In The World’s Religions, Huston Smith wrote:
“We can define theology as the systematization of thoughts about the symbols that religious experience gives rise to.”
Take a moment to think about that sentence.
I did. It stuck with me. I thought about it so much that it became the basis for an interfaith model that I unveiled.
For clarity, it is helpful to reverse engineer Smith’s sentence.
1. Experience gives rise to symbols.
2. Symbols give rise to thoughts.
3. Theology is the systematization of those thoughts.
Experience is the starting point; theology is the outcome.
Why is that important?
Because, most of us define religions by customs, rituals, and stories, not by their spiritual underpinnings, and, as a result, religious and spiritual experiences get pushed to the side.
The Fountain of Experience is Drying Up
This pushing aside is truly saddening, because, today, people hunger for direct experiences like never before. They want peace of mind, genuine feelings of love and compassion, a deepened sense of empathy, a feeling of being calm in the storm, and much more.
With this in mind, we would be right to ask the question, why don’t more religious institutions focus on experience?
In his masterpiece, The Varieties of Religious Experience, William James proposes an answer.
According to James, a prophet’s journey usually begins with a religious experience. If the prophet then starts to preach based on that experience, he is promptly labeled a madman. If, however, the theology spreads, it is labeled as heresy. Finally, if the theology survives persecution, it becomes orthodoxy. At that point, according to James, its days of “inwardness” are over, because orthodoxy effectively stops “all later bubblings of the fountain from which in purer days it drew its own supply of inspiration.”
Nothing Replaces Experience
Once we have been alerted to this process—from a) experience to b) preaching to c) orthodoxy, which then results in the repression of experience—we must ask another important question: If experience is actually at the heart of every religion, isn’t it the duty of every religious person to seek it out directly?
Muslim theologian Al-Ghazali rightly pointed out that:
“…there is a big difference between knowing the meaning and causes of health and satiety, and being healthy and satisfied.”
You can go to lecture after lecture about health, watch every episode of The Biggest Loser, read all the latest books on dieting and buy every health magazine on display at the check-out counter, but if you don’t take action, if you don’t do anything, then all is for naught. In fact, it is better to own one book on dieting and follow that—even if it isn’t part of the newest trend—than it is to have a whole library of health books that you haven’t followed at all.
In some ways, religion can be viewed the same as health. We need more direct experiences and less recounting of theology. That doesn’t mean that reading and contemplating aren’t important. No. It just means that direct perception is of a different quality.
- Reading the recipe of your grandma’s chicken soup will never compare to the taste.
- Seeing a magnificent sunset will never compare to somebody else’s description of that same sunset.
- Feeling the electrifying sensation of a passionate kiss will never compare to a second-hand account.
- Nothing replaces experience.
Thankfully, every religion has a variety of spiritual practices to choose from, including prayer, meditation, rituals, compassionate service, contemplation and more. It is up to the practitioner to choose practices based on his or her character and preferences.
If experience is at the heart of every religion then theology points the way while practice gives us the vehicle, but we must take the steps if we want to personally explore our faith and reap experiences rather than rely solely on second-hand accounts.
Author & Interfaith Minister
Read, Experifaith: At the Heart of Every Religion, to understand the interspiritual currents that run through the religions of the world.
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