The State of the Question

In the early years of this century, Rudolf Otto, wrote of Schleiermacher, the great pioneer in the field of religious consciousness:
Schleiermacher set himself in sharp opposition to the intellectualism and moralism of the Age of Reason. He accused it of misunderstanding and debasing religion, of confusing it with and transforming it into metaphysics and morality. Thereby the Enlightenment had obscured the unique independent essence of religion (Schleiermacher, Friedrich. On Religion, Speeches to its Cultured Despisers, Introduction, xvii).
'Belief', Schleiermacher wrote, 'must be something very different from a mixture of opinions about God and the world and of precepts for one life or two. Piety cannot be an indistinct craving for a mass of metaphysical and moral crumbs.' (On Religion, 31).

Again Otto comments,
That which was allowed to pass as religion was really but a set of definite statements on the supreme and ultimate questions of being and reality on the one hand and tenets and rules of morality on the other. The latter were to be fulfilled on the basis of conviction rooted in the former. Both were related to and united with each other - this was "religion" (Introduction to On Religion, xviii).
Schleiermacher states it even more clearly in the first edition of On Religion:
Religion neither seeks like metaphysics to determine and explain the nature of the universe, not like morals to advance and perfect the universe... It is neither thinking nor acting but intuition and feeling... It is reverent attention and submission in child-like passivity to be stirred and filled by the Universe's immediate influences (277).
Often when philosophers come to deal with religion they reduce it to something other than it is, usually as Schleiermacher says, to metaphysics and morals. They ignore the fact that religion belongs to a different level of consciousness as both Schleiermacher, Otto and indeed Scheler have shown.


While not accepting that religion can be reduced to intuition and feeling, I wish to argue like Schleiermacher and Otto that religion is a unique and irreducible reality. And I wish to do this as Schleirmacher and Otto have done by showing that there is a form of consciousness which we might call religious, which differs from other forms of consciousness

I will do this by describing a form of consciousness that no one would deny was religious, show that is has a universal structure and finally show how that structure enables us to differentiate it from other equally identifiable forms of consciousness.

Definition of Terms

By consciousness I mean awareness, both awareness of objects other than consciousness which Sartre calls positional consciousness and the self-awareness immanent in that awareness of objects, called by Sartre non-positional consciousness. (Being and Nothingness, liii-lvi).

Positional consciousness is intentional, that is, it always present to something other than itself. There are different modes of consciousness, that is different types of consciousness may be distinguished by their differing intentionalities.

Religious consciousness may be defined as that mode of consciousness whose intentionality is God and others in God.

(Just for clarification, interpersonal consciousness would be constituted by its intentionality of the other as person, scientific consciousness by its intentionality of the object as to be known, artistic consciousness by its intentionality of the object as to be created and/or appreciated etc.).

A Contemporary Form of Religious Consciousness

Religious consciousness has not been a popular topic with philosophers of religion. And yet since the beginning of this century, right across the whole spectrum of Christianity, there has been an explosion of religious consciousness. The dominant feature of Christianity world wide has not been the struggle for social justice nor the issues of abortion and divorce, not even the ordination of women or ecumenism but this apparently new, but in fact very ancient form, of religious consciousness.

Millions of Christians from every church and denomination claim to have experienced 'the outpouring of the Holy Spirit as the apostles did at pentecost'; they claim to be living in a daily awareness of the reality of God, to be guided by the voice of God and to exercise God's power in healing and deliverance.

This is a world wide phenomenon embracing every Christian Church from Russian Orthodox to Egyptian Coptic; from Roman Catholic to Presbyterian; from Anglican to Evangelical to the smallest house fellowship. As far apart theologically as all these Christians are, they all agree on one point, that God is a reality to be experienced - not just a doctrine to be believed in.

Philosophers of religion to the present (as far as I know) have ignored this phenomenon which if anything should be central to an understanding of religion today. For of all forms of religion it is surely the most explicitly, if not aggressively religious.

I will base my account of religious consciousness therefore on this pentecostal phenomenon. I have for the present excluded the extensive literature on the subject - preferring to describe the phenomena as they present themselves most immediately to consciousness.

Section 1


Mysterium tremendum

Religious consciousness is an awareness of God and of others in God. It is first and foremost an awareness of God. It is not a feeling - though it may be accompanied by feelings. It is not a thought - though it is conscious and may be thought about. It is simply a consciousness of - , presence to - .

And it is a consciousness of God; a consciousness of the author and source of all that is, including one's self; a consciousness of the foundation of one's own most being. And it is not just a bare consciousness; it can only be described as a consciousness of being unconditionally accepted and loved. One is present to a reality other than oneself, the source of one's being which is totally and absolutely loving.

It is also a consciousness of dependence as Schleiermacher saw. One is conscious of oneself as totally dependent for one's being on the One to whom one is present.

I am aware of God as the one who is holding me in being - moment by moment. It is not an occasion for fear but rather for joy. I am not my own - I be at the behest of another who is totally committed to my being and I have nothing to fear. The response it evokes is gratitude, love, awe - so it is also a consciousness of being in love, of overflowing with gratitude, and worshipping in awe.

All this was wonderfully described by Rudolf Otto as the mysterium tremendum et fascinans. (The Idea of the Holy).

Communal Prayer

However, religious consciousness is not permanent. It is habitual, in the sense that once having had this awareness one can have it again and again but for most religious people it is not permanent. Neither does it lie in one's power to initiate it. I cannot cause this consciousness to occur. The most I can do is dispose myself for its occurrence. And this brings us to the area of prayer, personal and communal. Prayer in fact is the effort we make to enter into religious consciousness.

The following account is based on the experience of the pentecostal style prayer meeting now common to all churches and denominations.

Communal prayer begins with singing. Praising God it is called. Short simple songs are sung - often not more than four lines each. The music is simple too; three or four basic chords accompanying the melody. People are usually standing, moving to the music, even dancing. The same song might be sung over and over - with variations as everyone becomes familiar with it. The words (often verses from the scriptures) are important but more important is the fact that one usually knows the words and one can dispense with the hymn sheet. As the singing progresses all element of performance, all elements of strangeness and striving disappears and one becomes free to enter into the words of praise one is singing. In between songs people will pray aloud - not usually prayers of petition but something close to shouts of praise.

At a certain stage the singing and the praising seems to 'change gear'. From being external it becomes internal. Words and music seem to flow easily - sometimes it feels as if they were flowing from the pit of the stomach. It feels as if one could go on singing for ever.

This 'change of gear' is in fact the entry into religious consciousness. A deep sense of the presence of God follows. It is often experienced as warmth and light. External physical effects often accompany the awareness of the presence of God. Trembling, quaking of the limbs, even violent bodily shaking may occur. Religious consciousness involves a complete surrender of oneself to God and the physical is as important as the spiritual. Physical manifestations are accepted joyfully.

Traditionally, churches frowned on any kind of external manifestations for fear of spiritual pride. Spiritual masters have warned against it as a source of distraction. However this recent wave of religious consciousness has been so strong and its beneficial effects so enormous that this suspicion of the physical has receded somewhat.

Some people have an experience of light above them - some experience a gentle breeze - often coming out in goose-flesh. There is often a period of silent awe and adoration before the praising begins again - often in 'tongues'.


The gift of tongues is one of the most common manifestations of religious consciousness (although some people never receive it). It rapidly becomes a normal part of one's prayer but the first time it happens it feels like this. One is praying aloud, expressing oneself aloud to God when the words seem to get mixed up. One's tongue seems to be twisting in a most peculiar way and one feels one has pebbles in ones mouth. One finds oneself making different sounds, forming unfamiliar syllables sometimes in a stuttering fashion at least to begin with, but rapidly attaining a fluency that feels like speech. Sooner or later one finds oneself speaking quite fluently and easily in syllables which one does not understand but which feel to have meaning. One is aware that one is still talking to God but no longer knows what one is saying. However, one is usually aware of the basic thrust of one's prayer e.g. worship, petition, repentance etc.

Once this has happened, a person can pray in tongues whenever they like and they can stop and start at will. It is not some sort of ecstatic utterance - as many exegetes and theologians seem to think. It is a deeper type of prayer into which the person can enter at will, unlike religious consciousness. In fact many people enter into religious consciousness by beginning to speak in tongues. (There are many obvious questions connected with this phenomenon and there is an extensive literature on the subject. A very lengthy digression would be needed to do it justice. It is material for another paper).

In communal prayer people pray aloud in tongues together. This gives each person the freedom to communicate with God individually while also communicating as part of the group. Often this will develop into singing in tongues where each sings spontaneously the words and melody which comes to them. The melodies blend and there is a sense of communal worship along with personal freedom.

I emphasise this phenomenon of speaking and singing in tongues - first of all because it is so often misunderstood as some sort of ecstatic utterance made in a trance, some sort of out of control freakish experience. Secondly because it is symptomatic in my view of an essential element in religious consciousness - its spontaneity. In religious consciousness one's attention is fixed on God, not primarily on what one is saying or doing. Words and actions flow from the awareness of God. Thus one does not prepare what one is going to pray or plan what one is going to do in advance. People are 'moved by the Spirit'. Effectively this means that as one 'changes gear' and enters into religious consciousness, one abandons oneself to the leadings and intuitions that arise, relying on God and the group for guidance and discernment.

Prophecy and Words of Knowledge

It is in this context that phenomena like prophecy and words of knowledge can best be understood. As the group is praying, one person may get a strong impression that God has something to say to the group. This comes to the person in the form of a word or a set of words, or as an image. Very often the person does not know the full significance of the words. Sometimes they may only have the impression of one or two words. Usually the person will wait, asking God to confirm the message in some way. The confirmation will come as a basic peace about giving the message or as a certain urgency that it should be given. There are usually external confirmations too. It seems appropriate to the thrust of the meeting at that moment; someone reads a passage of scripture which on the same theme; or someone prays in a way that suggests that the message may be an answer to their prayer. When the person is as sure as practically possible that their message is from God they speak aloud the word or the set of words that they have received. As they speak, more of the message may be communicated to them and they speak the whole message as it comes to them, there and then. It may be something as simple as: The Lord says I am the Lord your God and I love you. Or it may be something much more elaborate. To an outsider it would appear simple to fabricate such a message. However the effect of a genuine prophecy, no matter how simple it may seem, can be very profound. Although addressed to the group in general, it may have particular relevance for some individuals who feel themselves personally addressed by God with enormous effect.

The word of knowledge is usually distinguished from prophecy. Prophecy is addressed to the group in general though as we have said, it may have particular relevance for some individuals. The word of knowledge however usually pinpoints specific individuals. Again, like prophecy, it may come as a thought, an image, an impression but unlike prophecy it is usually an awareness of some particular need or problem of someone in the group. The person receiving the word of knowledge may or may not know the identity of the one for whom the word is intended. Again as in prophecy, after waiting for some sort of confirmatory event, they will speak the message aloud though never naming the individual for whom it is seems to be intended. Even if the word of knowledge is accurate, the affected person may not respond openly, for obvious reasons. If they do respond however the group will either pray with them there and then or some of the group will pray with them privately after the meeting.

Both prophecy and the word of knowledge are spontaneous. They cannot be programmed for in advance. They occur only as people are in the mode of religious consciousness. They would be quite easy to imitate and religious charlatans do exist. These however are obviously not operating in the mode of religious consciousness but out of a desire to deceive, impress or make money.

Prayer Ministry

The element of spontaneity is even more evident in prayer ministry. This occurs where an individual asks for prayer from two or three others. They gather round the person looking for prayer, lay hands on them and pray 'in the spirit', that is they pray in tongues. They may not be aware of the situation for which they are praying. They pray totally spontaneously, trusting the Holy Spirit to guide their prayer.

Often when they are praying they will get a real feeling of compassion for the person. Words and pictures will come into their minds which will lend direction to the prayer. When these are communicated, they can shed new light on the situation being prayed for. For the person being prayed with, it can feel as if their whole life is being laid bare but in a loving healing merciful way. They may feel ashamed but forgiven, corrected but affirmed, understood and accepted. They may sob deeply or break into laughter or even do both. The people praying feel a deep compassion for and sympathy with the person, often losing awareness of their own surroundings -being caught up in a world of feeling and image. They can feel a very strong identification both with God and with the person and be aware of the love of God flowing to the person from them.


Prayer for physical healing takes place in this situation of prayer ministry also. Prayer for and belief in physical healing is a normal part of religious consciousness.

For the people praying for the healing, the experience varies. Some people feel the pain of the sick person in their own bodies and concentrate on allowing the love of God to flow into that. Others receive an image of the sick person as well and they concentrate on that. Others feel the love of God for the sick person and allow it to flow through them.

The sick person may feel heat in the affected area or a tingling or just feel that they have been healed. Or they may just feel that they have been loved and cared for. Often during the prayer past events surface, through the word of knowledge; such things as old hurts, rejections, lack of forgiveness, sin needing to be repented of etc. Only when these are dealt with does the healing take place. However although prayer for physical healing is normal, complete physical healing occurs in a minority of cases. Most people feel better after the prayer, some are significantly improved and some are totally healed.


The most difficult area of prayer ministry is that of deliverance or exorcism as it is popularly called. It has led to excesses on the part of some religious people and consequent misunderstanding and revulsion on the part of many otherwise well disposed persons.

The simplest way to approach it is to describe how it occurs. Happily it does not occur very often but when it does it is unforgettable. A meeting or prayer ministry is in progress as described when suddenly a person seems to be thrown to the ground in a way that is quite different from a faint or swoon. They begin to lash about in fury shouting, and often cursing. Or they may not fall but start to scream uncontrollably or even bark, grunt or howl.

Sometimes a word of command from the prayer leader is sufficient to put a stop to the behaviour. If not the person is prayed with privately.

Usually the person is only intermittently present to those around. The rest of the time they seem to be submerged by an alien personality which speaks, screams and even answers questions in a voice quite different from that of the person themselves.

To those praying and to the person themselves if they achieve moments of lucidity, it seems as though they have been taken over by another consciousness which is violently opposed to anything Christian. The prayer team pray in tongues and command the spirit to leave in the name of Jesus. Sometimes that is all it takes. The people keep praying until the behaviour ceases or the person regains normal consciousness. Often the person has very little memory of what has happened. Usually they will acknowledge that they knew there was "something there", something seriously spiritually wrong in their lives. they are almost always grateful for the ministry, even if the deliverance has not been successful.

For anyone operating in religious consciousness, belief in the existence of self-conscious, intelligent, non-bodily entities, or "spirits" is normal as it is based on experiences such as these. However there is usually an awareness that this type of behaviour may have psychic or even physical origins. A distinction is made between possession which involves the total submersion of the personality by an alien consciousness and obsession where the alien personality only manifests in certain circumstances and does not totally control the person. Possession is regarded as need ing exorcism which, in the Catholic church may be carried out only with authorisation of the local bishop. Obsession requires only deliverance and can be carried out by any believer.

This concludes the description of religious consciousness in operation. At this point it may be thought that the relevance of such activities to philosophy would be hard to justify. The second section of this paper will address this problem.

Section II

In this section of the paper I wish to argue that religious consciousness exhibits a structure common to all forms of consciousness; that it is a structured series of cognitional acts. In order to do this I wish to use Bernard Lonergan's analysis of consciousness. (Insight: A Study of Human Understanding).

According to Lonergan there are four basic levels within consciousness corresponding to four basic cognitional acts. (320-328). These four basic levels are:

Empirical, Intelligent, Reflective and Deliberative consciousness, corresponding to the four basic acts of: Experience, Understanding, Judging and Choosing.

Empirical consciousness is the awareness immanent in the act of experiencing, the non-positional consciousness immanent in experience.

Experience is one's mere presence to the world, what might be called in other philosophies perception, provided that this contains no overtones of enquiry.

Intelligent consciousness is the non-positional consciousness immanent in the effort to understand the data of experience.

Understanding is the process that moves from enquiry into the data of experience to the act of insight in which one grasps just what it is one has been present to. The process culminates in the act of insight or understanding.

Reflective consciousness is the non-positional consciousness immanent in the activity of which culminates in the act of judgement.

Judgement is the process in which one moves from the act of understanding to a reflection upon the content of the act of understanding,( i.e. on what claims to have been understood), in order to ascertain whether it has been understood correctly. The act of judgement which terminates the process, is the conclusion to that reflection. The answer arrived at in the act of understanding is judged to be correct or incorrect.

Deliberative consciousness is the non-positional consciousness immanent in the move from thought to action.

Deliberation is the process of reflection which asks whether anything is to be done? what is to be done? and whether that is to be done? It culminates in the act of choice.
These four acts, and the level of consciousness immanent in them, Lonergan claims, are foundational to all human consciousness.

I wish to argue that these four levels occur in religious consciousness as described.

Empirical consciousness

Religious consciousness considered simply as consciousness of God corresponds to the empirical level of consciousness. As operative in praise and worship, it is simply an awareness of God; an awareness of being unconditionally loved; an awareness of responding with love and gratitude. In praise and worship there are no questions, just love, joy, adoration. Physical manifestations like tongues, laughter, crying, shaking belong to this level where consciousness is focused simply on God as present.

Intelligent consciousness

Prophecy, words of knowledge, images belong to the level of intelligent consciousness. They correspond to the act of understanding or insight. As I have described them they may appear to come unbidden - as they often do and as indeed do insights in other level of consciousness. But where one is praying for a particular person in the prayer ministry one almost always ask of God -What do you want me to say to this person? One shifts from the sheer presence of God and His love for the person into the intelligent level of consciousness. The prophecy, word or image that arises is in fact an answer to that question. And just as insights do not necessarily arise in the sense that one cannot force them, so one has no power to force words of knowledge or prophecy.

Reflective consciousness

Prophecy and words of knowledge are all tested as a matter of course. The person who receives them tests them as we have seen. The group also tests them and in the case of the word of knowledge, the person to whom it is addressed will be able to confirm it or deny its accuracy. This process of checking or discernment as it is known is in fact the operation of reflective consciousness.

Deliberative Consciousness

Usually prophecy, words of knowledge, divine guidance demand action. If and when they are discerned as truly expressing the will of God, then they have to be carried out.

The consciousness immanent in the process from discernment to action is deliberative consciousness.


Religious consciousness then, exhibits the fourfold structure common to all forms of consciousness. It is not just a welter of emotions. It is not confined to intuition and feeling as Schleiermacher held (at least in his early works). It is more than a trembling before the mysterium tremendum et fascinans of Rudolf Otto.

This analysis makes it possible to situate both Schleiermacher and Otto. It is clear that both Schleiermacher and Otto were only describing the empirical level of religious consciousness. Hopefully the development of this analysis will make it possible to take the findings of religious consciousness as seriously as those say, of interpersonal consciousness as developed by Buber or Marcel.

The aim of this paper was to demonstrate that religious consciousness was a reality in itself, irreducible to any other. To clearly distinguish religious consciousness from other modes of consciousness it would be necessary to examine each of the four cognitional acts as they occur within religious consciousness. This however would require a detailed study of each level of consciousness and constitutes material for another paper. Instead as an interim measure I propose, to compare religious consciousness with another mode of consciousness which is very familiar - the mode of consciousness determined by scientific research. Let us call it the scientific mode of consciousness.

Scientific and Religious Consciousness Compared:

Empirical consciousness

The scientific mode of consciousness is determined by its relentless pursuit of the truth - no matter what the cost. The intentionality therefore of scientific consciousness is knowledge for its own sake.

The intentionality of religious consciousness is God and others in God.

Scientific consciousness can be entered into by a decision, 'an act of will'; the scientist simply decides to undertake a certain investigation.

Religious consciousness cannot be entered by an act of will. The person can only dispose themselves for the consciousness of God through prayer, praise, mediation worship, tongues.

However scientific consciousness is difficult to enter into and difficult to sustain; training, habit, commitment make it easier.

Similarly, even though religious consciousness is impossible to enter into by a mere decision of the will, still habit, training, commitment make it easier to dispose oneself for its reception.

Intelligent consciousness

Scientific consciousness questions the data.

Religious consciousness asks (of God) what do you want me to say, to do?

Scientific consciousness puzzles over the data until an insight arises which it formulates as an hypothesis.

Religious consciousness hears words, sees images, receives impressions which it formulates as prophecy or words of knowledge.

The more expert the scientific investigator, the more the empirical consciousness is trained in observation, attention to detail, recognition of deviations from the norm, the more fruitful are his or her hypotheses likely to be.

Similarly the more filled with the love of God the religious person is on the level of empirical consciousness, the more habituated they are to receiving prophecy and words of knowledge, the more faithful they have been to guidance in the past, the more likely they are to receive accurate prophecies and words of knowledge.

Equally, egotism, infidelity, will to power will distort a persons ability to receive accurate prophecy or words of knowledge. This the source of such tragedies as David Koresh's cult in Waco, Texas the mass suicide of the Jim Jones cult and most recently the mass suicide of the Heaven's Gate cult connected with the comet Halle-Bopp.

Reflective Consciousness

Scientific consciousness tests hypotheses by experiment, observation and cumulative control of the scientific community.

Religious consciousness tests prophecy, words of knowledge, guidance first by testing its conformity to sacred scripture and to the teaching of the community, usually a church. If it passes this test then is tested by 'witness', that is, the community and the individual concerned have a basic peace about the message or the action that is being recommended. Then the circumstances are taken into account. Does it seem to fit into what is going on in the group at the moment? Finally, other confirmatory events or prophecies may be expected similar to what Jung calls 'synchronicity'.

When the hypothesis has been exhaustively tested, scientific consciousness pronounces its hypothesis a theory - an account of the data which seems correct and if it is not overturned by other results, it ends as being accepted as a fact.

When prophecy, words, guidance have been discerned, the individual or the community recognise it as the at least the probable will of God. It can be acted upon in good faith. It will finally be judged on its results.

Deliberative consciousness

Scientific consciousness adds to the body of scientific knowledge by its tested results. These results form the basis of further action: experimentation, hypotheses, testing.

Religious consciousness creates and augments tradition, (individual or communal), as it adds tested and discerned prophecy, knowledge and guidance to its body of teaching. (Thus in the Catholic church, devotion to the Blessed Eucharist, in the Evangelical churches, the doctrine of regeneration and salvation, in the pentecostal churches Baptism in the Spirit, all came about in this way).


Religious and scientific consciousness then do exhibit a common structure. Similar acts are performed in each. Nevertheless the mode of operation of the acts and the content of the acts are obviously quite different. In no sense could one be reduced to the other. While this does not definitively establish the irreducible reality of religious consciousness, it is a step in that direction. We are no longer distinguishing religious consciousness on the basis of feeling or emotion.

Further work is to be done. A more complete description and a more exact definition of the processes of empirical, intelligent and reflective and deliberative religious consciousness would help to determine its essence beyond dispute.


Lonergan, Bernard J.F. Insight: A Study of Human Understanding. New York, Longmans, 1958, 1965.
Otto, Rudolf. The Idea of the Holy, (trans. John W. Harvey). London, Oxford University Press, 1968.
Sartre Jean-Paul, Being and Nothingness, (trans. Hazel Barnes). London, Methuen, 1957.
Schleiermacher, Friedrich. On Religion, Speeches to its Cultured Despisers, (trans. John Oman). New York, Harper and Row, 1958. Text translated from 3rd German Edition. Introduction by Rudolf Otto.

© David Blake 1996

This paper was read to the Irish Philosophical Society in October 1996.

David Blake is a member of the Philosophy Department, Mary Immaculate College, University of Limerick.

Mail to: David Blake

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