It’s been refreshing to read the current discussion on spiritual experiences, most recently restarted with John Halstead’s post about American Gods. In response to that, Rua Lupa warned against “emphasizing Pleasure as a pinnacle of religious practice” and how that could result in problematic hedonism (pleasure as the sole goal). John also pointed out some important benefits of spiritual experiences (with some of his own experiences), and Mark Green described both his own experiences and how the benefits and potential excesses of spiritual experiences need to be balanced. All of these raise important points, and I agree with all of them. While trying to avoid repetition, a couple additional points come to mind.
This discussion has shown both that spiritual experiences are valuable and very important, while also balancing that with the recognition that they can have harmful effects if not handled responsibly. Specifically, both Mark and Rua mentioned something that I’ve felt too – that for many people, spiritual experiences have become an end in themselves – eclipsing the desire for a healthy spirituality which makes this real world a better place. This seems to be a problem among segments of many religions – Christian, Pagan, you name it. Another threat that hasn’t really been mentioned much is the use of spiritual experiences as “proof” of this or that religion. Yes, I know spiritual experiences and powerful, moving and transformative – but that doesn’t mean that they prove this or that truth claim to be correct. Research has been done on some spiritual experiences (especially out of body experiences – OOBEs), and this work has not shown anything “supernatural”. I find it interesting (and encouraging) that one of John’s experiences was in the context of his earlier religious views which have nonetheless changed, and that I too have one like that (though less strong – maybe I’ll tell of it sometime).
This is not to deny the value and power of these experiences (well covered in this discussion). We saw in the posts by Mark and John how powerful these experiences are, and my own experience is described in the video below. They are wonderful beyond words. Like so many other human joys, such as love, accomplishment, sex, and good food, I’m tempted to see them as part of a well lived, human life for many of us. The ability of our brains to do this – the fact that this was selected for – shows beyond a doubt that it’s been extremely important in the past for the success of our Ancestors. And on reflection, that’s completely unsurprising. A pleasure as powerful as this can motivate people to accomplish things that were firmly beyond their grasp beforehand, with obvious benefit to offspring. In this way, I’m reminded of their millions, billions of struggles over the years, and the fact that these spiritual experiences are yet another gift they give to us – another gift that adds to the mountain of gratitude I feel for them. There is so much more to this than can be said with words.
That gratitude leads directly to their responsible use. My Ancestors suffered and struggled to give us the incredible gifts of these experiences. Like so many of those Ancestors, I feel deep love for everyone alive today, and for future generations. These experiences are an astounding gift that can be powerful fuel for our actions – motivating us when other lights have gone out. We can’t be sure when or if we’ll receive it, but we can reasonably look for times and places where it’s more likely. How could I receive that gift, and not want to use it responsibly, to help empower me to make a better world? How could I think, for even a moment, that I’d simply take it and seek out more without concern for anyone but myself? In this way, I think I see part of what Rua was pointing out. I think this is part of the balance that Mark talked about. I think this is a lot of the benefits that John brought out to us. I hope that all of us can draw on these experiences – regardless of whether we all interpret them exactly the same – to move us to work together for the interconnected web of life of which we are one part. Here’s one experience, and some thoughts on it. Blessed be.
Starstuff, Contemplating: We are assemblages of ancient atoms forged in stars – atoms organized by history to the point of consciousness, now able to contemplate this sacred Universe of which we are a tiny, but wondrous, part.
Dr. Jon Cleland Host is a scientist who earned his PhD in materials science at Northwestern University & has conducted research at Hemlock Semiconductor and Dow Corning since 1997. He holds eight patents and has authored over three dozen internal scientific papers and eleven papers for peer-reviewed scientific journals, including the journal Nature. He has taught classes on biology, math, chemistry, physics and general science at Delta College and Saginaw Valley State University. Jon grew up near Pontiac, and has been building a reality-based spirituality for over 30 years, first as a Catholic and now as a Unitarian Universalist, including collaborating with Michael Dowd and Connie Barlow to spread the awe and wonder of the Great Story of our Universe (see www.thegreatstory.org, and the blog at evolutionarytimes.org). Jon and his wife have four sons, whom they embrace within a Universe-centered, Pagan, family spirituality. He currently moderates the yahoo group Naturalistic Paganism.