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Spiritual experiences can play a very important role in shaping an individual's worldview and religious convictions. Just a single profound mystical experience can dramatically change a person's entire view on life and be the turning point that leads them to embrace an entirely new religious path. Without going too far, the best example in my opinion can be found in Christianity itself, in the conversion of the Apostle Paul, who went from persecuting the Church to becoming the greatest Apostle of all time, all because he had a dramatic "Road to Damascus" encounter (Acts 9).

But spiritual experiences are not exclusive to Christianity. People have reported profound spiritual experiences in all sorts of religions. And people who have had these experiences usually interpret them as evidence and confirmation of the truthfulness of the religion they follow. Of course, whether this interpretative leap is justified or not is a whole different question, but the fact remains that many anchor their religious beliefs in profound experiences they've had throughout their spiritual walks.

And this brings me to the question in the title: How do Christians approach the evangelization of a person who has deep convictions about a different religion because of profound spiritual experiences they've had while following said religion? How to argue against a strong conviction that comes from a profound spiritual experience someone has had in another religion?


Appendix: examples of spiritual experiences in other religions

1) Hinduism, Buddhism and Eastern Spirituality in general
2) New Age spirituality
3) Witchcraft & the Occult
  • Magic: spell casting, etc.
4) Mormonism (*)

(*) There is some controversy about whether LDS are considered to be Christians by other denominations.

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    Any profound 'spiritual' experience felt under anything other than the preaching and teaching of the gospel of Jesus Christ must come from another spirit than the Holy Spirit. I don't think this question has made that clear.
    – Nigel J
    Aug 5 at 21:10
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    @NigelJ - feel free to make that clear in an answer if you wish :-) Aug 5 at 21:47
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    @NigelJ it's easy enough to say that to other Christians who will no doubt agree with you. Part of the point of this question is, how would you demonstrate that to a non-believer? That's much harder.
    – TKoL
    Aug 6 at 7:24
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Spiritual experience and interpretation

As we can see in the Wikipedia article for religious experience, the same experience can be interpreted differently depending on the framework used, whether it is a religion or an academic discipline. Various philosophers, psychologists, anthropologists and religious study scholars have attempted to provide a taxonomy of this experience which then helps provide an interpretation of a person's spiritual experience:

  • To an atheist psychologist like William James, all experience will be mere psychology (the premise of his classic 1902 book The Varieties of Religious Experience).
  • To a new age spiritualist, all experience is bound to be interpreted in terms of psychic energy, past lives, higher self, etc.
  • To a Platonic mystic, all experience represents the ascending awareness of the One.
  • etc.

In Christianity, this task is usually the province of mystical theology or Christian spirituality, which provides a link between the raw experience and Christian theology, in order for the person to utilize the experience for his/her spiritual growth to thrive in his/her life of faith such as:

  • to be closer to God
  • to grow in love to others
  • to be more aware of sins & Satan's temptation
  • to have greater desire to follow Jesus
  • etc.

Mapping non-Christian spiritual experience

In the context of Christian evangelization, the obvious approach is then to interpret the spiritual experience of the non-Christian individual in Christian terms, utilizing the taxonomy and interpretation provided by a Christian mystical / spirituality textbook.

Of course different denominations have different methods, building on centuries of the denomination's experience. Catholicism and Eastern Orthodox are particularly rich in this, having multiple mystical traditions to choose from. For example, a Jesuit missionary would use the wisdom of St. Ignatius of Loyola to first label the experience as either

  • coming from God (even though previously interpreted in terms of another religion)
  • coming from Satan, or
  • coming from the individual (psychological or metaphysical)

He then leads the individual through an examen, discernment, and meditation in the context of an Ignatian retreat. That way, the Ignatian spiritual director could then provide a natural path for framing any positive element from the individual spiritual experience into an awareness of Jesus, which then becomes the building block for the individual's response to the gospel presentation.

Desired result of the Christian reinterpretation

In the process of mapping, interpreting, and building on the individual's spiritual experience, the hope is for the individual to see this experience as one or more of:

so that the individual (with the guidance of a sensitive pastor / evangelist / Christian) will use that experience as a launching board for a Christian faith journey to heaven.

Why insist on Christian reinterpretation

Christianity's God is the creator of everything that exists, both visible and invisible. The invisible includes:

  • all faculties of the soul (psychological, conscience, awareness of spiritual beings, psychic powers, etc.)
  • the realm of spiritual beings (angels, demons, rulers & principalities, magic in nature, souls of people in purgatory, saints in "heaven", and of course God himself, etc.)

Since all is part of God's creation, Christianity has a say on how each soul faculty is good and how it can be corrupted. Christianity also has a say on proper communication and proper service provided by spiritual beings. Therefore, Christianity has a responsibility to map non-Christian interpretation of those things to the way Christianity view things, bringing them "under new management", so to speak.

Conclusion

Short answers to your 2 sub-questions:

How do Christians approach the evangelization of a person who has deep convictions about a different religion because of profound spiritual experiences they've had while following said religion?

Answer: Christianity has a place for anything genuinely from God, the task is to relabel the experience in Christian terms. Successful conversion needs to include the individual's willingness

  • to focus only on elements of the experience that comes from God, and
  • to let go any elements that Christianity labels demonic / irrelevant (example: foregoing magic, past life "experience", etc.)

How to argue against a strong conviction that comes from a profound spiritual experience someone has had in another religion?

Answer: I think it's pretty much established in the academia that spiritual experience does NOT provide its own interpretation, but the framework comes from OUTSIDE the experience. Therefore, if an argument against is needed, it is an argument for the non-Christian individual to let go of his/her previous interpretation in exchange for a Christian one. If the profound experience is Godly, there should be no issue. If it is demonic, then we should show how that experience is enslaving, not liberating.

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  • If it is demonic, then we should show how that experience is enslaving, not liberating. - if the experience was in fact demonic, can this be made evident to the person by making the demons manifest and having the person go through an exorcism? Aug 5 at 23:55
  • Acts 16:16-18. 16 As we were going to the place of prayer, we were met by a slave girl who had a spirit of divination and brought her owners much gain by fortune-telling. 17 She followed Paul and us, crying out, “These men are servants of the Most High God, who proclaim to you the way of salvation.” 18 And this she kept doing for many days. Paul, having become greatly annoyed, turned and said to the spirit, “I command you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her.” And it came out that very hour. Aug 6 at 0:03
  • In the Catholic tradition, not all that is harmful within an individual qualifies for exorcism. Exorcists routinely ask a person to go to a psychotherapist / counselor first, or to a spiritual director. I'm being very general here. In Ignatian discernment, the goal is good action and growth of virtues. Any profound experience that inhibits either one can be seen as ultimately coming from Satan's interference (whether it is false reason, demotivation, desolation that takes one away from God, or outright possession). Aug 6 at 0:03
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    @SpiritRealmInvestigator St. Augustine is an obvious one, converting from Manicheism and Neoplatonism. I'm sure some of these have profound spiritual experiences as well; it's a matter of researching historical documents to see whether they or a biographer left a description of their experience. Aug 6 at 0:18
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    @OneGodtheFather They don't, as long as it's not going to interfere with true Christian experience. I recently came across a good blog posts by an experienced theology professor (almost retired) about the essence of Christianity spelled out in terms of orthodoxy (doctrines), orthopraxy (morality), and orthopathy (spirituality) (part 1, part 2) (con'td) Oct 13 at 0:31

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