2/08/2007

Religious Experience and Sacred Writings

Religious experience of course is as diverse as humanity. We are each shaped by our experience. As a 14 year old, for example, I remember feeling overawed and giving myself to that awe as I invited a Jesus-shaped God into my life. Of course God, that power of love, was already there; only I didn’t know it at the time.

It was a mystical experience. Friends encountered God similarly. Powerful feelings, circumstantial oddities, potent dreams, strange plays of light and sound, goose-bumpy tingles… all of which pointed to the wonder of something bigger than ourselves which was not to be feared but was a mystery that held us and strangely loved us.

It is not difficult to find books or conversations of people having similar numinous experiences. These experiences are not limited to Christians, much to the angst of some! Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, even agnostics, also experience the numinous – although they usually use a different vocabulary to express it.

To base one’s theology on these feelings can by vacuous. There are no theological tools or ethical direction offered automatically with religious experience. One needs to turn to other sources for that.

Some start to build their understanding of God by turning to sacred writings; in particular Christians turn to the Bible. To accompany my numinous experience as a 14 year old I was given a Bible and told to read and memorise it - which I did. I can still quote large portions of it off by heart. The premise was that if one knew the Bible, it would provide both theological construct and ethical direction.

I loved the Bible, and still do. I have read it repeatedly most days in the last 33 years. However the initial appeal in time wears off, unless one goes deeper, and then deeper again. To fail to bring all our whole self, including our critical and academic faculties, to our reading is to not take the Bible seriously. It makes me mad, for example, when a Christian minister insists on interpreting Paul’s writings about homosexuality as condemnatory of mutual same-sex relationships today, when the context and focus of most of Paul’s comments concern pederasty. Similarly it makes me mad when the Bible is used to support male hegemony, or anti-Semitism.

All sacred writings, including the Bible, are written by people. The authors are people with foibles, as well as insights. Communities and individuals have for centuries edited out the bits they don’t like, but thankfully have not sanitised it too much. Wisdom as well as folly are both present in the Bible.

Just because sacred writings are old does not mean they are right. Just because church councils have said they are inspired by God does not make them free from error or relevant to our world today. The Bible in the hands of a 14-year-old literalist can offer a map for inflicting pious condemnation, heterosexism, male chauvinism, slavery, and bigotry. And plenty have followed those paths.

We need interpretative keys into order to unlock the Bible and creatively find our way further into the mystery called God. Anglican Christianity offers three: Jesus, reason, and community.

2 comments:

  1. I really like what you wrote. I posted some comments in my own blog in response.

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  2. Hi Glynn,

    A lot of what you wrote also resonates with my views. I think that experience should be the starting point both for the individual and the theologian, per se. In this age of pluralism it is the only non-circular starting point. I also wrote on this here.

    I do think that religious experience can be somewhat formative for what follows. For instance, if a person's religious experience is that they are somehow "corrupt" or "fallen" then the theology they will gravitate to will reflect that and certain elements will be necessary (i.e. salvation, eschatology, etc.) However, if in those experiences one does not feel fallen but rather a living aspect of God where decisions for love, beauty, and meaning must be made as best one can, then a different theology ensues. Both personal religious intuitions and life experiences can inform the starting points for one's personal theology and that of professional theologians. They can also provide a helpful therapeutic for the further explications of what follows.

    Once one grapples with those experiences and forms some sense of reality then the great scriptures can be a further element for exporing what they mean.

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