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.
So then, what is my own perspective on religious (or spiritual!(or paranormal!!(or anomalous!!!, etc))) experience? The only thing I can do is to take an intellectually honest position and declare myself to be a sceptical, (but open-minded!) agnostic about these kinds of phenomena. My preferred framework of understanding is a neurocognitive approach but with the oft-quoted caveat that ‘correlation does not prove causation’. I agree that the religious, or spiritual, worldview and the potential for such experiences, is a natural part of our biological makeup, regardless of the reality or not of any transcendent realm. This, by the way, also leaves open the possibility that even an agnostic, such as I, can have a spiritual experience. However, over the years I have become less interested in questions about proof and more interested in questions about meaning. I don't know how best to define religion or spirituality, so I let people define it for themselves. I don't know if there is such a thing as a ‘core experience’ or a Perennial Philosophy, so I appreciate commonalities whilst valuing the differences. I think that science is the best tool we have yet developed for answering questions about the world, but it cannot answer them all. Quantitative research can go a long way towards answering these questions, but qualitative methods can also contribute much to our understanding. I am comfortable to take the role of co-explorer in the spiritual or metaphysical worldviews of others, whilst I endeavour to understand and respect their own perspectives. Although I recognise the evidential value of spiritual experience for a world beyond, I feel that these experiences have a more immediate, and perhaps more cogent, value for this one. And finally, I don't know if there is life-after-death, so I am happy to wait and see (the longer I have to wait, the happier I will be). As Albus Dumbledore once said,
‘To the well organised mind,
death is but the next great adventure.’
Originally published in two parts in De Numine, No. 54 & 55, pp5-8.
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