In several religious traditions there is this idea that there is a greater reality outside of ourselves that, if we are in harmony with it, will improve our lives. Typically, this will require some form of submission or discipline, as our default mode of living and existing will tend to prioritize more immediate needs or desires that — when placed in the context of the greater reality — should not actually be prioritized. It seems to me that different religions have very different ways of framing this, to the extent that they probably wouldn’t necessarily summarize it the way that I have, but this seems like a common thread to many religious traditions.
For Islam, this is written into the very name of the religion — peace is identified closely with submission and obedience to God’s laws. In an eastern tradition like Taoism, this might be effortless action, working with the flow of nature. In Buddhism, it is in cultivating the sense that what we perceive as immediate needs and desires are cravings that are the origin of suffering, and which are ignorant of the true reality. Buddhism and Hinduism have concepts of anatman — the “non-self” that we confuse and split into pieces and parts.
In Christianity, each of the Gospels (Matthew 10:39 and 16:25, Mark 8:35, Luke 9:24, John 12:25) note Jesus saying at some point:
Those who try to gain their own life will lose it; but those who lose their life for my sake will gain it.
In other words, if you are so set on preserving life under your terms, with your rules, with your thoughts and beliefs and feelings, you’ll never succeed because that’s not how reality works. But if you submit to the Gospel, Jesus, grace, etc., then you will live the more abundant life that was always what the human life was meant to be in its perfection/wholeness.
In our 21st century world, as secular and rational as it is, belief and faith seem to be focused on mental assent of certain intellectual propositions…and that’s how I viewed these terms for a long time. Yet as I have read and engaged with a lot of thoughtful people of faith in the past several years, I have come to a different understanding of terms like “faith” and “belief” — these terms imply a sense of trust or loyalty…one has faith in someone or something because one is faithful to that someone or something. In a religious context, one trusts God, and as an extension, one may trust the religious institutions that speak and act on behalf of God in the mortal realm.
The question even after this shift remains: what causes one person to have faith and another not to?
In Mormonism, there is a heavy emphasis that belief and faith are voluntary choices. I have struggled against this concept, because to me, my conclusions about intellectual propositions are not consciously chosen.
But even with a shift to faith as faithfulness, loyalty, and trust, I have still questioned whether there is conscious choice involved. To me, I trust those I find trustworthy…and finding someone or something trustworthy is not necessary a conscious choice.
To the extent faith can be exemplified by acts of will (“show me your faith by your works”) — that is, someone with faith in Catholicism is someone who lives a Catholic life and goes to Mass regularly, regardless of any questions they may have about their understanding of a particular doctrine — to this extent, I can see how faith could be consciously chosen. But this to me is saying that someone could choose to go to church every week, go to all their meetings, etc., and hate every moment of it, be upset by what is taught and what people testify of, think that paying tithing is contributing to bad causes, etc., And to me, it doesn’t seem that someone who performs every action in obedience but inwardly seethes should be said to be faithful.
And that inward seething gets to trustworthiness.
I digress in the details but the general idea is what I want to discuss.
Why do some people find something very positive in religion and spirituality and God, while others find negatives?
It seems to me that some people have profound spiritual experiences that ground them, and that make even the “negative” aspects of a particular faith tradition shrink in importance. That seems to be a common thread through many of John Gustav-Wrathall’s posts (or, at the very least, the back and forth in the comments since I bring up the issue so often)…he’s excommunicated. That would be a big deal to many people. That would seem to me to be the biggest statement the institution can make that they don’t actually want him. And yet he still attends, still believes in Mormonism and it seems that the distinction is that he is grounded by the profound experiences he has had.
When people have these sorts of experiences, it seems too easy to try to rationalize these away as just emotions, confirmation bias, some form of Stockholm syndrome, or something else. From their own words, these people describe these experiences as being of such a different quality that they can’t attribute it to something from within themselves. I believe John G-W has described his experiences as seeming more real than anything else he had experienced.
And yet, not everyone has these experiences. I would guess — even though I can’t read minds — that even many people who say they have experienced spiritual experiences have not necessarily experienced these. (That’s why I think a lot of people who disaffect from a particular church do see that spiritual experiences are just emotions or whatever — because though they had experiences they called spiritual, they never had anything truly transcendental like these.)
What causes some people to have these profound spiritual experiences? Why do others not have them? What gives true richness to the spiritual world (and makes such a world more real than anything else), but makes it totally unknown and unrecognizable to anyone else?
I have intended to write a post on these sorts of ideas for a long time, but I only got the final push of inspiration from recent episodes of Mormon Matters and Mormon Stories — in part 2 (episode 568 from Mormon Stories counting, episode 294 from Mormon Matters counting), at the end, Dan says:
When I came to feel like my spirit reasserted myself, I had some powerful experiences, and in some ways, i think I was blessed by having my rock bottom experiences to where I was open to something new…and I kinda learned to recognize — whatever this power or energy that came in — has always been pretty readily available from that point on. And I feel lucky by it. And…it kinda surprised me when I would talk to these intense friends of mine who would say, “No, I’ve never felt that…I’ve never felt something that might not just be my brain, my wishful thinking, emotions, or confirmation bias.”
And I just ache for those who are in that situation to just…know what it feels like to have something break into normal consciousness and be so qualitatively different that after that moment, you are changed.
When church is bad, relationships are bad…sometimes I reject it outright and say, “Eff [ed note: yes, Dan says the letter f] you, universe…Eff you, you know, God or whatever…I don’t want to deal with you right now. I don’t want to feel better about this. I want to be mad, I want to be upset, and I want to feel my pain…But somehow I was blessed to have a sensitivity to spiritual trailings…and that’s how I do it.
Whatever peace I’ve achieved here is because I have that connection and I feel it. So, how do I encourage those who haven’t had it to have it? I don’t know…I hate to say, “You have to hit rock bottom”…but I do know that works for a lot of people when you say, “I can’t run my own life…I’ve tried it and I’ve botched it.” Sometime it’s in that desperation of, “I need something other than me” that that’s where you first get those experiences. Sometimes, I think: “Give in and trust that your brain will still be there on the other side of those experiences.” A lot of times people say, “If I try faith or give myself in to temple ritual or if I give myself into these nonrational things, then somehow I’m betraying my intellect.” What I’ve found is the exact opposite. Now that I have had these experiences, and that I’ve given these things in, I think now see clearer the other stuff…there’s an echo to it or backlighting to it or song to it that now when I’m with my brain there…somehow or other, I also have this other ear or attunement that helps me in my life…and I feel like I’m smarter because I’m also letting the spirit have a place in my life. I have attunement to what’s up front and also what’s deeper, so having that tension is important in my life.
…so I guess my plea is, “Don’t give up on the spiritual life…you’re not betraying your intellect if you go into meditative spaces or ritual spaces and just say, ‘I’m turning off and seeing what bubbles up.’ and I’ll just let you know that those images will ultimately settle the question for you that you’re something more than just your body as is presently constituted…there’s a depth to you that’s more than what you’re imagining in your head.”
Even though Dan “hates to say it,” it seems that the concept of hitting rock bottom does factor in heavily in many stories of religious conversion. I know that nonbelieving folks often like to say that religions prey upon those undergoing rough patches in their life, but whatever the case, there is something that some people experience and others don’t.
I agree that for those who come to a place in their lives, “I can’t run my own life; I’ve tried it and botched it,” it might make sense to go to someone — something — else. But it seems to me as well that not everyone will have this rock bottom experience.
More generally, it seems that even without a total rock bottom experience, many people perceive that their lives outside of religion were lacking in some way in contrast to their lives within religion. So, even if they didn’t experience anything horrible, their nonreligious life was ok while their religious life was better than ok.
Here, these make sense.
But as I think about the stories of many non-believers — especially those of us who were raised in religions, I see a different story.
For many of us, we may have had good lives or may not-so-good lives. But we see that where we experienced the greatest difficulties was with respect to religion. As we moved away from religion, we found increased joy and peace. We did not find that we could not run our own lives, but to the contrary, that the life religions wanted to run for us did not fit us.
I do not doubt the possibility that something could go horrifically wrong in my life and turn things upside down. Maybe at some point I may say, “I can’t run my life” and then submit to something else. But as of now, I think that my life is going pretty well, and would not want to consciously wreck it when I already know that trying to force yourself in a religious mold that doesn’t fit you can be miserable.