Thursday, November 11, 2010

The Uncomfortable Neutral Stance

Is there a neutral way to approach what are invariably viewed as religious experiences? The answer isn’t obvious. Let me be precise to bring that out. Let me take the case of a person, let me call him A, who hears or reads about other people who claim to have had such experiences. Those reporting may say that God, an angel, or some other sacred figure has addressed them, that they’ve received a revelation, or simply that they’ve had experiences of a transcendental state. Now if A is an unbeliever, he will reject the truth of such reports outright—except to acknowledge the presence of some disarrangement in the claimant’s brain. If A belongs to a well-defined faith system, but the claimant mentions figures from another faith, and especially makes references to some doctrinal aspects of the same, A is likely to dismiss the revelation because it doesn’t fit his structure of belief; he may even think the revelation came from the devil. A Muslim will be dubious if the center of the revelation is the Virgin Mary; a Christian will be dubious if the central role is played by Mohamed’s daughter Fatima.

A neutral stance would seem to require that A must credit the possibility of a transcendental reality, indeed one in which actual persons exist—and also view all religions as essentially equivalent, thus as having equivalent claims. Neither believers nor unbelievers will grant a neutral A much standing. For the unbeliever A is too soft, too gullible. For the orthodox believer, A is “lukewarm,” uncommitted, wishy-washy, and probably some kind of muddle-headed pantheist.

This is a real issue. At the core of every religion is a narrative, a conceptualization, an historical context, indeed a logic that makes it unique, and making any two of them equivalent invariably renders both in some ways or to some extent false. The neutral stance, which happens to be mine (alas!) relies on human fallibility as the legitimate explanation of the claimed equivalence.

All human experience is filtered through the imperfect lens of our consciousness; this is as true of ordinary as of extraordinary matters. At the very root of transcendental experiences—thus the initial core experience of the founder of a religion or a major movement—a human mind encounters something totally unprecedented and undeniable. This must be explained in some way, and the person must use his or her existing knowledge, not least cultural heritage, to make sense of it. And that’s at the root. All religions then develop further, always taking centuries, and the intellectual formulation crystallizes long, long after the revelatory event. By the time a religion has a full complement of orthodox doctrines, many, many people have made their contributions to it and incorporated their fallibilities as well. It remains to note that the source of such developments, whatever it is that the original claimant underwent, carries an enormous force of benevolence within it. If it did not, the religion could not take hold and acquire its millions of followers.

An authentic neutral stance does not deny the reality of the high but sees in the interpretation of the experience of it the equally undeniable fallibility of man.

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