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.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Christianity v. religious rule-keeping

There are people who think of Christianity as a system of religious rules. That's surprising to me: Reading the teachings of Jesus in the New Testament, and Paul after him, Christianity at its foundation contains a direct challenge to the whole system of religious rule-keeping. It openly questions the value of time-honored religious traditions. It points out the risks of thinking there is something spiritual about rule-keeping. And here, I would not say that rule-keeping is seen as "nothing" -- since "nothing" could be harmless. Rule-keeping is discussed as something far worse than "nothing". In the New Testament, there is plain discussion of the problem of religious rule-keeping as a temptation to pride, an excuse for cruelty, a "respectable " mask for the self-righteous, an occasion for arrogance. It shows how rule-keeping can blind us to the human need for mercy. And that last may be the worst of all: as Christians, we are asked to be the face and voice of mercy in this world.

What about the Ten Commandments, "Thou shalt not murder" and "Thou shalt not commit adultery" and all that? Well, nobody who is determined to be the face and voice of mercy in the world is going to murder someone or sneak around with their wife or husband. That's a lot different from thinking you get brownie points for not being a murderer or a homewrecker. "The rules" are there to safeguard and protect a good life. The more we want to make things good for people all around us, the less we need to be told not to steal their things or lie about them behind their backs -- and the less we think we deserve some sort of special recognition merely for not being evil.

Once we have grasped the law of mercy, the wisdom of kindness, then we'll recognize those "rules" as tools meant to implement that kindness. Beware if you hear of someone telling you to keep the rules for the sake of your own perfection. Keep them for the sake of your neighbor.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

As we forgive (Or: About that class reunion last night)

This is a personal piece and, while in the end it is ultimately uplifting (I think), I should warn the reader that there is strong content. (I suppose some material may not be suitable for children either.) And for those of you who know that I keep my on-line privacy, and keep my real name out of the picture when I can, there is one place where my maiden name is blanked out in favor of my initials (A__ A__ here means me, not a 12-step organization).

I went to a high school class reunion last night. (This is not a pre-scheduled piece; it was last night.) I'd debated for awhile whether I would go. I was really hoping to find some old friends that I'd lost contact with over the years. But since I had lost contact with basically everybody, why go in the first place? I decided that the chance to find some old friends, even if only to say hi for the night, would be the deciding factor.

But I found myself wondering, "What if Steve and Jimmy are there?" At first I pushed the thought aside but the thought pushed back harder. Really, what if they were there? I'd have to be mentally prepared for that. Oh, in the big scheme of things, all they did was shoot off their mouths and say something cruel. But it is the most cruel thing anyone has ever said to me. It's actually on the short list of the most cruel things I've ever heard of one human being saying to another. In the years since high school, I've sometimes asked myself what I would say if I ever did see them again. And in general, I don't spend time thinking about what they said. But when things are dark -- well, you know how ugly memories are opportunists: they wait until you're feeling low to make themselves heard. I probably wouldn't be telling this story today except for one thing: I went to the class reunion last night, and Jimmy was there.

So what exactly was it that Steve and Jimmy said? Well, it goes back to the first semester of our freshman year in high school, and the (less secret by the day) neighborhood secret that during the semester I had been kidnapped by a pedophile, and it hadn't gone well for me. The news was spreading around school and I was getting sideways looks in the hallway, whispers behind my back, all that kind of thing. But Steve & Jimmy weren't whispering. In fact, on the way to our math class one day, they walked behind me and staged a conversation in loud voices -- as if they wanted to make sure that I overheard.
The one said, "Hey, did you hear that A__ A__ was raped? Funniest thing I ever heard!"
The other laughed back, "Yeah, she's so ugly, who the hell would want to rape her?"
(Cruel enough to take your breath away for a moment, isn't it?) I don't actually know which voice was Steve and which was Jimmy; I doubt it matters. But the rest of our time in high school, I can't remember either one speaking to me again, or looking me in the eye.

So we're past the ugly part of the story, the cause of the content advisory at the top, and the reason why I was wondering what exactly I would do or say if I saw Steve or Jimmy at the reunion. On the one hand, what they said truly was inexcusable. On the other hand, they were fourteen, same as I was. By now, I know exactly what it's like to say or do something that I wish I could take back. So I made up my mind that, if there was some genuine regret or remorse from them (instead of doubling down), that I was perfectly willing to let bygones be bygones.

I spent the drive to the reunion (maybe a 20 minute drive) focused on more important things. Reunions have a bad reputation for people trying to judge the success of your life. So I was mentally rehearsing ice-breakers, ways to make it clear to people that I was there because I was glad for a chance to see them again. The preparations paid off several times. I ran into one of our classmates who had dropped out; I said she looked happy now and the rest hardly mattered. She held her head a little higher after that. Another classmate had a husband who had died tragically young, another had a job she wasn't proud of, so I just focused on making the rounds and making sure people knew whenever I had a kind memory of them, and looking for the low-key kind or encouraging word about where their life was right now. I ran into such a long list of people I was glad to see again, and collected the occasional contact information from old friends.

The "elephant in the room" -- everybody knew what had happened our freshman year -- only half-way came up one time. I ran across someone I had really thought was the cutest guy in the school, back in middle school ("before all that..."), but I didn't think he knew I existed. He spotted me and came over to me and said -- with more enthusiasm than I'd have expected -- that I looked great. I just thanked him and shrugged it off and said life had been good to me. For a second -- just a second -- you could see the shock ripple through him, that he was genuinely taken aback and he hadn't thought to hear me throw out a comment like that. So there was an awkward moment as he froze and looked at me in disbelief. But he recovered fairly quickly, and his ever-present grin came back, and we caught up on old times.

And then, towards the end of the night, as I finally made it back to one corner of the room I hadn't visited in awhile, there was a group of people I hadn't met yet, and it included Jimmy. I'd been meeting people with handshakes or hugs depending on how well I knew them. So as I got to that group I started with the handshakes, and ended up shaking hands with Jimmy as well as the rest of the group. He introduced himself, and I said I remembered him (in a voice that was so normal that it would have surprised me, a couple of hours previously, considering the last thing I remember him saying to me before that ...). He almost immediately distanced himself from the group that I'd just joined. And -- really, they were his friends, not mine; I hardly knew them. So I didn't stay long there, and moved on to another part of the room.

It could have been kind of anti-climactic, really, except that it was such a relief to be done with it. I wondered briefly if he had moved away from the group because he remembered what he said all those years ago, or whether he might have forgotten the whole thing ... or whether he just didn't like me then and still didn't like me now. And I realized that it simply didn't matter to me anymore.

The next time life is low and the ugly memories come back, it feels like that one memory has been disarmed. I looked Jimmy in the eye and shook his hand and spoke to him. And whatever else I might think about it, at least it went better than the previous time we spoke. At some point he'd become less of a nemesis and more just a person who I knew in high school.

This morning, praying "Forgive us our sins, as we forgive ..." I felt a strong sense of peace.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Mystical "experience of unity" in unexpected places

Some people who study mystical experiences have worked to identify the key characteristics of such an experience. What makes an experience "mystical", and what do they have in common? While the definitions are not always fully agreed on by all people, one of the commonly-mentioned features of mystical experience is an "experience of unity".* (Hinman, The Trace of God, p 13). In this experience of unity, "we both become one with the Absolute, and we become aware of our oneness" (Hinman, p13 quoting James).

Is there any real sense in which we are one with the Absolute?

I'd invite the Christian reader to consider a selection from a passage well-known to most Christians as "the parable of the sheep and the goats" (Matthew 25). The Son of Man comes in power with the angels to judge the world. He explains to the blessed: "I was hungry and you fed me, I was thirsty and you gave me a drink ..." (and so forth). He explains to the condemned, "I was hungry and you did not feed me, thirsty and you did not give me a drink ..." (and so forth). Both groups react with complete puzzlement. This is the Divine Judge! When have they ever seen him? When has he ever been in need? Both groups have a similar reaction: "When did we ever see you hungry? ... When did we ever see you thirsty?" And the ultimate surprise for both groups: "Whatever you did for the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me" (or "did not" in the relevant places).

Here is the "experience of unity" turned on its head. It is not a tale of the mystic having a grand moment in which he experiences (or imagines) unity with the Divine. It is the Divine saying that it's true, that there is a unity between the Divine and us that is deeper than we imagine. "If you welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, visit the sick or the prisoner, you have done it for me." And they have "done it for him" more than in the shallow sense that the Divine was merely the motivation while another person received the benefit. No, the Divine claims to be the one who was hungry or thirsty, the stranger, the sick, the prisoner, to whom we show kindness ... or to whom we do not. If the "experience of unity" seeks to be grounded in something that people trust, then the words of Jesus show us how that "experience of unity" looks from the other side of the divide. He also explains how that unity means that we cannot look at our neighbor with indifference.

Another unexpected place where I ran across the "experience of unity" lately was at a blog-neighbor's post on Gaps at the Dinner Table (in which he and some other physicists had dinner, and their conversation turned to God-of-the-Gaps v. Multiverse-of-the-Gaps). One of the dinner companions mentioned "that Monotheism is the ultimate example of a unification hypothesis—explaining diverse things in Nature based on the operation of a single principle." There is a view on which, believing that monotheism is true, we would not be surprised that a transcendent / divine experience often reveals the underlying unity of things. It's a case where, on the premise that monotheism is true, we could reasonably expect an experience of the divine to reveal an underlying unity. 

* There is some suggestion to elevate the "experience of unity" to the one essential feature of mysticism, but I'm not convinced that is warranted. The Lukoff study cited (Hinman, p 14) identifies common characteristics of mystical experiences in a fairly comprehensive way without mentioning an experience of unity. I wonder if the experience of unity is similar to the role of nature in mystical experiences: a common feature, but not an essential one.

Sunday, July 06, 2014

Religious commitment and health, well-being, quality of life

In Hinman's recent book, The Trace of God, he cites studies that compare religious and non-religious people and their quality of life. Here he relates a study by Gartner and Allen:
The Reviews identified 10 areas of clinical status in which research has demonstrated benefits of religious commitment: (1) Depression, (2) Suicide, (3) Delinquency, (4) Mortality, (5) Alcohol use, (6) Drug use, (7) Well-being, (8) Divorce and marital satisfaction, (9) Physical Health Status, and (10) Mental health outcome studies ... The authors underscored the need for additional longitudinal studies featuring health outcomes. (Hinman p 89, citing J. Gartner, D.B. Allen, The Faith Factor: An Annotated Bibliography of Systematic Reviews and Clinical Research on Spiritual Subjects Vol. II, emphasis added)
Here I want to focus on a distinction that Gartner and Allen make. While most of Hinman's book focuses on religious experience, here Gartner and Allen trace the health benefits of religious commitment. And Hinman's book then tries to determine how much of the health benefit of religious commitment is due to the rules and behavioral norms of the religious group (what Hinman terms "sin avoidance"), how much is due to social factors, and how much is due to other factors.

Given Hinman's approach, he reviews the academic studies from the social sciences that work to separate the "sin avoidance" aspects of religion, the "social connectedness" aspects of religion, and the remaining aspects of religion. For example, the studies might compare religious and non-religious people, controlling for people who likewise don't smoke, or are regularly involved in social settings. Hinman's focus is on the "remaining aspects of religion" that are left over after controlling for "sin avoidance" and social connectedness. But I'd like to take the other path there, and consider that religious commitment calls for both "sin avoidance" and "social connectedness", and the effects that will have on health, well-being, and quality of life.

Let me first tackle some objections: Why is that worthy of consideration? Why couldn't an unbeliever just adopt the same "sin avoidance" (healthy life-choices) rules, and build the same social connectedness? In theory they could; in practice they generally don't. The difference between groups is such that the studies had to correct for it and control for it: religion promotes certain healthy behaviors, and atheism has no mechanism to promote the same, so there will be a difference. This difference is worthy of consideration because it is a legitimate way in which organized religion (which might as well be the bogeyman, according to some) actually sets up the social structure to ensure long-term health benefits and improve the quality of life. In the same way that Hinman argues that the long-term personal benefits of religious experience are what you would expect if God were involved, likewise the long-term, society-wide benefits of religious commitment are what you would expect if God were involved. (More will be said in an upcoming post about the usual atheist charges that organized religion is a cesspool of evil. For now I will simply say: If that were really so, why would the studies show that religious commitment is associated with higher ratings of health, well-being, and quality of life?)

Couldn't someone argue that conventional morality was adopted by the various religions simply because it works well and produces these benefits? Well, you certainly could argue that, but that does amount to arguing that organized religion is responsible for promoting society-wide programs to improve health and quality of life -- and that these positive benefits were attributable to the dreaded so-called "authoritarian" rules of the religion. (It also amounts to admitting that the modern determination to throw out these quality-of-life measures is hardly "progress".) Is it merely ideology that says the "sin avoidance" aspects of religion aren't worth considering when looking at religious benefits? It is through those much-maligned rules that religion achieves a measurable portion of the benefit of health, well-being, and quality of life. A similar argument could be made for social connectedness: many religions actively promote social connectedness along with related items like stability of marriage and harmonious relationships with other people. All of that is part of the quality of life. If health improvement and quality of life are built into the religious system, why should those benefits be discounted simply because they come from a disapproved method (religious rules, norms, or gatherings) rather than from an approved source? If someone has religious experience alone, without commitment, they may still be missing the real and measurable benefits that come specifically from religious commitment.

On a possibly-related note, Hinman's book mentions that the people who had religious experiences sometimes had long-term positive effects (it was life-changing), and sometimes did not. I would be curious what caused some people to have longer-lasting positive effects than others. Did it matter whether the people had (or found) a religious framework that could help them interpret the experience? Did religious support, religious commitment, or religious community make any difference to whether that experience was perceived as important, and had a lasting effect on their lives?

Friday, July 04, 2014

Independence: It's what makes liberty possible

I don't write on this kind of topic often, but for 4th of July I'll make an exception.

A young child is a dependent: they need other people to get their food and keep them safe. And because someone else takes care of them, someone else also tells them what to do: You can eat this but not that, you can stay awake this late but no later, you can not use certain words.

Governments have routinely claimed that same kind of power over their subjects, viewing them as dependent. Sometimes they stacked the deck so the people were dependent who could have taken care of themselves. In time, some of the people realized, "I could take care of myself if the government weren't standing in my way."

America's experiment was independence: giving free rein to the people who believed, "We can take care of ourselves." This land saw immigrants from all over the world who took up the challenge of independence: people who believed in themselves and were willing to take some risk, who believed the average person has the ability to take care of ourselves. (The famous communist slogan, "From each according to his ability, to each according to his need", only works if the average person can meet the average need, with a little margin to spare. America took that premise and showed that a controlling, micromanaging government is really unnecessary when things are done right.)

Our country's early days showed genuine independence. I'm fairly sure some of my great-grandparents built their homes with their own hands. I know that at least two of my grandparents grew their own food, as they grew up on rural farms. They did not live like that because the whole system had collapsed, but because "the system" that we depend on wasn't even there yet. They knew how to take care of themselves. And when we take care of ourselves, it's not the government's business what we do with every detail of our lives, or every dollar we earn. Independence is what makes liberty possible.

Many people are worried about the loss of liberty in America. It's a legitimate worry. But the reason it feels like a trap -- like we can't see the way out -- is because we have already lost much of our independence. While my ancestors built their own homes with their own hands (and didn't have to go into debt for it), these days you're hardly allowed to build your own home. Government agents will line up to demand fees and permits, and claim the right to tell you whether your plans meet their standards. And while 150 years ago the average person probably knew how to build their own home, in our days of "better education", people generally don't know how to provide for their basic needs of putting a roof over their heads and food on the table. All this is progress, supposedly. People even make jokes about not having a "green thumb": many people are so poorly educated about things that matter that they cannot grow a plant successfully.

I'd encourage those of us who are worried that the government has claimed too much power, or worried that "the system" will collapse, to take a real stand for liberty: work for independence. (People mock that idea as backwards and rustic, all the while lamenting that the world isn't more "green" or "sustainable". It would be more green and sustainable, if everyone knew how to grow a plant.) And if the government is involved in arranging for your health care, how long is it before they gain the power to tell you what to eat and drink, since they are responsible for your health? In the end, the only thing that makes liberty itself sustainable is independence. And independence means taking responsibility for our own lives.