The annual Vincent Strudwick Lecture – Seeing Visions and Hearing Voices

6 November 2014

On Thursday 30th October, the third annual Vincent Strudwick Lecture on an aspect of religion in public life was given by Dr Richard Holloway, author of Leaving Alexandria, former Bishop of Edinburgh and Primus of the Scottish Episcopal Church. The lecture is entitled ‘Seeing Visions and Hearing Voices: Another look at religious experience and expression’ and can be read, in full, below.

The task I have set myself this evening is to think about the impulses and experiences that lie behind religion; and I want to begin by suggesting that religion – however widely you define the term – is one of the most uniquely human things we do.  Birds don’t do it, bees don’t do it, even educated fleas don’t do it – to mangle a famous song about sex – only humans do it. The fact that of all the animals on the planet we alone create religions points to something distinctive about us that’s worth reflecting on – and my dog Daisy can help us think about it.

When I walk in the Pentland Hills south of Edinburgh I take Daisy with me. We both love the hills but our experiences of being out on them are very different.  Her senses are keener than mine, so there is much she is aware of that I miss, but there’s one thing I am doing she isn’t: I am thinking, and it’s a curse as well as a blessing.  Unlike Daisy and the other animals whose presence she senses in their burrows and lairs, I have lost the capacity for mere being, for simply yielding myself to life and letting it flow through me.  Something has happened to the human animal that has not happened to the others: self-consciousness and the questions it prompts have made us an object of interest to ourselves.  Daisy is not obsessing over the nature of dog-hood as she trots behind me, but I am musing about the meaning of life as I trudge along, because it comes with my consciousness and the mind that expresses it.  That’s why it would not be an exaggeration to say that in us the universe is thinking about itself.  Unlike the other animals who seem to be unconsciously at home in the world, the human animal is puzzled not only by its own existence but by the existence of existence itself or the being of being or however you like to put it.  Here’s a poem by Primo Levi that captures the predicament:

Fellow humans, to whom a year is a long time,
A century a venerable goal,
Struggling for your bread,
Tired, fretful, tricked, sick, lost;
Listen, and may it be mockery and consolation.
Twenty billion years before now,
Brilliant, soaring in space and time,
There was a ball of flame, solitary, eternal,
Our common father and our executioner.
It exploded, and every change began.
Even now the thin echo of this one reverse catastrophe
Resounds from the farthest reaches.
From that one spasm everything was born:
The same abyss that enfolds and challenges us,
The same time that spawns and defeats us,
Everything anyone has ever thought,
The eyes of every woman we have loved,
Suns by the thousands
And this hand that writes.[1]

Everything anyone has ever thought…And this hand that writes!  Hold that idea for a second.  Billions of years after the originating explosion we call the Big Bang, in us the universe is looking at itself, and you can divide the activity roughly into three departments.    Science explores the matter of the universe to figure out how it was formed and the laws of its operation.  Philosophy explores the best way for us to live within the human community and how to understand its complex and shifting relationships.  It may be too unsubtle to put it like this, but we could say that both science and philosophy study the universe objectively.  It is outside them, like a body on a table, and they loom over it prodding and probing it to uncover its secrets.

Religion is different because it claims to experience the universe subjectively.  Though it can’t avoid engaging with the findings of science and philosophy, its essential claim is that there is more to the universe than the objective approach can ever uncover.  It’s a bit like the difference between what a surgeon knows about the woman unconscious on his operating table and what her lover anxiously waiting at home knows about her. The surgeon knows more facts about the state of her body than the lover; but he can’t know her the way the lover does. The lover’s knowledge of his partner is, of course, partly objective: he knows things about her of the sort that could be picked up from  Face Book; but the deep knowledge he has of her as a person is a result not of his investigations but of her self-revelation as she opened herself to him in a mutual encounter.  And whether you credit it or not, that is the kind of relationship the founders of the great religions claim to have with the mystery concealed behind the facts of the universe. So following a religion is more like being in love than taking a position in an argument; which is why believers seem to be immune to the demolitions of faith that are such a feature of the scene today.  Of course, even lovers offer reasons for the state they have fallen into. They might say they suit each other or they complete each other.  And true though these explanations may sound, we call them rationalisations because they are attempts to offer reasons for a relationship that is based not on logic but on a living encounter.

Thinking about music may get us a little closer to what’s happening here. Most of us have been moved by the power of music, and we are usually content to enjoy it without thinking too much about it; but because reason is so dominant in our society some insist on having its appeal objectively explained or analysed.  I heard of a composer who played his latest piano piece for a friend.  ‘What does it mean?’ his friend asked.  In reply, the composer played it again: ‘that’s what it means’, he said.  Do you see what’s going on here?  The composer is refusing to accept that music has to be interpreted rationally before its meaning can be experienced.  Music carries its meaning within itself and should not be bullied into translating itself into another medium.

I once interviewed the famous jazz musician Dave Brubeck about his life and work.  Brubeck was composing music in his head long before he had any grasp of music theory or notation. It was instinctive to him, something he just naturally did. But when he tried to get into college to study it he was refused entry because though he composed music through his ear he could not read it through his eye – and it was the men who couldn’t make music but knew how to read it who were running the show.  The sociologist Weber coined an ugly phrase to capture this development.  He called it the routinisation of charisma,[2] the idea being that the original makers of art are succeeded by the systematisers and theoreticians who turn the creative act into a commodity of which they assume ownership.  Keep your eye open for that paradox because it comes in many forms and is particularly pronounced in the history of the art we call religion. The geniuses who started the world’s faiths did not sit for years theorising in their studies before going out into the streets to announce that they had figured out the meaning of life and the mystery of the universe.  No: things happened to them.  To give only two examples: Moses and Muhammad saw visions and heard voices that changed not only their own lives but history itself.

The question I want to discuss now is where these voices and visions came from.  One way into an answer is for us to get as close as we can to what they experienced, and that, for most of us, is probably when we are asleep in bed at night and start dreaming. What are dreams and where do they come from?  A good explanation is that the human mind operates on at least two different levels, like a ground-floor apartment with a basement or cellar underneath. During the day the conscious mind is awake on the ground floor, living its planned and ordered life; but when it puts out the light and goes to sleep, the door from the cellar swings open and our subconscious takes over and peoples our dreaming mind with memories, longings and anxieties, the result being a weird experimental movie that communicates meaning not in intelligible dialogue but through signs and symbols.

Dreams figure a lot in the oldest religious stories, and we can be certain that our distant forebears took them very seriously and read them as communications from the mysterious power that lay behind the objectively knowable universe.  At the very least they would have assumed that the dead lived on somewhere because they came back to them in their dreams; and they would have understood the vivid images they met in their dreams as communications from the world that lay hidden behind the world of their conscious experience.  Even today critics who dismiss religion as illusion continue to think dreams are significant; and there are analysts who believe that decoding what we dream when we are asleep can help us deal with difficulties we face when we are awake.

Now, if we can forget questions about the mystery of the universe for a moment, and whether there is more to it than meets the objective eye, we can at least acknowledge that there is more to us than the conscious mind we live our daily lives within.  The conscious mind may be the ground floor of our existence on which we pass our waking time, but there is also a basement in the human psyche, and when we sleep its door opens and through it flood the images and voices we call dreaming.  The next thing to note is that there have been remarkable people in history in whom the door between the conscious and subconscious mind seems to be open most of the time, and in their waking hours they are visited by forces that come to the rest of us only in dreams.  Critics may dismiss these experiences as evidence of disturbed minds; but the fact to note is that those who do what their voices tell them sometimes create movements that change history.  Moses obeyed the voice that spoke to him out of a burning bush, and one of the world’s most influential religions was born. Mohammad heard the Archangel Gabriel whispering in his ear, and from that encounter came the formation of the Qur’an, a document whose existence could affect what you hear on your television news tonight.

In thinking about religion, therefore, we have to make up our minds about the nature of these experiences; and it won’t help to dismiss them as ‘fraudulent’.  A life-changing power of some sort undoubtedly encountered these people; but what was it and where did it come from?  Let me offer an approach that may help us steer a path through the issues, adapting the metaphor of the door I have already used in thinking about dreams.  To repeat myself: I have said that when we fall asleep the door between our conscious and subconscious minds opens and images and voices flood into our dreams.  And I have gone on to suggest that religious visionaries are people for whom that is a constant, waking experience.  Like great artists, they are open to these constant irruptions from the subconscious, but rather than giving them life in great fiction or painting or music, they embody them in a message that converts millions to belief in what they have heard and seen.  That’s why the sacred texts that evolve to embody or routinise these experiences are full of imperatives such as: go, warn, submit, follow, repent ­-  and here we sit this evening thousands of years later pondering the consequences of those commands.

Keeping hold of that metaphor of the door, the next question to ask is whether our subconscious is an enclosed basement with a single door onto the ground floor of our conscious minds or whether it may have another door that opens onto some other dimension of reality.  Let’s use Moses to explore what’s going on. Say you find yourself in the Sinai desert one afternoon about 1300 BCE where you come across a bearded, bare-foot man oblivious to your presence.  He is kneeling before a thorn bush ablaze with red berries.  He is listening intently to the bush; then he speaks to it; then he listens again; and finally he gets to his feet with a purposeful air and strides away. The story that will be written about this incident will say that it was from a burning bush that Moses heard God commanding him to lead the Hebrew slaves out of Egypt into freedom in the Promised Land of Palestine.

To you, the dispassionate observer, the bush is not burning with a fire that does not consume itself; it is ablaze with red berries.  And while you notice how intent and concentrated Moses is, you can’t hear the voice addressing him though you hear his replies. But you are not surprised by any of this because you are familiar with the sight of patients from your local mental hospital sitting on the wall outside your local Tesco’s having passionate conversations with unseen speakers; the difference being that Moses founded a great religion whereas the man outside Tesco’s is defined by us as having mental health problems.

If you are not prepared to dismiss the story of the Burning Bush as a psychotic episode, another way to account for it would be to say Moses had a waking dream, propelled by struggles within his subconscious mind, which gave him the strength and resolution to become the liberator of his people from slavery in Egypt.  This way of interpreting what happened sees religious experience as an example of the power of the subconscious mind to change actual lives and events in the world.  From this angle, the experience is genuine, it happened; but it came entirely from the human world, albeit from that mysterious area we call the subconscious.  So studying religion is studying the complexities of our own psychic nature in all its light and darkness.

Now, you can stop there and conclude that religion, like all other art forms, is a work of the human psyche; or you can accept that account of the matter and take another step.  This is where the great psychologist William James made an interesting suggestion.  He said that while religion was undoubtedly the fruit of our own subconscious minds he hinted that there might also be more to it than that.  He believed that our subconscious mind could be open to dimensions of reality that allowed what he called higher energies to filter in.[3]  So without changing a single detail of the scientific description of a religious experience, could it not also be possible that it came from God as well, using the mechanism of the dream to achieve the desired end?  I call this the theory of the two doors: our subconscious basement can be thought of as having one door that opens into our own conscious mind and another that opens onto the transcendent mystery that lies behind the being of the universe.

And a further twist can be given to the idea of the second door.  Knowing how prone human beings are to misunderstanding ordinary, everyday encounters, we should be particularly wary about the claims we make for supernatural encounters and approach them with even greater scepticism and modesty.  This means we will apply our critical faculties to the analysis of religious experience and not just take it at its own self-evaluation.  That leaves us with at least three ways of interpreting religious experience for you to choose from.

You can be a One Door Believer for whom religion is a work of the human imagination that starts and ends in the subconscious mind.  You can be a Two Door Believer who holds that religious experiences are propelled into our subconscious by God and then into conscious human experience and out into history.  Or you can adopt a mediating position between the two and be a Two Doors Half Open Believer who thinks that while God does reach out to us you are doubtful about how well humans understand the divine vocabulary, so you are cautious about how to interpret God’s overtures.

And if you don’t fancy my doors metaphor you can swop it for John Hick’s threefold typology of religion into Realism, Critical Realism and Non-Realism, which comes to much the same conclusion.

To religious Realists or Two Door believers, those visions and voices are the promptings of a real god imparting real and trustworthy knowledge of enduring and unvarying power that must be obeyed to the letter.

To Critical Realists or Two Doors Half Open believers, those visions and voices  came from God but they were mediated to the world through fallible humans whose capacities we should be wary of. Knowing how prone we are to getting human messages wrong, we should be doubly wary of those who claim to have heard divine messages and approach them with a critical rather than an uncritical reverence.

To the Non-Realist One Door believer there is no transcendent realm that is knowable by us; and even if we think we have been in touch with such a realm, and can describe the encounters we’ve had with it, it is the forces of our own subconscious mind we have experienced not objective reality: so religion is best understood as a work of human art that emanates from the deep wells of our own complex minds.  This is not to demean it, but to humanise it and use it as a way of analysing our own capacity for good and evil, kindness and cruelty.  According to this way of looking at things, God has finally abandoned heaven and become fully human on earth.

Now I don’t want to tell you how to navigate your way through these different understandings of religious experience, mainly because I have spent my life wrestling indecisively with what they mean and can’t claim to have anchored permanently at any of them.  I have to admit, however, that in recent years I have been more aware of religion’s stumbling blocks than of its consolations and challenges, so let me mention a few of them before offering an uncertain postscript to this lecture.

Human culture has always been marked by disagreement and dispute, as we have argued with each other about different versions of the good life. Unfortunately, Two Door Realist religions transcendentalise these disagreements and make them even harder to resolve. Let me offer a single example to make the point, the status of women: the liberation of women from dominant male hierarchies has been the biggest revolution of my lifetime.  It was hard fought everywhere and is far from over anywhere, but it has a particular intensity in religious institutions that see gender relations not as adventitious social constructs but as eternally decreed divine imperatives.  Other examples suggest themselves, but the issue is always the same: by freeze-framing the cultural norms of the time of the originating encounter with the divine, realist religions put themselves on a collision course not with the worst aspects of modern societies but with the best, both in their scientific understanding and in their moral commitment to an ethic of liberation from oppressive and demeaning authority structures.

And even Two Doors Half Open Critical Realists, who are better at adapting themselves to the equality of women and other elements of today’s progressive moral agenda, undermine their credibility by having to find religious reasons for doing the right thing rather than doing it because it is the right thing to do; the implication being that morality has to be authenticated or branded by religion before it can command our consent. Which calls to mind Plato’s question: is an act good because God approves it or does God approve it because it is good?

An even greater stumbling block for me is the way religion, because of its inherent uncertainty, lends itself to cruelty and fanaticism. While the most current forms of this are found in tensions within Islam, it has been a characteristic of most religions at some time or other. In trying to understand the psychology of fanaticism I have been helped by the psycho-analyst Adam Phillips’ book On Balance where he offers this reflection on religious fanaticism.

…excessive belief is called up to stifle excessive doubt, as if the fanatic is saying to himself: If I don’t continually prove my belief in this extreme way, what will be revealed is my extreme faithlessness, or despair, or confusion, or even emptiness.  Supreme conviction is a self-cure for an infestation of doubt.  We could call this ‘excess as reassurance’; where there are excessive acts there are excessive uncertainties.[4]

That feels right to me because I have been aware of it in my own soul down the years as I have struggled with the pain of uncertainty and doubt and excoriated in others what I was unable to face in myself.

So I am wary of the harsh certainties and incipient fanaticism of Realist religion; and I am depressed by the cowardly equivocations of Critical Realist religion.  But that does not mean I am entirely comfortable with Non-Realism, with religion understood as humans talking – and talking endlessly – only to themselves.  I am still haunted by the possibility of a presence behind this universe in which I find myself mysteriously awake.  To be accurate, I should describe it as the presence of an absence, the sense of something latent never quite encountered.  R.S.Thomas captures it best for me, and not only in his poetry.  Here’s a bit of his prose:

One of the advantages and the challenges of living in a country parish as a priest is the silence and loneliness. And one has spent a lot of time in small churches on one’s knees, seeking for God, trying to establish contact and being rewarded by silence and a feeling of absence. Being something of a naturalist myself, I know I have found a hare’s form on the hillside and I’ve been able to put my hand on it and feel it still warm. And this is my feeling of God, that we don’t find him, but we find where he has been. And we find his footsteps, his footprints, but we never actually come upon him. We find the place still warm with his presence but he is absent. [5]

Paul Tillich said that, ‘Being religious means asking passionately the question of the meaning of our existence and being willing to receive answers even if the answers hurt’.  It is in that sense I remain religious. And one of the answers that hurts me is that there was never any meaning to our existence or to the existence of this little blue planet in which we briefly find ourselves. In his great book, The Tragic Sense of Life, the Spanish philosopher Unamuno expresses this answer in a quote from Leopardi:

A time will come when this Universe and Nature itself will be extinguished.  And just as of the grandest kingdoms and empires of mankind and the marvellous things achieved therein, very famous in their own time, no vestige or memory remains today, so, in like manner, of the entire world and of the vicissitudes and calamities of all created things there will remain not a single trace, but a naked silence and a most profound stillness will fill the immensity of space.  And so before ever it has been uttered or understood, this admirable and fearful secret of universal existence will be obliterated and lost.[6]

But even if Leopardi is right and the experiment of being was empty of meaning from the beginning; even if the absence that felt like a presence was conjured by our longing and was always just an absence; even if the warm impress of the hare on the hill was never real only imagined; and even if the universe is indeed destined to fly back into the abyss whence it came and be succeeded by a naked silence and a most profound stillness; then we  humans will have proved ourselves better and more interesting than the void that spawned us, because we will have spoken words of purpose into it and will have dreamed that behind it there lay an unimaginable love. And won’t it be strange that from such emptiness came forth such beautiful imaginings?  That is why I want my last word to come from Unamuno.

Man is perishing; that may be; but let us perish resisting; and if it is nothingness that awaits us, let us so act that it will be an unjust fate.[7]

So even if it is nothingness that awaits us, let us perish resisting, because we dreamed such dreams, didn’t we, such dreams….

Dr Richard Holloway, 2014

[1] Primo Levi: In the Beginning. Modern Poems on the Bible.  Ed. David Curzon. The Jewish Publication Society. Philadelphia and Jerusalem. 1994. p.29

[2] Max Weber, Essays in Economic Sociology, Princeton University Press 1999. p.106

[3] William James, The Varieties of Religious Belief, Longmans, Green and Co. London 1928. pp.512ff.

[4] Adam Phillips, On Balance, Hamish Hamilton. London 2010. p.46

[5] Furrows into Silence.  BBC Sound archive, July 31 1981

[6] Giacomo Leopardi, Song of the Wild Cock, as cited in Tragic Sense of Life, by Miguel de Unamuno, Trans. J E Crawford Flitch, Dover Publications Inc, New York, 1912

[7] Miguel de Unamuno, The Tragic Sense of Life, Fontana, London 1962, p.256