A friend told me about a spiritual experience he had.
As a faith-filled person, there should be nothing unusual in that. Yet the context of the story was not what you would expect.
For a variety of rational reasons, there was an initial fear that he was ill. And, more than anything, he found it amusing. After all, being in a church, one should think spiritual first right?
Most of us don’t talk about these experiences, if and when we have them. I suspect frankly that we have them more than we realize. We just don’t see them as such.
Every moment of awe is a hidden such experience I am convinced. It is the reason why people ask each other “where do you find God’s presence the strongest?”
Most people answer nature, or in the faces of their children, or in quilting, or baking. It doesn’t matter, such things touch us deeply at times, and we lose time, and sometimes we lose a sense of where we are. We are lost in God, or perhaps more preciously God is using us to experience this moment, and our ego consciousness has submerged in that wave of Spirit.
Sometimes it lasts for a brief moment or two, other times it can be significantly longer.
I didn’t ask my friend to describe what happened. I never for a moment doubted the experience, but I know that the telling never equals the experience. That is because words are simply inadequate.
I’ve been reading William James, brother of Henry James, the great author. William had a varied career but ended up in psychology, teaching at Harvard. This is all in the 1890’s. The book, The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature, was a compilation of his Gifford Lectures, and published in 1902.
James, writing in the time of the awakening of science, speaks of religious belief, and explains how it is not a profitable subject of science, but lays outside it in most respects. In his world, many were arguing that science would replace religion, yet he found in testimony after testimony, experiences such that no science could approach.
Furthermore, James became convinced that no amount of scientific argumentation would ever change the minds of those who had had such experiences. He became convinced, and argued that there were indeed different approaches and different realities:
And why, after all, may not the world be so complex as to consist of many interpenetrating spheres of reality, which we can thus approach in alternation by using different conceptions and assuming different attitudes, just as mathematicians handle the same numerical and spatial facts by geometry, by analytical geometry, by algebra, by calculus, or by quaternions, and each time come out right?
And I realized in reading that that I was through with arguing with those who do not believe. In fact I have stopped that endeavor now for some weeks, but this gave me the final intellectual underpinning to my decision.
For the atheist will always insist that every religious thought must be put under the microscope of empirical inspection. They will tell me about brain activity and various centers within it that can explain “mystical” occurrences. They will insist that I must convince them that it was truly a “real” experience.
Yet James claims that one who genuinely believes they have experienced a spiritual event, will never be persuaded that they are wrong:
. . .but if you do have them, [a spiritual experience] and have them at all strongly, the probability is that you cannot help regarding them as genuine perceptions of truth, as revelations of a kind of reality which no adverse argument, however unanswerable by you in words, can expel from your belief.
Thus it seems we are discussing a subject that in essence we cannot approach because we deny each other’s tools of discernment. In fact, as my experience on the Internet has shown, there is a refusal to even approach the subject calmly and with a certain decorum if you will. In this, the rabid atheist is much, as I have suggested, like the fundamentalist.
James seems to agree.
“He believes in No-God, and he worships him,” said a colleague of mine of a student who was manifesting a fine atheistic ardor; and the more fervent opponents of Christian doctrine have often enough shown a temper which, psychologically considered, is indistinguishable from religious zeal.
The atheist worships himself, demanding accent to the proposition that humanity is at the pinnacle of all that is; that it is the human brain that is the creator if you will, and that it is human science that is the final and only arbiter of all brought before it for examination. No other standard is acceptable.
In this, they are as rabid and obnoxious as the bible pounder who assaults us with his perfect interpretation of God which we are required to accede to and to have all judged by.
I find James insights and conclusions amazing, given psychology was in it’s infancy at the time. So was much of science truth be told. Yet, he has, it seems, nailed it. We are talking apples and oranges when we seek to engage in the discourse of this type.
Yet, if you accept what is being done in theoretical physics these days, our particular universe may be only one of an infinite variety of “types.” It would seem that reality really is much in the eye of the beholder. At least we can claim with some accuracy, that not a one of us can claim certainty.
If no certainty, then I in my faith and you in your lack of it, stand equally. And we should respect that, and let it go. I say that to those who spend their days in the effort to dissuade others of their faith, and those who spend their days in the effort to prove the need of faith.
People of faith and people of no faith have but one goal: to live life as best we can as we see it. God, in my world, will determine the rest.