It is not insanity that the most joyous fete in the Christian world comes in the very midst of dark, cold winter.
As Christmas comes once again to North America, a predominantly Christian country caught in the paradox of science and rationalism versus mystery and faith, my own thoughts come to dwell on the religious experience.
Experience is subjective; that is, unanalyzed it is integral to ourselves. I shall attempt to step out of my self as I am able and translate experience into words that I might say define where I am this moment when it comes to religion.
Listening to Diane Rehm this morning talk with Rt. Reverend Mariann Budd, the newly consecrated Episcopal bishop of Washington D.C. I was reminded of what drew me to the Epicopal Church in my last-ditch attempt to stay within the deistic-religion world. Budd spoke of the three foundations of Episcopal belief and practice: the Bible, tradition and reason.
Earlier this morning I picked up Karen Armstrong’s A History of God (1993, republished 2004 by Gramercy Books) and read about what seemed to Armstrong one of man and woman’s strongest and earliest interest: fabricating a religious world out of their experience.
A new friend on WordPress wrote about miracles, what he preferred to call “gifts from heaven.” I contacted him two days ago and our connection seems fraught with possibilities. He is interested in photography, as I am, and in words and ideas. In the same entry about a day he spent in numinous beauty while conducting a friend through Jerusalem he mentioned visiting a place where his father used to talk to him about philosophy.
Events sometimes come together suggesting a pattern, a kick to the behind. “Here, what do you do with this?” it seems to say. Huston Smith wrote somewhere that the human mind was a “pattern-making” faculty. It seeks and finds order in a chaotic universe. One of these kinds of order we call religion.
I stuck with the Episcopal Church for several years until one Sunday while repeating the Apostle’s Creed with the congregation I realized I was modifying so many phrases to make them acceptable to my own view that I no longer belonged there. It took a few more years for me to speak the words I’d been struggling to suppress in the mind: the God I grew up believing is superstition.
For decades after arriving in America I’d been reading books, talking to people, and visiting places around the country to learn as much as I could about religion. In the end I concluded that Christianity like other present-day religions was just like the ancient religions we only read about in books. The Greek and Roman religions are today seen as myths. To me Christianity was not different. Myths for me don’t mean “falsehoods.” Myths are often visual or plot-driven constructions into which we can plug our day-to-day experiences and make sense of them. Myths encapsulate our profoundest insights about the nature of reality and the world we live in. Myths are the patterns the mind creates to explain both imminent and transcendent experience.
Religions to me are the myths that give meaning (pattern) to our experience. Living in communities we share myths with others. Myths are receptacles not just for ideas or rational thought. They are most useful when coping with the most intense emotions we have, whether these are emotions of awe, terror, wonder or existential beauty.
Yes, beauty, because to me beauty is emotion. Emotion is that which summons will and usually results in action. Emotion slides the slipper slope down to action that we claim we chose but is most often a simple knee jerk response to emotion. Only when we gain a measure of discernment (knowing is power) that we can interpose awareness and therefore authentic choice to the actions we take.
Beauty attracts us, draws us just as ugliness repels. Pain is usually repugnant but through such human actions as in religion or art can be transformed into something beautiful. Then one might say that Beauty is not so much attractive as the quality with which we co-exist peacefully – with plenty of space between us that we don’t suffocate.
Religion too allows us to have space when experiencing the most intense, emotive experiences. The loss of a loved one, intensely painful disasters or disease—religion can transform all these and make them human. Religion and art are human activities, acts we have through the ages attributed to a Creator God without acknowledging that we are at the heart of the whirlwind, at the heart of the storm, at One with the creative power of the universe.
I no longer live believing in a supernatural power that grants my wishes randomly, when it chooses but I remain faithful, even fanatically faithful to the religious experience, to attempting to verbalize (In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God….) inner events that point to a reality beyond my childish, immature reason, beyond what I can conceive, plan or execute with all my puny resources.
God is the power of the universe and my own power, too. It is the quality of mercy that comes while I struggle with vindictiveness, hate and cruelty. It is the quality of joy in the midst of suffering and pain. It is love when we lose ourselves in the wonder of unity and peace. It is beauty when we use images to describe what even words cannot express. It is what even images cannot reach but we reach nonetheless like “gifts from heaven.”