The first post I offer from The Ex-Reverend offers both religious observation and personal context. Our discussions often turn on the interplay between phenomenology and metaphysics. Phenomenology tends to address the meaning(s) attached to human experiences.
There should be no trouble seeing the relationship between “religious experience” and phenomenology. After all, when a person describes their human experience as a “religious experience” the vocabulary invoked to convey such a meaning comes under scrutiny. (And yes, right away the meaning of “religious experience” becomes key. The subject of another of The Ex-Reverend’s recent observations.)
Since I write from within Christian Tradition, and a peculiar place from within that “tradition,” meaning cannot be extricated from ethics. In other words, in order for a religious vocabulary to carry any verifiable weight, there must be a consistent ethic that follows. (Most often the critique offered from the Ex-Reverend.)
The move to ascribe meaning from within the Christian Tradition requires a metaphysical move as references to God/G-d are generally distinguished as Other. Transcendence would be too simplistic a description but it would likely be an understood shorthand. For instance, if I have a “religious experience” and ascribe it meaning from within the Christian Tradition I will of necessity appeal to Jesus. At the point of Resurrection, believing it is a literal, material event, I am then moving to view the meaning of phenomena with a Being as such beyond the “physicals” – metaphysical.
In this first post, The Ex-Reverend acknowledges the phenomena of human experience and the difficulty many see when attempting to give both meaning and “first cause.”
Why is this important? Do you know any college students?
It started with love. This is the story I never tell. The one that should make sense of everything, but doesn’t—the answer to all the questions, until I discovered the questions were written to force the asker to arrive at preordained conclusions: a metaphysical magic trick, if you like. I don’t know if you know this, but it’s possible to phrase questions in such a way that only one or two answers are possible: the first seems ludicrous, so the second must be the answer. But that’s a different issue. For now, just know that it started with love.
My neighbor was one of those people who is pathologically incapable of making decisions. He flitted from faith to faith, but not out of a sense of curiosity; rather, when he believed one faith couldn’t sufficiently answer a particular question, he embraced another he believed could. The night of the love affair, he was a Mormon. Truthfully, he was a Mormon of sorts. He’d never been to temple, never been to a ward meeting, never even read the Book of Mormon. I think he just liked the idea of polygamy and found in Joseph Smith a champion for his own inability to be faithful.
He had encountered another neighbor, a kind man who spoke softly, helped the needy, and opened his home to neighbors for advice, friendship, or spiritual guidance. He was a real Mormon, and he helped me understand Doug, the one who couldn’t decide. Morgan, the soft-spoken one, said Doug had finally discovered the “fire in his belly” that testified to the truth. It’s an LDS thing, really, based on a text from the Book of Mormon that helps believers know when they’ve learned the truth. I pointed out that the belly is not the organ of knowing, but Morgan preferred the certainty of the text to any discoveries made since its writing.
Doug had stopped me outside my apartment and gleefully announced he was now a Mormon. This was a short week since he’d announced he was Buddhist. Asceticism, it seems, didn’t agree with him, especially where sex was concerned. And meat. And smoking. Okay, so he wasn’t a good believer by any sect’s standards, except maybe Satanists and Rastafarians. It isn’t Doug who is important here, though. He merely serves as a foil.
I was a new Christian, for the second time. I’d converted 300 or more times as a youth in the Assemblies of God before leaving that faith, but at 25, I’d discovered the teachings of Moses, more so than those of Jesus, to be a reliable guide to avoid the excesses that had ruined much of my life to that point. Doug didn’t like me, nor did he like my faith. In truth, I was a Pharisee of the worst sort, quoting the Bible to buttress my own doubts about its ability to save me from myself. Doug saw the hypocrite in me, and I hated him for it. This is not to say that Doug was otherwise praiseworthy; he clearly wasn’t.
On this particular night, he wanted to debate a point of doctrine related to the person of Jesus. (I’m sorry if you’ve been led to believe that the LDS is Christian by any historical, orthodox standard. Ask any well-versed member a few questions beyond their stock answers, which usually include “Jesus is the savior of the world,” and you’ll see what I mean.) I explained to Doug that contingent beings could never become non-contingent beings because if the being’s origin is contingent, it can’t suddenly become non-contingent. (I still believe this, by the way.) He was moderately befuddled and somehow knew he’d lost a key point, so he blew smoke in my face and stomped off to his apartment.
I crowed with victory internally, at which point I really believed I sensed God chastising me for relying on intellectual arguments rather than faith. (Clearly, I was a different person 20 years ago.) I remembered a Bible verse from John 5: You search the scriptures, for in them you think you have eternal life, but these are the Scriptures which testify of me. I’d made an error by confusing the Scriptures (and my amazing ability to recall them) as my salvation with Jesus as my salvation. I went to bed devastated. I cried quietly, believing I’d never really been saved, but had instead relied on words to save me. As quietly as possible so as not to wake my roommates, I sang every verse of The Old Rugged Cross. (Clearly, I was a different person in those days.) Sometime during the night, my despair broke. I felt suffused with calm, peace, joy, and a deep sense that all was well. Had I known the words then, I would likely have sang It is Well with My Soul.
Describing this sense of wholeness is difficult. I’ve come to think of it as a deep sense of catharsis, an acceptance of forgiveness by a god I didn’t know, and a realization that I was incapable of saving myself. (It was only later that I came to believe that salvation is fairly ad hoc, and while I can’t save myself, I can stop being a .) I woke the next morning madly in love with a god I believed I knew. I was woozy, dreamy, and goofy. I smiled at everyone. Friends asked if I was okay. I smiled and said some goofy  about wanting to love everyone. This was not an act; I truly felt compelled and capable of loving everyone I encountered. When friends tried to draw me into a theological debate the next day, I kindly pointed out that Jesus had died for those on both sides of the debate. I was deeply, madly, completely in love with a god who, if I’m honest, I’d never heard a word from.
It lasted three days. By the morning of the fourth day, I was back to my old self: irascible, argumentative, arrogant, condescending…create your own list. The feeling had gone. Was it real? Was it the moment of genuine salvation I’d thought it was? For three days I’d thought of it in Wesleyan categories: sanctification, holiness, call it what you will. On day four, I discovered I was still a . It was short love affair, a period of time in which I felt I couldn’t breathe because the air was so full of joy that I believed I would burst. The world had been enchanted, electric, with depths and dimension I’d never seen. Was it real?
I’ve never had the feeling again. It was insufficient to keep me in the fold. Perhaps I’m being obstinate. For many, that would probably have been the sign that god is real, that salvation is real, that all they believe about faith is real. I simply believed something real needed to be sustained for more than 72 hours. Was it genuine catharsis? Yes. I’ve never been as hard on myself as I was prior to that. I’ve rearranged my priorities since that day. I’m a different person. That’s the kind of salvation I can live with. It’s only fair to say that I used the vocabulary and praxis of Christianity to attain these things, but I never, not once, truly heard the voice of God. I was conditioned to experience it in Christian terms, and I did, but I’m sure a Hindu would have chalked it up to a powerful encounter with Shiva. I don’t fully know what to make of it, but it’s been insufficient to make a theist of me. Honesty compels me to at least get it out there, though.