Mystical Encounters with the Divine

As of 2009, 48% of Americans claim to have had an experience they would describe as, “a mystical encounter with the divine.”

This is an increase from 1976, when that was true for only 31% of Americans and further from 1962, when it measured only 22%.  

Diana Butler Bass, writing in Christianity After Religion, interprets this to mean that during the past 30 years, “American faith has undergone a profound and extensive reorientation away from externalized religion toward internalized spiritual experience.”

What is the difference and relationship between an externalized religion and an internalized spiritual experience?  and
What factors are contributing to the reorientation in American religiosity?

“Externalized religion” carries negative associations to the 2016 ear. It rings with restrictions on behavior, clothing, sex, movement and speech.  

An arguably positive framework of the restrictive associations of externalized religion is that it is an expression of religion as a moral force. It is to shape good people that the lines around it have been drawn.  

Morality in the externalized religious framework is often shaped in reference to a God, either near or far.  It is to please this God that we are asked to adhere to the behavioral standards set forth, the externalities of the religious order.  

Internalized Spiritual Experience carries more positive associations to the 2016 ear, though also mingles with some judgments of it all sounding a little bit too woo-woo for a postmodern rational mind.  How, for example, can an Internalized Spiritual Experience be measured?

Internalized Spiritual Experience carries more associations with words like choice, mindfulness, and presence and seems to lay more easily with our individualized cultural mindset.  We can be individually spiritual without that needing to be perceived as forcing our beliefs on others, for example.  

From the perspective of organizing people, aka ‘community’, externalized religion succeeded by benefit of the shoulds that operated in the mainstream American culture for years. Where these shoulds were birthed and how they were/are fed is definitely worth further exploration.  For now, that one should go to a place of worship, that one should be a part of a ‘religious’ community impacted the behavior of enough Americans that they did in fact go to worship in a sanctuary appointed for such activity by a religion and they did in fact demonstrate at least a willingness to identify with a particular religion.

Internalized Spiritual Experience organizes community by way of alignment rather than identity.  The descriptions of the mystical encounter(s) with the divine that 48% of Americans claim to have had vary.  They align into communities or affinity groups in part by how nearly like one another their description of the spiritual experience has been and/or how similar their practices are for re-encountering the divine.  “I meditate,” for example is a description of a practice that someone who has experienced an encounter with the divine may say and use.  They are not identifying as a Buddhist by saying that they meditate. They are, though, putting into externalized/ing language the Internal Spiritual Experience they have had or seek to have.  

Those religious identities that quickly get placed in a category of“Externalized Religion” also bear within them Internalized Spiritual Experiences, often as foundational elements of what may have become a very secularized organizational system.  And conversely, those individuals who claim having had a mystical encounter with the divine - which is essentially a definition of Internalized Spiritual Experience - have had their experiences shaped in part by the inheritance of religious and cultural language, an inherently external project, and often desire to communicate out the experience they have had therefore translating an Internalized experience into a external reality, which may or may not contribute to new projects of religious/spiritual communal construction.  

Imagining the Externalized Religious and Internalized Spiritual Experience as two ends of a long spectrum is one way to visualize the reorientation Butler Bass observes.  We are turning toward the Internalized side of things.

A lot of what motivates The None & Some Project is my experience of their being such a nuanced diversity of Individual Spiritual Experience within the framework of Externalized Religion and vice versa. Put differently, my experience as a Pastor of a local congregation of the United Church of Christ was such that people who came to worship each week at the church, some of them had no referent to “a mystical encounter with the divine”. Meanwhile others came to worship once or only occasionally precisely to express an experience they had or to find ways of connecting with others who were hungry for a sense of the divine.

What I did experience, and which may be demonstrative of Butler Bass’s observation of a religious reorientation, was that The Church, in its governance and ways of self-understanding, did not yet have an agility or urgency around recognizing and articulating Internalized Spiritual Experience as a marker of community with as much significance as, for example, annual traditions such as the Strawberry Supper.  

-  June 2016