A Single Ineffable Experience

The rise of secularism and religious pluralism are developments which must inevitably prompt Christians to review their own worldview. To the extent that the traditional Christian worldview might still be operating under the assumption that it owns the metaphysical explanation of the world, the existence of other religious groups or traditions professing metaphysical theories incompatible with it, and even the popular denial of religion altogether, should be expected to have profound consequences on the Christian self-understanding. These changes to the spiritual landscape must be acknowledged and the full measure of their implications must be worked out in order for the Christian worldview to evolve and move forward.

It is in this spirit of critical evaluation and constructive renewal that Charles Davis asks What is Living, What is Dead in Christianity Today?[1] For Davis, to begin with, the literal interpretation of the Christian scriptures is no longer appropriate. For Davis, the scriptures should be understood metaphorically instead of literally: “the realistic narratives of the bible are historylike, rather than historical in the modern sense, so that they constitute an elaboration and patterning of the events narrated into a metaphoric representation of the religious experience of the People of God” (Davis, 19). While the bible contains what sound like real stories involving actual people living in specific historical times and places, the modern religious person is mistaken if s/he attributes to these stories the status of history, that is to say, if s/he assumes that they are true in the literal sense. That the stories sound like history does not make them such. As Davis explains, “the biblical texts are realistic narratives, resulting from a fusion of history and fiction. Their point is missed and their meaning lost if they are interpreted as straight history” (Davis, 40).

But to downgrade the stories of the bible from historical fact to metaphoric representation is not to deny their significance within the context of religion. While the factuality of the stories can, and indeed should be, questioned by historians and others, Davis argues that, more importantly, at least from the perspective of the religionist, the essence of the stories and the religious experiences they provoke are themselves very real. As Davis explains, “Faith is not merely a subjective experience in the sense that the subject is enclosed within his or her own states without reaching any reality beyond them. Just as all consciousness as intentional is consciousness of something, so also faith as intentional is the experience of the reality felt in the darkness that surrounds human existence” (Davis, 9). Faith, for Davis, is therefore a creative human response to something real, although the nature of the thing responded to is clouded in mystery. Faith, then, should not be understood merely as a figment of the human imagination, even though the sacred texts and stories that provide a context for such a faith are themselves somewhat imagined, and even though the efficacy of the language used to express such a faith is hopelessly limited. Faith is the natural human response to the mysterious and the unknown, but the imperfect nature of that response should not be used as a reason to negate the existence of the object of the response. Davis argues that the object of faith is real insofar as through faith religious people respond to the existence of something mysterious and unknown. Put differently, the ontological status of the object of faith is established by the felt need to respond to something that is known to exist by virtue of the fact that it creates a response in people, even though that very thing is mysterious and incomprehensible. The universal human experience of faith could not take place without a real trigger, without there being something out there which, although not intellectually conceivable, is nonetheless sensed and admired. As Davis puts it, “Faith is the fundamental religious response. It is the orientation towards mystery or unlimited reality accepted or assented to in a self-transcendent response or movement of unrestricted love” (Davis, 114).

For Davis, the immediacy of mysticism motions towards a unique fundamental spiritual experience common to all religious traditions. As Davis explains, “According to the tradition to which he or she belongs, the mystic follows a particular conceived path to a particular conceived goal. At the same time, the immediacy of the experience reached, its surpassing of every formulation, its relativizing of every interpretation, including its own, grounds the recognition that there are other paths and that differently conceived goals may be ways of pointing to a single ineffable experience with a single ineffable referent or term” (Davis, 96). Mysticism as the purest and most intense type of religious experience occurs at a mental and psychological level far above and beyond the level at which we bother, still within the realm of religion, to care about the intricacies of symbols, rituals and other common religious artefacts. The religious tradition is a kind of runway for the mystic to take off from in his/her flight towards a more direct connection to the transcendent, and once the mystic takes flight, the particular paths and goals of the tradition are surpassed. In this process of spiritual escalation, the common, everyday objects and practices of religious traditions lose some of their significance. A religious tradition in this sense is understood as little more than the product of the inherently limited human attempt to map the road towards the transcendent. A tradition constitutes a particular interpretation or formulation of the single ineffable experience, and as such, it must coexist among other, sometimes even mutually exclusive competing interpretations of that same ineffable experience.

If we entertain this notion, as revealed by mysticism, of a single ineffable experience located at the core of all spiritual activity, the implications for religion are profound. Indeed, if we entertain such a notion, the fervency with which the particular scriptures and teachings of the different religious traditions witnessed in the world today are individually emphasized seems largely overplayed, since in the final analysis it would seem that all these particular formulations are merely varying expressions of the same ultimate reality. As Davis concludes, “The bearing of my remarks is that it is no longer appropriate, if it ever was, to look to Christianity for an objectively validated account in propositional form of God, the cosmos, human life, and history” (Davis, 118). For Davis, the fleeting essence of spirituality, the single ineffable experience approached most convincingly by the mystic, is not the kind of thing that can convincingly be translated by humans into specific and reliable propositions about the things religion is typically concerned with, such as God, the nature of the universe, the meaning of life, etc. The specific propositions of Christianity and other world religions regarding God, the cosmos, etc., are suspect insofar as they might be the products of an overreaching human imagination in response to an experience not truly informative on these matters in that way. For Davis, in fact, there are two levels of religious thought, the categorical level and the transcendental level. The specifically Christian (or Jewish or Buddhist or other) propositions would belong to the categorical level, while the transcendental level is reserved for the universal claim to the transcendent. As Davis explains:

While the unity and universality of the human relationship with the Ultimate or Beyond would be secured at the transcendental level, the categorical level would allow for the plurality and complementarity of traditions as found in the religious history of humankind. What is distinctively Christian, in contrast to, say, Buddhism or Judaism or other traditions, would seem to belong to the categorical level and thus without the universal claim proper to the transcendental. In that way, the universal incidence of supernatural faith and revelation would be reconciled with the particularity of the Christian revelation (Davis, 58).

The beauty of this dual perspective on religious thinking is that it accommodates relationships to the transcendent while acknowledging the limited ability of humans to translate those supernatural relationships into particular categories. The fundamental religious impulse is the same for Christians, Jews and Buddhists, but the stories and symbols produced by these different religious denominations in response to that impulse may vary. Stories and symbols, after all, are merely human creations, while the transcendent remains beyond depiction. In the end, all struggle, and ultimately fail, to ground the religious impulse into categories which do it justice.

But while the transcendent is ultimately inaccessible to the human creative imagination, it does not follow that the divine is absent from human history. Davis rejects the religious proposition of a sacred world that is separate from the everyday world, finding sacredness instead in the historical process of human life. For Davis, “Christian realism, properly speaking, is the identification of religion with the living out of our ordinary lives in the one world of everyday existence. It is the rejection of a separate sacred world, and an affirmation of the sacredness and meaningfulness of the concrete reality of human, historical life” (Davis, 117). For Davis, reason fails to validate religious doctrines as factual, unchanging certainties. As seen through the lens of reason, the Christian promise of a new world beyond history is unconvincing. Instead of revolving around the fantasy of some otherworldly dimension, Christianity ought to be understood as a transforming principle housed right within the world of ordinary existence. If, through the power of our own reason we cannot without great difficulty accept the notion of a separate world beyond our own as the credible object of religious faith, then we ought to look no further than to our own historical process as the location of divine presence and transformation. If the only thing we ultimately know to be true and real is our own history, then we should seek to understand the workings of divine involvement specifically within that history. As Davis explains, “Divine revelation is the involvement through faith of the divine Spirit in the human, historical process of religious knowledge” (Davis, 115).

[1] Davis, Charles. (1986). What is living, what is dead in Christianity today? San Francisco: Harper & Row Publishers.


Disestablishment, Disengagement

In The End of Christendom and the Future of Christianity,[i] Douglas John Hall acknowledges the decline and fall of Christendom, that is to say the reduction or disestablishment of Christianity’s imperial status as it was first established in the Constantinian era. As Hall explains, “This religion has been a great power in the world. It can still be regarded here and there as though its imperial status were intact, but it is nevertheless in the process of being reduced” (Hall, 1-2). Christianity’s relation to power has therefore changed in an unfavourable way, and for Hall, the problem is that not many Christians have truly come to grips with this reality: “Attempts to confess the faith that are not cognizant of this situation, and especially those that deliberately ignore the changed circumstances of the Church in the world, cannot succeed as authentic confessions of the faith, for they avoid or fail to grasp the status of the confessing body itself, which is now no longer one of singular power and influence but that of a peripheral voice” (Hall, 2). Insofar as the faithful continue to equate Christianity with Western dominance and ignore the reality of the present historical context, their faith is, in a sense, expired, since it is no longer connected to the reality in which it is practiced. As Hall explains, “Presumption upon the past power and glory of Christendom is perhaps the greatest deterrent to faith’s real confession in our present historical context” (Hall, 3). The change in the status of the confessing body in relation to power implies that the Christian faith as it has been historically understood and practiced is no longer relevant or even meaningful. To the extent that the faithful remain ignorant of the new reality and refuse to engage in the necessary reconsideration of the object and purpose of their faith in light of the changed circumstances, the practice of such a faith effectively amounts to repeatedly pressing a button on an apparatus with no electricity. In effect, all progress is stalled until the veil of foregone historical glory is wilfully removed.

According to Hall, we are currently experiencing a great transition whereby widespread secularism and religious pluralism have become the new cultural realities, and the refusal on behalf of Christian denominations to acknowledge this trend and to accordingly relinquish their old institutional structures amounts to a pointlessly unresponsive moral attitude and results in a loss of purpose. Undoubtedly, this unresponsive attitude has something to do with unwillingness on behalf of Christians to let go of their conventional expectations about the future: “The future that must be contemplated now seems altogether to contradict the future that centuries of official Christianity taught Christians to anticipate” (Hall, 8). For Hall, a serious price is being paid by the confessing body as a result of its unwillingness to acknowledge the transition that it is currently undergoing. For Hall, “the commitment to the established institutional model of the church – to Christendom in its various institutional forms – is the single most important cause of inertia and the retardation of intentional and creative response to this great transition” (Hall, 7). This transition is not one originating from within the confessing body itself, but is rather being imposed on it by outside forces, namely secularism and religious pluralism. The signal for change from without is a serious one which calls into question the existing institutional forms of the Church and suggests the need for a change that is both creative and profound. While there is always an element of faith that is blind, when faith is too blind it risks becoming irrelevant. For Hall, this is precisely the risk faced by Christians today. Hall’s thesis should therefore be understood as an immediate call for action.

According to Hall, much of the difficulty Christians from the United States and Canada experience in distancing themselves from the church has to do with the tenacity of Christianity’s cultural establishment in those countries. According to Hall, “The establishment of the Christian religion in both Canada and the United States, particularly the latter, has been infinitely more subtle and profound than anything achieved in the European parental cultures.” For Hall, the degree to which Christianity is embedded within culture in North America is far greater than in Europe, and to this Hall attributes the legal rather than cultural nature of the establishment of Chrisitianity in Europe: “whereas the traditional establishments of European Christendom were at the level of form, ours have been at the level of content” (Hall, 29). For Hall, Christianity is so much more deep-rooted in North American culture that Christians here can scarcely distinguish between faith and culture within their own society: “The substance of the faith and the substance of our cultural values and morality appear, to most real or nominal Christians in the United States and Canada, virtually synonymous” (Hall, 31).

Hall’s argument that Christianity’s stronghold on North American culture explains the reluctance of North American Christians to acknowledge their own disestablishment is interesting but not entirely convincing. To be sure, faith and culture are deeply connected, but this is true for any society where religion has played an important historical role. Durkheim would go so far as to say that society is the birthplace of all religion, the very cause of its existence. As such, it would require significant effort to show how the impact of the Christian religion on the formation of European society was any less important than it was in North America. Also, the supposedly purposeful resistance to Christian disestablishment described by Hall conflicts somewhat with the necessarily subtle nature of the continuing influence of religious elements within culture. The liberal rejection of the overt religious expansionist endeavours of the past such as foreign missions and global evangelism implies that religion has had to become much more subtle in protecting, and if at all possible, expanding its place within society. This subtle infiltration of religion into the deeper foundation of culture has led to the present state of affairs whereby faith and culture are intellectually indistinguishable in North America, as Hall effectively points out. Given this concealment of religion within society and culture, how is it that North American Christians can be thought to purposely resist their disestablishment, since they should presumably be hardly cognisant of that establishment in the first place?

And how exactly should Christians react to the calling into question of their own institutional models? According to Hall, denying the reality of the disestablishment of Christendom is pointless and even counter-productive. Since, as Hall points out, “White Westerners cease to be practicing Christians at a rate of 7,600 per day” (Hall, 37), the reality of the disestablishment of Christianity needs to be properly acknowledged and accepted. But while disestablishment may be something that is happening to Christians, Christians in turn are not powerless in affecting its outcome. Hall therefore suggests that Christians should assume an active rather than a passive role in directing the process of their own disestablishment: “Given a modicum of grace and imagination, thinking Christians today can prepare themselves to see precisely in our disestablishment, not an impersonal and inglorious destiny such as may be the fate of any institution, but the will and providence of God” (Hall, 41). If disestablishment is happening to Christians, then this must be understood by Christians as resulting from the will of God. Through the reality of disestablishment, God presents Christians with a unique and important historical impetus to fundamentally redefine and reposition themselves within society. For Hall, Christians must trust the process and use this opportunity to engage in deep thinking about their spiritual purpose and come up with new ways of enriching society with their vision. As Hall explains, “Even though Christians must reject the modern idea that humans are autonomous makers of history, the covenantal basis of our faith places upon humankind a participatory responsibility for the unfolding of God’s purpose” (Hall, 41). From the Christian viewpoint, God’s purpose can only be realized through human action. In the present historical context, human action is needed on behalf of Christians in order to fulfill God’s purpose through disestablishment.

Hall prescribes disengagement as the appropriate theological response to Christian disestablishment: “Intentional disengagement from the dominant culture with which, in the past, the older Protestant denominations of this continent have been bound up is the necessary precondition for a meaningful engagement of our society, more particularly of that same dominant culture” (Hall, 43). Since Christendom is being disestablished in a manner that Christians have little say over, it comes as no surprise that a suggested response to this disestablishment should be disengagement. After all, when your ship is sinking, is it not better to jump off and try to find an alternative method of survival? Furthermore, to the extent that a failing mechanism (such as Christendom) is due to some deficiency in its design or execution, disengagement would appear to be a necessary first step in the remediation process. After all, you can’t fix a broken car while it is still moving in one direction or another.

For Hall, Christian disengagement constitutes the onerous task of untangling the Christian message from the broader cultural tenets of society: “Concretely speaking, Christians must learn how to distinguish the Christian message from the operative assumptions, values, and pursuits of our host society, and more particularly those segments of our society with which, as so-called mainstream churches, we have been identified” (Hall, 45). But in Hall’s estimate, Christians today are not equipped with the kind of informed thoughtfulness about their faith that is needed in order for them to effectively accomplish this task. According to Hall, “Until a far greater number of church-going Americans and Canadians have become more articulate about the faith than they currently are, we cannot expect the churches to stand back from their sociological moorings far enough to detach what Christians profess from the mishmash of modernism, postmodernism, secularism, pietism, and free-enterprise democracy with which Christianity in our context is so fantastically interwoven” (Hall, 48).

In the final analysis, it would appear that Hall’s order is a tall and potentially unrealistic one. Arguably, Christians have become so accustomed to their faith being embedded within culture that the intellectual challenge of extracting what is truly Christian from the rest of society’s beliefs and aspirations seems overwhelming. This assessment seems reasonable for three reason, the first being the sheer complexity of the task, the second being the fact that Christians as a result of habituation to the status quo are likely not to be intellectually equipped to accomplish the task, and the third being the potential lack of mental motivation on behalf of real or nominal Christians to perform the task given the relative ease with which other spiritual avenues can be pursued. Finally, Hall speaks of the need for Christianity to rediscover its own distinctive ontological foundations, but is not the case that the ontological substance of Christianity has in fact changed as a result of its interaction with society over time, such that the foundations Hall is referring to no longer hold much ontological weight?

[i] Hall, Douglas John. (1997). The End of Christendom and the Future of Christianity. Oregon: Wipf and Stock Publishers.