My liberal arts college was very small and had a small student to teacher ratio, making many classes competitive to get into. An 8am philosophy course titled “Language & Religious Experience” was not one of those, and while the academic in me was excited about the course description the non-morning person in me was angry. First of all, I am not awake at 8am. And second, philosophy is difficult to wrap my head around even when completely awake. But this course ended up revolutionizing the way I approached belief, both academically and within myself.
This was in 2003 and I no longer remember all the details, but most of the class discussions revolved around the idea that the language used to describe spiritual experiences is by nature inaccurate, and the strategies of different belief systems for working with that. There were two key parts to this:
- Mysticism — defined by “belief that union with or absorption into the Deity or the absolute, or the spiritual apprehension of knowledge inaccessible to the intellect, may be attained through contemplation and self-surrender.” (x)
- Apophatic language — saying and unsaying, an abstract (not rhetorical) turning back on each reference as it is posed; making a statement regarding knowledge of a spiritual matter and then denying the accuracy of the statement. (x)
Try understanding that five times fast within twenty minutes of waking up at what feels like the crack of dawn.
Growing up, belief didn’t have much place in my life. Religion did. My apologies to anyone who might like to be offended by that but I really just mean the community structure part of it, which for me never held much personal, spiritual experience. I had my first communion as a Catholic at the church we attended with my dad’s parents, but once we moved to a different part of the city we started going to Lutheran services with my mom’s side of the family. I was nearly Confirmed, in the sense that my parents made me go to the weekly confirmation class, but declined to participate in the actual event. And… aside from being dragged along every Sunday morning and participating in the church choir (in which my mom was the second youngest member) because singing at least made being at the services kind of fun, I didn’t think much about it. When not singing, I wrote surreptitiously on scrap pieces of paper.
That was my experience with religion up until taking this philosophy class. But the step back from religion and its structures to mysticism and the language of spiritual experience had a profound impact on me. It was the opposite of assuming that a name and definition could be pinned to some sort of all-encompassing higher power. Coming at belief from this angle gave me a new perspective and allowed me to really make it mine, because it freed me up to explore and define things for myself instead of accepting canned explanations from pastors and “because I said so’s” from my parents.
So I was very interested in sitting down to watch Oprah Winfrey’s Belief documentary last fall with my partner. I wasn’t disappointed. Many of the different spotlights cast upon religions in various areas of the world were breathtaking, and above all focusing more on the spiritual than the structure or the politics. It showed healing, transformations, and restorations — from a practicing Catholic who was told she would never walk again but is now a Whirling Dervish, to a dying Aboriginal elder in Australia passing on all of his tribe’s wisdom and knowledge to his young grandson, to a father and daughter attending Burning Man and participating in the ritual burning of a wooden effigy to let go of devastating personal loss.
And sand mandalas made by Buddhist monks, which are amazing because they’re just as amazingly intricate as another interest of mine, illuminated manuscripts, but fascinatingly impermanent.
These and more are all connected by the universal powers of personal and spiritual reflection. The narrative doesn’t spend much time on customary practices and rituals, and even less on religious leaders and institutions. It wouldn’t work as an introduction to any particular religious belief, but it’s inspirational. These are personal experiences shared by ordinary people who, in many cases, I could imagine being, and that’s where the power of this documentary lies.
I’d like to think that this is where our spiritual future is headed, as a species. And I know that Christianity has skeletons in the closet and that Burning Man has a lot of booze and drugs. I’m sure every religious institution has its dark side. But that’s religion! That is not the essence of our spiritual lives, that is what came out of the social constructs of ritual and custom that was built around spiritual experiences. At their best they do help others achieve their own experiences by providing guidance and community support, but at worst they can be toxic and deadly.
Here is where I think apophatic language is especially important. Say there is a power in the universe that is both knowable and unfathomable, contained within you yet everywhere, connecting all things but it is all things. It’s important to try and put this into words, but at the same time words are finite. Words are there to convey specific meanings and they cannot adequately capture and explain something that is infinite. So while it’s important to say these things — discuss them with others, and even go down the twisty turny path of exploring what you believe by trying to explain it (sometimes even yourself, a) — the negation at the end is important too.