Pieces to the Puzzle

Rachel Macdonald

14 November 2012

Personal experience and scholarly analysis are two different ways of studying religion that are often separated from each other. Some disregard personal experience as data, and some scholars choose to only use it as data. Jeffrey J. Kripal and Johnathan Z. Smith, two scholars of religion, analyze the benefits and disadvantages of using academic analysis and personal experience as data for the study of religion. Kripal believes that personal experience can and should be taken into account when studying religion, whereas Johnathan Z. Smith thinks just the opposite. After participating in the many Lakota ceremonies and traditions and having an unforgettable personal experience, I am able to make my own conclusion about what is the right material and data to use for a successful study of religion.

Jonathan Z. Smith is an example of a scholar who does not use personal experience as data for studying religion; he relies solely on empirical data. In one of his many articles, Religion, Religions, Religious, he argues against the validity of using personal experience as data. He writes, “there may well be a primary and valid human experience that gives rise to the secondary religious interpretation, but the truth of the experience is no guarantee of the validity of the interpretation” (6). Smith believes that there may be validity in personal experience, but the truth of that experience being a religious one is impossible to know. He argues that there is no universal definition of religion by using examples from David Hume’s essay, The Natural History of Religion. He writes, “‘Religion’ fails the minimal requirements for innateness, that it be ‘absolutely universal in all nations and ages and has always a precise, determinate object, which it inflexibly pursues’” (Smith, Religion, Religions, Religious, 6), and therefore there is no way that we can define an experience as truly religious.

Jeffrey J. Kripal, on the other hand, believes that there is validity in looking at personal religious experiences when studying religion. He argues that the religious experience of the sacred is the very core of religion. His main argument is that these personal accounts of mystical experiences point to a higher level of consciousness, which is universal and cosmic, that can be reached through the sacred. Kripal conveys his belief that the human consciousness is still in the process of evolution, and that “human beings have capacities that are not yet actualized” (Kripal, lecture 10/16/12). By looking at mystical experiences of multiple different individuals, Kripal is able to gather a plethora of examples to prove the idea that there is an alternate form of consciousness that can only be tied to one thing: religion. These states of altered consciousness, Kripal argues, cannot be entirely accounted for in terms of reality and empirical evidence, as Smith would like to believe.

My experience with the Lakota Native American Tribe of the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota is a useful example of why I believe Kripal’s method and theory of studying religion is more effective and useful in a successful study of religion. We sit in class every day, learning about the Lakota people, and read multiple articles on their traditions and ceremonies. Yes, I learned a significant amount about indigenous religious traditions. After visiting the reservation, however, my understanding and knowledge of those traditions were taken to a whole new level through my own experiences.

The last sweat lodge on Thursday night was a hot one. My fingertips were burning and I felt out of breath after it ended. I laid down on the hard ground of the lodge, as I had done after each of the previous sweat lodges, and began to relax and catch my breath. All of a sudden, my body started having spasms where my chest would go up and my head would go back. For some reason, I didn’t think much of it at first. Then it did not stop, and I was unable to control it. Hysterical crying ensued, and I felt extremely frightened. Friends came over and tried to calm me down, but it didn’t work.  I felt like something was punching me in the gut and bursts of air were coming out of my mouth. Then Grandfather Mike came in, and I explained to him what was happening. He told me, and the girls around me, that the spirits were cleansing me of some darkness inside of me that came from a strong fear that started in my childhood. He then gave me some sweet leaf to smell, and miraculously I was immediately calmed. I couldn’t really function the rest of the night out of confusion and fright at what had occurred.

After processing what happened to me on Thursday night after the sweat lodge, I understand what Kripal means when he says that we are able to tap into a higher consciousness through mystical experiences. I realized that I was able to tap into another part of my consciousness that I never knew existed. This part of my brain was never able to be actualized and used because I have never been placed in such a situation where it could be accessed. This part of my consciousness allowed me to let go and believe in the spiritual world. I felt things I did not know I was capable of feeling and truly believed Grandfather Mike when he said that the spirits were healing me by purging me of my dark feelings and fears.  I finally felt like I understood what the Lakota people kept telling us about the power of the spiritual world.

Since my experience, I have been fighting my skeptical tendencies to try to believe what Grandfather Mike told me in the lodge. I want to have faith in his words, and honestly while experiencing it, they really did seem true. Now, back to my “normal” state of consciousness, I am having trouble comprehending it. Was it just a panic attack? Were the spirits really purging me of my fears and troubles? I’m having difficulty defining and explaining my experience because I am unsure if it was a mystical one or simply a panic attack. Although I feel that I have a better understanding of the Lakota culture after participating in the many ceremonies and traditions, my potential understanding through my personal experience is limited by my innate personal beliefs that are uneasily changed.

Another limitation of using my experience as a way of understanding the culture comes in the form of the possibility of coincidence, as Smith writes about in his book “Imagining Religion”. I had been praying to the spirits to heal my heart, and (if I believe Grandfather Mike) they were answering my prayer. Could this, however, just have been a coincidence? It very well may have been that I prayed to the spirits, and I had a panic attack. I can take my experience to either be just a coincidence, or I can take it to be part of my ritual experience. As Smith would question, how do I know that the experience was a religious one when I cannot even define religion myself?

I admire the Lakota people because of their openness to coincidence and chance situations. For example, on the second night of the sweat lodge, the rocks were not hot enough and we had a short (and not very hot) sweat. The Lakota did not question it, however, and just took it as a part of the ceremony of that night. They do not try to explain the phenomena and experience. Instead, they accept it and act according to the way of the spirits’ desires. Their ability to accept difficulties and mishaps in ceremony, and life, without question is extremely admirable.

Both Smith and Kripal have convincing arguments for the disadvantages and advantages of using personal experience as data for studying religion. On one hand, there is no way we can know if the experience was simply a coincidence or truly a religious experience. On the other hand, the plethora of examples of personal religious experiences may lead to the conclusion that there is an unreached human consciousness in relation to religion and ritual. After spending time at the Lakota Pine Ridge Reservation and participating in their ceremonies and traditions, my opinion of how to properly study religion is finally clear. The two ways of studying religion, by using empirical data or personal experience, are really just be two pieces to the puzzle; religion should not, and cannot fully, be studied without both parts of the puzzle.



















Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *