John Hick on Transcendent Reality and Religious Pluralism: The Criterion of Authentic Religious Experience

One issue that becomes more difficult to deal with on a religious pluralist perspective is determining what is, and is not, an authentic "experience of the Divine."  In conservative circles, this is a somewhat easier distinction to make as experience that aligns with Scripture and/or orthodox theology is generally considered authentic, while experiences which contradict the teaching of the Church (or the synagogue, or the Temple, or the Mosque) are considered inauthentic.  There are also individuals, from all religious traditions, who claim that their spiritual experience has led them to commit acts which harm their neighbors and themselves.    

So how do we determine the genuine from the inauthentic spiritual experience?   

To this question, Hick gives a similar reply to that of Jesus, who, when counseling his followers on how to decipher between true and false prophets, answered, “By their fruits you shall know them.”

“The central criterion can only be the long-term transformative effect on the experiencer. A momentary experience, or an experience lasting minutes or even hours, is only important if its significance is integrated into one’s ongoing life. If, as in the case of the great mystics, their altered states of consciousness have a transforming and energizing effect in their lives, leading to a stronger centring in God, the Holy, the Real, and a greater love and compassion for their fellows, this is the evidence, accepted within each of the great traditions, of their openness to the Transcendent. It is of course the latter element, the love and compassion expressed in their actions, that we are able to observe and for which we therefore rightly look. This has always been evident to the mystics themselves.”

The “hard evidence” of a life changed, of the ongoing display of spiritual fruits – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control in Pauline language – is the determiner as to whether one has had an authentic experience of God. For Hick, the saints from each tradition play a major role in helping us understand what is, and is not, authentic religion as they, by their character and display of authentic, natural, spiritual fruit, point us toward God.

Hick cites the example of St. Theresa of Avila, who speaks from her medieval Catholic perspective:

“…within the borders of Christian orthodoxy, as this was understood in late medieval Christendom, Teresa of Avila used the much more universal moral-and-spiritual-fruits criterion. It was accepted within the monasteries and nunneries that false as well as genuine religious experiences occurred, that these were sometimes hard to distinguish, and that one should therefore be constantly on guard against the deceits of the devil. That a revelation has come from God, and not from the devil, is assured for Teresa by its observable continuing effects in the soul. As Rowan Williams says, she ‘makes it very clear that, as far as she is concerned, the criteria of authenticity do not lie in the character of the experience itself but in how it is related to a pattern of concrete behaviour, the development of dispositions and decisions’. At one point she uses the analogy of someone who encounters a stranger who leaves her a gift of jewels. If someone else later suggested that the stranger had been an apparition, the jewels left in her hand would prove otherwise. Likewise, in the case of her visions, ‘I could show [any doubters] these jewels – for all who knew me were well aware how my soul had changed: my confessor himself testified to this, for the difference was very great in every respect, and no fancy, but such as all could clearly see. As I had previously been so wicked, I concluded, I could not believe that, if the devil were doing this to delude me and drag me down to hell, he would make use of means which so completely defeated their own ends by taking away my vices and making me virtuous and strong; for it was quite clear to me that these experiences had immediately made me a different person.’”

Regardless of the specific cultural/religious form it takes, the criteria of authentic religious experience is the spiritual fruit it produces.