Ten years ago, my wife Sally won a trip to Greece. I tagged along. Pure vacation. Great Greek food. In the land of Zeus and Athena, God kept popping up. We visited the Isle of Patmos and saw the grotto where John penned his Revelation.
My most “spiritual” experience came at Delphi, site of the famous Oracle. It was obvious to me that this beautiful site holds a special place in the world. Once upon a time, over a thousand years before the birth of Jesus, something special happened on this sacred mountain. Someone had a mystical experience. They met God, as best they could understand God. They were humbled in the presence of a Power that was larger than they were. They valued the experience that happened there.
Then, typical of human beings, they wanted to repeat that experience. If you want to meet God, they said, you need to go to Delphi. They claimed that this place was the navel of the universe, the place where God connects to humans. Jews say the same thing of the Temple in Jerusalem. Incans say the same of Cusco, Peru. Then the Greeks began organizing and institutionalizing the Delphi experience. In order to get in to see the Oracle (who was now thought to be located at Delphi permanently and exclusively), you had to spend seven days of training and purifying yourself in the gymnasium down the hill from the Oracle. You had to take a ritual bath. You were required to offer sacrificial gifts that would make you worthy to go into the presence of the Almighty to seek divine guidance.
Does any of this sound familiar? Isn’t it human nature that when we have a spiritual experience, we want to repeat it? What can we do to make it happen again? Like the old football cheer after a touchdown, “We want another one, just like the other one.” We want other people to have the same experience we had. Peter, on the Mount of Transfiguration, said, “Let’s build some tents and stay here!” Who doesn’t want to retain that holy feeling?
We take pictures on vacation because we want to recapture the experience later. In 2013, you can get rich by marketing nostalgia.
Then we go too far and say that if you don’t have an experience just like the one I had, you really haven’t met God. We name the experience and then we want to control it. Jump through these hoops and you will meet God. People want absolute certainty in a world of mystery and wonder. That is why some people go to fortune-tellers and others go to fortune-preachers. They want absolute confidence that they can capture God at this place, at this time, in this way. Paul had to remind the Greeks in Acts 17: 24 that God “does not live in shrines made by human hands.”
The desire to share your experience is a good thing. The desire to control the experience of others is not a good thing. We call that blasphemy, putting ourselves in the place of God.
I had forgotten the word “hubris,” but in Greece, I remembered that this was The Great Sin. Hubris is to forget your place before the gods. Icharis was given wings of wax so he could fly, but was warned not to fly too high, too close to the sun, because his wings would melt. Even if you don’t know the story, you can guess how it turns out. Icharis, filled with hubris, believes that the rules don’t apply to him. He gets too close to the sun, his wings melt, and he crashes to his death. It seems to me that blasphemy and hubris are the same thing. Beware. You are not God. I was reminded at Delphi that God is God, and I am not God, and you are not God. That insight was worth the trip.