A Conversation On Religious Experience

A couple of summers ago, a friend and I waited at a parking lot by Cottonwood Pass in Colorado for a ride back to Buena Vista. Bad weather had forced us off the Colorado Trail, and we now needed transportation to the nearest lodging venue. A pair of daytrippers, a middle-aged couple, appeared, walking back to their parked vehicle, done with their viewing and photography for the day. We walked over and made our request: could we please hitch a ride with them? They were not going back all the way to Buena Vista, but only to a campground nearby; would that work? We said it would; we would find another ride from there. In we hopped, and off we went.

As we drove, introductions were made; we were from Brooklyn, our benefactors were visiting from Texas, sans children and grandchildren.  When asked what I ‘did,’ I said I was a professor of philosophy at the City University of New York. Intrigued, they asked which classes I taught; when I listed philosophy of religion as one of them, they asked me if I was religious. I said that I wasn’t religious in belief or practice, but was very interested in the problems and questions that arose in that domain of philosophy. I asked my newly made friends if they were religious; they both said they were devout Christians. I asked them if their faith had been a matter of being born into a devout family, and they both replied that while they had been born into churchgoing families, each had had an individual ‘experience’ that had cemented their faith, given it a new dimension, and indeed caused them to say they ‘found Christ’ only later in life–in each case, following a profound ‘crisis’ of one sort or the other. When Christ ‘had come’ to them, they had ‘felt’ it immediately, and had never had any doubt ‘in their hearts’ from that point on. I listened, fascinated. I made note of the fact that I taught an section on ‘religious experiences’ in my class, and mentioned William James and St. Teresa of Avila‘s theoretical and personal accounts of its phenomena.

When my new friends were done recounting the story of their journey to their faith, they asked me again if I was sure I wasn’t religious. I said that I was quite sure I had no theistic belief–even as I remained fascinated by religion as a social, cultural, psychological, and intellectual phenomena and by the nature of religious feeling–which is why, of course, I had inquired into the nature of their religious belief and how they came by their beliefs. In response, my friends said they were ‘relieved’ to hear of my attitude, that they frequently skirted the subject in conversation with ‘strangers’ because they didn’t want anyone to feel they were proselytizing; I assured them I didn’t think they were, and that I had found the conversation singularly illuminating.

We had driven on past the campground that was supposed to be our destination; our friends said they found our conversation worth continuing; they would drop us to Buena Vista. Rain clouds were still threatening, so this offer was most welcome. Soon, we found ourselves on Buena Vista’s Main Street, our destination for the day. We alighted, grabbed our backpacks, posed for a photograph or two, and then bade them farewell; I asked for their names, but did not write them down, and so have forgotten them. But not that conversation; there was a refreshing warmth and openness on display that was refreshing, and in the context of the US and its endless ‘religious wars,’ a genuine sense of novelty.

On Self-Censoring Opinions, Verbal Or Written

I would like to consider myself a plain-speaking person, the kind who is always able to ‘speak his mind,’ ‘say what he is thinking,’ ‘tell us what he really thinks,’ and so on. But I’m afraid the evidence suggests that all too frequently, in all too many conversational spaces, I bite my tongue and hold my peace, suppressing words that might otherwise have found expression. A written counterpart to this behavior exists, of course: in online discussion spaces too–like this one, for instance–I do not venture an opinion in many domains. We do all do so for reasons of propriety and etiquette, of course, and indeed, such self-restraint is often a virtue of sorts, but there are many other reasons for not speaking up or holding forth.

Sometimes I engage in such self-censorship because, quite simply, I have nothing to add to an ongoing conversation–I sense that what I’m about to say would be redundant or not as perspicuous as other contributions to it. I like to talk, and like anyone else, consider my opinions to be ‘correct’ ones, so such holding back does not come easily to me.

Far more interesting is the case, of course, when I hold back for fear of provoking a reaction I do not have the time or the inclination to ‘process.’ This situation should also be familiar to us: for instance, we do not rise to the bait at a family gathering when a relative says something offensive (every family has, I suppose, a list of topics that must not be broached on such occasions.)  Or sometimes, even more interestingly, we sense the opinion we express will be misunderstood, misinterpreted, taken out of context, its ‘subtleties’ ignored–all resulting in a cascade of vituperative condemnation directed our way. We despair over ever being able to ‘explain’ the thesis we would proffer, and sense the dispute that would arise as we navigated the various discursive obstacles that would be placed in the way of such clarification would be insuperable. Perhaps we would dig a deeper hole for ourselves as we attempted to  ‘clarify’ what we meant to say. (These are, of course, indications that we should consider whether we should wait a while to see if we can revise a draft of what we want to say to see if its content can be made sharper; such considerations apply equally to verbal and written opinions.)

Such self-censorship is, I think, more prevalent in the online context. The infamous ‘tweet storms’ that result when an inexpertly written and inarticulate tweet–begging for emendation and clarificatory follow-up on a ‘sensitive’ subject makes the rounds–can easily overwhelm the hapless offender. So can the vitriol on a Facebook status commentary space. Writing one comment–or tweet–after another in a desperate attempt to patch the leaks in the dyke is all too often a losing cause. Better to suck it up and retreat to lick your wounds, bruised but considerably wiser, forewarned and forearmed for your next foray online.


The Missed Rejoinder: Memorable For All The Wrong Reasons

A few years ago, I served as a referee for the National Science Foundation, reading and evaluating grant proposals, and hopefully, being fair to the hopeful applicants. Once I had submitted my preliminary report, I traveled to Washington DC for a final meeting with other referees for that round of funding; we met over two days to classify the proposals into three categories that read something like ‘Funding Certain’ ‘Undecided’ and finally, ‘Reject.’ Unsurprisingly, our discussions were quite vigorous with frequent disagreements, and sometimes contention, on display. During one of these disputes, after I had finished stating why I thought a proposal to fund a mentoring workshop for junior faculty didn’t look sufficiently well put-together, articulated, or planned, a fellow referee, a professor from a private university, one clearly committed to getting the proposal through and over the finish line, delved into the ad-hominem during his attempted refutation, concluding with, ‘Let me tell you something pal, you’ve led a sheltered life!’

Before I could respond, another member of the panel correctly pointed out the personally offensive nature of that sort of remark, called for calm, and our deliberations continued. The proposal was eventually funded.

I was seething though and continued to for a long while. (As the writing of this post shows, perhaps I never stopped.) The funding of the proposal wasn’t what had upset me. Rather, I had not had a chance to say what I wanted in response, which in unvarnished form would have gone something like this:

I’ve led a sheltered life? Excuse me? I left home twenty years ago and came to this country as an immigrant, finished ten years of graduate school with inconsistent funding, sometimes working on the side to make ends meet; I studied in one of America’s worst inner cities; I teach in a public university; and you, a man who enjoys the privilege of his race and teaches in a private university, you’re telling me I’ve led a sheltered life. Why don’t you–pardon my French–go take a flying fuck at the moon?

And then, I would have dramatically pushed my chair back, and walked out of the conference room.

In my dreams.

What is it about the missed rejoinder, the missed opportunity for the perfect comeback, that galls us so? Why do the burrs left under our saddles by moments like that continue to aggravate us in particularly and peculiarly painful ways? I don’t think any great rhetorical point was scored by my opponent; I wasn’t humiliated; I wasn’t refuted; the pompous twit did get reprimanded in a fashion; and perhaps anyone with a modicum of intelligence in that room saw that his remark was uncalled for and ridiculous. (No one, however, came up to me after the meeting to say as much.)

The problem, I suppose, is that we carry around too many memories like these; life throws us into close proximity, too often for our comfort, into the company of those that are quick with the personally hurtful quip. The man suggesting I had lived a ‘sheltered life’ had somehow found, unerringly, the one assessment of me that would cut deep. And the only way we know of fighting back at that moment is to retaliate in kind. When that opportunity is denied, perhaps because we weren’t quick enough on the draw, perhaps because peacekeepers step in, we are denied our moment of release. And forgiving and forgetting and  moving on has never been easy.