Experience, Religion and Negative Feedback


Following up on the conversation that we’ve been having, as I am preparing for the Easter Vigil sermon, I’ve been reading an essay on the timelessness and symbolism of the Seder meal by Prof Theodor Gaster.

I was particularly taken by this quote (given in the context of a discussion on the need to recognize the particularity of the Seder as belonging to the Jews rather than to the world):

“…religion consists not merely in theology or ethics or metaphysics, but in the fusion of all three in the synthesis of experience.”

It occurs to me that my thought that we have first an experience of the numinous which we then seek to understand by using the triad of traditional theological resources (scripture, reason and tradition) describes only half of the process. Certainly this flow of thought is perhaps the primary mechanism by which we come to new insights of God’s purposes in the world, but there is a second mechanism for those whose being is forged by close interaction with the triad. Once we have been formed in scripture, reason and tradition we then see subsequent experiences through those particular lenses.

Thinking of this reminds me of a phenomenon known as “negative feedback” (as distinguished from “positive feedback”). Negative feedback takes some of the output of the circuit (like an operational amplifier for instance) and routes it back through the input. The process has the ability to rectify a system so that perturbations quickly smooth out and the system’s equilibrium is restored.

Perhaps this is why the saints, who work so intentionally on living in the full presence of God, have such a deep sense of peace and calm surrounding them.

The Author

Episcopal bishop, dad, astronomer, erstwhile dancer...

1 Comment

  1. Fr. Nick,
    For many of us, we were being formed in these from before we could articulate experiences of the numinous without some form of Scripture, Tradition, Reason giving meaning to such experiences. The problem is that this can be both a positive and negative matter given interpretations in which we are formed of Scripture, Tradition, Reason. Again, James Alison relying on psychological theory has done interesting work on this theologically speaking when dealing with Original Sin in his work The Joy of Being Wrong. What is happening in my opinion for many lgbt folk who were formed in these from the getgo is that the negative deformations of others are no longer without challenge. Heterosexual colonialism, if you will, is coming to an end, and the Bible is as much ours is it is straight Christians, and as Tutu would suggest, it’s a powerful Word for those formed in it who take the dignity it proclaims to us seriously.

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