An Intellectualization of a Religious Experience

This week I picked up William James’ book, The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature. I’ve been thinking about this book for several months now — not necessarily the subject of the book, but the title. The reason is because, over the past few months, I have had my own religious experiences and I am trying to process my understanding of them.

This isn’t the time or the place to go into the details of my experiences. They were mine, and for now, they will remain mine (though if you know me in person, I’m completely willing to share my experiences face to face). But I do think this is the place to process my intellectualization of those experiences (whether it’s the right time or not is completely up to you).

I’ve come to the conclusion that the terms “God” and “gods” are a misunderstanding of a real experience in which human beings commune with a transcendent intelligence. The concepts of the monotheistic “God” and the polytheistic “gods” are concepts that derive from different states of civilization, monotheism from an absolutist desert milieu and polytheism from a more diverse and yet still openly hierarchic milieu. But in a milieu that values (in its ideal state) equality, open dialogue, and diverse participation, the same religious experience can be felt not as a command from an Absolute God, nor as an interaction with a more powerful and yet whimsical bully, but as someone of equal value reaching out — not to conquer or cajole — but to talk and play.

The upshot is that, despite having had rich and rewarding religious experiences whose validity as objective experiences are beyond my doubt, I do not think it is necessary to catalogue these experiences within the categories of religion.

The best way I’ve come up with to describe what I am talking about is “a foreign intelligence.”

Human beings have communicated with foreign intelligences throughout our history. You might even be able to define the development of consciousness as the struggle between an inner intelligence and a foreign one, with the growth of that consciousness measured against its exposure to new (i.e., foreign) ideas (i.e., understandings of reality). As a baby begins to recognize its difference from its mother, its consciousness begins to grow, turning its experience of reality into a new and definite understanding: “I am not her” (though for many human beings this primary understanding often takes decades to work itself out, and even still, some of us never get there). This understanding changes the baby’s experience of reality, causing it to seek out new things (“What else am I not?”). This impulse eventually leads to crawling, to walking, to running, to reading, to travel, to drugs, to alcohol, to sex, to rock and roll…

What is life, after all, except a journey into the unknown of spacetime, where the future is dark and you never know what’s around the corner?

But then, why couldn’t those dark spaces open onto a foreign intelligence, perhaps in the form of a hunter from an unknown tribe, perhaps in the form of a transcendent entity who speaks a language we can somehow understand (even if not aurally)?

Can we deny that such a foreign intelligence is possible? In a universe as vast in possibilities as it is in spacetime, would we deny the potential existence of a foreign intelligence whose physical form is so different from our own that it might only be said to exist in a different dimension?

Seriously, in a universe where the quantum reality can only be defined in terms of potentialities and hyperdimensionalities, and on a planet where technologies continue to open our consciousnesses to foreign understandings and experiences, we’d deny the possibility that, even now, on this planet, we may not be the sole possessors of a transcendent consciousness?

If we’re willing to grant some of that potential, would we then limit ourselves to a foreign intelligence that walks and talks and acts (relatively) just like us? I mean, just how foreign might we imagine this foreign intelligence to be? Could it not be separated from a physical container, just as we imagine ourselves to be separated from our physical container (what, after all, is the concept of the soul if not a rationalization of the feeling that we are not our bodies)?

From just an intellectual standpoint, I’m willing to grant that possibility. And because I’m willing to grant that possibility, I don’t think we need to raise a foreign intelligence to the level of a God or god, nor is there a need to interpret it as an alien, as something foreign to our Earth.

Among Romantics, there is the concept of communing with nature. For some, this is meant in a religious way: as Catholics take communion with Christ through the ingestion of his body, so the Romantic breathes in, takes in nature. When done right — and despite its difficulty, there truly is a way (of many ways) to commune with nature — but when done right, we, as human beings, feel — i.e., experience being — at one with nature: it is in us as we are in it, and the animals of the forest are our brothers, together with us, as one family, all of us connected through the tree of life, plants as cousins, parameciums as elders, breathe it in, breathe it out…

…and now breathe it in again — what’s doing the breathing that can’t also be described in the same language as the chemicals that are being breathed; where does the oxygen in the air differ from the oxygen in our cells; which oxygen is inside and which oxygen is outside; and why do we have to think that way…

…now breathe it out, not that oxygen, but that carbon, that seed of life, that dust of death, that carbon…but where did the oxygen go, and where did it come from; it’s all on the wind. Breathe it in, that breath of life, created by the trees, shared with the wolves, stolen from the sun…

Breathe it out.

Sorry about that.

Anyway, there’s an intelligence there in nature. We are part of it as the baby is part of the mother, but it is also there, as different from us as the mother is from the baby. That’s what the transcendentalists wanted us to know. There’s a foreign intelligence in nature and its possible to experience being with and through it.

I don’t disagree. But the foreign intelligence in nature is not the foreign intelligence that spoke to me. Mine was a religious experience (well, experiences actually; it’s happened a few times), but I don’t want to confine my understanding of it to the language of religion.

This was not a god. This was something different. It didn’t want to share a message. It didn’t want to make commands. It just wanted to talk and play, and somehow, it found me.

I think I’m okay with that.

On The Use of You as “a God-Surrogate”

After publishing my previous post, “Why I am an Atheist,” I received several thoughtful responses, but I also received, through snail-mail, a friendly and heartfelt letter from a Catholic priest whom I’ve never met. I do not want to publish that letter here, but I would like to publish my response to it, if only to clarify some things for other readers who might have read my previous post in the same way. Among other things, the priest wrote that “in choosing You as a God-surrogate, you have set yourself up for [disappointment] when we decide to ask of you what you will not do, and so force you into another exit and the creation of other surrogates.” Here, in edited form, is what I wrote in response to this friendly priest.

Your idea that my concept of the You is a “God-surrogate” doesn’t feel like an accurate representation to me. Rather than substituting God’s role in the universe with You, I am saying that I don’t believe in God, but I do believe in You. I am saying that You are the most important influence in my life, and before considering what I want, I should consider what You want.

But (and this is part of the reason why the notion of a God-surrogate is a false one) You are not all-powerful (there is no one and nothing that is all-powerful). While I should consider Your wants and needs before my own, that does not mean I must rest my decisions and actions on Your wants and needs. As an American male who grew up with all of the mythologies such a designation entails, I possess just as strong a sense of individualism as the cowboy riding alone on the range and just as much inclination for telling the bosses to stick it. I might venerate You, but I am also not afraid of You.

(You might think that venerate is the wrong word here, since it goes back to “reverence,” which in turn, goes back to the Latin word vereri, which means “to stand in awe of, fear” — but it goes back even further to a Proto Indo-European root that meant, “to become aware of,” and it is in that sense that I use it: once I am aware of You, I should consider Your needs and wants in relation to my own).