Monday, July 4, 2011

Religious experiences and the need for boundaries

What is essential to a religious experience? Within a theistic perspective, one's encounter with God. If this happens, everything else is unessential and becomes ipso facto superfluous. If one has experienced an encounter with God, one will probably see how fasting, cutting one's hair, refraining from drinking wine, etc., are all as far from the experience one has had, as their opposites.
Why then do we need churches and religious institutions? Why "religions"? I can see at least two kinds of reasons:
  • 1. encountering God is not something you can foresee. It might depend also on you, but must depend primarily on Her/Him. While waiting for that to happen, you might try to get prepared through a certain discipline. The discipline will forge you and make the encounter possible. It creates, so to say, the empty space within yourself where the epiphany might take place.
  • 2. you might think you did encounter God just because you had an intense experience. For instance, I am inclined to think that this happens to many people who fall in love with TV personalities, no matter whether rock stars or "reverends". Religious institutions should guard you from the risk of confounding God with what is just emotionally intense. They should deny all your claims, unless they fit into their narrow path of well-established ways of encountering God. If your encounter is sincere, they explicitly claim, it will fit within it. Maybe, many of their authorities also secretly think that if you really had a genuine experience of God and this did not fit into the standards, you will receive from Her/Him enough strength to explain to the Church/to your spiritual master that it has to change its/his/her standards. These have to exist, hence, to test the genuinity of your faith.
I might be wrong, but I understand Mīmāṃsā as fulfilling these two tasks. Paradoxically, the Mīmāṃsā school is engaged with Sacred Texts, but seems to have no sympathy at all for religious experiences. Why so? If the above is correct, because of 2.
And what would be the purpose of executing difficult rituals in an exact way —imagining that you no longer believe in Vedic Deities, but in a personal God? 1.

How do readers conceive the role of religious institutions in India? I am not speaking about their political role, but only of the theological rationale of their existence.


Jayarava said...

It sees to me that you could take a step back. A religious experience is first of all an experience. In order to make sense of experiences we must interpret them. A religious experience, therefore, is one for which the best interpretation is judged to be provided by religious discourse.

The function of religious institutions is to shape and conserve such discourses; and to interpret experiences as religious or secular. They also, as you observe, provide technologies for pursuing experiences more apt to be interpreted as religious.

As William James and other's have noticed, the characteristic religious experiences are more or less the same across religions and cultures. So this is why interpretation plays a central role.

As far as Buddhism in India is concerned, a lot of effort goes into mocking God and undermining the idea that a meeting with God is a religious experience at all. Contrary to popular belief Buddhists did not deny the existence of gods, and people are frequently portrayed in conversation with them. But Brahmā, and all gods, a relegated to saṃsāra. At the same time they look for other experiences which constitute the heart of the Buddhist religious experience - especially nirvāṇa, the extinguishing of passions. Which seems to still fit your second criteria.

I still don't know enough about Mīmāṃsā to follow the argument you offer at the end. If they more or less deny the possibility of meeting God, then why prepare for it? Surely in these circumstances the ritual becomes an end in itself?

elisa freschi said...

thank you, Jayarava, especially for the first point and for the stress on the role of interpretation.
As for Mīmāṃsā, I was mainly talking about post-Classical Mīmāṃsā, whose supporters were explicitly theists (usually Vaiṣṇavas), but I wonder whether this would not fit also Classical authors. The sacrifice for them does not have the "magic" power it seems to have in the Brāhmaṇas, but one performs it in an accuarate and diligent way, as if this could prepare the ground for… the happening of the Sacred?

Vidya Jayaraman said...

If religious experience is equated as one's encounter with God then the question arises as to what the difference between religious experience and mystic experience is. Further the word theistic itself is a vastly variant term and we have darśana-s which are specific in their denial of the notion of a creator/trix.

Religious experience seems somehow connected with navigating the tenets of faith, structure, custom and ritual - a sort of formalizing this process. As to why religious institutions:
1.To satiate the primal human need for structure and logic around seemingly unexplainable phenomena.
2.To provide a framework for controlling access to this phenomena and the power associations so that there exists barriers to entry into "access to this power" and the experience does not become a free-for-all which would then bring down the value of such an experience.
I see the term adhikāra as a concept to deal with 2.
3.The third reason for this could be that a framework would also need to ensure that society
and social structure is not affected by religion. ie the aspect of ensuring that everyone do not become śramana-s, hermits
and questioners and moving away from the hierarchy of society and ensuring continuity of social mores. The doctrines of karma khāṇḍa, ritual as the end in itself perhaps arose out of this..

elisa freschi said...

Dear Vidya,
as for your first point, would not you say that an encounter with God (not necessarily a creator) may also happen in an intellectual way, e.g., by means of writing the Summa Theologiae? Would you still call it a "mystical" experience? It might be just a terminological problem, but I would use the term "mystic" only to refer to what cannot be phrased and conceived intellectually and which is primary emotional. Do you, by contrast, mean to say that "religious" must entail a structured institution behind it?
As for points 1-3, you are probably right. But they refer primarily to human needs, to the political aspect of religion, not to its inherent theological rationale. What would you say about it?

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