Thoughts on Experience, Religion, and Inference

[Written in response to an interesting class discussion in a course on the history of psychology.]

Fall 2013 at Ball Manor (Karla Ball)

We participated in a desultory, sometimes inchoate, and potentially important discussion today regarding the role of religion in intellectual activities. Together we expressed many views, and it was clear that many strong intellects populate the class.

I was disappointed that I had not made plain my several positions on the topic at hand as well as I hoped. Here now I grab the bully pulpit in hopes of making my thoughts more clear, and perhaps stimulating some more discussion:

On the empirical or experiential side of things it seems abundantly evident that human beings can and often do have experiences which stand out as special or “numinous,” and these encounters with the world afford a sense of, as it were, special providence, seemingly sourced by an agency beyond the merely human. Human beings in all times and places appear to have inferred rather automatically that such experiences are authored by nonhuman persons, god, demigods, angels, demons, spirits, and the like. Sometimes the experienced encounters are shared (e.g., the festival of Pentecost as recorded in the book of Acts, Walpurgisnacht as described in Faust, orgiastic celebrations of Dionysius, Haight-Asbury in 1966 or so, Jonestown, Black Sabbath (not the band), occasional conventional worship services, Eagles concerts back in the day, war and rain dances, etc.), but as often as not they are personal and private, and only partially articulable (e.g., Mohammed’s encounters with Allah; Moses’ encounter in the wilderness with Yahweh as a talking, burning bush; Aquinas in his cell, after which he quit writing Summas; countless nameless personal experiences of ordinary people in meditation or prayer or idleness; Peter, James, and John at the transfiguration; Saul’s peculiar encounter on the road to Damascus, etc.)

Whatever the experience, people often share it, and if it is big enough, they do what they can to remember it or reinstate it. Remembrance emerges as rite and religious practice. Most congregants have not had experiences on the scale of their religious founders’ encounters with the numinous, but they share in them through the severally formed rituals of the religion they practice (from the Catholic Eucharist to the Seder meal of the practicing Jew, and of course many more, aboriginal and refined).

To choose a religious practice is to make a choice against the certainty of uncertainty. Was that burning bush really that that Is, as it claimed? Did Mohammed really take dictation from the one God? Was that really Jesus on the road to Damascus (or Emmaus for that matter)? What experiences do we have that give us to choose a spiritual reality for ourselves?

It is easy to dismiss the choices of others as superstitious, mindless, foreclosed – to relegate their beliefs as simply cultural acquisitions of a childhood, never challenged or questioned. Or, perhaps we see the honest spiritual conviction of a fundamentalist born of an experience as real in her life as was Paul’s as too simple to be real.

But the numinous encounter is just what it is: It insists on its own uniqueness, its spirituality, if you will, and it sometimes offers a clue to its source, its author (“I am that am”). Does it lie? Do our glosses and presuppositions change the experience? Is there any way to know the unobserved source of the experience, the metaphysical reality that lies behind it?

If our metaphysical view says that what is real is restricted to that which we can experience directly, then the answer is, “no.” And if we are willing to say that we “know” the reality behind the experience, we are making a metaphysical choice that de facto offers no certitude. We have no a priori basis for determining whether a god, a devil, a neurally organized archetype, a tumor, or dyspepsia lies behind the experience we have had, and certainly not the experiences of others.

No one yet has offered me a basis for making a decision such as that, that is external, “objective,” or certain. I can articulate my choice and its basis, but I simply cannot in honesty offer it to anyone, including myself, as certain on the basis of any objective, universal standard.

I can talk to others about these things, listening with as much care as I can, informed by the very dialectic of the process, believing that in the sum of such conversations I can come to develop and articulate my existential choices better, but never with absolute certitude. That burning bush of Moses’ shepherding gig was certainly more compelling than the whistling spirit wind of that 4-iron shot of mine in 1963 (numinous as it seemed at the time). So I suspect I should listen to his witness. But I will still never be “objectively” sure. God is a choice.

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