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All about Transformers…at Wheat & Tares

May 1, 2011
Transformers

Not quite...

Please check out my latest article about the Awesome, Radical, Transformational Potential of Religion at Wheat & Tares, that assesses some of the *many* reactions to the Book of Mormon musical.

This was my longest post yet, yet I STILL don’t feel I did a great job of explaining what I wanted to explain. I’ll give a couple of pro-tips: the above summary paragraph in this article is totally inadequate as a summary…and so also is the title of either article.

…This article ended up a failure. I was trying to write about too many things at once, so there was too much noise, not enough signal. Not to mention, this Saturday wasn’t even my Saturday to write at Wheat & Tares (sorry Firetag!)

What I really wanted to do was talk about two articles that John Gustav-Wrathall had written with respect to William James’s The Varieties of Religious Experience. So, instead, I’ll do that here.

The basic message I have is this…if I’m being totally honest, I have to note that out of all the people I have ever met and ever known, there is a slight, tiny amount of them…a handful at best…that is different.

I know that everyone has their struggles…everyone has their problems…everyone has flaws, weaknesses, and defects. That is why I am so reluctant to claim to have any heroes. But for this handful of people that I’m thinking about, the handful that is different, I feel like they have somehow transcended these things.

I feel that they didn’t do it out of painstaking work. I can tell the difference between people who have worked slowly and steadily to improve their human flaws and people who seem to have leaped over. And I’m sure that if I talked to any of the handful, they would think they did not deserve it. They would not only think they didn’t deserve such praise, but they would consider themselves perhaps to be even more flawed than others.

There is awesome, radical, transformational potential…somewhere.

I haven’t personally experienced it, and I think many more people think they’ve experienced this change than their lives have to show for it — and because those many people so definitely haven’t experienced, many people become accustomed to counterfeits, as if everything is counterfeit. But for this few who are the real deal, I can’t help but feel that there may be…something.

I don’t think any religion has a “monopoly” on it, and maybe this phenomenon shouldn’t even quite be described as “religious” (which is why I think my title at W&T was inaccurate). Of the handful of people I can think of, they are across the religious spectrum (at least, as far across as a “handful” can represent) and don’t even cleanly fit in religious communities at all. They may personally have a “home base,” but they cannot be contained therein.

…nevertheless, though they have different particular words to describe, they have some commonalities. John’s posts about William James’s Varieties of Religious Experiences intrigued me on this. From his post “The Simple Gospel”:

There was a turn of phrase that James quoted again and again, that was extremely similar to a phrase I have used myself in describing my own encounter with the risen Christ. My phrase was something to the effect of: It would be easier for me to deny my own mundane existence, than it would be for me to deny that what I experienced in that vision was real. It was more real than I am, if that is possible. I know the existence of Christ in some very objectively true way with greater force of certainty than that I “know” I or anything else in this world exists, and I would sooner deny any of that than deny Christ.

…James acknowledges that while many people do have spiritual experiences, only a few seem to have the really intense, really powerful ones, and there are many, many who never seem to have any kind of spiritual experience at all. And it is not for lack of trying. There are many, many good people who follow all the steps. They obey the commandments, they read the scriptures, and they pray and ask and sometimes even desperately plead for some sign, for some spark of revelation that will make them know too, and they just never seem to get it. And James confesses (as I think we are all obliged to confess) that he simply doesn’t know why some people seem spiritually tone deaf, and others seem to have this rich world of spirit that they access easily and intuitively.

Whatever this intense, radical, transformational experience or force is…it’s not something anyone “earns” or “works toward.” It seems to be a gift that some people get, and some people don’t.

And while a lot of us toil, and work, and struggle, all of these things don’t necessarily ensure anything. We can struggle to be “good” and “nice” people, but we will never be radiant unless one day we are touched. As I’ve reflected on a comment by someone who was confused by atheist morality and by a classic Seth R. comment about the missing motivation behind atheist morality (despite the fact that the content is often very present), that’s really factored into the difference.

I work hard to be a good person…Most people I know work hard. But it is a very human ideal. It is not otherworldly. It really isn’t all that heroic. And my flaws persist.

But if we are touched, it will be in such a way that it would be easier for us to deny everything else that we had every experienced…but not that touch. And then we would have a new drive and motivation to surpass our humanity. Whatever that really means. I just know it when I see it.

I said earlier that I think this is a “gift.” But maybe it carries too with it a burden. Maybe it’s a capitalized lease: both an asset and a liability on the books?

I actually took a class that I think is oddly microcosmic of everything I’m talking about here (VERY VERY microcosmic.) I’ll definitely have to write about it later, but the class was called Creativity as a Transcendent Act. I entered the class pretty blind, and most of my pieces were a toiling, a working, a struggling to seek either creativity or transcendence. One day, I experienced something back (which I will certainly have to write in more detail about), and maybe it counts as the transcendent spark…but I didn’t want it. It wasn’t the message I wanted to hear, although now I know that it is a message I cannot refuse — now I know that my painting would not be complete unless I heeded the message and did something very specific to it. So ultimately I don’t know if I would have rather stayed deaf and blind.

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