Describing the Indescribable

Religion can point us to God Emma Higgs quote

Emma Higgs has been continuing her excellent blog series, Faith in the Fog. Here is an excerpt from her post “Good Religion, Bad Religion”:

There have been moments in history where humans have experienced something so far beyond their existing understanding of the world that it transformed their lives. These events, whether we believe them to have been divinely initiated or imagined by human brains, sparked a human response with the intent of preserving the memory and the impact of these transcendent experiences, and allowing others to participate in them.

This, I think, is essentially what religion is: a set of traditions, metaphors and practices that develop over time, offering people a means of encountering the divine. Religion attempts to describe the indescribable, so while it may be based upon truth, it is a truth that humans can never fully comprehend. Religion is a tool – it is useful, but has its limits. It is not God itself, but it can signpost us into the fog of divine mystery…

I don’t think religion itself is a good or a bad thing. It’s just a thing. A human thing, which means it’s bound to reflect the wonderful creativity and wild diversity of human culture. On the flip side, it’s also bound to sometimes reflect the darker side of human nature: our tendency to twist and exploit things for our own gain.

Abuse of power is bad. Authoritarianism is bad. Empty ritualism for the sake of it, without the heart behind it, is bad.

But saying all religion is bad is a little bit like saying we should burn all books.

Click through to read more from that post, which is part six in the series, and the source of the quote in the meme at the top of the page. Part seven has already appeared, too. You can find the whole series here:

http://www.patheos.com/blogs/emmahiggs/faith-in-the-fog-series/

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  • John MacDonald

    Emma Higgs: “These events, whether we believe them to have been divinely initiated or imagined by human brains …”

    I think the reasonable approach is to say experiences of the numinous is simply interesting manifestations of brain activity. We would not conclude God is responsible here, any more than we would hear reports that a corpse is missing and conclude God had resurrected the body.

    Religious experiences of the numinous are probably just the result of idiosyncratic brain activity, as it is with schizophrenics, Wikipedia says the relationship between religion and schizophrenia is of particular interest to psychiatrists because of the similarities between religious experiences and psychotic episodes; religious experiences often involve auditory and/or visual hallucinations, and those with schizophrenia commonly report similar hallucinations, along with a variety of beliefs that are commonly recognized by modern medical practitioners as delusional. In general, religion has been found to have “both a protective and a risk increasing effect” for schizophrenia.

    A common report from those with schizophrenia is some type of religious belief that many medical practitioners consider to be delusional – such as the belief they are divine beings or prophets, that God is talking to them, they are possessed by demons, etc. In a study of patients with schizophrenia that had been previously admitted to a hospital, 24% had what the medical field refers to as religious delusions.

    Trans-cultural studies have found that such religious beliefs, which often may not be associated with reality, are much more common in patients with schizophrenia who identify as Christian and/or reside in predominately Christian areas such as Europe or North America. By comparison, patients in Japan much more commonly have delusions surrounding matters of shame and slander, and in Pakistan matters of paranoia regarding relatives and neighbors.

    • John MacDonald

      It would seem that the difference between the average churchgoer and the “vision having” prophet and/or schizophrenic is a difference of degree, not of kind, which makes sense because average people in extreme circumstances also sometimes hallucinate, such as my friend’s mother who has led a pretty mundane life except that she had hallucinations of her husband after he died and she was in profound mourning. And everyone has been inundated with visual and auditory material that wasn’t really there, such as when we dream. It’s all our wonderful, creative brain, and there is no reason to think there is, to use Emma Higgs words, a “divinely initiated” cause behind it. We are all just “Pre-Schizophrenics!”, which is why drug use can sometimespush a normal brain over into being a schizophrenic brain.

      • John MacDonald

        One last thought.

        We can easily see similarities between the schizophrenic and the prophet who both think they are experiencing visions of God and believe they are communicating with God. For the schizophrenic, we sometimes see obsessive, paranoid thoughts that can lead to delusions like that “god is talking to me,” just as the prophet can have obsessive, devotional thoughts that can lead to delusional thoughts like “God is talking to me.” In both cases, each perseverates and ruminates in a way that heightens their emotional state and hence can lead to delusion. It’s like “Alice In Wonderland:” You obsessively chase the rabbit (the thought) until you suddenly fall down the rabbit hole and find yourself in a amazing/terrible wonderland (land of wonder both divine and hellish). And this could happen to anyone …

        • I wonder whether the sense that Neil de Grasse Tyson describes of having been called by the universe to go into astrophysics represents the kind of thing that you have in mind here, or indicates that the sense of being addressed by the ultimate/transcendent is one that sane, rational people can have.

          http://www.patheos.com/blogs/religionprof/2014/03/neil-degrasse-tyson-sermon.html

          • John MacDonald

            Intelligence has nothing you do with whether you are sane or not. Some of the most intelligent people have the greatest “eccentricities.” And this makes sense, because such people are “receptive” to the giveness of Being. Artists are particularly sensitive in this way, and phenomenologically characterize it with phrases like “I’m waiting for inspiration from the muse.”

            My point with the three above comments I did here was that what we normally refer to as “religious experience,” whether it be a sense of contact with the numinous, or a “being-called,” or visions, or auditory events, or whatever, is a perfectly normal activity of the human brain, and so there really isn’t any reason to think this has anything to do with what is popularly called “The Divine.” It’s just idiosyncratic brain activity. It has nothing to do with whether one is sane or insane. As I said, my friend’s mother had, in terrible mourning, hallucinations of her dead husband, but I certainly don’t think she was crazy, or that she had actually encountered a ghost. Hallucinations are just something the human brain does sometimes, especially in extreme emotional states.

            “Schizophrenia” and “Normalcy” are just different places on the same continuum, and I would be very doubtful of any atheist who told me that they had never experienced the mysterium tremendum. I think that since culture is more secular now, mystical experiences tend to be looked at more skeptically when trying to decide whether they have religious significance or not, but I think it’s clear such, for lack of a better word, “ek-static (ἔκστασις)” states are probably just the brain being creative (or being induced to being creative through drugs, paranoia, fervent prayer, etc.).

            I think that in earlier times, such experiences would have been more directly thought as having religious significance, which is probably where some of the following religious stories may have taken inspiration:

            There are five figures in the Bible who, according to standard Jewish and Christian interpretation, are reported to have ascended to heaven: Enoch (Gen 5:24); Elijah (2 Kgs 2:1-12); Jesus (Luke 24:51; Acts 1:9); Paul (2 Cor 12:2-4); and John (Rev 4:1). There are also four related accounts in which individuals behold the throne, or heavenly court, of Yahweh: Moses, Aaron, and the elders of Israel (Exod 24:9-11); Micaiah (1 Kgs 22:19-23); Isaiah (Isa 6:1-13); and Ezekiel (Ezk 1, 10). Finally, there is the scene in which an otherwise unidentified “son of man” comes before the throne of God in an apocalyptic vision of Daniel (Dan 7:11-14).

            My overall point wasn’t that the schizophrenic and the prophet both having religious visions means both are insane. but rather that both are sensitive in that creative part of the brain (either genetically or through environmental conditioning )which phenomenologically feels like receptivity to the numinous. And so there is no sense in which Neil de Grasse Tyson is crazy just because he felt “called.” Phenomenologically, he is just, as the artists/genius/scientist that he is, attentive to the muse as he awaits the Giveness of Being. As they say in German, “Es Gibt!” Intellectuals have long known the giveness of Being and the receptivity of essential thought, as any one who has stayed up in futility trying to solve a problem, when suddenly the answer comes to you, Εύρηκα.