Jason Mankey recently posted an interesting essay about what he calls the “Pagan/Atheist alliance“. In his post, Jason raises the question whether Christians are, at least in some instances, the more natural ally of Pagans than atheists. He specifically has in mind those atheists who tend to mock all religion, seeming for sport. He also suggests that our Pagan values might require us to honor the Christian religious experience as much as our own.
“When someone tells me they’ve been ‘touched by the Holy Spirit’ I believe them. If my High Priestess can Draw Down the Goddess, than I also have to believe that Yahweh has the power to make his followers speak in tongues. That doesn’t mean I have to agree with those people speaking in tongues about everything, it just means that I find their religious experience a valid one.”
I attended a workshop by Jason at Pantheacon. In addition to being very entertaining, he spoke about the Pagan practice/experience of “Drawing Down” in very down to earth terms. I found especially refreshing his acknowledgment that one person may experience the ritual as successful and another person may experience it as unsuccessful — both both experiences are valid. Check out Jason’s post on “setting the table” for deity in ritual.
Which brings me to my own experience. I have a confession to make. The most powerful religious/mystical experiences of my life occurred when I was Christian. What’s more, those religious experiences were distinctly Christian. And what’s more, although I am no longer Christian (or even Christo-Pagan) I have not repudiated those Christian experiences.
The most profound spiritual experience of my life occurred in my first months as a Mormon missionary in Brazil. I was struggling a great deal with becoming the kind of missionary that I had imagined being when I was training in the Missionary Training Center in Utah, and I was struggling with the realities of the language barrier and my own social limitations. On my way to church one Sunday, my missionary companion and I were walking along the cobblestone road that led to the church. The sun was shining bright and it was not yet hot outside. And I suddenly perceived that I was in ancient Palestine, almost 2000 years ago, walking on the road as a missionary of the early Christian church. I felt myself to be in both places at once. I very much felt that I was both “here” and “there”. It felt very real. It is difficult to explain and I have never felt anything quite like it before. The feeling lasted for about a half hour. It culminated when I participated the the Mormon communion (they call it “the sacrament”). It was the single most powerful spiritual experience of my life.
Now a Mormon or other Christian would hear that story and interpret it as validation of the Mormon/Christian faith. Honestly, at the time I hardly knew how to take it. I had been hoping for some divine help, but this experience left me with more questions than answers. I felt like “somebody” was saying something to me, but I would have been hard pressed to say what it was. The best I could come up with was that it was a consolation that I was where I needed to be at that time. I later had other experiences of the same character, but not quite the same intensity.
Most Mormons would have a hard time understanding how I could leave the Mormon faith without denying the validity of that experience — and maybe some Pagans would as well. In my experience, many Mormons overlook the historically contingent nature of such experiences. Not only do we interpret our religious experiences after the fact, but the very experience itself is mediated by our personal history, our beliefs, and our life situation, even by our biology. In saying this, I do not mean to diminish the fact that my encounter on that Brazilian road that day was an encounter with the divine. I merely point out that that experience should be the beginning, not the end, of a discussion.
Check out this discussion from the movie The Messenger between Joan of Arc and Satan. This is my favorite movie discussion of interpretation of religious experience. Is a sword in a field just a sword in a field?
As William James wrote in his Varieties of Religious Experience, speaking of mystical experiences:
“No account of the universe in its totality can be final which leaves these other forms of consciousness quite disregarded. How to regard them is the question—for they are so discontinuous with ordinary consciousness. Yet they may determine attitudes though they cannot furnish formulas, and open a region though they fail to give a map. At any rate, they forbid a premature closing of our accounts with reality.”
In my experience, many Mormons and other Christians confuse the “opening of a region” with “giving a map”. This may be true of some Pagans as well. That experience that day in Brazil opened a region to me — one that has remained open ever since. And the best I can say about it is that it “forbids a premature closing of my accounts with reality.”
It comes as no surprise to me now that I would have had the most profound religious experience of my life at the time in my life when I was perhaps struggling the hardest to make contact with my God. What did that experience mean though? At the time, I took it to be a message: “Keep going,” it said. And really, that is still how I understand it. Does it bother me, as a Pagan, that the experience was mediated through a Christian lens? No. What else could I expect? Even Jesus spoke in the religious terms of his historical community — not Christianity, but Judaism.
I going to take this further my sharing another experience, this one perhaps even more scandalous. In the fall of 2001, I was saved by Jesus. Mind you, I come from a Christian tradition (Mormonism) which does not talk of salvation in the evangelical terms of being “saved”. But I had just left that tradition, in part because I took issue with the absence of an adequate Mormon conception of salvation by grace. I struggled inwardly to experience this grace that I was learning about from the writings of the Neo-Orthodox Christian theologians and especially from Alan Watts (Behold the Spirit). Then one day it happened. I was walking down the street on my way to the bus from law school. It was fall and the wind was blowing. And it just happened. I felt . . . saved. All that guilt I had carried around for years was just gone. And I knew it was because something inside me finally accepted the grace of God through Jesus Christ.
Interestingly, while this left me without any sense of abiding guilt, it also left me without any residual need to believe in literally Christ even or Christianity. I felt that, having fully accepted God’s grace, I no longer needed Christianity. I use the word “felt” here intentionally, because this was not an intellectual acceptance, but an emotional one. I felt saved, and one second later, I felt freed from any attachment to Christ or Christianity. Now I know many Christians will take issue with this part of my experience. But the fact is that this is what I felt. And there are probably Pagans who would take issue with this experience also. But the fact is that I don’t know if I could have ever moved beyond that sense of guilt which had plagued me since my childhood, if not for Jesus — or least the story of Jesus and the ideas that developed over the centuries because of him. To put it more poignantly, I don’t know if I would have become Pagan if Jesus had not first saved me from Christianity.
So when Jason Mankey suggests we need to honor Christian spiritual experience, I agree. I don’t know if Pagans will find many allies among Christians, especially evangelicals, but we may have more in common with them than either side cares to admit. I know I do.