SEOP 1: Personal Significance

“Finally at one point I surrendered. I said “OK God, I want you, I want truth, more than I want this book'” and once I made that choice, made that surrender, all the turmoil, all the struggle, everything lifted. I had no idea of the cross, I really had no idea what Jesus Christ had done for me, no idea of the plan of salvation, all I knew was I came face to face with God, and he told me this is what I had to do. And once I made the choice, I didn’t have a qualm, I didn’t have a doubt” — Seventh Day Adventist testimony.

The Spiritual Experience Odyssey Project (SEOP)

The Spiritual Experience Odyssey Project seeks to create secular based models of spiritual experiences.

Something I want to do upfront is a quick reference to appropriate nomenclature. In Mormonism people tend to refer to what I am writing about as “Spiritual Experiences” — but as I do increasingly more research I find that this terminology is not necessarily what the rest of the world and religious world uses. Instead, they use the term “Religious Experiences”. Because I think that these two things are indeed the same, from now on these two words will likely be used interchangeably. Due to my LDS history / background, I still choose to name this project based on the LDS terminology.

Before I go into any detail about what explanations exist for how religious experiences work on a secular level, I felt it most appropriate to firstly discuss something on a personal level; that is, just because one can explain something, does not mean this thing is any less significant (*in particular ways). 

To use a crude (and somewhat humorous) example to illustrate this idea, let’s speak briefly about orgasm. To my knowledge, no formal LDS source has ever identified the feelings of orgasm with spirituality, so we can consider it merely a physical sensation, even from an LDS worldview. Nevertheless, there’s no doubt that orgasm is truly an intense physical sensation — So, just because orgasm as a sensation can be explained and defined in purely physiological terms, does not take away from the reality and intensity of the sensation (I think this is related to the hard problem of consciousness)

In fact, in my experience, explaining and understanding something scientifically, rather than taking away from the majesty of the thing, it actually adds to it, making it grander and more significant than before.

I want to assert that I strongly hold and maintain the view that spiritual or religious experiences are not reliable bases on which to establish specific theological truth claims. I’ve gone into that extensively in the past, and given the micro and macro inconsistencies identified I treat that subject as “closed”, it is my belief that anyone who honestly considers the evidence would come to the same (at least “broad”) conclusion. The subject of the epistemological issues with the spiritual witness is not the primary scope of this project, though naturally there might be occasional references to that.

So, given the premise that establishing truth claims is not a valid use of spiritual experiences, that does not mean that spiritual experiences do not have other significant, profound and wonderful personal implications outside of the truth claim realm.

Hence, before we go into spiritual experiences and various explanations in depth in future articles, I wanted to spend some time talking about their personal significance in real people’s lives.

Life transforming experiences

A little while back a good friend of my wife had a Near Death Experience (NDE), he was kind enough to share his journal of the event and gave me permission to use some of his account in my blog. I quote from his journal:

“Somehow, I woke up. On that squeaky bed, in that dirty hospital, in that cold world. I felt confused. I felt like I was moving backwards in my evolutionary progress. The depression and surrealism is as much a part of you coming back to this world as the peace and warmth is going to that next world.

I slept more than usual the following week. In the hours I was awake, I spent them adoring the trees surrounding my bedroom. I was enthralled with nature. I could feel the trees breathing, I could see their bodies shake from laughter as the wind tickled them. Everything was connected with me, the trees would look back to me as I would stare at them, as crazy as that sounds.

God was nature, it was the wind, it was the trees, it was the grass, the rain, it was even in me. All my previous vices were insignificant, nowhere near me. The excitements of life I once knew were all insignificant. The world was created for us. All of us, not the individual. Everything was insignificant but nature and humanity.

My body picked up the needle and spool and began sewing my spirit into itself again. I knew this because I slowly started to feel those vices come back on to me. When you return from that world, you do not come back to reality all at once. This world was much more surreal than the world I was headed for. Money, woman, pride. They all creep up on you slowly like a dark fog that you know you cannot stop.”

Our friend noticed a massive change in his life in the aftermath of his NDE. He noticed that the “vices” of life were pushed back for a time, and became meaningless. He had found something higher, purer, and more profound in his life. His fundamental perspective of reality had changed in a positive way, making him more appreciative of life.

Religious experiences can be life changing. They can change our perspectives and outlook on life; adding hope, removing fear, removing pettiness, inspiring greater devotion, inspiring greater love for our fellow man, making us feel a oneness with the universe, increasing our compassion, kindness, and empathy towards those around us. They can help us let go of selfish desires that don’t necessarily lead to happiness. They can help us forgive others. They can help us grow and increase in our desire to be better people. Overall, I think it’s fair to assert that religious experiences add flavour and joy to our lives, giving us experiences that stand out over the mundane, everyday occurrences in our lives.

Not taking away from personal (non-doctrinal) significance

I feel a need before I enter into this project to acknowledge “all of the above”. My efforts in trying to explain religious experiences are not an aim to diminish their personal importance to people (though some who insist on their use for doctrinal claims might disagree) — but to ennoble them through understanding, which is part of my own spiritual journey.

So thus we complete piece 1 of the puzzle: Personal significance 


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  1. Pingback: SEOP 2: Argument from indistinguishability | Shawn's Odyssey

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