The Holy Rollers of the Royal Albert Hall
As you know, I’ve been researching altered states of consciousness for the last year and a half, for my next book. As part of that, I started going to various churches around London, including a big charismatic-Anglican church in South Kensington called HTB.
This week, I went to something called the Leadership Conference, which HTB organizes in the Royal Albert Hall every year. It brings together 6000 Christians from all over the world, and another 30,000 or so watch it online. There’s some stadium-rock-style worship, and talks by the likes of Rick Warren and Justin Welby. Not to everyone's taste, certainly, but interesting for students / seekers of what the Bishop of London called 'corybantic ecstasy'.
On the first evening, the speaker was Mike Pilivachi, who runs something called Soul Survivor, the biggest teen Christian festival in the UK. Mike walked on the stage, in front of 4000 people, and didn’t say anything. He just looked round at us. Two minutes went by, three, four. Not a word. This immediately built up the tension and focused our attention. Something weird was happening.
He looked down at his hand, felt it as if his palm was sticky. I’ll come back to that. Then he looked round at us some more. At this point, it got too much for one guy up in the balcony, who cried out ‘Lord, we stand on the shoulder of giants and we...’ but Mike interrupted with a ‘Shhh! Just wait. Wait for the Lord to come. I have a talk prepared but Jesus told me to wait for a bit, to let something happen. Jesus wants to do something now, he wants to anoint some of you. For some of you, it began this morning, for others it’s just starting now. You’re beginning to feel it. Stand up if you feel it happening.’
At this, a few people stood up, maybe 10 around the hall. ‘OK. Don’t be afraid of what’s happening. Jesus wants to do something, let it happen. Come Holy Spirit. We want more, Lord, more, a deeper anointing, a fresh wave of you, Lord.’ Charismatics are very importunate of the Lord. More, Lord, more! Like yuppies in Starbucks: make it a double dose, Lord, I’ve had a tough week.
Some of the people standing up started to rock, to groan, to shake their heads and hands. A lady up in aisle 4 started to scream. A young man right behind us let out loud groans, his pelvis thrusting forward, much to the annoyance of my friend sitting in front of him. I looked around in amusement, and wondered if the Shakers on the top balcony were safe. It was a strange scene. I’ve been to some fairly charismatic services before, in Wales. I’ve even felt the Holy Spirit myself on occasion. But that was in Pembrokeshire, where anything goes. This was the Royal Albert Hall. This was Kensington. Was nothing sacred?
The next day, the entire audience stood up to pray, and a lady called Ellie Mumford led the prayer. She’s the mother of the singer Marcus Mumford, and quite a charismatic lady. While she importuned God for yet another fresh anointing (‘more, God, we want more!’), I felt my mind settling into a sort of deep state, and I thought something like ‘I surrender to you, Lord’. This wasn't some big conversion moment (that happened last year) just the latest in a series of surrenders!
Mumford’s voice rang out: ‘If you see the Holy Spirit working on someone near you, put your hand on their shoulder’. To my surprise, I felt a hand on my shoulder. I was surprised because I certainly wasn’t shaking or groaning or any of that nonsense. Yet somehow whoever it was knew something was going on inside me. Their hand felt really warm on my shoulder. I felt my mind going deeper, and I found myself in an enormous room (I’m speaking metaphorically).
And it felt like the room was at the centre of our minds and at the centre of the cosmos, and it is filled with light and love for us all. I felt a sort of painful joy in my stomach, and I was crying (quietly, I assure you, I’m not one to make a scene), which was really a sort of over-brimming. I noticed my legs were trembling, so I put out my hand to steady myself on a rail, and whoever had put his hand on my shoulder took it off, and I gathered myself together. I looked round, and the guy who prayed for me was on the next aisle. Afterwards I said thanks and asked his name - he was an American called the Reverend H. Miller. I’ll come back to him.
So what was going on? Here are four possibilities.
1) Pathology / personality
Perhaps the people freaking out were unhinged personalities, suffering from hysteria or dissociation, because of trauma or stresses in their life, or because of inherited neurological infirmity. And perhaps, because I did a lot of LSD when I was a teenager, I am something of a cracked pot myself, hence my occasional dissociative moments. I’ve always been a bit prone to dissociative states long before I was a Christian, so it might be my personality-type: Intuitive-Thinking-Oddball. It does seem that certain personality-types are more prone to religious experiences - some people are more suggestible, more dissociative, less critical, more capable of absorption or flow, and more manic and generally excitable. Doesn't mean they're necessarily holier or better humans.
But if this is so, what is the harm in creating safe places for odd-balls to have their occasional schizoid episodes? It might mean they can express an aspect of their personality and not feel ashamed or afraid of it, indeed, to feel proud of it, and to find love and support from others. This might be better than telling them they’re sick, putting them through the NHS psychiatric system, and giving them a lifetime prescription of Prozac or Thorazine.
2) Fakery / performance art
Alternately, one could say all this Holy Spirit nonsense was an elaborate piece of performance art, in which the ring-master stages a bit of drama, and then the more histrionic or exhibitionist members of the audience get up and shake their thing. It’s self-indulgent, a bit childish and vain, and mainly about displaying how inspired and special you are to other people. But it’s basically harmless. In my own case, I wasn’t ‘putting it on’ to look good to others, if anything I was a bit embarrassed, but I suspect some people may have been making the most of whatever they were feeling - they weren't necessarily faking it, they were just uninhibited and somewhat exhibitionist.
3) Mass hypnosis
Or perhaps such ‘outpourings of the Spirit’ are really mass hypnosis. It often strikes me that charismatic preachers tell the audience what they’re likely to feel. Note how Mike Pilavachi looked at his palm, as if to say to the audience ‘you may be feeling sweaty palms now - a sure sign of the Holy Spirit!’ He said things like ‘Jesus wants to do something, don’t be afraid of what’s happening’. All of this creates an expectation of an ‘anointing’, thereby putting some of the more suggestible members of the audience into a hypnagogic state.
This would be the magician Derren Brown’s take on the proceedings. Brown was a teenage Pentecostalist, who then decided he didn’t believe in God, and that all that Holy Spirit was merely mass suggestion. He even claims to have manipulated a normal, healthy atheist into a full-on conversion experience in 10 minutes, using NLP-type techniques (I asked him if I could interview the 'convert' from his show, but haven’t been put in touch with her yet).
The question is, if mass religious experiences are a form of hypnosis, how bad for people is this? Another of Brown’s shows explored the placebo effect - how suggestion, expectation and faith can unlock healing powers in the unconscious and cure many common psychosomatic physical and mental ailments, from psoriasis to phobias.
In a post-religious society, we tend to access the placebo effect through our faith in doctors and particularly in pharmaceuticals. But this is very expensive for the state (NHS England spends £270 million a year on anti-depressants), it creates a depressing mindset that we are entirely determined by our chemistry, it doesn’t lead to any ethical or social commitments in the patient, nor any artistic inspiration (no one’s written a hymn to Prozac), and it is entirely individualistic, leaving the patient alone and disconnected from his fellow humans. Isn’t religion a much better, cheaper and more pro-social way of unlocking the placebo effect?
But what about the side-effects? Ecstatic experiences lead to in-group bonding, but also to outsider-exclusion - there weren’t many gay people at the Royal Albert Hall, at least, not openly gay. The person who prayed for me, the Rev H. Miller, turns out to be a leader in a splinter Anglican group in the US which left the Anglican church over female and gay ordination. Evangelical Christians tend to be more intolerant of homosexuality than non-charismatic Christians. Evangelical Christians are more likely to support the death penalty than atheists or liberal Christians. Evangelical Christians are less likely to care about man-made climate change than liberal Christians or atheists (I've heard several sermons on porn addiction, never heard one on climate change). And Christians (according to one meta-study) can also be more racist than atheists. So all that experience of God’s love doesn’t necessarily soften people’s hearts. It can lead to the belief ‘we’re OK, you’re demonic’.
At its worst, religious ecstasy leads to anti-outsider violence - this week, a busload of Boko Haram soldiers gunned down over 300 people, while chanting ‘God is great!’ Religion can have some very nasty side-effects - because it taps into the unconscious, and that can be a nasty place. But I don’t think the unconscious is going anywhere just yet, so there is something to be said for preserving millennia-old traditions of wisdom and love as guides for unlocking the unconscious safely (while condemning those who use religions as a vehicle for hate).
I personally think you never get into a hypnagogic state against your will - there's no such thing as 'brain-washing'. People choose to surrender to a loving God, or they choose to surrender to a xenophobic Fuhrer, or to money, or sex, or any of the gods we worship. The conscious choice comes first, then the trance state.
4) Personality + Performance + Hypnosis + God
The fourth possibility, the one I tend towards, which was first put forward by the great psychologist William James, is that ecstatic moments may emerge from pathology or personality, they may be pure histrionics or performance, they may be natural states of consciousness triggered by suggestion or chemicals. But they may also be genuinely supernatural. As James put it, ‘if the grace of God miraculously operates, it probably operates through the subliminal door’.
By ‘supernatural’, I mean that I believe the foundation of both our psyches and the cosmos is an infinite loving-consciousness. This loving-consciousness is both natural and supernatural (which literally means ‘more than nature’). It is within nature, but it’s also beyond nature - it’s both immanent and transcendent. I think we can get occasional glimpses of this deeper level of reality, particularly when we surrender our ego, which veils the infinite within us. When we die to ourselves, we pull down the veil and get a glimpse of the infinite.
Sometimes this revealing happens gratuitously, as when we’re riding along on the bus and are suddenly overwhelmed by a sense of the ineffable (this particularly happens on the Number 19). Sometimes we get visions after years of contemplative practice, or unearned peeks on drugs. Sometimes, music, poetry, film or dance can give us a glimpse through the veil. And sometimes it happens collectively, through services and festivals.
The risk however, as William James well knew, was that we become obsessed with the experience of God’s love, while not letting it transform us. We become spirit-junkies, chasing the free gifts rather than asking what we can do for God. We can decide we’re special, and anyone who disagrees with us is demonic. The transpersonal psychologist Jorge Ferrer created a good set of tests for spiritual experience:
How much does the cultivation and embodiment of these truths result in a movement away from self-centredness? How much do they lead to the emergence of of selfless awareness and/or action in the world? How much do they promote the maturation of love and wisdom? To what degree do they deliver the promised fruits?
These are valid questions, and it’s for each of us to examine ourselves and answer, whatever our faith or philosophy. Anyway, I’m grateful to the Rev H Miller for anonymously praying for me, despite our ethical differences. We all have differences - Christians, Muslims, Stoics, atheists. But I honestly believe we are all connected by loving-consciousness, it is our deepest nature and the nature of the universe. It’s far bigger than any words, labels or doctrine, and there’s far more of it within all of us than we realize.
Or maybe I should snap out of it, and accept that our deepest nature is selfish, and the universe is an indifferent ball of matter. I'll keep repeating that to myself until I get better...