RELN 206: Survey of Religious Experiences
Credit Hours: (3)
This is a cross-cultural and interdisciplinary examination of religious experiences, defined as "reported direct encounters with the supernatural." Students will read accounts from around the world of religious visions and calls, possession, mystical union, and journeys to the afterlife, along with the biographies of shamans, mediums, and mystics. Theories from a variety of academic disciplines will illuminate the human causes and consequences of these extraordinary phenomena. This course has been approved for General Education credit in the Humanities Area of the curriculum.
Detailed Description of Content of Course
This course introduces students to the subject matter and methods of Religious Studies through a cross-cultural, interdisciplinary examination of religious experiences.
Its first task is to acquaint students with a vast and varied literature in which individuals from around the world report extraordinary experiences they understood to be direct contact with gods, demons, worlds of the dead, and other objects of religious devotion and belief. These accounts constitute a set of historical and biographical data that students will likely find unfamiliar and enigmatic, but which represent religion in its most dramatic form.
Second, the course will introduce students to conceptual frameworks and theories for understanding religious experiences humanistically and scientifically, i.e., as expressions of universal human capacities, and observably influenced, at least to some extent, by natural processes and conditions.
Third, the examination of religious experiences will provide a starting point for considering religions as a whole, since "direct encounters" constitute the origins, on-going source of revelation, goals of rituals, and requirements for salvation across traditions.
The particular kinds of religious experiences considered, examples of them, and theoretical approaches may vary. However, the course will cover the aforementioned materials through sequential units structured roughly as follows:
(1) Introduction. The course begins by introducing students to the variety of religious experiences across cultures and academic understandings of them. This will include, for example, on the one hand, accounts presented in lectures and readings of Near Death Experiences, shamanic journeys, visions of the Virgin Mary; and, on the other, attribution theory and psychoanalytic concepts such as ego regression. In this part of the course, students will be challenged to master historical and biographical data and social-scientific theoretical frameworks, and to apply the latter to the former.
(2) Cross-cultural comparisons of common types of religious experiences. This unit engages students in the comparison of similar religious experiences across traditions, e.g., possession, mystical, and call experiences. The presentation, in lectures and readings, of testimonies and biographies of mystics, prophets, mediums, and demoniacs from particular cultures enhances the depth and precision of the investigation of religious experiences, underscoring both parallels and discontinuities across particular settings. New problems for academic understanding, e.g., the common core debate in the study of mysticism, emerge. At the same time, through a consideration of figures like Muhammad, as an exemplar of call experiences, students begin to grasp the place of religious experiences in religious traditions and cultures, a topic explored extensively in the final unit.
(3) The significance of religious experiences in personal life, religious traditions, and societies. This unit is the panoramic counterpoint of the previous close examination of a few types of religious experiences. It considers religious experiences in the larger settings of biography, the history of religious traditions, and cultural dynamics. Specific topics may include the significance of religious experiences for mental health and personal faith, the problems of charismatic leadership and the institutionalization of religious experiences, and the social functions of religious experiences in traditional and modern societies. Historical case studies and relevant social-scientific research will provide the materials for each topic.
Detailed Description of Conduct of Course
This is an introductory course covering historical and biographical data unfamiliar to students and academic theories even more unfamiliar to them. A basic objective is to acquaint students with a large body of new information. Thus, the majority of class time will be devoted to informational and reflective lectures in which the instructor presents course materials in an organized, provocative manner. Reading assignments from primary sources of religious experiences (including classical and contemporary religious biographies and autobiographies) and theoretical treatments of religious experiences will provide supplementary information for students.
Students are free at any time during a lecture to ask questions for further clarification and discussion. Additionally, the instructor may initiate structured class discussions with brief in-class writing exercise.
Out of class writing assignments will provide an additional venue for engaging students actively in course materials. These may include brief research projects, interpretive exercises, and/or reflections on the student’s own religious experiences (or lack thereof) in terms of factors and consequences covered in class.
Finally, students’ grasp of course materials will be enhanced by firsthand contact with the subject matter. First, one or two individuals with extensive religious experiential histories, if not vocations--local mediums, shamans, Pentecostals--will address the class. Second, for extra credit, students may visit and report on religious services (seances, shamanic drumming sessions, Pentecostal worship) in which religious experiences commonly occur.
Goals and Objectives of the Course.
Students who successfully complete the course should be able to: (1) Demonstrate knowledge and understanding of a puzzling, universal type of human experience, critical to religious life; (2) Engage in the interdisciplinary approach of Religious Studies by applying specific theories from various sciences to religious experiences; (3) Demonstrate acquaintance with particular historical forms and general personal and social dynamics of religious traditions via one dimension of religious life; (4) Reflect critically on their own spiritual experiences; and (5) Attend class regularly and submit assignments punctually.
Broad General Education Goals.
The interdisciplinary, cross-cultural scope of the course implements the following goals in the General Education program.
- Endeavoring to understand a universal type of human experience, many examples of which are recorded in scriptures and autobiographies, students will think critically and creatively about ideas, issues, problems, and texts both within and across academic disciplines.
- Applying theories from sociology, anthropology, psychology, physiology, and other disciplines to survey results, field observations, and scriptural and confessional texts, students will employ a variety of research methods and styles of inquiry.
- As in all studies of religious life, students will identify the personal and cultural values that shape decisions in public, professional, and private life; in this course, they will, specifically, discover the non-rational roots of some of these values.
Goals for Area 4. Humanities.
The subject matter of the course, experiences understood to constitute direct contact with the hidden forces that define and control human destiny, lends itself to the accomplishment of goals in the Humanities Area. Specifically:
- One of the aforementioned course objectives is to introduce students to the interdisciplinary approach that defines Religious Studies. Exposure to various theories concerning religious experiences will enable successful students to demonstrate a basic knowledge of the nature and methods of inquiry in humanities.
- The course materials as a whole, but particularly, the final unit on the significance of religious experiences in personal, religious institutional, and cultural life should enable successful students to demonstrate an understanding of the importance of the human quest for meaning, value, and order in life.
- Students will be asked to examine religious experiences from a scientific standpoint, and through cross-cultural comparisons, an exercise in analyzing and evaluating different views of the meaning, value, and purpose of human life.
- From psychoanalytic and social-scientific perspectives, students will analyze classical and contemporary works of literature (religious biographies and autobiographies) as diverse expressions of the human condition.
- Class discussions, and possibly autobiographical writing assignments, will occasionally provide students with the opportunity to discuss in speech and writing the relevance of the search for meaning (particularly, as embodied in the occurrence of and quest for religious experiences) for their own lives. Coverage, in the last unit, of the place of religious experiences in cultures, will underscore the importance of religious experiences in the religious quests of contemporary Americans.
Students will be graded on (1) the depth, breadth, and precision of their grasp of an intrinsically enigmatic, universal type of human experience; and (2) their capacities to attend class regularly, submit assignments punctually, and write effectively.
Specifically, scores on exams and short writing assignments, along with class attendance, will determine course grades. Exams will require students to demonstrate factual knowledge and conceptual mastery of materials (viz., the data of religious experiences and interdisciplinary analytic frameworks) presented in lectures and reading assignments, as well as the ability to apply theories to new data. Thus, exams in the course will test the capacity of students to think critically and creatively about ideas, issues, problems, and texts. Exams will also assess the achievement of two Humanities objectives, to demonstrate a basic knowledge of the nature and methods of inquiry in the humanities, and demonstrate an understanding of the importance of the human quest for meaning. Exam questions that present passages from religious biographies or autobiographies as data for interpretation may also assess achievement of the Humanities objective of interpreting classical and contemporary works of literature as diverse expressions of the human condition.
Writing assignments may require students to research (using electronic and traditional media) types or examples of religious experiences not covered in lectures and readings; to write clear, focused descriptions of them; and to interpret and explain them from one or more theoretical perspectives. Thus, grades on writing assignments will assess student achievement in thinking critically and creatively, the employment of a variety of research methods and styles of inquiry, and the use appropriate computer technologies to gather and organize information. Several humanities objectives may also be assessed via course writing assignments, viz., basic knowledge of methods in the humanities, and the abilities to interpret texts critically and analyze different views of the meaning and purpose of life. Autobiographical writing assignments will assess students’ capacity to discuss in writing the relevance of the search for meaning in their own lives.
Other Course Information
Approval and Subsequent Reviews
Date Action Reviewed by
May 1994 Catalog description and course information updated Kim Kipling, Chr.
May 1995 Catalog description revised Kim Kipling, Chr.
April 1998 Reviewed Kim Kipling, Chr.
Sept. 1999 Course title changed, syllabus revised Kim Kipling, Chr.
September 18, 2001 Reviewed Kim Kipling, Chr.