Celestial Lands The Religious Crossroads of Politics, Power, and Theology

The Space Between Experiencing and Knowing

I love it when the responses to an article prompt me to another article. One of my most respected teachers, Joshin Roshi, responded to my last article on the symbolic construction of reality by reminding me not to miss the forest for the trees… to not discount the direct experience of totality amid all of our human attempts to make sense of it. It is a point well made.

It is the space between those two… between direct experience of transcending unity, mystery, and wonder (see, words fail even here) and our human attempts to not only use language to express that experience, but also our human attempts to make private meaning from those experiences, that I believe rests much of human conflict and strife. We humans just do not seem to be wired to do the “experiencing” without then trying to do the “knowing”… and it is in our attempts at knowing that our pre-conceptions, prejudices, and constructed symbolic reality come into play.

As some of you may have read in my most concise representation of my theology to date, my theology begins with the kind of experience of (God, totality, oneness, kensho, etc) that Joshin Roshi points to. I believe Roshi is right when he claims that our human attempts at knowing that begin from authentic experience have the most meaning… and yet even from the same or similar experiences we humans come to vastly different meaning-sets.

I believe that what I call “God”, that experience of oneness and totality that has snuck up on me from time to time (watching a beautiful sunset, reading Isaiah 41 during a stressful time, watching a child being born) I have also learned to experience intentionally through meditation, through quieting my mind, stepping a little away from my constructed self, and giving myself permission to simply be. When I either attempt to place myself in this spiritual space, or find myself in that communion with totality unexpectedly… this is what I think of as prayer. Those moments, brief though they are, when I feel myself in the presence of the totality that I name God… those moments are for me the root behind all forms of communion. One of the first times I remember sensing myself in the presence of this oneness was a childhood experience of kneeling, taking a wafer and a cup of grape juice, and partaking of them to the words “do this in remembrance of me”.

And yet God, prayer, meditation, presence, communion… all of these symbols are part of a meaning-set that I have placed upon the experience itself. They arise from the experience as I encountered it, based upon my life history, my training, and my pre-conceptions. They say far less about totality/oneness/God than they say about me.

God is not found through meditation. Who I am in the presence of God is.

Many others have placed different meaning-sets upon the experience of the totality that I personally name God. I believe that the same universal wholeness can be sensed through Islamic prayer, through Tibetan chanting, through speaking in Tongues or through Evangelistic rapture… among many other forms. What differs in each of these is not the reality of a totality experienced, but how the individual experiences that totality and what meaning-sets they place upon that experience.

Now, I’m not going to claim that all human religious thought arises from the “direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder”(as we UU’s put it in the six sources). Nor am I going to claim that all human attempts at meaning arise from authentic experience of anything… I think we humans are amazingly adept at making meaning from just about anything, including our ability to make meaning from prior meaning from prior meaning from prior meaning. My own theology is an example of making meaning from meaning… for it arises from the authentic experience of totality but then is influenced by the meaning-sets of many others.

What I will claim is that there is a certain depth, a sacred nature to the meanings we have created the closer they get to the experience from which they arise. The knowings about my relationship with my wife that I hold most dear are the ones most closely related to my direct experiences of her love for me. Yet the space between those knowings and the experiences they relate to must be respected, or we are in danger of replacing the wonder of the experience with the meanings we have made from them. To lose the space between what we know about the experience and the experience itself is what I regularly refer to as idolatry. It is the impulse that my understanding of totality becomes that totality… and it is the most dangerous theological fallacy that we humans fall prey to.

Roshi, thank you for inspiring these thoughts in me. Gassho.

Yours in Faith,


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