What should be counted as a religious experience? Invariably at least in the theistic traditions religious experiences are described in “positive” terms. By positive I mean terms like unity, blessedness, beauty, goodness, healing, etc. The problem with restricting religious experiences to something positive is that it drives a wedge between God and the world. It divorces God from part of the dynamics of life (i.e. the emergence of “evil”) and posits the source of evil only to the world. Since for many people God is only “good”, the attempt to shield God from evil is understandable. Attempts in theodicies to shield God from the evil in the world are legion. Invariably they do not satisfy. The reason is that if God is the ground of being of all things then God is ultimately responsible for evil anyway. Typically shielding God from evil is attempted under the rubric of “freedom”. The argument goes something like this: there is no evil in God but God allows creatures to be free such that they can choose to be “bad”. Thus God remains pure from evil but creation can choose it. This concept only works within a classic theism because the world is ontologically distinct from God. Thusly religious experience (i.e. experience of God) can only be experience of the good which is found in God. If, however, classic theism is becoming less and less compelling religiously then the concept of religious experience must be revised. Panentheistic approaches offer this opportunity. However, some of these formulations still attempt to shield God from evil in some fashion at the cost of a true ontological panentheism. Process theology is one such failed attempt because God’s participation in the world is only prehensional and persuasive. Even though God prehends evil, it is not part of God. Religious experience then remains only the positive prehension of God’s “good”. Evil still remains the product of the ontologically distinct world. The question is whether there may be another way to understand religious experience that does honor to God participating fully in the world in God’s complete self? I think there is. It can stem from the concept of “the living God” that is found in most religious traditions.
If God is a living God then the essence of God also includes the potential for what we call evil. Now to many the idea that evil is “in” God is very disturbing. The hesitancy to embrace this idea comes, I think, from the ancient misguided idea of God’s “perfection”. Many new theologies like process theology and open theism reject the idea of God’s perfection as well as omniscience, omnipotence, etc. They reflect the attempt to forge new ground in a theology of God that does not have the problems of classic theism. These are, in my view, noble attempts but fall short of a full participation of God in the world. However, if instead of God being “perfect” and even all good then what we find at least in one aspect of God is a God who lives. Life is, however, a messy business. It includes finitude, temporality, contingency, freedom and conditionedness. In life the threat and potential for evil is eternally present. The potential for evil is, however, not something imposing its will upon reality as an aberration of what should be. It is instead the inherent consequence of what life means. It stems from the very same foundations that also create the good. No potential for evil, no potential for good. This can be the essence of a theodicy, but since this post is about religious experience, I will forgo elaboration on this for another post. If, however, it is accepted that God is a living God and that within God there is both the potential for evil as well as good then religious experience takes on a different meaning. Religious experience becomes not just an experience of the “good” but rather the experience of the struggle within the divine life from which both good and evil ensue. It is, in my view, the exquisite experience of the fundamental yin and yang of life.
The concept of yin and yang is an ancient one that is normally attributed to Eastern thought, particularly Taoism. From Wikipedia:
The concepts of yin and yang originate in ancient Chinese philosophy and metaphysics, which describes two primal opposing but complementary forces found in all things in the universe. Yin, is sad, the darker element, is passive, dark, feminine, downward-seeking, and corresponds to the night; Yang, is happy, the brighter element, is active, light, masculine, upward-seeking and corresponds to the day; yin is often symbolized by water, while yang is symbolized by fire.
While the yin-yang concept is prevalent in Eastern thought the idea of opposing forces constituting reality is also ubiquitous in Western thought. However, in Western theism the beneficial complementarity of Eastern yin-yang is typically lost. Instead a dualism is contrived where the opposing forces strive for dominance instead of a healthy complementarity. The dark and light of reality are not complimentary but in a battle to rule. While this view has theological problems it also does not fit within our scientific understanding of how reality is constituted. What is particularly striking is the correlation of complimentary opposites found in fundamental physics. Physics is full of complimentary opposites. There we have positive/negative, particle/wave, matter/antimatter, etc. What physics tells us about the constitution of reality is that yin-yang is absolutely fundamental. Extrapolating that to higher levels also means that both good and evil emerge from these fundamental levels. Isn’t it remarkable how ancient religious insight can find affirmation in modern science.
So if yin-yang is fundamental to life what does this mean for religious experience? It means that the complementarity of opposing opposite is also fundamental to the divine life. In order to experience divine revelation the place to look is how this divine yin-yang emerges in life. This will inevitably mean that religious experience is not to be found just in the good of the world but also the evil. The good represents a victory in this struggle of complimentary opposites but the evil we see also points to the fundamental interplay of all life forces.
If religious experience is viewed as the experience of life in all its dialogical aspects (not just the good) then folks will not look for some “new” reality as the cure for the evils of life, but rather join the battle to embrace and shape the yin-yang of life in ways that change it for the better. It will mean exploring in depth how the opposing opposites work together. That knowledge can then be applied to shape both religious and cultural action in positive ways. Evil is not one of the opposing forces. It results when the interplay of the beneficial opposites results in evil. The complementarity within the atom allows for both clean power from nuclear power plants and the creation of the nuclear bomb. The more we can know about this interplay and how it can be applied culturally the more the positive aspects of yin and yang can be applied for good.
Many religious adherents particularly in the West think that a religious experience must be some extraordinary and even mystical thing. As a result many of those same adherents do not feel they have had religous experiences. I have personally heard comments to this affect. But this is to miss the fact that if God is eternally and intimately involved in the world then there is no such thing as a non-religious experience. All experiences are of the divine life process and have the potential to illuminate us to its content and dynamics. Because we look for something so out of the ordinary we can miss the dynamics of yin-yang in the divine life that are always with us. But perhaps this is natural. It is often hard to experience the depth of life in the everyday experiences we have. That is why it often takes an exquisite event of yin and yang that wakes us up to the depth of reality. Those exquisite examples of the power of yin and yang shake us from our slumbers and raise questions normally kept suppressed. However, there is a danger for the future of our world if only the exquisitely beautiful and exquisitely good experiences are attributed to God. If this happens then it is natural to look to some eschaton or salvation where only the good remains. This can temper our resolve to engage in the struggles of life. It can make us complacent, looking for God to resolve a “fallen” world. If, however, life is inherently as it should be and as God wants it, then there is no “resolution” in the offing. Instead the fundamental life processes are eternal and good. The exquisite negative effects of these beneficial processes must be met not from something outside the processes but within them. The exquisite positive effects can be fully embraced and rejoiced while at the same time learning how better to invoke them in the future. The fundamental core of the divine life can be found in anything. Some events particularly exquisite events may be more transparent to the divine than others. They are, however, not something different in type from ordinary experiences but only in the degree they reveal the depth of life itself. I think it is time to reject the idea that religous experience is only found in profoundly positive events. It is time that the full spectrum of experiences be embraced as religious, pointing to the dynamics of the divine life, one of which is the interplay of yin and yang.