Friday, June 17, 2011

The Quality of Faith: Relgious Belief versus Religious Experience

There is a marked difference in the quality of faith dependent upon whether it is based on religious belief or if it is grounded in religious experience. The difference in this quality of faith is "the one great partition" that William James describes as dividing institutional from personal religion. ("The Varieties of Religious Experience," p. 28.)
"In the true mystic," writes Evelyn Underhill, "we see personal religion raised to its highest power. If we accept his experience as genuine it involves an intercourse with the spiritual world, an awareness of it, which transcends the normal experience, and appears to be independent of the general religious consciousness of the community to which he belongs."

"The mystic," she notes, "speaks with God as a person with a Person, and not as a member of a group. He lives by an immediate knowledge far more than by belief; by a knowledge achieved in those hours of direct, unmediated intercourse with the Transcendent when, as he says, he was "in union with God." The certitude then gained - a certitude which he cannot impart, and which is not usually diffused - governs all his reactions to the Universe. It even persists and upholds him in those terrible hours of darkness when all his sense of spiritual reality is taken away."
[Underhill, "The Essentials of Mysticism," pp. 25-26.]
Faith based on religious belief is thus, of necessity, only second-hand, while faith based on personal experience of a higher, religious consciousness is primary. The former is susceptible to wavering in tough times, while in the latter, or so it seems, there is "no variableness, nor shadow of turning."
"There is a state of mind, known to religious men, but to no others," James asserts, "in which the will to assert ourselves and hold our own has been displaced by a willingness to close our mouths and be as nothing in the floods and waterspouts of God. In this state of mind what we most dreaded has become the habitation of our safety, and the hour of our moral death has turned into our spiritual birthday. The time for tension in our soul is over, and that of happy relaxation, of calm deep breathing, of an eternal present, with no discordant future to be anxious about has arrived. Fear is not held in abeyance as it is by mere morality, it is positively expunged and washed away."

"This enchantment," James observes, "coming as a gift when it does come - a gift of our organism, the physiologists will tell us, a gift of God's grace, the theologians say - is either there or not there for us, and there are persons who can no more become possessed by it than they can fall in love with a given woman by mere word of command. Religious feeling is thus an absolute addition to the Subject's range of life. It gives him a new sphere of power. When the outward battle is lost, and the outer world disowns him, it redeems and vivifies an interior world which otherwise would be an empty waste."
[Wm. James, "The Varieties of Religious Experience," pp. 47-48.]
James goes on to describe the many different varieties of inner religious experience, each demonstrating that there is a higher state of religious consciousness above our ordinary, egoic self-consciousness; and he differentiates such experiences from intellectual or learned faith. Those who experience such inner relgious conversion are possessed thereafter with faith which is of a much different and enduring quality than a faith based solely on subjective, self-conscious belief.
"All the exponents of the Perennial Philosophy," philosopher and spiritual seeker, Aldous Huxley observes, "make, in one form or another, the affirmation that man is a kind of trinity composed of body, psyche and spirit. Selfness or personality is a product of the first two elements. The third element . . . is akin to, or even identical with, the divine Spirit that is the Ground of all being."

"Man's final end," he observes, "the purpose of his existence is to love, know and be united with the immanent and transcendent Godhead. And this identification of self with spiritual not-self can be achieved only by "dying to" selfness and living to spirit."
[Huxley, "The Perennial Philosophy," p. 38.]
While such religious experience - such "dying to self" and awakening to spirit - is available to all of us, it is only the rare individual who experiences the "immanent and transcendent Godhead" in reality. The rest of us, holding to a religious faith based only on our subjective and intellectual belief, may merely aspire to the experience of that higher consciousness which leads to the deepest, and most abiding faith possible.

"Sell all your cleverness," Rumi urges us, "and purchase bewilderment."

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