Characteristics of Religious States

Primary Religious Experience

Stace's Characteristics of Extrovertive Mystical States

From Stace, W. T. 1960.  Mysticism and Philosophy. London: Macmillan Press, pp. 78-80. See also Stace in the Entheogen Chrestomathy.

We are now in a position to list the common characteristics of extrovertive mystical states of mind as evidenced in these seven typical and representative samples selected from different periods, lands, and cultures. They are:

  1. The unifying vision, expressed abstractly by the formula "All is One." The One is, in extrovertive mysticism, perceived through the physical senses, in or through the multiplicity of objects.

  2. The more concrete apprehension of the One as being an inner subjectivity in all things, described variously as life, or consciousness, or a living Presence. The discovery that nothing is "really" dead.

  3. Sense of objectivity or reality.

  4. Feeling of blessedness, joy, happiness, satisfaction, etc.

  5. Feeling that what is apprehended is holy, or sacred, or divine. This is the quality which gives rise to the interpretation of the experience as being an experience of "God." It is specifically the religious element in the experience. It is closely intertwined with, but not identical with, the previously listed characteristic of blessedness and joy. [p. 110: Perhaps it should be added that this feeling seems less strong in Buddhist mystics than in others, though it is not wholly absent and appears at least in the form of deep reverence for an enlightenment which is regarded as supremely noble.]

  6. Paradoxicality.

Another characteristic may be mentioned with reservations, namely,

  1. Alleged by mystics to be ineffable, incapable of being described in words, etc.

This has not been specifically brought out in our analysis of our sample cases. But it is universally affirmed by mystics. Bucke speaks of his illumination as "impossible to describe." Such phrases as "inexpressible," "unutterable," "beyond all expression" bespatter the writings of mystics all over the world. Nevertheless, as is evident, they do describe their experiences in words. What is meant by this alleged ineffability is not clear at present. There is some difficulty about verbalization, but what it is we do not yet know. The problem will be investigated in our chapter "Mysticism and Language." I do not therefore simply list "ineffability" as a common characteristic, as has been done by William James and others. I list only "alleged by mystics as ineffable." 

Not all of the characteristics which appear in the list are specifically mentioned in every one of our seven cases. It would be absurd to expect this. The writers did not have in mind the systematic and analytic mind of the philosopher, anxious for neat and complete lists and catalogues. They wrote from motives quite other than those which animate the intellectual and the scholar! And they set down, no doubt, what they thought necessary for the case in hand and for the occasion. For instance, most of Eckhart's pronouncements were made in sermons to church congregations, not to professors or students in a lecture hall. Anyone who looks at the quotation from Eckhart at the beginning of this section can see that, although he does not mention the sense of objectivity, he is taking it for granted that it will be understood that he is speaking of something objective and true, and not of some subjective dream. Moreover, different individual mystics with their individual outlooks and temperaments will emphasize different aspects of the experience. Thus as intellectual like Eckhart is likely to notice the paradoxicality of his own experience and thought and to express himself in intentionally paradoxical language. But however much contradiction there might be in the uncritical mind of St. Teresa, she would be unlikely to be aware of it or to express it. Again the intensity of the feeling of objectivity obviously varies enormously with the individual. In all cases it is present, but in some it is assumed as a matter of course that what we see with our eyes when we are awake is objective. In other cases, for instance in Bucke's, the reality and truth of the vision is felt so strongly that it is asserted with vehement conviction as an absolute and unshakable certainty. 

"Primary Religious Experience": On the Meanings of 'Religion' 
From Clark, W. H. 1958. The Psychology of Religion. NY: MacMillan, pp. 17-22. 

There is no more difficult word to define than "religion." ... With the full recognition that we are on ground where the experts disagree, and thus well aware of the hazards involved, we will venture our own definition. It is our feeling that religion can be most characteristically described as the inner experience of the individual when he senses a Beyond, especially as evidenced by the effect of this experience on his behavior when he actively attempts to harmonize his life with the Beyond. This is not proposed as a definition to end all discussion, but is simply by way of informing the reader what the author has in mind, or rather in the back of his mind, when he discusses religion.