Despite widespread skepticism on the matter, a significant number of people today have stories of religious experience—moments of inexplicable terror or rapturous joy, visions, near-death experi
Despite widespread skepticism on the matter, a significant number of people today have stories of religious experience—moments of inexplicable terror or rapturous joy, visions, near-death experiences of the afterlife, encounters with angels, heavenly voices, and premonitions. How should rationally minded people respond?
What would your reaction be if someone told you that, one night while sitting alone, she saw through the window a brilliant light descend from the sky until it was so large that it filled the room—and that it radiated a feeling of “pure love”? And what would you say if a friend confided that one night he woke up and could not move, felt he was being suffocated, and sensed an evil spirit in the room?
By default in the secular age we are skeptical about anything mysterious or supernatural. More likely than not, most people would respond to the stories above with embarrassment and concern about the person’s grasp of reality, or they would attempt to explain them away through rational or scientific means. But the truth is that religious experiences like these are not as uncommon as they seem—although talking about such experiences often is. This is the case even in a faith tradition such as Christianity, despite the Bible’s numerous accounts of miraculous and mysterious happenings.
In Encountering Mystery, noted biblical scholar Dale Allison makes the argument that stories of religious experience are meaningful and not to be marginalized—and that we have a moral prerogative to lovingly engage with such stories regardless of whether we have had similar experiences. Through a close look at phenomena such as moments of inexplicable terror or rapturous joy, visions, near-death experiences of the afterlife, encounters with angels, heavenly voices, and premonitions, Allison shows how ordinary practices of faith need not be at odds with individual religious experiences. Above all, he enjoins us to be honest about the persistence of religious experience in a secular age and to make space for those who encounter mystery in their lives.
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“Scholarly and accessible, Encountering Mystery dares to address spiritual phenomena that many experience, but that few are willing to discuss. It opens for consideration the many ways that the divine intervenes in the lives of ordinary people.”
“A grounded entry in the supernatural encounters genre, this well-researched chronicle has the power to give skeptics second thoughts.”
“A marvelously daring book, Encountering Mystery brims over with cogent rational arguments and powerful narratives that challenge the dominant materialist worldview of our day and age. Dale Allison brings transcendence back into religion eloquently, and in the process offers readers abundant hope and ample reason for believing in the central promises of the Christian faith.”
— Carlos Eire
author of Waiting for Snow in Havana and Learning to Die in Miami
“Steeped in transparency and infused with a lifetime of world-class scholarship, Dale Allison has written a book that truly needed to be written, and that few others could have. He has gifted us all with a spiritually personal and pastoral exploration of the power of extraordinary religious experiences in shaping and defining the nature of faith. In my estimation, Encountering Mystery will join other such works in putting to rest any notion that God’s creation is limited to what we normally perceive.”
— Peter Enns
author of How the Bible Actually Works
“Dale Allison offers lovely, theologically informed reflections on how mystical moments, epiphanies, visions, prophetic dreams, and other surprising encounters leave us changed—those of us who experience them directly and those of us who hear about them from others we trust. What we ‘make of’ these experiences, how the church has handled them, the ways they challenge pastors and other people of faith are timely matters to consider. We may, as Allison says, live in a secular age, but more and more of these stories surface as we open hospitable space for them and allow ourselves to be humbled and surprised by the joy they so often bring to us who are finding our way together on this ‘darkling plain.’”
— Marilyn McEntyre
author of Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies and Speaking Peace in a Climate of Conflict
“If you need proof that the acts of God in the world or epiphanies are not relegated to the history of Israel in the Old Testament or the exploits of the apostles in the New Testament, this book is a must-read. In Encountering Mystery, Allison draws on his own experiences as well as that of numerous others who can testify to what can only be accounted for in Otto’s mysterium tremendum et fascinans. Make no mistake, these are not a bunch of uncritically engaged idle tales, for Allison has pondered all the possibilities attached to the assumed subjectivity of such events and can attest to what those who know, know: you cannot ‘unknow’ what you know without damage to the psyche. Simply put: the Real is still at work in the everydayness of people’s lives and is literally visiting with common people who will attend to the ways of the Spirit in the world. The stories of encounter in this book demonstrate at every turn, without exception, how God is revealing, empowering, calling all to faith and how all who are believing are seeing. And here is the indisputable part, we all have faith enough. Inspiring and humbling!”
— Esther E. Acolatse
author of Powers, Principalities, and the Spirit: Biblical Realism in Africa and the West
“Highly respected scholar Dale Allison dares to raise important questions that academic protocol has too often excluded. Many of the case studies he offers will challenge our own presuppositions about the world—whatever they are—and for that reason are all the more important for us to consider. Allison rightly expands the repertoire of experience that studies of religion and Scripture must take into account.”
— Craig S. Keener
author of Miracles Today: The Supernatural Work of God in the Modern World
View Biographical note
Dale C. Allison Jr. is the Richard J. Dearborn Professor of New Testament Studies at Princeton Theological Seminary. His numerous books include Night Comes: Death, Imagination, and the Last Things and The Luminous Dusk: Finding God in the Deep, Still Places.
View Table of contents
Table of Contents
1. Stars Descending
2. Behind the Scenes
3. Bliss from Somewhere, Terror from Nowhere
4. The Hidden World of Prayer
5. The Lore of Angels
6. Approaching Death
7. Death from Within
8. Rational Analysis
9. Some Theological Issues
10. The Pastoral Imperative