If you belong to any religion besides Judaism or Christianity, having a religious experience is simple stuff. You obtain it. If you’re a Buddhist, simply get better and better at meditation and complete separation from earthly desires, and you’ll obtain a supernatural experience of peace. If you’re a Muslim, keep on the Straight Way, look “in the heavens and the earth [for the] signs for those who believe” (Qur’an 45:3-5) and you’ll find them. If you’re a Wiccan, draw the circle, light the candles, call down the spirits, and have your religious experience.
If you’re Christian — and we’re all here for you, I promise — then you’re screwed. For Christianity, alone amongst the religions, holds that man cannot obtain God. The very first part of the Good News is the Really Bad News — God is an infinite being, and having rejected him by our sin, we are infinitely separated from him. This separation cannot be bridged by us, for the aggravatingly simple reason that we are finite creatures. The finite cannot fill an infinite absence.
This, by the way, is why we are upset by things like earthquakes and famine, child abuse and stubbed toes. We naturally desire perfection, but do not have it. We naturally desire a Heaven — a world without suffering — but nothing we do seems to get us there. We naturally desire to be happy, but happiness fades. Nothing humans do seems to bring humans what they naturally want. Christianity is just being Captain Obvious and claiming that this is the natural state of man: Separation from what he wants. Le sadness.
Thus the Christian — looking up to the sky, striving for an experience of the perfection he calls God — is the incarnation of an exercise in futility. He wants to reach God, and to have some experience of his God, but he follows a worldview which declares that it is impossible for him to do so.
But if we’ve skimmed even the thinnest layers of history, we know that Christianity is bursting at the seams with religious experience. To any man who would make the faith one amongst many — some merely moral way of living — I present the scandal of our Saints. They are — to this day — busy levitating, bi-locating, being taken up into ecstasy, getting the stigmata, prophesying, healing, working miracles, receiving visions, and being incorruptible after death.
But by presenting these Christians, I present an awkwardness: Man cannot reach God, yet the very religion that declares this contains examples of God and Man interacting to the point of ridiculousness. What, precisely, is going on?
Since you’re so good-looking, I’ll tell you: God reaches Man.
The Christian claim is precisely this: That around 4BC, “in the time of Herod king of Judea” (Luke 1:5), in a town called Galilee, God entered time and space, becoming Man in the womb of a certain Mary, under the care of a certain Joseph, a descendant of the kingly line of David.
Believe it or deny it, my point is simply this: If the fundamental claim of Christianity is that God became Man so that Man could be one with God, then the Christian seeking religious experience should look decisively different than all other religions — decisively different, and decisively dumber. It seems apparent to me that there’s only one real way for the Christian to have an authentic religious experience, one that isn’t some psychology-on-crack affair anyways, and it’s this:
Stop trying to have a religious experience.
If God has reached down to us and opened up the pathway to eternal relationship with Him, than the role of the Christian is not to try, but to acknowledge. It’s not to reach, but to surrender and accept. It’s not to achieve, but to humble ourselves to the fact that there is One Who Has Achieved It All.
The Christian is not called to become good at prayer. On the contrary, all his prayer should be oriented towards the goal of being bad at praying. For the deeper the prayer, the more acute should be the realization that our prayers are nothing on their own. The deeper the prayer, the more understanding we should have that our prayer depends entirely on God, and that we can only speak to God in this way because of His action, not our own. (How can one be good at something that is pure gift? If I am given a million dollars, I should hardly speak of how good I am at making money. In the same way, if we are given the gift of prayer, we should hardly think that our goal is to get “good” at praying.)
So too with religious experience. If we sit down at church and “try” to have a religious experience, then we’ve already lost. If it is God who reaches down to Man, then all religious experience is His action upon us. And if it’s his action, then the only way to experience it is to stop caring about experiencing it, stop trying to experience it, and instead become humble, surrendering ourselves to whatever God wills for us, to do what this God-Man commanded us to, and love one another as He loves us. Why? Think about it like this:
If a Father has two children, and a gift to give, who is he more likely to give the gift to? The one who every day asks him for a gift, or the one who goes about doing what the Parent asks? To give a gift to one who asks for it and constantly tries for it is not to give a gift at all. It is to concede to a request.
The trick then is to become like little children, to obey the commandments, love one another, to recognize our complete dependence on God and give him thanks, doing all this not for the reward of religious experience, but simply out of earnest love for God. Then we’ll be prepared for religious experience. The rest is up to God.