The Evangelical Universalist Forum

JRP interviews Joe Hinman on THE TRACE OF GOD

[Updated to add: Joe sent me a short overview of his book, about 1050 words (or 6 pages of nice large 18pt monospace font, or 1 page of 10 pt), which I’ve appended to a post downthread in pdf and doc formats, specifically on page 2 of the thread. The only reason I’m not linking to it here is because, naturally, he talks about more of his book in the interview, so you might as well go through it! :sunglasses: But we did provide a much shorter introduction to his book later if you want to hunt for it.]

Joe and I work on the same Christian apologetics web journal (, and today his publisher has finally released a project he has been working on for many years, The Trace of God: A Rational Warrant For Belief. (The hyperlink goes to the Amazon version, for help in concentrating any early sales in ranking, but it’s available at other sellers, too. It’s a paperback by the way, not an ebook yet.)

Theistic arguments often overlook the question of mystical experience due to difficulties in the necessary subjectivity involved, plus the obvious problem (for anyone with a modicum of experience in the topic) that the resulting doctrinal spread is practically as wide as all religions everywhere. Consequently such events seem of little use to most apologists of specific theistic religions or philosophies, where not outright self-contradictory or competitive or even hostile evidence: anti-religionists and even outright anti-theists may appeal to them as objective evidence (since the experiences objectively happen) against claims of special religious truths by any religion.

But the experiences do objectively happen, whatever their explanation(s) or subjective content, and so during the past century a body of work studying the experiences by scientific methods has been quietly grown and polished and continues to be grown through controlled studies on a regular basis.

Joseph Hinman has worked hard to collect and summarize typical studies for lay readers, creating an introduction to the field for people largely ignorant of the science of the topic (like myself). A former atheist, Joe was first led to study the field by mystical experiences of his own. Later he decided some version of trinitarian Christian theism made the most sense to him, and has become (again like myself) a Christian apologist, but he also recognizes that the data from this field is spread too widely to point to more than a few characteristics of God (which could be considered one of the meanings of his chosen title for his study: only a trace can be detected by this method, but it is a trace.)

So he doesn’t push for various doctrines in the book; and so similarly, readers of many kinds of belief (or even non-belief or anti-belief) may find this book useful in at least opening up the topic for further discussion. Along the way, Joe also includes introductions to related topics like Plantingian rational warrant and Kuhn’s theory of paradigm shifts, and extensively discusses important rebuttals to interpreting the evidence in favor of being an objective trace of God (plus counter-rebuttals of course since this is that kind of book).

Note: Joe is dyslexic, so while strong efforts have been made (including by myself as an invited proofreader for two chapters) to eliminate problems a few may still exist, especially in first printed editions. The reader may blame us as proofers for missing those. I’ll be trying to go back and proof any problems which show up downthread as the interview progresses, too.

Note: a live podcast interview (not with anyone on this thread) is also now available! … eph-hinman

Hey Jason!

That sounds absolutely like something I’ve been looking for. Thanks! I will be ordering me a copy right now. :smiley:

Edited to add: thanks, Cole! :slight_smile:

So, having introduced the book, why did I invite Joe to this forum for an interview (aside from wanting to help a friend of course)?

The question of mystical experiences worldwide throughout history (and its related topic in near-death experiences, though that isn’t the topic of this book), has been broached several times here on the forum in past years. Joe knows the limits of how far to argue for what the evidence he discusses suggests about the existence and characteristics of God, but the evidence as such does strongly suggest God acts in a wide and largely religion-neutral fashion toward saving sinners of many kinds from sin, even if not immediately into what we as Christian universalists (of various sorts) would regard as doctrinal accuracy or even immediately into whatever we would regard as moral propriety. Not everything in a person’s life is immediately fixed (by whatever standard we ourselves may regard as being fixed), but people’s lives and their relationships with other people are demonstrably improved on a regular basis.

That’s hardly evidence solely in favor of some kind of Christian universalism (or even solely in favor of a loosely pluralistic non-Christian ‘universalism’ promoted by groups like the so-called Unitarian Universalists); Joe himself is an Arminianistic annihilationist along the lines of C. S. Lewis, but a Calvinist could say such results are indicative of the special election of those people, and obviously the extra-religious inclusivism suggested by such results doesn’t preclude other people being tormented forever (by God or otherwise) or eventually annihilated completely out of existence (by God or ditto). But it does at least suggest a pre-religious inclusivism along the lines accepted by, for example, Lewis. And that fits Christian universalism, too, as far as it goes, and certainly doesn’t count against us! :wink:

Another interesting and useful aspect of Joe’s book, that I think readers here will appreciate, is his exposition on Kuhn’s theory of paradigm shifts – though of course any minority belief would appreciate that section. :sunglasses: (I’m hoping Chris Date ([tag]theopologetics[/tag]) and his friends at the anni journal Rethinking Hell will find Joe’s work worth commenting on and interviewing, too.) But I’ll let Joe talk more about that himself below as part of the interview.

This interview thread is open to any comments and questions as I go along. Since Joe is a guest (and particularly my guest – and since I have just not-incidentally tagged a Calv anni friend of mine, too, for attention), I will be more picky about emotional misbehaviors here than I usually am. So play nice; challenges are one thing (though keep in mind Joe isn’t here to debate or even discuss Christian universalism, presumably ditto Chris if he shows up), name-calling is another. TEST ME ON THIS AT YOUR PERIL!

So, [tag]Joe Hinman[/tag] (tagging his account here to alert him the interview is starting, but I’ll send a direct email, too), let me start by asking you to talk a little about how you got involved in studying mystical religious experiences in the first place. If I remember correctly, you had mystical experiences of some sort (you don’t have to go into details) back years ago when you were an atheist, right? Is that what got you interested in the topic at first?

Hi Jason, glad to be here.

First terminology: general umbrella of “spiritual” or “religious experience.” That includes mystical but much more. Mystical experience proper is beyond word, thought, or image. It’s about undifferentiated unity of all things. It’s the sense that it’s all one and it fits together in a great whole and everything is good and meaningful. Even that is putting it into words, it’s beyond words. It’s what Abraham Maslow called “peak experience.”

People who think God is telling them to put their baby in the oven or something, or exercise demons from their dog, that is not mystical experience. It’s in words. Mystical experience is not in words. There’s a secondary kind of mystical experience called “sense of the numinous” or “sense of the Holy” (Rudolph Otto). That is a sense of the special nature, a quality of cleanness or sublimity that evokes a sense of awe and reverence. It’s often accompanied by an all pervasive sense of presence and love. People who have that often think of it as God’s love.

This that I’m about to say is not in my book. There are personal experiences in my book not of my own. I do hint at having had them but I don’t discuss it at all. The book does not have much in the way describing experiences. It’s really an intellectual discussion.

I did not have the undifferentiated unity in moving from atheism to Christianity. I had spiritual experiences and miraculous ones that amazed me. Experiences that I didn’t think were possible. After I got saved, (what I call “born again experience” which was not mystical) I had the experience charismatics call “baptism of the Holy Spirit” with speaking in tongues. That was similar to the sense of the numinous. I think that was part of it. But it wasn’t really what I would call the full on mystical experience. That came about a year or two after I first had the “born again” experience. That was with the undifferentiated sense of unity and sense of the numinous.

That latter experience started me seeking to study mystical experience. I had no systematic way to study it. My reading was all framed by Evelyn Underhill and writers of the mystical movement of the early 20th century, Dean Inge. Baron von Hügel. That stuff was so framed by its own tradition I still didn’t have a good understanding of what mystical experience was. I got saved in 1979. Little by little throughout the 80s I studied it in spurts. I discovered W.T. Stace and read some of his stuff and read about his theories. That gave me my first systematic understanding of it. Meanwhile I was proceeding with my Christian life, and praying and trying to cultivate prayer. I had a friend who led me to the Lord, she was really a mystic. She didn’t say “I am really a mystic.” I didn’t think of her that way. I read the stuff she suggested but she didn’t put it into a framework that defined the experience. I related everything to the charismatic world. I was actually getting grounded in a mature mystical understanding but did not know it. That’s why Stace seemed to right to me. In 90’s I got away from it. I was in graduate school I had a Masters degree in theology from a major seminary (Perkins at SMU). It’s not that they said “stop being a mystic” and I said “Ok sure.” It just sort got replaced by an intellectual outlook, an arrogant outlook, a self aggrandized outlook.

By 2007 when I started writing the book, mystical experience was something I felt like was part of my past. I still liked it, I still thought it was worthwhile and I wanted to write about it. I also felt like it’s something I used to do. I went through a crisis where my whole life fell apart, and I started praying again. I had some more amazing experiences. I was getting back into the spiritual life. I had been arguing with atheists on the net since 1998. During the course of that time I had seen lots of arguments they make about “religion is mental illness,” “religious experience is emotional instability.” So I had looked up some studies that contradicted those ideas. I also had studied Abraham Maslow. He was a figure I discovered way back in my atheist days as an undergraduate. I was a sociology major, so he was important to me. I found his book on peak experience and he said things that refuted the kinds of things atheists were saying about religious experience and religion in general. He himself was an atheist. I thought it would be important to read his book.

In the interest of sharpening my message board apologetic, I read Maslow and researched enough to discover Hood and the M scale. Then about 2008 It hit me “hey why don’t I write a book about this huge volume of studies I’m finding that say religion is good for you. NO one out there seems to know about it outside of psychology of religion.” I would find atheists saying things about how science proves religion is primitive and silly and blah blah and then I would see psychologists of religion were saying “that’s all nineteenth century stuff, now we know religious experience is a healthy thing and religion is not primitive or the result a pathological state.” They specifically said Freud is out of date. It was in actively researching that book that I constructed the frame work of understanding mystical experience that the book assumes. It’s very much influenced by William James, and Ralph Hood who is the biggest William James fan ever. Maslow still figures prominently and so does W.T. Stace.

Thanks, Joe, that was a great detailed answer!

I expect many people will be surprised to learn that there is such a thing as a serious study of mystical experience, and that even atheists or agnostics can make scientific studies of it and come away agreeing that there is a quantifiable result of the experience (or various modes of it rather, which you’ve given us some ideas about already) which is mentally healthy and leads to results which even as atheists or non-religious they would agree are beneficial not only to those who have such experiences but for other people who don’t have such experiences.

This is related to the M-scale you mentioned. Would you talk a little more about what this scale is, how and why it was developed, and its purposes in scientific study?

(Note: while I’ll continue the interview, other members can ask questions at any time from this point on.)

I’m sure lots of people here will be particularly interested in that part. :wink:

(That isn’t a question for Joe, just highlighting something for members in passing. :slight_smile: )

I can definitely relate Jason. Christ said to trust in God but trust in Him also. So, when my faith is in Christ I trust in the Father. This is what I believe Jesus did. He said, “Not My will but Yours be done” It was by the joy set before Him that He endured the cross. When I stop trying to figure it out with reason and let go faith arises and I come into a faith union with Christ. It’s a love union like a marriage. Sometimes it’s more intense than other times. But when my future is secure and the past is gone then I’m free to live in the NOW. It’s in this present moment that I experience this wonder and joy when I enter into the “Beautiful”. It stirs a sense of longing. It’s like I just know that there is a God of love. Either/or becomes both/and. Saints and sinners unite. This where it’s no longer us and them but we can love the enemy. Now, keep in mind that if it’s both/and then it has to be BOTH either/or AND both/and. It’s unity and division. This is what I see in the Trinity. Three separate persons and one God.

Joe: The M scale or “mysticism scale,” invented by Ralph Hood Jr. professor of psychology at U.Tenn. Chattanooga, is a means of establishing a control mechanism so we know what is and what is not a mystical experience. For example in his book on brain chemistry and religious experience John Hick talked about these researchers that claimed they have manufactured religious experience in the laboratory. Thus it’s just a product of brain chemistry. but they didn’t’ establish how to tell what is and what is not a mystical experience. So researcher said his respondent dreamed she was having sex with Jesus so that’s a mystical experience. Is it? So the M scale is a means of determining.

There are other such scales that were made. The problem is old and Maslow made his own scale to control for other kinds of experience. But Hood’s scale is the most validated. That means it has the most corroboration form other studies. He made other language versions of it and administered it to people around the world in various coteries and got the same answers. So people all over the world in many different faiths are having experiences that they all understand as experiences of God, they are same kinds of experiences. They score the same on the M scale. That’s how they determine they have the same kinds of experiences, because the point is scale designed to reflect certain kinds of experiences.

Remember in the last question I spoke a guy named W.T. Stace? He was philosopher from England. He wrote in the 40s and 50s. He took all of the writings of the great mystics and distilled from those what he thought would be the profile so to speak of mystical experience. That became the basis for Hood’s scale. Hood did his scale to valuate Stace’s theory and so validating it created a means of establishing a control for comparing religious experiences to non religious experiences. He’s assuming that a religious experience conforms to Stace’s theory.

How does he know Stace got it right? That’s the importance of applying it to people around the world. They did it in Sweden, UK, India, Iran, Japan and U.S.A. They have the same kind of break down. People who say they had experiences of God and their lives are made better by it also describe, via the way they answer the questions, the kinds of things that Stace’s theory predicts they would experience.

Now later Hood did another one where he took out the names and the doctrines and had a sort of neutral version. So you are not asking “did you experience Jesus” but “did you experience a supreme being?” He also did one where uses the names appropriate to the tradition, “did you experience Buddha?” The experiences are the same. The names change with reference to the tradition, and the explanations of the meaning changes with reference to the tradition, but the thing experienced (undifferentiated unity, presence of love, whatever) are the same the world over.

The whole body of studies that I use are not all using the M scale. It began in the 70s but didn’t catch on until the 90s. It’s now the standard method of determining a mystical experience in psychology of religion. There have been other scales and they are not far off from the content of the M scale, or from the outcome. But the M scale has the best validation, and has been applied in a more diverse set of countries and so on. It’s hailed as the best. Two other scales that are widely used are by Greely (1974) and another by Alexander and Boyer (1982). In terms of the whole body of research for the 50 year period back to the 60s, there’s general agreement along the same lines. But the M scale really nails it.

A lot of atheists have argued “how do you know they are not lying?” Since this is like a survey you asked questions and rate them on a scale according to their answers. These atheists imagine these peasants in Iran are asked to do this and they going to say “Let’s lie to them, ok we’ll do it in such a way as to validate Stace.” Well, they would never have heard of Stace, they would not know anything about what they are supposed to be validating. Had it not validated Stace one might be able to argue they did lie, but then no one would care. But the 32 items on the test are complex, to get them all exactly the way you must in order to validate, would require a complex understanding of Stace’s theory. I think you would be hard pressed to find even American College students who have heard of Stace. Even philosophy majors might not have heard of him. He’s not exactly a household name. The idea that peasants in Iran, Japan and India will know enough to fraudulently validate the claim is silly. The idea that it happen by coincidence is just out of the question. It’s 32 items. So several hundred peasants in 3 different countries are going to accidentally get 32 items a certain way to validate this guy’s theory? Pretty safe to assume not.

That means we can study mystical experiences scientifically. We can’t study the actual nature of the experience in people’s heads but we can study the effects of having the experience. Now we have a means of saying what is and what is not the experience.

I like that. Never realized it but I have that experience with time too. It’s like now and eternity are qued to each other. Past and future are irrelevant.

Hey Joe, thanks for coming on. I’ve not read much on or from mystics, though I’ve had a couple mystical experiences, including a major one that brought me into the understanding of Universalism. I did not believe that any of that stuff was for our time prior to that day a few years ago. I certainly do now :slight_smile:

Hey Joe!

Yes, I have experienced it after doing yoga. I also experience it when I have faith that my future is in the hands of an infinitely wise, all loving, holy God. When my future is secure I have hope. I no longer fear the future or death. The past is over and gone and forgiven. So, I can live in the present without anxiety or frustration.

Yay for Tennessee scholars! :mrgreen:

A set of further questions:

1.) In administering such tests, is data biased to be from people already nominally religious (e.g. only that kind of data is collected), or have atheists, agnostics etc. also been included in polling techniques? If not, why not; if so, are there any expected or unexpected correlations or discorrelations? For example I might expect atheists and agnostics to also have such experiences, but some atheists and other theists might not expect atheists to have such experiences. Obviously there’s a question of willingness to report in any case, but can you give us an idea of results or restrictions to the methodologies?

(Ultimately I realize the answer would be read-and-find-out. :wink: But if you can think of a promotional answer, that’s okay.)

2.) If members were interested, would there be any sense in you providing an example of such testing here on the forum? I put it that way because I realize there might be control issues or other factors which preclude even making the attempt, but if possible I’d like to give readers an idea of what it’s like to take such a test. (I keep wanting to say “the” test, but part of the point of your book is that there’s a surprisingly large body of research through multiple related tests.)

I do have other questions if #2 doesn’t work out, don’t worry. :ugeek:

Note to members: while I’ve done what I can to make the interview visible on the forum, it is after all tucked away here in the Books category; so if anyone reading the thread wants to ping or pm other members you think would be interested, go ahead! I have a couple of people already in mind myself… [tag]Sobornost[/tag] and [tag]johnnyparker[/tag] for example.

I do find this fascinating. It also imo resonates with Hick’s An Interpretation of Religion, a book I like very much. His theory, that the experience with the Real is an experience shaped by culture and belief, leads to his form of pluralism, which gets a little sticky, for me, when the fact of competing truth-claims is brought up.
I have a copy also of William Alston’s Perceiving God, which I have started a couple of times but not finished.
I’ll be very interested in following your presentation, Joe.

Also Joe,

I wanted to tell you that now that I have learned better in how to let go and have faith and live in the NOW I no longer take medication for being bipolar. I’ve been off of it for a little over a month now and I’m focused and doing better than I ever have. No major anxieties or worries. :smiley:

Incidentally, Kristen Rosser presents a far more personal review of the book at her weblog here: … od-by.html

Hey Jason!

I would agree with a lot of that. Bill Wilson from A.A. explains his experience of God that transformed his life in the Big Book of A.A. Such ecstatic experiences happen when someone is real depressed and insecure. When the insecurity is suddenly released it produces an ecstatic experience or mountaintop experience. This is what has happened to me on many occasions. It’s a dark night of the soul that you go through with a confusion of the mind. As Bill Wilson has stated, for most people the change comes gradually and therefore they aren’t aware of it on such an intense level. The psychological change for some people is like a roller coaster. For some it’s instantaneous for others more gradual. Bill Wilson was also a big fan of William James’ - Varieties Of Religious Experiences.

I’m pretty unfamiliar with the term mystical experience or exactly what it means so sorry if this question shows I am completely misunderstanding what you are writing about and just let me know if it is totally off base. . .

How are these mystical experiences different from enlightening moments people have on LSD? I’m specifically thinking about when LSD has been used in conjunction with therapy in a controlled environment. It sounds like the experience and results are very similar.

Hey, BPW! (That’s Baptist Preacher’s Wife, Joe.)

Joe has already kind of answered this a little above, but when he gets around to talking in more detail about the M-scale (per my question, plus some planned followups) you should have a good beginning to that answer.

Joe suffers from a chronic leg infection, which is acting up more than usual right now (my bet would be due to the stress/excitement of the book being published), so he’s having to go to the doctor every day for treatment. This is likely to delay his side of the interview somewhat.