Religious Experience Research Reveals Universalist Principles
By Ken R. Vincent
What is a religious experience? What can we learn from “mystical” experiences, and how do “spiritual” experiences affect our lives? You may be unaware that social and biomedical scientists have been exploring these questions aggressively for the past 100 years. My own research into religious experience began over 20 years ago, and during that time, I began to recognize a recurring pattern of Universalist principles among the conclusions of my fellow researchers. Granted, many of them may be unaware of the term “Universalist” and the vital role of Universalist thought in early Christianity and world religion; however, their findings sound like classic Universalism: 1) God loves ALL and will save ALL, 2) Hell is for rehabilitation (not torture) and is not eternal. In addition, people who know that God loves us ALL show greater respect and kindness toward others in this earthly life.
Research into religious experiences can be and is conducted using the same criteria that is used to investigate any other psychological phenomena. These include: 1) case studies of transpersonal experience; 2) sociological surveys that tell who and what percentage of the population have religious experiences; 3) psychological tests that measure not only the mental health of the individual but also evaluate the depth of mystical experiences; 4) biomedical and neuroscience testing, including, in some cases, the EEG, PET-scan, and fMRI to document genuine altered states of consciousness and demonstrate that mystical experiences are not just wishful thinking; EEGs and EKGs that allow us to document death in Near-Death Experiences (NDEs) that occur in hospitals; 5) sociological and psychological investigations that assess the after-effects these experiences have on people; and 6) controlled experimental research (such as Panke’s experiment testing psychedelics).
Religious or spiritual experiences relate to the direct experience of the Holy Spirit of God (or if you prefer, Ultimate Reality). According to David Hay, former head of the Religious Experience
Research Centre, both terms describe the same phenomena, but “religious” experience is preferred by people who attend church and “spiritual” experience is favored by people who don’t. I also include those religious experiences that point to life after death ─ namely near-death experiences, death-bed visions, and after-death communications.
The following is a sampling of 20 religious experience researchers whose conclusions can reinforce our confidence in the validity and truth of our Universalist message.
God Loves ALL and Will Save ALL
Bill and Judy Guggenheim research after-death communications. These usually occur when a loved-one comes back to tell you they are all right, but it also includes experiences with religious figures such as Jesus appearing to Paul (I Cor 15) and modern people. In their book Hello From Heaven they unequivocally state, “no one regardless of cruelty of malicious crimes he or she may have committed on earth is ever forgotten or forsaken.” They go on to state that the criterion for healing seems to be admission of responsibility for the hurt, pain, and suffering they have caused others.
One of the most thoughtful and prolific near-death researchers is social psychologist Ken Ring. In his most recent book with Evelyn Valarino Lessons from the Light, he reiterates his absolute certainty that everyone will come to the light. He tells the story of a person sexually abused by her father who, when asked if Adolf Hitler would eventually come into the light, and she said,
“Yes.” Later she said, “Even my father will see the light.” In an earlier book, Heading Toward Omega, Prof. Ring states, “Indeed, the strongest evidence of the NDErs’ universalistically spiritual orientation and in many ways the culmination of the qualities already discussed is their belief in the underlying unity of all religions and their desire for a universal religious faith that will transcend the historical divisiveness of the world’s great religions.”
Richard Bucke, a Canadian neuro-psychiatrist and comparative religion scholar, saw a unity of all religions and people. His Universalist perspectives came to him in a powerful mystical experience and lead him to research and write the book, Cosmic Consciousness.
The philosopher Mark Webb notes in his article, “Religious Experience as Doubt Resolution,” that “nearly all religious experiences result in the belief that the universe is an essentially friendly place; that is, that we shouldn’t worry about the future. People who have had experiences of this sort tend to live more calmly than others, having acquired a strong feeling that the world is essentially just and that they particularly are ‘cared for.’ This is true even of those experiences that include a conviction that the world is fallen and sinful, because they also include a conviction that God is sovereign and loves his creatures. The second area agreement is that all humans are closely interrelated in some way…the pragmatic value of these two results is clear: people who believe these propositions will tend to be happier and more concerned about each other.”
The Presbyterian minister and theologian J. Harold Ellens writes in his book Understanding Religious Experience that he personally has had at least a dozen such religious experiences.
He states that, “God has declared God’s covenant of unconditional and universal grace to all people, guaranteeing that we are all God’s people and God is our God, no matter what.” Rev. Ellens is a committed Universalist who was once accused of heresy by an elder for preaching Universalism and subsequently brought before trial by the Presbyterian hierarchy where the charges were eventually dismissed.
Journalist, near-death researcher, and former Anglican priest Tom Harpur is a committed Universalist. In his book Life After Death, he states, “If we truly believe in an all-loving gracious Source of all things, the kind of accepting presence imaged by the father in the Parable of the Prodigal Son, then it seems to me to be utterly incongruous to hold that anyone will be lost. We are all God’s off-spring or children as New Testament Christianity ─ and most other religions ─ makes clear … I fail to see how heaven or eternal life would be bliss of any kind unless one were assured that all will be sharers in it. At this ultimate family occasion, there will finally be no empty chairs, no missing faces.”
Religious experience researcher Nona Coxhead in her book The Relevance of Bliss states, “for just as the sun shines of everyone without discrimination, the realization that love and light will be fully accessible to all of us following our bodily demise is a message of joy that those who have returned from ‘the gates of death’ bring us.”
Religious experience researchers Meg Maxwell and Verena Tschudin, in their book, Seeing the Invisible, note, “The most striking element of the personal experiences in the collection of the Religious Experience Research Centre is that they are overwhelmingly positive in nature. They enhance and enrich life; they point forward; they are positive; they are benign.”
The great Universalist/pluralist philosopher John Hick acknowledges that he has had several mystical experiences. In his book The Fifth Dimension, he notes that what we know from mysticism is that, “if our big picture is basically correct, nothing good that has been created in human life will ever be lost…this is not a faith wherein no harm can befall us in this present life, or those we love, but a faith that ultimately, in Lady Julian’s words (Julian of Norwich), ‘All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.’”
Paul Robb, author of The Kindness of God, a book that is a collection of religious experiences, notes, “If there is a single message in the accounts of this book, I believe it is this: God loves us all without exception. No matter how black the soul, the soul is still loved. I believe God’s love is like sunlight. The sun gives off light; it is incapable of giving off darkness. God gives off love; he is incapable of giving off anger or hatred or vengeance or jealousy or punishment. The themes of God’s love, and His kindness, occur again and again in the accounts in this book and at the Religious Experience Research Centre.”