Although it has become something of a cliche, the statement “Experience trumps faith” represents a high religio-spiritual concept.
For example, any amount of scientific knowledge about a particular brand of candy bar may “explain” the candy bar’s material facets, but it is only by tasting that we can personally, subjectively, truly, know if the candy bar is sweet. All prior assumptions, even when based on scientific knowledge of the candy’s ingredients, come under the category of “faith” or “faith-about”. That is, even exhaustive material-scientific knowledge of the candy’s ingredients may at most permit us to say that it probably will taste sweet, but only the criterion of actual tasting is the one thing that can bring the candy’s sweetness (or lack thereof) out of the realm of mere intellection into the realm of personal experience, personal consciousness, and personal truth. Similarly, then, the proposition that spirituality is truly a “Way of Knowing” – a way of “gnosis” is, in my view, quite true and valuable for religion. Jesus himself claimed that Eternal Life consists in “knowing” the heavenly Father and the Son whom He sent (John 17:3) – and not a matter of merely having faith in God as Something or Someone “out there”, Which can only believed-in, but not really, directly, experienced. Only by such direct experience can we taste of the manna and know that it is sweet indeed.
Philosophical proofs and evidences for the existence of God, Spirit, the human soul, etc., are not irrelevant or unimportant. But, in my view, they ought to be secondary supports for an original, ineffable experience of Spirit. The wordless experience should come first, and its intellectual supporting structures and definitions second. Or at most, the intellectual structures might act as “lures” whose main purpose would be to lead the questioner into the ineffable experience of the divine – into prayer, contemplation, centering, or whatever name we might give the process (and its accompanying states). For instance, of what real use is faith vis-a-vis the Catholic sacrament of the Real Presence in the Eucharist? If Jesus is not, or cannot, be known in this – the most intimate of sacraments – then one wonders what the point of it is; if, in fact, this were the case, the Catholic communicant may as well just switch over to “sola fide”, Eucharist-free Protestantism. That is, one’s experience of the Real Presence had better be “Real”, and not something to merely be believed-in or believed-about!
Scholars such as Carl Jung, Joseph Campbell, Mircea Eliade, as well as “Great Sages” such as Ramana Maharshi, Bodhidharma, the Taoist Masters, “God (or Self-) Realized persons, and countless anonymous indigenous shamans globally, in varying ways of expressing the thought, claim that spiritualities are indeed “Paths of Knowing” and “Technologies of the Sacred”.
This kind of knowing differs from scientific and philosophical ways of knowing in that it refers the questioner inward, not to the external world (science) or to mental/intellectual considerations (philosophy), but to the human soul and its relationship, interactions, and its potential merger with God (“gnosis”). As such, these spiritualities function as “lenses” or sacraments through which God is “seen” (perceived) – that is, known inwardly through immediate experience, whether direct or mediated. This experience, obviously, sidesteps the question of prior belief or unbelief, because its only requirement is to have an open mind, and is therefore available to believers and atheists alike, as the following hopes to illustrate.
Following the work of the American philosopher Ken Wilber, we might try to interest atheists in this “Direct Experience” approach to (spiritual) knowledge-acquisition:
1. The Injunction: If you want to know ‘X’, then DO ‘Y’. If you want to know if Jupiter has moons, look through a telescope – if you want to know if its night time, look out a window; if you want to know about God, look through the appropriate lenses (e.g., meditation, contemplation).
2. The Experiment: Put the Injunction to the test. Look through the lens; do the meditation. Take notes.
3. The Conclusion: Collate and preserve all the aspects of the Experiment. Then compare notes with others – i.e., those who have already, adequately performed all the three steps. This is a form of “peer review” which places the three steps into a responsible social context.
If this three-step knowledge-acquisition process is valid, then it is one that can be carried out by believer and unbeliever alike. There is no prior “faith burden” or “unbelief burden” to come between the participant and the experiment. It is fair-minded and invitational. This “test” is open to all – and therefore, atheists, as well as believers, may consider themselves equally invited to participate.
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(Notes from a Shin perspective:)
It would seem that Jodo Shinshu adherents are at least partially exempt from this process, for the simple reason that they do not so much typically rely on a three-step process (or any other) of inquiry, but more on a non-intellectual but experiential “Calling” from Amida Buddha, issued from His Presence on “the Other Shore”. It is as if the great “Raft” from that shore has arrived at our feet … unbidden. Our mysteriously-received Faith is at once “faith-full” and experiential.
Amida’s Call has been issued and has pierced our heart with its love-laden arrow. Our only reply to this gift is to voice, verbally or mentally, our simple, sincere “Thank-You” as phrased in the Nembutsu. Amida has enabled us to sidestep the three-step inquiry, without our having to strive with its inherently self-powered methods of searching.
Namo Amida Butsu.