|Pond circles, in my back yard|
My watershed religious experience came when, at age 21, someone told me "God loves you." I had heard and read these words many times before. But this time was different. They set off an inner revolution that continues to this day. A large portion of my life has been dedicated to understanding the nature and source of this experience. One thing that has helped me is teaching my philosophy of religion courses, and occasionally teaching a section on religious experience as presented in most standard philosophy of religion texts.
What does religious experience look like? Here is Oxford philosopher Richard Swinburne's 5 types of religious experience, from the perspective of the experiencer. (Taken from Reason and Religious Belief; An Introduction to the Philosophy of Religion, eds. Michael Peterson, William Hasker, Bruce Reichenbach, and David Basinger; 29 ff.)
1. Experience of God or Ultimate Reality mediated through a common, public, sensory object. For example, one might claim to see God in an icon, sunset, or ocean. Icons or sunsets are not God, but objects in and through which God or the transcendent is encountered.
My journals are filled with God-experiences mediated through sense experience. History, modern and ancient, is filled with these kind of theophanies. Here, for example, is Nehemiah 9:6 - You alone are the LORD. You made the heavens, even the highest heavens, and all their starry host, the earth and all that is on it, the seas and all that is in them. You give life to everything, and the multitudes of heaven worship you. Verses like these melt the hearts of some of us.
2. Experience of God or Ultimate Reality mediated through an unusual, public, sensory object. For example, one might claim to experience the transcendent through an appearance of the Virgin at Lourdes, a figure seen in a cloud formation, or in a bush that burned but was not consumed.
3. Experience of God or Ultimate Reality mediated through private sensations that can be described in normal sensory language. Visions, dreams, locutions, and the like, despite being described in sensory language, are available only to one person. For example, a person might claim to experience God in a dream or vision, as did Peter, who, in a trance, saw a cloth filled with unkosher animals lowered from heaven.
God has, on occasion, spoken to me through a dream. I have a few of them that I interpret and clearly from God (via inference to the best explanation).
4. Experience of God or Ultimate Reality mediated through private sensations that cannot be described in normal sensory language. Here one feels or claims to experience something, but it cannot be spoken about; it is ineffable.
These are non-discursive experiences. I have had some of them, and written about this here and here.
5. Experience of God or Ultimate Reality that is not mediated by any sensations. The person claims to be intuitively and immediately aware of God or the One.
I've had this kind of experience as well.
Experiences with God are important because experience, not theory, breeds conviction.
Note: Charles Taylor's work influences me; e.g., his majestic "A Secular Age." Taylor has recently collaborated with the great philosopher Hubert Dreyfus in Retrieving Realism. See a review here. Taylor and Dreyfus critique mediational theories of knowledge and argue for unmediated access to reality. Perhaps this work can, by logical extension, validate experiences of unmediated access to God. See # 5 above.