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.


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