and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.
Day to day pours forth speech,
and night to night declares knowledge.
There is no speech, nor are there words;
their voice is not heard;
yet their voice goes out through all the earth,
and their words to the end of the world.
In a recent column in the New York Times, Frank Bruni comments on Sam Harris’s new book, “Waking Up,” which will be published this month by Simon and Schuster.
He focuses on a passage in the middle of the book, where Harris describes an experience that might surprise those who know him as “the country’s most prominent and articulate atheist.”
Harris was in Israel, by the Sea of Galilee, walking where Jesus had walked, and he had what many Christians would describe as a religious experience. Harris writes: “If I were a Christian, I would undoubtedly have interpreted this experience in Christian terms. I might believe that I had glimpsed the oneness of God or been touched by the Holy Spirit.”
It was “an afternoon on the northwestern shore of the Sea of Galilee, atop the mount where Jesus is believed to have preached his most famous sermon,” Harris writes. “As I gazed at the surrounding hills, a feeling of peace came over me. It soon grew to a blissful stillness that silenced my thoughts. In an instant, the sense of being a separate self — an ‘I’ or a ‘me’ — vanished.”
Bruni asks, “Had Harris at last found God? And is ‘Waking Up’ a stop-the-presses admission — an epiphany — that he slumbered and lumbered through the darkness for too long?”
No, Bruni explains, Harris is asking a profound question which is seldom considered, “The question is this: Which comes first, the faith or the feeling of transcendence? Is the former really a rococo attempt to explain and romanticize the latter, rather than a bridge to it? Mightn’t religion be piggybacking on the pre-existing condition of spirituality, a lexicon grafted onto it, a narrative constructed to explain states of consciousness that have nothing to do with any covenant or creed?”
My question for Bruni and Harris is, “Is this a trick question?”
Of course, the experience precedes the description of the experience. How could it be otherwise? And yes, religion is precisely the language we use to describe our experiences of transcendence and wonder. To speak in Christian terms, when we read the Bible, we are reading about how our spiritual ancestors experienced transcendence.
Explaining his position in a phone call with Bruni, Harris said, “You can have spiritual experience and understand the most thrilling changes in human consciousness in a context that’s secular and universal and not freighted with dogma.” Commenting on the conversation, Bruni writes, “It was a kind of discussion that I wish I heard more of, and that people should be able to have with less fear of being looked upon as heathens.”
Harris is right; you can have those conversations outside of a religious frame of reference. But it is also true that the church is a place where those conversations are encouraged and nurtured. We don’t think of our context as secular, of course, but we do reflect on spiritual experience and “the most thrilling changes in human consciousness in a context that’s universal . . . and not freighted with dogma.” At least that’s what we try to do.
The subtitle for Harris’s book is “A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion.” Many Americans, Bruni observes, “are looking for a different kind of scripture, for prophets purged of doctrine, for guides across the vast landscape between faithlessness and piety . . . .”
Isn’t that the task of the church, to guide people across the vast landscape between faithlessness and piety? Our goal is not to move people from a place called “faithlessness” to a place called “piety,” but to help each other recognize that the journey itself is sacred. This is true, not only in those high moments, beside the Sea of Galilee, when we walk where Jesus walked, but in everyday life when, as the Psalmist observed, The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims his handiwork. Day to day pours forth speech, and night to night declares knowledge.