Ann Taves' Visit

We had the pleasure of hosting Ann Taves' in our Mellon Seminar this morning.  We had an inspiring discussion about the naturalness of extraordinary experiences and how they become religious experiences.  She encouraged us to think of experiences as "events" that have shared evolved cognitive processes, cultural contexts (set and setting), and appraisals (interpretations we give the event).  We discussed my concept of cognitive ratcheting and how this supports her idea that we share cultural schema that have become automatic for us.  In other words, these culturally loaded frames are unconscious enough that they already structure the revelatory event while it is happening, and likely precondition the event too. 

She shared her idea that we as humans have the capacities to make things seem real, and that some humans are able to cross over from the imaginary to the real with very little trouble.  In her view, states like dissociation and hypnotic states have an innate component which can be trained and legitimated via its cultural value.  She thinks of cognitive states that are dissociative or unitive to represent a more primal level of consciousness that usually in our daily activities is suppressed by the higher order of consciousness with its executive functions.  We share this more dissociative state of the self with other animals.  She believes that more work needs to be done thinking about the brain's default mode network, which is the operations of our brain when we are not doing a task, when we are not involved with the executive functions of the self.

Ann Taves-Poster.jpg

Is Heaven for real?

Is Heaven for real?  A blue-eyed Jesus riding a horse.  Serenading angels.  A bunch of dead relatives hugging.  That is the real heaven according to the four-year old boy Colton in the book and movie, Heaven is for Real. Critic Bruce Handy in Vanity Fair makes the following observation: "What baffled secular me is why the film’s vision of heaven, which seemed almost boringly conventional—the handful of scenes illustrating Colton’s experiences look like the kinds of celestial imagery you’d see in a child’s Bible or on the walls at Mormon visitor’s center—is troubling to Todd and the members of his church."

My reaction.  What else would you expect from the mind of a four-year old whose father is a Christian minister?  As for troubling, when isn't a near death experience troubling, especially when it is reported back in images familiar to a four-year old? 

Does the fact that Colton's report reflects the mind of a four-year old mean that he made this all up?  It is more complicated than a yes or no answer.  Why?  Because this is a classic example of what cognitive linguists refer to as cognitive frames. 

No, I am not talking about some new google glasses that augment our thoughts like borg hardware.  I am talking about an organic process that is already in place in our brains.  Our brains create thoughts, create our noetic reality, based on a mental operation that cognitive linguists call framing.  That is, there are certain clusters of ideas that are activated when we experience certain things. 

Think about a hamburger.  What do you see?  Smell?  Taste?  We all know what hamburger means.  It is a cluster of things, and items in the cluster can be changed out, yet still we identify it as a hamburger.  It is a meat patty, usually beef, sandwiched in a bun.  Now is it a hamburger if I add cheese?  Bacon?  Mushrooms?  What about bison instead of beef?  Turkey? Sausage? Tofu?  When does it stop becoming a hamburger and start becoming something new?  An innovation?  A cognitive blend, when the conventional hamburger frame has shifted to such an extreme that a new idea, a new culinary delight, emerges?

Now we can apply this to religious studies and biblical studies in many fruitful directions.  Scholars are already seeing the app here.  I will probably return to this idea in the future on this blog and discuss some of these new directions in scholarship, where cognitive studies is meeting the bible.  But today I just want to comment on its implications for religious experiences like Colton had.

Cognitive frames are what makes the difference for religious experience.  Why do some people report encounters with Jesus and an afterlife that matches Christian conventions that a four-year old knows like we see in the Heaven's for Real?  Why do other people report encountering other types of gods and realms in their religious experiences?  Because everything we experience we experience through our bodies and brains, and our brains are wired in very specific ways.  We all, no matter who we are or where we live, experience the world through mental frames.  Some of these frames are universal, like our experience of verticality or containers.  Others are defined more culturally, like a blue-eyed Jesus sitting in heaven. 

My point is that we experience our world as our brains and bodies allow us.  They define and limit whatever that raw experience actually may have been.  It is not a matter of after-the-fact interpretation that we lay on the raw experience.  It is a matter of experiencing the raw as what we already know (albeit with occasional innovation when our frames shift).  We can't do otherwise. 

So is heaven for real?  Yes, for Colton it was.  But his heaven may not be real for everyone.

What do we do with religious experience?

In the last week, there has been a handful of well-placed pieces on the subject of religious experiences and how we go about explaining them (away).  I point you to these links in case you missed them:

Jeff Kripal, "Visions of the Impossible"

Jeff Kripal, "Embracing the Unexplained 2"

Jerry Coyne, "Science is Being Bashed by Academics Who Should Know Better"

Barbara Ehrenreich, "A Rationalist's Mystical Moment"

Ross Douthat, "How to Study the Numinous"

For my entire career I have been studying the written records of ancient religious people about their experiences of the divine.  Historians have typically shied away from penetrating these descriptions of ecstasy because, heck, what are you supposed to do with ecstasy, especially in a modern world where God is (supposedly) dead and reality has been restricted to what we can observe and verify about the material universe? 

Usually these ecstatic events reported in the ancient texts I study are declared by historians of religion to be hallucinatory or exegetical - either a record of a psychotic episode or a form of imaginative plagiarism where a person copies old texts about ecstatic experiences and gives them a new context.  Or, did I fail to mention it?, a trip on drugs. 

I have always been frustrated with this paradigm because it fails on so many levels.  First, the ecstatic experiences I study in early Christian and Gnostic texts are more often than not connected to ritual and body-mind practices. In other words, the ecstatic experience has a religious context that is


. People are doing things to prompt or achieve these states, to make them accessible to more people than those who have the occasional rapture experience, when ecstasy comes unbidden.  These religious practices are not about trying to have psychotic hallucinations.  Nor are these practices about the ingestion of drugs, although there are plenty examples of religious ceremonies that use drugs to induce ecstasy.  I think it is fair to say that religions have become very good at developing certain practices to prompt experiences that people perceive to be religious, to be ecstatic and often unitive.

Second, the brain is involved in a major way, as it should be.  The brain is involved in all of our typical forms of consciousness whether we are talking about being awake and alert, being in REM dream sleep, or deep sleep.  Why shouldn't it also be implemented in ecstasy?  Cognitive scientists have a very good idea now about the brain circuit involved when people are having ecstatic experiences.  They have a very good idea about the shifts in serotonin and dopamine levels that take place in brains when people are having ecstatic experiences.  They also have a very good idea about how the autonomic nervous system shows signs of being hyperstimulated when people are having ecstatic experiences.  So the scientific lab has been revealing important information to us about the physical platform of ecstasy.

Some people want to leave the religious experience here, reducing it to neurons firing in a circuit, as if this explains the experience.  But if we are honest with ourselves, we know that this reduction doesn't explain the experience and its reality, anymore than this type of reduction explains our experience of the color red, or our experience of a glass of wine, or our experience of love for another person (and not someone else).

Where does this leave us?  It leaves us with the reality of ecstasy as a form of consciousness that involves specific areas of the brain. It is a form of consciousness that a large portion of the human population experiences, even without drugs.  How do we evaluate this form of consciousness given its subjective nature?  People generally frame the answer as either a reference to a reality "out there" that is being experienced, or a reality that we have constructed inside our heads.  In the first case, the brain is thought to work like a filter or a gateway through which another reality is tapped.  In the second case, the brain is thought to construct the reality as its own personal fantasy.

I wonder if there might be a third option.  When we consider the human acquisition of language, we know how much this acquisition transformed our reality as a species.  Our ability to create and use language opened up for us realities that we could never have perceived had we continued being restricted to making a few animal sounds and following our instincts.  Our brain made it possible for us to talk and think using language, and reality got a whole lot bigger for us because of this.  Might the same thing be going on with ecstatic states of consciousness?  Is our brain circuitry making it possible for us to expand our reality yet again?

Lecture by Larry Hurtado at Rice University

We at the Religious Studies Department at Rice University are very pleased to announce that Professor Larry Hurtado will deliver the Burkitt Lecture at Rice University on Wednesday, April 10th, 7-8 p.m. in the Kyle Morrow Room of Fondren Library on the Rice campus. The public is invited to attend.

The title of his exciting talk is

"Revelatory Experience and Religious Innovation in Earliest Christianity"

.  He will talk about how powerful religious experiences came to be a major factor in producing significant religious innovations in earliest Christian circles, with special reference to the rapid emergence of the “dyadic” devotional pattern in which Jesus was reverenced along with God.

The Burkitt Foundation Lectures have been devoted to exploring issues in Catholic thought that are of interest to the university as well as to the Houston community. Founded in 1996, they have featured such distinguished speakers as

Mary Carruthers


Jean-Luc Marion


Mark Jordan


David Tracy

, and

Kocku von Stuckrad


Professor Hurtado is Emeritus Professor of New Testament at the University of Edinburgh (Scotland) and he now writes a blog on early Christianity called

Larry Hurtado's Blog

.  He has written a number of outstanding books on the devotional practices of the early Christians and their understandings of Jesus as God, all of which can be found on Amazon for reasonable prices.

Larry W. Hurtado,

God in New Testament Theology.

Nashville:  Abingdon Press, 2010.  ISBN 978-0-687-46545-3.

Larry W. Hurtado,

How on Earth Did Jesus Become a God?

Grand Rapids:  Eerdmans, 2005.  xii + 234 pp.  ISBN 0-8028-2861-2.  

Larry W. Hurtado,

Lord Jesus Christ:  Devotion to Jesus in Earliest Christianity

.  Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003. (xxii+746 pp.). ISBN 0-8028-6070-2. 

Larry W. Hurtado,

At the Origins of Christian Worship:  The Context and Character of Earliest Christian Devotion

.  The 1999 Didsbury Lectures.  Carlisle:  Paternoster Press, 1999, ISBN 0-85364-992-8.  US edition, Grand Rapids:  Eerdmans, 2000, ISBN 0-8028-4749-8.  (xiii + 138 pp.).

Larry W. Hurtado,

One God, One Lord:  Early Christian Devotion and Ancient Jewish Monotheism

.  Philadelphia:  Fortress Press, 1988. (xiv + 178 pp.).  ISBN 0-8006-2076-3.  British edition by SCM Press.  Second edition, Edinburgh:  T. & T. Clark, 1998 (xxx + 178 pp.), reprint edition, London:  T&T Clark (Continuum), 2003.

Book Note: Revelations by Elaine Pagel

Elaine Pagels has published a new book on Revelation and revelations in early Christianity.  There was a terrific review of it in

The New Yorker

by Adam Gopnik


I must confess that if Mr. Gopnik ever needs a book to review, I would be completely beside myself with joy if he were to review one of mine.  Wow can he write!  Give him a raise!

There is another review of the book in

The Washington Post



Creating Jesus 4: Religiously Interpreted Experiences

Our sources are filled with claims of visions of the divine, hearing the voice of God, where the person says that he or she encounters God immediately and directly (what we call mysticism). It is not necessary for the historian to make decisions about whether or not the people in the stories really and truly saw God or heard his voice and move to explain this as hallucinations or madness. These internal or private "events" are similar to miracles. They are interpreted and given a very particular religious value. Whatever was experienced by the person (which I have no way of verifying or not, since it is an internal event) is understood by the person or those who transmit his or her story as authentic religious experiences (or in some cases like Simon Magus, inauthentic - remember the religious community holds the hermeneutical keys). Whatever may have happened in actuality becomes a religiously interpreted experience in our source.

Like miracles (which also may represent human experiences that have become religiously interpreted as miraculous), mystical experiences are very interesting to the historian because they tell us how the seer understands a number of things about his or her world. His or her religiously interpreted experience (particularly if the person is a founder of a tradition) can impact significantly the orientation and growth of the religion.

So although I won't say as an historian that a religion started when "God so-and-so appeared to Mr. so-and-so" and commissioned him (thereby making a religious claim historical fact), I can and should say that "one of the significant impacts on the origin of religion such-and-such is Mr. so-and-so's vision in which he understood God so-and-so to have commissioned him" (thereby understanding the religious claim as a hermeneutic that impacted the history of the religion).

The same is true of miracles. Although I won't say that Jesus walked on water (thereby making a religious claim historical fact), I can and should say that it is evident from the nature miracle stories that some of the first Christians understood Jesus in highly exalted categories, capable of doing what is not normally done by humans, like walking on water or multiplying food or walking through closed doors. These are actions that readers then and now would have attributed to divine men and gods, not your average Joe (thereby understanding the miracle claim as a hermeneutic that tells us something about early Christian theology rather than history).

Creating Jesus 3: we must say "no" to the miraculous

There is always a negative reaction to any serious discussion of miracles that I have in the classroom (virtual or real). The gut reaction that people have is: who is to tell me that miracles don't happen or couldn't have happened. And behind this lurks the claim that God can do anything God wants to do. Let's unpack this even though it makes people so uncomfortable (and as a warning, there will probably be a lot of things I am going to say in this long series of posts that will make for discomfort).

The claim to the miraculous is not the same as the claim to the unexplainable. Something might happen to me that I can't explain (in fact things happen to me quite often that I don't have a ready explanation for), but it doesn't become a miracle until I make it a miracle, a manifestation of the supernatural, by my interpretation of the event.

This is a very important distinction to make. Humans experience events all the time that have no ready explanation for them. But it is only our move to


those events as "miracles" and then as "religious miracles" and then as "religious miracles of a particular religious kind" that make the event supernatural and grant it miraculous meaning.

This is why I emphasized in so many of my ground rules that our sources are humanly-authored and reflect human experience and very particular interpretations of those experiences. We are NOT to assume what is said by these authors is what actually happened, could have happened, might have happened, or should have happened. Our sources are records of how the Christians came to understand their experiences and frame them religiously and yes, miraculously, in very very particular and even peculiar ways.

Traditional Greek Icon: Jesus Walks on Water

Let's take the example of Jesus walking on water. What are reasoned (or critical) explanations for the story?

1. The Christians made it up whole cloth to make a theological statement about Jesus: that what he could do was so miraculous that he could walk on water which no normal human being could do. This proves his divinity. Only gods walk on water.
2. There was an event that was remembered and interpreted as miraculous. This sort of miraculous embellishment happens all the time in storytelling. Need I remind us of a very recent event in which Eilan Gonzalez, the five-year old boy who survived a sea journey from Cuba on a homemade raft, became "The Miracle Child" over the course of a couple of days. His story became a story about dolphins protecting him from sharks so that he was in perfect condition when he got to Florida (they forgot to mention that his mom had wrapped him in her coat, tied him to an inner tube and gave him a bottle of water which allowed him to survive the elements). Then the Santerian priests began to embellish the "miracle" by saying that Eilan had been saved by "angels at sea." Although this is a religious miraculous interpretation, apparently it had developed from the five-year old's "eyewitness" testimony that he thought an angel kept him company at night. Finally his story was keyed to Catholic interpretation: Castro became Herod, Clinton became Pilot, and Elian became the Messiah. This is an example of a modern miracle during an age when we can document what actually happened and interview the eyewitnesses. I hope you can see from this the problems with eyewitness testimony even a few days after the event.

If the story of Jesus walking on water was completely fabricated or had its roots in some historical event, we can never know. We can conjecture all we want about a terrible storm in which Jesus and his disciples were caught on a boat and Peter almost drowned and Jesus was able to rescue him against all odds, but the fact remains that Jesus' walk on water is an interpretation that makes it a miracle. The miracle is framed in such a way that Jesus does something a normal human can't do. This works to prove to the audience that Jesus is a god.

So the ground rule remains the same: we must say "no" to the miraculous as history. The move to the miraculous is interpretative and theological. So while miracles might interest us as historians because they will tell us a lot about how Jesus was interpreted by the early Christians, they are not historical events - not in Christianity, not in Judaism, not in Islam, not in Buddhism, not in Hinduism, not in any religion.