On Religious Experiences

Artwork by Elhanan ben-Avraham

In response to my own testimony of what I understand to be a genuine encounter with the Creator of the universe (without which nothing and nobody could have convinced me) not unlike those experiences by the writers of the Bible, I was asked by a psychiatrist scholar friend to define that as compared to other religious experiences in other faith systems.

It is certain that many people simply follow their own culture’s religious teaching and influence that they were born into, and then something may propel them into an experience by way of imagination and emotion worked up by loud and repetitious music and crowd dynamics, as I somewhat indicated in the article “Charismania and Pentecost.” Catholics will have apparitions of Mary and the various Saints of their religion and its art. Similarly, Hindus may encounter any of their thousands of gods. Then there are those who experience encounters outside their own religious traditions, such as Jews and Muslims and others who encounter Jesus, and are willing to suffer the negative consequences and even persecutions from their own communities, as did the original Jewish followers of Jesus in the 1st century AD.

As to Muhammad’s alleged encounter, which occurred some 600 years after Jesus and 1900 years after Moses, I would almost wager that he dabbled with hashish, which would not have been too uncommon, as the word ‘assassin’ is derived from the Arabic hashishin*, who would work themselves up with the stuff before their mission (also not so uncommon in the Arab world to this day). He was influenced by the Jews and Nestorian Christians in an Arabia of warring tribes and multi-gods. It is commonly understood by Muslims that Muhammad was illiterate and did not write down the Quran, which their scholars call proof of a “Miracle”, but it was said to have been written down by his followers. The same is true of Jesus, but Jesus was not at all illiterate (he read the scroll of Isaiah in the synagogue).

Anyone familiar with the Hebrew language, Judaism, the Bible, the geography of the land of Israel, and Talmudic references to ancient practices, realizes that Joseph Smith’s 19th century American Book of Mormon is a combination of fiction and plagiarism of the Bible.  In Colorado I was asked to debate a Jewish Mormon missionary and was given the Mormon holy books to peruse. But the Mormon did not show up at the OK Corral for the showdown. Too bad.

There have always been clever charlatans, fakers, counterfeiters, hypocrites and illusion makers who have deceived many for their own fame and fortune and power. Discerning between the real and the counterfeit would be found as a tree being known by its fruit, and not in the feel-good religious service or picnic, but in the crisis that reveals, as the proof is not in the recipe, but in the pudding. There was also that encounter experienced by some three thousand Jews at Shavuot (Pentecost) in Jerusalem in the 1st century AD, which has led to a widespread and continuing impact on human history for the last two thousand years, bringing faith, hope and inspiration to many.

* History and etymology for assassin: Medieval Latin assassinus, from Arabic ḥashshāshīn, plural of ḥashshāsh worthless person, literally, hashish user, from hashish.

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Elhanan ben-Avraham, born in 1945, is a professional artist, poet, writer and father of two, grandfather of four, living in Israel since 1979. He has served in the IDF, taught the Bible internationally, published five illustrated books of poetry, painted two large Biblical murals in public buildings in Jerusalem, and most recently produced THE JERUSALEM ILLUSTRATED BIBLE, among many other works. He and his wife live in a quiet village in the Mountains of Judah.