Nicholas Lash: hope and “religious experience”

by Kim on December 23, 2011

But to what do we refer when we speak of “religious’ experience”? One of the components of the remarkable revival of interest, in recent years, in what is called “religion”, seems to have been a growing and largely unquestioned assumption that the concept of “religious experience” stands for a discriminable psychological state, alongside such states as fear, and love, and hope and pain. In the quest for such experience, through a variety of forms of spiritual techniques and religious associations, increasing numbers of people seem to find meaning and identity, wholeness and a sort of peace. But in what sense, and for whom, is such wholeness and peace liberation rather than a reinforcement of slavery? …

The pedlars of “religion” are currently among the most vociferous of the utopian guides in our darkness. But where are they leading us? A friend of mine was asked a few years ago how, as a Christian theologian, he reacted to the renewed interest in “religion”. He replied: “I don’t know. I’m not yet sure whether these are movements of hope or of despair.”

For my part, I am increasingly convinced that, in their dissociation of “sacred” from “secular”, of feeling from rationality, of spirit from matter, of satisfaction from responsibility, many of these movements speak the accents of despair. Not the least disturbing feature that many of them have in common is their radical egocentricity: “religion”, human experience of and contact with the mystery that some call God, loses altogether that fundamental quality of attentiveness, in darkness, to the silence of God, and becomes a set of techniques for the self-satisfaction of human needs. We seem a long way from the Sermon on the Mount and the Garden of Gethsemane.

Am I calling in question the appeal to experience as the ground of human hope? By no means. But it is at least worth considering whether the Christian, for whom the veil of the temple between sacred and secular, religion and politics, spirit and matter, is confessed to have been — in the historical enfleshment of God’s Word and Spirit — torn down, should seek the experience of God elsewhere than in the particular mundane details of human experience.

Nicholas Lash, “Waiting for God: the integrity of expectation”, in Seeing in the Dark: University Sermons (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 2005), pp. 7-9.

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