I had a religious experience before my infatuation with Evangelicalism. I had been drinking a lot. After I did a lot of crazy and reckless things, I was taken back to my room. (It happened in college.) I started screaming that I didn't want to live. That I wanted to die for the sins of the human race. Then I realized that I was feeling guilty about some childhood traumas. I was blaming myself. I realized that I didn't have to die for anyone's sins. Jesus had already done that. I saw myself hanging on the cross with Jesus. I was feeling guilty. I was guilty and my sins were washed away. I had a moment of intense joy, then passed out.
This account omits the sense of being on the Cross with Jesus. I did not just see myself on the Cross, I was on the Cross. Time was different. I would not even use the word “time” to describe the experience. Eternity would do better. But not eternity as an infinite extension of time, but as God’s time in which all events occur “at the same time” from His perspective. In fact perspective is the wrong word. Perspective implies limitation and other, different perspectives of equal or greater scope. The moment of time in which I was, Thanksgiving 1978, was briefly co-temporal with Jesus hanging on the Cross. The Crucifixion was experienced as implicit in every moment of time, ready to burst through.
The second element of the experience was of unity. In a sense it was very egotistical. Everything that existed contributed to making me. All the world in its bits and parts found its culmination in me. The universe found its focus in me. The whole universe in all its particulars and in all its generalities was required to make me with nothing left over. There was no residue. All conflict was reconciled in the whole and simultaneously unreconciled. It takes at least two to make a conflict. They belong together. The parties to the conflict find their unity in their conflict even though unreconciled. I was a whole with and because of my conflicted personality.
Whatever else may be said about my experience, like most, if not all such accounts, it is marked by contradiction, irreality, and self-importance. In the throes of a religious experience one reaches for the words and symbols closest to hand to express thoughts and feelings. Later those same words and symbols are thought about and analyzed in their mundane meanings. The lyricism of the immediate experience is lost. “I was on the Cross with Jesus therefore Christianity because Christianity is about those things from my vision.” As it’s been said, “Hindus don’t have visions of Christ on the Cross.” Once tradition specific symbols and vocabulary are removed, what remains? Vagaries about a higher Reality with a different kind of time and a nebulous sense of importance. This too is culturally specific to Western religious studies departments. Religious experiences prove nothing, even if they are a lifelong source of comfort and inspiration.
Some would say that if it had been an authentic and genuine religious experience, then my life couldn’t but be overwhelmed and filled with its mystery and inspiration. Or, I am just that much of a skeptic.