Reports of experiences of uncanniness, of unbounded joy, of bottomless despair are too common and widespread throughout the historical record and across cultures and religions for there not to be something to all this. Even a cursory reading of Nietzsche (an atheist’s atheist if ever there was one) strongly hints at out of the ordinary experiences and moments. And a close reading? Moments of unbounded joy, of harrowing despair, and of uncanny moments of timeliness. Usually passages suggesting such things are ignored or treated as evidence of insanity. The fact remains that a more gullible person in 19th Century Germany would have blathered tediously on about visions of God, Jesus, Heaven, Hell and all sorts of Christian symbols. That he did not and that he also did not make believe that he did not have quasi-religious moments make Nietzsche one of the great skeptics.
Use of traditional imagery brings up unpleasant associations of institutions with even more unpleasant histories. Even saying “religious experience” suggests segregation of-out-of-the-ordinary moments away from the rest of life’s moments. Saying “religious” already brings in an unwarranted bifurcation of the sacred and the profane before investigation and discussion even begin. Even the stodgiest version of Christianity has God judging us for our acts both in the sacred realm and in the profane. The distinction between the sacred and profane is a creation of human beings and human institutions: it does not apply to God. The language with which we are most comfortable fails us.
A distinction needs to be made between religion as a collection of experiences (this may be peculiarly Protestant, I’m undecided at this time) and institutions and communities that have grown up around traditions emanating from experiences of timelessness, overwhelming joy, soul death and the like. Religion as it usually thought of is one expression among others of the sociability intrinsic to homo sapiens. Every community needs some kernel of shared experiences and outlook around which to build itself. Even if it only amounts to “we are not like them” as with racists. Sometimes I wonder if every religious tradition looks back to a time when “the gods walked among us.” For Christianity the god no longer walk among us because the Age of Miracles is past. From my limited knowledge and the garbled versions available in American popular culture, I guess something similar about Islam. Buddhism strikes me as different. Nirvana is not a positive experience of something. It is emptiness and cessation. I’d guess that Nirvana is the experience of timelessness, a moment of escape from the changeableness of life (aka the cycle of death and rebirth). What we Westerners might call touching eternity.Or maybe not. I’d be curious to know how the various Buddhist traditions see their own history.
And as for the less well-known religions, I have absolutely no idea. At best I can only speak of Christianity, and even then I can only speak of Protestantism, and even of Protestantism I can only speak about one historically and geographically bound variety, and even in this already limited case, a case could be made that my short time (~18 months) as a formal Christian only makes to the shallowest knowledge possible, even with a history of attending various churches throughout my childhood and adolescence. In my defense I can say that I have thought longer, harder and more deeply about Christianity and religion than I ever did than when I explicitly regarded myself as Christian or religious.
The language we want to use to talk about the meaning of life, fulfillment, and consideration of one’s existence as a whole uses the wrong metaphors. The words and symbols say more than we mean and not enough of what we do mean. Freshness and immediacy are lacking in the customary expressions. The slate has been wiped clean. The horizon has been wiped clean. We have been wiped clean. The future has been wiped clean.