More than a Feeling

Believers are told their beliefs are 'true for you, but not for everybody.' But religious experiences aren't the same as emotion

Last night found me yelling at the television once again over a panel discussion about "science and religion." Both sides thought that rational processes can only take us so far in the journey to faith (agreed). After that, people turn to some other resource in order to connect with God (so far so good). What they use is their emotions.

Around my house, that's when the sputtering starts. Only in the realm of religion is it assumed that every experience is a subjective experience, which means it's an emotional projection--which means: Look, dear, a lunatic.

But in the real world, experience is just that: an experience. A few months ago I spent two weeks in Turkey. I experienced being in Turkey. When I tell people this, nobody nods kindly and assumes that I had an emotional experience that felt just like being in Turkey. In the real world, experience is expected to correspond to reality. Only when the topic is religion do people assume you're talking about your feelings.

That little word, "feelings," contributes to our confusion. We expect it to stretch over two divergent concepts, and don't notice when we switch from one meaning to the other. This was evident, for example, in the "Star Wars" series. The soon-to-be bad guy, Anakin Skywalker, was warned not to be ruled by his "feelings," his impulses of anger and vengeance. But the good guy, Luke, was encouraged to put more trust in his "feelings;" in that case, it meant his sense of connection with the Force.


The first kind of "feelings," that is, emotional reactions, is something we can understand pretty well. We know what it's like to be elated or furious, generous or spiteful. This kind of "feelings" arises as a response to something we perceive.

But then there's the process of perception, and, confusingly, we use the word "feelings" here too. We can feel that autumn is coming, by some combination of our physical senses. We feel a change in the mood of a gathering, by a yet more subtle means. We are registering "feelings" all the time, through mind and body and an agile combination that seems to need a name of its own. Though many perceptions flow through us unnoticed, we can learn by discipline to raise them to awareness. Luke was urged to feel the presence of the Force-to gather his scattered senses and focus them on something just under the surface, something he had no prior experience of perceiving. He had to learn to recognize the Force, through concentrated attention. He had to trust his "feelings." This isn't "feelings" in the emotional sense; these feelings aren't reactions, but perceptions. (Luke may have felt emotional toward the Force, but that was after he felt the Force itself.) This second kind of "feelings" isn't well-defined. Is it intuition? Is it a sixth sense? Is it new-age woo-woo flakiness?

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