Snakes on a (Spiritual) Plane
Eat Pray Love Book Club Discussion: Part 3
Perhaps because I was once a religious studies student, Eat, Pray, Love reminded me of William James's Varieties of Religious Experience—and, though, the two books have quite different forms, Gilbert's memoir raised problems similar, for me, to those encountered in James nearly ten years before.
Religious studies is the secular study of religion, so in my first graduate seminar, we examined various theories of religion, comparing insights and shortcomings. James took a more psychological approach, which I liked, but as I read page after page of the various anecdotes he recounts, there emerged a troubling elision between the positive and the negative, the joy-giving and the fear-inducing "religious experience." The failure to account for any possible difference in the cause behind such discordant experiences as some of those he recounted struck me as a major weakness in his catalog.
I, of course, was reading him through a Christian worldview, in which spiritual beings can be both good and bad. Thus, when I read those accounts, there was always a phenomenological question in the back of my mind: What caused this? Was this a "God sighting"? Or something else?
Gilbert's detailed recounting of her various spiritual experiences, from a lonely East Coast bathroom to the rooftop visions of India, prompted a similar reading dialogue. And she doesn't exactly discourage such assessments, more or less attributing the book's earliest spiritual ...1