Rabbi Steve Cohen: Religious Experience and the Reality of the Unseen

One hundred twenty years ago, the great American psychologist and philosopher William James was invited to deliver the prestigious Giffords Lectures in Natural Religion at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland.  The texts of his lectures were published in 1902 as The Varieties of Religious Experience, which became an immediate best-seller and eventually, maybe, the most influential book about religion in the twentieth century.  The Varieties of Religious Experience.

These were the Giffords Lectures in Natural Religion, and James undertook this assignment at a pivotal moment in the history of religion in western civilization.  In 1901, science was king.  Having brought about so many stunning advances in medicine, earth sciences, chemistry, biology and physics….this was just four years before Einstein would publish his paper on the Special Theory of Relativity.  Science was revealing new and powerful understandings and insights into the deepest mysteries of creation.  A huge question for William James and the thoughtful, humanistic, reading and thinking people of his generation was: does religion still matter?  Or is it time to lay religion to rest and to give it a decent funeral?  Is religion still relevant?

One hundred and twenty years later, we are still asking the question which William James set out to address in The Varieties of Religious Experience.

In that classic work, William James took a new approach to the study of religion.  For the first time, he investigated religion not by asking about God, and not by asking about creation or divine revelation.  Nor did he ask about the institutions of religion.  He was not interested in dogmas, in priesthoods and Temples, churches, sects and their structures.  William James asked about the individual who is believing, or doubting, or praying or experiencing.  Therefore he called his book The Varieties of Religious Experience.  No modern scholar of religion had asked those questions before.

After setting forth his project in the first two lectures, in his third lecture James offers the following general definition of the life of religion.  “Were one asked to characterize the life of religion in the broadest and most general terms possible, one might say that it consists of the belief that there is an unseen order, and that our supreme good lies in harmoniously adjusting our lives thereto.”  The name of his third chapter is “The Reality of the Unseen” and is the central premise of the entire book, so let me read it again, to allow it to sink in.  “… …the life of religion in the broadest and most general terms possible, …. consists of the belief that there is an unseen order, and that our supreme good lies in harmoniously adjusting our lives thereto.”

We Jews have an old story about the first person to become aware of what William James calls the reality of the unseen.  This week’s Torah portion begins with that story: Sulam Yaakov.  Jacob’s ladder.

Here is the story in brief.  All his life, Jacob has been an indoors man, a “dweller in tents” who, unlike his hunter brother Esau, has probably never slept out of doors in his life. Now he is on the road, fleeing from home and his brother who is filled with murderous rage because Jacob has obtained, by purchase and by deception, both Esau’s birthright and the blessing their father Isaac had intended for Esau.  So Jacob is alone on the road, and the sun sets, so he is forced to lie down and to sleep outside, under the starry sky.  He takes a rock from the place and places it under his head for a pillow.   Jacob sleeps and he dreams.

The text then tells his dream.  Behold! a sulam—a ladder or stairway—stretching from earth to heaven.  And “behold! Angels of God ascending and descending on that ladder.”  And “behold, God standing by him.”  Jacob wakes up and cries out “Achen, yesh Adonai bamakom hazeh va-anochi lo yadati!  Ahhh!  God is in this place, and I did not know it!” 

Jacob wakes up certain that his dream has revealed to him what is actually happening all around him, but invisible to his normal consciousness.  Jacob has discovered the unseen spiritual dimension of reality and it changes his life. His dream sets in motion four thousand years of Jewish spiritual experience.

What is the unseen spiritual dimension of our lives?

It is nothing extraordinary.  Our emotions.  Our prayers.  Our loves and fears.  Especially our unconscious intuitions and inklings.  The awe in a room when a human being is approaching the end of their life.  The holiness in the hospital room when a baby is being born.  Nothing in this spiritual dimension can be touched or measured.  I cannot prove empirically that I love or that I am touched deeply by a word of poetry or by a chord of music.  The spiritual realm is never visible, and yet it is the most important reality of our lives.  That is what Jacob saw that night, out on the road, dreaming under the starry sky.

How does Jacob respond to his dream of the spiritual world? First of all, Vayira. He is scared.  He says mah nora hamakom hazeh.   This is a place of fear and trembling.  This is none other than the House of God, and this is the gateway to heaven.”  To awaken to the presence of the divine is not a warm and cozy experience.  In that moment Jacob experiences yirah, which might be translated as holy fear.  Hours later, in the morning light, Jacob responds to his dream and the unseen spiritual realm with a ritual gesture, setting up the pillow stone as a matzeva, a monument, and pours oil on it, making it glisten in the sun, and he gives the place the name Beth El, meaning House of God.

That night of vision does not turn Jacob into a saint.  He is throughout his life a work in progress, like all of us.  At times capable of great love and at times withholding love, fearful and flawed.  More than any of our other patriarchs, Jacob is exactly what he will be named many years later by the angel:  Yisrael, the one who wrestles with God.  His dream of the ladder, with the angels of God going up and going down, marks the end of his youthful obliviousness.  He leaves that place full of energy and strength, arriving almost immediately at his destination, where upon seeing his cousin Rachel he runs to her, kisses her and weeps, and rolls a great stone off the mouth of a well, a feat which would usually require several men.  All of this energy and strength seems to flow from his dream and new-found knowledge of the unseen spiritual world all round him and within him.

At the beginning of the twentieth century, William James offered the modern world an approach to religious life that can co-exist happily side by side with science: the belief that there is an unseen reality, and that our supreme good….our happiness, our well-being, our shalom….is found in aligning our lives to that reality.

This has been my guiding belief also, throughout my career as a rabbi.  That in spite of the real harm and even evil that has been done in the name of religion, in spite of all of that, the living heart of religious experience….the awareness of the spiritual dimension of our lives, discovered by Jacob out alone on the road under the starry night sky…. is in fact the most important part of being a human being.

Shabbat shalom.

Friday, November 12, 2021

Congregation B’nai B’rith, Santa Barbara CA