Please indulge me as I wax philosophical. If we define religious experience as experience of the spiritual plane, then it makes sense to explore it on its own terms. While our attitudes, expectations, and behaviors shape how we approach it, there is something distinctive to it that resists our expectations. That resistance demands some sort of response such that the understanding we develop about the spiritual world and how we behave toward it tell us something both about ourselves (individually and socially) and the spiritual world. Because the spiritual world isn’t just any way we want, but has its own substance, we can discern its reality ‘beneath’ the descriptions and rites. This makes it both possible and reasonable to compare one form of religious expression with another. The way in which we make that comparison, though, needs to keep those variables in mind and try to make sense of the different forms of religious expression ecologically rather than getting carried away with superficial similarities.
[For those who are fans of technical philosophical vocabulary, we might call this strategy critical, phenomenological, and pragmatic. If you don’t care about those terms, don’t worry. You don’t have to be connosieur to enjoy the wine.]
I take it as a strength that this view easily incorporates the more anti-theistic expressions of Buddhism into the religious field as easily as devotional Christianity and animism. After all, while the most extreme forms of Buddhism discourage engagement with spiritual beings as distraction, they nonetheless recognize them as spiritual.
It excludes, however, a good deal of modern atheism and agnosticism which excludes spiritual beings from the purview of experience (unless you wish to argue that these folks are actively denying the existence of a spiritual plane they are experiencing; while I might say that for this or that individual, I wouldn’t describe atheism or agnosticism generally in those terms). I take that, too, to be a strength.
This approach is theological but skeptical. It presumes that there are spiritual beings, but doesn’t presume to know what they are or to have particularly good terms to differentiate them. That skepticism makes room for a good deal of speculation so long as we acknowledge that speculation may or may not find purchase in spiritual realities (Philip K. Dick’s Exegesis is an exemplary bit of speculation). Experimentation is the behavioral adjunct to this speculation. Just as we must assume that some of our ideas about the spiritual world are less than ideal, so must we also consider that some of our rituals only clusmily address it. In both cases, though, received opinion and received practice are valuable since some portion of both rests firmly in the dialogue between ourselves and the spiritual.
This nestles the spiritual work firmly in the present, examining the past but with a sense of it as past, as having a future that may look quite different. Since part of what we discover in the spiritual world is ourselves, this also raises a question about our spiritual future, our spiritual present.
Thinking ecologically, though, also makes it possible to consider different attitudes toward the present as something other than mutually exclusive. Buddhism doesn’t have to be a truer perspective on the Hindu religion anymore than Islam needs to be a more refined expression of monotheism than Christianity. They *may* be these things, but it could also be that many new religious movements do is explore a new niche within the spiritual world. The anti-theism of the Buddhist might be more sensibly compared to the evolution of wings that allows an animal to rise a crowded ecosystem. That crowded ecosystem doesn’t cease to exist, it just becomes less relevant for the flier.
This seems like a better model for religious pluralism. A person’s spiritual life is as much about an ethos, a sphere of concerns and an attitude toward them, as about any hard and fast ontology. I suspect, too, it provides a better framework for thinking through what it means to have religious freedom in a civil and political sense, though what it may sometimes reveal is just how genuinely intractable some of those conflicts are, rooted not in different ideas but in different ways of living in the (spiritual) world. If, after all, we are spiritually real, then the ways we interact with the spiritual world have an impact upon it, change it. Those changes may be better or worse for others.
It also leaves us with a lot of room to question and explore what sort of things we are spiritually and what sort of transformations we are capable of. Are we as similar on the spiritual plane as we are on the biological plane? If we aren’t, how much might we differ? Do we differ like bees from birds or like penguins from albatross or like moss from a monkey? What sort of transitional forms might lie between talking with the angels and swimming with the mermaids? Are we better suited to one form of spiritual life than another, whether as a group or as individuals?
These are all rich avenues for gnosticism. What if we’re sad penguins who have gotten it into our heads we should be albatross? What happens if we just get off of our rock, flapping our silly stumpy wings, and dive?