“Religiously unmusical”

In a comment on facebook to James McGrath’s post “How do you know that?”, Carl Beck Sachs writes:-

In response to that, Lydie, I would say that people who don’t have a capacity for mystical experience are, to use Rorty’s delightful phrase, “religiously unmusical” (as he was, and as I am sometimes, depending on what else is going on in my life). Certainly there’s nothing wrong about being religiously unmusical — just as there’s nothing wrong with being unmusical. And I’d be the first to defend one’s right to be religiously unmusical!

Part of the point I’m making here is that, from the perspective of a religious liberal, there’s nothing more to being a non-theist or atheist other than being religiously unmusical. There’s no other thing going on besides that — nothing at all.”

I like this language. At 13, I might well have described myself as “religiously unmusical”; however, I then had an “out of the blue” experience of immense power, which was the best thing I had ever experienced (it probably still is). My first thought was that I must have had some neurological event which might be dangerous, or that I was exhibiting an early sign of some psychological or psychiatric disorder, but reference to my doctor removed that possibility. My next course of action was to find ways of repeating the experience, to which I devoted a lot of time and effort over the next ten years or so; I found that certain practices drawn from all sorts of traditions seemed to incline me in the direction of repetition (and in hindsight, this will have been massively assisted by emotional recall).

I talked long and hard about the experience with others once I found that it was not necessarily evidence of mental instability, looking for commonality, at least once I had found a language of expression, or rather several languages, as different religious and spiritual traditions (I found) talked of similar experience in very different ways, and I found some people who had not had a similar experience but wished they had (I found more by far who were uninterested in such experience both inside and outside religion). I wanted others to have similar experience, and shared some of the techniques I had found.

The trouble is, I found that many of those who tried these techniques did not have peak spiritual experiences – in fact most did not. In particular I found people who had been following a Christian praxis for very many years and who seemed immune to whatever techniques I offered, including one who was very dear to me. I am coming to the conclusion that she was and is “religiously unmusical”, and that saddens me. In fact, while I don’t any more think that peak spiritual experiences like mine are vastly rare, I would be inclined to think that well over half the population is “religiously unmusical”.

I am helping with another Alpha course at the moment. Alpha, while it may appear to be an attempt to convince intellectually, isn’t that; it is aimed at producing a form of peak spiritual experience – and that’s why I’m where I am, trying to spread “the experience” in the only readily accessible programme within mainstream Christianity I know of which does that. There is at least one person on this course who I am coming to suspect of being “religiously unmusical”, and I’m going to be cringing again at parts of the course which indicate that everyone who prays will have their prayer answered, because in this particular case, I doubt it will be. Perhaps I lack faith, but against that I have a lot of experience with others with whom I’ve previously “stormed heaven” with absolutely no result.

There have, in fact, been a couple of sermons recently in which testimony as to answered prayer has been put forward, and that is wonderful – for those for whom it has been answered. My experience is different; if my prayers are in fact answered, they are answered after a very long time indeed. Frequently what I in fact asked for is not what eventually transpires as an “answer” to my initial prayer. For example, I spent six and a half years praying for release from severe depression and generalised anxiety; the depression has gone, but the anxiety remains – but I can cope with it now. It is not usually crippling.

And yet – six and a half years? There is no way in which I can tell someone who is not massively predisposed to believe in answered prayer that this is, in fact, an answer to prayer. I can say that I have learned other things as a (God-given?) result of having my positive emotions excised for that period of time – for example, the immense value of emotional recall for lifting mood, and also the value of gratitude even in the face of very bleak situations; neither of these was available to me during that period. I can, therefore, interpret this as an useful lesson in life (and have, in a previous post). Again, though, this is supremely unlikely to carry weight with anyone who does not already believe that everything happens for a purpose, and that God is the purposer.

So, if the opportunity arises, what am I now to tell the suspected religiously unmusical? “If you plug away at it, something will happen, but it might take a year, five years or ten. and it may be completely different from what you ask for”?

No, I suspect that the best I can say is that I was like that and something happened out of the blue, so there is hope, it can take a very long time, and that some people are clearly born without the ability, so there is no need to feel failure if nothing happens at all.

Our God is henotheistic?

I am not a great fan of modern worship songs, as a genre. The vast majority of those I hear and sing in the services I attend most regularly fall short on wording, music or both. The wording tends to be extremely short of theological (or, indeed, other) content, repeated too often, and what theology there is tends to be just substitutionary atonement – and I am no fan of substitutionary atonement as regular readers of this blog may gather. Sometimes the music makes up for this, but more often there is really not much tune, with a range of maybe five notes. Happily, the band at this church is extremely good and so my cringe factor isn’t totally over-stimulated.

Sunday last saw me singing along to a song by Chris Tomlin, with the recurring lines “Our God is greater, our God is stronger, God you are higher than any other”, which had considerable verve (and for once didn’t really play the PSA note much). But it got me thinking “greater, stronger and higher in relation to what or who?” (as well as noting that the song definitively refers to Jesus, starting “water you turned into wine; opened the eyes of the blind” and that the extreme stress on Jesus-as-God makes me think “docetism” immediately…)

Not, I think, anything mundane – that would be a little like singing that the universe is greater than a grain of sand (which only evades utter banality if you can see a universe IN a grain of sand). I think this has to refer to other gods, and that is something of a departure from monotheism.

It isn’t, of course, without very solid biblical foundation. The early Jewish concept of God seems to have been as a tribal deity among other tribal deities, but one who was increasingly regarded as supreme above other gods – the clearest reference would be Psalm 82:1, “God has taken his place in the divine council; in the midst of the gods he holds judgment”¬† (there is dispute about whether the word “gods” is justified, but as the Hebrew word used is “elohim”, which is one of the standard words for the god of the Hebrew bible, I don’t think other translations are justified). The Hebrew scriptures move from polytheism to monotheism, with at least hints that the god referred to as Elohim or YHVH is initially the chief among gods (including in the commandment “thou shalt have no other gods before me”), and Psalm 82 seems to work from a henotheistic point of view – I link to an article on Hebrew henotheism.

I have in the past tended to go along with the idea mentioned in that article, that religion tends to progress from polytheism through henotheism to monotheism – “theistic evolution”, but as the article points out, this is not inevitably how religions develop.

Now, I cannot myself reconcile my experience of God with anything short of radical monotheism, which has tended to drive me in the direction of thinking that theistic evolution is a progressive movement, and that this is how things really are, and henotheism and polytheism are lesser concepts. But I am now seeing this as a potentially arrogant stance. I am also a deeply convinced religious pluralist, or in other words I do not think it reasonable to privilege my own religion over other religions, or my own god-concept over other god-concepts without some good argument. Granted, this stems largely from my conviction that there is, there can be, only one God, and all religions express their worshippers’ experience of that one God – and if there in fact can be more than one God, then perhaps they are worshiping an entirely different god? By the normal standards of Christianity or the developed later Judaism, this would then be a false god, and other religions would be false religions.

I may have touched on an answer in my “Idolatry and Eisegesis” post. A god-concept is not a god, it is a manner of conceiving of deity, and that post argues against treating any god-concept as the actuality of that-which-is-God (amongst other things). The apophatic theology of the Eastern Orthodox church goes in that direction as well; so does the well known Taoist maxim “the Tao which can be spoken is not the true Tao”. The problem is then one of mistaking the concept for the reality; we can experience the reality, but as soon as we start to try to tie that down to a set of words and concepts, we are effectively building ourselves a graven image.

It is therefore a mistake for me to try to take Psalm 82 and translate it into a properly monotheistic god-concept in order to understand it (or to sing Chris Tomlin’s song and do the same); I need to cultivate the flexibility to work with the god-concept which is conveyed there, even if this grates with my own experience of the divine.

And with that thought, I hope within the next day or two to start on what will probably be a series of posts about panentheism, process theology and open theism, a set of loosely linked alternative god-concepts.

Developing Truth?

Dan Wilkinson has a post about Biblical Truth today. I like it. However, I need to nitpick one of the statements he quotes from The Scripture project:

“3. Faithful interpretation of Scripture requires an engagement with the entire narrative: the New Testament cannot be rightly understood apart from the Old, nor can the Old be rightly understood apart from the New.”

The first of these is patently true; the NT quotes passages and concepts from the OT so profusely that it cannot remotely stand alone. However, we should remember that the OT arrived in stages; at one time the Torah (the first five books) was all there was, for instance; later there was the Torah plus some of the writings and prophets; by the time of the New Testament there was the whole of the now canonical OT plus apocrypha and even a few works which didn’t even make it into the apocrypha. The NT writers then built on previous NT writers for something over 100 years.

It is disrespectful of Judaism to say that “the Old cannot be rightly understood apart from the New”, quite apart from the fact that at most stages before the first century not all of the Hebrew Scriptures were available, and it is problematic to argue that there was an incomplete and inadequate revelation for those who didn’t have the benefit of (say) Ezekiel, as they lived before he was born. Or, of course, that there was an incomplete and inadequate revelation just prior to the writing of the Revelation.

Better, I think, to consider that at each point, there was a set of scriptures adequate to the times. Additionally, to recognise that the NT, in part, depends on works which are not themselves canonical, such as Sirach and Jubilees.

This does raise problems itself as am interpretational technique, but less, I think, than considering that earlier scripture is incoherent without later scripture.

Quadrilaterals and penny-farthings.

“Jesus Benyosef” asks an interesting question in his somewhat tongue in cheek Facebook page:-

“In your knowing of God, what is the authority on which you rely? A religious organization? A set of sacred texts? Individual religious experiences (yours or someone else’s)? Logical proofs? Comparative mythology?” and clarifiesBy “authority,” I mean What is your reason for thinking that your knowing of God is faithful to who/what God is. What makes you think you are right? It is possible for your authority to be your own experience of discussing, reasoning, sensing, etc.”

I work, I suppose, from the “Wesleyan Quadrilateral” of Scripture, Tradition, Experience and Reason. However, where Wesley suggested that the four should be kept in balance, I can’t really do that. Experience, for me, has to be paramount. I wouldn’t be reading and writing about religion and spirituality if it were not for my own experience, initially when I was 15, and then sporadically repeated, mostly with far less intensity. One of the comments to the post from Beth Eustis¬† talks of God having to hit her with a sledgehammer to get her to pay attention, and that resonates with my initial experience; since then it has been further experience and the memory of past experiences which has sustained me.

If I were talking of a vehicle, therefore, it wouldn’t be like most cars with four wheels each bearing a more or less equal load; experience would be bearing the bulk of the weight and providing the propulsion.

Secondly, though, I can’t work without reason. I am either constructed or have been brought up such that I have a positive compulsion to make rational sense of everything. If something doesn’t make sense to me, I find it hugely difficult to accept it. I could probably allocate to reason the function of the wheels which give the vehicle direction, so at this point I’m looking at something like a penny-farthing bicycle with the small wheel providing the direction rather than the large one.

A lot of “challenges” in life, however, have taught me that possibly my biggest personality defect is intellectual arrogance and that just because I don’t understand something doesn’t actually mean that it doesn’t work.

So to scripture and tradition; in truth, I regard scripture as being a bit of tradition crystallised at a point in the past, so I’ll add to that the authority of a living leader, teacher or just fellow traveller. These each give me another view of the elephant (taking the old story of the blind men and the elephant mentioned in the comments by Nan Cogley Kuhlman) and can therefore point up how another’s experience, different from mine, gives a different picture which needs to be explained or how my reasoning may have been inadequate. They help keep me at least loosely in contact with other people’s thinking. I can’t, however, just go along with any other person’s views and reasoning and forget my own experience or try to bludgeon it into fitting with someone else’s account, if for no other reason that the initial experience was so powerful and so convicting. And, of course, the intellectual arrogance I mentioned…

At this point I have something like a penny-farthing steered from the small wheel and with stabiliser wheels on each side. It isn’t very like Wesley’s quadrilateral, but at least it isn’t “sola scriptura”, which I don’t emotionally understand. How you can privilege someone else’s experience over your own rather baffles me, particularly when it’s not backed by (for instance) the charisma of a living leader or teacher. I can, however, understand someone for whom reason provides support and propulsion as well as direction; if there’s no relevant experience (which I find anecdotally is the case for many) the experience of others seems to me difficult to rely on.

I can anticipate the response that scripture is backed by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, and that’s fine – but it’s then a form of personal experience again.

Is this faithful to who or what God is? I don’t know. I only have available to me my experience, reason and the experience of others reported to me or interacted with. It’s as faithful as I can manage with the resources I have. Now I see through a glass darkly…