Talking Non-Christian Religious Experiences: Avoiding Compromise and Demonization for the Sake of the Good News and Social Peace

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By Tim Brys

A few years ago, I was left rather shaken when confronted with the fact that Christians are not the only ones to enjoy deeply meaningful religious experiences. Consider for example the following account that I read in William James’s classic work, The Varieties of Religious Experience. James took this account from the autobiography of a man who is generally considered one of the most important Muslim philosophers of all time, al-Ghazali:

I found myself tied down by a multitude of bonds—temptations on every side. Considering my teaching, I found it was impure before God. I saw myself struggling with all my might to achieve glory and to spread my name. … Then, feeling my own weakness, and having entirely given up my own will, I repaired to God like a man in distress who has no more resources. He answered, as he answers the wretch who invokes him. My heart no longer felt any difficulty in renouncing glory, wealth, and my children. So I quitted Bagdad, and reserving from my fortune only what was indispensable for my subsistence, I distributed the rest. [1]

His conversion experience would make for a great Christian conversion story: striving for one’s own glory, then realizing one’s own weakness and insufficiency, casting oneself on God, God answering, and finally giving away one’s fortune in response. Only, as already noted, al-Ghazali was not a Christian.

Al-Ghazali’s religious experience and other non-Christian accounts like it left me shaken and quite a bit puzzled. How should I explain these phenomena? In my Evangelical circles, there was a rather simple knee-jerk reaction available to such accounts: “this is demonic!” After all, can’t the devil masquerade as an angel of light (2 Corinthians 11:14)? On the other hand, in more liberal Protestant circles, the knee-jerk reaction to accounts like al-Ghazali’s tends to be: “this is God!” After all, didn’t Paul go so far as to refer to a pagan “unknown god” as God (Acts 17:23)?

Both responses appear to me as being too easy, rather unsatisfying, one-size-fits-all dismissals of complex phenomena. Why is there the spiritual gift of discerning spirits (1 Corinthians 12:10) if there are simple clear-cut answers to these issues?

Furthermore, neither response seems to be very fruitful for orthodox, Christian interfaith interactions. The former knee-jerk reaction to non-Christian religious experiences (“it’s demonic!”) falls into the category of interfaith interactions that Martin Accad calls “polemical”. [2] He argues that, by demonizing the other, interactions in this category immediately shut down any possibility for working towards inter-religious social peace. The latter knee-jerk reaction (“it’s God!”) falls into Accad’s “syncretistic” category, at the other end of his spectrum of interfaith interactions. This response preempts the rather orthodox impulse of wanting to share the Good News of Jesus with those who do not see God’s full self-revelation in Jesus. And arguably, polemical responses are not very effective at sharing this Good News either, nor are syncretistic responses very useful for achieving inter-religious social peace, as they require the denial of people’s usually rather exclusive religious identities.

Instead of impaling ourselves on the horns of this apparent dichotomy, having to choose between aggressive evangelism and a secular social gospel, we have a way forward, which Accad calls “kerygmatic”, after the New Testament word kērygma meaning proclamation. He believes this approach “has the potential of being most fruitful for Christ’s gospel as good news and most conducive to peace in our age of great conflicts.” [3] This approach to interfaith interactions refuses to choose between exclusively pursuing peace with God and exclusively pursuing peace among humans. It deems both the continuities as well as the discontinuities with the religious other as important and in need of discussion. The former are useful to affirm for the sake of human peace, the latter need to be challenged for the sake of peace with God.

Applying the kerygmatic approach to talk about religious experiences, I suggest there are two Biblical criteria or lenses that will allow us to identify these continuities and discontinuities, thus helping us live in the tension of affirming and challenging the religious other.

The first criterion is concerned with human flourishing and I base it on Paul’s letter to the Galatians. In that letter, Paul explains to the Galatians how to recognize the work of God’s Spirit as opposed to the “works of the flesh”: “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control” (Galatians 5:22-23). In other words, God’s Spirit produces virtuous character.

Applying this criterion to al-Ghazali’s religious experience, the verdict is rather positive, and we can affirm continuity with our own Christian tradition. Indeed, as a consequence of his experience, al-Ghazali seems to have become a more virtuous person, freed from pride and able to give away most of his fortune.

However, I propose to consider a second criterion along with the first. This criterion is concerned with truth and I base it on passages written by John and Paul respectively. They wrote that “when the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth” (John 16:13), and that “no one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except in the Holy Spirit.” (1 Corinthians 12:3). In other words, God’s Spirit reveals truth, and specifically about Jesus. Now, truth is a prickly issue, but, while we must acknowledge that we probably don’t own all of the truth, at least we know that Jesus said that he is the Truth. This criterion therefore favors experiences that reveal T/truth.

That is where, from an orthodox Christian perspective, al-Ghazali’s religious experience falls short, and an important discontinuity with our Christian tradition is revealed. While his experience appears to reveal some truth regarding God’s grace, al-Ghazali does not receive a clear revelation of Jesus of Nazareth, i.e., the Truth.

Thus, with these two criteria in hand, I am able to sidestep the rather simplistic question “is this God or the devil?” in order to have a more nuanced and fruitful inter-religious interaction. By affirming the ways in which the religious other’s experiences contribute to human flourishing and lead into deeper truth about God, I am able to create a space to strive together for social peace. At the same time, by challenging the ways in which their experiences fall short of the Truth revealed in Jesus, I am able to be faithful to my calling to lead people into peace with God.

Tim Brys is a Master of Religion in MENA Studies student researching Christian peacebuilding in interreligious contexts.

[1] James, William. The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature, Longmans, Green, And Co., 1917, 403-404.
[2] Accad, Martin. “Christian attitudes toward Islam and Muslims: a kerygmatic approach.” Toward Respectful Understanding and Witness among Muslims: Essays in Honor of J. Dudley Woodberry (2012): 29-47.
[3] Ibid., 37.

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