William James, in his lectures on the “Varieties of Religious Experience”, helped to pave the way towards an understanding of religious experience quite apart from religious dogmas, religious rituals, religious symbols and all the rest that goes with religion. For James, it was the individual experiences which people claimed to have which made religion a valid and interesting subject to discuss.
But it seems totally outside our nature in the West to experience something without trying to interpret it, define it, compare it with other experiences. Pure experience is something that Eastern religions try to attain, but even there it is perhaps a heavily interpreted experience that counts as pure experience.
For what is pure experience? We can’t even talk about it without giving names to it and trying to explain it in words and symbols. It is inevitable that the words and symbols we use to describe our experience are those words and symbols we are familiar with in our culture or philosophical system.
It is foolhardy and quite unnecessary to deny anyone their valid claim to have an experience — religious experience or any other kind of experience. Experience is by definition individual and subjective, and we can never fully know what someone else’s experience is like. We can only guess and assume that their experience is similar to our own, but if they claim to have an experience which sounds like nothing we have experienced, who are we to dismiss it as a valid experience for them?
There are undoubtedly non-valid claims of experience mixed in with the valid ones. The world is full of people with mental illnesses of all kinds, many of whom claim the most extraordinary experiences and powers, which if they can in any sense be “true” experiences, they are true only in the sense that they take place entirely in the mind of the person concerned. Many psychologists have wanted to place all claims of religious experience in this category and thus dispense with them altogether as objective phenomena. But the fact is that a large number of otherwise apparently sane people have claimed such experiences, as evidenced by the work of James and many others. Even if it were true that they merely represent a class of psychological phenomena not qualitatively different from delusions and dementias of the mentally ill, we would still be bound to take them seriously if such a large number of people seem to have them.
But the experience and the interpretation of that experience are two very different things. We are under no obligation whatsoever to accept at face value or at any value the claims that go along with religious experiences, such as the claim that the experience one had was of direct communion with the living Christ, or with a dead relative, or that it was an experience of the love of God, or of God’s power, or an intimation into the future, or into a previous life.
These are very common sorts of explanations given by people who have claimed to have religious experiences. But they are already one step removed from the experience itself. Even if the experience was extremely visual and/or audible, in the sense that people feel they saw figures and heard words spoken to them, it is still impossible to accept that these are representative of pure experience and not the personal interpretation of that experience. Words are only heard in the language and vocabulary available to the person hearing them, and likewise visual images.
But even if we accept a certain amount of interpretation at this level as belonging legitimately to the experience, beyond this primitive level of interpretation are the layers of interpretation grounded in the culture and worldview of the person. Many religious experiences involve an experience interpreted as an experience of God, but noone can experience the sort of attributes commonly associated with God in those experiences, such that God is “almighty” or “eternal” or giving of “unconditional love”. Separating out these doctrinal concepts from the experiences which give rise to them or purport to validate them is difficult, but essential if we are to have a better understanding of religious experience as well as of whatever reality they are an experience of.
It should be fairly obvious, for instance, that noone has ever had an experience that could possibly be a direct experience of God as the “creator” of the world, and yet this theological precept is very often bound up with people’s interpretation of their religious experience. It could well be that whatever “god” people have legitimately experienced is not the creator of the world at all. In fact such a god — or gods — may bear no resemblance at all to the traditional Christian or other religious doctrines which define what theologians expect God to be.
I myself had an intense and powerful religious experience when I was 19. I felt I was being engulfed by the power and love of God and could see my whole life stretching before me. I felt I heard God telling me to drop everything else in my life and go into the ministry. There were undoubtedly strong psychological factors involved in my having that experience at that particular time. I was lonely and confused, desperate to find what it was I was meant to be doing with my life. The experience quite literally changed my life, although not entirely as God seemed to intend. I was admitted to a theological college and began a training for the ministry. But after two years of training and apprenticeship as a minister’s assistant, I became very disillusioned with the traditional churches and scurried back home to Quakerism. It took several more years for the experience to wear off in the sense that I could think about religion without going through the filter of that single experience.
I have never had another experience quite like that one, and certainly not one I would have defined at the time as a religious experience. And yet I think now that is largely due to the interpretation I put on the event, setting it apart from other experiences in a fundamental way. I have heard voices telling me what I should do on many occasions, but I have interpreted these as being the voice of my conscience rather than the voice of God speaking to me. I have been on mountaintops and viewed sunsets and heard music and seen paintings which have certainly given me the same feelings of being overwhelmed by beauty and power and love, but I have not interpreted these as being an experience of the beauty and power and love of God. In fact, the more I have come to recognise the essential similarities of all sorts of powerful experiences, the more I realise that that religious experience I had all those years ago was not so very different. What was different was the interpretation I gave to that experience.
I am now at a point in my spiritual journey where I no longer believe any of the old religious certainties with which I was brought up as a Quaker and subsequently studied as a theology student. I certainly do not believe in God as the creator, because I am currently immersed in the modern theories of evolution and cosmology which I believe have profound and important implications in almost all areas of life. In fact I don’t believe in the existence of God at all, in the normal sense of the word. And yet I do not deny my or anybody else’s experience of what they conceive to be God.
My own way around the paradox that presents is to understand God as an emergent power in the universe, something that is still evolving and perhaps not yet fully in existence, rather than the pre-existent creator of it all. I believe such a theory of God is fully consistent with what we know about evolution and cosmology. And furthermore I believe such an emergent God can explain the objective reality of religious experience.
Quakers believe there is “that of God” within all of us. Just as there must have been “that of life” in some organic macromolecules in order for life to emerge from those molecules, so there would have to be that of God in human beings if God were to emerge from us. Indeed it is assumed that in the thick pre-biotic soup out of which life emerged on this planet, there would have been countless attempts over a billion years or more to create what finally became the first living cell — hemi, demi and semi-cells that never made it, but were the precursors and the patterns out of which life developed.
So is it so surprising to think that evolution, which has created all the most amazing wonders of the universe, will not stop at human beings and human consciousness and all the wonders that make up human culture, but will go on? And would it be so surprising to think that whatever came next — whatever form of existence it might be to follow on from matter, life and consciousness, a super-human organism that somehow engulfed the whole of planet with super-consciousness and power — that we might want to call such a thing “God”? And if such a God were in the process of evolving right now, would it not be expected that people would sense it, experience little twinges now and again of what might come into existence? And might it even explain the whole phenomenon of religion, which is so pervasive in human society and yet so contradictory with the facts of nature as we have been discovering them over the last few hundred years?
Ironically, it may not be the traditional religious precepts and theologies but science that becomes our best guide to understanding such a God and the meanings that lie behind religious experiences of such a God. For it is in the study of the macro-evolutionary processes that have brought the universe to where it is today that we can catch glimpses and insights of what may speed or impede the evolution of God.