Importance of Experience

What is religion? One could quickly define religion as a set of beliefs displayed through devotional ritual.  While this is true, it is apparent that religion is much deeper than this.  On one hand you have to have faith in a higher power and on the other, you must find a group of people who share the same belief as you and, together, agree on a set of practices that best connect you to that higher power.  In today’s society the word “religious” is thrown around without much thought. There are many people who claim to be religious because they go to church and go through the motions their practice requires of them.  However, if these people do not have a relationship with God or a connection with a higher power, in my mind, cannot consider themselves religious.  Can a person develop this relationship with God or the spirit world by reading academic accounts of religious practice and experience? Or does one have to have a direct encounter with a spiritual being for a relationship to develop?  In this essay I will attempt to answer these questions by looking at Turner’s examples in Christianity where an analysis of another person’s spiritual account occurs and comparing and contrasting this aspect of Christian practice with personal experiences in the Lakota sweat lodge ceremony.

Christian principles and beliefs are centered around thousands of years of personal encounters with God and a refined system of rituals which help the individual develop a relationship with God.  Turner finds that “ritual is the reflexive outcome of the passionate thought and experiential wisdom of many together through many generations of shared and directly transmitted social life” (Turner, 507).  The accumulation of these experiences and rituals are passed down through writing.  Because these written texts lack “the fallibilities of memory, they can be scrutinized by specialists and shaped in accordance with logical and theological principles” (Turner, 508).  In a sense, because the experiences are not first hand it allows for spiritual leaders to interpret the various accounts and draw their own conclusions.  These conclusions are shared with the congregation and used as examples of how one should act as well as to “communicate messages […] about the supreme message of Christ to the world” (Turner, 510).  Despite the numerous examples of miracles and the clear evidence that not only does God exist, but also that it would be beneficial to have a relationship with him, many people choose disbelief.

The root of this disbelief lies within the fact that, for many people, they need to see or feel to truly believe.  Much of Christian practices have strayed from the rudimentary feeling and emotion that is supposed to occur during ritual. Turner states, “many Catholics were so accustomed to ritual procedures that they hardly noticed them” (Turner, 512).  The reason for this is an “increase in scale and complexity, the dominance of a single political authority over many different cultural and linguistic groups [as well as] increasing technological and organizational specialization” (Turner, 508).  As a result, an experience, which once was very personal, turns into something that tries to be applicable to people of different cultures and races around the world.  There is a focus on “general and universal features of human thought, emotion, volition, behavior and needs” (Turner, 508).  It is almost as if the intimate relationship is neglected in ceremony and is left for the individual to discover on their own, outside the ritual. For many people, having this broad umbrella of teachings that may or may not be applicable to the recipients’ life does not create an environment conducive to developing a relationship with God.

The Lakota tradition, like many other indigenous practices, focuses on feeling through stimulation of all the senses to feel God’s presence and develop a relationship with him.  “They hear music and prayers, see symbols, taste consecrated food, smell incense, and touch sacred persons and objects.  They have the kinesthetic forms of dance and gesture to bring them into dynamic relation with one another” (Turner, 505).  These very real and present senses lead people to have first hand experiences with God.  It is human nature that we reach out to a higher power in a time of need.  Many Christians reach out to God and the church during trials and tribulations.  Similarly, many Lakota rituals such as the sweat lodge, stimulate a time of need so that the individual is encouraged to seek God out.  The sweat lodge I experienced in Pine ridge combined intense heat, close quarters and chanting thus creating an environment where many of my classmates experienced loss of feeling in their limbs, out of body experiences, as well as the manifestation of spirits through voice.  These three encounters as well as the intense heat are out of the ordinary and honestly fairly frightening.  As a result, my classmates and I found solace in singing with the natives and praying to God.  We forced our minds to disregard the heat by either putting our attention towards singing, focusing on the needs of someone else through prayer, or even praying for God to get us through the sweat.  At the end of the ceremony there is not only a sense of relief in making it through the sweat but also a gratitude to God for assisting us through a difficult experience.  The presence of God is ever-present during the ceremony and each individual experiences first hand the benefit of having a relationship with God.

Although each individual experiences their own unique encounter, it does not necessarily mean that it will be easier to comprehend or develop a relationship with God.  After the sweat many of my classmates were faced with the question of why or how did this happen?  Is my reaction a result of the heat or a higher power?  Many of these questions were answered by seeking out the advice of elders in the community.  There is a hope that they will be able to explain our experience and comfort us by telling us it has previously occurred.  In this sense, it is important to hear about the experiences of our predecessors and peers.  It is this “union between past inspiration, bodied forth in ritual forms and symbols, and present experience, person by person, of bereavements and other sufferings, the whole adding up to a divine-human meaning beyond any individual’s experience” (Turner, 517).  It is not individual experience alone that creates a relationship with God.

It is impossible to decide whether an academic account of a ritual or a personal experience is more important than the other.  Rather, both are key in developing a relationship with God.  The academic attempt explains personal experience and provides a tool for reflecting and drawing conclusions one would be unable to reach on ones own.  The personal experience “moves participants out of their mundane selves and allows them to act, think, and feel ‘reflexively’” (Turner, 519).  This combined with the sense of security and community created through academic accounts ultimately forms an environment in which an individual can be religious and find God.  In the end, ritual becomes a method to communicate matters of ultimate concern and provides an environment for spiritual entities to be present in the experiences current members of the tradition are undergoing.

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