Avision consists of something seen other than by ordinary sight. Throughout the centuries, mystics, prophets, and ordinary people from all religions have experienced visions from their deities or higher levels of consciousness that have informed them, warned them, or enlightened them. From Genesis to Revelation in the Bible, God uses visions and dreams as a principal means of communicating with his prophets and his people. In Numbers 12:6, God declares, "If there is a prophet among you, I the Lord make Myself known to him in a vision and speak to him in a dream." And in Joel 2:28: "And it shall come to pass afterward that I shall pour out my spirit upon flesh; and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, your young men shall see visions."

The great Jewish philosopher Maimonides (1135–1204) conceived of revelations received through visions as a continuous emanation from the Divine Being, which is transmitted to all those men and women who are endowed with a certain imaginative faculty and who have achieved a certain moral and mental standard. The revelatory transmission is filtered through the medium of the active intellect, first to the visionary's rational faculty, then to his or her imaginative faculty. In this way the distribution of prophetic illumination occurs in conformity with a natural law of emanation.

Roman Catholic scholarship holds that there are two kinds of visions. One is the imaginative vision, in which the object seen is but a mental concept of symbol, such as Jacob's Ladder leading up to heaven. St. Teresa of Avila (151–1582) had numerous visions, including images of Christ, which church authorities have judged were of this symbolic kind of vision. The other is the corporeal vision, in which the figure seen is externally present or in which a supernatural power has so modified the retina of the eye as to produce the effect of three-dimensional solidarity.

In 1976 an extensive survey conducted by the administrators of the Gallup Poll indicated that 31 percent of Americans had experienced an "otherworldly" feeling of union with a divine being. The survey was based on in-home interviews with adults in more than 300 scientifically selected localities across the nation, and a further breakdown of the percentages revealed that 34 percent of the women polled and 27 percent of the men admitted that they had had a "religious experience."

To refute the often-heard suggestion that people with little formal education are more likely to undergo such experiences, the poll disclosed little difference in the educational level of the respondents: college background, 29 percent; high school, 31 percent; grade school, 30 percent. According to the pollsters, "Whether one regards these experiences as in the nature of self-delusion or wishful thinking, the important fact remains that, for the persons concerned, such experiences are very real and meaningful. Most important, perhaps, is the finding that these religious experiences are widespread and not limited to particular groups [or] one's circumstances in life…rich or poor, educated or uneducated, churched or unchurched."

According to a press release issued by the Gallup office in Princeton, New Jersey, these kinds of experiences "appear to have a profound effect on the outlook and direction of a person's life." A 29-year-old office worker in Lynnwood, Washington, told a Gallup interviewer that she had been reading the Bible one night and was unable to sleep. A vision appeared to her that rendered her frozen, motionless. "I saw an unusual light that wasn't there—but was," she said. "There was a greater awareness of someone else being in that room with me. And ever since, it is as if someone else is walking with me."

A spokesperson for the Gallup Poll commented: "One of the most interesting aspects of these phenomena is that they happen to the nonchurched and the nonreligious as well as to persons who attend church regularly or who say religion plays an important role in their lives."

On January 23, 1994, USA Today published the results of an analysis of the most comprehensive data available at that time of private religious experience based on a national sociological survey conducted for the National Opinion Research Center, University of Chicago, which reveals that more than two-thirds of Americans claim to have had at least one mystical experience. According to Jeffrey S. Levin, an associate professor at Eastern Virginia Medical School, Norfolk, Virginia, such experiences as visions and the feeling of being connected to a powerful spiritual force that elevates one's consciousness are reported less by those people who are active in church or synagogue. All types of mystical experiences have been around since "time immemorial," Levin acknowledges, but "some kind of stigma" may have prevented people from reporting them. However, while only 5 percent of the population has such experiences somewhat regularly, such occurrences are becoming "more common with each successive generation."

As these many polls and surveys demonstrate, visions come to the religious, the non-religious, and the antireligious alike. To the psychologist, these experiences may be revelations of the personal unconscious of the individual and attempts at psychic integration or psychic wholeness. Dr. Robert E. L. Masters and Dr. Jean Houston were among the first researchers to have recognized that throughout history people have sought altered states of consciousness as gateways "to subjective realities." At their Foundation for Mind Research, which they established in 1966, they concluded on the basis of hundreds of experiments with normal, healthy persons that the "brain-mind system has a built-in contact point with what is experienced as God, fundamental reality, or the profoundly sacred." (Time, October 5, 1970).

At the beginning of the twenty-first century, scientists have begun asking if the "brain-mind system," with its built-in contact point with God or a greater reality that produces such mystical experiences as visions, can be better explained in terms of neural networks, neurotransmitters, and brain chemistry. Philadelphia scientist Andrew Newberg, who wrote the book Why God Won't Go Away (2001), says that the human brain is set up in such a way as to have spiritual and religious experiences. Michael Persinger, a professor of neuroscience at Laurentian University in Sudbury, Ontario, conducts experiments with a helmet-like device that runs a weak electro-magnetic signal around the skulls of volunteers. Persinger claims that four in five people report a mystical experience of some kind when they don this magnetic headpiece. Matthew Alper, author of The "God" Part of the Brain (1998), a book about the neuroscience of belief, goes so far as to declare that dogmatic religious beliefs that insist that particular faiths are unique, rather than the results of universal brain chemistry, are irrational and dangerous.

Daniel Batson, a University of Kansas psychologist who studies the effect of religion on people, states that the brain may be the hardware through which religion is experienced, but for certain neurotheologians to say that the brain produces religion "is like saying a piano produces music." In his book The Faith of Biology and the Biology of Faith (2000), Robert Pollack concedes that religious experience may seem irrational to a materialistic scientist, but he argues that irrational experiences are not necessarily unreal. In fact, he states, they can be just as real, just as much a part of being human, as those things which are known through reason.

Numerous believers in the possibility of experiencing visions and religious apparitions argue that if God created the universe, wouldn't it make sense that he would wire the human brain so it would be possible to have mystical experiences?

Huston Smith (1919– ), author of The World's Religions (first published as The Religions of Man in 1958), was six weeks short of earning his Ph.D. in naturalistic theism—a philosophical system that emphasizes science over religion—when he happened to read philosopher Gerald Heard's (1889–1971) sympathetic treatment of the mystical experience in Pain, Sex and Time (1939). Smith said that he experienced an epiphany when he read Heard's argument that mysticism is the true experience of God. He completed his degree in naturalistic theism, but for the next 45 years he has sought out the mystic path in every religion he has encountered. In Why Religion Matters: The Future of Faith in an Age of Disbelief (2001), Smith seeks to explain the differences between science and religion. Where science attempts to define reality through numbers, formulas, and facts, religion strives to know it through spiritual practice and devotion. "Scientism," the belief that only science has all the answers, ultimately fails when it attempts to answer the questions that have troubled humans since the beginning of human existence—who are we…why are we here, and how should we behave while we are here?

Writer Eddie Ensley believes that the visionary dimension of spirituality has the ability to transform a person and reconnect humanity to its innate yearning for God. Ensley, of Native American descent, states in Visions: The Soul's Path to the Sacred (2000), that human beings are "fashioned to see God" and nurture a "deep desire for this mystery and an ability to be open to it and receive it." Ensley, who has a master's degree in pastoral ministry from Loyola University in New Orleans, also says that the Christian, Jewish, and Native American ancestors "understood the subtle interrelationships of flesh and spirit more accurately than we do. When they received visions, they knew what to do with them."

Because sociological, psychological, and religious research have all discovered that visions are much more common than scholars once believed, Ensley is of the opinion that such experiences should be treated differently by both the church and society at large. "People who have mystical experiences are not crazy," he said. "Some research suggests that they tend to be (mentally) healthier."

Numerous studies substantiate Ensley's high opinion regarding the mental health of visionaries. Among such studies is one conducted by psychologists at Carleton University of Ottawa, Canada, published in the November 1993 issue of the Journal of Abnormal Psychology, in which they reported that those individuals examined who had "seemingly bizarre experiences," such as mystical visions, missing time, and so forth, were just as intelligent and psychologically healthy as other people. Recognizing that their findings contradicted the previously held notion that such individuals had "wild imaginations" and could be "easily swayed into believing the unbelievable," the psychologists who had administered an extensive battery of psychological tests to the subjects found that they tended to be "white-collar, relatively well-educated representatives of the middle class."

Albacete, a Roman Catholic priest and a professor of theology at St. Joseph's Seminary in Yonkers, acknowledges that until recently psychiatric orthodoxy held the view that the more "sensational a person's religious experience (voices, visions…extraordinary missions), the more pathological the underlying conflict." Then, in 1994, the American Psychiatric Association softened its position and officially recognized the "religious or spiritual" as a normal dimension of life.

"As a believer and as a priest, as well as a former scientist," Albacete says that he finds himself "somewhat nervous about this blurring." He suggests that it is only right that psychiatrists and neurologists should find it difficult to incorporate the transcendent into scientific methodology and that they should look upon mystics and visionaries as if they were suffering mental disturbances. "If the religious experience is an authentic contact with a transcendent mystery, it not only will but should exceed the grasp of science," he reasons. "Otherwise what about it would be transcendent?"

Albacete quotes Monika Grygiel, who told him that as a psychiatrist, she experienced "great poverty before the mystery perceived in the religious experience." As a psychiatrist who was also a person of faith, she said that her hope was that she would not "destroy the patient's extraordinary experience, but help him or her integrate it into the rest of life as harmoniously as possible."


Alper, Matthew. The "God" Part of the Brain. Rogue Press, 2001.

Benson, Carmen. Supernatural Dreams & Visions. Planfield, N.J.: Logos International, 1970.

Ensley, Eddie. Visions: The Soul's Path to the Sacred. New Orleans: Loyola Press, 2001.

Newberg, Andrew, Eugene G. D'Aquili, and Vince Rause. Why God Won't Go Away: Brain Science and the Biology of Belief. New York: Ballantine, 2001.

Smith, Huston. Why Religion Matters: The Future of Faith in an Age of Disbelief. San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 2001.

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