Saturday, November 29, 2008

My First Session of SBL - Religious Experience


Our first session of our first annual SBL was on Religious Experience. The project was looking to see if they could locate Religious Experience within ancient texts. The presenters are part of a project that had published its first book, so the energy was both giddy and cautious. They were children in the ecstatic joy of creating. My first impression was they were fighting and engaging of the ghost of William James. He has to be the starting point, but could he also be the departure point as well? The strength and weakness of his work was breaking down religion as a unit of religious experience. He then pushes the distinction as a category of religious lifestyle. Experience by its nature located in the individual, even if the experience is shared experience such as worship. The dangling question is does a Christian mystic have more in common with Buddhist mystic or a non-mystical Christian. It is clear that he shares something with both.


The first up was Colleen Shantz of St Michael College. She set the stage for the discussion by asking in her well thought out paper about what the project was looking for in ancient text on what constitutes religious experience. What I heard was the curse of the old Cartesian dichotomy, which opposes the individual with the group. The more I have mediate on it, the more I see that an individual can only exits in a community. The individual can locate herself in the group. Descartes wrote in response to the divide between the Protestant and Catholic. She answered the charge that there is no religious experience without culture that many use oppose the category of Religious Experience. Both her answer and the criticism lie in the bed of Cartesian dualism. Funny, if you think about those who oppose a study of Religious Experience on the grounds of Culture being primary, do so out of their own Cultural blindness. If you do not oppose the individual to the group, then their criticism fades into background. The question it raised for me was the how does experience relate to the rest of ones life, or does it construct the whole of ones life. When talking about Religious Experience, the temptation is to just look at intense mystical experience or to point out the whole of religious life as equal to the intense mystical experience. The problem for the person who has this experience is how to communicate it to others. As Karen Armstrong pointed out that while the mystics claims that their experience is beyond words, they constantly talk about the experience. What her paper left me was what do we miss out of our own cultural blindness? Tomorrow I will look at the three other papers, and what the session fired in my imagination.

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