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Letting Go
I've been meaning to enter into this discussion for the past two months, but the pressure of work and other commitments has prevented me from doing so. Letting go, becoming free of old clichés, striving to be a deeper more realistic person who makes conscious choices to be so - I suppose that is what this discussion is all about.

Like Linda, I am a product of Catholic education - from kindergarten through college and university. Unlike Linda, my experience was generally positive - albeit with some painful instances of intolerance and, for lack of a better term, bigotry. Those experiences of intolerance and bigotry scarred me deeply, but they also challenged me to be more authentic in the way I tried to live my life as a Catholic believer.

A wise teacher, many years ago, used to tell us who were studying theology with him - that you have to draw a line between what is authentic religious experience and the expectations of the institutional church. But the rub is that if an individual seeks for authentic religious experience - something based upon more than simply following the rules and regulations of the institution - you have to come to terms with the institution for the simple reason that authentic religious experience is never merely a personal experience. It is an experience of God, the Prime Mover, the First Cause (or whatever words you may want to use) that is based upon the experience of other believers who have witnessed by their lives and personal authenticity, that God lives in our midst. In other words, a religious experience that is merely personal has no meaning beyond the individual who has the experience. A religious experience that is shared with others is something that is, in a philosophical sense, observable and verifiable by the experience of others. In the western world this sense of community - of common wisdom - is something that we have lost. The reasons we have lost this sense of community and common wisdom is due to a lot of causes - and chief among them, it seems to me, are the very institutions that tell us they are preserving a particular religious tradition.

Solveig's reflections struck a chord in me. Her comments on devotional practices reflects, for me, precisely what I am speaking about. Our understanding of sexuality - whether male or female - is based upon the centuries of baggage that our cultures and religious traditions have carried with them. One hundred years ago, women could not even vote in elections in most of the "advanced" societies of the western world. As societies reflected upon their corporate experience of history - whether religious or civil - it finally dawned on the majority of people that this exclusion of half of the human race from the political process could not be justified by any appeal to either our civil or religious history. The events of history told people that maintaining the status quo was justified, but the deeper common experience of justice and the fundamental equality between men and women led societies to finally reject an ancient and dearly held principle that had to be set aside in order to be authentically just and equitable. This would not have happened without the experience of injustice - we know the good most of the time because we have experienced the bad.

That is "letting go" is far more radical and authentic than merely rejecting either our (western) philosophical or religious heritage. I suspect that our feelings toward the institutional church are shaped in much the same way. We know how the church can go bad - that is, have ill effects on the people it is meant serve. But that does not negate what it stands for ultimately. The institutional church is a human reality - and thus has the potential and the expectation that it will change. Being a human institution, it is characterized by the same flawed humanity that we see all too often in civil society. Being a human institution, the potential for change and redemption are possible to the extent that its adherents are honest and really seek what is just and true. Barring this honesty and thirst for justice - individuals can and must call the institution to task for its shortcomings.

I believe that is not only possible, I see it every day in the lives of those with whom I live and those I am honored to serve.

P.S. I don't know what I did - but this ended up going someplace else other than where I had intended to send it. Ah well, I guess I still have a lot to learn about THINQon!
Hi Laurence,
I like your very fine answer to the difficult question posed.  All questions about religion are difficult  for me--I've never really seen it do any good.
Not the organized brand of religion at any rate: religion as institution.  I don't know your personal definition of institution but I can't get past the hidebound, iron-sided definition (after all, the prison system is an institution).
 You state "a religious experience that is merely personal has no meaning beyond the individual who has the experience." 
That's all you need, isn't it?
People can come together to worship but isn't the experience personal?
This is something else you mention:"A religious experience that is shared with others is something that is, in a philosophical sense, observable and verifiable by the experience of others."
How is that possible?  How can others verify what's going on in another person's head and heart?  We all may be feeling uplifted and enlightened but our experiences may have been very different.
I'm missing something, aren't I?
I don't believe in God as defined by any institution.  How is God definable anyway? 
I'm stumped and I wouldn't mind another very fine answer.
Thanks

In response to Linda OReilly
I'd be happy to reply, Linda. It just takes time. I'm living in east Asia and I'm on the road most of the time these days. Let me think about what you said, and I'll try and respond to your questions. Which, by the way, are very fine questions!
I find that when such statements as above (religious experience, verifiable, philosophical, etc.) are subject to a scrutiny of rational analysis what first appeared as something fine and wonderful, collapses into ruins. If that isn't clear, then at the least it runs through one's hands like sand and one sits there wondering with what is one left.

Therefore for it to make sense and for so many people not to be wrong it must be about something else. I am mostly convinced it is about something else and not what it seems. Others have thought the same, one of those was William James and his book The Varieties of Religious Experience is worth a read. It is classic, he is skeptical towards the experience itself and disdainful of organized religion. 

Saint Augustine's Confessions is, read in one way, a deeply disturbing book. What is the function of guilt? I think it is a book that tells you something about the structure of humanity and what you might wish to consider if you were setting up a religion.

For my part, I had an experience once where I was at a lady's house. She was Catholic educated in her infancy and youth and had abandoned that for another belief system. She appeared to need rules. She believed in love and all those fine things that organized religion purports to teach but something appalled me. It was simply that there was a lament on her part that something was missing and we were poorer for it and it was to be found in her new philosophy. However it was not - the details needn't matter - and what struck me was that the spirit she sought was in front of her, looking at her with feeling and it was in her friends and all those who knew and loved her. That spirit is a kind of emotional expression; it is in art and literature. It is part of a civilised humanity but it is not always seen despite being in front of oneself. When it is seen, either through declaration of intent or demonstration, it may be suspected. That is what is profoundly sad.

A fine book to read about myth and the nature of time over the Christmas season would be Thomas Mann's Der Zauberberg (The Magic Mountain).

Sometimes I think that humour is one of the highest forms of human compassion. Like Mencken claimed it beats 10,000 syllogisms. It takes one out of oneself and you can then slide something in there that is wonderful and kind for those in trouble.

I, too, look forward to a fine answer.
Books Discussed
The Varieties Of Religious Experience: A Study In Human Nature
by William James
The Magic Mountain
by Thomas Mann

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Latest Post: December 20, 2009 at 7:23 PM
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