Sunday, July 27, 2014

Religious Experience in Art and Literature

Is it possible to capture or reproduce a religious experience?

There are some common themes in religious experience. As we've seen before, one of those is nature. Nature, in its unspoiled state, is an essential part of what makes "paradise". The nature-triggered religious experience may involve recognizing the paradise within nature, perceiving the holy or the timeless quality of what we see. While religious events and spiritual retreats are held in natural settings to increase the background perception of holiness, that is not quite the same as capturing it.

Some authors may have recorded a religious experience in a way that it can be re-experienced by the reader. There are some well-received authors who have done a respectable job, such as Coleridge and Tolkien. Tolkien, for example, describes nature so vividly that someone with a good imagination could have a nature-based religious experience from his description. Even if reading does not trigger a "peak experience", the reader may still have a quiet and persistent sense of the holy.

Likewise a painter or musician may attempt to capture a religious experience in such a way that it can be re-experienced by others. The Hallelujah Chorus from Handel's Messiah seems to have captured some of the essential traits of a religious experience in such a way that many people have a sense of the holy when listening to it. When it comes to Handel's Hallelujah Chorus, the words manage to form one part of the experience. They convey the sense of timelessness ("forever and ever ... "), the sense that God's benevolence is the ultimate power in the world ("For the Lord God Omnipotent reigneth"), that any trouble we have in this world is a small thing compared to the world to come ("King of kings, and Lord of lords!"). There is some artistry in portraying a sense of underlying unity as all the different voices join in the one song, but with slightly different timing, so that you don't lose the sense that there are a series of different voices joined together. The music is also crafted so as to reinforce those messages, and enhance the sense of an intricate beauty, where beauty is also an underlying motif of religious experiences.

There is, in the best of art or literature, something profound, something that transcends. And for some artists who are drawing on the depths of the holy for their inspiration, that art itself can communicate the holy.