(from Varieties of Religious Experience, New York Times, December 24, 2016)
‘It’s Christmas; indulge me.
One of my hobbies is collecting what you might call nonconversion stories — stories about secular moderns who have supernatural-seeming experiences without being propelled into any specific religious faith. In some ways these stories are more intriguing than mystical experiences that confirm or inspire strong religious belief, because they come to us unmediated by any theological apparatus. They are more like raw data, raw material, the stuff that shows how spiritual experiences would continue if every institutional faith disappeared tomorrow.
Here are some public cases. Three decades ago A. J. Ayer, the British logical positivist and scourge of all religion, died and was resuscitated at the age of 77. Afterward, he reported a near-death encounter that included repeated attempts to cross a river and “a red light, exceedingly bright, and also very painful … responsible for the government of the universe.” Ayer retained his atheism, but declared that the experience had “slightly weakened” his conviction that death “will be the end of me.”
As a young man in the 1960s, the filmmaker Paul Verhoeven, of “RoboCop” and “Showgirls” fame, wandered into a Pentecostal church and suddenly felt “the Holy Ghost descending … as if a laser beam was cutting through my head and my heart was on fire.” He was in the midst of dealing with his then-girlfriend’s unexpected pregnancy; after they procured an abortion, he had a terrifying, avenging-angel vision during a screening of “King Kong.” The combined experience actively propelled him away from anything metaphysical; the raw carnality of his most famous films, he suggested later, was an attempt to keep the numinous and destabilizing at bay.
Barbara Ehrenreich, the left-wing essayist and atheist, had shocking, unlooked-for experiences of spiritual rapture as a teenager, which she wrote about in 2014’s don’t-call-it-religious memoir, “Living With a Wild God.” The “wild” part is key: Ehrenreich rejects the God of monotheism because the Being she encountered seemed stranger, less benign and more amoral than the God she thinks that most religions worship.
Lisa Chase, the wife of the late New York journalistic icon Peter Kaplan, wrote an essay for Elle Magazine last year about her experiences communicating, on her own and through a medium, with her husband after his 2013 death. There is no organized religion in her story whatsoever. But if you read the essay carefully, it’s clear that her quest was shaped by the fact that more than a few highly educated liberal Manhattan professionals have also had experiences like hers.
William Friedkin, the director of “The Exorcist,” had never seen an exorcism when he made his famous film. A professed agnostic, he decided recently to “complete the circle” and spent some time shadowing the Vatican exorcist Father Gabriele Amorth, just before Amorth’s passing at the age of 91. Friedkin recounted his experience in Vanity Fair this fall; it did not make him a Catholic believer, but it did seem to scare the Hades out of him.