My rating of one of the works cited (as an epigraph) in Bollywood Storm II Mumbai:
I have some short reviews and a list of the books I've been reading up on the Goodreads site. ..
... about ten years ago I had the opportunity to be one of the moderators on a theology forum called "Sense of the Numinous" along with my husband and someone who called himself "Metacrock" – whom I learned later is aka the scholar/theologian, Joseph Hinman.
At its best, the site was wonderfully engaging. At it's worst it was a blood soaked battlefield. In the midst of it all, the three of us did our best to moderate the engagements, and tried to keep participants from verbally murdering each other over the internet while simultaneously keeping alive healthy discussions about God and religion, faith vs. atheism. I guess you might describe that site best as "a melding pot."
On many levels.
Two years later, I began to focus on my upcoming first novel, so I had to leave.
Then, recently, when my husband said Joe had asked me to read and review a pre-release of his new book, I was honoured because of the friendship and respect he always extended to me .
Soon after my complimentary copy arrived in the mail, the title – The Trace of God - A Rational Warrant for Belief – got me a little more curious. I turned it over and read the back cover.
Hmm, I thought.
I started reading...
Straight off in his Introduction Hinman states:
"Arguments for God based upon personal religious experience have always been considered weak by both apologists and skeptics. This has been the case due to prejudices and misconceptions about the nature of religious experiences. These prejudices include (1) the notion that experiences cannot be studied scientifically because they are subjective, (2) that religious experience is related to emotional instability or mental illness, or, (3) the fear that feelings cannot be trusted. Religious experiences are often wrongly understood to be about voices and visions and God telling people to put their children in ovens." (Page 1)
"Ain't that the truth," I said to myself.
Immediately I rationalized the reasons why people might reasonably have those ideas (taking account of how religious organizations have had so many negative effects on our world). But I decided to push aside my own doubts and prejudices – which had grown thicker lately like moss on a dead tree – and leave myself open to the evidence. I'm happy to report that I was able to do so, and along the way, I also examined my own memories of my mystical / religious / peak experiences, and my multicultural struggles with religions, as these were brought to the forefront by my reading.
In retrospect, I suppose, at a very early age, I stopped talking about "mystical" experiences with anyone. And later on in life, people's attitudes in general about such things (whether they were "religious people" or not) still discouraged it, always seeming to suggest there was just too great a risk.
"Don't throw pearls in front of swine," Jesus said.
I am the firstborn of an immigrant family. A sensitive and hyper-vigilant child, I'd rather have died than be responsible for hurting anyone (even if I happened to be right). I could hardly bear to step on ants or kill spiders, and the rhyme "step on a crack, break your mother's back" had me choked and stepping carefully whenever I had to walk on a sidewalk. As the eldest, I was held up as an example to my younger siblings, in both my successes and failings. In our family, when you were good, you were very, very good. And when you were bad, you were very, very bad. There was little in-between. As a result, I carried an acute burden of accountability and responsibility for everything that happened around me.
When I was around 10 years old, I was my helping my younger sister with the dishes. I was struggling in my life, living with a lingering and overwhelming sense of ineptitude that felt like a very bad but close and personal friend. I remember gazing out the kitchen window at the maple leafs from a tree cascading over the fence from the neighbour's yard. As I looked at the beautiful leaves I pondered why the sight of them didn't move me more.
Then, as if between the microseconds, I felt something. It started as a small but sharp pain in my chest, followed closely by an explosion, not only emanating through my body but somehow also occurring 'out there'. Everywhere. Somewhere – you can call it my imagination, my mind's eye, or somewhere else – I saw an door open. I slipped inside. For what seemed like only a moment, I was standing in 'eternity.'
I had a sense of awe and deep intimacy that was very beautiful but simultaneously very painful. It only lasted a moment and I found my awareness back in the kitchen. The trees outside the window now seemed connected to me. I felt as if they were weeping for joy with absolute aliveness. I had an overwhelming urge to cry with them. In the previous moment, I'd been connected with a sense i was loved and not alone, but now I felt something like a 'homesickness,' a longing for 'my true home'. In response, I seemed to sense a presence reassuring me. I felt understood and comforted, as if I was 'known' and 'seen' by someone.
Just in that moment.
Well, that was certainly an event out of the ordinary, but I didn't share it with my sister who was standing right next to me, nor later with my family. In our family, paranormal or mystical phenomena were considered acceptable and normal, but we never really talked about about our actual vulnerabilities or feelings. Saying what you really thought was considered taboo; don't upset the family apple-cart. However, the residues of that experience stayed with me, giving me a sense of love and peace and an affirmation that I desperately needed, providing relief from my extreme sensitivity and my role in our lovable, but often distancing and disconnected family life.
As an adult, during my work on Bollywood Storm, I finally allowed those thoughts and experiences to come out when I developed my lead character, "Elanna Forsythe George," the mystic and paranormally-gifted forensic investigator. Elanna constantly finds herself in that very same conundrum – it's never easy to prove what she learns through her extraordinary experiences. So she always finds herself in opposition to, and tension with her society and its constant demand for "objective evidence."
Here's she is, in confrontation with the "ghost" of the murder victim, Rajesh Sharma, an (in)famous Bollywood director:
His eyes pierced me. . .
“Oh yes, my beloved Elanna jan, I can tell you exactly what you want to know and that's why you came to me in the first place, isn't it?”
Well, yes and no. The problem with that Eureka solution was the usual one. I'd still need hard evidence to convict. As some of you may know, I'm no stranger to that dilemma.
---Bollywood Storm - Book One, Chapter 18
That's it. That's where I was in my life when I began my book. I brought all my spiritual thoughts, questions, frustrations, and ambiguities to the forefront. I wanted to address the two parts of myself that I felt had to exist simultaneously: the outside person who responds to and is shaped by society, and the inner person, who not only has thoughts, feelings and opinions, but also "other" experiences. Secret and personal experiences that are inadmissible in a court of law, or anywhere else in the outside life. However, as the novel clearly insists, our inner lives often affect the outside, and sometimes they dramatically change the outcome of events.
Yes, I know....
It sounds so benign and pretentious to anyone who does not delve into dualities.
-- Bollywood Storm, Book One, Chapter 2.
It does, doesn't it?
In his first chapter, entitled "Preliminary Concepts and Definitions," Hinman writes:
The religious a priori is not just the experience per se. It is more broadly the special form of awareness which results in the religious experience. Thus I will use the term to refer not only to my overall argument but to the conclusion that this rational warrant frees us from the need to prove. I use that phrase, even though I am attempting to prove something, because it contains power in its open-ended nature. To be sure, I am arguing for freedom from the need to prove the existence of God, but the studies I draw upon offer more: freedom from the need to prove the validity of philosophical thoughts, freedom from the need to prove that philosophy need not be embarrassed about not being science, freedom from the need to prove that not all subjectivity is the sign of mental instability; freedom from the need to fear the subjective. (Page 7)
Right at that point, I laughed and realized Joe and I were essentially writing about the very same thing! - even if I was writing fiction and he was writing from a social science point of view.
Reading on, I found myself connecting to more 'mystical' events in my life. Some were smaller, others were more dramatic. But they were all were essentially "outside" what I understood as "normal and expected." As it turned out, however, they were precisely the types of everyday mystical experiences that are illustrated in The Trace of God. I can see how people often 'miss' or misunderstand them because they are so subtle. Or perhaps we just ignore them because we don't know how to process them properly.
Life is so complicated, isn't it?
The Trace of God helped me to understand that what I believe and what I experience is basically nobody else's business. Hinman draws from scientific studies that have been conducted over the last 50 years and points to documentations of mystical experiences throughout history. Now, neither he nor anyone else can prove God exists, but there is no denying that people from all walks of life and in every culture have experienced a "sense of the numinous" – some kind of "something" that had a lasting, positive effect on their lives and brought about profound changes.
Hinman also considers some opposing studies which contend that so-called 'mystical' experiences are merely natural or psychological phenomena that can't be shown to correlate with anything outside ourselves. They only represent, according to these researchers, the results of an essentially explainable kind of "programming" residing somewhere in our DNA perhaps, or left over from our more "primitive" beginnings. Or, possibly, some residual superstitious "nonsense," or even the effects of some form of a mental illness. Joe also outlines some interesting studies on placebos and experiments that used drugs to enhance religious experiences. All of these studies draw conclusions based on thoroughly delineated (if rather linear) philosophic positions, and rigorous anthropological, social or neuroscientific methods. Many of them would seem quite challenging to "believers" of all sorts.
Hinman, however, looks at much of this research and considers it carefully. Then he cuts in close to examine the way the inner phenomena are often dismissed by these researchers, simply tossed away, ignored, or invalidated. He dismantles their methodologies, and reveals the hidden presuppositions they have in play, then demands to know how science can so often overlook the lasting effects of experiences had by thousands upon thousands of real people all over the world and throughout history. The difference between the actual thing and (for example) "experiences" created in a laboratory, he argues, is that a true mystical experience – or as we might call it, the "real deal" of samhadhi – will leave a residual trace. A deeper and more permanent knowing that enhances the entire life of a person, subtly but significantly, or sometimes even in extraordinary ways. "ME," according to Hinman, produces positive changes that last whole lifetimes.
We see it in the movies. We read about it in books. We may even know someone like this A drinker perhaps. Maybe a drug-user. An abuser, or an abused person. Perhaps some petty tyrant. Someone - anyone - who's on the road of destruction and doesn't even know how lost they are. Then, one day, they have an encounter with 'something' or 'someone'. They endure a 'Road to Damascus' experience where they encounter God (or their "higher self" in the form of the atman, as some cultures would have it). Then, suddenly, they're turned right around. A dramatic transformation metamorphises them into a new and different person, sometimes even the opposite of the person they were before. The proof is plain for everyone to see. It's in their actions, the fruit they bear. The person is changed. They're more positive and loving. They've acquired a new sense of peace and have maybe even lost their fear of death.
Hinman's central points are that this stuff really happens, and careful, sensitive, well-structured social scientific approaches don't lose these phenomena. Examinations of the lives and longer-term outcomes of those who have these experiences therefore suggest our religious and/or mystical beliefs can be considered warranted. Individual and subjective perspectives – as it turns out – do matter. They're really valid. If it works and the effects are prolonged and pervasive, then it must be true. That's all the “proof” we need.
The scientific community requires "Proof Beyond A Reasonable Doubt." (Elanna also yearns for this several times during Bollywood Storm.) That kind of "proof" is interesting, no doubt, and has its place. But once you've fixed your "scientific" expectations and your explications in place, there's no room left for the phenomena and very little space for mystery or for the human spirit.
I highly recommend Joe's book. It's easy to follow and clearly laid out, so it's accessible even to someone like me who's definitely a non-specialist in the social or physiological sciences. It will be particularly helpful for anyone who feel the pressure of the mechanistic, fatalistic and reductionist assumptions that our increasingly globalized society requires us – more and more often in our ordinary, everyday lives – to conform to and at least pretend to live by.
About the Book:
The Trace of God - A Rational Warrant for Belief is a rigorous look at the argument of the weakness of personal religious and mystical experiences by both apologists and skeptics. Although Joseph Hinman does not prove the existence of God, he draws upon 50 years of work from sociological experts and their studies that have documented thousands of person experiences, including the development of a scientific method (The M. Scale) which is used to study mystical and religious experiences to warrant belief.
About the Author:
Joseph Hinman did his undergraduate work in sociology and debate at the University of Texas at Arlington. He earned a Masters degree in Theological studies where he focused on the history of doctrine at Perkins school of Theology, Southern Methodist University of Texas at Dallas. He began work focusing upon Derrida and the postmodern understanding of the self. He then switched and spent five years studying the history and philosophy of science, focusing upon Newton, Boyle and the Latitudinarians. Mr. Hinmon published the peer reviewed academic journal, Negations: and interdisciplinary journal of social criticism.
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