Answer: Having missed the lecture this question depends on, and somehow unwittingly missed the handout even after we spoke about it, I'll just have to improvise. This is just as well, for while some decent stuff has been written about the nature of religious experience, I've yet to see anything that really plays fair with all of the evidence from the phenomena. The closest I've ever seen to that is Rudolf Otto's The Idea of the Holy, but even that languishes somewhat under his theological liberalism. And then, even that problem was somewhat amended by C.S. Lewis' generally positive analysis of Otto's writing in his own works. At any rate, worldview considerations aside, scholars in this field can be forgiven for having a hard time sorting out such an array of apparently conflicting data. At all turns it seems, whatever one has to say about a certain religious experience will not hold true for another one. Where Rudolf Otto and C.S. Lewis succeed most thoroughly is in the demonstration that religious experience has a common origin in the apprehension of the numinous, the feeling of "fear and fascination" when a contingent being encounters something that presents itself as (to quote Martin Luther) a "naked absolute." In illustrating the apprehension of the numinous, Lewis gives the following example:
Suppose you were told there was a tiger in the next room: you would know that you were in danger and would probably feel fear. But if you were told 'There is a ghost in the next room', and believed it, you would feel, indeed, what is often called fear, but of a different kind. It would not be based on the knowledge of danger, for no one is primarily afraid of what a ghost may do to him, but of the mere fact that it is a ghost. It is 'uncanny' rather than dangerous, and the special kind of fear it excites may be called Dread. With the Uncanny one has reached the fringes of the Numinous. Now suppose that you were told simply 'There is a mighty spirit in the room', and believed it. Your feelings would then be even less like the mere fear of danger: but the disturbance would be profound. You would feel wonder and a certain shrinking - a sense of inadequacy to cope with such a visitant and of prostration before it - an emotion which might be expressed in Shakespeare's words 'Under it my genius is rebuked'. This feeling may be described as awe, and the object which excites it as the Numinous. (C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain p. 5-6)
From here, Lewis goes on to observe that "nothing is more certain than that man, from a very early period, began to believe that the universe was haunted by spirits." (Ibid.) From the most ancient human societies to modern civilizations across the whole world, it has been well established that more than a few individuals throughout the range of human experience have been having these numinous experiences, and "do not dissappear from the mind with the growth of knowledge and civilisation." (p. 8) So what should we make of this fact? Well, whenever we encounter a phenomenal appearance of something that we cannot plausibly attribute to being caused by something different from what it appears to be, then we are epistemically justified in believing that the noumenon that produces the experience to be at least causally correlated to its phenomenal appearance. So then, as relates to the phenomenal experience of the numinous, Lewis goes on to argue that in terms of the production of the numinous experience:
There is no possibility of arguing from mere danger to the uncanny, still less to the fully Numinous. You may say that it seems to you very natural that early man, being surrounded by real dangers, and therefore frightened, should invent the uncanny and the Numinous. In a sense it is, but let us understand what we mean. You feel it to be natural because, sharing human experience with your remote ancestors, you can imagine yourself reacting to perilous solitudes in the same way; and this reaction is indeed 'natural' in the sense of being in accord with human nature. But it is not in the least 'natural' in the sense that the idea of the dangerous, or that any perception of danger or any dislike of the wounds and death which it may entail could give the slightest conception of ghostly dread or numinous awe to an intelligence which did not already understand them. When man passes from physical fear to dread and awe, he makes a sheer jump, and apprehends something which could never be given, as danger is, by the physical facts and logical deductions from them. Most attempts to explain the Numinous presuppose the thing to be explained - as when anthropologists derive it from fear of the dead, without explaining why dead men (assuredly the least dangerous kind of men) should have attracted this peculiar feeling. Against all such attempts we must insist that dread and awe are in a different dimension from fear. They are in the nature of an interpretation man gives to the universe, or an impression he gets from it; and just as no enumeration of the physical qualities of a beautiful object could ever include its beauty, or give the slightest hint of what we mean by beauty to a creature without aesthetic experience, so no factual description of any human environment could include the uncanny or the Numinous or even hint at them. There seem, in fact, to be only two views we can hold about awe. Either it is a mere twist in the human mind, corresponding to nothing objective and serving no biological function, yet showing no tendency to disappear from the mind at its fullest development in poet, philosopher, or saint: or it is a direct experience of the really supernatural, to which the name Revelation might properly be given. (p. 9-10)
If then, the numinous experience is a revelation of sorts, what exactly does it reveal? If we were to just go on the early sense of dread upon encountering the numinous, perhaps we would join the "enlightened" rationalist in his fears that he should find himself living in (to quote the Bride of Frankenstein) "a new world of gods and monsters". Who indeed has not, in one way or another, balked at the "incalculable claims of the Numinous" (p. 12) that threaten to utterly consume the nonbeliever and the mystic alike? In our all too fragile mortal mode of being, it appears that our only viable defense for our ontic self-affirmation against it's threat is to deny the numinous' claims upon us by any means possible. However, as Otto's work goes on to show, to the individual who both accepts the numinous' claims upon them and internalizes them in their very being, the experience of the numinous undergoes a transformation from awe and dread terror to love, joy, sweetness, and consolation. Having experienced a rich variety of aesthetic pleasures in my day, I will here cheerfully state that my greatest joy and happiness in life is found in quiet prayer, and I know I am far from alone in saying this. Indeed, in comparison to the joy of the numinous, all other joys and pleasures seem but pale shadows, and in this is the folly of those who would say that the joy produced in religious experiences stems some other kind of sensory stimulation exposed to be grossly inadequate to explain the phenomenon. You can try, but you'll never get the same qualia from anything else. To all who have had such experiences,the impression conveyed through them is unmistakably of the purest and highest love. And in the light of this transmission of love, it becomes clear that we are not condemned to forever be alone and empty in a meaningless universe, but that in this love we will be both accompanied and completed in an eminently meaningful universe now and forevermore.
To put all the pieces together, then, the human experience of the numinous in religious experience is highly suggestive of the existence of an Absolute who, unlike the detached God of deism's clockwork universe, takes the uttermost care in human affairs. The numinous reveals itself as one who both demands everything from the bewildered and beloved individual, and gives everything to them. To one undergoing such an experience or experiences, they will find themselves both sorely deconstructed and gloriously reconstructed, though often not as quickly as they would like. So too, the sheer ineffability of the experience combined with the fact that the one experiencing it emerges with clear conceptual content about the meaning of the experience strongly implies that the numinous communicates in a field of being that is to language what metaphysics is to physics. While such an avenue of communication is much more profound than language, unfortunately, it is also more vulnerable to what is known in the field of communications as "noise", whereby psychological and environmental factors inhibit the individual from receiving a communication as the thing-in-itself. This consideration goes a long way in explaining why individuals emerge from religious experiences with such wildly divergent (and often, indeed, "wild") conclusions about their meaning. To further complicate things, the capacity for other spiritual beings other than the fully Numinous to refract the numinous is capable of sending misleading signals that diminish from the the ontologically Absolute nature of the former (Cf. 2 Corinthians 11:13-15, 1 Thessalonians 2:1-12, Revelation 13, and Revelation 22:8-9, each of which reflect different aspects of humanity's tendency toward misguided idolatry, in which man worships the contingent as if it were absolute).
Well, in spite of these various inhibiting or even misdirecting factors, is it still possible to pierce through the haze and discern the source and identity of the numinous? Yes, I believe the very properties of the numinous phenomenon rather neatly correspond to the properties we would expect if the universe was the product of a benevolent creator God as posited by the theism, and so this seems the most plausible interpretation of the phenomena. Among the properties we are so clued in upon by the shape of the data hitherto are the creator-creation distinction, the divine attributes of omnipotence and omniscience, divine goodness and holiness, and sin and salvation, to name but a few. Having finished defining my approach to the problem of religious experience, let us turn to the analysis of the vision of Isaiah. In the sixth chapter of the book of Isaiah, one of the greatest prophets of the Old Testament, we read the story of his divine calling to became a prophet to his people and to many nations:
In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above him stood the seraphim. Each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. And one called to another and said: "Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!" And the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke. And I said: "Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!" Then one of the seraphim flew to me, having in his hand a burning coal that he had taken with tongs from the altar. And he touched my mouth and said: "Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for." And I heard the voice of the Lord saying, "Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?" Then I said, "Here am I! Send me." And he said, "Go, and say to this people: "'Keep on hearing, but do not understand; keep on seeing, but do not perceive.' Make the heart of this people dull, and their ears heavy, and blind their eyes; lest they see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their hearts, and turn and be healed." Then I said, "How long, O Lord?" And he said: "Until cities lie waste without inhabitant, and houses without people, and the land is a desolate waste, and the LORD removes people far away, and the forsaken places are many in the midst of the land. And though a tenth remain in it, it will be burned again, like a terebinth or an oak, whose stump remains when it is felled." The holy seed is its stump. (Isaiah 6:1-13)
What, then, are we make of this astonishing vision? Well, for one thing, it tells us of a numinous revelation so pure and direct that Isaiah finds himself in deathly terror that he will perish on the spot. Indeed, after only a brief span of time in God's presence, he finds himself so compelled just by being in it to confess his greatest sin and highest hubris and to humbly submit himself completely to God's mercy. Not bad for a first impression! So too, the sheer impression of the magnitude of God's presence is augmented by the account of the seraphim, the highest and holiest angels in the grand hierarchy of angels who spend all eternity in the direct theophany of God's glory. Of these, it is said that they must have six wings for covers and veils to even cope with the magnitude of the divine presence, and that they call out to one another saying "Holy, holy, holy (and in Hebrew, when you repeat the same word several times in a row, it means you are emphasizing its importance and magnitude) is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!" Herein lies the the revelation of a great mystery - how could it be that a world so full of pain and sorrow and loneliness and anguish and hate and injustice and violence and despair already be full of God's glory, and how will Israel and humanity finally come to reflect this glory as properly as the presence of the Numinous demands? The calling of Abraham so long ago to start a holy people so long ago was intended to resolve this problem (cf. Genesis 12:1-3), but now in their rebellion the children of Israel have themselves become part of the problem. Indeed, at this very moment Israel stands at the brink of ruin for their injustice, violence, and treachery (Cf. Isaiah 1), and God in his wisdom warns Isaiah that his people will not respond to his warning before disaster comes upon them. While things in God's realm are going quite heavenly, the picture for planet earth still looks pretty bleak, and it will be up to the prophet Isaiah to warn and admonish the nations (particularly his own), and to prophecy the hope of the nations in the coming Messiah and his inauguration of the kingdom of God.
From all this, then, it is clear that Isaiah's religious experience wasn't simply numinous and prone to all the noise of an ineffable communication, but is also linguistic, sensory, and very clear in the transmission. Here there can be no question about whether God exists or what he wants from Isaiah. To be sure, the passage doesn't tell us about anyone else witnessing the event or even whether it was a bodily or or out-of-body experience. When we refer to his experience as a "vision", what we mean by it is that Isaiah had a theophany without making further judgment of it's particular nature. As such, it looks like the veridicality of the vision stands or falls on Isaiah himself. Fortunately, from the available internal and external evidence, Isaiah stacks up very well. The image of Isaiah that emerges from both Isaiah 38-39 and 2 Kings 19-20 is of a man of great courage and integrity, the man who king Hezekiah himself turns to in his hours of most dire need, yet also one who can be trusted to tell him some very inconvenient truths about the future of his kingdom. So too, the astonishing correspondence of Isaiah's prophecy to future historical events, not least of which are those related to the coming of Jesus and the birth of Christianity, are compelling enough to indicate that he is a true prophet. In conclusion, then, we should take Isaiah's vision and prophecy with the utmost seriousness, and take it to heart. There's really so much we can learn from Isaiah, and we should take the time to do so.
1. Highly unlikely given an evolutionary paradigm and the inherent risks entailed by an individual who incorrectly apprehends what he or she perceives to be numinous or uncanny.
2. Ok, technically they are in fact the second highest and holiest angels on the grounds that Jesus, in emphasizing the immense importance of children in the world and especially in God's kingdom, made reference to the tradition of the wing-veiled seraphim to make his point. He said "See that you do not look down on one of these little ones. For I tell you that their angels in heaven always see the face of my Father in heaven." (Matthew 18:10) Apparently, the vocation of these angels is so noble and honorable that they need no shield from the direct epiphany of the the divine presence.