Is there such a thing as ‘skeptical ecstasy’?

We all love a bit of ecstasy, don’t we? Not the drug (though that’s a form of ecstatic experience) but, more broadly, those moments of expansion, elation and awe we sometimes feel, when our heart-strings seem to vibrate in harmony with the universe, when the vast, black and empty cosmos seems suddenly to radiate with love. We’re all into that, yeah?

The ecstasy of Father Jean Birelle, from the Louvre

If, like me, you’re a bit of a mystic hippy, you might attribute such ecstatic moments to God, and interpret them as a connection to the divine. Making a ‘divine attribution’ adds to the experience. You may feel ‘God loves me!’, you may feel profoundly accepted and forgiven, you may take your feelings as proof of His special favour.

This is where it get tricky. The certainty that usually accompanies ecstasy can lead to various nasty side-effects for you and for your society.

People in the grip of ecstasy are often convinced that the world had radically changed, normal rules no longer apply, that they are in a new Age of Love. They may abandon their jobs and families, dance naked in the streets like the Ranters of the English Civil War or the Ravers of the Summer of Love. And it’s what Californians call ‘a major buzz-killer’ when they calm down and realize the Age of Love hasn’t arrived, and, in the words of Steely Dan, ‘all those day glo freaks who used to paint their face, they’ve joined the human race’.

Again and again, collective outpourings of ecstasy have ended in orgies of scapegoating, as Cohn’s book explores

It gets more dangerous when the ecstatic hordes decide that a particular individual or group stands in the way of the Age of Love, and therefore they must be banished or executed. Again and again, throughout history, moments of collective ecstasy have degenerated into bloody orgies of scapegoating. Ecstasy often leads to a supercharged version of the ‘Us versus Them’ mentality. A group feels mystically fused together, and then refuses to tolerate bystanders or outsiders. It’s like a homicidal version of the Hokey Cokey: either join the dance, or die.

The Enlightenment was built, after centuries of religious violence, on the basis that religious ecstasy is dangerous and we need to contain it, marginalize it, even pathologise it as ‘enthusiasm’. As philosophers like John Locke and Adam Smith recognised, ecstasy is a threat to reason, tolerance, industry and public order. We need to lock it up.

And yet, like King Pentheus trying to lock up Dionysus, somehow ecstasy always escapes. Over the last three hundred years, there have been various ecstatic resistance movements, from Methodism to Pentecostalism, from rock and rave to football hooliganism and fascism. Considering the global rise of neo-Pentecostalism today, ecstasy does not seem to be going anywhere. The Enlightenment’s War on Ecstasy has failed.

So here’s my question: could there be a skeptical ecstasy? Could we rehabilitate ecstatic experiences, and somehow de-toxify them of their tendency to fanaticism and scapegoating?

Richard Holloway’s liberal evangelism

This brings me to Richard Holloway’s Leaving Alexandria, which came out last year, and which is that rare thing – a book about Christianity that actually sold well in the UK. Its success is not surprising, as Holloway, the former Bishop of Edinburgh, has quite a tale to tell – from failed monk to horny missionary in Africa, from socialist priest in the slums of the Gorbals, to his time ministering among the dying during the AIDS epidemic. Finally, fatally, Holloway is made a bishop, and he has a serious run in with the evangelical wing of the Anglican communion.

The crisis comes at the Lambeth conference of 1998, where a ‘pincer movement’ of evangelicals and Anglo-Catholics vote that homosexuality is ‘incompatible with Scripture’. Holloway is disgusted by the homophobic hatred and bile expressed by the evangelicals, and offended by their utter certainty that they know God’s opinion on matters of sexuality and gender.

His stance in solidarity with the marginalized is admirable, but rather than trying to defend it with reference to Scripture (the gospels, say), as would befit a bishop, he brings out a book called Godless Morality the year after the conference, suggesting that we leave God out of public discussions of morality. The idea of God, he comes to believe, simply muddies the waters of civil debate. Who knows what God thinks anyway? Archbishop Carey denounces the book, and Holloway’s own congregation vote him out. This offends Holloway but really, what did he expect – if God should be left out of public discourse, then what’s the point of bishops?

He ends the book in a mood of weepy elegy, declaring that Christianity is ‘on its last legs’, that the Anglican communion is ‘unraveling’, that God probably doesn’t exist, and religions deserve no more respect or obedience than other artistic creations like, say, the works of Proust or Nietzsche (who he quotes repeatedly). He admits that evangelical churches may be growing, but that’s only because they peddle easy answers – not like Richard, the heroic skeptic. He briefly wonders if there could ever be a ‘liberal evangelism’, one not so sure of itself, one less keen to pronounce and condemn, open to the possibility it’s wrong.

I think there could be a liberal evangelism – a form of spirituality that is open to ecstatic experience but also socially inclusive, non-homophobic, and humble as to its own truth-claims. But it would need to have a little more faith than the thin gruel offered us by Holloway. Never mind God, he doesn’t even believe in free will. The central assertion of his memoir is that we can’t choose our path in life, nor improve our characters through practice – instead, time reveals to us who we essentially and immutably are. Time reveals that Holloway is an uncertain and vain man, and it couldn’t have been any other way. I find this sort of genetic fatalism depressing and, in Holloway’s case, self-serving. If there is one thing I like about Christianity, it’s the belief in second chances and the possibility of liberation from sin and suffering. Give me that over Holloway’s genetic fatalism any day.

Towards a skeptical ecstasy

So what would a ‘skeptical ecstasy’ look like? Let me attempt an answer:

1) People want and need channels for ecstatic experience. They give our lives meaning and colour, they free us from boredom, and they make us feel less separate from other people and from God and / or Nature.

2) We need to be careful in our search for ecstasy, and aware that it’s not an unmitigated good, that it can harm ourselves and others.

3) There are better and worse channels for ecstasy – anti-social channels which direct us towards self-destruction or violence against outsiders, and pro-social channels which direct us towards compassion and love. There is ecstasy which seeks to police borders (we’re in and you’re out) and ecstasy which knocks down borders (we’re different but at a deeper level we’re the same).

4) Having ecstatic experiences doesn’t make you special or unique. Everyone feels ecstatic sometimes. What counts is what it leads to. Many artists have felt divinely inspired, for example, but few of them have actually turned that inspiration into good art. Likewise, many spiritual seekers have had ecstatic experiences, but not all of them have built genuinely good lives. Ecstatic inspiration is not enough, it needs to be supported by beliefs, learning and daily practices.

5) Don’t think you’re better or holier than other people because you have moments of ecstasy. You may simply have a more emotional temperament. Likewise, don’t think you’re less spiritual because you don’t have such experiences. There are many ways to lead a good life – sobbing, babbling, passing out and waving your hands in the air are not essential.

6) Don’t be too sure you know what God wants. Test your intuitions. Be open to the possibility you’re wrong. Have a flexible, experimental and open-minded attitude to your ecstatic experiences. It’s OK not to have all the answers.

7) Ecstatic experiences don’t give your arguments special status in the public square. You need to give reasons for your arguments, and expect to defend them rationally. Bodily sensations are not an argument.

8) Above all, we need to watch out for the tendency to scapegoat in ourselves. We need to watch for the tendency to project our shadows onto others, to blame outsiders for our own divided and unhappy natures. That demon is within us all, and ecstasy often lets him out. Jesus warned again and again, don’t judge others, don’t point the finger, love your enemies, love those different to you, love those who society looks down on, cross the road to help them. If your ecstasy isn’t serving that end, then it’s just a self-congratulatory feeling.

St Paul, writing to a young church that was fixated on speaking in tongues and other ecstatic phenomena, put it well:

If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.