Religious Experience, Conversion, and Creativity: An Essay

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The following was a college essay written by Maria FloresIt has been edited and approved by Madeleine Sanders. If you have a Theology essay that you would like published that received a grade of an A- or higher, please be sure to contact us.

Maria Flores

In the effort to understand the origin of religious experience, psychologists have speculated on questions such as whether God is an objective existence, whether He is merely a product of the mind, and how it is possible for a creature to communicate with its omnipotent creator. The answers to these questions are useful in many ways such as in determining whether one is truly experiencing God or hallucinating pathologically and understanding which faculties of the human person, if not all, are the most useful in effectively communicating with the Divine.

Author William James’s proposal of the religious experience in The Varieties of Religious Experience derives from his study of conversion experiences. He defines conversion as the process “by which a self hitherto divided, and consciously wrong inferior and unhappy, becomes unified . . . in consequence of its firmer hold upon religious realities” (James 189). This definition of conversion reveals James’s outlook on the religious experience as characterized by subjectivity. Conversion in this sense means becoming happier as a result of an encounter with novelty or resemblance of the truth and not necessarily an objective truth. James’s perspective is problematic, for it effectually rejects the possibility of God as a real entity by limiting the human person to an experience inside of themselves—real or not—as exemplified by his proposal that the conscious relates one to things material and the subconscious to things immaterial (242).

His understanding of the subconscious in relation to the Divine was developed in analogy to the common human occurrence when one’s mental recollection fails with the more effort invested and is recovered only when he has ceased trying. Similarly, James says that the unconscious strives for something “definite, and . . . different” from the conscious and is obstructed by volition, thereby subjecting conscious rationality to the unconscious (209). His view is faulty, however, since it consequently removes God from one’s so-called ‘religious experience’. For example, according to Aristotle, what distinguishes humans from animals is the power of reason (Nicomachean Ethics 1.13). This human intellect, as the higher power of the human person, holds the greatest resemblance to God and is hence responsible for inciting people to contemplation of divine nature and seeking truth which transcends temporality. If the intellect, therefore, is the relational factor between God and man, then it is illogical that man should instead seek God through that over which he has no control—namely, his subconscious.

James’s basic premise of complete self-surrender to the subconscious rather than to God cuts one off from interaction with the Divine. In lieu of renouncing the necessity of consciousness, an alternative interpretation of the analogy of mental recollection is that one’s conscious faculties are the initiating point for any subconscious activity. For example, William Mattison’s affirmation in Introducing Moral Theology: True Happiness and the Virtues of one’s moral culpability to a certain degree for his immediate involuntary actions parallels the dominance of conscious over unconscious activity. Men’s natural and involuntary arousal in the presence of women, for instance, is not wrong in itself. However, if one has voluntarily viewed pornography, arousal around women will consequently be affected. The immediate involuntary response of arousal is thus morally culpable in this case, for it is inseparable from one’s conscious choice to view pornography. On the other hand, James argues that one’s subconscious can be its own portal to further reality and is only hindered by consciousness.

Caroline Franks Davis, in The Evidential Force of Religious Experience, initially seems to follow suit with James’s proposition, as she says that what qualifies something as “‘religious experience’ [is] if the subject himself saw it in a religious light” (Davis 30). Davis’s stipulation appears to suggest that she bases religious experience on subjective interpretation, thus confining it to the realm of the human mind. Upon further examination of her philosophy, however, she identifies religious experience if the “alleged precept is actually present” and, more explicitly, she asserts that hallucinations are only unreal “if one force[s] them into the mould of sense perception” (36-7). Moreover, she says that there is not a “sense of ‘a presence’” but “some kind of presence,” implying not only an appearance of the spiritual presence but also man’s relationship with it (45). Her observation requires a reaching out of oneself and engagement in bidirectional interaction with another entity. Conversely, James’s notion of the subconscious neither reaches out nor within. Rather, it renounces its deliberative human faculty—namely, the conscious—and thus loses touch with the experience of an external Other.

Although Davis allows for the possibility of the existence of the Divine in one’s perception, she, like James, explores the concept of self-renunciation present in many religious traditions and experiences. For example, she says that in religious experience, there is a depletion of self, the loss of concern for worldly matters, and the subsequent perception that all objects are “‘unreal’ in comparison” (55). This view implies that one’s whole self—especially his rationality which connects him to the outer world and objective truth—recedes so much as to be effectively annihilated. I believe, however, that an alternate way of experiencing this renunciation and loss of concern for worldly things without denying his rational faculties or inherent being is through absorption in the Divine. The awe-inspiring greatness of the divine is indisputably infinitely greater than the ordinary earthly life, and it should thus be expected that one’s relationship with the world changes after a religious experience. Importantly, however, this perspective does not exclude worldly interest or care. Rather, one can renounce the world in the sense that he is neither attached nor dependent upon it but in God alone. This distance subsequently allows one to appreciate the world as a reflection of the Divine and regard it in itself without utilitarian motives. Therefore, the religious experience need not be exclusively inward. On the contrary, its thoroughly outgoing element is appropriately compatible with Davis’s acknowledgment of a divine entity externally from one’s mind.

While using one’s subconscious without rationality to reach the Divine is ineffective, it would be equally ineffective to think that the human intellect is sufficient for reaching the Divine. This view incorrectly renders the human mind more powerful than God and likewise excludes the possibility for the external and omnipotent Divinity itself. Watts and Williams’s conclusion that the intellect is the pioneering faculty which brings one to God and emotions are its consequence suggests that there is a mediating entity between the rational and emotive faculties—namely, God. For instance, Watts and Williams hold that while

Control of emotional expression can help to produce a state of psychological calmness that in turn facilitates the spiritual path . . . Any suggestion that a healthy spiritual life can be built on a blunting of emotional sensitivities needs to be rebutted strongly (85).

They give the example of Saint Teresa of Avila who, through contemplation of God enabled by rational means, experienced other-worldly ecstasy. If her rational features were not veridical and communicative to a higher being in prayer, she would not have had such a strong corresponding emotional response.

That the conscious faculties are primary to the subconscious is not only theoretically viable but is also supported by modern psychology. For example, Chamorro-Premuzic’s personality development studies on creativity and intelligence as presented in Personality and Individual Differences examine the effectiveness of brainstorming, which involves the suspension of in-depth judgement and utilizes one’s immediate reactions to a proposed topic in order to generate creative solutions. The researchers conclude that “brainstorming is ineffective” since it would prompt original conclusions but not necessarily good ones (Chamorro 298). This conclusion is consistent with the Threshold Theory of Creativity and Intelligence which holds that a “minimum level of intelligence is required to be creative” (309). This theory derives from the reasoning that, while intelligence results in “‘correct’ responses” and creativity in “‘good’ responses,” good responses are necessarily correct (309). This conclusion indicates a supremacy of intelligence over creativity—that is to say, intelligence and creativity are necessary, but intelligence is a necessary part of both. This parallels the importance of the rational and conscious components to informing the subconscious in the religious experience. Furthermore, the importance of choice (an action driven by reason) and thus the information based on an objective source outside of the mind is emphasized in Chamorro-Premuzic’s concern that choice be limited by external as opposed to internal motivation, that “structured, predefined tasks . . . [are] detrimental to creativity,” and his strong promotion of “Openness to Experience” (313, 319).

The concepts of creativity and intelligence in modern psychology and Davis’s speculations on the religious experience uphold the possibility of the existence of a higher entity by prioritizing rationality which connects one’s whole being, including the subconscious, outward. Such philosophy is necessary, for solely relying on one’s subconscious is unreliable for determining the validity of a particular religious experience. James himself admits that, if solely based on the subconscious, religious experience could originate from “nature, or worse still, be counterfeited by Satan” (James 238). In fact, the notion of self-renunciation as interpreted by James and Davis evokes the annihilation of the self which Satan would promote against God’s creation. The reinterpretation of self-effacing notions, which have unreliable subjectivity at their core, to an outgoing view of the religious experience is therefore indispensable to uniting the human person with God and the rest of the world in response to the religious experience.

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