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.

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§ 8 Responses to Tradition and Religious Experience

  • “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.

    John, did you really mean to say that? Because it’s not so at all.

    While Fox was alienated from the prevailing approaches to Christianity and the Bible of his time and place — Catholic, Anglican, Puritan, and antinomian — there is a difference between rejecting particular approaches to Christianity and the Bible, and rejecting the traditions themselves.

    His Journal and other writings were strewn with biblical quotations to such a degree that it has been quipped that, if all copies of the Bible were lost, the book could be reconstructed from Fox’s writings. None of his quotes from the Bible indicate any alienation from the text or from the very traditional understandings the text expresses in and of itself. For example, he did not quote any text and then say something like, “But there is actually no such thing as a miracle,” or, “But Jesus was really only a man and not God.” He affirmed the traditional understandings expressed in the texts. All his disagreements were with post-apostolic decisions to stress some biblical texts and ignore or twist others, and with concomitant post-apostolic developments in Christianity.

    Fox was able to demonstrate, repeatedly, that his Christianity was orthodox, no matter how much it challenged the comfort of his critics on points not settled by the bare tenets of orthodoxy. It was an issue that his enemies were constantly testing him on, trying to get him to say something they could condemn him for, and they never succeeded. His much-reprinted letter to the governor and assembly at Barbados is a classic demonstration of his orthodoxy because it compacts everything into a single short work, but there is ample demonstration of his orthodoxy all through his writings.

    So I wouldn’t say that Fox abandoned the Christian and biblical traditions, either intellectually or viscerally. He remained totally within both traditions, and did so by deliberate choice. He actually did nothing more, in fact, than to simply correct the most significant errors of the prevailing approaches to those traditions in his time. But his corrections, even though they were on matters only peripheral to the tenets of orthodoxy, had enormous meaning and consequence.

    I do agree with you, totally, when you observe that you “modern liberal Friends have no shared narrative to provide [you] with new seeds,” and I partially agree with you when you assert that “this is the dilemma of modern, post-Christian, post-traditional liberal Quakerism”.

    • Not clear why I wrote “John” in the above. I am quite clear you are Steven Davison. I am juggling multiple dialogues while packing for yearly meeting, and presumably the old brain went on strike. Humblest apologies!

    • You’re right, Marshall, I got a little sloppy with my thinking and writing there. Fox’s reaction and rejection of the form of religion he saw people practicing around him was more extreme than the reaction many liberal Friends have toward Christianity and biblical tradition, but of course, he did not reject the whole tradition itself.

  • Steven, I thank you for your careful response. My intent is not to convert, but to facilitate mutual understanding while deepening relationship; your response contributes much to that facilitation. In the same spirit, I’ll offer a few more comments.

    I, too, have had life-changing experiences of being addressed by a divine other – and addressed with very specific messages. However, I find that those experiences do not override my other experiences, including that of intellectual investigation in all areas of life, and on balance those spiritual experiences don’t trump all else. It’s something like the “Chinese box” idea that Alan Watts used to justify his mythology of “the supreme identity”: the experience of communication with a divine person can fit into my overall experience, but not vice versa. And so that’s where I am.

    My use of the word “imagination” was perhaps unfortunate. I had in mind something of a Blakean view. From my perspective (i.e., in my experience), the world has no inherent meaning, but the imagination supplies meaning. That imagination may be shackled by conventional limits or may soar in transcendence of those limits, but it is what creates our reality, which is always constructed by an inner, largely unconscious, narrative. When imagination transcends conventional constraints, as in the case of a George Fox or St. Paul (or Wm. Blake), the narrative that is taken into the imaginative experience is transformed – resulting in the person, who is “not two” with her internal, unconscious narrative, being transformed at the same time. So I don’t intend at all to say that imaginative experience is not real or transformative. Perhaps nothing is more humanly real.

    In any case, when discussing spiritual (“Imaginal”?) experience I think we need always to take into account what the drug culture called “set and setting.” Indeed, I don’t know how we can think critically about reports of such experience without doing so. Unlike you, I don’t see or feel any disrespect in attempts to analyze, from within our much broader, scientific horizon, the experiential reports of people such as the first Quakers. In fact, it seems quite respectful to me. For one thing, our experience cannot be the same as theirs, given the extreme differences between them and us in psychological and cultural realities; unless we work to understand them in contemporary terms, our ancestors can become historical curiosities, their experience effectively inaccessible to us – which leads, I suspect, to problems we see in contemporary Quakerism. It seems to me that if I am, as you wrote, to “HEAR the Truth inside the message,” then I must analyze the message and precisely not take it simply on its own terms. I want both form and substance, so to speak.

    As for me personally, I do not hesitate, as already noted, to apply critical thinking to my spiritual experience — and could not do otherwise. And I welcome with gratitude all respectful and thoughtful critical analysis of my reported experience – examination, questioning of beliefs and assumptions, and focused dialogue all help me to deeper understanding. I think of it as others’ “answering that of God in” me. Naturally, I subject all reports of such experience from others to the same critical thinking that I apply to my own, but I have learned that, as in clinical practice, it’s important to adapt the approach, including the possible use of confrontation, to the state of the relationship.

    Speaking of Paul, I recommend Alain Badiou’s Saint Paul: The Foundation of Universalism, in which Badiou depicts Paul as a “poet-thinker of the event,” the religious content (the resurrection of Christ) of whose experience he dismisses as “fable.” But Badiou analyzes Paul’s words with the utmost respect. He sees Paul quite positively as a creative and militant revolutionary, a world-changing thinker.

    In the book, Badiou says that “To sharply separate each truth procedure from the cultural ‘historicity’ wherein opinion promises to dissolve it: such is the operation in which Paul is our guide.” I ask you to read my own comments in that light: I don’t want to reduce spiritual experience solely and in all cases to a product of cultural historicity; I recognize that there are revolutionaries such as Paul and Fox, including no doubt many we don’t know about, whose imaginative experience transforms the received narrative. (If you look at my blog’s page called “Postmodern Quakerism,” I think you’ll see what I’m getting at: Quakerism, ideally, is for me a deconstructor of conventional moral, religious, and spiritual narratives, and a pointer to a specific but open-ended narrative that can lead to the eruption of the new – my view of continuing revelation.) And even such narrative-changers as Fox and Paul transform from the inside, as it were: after all, for example, Paul had an experience of Jesus – not, say, Krishna – and his experience of Jesus was the experience of liberation from the Jewish law that had bound his imagination with briars (another nod to Blake).

    It’s a pleasure to converse with you and get to know you.

  • Stephen McKernon says:

    It seems to me that Fox’s view of a direct and personal spiritual experience (unmediated by Church or religious symbology) opens us to an ‘open’ spirituality – to discrete, often powerful but also mundane, shared spiritual experiences, both inside and outside the Christian tradition. Fox’s ‘narratives’ about spirituality were radical, and for most people in his time, very very disruptive. It retains that flavor to this day.

    So I’m puzzled. Why is my post-modern, liberal Quaker experience somehow ‘incoherent’? Why are we holding that ‘we modern liberal Friends have no shared narrative to provide us with new seeds’? Isn’t ‘liberal’ itself the narrative?

    To me, the point of the Quakerisms is to make sense of a chaotic, incoherent and challenging world by means of a radically communal spirituality. Some part of the Quaker spiritual experience should always be incoherent, simply because any narratives we hold dear are likely to become outdated, unproductive and perhaps even restrictive (and haven’t we seen that in Quakerism already?). Isn’t ‘incoherence’ merely a sign that old narratives are evolving into new and refreshing ones (slow as this process is)?

    So I don’t see how we can assume more and less real or true experiences – they just are what they are, and we justifiably struggle to articulate them. The most powerful confuse our established interpretations/ narratives completely, and leave us speechless, while the least can be so nuanced they leave us using far to many words to articulate a brief glimpse of light. Perhaps we should value confusion and incoherence as signs of light shining in unexpected places?

    In parallel, it makes no sense to split ‘experience’ from ‘interpretation’ and argue for the primacy of one over the other – the chicken or the egg? We can only experience and interpret from our own personal, communal and/or cultural contexts, and in any event, these are in a productive relationship as we try to understand, share and learn together. Why denigrate an experience because it was based in an existing interpretation: isn’t the point of having and sharing it that it is for our spiritual community, not just us (if at all)?

    And also in parallel, a division of experiencers/ interpreters into ‘conservative’ and ‘liberal’ is probably spurious, though socially useful. It suits me to be labeled a ‘liberal’ because most Christian dogma leaves me cold, as does a ‘conservative’ articulation of spiritual experience. That’s not a judgement about the experience, but a visceral reaction to conservative language and practices, born from my own life history.

    In fact, it’s equally important for me to be constantly discomforted by different and opposing points of view, and on occasions, to debate them (!). Sometimes I wonder if this might actually be the point of an open, communal spirituality – the sense that it is open, that there is no final or full comfort in my own paltry experience or narratives to date, and that I have to share with others and listen to others, to have a living, learning spirituality.

    To put this another way, do we argue too much about notions of personal spirituality, personal experience and personal interpretations? Do we assume too much about each person’s experience, and not enough about the role sharing these play for others, and so ultimately about the communal dynamics of the different Quakerisms?

    Surely we are unique in our insistence on silent, communal, spiritual listening and shared communal spiritual experiences – different and challenging as each individual experience, interpretation or narrative might be? Surely the spiritual radicalism of this is the underpinning narrative, be it expressed in ‘liberal’ or ‘conservative’ social forms?

    • Thanks, Stephen, for your comments. I especially appreciate your query about whether we argue too much about notions of personal spirituality, personal experience and personal interpretations and your reminder about sharing. This blog format encourages rather superficial discussion from the head, because it’s rather immediate (I feel like I need to respond pretty much right away to your comment, for instance), discouraging deeper thought; it’s short on space, discouraging full development of a thought; and we’re not sitting together somewhere face to face, not able to drop into silence together to feel where words come from. Like a lot of digital media, it tends to drive the way we talk with its limitations while it opens up new possibilities.

      First let me mention that I was not trying to say that our experience is incoherent—that’s inevitable, I think, given how complex we are as individuals and, collectively, how diverse our experiences are. But rather, I am saying that we don’t seem to have a very effective way of talking about our experience. It’s our ‘narrative’ that’s incoherent.

      Put another way, we tend to stammer a bit when someone asks us, What do Quakers believe? Usually, we can say without hesitation that we believe that there is that of God in everyone, by which we mean some kind of divine spark. Often we can add with confidence the testimonies. But then we tend to run aground. And we seem to have trouble connecting even this little bit of ‘content’ to our experience, both individual experience and collective experience.

      In a way, “what do we believe?” is the wrong question; the deeper question is, What have we experienced? This is one of liberal Quakerism’s great strengths, that it emphasizes experience over belief. Yet we still need to be able to explain who we are, what we believe and what our experience is. That’s where ‘narrative’ comes in. What is our story? And in this thread of post and comments, we’re exploring how our story relates to our experience. For instance, how does belief in that of God in everyone foster deep, life-changing religious experience of the sort that so moves us in the journals of Woolman and Fox, in the writings of Pennington and Thomas Kelly? And is our experience just a projection of our imagination, or is there a There there?

      At the very end of my post, I listed some reasons I think this is so, and one of them is that we do not share our experiences with each other enough. We don’t really know each other very deeply spiritually, as a result.

    • Stephen, I know that Steven and I differ on some important points regarding this issue, so I’ll offer a few comments of my own. I think that you have identified an important issue: that the current narrative foundation of liberal Quakerism is in liberalism itself. That’s precisely what concerns some of us. Liberalism is neither a religious nor a Quaker narrative, and it is not a narrative of spiritual power. That is, it does not function to deconstruct itself and the matrix — the metanarrative — from which it grows. Some of us see that we Friends today are in the same kind of situation against which the first Friends reacted: our narrative world is disordered. But liberal Quakerism is not equipped to address that.

      Here is a model (which uses terms in a way that may be peculiar to me) that may be useful in discussing this: a reverse hierarchy, perhaps a pyramid, of narratives. At bottom is the metanarrative: for most of us, that is what I call the normal human metanarrative, which our ancestors might call the Adamic self or, in classic Christian terms, “the world.” Developing within that is the social narrative, which in this case is liberalism. And within the assumptions and constraints of those narratives arises the religious or spiritual subnarrative, which, in keeping with the liberal paradigm, may be quite different from person to person within liberal Quakerism.

      I would not argue that we all should accept exactly the same subnarrative, but that the practical heart of that religious narrative, if it is to be in continuity with historic Quakerism and to answer the desperate situation of the world at present, should be a prophetic, critical, deconstructive movement that breaks apart the metanarrative — and with it, the liberal (or other) paradigm as well. When the normal “parent” metanarrative and its children are broken, we have the possibility of transcendence, of living (which is not quite the same as practicing or following) the Kingdom of God, the reign of justice and mercy as defined by Jesus.

      But to rest in a religious narrative that is, consciously or not, identified with or contained within liberalism is to lose what is perhaps the best and most available opportunity for such transcendence. Even the word “transcendence” will have a different meaning in a worldly religious narrative, which is the group into which liberal Quakerism’s falls, so that, again, the possibility of transcendence may never even appear. That’s how “the world,” the Adamic nature, the normal system, co-opts radical religion into its universe of contributing parts. And so there are some who of us recognize the value of and need for the prophetic, deconstructive, transcendent power of primitive Quakerism in the present time and are seeking ways in which to recover and reclaim it.

  • forrest curo says:

    From the standpoint that there truly exists Something to be experienced, the fact that this is experienced in different forms isn’t insurmountable.

    What I’ve experienced has not been “other”; that is: It is a ‘thou’ rather than a ‘me’ or a figment, but I exist as an element of it– It is neither alien nor hostile, merely very much ‘beyond’. I believe It ‘translates’ Itself to speak out of different traditions, because it is what (ultimately– not necessarily initially or immediately) gives me the sense of their truth, what enables them to really “speak” to me re How Things Are.

    But conveying the reality of this– to anyone who hasn’t had some form of that experience– or to anyone who has imposed some “narrative”, whether “Christian” or “scientistic” or “sophisticated postmodernistic”– as a filter on their experience… I can say “This stuff is Real, dammitt!” all I want, and then some, but they just automatically pop it into their conceptional fishbowl, where it can’t grow any bigger than a goldfish…

    It isn’t just “liberal Friends”, but anyone to whom “Christ” is but a word or a name in some “narrative”, favorable or not! Which is what Fox was passionately striving to overcome! (I do have some trouble connecting the word “Christ” with Who I’ve Met– but know there’s only One.)

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