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Gathering The Experienced

In my last few years as a pastor up in Maine, I often thought the American church, or at least my experience of it, needs a new map. Like overlaying a map of Paris on top of New York City and then finding new ways to get to places previously familiar, there need to be new pathways, new feeling networks that arc through the experience of faith and spirituality. 

I have a sneaking suspicion this is true for many faith traditions, not just Christianity. Maps are hard to change, though. We become devoted to finding our way along familiar routes. The familiar structure itself is part of the difficulty. I am still working through my thoughts on this, but it seems to me that there is a divestment of personal will that happens when our conception of church has one person up front with many people listening in the congregation. I realize this is meant to model the way Christ taught, but the unquestioning aspect is not what Christ taught. In fact, I would be willing to bet that none of Jesus’ soliloquies went uninterrupted by a disciple or someone in the crowd. We only read Jesus’ speeches because they are written as speeches, but I think what Jesus intended is spoken best when he says “Be like these little children, for unto them will heaven’s doors be opened” (paraphrase of Matthew 18:3).

What do children do? They talk. They ask questions. They challenge. They don’t want to be just told; they want containers and structure, maps, for their experience. 

I am pretty sure we are not providing a good container for the experience of God’s children. 

Experience, it is often said, comes prior to truly knowing (see Michael Polanyi). To put it another way, we can only know things about a thing until we actually experience it. When we experience a thing or event, however, what we thought we knew shifts dramatically. Personal knowing comes from experiential living. Often, knowing by way of experience elicits compassion. Compassion elicits understanding. And more often than not, understanding changes how we talk, accept, and deal with other people. Religion, or the art of connecting people together (ligare, the Latin root verb form for ‘religion’, is also where we get the word ‘ligament’), is as much about how we experience and have experiences with other people as it is about what we might believe. 

Experience requires interpretation, and interpretation requires frameworks which allow for meaning to be made. Throughout history, there were places originally designed to do just that – provide meaning for experiences people have had, and to provide meaningful experiences for people to have. We have called those places churches, synagogues, mosques, temples, even salons. But either they no longer do this or they have failed in their calling to do this. 

When a gathering space for the spiritually inclined can no longer provide open frameworks for understanding personal experience, people leave and new people do not join. Or if they do join, often they are looking for affirmation of their tribal affiliation rather than understanding of personal experience. The statistics show (see Pew Research Center or Lifeway Research) people are leaving religious institutions in droves. And yet, people are seeking meaning now perhaps more than ever. The place that was meant to provide meaning and context is no longer capable of doing that for those who need meaning…which is all of us. 

As a recently former pastor, I do not have good answers for this. The best answer comes from my favorite philosopher, Soren Kierkegaard. It does not come from anything he wrote, all of which is great and fascinating. But it comes from how he lived his life. Kierkegaard understood on a fundamental level that faith cannot be grounded in objective, universal truths. Instead, faith can only be a subjective experience that helps us act in a universal way. Kierkegaard used to write and study until sunset, and then he would go out to the impoverished areas of his neighborhood. He would bring blankets for the children, money for the prostitutes, food for the hungry. But the one thing he brought the most, and what was most treasured about him, was himself. He would sit with the children, the prostitutes, the elderly, the families, and he would listen and treat them with the utmost respect. 

The lesson I draw from this is simple. I, as an individual, am the experience of the church for other people. I am the experience of faith for other people. How I act with integrity, authenticity, and desire toward what I have claimed for my faith is what is important, not the particulars of what I believe. This requires understanding our personal spiritual experience, and also providing opportunities for others to become, as they said in the 1960s, experienced

CHANGE THE MAP

In the 1950s, as the Surrealist art movement was burning the last of its fuel, an artist collective movement arose in Paris. They called themselves The Situationists. The Situationists were as much a political movement as they were an artists’ movement. They were anti-capitalists and believed themselves called to hold up the decay and destruction caused by the excesses of capitalism, which were inevitable because of the inherent flaws in capitalism itself. The Situationists would hold ‘deconstruction’ events where they sought to undermine, dissolve, and in today’s lingo, decolonize people’s experience of consumerism and exploitation. 

One of my favorite Situationist deconstruction events was to create situations where people get intentionally lost in places they were previously familiar with. One of their methods was to cut up maps of Paris and fish out the enclaves of the city that had not succumbed to gentrification and capitalist takeover. These sections would be glued down on a piece of paper with arrows pointing to the other non-gentrified sections. The idea was to find your way from one enclave to the other by new ways, generating patterns of connection which were not dependent on ‘the system’ telling you where to go. 

Another approach was to use the map of a different city to find your way around the city you are familiar with, or find your way around a new city with a familiar map of another city (this story comes from Phil Ford at the podcast Weird Studies). A new map would, the Situationists claimed, make a person aware of the feeling experience of the city and space they traversed. The idea was to create a feeling cartography of the city, reclaiming the city to the human experience rather than the whims and driven desires of the free market. 

I have thought, now that I am a New Yorker, that a great city hack would be to give out free maps in Lower Manhattan to tourists (they are easy to spot). Except that the maps would all be different cities – London, Paris, Moscow, Berlin, Johannesburg, Lagos, Tokyo, Hong Kong, . I have also recently considered having the AI bots set up a walking schedule for me that consists of directions like, “Turn right. Walk 4 blocks. Turn right again. Walk 3 blocks. Turn left. Walk 7 blocks. Choose which direction you want to go. Walk 2 blocks. Turn left. … on and on.” An accompanying soundtrack could be included, in which all the music is chosen by rolling dice on what song comes next. 

ESEs and Unnoticed Pathways

A Situationist approach to life, experience, and faith seems exciting to me. New pathways in the world create new pathways in the brain and the mind. When new pathways are created, we allow space for the extraordinary to make itself known to us. We hear, see, and sense differently when we understand familiar places in new ways. 

I have an idea from my many years of studying religion and the Bible that while an individual may have an Extraordinary Spiritual Experience, the meaning available is very limited to that person until the experience is shared with others. Only in community do we gain the depth of meaning available from our experiences. This itself becomes an expansion of the ESE for others. When we speak of faith communities, we are speaking of a group of people who have either had their own experiences, or they trust the experiences that others have had (I am keenly aware how badly this can go; the beautiful insights of an ESE can also turn into the horrors of a cult). 

My hope in creating a cartography of ESEs is that we can create a new map that helps us generate spaces where spiritual experience can be shared in a structured way, not to reinforce dogmatics or even traditions, but to find out where the new maps are pointing towards. 

By changing our maps of understanding and interpretation, we create new ways to share our experiences, and by sharing our experiences we overlay new maps on familiar ground so we can experience it differently. 

From ChatSonic AI

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