When I was 17 I had a life changing experience. I was your typical 17 yr old boy; withdrawn and full of restless angst. The only thing I really got excited about was football. One night I was listening to a band when a mysterious force entered my body and ‘took possession of me’ for several minutes. I physically shook. I began to perspire. A flood of emotions accompanied the physical wave through my body. At one moment I felt shame, and at the next exhilaration. After a few moments, the feeling left my body and I couldn’t begin to describe the relief. I felt light, like a completely new person.
It all happened without anyone around me noticing. I didn’t even tell anyone about it. I didn’t know what to say. It didn’t even feel like it was a story that needed to be told. But then something equally amazing happened. The next morning I was eating breakfast with my sister. We were eating in silence.
Suddenly she looked at me and said, “You’ve changed.”
She had confirmed what I was feeling. I was a new person. I needed some language for this experience, so I turned to the only language I had. I decided that I had experienced a Christian conversion. I had been born again. Jesus had entered my heart. The Holy Spirit had washed over me, purged me of my sin and made me a new creation. I decided that day to become a pastor in a Christian church. I never played football seriously again. I even began (wait for it) evangelizing other people. I emptied lunch tables as my Jewish friends wondered what had come over me. Thankfully my evangelical stage lasted only a few weeks.
It took me many years to come to an important realization. Language is not an experience. Language describes an experience but does not contain an experience. More recently I would describe the same experience quite differently. There was no doubting that something profound took place. My whole personality changed over night. Apart from the annoying experiments in evangelism, I became a nicer person. I was more optimistic and connected to people around me. The changes were all good, but I no longer need the Christian language to explain the experience. In fact the Christian language put a period on the experience when what I needed was a comma. It was a lesson in openness.
The philosopher William James is one of the early SBNR leaders. He offered much insight into the nature of experience. He was an unlikely leader in the spiritual world. He came from a dysfunctional family. As one writer put it, “he was the weird son of an even weirder father.” The family was so wealthy that he had no need to work. He spent his time on spiritual quests. Eventually he became a physician, and pursued his two greatest passions; spiritual experience and science.
He was a champion of the view that certainty comes from within individuals and not from either scientific orthodoxy or religious belief. Rather than studying religious texts, he spent time studying the actual experiences of people. He concluded that “experience is everything.” Experience should be assessed not by the language placed on the experience, but by the fruits of the experience. Does it lead to greater happiness, and optimism? Does it solve existential anxieties? Does it get things done in the world?
James’ conclusion was that religion worked when it was seen as a set of experiences or as a way of life. He suggested that there are two features of religious experience
1. Uneasiness. The experience should lead to a sense that something needs to be changed, improved.
2. The solution to this uneasiness lies in making connection to higher powers.
He didn’t define what the higher powers are, or what they should be called. He simply suggested that the problem in life is feeling small or isolated or powerless, and the solution is finding yourself embraced by something larger than yourself or by some higher purpose. It expands your focus and perspective and often shifts you out of the rut you are in.
He says something about this larger purpose in the final chapter of The Varieties of Religious Experience, where he uses the language of “the more”:
“Apart from all religious considerations, there is actually and literally more life in our total soul than we are at any time aware of. . . . Let me then propose, as a hypothesis, that whatever it may be on its farther side, the “more” with which in religious experience we feel ourselves connected is on its hither side the subconscious continuation of our conscious life.”
This is another way of saying that there is always more; more to learn, more to experience, more to share. All your experiences are precious and valuable. Just don’t be too quick to label them with language or explanations. Instead, dwell in the wonder of your own place in divine becoming that is greater than all and yet present in each and every moment. Your subconscious connections are more powerful than you could even begin to imagine.