Am I wrong about that?
“What has occurred over and over through history? That person emerges from their “wild experience” and they immediately begin to talk about it. They find words, borrow words or make up words to explain and define their experience. Instead of statements of wonder, humility and sheer delight in the experience itself (cf. John Muir’s ecstatic “Glorious!”), we hear things like “I heard the voice of God,” or “I had a spiritual encounter …”
From dogmatic orthodoxy to “religious correctness,” we all know there’s something intrinsically broken in religion. When a statement like “I believe” or “I assent to this particular creed” becomes paramount—the essential test for faith—Religion loses meaning. Is there even such a thing as a Religion any longer, or has it merely been reduced and cheapened to My Faith vs. Your Faith?
If “religion” essentially means retelling an organic origin story for the purpose of living better while connected to a community centered upon that story, then religion can and perhaps should exist without the need for beliefs or believing. It’s not about believing the original story (myth) so much as living better. An issue of emphasis but also a question of authenticity—not the story’s authenticity (literalness; never accessible) but the life of the people—always visible, accessible.
Imagine the first person to ascend a mountain, descend into a cave, wander into a forest or desert wilderness where they have a profound experience of Life, Existence, Relationship to Nature, etc. Whatever it is they experience of something wonderful in the wilds, they feel a deep or expansive sense of amazement. What happens to them is beyond the telling, beyond words—words become unnecessary, irrelevant. Something has happened, but what is that, how, why? More questions are raised than conclusions. Though the event may have been strange or weird, even unexplainable in the present time, it’s not a “mystery” but a natural life-question to probe and ponder.
Yet, what has occurred over and over through history? That person emerges from their “wild experience” and they immediately begin to talk about it. They find words, borrow words or make up words to explain and define their experience. Instead of statements of wonder, humility and sheer delight in the experience itself (cf. John Muir’s ecstatic “Glorious!”), we hear things like “I heard the voice of God,” or “I had a spiritual encounter and learned special—secret—wisdom.” This can ultimately lead to demands: “You must believe my story! If you have faith you will know what I say is true; I will perform my new divine role as a preacher or prophet and pass along the special wisdom I was given out there.”
Here we see the beginning of tradition (that which is handed down) but the end of the original experience. Believing becomes predominant, supplanting any subsequent personal experiences. Another person emerges from the wilderness with a variant story and they are immediately suspect, called “heretic,” a threat. The correct (authentic) version of the original experience comes from the original person, then instantly finds alteration when the next person tells it. Then again, the original storyteller may have gotten it wrong in the first place (e.g., that was the wind, an owl, a howling wolf, my own wild imagination—not the voice of a supernatural being).
This raises the disturbing question: Has believing ruined religion? Asked another way, has believing actually stifled or stonewalled the human propensity to share and shape honest individual stories? This is not to say that everyone who shares their “story of faith” is being dishonest, only that one’s credo (“I believe”) seems to be more valued than the established creeds (“We believe”) of tradition. More importantly perhaps, statements of personal belief are now often accepted or respected apart from any community of faith that sets any standard or perimeter of beliefs.
What comes of religion then? When each person claims their story, their experience, is “true,” who can question that? Exactly. No one and everyone can be skeptical. Religion becomes a hopeless jumble of “believers” who compare or argue over each other’s beliefs and “true” experiences without resolution because there can be no referee. Stated another way, “truths” ruin “Truth.” My truth, your truth, what’s really true?
Accepting doctrines designed by Doctors of Theology and assenting to creeds crafted and enforced by clergy, the faithful have historically been led to believe that believing takes precedence over a true practice of a living religious way of life. As I first learned from inmates while serving as a jail chaplain, “talking the talk” means little unless you’re “walking the walk.” In other words, words can be very cheap. If we’re hung up on words—whether in stories, sermons or scriptures—then we get hung up on what is said rather than what is done. Any objective study of Religion (or objective view of anything) is lost. Words lose their meaning when they’re “just words,” “true” only as each individual uses them.
Does faith itself threaten or stand as an obstacle to “walking the walk”? Many will say that faith is an active “discipleship,” “trusting the Lord” and living what you believe. This reveals or exposes the circular thinking of believing and faith. “I believe, therefore I live my life by faith, so you can see and (hopefully) believe as I believe.” As we get more specific about this, problems rapidly arise. “I am giving food to this hungry person because of my faith.” “God tells me to help this suffering person—see my faith”? An observer might respond: “Well, actually, I see you helping others alongside many who don’t share your faith. They don’t seem to need your beliefs, your faith or your God to do the same thing.” To take it one sharper step further: “By the way, I see there are millions of believers who are not here helping because they’re praying, reading their scriptures, going to services where they stand to recite their creeds over and over. That is ‘faith’ for them.”
Has religion ruined the authentic “spiritual experience”? Taming the wild, organizing the disorganized, attempting to impose order on the chaos … all ways that religious authorities have tried to handle the untidy stories, to control the narrative. When an unusual or strange personal experience (aka, “religious” experience) becomes a Religion there must be restrictions, rules, right and wrong ways to contain The (accepted and acceptable) Story. The First Teller of the Tale is no longer around to make corrections or answer questions and may indeed not recognize what their story has become. They never “believed” their story anyway. It was simply their story— relating a personal experience they interpreted in their own way to themselves and others. They no longer have control over how others tell their story (would the “founders” of the major world religions even recognize their “followers” today?).
Lastly, has the “spiritual experience” ruined any chance for an authentic experience of the great wonder and joy of the natural world? “Something spiritual happened to me” plays a trick on us. We use borrowed language and step right back into creedal traditions. “God spoke to me out there.” Which god? Were there audible words? Why would a god speak to you? Why there and then? If I went out there, would I hear the same thing, meet the same being? If I don’t, can I doubt your story? Do I have to respect what you say?
We can understand the need to put words on things we don’t understand. And we can accept that some terms (like God, spirituality, even religion) are embedded in our vocabulary. We reach for a label that “feels right” to describe or encapsulate the moment. However, in my view, we need to be aware of what we’re doing and admit we don’t know how to explain everything that happens to us. We ought to “hold the wonder” and “own the questions” without having to name it, claim it, define it with terms we really don’t understand anyway. Ironically, a person will say “It was God” but when asked to describe what “God” means, they can’t, or merely use other questionable words. “I felt so spiritual” may actually mean “I felt something”—an authentic response. Isn’t that good enough? I don’t think we need to string together words that make no sense as we’re trying to make sense of an experience.
In his first published book, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, Henry Thoreau wrote: “[People] no where, east or west, live as yet a natural life, round which the vine clings, and which the elm willingly shadows. A life of equal simplicity and sincerity with nature, and in harmony with her grandeur and beauty.”
How “natural” can the religious life be? Maybe religion will always disintegrate into believing. Perhaps believing will always distract from living. If so, we can take heart that a “natural life” amongst the clinging vines and shadowing trees, is available to us season by season, offering harmony, grandeur and beauty.
Chris Highland, 2020