One of the themes of my novel, Community of Promise, concerns the nature of mystical experience. That is to say, how valid are the messages that people report having received through such experiences and how can they be useful? Several of the characters in the story have mystical experiences that vary in style, content, and meaning. Individually and collectively they must learn some proper use for what they take to be divine communications.
My presupposition in the novel assigns a certain authority to the mystical realm, raising the question of the proper understanding and use of that authority. Is is legitimate for one person to assume (or be given) the right to command others based on some privately revealed divine message? Is is legitimate for a group to coalesce around a particular interpretation, proclaiming it as divine, and then use the group’s collective power to impose that understanding on others? These are common questions that have affected religious identity and practice throughout history.
Conceptually, I find these to be valid and useful questions, but practically speaking, I am aware of my temptation to judge some religious groups and understandings as legitimate (of course, doesn’t everyone agree that this is the truth?), and others as illegitimate “cults” and splinter groups. But, if I am going to be honest, I must question the basis on which such judgments can be made by anybody.
My reading of history tells me that “legitimacy” may be a shaky concept, because it appears that the exercise of power rather than demonstrably objective truth usually confers legitimacy. That kind of temporal power tends to manipulate “divine revelation” into a self-serving justification. So, maybe legitimacy is not really the characteristic I want to explore. Perhaps some identifiable foundation of morality (broadly defined) or ethics is more useful in dealing with experiences of mystical “revelation.”
As I see it, morality and ethics are relational terms that derive their meaning from the nature of the relationship out of which they emerge. Conversely, the nature of any relationship might also be informed by commonly held moral and ethical principles within which it exists, so that relationship and foundation exist in a living mutuality, forever challenging and embodying one another.
For this mutuality to work, we must do without the notion that individuals and groups can be “right” in any absolute sense, even about the insights and glimpses of “truth” that appear to come to us from divinely inspired mystical experiences. And while we might want to hold on to the conceptual possibility of the existence of Absolute Truth, there is a huge body of evidence to demonstrate that our human understanding of it will always be less than absolute. I take this as an axiomatic principle of reality.
Still, I think mystical glimpses of life have value and are worth seeking by whatever means we can, as long as we remember a basic principle of healthy religion that has been articulated by a number of reputable Psychologists of Religion. Healthy religious perspectives can always be modified when confronted with new information, and are not absolute in themselves. Some level of relational trust assists in the process so that we can welcome new information shared in good faith, rather than seeing it as a threat to our power or expertise.
Such an approach invites religions of any stripe to engage in mutually illuminating dialogue, not to prove who is right, but to make use of the variety of perspectives and “revelations” in a sacred attempt to apprehend more Truth for all. It may be that the collegiality emerging from this process will allow us to move from adversarial positions to positions of mutual cooperation, from enemies to friends.
Just for the record, I am not promoting “compromise” here. Compromise is defined as working for the best “deal” you can get between clearly articulated, but diverse positions. I am suggesting that healthy cooperation, even making use of “divine revelation,” is potentially transformative to all parties, often moving them to a collective position that none of them could have imagined apart from their respectful relationships. I think our world needs more of this if we are to survive, much less, thrive.
Am I being naïve and utopian? Perhaps. But, I believe that this process is still worth considering.
How do you see it?
Wayne E. Gustafson
“The Promised Land is within and among us.”