Chapter 3: Introduction
In recent years there has been a tremendous surge of interest in both organized religion and expressions of individual spirituality. People speak freely of their guardian angels, their belief in life after death, their efforts to elevate their consciousness, and the power of prayer. Others are concerned about being under psychic attack by demons when they learn from the mainstream media that the number of exorcisms of those who are suffering demonic possession has been rising steadily. In a Gallup poll released on June 10, 2001, the administrators of the survey found that 54 percent of Americans believe in spiritual or faith healing; 41 percent acknowledge that people can be possessed by the devil; 50 percent accept the reality of ESP, or extrasensory perception; 32 percent believe in the power of prophecy; and 38 percent agree that ghosts and spirits exist.
In the fall of 1988 the editors at Better Homes and Gardens conducted a survey of their readers' spiritual lives. The editors were astonished when the subject drew more than 80,000 responses, and more than 10,000 people attached thoughtful letters expressing remarkable strength of feeling. Of the 80,000 readers who responded to the survey: 86 percent believed in miracles; 89 percent in eternal life; 30 percent in a spirit world; and 13 percent accepted the possibility that beings in the spirit world can make contact with the living.
In December 1997, the editors of Self magazine published the results of a similar survey conducted with their readership: 91 percent believed in miracles; 87 percent, angels; 85 percent, spirits; 82 percent, heaven; 65 percent, hell; and 65 percent, the devil.
Some observers of the contemporary scene attribute this great spiritual questing to the advent of the millennium and the concerns of certain Christians about an approaching Apocalypse, when people will be called to account for their misdeeds. Others say that large masses of people have become disillusioned with the tenets of science and the tools of technology that promised an earthly paradise, but cannot answer the basic questions of why humans are here and what they are to do with themselves in their allotted time on the planet.
In Why Religion Matters: The Future of Faith in an Age of Disbelief (2001), Huston Smith states that a people with only science to guide them are morally lost. Smith readily grants that the scientific method is "nearly perfect" for understanding the physical aspects of human life. "But it is a radical [rather] limited viewfinder in its inability to offer values, morals, and meanings that are at the center of our lives," Smith says. The practice of science can deepen the understanding of the physical world, "but it can never answer the questions about our moral universe that have troubled our ancestors since the beginning of time— who are we, why are we here, and how should we behave while we are here?"
Why should there be such a dramatic spiritual awakening at this time? Dr. Walter Houston Clark, professor emeritus at Andover Theological Seminary, saw it beginning in the early 1970s. At that time (c. 1972) he said, "I think the best explanation is the obvious starvation of humankind's nonrational needs over many decades. Materialism, competition, power politics, and human exploitation can be endured only so long before they begin to make nonsense to sensitive natures jaded by the persistent denial of their essential longing, the longing for a living God and a vital religious experience."
All of the highly varied religious phenomena described in this chapter have one thing in common: They all involve human beings responding to an individual mystical experience. Whether one is soaring to the heart of the universe after receiving cosmic consciousness, standing in awe before a weeping statue of Mother Mary, or strengthening the spirit to resist the temptations of the fallen angels, a true blending of the phenomenon with the individual psyche occurs during the awesome splendor of a mystical experience.
In his Varieties of Religious Experience (1902), William James (1842–1912) states his view that personal religion has its origin in the mystical consciousness. "The mother sea and fountainhead of all religions lie in the mystical experiences of the individual, taking the word mystical in a very wide sense. All theologies and all ecclesiasticisms are secondary growths superimposed."
At the same time that men and women are examining various aspects of religious phenomena and evaluating them in terms of their own spiritual quest, scientists around the world are assessing the individual mystical experience and asking whether spirituality cannot be explained in terms of neural transmitters, neural networks, and brain chemistry. Perhaps that feeling of transcendence that mystics describe could be the decreased activity in the brain's parietal lobe, which helps regulate the sense of self and physical orientation. Perhaps, these neurotheologians theorize, the human brain is wired for God.
And the great mystery will always remain. Is it the wiring of the human brain that creates God and the mystical experience? Or was it God who created this brain wiring so humans might experience the splendor within and all religious phenomena?