Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Journal of a Soul 31

Beyond Debate III

Personal Experience

(i) Preliminary Remarks

It is hard to contradict or deny personal experience.  It is, moreover, more difficult still to do so when someone declares they have had a religious experience.  We literally have to take them at their word, or write them off as simply hallucinating. I'm sure we have all encountered sincere and rational individuals who are convinced that they have encountered the divine  or the transcendent in their lives.  There are many millions upon millions of people on this earth who have declared their witness to the truth of these experiences.  Such cannot be denied.  No matter what our debaters on the negative side of the debate say - like Dennett, Dawkins, Hitchens et al - there is no persuading these many millions that they are simply deluded. 

Firstly, let me declare the obvious truth of the observation that many individuals from the lunatic fringe are quite easily drawn to religions of all kinds.  Let us take this as a given. Indeed, I have known a certain few individuals who have manic depression (or more correctly bipolar disorder) and at least one of these individuals goes on a hyper-religious trip during his manic phase.  This is a given, but it is certainly and obviously NOT a valid argument against the truth of religion.

Secondly, let me declare the equally obvious truth that much harm in the form of wars, attempted genocide, torture and suffering of all kinds have been done in the name of religion and by individuals who claim to be firm believers in God.  Once again, this is a given.  And yet, logically it can never be adduced as an argument against religion per se.  Why?  Simply because the operative and significant phrase in the above sentence is "in the name of religion."  Who is at fault when a nation goes to war inspired by religion - the religion qua religion or the fallible fault-ridden human interpreters of that religion?  I would argue logically for the fault of the latter.  

Again, my favourite author on this topic is Fyodor Dostoevsky who, in his inspiring parable "The Grand Inquisitor" in his wonderful novel The Brothers Karamazov deals exactly with this persistent problem of the corruption of power within official religious circles.  Whether one accepts that religion is a sociological phenomenon that naturally grew up for societal needs from the earliest of times or that it is a divinely inspired organisation, one still has to grant that one is relying upon fallible human beings within that organisation.  Having spent some three years of my life within a Roman Catholic religious order in my younger years I can attest to (i) the existence of people who loved power  and who equally loved exercising it and who delighted in lording it over others.  It's the natural lust for power in all humans that comes to the fore in every organisation under the sun. However, I can also attest to (ii) much good done by many sincerely motivated and genuinely good people in the name of the vision which they attribute to their founder, to Jesus and to God ultimately. 

I am no sociologist, but an understanding of the sociological basis of all religions as well as the sociological understanding of organisations both need to be considered here, not just the abstract notions, considered or otherwise, of the negative side of the argument against religions and God as adduced by Hitchens, Dawkins, Dennett et al. 

(ii) A Higher Spiritual Power 

I know a certain few individuals who are recovering alcoholics and they have informed me that but for their trust in a higher spiritual power they would indeed be lost, if not dead. This belief in a higher power is an integral part of the twelve steps programme developed by that wonderful international organisation Alcoholics Anonymous.  Strangely, or maybe not so strangely after all, these twelve steps read like a spiritual/religious programme.  The first four principles or steps run:  

  1. We admitted we were powerless over alcohol - that our lives had become unmanageable.
  2. Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to  sanity.
  3. Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.
  4. Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.  (See this link for the web page of the Irish branch of the AA and for more information on The Twelve Steps.) 
Now, the operative phrase I'd like to stress is the underscored one, "God as we understand Him" as it defines God in an absolutely non-denominational sense, or in an open or broad religious sense, leaving it to the individual to interpret who they believe that God to be in their own lives.  

Once again, let me stress here that these persons who have encountered their own demons through the struggle with alcohol, and indeed others through their fight with addictions of all kinds, are utterly convinced that they can do nothing from any of their own inner resources (which are at their lowest ebb, like a totally drained battery, if I may use a metaphor here.) Therefore, they insist that they have to rely on an outer or outward power which they might call God. Admittedly, space is left for the addicted to call that higher power an Energy Source if they do not wish to call it God as such.  

(iii) My Own Spiritual Experiences

I readily admit that I prefer the term "spiritual" to "religious", quite simply because religion has got such a bad press through the actions of so-called believers of all hues and due to the negative press given by the debaters on the negative side of the God-debate.  That I was a religious/spiritual boy goes without saying:  as a young lad I remember being transfixed by the beauty of the old Latin Mass with its Gregorian chant, smell of incense, and the whole aesthetics of that ceremony and others. Also much of the music associated with the traditional Roman Catholic Church is exquisite to say the least.  Each year I still attend the annual performance of Handel's wonderful Messiah and certainly I can attest as can anyone who attends or rather participates in that musical experience, that deep spiritual depths are touched in the human heart through its sheer beauty and overwhelming power.  

I have also had other experiences where I felt I was close to a primal Energy which somehow was sustaining me and indeed the world around me - an experience of God in nature.  I can still remember once when I was a young monk walking around the wonderfully wild and green grounds of our novitiate and experiencing a cloud-burst on a sunlit day. It was more experientially for me than a mere and thorough drenching.  It was, in fact, in a very real sense what is called in theology a theophany, or at least that is the way I remember describing it when I was later writing down the experience in my spiritual diary at the time. A theophany is the appearance of God through nature, or at least, through the power of nature, literally a showing or manifestation of the divine.  Indeed, James Joyce also adverted to such inspirational and transfixing moments as "epiphanies."  In other word we experience a profound spiritual depth in a through a physical occurrence. 

Another link I would make here is what the philosophers have described as "the experience of the sublime." Here is how the WIKI defines this specific notion, and I believe it is a wonderfully clear definition at that: 

Iaesthetics, the sublime (from the Latin sublīmis) is the quality of greatness, whether physical, moral, intellectual, metaphysical, aesthetic, spiritual or artistic. The term especially refers to a greatness beyond all possibility of calculation, measurement or imitation. (See Sublime )
As an erstwhile hill walker, I believe that we cannot not be captivated by the sheer beauty and power of nature.  Some of my friends have stood beside either Niagara or Victoria Falls and have been overcome by the sheer frightening and transfixing power and beauty of nature, by its sublimity. I have stood by the Cliffs of Moher here on the west coast of Ireland and have marvelled at their sheer power and beauty.  Then there is the Grand Canyon and many many other beautiful, awe-inspiring and powerfully overwhelming wonders of nature besides these few I have mentioned here. They have been written about widely and many have attested to their awe-inspiring power.  When people declare that they have been moved by a power beyond them, by a deep spiritual energy which is both within and beyond them at one and the same time, who are we to deny the validity of their experiences? Indeed, one can argue that such is a mere psychological or para-psychological experience and not a religious or spiritual experience of a sustaining God.  Atheists could certainly argue that.  However, there are atheists who, while denying the existence of God, readily admit that we humans have a spiritual dimension.  This latter point is one to which I shall return later in these notes here, but for the moment such a diversion is beyond our present purposes. 

What I simply want to underscore here is the validity and authenticity of religious or spiritual experiences no matter whether one can attribute such to a divine source or to a powerful energy beyond us.  To deny the testimony of our lived experiences and those of millions upon millions of believers over thousands of years and well as those of our own times is surely to deny the complexity of human nature and the role of powers beyond our limited ken.  It must surely also betray our pride or hubris in thinking that we know more than fallible creatures actually could ever possibly master.

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