Make your own free website on

Home ] Syllabus ] Research Project ] Lectures ] Reviews ]


Elements of Religious Experience

Part One: Symbols, myths and rituals


In this chapter the author presents what he considers to the the "elements of religious experience."  Certainly, symbols, myth and ritual are part of the experience of those who follow a faith tradition. These same elements can also be understood as the special "language" of religion. If religion involves an experience of the totally other realm of the sacred, how can that experience be communicated?  The answer is that religious experience is expressed (and thus experienced again) through symbol, myth and ritual. Each of these terms has a specialized meaning in the study of religion.



  • A symbol is an object/sound that points beyond itself to the sacred realm or to some aspect of ultimate reality.
  • Actually embody some aspect of sacred reality. In other words, they participate in that which they represent.
  • Even though religious symbols participate in sacred/ultimate reality, some difference is perceived between what is represented and that which represents it. 
  • Because symbols present ultimate reality, they evoke a strong response (emotional as well as intellectual) that goes beyond the rational.
  • The "meaning" or symbols is constructed socially.  That is there must be a "community of faith" for whom the symbols have meaning.  Those outside a particular community of faith often find no special meaning in the symbols.


  • A narration of a sequence of events, either historical or legendary, but presented as being, and felt to be, ahistorical  and eternally valid.
  • The structure of the story allows those hearing it or narrating it to relive it.
  • Often myths use highly symbolic language
  • A myth can be understood as the basic, foundational stories of a religious tradition



  • A ritual is a prescribed, repeated sequence of actions and words.
  • A ritual can be directed toward the divine or intended for self-transformation
  • Notice especially the author's statement that rituals are often the means for participating in the divine drama. In this sense, rituals provide a way for re-enacting and re-experiencing the foundational stories (myths) of a religious tradition. 
    • In Islam, the hajj (the pilgrimage to Mecca) allows individuals to participate in and experience once again the foundation events in the lives of Abraham, Adam and Eve, Hagar and Muhammad.
    • In Christianity, the observance of the Eucharist is generally understood to be a re-presenting and re-experiencing of the life, death, resurrection and return of the Christ.
    • In Judaism, those who participate in the Passover Seder  experience for themselves the deliverance from slavery in Egypt.
  • In this sense, ritual moves one from the realm of the ordinary (the profane) to the timeless realm of the sacred.