Tradition and Religious Experience
July 25, 2011 § 8 Comments
Note: This post began as a reply to a comment on a previous post by George Amoss Jr, but it got so long and felt so important that I decided to make it its own post. Here is George’s original comment, for context:
Steven, it’s not clear to me in the preceding material that you take this view, but I read your final paragraph as implying that the experience of the light or that of God within is primary, the interpretation being secondary. That’s a place of possible difference for you and me, and so, as an offer of a little food for thought, I’ll share my thinking very briefly.
What if the interpretation were, in a sense, to come first, to be the necessary matrix in which the experience takes place? That is, might the experience be the imaginative playing-out of the “narrative” that Fox and others developed from a particular reading of scripture? That’s how it looks to me as I read Fox’s Journal — for example, his famous auditory experience appears to happen well into his development of a radical hermeneutic — and as I compare the Quakerisms of various periods. And if that’s the case, then does the loss of the narrative mean the loss of the original experience, and the substitution of experience shaped by some other narrative? Also, could it be that liberal Quakers can’t explain their experience well because of the incoherent nature of the “narrative” that gives it shape; i.e., because the experience is of the same nature as its parent?
Again, just food for thought.
George, you’ve touched on a subject that I find truly fascinating and I think it’s really important, too: the dynamic relationship between our tradition and our experience—how they shape each other and depend on each other. Behind this issue lies an even deeper question: where do religious experiences come from?
You are right about me: I do think experience is primary. I don’t think religious experience is an “imaginary playing-out of the ‘narrative'”, as you put it. Well, sometimes I suppose it is. But not the profound, life-changing experiences, like those of George Fox and other Friends who have given us our tradition—and not my own formative spiritual experience, either. My own experience encourages me to act as though God is the source, not me or my narrative.
There are all kinds of spiritual and religious experiences, of course, (* see note below), but, like Fox, I have experienced my experience as coming from somewhere outside of myself. My formative spiritual experience, and many of its aftershocks (less powerful experiences that seemed to grow out of the first and helped to develop its meaning and importance for me) came with—or as—a sense of presence, a presence distinct and personal, a ‘personality’ who made an offer of relationship that was covenantal in character. I experienced this ‘angel’, for want of a better word, as Other than me.
Nor was it ‘imaginary’. It was real. The changes it wrought in me testify to its reality. However, by ‘imaginary’ perhaps you mean, not something that isn’t real but something that has been produced by the imagination—not quite the same thing. Well, I could easily explain it all as a projection of my unconscious or my imagination. Or, to turn Jungian for a moment (and I think I am a Jungian), I could say the experience was my own unconscious tapping archetypes in the collective unconscious to project an experience that plays out my own inner narrative in the garb of a cultural narrative. It happens that the ‘narrative’ in my case was Native American, the situation was a sweat lodge ceremony, and the whole thing was animistic in its essential elements. In fact, I have done a lot of thinking along these psychological lines, and this speculation is rather satisfying to me intellectually. But that’s NOT how I experienced it. I had an encounter with an Other and nothing has ever been the same since.
And, I refuse to redefine my own experience just because an elegant social science gives me the tools to ‘make sense’ of an otherwise almost ineffable experience and because my primary cultural (that is, scientific and secular) milieu encourages me to do so. Rather, I choose to honor my own experience by owning it as it came to me. Just so, I refuse to redefine other people’s experience for them. I refuse to say that George Fox was playing out a narrative built on his interpretation of scripture rather than experiencing the living Christ. It seems deeply disrespectful to me to do that. I don’t want anybody telling me what my experience really means, and I try to return the favor.
This is not for me just a kind of respectful tolerance, with which I keep my mouth shut but still inwardly translate the other person’s experience into something that works for me. These testimonies, these witnesses to the Truth lay upon me the responsibility I have in meeting for worship: not just to listen respectfully to someone’s vocal ministry, but to try to actually HEAR the Truth inside the message. So I take their experience at face value: if George Fox says it was Christ, then it WAS Christ who spoke to his condition. Nor is he alone. Millions of people have experienced Christ; dozens—hundreds—of his Quaker contemporaries shared his experience. I take that to mean that their Christ exists, even though I have no experience of him myself. This makes me a polytheist, I suppose, because I take everyone’s account of their experience at face value, meaning that whatever they experienced really exists. One way to put this, I suppose, is that we do not have spiritual or religious experiences—they have us. This is not to say, however, that interpretation does not have a role to play.
I first started thinking about this when reading a great book by Alan F. Segal titled Paul the Convert: The Apostolate and Apostasy of Saul the Pharisee. Among other things, Segal uses studies in the sociology of religion, and especially of conversion experiences, to look at Paul, and Paul is a good case study in how it goes: You have a life-changing experience—you’re changed for sure, but at first it’s all power and little content—you’re dazzled and blind and all you’ve got to go on is one or two short sentences. You can’t really see how you’re changed right away for all the light, or what it means, or where you fit in the larger tradition that seems to be the context for the little bit of content you do have to work with. (This is exactly how it was for me in my own formative visionary experience: all I had was an overwhelming sense of presence and some indecipherable auditory data, a voice I could not understand.) If you are lucky, someone—Ananias, in Paul’s case—is there to teach you what your experience means, to guide you in reordering your life according to your vision, to help you with the interpretation.
So most of the interpretation comes AFTER the experience. But still, religious experience rarely comes in a cultural vacuum. The little bit of content that comprises the experience (for Paul, the voice of Christ saying just a couple of sentences; for Jesus, just one sentence from heaven)—most of the time, the core of your experience has behind it a religious tradition, a context. Even when your experience launches you on a trajectory that diverges from the tradition that was its original context, as the experience of Paul and Jesus and George Fox did, still there is a meme, as it were, that comes from a tradition that forms the seed for your vision.
So tradition helps to shape experience up front, and then that tradition—or some other mutation of the tradition—helps to give it meaning afterward. And then some prophetic experiences have the power to reshape the tradition, to cause a mutation. It’s a feedback system constantly spiraling forward. Continuing revelation.
Which brings us to liberal Quakers and the radical erosion of tradition, of meaningful narrative, and the dearth of deep, transformative religious experience among liberal Friends. Many of us have abandoned the Christian and biblical traditions, not just intellectually, as a belief system, but more viscerally, as a deep spiritual disconnect; for some, it’s even a form of revulsion.
Ironically, that seems to be how George Fox felt. Like him, we feel that the tradition we inherited no longer works for us, that its memes are no longer available to us as seeds for religious experience. But salvation in Christ—the ur-meme of Christianity—did, in fact, seed his experience, and he gave that experience primacy. A religious genius, he was able to interpret it on his own, without the help of an Ananias. He did not so much interpret his experience in terms of scripture as he interpreted scripture in terms of his experience. The result was the major mutation known as Quakerism.
Meanwhile, we modern liberal Friends have no shared narrative to provide us with new seeds. Some of us, like me, come to Quakers from other traditions, formed by experiences already seeded and interpreted in those traditions. We share these experiences only very reluctantly, partly because that’s how you treat your own sacred experience, and partly because we don’t know how it fits in.
This is the dilemma of modern, post-Christian, post-traditional liberal Quakerism: no clear narrative context to support religious experience and, much more importantly, no coherent culture of eldership: We often don’t know people who have had religious experience, whose experience could inspire our own. Or we don’t know people whose religious experience corresponds to our own, who could therefore help us understand and integrate our experience. We don’t have the scriptural tools Fox had and we don’t have an Ananias.
Well, this is a very long response. But as I said, I think this subject lies at the crux of our condition as liberal Friends. Where does religious experience come from? What role does tradition or narrative play in our experience? And what do you do as a community and as individual seekers when you don’t have a traditional narrative to work with?
I’m still exploring these questions, and your comment has been very fruitful for me to think about. I feel increasingly called to a ministry of exploration, seeking ways to support transformative religious experience among liberal Friends, given the incoherent nature of our ‘narrative’, as you have put it. Our narrative is ‘incoherent’ . . .
- because so many convinced Friends bring experiences from other traditions, as I have, making for a diverse polyglot of experience that militates against any coherent collective experience or narrative;
- because so many liberal Friends have not had transformative religious experiences yet themselves, in the first place;
- because we wouldn’t know it if they did: our culture of silence prevents us from knowing each others’ experience, so we would not know that an elder sits next to us who could help us with our own experience; and
- because we’ve laid down the narrative we inherited, leaving us meme-less and bereft.
* On ‘spiritual experience’ vs ‘religious experience’: I think of spiritual experience as personal experience that is both transcendental and transformational—it transcends the ken of the senses and of normal consciousness, and it changes you for the better. I think of ‘religious experience’ as spiritual experience that takes place in the context of one’s religious life, that is, life within a tradition and a community of the spirit.