Thank you so much for sharing this, Mike. You raise at least two issues on which I would like to comment.
First is your assertion that “Were I not Christian, I suspect I would adopt such a view.” The view in question is my understanding of God as the source and substance of all reality, and Jesus as paradigmatic of the God-realized human that each us can become.
If I were to say this in the context of my own life, I would say, “Were I not Jewish, I suspect I would adopt such a view.” But I am Jewish, and I do affirm this view! I do not affirm it because I am a Jew. I affirm it because every fiber of my being tells me it is true. If Judaism insisted on something different, I would have to be something different. I manage to stay within the Jewish fold for two reasons. First, because being a Jew is a matter of birth and/or tribal membership, and there is no one theology that defines us as a people. And second, because the Jewish mystics do allow for just such a theology.
I place truth, as best as I can perceive it, above theology. That is to say a thing is true for me not because the Bible says it is true, but because my experience and reason tells me so. The Bible may affirm what I know to be true, but it isn’t the source of that truth. For example, I believe it is true that we should love our neighbors as ourselves. I believe it not because God says it (Leviticus 19:18), but because when tested against my experience I find it to be true. God also says we should avoid mixing linen and flax in our clothing, but I do not find this compelling at all, and do not worry about it. But God says both things. If one is true because God said it, the other can be no less true, seeing as how it comes from the same source. The fact that I pick and choose among God’s teachings makes it clear that I place my own sense of right and wrong above God’s as presented in the Hebrew Bible.
Regarding your experience in college, I have no doubt that you were both working on a paper and touched by the presence of God. What is interesting to me is that this Presence wasn’t identified as Jesus until later. This, I think, is the norm among most of us who have had similar experiences. This Presence is Nameless, beyond religion and theological niceties. This Presence crushes (Muhammad, too, felt the Presence of Allah as a crushing weight) and loves. But it isn’t Jesus, or Yahweh, or Allah, or Krishna, or any of the thousands of names we humans invent for the Ineffable. It just is.
When the experience passes and we try to make sense of it we draw upon the language with which we are the most comfortable. For you that language is Christianity. For me it is Judaism. For others the language might be Buddhism, or Islam, or art, literature, or science. The key is to distinguish the ineffable experience from the words we use to describe it.
Religion goes wrong is when it mistakes the word for the event. Religion is vital when it preserves the event story as a reminder of what each of us can discover for ourselves.