A Unitarian minister told me matter-of-factly that “certain social structures” are part of his faith. Faith? Social justice, yes, but religious faith? I was skeptical. I replied that distinctively religious faith has the element of transcendence, and thus a Wholly Otherness quality, rather than being based in a human artifact such as a particular social structure. I think the minister was actually referring to social justice and mislabeling his passion for it as his faith. In other words, he was conflating ideology with theology, or, more accurately, treating his ideology as though it were his god.
While laudable in political activism, advocating a particular social structure does not constitute religious experience. In fact, from the point of view of the latter, an ideological agenda such as advocating a particular arrangement for a society would essentially be self-idolatry (i.e., self-worship). As Hume and even Augustine have pointed out, thinking of the divine in terms of things or relations in the human realm is idolatrous. Hume in particular points out in History of Natural Religion that it is difficult for the human mind to embrace divine simplicity without succumbing to constructing God in a visible form. Pure, invisible unity, beyond even God being a being (according to Plotinus), is difficult for the human mind to hold on to, let alone embrace. This is Hume’s main point regarding religion. I would add that it is difficult for a human being to achieve the distinctively religious intensity needed for religious experience, whether in worship, medication, prayer, or adoration.
We seem easily distracted, and thus tend to drag in other, less intense, “religious activities.” Religious functionaries and even institutions can inadvertently enable this proclivity, ironically even eclipsing religious experience itself. This may be why, according to the Barna Group (see USA Today below), in spite of about 95% of all Americans consistently saying they believe in God or a higher power, the percentage of Americans who have not attended a religious service (other than a wedding or funeral) within six months increased from 24% in 1991 to 37% in 2011. While religious functionaries may have no problem bringing themselves into religious experience, they may be missing the ball concerning how it can be part of a religious service. I suspect part of the problem may be an overemphasis on formal structure, or “the program,” in effect crowding out rather than isolating incubating and protecting religious experience within the structure or program.
For example, concentrated spiritual contemplation in stillness is rarely part of a Church service. In the Catholic Mass, for example, little time is allowed for just “intense transcending” following the distribution of the Eucharist. The consecration and ingesting are taken as the central acts of the second half of the Mass. I contend that the ritual and the theological-concept-applied-ingestion are means by which pure (i.e., nothing else going on) religious (i.e., transcendence) experience may occur. In other words, the smells and bells can prep or stimulate the worshipper to go into a state in which concentrated religious experience is itself the only action—transcending even the symbol, myth and ritual of the service, as well as the outside world (and even ourselves). The object of the transcending being by definition beyond the limits of human cognition and perception, it is the experience of the transcending that is the religious experience.
Sometimes religious functionaries can actually get in the way—mostly quite unintentionally I’m sure. At such times, they would be better off simply sitting down and trying to keep quiet—actively practicing non-attention-getting. I heard once about the vocations director of a Catholic diocese saying Mass as a visiting priest at a parish. After distributing Communion, as he was “doing the dishes” at the table/altar, he thought it appropriate to tell the congregation a joke—presumably to loosen the people up even though they were undoubtedly “somewhere else.” He might as well have said, “Hey, stop transcending! Pay attention to me!”
I suspect that many priests simply are not aware of where religious experience is for the laity during the Mass; I refuse to believe that a priest would knowingly truncate the point of the ritual (in terms of religious experience) just because the Mass is nearly over. On the laity side, taking Communion and making a beeline for the door is also to eviscerate the opportunity thus afforded for isolating and concentrating on religious experience, such as in the form of intense prayer, meditation, adoration or felt-sanctification. Ritual can condition or prepare a person for such an experience while bracketing out all others. Similarly, thinking a mantra over and over in meditation ideally stops the train of thoughts such that “pure” awareness (i.e., nothing else going on) and even transcendence itself can be isolated and thus experienced in their “pure” states. Experience of time itself can be lost in such transcendence. The Eucharistic ritual too can facilitate such a spiritual state unless cut short, which is typically the case. Lest the length of the entire Mass be a concern, priorities and time-allotment could also be revisited to reflect the value of isolated religious experience.
In worship services whose main elements are readings, songs and a sermon, these too can serve as prep for dedicated or raw religious transcending, assuming sufficient room is made in the program of activities. Once again, the key is sustained religious experience without anything else as a potential rarifying distraction. In some evangelical Christian services, for example, a song after the sermon is elongated to enable people to achieve a worship-state wherein one literally reaches out for Jesus directly. The period is long enough that the worshipper can “get into” the reaching itself and come to experience it more self-consciously. Unfortunately, as in the Mass (and Protestant services that include Communion), the worship in a “worship song” is rarely acknowledged as the pinnacle of the ritual, and thus what should be emphasized is typically truncated in the time allotted. Typically, the point becomes the sermon itself and the liturgy becomes, in effect, a class.
Moving even further away from religious experience, some churches gravitate to activities or topics in other domains even further away, and thus dilute the religiosity even more. Such churches essentially secularize religion. I suspect that this is a major reason for the increasing percentage of the “unchurched.”
For instance, the Rev. Michael Minor at Oak Hill Baptist Church in Hernando, Mississippi, “has waged war against obesity and bad health.” In fact, the National Baptist Convention “is ramping up a far-reaching health campaign devised by Mr. Minor.” Seek Well Baptist Church in Lula, Mississippi has a garden for members. To be sure, this is a good cause, particularly in Mississippi, which is first in the U.S. in the percentage of kids who are obese. That country is first in rates of heart disease, second in the number of adults with diabetes, second in adult obesity, and near last in the percentage of adults who participate in physical activity, according to the New York Times. So the cause is certainly needed, and of great value. However, it is not religious. More particularly, preaching on good diet is not prep for intense transcending experience, wherein everything else, including what is for lunch, is bracketed out. In fact, bringing other domains into the “worship” service—even in making announcements!—diverts or undercuts the “prep.” To more strongly serve as “prep,” a liturgy can itself be approached as sacred space and time. It is no accident that the ancient Greeks had their theatres at their temple complexes. Similarly, a liturgy, from start to end, can be encased in sacred time and space and not interrupted even for intermission.
As David Hume observed, it is all too easy—all too human—to get distracted in approaching the divine. Even focusing on religious experience itself while bracketing out everything else is notoriously difficult, given how we are hard-wired as a species to be oriented to concrete objects in the world. We may be in God’s image, but getting back to it without images from our experience can be quite daunting. Lest we suppose that we can afford our digressions and distractions and still worship, we might want to remember that pure religious experience transcends even the images we have of God. As Joseph Campbell said, one’s conception of God is the final obstacle in transcending to the religious experience. Campbell studied religious myth around the world and found common motifs and symbols, yet he knew that from a religious vantage-point they are not to be taken as ends in themselves. I suspect that worship services could be much better if we would dare to let go, if only while transcending, of our symbols, myths and even rituals. This would involve ritual standing outside itself to make room for something greater within itself. In Christian terms, such ritual can be described as self-emptying. One might even say that, as in forgetting about the door once inside a room, at some point on the way to entering into intense and isolated religious experience, religion itself must give way.
Campbell Robertson, “Preaching a Healthy Diet in the Deep-Fried Delta,” New York Times, August 22, 2011. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/08/22/us/22delta.html
Cathy L. Grossman, “Ripples Touch Spiritual Lives,” USA Today, August 22, 2011.