Today's commentary from Dick Westley is great stuff for reflection over the holiday period. He's looking at "the God experience" through the lens of contemporary science and contemporary theology. Is our experience of God merely some illusion, or delusion — or is it grounded in some reality? This is fascinating terrority. You'll even find the links behind many of the photographs used to illustrate the commentary take you off to further articles worth reading. Sadly this is the last commentary from Dick from the series of workshops he ran in Chicago last October.
The God Experience:
Keynote: "The Christian of the future will be a mystic or he will not exist at all." - Karl Rahner
One could easily have paraphrased Marcus Borg on the issue of the "God Experience", but it would be difficult to match his clarity and insight. So here's Marcus Borg in his own words on the issue.
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Marcus J. Borg — Jesus: Uncovering the Life, Teachings, and Relevance of a Religious Revolutionary, Harper Collins, San Francisco, 2006, pp. 110-115.
For Jesus, God was not simply an article of belief, but an experienced reality. In this, he was like most central figures of the Jewish Bible and tradition; the stories of Israel present them as people who had experienced God. I suggest that, broadly understood, the term mystic designates the kind of person Jesus was — someone who experienced God vividly and whose way of seeing and life were changed as a result.
The notion that God can be experienced is foreign to many in the modern world. Atheists, of course, deny that such experiences are possible, and agnostics are skeptical. But even many Christians in our time find the claim strange. This is because the most common Western concept of "God", shared by Christians as well as by many atheists and agnostics, is that the word "God" refers to a personlike being separate from the universe. The term commonly used for this way of thinking of God — as a being separate from the universe — is supernatural theism. This form of theism seems orthodox to many Christians because of its familiarity. Language that speaks of God as a personlike being is common in the Bible. Perhaps the most familiar example is the opening line of the Lord's Prayer: "Our Father in heaven". But when taken as a concept of God, as the meaning or referent of the word "God", it is misleading and inadequate, for it is only half of the biblical concept of God. It speaks only of God's transcendence, God's beyondness.
The Bible also speaks of God's presence everywhere and in everything. This is most concisely expressed in words attributed to the apostle Paul: God is the one "in whom we live and move and have our being" (Acts 17:28). Note what the language affirms: we live within God, we move within God, we have our existence within God. God is not somewhere else, but right here, all around us, the encompassing Spirit in whom everything that is, is. Though this notion sounds foreign to some Christians, it really shouldn't. The semi-technical term for this is God's immanence, which means "indwelling". God dwells in everything, and everything dwells within God. God is both transcendent and immanent, both more than the universe and present in the universe. A term increasingly used to name this way of thinking about God is panentheism. Panentheism affirms that everything is in God, even as it also affirms that God is more than everything. Though the term is only about two hundred years old, the notion is as ancient as the language of supernatural theism. But in recent centuries, many Christians began to think of God as only transcendent. The notion that God is "everywhere", God's immanence, was eclipsed. Panentheism was replaced by supernatural theism.
For supernatural theism, God is not here and thus cannot be experienced, except perhaps in moments of supernatural intervention. This God can only be believed in, not known. We will know God only after death; in this life, we can only believe. For panentheism, God is here, all around us, even as God is also more than everything. It thus provides a framework for understanding what it means to speak of experiencing God. ... Modern theology, including modern biblical scholars and Jesus scholars, seldom take seriously that God can be experienced and that experiences of God are foundational to the Bible as a whole.
The religions of the world are filled with stories of experiences of God or the sacred, terms that I use synonymously and interchangeably. They have been studied by historians of religion, anthropologists, social historians, psychologists, and scholars of mysticism. A hundred year ago, in his classic book The Varieties of Religious Experience, the American psychologist and philosopher William James spoke of such experiences as being among the most striking and extraordinary psychological phenomena known. James called them experiences of "the unseen" and of "a more".
These experiences of a "more" fall into two primary categories or types: experiences of the sacred as a personlike being or beings in another level of reality; and experiences of the sacred as a presence flooding the whole of reality, including, of course, the world. For Christians, the first type may involve experiences of God, Jesus, angels, Mary, or saints. Such experiences include visions and auditions. In visions, one sees into another reality; in auditions, one hears a voice from another reality. Probably the best-known biblical example among Christians combines vision and audition: Paul on the Damascus road saw a great light and heard the voice of Jesus addressing him (Acts 9:3-6; 22:26).
The second type involves experiences of the sacred pervading this world. We see the world we ordinarily see and experience a landscape, a room, a person, whatever is in front of us. Unlike with visions, no extra beings or realities are experienced, but there is often a visual aspect: what we see looks different — wondrous, radiant, glorious. To use a biblical phrase, in these moments the world is seen as "filled with the glory of God", transfigured; the radiance of God, the radiant presence of the sacred, suffuses everything. What we behold may become luminous, as if there were light shining through everything. In such moments, language and our habituated patterns of perception fall away, and with eyes wide open we behold "what is" in all its "suchness". Sometimes a visual aspect is not involved. Rather than "seeing" the "glory of God", we become aware of a sacred presence pervading everything.
Both types of experience may occur spontaneously, out of the blue, with no apparent cause. But sometimes spiritual practices — solitude, fasting, prayer, chanting, drumming, rhythmic movement, and so forth — become the occasions for such experiences. In this state, people sometimes have visions and/or auditions and a sense of encounter with the sacred as personal being. Or they may experience a sense of descending to a deep level of the self in which the distinction between the self and the one in whom we live and move and have our being becomes very soft and permeable, sometimes even vanishing, leading to a sense of union or communion with God, or the sacred.
Both types of experience involve a subjective state, a change from ordinary everyday consciousness to a non-ordinary state of consciousness. Some regard such experiences as illusory or delusional not as disclosures of something real, those who have them do not. For them, these experiences have a strong quality of knowing that leads to a conviction about reality itself. There is a sense of having experienced something real, indeed, the ultimately real. They are experienced as revelations, not as hallucinations. We need to take seriously that they happen. Moreover, the most important figures in human religious history are spoken of as people who had them.
The first time I read those Marcus Borg remarks, I was edified by what he said, but I wondered whether he hadn't set the bar for a "God experience" just a bit too high. If God is "everywhere" and in "everything", it seemed to me that the "God experience" would be more easily accessible, and that perhaps there was a kind of "intuitional" awareness of God that people had which didn't involve special "visions" or "auditions". At that moment, I knew that this issue was going to be included in this Workshop, and that you'd be asked to comment on your own "God experiences".
Not So Fast, Westley...
All the votes aren't in "from down state". President George Bush and the U.S. Congress declared the 90's the decade of the brain, and it has lived up to that declaration. Spurred by the development of advanced scanning techniques such as PET (Positron Emission Tomography) and MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging), neuroscientists are getting glimpses of the brain in action. Recent studies of the brain have yielded some very provocative results. Contemporary scientists are very good at acquiring new information, but they do less well when it comes to interpreting the significance of what they have discovered. The scientists unanimously agree on the data, but disagree on what their data mean. Some, to the delight of atheists, say the data definitively show that "God experiences" are merely brain activities. Activities and experiences which have no external object and which neuroscientists have managed to replicate in their labs. This, they think, means that religion and the "God experience" are totally illusory. Others say that the new data on the brain confirm the authenticity of the "God experience", by showing that our brains have been pre-programmed to experience God. In any case, the "God experience" is one of the hottest topics in contemporary neuroscience.
1. God Experiences as Illusory
The poster child for this position is Michael Persinger who is the most radical of the neuroscientists on this issue. Working at Laurentian University, in Sudbury, Ontario, Canada, Persinger has pioneered a method for inducing the religious, spiritual experience of the shaman. Without drugs, herbs, hypnosis or invasive surgery, he can quite literally flip a switch and induce the "God Experience". The title of his 1983 article says it all: Religious and Mystical Experiences as Artifacts of Temporal Lobe Function: A General Hypothesis. In the twenty-five years since, Persinger has amassed more and more confirming data and has expanded his theory about brain function to also account for "Near Death Experiences" (NDE's), "Out of Body Experiences" (OBE's), "UFO experiences", including alien abductions, etc.
Persinger created a helmet modified with electrical coils that can create electromagnetic fields in the wearer's temporal lobes that induces "religious" experiences. It is a device to investigate whether religious, spiritual, and mystical experiences have a natural rather than a supernatural source. He had noted that there were many points of similarity between seizures experienced by some epileptic individuals, and the types of mental and spiritual experiences that St. Paul, Moses, and many religious mystics had reported having. Persinger wondered if such experiences could be artificially created in the laboratory by magnetically inducing changes in the temporal lobes of a person's brain. He then proceeded to do just that, i.e. artificially create the "God experience". According to statistics, after using the electro-magnetic helmet with hundreds of subjects, 88% of them reported as having the "God experience".
Results like that account for the increased interest in atheism in our day. Persinger's findings exerted great influence on contemporary atheists such as: Sam Harris, The End of Faith, W.W. Norton, 2004; Christopher Hitchens, God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, Hachette Book Group, 2007, and Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion, Houghton Mifflin, 2006. In fact, Dawkins participated in Persinger's experiment, and expressed disappointment that it did not work in his case. Still 88% is an astounding statistic, requiring everyone to take Persinger very seriously. Obviously, Richard Dawkins did.
2. God Experiences as Authentic
But that doesn't mean that we must. The ability to image the brain in the midst of various activities and states is remarkable. You can actually see various areas of the brain firing off in the midst of an experience. But, there is a problem when it comes to "interpreting" what you are seeing. Are you looking at a cause or are you looking at an effect? That's something the data doesn't tell you, the scientist herself must choose an interpretation. Michael Persinger, being a materialist and a reductionist, chooses to see brain activity not only as a "cause" of spiritual experiences, but as the "sufficient cause". There is no mind nor soul involved at all — it is pure biology.
Mario Beauregard, a neuroscientist from the University of Montreal who is also a believer, looks at the data and interprets it otherwise. Thanks to our ability to image the brain in the midst of its activities Beauregard's research has shown that people who are attempting to change their behavior are actually able to cause changes in the brain's electro-magnetic patterns. This shows that there is a mind or soul which is capable of affecting and changing brain activity, and that makes the brain a necessary condition for spiritual experience but not its sole cause. Turning his research to the "God experience", Beauregard has worked with Tibetan monks and Franciscan nuns engaged in their natural meditative activity. The findings occurred in a natural setting not a contrived laboratory experiment, and they tend to corroborate the authenticity of the "God experience".
Unfortunately, the news value of his research and others like him is not as great as Persinger's. Therefore, unless one were aware of the counter positions of neuroscientists such as Beauregard, one would feel that one's belief in God was on the verge of being totally debunked by science. Obviously, that is not the case. So, the ball is back in our court. There are neuroscientists who have established scientifically that we are at liberty to believe. As for our own personal experiences, we must interpret them as best we can.
The Borg Account Revisited
Marcus Borg has said:
I suggest that, broadly understood, the term mystic designates the kind of person Jesus was — someone who experienced God vividly and whose way of seeing and life were changed as a result.
The operative word which separates us from Jesus and the great mystics of our past from St. Paul to Mother Theresa, is that word "vividly". If we bracket out that word, then since God is everywhere and it is in God that we live, and move and have our being, we would expect that Karl Rahner is right in saying that in a way we must all be "mystics". We may not have "visions" and "auditions", but who is to say that we don't regularly have a "God experience"? I certainly wouldn't. How about you?
What are your thoughts on this commentary?