Expanding Our Languages of Religious Experience

Expanding Our Languages of Religious Experience February 14, 2014

“I can imagine Jesus befriending my grandfather, too, frying up some breakfast for him, talking things over with him, and in fact the old man did report several experiences of just that kind. I can’t say the same for myself. I doubt I’d ever have had the strength for it. This is something that has come to my mind from time to time over the years, and I don’t really know what to make of it.”    – John Ames, Gilead

During a visit from a couple women in my ward last week, we were chatting over New Year’s goals when one of them mentioned her goal  to improve her relationship with God. I knew what she meant, but still I puzzled over it afterwards. What does a relationship with God feel like or look like? I assume the end goal is a kind of confident sense of connection, communication, and intimacy with a divine father.

But how do you do that if you’ve never really had a recognizable encounter with God? I don’t mean a dark night of the soul—but a continual “disenchanted” state, as Rosalynde Welch described in her address.

At a conference held months ago in DC where Mormons met to discuss faith challenges, one woman spoke of her husband’s “faith crisis.” It wasn’t an acute feeling of betrayal brought on by opposing evidence or disturbing claims; rather, his life seemed uninterrupted by any recognizable encounter with God. Deprived of what he believed to be a fundamental ingredient for “a relationship with God,” and thus, a meaningful spiritual life, he gave up the whole endeavor.

Unsurprisingly, “disenchanted” individuals may have an uncomfortable, even impossible, time in a religious culture where prayer is taught as a two-way dialogue, where testimonies are acquired by moments of clear divine affirmation, and a personal relationship with an intimately loving Heavenly Father is the root of a spiritual life. Perhaps in our instantaneous, hyper-responsive, social media-saturated society, the elusiveness of a “personal relationship with God” can lead to personal confusion, bitterness, or resigned agnosticism.

I think adherents of Mormonism suffer from a poor religious vocabulary, and we could avoid a lot of disillusionment and hurt if we articulated and valorized more languages of religious experience—both to legitimize alternative experiences and to open up more spiritual channels that the weary sojourner may not have considered.

This, at least, is what I have experienced.  I have found a few “languages” that foster spiritual vitality where my attempts at “improving a relationship” with an enigmatic Heavenly Father fail. Of course, none of these are meant as proofs for God’s existence; they are just ways of approaching the divine if one already believes it exists.


One language is Gilead’s language of grace. John Ames, the gentle preacher in Marilynne Robinson’s luminous novel, is quite the contrast to his fiery, Jesus-chatting grandfather: Ames inhabits a world that is touched by God’s grace in every nook and cranny, from bobbing soap bubbles to weed-strewn graveyards, from the feel of a baseball falling into a glove, to water cascading off flung branches. Jesus may not have fried bacon or showed up at the river on his daily walks, as was wont to happen with his grandfather, but the divine was woven softly into every thread of Ames’ beloved, beautiful world.

Ames’ language of religious experience rests on a given acceptance of a Creator, without any pressures of proofs, but it requires attentive, open-hearted observance. Ames writes to his young son: “The Lord is more constant and far more extravagant than it seems to imply. Wherever you turn your eyes the world can shine like transfiguration. You don’t have to bring a thing to it except a little willingness to see. Only, who could have the courage to see it?” (245)

Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life offers a beautiful visual parallel to Robinson’s text, where grace and spiritual struggle coalesce in a rich yet mundane sensorial world of relationships, nature, and music.


There is also the language of absence and yearning. I attended a Vespers service months ago during a particularly hard point in my spiritual life. When the black-robed choir sang the first notes of Tomás Luis de Victoria’s piece to Christ and the Mother Mary, a startlingly intense feeling of homesickness overcame me.

And homesickness was the only word I had for it. No warm divine embrace, no whisperings of God’s love—just a yearning across the mortal chasm for the home where that music came from.

Augustine writes of the “woman who lost her small coin and searched for it with a light” and “would never have found it unless she had remembered it.” “How, then,” he continues, “do I seek you, O Lord? For in seeking you, my God, it is my happiness that I am seeking.” Augustine felt God was lost to him, but not forgotten; and the sensation, however hazy, of that long-past memory spurred his seeking for the divine.

I feel I can relate to Augustine’s words. And it is a curious comfort to me that the vivid sense of absence of and longing for the divine spoke more powerfully to me of its presence than the few positive affirmations I’ve experienced.


The intellect is another natural and compelling language of religious experience. One can be drawn to an account of the universe, of God, of human nature and relationships, of pain and suffering, of healing and redemption, and find that it resonates profoundly in ways that, as Alma describes, “beginneth to enlighten my understanding.”

Such ideas are endowed with “impalpable appeal”; they are “facts worthy of worship,” in William James’ phrasing. These accounts, texts, and ideas can prove “fertile wells of inspiring meditation for Christian believers,” he continues, and powerful motivators for applying one’s heart and soul to living a Christlike life.

There are countless others; William James’ Varieties of Religious Experience is an illuminating study of the same, and explores how our temperaments play a significant role in our spiritual proclivities. This makes sense, but I don’t feel we should be constrained by our temperamental idiosyncrasies or by a lack of vocabulary in our efforts to seek the divine. Maybe if we spoke more of a God who can, and must be, approached from as many venues as there are aspects of his nature, then we could give fellow Saints a little more breathing room and more fruitful ground for a grace-filled life.

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