Art of the Religious Experience

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Modern science is a predominately progressive endeavour.  Those of us living in the developed nations, not only anticipate new discoveries, we normally embrace such change as beneficial.

We have become accustomed to the idea that pretty much everything is subject to revision and refinement.  This is among the identifying features of living in a technology-based society.  Everything changes, and over the course of time, generally for the better.

In contrast, true art reaches something deep within us, something which is timeless.  In Jungian terms, one might say true art resonates with a counterpart in our deep unconscious;  this may reach even deeper, into the depths of our collective -shared- unconscious.

Art awakens within us a desire for -and facilitates a connection to- that which is timeless.  Likewise, profound religious-spiritual experiences bring us into an awareness of this timeless dimension of reality.

In thinking about the religious experience as a form of art, I am suggesting there are unchanging elements of human nature, which activate archetypal resonances.  One may even argue whatever these elements are, they reach across species.  After all, why did Neanderthals bury their dead, with apparent concern for their continuing care, even in death?

But how might we identify what in our religious experience is timeless?  And how might such experiences differ from secular (non-religious) experiences?  I would begin by suggesting we consider two broad categories of experience:

  •   External (Exoteric)
  •   Internal (Esoteric)

External / Exoteric

In this view, external experiences govern our interactions with others.  The application of morals and ethics within our society serve as examples.  These concerns may be both secular and religious.  While it is possible to live to a high moral and ethical standard without holding a religious conviction, both the secular and religious norms seek to instruct us how we are to live with one another.

The central difference between the two are found in the “whys” of doing so.

Secularly, such reasons may range from, these are the regulations handed down to us from our rulers, to these are the means of finding personal happiness;  if we are more ethically mature, to allowing others to also find their happiness;  and for those embracing very mature ethics, to actively assisting others find their happiness.

What of the religious dimension?

I believe the shift from the secular experience to the religious experience is revealed in the transformational qualities of that which we seek.  The call of the secular is of a more limited nature to my ear.  At its best, it calls for us to live in peace, and live our life so as to be happy, and helping others do likewise.  But where is the terminus, the end?  For the secular, that ending point is here, on planet earth.

If we care only about ourselves, it ends with us, here and now.  If we care about our children, it ends with them, and their children.  If we care about the children of strangers, we extend our concern greatly.  But all these concerns are limited to the continuation of life on this planet.

It is not that seeking to live a life filled with happiness is a bad goal.  It is not that seeking out ways of helping others to do the same is a bad thing.  These are objectively beneficial goals to hold throughout one’s life.  But they are goals limited to our worldly realm.  Thus, their nature is secular.

Positive transformation of society is a good thing, but by itself it falls short of being a religious experience because it limits itself to the “horizontal” axis of our lives.  Time is the horizontal axis in which we all live in this world.  We are by our physical nature creatures subject to time;  we are captured within its boundaries.

Vertical Axis of the Eternal

But there is also a “vertical axis” which the religious experience affirms:  the eternal;  that which is outside of time;  that which is unconstrained by time;  that which transcends time, and by extension, everything found in our vast universe.

This contrast and interaction between the horizontal and vertical aspects of our existence is part of what is symbolized in the cross.  The horizontal arm symbolizes our physical, material, time-constrained presence in the mortal world;  the vertical arm symbolizes our connection to the eternal.

I believe we may think of our desire for the eternal as what Joseph Campbell called “finding our bliss.”  And I believe Bishop Spong invites us to “love wastefully” because we are best in alignment with the vertical component of our nature when we live in a state of love.  And I believe this is what St. Augustine was aware of when observing that our weight is our love (in whatever we place our love, that acts like gravity, drawing us ever-nearer to it).

What have these views in common?  They are transformative experiences, because they encourage us to live for more than merely the horizontal dimension of our lives;  they point us toward the timeless, vertical-spiritual axis of our being, which transcends our mortal experience.

Internal / Esoteric

Internally -esoterically- the religious experience is about living in the vertical axis.  Here we meet what we may of that which transcends our human condition.  This experience is as limited or profound as is our state of consciousness.  The timeless-transcendent is always available to us;  *we* limit how much of this we may drink.

The objective of this encounter is to experience the numinous in our life.

  Numinous  (Merriam-Webster)

  •     Having a mysterious, holy, or spiritual quality
  •     Supernatural, mysterious
  •     Filled with a sense of the presence of divinity :  holy
  •     Appealing to the higher emotions or to the aesthetic sense :  spiritual

The numinous encounter is what I see as the primary goal of mysticism.  And I see the numinous as a unifying force across many -perhaps all- religions.  This is what draws their mystics of differing religions closer to one another, even as they are sometimes distanced from non-mystics within their own religious tradition.

  •      There is a tension between persons within each religion, of the mystic/esoteric and the non-mystic/exoteric, persuasion.  This may be symbolized by a circle with a dot in the middle of it:  persons experiencing the exoteric nature of their religion, traverse along the outer perimeter of the circle, and quite accurately, note differences among the various religious traditions;  meanwhile, mystics experience the esoteric nature of their religion, and move ever-nearer to the central dot, which represents the Transcendent, and in so doing, note their experience is becoming increasingly similar to other esoterics, regardless of their exoteric religious tradition.

I understand the inner (esoteric) religious experience to be concerned with personal transformation, so as to bring ourselves into increasing consonance with that which transcends our human experience.

In Christian and Jewish terms, these transformational experiences are conveyed in the teaching of the Greatest Commandment, which St. Augustine presented as:  loving God with all that you are, and loving others in such as manner as to best foster their ability to love God with all that they are.  This is why Augustine said our love is our weight, meaning:

  •   …as gravity draws a rock to the ground, so too, that in which we place our love, to that we are drawn.

The Art of the Religious Experience  

I believe the Art of the Religious Experience is about Transformation:  of ourselves;  of our communities.  We are to transform first ourselves and then our community in such a manner as to bring us into consonance with what we identify as our Ultimate Concern (God, Oneness, or Love, for the religious;  perhaps Happiness or Love, for the secular).

I further believe all great religions may be understood as using the ideal of selfless love (or compassion, or loving-kindness) as our daily measure of success in striving toward this understanding of Ultimate Concern.  I would further observe this is the process of becoming more fully human which bishop Spong speaks of in concert with his appeal for us to “love wastefully.”

The opposite of this is also true.  Should our Ultimate Concern become Hate, we transform our communities into machines of war and destruction.  We turn from mystical unity with all, toward isolation, rejection of all that is not “us” (tribal thinking), and we project (transform) our hatred upon others to alienate them, so as to more easily cause them harm.  This is the corruption of the religious experience, and the rejection of the numinous.

Yet we may hope to learn from the great mystics of all religions, who seek to reveal to us the light they have encountered in presence of the timeless, eternal.

  •    It is up to each of us to choose that which shall become our Weight, our Gravity.

We each carry the dichotomies of Love-and-Hate, Eternal-and-Worldly, in our hearts.  The choice between Love and Hate is present in our interactions with others;  in each thought we harbour;  in each feeling we allow to linger within us;  in each look we cast upon another;  and carried in each word we speak.

We cannot be perfect, and we would drive ourselves mad were we to set such an impossible standard.  But we each may strive toward more frequently nourishing loving thoughts, feelings, and interactions with others.  This is a critical first- and continual-step in our spiritual maturity.  And I believe this is common to all true religions, when lived in their deepest, most spiritually transformative expression.

We should give ourselves permission to be gracious to ourselves when we fall short of this ideal.  And we should be gracious with others when they too fall short of “loving wastefully.”  Forgiveness, as with all things human, begins within us.  It is OK to be human.  It is OK to fall short of our ideals.

What is important is that we get up again;  that we start anew.

  •   It is never too late to recognize the vertical axis in our lives.
  •   It is never too late to embrace this spiritually transformative process.
  •   It is never too late to promote compassion for others.
  •   It is never too late to pick ourselves up after a fall.
  •   It is never too late to recommit our lives to transforming ourselves, and our community.
  •   It is never too late to be happy.
  •   It is never too late to love.

These are all important aspects of the Art of Living the Authentic Religious Experience.

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1 Response to “Art of the Religious Experience”



  1. 1 Seeking Consonance with the Transcendent | Seeking the Divine Center Trackback on June 25, 2014 at 2:08 pm
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