Friday, November 21, 2014

Emerson's Ecstasies: Taking Religious Experience Seriously

This lecture was delivered on 9/11/2014 at The Community Church of Chapel Hill, Unitarian Universalist, as the kick-off for the 2014-2015 Spiritual Education for Adults program.

The topic I’ve chosen to speak with you about tonight has to do with certain kinds of religious experiences that aren’t exactly easy to talk about. To begin, I want to tell a story. It is a story from more than a decade ago, from the Unitarian Universalist church in suburban Dallas where I did my parish ministry internship. And, it is a story that is true but also a little vague because I’ve removed a number of identifying details. That church had an ongoing group that met every Tuesday at noon for learning, conversation, and exploration. It was mostly retirees and a few others whose schedules allowed them to attend. Over lunch they’d take up different topics depending on who in the group was willing to lead.

That year I was asked to lead a series of classes over several weeks. The previous semester in divinity school, I had taken an amazing course on mysticism. The class was taught by Jeffrey Kripal a visiting professor who was quickly ascending to become a superstar professor of religious studies. He was daring, groundbreaking, and controversial. The title of the class I took with him was, “The Marriage of Heaven: Mysticism, Eroticism, and Reflexivity in World Religions.” I’ll have more to say about that later.

Anyways, what I did on those Tuesdays in Texas, inspired by the class in divinity school, was to bring in different mystical texts and invite people to read them and react to them. The class wasn’t a big success. But something memorable happened after one of the sessions. A woman approached me after one of the classes. Talking with me privately after class she related the story of her own mystical experience.

She had been attending a retreat at a conference center in a natural setting with woods and fields and streams. One afternoon she went for a walk. All of a sudden she found herself completely paralyzed. Energy, like an electrical current, coursed through her. Despite being unable to move, she was not afraid. In fact, the feeling was intensely and immensely pleasurable. This experience lasted for what seemed to her like hours, but the experience also seemed to happen outside of time.

What actually happened? It is a question that this woman didn’t feel a particular need to answer. She had had a mystical experience. But, she was also reluctant to speak openly about this experience. She did not want to be judged or ridiculed. She didn’t want others to attempt to explain away her experience or deny that it had happened to her.

No, she was not suffering from mental illness. No, she did not have a seizure disorder or a brain tumor. No, she was not taking hallucinogenic drugs. No, while out in the woods she had not accidentally ingested mushrooms or berries and she had not licked any toads. And, no, she had not fallen asleep and dreamed the whole thing.

What had actually happened? She had an experience of mystical union with a divine being. At least that is how she made sense of it. But, how does one talk about that? And, while she wasn’t particularly interested in trying to explain what had happened, she was interested in processing what this experience meant and what ongoing meaning this experience might have in her life. One doesn’t simply experience this and go along with life in the same way. So, what did it mean and what sort of change in life ought to come from such an experience?

But, it is also interesting that she did not bring up this experience in class. In fact, she had kept it a total secret. She had never told another living soul about this mystical experience until she told me. There is a risk in talking about these sorts of things and so she concealed this powerful, amazing, mysterious, mystical event. It was hidden. Closeted.

So, I pose this question to us as we embark on this church year together. What if a fellow member of this church community here at The Community Church reveals having had such an experience? What if they mention it during sharing as part of a Spiritual Exploration for Adults class? What if they mention it during a covenant group meeting? What if someone tells you about such an experience during coffee hour, or confides in you by describing such an experience? What if such an experience is related from the pulpit? Am I making anyone else here uncomfortable?

This isn’t a hypothetical question. After all, that person who came to me following that very unimpressive adult religious education experience I facilitated is one example of a person who has had a profound spiritual experience, a mystical experience that has led that person to our doorstep hoping to understand, deepen, and gain insight. And, I think it deserves to be asked whether there is space in our congregations for the mysterious, the uncanny, the weird, the occult, the paranormal, and the transrational. I don’t think I’m exaggerating to say that the rational and scientific mindset occupies an exalted place within Unitarian Univeralism at the present day. And, this has been true for a while.

While it is true that one of our six sources that informs our faith is “humanist teachings which counsel us to heed the guidance of reason and the results of science, and warn us against the idolatries of the mind and spirit,” another one of our six sources is “direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures, which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces that create and uphold life.” I want to talk a bit about some times in our Unitarian Universalist tradition when there has sure been some transcending mystery and wonder.

One place, perhaps the most notable place, within the Unitarian Universalist tradition where we find a relative openness to mystical experience is in the writings of the Transcendentalists.
Towards the beginning of his essay, Nature, first published in 1836, Ralph Waldo Emerson presents us with a famous image that is possible to interpret as evidence of a mystical experience.

Standing on the bare ground, — my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space, — all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eye-ball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God… I am the lover of uncontained and immortal beauty. In the wilderness, I find something more dear and connate than in streets or villages. In the tranquil landscape, and especially in the distant line of the horizon, man beholds somewhat as beautiful as his own nature.

The greatest delight which the fields and woods minister, is the suggestion of an occult relation between man and the vegetable. I am not alone and unacknowledged. They nod to me, and I to them. The waving of the boughs in the storm, is new to me and old. It takes me by surprise, and yet is not unknown. Its effect is like that of a higher thought or a better emotion coming over me, when I deemed I was thinking justly or doing right.

How exactly are we to make sense of Emerson’s Transparent Eyeball experience? In his award winning biography of Emerson, Robert Richardson provides some commentary on this passage. He writes, “If this is mysticism, it is mysticism of a commonly occurring and easily accepted sort. The aim of the mystic is to attain a feeling of oneness with the divine. Experiences of the kind Emerson here describes have happened to nearly everyone who has ever sat beneath a tree on a fine clear day and looked at the world with a sense of momentary peace and a feeling, however transient, of being at one with it.”

What is your reaction to this claim? Have you ever had a transparent eye-ball experience in nature? Have you ever felt “an occult relation between man and vegetable”? Richardson’s claim about nearly everyone, is that true or not?

Elsewhere in Richardson’s biography of Emerson, he writes about Emerson traveling to a Massachusetts beach in search of these types of experiences. Let me read fairly extensively from Richardson:

Emerson was hoping for a ‘visitation of the high muse,’ for a visionary experience of life-altering intensity. He was after the sort of experience with which he could lift the reader or hearer ‘by a happy violence into a religious beatitude, or into a Socratic trance and imparadise him in ideas.” Emerson knew precisely what kind of experience he was seeking. He had had them before…

The kind of experience for which Emerson is always reaching is the ecstatic state, an experience that gives a person the feeling of being outside time. The word ecstasy means ‘a displacement,’ a standing outside oneself. Ecstasy names ‘a range of experiences characterized by being joyful, transitory, unexpected, rare, valued, and extraordinary to the point of seeming as if derived from a preternatural source. Such experiences are marked by great intensity of feeling…

Emerson was also convinced that ecstatic states were experiences everyone has… ‘Every man has had one or two moments of extraordinary experience,’ Emerson writes, ‘has met his soul, has thought of something which he never afterward forgot, and which revised all his speech, and moulded all his forms of thought.’ He was further convinced that ecstatic states were natural, not supernatural, and he took pains to demystify them. He once wrote: “I hold that ecstasy will be found mechanical, if you please to say so, or, nothing but an example on a higher field of the same gentle gravitation by which rivers run.’

I want to delve into this just a little bit. On one hand, according to Richardson and according to Emerson’s own journals and writings, Emerson repeatedly had mystical experiences where he received “a visitation from the high muse,” as he puts it. The experiences lasted about an hour until he was “let down from this height.” He speaks of these experiences as absolutely transformational and life-changing, but also insists that they are natural, mechanical, and not all that rare.

I suspect that Emerson is hiding something, concealing even as he reveals. One thing that leads me to think this is Emerson’s fascination with and admiration for the Swedish intellectual Emanuel Swedenborg. Swedenborg was a scientist, philosopher, and theologian. He was one of the major thinkers who came into popularity in mid-nineteenth century American thought. Emerson’s writings and journals are teeming with mentions of Swedenborg. In Emerson’s essay on Representative Men, Emerson selects Swedenborg as one of his six great men, writing approvingly about him alongside Plato, Montaigne, Shakespeare, Napoleon, and Goethe. Not bad company.

Emanuel Swedenborg was also quite the mystic. His later years were taken up with a series of dreams and visions in which he claims to have traveled freely to Heaven and Hell and talked with angels, demons, and other spirits. Swedenborg wrote books detailing his learnings and experiences from these visions and revealing divine messages that he had been instructed to transmit. What’s more, Swedenborg also had confirmed psychic experiences, most famously in June of 1759 when he had a vision of a fire in Stockholm that came close to burning down his house. When news of the fire came to Goteborg, three hundred miles away where Swedenborg was visiting at the time of the fire, the details of the fire were the same as the description that Swedenborg had given in his psychic vision. An interesting choice for a representative man.

Around the same time that Emerson was having reoccurring mystical experiences in nature another literary light of the Transcendentalist movement was writing an interesting novel. Nathaniel Hawthorne, best known for his novel The Scarlet Letter, also composed a novel called The Blithedale Romance. This book is a fictional send-up of his Unitarian peers and satirizes their attempt to establish the Brook Farm commune. Here’s the thing about Hawthorne’s novel. A reoccurring device that moves the plot along are appearances by the veiled lady, a mysterious figure who performs as a clairvoyant or medium. What does this mean? Maybe nothing. A fictional account of a fictional person. But it seems to me that Hawthorne presents attending and taking part in such an occult gathering as the type of thing that his readers would recognize, and could imagine Unitarians as doing.

But that’s just satirical fiction. We shouldn’t take it seriously.

But Swedenborg is a representative man for reasons other than his mysticism.

And Emerson is just a poetic guy who gets carried away.

The Transcendentalists were many, many things. They were a religious reform movement, a movement of the spirit that shook the foundations of Unitarianism. They were a literary movement changing the face of American literature. They were closely tied to a social reform movement. The Transcendentalist crowd furthered the abolitionist cause, birthed the earliest feminist and women’s rights movements in America, and helped to promote a host of social reforms, from education to prisons to hospitals to care for those with disabilities or mental illness. They were an intellectual movement, helping to popularize German romantic thought in the United States. They were an interfaith movement. Emerson and others helped to bring religious texts related to Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam to this side of the Atlantic for the first time. They were innovators of social experiments. From Thoreau’s time at Walden, to communal experiments at Brook Farm and Fruitlands, to innovative educational models, to rethinking sexual arrangements, the Transcendentalists were a major force in American culture. And, I would argue, that on top of all of that, they were a movement filled with mystical energy and that this wasn’t some random accident or some embarrassing side show. Rather, I think of openness to mystical, ecstatic experience as absolutely central to everything they accomplished.

In the 1990s the Unitarian Universalist Association published an adult religious education curriculum that has become the most popular and most frequently offered adult religious education program in UU churches. It is a program called Building Your Own Theology, authored by Dick Gilbert, one of the true giants in our recent movement recently.

The Gilbert version of Building Your Own Theology has a session called, “Varieties of Liberal Religious Experience – Unitarian Universalists and the Burning Bush.” The reading that is assigned for this session is fantastic. Let me describe it to you. The introduction to the reading includes a typology of religious experience that asks us to think in terms of peak experiences, plateau experiences, and valley experiences. Peak experiences would be described as “ecstatic” experiences “when we celebrate being a part of something greater than we are: the cosmos, beauty, a cause.” “Plateau experiences are not marked by the intensity of the ecstatic experience. Rather they are characterized by a kind of serendipity, an oceanic feeling a la Freud, a sense of total well-being… Then there is the valley experience, the inevitable moment of suffering, meaninglessness, or tragedy that probes our very depths as human beings. Far removed from the ecstasy of the mountaintop, or even from the heights of the plateau, valley experiences take us down to the agonies of the spirit.”

After this introduction, Gilbert provides us with 27 accounts of religious experiences and we are asked to classify them as peak, plateau, or valley. Only five or six or seven of the texts are ecstasies or peak experiences. And, of those, three of them come from the Bible. We are given the story of Moses and the Burning Bush, Saul’s conversion on the road to Damascus, and the Prophet Isaiah’s call from the book of Isaiah, which is rendered as metaphor rather than as mind-blowing, foundation shaking, laser light show level religious experience. I think it is telling that the only ancient texts in this collection – the only three – are for peak experiences. We have to keep those at a safe distance. We’re also provided with Albert Schweitzer’s religious experience in nature that occurs as he is trying to pass through a herd of hippopotamuses, nineteenth century Canadian psychologist Richard Bucke’s experience of cosmic consciousness, and, most interestingly, we’re provided with a passage from Joseph Priestley, the famous eighteenth century Bristish Unitarian minister, historian, and scientist, and all-around proponent of rational materialism where he admits to something of an uncanny and weird experience. Priestley writes,

There is another and slightly different kind of experience that I have had, though rarely and even then only in later life. I may have been deceiving myself, but here it is, for what it is worth. Unlike the others on these occasions I have been recalling a person or scene as clearly and as sharply as I could, and then there has been, so to speak, a little click, a slight change of focus, and for a brief moment I have felt as if the person or scene were not being remembered but were really there still existing, that nobody, nothing, had gone. I can’t make this happen; either it happens or it doesn’t, and usually it doesn’t. And, I repeat, on the very rare occasions when apparently it did happen, I could have been deceiving myself: I am now wide open to charge. Even so, if you think that what I have related is worth nothing, then I am more fortunate than you are – I live a richer life in a more rewarding universe.

I love this passage by Priestley. You can tell in the words he uses that this experience has destabilized him. And yet he is also grateful. “I am now wide open to charge… I live a richer life in a more rewarding universe.”

I do want to make one final observation about the 27 peak or plateau or valley religious experiences that we’re presented with in the Building Your Own Theology curriculum. Among the 27 texts Dick Gilbert gives us, three of them come from participants in the class from his church who write about their own experiences. Those three include two valley experiences and one plateau experience. If there is any inference we can draw from this, it may be that we are not always open to those peak, ecstatic experiences. We like them held at a safe distance. We have to maintain an air of plausible deniability.


What I’ve hoped to do in the first half of my lecture this evening is to make the claim that ecstatic mystical experience might have a place, some place, within Unitarian Universalism, or that it has had some kind of place among us, from Emerson’s nature visions to the spiritual adventurousness of the Transcendentalists, to Spiritual Education for Adult classes and just regular people who have had profound experiences but choose to be discreet and circumspect about whom they choose to share these experiences with. In the second part of my talk, I want to talk about how we might create a religious community – and a learning community – that benefits from us being able to take religious experience seriously.

But first, I want to make an assertion that you can judge the veracity of for yourself. Unitarian Universalism is a religion of converts. I am a life-long UU and that puts me in the minority. How many life-long UUs are there among us today? People tend to the leave the faith of their childhood or adolescence and eventually find their way to us. Why do people leave Christianity to come to us? Often it is the case that they leave because of a dissonance in their beliefs. They realize they don’t believe in God. Or they don’t believe in the Trinity, or in the resurrection of Jesus, or they just can’t honestly say the creed. It is a matter of intellectual honesty. Another reason a person might leave has to do with ethical considerations. The exclusivity is an ethical challenge. What the church teaches about sexuality, sexual orientation, or about other religions is deemed immoral and unethical. I can no longer support an organization that won’t allow women to be ministers or that won’t welcome a same-gender couple. But, I want to posit that a third reason someone may leave has to do with experience. Many denominations talk about having the experience of being saved, of having a personal relationship with Jesus, of feeling that God talks to you when you pray, of witnessing miracles. How lonely, how confusing, how frustrating if you grow up in such an environment and don’t experience that. To feel like there is nothing on the other end of the phone. To not have that personal testimonial of salvation. Or, to have a mystical experience that doesn’t fit the template, that shatters the mold. I just want to throw out there that experience may have just as big a role as intellectual thought and ethical reasoning.

One guy who really got this was William James. A little more than a century ago, William James wrote The Varieties of Religious Experience, one of the most important books of the twentieth century. James’ book was radical. The study of religion up to this point had focused on creeds, texts, belief systems, and institutions. But, James focused on personal experience. He was interested in the psychological aspects of religion, particularly mystical and pathological experiences. There is a passage in his chapter on mysticism where James quotes from an autobiography written by a British man. The British man writes of going for a walk in nature with his stick and his dog while his wife and children go to attend the Unitarian church. On his hike, he has a mystical experience. And James is really one of the first who is more interested in that experience than in what happens at the church.

The most Jamesian scholar of religion alive today, I’m relatively certain, is Jeffrey Kripal. I had the amazing privilege of taking a class on mysticism with him when he was a visiting professor at Harvard. In the late 90s he wrote his first book, Kali’s Child, about an extremely renowned Hindu mystic and guru. The book was insightful and profound and his observations upset some people and then word of what he is said to have said spread and his book was banned by the Indian government, and burned in public, and he received death threats. During that time he was at Harvard he was processing that whole experience, and writing on the topic of secrecy and concealing and revealing and he decided to out himself and write about his own experience of having had a mystical experience in India. It happens to go a lot like other mystical experiences we’ve mentioned.

For days, I had been participating in the annual Bengali celebration of the goddess Kali in the streets and temples of Calcutta (now Kolkata). One morning I woke up asleep, that is, I woke up, but my body did not. I couldn’t move. I was paralyzed, like a corpse, more or less exactly like the Hindu god Shiva as he is traditionally portrayed in Tantric art, lying prostrate beneath Kali’s feet. Then those “feet” touched me. An incredibly subtle, immensely pleasurable, and terrifyingly powerful energy entered me, possessed me, completely overwhelmed me. My vibrating body felt as if I had stuck a fork in a wall socket.… Perhaps more significantly, my brain felt as if it had suddenly hooked up to some sort of occult Internet and that billions of bits of information were being downloaded into its neural net. Or better, it felt as if my entire being was being reprogrammed or rewired…

What struck me as his student was his extremely broad ability to be interested in and compassionate about all manner of religious experiences. Kripal now serves as the head of the religion department at Rice University where his position allows him to do some really wild things. His research interests touch on Gnosticism, esotericism, and mysticism. His most recent books, Authors of the Impossible and Mutants & Mystics, take the study of mysticism to another level. In the pages, he considers such occult topics as the paranormal, psychical phenomena, poltergeists, ESP, telepathy, teleportation, and even narratives of alien abduction. He goes where no other scholar of religion dares to go.

Lest you think that I’ve completely gone off the deep end here, I might tell you this story. A few years back I decided to preach a sermon about this stuff at the church I was serving, but I was a little unsure of how to do that. So, I decided to contact Jeffrey Kripal and ask him for some advice. He replied that he gets invited all the time to guest preach at the Emerson Unitarian Universalist Church in Houston. They seem to like him. At least they keep inviting me back.

Professor Kripal was kind enough to send along the texts of four of the sermons he’s given there. Let me read to you a lengthy passage from his sermon, “Modern Magic and the Stories of Our Lives.” After telling fantastic stories about Mark Twain, Carl Jung, scientist Wolfgang Pauli, and others, Kripal concludes his remarks by saying,

I could go on for some time telling you one impossible tale after the other here. But I won’t. I would much rather end with a few reflections on what such stories signal or signify, that is, what they might mean. Briefly, I think they mean at least two things.
The first thing that I think they mean is that we are far more interesting than we give ourselves credit for, that there is more to us than meets the eye. Traditionally, this More has been called the soul or the spirit, but we might just as well call it Mind, with a capital M, or Consciousness, with a capital C.  In any case, this soul or Mind is More, much more, than we have imagined.  

The second thing that I think these stories mean is that the greater part of us is telling stories to the little part of us, sort of like in a dream. These magical moments are magical precisely to the extent that they can show us that we are living inside a story or a dream, that human life is essentially meaningful, and—and this is the really mysterious part—that we are partly the creators of the plots and directions of the stories of our lives.  I do not mean to suggest that we have complete control, or, worse yet, that we are somehow responsible for whatever happens to us. I do not believe that at all. But I do think that we are, if you will, co-creators of our lives.

My own sense, then, is that magical, psychical, or paranormal events happen around us in order to wake us up out of our slumber, to shock us into the greater truth of who we really are and what we are really capable of.  Much like the scarab beetle trying to fly through Jung’s window for his patient. What Jung called “synchronicities” or what Elizabeth Lloyd Mayer called “extraordinary knowing,” then, are essentially those not so rare moments in which we catch a glimpse of the plot or direction of the stories we are acting out in our own lives.

Maybe I am wrong about all of this. I certainly don’t claim to understand these strange stories in any adequate fashion. All I really know is that such things happen, that people are not lying about these things, that they are real in the simplest sense that they happen. What they mean is, of course, quite another matter, for what they mean depends as much on us as on the physical event itself. Next time, then, something like this happens to you, do not ignore the event. Do not let it pass without comment or interpretation. Most of all, do not approach it as a mere coincidence or an unapproachable miracle. Approach it as a tiny piece of a story in which you are the central character. Who knows what might happen?

Unitarian Universalism is an evolving faith that is heretical and even scandalous. We’ve been heretical and scandalous in our theology, challenging the Trinity and questioning the existence of hell. We’ve been heretical and scandalous in our commitment to diversity. We were the first religious movement to ordain women in the United States and the earliest movement to support equality for LGBTQ individuals and families. I hope we will also be scandalous, heretical, and open in our capacity to listen to religious experiences in all their varieties and vicissitudes. I hope our year ahead is many things and even a little weird.