09 June 2014

No uninterpreted spiritual experience

I have long favoured Karl Popper’s slogan, ‘there is no such thing as an uninterpreted observation’. Science never merely follows the evidence’, nor is scientific knowledge merely deduced from mythical theory-neutral observations. On the contrary, all observations are theory laden; they are shaped by prior theories/guesses about the way the world is, which determine what counts as evidence and what observations are of interest to us.

From time to time, I come across people who make the valid point that spiritual experience is much broader than whatever we might experience within the confines of religious worship. However, there is a danger in this generous view of spiritual experience: it is all too easy to slide towards the view that all experience of the transcendent is somehow spiritual. For examples of the sort of thing I mean, see Peter van Ness’s Spirituality and the Secular Quest: almost anything from art appreciation to scientific enquiry, from surfing to sex can be described as spiritual.

In response to this point, I am inclined adapt Popper’s slogan to spiritual experience: there is no such thing as an uninterpreted spiritual experience. Experiences of transcendence or of ecstasy are relatively commonplace. We feel awe at the majesty of nature; we are moved to tears by a work of art. Sex, drugs, (rock and roll) – all have the power to create ecstasy. And human beings have for millennia found nature, sex and drugs to be potent sources of spiritual experience. But whether/how we see such experiences as spiritual requires something more; it depends on the interpretative framework through which we view them. For example, a convinced secular humanist will see in a drug trip only altered brain chemistry.

What initially made me think this way about spiritual experience was an interview with a Buddhist monk that I heard some years ago. He had been brought up as a Roman Catholic before converting to Buddhism in young adulthood. Imagine his surprise when as a result of intense spiritual exercises he began experiencing visions of the Virgin Mary. His teacher wisely pointed out to him that this was only to be expected because his unconscious was attempting to process the experiences he was having in terms that were already familiar to him.

One of the things that the world’s religions do is to offer competing frameworks to help us make sense of our experiences of ecstasy or transcendence. Of course, this means that one religion’s spiritual experience may be dismissed by another as a simple case of overindulgence or anathematized by a third as a case of demonic possession.

As a Christian, I am primarily interested in whether and how my experiences of transcendence might be interpreted as the activity of the Holy Spirit? How might we determine whether the Holy Spirit is active in a particular situation, experience or relationship? As it happens, the New Testament offers a handy set of guidelines for discerning the activity of the Holy Spirit: the Spirit is present and active wherever there is a growth in ‘love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control’ (Galatians 5:22f.).

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