Some of my most meaningful religious experiences happened while I was manic. Or otherwise impaired. Perhaps I was PMSing. Perhaps I'd just given birth. Perhaps I hadn't eaten for a whole day. Perhaps I was deliriously depressed. Regardless, I can't remember one religious experience where I was wholly sane, not under stress, fully in control of my wits and emotionally sober (so to speak).
Which begs the question: were my religious experiences the Holy Spirit or just misfiring neurotransmitters?
In other words, were those experiences real?
I don’t know the answer to that question.
Most of the time I’m OK with not knowing whether my religious experiences were real. They were real enough that I experienced something beautiful and larger than myself, something comforting and life-affirming. They were real enough that I was able to have faith in God. My experience of the divine doesn’t become less real just because it may have been brought on by, say, an overdose of serotonin.
Still, there’s a part of me that really wants to know if what I experienced was real. Objectively real. Empirically real. Because if it wasn’t real, then I’m afraid it’s not true, that I’m simply believing in something conjured up by my feelings and mood.
This is why I’m suspicious of worship services that are geared toward evoking emotional responses. The more smoke-machines and emotionally-fraught music, the more wary I am. The more deeply emotional the experience, the more uncomfortable I am. Not because I don’t find it beautiful. But because I’m worried that a purely emotional response does not accurately reflect reality.
I can feel all kinds of emotions but that does not mean that what I’m feeling accurately reflects what is true.
This is why I’m wary of an experience-based faith. In our faith sub-culture, we place a lot of value on personal experience. We have a whole discipline of “personal testimony” where we bear witness to what God has done in our lives. We share these testimonies with others. And we'd never dare question these testimonies because doing so is almost like questioning God.
In a broader sense, Americans don’t question others’ experiences because that’s a form of “erasure.”
We don’t question our own experiences because we’ve been conditioned to view our own personal experiences as an ultimate form of truth.
“I experienced x, y and z, therefore my conclusions about it represent the truth.”
We even allow eye witness experience in a court of law although scientific experiments have shown just how unreliable eye witness accounts can be.
Personal experience isn’t the whole story. It's one part. I'm worried that to pedestal personal experience is to deny the fact of human limitation. There is so much we don’t know and can’t see. There is so much of the human experience and ultimate reality which we can never know simply because we are not omniscient. We are bound by time and space.
We can only base our beliefs upon fragments. T.S. Eliot once wrote: “These fragments I have shored against my ruin.”
Are these fragments of personal experience enough to shore us against the pounding surf of entropy? Are my personal experiences of God—whether they happened during moments of mania or not—enough to give me an objective understanding of the Divine?
In the end, fragments are all I have. I suppose faith is the cobbling together of these fragments and believing that they somehow represent the whole, that they are capable of pointing us toward Ultimate Truth.
These fragments are all I have. I can only hope they are enough.