Learning to Honor the Variety of Religious Experiences

In the books I read, I keep coming across one book in the notes section or the bibliography at the back. The book is by William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience. I have not read the book but I am sensing that it is considered a classic and am committed to reading it in the near future.  Based on the way it is referenced, I imagine that it treats the differences between people and how they experience the divine with respect and humility. I like the book already. Going to Israel, where religious people come to places they deem holy, even central to their faith, one sees a variety of faith expressions. It is easy to find one’s self judging, especially when others are expressing their faith in ways that seem foreign. This happened to me while I was visiting the Holy Land.

The first day of the course began with a lecture on Luke, author of the third of the synoptic gospels. The religious scholarship piece of the experience is what drew me to this trip in the first place so an occasional lecture was much to my liking.  Luke is the chosen gospel of the 2016 liturgical year and is the reason we focused on it rather than any of the others. It would take too much time to explain that here, so I won’t. Just suffice it to know that we read stories out of Luke throughout the whole experience.

I learned some of interesting things at the lecture that I didn’t know before. I learned that Luke wrote his gospel after an intentional research investigation. He studied and evaluated other writings and interviewed many people including eye witnesses. He was an historian so he was knowledgeable about the cultural and political setting of the time.

We were told that there are 19 meal stories in the gospels and 13 of them are in Luke’s gospel. Meals are a symbol of inclusion, we heard. I remembered from my studies that Luke is known for revealing Jesus’ compassion for the poor and social outcasts. I remember hearing that he ate and drank with sinners; he was even accused of eating and drinking too much. I rather like the thought that he knew how to have a good time.

After the lecture, we had our first outing which was to the Old City in the center of Jerusalem. After we walked through one of the city’s gates, we entered a large dark place. Inside we found a number of sacred places. Our instructor was focusing this day on the rock theme: “The stone the builders rejected has become a cornerstone.” We saw what is believed to be the one Jesus prayed over the night before he died and the stone slab on which he was laid after his death. There were many pilgrims there, usually in groups that would come together into small cave-like spaces like little chapels. Usually there was a leader who spoke to them about what they were seeing. We had our own, of course.  Looking around, I saw people touching the stones or icons, kneeling, bowing, praying, chanting, lighting candles, and sometimes weeping.

I felt uncomfortable for a couple of reasons. First of all I struggled with the crowdedness of the place. In some places we were pressed against people or against a wall as one group would try to pass through a narrow place when we were headed in the opposite direction. I often lost sight of my own group. I looked at the faces of the people and seemed to see the same bewilderment that I was feeling.

The second thing that made me uncomfortable was the darkness of the place. I learned later that sacred places in Israel are cared for by different groups. These places in the ancient section of Jerusalem, known as the Old City, are cared for primarily by the Greek Orthodox Church. The places tend to be “down under” where it is dark already, but there is a darkness about Greek Orthodox ritual and art that I have noticed through the years. Even when I look at an Icon, a particular art form of ancient times, the faces always seem dark to me. As a person of light, who connects with God each day by greeting the sun, I find darkness difficult.

The third thing that made me uncomfortable is the intensity of the reverence I was witnessing among the faithful who came there and how important these ancient symbols were to them. I could see that many of them were having profound spiritual experiences. I began this blog talking about the variety of religious experiences. That first day in Jerusalem I was being challenged to be respectful and accepting of people whose expression of their faith was different than my own. I wrote in my journal: “I feel nothing. This talk of symbols, no matter how reverent these people are, leaves me cold.”  I will tell you with complete honesty…I understood that this was my problem, not theirs. I do not doubt the authenticity of anyone else’s spiritual experience. But I need to be honest about my own.

Following this honest statement in my journal, I added a couple of sentences that describe my own spirituality: “My spirituality is that of flesh and blood, of humans reaching out to humans. Of brokenness and mending, of compassion and – in the deepest places – of Oneness.”

As I progress through this sharing of my trip to Israel, I will share some experiences I had in which I felt this human oneness and the Oneness with the Divine that always seems to follow.



2 thoughts on “Learning to Honor the Variety of Religious Experiences”

  1. Your comment about Luke being written after an investigation is interesting. Wendy and I watched the recent movie RISEN. It was about a Roman investigator trying to locate Jesus’ body. It was a very different take on the Gospel story.

Comments are closed.