Book review: Encountering Mystery

Anvil journal of theology and mission

Dale C. Allison Jr., Encountering Mystery: Religious Experience in a Secular Age (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2022)

reviewed by Simon Baigent, Pioneer mission student, South London

A mentally healthy young man, staring into the night sky, has a profound numinous experience. A loving, Divine (he supposes) presence briefly engulfs him, accompanied by intense light and leaving a sense of deep calm. He decides to commit his life to Christianity both personally and in academic study. This story, and the whole first chapter, was, like that teenager’s epiphany, both unexpected and beautiful. I cried.

The young man’s difficulty was that neither academia nor the church felt safe places to unpack his mystical experience. They had no room for his reality; he must be wrong, mistaken or freakishly unusual. And yet the evidence Princeton theologian Dale Allison presents here is that these types of experience are surprisingly common. Self-censorship and uncoordinated research obscure the reality. The book is woven through with many more stories and testimonies, from studies conducted in various times and places, illuminating Allison’s argument that to experience what he calls the “metanormal” is far from unusual.

Allison leads us through just a few common categories of encounter, perhaps with an eye to the word “religious” in his subtitle. His research takes in the blissful (as in chapter one) and the less common terrifying encounters; angelic interventions, then pre-death (in the room) and near-death (on the “other side”) experiences. He makes the point that while patterns emerge time and again, such occurrences are no respecter of religious faith, moral character, emotional fragility or intellectual capacity, considering that some on their deathbed have little or no brain tissue intact.

Encountering Mystery does not divert into the already theologically well-trodden arenas of Christian spirituality or the charismatic, but Allison does take a detour into people’s experience of prayer. Why is there so little study of the inner mechanics of praying? What occurs in the mind’s eye? His own straw poll shows vast discrepancies.

Any inquiring mind should enjoy Allison’s exquisitely academic and engagingly human style. The author’s hope, though, must be that this book is picked up by the sort of theologians and church leaders who had nowhere to put the experiences of that teenager on his starlit rooftop. And not least because that young man was Professor Allison himself.

With such readers in mind, then, he moves on to discuss some of the rational, epistemological, theological and, finally, pastoral questions posed by this material. Our church and community leaders, who so often either dismiss the inexplicable or too quickly explain it, would do well not just to read this book, but to hear and hold our own people’s stories. We might at least, with Dale Allison, or Mary in Luke’s gospel, find space to treasure all the words and ponder them in our hearts.

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