Home/“We Will Do, And We Will Hear” And The Primacy Of Experience

“We Will Do, And We Will Hear” And The Primacy Of Experience

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That’s what the children of Israel responded when presented with the words of the Lord at Sinai – not, “we hear, and we will do” but “we will do, and we will hear.” (Exodus 24:7)

The two glosses I’ve heard on that particular verse are: first, that it’s the ultimate testament to the faith of the Israelites at that moment, that they agree to perform the divine command even though they haven’t really “heard” it yet (that is to say, they haven’t absorbed its meaning). Second, that it’s a statement about the nature of hearing the divine command – that we can’t really hear it until we’ve performed it.

I was thinking about this apropos of David Sessions’s mild but firm objections to the way an essay of his about the non-rational bases of what he calls his “de-conversion” have been understood by some religious readers, including our own Rod Dreher, who juxtaposed his essay with the story of Champagne Butterfield, an ex-lesbian convert to evangelical Christianity. The discussion ties back to a post Ross Douthat put up last week about how secularism by its nature changes our experience of reality (or if it does) which I’ve been meaning to touch on but haven’t gotten around to.

Here’s the heart of Sessions’s objection to Dreher’s juxtaposition, and, more generally, to those who read the narrative of his de-conversion as equivalent, in some sense, to conversion narratives:

[Butterfield’s experience] is something much different than what I meant to say while channeling Charles Taylor. There is a superficial similarity in the sense that Butterfield and I both had experiences that changed us before we had a full explanation or argument for what happened. What Butterfield describes in this passage is essentially her embrace of obscurantism, a “truth” that either defies or ignores well-established scholarship—and even her own previous experience—on human sexual orientation. But the fact that experience drives intellectual transformation is not a license to abandon intellectual rigor. For example, how does she know God has a point of view about homosexuality, or that it’s negative? Why does she think Christianity requires her to obey it before she understands? What if Christians disagree about what that view is, or think that view is something that’s obviously misinformed? Does it make sense that a Christian God would want a convert to break up a happy family? For a former scholar, Butterfield shows remarkably little philosophical skepticism; she also seems to cast aside her training in how to review and evaluate the available evidence to determine if these views she’s been introduced to are reasonable or even widely considered to be Christian.

In fact, it’s her theological incuriosity that’s perhaps most surprising. As Patrol’s Kenneth Sheppard wrote, analyzing the problems with Butterfield’s conversion narrative: “the question of how to read the Bible, how to determine what it teaches on subjects such as sin (or if it is in fact univocal on such questions), and how to embody that teaching, never seems to arise; this is a rather glaring omission for someone who used to be a literature professor.”

If I understand his objection, what he’s saying is that while his own de-conversion was motivated by experience, social context, and emotion, and not merely by intellectual argument, he feels like Butterfield’s conversion is explicitly a rejection of the process of intellection. And, for that reason, he finds it problematic and troubling, quite apart from not being parallel to his own experience.

I see his point, but I’m not sure he’s really grasping the nettle. It’s comforting to think that the liberal, secular mind is simply more open than the religious, but in my experience you can find plenty of closed-minded people in both camps, and the more open-minded have different points of stress where they turn away from the possibility of uncomfortable truths. There are very, very few individuals who approximate a truly Socratic level of openness to doubt about their own knowledge.

The nettle, I think, is that the qualities of their respective experiences are incommensurate. What I hear when I read the descriptions of Butterfield’s experience is, most primally, the experience of being commanded. The feeling that an authority has instructions for her, and that she must obey them. Sessions’s de-conversion contained no trace of that feeling.

Is that feeling a good thing or a bad thing? Something to be embraced or something to be analyzed and demystified? That question is a very central one to adherents of (or objectors to) the Abrahamic religious traditions. But you won’t get anywhere in trying to understand that question if you start from the proposition that God’s commands ought to be reasonable.

Would God want to break up a happy family? Well, God tests his first prophet, Abraham, by ordering him to sacrifice his only son, and on the plain reading of the text Abraham passed the test by showing his willingness to obey right up to the last possible moment. There are other readings of the text, but it seems to me, as for Kierkegaard, that this is a story about what obedience to God really means. It means obedience when God commands you to do something that flatly contradicts everything else you believe: your rational self-interest, your deepest feelings, your innate moral sense, even the apparent meaning of God’s own prior promises (Abraham was promised a glorious posterity through Isaac, after all). What’s leaving your beloved partner compared to that? And if you want a Christian text, how about Luke 14:26? Apparently, you can’t really love Jesus unless you prefer him to your father, mother, spouse, children, brothers, sisters, and are willing to abandon them all to follow him. That’s a pretty explicit proof-text response to Sessions’s question, isn’t it? Pragmatically, the meaning of saying that this or that religious practice is God’s command is to say that we do not question them by asking whether they are reasonable.

Now, you can accept that position intellectually, or tacitly, because you were brought up to do so, without feeling the experience of divine command. And that, I assume, is where Sessions started out his life. And then he had other experiences that led him to question whether he still wanted to accept that position – and, ultimately, led him to reject it. But those experiences that led to his de-conversion were not qualitatively similar to Butterfield’s; they were not experiences of being commanded.

Again, I’m not saying that this makes Butterfield’s experience more authentic or powerful than Sessions’s. I’m not even saying that I know how you are supposed to respond to that kind of experience. I’m just asserting the primacy of experience itself as an explanation of Butterfield’s behavior, and saying that moralizing about her response is harder than you might think.

An analogy: the experience of falling in love. Can we trust it? How should we understand it? How should we respond to it? These are not easy questions to answer. Should you marry the person for whom you experience that feeling? What if the feeling doesn’t last? What if you’re already married – should you leave your spouse for this new love? What if you never experienced that feeling with your spouse – now should you consider leaving them for this other person? Should you shun this person you’ve fallen in love with, lest the experience cause you to do something irrational or morally wrong? Or should you cultivate that feeling of blind devotion while, simultaneously, abjuring any socially or morally forbidden expression of affection? (The medievals developed an entire quasi-religious system around the latter and since Dreher is in such deep Dante these days I’d really like him to investigate the relationship of Dante’s idolatry of Beatrice to the courtly love tradition.) These aren’t easy questions to answer – unless you answer that the experience of falling in love is a bad one, to be shunned, categorically, which, it seems to me, devolves into answering that experience as such should have no bearing on our actions. Which, to my mind, is an untenable approach to life.

All of which brings me back to Douthat, who asks a very good question about the whole business of religious experience:

[M]y question . . . is whether the buffered self/porous self distinction is supposed to describe a difference in the lived, felt substance of religious experience itself, or whether it’s ultimately an ideological superstructure that imposes an interpretation after the fact. Taylor’s argument seems to be that the substance of experience itself changes in modernity: He leans hard on the idea that (as he puts it) “the whole situation of the self in experience is subtly but importantly different” for people who fully inhabit the secular age. Which would seem to imply that when Verhoeven was in that church, his actual experience of what felt like the dove descending was “subtly but importantly different” from the experiences that the not-as-secularized believers around him might have been having — more attenuated, more unreal, and thus easier to respond to in the way he ultimately did. And it would imply, as well, that if Takeshi Ono’s worldview had been more secular to begin with, he wouldn’t just have reacted to his visions differently (by, say, visiting a therapist rather than a Buddhist priest); he would have had a different experience, period, in which he somehow felt more buffered and less buffeted throughout.

This isn’t just an academic distinction; it has significant implications for the actual potency of secularism. To the extent that the buffered self is a reading imposed on numinous experience after the fact, secularism looks weaker (relatively speaking), because no matter how much the intellectual assumptions of the day tilt in its favor, it’s still just one possible interpretation among many: On a societal level, its strength depends on the same mix of prejudice, knowledge, fashion and reason as any other world-picture, and for the individual there’s always the possibility that a mystical experience could come along (as Verhoeven, for instance, seemed to fear it might) that simply overwhelms the ramparts thrown up to keep alternative interpretations at bay.

But if the advance of the secular world-picture actually changes the nature of numinous experience itself, by making it impossible to fully experience what Taylor calls “enchantment” in the way that people in pre-secular contexts did and do, then the buffered self is a much more literal reality, and secularism is self-reinforcing in a much more profound way. It doesn’t just close intellectual doors, it closes perceptual doors as well.

I think this is a very good way of describing a key question, and my answer is to reject the dichotomy as presented. That is to say: I don’t believe that secularism is a mere “ideological superstructure,” that we have fundamentally similar experiences of the numinous or uncanny as did our more “enchanted” ancestors, but merely have learned how to explain them away after the fact. Necessarily, our worldview interpenetrates our experience; we can only experience things that we can perceive, and we perceive through categories that we have already formed. But I also don’t believe that secularism merely “buffers” us from those experiences. Indeed, I’m not sure if buffers us at all.

All sorts of people have uncanny experiences, and in my experience they make all sorts of different kinds of sense of them. There is no rule that says that because you are not a deeply religious person you have to dismiss those experiences as signs of incipient madness. To pick an extreme example, there are people who are convinced they have been abducted by aliens from outer space – people who, generally, do not manifest other signs of psychosis. But there are plenty of other people who experience hauntings, prophetic dreams, out-of-body experiences, and so forth. In my experience, there’s no particular pattern suggesting that these experiences are less common among the non-religious, and no particular pattern suggesting that non-religious people are more inclined to discredit these experiences as “obviously” intra-psychic as opposed to being in some way mysterious.

By the same token, most of the people I know who’ve had these experiences don’t take them particularly deeply to heart, though some of them do, sometimes. But who’s to say that more religious people find them profoundly transforming? Can you even experience profound transformation on a regular basis?

I’ve only had one experience that comes close to the kinds of things Ross is talking about, about twenty years ago. I had the most profound, visceral feeling that I was trapped in a container or box and was suffocating – the experience of feeling buried alive. The experience was triggered by something trivial – I think I was glancingly watching a television show about ghosts or something like that – but the experience itself was absolutely overwhelming. And it affected my life deeply; I felt I had to change my life, and quickly. My now-wife, then girlfriend, was a profound comfort to me through the experience, and that kindness profoundly shaped my feelings for and about her. Many of the decisions I made after that, from my career choices to my marriage to my turn toward greater religiosity, can be traced back to that experience.

Now, if you ask me how I’d describe that experience, I’d say it was a severe panic attack. But that is just a label; it’s not a phenomenology. I can imagine, if I were living in a more “enchanted” world, that I might have understood the experience somewhat differently at the very time it was happening, and not only afterwards – that the precise manifestation of the experience might have differed in various ways. But that doesn’t mean I was “closed off” to that kind of experience on account of modernity. I certainly didn’t feel “buffered” in any way.

And the experience affected me independently of my “understanding” of it. Just because I could say, “that was just a panic attack” – that didn’t make the experience any less powerful, or blunt the urgency of responding to it. Explanations don’t necessarily drain experience of power. (I believe William James had something to say about that.)

And that, too, is not an artifact of modernity. Imagine if you were a girl living in fifteenth-century France, and the archangel Michael told you to lead an army to expel the English. That experience felt absolutely real to you. Now, suppose your betters – priests, magistrates, and so forth – told you that it wasn’t the archangel Michael, it was a demon tempting you to sin, and you must recant your testimony and accept that understanding of your experience – that is to say, not let it affect you. Would you recant? Could you? Isn’t that pretty analogous to me telling myself not to worry about the feeling of being buried alive, that it was “just” a panic attack, and not something to take to heart? Or to Butterfield’s partner telling her that she’s being brainwashed by reading the bible, or Sessions questioning why she’d given up her critical faculties all of a sudden?

Primal experience is possible within all ideological frameworks, secular and religious alike. It can be rejected or “explained away” within all ideological frameworks, secular and religious alike. And it is potentially disruptive of all ideological frameworks, secular and religious alike.

about the author

Noah Millman, senior editor, is an opinion journalist, critic, screenwriter, and filmmaker who joined The American Conservative in 2012. Prior to joining TAC, he was a regular blogger at The American Scene. Millman’s work has also appeared in The New York Times Book Review, The Week, Politico, First Things, Commentary, and on The Economist’s online blogs. He lives in Brooklyn.

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