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Religions, Values, and Peak-Experiences
Abraham H. Maslow
Chapter IV. Organizational Dangers to Transcendent Experiences
It has sometimes seemed to me as I interviewed "nontheistic religious people" that they had more religious (or transcendent) experiences than conventionally religious people. (This is, so far, only an impression but it would obviously be a worthwhile research project.) Partly this may have been because they were more often "serious" about values, ethics, life-philosophy, because they have had to struggle away from conventional beliefs and have had to create a system of faith for themselves individually. Various other determinants of this paradox also suggested themselves at various times, but I'll pass these by at this time.
The reason I now bring up this impression (which may or may not be validated, may or may not be simply a sampling error, etc. ) is that it brought me to the realization that for most people a conventional religion, while strongly religionizing one part of life, thereby also strongly "dereligionizes" the rest of life. The experiences of the holy, the sacred, the divine, of awe, of creatureliness, of surrender, of mystery, of piety, thanksgiving, gratitude, self-dedication, if they happen at all, tend to be confined to a single day of the week, to happen under one roof only of one kind of structure only, under certain triggering circumstances only, to rest heavily on the presence of certain traditional, powerful, but intrinsically irrelevant, stimuli, e.g. organ music, incense, chanting of a particular kind, certain regalia, and other arbitrary triggers. Being religious, or rather feeling religious, under these ecclesiastical auspices seems to absolve many (most?) people from the necessity or desire to feel these experiences at any other time. "Religionizing" only one part of life secularizes the rest of it.
This is in contrast with my impression that "serious" people of all kinds tend to be able to "religionize" any part of life, any day of the week, in any place, and under all sorts of circumstances, i.e., to be aware of Tillich's "dimension of depth." Of course, it would not occur to the more "serious" people who are non-theists to put the label "religious experiences" on what they were feeling, or to use such words as "holy," "pious," "sacred," or the like. By my usage, however, they are often having "core-religious experiences" or transcendent experiences when they report having peak-experiences. In this sense, a sensitive, creative working artist I know who calls himself an agnostic could be said to be having many "religious experiences," and I am sure that he would agree with me if I asked him about it.
In any case, once this paradox is thought through, it ceases to be a paradox and becomes, instead, quite obvious. If "heaven" is always available, ready to step into (70), and if the "unitive consciousness" (with its B-cognition, its perception of the realm of Being and the sacred and eternal) is always a possibility for any serious and thoughtful person, being to some extent under his own control (54), then having such "core-religious" or transcendental experiences is also to some extent under our own control, even apart from peak-experiences. (Having enough peak-experiences during which B-cognition takes place can lead to the probability of B-cognizing without peak-experiences.) I have also been able, by lecturing and by writing, to teach B-cognition and unitive consciousness, to some students at least. In principle, it is possible, through adequate understanding, to transform means-activities into end-activities, to "ontologize" (66); to see voluntarily under the aspect of eternity, to see the sacred and symbolic in and through the individual here-and-now instance.
What prevents this from happening? In general, all and any of the forces that diminish us, pathologize us, or that make us regress, e.g., ignorance, pain, illness, fear, "forgetting," dissociation, reduction to the concrete, neuroticizing, etc. That is, not having core-religious experiences may be a "lower," lesser state, a state in which we are not "fully functioning," not at our best, not fully human, not sufficiently integrated. When we are well and healthy and adequately fulfilling the concept "human being," then experiences of transcendence should in principle be commonplace.
Perhaps now what appeared to me first as a paradox can be seen as a matter of fact, not at all surprising. I had noticed something that had never before occurred to me, namely that orthodox religion can easily mean de-sacralizing much of life. It can lead to dichotomizing life into the transcendent and the secular-profane and can, therefore, compartmentalize and separate them temporally, spatially, conceptually, and experientially. This is in clear contradiction to the actualities of the peak-experiences. It even contradicts the traditionally religious versions of mystic experience, not to mention the experiences of satori, of Nirvana, and other Eastern versions of peak-and mystic experiences. All of these agree that the sacred and profane, the religious and secular, are not separated from each other. Apparently it is one danger of the legalistic and organizational versions of religion that they may tend to suppress naturalistic peak-, transcendent, mystical, or other core-religious experiences and to make them less likely to occur, i.e., the degree of religious organization may correlate negatively with the frequency of "religious" experiences. Conventional religions may even be used as defenses against and resistances to the shaking experiences of transcendence.
There may also be another such inverse relationshipbetween organizationism and religious transcendent experiencingat least for some people. (For however many this may be, it is a possible danger for all. ) If we contrast the vivid, poignant, shaking, peak-experience type of religious or transcendent experience, which I have been describing, with the thoughtless, habitual, reflex-like, absent-minded, automatic responses which are dubbed "religious" by many people (only because they occur in familiar circumstances semantically labeled "religious"), then we are faced with a universal, "existential" problem. Familiarization and repetition produces a lowering of the intensity and richness of consciousness, even though it also produces preference, security, comfort, etc. (55). Familiarization, in a word, makes it unnecessary to attend, to think, to feel, to live fully, to experience richly. This is true not only in the realm of religion but also in the realms of music, art, architecture, patriotism, even in nature itself.
If organized religion has any ultimate effects at all, it is through its power to shake the individual in his deepest insides. Words can be repeated mindlessly and without touching the intrapersonal depths, no matter how true or beautiful their meaning, so also for symbolic actions of any kind, e.g., saluting the flag, or for any ceremonies, rituals, or myths. They can be extremely important in their effects upon the person and, through him, upon the world. But this is true only if he experiences them, truly lives them. Only then do they have meaning and effect.
This is probably another reason why transcendent experiences seem to occur more frequently in people who have rejected their inherited religion and who have then created one for themselves (whether they call it that or not). Or, to be more cautious, this is what seems to occur in my sample, i.e., mostly college people. It is a problem not only for conservative religious organizations but also for liberal religious organizations, indeed for any organization of any kind.
And it will be just as true for educators when they will finally be forced to try to teach spirituality and transcendence. Education for patriotism in this country has been terribly disappointing to most profoundly patriotic Americans, so much so that just these people are apt to be called un-American. Rituals, ceremonies, words, formulae may touch some, but they do not touch many unless their meanings have been deeply understood and experienced. Clearly the aim of education in this realm must be phrased in terms of inner, subjective experiences in each individual. Unless these experiences are known to have occurred, value-education cannot be said to have succeeded in reaching its true goal.
Footnotes1. I have just run across similar statements in Jung's autobiography (35). "The arch sin of faith, it seemed to me, was that it forestalled experience... and confirmed my conviction that in religious matters only experience counted" (p.92). "I am of course aware that theologians are in a more difficult situation than others. On the one hand they are closer to religion, but on the other hand they are more bound by church and dogma" (p. 94). (I hope that we are all aware that it is easier to be "Pure" outside an organization, whether religious, Political, economic, or, for that matter scientific. And yet we cannot do without organizations. Perhaps one day we shall invent organizations that do not "freeze"?) (back)
2. The whole of Chapter 1. "Religion Versus the Religious," (and especially the last two paragraphs) in John Dewey's A Common Faith are relevant to the theme of this chapter. As a matter of fact, the whole of Dewey's book should be read by anyone interested in my theses.
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