Only afterward did they try to interpret the experience in the form of theologies

Thursday, May 24th, 2018

Divine ecstasy runs throughout the religious history of the past 2,500 years:

As Max Weber and Joachim Wach have illustrated in detail, every major modern religion, as well as countless long-gone minor ones, has originated not with a theology or a set of values or a social goal or even a vague hope of a life hereafter. They have all originated, instead, with a small circle of people who have shared some over-whelming ecstasy or seizure, a “vision,” a “trance,” a hallucination — an actual neurological event, in fact, a dramatic change in metabolism, something that has seemed to light up the entire central nervous system. The Mohammedan movement (Islam) originated in hallucinations, apparently the result of fasting, meditation, and isolation in the darkness of caves, which can induce sensory deprivation. Some of the same practices were common with many types of Buddhists. The early Hindus and Zoroastrians seem to have been animated by a hallucinogenic drug known as soma in India and haoma in Persia. The origins of Christianity are replete with “visions.” The early Christians used wine for ecstatic purposes, to the point where the Apostle Paul (whose conversion on the road to Damascus began with a “vision”) complained that it was degenerating into sheer drunkenness at the services. These great drafts of wine survive in minute quantities in the ritual of Communion. The Bacchic orders, the Sufi, Voodooists, Shakers, and many others used feasts (the bacchanals), ecstatic dancing (“the whirling dervishes”), and other forms of frenzy to achieve the kairos… the moment… here and now!… the feeling!… In every case the believers took the feeling of ecstasy to be the sensation of the light of God flooding into their souls. They felt like vessels of the Divine, of the All-in-One. Only afterward did they try to interpret the experience in the form of theologies, earthly reforms, moral codes, liturgies.

Nor have these been merely the strange practices of the Orient and the Middle East. Every major religious wave that has developed in America has started out the same way: with a flood of ecstatic experiences. The First Great Awakening, as it is known to historians, came in the 1740s and was led by preachers of “the New Light” such as Jonathan Edwards, Gilbert Tennent, and George Whitefield. They and their followers were known as “enthusiasts” and “come-outers,” terms of derision that referred to the frenzied, holy-rolling, pentecostal shout tempo of their services and to their visions, trances, shrieks, and agonies, which are preserved in great Rabelaisian detail in the writings of their detractors.

The Second Great Awakening came in the period from 1825 to 1850 and took the form of a still wilder hoe-down camp-meeting revivalism, of ceremonies in which people barked, bayed, fell down in fits and swoons, rolled on the ground, talked in tongues, and even added a touch of orgy. The Second Awakening originated in western New York State, where so many evangelical movements caught fire it became known as “the Burned-Over District.” Many new seets, such as Oneida and the Shakers, were involved. But so were older ones, such as the evangelical Baptists. The fervor spread throughout the American frontier (and elsewhere) before the Civil War. The most famous sect of the Second Great Awakening was the Mormon movement, founded by a 24-year-old. Joseph Smith, and a small group of youthful comrades. This bunch was regarded as wilder, crazier, more obscene, more of a threat, than the entire lot of hippie communes of the 1960s put together. Smith was shot to death by a lynch mob in Carthage, Illinois, in 1844, which was why the Mormons, now with Brigham Young at the helm, emigrated to Utah. A sect, incidentally, is a religion with no political power. Once the Mormons settled, built, and ruled Utah, Mormonism became a religion sure enough… and eventually wound down to the slow, firm beat of respectability….


  1. Graham says:

    Whenever someone claims to be spiritual, not religious I usually pooh-pooh the artificiality and self-serving nature of the distinction.

    If there IS a difference, this is probably it.

    Unfortunately, that means that “religion”, effectively meaning “organized religion” is actually the safe condition of these systems, much to be sought in the wake of their ecstatic phase.

    I wonder when the New Religion will coalesce into something like that.

  2. Gaikokumaniakku says:

    “a small circle of people who have shared some over-whelming ecstasy or seizure, a “vision,” a “trance,” a hallucination”

    I think the original text wants to say that everything real is material, and any perception of the spiritual must be a hallucination.

    … but here is an alternative theory. Perhaps there are certain things that are real but not material, and those things are called spirits, and all of the people who have started religions have been in contact with spirits.

  3. Harry Jones says:

    I’m not aware that it’s possible to have ecstatic experiences from wine without actually getting drunk. The theory of St. Paul as an epilectic strikes me as plausible, however.

    The trouble with organized religion is that neuroses creep in over time. Then you have the worst of both worlds: irrationality without ecstasy.

    If a higher truth were revealed to me, I would not expect to understand it. My ability to understand it would be proof that it’s not actually a higher truth. But something I can’t understand at all is no use to me.

    Give me a revelation I can only half understand. That I can work with. Don’t give me the answers; give me some hints and clues to get me asking myself smarter questions.

    Or tell me specifically what to do without telling me exactly why. But in that case, it had better work.

  4. Kirk says:

    Note the intersection of religion, sexuality, and charisma. Nearly every religious cult has a very strong sexual component, either in embracing it or denying it. The number of “leaders” of these things who manipulate members in order to gain access to sex is legion.

    I think every human has an urge to seek some spiritual “answer” to the questions of life; the problem is that most are ill-equipped to contemplate such things rationally, and become easy prey for those who are charismatic enough to offer convincing “answers” to their follower’s many questions. The charismatic is someone who bears watching; under the wrong circumstances and motivations, they become like Jim Jones or other destructive cult leaders.

    I think you can make a generalization about religions and sex: The more emphasis they place on sex, the less you should trust the leadership and founders. Whether it’s in abnegation, controlling access to the women, or whatever other bizarre sexual “thing” they come up with, the more of that, the less likely it is that they’re really offering either spiritual enlightenment or any real comfort to the human soul.

  5. Graham says:


    Good points, often overlooked. The only downside is it is open to interpretation. Many take the view that the most mainstream possible versions of Christianity or Islam are cults designed to control access to sex. [Judaism would occasionally get that too, but there are always redlines when targeting it and the community is small anyway.]

    You can certainly get some mileage out of that, but it is a tad reductionist unless you start from a more or less completely unfettered approach to sexuality. Then anything that imposes restrictions will be worth a funny look.

  6. Kirk says:


    I have always taken a very mechanistic view of what/how/why we humans set these things up. The social mechanisms we have are things that were designed by way of evolutionary trial-and-error, much like our biology. If a society does things a certain way, there’s likely a damn reason for it doing it, even if we don’t understand it.

    There’s Chestertons’s Fence, too. Organized religion serves a function, or we wouldn’t have it. There’s a deep human need for some sort of answer to the “why” questions of life, and if we don’t have it filled, as a group, we tend to get a bit nuts. Many organized religions are the result of trying to structure these things in such a way that they’re not detrimental to society, and work to make society function in a more-or-less rational format.

    Which goes a long damn way towards explaining why the “intelligentsia” screws it up, whenever they go about their brilliant little redesigns. Look at Russia, for example after example during the long Soviet interregnum. We had Nicholas II, an incompetent scion of the Romanovs, and now we have Vladimir I, first of the Putin dynasty. In between? Attempt after attempt to supplant and replace the social structures and mechanisms of Mother Russia, and to what avail? Damn near zero–Where’s the New Soviet Man, today?

    Religion serves a purpose, and when you try to replace it, the way Scientology did? You just wind up recapitulating the whole thing. Where the Mormons were once considered cult-like and dangerous, today they are mainstream. Which, if you’re familiar with the path early Christianity took, well… There ya go. First, it’s a cult. Then, it’s something a bit more steady, a bit more refined, and finally… It’s a fully-realized religion, with History and Institutions. At some point, new people look around at everything, see corruption, and they start something newish for themselves. The rejection of your parental influences in religion is a fairly constant thing, and so is the return to your roots once you settle down and find that the old man and old woman weren’t so damn foolish, after all.

    We live in a culture and civilization whose foundation walls are Judeo-Christian. Even the New-Age freaks that deny this fact are unable to frame things in any other manner–Look at the way they mine the traditions for their own ideas, like the Golden Rule. They spout these things, entirely unaware of how they’re essentially aping and imitating that which went before, reinventing the religious wheel for themselves. And, usually screwing it up, having ignored all too much of the historical record.

  7. Graham says:

    I know. Even the neopagans are often as not ripping off Christianity.

    My Celtic ancestors worshipped some unpleasant gods [some were rather inspiring, some downright grim, but gentler than what those Germans were getting up to, at least] and had some deviant practices I would not care to see. But still, Celtic neopaganism seems very influenced by Christian notions. Inauthentic.

    You can’t get a decent party together for a wicker man or bog burial anywhere these days.

  8. Kirk says:

    It’s scandalous, the way the Norse neopagans won’t make the hanging offerings in the sacred groves, isn’t it?

    I mean, if you’re gonna go full-tilt pagan, go all the way or don’t go at all, I say.

  9. Graham says:

    They could pick names analogous [in style] to some of the more enthusiastic Christian denominations that call themselves ‘full gospel’ [I don't know what that means precisely, but the term conveys robustness].

    “Welcome to the Anytown, USA Temple of Thor. Full-Tilt Paganism. A place of welcome and inclusion.”

  10. Kirk says:

    I like that: Full-Tilt Pagan.

    Part of the issue with the attraction people have to these constructed faiths is that nobody really knows what all the ins and outs of the actual traditions really were, nor do they know the downsides. There were reasons that the Christians eventually overtook the various pagan faiths, and a lot of that reason stemmed not from the sword, but from compassion. When the only person who shows up to nurse the ill through the latest plague brought home by the traders or raiders is that weird priest-fellow from down the way, and he fully embraces the risks of nursing as many as he can back to health…? And, the nearest Christian settlement sends food and other supplies…? Yeah; all of a sudden, you’re having to justify to yourself and the wife (most importantly…) why the hell you’re still sacrificing to Odin and Thor, when those priesthoods did nothing at all for you.

    Christianity is, in the final analysis, a religion for and of civilization. You forget that, and try to supplant it with something else? You’re going to get an object lesson in why Christianity became the primary religion of Northern Europe in the first damn place.

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