This is one of those posts I feel like I should be better prepared to write. I do, actually, study religion. But, okay, your attitude to something changes quite a bit when you study it for a long period of time, and there is something to do with my own religious past and also my personality that means religious experience is not something I’ve given a lot of consideration.
This Summer, a coworker and I have taken advantage of our shared Wednesday morning desk shift to talk theology. It’s been a lot of fun for me, because life post coursework is academically lonely, and sometimes I need to be reminded that I still really like what I study. My coworker and I are now both kind-of-agnostics, who are really interested in theological questions, but he had a very strict religious upbringing and attended a Pentecostal church. Though he no longer believes most of what he did as a child, much of it still sticks with him somehow, and he would never give up the ecstatic religious experiences he had in the church.
He asked me if I had ever had religious experiences like that. The answer: no. I was confirmed in a Lutheran church in the liberal Northwest, and by the time we later attended a First Assemblies church where people raise their hands during songs, I was looking around thinking, “what are these weird people doing?” I’ve never taken drugs, so I said that the closest I’d ever felt to religious experience was maybe at a few concerts. As I was talking, I felt this kind of lack, but it wasn’t such a realization. It was like finally being able to articulate something I’d been missing for a while.
What is not missing is personal engagement with theology. It’s true that I take a very academic approach, but I find a lot of meaning there, and I am personally moved by the theological questions I ask. They matter to me and they’ve changed my life. That’s why I study them. And that’s why it’s hard for me to understand people who do not intellectualize their faith at all–who don’t ask the difficult questions. None of this excludes religious experience, and I have never discounted it, but I have personally kind of ignored it. Not for me, you know.
When I say that I have never discounted religious experience, I mean that of course I kind of have. At least I have regarded it suspiciously. I think of James Baldwin and The Fire Next Time, where he was a young preacher who knew exactly what to say to move people and get their money, though it was grounded in nothing and was directly contradicted by a corrupt church. I think of checking your brain at the door and believing what is convenient. Fair considerations, but obviously a limited and biased perspective.
After my coworker and I sat there for a while, sorry that we’re both too stuck in our own heads, I started thinking about what I could do. How do I include religious experience in my life in a way that feels authentic? At certain times, I have been more dedicated to talking to God, and I wrote my MA thesis on the importance of a personal God, at least in part based on those experiences. I don’t believe in an omnipotent God who can change the immediate circumstances of my life, but it mattered to me that I was known and understood. I felt some kind of connection to the transcendent.
Later I was searching for a lost book in the library and happened to come across Eat, Pray, Love. It’s a book I’d made a lot of assumptions about without ever reading. It seemed kind of pop-spiritual, but I finally decided to stop being such a cynical punk and just read it. First of all, I love memoirs. Second, it’s really well written. Third, it is kind of pop-spiritual, by which I mean that it’s one person shopping around the different religions for what works for her, which I remain somewhat critical of, but it was refreshing to read about the experiences of someone who is open to religious experience in a way that I am not.
So I have no immediate plans to take off for India, but religious experience is something I have been thinking more about lately, and I am trying to keep my mind (and my whole person) open to it. More than that, I am trying to pursue those experiences. At the very least, I need to attend more concerts.