There is another challenging aspect to embracing a spirituality of experience. It is not only a matter of paying attention to our own experience. It is also a matter of being open to the experience of others. How do we affirm each other’s spiritual experience when that experience may be very different from our own? How do we bring individual spiritual experience into the cauldron of community? If we approach these questions in a merely logical way, we can come up short.
For example, those of a skeptical nature might find it challenging to understand the experience of someone who relates vivid encounters with non-physical beings: gods or angels or spirits. If you do not experience such beings, you might find it inexplicable that others might. It might contradict everything you know about the world. Could there be such a reality, beyond the reach of our ordinary senses? I am not going to ask you to believe in it, but to take into account the possibility that some people may experience it. There are times when experience—our own or that of others—goes beyond our rational understanding.
Some cultures tend to be more at ease about such phenomena. I have a friend who is Puerto Rican. In her culture, one of the ancient traditions brought from Africa is called Santeria. When my friend opens her awareness to experience the larger reality, images from her culture come to life. She sees the spirits of Elegba and Oshun and Oya, with vivid colors and songs that others in her culture also report. These spirit beings interact with her and have been very significant in her life. Who is anyone to say they are not part of reality, when a whole culture affirms and cherishes them?
I am not saying we should not bring our reasoning to bear on our experience. My encounter with people of other cultures has made me more appreciative of the mystical elements of reality, and ironically, also more skeptical. It has taught me how our cultural context shapes our experience, even at what we imagine to be the most intimate and personal levels. If, as a child, I felt held in the loving arms of Jesus, was that reality, or was that an image shaped by what I had been taught to expect? Or could it be both?
When I was twenty six, I learned how my religious tradition had been shaped by the dominance of men in my culture, and I became suspicious of images of God that excluded the female. These male God images had been influenced by the assumptions and values of those in power. I had received no cultural mirror in which to imagine divinity in a feminine way.
So there is a paradox. Our experience of reality is shaped by our cultural context. This can affect our lives in both positive and negative ways. There are times when we need our rational understanding to be able look critically at experience. Experience is the essence of spirituality but it is not infallible. We must measure spiritual experience by the values and thoughtfulness with which we should measure all parts of our lives.
But there are times when our reasoning may be confounded. Let me tell you another part to the story. My Puerto Rican friend fell in love with a white woman who was a cynic about spiritual matters. Her passion was the work of social justice. However, when she entered a relationship with my Puerto Rican friend, her cynicism was challenged in an unexpected way. She began to see Elegba and Oshun and Oya in her inner imagination. She said to me once, “Those Puerto Rican spirits don’t care if I don’t believe in them. They show up whether I want them to, or not.”
There is so much about reality that is mysterious and hard to explain. We rely on our experience, and the experience of others, to give us evidence about the world. If we acknowledge our own experience, our own inner reality, then we must acknowledge the inner reality of others. That leaves us open to dimensions that might be difficult or impossible to measure. So while I would never ask anyone to believe in the unproven, I do invite you to keep an attitude of reverence for all that is unexplained in yourself and in others.
The poet D.H. Lawrence describes it this way:
This is what I believe:
…That my soul is a dark forest.
That my known self will never be more than a little clearing in the forest.
That gods, strange gods, come forth from the forest
into the clearing of my known self, and then go back.
That I must have the courage to let them come and go.
That I will never let mankind put anything over me,
but that I will try always to recognize and submit
to the gods in me and the gods in other men and women.
Quote from D.H. Lawrence, Studies in Classic American Literature:. (Cambridge University Press, 2003) p. 26. Excerpt was first published in English Review, December 1918 in the article “Benjamin Franklin.”