Last year I had an article published in the Journal of Near-Death Studies that critiqued one particular NDE case-study by Dr Penny Sartori. I want to explain why I wrote the critique.
It was originally written as an essay for my PGDip in Consciousness & Transpersonal Psychology a few years ago. I had to select and critique a published journal article. I can't remember why I chose Penny's paper, I think I just happened to have read it recently and recalled that I didn't agree with all of the conclusions.
Later I decided to expand the original essay into an article for publication because it gave me the opportunity to explore alternative psychological explanations for NDEs that I had not had chance to do previously. I sometimes get asked why I am agnostic about life-after-death (and various other anomalous phenomena) when I am so interested in them. This was my opportunity to explain why. It was also a turning point for me in that my interest now lies less in the evidential value and more in the personal value of such experiences.
The final form of the politics of religious experience I want to mention is what I think of as ‘spiritual one-up-manship’. It can be seen in the way that, what was originally a small Jewish sect, became a major world religion with its own New Testament. Also, in the way that Mohammed was the last of the prophets, or in the way that Joseph Smith restored the true gospel or the way Swedenborg was given the correct interpretation of the Bible. In the meeting hall at the Brahma Kumaris meditation and retreat centre at Nuneham House, Oxfordshire, hangs an interesting painting. It shows a tree with its roots in the earth and its branches in the heavens. It’s title is ‘The Tree of Humanity’ and each lateral branch represents a major religious tradition. At its roots sits Brahma Baba, the founder of the Brahma Kumaris and his followers. This is probably just an innocent attempt to convey the unity of different world faiths but the positions of the founders and leaders of the Brahma Kumaris on the tree should be noted.
Self-reflection is therefore important in the politics of religious experience. Everyone, must stand somewhere to make their observations, whether this be on the shoulders of our spiritual leaders or the ivory towers of our academics. Therefore, we need to be aware of the tendency for spiritual one-up-manship, or as Jorge Ferrer (2002) calls it, ‘spiritual narcissism’, influencing our models and understanding.
Empiricism & Experientialism
There is a third aspect, not unrelated to the above, of the politics of religious experience. This is the apparent tension between objective, empirical research versus experiential, hands-on spirituality. In his history of the AHS John Franklin (2006, P22, P37, pp45-46, & P49) refers to issues around this area such as pastoral care, counselling responsibilities, and the academic side of the Society. Interestingly, the course I studied on Consciousness and Transpersonal Psychology offered core modules in both empirical research methodology and integrated experiential learning. The danger is, of course, again one of perceived academic respectability. There are a multitude of organisations offering opportunities for experiential practices but the majority of these are not academic.
My view then is that, as far as research is concerned, experiential approaches are useful and necessary provided they are performed for a specific purpose and use a stated methodology. However, as researchers, hands-on spirituality should never be simply an opportunity to experience for experience's sake.
Unity & Diversity
Over the last few years there seems to be a significant number of people who feel a) that there is a ‘common core’ to religious experience, b) that this is a constructive contribution towards interfaith understanding, c) that this supports a form of Perennial Philosophy or wisdom tradition, and d) that this is the result of a progressive spiritual evolution. At this point I must make my second confession. Personally, I am a sceptic (i.e. someone who requires evidence and a good argument) and I remain to be convinced about some of these aspects. I am agnostic about many things as this seems to be the only intellectually honest position I can adopt. I also believe in the proven ability of science to explain many phenomena. So, what has the ‘common core’ hypothesis or the Perennial Philosophy got to do with the politics of religious experience?
I have a confession to make. I have never had a religious experience (I once had a hypnopompic hallucination, which was quite scary at the time. Fortunately, I had already read about these hallucinations so when I experienced it I simply thought “b#@ger me – so that's a hypnopompic hallucination!”
So, where do I stand in relation to such experiences? The rest of this article is an attempt to answer that question. I stole the title from a wry and witty comment in De Numine #46 that ‘religion’ could be defined as ‘the politics of religious experience’. There are several aspects of the 'politics of religious experience' that have interested me over the years: definitions of religion, Perennialism and the 'common core' hypothesis, empirical and experiential approaches, science and scientism, and 'spiritual one-up-manship'.
Enlightenment Ain’t What It’s Cracked Up To Be: A Journey of Discovery, Snow and Jazz in the Soul, Robert K.C. Forman, Alresford, O-Books, 2011, pp. 214. ISBN 978-1-84694-674-5 (Paperback). £9.99.
Dr. Robert Forman is co-founder of the Journal of
Consciousness Studies and founder of the Forge Institute for Spirituality and Social Change. He has many years experience of meditation and academic work in religion and mysticism. His stance on
the latter led to the ‘Katz-Forman debates’ regarding Perennialism versus Constructivism. He gives lectures and workshops globally and has written numerous books including The Problem of Pure Consciousness, Mysticism, Mind, Consciousness, and Grassroots Spirituality: What it is, Why it is here, Where it is Going.
The first thing that should be said about this book is that, in contrast to most of Forman’s other work, it is not an academic text. Instead Forman has chosen to write a personal, auto-biographical account of his own spiritual journey, which is accessible to non-academics. Although he mentions the so-called ‘Katz-Forman debates’ he does not get side-tracked into putting forward an academic argument about his views on what he terms ‘pure consciousness events’. Leaving aside this debate Forman emphasises some important, and possibly controversial, points about ‘enlightenment’.
Having gone through his own process of spiritual awakening, he is in a position to be able to do this from a first-hand perspective.
OK - my goal is to provide a counselling and advice service for people who are curious about or distressed by anomalous, religious, or spiritual experiences. However, there are quite a few things to do and quite a few questions to answer to reach that goal (if I ever do!)
Firstly, I need a good grounding in counselling and psychotherapy skills that are relevant to this, somewhat specialist (should I say 'fringe?), area.
Secondly, I need to know what demand there actually is for such a service (if any!)
This blog is, therefore, my way of tracking my progress towards this goal. I'm really not sure who reads blogs but perhaps someone will find it interesting or relevant. Who knows?
Progress to-date: about 20 years experience in listening to people's religious, spiritual, and anomalous experiences; post-grad academic qualifications; and currently training in hypno-psychotherapy with the National College of Hypnosis & Psychotherapy.
Further updates to follow...