I had an interesting conversation (if a couple of comments in a blog can be considered “conversation”) with Alison Lilly in regards to her most recent Dining With Druids podcast. Episode 9 is titled “Holy Personal Gnosis, Batman!” – Ali and her husband-to-be Jeff discussed what is sometimes called “Unverified Personal Gnosis” or UPG.
UPG is first-hand religious experience. It’s what happens when a goddess or god speaks to you. It’s what happens when a Pentecostal Christian is “filled with the Holy Spirit.” It’s what happens when a dream is so real you know it’s telling you something you have to do. It’s a vision, an audition, a feeling so strong you don’t even think of questioning its authenticity.
In the podcast, Ali complains (rightly, I think) about people who devalue UPG and refuse to acknowledge it unless it can be verified in a written text – “the lore.” Jeff read a piece he had written under the direction of Odin. By Jeff’s admission, what Odin told him doesn’t match what’s been written about Odin in the Edda and other Norse sources. Does that mean it’s invalid? I don’t think it does.
At the same time, we must be humble, careful, even skeptical about our own religious experiences. I’ve run into too many people (not a lot, but too many just the same) on A Mission From God. God or Goddess or a goddess or a god gave them this great revelation and they think that means I should follow it just because they say so.
If your deity wants me to shave my head and sell flowers on the sidewalk he can come tell me himself.
The whole idea of labeling our very powerful, very meaningful religious experiences “unverified” reinforces the humility we need to have about them. They are “personal” – we experienced them so we know they’re real, but because they are unverified we can’t expect everyone else to give them the same authority we do.
How should we interpret our religious experiences? Can our knowledge of our gods and goddesses grow and change from our direct experiences of them? Ali worries that “the term ‘UPG’ places ultimate authority for ‘verification’ of our personal experiences not in the living community or in the gods, but in specific primary source texts.” She thinks this can lead to freezing the gods in the lore, a problem she compares to Christians who insist on interpreting the Bible literally. She makes a valid point. So, what is the final authority?
Earlier this year I wrote about authority here and here. It’s not some of my better writing. I have issues with authority and power, particularly when they’re misused or used arbitrarily. Most of that writing should have remained in my private journal, but I got at least one thing right – legitimate authority is grounded in what is correct, good, and true.
How can we know if a religious experience is good and right and true? How can we know if what Odin told Jeff is true or if it was just Jeff’s imagination running wild? We can’t, at least not in an absolute sense of knowing. But we still need to interpret and evaluate it.
First, we should judge it against our lore, our literature, and our history. How well does it match with what’s generally considered true? If it’s new information, is it consistent with what’s already known? If not, is it plausible, given the changes in time and place since the lore was established? If you tell me Cernunnos appeared to you and told you to plant trees, I’m likely to believe you. If you tell me he told you to buy a new SUV, I’m not.
We should judge UPG against our own experiences, both spiritually and materially. Is what you experienced consistent with other experiences? Is it meaningful and helpful? I went into this in some detail back in February in response to Brendan Myers’ podcast that urged us to be skeptical about our experiences.
We should judge UPG against the experiences of others. If multiple people have the same dream in a short period of time, it’s a pretty clear indication something is up. If the Morrigan tells me one thing and you something similar and a third person something else that’s related, we should pay attention.
Finally, is it reasonable, ethical, practical, and helpful? People do terrible things in the name of their gods because they never stop and ask themselves “is this ethical?” The same moral blindness that causes some Christians to kill abortion providers and caused some Muslims to fly airplanes into buildings can cause us to do things that are clearly wrong unless we stop and ask ourselves “is this in alignment with my core values?”
After posting an outline of this in the Dining with Druids comments I realized I had just described a generic version of the Wesleyan Quadrilateral! Maybe this is because I used to be a Methodist and this was buried somewhere in the recesses of my brain, but I think it’s more likely that the four-fold approach to authority simply makes good sense.
All human institutions – be they sacred texts, cultural lore, religious institutions, or anything else – are first and foremost human. They are imperfect. They are at least occasionally wrong – and removed from their proper context, they’re wrong a lot. Placing ultimate authority in any one source – the Pope or the Bible, the lore of your tradition, or your own Unverified Personal Gnosis – leaves you open to great errors. Placing authority in multiple, counterbalancing sources and then consulting those sources diligently will reduce the opportunity for errors. It won’t eliminate errors – you’re still a human dealing with human institutions – but you’ve got a better chance of getting it right with four sources than with only one.
So what do we do with our religious experiences? We accept them. We treasure them. We keep them in our hearts for the rest of our lives, and beyond. And when we attempt to interpret them, we consider our lore, our other inspirations and revelations, the collective experience of our communities, and especially our values, ethics, and reason.