by John Corrigan
Some medieval Christian mystics expressed their experiences in language that confounds modern readers. Writers such as John of the Cross, Teresa of Avila, and Hildegard of Bingen reported their sense of the emptying of self and embrace of nothingness. Many others have written similarly about their experiences.
The French theoretician Roland Barthes once framed the problem in remarking on a difference between Japan and the West. For Zen writers in Japan, the point was to fashion an “emptiness of language,” and in this emptiness, “Zen, in the exemption from all meaning, writes gardens, gestures, houses, flower arrangements, faces, violence.” Barthes juxtaposed to such an “empire of signs” the Occidental empire “of meaning.” In the West, said Barthes, we are preoccupied with meaning. In the Barthesian turn of phrase, the West “moistens everything with meaning, like an authoritarian religion which imposes baptism on entire peoples.” The dense cultural mass of Christianity, pulling everything into orbit around it, requires the dutiful embrace of metaphysics as the practice of meaning-making. Christian semiosis is a distinctive enterprise geared to patterning language in response to questions of meaning. If the West might be said to privilege meaning, then in Zen Japan, things are different, a matter of signs, of linguistic emptiness, where semiotic systems labor in service to aesthetics, or other cultural authorities. The Christian angle is the pathway to a specific realization of salvation. In Japan, thinking can be less important than nothingness, and signs more important than meaning.
Christian-inflected scholarship about religion, which is most scholarship in the West, preoccupies itself with questions of meaning in religion and hesitates when forced to confront reports of nothingness. Academic investigators of religious experiences tend to steer their interpretations away from testimonies of self-negation and the elusiveness of meaning into waters more accommodating to somethingness and to discovery of meaningfulness susceptible to linguistic coding. Even if that somethingness is gender, or body, or food, or institutional politics, those themes enable analysis that is complicit with the liberal insistence upon the doxic superstructures of actors’ experiences. In other words, such interpretation is largely oriented to the recognition and admiration of the process of meaning-making that is presumed to direct the spiritual experiences of persons.
As an artifact of Christian enunciations of orthodoxy—in the technical sense, the privileging of “right language”—such interpretation takes shape as a species of doxography. A critical approach to the study of religious experience requires a determination to escape the gravity of Christian domain assumptions about the manner in which religious life grows by degrees from a seed of meaning planted by epiphany. Instead, scholars can consider how generative emotional crises that are referenced as spiritual by persons can be meaningless moments, biological-cultural events characterized more by their emotional intensity and a sense of negative identity than by sudden awareness of, and near-simultaneous linguistic framing of, a kernel of meaning. From such a genesis, the subsequent development of a religious persona can occur as a series of further definitions by negation, as actors undertake to separate themselves from certain emotions, ideas, groups, spaces, times, and bodies. Religion as a byproduct of such an exercise presents as the ongoing collective implementation of a program of exclusion. It blindly coalesces as the impossible pursuit of closure with the meaningless moment through unending systematic extrapolation and expansion of that moment.