bloody city of Lichfield[9].” But though there are many other instances of sudden and unprepared mystical encounters, the fact that so many prophets have used natural means and mental exercises to receive those visions proves that it cannot be entirely supernatural).

More evidence

Another proof to the natural account is the fact that we find that there is a correlation between physical brain abnormalities and religious experiences. This is an undisputed fact of religion and neurology, and Williams James does not hide this either:

There can be no doubt that as a matter of fact a religious life, exclusively pursued, does tend to make the person exceptional and eccentric. I speak not now of your ordinary religious believer, who follows the conventional observances of his country, whether it be Buddhist, Christian, or Mohammedan. His religion has been made for him by others, communicated to him by tradition, determined to fixed forms by imitation, and retained by habit. It would profit us little to study this second-hand religious life. We must make search rather for the original experiences which were the pattern-setters to all this mass of suggested feeling and imitated conduct. These experiences we can only find in individuals for whom religion exists not as a dull habit, but as an acute fever rather. But such individuals are “geniuses” in the religious line; and like many other geniuses who have brought forth fruits effective enough for commemoration in the pages of biography, such religious geniuses have often shown symptoms of nervous instability. Even more perhaps than other kinds of genius, religious leaders have been subject to abnormal psychical visitations. Invariably they have been creatures of exalted emotional sensibility. Often they have led a discordant inner life, and had melancholy during a part of their career. They have known no measure, been liable to obsessions and fixed ideas; and frequently they have fallen into trances, heard voices, seen visions, and presented all sorts of peculiarities which are ordinarily classed as pathological[10]. Often, moreover, these pathological features in their career have helped to give them their religious authority and influence.”

This demonstrates once more that prophecy is not entirely supernatural, but is guided by the natural world and strongly influenced by the field of neurology and pathology.

[1] This is succinctly described by the Britannica Encyclopedia/prophecy, “The nature of prophecy is twofold: either inspired (by visions or revelatory auditions) or acquired (by learning certain techniques). In many cases both aspects are present. The goal of learning certain prophetic techniques is to reach an ecstatic state in which revelations can be received. That state might be reached through the use of music, dancing, drums, violent bodily movement, and self-laceration.”

[2] 1 Sam. Chapters 10 and 19; 2 Kings 2.

[3] I Sam. 19:20

[4] 2 Kings 2.

[5] See The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature. His lecture on Mysticism.

[6] Ibid Kings.

[7] Wikipedia has this on religious ecstasy, “Religious ecstasy is a reported type of altered state of consciousness characterized by greatly reduced external awareness and expanded interior mental and spiritual awareness, frequently accompanied by visions and emotional (and sometimes physical) euphoria.”

[8] Amos chapter 7.

[9] For the complete account see The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature, Lecture 1: Religion and neurology.

[10] Some prophets may have been schizophrenics that were prone to hallucinate in broad daylight. This may have been the case with the false prophets that the Hebrew and Christian prophets have continuously denounced. But even the true prophets may have had hallucinations and seen visions that weren’t inspiring (lots of them suffered from mental disorders), since they weren’t of any value to the prophet they weren’t always recorded, only those inspiring and mystical experiences were taken to be of divine nature and written down for posterity.

“There can be no doubt that as a matter of fact a religious life, exclusively pursued, does tend to make the person exceptional and eccentric. Even more perhaps than other kinds of genius, religious leaders have been subject to abnormal psychical visitations. Invariably they have been creatures of exalted emotional sensibility.

Consulting the Oracle by John William Waterhouse, showing eight priestesses in a temple of prophecy.
Consulting the Oracle by John William Waterhouse, showing eight priestesses in a temple of prophecy.

The Extent of the Divine Influence

Once we have established that humans have some influence over the divine, we can take this idea even further and say that god does not use the prophet merely as an instrument to transmit his message, but invites him to be an active participant in the transmission process as well . Prophecy is an interaction of the human with the divine. God does not put words in the mind of the prophet, god does not dictate every word of the prophet as has been traditionally thought, rather god guides the thoughts of the prophet in the direction of truth, and develops it to perfection. The prophet leaves his regular state of consciousness and enters a different realm wherein he is more receptive to the divine calling and so he invites god to inspire and enlighten it. But this does not mean that the prophet loses his identity during the encounter and gives god free rein over his mind; god does not seek to manipulate the mind of the prophet or to eradicate all the foreign influences that may enter into the prophet’s mind; on the contrary he leaves room for the prophets imagination, and lets his character shine through and allows him to influence the divine message, that’s why every prophecy is unique depending on the character of that particular prophet. We may even say that is the prophet’s own mind under divine influence that talks and inspires. This idea is eloquently expressed by the renowned theologian Keith Ward (defender of comparative theology):

God does not put thoughts into a vacant mind. God shapes the thoughts which are there, insofar as the mind is receptive to divine influence, to express something of the divine nature… God can be thought of as using conceptual and imaginative mental contents that exist at a particular time to deepen insight into the divine being and purpose. That active guidance will always respect the freedom which humans can exercise either to hinder or ease the divine interaction…

One might suggest that the prophets came to form a belief in the presence of such a god (one holy and transcendent) under the influence of divine inspiration. That inspiration is not the placing of words in their minds, though false and true prophets alike often felt such words coming to them as if from an outside source. It is the shaping of human thoughts to new insights, in ways always ambiguous and distorted by passion and prejudice, yet responsive to divine leading. One is compelled to speak of such ambiguity within the bible itself precisely because of the primitive elements which remain only party digested within it, and because even some of the later developed elements show a form of moral regression to racist and exclusive beliefs. The picture is not one of a clear moral truth shining unambiguously to dispel the dark clouds of paganism; but of a painful assent to new forms of insight which are continually dragged back to become the slaves of nationalistic and exclusive passion. The model of revelation which best seems to account for this picture is the model of god as drawing human minds towards the divine by persuasive influence, but not eliminating passion and prejudice from those minds and their apprehension of the divine[1].” [All emphasis added].

Comparative theology

This I think solves the biggest dilemma every believer (in religious experiences) must deal with, namely: why there are so many contradictions and inconsistencies within the religious communities? If we are to literally consider all prophets equally divinely inspired (and there is no reason why we shouldn’t), how can we reconcile so many different contradictive philosophies into a single coherent unit? Furthermore, how can we possibly accept all their revelations literally when most of them contain fictitious and fanciful creatures, and some of them even erroneous information about the world and history? But if we accept Keith Ward’s illumination account there will be no paradox. As we have attempted to show, prophecy is a bit more complicated than we have perceived it to be until now. It is not god’s voice shining through unambiguously, rather it is the prophet that is talking albeit under divine influence; god helps the prophet formulate ideas and inspires him to preach the divine message and gives him the courage to rebuke and criticize. Once we admit that, it will understandable, and maybe even inevitable, that different philosophies and worldviews would arise from different people from different cultures and backgrounds. Similarly different understandings of the divine will arise within the mystical community given their different religious upbringing; this factor will inevitably lead to different apprehensions of the divine to arise. Some will deem him personal and some impersonal (as in the Eastern religions), some scary and frightening (Rudolf Otto) and some loving and benevolent. Keith Ward daringly writes that the prophet may even command to do unethical deeds in the name of god, because his mind is distorted by passion and prejudice the divine light cannot shine through unambiguously.

“For these reasons, it has been generally accepted by Christian theologians that god uses the abilities and personalities of the human authors, rather than dictating in a distinctively divine style which would be the same throughout… this illumination account is perhaps the most promising, though it leaves rather vague just how and to what extent god guides human minds in this process. It would be hard to maintain that god causes human minds to write exactly what god wants them to write, if they recommend exterminating the Amalekites and god does not truly will genocide… it looks as though divine guidance must be more indirect than ensuring that particular words get put into the text. It must leave room for human fallibility and shortsightednessrevelation is on this account not the utterance of words by god, which would then naturally be infallible and unquestionable authoritative. It is the shaping by god of human thoughts and feelings so as to challenge, guide, and motivate… two main reasons have been given for this account of revelation. First, it meets the general problem that if revelation consists of infallibly given propositions, it seems implausibly obscure, rare, and disputed. Second it places revelation intelligibly within the general range of observable religious phenomena, rather than giving one particular revelation a totally unique status. In doing so it helps to explain why disagreements exist between revelations. For very different human cultures, values, and crisis may well give rise to diverse revelations which, if turned into absolute and infallible claims, will inevitably conflict. There is a third even more powerful reason for accepting such an account. That is, it enables one to understand how factual errors and moral limitations can occur in scripture, if it is a collection of writings shaped and guided by god yet still bearing the imprint of its human writers[2].” [All emphasis added].

I find that this position is much more realistic than the contemporary religio-philosophical view that take these revelations too literal. They posit that if divine and mystical revelations are real we must accept everything they saw as representing something real of some otherworldly realm. But this, i realize, is unrealistic and indefensible as the various diverse revelations will conflict and cause us to doubt the truth of their claims. But according to my position, this is not so. On the contrary, we must proceed with caution and take these revelation with a grain of salt, so when St. Teresa or St. Patrick speak about their angelic visions and describe them in detail we must recognize that they are the work of their own imagination. But at the same time we recognize that these great prophets were deeply affected by their divine encounters and we can see them burning with divine fever while reading their words full of passion and energy about god and ethics. We can see that they have been touched by the hand of god and that is why we must take them seriously and listen to the voice that inspired them and be inspired. As Ward points out, the prophet's mind is being shaped by god, but it still bears the imprint of the human mind and strongly influenced by it.

[1] Keith Ward, Religion and Revelation, p. 89

[2] Keith Ward, Religion and Revelation p. 216

Prophecy is an interaction of the human with the divine. God does not put words in the mind of the prophet, god does not dictate every word of the prophet as has been traditionally thought, rather god guides the thoughts of the prophet in the direction of truth, and develops it to perfection. But this does not mean that the prophet loses his identity during the encounter and gives god free rein over his mind.

The Trojan prophetess Cassandra is being dragged during the fall of Troy (which she accurately predicted, but no one believed her).
The Trojan prophetess Cassandra is being dragged during the fall of Troy (which she accurately predicted, but no one believed her).


As we have seen prophecy has a very rich history indeed, and has sure benefited civilization over the centuries and had a strong and lasting impact on mankind. Who knows how the world would have been without their religious contributions? The three major western monotheistic religions could not have come into existence without the existence of prophets and their splendid gifts, and this is true regarding many other eastern religions. Who knows how primitive the subject of ethics and morality would have been today without their sublime insights? We must give credit where credit is due. Even nowadays they still have the power to inspire us to walk in their ways and strive for perfection. They are our sole connection to the divine, our beacon of light. However, at the same time we conclude that prophecy is not a supernatural phenomenon, and that it can be acquired through mental exercise and practice. We also understand that no one besides for god is infallible, not even his prophets! That’s why we must be careful not to follow them blindly. But at the same time we recognize their genius and read their words with awe and wonder, and take much inspiration from their words; they have been touched by the hand of god and they have shown to us how it is to walk with god, and how to inspire others with their message.


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    • kalinin1158 profile image

      Lana Adler 

      13 months ago from California

      A very interesting and informative article! I dig the illustrations too. I've always wondered about the nature of mystical experiences including prophecies, and I do believe that they are (or can be) of divine nature, or divinely inspired, albeit often misinterpreted by the human mind. Great read!

    • Jay C OBrien profile image

      Jay C OBrien 

      13 months ago from Houston, TX USA

      Let me share my Telepathic Experiences.

      When I was a teenager Jim, my stepfather came into the living room and told me about a reoccurring pain I had been having. The pain went down my left arm to the wrist. I would respond by taking my right hand and grasping my left wrist for a few seconds. No one had seen me do this and I had never told anyone about it. Jim described the pain and what I did about it perfectly. I was so shocked I denied it and Jim walked away.

      Also as a teenager I had an experience with my best friend, David. I had a feeling that a rope came out from my midsection and was attached to David. I felt a tugging and then felt his mind. I do not remember what he was thinking, but I was aware of a great connection.

      Also as a teenager I was discussing telepathy with a neighbor. She asked me whether I could do it and I said yes. She asked me to do it and I sat down to meditate. I saw a cloud on her midsection and I thought of the Fallopian tube. I told her what I had seen in my mind. She then confirmed that her doctor had told her she could not have children because of a withered fallopian tube.

      I also did two medical readings under controlled conditions under the Silva Method (now called Silva Ultra-mind). A woman sat facing me with index cards filled out with the condition of the patients. Two out of two times I described the persons’ medical condition. The moderator then showed me the index cards. My descriptions matched what had been written on the cards.

      Let me add that No Religion should teach one person or group should harm another person or group or themselves in the name of God. God is not a warrior/killer. All stories which depict God as a warrior/killer or with human emotions such as anger, jealousy or vengeance is Blasphemy.


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