Yesterday morning on BBC’s The Big Questions, one atheist guest, Jonny Scaramanga, spoke about his charismatic evangelical upbringing, and how as an adolescent he would feel euphoric during times of worship – transported in a way he ascribed at the time to the work of the Holy Spirit. Later on, he made the unsettling discovery that he could experience exactly the same emotions listening to secular music. So it had all been down to the music and not God at all, he reasoned, and, disillusioned, his faith swiftly unraveled.
I believe Christians everywhere who have dipped their toes into unfamiliar aspects of either secular culture or different faith/spiritual cultures will have had similar experiences. Those who read or watched the film of Elizabeth Gilbert’s ‘Eat Pray Love’ will probably recall Elizabeth’s irritated struggle in an Ashram with a painful Hindu liturgy that seemed interminable and discordant – until the night she tried it once again, this time with a heartfelt focus on her young nephew’s sleeping/nightmare issues. It is as though she wrestles with God through the medium of the liturgy and then finally breaks through – when in apparent confirmation of the outcome of her spiritual battle, she learns that her nephew has had a breakthrough of his own with a peaceful, unbroken night’s sleep. So does Elizabeth’s experience validate Hinduism, invalidate Christianity, is this all a coincidence… or is something else going on?
Talking of Hinduism, I know one person who was very impacted by the ‘Toronto Blessing’, and like many others, would fall to the floor jerking wildly whenever he was prayed for. Wow, this had to be God. Then he learned from a Hindu colleague that worshippers experienced exactly the same manifestations within his own religion. Did that nullify my friend’s experience? He certainly thought so, and like Jonny, he too began to lose his faith from that point.
I remember being unnerved myself as I began to attend NLP-based (Neuro-Linguistic Programming – the study of the structure of human experience) conferences when I first trained as a coach. At times, these actually looked and felt uncannily like church, complete with encouragement to connect spiritually, times of corporate release of forgiveness (that were actually more radical than anything I had encountered in church), values that included the belief that identity is to be found in contribution to the world, and so on. One particular session resembled the aftermath of a Toronto church gathering, with groups of giggly shiny-eyed people hugging one another and generally engaging in a huge corporate love-fest. They had just spent a session re-connecting spiritually and by all accounts it had worked.
It was an unnerving period. I would experience times of being in church that were interpreted as the Holy Spirit showing up. Then I would find myself in an NLP group situation that felt very similar, yet which I knew had been engineered through language and other sensory anchors. I began to understand the incredible power of language, and the part this plays in creating our experience of reality. And I began to wonder…
I examined the church situation more closely and realized that those very anchors I had learned about were firmly in place there, too. So here was a dilemma. Did that mean that my experience of God had actually been about the use of language, music and other natural tools all along? It was one of the most challenging times of my life…
Finally, I realised that there was a third option. That God was far bigger than I had conceived him to be, and was actually being accessed and experienced by people everywhere. He was there, present, in the language, in music, in the hearts of those of different faiths and spiritualities (and none). The one thing I couldn’t hold on to any longer was the illusion that God was only to be found within the confines of the Christian church – let alone the narrower confines of the charismatic evangelical church.
On the final day of my NLP Practitioner course, students were asked to write and read aloud a passage using what is known as the ‘Milton Model’ – conscious use of language in order to produce a desired effect. I decided to write about – and recreate for the audience – the very similar experiences I had had in a church situation and in an NLP conference, mentioning the different labels that the speakers in these 2 situations had used to describe what had happened. I brought the piece in to land with a final Miltonian-crafted suggestion:
‘And it may be that as I relate these experiences to you that you find yourself wondering – was there anything transcendent at all about the first experience? Or did the second event show that in reality the Milton model has far more to do with changing your experience – that this is actually one of the incredible uses, joys and delights of his language approach. Or it could be that the extraordinary power of mere words to effect change, itself suggests that there are hidden depths to the universe – couldn’t it?’
Interestingly, numerous students and trainers approached me excitedly after this piece to confide that I exactly articulated their own experience, too. Using the Milton Model had given them a new awareness of a deeply spiritual dimension to the world, one that a number of them were now consciously pursuing.
‘Almost all religion’ explains Richard Rohr, ‘begins with a specific encounter with something that feels “holy” or transcendent: a place, an emotion, an image, music, a liturgy, an idea that suddenly gives you access to God’s Bigger World. The false leap of logic is that other places, images, liturgies, scriptures, or ideas can not give you access.’ And, by extension, that any other apparent means of access has by definition to be false – and also to cast aspersions on the validity of the original ‘holy’ encounter…
Personally, I finally gave up on drawing boundary lines for God and graciously permitted people to access him wherever she was to be found. After all, whether we listen to secular or Christian bands, go through times of spiritual wrestling in a variety of faith traditions, believe ourselves to be moved by the creative power of language or by the direct power of God himself, the bigger truth has to be that there is actually nowhere that God isn’t, ‘for in him we live and move and have our being.’ (Acts 17 v 28).