Last week, Yael Valier asked “What makes a spiritual experience?” She suggested that “what turns a spiritual experience into a religious one is the training and preparation that creates a religiously shaped receptacle for an experience or at least a religious vector for channeling the experience.”
Here are some critical (but hopefully constructive) comments on Yael’s post:
How do we interpret the ecstatic experience?
First, people get too hung up on words. We tend to assume that if there’s a word there must be some determinate bit of reality that corresponds to it. The truth is, we often use words without having anything more than a vague sense of what we mean by them. The question is whether we can put the words “religious” and “spiritual”, and the contrast implied by them, to any useful purpose. Rather than agonising over the meaning of the words “religious” and “spiritual” – since they don’t have any particularly determinate meaning anyway – it’s more interesting, I think, to focus on the real issue that we are grappling with.
One set of issues that surfaces frequently in our discussions in the Think Tank revolves around the question of what sort of impact do ecstatic or epiphanic experiences have on one’s life? Do such experiences necessarily have a positive/moral impact on one’s life, or necessarily have any impact at all? How can it be that one can have such an experience and not be profoundly changed by it? What is needed – in terms of religious belief, practice, community etc. – to enable such experiences to have an effect on one’s life, to continue to reverberate in meaningful ways in one’s life?
Another, related, question relates to the content or the interpretation of such experiences. Do such experiences come “ready made” or is the content, or interpretation, of the experience moulded by one’s background and culture? Someone whose religious upbringing leads her to feel an intense longing for connection with Jesus may be liable to experience a vision of him. There are recorded instances – le’havdil – of Chabadnikim who have experienced visions of the Lubavicher Rebbe.
The “institutional” connection
The terms “religious” and “spiritual” have a history, and perhaps a bit of history and sociology can illuminate them. The word “religion” tends to be used in connection with established, institutionalised religious practices and communities, and “religious experience” likewise tends to refer to experiences that arise in, or find themselves incorporated into, that context.
In recent decades there has been a movement of people who reject institutionalised religion for one reason or another but who at the same time still yearn for experience and life practices which transcend the mundane and routine and reach towards the ecstatic and the sublime. The label “spiritual” tends to get applied (and self-applied) to such movements and experiences. Most such people are undoubtedly serious and sincere in their spiritual journey and often, I think, are short-changed by commercialised packaging (for Western consumption) of Eastern spiritual practice or by phoney and sentimental philosophies marketed by spiritual charlatans. But there’s good stuff out there as well, and some of it gets incorporated into traditional religious practice and hopefully invigorates it.
Embracing the finite
Yael’s notion of defying the physical and reaching for the infinite doesn’t speak to me. But chalk that up to the fact that I’m somewhat religiously tone deaf. Nor does Yael’s love of abstract art. I know very little about art but I am sure that the history of representational art is not a history of improvement in representational technique. The achievements of Titian, Rembrandt, Van Gogh, Turner are not mere achievements of technique, though they are also that. But this is technique in the service of something else. And I don’t see this something else as being an abandonment of the physical in search of the abstract or the absolute or the infinite. I see it rather as breathing human life into the physical, shining a light, or revealing a light, of the beautiful and the sublime in the subject of their work. And that light of beauty and sublimity is revealed through the artist’s humanity, the humanity with which she sees the world, and the human skills, honed and developed through practice, devotion, creativity and experimentation, which she employs to give expression to her vision. I don’t see defiance of the physical here – nor do I see it in the art of the figure skaters with which Yael opened her post. I see an embracing of the physical and the breathing of human creativity and aspiration into it, and the expression of human creativity and aspiration through it.
Perhaps there’s just an irreducible difference of temperament here. One might say that Yael is animated by the spirit of Plato and I by the spirit of Aristotle. I feel no yearning to transcend my finite human form to reach for the abstract.
The idea of the “infinite” troubles me – that is to say, I struggle to understand what it means. There’s a mathematical notion of infinity, but this is not what we are talking about here. In the realm of human experience, the notion of the “infinite” seems to stand as the contrary, the negative, of the experience of human finitude and limitation. In this context, talk of the “infinite” seems to be a cry of outrage and despair at the scandal of human finitude – as represented by the finite duration of our lives, at our limited ability to feel connected with the people around us, the world around us. Perhaps Yael is right – the breathtaking grace and skill of the figure skaters offers us, for a tantalising few minutes, the illusion of infinite freedom, the idea that they are unconstrained by the forces of friction and gravity.
On a more theoretical level, this scandal of human finitude is one of perennial mysteries of philosophy. On the one hand, the human mind seems to stand outside nature and provide an absolute representation of it. On the other hand, the human mind is physically embodied, finite, and a part of nature. All of modern metaphysics could be said to be an attempt to properly understand and describe this mystery.
On the more mundane levels of human existence, this yearning for the “infinite” can only find expression in seeking to improve ourselves to the best of our ability and seeking to relate with love to the people and the world around us, while at the same time coming to an acceptance of our finiteness and separateness, overcoming the grief and outrage we feel at not being everything. Yearning for the infinite is really a way of learning how to be finite.