Today on “Here and Now,” the NPR program, the conductor Sir David Wilcox was being interviewed by Robin Young about conducting choirs. She asked him about that moment when a singing choir hits every note exactly right, so powerfully that, “everything falls away and there is only white light and the conductor.” Wilcox had nothing to add to that, but agreed that it happened. Bob Scriver spoke eloquently of the experience of being in tune, saying that it reached down into one’s deepest body and put everything into the powerful sensation of harmony.
Decades ago I had a “travel sermon” that I took around to various pulpits. It was about that kind of transcendent moment when in a strange paradox one felt oneself saturated and continuous with the higher power of the universe while at the same time having one’s deepest existence confirmed. It is rarely planned or even expected, but can strike or seize one with heart-shaking power that is never forgotten. When I preached this sermon, people would come up afterwards to tell me about such moments. One man said it happened when he was camping with his family and was bathing the baby in the dishpan at a picnic table. Another person said it happened when she was driving west and came up over a hilltop just as the last of the sun set behind mountains. Often they were connected to nature. But I once had a brief moment like that while standing on an “el” station in Chicago, hardly a pastoral scene though there was a powerful sky.
People go at religion -- defining it and so on -- many different ways and therefore it’s not surprising they would end up with many different conclusions. They think of religion mostly in terms of institutions: traditions, rules for daily living, ethics, sources of authority such as a religious leader or a book, and so on. Not many speak of the pure experience of transcendence.
Mircea Eliade did and institutionalists didn’t appreciate it. Eliade said that anyone can “feel” even the mild differences between the sacred and the profane that are in, for instance, a house. The points of significance would be points of transition (doors and windows, stairs), sources of fire or food or water (Santa’s fireplace, mother’s kitchen, the bathroom) and extremes, such as the highest place in the house and the lowest. He might reflect that the fact so many houses now have neither attic nor cellar is a loss of mystery and memory. I wouldn’t argue.
It was Tillich who was always playing with the symbolic perpendiculars: the shaft of the Cross that goes up to heaven and down into the earth (both meaning transcendence) versus the horizontal cross-piece on which one extends arms to include all reached by the horizon, humanity. So one might argue that the chimney of the house is a vertical while the roof is a horizon. Pushing it, but still... How about the star shining straight down on a cave versus the long horizontal roads of the shepherds and kings? If you know other traditions besides Christianity, it’s probably possible to find other examples because the ideas of vertical and horizontal are so basic.
It is at this level, this emotional ignition of awe, this kindling of the spirit, through which I prefer to approach religion. To my mind the work of religious leaders ought properly -- besides the defense of justice, the encouragement of compassion, and the constant need for institutional reforms and renewals -- to be creating the conditions for the most innocent and spontaneous moments of harmony with the universe. No edifice or hierarchy or text can be justified truthfully except by such moments in all lives.
I’m not speaking of the creation of altars, the practice of pilgrimage, or the anointment of saints. All that is earthly and often a source of disharmony as institutions compete for adherents, territory and control: secular and therefore transient.
One of the major preoccupying questions of our times is whether there is actually anything beyond us, outside our perceptions even with instruments. We don’t like to accept our limits, our boundaries. And yet there is this experience of being limitless, without boundaries, that is there always -- and, when permitted, strikes us almost forcibly.
They say that transmitting mild electromagnetic energy through the temporal lobes of the brain will make people have this experience. (Or some recommend drugs.) I don’t know how much I trust that, but I’m willing to consider it as a minor truth. It seems like jiggling the instrument since the experience can come without any laboratory stimulation. But maybe religious experience IS something happening in the brain without any relationship to external phenomena of the universe. We know we only detect a small amount of what goes on “out there” and we know that in the first years of life, when the brain shapes itself according to what it perceives, it forms deep (one might say “immanent”) categories which shape that child’s experience of life forever. Those categories don’t necessarily fit with the categories of any given religion, but I would guess that the better the fit, the stronger the faith, the easier to sense harmony.
These categories would be wordless and more basic than we are used to considering: being lifted up securely (not in danger of being dropped); being warmed gently (neither burned nor chilled), being fed or drinking; light and dark; transformation as people come and go; voices and music; smells; being tenderly washed. It seems to me that these “baby things” are what we touch when we feel that moment of transcendent harmony.
So now consider an infant as a religious symbol -- either an objective beloved infant or one’s own incoherent wordless experience. Some people reach that moment of selfless satisfaction and cherishedness in sexual union, though probably not the people who subscribe to the SPAM notion of sex as being attacked by a battering ram. The mistaken substitution of power (or drugs) for love bedevils both sex and institutions.
In our society we seem to have always a proportion of infants who are born unwanted, uncherished, uncomforted and unfed -- maybe beaten, cold, or tortured with boiling water or cigarettes. How can they be religious? Some will be born already hooked on drugs, already damaged by alcohol. How can a religion like Christianity, which founds itself on a sacred birth, allow such things to happen?
I would suggest it is because these people, when grown, are so enormously vulnerable to those institutions that would exploit them. From suicide bombers to chemical contaminators, those people are doomed to dissonance. Or are they? Could music or art or nature, for instance, redeem them?