We have all had some kind of experience of the numinous. Peak experiences in nature, moments of satori or enlighenment, a sense of a personal relationship with Jesus, the feeling that we are cared for by a higher power, an experience of transcendence, or the feeling of being reborn or born again. Some of us have experienced a certainty that there is nothing beyond ordinary reality. Many have spoken or written about such experiences, but all agree that these descriptions fall short of the reality.
Everyone, from skeptics to true believers, base their faith (or their lack of faith) on these private, personal, non-rational experiences. We each adopt or reject particular spiritual beliefs, from atheism to biblical literalism, because they agree or disagree with our own personal feelings.
Once we have had (or not had) a numinous experience, we need to decide what it means. Are we becoming schizophrenic? Is it a dream? Have we encountered God? Are we mistaken? This is where the question of authority comes into the picture.
- Our interpretation of our numinous experience will be conditioned by the community to which we belong and the authorities recognized by that community. Did the experience arise in a revival meeting, during mass, as part of a meditation practice, or while walking in the woods? We are likely to accept, as authoritative, the individual, institution, book, or community that led us to our experience of the numinous.
- Once we have had an experience, we will seek sources of authority that confirm our experience. Does a particular preacher speak to our experience? Do the accounts of biblical prophets correspond to our encounter with something holy?
Once we accept an authority which validates our personal religious experience, we are likely to also accept that authority on other matters. This is the birth of organized religion. “My church was right about the joy of letting Jesus into my heart, therefore it must be right about Darwinism, too.” “Buddhism has helped me find peace, therefore reincarnation must be true.” And so on.
I know I am right. How do I know I am right? Because it feels right. That feeling is the only source of spiritual authority; everything else is a choice based on that feeling.