The princess, so royally sensitive, was refused her sleep because of the pea under her mattress. America is restless because it is tormented by garden peas. Not one. Lots of them.
Well, not only garden peas; but the objects of any careful experiment. Gregor Mendel, who was a trained scientist as well as a monk, at some point in his career as a gardener and botanist in a monastery in what is now the Czech Republic, noticed that the common garden pea propagated itself almost regularly in certain color patterns. He set out to find out why.
He and his fellow workers began to grow their peas in a more disciplined way. After years and several generations of cultivated plants later, meticulously governing their pollination, and keeping careful records of the results, they began to understand, statistically at least, that there appeared to be regularities that governed the proportion of blue, white, and pink pea blossoms. Some colors were dominant. That is, they showed up more often. Some were recessive, somewhat rarer. As for us are blue and brown eyes. Without knowing anything about genes and chromosomes and the double helix DNA molecule the foundations of the science of genetics were discovered by this priest-gardener. And those biologists who favored the theory of Darwinian evolution at long last had found the mechanism by which favored traits in the origin and evolution of species and the changes involved in the descent of man was accomplished.
This is the implication of the repeatable experiment.
If an experiment can be repeated, the results of that experiment become established. The facts of nature disclosed in experiments have a high degree of certainty. The better the experiment, the frequency of its successful repetition, the more reliable those facts become. Eventually, such as the statistics underlying the proportion of the colors of the pea blossoms, those facts become all but irrefutable.
Not only experimentation, but disciplined observation is essential for the development of sound science. When Darwin on his voyage observed the oddities of the fauna of the Galapagos, or when he wrote his great work on the barnacle, he wasn’t experimenting as such. But the care with which he observed, letting evidence stand with as little interference from an ideological prejudgment as possible, was in itself a scientific methodology. For example the famous distinction between the beaks of a variety of finches through observation needed to be clearly delineated. A naturalist noting the similarity of various birds and plants follows this pattern. Though both are birds, a finch is not a turkey. A fern is not a rose. But the rose may be kin to the strawberry. To the biologist this is elemental, and banal, however important it is to assert it.
Inductive reasoning, another tool of science, that is, generating clear sentences based on the facts observed, attempts to describe how the material world works the way it does. Viewing all the elements of nature, the variation of species the fossil record, the kinds and distribution of rocks, and so forth, the good scientist using inductive reasoning begins to account for all the data discovered. These ideas, as experiment and observation become established and richer, ultimately become scientific Models. Induction is reasoning from the facts to a set of declarative sentences (truth, the philosophers tell us, is the property of declarative sentences) accurate to the facts. No more, no less. The principle of simplicity, or Occam’s razor--entia non sunt multiplicanda praeter necessitatum--do not multiply concepts beyond necessity, must always be invoked. Thus, the simplest explanation that covers all the known facts is probably the valid one. With this, a paradigm or Model is made. A Model is a picture of nature that covers the known facts. There are many scientific Models now available to us.
So the repeatable experiment and disciplined observation of the facts of nature, plus inductive reasoning about those facts create a scientific Model. Moreover, the understanding that knowledge is incomplete, that there is no such thing as a completely finished Model taken to be absolutely true, a variation of the notion of uncertainty is also a part of this process. Science is, therefore, a giant self-correcting system of knowledge under peer-review, that is constantly modified to account for new discovery. Deduction, the alternate logic to induction, that is reasoning from premises already given (usually a Model under construction), can be usefully employed when all the facts are not all in. Mathematics, a system of largely analytic symbols, reasoning from its own presupposed premises, is a key scientific tool. Mathematical language is crucial in physics for the anticipation of new phenomena. Newton’s formula for gravity applies as well to galaxies he knew nothing of as to his legendary falling apple. For another example, Darwin deduced a relation of the human animal to other primates in his The Descent of Man. It took further analysis as the fossil record became more ample and when the relevant discoveries were made of the 99% commonality of DNA of humans and chimpanzees to establish that as a fact. All primates it seems come from common ancestors, though the details of that lineage are not yet perfectly clear. In quantum mechanics it is possible to predict the appearance of new subatomic particles that later are verified by experiment in a linear accelerator and a cloud chamber. All this is very simple and clear. But explosively potent.
There are many Models available to us now.
Some of them are: Newtonian Mechanics, Atomic theory, Einsteinian Relativity, Quantum Mechanics, Continuum, The Standard Model in physics; the astronomic picture of the universe: the expanding universe and its age or Inflation, the Big Bang and Big Crunch, where Newton, Einstein, and Quantum Mechanics meet; Chemical bond and valence; Plate Tectonics, the movement of continents, and the age of the earth in geology; Genetics, the picture of the cell, the disclosure of the gene with the double helix DNA and so forth in biology. (Even the writing of good scientific history, which is a literary enterprise, depending on disciplined observation of the evidence and an attempt to connect the dots to make a plausible story consistent with documents, verbal and archeological, and other evidence must be based on research). Upon further study of these Models, one begins to sense how interrelated they are to each other. When all the Models of science are combined and related, larger and deeper pictures of the wonderful complexity and of the continuum of Nature begins to emerge. This rather gigantic picture is called The Scientific World View. It is not for the faint of mind to grasp.
This, for better or worse, and irresistibly, is part of our world view.
It is as accurate a picture of nature as humans of imperfect ability can conceive.
When an older system of thinking is inconsistent with that world view, the old view is discarded. When the world view of the ancient world, that it was a three layer construction of earth, underworld, and heaven, was refuted by the Alexandrine researchers as early as three centuries before the common era, and Galileo’s telescope, (and later by the work, among others, of Johannes Kepler, Tycho Brahe, and Copernicus --and all the moderns) that old world view came emphatically to be rejected. The sun does not revolve around the earth. The earth is not the center of the universe; rather, the sun is a minor star in a small galaxy which is part of a local group of galaxies, which is one of billions of galaxies distributed irregularly in a staggering magnitude of space that to the human mind is very nearly incomprehensible. This was not an easy process. It took the medieval West nearly 1500 years to catch up with the astronomers of the Alexandrian Library. And in the 500 years since, by all reports, in spite of the marvelous advance of scientific thinking, many ignorant of science still hold the old view. Over sixty per cent of Americans still believe that God created each species one at a time in the form that they exist now. Even more do not believe in Evolution. Even more than that believe in the Virgin Birth, the inerrancy of the Bible, Resurrection, and so forth.
The modern world view discloses no verifiable miracles to us. That is to say, one imbued with the disciplines of science would look upon nature as something that can be understood by reason, observation and experiment. In this world, miracles simply don’t happen. There are many things we have a partial understanding of, but a scientist can be confident that even these over the long haul--perhaps the very long haul--will yield their mystery to understanding.
That means that the claims of various older mythologies simply don’t hold water. That Osiris and Jesus rose from the dead, or that Alexander, the Buddha, Sayoshant, and Jesus were born of virgins (the mother of the Buddha was impregnated by a flying white elephant and Mary by God--while Zeus careened madly over the known world fornicating with every female he could catch); or that the emperors of Rome and the Pharaohs of Egypt and Alexander and Jesus were the Sons of God; or that the world flood of Utnapishtim in the Epic of Gilgamesh and Noah in Genesis physically happened; or that the belief in the Torah, Old Testament, and the Koran that the events described, mainly those found in the thousand years before David, are not history but fictions inconsistent with the archeological record and scientific sense, but held to to have actually occurred, are not possible in any world we know. Not one of these things happened. These are fictions. They are myths.
A favorite question is posed by some members of the notorious Jesus Seminar: If you were to have a camcorder positioned in front of the tomb that Jesus allegedly was buried in, would that camera on Easter Sunday record a dead man getting up and walking out alive? The use of the camcorder presupposes a modern technology rooted in a world view that clashes with a mythical event. Thus science and technology collide with myth. A body dead and putrefying after three days in the hot climate of the near Middle East simply does not revive and get up to visit with his friends, any more than the apparitions constantly being seen by the faithful in the shopping malls of Tennessee and elsewhere are a living Elvis.
Where mythology contradicts the modern world view, the mythology is wrong in the
world of time and space. In the final analysis, all mythologies taken as literal truth are
wrong. That the weaver-girl Arachne was turned into a spider by an offended Hera, or being
born of a virgin, resurrection from the dead and bodily ascension into heaven, make no
sense in a world of ‘dates.’ Therefore to believe in them literally is wrong. There can be
no equivocation of this fact.
Truth is a property of declarative sentences.
The modern world view is full of them.
So much for the clash of the literalist with the known world.
The literalist loses.
If the Modern World View is scientifically grounded in the declarative sentence that emerges from experiment, disciplined observation, and inductive logic, with a sensible tribute to the uncertainty of all propositions, its artistic inflection is grounded in the resonant image and metaphor contained in poetry, painting, music, dance: the linguistic, visual, auditory, and kinetic creative rendering of a truth. In poetic terms the scientific world view based upon the operations of the mind, observation and logic is a wonderful but rather chilly one. The artistic world view based on the affections of the heart, feeling, aesthetic seizure, feeling, warms and makes radiant that world considerably.
So we venture into what Heidegger calls the domain of the heart: Only in the invisible innermost of the heart is man inclined to what there is for him to love: the forefathers, the dead, the children, those who are to come...this belongs in the widest orbit...this presence is a presence of immanence.
This is the source of poetry.
Heidegger makes it clear that he does not intend to restrict the meaning of the word "poetry" only to what is ordinarily understood by the word: lyric poetry. It is that. But poetry is also meant to designate anything that is made, "to make" (the meaning of the Greek word from which "poesis" comes), which brings about the opening up and expansion of the world. Such expanded meaning takes on a variety of surprising forms: political deeds, works of art, philosophical questioning, heroic and sacrificial acts, and the approach of the god. (That last phrase, ‘the approach of the god,’ may be puzzling; we will defer comment on it until part III.)
However, to determine a truth in art is a bit more difficult than to run a repeatable experiment, even though that truth is based on something very much like experimental knowing.
Consider any image, such as this one by Robert Burns. My love is a red, red rose. This is something, obviously, that can’t be taken literally. If it is, then your love would be only that flower and nothing else (several comic pictures come to mind, making ardent love to a rosebush, kissing a thorn); or that your girlfriend or your wife is a tall slender thing with skinny a green body with thorns all over it, and a giant disproportionate red head whose parts fall off eventually. This is ridiculous, of course. Anyone taking to heart that image knows this immediately, and that Robert Burns intended no such thing. Rather one feels the same about the rose (and it’s a rare person who doesn’t) as one feels about one’s beloved: his or her beauty, attraction, color, texture, evanescence, magic, even aroma. And if she or he is a rose, your feeling, your attention, your devotion can be profound and passionate indeed.
The rose is an image. Images come from the objects of the universe. But those objects as you connect to them are invested with a peculiar power, feeling, emotion. One does not react indifferently to the notes of a symphony, or the words of romance: O she hangs upon the cheeks of night as a rich jewel in an Ethiop’s ear, says the passionate Romeo of Juliet upon seeing her alone that night on the balcony. And of course those words command us to love her too. The laconic possibility of this swain saying merely, Well, there she is, though a truthful enough observation, hardly carries any sense of his infatuation for her.
Jewel. Cheek. Night. Ear. All of these are objects seen in Romeo’s and our time. By themselves they mean little or nothing. But in the hands of The Poet (there is only one supreme one in our language) they are transformed into a fabulous passion of romantic and tragic love. Each one of these words has been invested with an aesthetic seizure and combined into a wonder, the whole of which is greater than any part.
There are an infinite number of objects in the universe. Therefore, there is an unlimited symbolic source for utterance in lyric poetry. Each generation throws up artists of all sorts. They, with knowledge of the mind in their expressions of our hearts (these two words clearly are metaphors as well as those they coin), give us in each epoch and each new generation of artists some understanding deeper than the mere facticity of life.
That is lyric poetry.
Narration, whether in the epic poem or the novel employs a different kind of image: the Event Metaphor, where things that happen somehow become deeper, more plangent, than the bare event itself. For example the image of the crucifixion of Jesus on the world tree as a literary device was written as the culmination of an entire Biblical narration. It does not serve as a mere historical event, one of many at the time, where criminals were executed because they were a danger to the Roman occupation or the factotums of the Jerusalem Temple establishment. That, though bloody enough, is flat and uninteresting. The context of this story is much larger. It combines many elements of Hellenism and Judaism, the Servant Songs in Isaiah and other texts, and the resurrection mythologies of the Mediterranean world, and is thereby transformed into a universal Salvation history. In the same way, Siddartha Gotama sitting under a Hindu version of that same world tree some five hundred years earlier underwent a cruci fixion of self as he achieved enlightenment and touched the earth with his right hand and the world serpent rose over him, spread its cobra hood to protect him from the storms that demons sent his way to distract him from his purpose. The meaning of those motifs are metaphors that should be self-evident. That too conveys a universal Salvation event. The differences between the Orient and the Levant--Jesus in his middle thirties dying forsaken on an elevated world tree, the cross, like Achilles valorizing heroic early death; and the Buddha of the same age sitting on the earth protected beneath the world tree, the bodhi tree, to arise and preach his salvation until his long productive life ended at eighty, valorizing the wisdom of old age--are instructive.
The artist experiences the same aesthetic seizure at the observation of an event as the poet does over an object. The symbol can be a sound (music), or a vision (painting, sculpture, film) or a word (the lyric) or an event (novels, stories, narrative poetry). The connection between lyric and event is rooted in the aesthetic seizure. Most of us do not respond indifferently to the violence and unutterable dimensions of the universe, or to horrendous battle such as at Gettysburg, or to a brilliant sunset like last night’s, only scientifically. One sees and exclaims: How beautiful that is! How terrifying! How sublime!
We are mindful intelligences.
We are feeling creatures. Both.
The experimental function of art lies in the endurance of the work. Survival of the work over time is very much like an experiment. The parable of the empty jar in the Gospel of Thomas, or the anguish of Gilgamesh at the death of his brother Enkidu in that earliest of epics, or the rages of Lear at his exile or the too-early death of his favorite daughter, is as readable to us, are as affective, as they were to its first auditors. With these images and metaphors, the works have, as the phrase goes, stood the test of time. That is, that many audiences have been touched by them; the stories endure from generation to generation. Gilgamesh is readable in Stephen Mitchell’s version, after nearly three thousand years. The Iliad after twenty-eight hundred. The Thomas Gospel after two thousand. And Shakespeare...forever. These works--almost all of Shakespeare supremely--become classics, that division of literature in which so many with so-called educations are regrettably ignorant of now: so goes our slouching toward the Evening Land, to barbarism and decadence.
Building on the images and metaphors comes the work. The work becomes very like the results of an experiment: a kind of literary law--in that it is tested over time and with many audiences as having something of importance to say to each of them. Shakespeare’s audience in the Globe was moved, in ways that we may not understand easily some four hundred years later. But to view Lear or Twelfth Night this summer at the classical American Players Theater in the magic countryside of south-central Wisconsin engages its audience scarcely less. The experiment succeeds. The play’s the thing. There are many plays written by Shakespeare’s contemporaries that are not heard today. In fact there are a few of Shakespeare’s that fall into the same category. This is so because they are not classics; these are Period Pieces. Like the theories of aether in physics or the humors in medicine, they have not stood up to the test of time. That experimentation of this sort is cruder than its scientific equivalent goes without saying. But that scientific experiment and artistic endurance are put to the test in much the same way should be obvious.
The classics of art are roughly equivalent to a scientific theory. The works of Shakespeare therefore become something like a Model, a paradigm. Not only does one view dramatically so much of tragic and comic humanity, the heart in conflict with itself, but a good deal of the Elizabethan Era itself is transmitted in those plays by the Poet. This will be true of any oeuvre. Greek tragedies and comedies, Greek philosophy, Restoration comedy, the works of Balzac and Dickens and Ibsen, Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman, Melville, and Dickinson also work on us both ways. We are so close, however, to our own time it that it is more difficult to determine which of the myriad efforts will last. Difficult but not impossible. Works such as those of Joyce, Mann, Cormac Macarthy, Jim Harrison, Paula Fox, John Updike, Alice Munro, much poetry, film, painting and drama, have a reasonable chance of enduring beyond their first publication dates.
Meanwhile the Period Piece litters the ruthless evolutionary roadside of neglect, failed seeds cast on fertile ground. The bibliographies of each age are preserved so that an historian may mine even these for useful material in an attempt to render another age successfully. But Period Pieces do not speak universally. We do not read Phillip Freneau these days for instruction. Some great works consist of both classic content and the periodic. Shakespeare has already been mentioned. Another fascinating example is the Levantine Bible. No one seriously believes the cosmology of the first chapters of Genesis is valid any more. Nor the viciousness of the 28th chapter of Deuteronomy where a vengeful God forces those who have become disobedient into cannibalism. Or that the deadly strictures against homosexuality, disobedient children, onanism, the enforcement at great peril of dietary or marriage rules and the like, make any sense to our time. The unquestioned assumption by Islam of the historicity of Adam, Noah, Abraham and Jonah, and the terrifying condemnations in the Koran against the Unbeliever still await a reforming critic. The efforts of fundamentalist exegetes to make these works relevant to modernity sometimes borders on the fantastic, the irrational, and finally to the ridiculous and dangerous.
The New Testament is also a case in point. The work of the Jesus Seminar to recover as much as possible at this distance something of the outlines of the historical Jesus, has given us a figure whose vision of the open table and the radical spiritual democracy of all humanity still speaks luminously to us; as do the sublime lessons of the Buddha. Much of the redacted material of the Gospels that alleges to be historical has been decisively shown not to be. They are the literature of the various communities of faith with axes to grind. They are spins. The anti-Semitism of the Gospel of Matthew, the community which found itself in deadly competition with a growing and powerful rabbinical movement, spawned the murder of heretics, of the crusades, of witches, and of the Jews in almost parallel language. Matthew bred Hitler’s holocaust. The claims to exclusive truth by the Church and Sharia fosters a criminal intolerance. Furthermore, the mythologies of virgin birth, nature miracles, resurrection, and ascension must either be psychologized, mysticised, symbolized, or rejected out of hand. This can be done--not, however, to the satisfaction of conservative exegetes. For example, Joseph Campbell once remarked that the myth of resurrection doesn’t require one to believe that a man rose literally from the dead, but that the life of the spirit can be resurrected from the life of the flesh. That the ascension symbolizes the ascent of the consciousness to high spiritual union. Indeed, he comments, the life of the spirit is the bouquet of the life of the flesh.
If all classics of the past and present are analogous to the Model in science, then all the works taken together create a Canon. Harold Bloom’s list contained in his great book The Western Canon, is as good as any place to start. In it all the best literature from East and West, past and present, is listed. That covers the written word. There are, in addition, canons of painting, sculpture, architecture, and music, film--: in short of every creative expression, medium, and material available to man. If all the scientific paradigms taken together have created a Scientific World View, then all the canons of art have created an Artistic World View. If you combine the Scientific and the Artistic World Views you come up with something like a Modern World View. This is enormous, detailed, sublime and profound. Something you won’t get from watching television. A good high school program, finished off by a university experience can give even those of modest attainments enough background in the Models of science and the Canons of art to keep him or her occupied in meditation and reflection for a lifetime. This would require an openness and an energy that regrettably not everyone has. But that the acquisition of this best of all educations requires hard work to master (if mastery is indeed possible at all) does not in any way invalidate the vision itself. How could it, when, as Hawthorne once put it, the heart and mind need to be perfectly counterpoised? When the balances between the intelligence and feeling humans so desperately need and desire are available in all their amplitude, depth, and riches?
The enemy of science and art is ideology. Bill Clinton, whose immense intelligence will be recognized by historians eventually for the good use it was put to during his decidedly mixed presidency, once got his best and most sustained applause at a political rally when he declared: we govern on evidence, not ideology. (In fact, this division is the curse of our current political and social life.)
America is divided and plagued by all kinds of ideology: economic, social, political, religious and moral. Our friends in northern Europe, England and the Scandinavias shake their heads in wonder at our current lunacies. Anyone participating in the Modern World View described above, including a substantial number of Americans, would agree. To live in a political la-la land that permits lying us into a war, inventing so-called weapons of mass destruction that in fact never existed, imagining bonds between Saddam and world terrorist networks that aren’t there, killing ten thousand and still counting Iraqis, reducing their cities to rubble (we must destroy this country in order to save it!), sacrificing over a thousand young of America, tolerating seven thousand of our brothers and sisters, our children, wounded and maimed, selling out the American worker and our economy to giant corporations, tax cuts in the middle of a war for the superrich, the exploitation and degradation of our environment, creating divisions between our citizens for the sake of Flag and Fetus, preserving marriage founded on the discrimination against same-sex marriage and its attendant homophobia--: requires a peculiar kind of morality, that seems at odds with a rational ethics sanctioned by modernity and a robust, critical Christianity, and is advocated in our current situation by a president who tells he is guided by God Himself to do the things he does.
This is lamentable. No. It is madness.
Contemplating the poisons of ideology infecting our body politic, those who are imbued with a Modern World View find themselves regarding not an earth and world rational to us, but the fantasies of Saturn. If one who adopts the Modern World View through and against an outmoded religious tradition, one can at least understand why, out of fear, the adherents of the Old World think and behave the way they do, though it is clear that the Old world is so out of touch to be dangerous.
The earth is the earth. But on the earth are two worlds--those human constructs we live in and have our being.
There is the Old World. That is the world our current fundamentalist intellectuals currently occupy. An intellectual is one who thinks ideas are more important than any reality they seek to describe. An inerrant Bible, literal Christianity, market economics, right-wing politics, neo-conservative delusions planting the seeds of a particular democracy onto fields that will not grow it, and the like, are some of those ideas. These are held by people of the closed mind.
These are the conservatives. Some of them reactionary.
There is a New World. This is the world of science and art. Scientists and Artists are not intellectuals, strangely enough. Important to them are not ideas so much as are the pictures of a reality constantly corrected, deepened and adjusted by the discovery of new facts, new Models; and heart issues and Canonical and Avante-guard works of art. These are the humans of the creative, less fearful, open mind.
These are the progressives, the liberals. Some are radical.
The truth in declarative sentences in science, and in the images and metaphors of art are its foundation. The union of art and science, the declarative sentence and the metaphor, is powerful.
Opposed to this union are the slogans of Ideology. Ideology is based on mythologies that history has departed, and departed, harmful. It is an attempt to fit on a bed of Procrustes a stubborn reality whose spine needs to be stretched, necks broken, joints exploded, whose excess limbs must be amputated to fit. Ideology is the deadliest of enemies. Its racism, its wars, have destroyed millions of human beings, and endangered the well-being of the very earth itself. Modernity and Ideology are the ultimate enemies. And on a world scale, Modernity may lose out, man may be destroyed, nature itself may perish. This is why the fight must be fought.
The chasm between these two is difficult to cross. At its extremes it may be unbridgeable.
As I say to my evangelical minister friend, who on a personal level is a perfectly genial and decent soul: “You know, we are like two vehicles passing on different lanes of traffic without meeting. Of course,” I add, “you’re in a buggy and I’m in a Prius.” I do not tell him of the many clergy (for some reason I am very fond of the individuals in this group) I know who have managed to preach the heart of the Christian faith unapologetically in the context of modernity.
As moderns are artists and scientists, and many open minded folk of no particular credential, so can they be religious, if you define god as the ultimate mystery dimension of the universe and religion as asking questions of Ultimate Concern. As mentioned above, Heidegger’s expanded view of ‘poetry’ includes such diverse expressions as political deeds, works of art, philosophical questioning, heroic and sacrificial acts, and the approach of the god. It is the last of these which is of interest here and to which we must return.
As must have been plain by now, the Levantine fundamentalisms have little to recommend themselves to a serious thinking human today. In their time the Three Monotheisms, conservative Judaism, Christianity, and Islam were persuasive to many. Their historical dominance certainly attests to that. But since, in their conservative, non-progressive inflection, these faiths are rooted in a dualistic world view, that is to say affirming the radical separation of creator and creation, god and man, in our time in which that dualism has been invalidated, these are works of art (the Torah, Bible, and Koran were and are in fact great works of art with much in them that is still relevant--we can think of the book of Job and Ecclesiastes, the Jesus Seminar version of the Gospels among other texts) which history has for many of the stories departed. No responsible scientist or artist thinking now affirms that there is a superior spiritual reality outside nature. Indeed, if the physics of it is to be understood, there is no such thing as ‘outside’ nature at all. Time and space are created at once and are unified into a time-space continuum. There is no north north of the north pole. There is no such thing as the time before the Big Bang, since time is itself an attribute of the Big Bang and the flowering expansion of the universe itself. The universe isn’t in anything. Yet it is all that is. So where is heaven? Where is hell?
Moreover, we are not discontinuous with that nature.
The subatomic particles in your fingernail were present at beginning of time and space. Any human is simultaneously his or her own age, and by virtue of one’s chemical, molecular, atomic, composition, the age of the universe as well. In outward form, I am sixty-eight; at the subatomic level, 13.5 billion years old--or whatever the date of the universe is taken to be these days. I am both ages at the same time. We, and everything in nature, emerge out of a long, chancy, evolutionary process and share this twin chronology. We are the matter and energy of the universe. We are born from stars. These are not mystical statements. These can be affirmed with some cautious qualifications by our hardest sciences. Modernity is monist. Nature is one and continuous. Any dualism is therefore is wrong.
Some ancient and current expressions of the Three Monotheisms have revalorized and reacquired their older gnostic forms. Jewish Kabbala, Hesychasm (a Christian mysticism embodied in some of the theology of the Greek Orthodox faith but largely lost since the 9th century to the Latin Church), and Sufism, all gnostic, all have a monistic bias. These too believe that our souls are not discontinuous with the energy of the universe. These faiths call that energy God. But the God cited is certainly not the domesticated version found in the interpretation of the fundamentalisms and much of the Bible. That being is external to the cosmos but at the same time intimate with human life and history. And, we are assured, loves us individually. Mystics of all traditions ordinarily assert that there is an impersonal God above God, Being. Even so, it may be necessary to relinquish the use of that word, God, as it carries too much western baggage. It is too particular to our own culture.
Western mysticisms are similar in kind to the unitive visions of Taoism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Confucianism, and to hundreds of the so-called preliterate, native religions of the world. From our own continent, the Hopi, Navajo, and other Native American religions are exemplars of this monism. However, normative Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, positing as they do the enormous gulf between creation and creator, man and god, are mythological and philosophical misinterpretations of reality, creating a division of experience that our highest science and art do not support. In this mistaken interpretation if there is any value it is outside nature. The monisms interpret nature quite differently. So do, in fact, the mystical faiths.
For example, there are many expressions of this old gnosis in the Thomas Gospel. He who has drunk from the same fountain that I have drunk, says this Jesus, will become as I am, will become me. And, The kingdom of the Father is spread out on the earth but men don’t see it. Joseph Campbell, reciting these verses to Bill Moyers and referring to the many others in that newly discovered Gospel, once exclaimed about them: That’s Buddhism!
But the question must be asked even in a religious context: just what is it that we truly know? Even for the religious one, it always comes back to that. What do we know?
We know several negative things. First we understand that mythologies can become outmoded. The revenge dramas of the past are no longer operable. The Greeks understood this twenty-five hundred and more years ago. They knew that man is not easy in the world. Atreus, the Greek Adam, had committed an offense against the gods. His was a motive to please. He invited the Olympians to a banquet but ran out of food and served them his son Pelops in a dish, from which the they recoiled in understandable horror. This set in motion a curse against the house of Atreus in the Iliad, and the Odyssey worked out its fatal history, with many heroes dead, or in ordeal, and a civilization, Troy, destroyed. Aeschylus takes up the story in the Orestia, where Agamemnon is murdered for the sacrifice of Iphigenia by his enraged wife. Orestes, Agamemnon’s son, by the requirements of the day for vendetta, is forced to kill his own mother and her lover to avenge his father, and then wanders, dogged by the tormenting furies of guilt until at last he is tried on the Acropolis for matricide and acquitted, with the deciding vote cast by Athena, Justice, herself. The conference of the Gods at the end of the Odyssey establish against the slaughter of the trespassing suitors by Odysseus, that civil order shall rule, and at the end of the Orestia that that rule should be the rule of law, superceding, finally, the unending mutual assassination of feud. So the outlaw and disorder in this giant myth were superseded by a new law and order. A lesson the Greeks had a very hard time learning.
We know that the mythologies of Virgin Birth, Resurrection, and Ascension and the creeds based on them cannot be taken literally.
We know that image, myth, and metaphor must be understood differently by modernity. That a gnostic option is open to us to consider all religious traditions allowing us to treat these as poetry. The investigative skills of scholars in the Jesus Seminar have uncovered the tentative outlines of a Jesus of history with whom we can be perfectly comfortable in our secularity and who would have been a genial companion to Siddartha Gotama--though neither of these two world-changing men would have appreciated the labels, Christ and Buddha, that were eventually attached to them.
We do know, and know this most richly, that the pictures of the world and the earth progressively disclosed by art and science together over the last two millennia, and most tellingly since the Renaissance, is the best of the cosmos we have. Our myth is all our science and art. And it will in all liklihood improve as time goes on. Science infused by art, when declarative sentences are warmed by image and metaphor is when a new world appears.
There are ardent spirits among us. These have sensed their unity with the cosmos. They have been called ‘spirit persons,’ a clumsy name but perhaps the best we have. These are the people who have kept the faith and the wonderment of their childhood. They bring childish questions to the fore passionately. Why do we die? What is love? Why are we alive? What is consciousness? And the most important of all, the question held with equal power by the child and the philosopher: Why is there something rather than nothing?
The sophisticate travels a rational route. I sit on the roof of my cabin up north. I meditate there. Eyes open, I see and reason, fixing my attention on a squadron of white birch in the middle of the fence line at the distant edge of the hayfield directly to the east where I have wished my ashes scattered. I began thus: ‘Cause and effect. Those trees came from seed. The seed came from like trees. These evolved. Trees. Primitive trees. Ferns. Mold. Lichens. Biological slime. Clay and sea-water. Organic compounds. Compounds. Heavy matter. Gases. Simple elements. Quarks. The five attractions unified by intense heat. The big bang. The singularity among an infinite number of singularities before space-time. What before. What before? No help here. Reason fails. Reason fails. I know though I am a part of this, I can’t go further.
Is it possible for a human to be content to live without answers? Is this stopping point any reason for despair? Certainly not! For it is at this point that the passion of Ultimate Concern emerges. Why is there something rather than.... and the poetic heart knows full well that this question can never be answered. The language of religion is metaphor. Poetry does not give answers. The temptation to do so is great. Poetry is a medium transparent to transcendence. It points to the wordless. Narration like nature abhors a vacuum. But if doubt is the chastity of the mind, and questioning is the piety of thinking, then holding the question constant in awe is something very much like worship.
But the key is to never, ever, answer the question!
With the question constantly open, the mind and heart are kept open, and one is then seized by an aesthetic rapture. Look at a brilliant sunset, or a mountain, or a Pacific typhoon, a tornado, all the wonders of nature: and that very nature, cooled by science and the declarative sentence, becomes suddenly hot and radiant with poetry. And it is this wordless primordial experience (to be called ‘clarity’ later) from which all art and science and the highest consciousness emerges.
The tragedy of most religious traditions, because they cannot endure uncertainty, is that they try in the compositions of authorized texts to answer all questions. In some traditions, such as the Hindu, and the mystiacal traditions of the West, the answers supplied are clearly to be taken as metaphors. Many even ordinary Hindus and especially Hinduism’s Buddhist reformers seem to understand that. It seems that, only in the West, many practitioners of the faiths of the Levant mistake myth for history. God, Yahweh, or Allah exist literally, and literally dictate their word in Bibles. That is the word of God. From that literalism so many disasters in the West have been and are caused. From pogrom and persecution, the heresy trials, the inquisitions, the religious wars, witch hunts, the American holocaust of our own native population, Marxist tyrannies, terrorism, to 911, and Bush’s dubious ethic, his so-called moral response in the disastrous Iraq war and other specious pretenses, without attention to the kind of reflection on issues that the hard thinking of ethics requires; the fundamentalisms, both fundamentalist religion and unregulated market ideologies, are poised to damage if not destroy, the country, the world, the planet. If we do not dispense with these mental cancers, we have little or no chance to accommodate ourselves to the requirements of nature on a planet of finite air, water, land, and mineral resources. Species in the long evolutionary history of the planet have a decided habit of not lasting very long. If petroleum vanishes in one decade or three, how long can we last? We have been on this planet as a species for perhaps two-hundred thousand years. That we will last just two hundred more is doubtful. The alligator and the carp and most bugs will survive us.
There are a few religious traditions that avoid the traps of literalism and intolerance. In addition to the Quakers, the Zen of Christianity, and some Levantine mystical traditions, the Eastern religions following the inward way come close. Of these Buddhism with its internal secularity may be the best, as Joseph Campbell once said in an interview in Parabola. “What religions best open the inward way? Hinduism and Buddhism, I would say, and of the two, I put Buddhism on top because, as I've said, it's a...religion of...consciousness....So for me, of the tradition that have been inherited from the past, Buddhism, and Mahayana Buddhism, in particular, is tops. It really is. But I find beautiful echoes in very simple religions like those of the Navajo and the Hopi.”
By internal secularity is meant that Buddhism is a non-theistic religion. Indeed, the Dalai Lama has even gone so far recently to call himself an atheist. So what kind of religion is Buddhism? It is the religion of reason and meditation. It accepts modernity fully. It gathers that principal trait of modernity according to V. S. Naipul, the individual’s pursuit of happiness, the heart of our liberty, and carries it to its eventual spiritual destination: the contemplation of the Ultimate Question and its attendant aesthetic rapture. Art and Science, clearing the underbrush of bad ideas plus an aesthetic seizure at the cosmos, is met in this tradition. The god approaches. We become hale, healthy, whole and holy. And it is enough.
The recent election that has uncovered for us the profound divisions in America is only an immediate cause for these meditations. In a wider context, in a world with its numerous conservative Islam, modernity in both Europe and America is in a decided minority. We are close to coming to our senses here--another election or two (a near majority of over fifty-five million did in fact vote for hope and progress) might do it, particularly if the many chickens and the dogs of war the George has let loose come home to roost. That would help the world but a little. I’m not sure modernity can prevail on this planet as the situation stands now.
The modern man and woman become strangers. Modernity, progressive thinking, liberalism, even the democratic party (‘we make decisions based on evidence....’) are delicate outposts in an ideological wasteland. The stranger wanders that desert. They are pilgrims. Captivated by the music of science, enraptured by the glories of the rose, the awesome soundless explosion of creation itself, at once terrified and entranced that death may be nothingness and rest, these men and women, this tough, persistent, minority, enlightened by the texts of science and art, the documents, the scriptures, of all the scientific and artistic canons, there they stand. We cannot do otherwise.
Try this experiment.
Go out for a walk. Focus your attention on the world around you. As you see sky, trees, earth, people, you will notice that you have a tendency to think of these things from the point of view of your subjectivity. The tree is beautiful. It is in my way. I can’t see the mountain. Why does that kid have that damn boom box on so loud. It’s really annoying. And so forth. But then let your mind take another tack. Visualize yourself as a cartoon figure, perhaps, that appears as a screen to your consciousness. Then make a concerted attempt to shrink that figure. Soon the figure is slightly smaller than your field of consciousness. Then smaller yet. An unoccupied clarity seems to form the margins around that ego cartoon. Apply effort. Reduced the cartoon even more. Make the margins of clarity larger. You probably will not be able to eliminate that ego cartoon entirely, but with a certain strenuous effort, it can be made quite small. And soon, much of your attention (the phrase your attention here is merely a grammatical convenience) is clear and all that is seen is the world around you. No judgment intervenes. What you see is only just what is.
One cannot see one’s own eye. But look into a mirror and there it is. You see it in that reflection. So then does one think about the clarity you have just experienced. You think about it later. Time is the mirror, the instrument of that reflection. And then that uncontaminated clarity becomes a puzzle. A deep mystery, suddenly. Just what is this, you wonder. Can all thinking humans achieve this? Why does clarity seem so impersonal? And if this is common to all, is it uncreated? eternal? Questions of that sort are speculation. You know, however, it is both you and not you. But you know, somehow, that if others did this experiment, though the ego cartoons would be individually different, the clarity they achieved underlying that ego would be exactly the same as what you experience. Of course, you cannot occupy another’s consciousness even if you can empathize with his or her ego cartoon from a distance. But nevertheless, you still know that clarity is common to all. Thinking beings share the clar ity. Perhaps this clarity is shared as well by animals and plants, though their ego cartoons are poorer or nonexistent. That is a radical leap without evidence, except by extension. But consider it.
It has been said (by Joseph Campbell) that the great contributions of the West to world thought are the mythologies of the Individual. All societies have Individuals in them. But only in the West do we give the Individual mythic power. Our individuals rooted in time are morally responsible and historically effective. They take responsibility and can change the world. Ours are, in Heidegger’s term, world forming. Individualism is not merely an item in nature; it is more than that. As no two fingerprints are identical, so no two individuals are alike. The Individual is not a means to some end. The individual is an end in himself. This mythology makes the Individual sacrosanct. This notion in its six hundred year career in the West has been immensely powerful. It has created Renaissance and Reformation (individual choice in spiritual and intellectual matters); Capitalism (individual choice in matters economic); Democracy (individual choice in politics); Modern Scientific Investigation (the power of individual research and discovery as over against received doctrine); Romanticism (the power of the individual’s strong feelings in artistic matters as against classic rationality); and Existentialism (the enhancement of individual experience in matters of philosophy--a kind of romanticism of reason).
As wonderful as this mythology is, and as powerful, deep, and complex is our consciousness, it has a shadow side. Egos inflate. This inflation can become so powerful that the clarity beneath, and supportive of, egos is buried. For all practical purposes clarity does not exist any more. This is a fault of the Levantine mythologies of the West particularly. Being smothered by Ego. For example, when, like Adam, Gilgamesh grasps the seaweed of knowledge, of eternal life, he must needs dive into an abyssal pool to get it. While Gilgamesh sleeps, the serpent slithers out of the abyss and retrieves the fruit. Gilgamesh has lost the fruit of eternal life. His brother Enkidu is dead. The hero is tasked with mortality. He goes home to rule, justly, and tenderly holds the hands of his children and his wife in affectionate protection. He civilizes and restores his empire. He rules justly. Noah, like Adam and Eve in perpetual exile, however, stays on top of the abyssal waters. He does not dive into the flood, into the abyssal waters of his own psyche. He scampers across its surface. And when the waters assuage, he gets drunk, disgraces his children who have to cover his nakedness, curses Canaan and gives us a couple of thousand years of racism. Life goes on. The abyss is consciousness. Some, like Gilgamesh, dive into Being and survive and learn. Some, like Noah, embrace the shallows of history to avoid a deeper self-knowledge. Eastern thought focusses on the apprehension of Being. The West on the Individual, and the faults of individualism. The contrast is instructive.
The ego’s shadow is its inflated self.
If you shoot a bullet that travels at the speed of light and follows perfectly the curvature of the earth, it will shred you thirty-three times before you can fall. The bullet at that speed circumnavigates the earth that many times in just the four seconds it takes the body to fall. Our earth needs eight minutes for the light of the sun at that speed to reach it. Our galaxy is 100,000 light years from edge to edge. Can you calculate and then conceive how many miles that is? Our galaxy is one of a local group of twenty, which is lost in an enormous universe 14.5,000,000,000 years old. Fourteen and a half billion. Our earth is 4.5 billion years old. The finite human mind can hardly grasp all this. And, moreover, in some theories in physics it is posited that there are parallel universes. How many no one knows. And supposedly each of these is as inconceivably immense as is our own. Our own existence is but an atom-thin sliver in this space and time. So thin as to be almost nonexistent. At least from the end of the universe. The universes. If you inflate a subatomic string to the size of a tree, the cell it inhabits will be the size of the our known universe. It is of such strings we are made.
And yet, in our current religious mania, almost all Americans believe that there is a god of the same dimension of universes and that he is concerned with the welfare of each and every human on earth and that he appeared only once in all that space-time in a unique incarnation to work out his perfect will for us humans (but mostly in the United States of America, particularly in the South--since we are especially privileged that way). In other words, the inconceivably huge universe whose dimensions we accurately guess already through scientific observation cares about each and every one of us as an individual. It is as though you and I might be filled with caring concern for a single quark in the ear of a fruit fly. This is preposterous. Nature is immense. And impersonal. Nature does not care for our merit, or the state of our alleged salvation. The tsunami off Phuket killing over one hundred and sixty thousand didn’t care who or what it destroyed. It did not celebrate Christmas, any more than the earthquake that killed tens of thousands in Lisbon in 1755 cared about Easter. The problem of evil is a problem only from the point of view of human subjectivity. As much as we are reduced to anguish at our disastrous luck, it is preposterous, even pathetic, to think that universes care.
So much for the inflated ego and its religious illusions.
This is Individualism gone insane.
Right wing capitalism follows the same path.
It must be granted at the outset that capitalism is a wonderful instrument for the creation of wealth. But the system is not pure. As man is corrupt and wicked, and as capitalism is a human construct, then capitalism without the constraint of law can be, and is, corrupt and wicked. The recent crimes of so many corporations are convincing and dramatic evidence of that. Capitalism, therefore, needs control to ameliorate its worst tendencies. One of these tendencies is the belief that wealth is endless. That our exploitation of resources is without limit. What this does to a world of finite resources is clear. Our water and air and soil is poisoned. Our potential for wealth depletes. We wear the earth out. In this sense, from an ecological perspective, unrestrained market capitalism is a failure. But the right wing populist rejects this notion. To adopt a disciplined eco-capitalism that is designed to live off nature’s interest rather than its principle is beyond his desire or comprehension. For him the American dream of wealth is available to everybody. That is to say, each and every American can eventually inhabit the upper two per cent of disposable wealth and riches. All 98 per cent can become 2 percent. Hard to do, I think. Each small businessman worshipping in his chapel shop dreams that he too can become as a cathedral corporation with all its attendant wealth and power. Whereas the the reality is quite different. The gap between the wealthiest Americans and the rest of us is wider now than it has ever been. The have alots (George’s base) becomes ever more insular, defensive, and greedy. The middle class shrinks. Our native plutocrats are determined to compromise if not destroy the American Dream. People of good intentions and the best of good cheer become ever more desperate but strive strenuously to hide that desperation. We eat dog food in our retirement and dream hopelessly of caviar. We cannot afford our medicine. We wonder, rather pathetically, what we have done wrong. Is our pove rty the consequence of our sin? Our lack of God’s Grace? Our lack of effort in a world that constantly thwarts us? Though the fundamentalist believes that God loves him as an individual quark on a fruitfly’s ear, but is terrified that God does not; and though the good Imams of Indonesia are convinced that Allah visited this latest of catastrophes on the Believers because they have become careless in the faith; so also he knows he can be as rich as Ken Lay, and smothers his anguish that he is not.
Both these transactions, as so many others, come from an inflated ego that chooses to avoid or ignore the social, physical, and natural communities where it is inset. So immoderately gross is this ego that even clarity is obscured. We become Christians and Jews and Muslims and Capitalists in the worst possible and most preposterous way possible.
The essence of true religion is the Compassionate heart. Agape, Caritas, Karuna are its slogans. Charity. Impersonal caring-concern. The poem declares simply: The Kite/ No String/ No Flight. When our consciousness detects that it is grounded in a heretofore unrecognized clarity, it realizes that it is not all that is. There is more to ego than ego. One knows one self in the self's total being, in its total interconnections. One becomes aware and then compassionate for the traps our own ego has made for itself. The apprehension of the ground of clarity is the source of liberation. The ego kite flies free, but acknowledges the string that connects itself to its ground. First of all comes compassion for one's own self. And when one sees the traps others make for themselves, that the kite thinks that the kite is all that is; that there is no string to the ground; then a false sense of freedom ensues, unaware altogether that not sensing one's connection to one's very own ground, that there are unseen strings attached to false freedom, then one's automatic reaction is compassion for others trapped, and what damage those trapped individuals do to all who are around them. Man and Nature. Sentience and non-sentience. True liberation for these, knowing one's connection to the ground, is one short, but for them, one invisible, step away. The liberated do what they can to have the kite acknowledge the string to the ground. To help them know themselves. That is the nature of a workable religion. It does not differ from politics. Politics becomes the politics of compassion. It seeks to awaken all to the clarity they are grounded in. The program of action of such a politics is very complex. But it is absent (unlike the doctrines of both right and left) of any ideology.
Meanwhile, we all hunger after the spirit not realizing that its source is within us. What we look for is what we look with, and, tragically, most do not know that.
The clarity of consciousness achieved in our initial experiment comes first. It is the foundation of the psyche’s consciousness. Clarity precedes all. Let us think of that clarity is as part of the energy of universes (though that is but a provisional leap), and the ego is as psycho physical-social structure that we acquire through birth, nurture, growth, socialization. The ego cartoon is, therefore, a kind of kite alluded to already, the string of which is thinly, tenuously attached to clarity. Because we have no ego memories before birth, the likelihood is that the ego will disappear at death--as it does in dreamless sleep. What happens to clarity at death and in dreamless sleep is anybody’s guess. Our egos will never know.
Artistic production is ego driven. But in two distinct ways. Ego inattentive to or ignorant of clarity creates derivative art. There is no authentic genius that can come out of mere self-expression. Ego expression is everything, and is flawed, even though the clarity you are unaware of in your trapped self is aware of you. Creativity tends to be trapped there. But the creator sensitive to clarity is able to shift the ego to be equal to other existences that ego attends to. Its desires, its history, its intelligence, its ability to synthesize. The floating kite sees that it is like the clouds and the birds that fly with it. One cannot teach creativity. One can, however, clear away the underbrush of self-absorption that inhibits a liberated ego. Now be mindful of the fact that the ego is immensely powerful, cartoonish or not. Huston Smith characterizes it as “a convenient provisional delusion of considerable strategic utility.” So the ego is provisional; it is not absolute; it is relative. Thus the error of false attribution is avoided. Irony is the self by the self seen in reflection as a relative self among others. Humor, comedy, satire, abounds. The self becomes liberated. But because it is so powerful to those of us whose introspection does not go the whole way, the ego in its self-absorption is itself a barrier to freedom. When the ego cartoon becomes sensitized to its relation other egos and to the clouds the kite flies under and then eventually to clarity itself, then attachment to the ego is reduced. Using the elements of memory, relationships, history, the making of image and metaphor, the careful observation of the facts of nature, the ego in its liberation can become playful. That is where scientific and artistic creation becomes evident. In playfulness, in the ability to observe and synthesize, and express, the work shatters conventional barriers. The work transcends the derivative. The conventional. And genuine artistic and scientific advances can be made. The underbrush of self absorption is hacked away. The clearing appears. And liberated play ensues. Creativity is an aspect of freedom. Art gambols in the clearing. Irony triumphs. Clarity precedes all.
If thine eye offends thee, pluck it out.
If thine I interferes with thee, play with it.
A character in my novel, The Gazebo, who is a small town journalist and a trickster Zen monk, at a week-long sesshin delivers to his friends the following discourse:
"Try this on for size. Out of the sense of Buddha there can be no skepticism, or sin, as the other religion has it, against the Holy Spirit, for that would require a being to deny his own Being, a nothing to deny his own No-thingness. But the mind, alienated from Being by the trivialities it embraces, can't help but be skeptical. That is natural. We know our attitude on the cleverness of the mind. Words are not things. Skepticism arises from the analysis of language which describes the duality of the ego in its relationship of mind to nature; dualism insists that the rule of life is relationship. It raises doubts where there are no questions. The religions of the Levant are dualistic.
"Therefore, the greatest breeder of doubt, and what makes the Sin against the Holy Spirit inevitable, is the Christian religion!”
He paused here, smiling mischievously. "It gets even more interesting if you take it further," he went on.... "Those preachers who insist that you will go to heaven only when in your solitude you attach yourself to Christ as your personal savior, have therefore certified the eternal isolation of of the ego and its attachments. From the Buddhist point of view, that is to assure those believers who assent to such a thing to a life of everlasting suffering. 'Eternal Damnation,' in the words of that other religion. Because, in the words of the Heart Sutra, in order to achieve transcendental Wisdom you are to rid yourself of all aspects of self-absorption. All of them. Including your own ass. Even including what you call your soul.
"Therefore," (his pause here had been delicious) "to accept Christ as your personal savior is to condemn yourself to eternal damnation!"
The discourse in the novel is intended to be provocative. True, but provocative. The subjectivity of salvation when selfish becomes an anguish even to the faithful. Religions are the creations of the collective ego cartoon. In their early phases, though they may have been attentive to clarity to a degree, as they persist, the historical accretions they gather separates them more and more from the clarity they may have originally enjoyed. In their original, primordial, form, they may have been works of art adequate to the clear understanding of the world around them. Genesis is imbedded in the science of its time. Our current science is vastly more sophisticated. The cosmology of Genesis is interpreted. A day is held to be a cosmic eon. Though in the text it is plain that a day is a day. Later exegesis interprets and reinterprets the text into a different setting. A day becomes an eon. But interpreted mythology is invalid mythology, because it is yanked out of the time relevant to it and forced into a time that is not. Genesis is a great work of art that history has departed. In the original form, that Yahweh created the heavens (the heavens were themselves infinite), language may have been adduced to suggest the utter transcendence of God and of God’s ineffability. Yahweh here transcends even the infinite. Only by minds lesser than Maimonides (the first to use the argument of ineffability), using this text, was the creator seen to be separate from creation. Which on one level is to say that that divinity does not exist because we cannot as creatures know what is separate from us. Dualism is, therefore, the first step to atheism.
On the other hand, this language, In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth, the unutterable transcendence that this suggests can be applied to clarity itself. When one reduces the ego cartoon as one does in the kinhin, the walking meditation experiment described at the beginning of this essay, and one apprehends clarity, just what that clarity is is utterly beyond the reach of the ego’s language. Poetry, Art, is transparent to transcendence. The word, any element of art, can simply point to clarity. To reduce clarity to words, even a word like clarity itself, is beyond language’s power. Therefore, most religions are the manufacture of ego cartoons that, like a sky full of kites, dance above the clearing. Only when the clearing is apprehended can the holy explode, the god approach. Inadequate words like sacred, holy, whole, pleroma, spirit, mind, consciousness, Being, process, the living, vitality, energy, Brahman, Tao, quality, have been thought to capture clarity’s irreducible mys tery. They do not. Though all of them, and more, taken together may feebly intimate just what that mystery is. And some sacred texts acknowledge that: The Tao that can be said is not the eternal Tao.
The Levantine faiths in their normative forms are inclined to call clarity God.
Their mystical gnostic inflections, Eastern ways of thinking, the Buddhists, especially, do not make this mistake.
If all concepts, in that they attempt to describe a dynamic nature are false because the world they seek to describe has passed by the instant the concept is uttered, then all propositional thought-systems are false. All metaphysics need to be updated moment to moment urgently as nature processes and history advances. All doctrine is invalid. All religions and ideologies imprisoned by doctrine are false. And may even be pernicious. Clarity, like the taste of honey, cannot be transferred from one ego to another by words. You must taste the honey yourself. Only those disciplines whose meditative techniques seek to clear the underbrush of self-absorption and apprehend clarity have anything helpful to say to us. In the study of mysticism worldwide, the presence of clarity directly perceived through Emerson’s transparent eyeball of meditation, that dynamic, energetic, relaxation characteristic of meditation, has a high degree of intersubjective agreement. Clarity is a therefore a datum. One only needs to engage in meditation, any way of self-examination, of inwardness, to see this for oneself.
The birds have vanished into the sky,
and now the last cloud drains away.
We sit together, the mountain and me,
until only the mountain remains.
The Food of Cosmos
It’s a mistake, is it not,
to take apart a barometer
and examine its innards
to find out how it creates
All those guts do is measure
and record the weight
from outside itself.
It is dull. It is uncreative.
The lungs do not create
the oxygen. They extract
that from air. The air is first.
The lungs work to transform
air to food, they feed the blood.
Lungs do very good work.
The stomach does not devise
nourishment. It takes that
from food. The food is first.
The stomach is quite serious.
It is a drone. But it overhauls
the food inside to make life.
Is it not, therefore, a mistake
to dissect a brain and submit
its gray soup to find out how
it makes mind of nothing?
All those axons and dendrites
do is to breathe and eat
the air and food of a living
cosmos. They are sturdy
laborers, lucky to create insight
and the magnificence of genius
that is the Grace of the Living.
The great wonder of it all is this:
if the lungs create breath from air;
if the eye records sight out of light;
if the stomach makes vitality of food:
What is the air or light or food
(all of these I know) of the cosmos
out of which the brain makes
our life, our mind, our spirit?
Our grosser organs create
the known from knowns.
But the brain encounters
an awful mystery that makes
the miracle of the unknown,
that lets us write these words.
I do not know the mystery that
does this. It is Living. Or like
the Living. Or like nothing
we know. And to think on it is
to stand on a body’s beach in awe
and terror of invisible oceans
so large and dangerous as to excite
fear, gratitude, and amazement.
This makes of sublimity palaces
once reserved only for gods.
Man is a speaking animal. Language speaks. Poetry is never merely a higher mode of everyday language; everyday language is a forgotten and used up poem, as Heidegger says. Poems supersede and envelop all language including the language of science--if literature is defined as anything that is written, science is one of the genres of literature. Language is the house of Being. We sing for the sake of the song. We gain nothing in ego and earthly terms. The song is the plaything of clarity. Song is existence. World follows song. The New World has its music, the notes of which are both very old, very present. These new songs create world. Vital poems and all other miracles engendered from clarity shape man. Poets sing the healing whole in the midst of the ego’s secular unholiness. That healing whole is clarity itself.
That is the place of the creative life.
The mystery remains the mystery.
We modestly stand in awe and gratitude in that mystery.
What we cannot speak of we must pass over in silence.
Nature seems, to the naked eye, to consist of separated things. I am not the woodpile in my back yard. I work on my garden.
George W and I are different people.
Yet in spite of our perception of the world as consisting of separate things and processes, we sense in them an underlying unity. The great thought traditions, ancient and modern, have been witness to this. This sense of unity is both rational and aesthetic. Our minds and hearts combine to create this impression. That is to say, the view is both personal and and transcendent, a part of our subjectivity and beyond subjectivity. The sense of unity assumes that truth is one, knowable and sensible, rational and aesthetic.
The technical term for this is ‘Monism.’
This point of view is opposed to ‘dualism,’ the idea that there are two realities: our everyday life in the world and something Other that is separate from that everyday reality.
There is no evidence for that.
Our best science is monist and transcendent. Our best mythology assumes the same.
Our everyday life is but a tiny slice of the Cosmic reality. Compared to the astonishing dimensions of the space and time of the universe disclosed by the instruments and observations of science, our everyday life is so infinitesimal as to be very nearly nothing. Compared to the depths of subatomic life disclosed by the physics of the standard model our everyday life is equally as nothing. We occupy a tiny space midway between over thirty powers of ten out to the ends of the cosmos and thirty negative powers of ten into subatomic reality.
Moreover, both the physics of Newton and of the many contributors to the standard model, attest to the unity of being. All is interconnected. There is nothing outside the universe. The universe is not in anything. In fact, it was the Big Bang that created space and time. It is impossible to determine what was before the beginning or outside the universe. That is like traveling north of the north pole.
Our best chemistry also attests to the unity of Being. The carbon atom in the graphite with which this is written is identical to the carbon atom on the other end of the universe. Subatomic particles are identical throughout the universe. At this level quarks (and perhaps strings) emerge from an underlying field that is, so far, unknowable.
Our deepest biology also attests to the unity of life. We share with the higher apes the same DNA (98+%), and with the lichens (50+%). Plants and animals seem to come from the same source. The riches of the study of the genome is just beginning. Already uncovered in relic remnants of DNA history, together with the fossil record, is the very nearly certain truth of evolution. This, with organic chemistry, underlies our growing feel for the interdependence and commonality of all living things.
Moreover, the Hindus in their mythologies beginning over thirty-five hundred years ago intuited the unities of Being (Brahman is everything that is) together with the individual interconnection of the person with that Being (Tat Tvam Asi--Thou are that). Each of us is of the same substance with the life, processes, and substance of the cosmos. All eastern religions, the art and literatures that follow them in the West as well, are monist.
Therefore all dualistic ideologies are false. They contradict our hardest sciences and the deepest intuitions of the great mythologies and art of the world. Any ideology that holds to a dualistic point of view is therefore a mistake. Fundamentalist Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are dualist. Therefore these ideologies are in error. The theologies of the conservative-fundamental Levantine triad are in error. These, in Islam, Christianity, Judaism, therefore, are false.
In the East are certain styles of response to the quest for transcendence: the style of study and meditation, the style of action, the style of worship. In Hinduism, among other yogas, these are named Jnana, Karma, Bhakti yoga.
Study and contemplation (Jnana) proceeds with an endless discrimination, uncovering the emptiness and arbitrary nature of all concepts. Action (Karma) throws its devotees into ritual practice and meritorious works. The style of devotion (Bhakti) posits a provisional separation between the worshipper and the object of worship in order to intensify the feelings of devotion. Some seekers combine all three yogas into one royal (Raja) path. The style of devotion in the East, while assuming a temporary dualism, never makes the mistake of abandoning the monism of its nurture.
The participants of the Levantine triad, Christianity, Islam, and (to a lesser extent) Judaism in their practice express a Bhakti or devotional faith. Their fundamental symbols are expressed in those terms. Jesus is the only Son of God, can be taken to be a symbol of his exceptional though human genius; an inerrant sacrosanct scripture, whether Torah, Bible, Koran, can be taken as a symbol of the greatness and lasting influence of these texts, all the while leaving them open to critical understanding. It’s only when the symbols are taken literally rather than symbolically, that fundamentalism rears its ugly head.
It need not be so. One can read J or Job or Mark or the Suras or Sutras as human productions rather than the absolutely true word for word dictation of Yahweh, God, Allah. One is then freed from those constraints, and can enjoy the texts as literature from which the B-Minor Mass is the highest bhakti. Jesus obviously was not born of a virgin, nor did Jesus and Mohammad ascend to heaven; Jesus did not bodily get up after three days of death and decay. There is no especially chosen people, or one true church, or sacred brotherhood. None of those who claim to walk and talk with Jesus, will be able to point to that Jesus in a contemporary corporal form. If he is any place, he dwells only in the believer’s head and heart. Monism is the standard. Literal dualism is its aberrant. Those mystics in the west who assert a monism are marginalized, treated as heretics, or executed. Spinoza is ostracized. Meister Eckhart is suspected of heresy and removed from power. Giordano Bruno and Mansour al-Hallaj are executed.
If one accepts the Cosmos as One, life in its unity must also be one. You differ from me in some details. Mainly, however, we are far more alike than we are different. We share a common humanity. Moreover,other humans ought to regard us the same way. We are all humans and our caring-concern for each other needs to be reciprocal. The golden rule is an utterly rational process. It assumes that the universe is one; therefore, each human being participates through a common humanity the unity of being. Beginning with a monist cosmology, the ethic of the golden rule is but its logical outcome. Thus ethics is deduced from the cosmology. Given the cosmology, the golden rule is its inevitable outcome. This is an entirely rational process. If true, its most radical injunction, recognizing that differences to kill for religious, racial, or ethnic wars, are utterly false, is to love your enemies.
Truth is one and knowable. There is nothing religious in any of this. A scientist, a humanist, an agnostic would have little discomfort in conversation with the Jesus of history, the author of Job or Ecclesiastes, the sages of India, The Buddha, Lao Tze, or Confucius--or Black Elk for that matter. In each of their ways they share both a unified cosmology and the ethics of the golden rule.
Man is deeply interconnected with the cosmos. He is a cosmos (order) within a cosmos. The interdependence seems to be absolute. Since there is no ‘outside’, your spirit did not come from the outside. Spirit emerges from nature. The life of the spirit is the bouquet of the life of the flesh.
For this reason, based on what we know, it is easily possible to evoke not only a human ethic, but also an animal ethic, a land ethic. One with this ecological sense cannot be easily dismissed as a ‘tree hugger.’ We grow fond of our pets. Hunting is less popular. The impact of unthinking and exploiting humans on our degrading environment is too evident to ignore.
Sometimes, for particularly gifted individuals, the aesthetic arrest over these experiences is very intense. Their visions of cosmic unity and the unity of life are like the impulse of a great composer, a great poet, a visionary scientist doing their work. We may, in our ordinary life, have a limited sense about such things, as human loving-kindness and organic farming, human scale architecture. But a certain few, whose experiences are so rapturous, become our saints and sages. They confront the questions of ‘Why is there something rather than nothing?’ or ‘If human consciousness comes from nature what kind of nature is it that produces not only consciousness, but human genius as well?’ with unusual intensity. Black Elk’s visions, Jesus in the wilderness, the nirvanic blossoming of the Buddha beneath the Bodhi Tree, the zero event experiences of Leopold Fischer (Agehananda Bharati), Robert Pirsig’s merging into Quality, the Oceanic sense of Arthur Koestler, experienced while in prison, Norman Maclean's mystical experiences while fly-fishing, are all powerful analogous experiences.
These, and so many like them worldwide through history, are the mystics. They all testify to something quite exceptional that happens in the human consciousness. And yet, when pressed, then have an intractable difficulty in expressing just what it is they have experienced. They tell stories, attempt images of bliss and light, but then say, ‘No, that is not exactly it either.’ Those who have such experiences (and they happen probably more commonly than one might think) give up explaining, sometimes in frustration. They know but cannot express their visions.
God, Jesus, Moses, Allah, Brahma, Buddha, Great Spirit, are the many names that point to transcendence. In themselves, they tell no truth. Moses was not given a theological treatise on the nature of God on Sinai. That God was ineffable. He was given a set of guidelines as to how to live. The historical Jesus did not talk about the nature of the Father, but he proposed a radical egalitarianism of the Kindom symbolized by a banquet to which everyone, saints, sinners, and street-people, was invited. The Buddha, refused to discuss ultimate things, his silence was called the Noble Silence. When pressed, he held up a flower and said nothing. All he did was to describe the path to enlightenment and founded a brotherhood which preserved his teachings.
The name of Yahweh points to a mystery that cannot be described. In the East the enlightenment experience is what inadequate language retreats from. In the highest mystical religion its devotees are as agnostic about what their vision discloses as the secular humanist is. Great poetry, great art, great music leaves one in silence, even religious awe. There is no need to talk. Those who insist on talk are the spoilers. Those who know do not talk. Those who talk do not know. All ideologies are false. Language, being uncertain, and of human making, is only a partial vehicle. The experience of emptiness in Buddhism, like the Christian sense of Grace so eloquently described by Luther, has but one outcome: Freedom. The liberation of the human from the shackles of sin and the traps of ignorance.
So what do we know?
We know of the Unity of the Cosmos.
We know our profound interconnection with cosmic processes.
We know the modest limits of human reason.
The rapture of the mystical and aesthetic arrest.
That truth is one.
Truth is knowable.
But that the deepest truths are not entirely speakable.Steve Fortney, 12/2006 BACK TO TOP
Since there is so much possibility for misunderstanding, it is important to clarify just what mysticism is. William James defines mystical experience "as a non-ordinary state of consciousness marked above all by a sense of union and illumination, of reconnection and seeing anew." Moreover, the mystical experience can be characterized by a few basic results. A sense of the Unity of Being (cosmology); the Golden Rule (ethics); Emptiness (Epistemology); and Compassion (Altruism). The mystical event, called the Zero Event by one writer on mysticism, is both a rational and an aesthetic experience. Note we emphasize the aesthetic rather than the moral or ethical. These latter are logical outcomes of the sense of the Unity of Being and will be discussed later.
Ordinary consciousness is marked by a sense of individuated separation. The mystic, rather than experiencing separation, experiences connection. A sense of personality may remain in the midst of a sense of connection. Sometimes the self disappears completely during experiences of union. But whether or not a sense of particularity remains, these are unitive experiences. We use the following well known chapters of the Tao te Ching below as exemplars for our argument; ideas like this can be found in Hinduism, Buddhism, and the mystical inflections of the three monotheisms--Kabbalistic-Judaism, Heschycast-Christianity, and Sufi-Islam. The essential notion behind these and the scientific versions of this is that all reality is single. It is monist rather than dualist. That is to say, the universe and everything in it is contained in itself. There is no reality outside the reality we can know by our eyes, our scientific instrumentation, and our mystical rapture. The mystical version of this is nicely embodied in the Taoist Book of the Changes.
Scientific monism, like its aesthetic and mystical counterpart, has uncovered the unity of being through the hardest of its sciences, physics and organic chemistry. The carbon atom in your body is identical to a carbon atom any place in the universe. Newton's laws are valid throughout. The universe is not in anything; there is no outside to it. Your body contains material that goes back to the big bang. Carl Sagan said we were all made of star stuff. You are billions of years old at that deepest level.
An example of Western ideas cognate with this Oriental idea is expressed by Yale Sterling Professor of Philosophy F.S.C. Northrop (1893-1992). In his book The Meeting of East and West, Northrop introduces the term, the differentiated aesthetic continuum to denote the concrete nature of the cosmos as we sense it. All conceptions of God fall into this category, because all are concrete names. According to Northrop, "the proper object of bliss is that unnamed reality behind physical phenomena." He calls this the undifferentiated aesthetic continuum. This may be similar to the idea in physics of the implicate order, proposed by physicist David Bohm, from which all phenomena springs. Northrop views the ultimate metaphysics of transcendence as occurring on two levels. One is the phenomenological--the religions, arts, science, and philosophies that we render into language. The other is the ultimate mystical experience that is beyond conceptualization. Northrop argues that the essence of both experiences is aesthetic, combining knowledge and feeling, not merely in the intellectual and logical domain.
Mystic religious traditions counsel viewing all people individually, each containing the potential for enlightenment. Each person could become fully human, which is in fact the point of enlightenment. In refusing to divide people into us and the "other", mystics have often viewed the doctrinal statements of the dualistic monotheisms as metaphors that contain seeds of truth if not taken literally.
This way of viewing the "other" suggests a connection between ethics and cosmology. Scientists past and present have been driven by a desire to achieve a coherent and simple vision of how the world works. Mystical religious adherents would say that this vision is an inflation of the Golden Rule--which is the ethical vision of such a unity. The obverse is probably even more important. Using whatever method of knowing at one's disposal, a sense of the Unity of Being is achieved. Since Being is monist, each individual must therefore see all other individuals as rough equivalents of his or her own self. The sharing of DNA human to human is nearly one to one. We even share 98+% of DNA with our nearest primate relative, the chimpanzee. From this monist premise the ethics of the Golden Rule follows logically. Mystical religious traditions contribute to ethics and truth seeking through the Golden Rule and valuing the "other". Two new ideas about ethics arise from mysticism. One is that ethics is not mystical, not a matter of "faith"; ethics is deduced from its monist premise through rational analysis. The second is that the Christian concept of Grace is the same as the mystical concept of Emptiness.
A final irony is that scientists and mystics who have difficulty in admitting that their respective but differing visions lead to similar conclusions.
Grace and Emptiness are cognate religious concepts. Their result is freedom. Emptiness is Grace without God. Emptiness as it is expounded by Buddhist thinking is a daunting and complex. Emptiness, at minimum, refers to the contingency of all concepts. Words are not things, they merely point to the reality they seek to describe. They are not the reality. They can never be the reality. As such, they are more or less arbitrary noises the human makes, and arbitrary signs of the noises rendered into writing. Nature does not speak English. Imagine, if you will, a believer burdened with a sense of sin suddenly discovering that the words connected to that burden: sin, god, judgment, punishment, hell, are words of human manufacture meaning nothing in themselves. There suddenly is no sin, no judging divinity, no hell, no punishment except that which is self-inflicted. What a relief this is! He is suddenly free from his burden. The absolute grace of God's forgiveness is exactly the same as the Emptiness of all conceptual thinking in that they free humans from their entanglements in exactly the same way.
The idea of Emptiness is also attached to the content of religions. Nearly all mystical experiences worldwide seem to be tied to the principal religious figures of the area. A southeast Asian will invariably have a vision grounded in the Buddha, or of Avalokitesvara, or of one of the Taras. A Japanese might see one of the Kami, or the Pure Land, or, if a Zen adept, light, or Emptiness. An Indian will see Kali, or Krishna, or any one of the multitudes of their gods. An Arab might visualize Mohammad, or Husayn, or the Mahdi. A European will have a vision of Christ or the Virgin. A humanist might see universes, quasars, stars, and comets. A poet will sense the radiance of nature and human interactions.
In the first place, we have no idea what is happening in deep consciousness that stimulates these concrete visions. All concepts reveal their emptiness and turn away from that process. That is an apparently unreachable mystery, about which we cannot speculate usefully. Whatever it is, it produces religious metaphors. Comets and a radiant nature are equally as arbitrary and even as misleading as Christ, the Virgin, the Buddha are. The "whatever it is" seems prior to and somehow beneath the metaphors it produces. The same thing can be said of all images and ideas the mind produces, including artistic and scientific ones. Images and ideas are merely an environmental byproduct of the pure (that is to say, perception that isn't governed by presuppositions) consciousness itself.
Ancient Hindi and Buddhist writings in India are full of descriptions of the states of mind that occur in religious experiences. The Hindus describe the two phases of religion as Religions with Form and Religions without Form. Religions without Form are based directly upon the zero event. Religions with Form are all religions tied to a specific culture, such as Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, in short, all cultural religions. The two modes of realization are called saguna brahman (the qualified absolute), and nirguna brahman (the unqualified absolute). The two related orders of meditation are savikalpa samadhi (discriminating absorption) and nirvikalpa samadhi (undifferentiated absorption). Deliverance through Religions without Form is by direct insight. Deliverance through Religions with Form is accomplished through the mediation of creed, saint, avatar, or savior. Samadhi is the practice in contemplative sitting. The goal is to reach a state of mind in which the consciousness of the experiencing subject becomes one with the experienced object, and in which the mind becomes still, one-pointed or concentrated.
Imagine a glass of distilled water. That is the zero, the basic mystical state. Then imagine a glass of lemonade, iced tea, tomato juice. Each is water, yet each has added to it nutrition, color, flavor, matter. Tea, lemonade, tomato juice represent areas of the world called mythogenetic zones. As pure water is the foundation of these and other liquids, so is zero the foundation of all religions. Basic to Buddhism is zero. Basic to Hinduism, Christianity, Judaism, Islam and every other less universal religion is the zero. Basic even to all art and science and action insofar as the zero can be construed to be a pure and receptive consciousness, and as these expressions to some degree reflect man's ultimate concern, is the zero. The zero event, that is the undiluted receptive consciousness, the radically open mind, is the source of all styles of consciousness. This cannot be overemphasized. Each drink has its foundation in water, yet each differs by what matter is added; or by what psychology and culture it is filtered through.
Distilled water is without content. It is tasteless. It is without particulate. It is elusive. The basic consciousness may be like that. It is like the candlelight in a Chinese lantern with eight varicolored facets of glass. The light coming through the colored glass represents the human interpretation of the flame--the religions of the world. The light is not colored light. All religions that emerge from the experience are man-made constructions, and therefore liable to all the faults and dangers, and open to the same rational analysis and criticism, of anything made by humans. That is why the work of critical scholarship in the western religious traditions embodied most recently in the work of the Jesus Seminar can proceed as it can. Our critique of religions is not a critique of the basic, and unapproachable mystical source, but of the human developments from this mystery. All religious traditions, every single one of them, since it is clear to the religious scholar that they were created by human hands, and that their foundation documents are edited, and, therefore, fair game for the critic.
According to those most astute of all psychologists of religion, the Hindus, religious experience is accompanied by Sat, Cit, Ananda. Knowledge, Wisdom, and Bliss. Note that both the rational and emotional component are included. An intense rapture is often a part of aesthetic arrests.
For now, in the western religious tradition based on the early chapters of Genesis on the establishing of what is called the Covenant of Blessing, obedience to the law is supposed to result in good redounding to the believer. If you call on the name of the Lord and obey his commandments, He will reward you. The groundwork here is laid for the Problem of Evil that has plagued western thinking from the beginning. How can a good and merciful God allow human suffering? Suffering, particularly of the innocent, best seen as cancer in children.
It is said that the greatest contribution of ancient Israel to the history of religious ideas is the concept of Ethical Monotheism. That is to say that God is One, that God is Good. He is the embodiment of the ethical law. The Israelites in their mature view modified this idea in places like Ecclesiastes, Job, and the aphorisms and parables of Jesus. In Ecclesiastes 9:11, the idea is presented strongly: "I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favor to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all." In the book of Job chapter 9: 19-22, Job in the anguish of his undeserved suffering cries out: "If I speak of strength, lo, he is strong: and if of judgment, who shall set me a time to plead? If I justify myself, mine own mouth shall condemn me: if I say, I am perfect, it shall also prove me perverse. Though I were perfect, yet would I not know my soul: I would despise my life. This is one thing, therefore I said it, He destroyeth the perfect and the wicked." And Jesus rather calmly asserts in Matthew 5:44-45, "But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you; That ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven: for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust."
These ideas from our own tradition seem to indicate that a concept of the ultimate reality transcends even our ethical concerns, our human concepts of good and evil. The Theology of the Covenant is thus seriously compromised. Agehananda Bharati, in his Light at the Center speaks plainly and universally on this issue.
"The zero experience cannot generate sanctity, extra-mystical skills, wisdom, academic qualification, political leadership, or even Charisma, any more than orgasm can generate good citizenship....It strikes me as rather odd, however, that the irrelevance of ethical to mystical behavior and vice versa should not have been stated with greater force than it has been....the mystic who was a stinker before he had the zero experience remains a stinker, socially speaking, after the experience. This, of course, does not mean that he cannot stop being a stinker; but for such a change, he must make efforts of an ethical order, which have nothing at all to do with his mystical practice..."
Grace and Emptiness are equivalent in that Emptiness is Grace without the necessity of hypothesizing a Levantine God, and that both Grace and Emptiness are signs of liberation. One cannot quarrel with those compassionate religious people who strive to ameliorate the undeserved suffering of the unfortunate. Nor can one quarrel with those activists who, inspired by the great prophets of the Old Testament, fight against injustice. Jews who live in loving-kindness. Buddhists and Hindus who try to do no injury. Hillel, Jesus, and Confucius, all those who espoused the Golden Rule. As Wordsworth put it:
Of unremembered pleasure: such, perhaps,
As have no slight or trivial influence
On that best portion of a good man's life,
His little, nameless, unremembered, acts
Of kindness and of love.
Those who have gone beyond the masks of their own selfishness through a realization of Emptiness cannot but have compassion for those who are bound by the various masks that trap and torment them. The tormented are awakened. Christianity has its Agape, Buddhism its Karuna: both are motivated by selfless compassion. How can we object to these things? How can one not but admire a Mother Theresa, a Martin Luther King, a Reinhold Niebuhr, or a Dietrich Bonhoeffer?
Though the source of it remains a mystery, the mystical experience is often shattering, marked by wonder, amazement, and bliss. One is ravished by the beloved or translated into the Seventh Heaven. One responds with awe to this in the same way one responds to the power of a tornado, the vastness of empty space, or the delicacy of a rose. One responds with a sense of gratitude, thankful for the life and consciousness that can see and approach these things. You are the notes, and we are the flute....Your invisible wind carries us through the world. (Rumi)
Poets from Isaiah to Wordsworth and many contemporaries in literature have expressed this rapture. A famous version of this is contained in "Tintern Abbey":
.... I have felt
A presence that disturbs me with the joy
Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
And the round ocean and the living air,
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man;
A motion and a spirit, that impels
All thinking things, all objects of all thought,
And rolls through all things.
American and Islamic fundamentalists think they have a lock on our current religious discourse. Scientistic liberals are on the attack against all religion. All are ignorant of the aesthetic and mystical subtleties that a carefully worked out thinking about the very complex inward approach to spiritual issues can yield. A huge majority of the world's peoples are religious in one way or another. Can a politically progressive intellectual be sympathetic to this world phenomenon? We say yes. But that depends on some knowledge of the mystical experience that is embedded in every religious tradition.
So what is the mystical experience?
The answer to this question would allow us to more fruitfully answer the question: What is religion? How can a sophisticated intelligence grounded in science, evidence, and art and reason, embrace the spiritual life; or better, seek the life of disciplined introspection.
These two questions are united. The religious tradition makes no sense without the understanding that an authentic religious faith has, prior to it, (as we have already established) a zero or mystical event, whether the individual traditions acknowledge it or not.
Clearly, in our own scientific age, almost all the ancient mythologies and their Gods, in books and in common practice, in the liturgy and ritual of the old ways, have been emptied of objective significance. Except for those who are of fundamentalist persuasion and those who have been able to reinterpret and revalorized into a modern sensibility the old myths, these old divinities are but characters in books and memory, to be thought important as but literary metaphors ranked with other metaphors. That is, Yahweh, Allah, Zeus, God are no more important to the life of the spirit than is Krishna, the Maitreya, Brahman, Kali, Hamlet, Lear, Gilgamesh. Christ and the Buddha are equivalent mythologies. The Joshua ha-Notzri and Siddartha Gotama of history are two geniuses of the first rank, as are the writer of the J document in the Torah, the major prophets, the great rabbis, the philosophers and playwrights of Golden Age Athens, the forest sages of India, and Confucius and Lao Tze. One cannot call oneself an educated person unless, in one way or another, one acknowledges and understands the legacy of these great figures of the past.
Thus the net is cast wide.
The multiple arms that throw that net are located in the Axial Age--that worldwide phenomenon wherein grew an intense critical, ethical, and creative spirit in the Levant, Europe, and the Far East. All of the major human advances in art, science, government, and religion that we know and still live within, came out of this period. This outburst was an emptying of the old mythologies among the elite. Even then had occurred the separation of mythos and logos, faith and reason, in favor of a universal sense of the unity of Being; a belief that the Other was Identity, and a universal ethic embodied in various renditions of the Golden Rule and the growth of philosophy, science, and art.
Each of these major mythogenetic zones, the Levant, the Occident, India and the Far East, began with the conviction that in spite of the separation of phenomena so evident to the senses, lies a single reality. That reality in the Far East was called Tao, or Heaven. In India it was called Brahman or Buddha. In the Levant it was called Yahweh,, or perhaps better, el Shaddai, the all-sufficient power of God behind a brutal and capricious nature. The book of this God is Job; its sermon can be found in Ecclesiastes. Each of these had concrete religious outcomes.
In Occidental Europe, a different turn was taken. The unity was called Cosmos, order. The Ionian and presocratic Greeks were of a scientific and analytic turn of mind. Beginning with Thales, rare energy was expended searching for the arch, The First Principle, the ultimate furniture of the world. For Thales (624-546 BCE) this was water. He was also an early user of geometry. For Anaximines (circa 625 BCE) it was air. For Anaximander (610--546 BCE) it was the apeiron or the unbroken infinite. For Pythagorus (580-490 BCE) it was number, ratio, and musical harmony. For Democritus ( 490-370 BCE) it was the indivisible atom. For Heraclitus (540-475 BCE) it was fire.
With the birth of science and philosophy, came the emergence of poetry and comic and tragic drama. Pindar, Hesiod, Homer, Aristophanes, Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, still excite, uplift and amuse us. Very much in the context of the myth of Prometheus embodied in Aeschylus's play of the same name, much of this art was written in defiance of the old thought--calling the Gods to task, morally and ethically for their crimes against a subordinated and terrified humanity. The shift was from the Gods to man, embodied in the battle cry of Protagoras (c 60 BCE), Man is the measure of all things. Prometheus suffered in his defiance, crucified, with his liver torn out every day by a bird of prey, for stealing fire from the Gods to give, art, reason, science, technology, writing, mathematics, agriculture and warmth to man. He, like Jesus, was eventually unbound, resurrected by the agent of the sun, Heracles.
For most of the axial thinkers, their reforms were religious reforms. At first glance, the Greeks grounded their efforts differently. It seems that, for them, the axial impulse was to segment and express its outcomes in politics, art, and science, thereby sowing the seeds of our contemporary division between mythos and logos, science and religion. Supposedly, and according to some of the more vociferous of its current partisans, only one of the two terms has any validity. A fundamentalist Christian, Muslim, or Jew discards or undermines science. Get into dialog with one of these on creation science and Lyell, Darwin, Watson-Crick and see. Or confront an advocate of scientism--the only truth is scientific-- with something like the same but opposite results. For the this-worldly Greeks, fascinated as they were by the differentiated esthetic continuum, those concrete artifacts of sense and reason, were in fact employing science and art and politics as a triple dialectic out of a single reality. Though the religiosity of the Greeks had departed the Old Ways, for the most part, for the elite, both Plato and Aristotle contended with their own postmodern sophists with a religious metaphysic. The people of Greece participated in the Eleusinian and other initiations from 1500 BCE until Theodosius I closed the sanctuaries in 392 CE. Though atheistic critics like Lucretius (ca. 99 BCE- ca. 55 BCE) in his De Rerum Natura were deeply skeptical, the injunction of Greek and Hellenistic, and Delphic, philosophy to "know thyself" opened many to the mystical and spiritual life. The development later of mystical neoplatonism is evidence of this.
Ethics, to repeat from Part One, is deduced from cosmology. All mystical traditions, including the mystical wings of the three Abrahamic faiths, reject dualism, i.e., that the sacred is absolutely and ontologically distinct from nature. Mystical monism rejects this doctrine. In addition, this unity is testified to by the hardest sciences we have--physics, organic chemistry, biology. If the cosmos is one and the nature we see is the expression of the universe, if each artifact of nature comes out of nature and is not discontinuous with it, man, as a part of nature, participates in that unity. If humans are deeply imbedded in nature and not separate from it, then individual humans, though they do display their individualities, in fact are kin. All humans are brothers and sisters. So Beethoven sang with the poetry of Schiller as his text in the finale Ode to Joy of his Ninth Symphony. Alle Menschen werden Bruder. That means that so-called Otherness is really Identity. Humans share the same chemistry, much of the same DNA. The friend, as it is declared in the Greek Anthology by Meleager of Gadara over 2000 years ago, is another self. Ho philos allos outos estin. The great slogan of orthodox Hinduism, Tat Tvam Asi, Thou Art That is our most ancient witness to this Unity (The Chandyoga Upanishad dates from the 9th century BCE). Our ethics then requires us to treat others as we would be treated. This is the Golden Rule. It is a rational deduction from a single and unitary cosmos whether arrived at intuitively or scientifically. Single cosmos, Unity of Being, single humanity: all require this ethic.
And of course the most radical statement of the Golden Rule is to "love your enemies." Jesus (Luke 6:27-28), and Aeschylus propound this.
Jesus, yes. But Aeschylus?
Karen Armstrong points this out in her wonderful book on the axial age, The Great Transformation. Aeschylus fought the Persians in many places during that terrible war. The Persians were his enemy. His great play was produced in 472 BCE, only eight years after the battle of Salamis, with whom Aeschylus had fought with many of the men in his audience. In the last scene of the play, Xerxes has escaped home in shame to Susa after his devastating defeat. The scene is full of lamentations by Xerxes and a chorus of Persian nobles. He cries, with the Athenian audience overhearing him:
Weep, weep their loss....
Answer my grief with grief....
Lamenting my misfortunes; beat they breast,
Strike, heave the groan
To notes of loudest woe; rend thy rich robes,
Pluck up thy beard, tear off thy hoary locks,
And battle thine ears with tears: Thus
...solemn and slow with sorrow lead my steps
...and wail the fate of Persia.
The Persians, Final Scene,
-Aeschylus, Robert Potter Tr.
Aeschylus invites the Athenians to weep for the suffering of their enemies. Given the demonstrative emotionalism of the typical Greek of the time, Armstrong assures us, the Athenian audience in fact, noisily, extravagantly, did just that. They were not afraid of shedding copious tears. They poured the deep sorrows of their souls with thrilling shrieks at the sight of Persia's "withered force dashed on the dreary beach, her heroes slain...."
What is happening here? Aeschylus asks his audience to have compassion for their enemies. Love your enemies. The Golden Rule. The Persians are us. Muslims are us. This is the Greek way. The Buddhist, Taoist, Jewish, Christian way. This is how universal and various the Golden Rule is.
But that is not the whole story.
The tragic sense of life embodied in tragic drama may be a gateway to the proper understanding of the mystical experience.
For this we must leap forward two thousand years in time, and travel four thousand miles east.
F.S.C. Northrop in his book, The Meeting of East and West, as we have already seen, factored reality into two related and integrated ways. He described phenomenal nature, that which we experience through our senses every day, as a differentiated aesthetic continuum. It is differentiated because the nature we see appears to consist of discretely separated things. It is aesthetic because we sense and feel the things in addition to a rational perception of them. It is a continuum because as we understand and sense these separated things we also know that they are related to each other. A seed watered in soil (three things) makes one living plant: nature's chain of cause and effect. The Chain of Being. This is Hinduism's Net of Indra. In the Buddhist tradition it is called, Pattica samutpada, or dependent origination.
As important, and emerging from the first continuum, is the second: the undifferentiated aesthetic continuum, that reality behind phenomena that unifies it. This is understood in physics to be the unified field, David Bohm's implicate order, that in which theories of everything and grand unified theories aspire to explain. We are down to strings so far, and may get to threads soon enough. This is felt as the mystery of Being, behind everything, sensed intuitively and described largely with religiously charged language.
In India, the attributes of Samadhi, of the enlightenment experience, are sat, cit ananda, being, consciousness, and bliss; knowledge, wisdom and bliss. We learn and then know that our world evident to us is maya, illusion. Not the whole story. These insights are ancient and did not have to wait for science to ratify them; but our modern science does just that. Our reason teaches us this. There are over thirty positive powers of ten between ourselves and the ends of the universe. There are approximately the same number of negative powers of ten between us and our subatomic reality. The space we actually occupy is but a micron-thin slice of an immense, almost unthinkable, external and internal reality. Some, absurdly, think this tiny membrane is all there is to reality. When in fact, it is not. Its part is so small, so insignificant, to call this the only reality can justifiably be called what the Hindus call maya, illusion.
When we realize this, appears in the human sensibility what world traditions call Wisdom. Our attitudes are transformed. Self-absorption is no longer an option. Compassion for those still trapped in illusion awakens. Conquest becomes pointless. The will to power is canceled by the need to create caring communities.
Some who have been transformed by the knowledge and wisdom in insight, react with intense feelings. Our great writer on modern mysticism, Leopold Fisher aka Agehananda Bharati, d 1991), in his book Light at the Center, the Context and Pretext of Modern Mysticism, declares that an accompaniment to the Zero Experience (his term for the enlightenment experience) is the euphoria that attends the transcendence of ego absorption. Bliss. So knowledge, wisdom and bliss. Sat, Cit, Ananda. A surprising conclusion can be drawn from this.
The mystical experience is in large part an aesthetic experience.
It has nothing to do with the ethical order. Bharati is quite firm on this. Ethics, he states, is the product of reason and reason alone. With sublime satirical intent he declares that the mystical event cannot generate intelligence, or any other extra-mystical skill, (Eastern sages regularly call these "traps") any more than orgasm can generate good citizenship.
Our move to India has established the zero event as aesthetic. Let us now advance two thousand years from Golden Age Athens to Elizabethan London and Shakespeare.
We know that each of Shakespeare's great tragedies, Hamlet, Macbeth, Othello, Coriolanus, Anthony and Cleopatra, and Lear bring forth, in their agony, forces special to them alone. A comprehensive generalization about modern tragedy, unlike the definition by Aristotle analyzing his precedent classic work, is difficult. So let us focus on one, arguably Shakespeare's greatest work and still our greatest tragedy, Lear: a crown of Western literature.
The story is familiar. The tragic premise is an old man's insistence, upon his retirement, the divestiture of his realm and the relinquishment of his royal power, that his daughters compete with each other in the extravagant expression of their loyalty and love for him. The purpose of this is to put the seal on his gift to them--portions of his now divided kingdom. This is the way of the courtier. Cordelia, sensibly, realistically, refuses to join in this ridiculous game.
Unhappy that I am, she says, I cannot heave
My heart into my mouth: I love your majesty
According to my bond; nor more nor less.
Lear, angry at her response, asks her to mend her speech a little (which she refuses to do) and allocates her portion between the hypocritical sisters. Then the old man, in his rage, banishes his youngest and, heretofore, the most beloved of his daughters. Lear, expecting a continuance of his royal privileges, visits his daughters and, little by little, has his retainers and therefore his royalty stripped from him. He is left alone, insanely raging against nature itself for the plight he finds himself in. He becomes like his fool, Poor Tom, an unaccomodated man, stripped of power, naked on an hostile heath, a madman, fantastically garlanded, reduced to eating snared rabbits. All has failed him. His fool has told him: Thou shouldst not have been old before thou hadst been wise (Lear I v 27).
It is the last scene that is crucial.
Lear's supporting allies have been defeated. Cordelia is captured by her enemies and imprisoned. There she is strangled. Lear enters, carrying her dead body. He cannot ask her blessing now, nor pray and sing and tell old tales, and laugh at gilded butterflies. He carries his too-lately beloved daughter in his arms, and howls and howls, and howls. How can dogs, horses, and rats have breath and life and she no breath at all? He is so charged with grief he chokes. He needs his collar button undone. Do you see this? Look on her, look her lips, look there, look there....
And the enormous excess of his grief kills him. At this point, unlike classical tragedy, where in a moment, as in Oedipus, the king finally becomes aware that he has killed his father, and married his mother. The audience has known this all along, but the tragedy bears devastatingly on Oedipus's damning self-understanding. In Lear, it is never clear that the old man ever attains enough self-knowledge to see that he has been the author of his own doom. If ripeness is all, his is the retrograde fruit.
Lear does not understand. But the audience does. The burden of the tragedy now falls upon the audience. They know every step of the way what has happened to the old king.
Lear endures but fails to survive the ultimate disorder of the cosmos. Where old men should be wise, venerated, and die, in proper sequence, he is old and a fool. He suffers the abuse and rejection by his daughters and the horrible, chaotic, disorder of having his youngest child die before him. The very "germans" of nature are cracked, the heath storms assail him. We watch this. The pity and terror of it. We know.
If Lear cannot become wise before he is old, the audience can. We can. The nature of our wisdom? Anti-Lear. Transcending Lear. Ripeness. Hamlet's the readiness is all. A clear understanding of a sometimes disordered and always impersonal nature. If the beginning of wisdom is the fear of the Lord, in the language of the Psalms (111:10), so also is the acceptance of nature and human relations as they are, without egoism, and selfishness. It is matured wisdom that tries to ameliorate tragic circumstance where it can. Lear cannot do this. We may, if we take the play to heart.
And then our terror and release in the deep purging catharsis of the deaths of Lear and Cordelia. We are told that the actors in support of Lawrence Olivier in his justly celebrated performance of Lear at the end of his acting career and his life, were reduced to weeping as they played through this scene. In the same way, the Athenians wept for Xerxes. The actors in the play were deeply moved. Because of them, so are we.
And when the scene is done, we are not only purged, we are somehow uplifted. We have seen the emptiness and the pointlessness of Lear's rage, his grief, knowing he could have been buried by his loving children in a prosperous kingdom had he not acted like a damned old fool at the onset of his retirement. An upwelling of compassion occurs for him, for all of us in a similar situation.
What has the audience felt?
Knowledge, Wisdom, Bliss.
Sat. Cit. Ananda.
Precisely those nearly exact attributes of India's religious experience. The mystical Event. The Zero. Enlightenment. How remarkable this is!
The rapture of art and spirit are peak experiences which both differ and are similar.
Art and mysticism, similar on a continuum.
What happens in a mystical experience?
It is grasping the total being of the human consciousness, of one's identity with the sacred--here defined as something mysterious, something tremendous, yet transcendentally important and absorbing. Just what the subject of that absorption is remains beyond language to tell, in the same way that the marvelous and complex feelings, when truly encountering our deeply tragic sense of life, cannot be reduced to language either. This truth is one, and knowable-- but not entirely speakable. The taste of honey is like this: when one attempts to describe in words that taste to one who has never before tasted honey. One must taste the honey for oneself. Language, no matter how sweetly employed, cannot transfer that experience to someone ignorant of it.
And comedy, that bright yin of the dark yang of the drama mask, speaks to all efforts of reconciliation, resulting in plays and novels, in love or marriage. Because the comedy reconciles opposites, in some ways, it transcends tragedy. Much Ado About Nothing, a play with a tragic core, grows to its delightful coincidentia oppositorum, the unity of its opposites, where tragic misunderstandings are transformed and healed by the marriage of the lovers of the play in a multiple wedding.
Most devotional poetry is tedious and banal. Its intent is to inspire by trying to embody the ineffable directly with words, at which effort it largely fails. If the relationship between human religious institutions to the light of their mystical grounding is considered, as is the multifaceted glass of an ornamental lantern surrounding a source of light, pious poetry whether East or West attains its tedium by its attempt to adduce the light purely. Light is pervasive, and ordinary. Its function as a metaphor is sealed, solipsistic, suffocating, except to the hyper-devout who imagine they know in exact terms what the light is. Indeed, it has been said, all religion is metaphor. It is crucial to understand that.
The glass through which the light shines is man-made. It is manufactured. As is any human construct, it is open to assessment, evaluation, criticism, improvement. Since the glass is handmade and separate and different, misunderstandings and conflict can arise. The religious institutions are faulty in their indifferent uses of language in an attempt to understand the light. Understanding diminishes the light. Idle talk spoils the reality. Humans often, if not always, betray their mystical roots. Hence the religious wars that have plagued human history.
Zero experiences, epiphanies, peak experiences in every area of life, cannot be rendered completely in language. It is well said that religion is a defense against a religious experience--because light, too, is a metaphor. We do not know what it truly is. Conceptual systems invariably veer away from the endlessly complex reality they try to embody. Experiences become words. Words become ideologies. Ideologies are a danger to humans seeking liberation from the prison of language. Humans do not battle over light, just the words that try to explain the light. The word is not the reality. Words only point to the reality.
How then do we deal with this reality?
We have described what most take to be reality. This membrane of our time and place is a part of an immensely huge upground of the entire universe and downground of our subatomic presence. Being, in its totality, is so vast as to be very nearly incomprehensible to the ordinary mind. The reality of Brahman is that from which language turns back. The mysteries are ineffable. One dares not pronounce God's name. That is why metaphor is so commonly employed.
But we can deal with illusion, with maya. We can novelize, dramatize, poeticize, make music, make science, make historical literature penetrating our cherished illusions knowing full well that in uncovering the human tragicomedy, our works, though ephemeral, can be illuminating. There is no final truth. All forms are empty. The best our arts and sciences can do is to suggest the super- realities our reality so minimally inhabits, expose human frailty for what it is, "hold the mirror up to nature, to show virtue her own feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure." [Hamlet, III.iii. 16-23], and portray what hopes for reconciliation are possible for humans in conflict with their world, themselves and with each other. To honestly confront the final reality of human mortality. Terror, as Joyce reminds us, is the feeling which arrests the mind in the presence of whatsoever is grave and constant in human suffering (quoted in George Steiner's The Death of Tragedy, pp 164).
At the end of Lear, as well as in the midst of the mystical experience, our reaction is reduced to the wordless in the encounter of the mystery of Being itself. The eternal questions can be asked. The questions must remain unanswered. Doubt is the chastity of the mind. Questioning is the piety of thinking. One becomes an atheist if the Gods to be believed in are the characters in books. If the word "God", on the other hand, is a metaphor for the mystery dimension of the universe, then one does not believe, but one dwells in that presence,, in that mystery, at every moment. The Kingdom of the Father is spread on the earth but men do not see it. Nirvana is here and now. The sacred and the profane are united. This is the Kingdom. A Buddha and the Thomas Jesus are are those who wake up to see that reality. As we can if we will.
So what is religion? An altogether human defense against the religious experience. It is made with human hands. It is, in the final analysis, a work of art. Much in Job, in Ecclesiastes, the great Prophets, Amos, Hosea, Jeremiah, Isaiah, the aphorisms and parables of Jesus and the sermons of the the Shakyamuni Buddha, the poetry of Lao Tze, can still speak to us. But in some cases, as in some of the dietary rules of the Torah, the wrath of God in the 28th chapter of Deuteronomy or the book of Revelation, or the harsh judgments against the unbeliever in the Koran, religion is a work of art from which history has departed.
What is mysticism? It is the sense of the ground of existence, an altogether natural aesthetic seizure of our oneness with mystery either realized by accident, or earned by disciplined inwardness and study. And sometimes this knowledge of the connection of our deepest selves with the mysteries is achieved accompanied by intense rapture. After all, this writer was once caught by one of his daughters on his deck on a brilliant February morning shouting ecstatic raptures at the bare trees in his yard, sure, that like him, they were, even in that winter season by wearing his beating heart within their exuberant wood, his kin and richly alive....
As the relation of the lantern to its light, the candle generates the glass-filtered glow of all world religious traditions. Critically important to discovery, both for science and art, is an openness and clarity of mind, without prejudice, without presupposition, that takes us only so far to conclusions that the evidence and enduring metaphors permit. One can approach this ground through the earnest investigations of science where the approximations to the truth are based on found evidence, the aesthetic arrest presented in Lear. Great music. Cosmos. Yahweh, Kingdom, Tao, Nirvana. Understanding. We of the West are Greeks. The paths the Greeks disclosed for us we follow still. Alexander McCall Smith, twice, in his 44 Scotland Street Series, once in Espresso Tales and second in The World According to Bertie, deals with the foolishness of postmodernist subjectivity. Is physics merely the result of the language of a society or does it have any validity of its own? Smith laconically declares that notions such as this are easy to say in Paris, but rather less convincing in a jumbo jet at 33,000 feet. One's safety in flight depends on the objectivity of Bernoulli's Principle on the nature of fluids on lift. Our final presupposition, like Bertie's, who is only six years old, in this essay is that science is the first magisterium. Of course the truths of science are tentative! But we have little choice but to anchor ourselves in its experimental evidence, observation, reason.
The earnest researchers of science, artists of genius, skilled intronauts of consciousness, those three paths, three languages, lead to cognate outcomes--the deep insights of science, the attributes of enlightenment and the aesthetic seizures of art, and the ecstasy of the mystical experience, though their various peak experiences differ, they all, in Heidegger's words, dwell in the same neighborhood.
An even more exciting intersection has occurred over the last two hundred years--most productively since WW II; that is, the increasing availability of the works of the great sages and philosophers of India, Tibet, China and Japan. These have done a great deal to enrich and deepen and extend our own cultural history. We can now base our thinking on the art and philosophy of the entire world. We pick the path toward this goal as we are disposed, with the method congenial to each of us. We have a veritable Noah's Ark of world traditions to choose from. What synthesis eventually comes from this will be novel, and, without a doubt, exciting.
The easy rejection of religion by some so-called liberals and the uncritical acceptance of its fundamentalist--normative expression are both thoughtless. Atheism and religious fanaticism are twin children with one parent--the uncritically narrow. All religious traditions nurture at their core a mystical inflection. This is true of Eastern religions as well as those of the Abrahamic faiths. Judaism has its Kabbala, Islam its Sufism and Christianity its recent hesychast-like progressive movement. All these employ disciplined self-examination through a variety of meditative techniques. This essay, therefore, suggests that one can easily be religious and progressive at the same time. All that is required is the effort to acquire some relevant learning, and a little careful, open-minded thought.
As there are many Varieties of Religious experience according to William James, so also are there many varieties of skeptical experience but they can be put in three groups: scientific, artistic, and mystical. We learn that we know in three limited ways: from the close observation of nature and the repeatable scientific experiment, from time-tested images of art, and from the inward way.
Great science, art, and mystical inwardness, in their different ways, thrive on a cosmology based on accurate observation. This is the very business of science. The flat earth and its geocentrism were abandoned by Greek and Hindu thinkers eons ago. Our cosmos, disclosed by the instruments and mathematical tools of science, is billions of years old and incomprehensibly immense. This is a platitude for all but the fundamentalist.
Great art and the disciplined inwardness of the mystical way must, and do, assume the contemporary picture of the universe as a given, or else their enterprise is irrelevant at the outset. Canonical art can create alternative universes to make moral and socially relevant points, but this is to consciously create a mythology. Few mistake this myth for fact. Science fiction creates these myths promiscuously but usually within the framework of science, plausibly, sometimes prophetically, extended. Almost any episode of the Star Trek series is understandable as a gloss on our contemporary situation.
The mystical method, like the processes of artistic production, must presuppose the world as we know it scientifically. Many literate Christians have fled the mainline churches because so many of their doctrines are not credible. Their church's exclusive claims to the truth no longer works for them. They either drop out into secularism, explore or adopt Eastern styles of religion, or find a progressive congregation that dispenses with Christian absolutism. Dogma is rejected.
Fundamentalism, whether Christian or Islamic, is simply not an option for religious people serious about their faith. No unexamined ideology ever is. And Eastern teachers are as skeptical of unexamined creeds as are scientists. The Dalai Lama has maintained many times that if any part of Buddhist philosophy is contradicted by the findings of science, the Buddhist part must be thrown out!
The currently understood cosmos is the foundation of science, art, and religion. Our hardest sciences, our most sensitive art, our deepest intuitions of disciplined inwardness hold that the cosmos is one and that humans are interconnected with all of nature and with each other. It then follows that we must treat each other as we would want to be treated. The Golden Rule, celebrated by all great religions, is but the logical outcome of our cosmological interconnections. If nature is one, humans share that unity.
The experiment that can be repeated assumes a rational cosmos. That thrilling and ancient insight gave birth to all science, especially its powerful modern outcomes. A devoted scientist is committed to a life of exploration of the world as it is. The attention of the scientist shifts from paradigm to paradigm depending on what is currently urgent or newly discovered. Newtonian mechanics shifts to the standard model of quantum mechanics. That physics of the very small advances to astrophysics, the physics of the very large. Darwin moves to Mendel to Watson and Crick to the genome map. Investigation of human anatomy spurs studies in physiology, and then grows to research into consciousness. Alchemy transmutes to chemistry and that to organic chemistry. How all these will eventually integrate is anyone's guess.
A scientist would say it is hard and exciting enough to work out the discovery and the details of how things are as they are, and that speculation on ultimate causes is pointless, or a diversion of more properly directed energy. As to why there is something rather than nothing, we don't know. Perhaps we can never know! The god hypothesis doesn't figure into this. We are agnostic on those questions.
John Updike once said in an interview that all he hoped for was that his books had expressed a few honest images that would last. This is the key to how we know through art. Enduring images function like the repeatable experiment. That the central images of The Epic of Gilgamesh have lasted over four thousand years tells us that there is, somehow, still truth in them. Shakespeare illuminates and uplifts to this day. As the models of science can always be extended, modified, or superseded, so also the truths of canonical art need reworking through the images and concerns of each new epoch. According to Harold Bloom, Milton redoes Dante, and Shakespeare contends and then goes beyond Chaucer. The romantics, transcendentalists, and moderns re-express Shakespeare. Mozart extends Bach. Beethoven extends both. And on and on in all fields. Finally Keats's great uncertainty principle, Negative Capability--when one is capable of being in uncertainties and doubts without any irritable reaching after fact and reason--is invoked by the creative artist at the very center of the creative process. Artists are at their most profound level utterly free to shape their expressions as consequences of their embrace of life's indeterminacy. Like the scientist regarding ultimate certainties, the artist is liberated and agnostic.
Mystics entertain mysteries. The words come from the same root. Because it is the mystery they seek, at the very outset, mystics adopt the agnostic way. At best, they use images to point to the reality they have encountered. But in the use of such images, such as those of light, space, time, the mystical rapture is fundamentally aesthetic. Those exemplary psychologists of religion, the Hindu authors of the Upanishads, have long insisted that the highest insight experience available to the seeker has three attributes: Sat, Cit, Ananda (knowledge, wisdom, and bliss). Here one rehearses the three avenues of understanding.
Mystics know on the mundane level the unity of life in the cosmos and its ethical blossoming. Tat Tvam Asi. Thou art that! You are everything, declares the Chandyoga Upanishad. Mystics, like a Shakespeare holding his masterpieces in mind simultaneously, then expressing them in drama, have attained that same level of wisdom that all canonical poets have. And with rapturous, transporting visions, mystics have in their bliss affirmed the value of their perceptions of all things with a warm, sensuous, even erotic inspiration. This intense bliss, though approached in great art and continuous with it but never perfectly realized, seems to be the property of mystics alone. The mystic's union with the mysteries is exceptional and ecstatic.
And yet mystics, of all people, cannot tell you what has happened to them. Words like sublime, empty, transcendent, ineffable are at the center of the sense of the truly religious human. Just like the scientist, the mystic has no idea what the ultimate is. Just like the artist, the mystic's disciplined introspection uncovers the baffling transcendence of consciousness itself. The religious human enshrines above knowledge, wisdom, and bliss a "don't know", a modest sense of the mind's limits that embodies the three attributes of insight, and then extends, envelops, and transcends the capacity of language to express that mystery. Mystics maintain a respectful silence about what can't be described. Thus mystics, like scientists and artists, at the most exalted level are agnostic.
We do not distinguish radically between artists and mystics. The oceanic sense is available even to the atheist. Alice Munro, who describes herself as an unbeliever, suggests, through an image, her own sense of the transcendent. At the end of her latest book, A View from Castle Rock, she describes seeing a big mother-of-pearl seashell that "I recognize as a messenger...because I could hold it to my ear...and discover the tremendous pounding of my own blood, and of the sea."
Most conventionally religious people, it is to be admitted, are troubled by the mystical agnosticism we have described. If, however, the claims of the world's great mystics are to be taken seriously, some simple images might help. For example, and as we have already detailed, the religions of the world are like the many screens of colored glass in a Chinese lantern that both conceal and reveal the light at its center. The glass in its variety filters the light. It is not the light itself. Stained glass is man-made. The light is not. Each facet of glass then can be assessed in rational terms. This facet is white, another red, or blue or green, or this one nearly opaque. That is to say, every major religion is of human making and can be adopted, criticized, altered, avoided, or rejected on rational grounds. The one you feel most comfortable with is the color you favor. Though man-made religions can be embraced or criticized, the light they conceal and transmit must be approached with great care. Most cannot see the source of the light but can see only its effects. Only rare and deeply disciplined intronauts experience the light directly.
All these are metaphors, clearly. Although we can know of the incredible varieties of religious tradition, no one knows truly what the light's mystery is about. What are the consequences of these metaphors? If all three of our seekers are agnostic, at the very least imagine the reconciliation that is possible among them!
The scientist will greet the artist as a friend: "Very well, we agree that our ultimates are unknowable," and then proceed to his lab, observatory, or accelerator, excited at the prospect of new discovery. The researcher leaves ultimate questions to the speculators. He has quite enough work to do as it is.
The artist greets the scientist as a friend and says, "I truly admire your talent for higher mathematics and rational observation, but I have to express my affection, my seeing sensuality through the songs of art." Shelley, whose hero was Benjamin Franklin because of his studies in electricity, wrote the ecstatic poetry of The Skylark, The Cloud, The Ode to the West Wind, knowing that poetry was the music and religion of the Enlightenment.
And religious humanity? What of them? Can they wholeheartedly embrace the scientist and the artist? Certainly fundamentalists, whether Christian or Islamic, cannot. They must have an absolute truth. The fundamentalists' glass is dark and opaque. The light behind it is barely discernible. They live in twilight.
Progressive religious groups, especially when they have purged themselves of exclusive claims to the truth, will have no trouble here. Progressive Christianity, described by Hal Taussig in his groundbreaking A New Spiritual Home, has grown up from the grass roots and developed dramatically in the last few decades in America. These explorers understand that their faith is one of many, not superior to the other religions of the world. This demands an intellectual honesty, particularly about scientific matters, such as the age of the earth and Darwinian evolution. Current models of science are embraced. Modern art is taken seriously. The scholars of Westar and other academics in Religious Studies have deliberately left their ivory tower to teach what was heretofore hidden to inquisitive laymen who thirst for such knowledge.
These progressive congregations often incorporate dance, music, art, poetry, and the scriptures of world religions into their own worship. They are slowly, perhaps even clumsily, creating the liturgies of the future, expressing devotion and awe at the stupendous space and time of the universe, and the urgent need for altruistic activism in the face of desperate human need for health and security in a world that does not easily grant such things. The Reformation of the sixteenth century continues, to what ultimate end no one knows.
Reform and Reconstructionist Judaism has anticipated this continuing reform. Buddhism undergoes a constant state of reform from generation to generation, country to country. Hinduism is so expansive it simply absorbs the new. The true reformation of Islam still waits in the wings. The strength of its orthodox and fundamentalist arms has made this large religious group a regressive force. Until Islam experiences a reformation that yields the kind of critical self-examination characteristic of its Christian and Jewish brothers and sisters (and that has produced such groups as our own Westar Institute), moderate Islam and inclusive Sufism (a tiny and often beleaguered fragment of Islam), are its hope, though for now not a very promising one.
So, the religions of the future will companion themselves easily with art and science. Its rational mysticism enthusiastically embraces all of science to deepen its understanding of the world. This synthesis sees canonical art, like the contents of science, as its new scripture, pointing toward transcendent issues, questions of ultimate concern. It employs art to enhance its worship, to struggle toward fresh and participatory liturgical practice. With all groups equally devoted to what is knowable and not knowable, the metaphorical (not literal), foundation of belief, and the awe and gratitude at the surprise of life itself, how is it not possible for science, art, and religion to do anything but live together in an explosively creative harmony?
Steve FortneyBACK TO TOP
When I was a philosophy student at the University of Wisconsin, I was required to read David Hume’s Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding. Chapter Ten of that treatise was entitled On Miracles. I can hardly remember the details of the argument now, but I recognized then that it was a deadly assault on the truth of miracles reported in our most holy Christian faith, as Hume put it, with a bit of heavy irony. When I finished reading, I was aware that all the beliefs I had held until that time had crashed about my ears. Were demolished. What surprised me was how placidly I stood in the midst of the ruin. No hysterics. No anger. No dark night of the soul. Just an odd, almost quiet, understanding that the direction of my life had changed forever.
After Hume, my next encounter was with Søren Kierkegaard. Professor David Swenson had brought him to my attention, and Paul Holmer consolidated that interest. I read some of Kierkegaard’s books many times. Concluding the Unscientific Postscript to the Philosophical Fragments was undertaken, I think, six times before I had a glimmering of understanding of what that work was all about. I had to work up a bit of Hegel to get it. I came to think that this existential Christianity might help me with Hume. Kierkegaard drove me to Luther Seminary in St Paul where I was forced to confront, on a personal basis, the challenges of the Christian faith preached and taught by brilliant and committed men, many of whom knew my father; my uncle, Professor Arthur Carl Piepkorn, eminent Concordia Seminary scholar; had known my grandfather, Professor Carl Johannes Sødergren, of Augustana College and Seminary. Alas. It didn’t work. Hume reappeared, stronger than ever. He drove me out of the seminary and a clerical career after one year, my world view in even more shambles.
The works of Aldous Huxley became my third crucial turning point. It was not his more famous works but a relatively obscure one called Ape and Essence. The world described in that strange little book embodied my fallen world exactly: post-apocalyptic society; socially, sexually repressed and perverted; descending into chaos and madness. One character manages to escape the insanity of a futuristic Southern California and its tyrant, with a companion who despairs over what she has seen. The tension of the story increases almost to a breaking point, whereupon our refugee, Doctor Poole, calmly assures Loola, his distraught companion. ....There is something stronger than He is....He can never win for good: because He can never resist the temptation of carrying evil to the limit. And whenever evil is carried to the limit, it always destroys itself. After which the Order of Things comes to the surface again. Always. And as I read these words as I was in a chaotic and wrecked world of my own, I felt a great sense of relief.
I have spent a lifetime trying to understand just what that Order of Things is. In the two essays that follow, now in my eighth decade of life, I have at long last some sense of what I have been seeking. The reading, reflecting, thinking over these years has given me, in the midst of a busy life, many delights. My novels and poems, my journalism, my teaching and politicking, the wonders of a vital and stable family life have all contributed to this unfolding.
The name of the first essay is Epistemology. It is a consensus document coauthored (but amended here) with my collaborator and friend, Professor Marshall Onellion, as a partial summary of our book Seeking Truth, Living with Doubt.
The second essay, Enlightenment, is entirely my own. Though these are not scholarly treatises, they use some scholarship. Both are intensely personal essays, the second more so than the first. The two together are pointers to the Order I have been seeking for the past fifty years.
28 August 08
At our Westar Conferences, Bob Funk told us many times that the future advances in the life of the spirit will not occur in the churches or in theology or in biblical studies, but through inspired artists: novelists, poets, filmmakers, painters and musicians. Given the intense activity in all those fields of the last generation, and indeed in canonical art over the millennia, his prediction has been validated many times. This essay will establish just why Bob believed this advance must come true. The groundwork for this reality lies, strangely enough, in the so-called conflict of science and religion. The larger sense of this apparent conflict is actually to be found in the epistemologies that art and science are based on. But first things first.
The conflict between science and religion is the subject of a good deal of unenlightened controversy. Best-selling authors on both sides create straw men to burn. Insults fly like sparks. So much smoke is generated that meaningful dialog between the two camps is hardly possible. The result of this is the ping and pong of talk media. One side against the other. (You decide!) This ignores the fact that there are not always only two sides to every question. There may be dozens. Or as in the science of evolution, there may be only one. Seeking the truth is not a table game. In order to make sense of this conflict, we must take a deep breath, try to think carefully about the subject and, above all, examine first principles. Go back to the beginning. Start over. It is the thesis of our article that, properly, and, we think, simply understood, science and religion have differing but complementary ways of seeking truth. Each is valid in its own way.
The conflict reduces itself to two questions of epistemology. How is it that we know what we know? What is the nature of doubt and uncertainty in the context of this knowing?
The three legs of our tripod of knowing for both is 1) a careful observation of the physical and aesthetic world; 2) the careful use of a testable methodology; and 3) the proper descriptive language to explain the meanings that logical analysis and artistic expression disclose to us.
For science, the answer to these questions is easier, though the methods used to disclose scientific knowledge can be very complex and demanding. Scientific knowledge, like a stable tripod, rests on three supports. The first of these is a careful observation of the concrete physical world. Darwin’s Voyage of the Beagle illustrates what a meticulous observer of nature he was. His great theory of evolution was being born in the 1840’s as he compared the beaks of finches, among many other observations, on the Galapagos Islands and the South American continent.
In America, the theory of evolution has evoked a conflict between science and religion that has already lasted over a century and shows no sign of resolution. From the “Scopes Monkey Trial” in 1925, to creationism in the 1950’s, to the recent intelligent design court loss in Dover, Pennsylvania [Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District], religious fundamentalists have attempted to impose their ideology on the facts of the world, in this instance biological evolution.
The second leg of scientific knowledge rests on the use and nature of the experiment in science. Beginning with the Greeks, experiments became equal to, and in many scientific fields superior to, reason alone as the standard of truth. This is because the experiment allows us to test natural phenomena and ideas. Further, such experiments can be reproduced in other laboratories allowing scientists to check each other. Although doubt and uncertainty are always present, it is the experiment, above all, that allows us, with modesty and caution, to obtain varying degrees of certainty about the structure of the natural world.
The third support for science is the language of mathematics and logic. Mathematics and logic are the critical languages of the scientific method, but even here doubt lurks. Mathematics and logic are analytical systems. That is, they are a language, the elements of which are true by definition, but which have only a rough congruence with the natural world they seek to reason about.
With careful thought, however, we find that the same three legs of the scientific tripod apply as well to an understanding of religious phenomena. But we first ask the question: What is it that all religions have in common?
We are not talking here about the fundamentalist religions of the Levant or other areas of the world; nor of any political, social or economic ideology. Such larger ideological approaches, because they abandon in varying degrees the scientific method, are inherently flawed. Christian fundamentalism, for instance, is a fairly recent development in the West. The fundamentalist uses a pseudoscientific method: that is, using the absolute certainties of its sacred text as its premise, it reasons to various conclusions. This often leads to results utterly inconsistent with our knowledge of the natural world. Fundamentalist cosmology, for instance, based on a literal interpretation of Genesis, declares the cosmos to have been created in seven 24-hour days and that the universe is roughly 6,000 or 10,000 years old. That, of course, in its pretense as science, is nonsense. Adam and Eve did not go horsey-back riding on dinosaurs.
What all religions have in common is, in part, the mystical experience, called by one writer on mysticism, Agehananda Bharati in his book, Light at the Center, the Context and Pretext of Modern Mysticism, the Zero Event. Here’s where the life of the spirit begins. The Zero Event is the ultimate fact of the spiritual life. If the religious experience is accompanied by knowledge, wisdom, and bliss, (the classic Hindu attributes of samadhi, or the enlightenment experience), though it needs to anchor itself in knowledge, its blissful, ecstatic aspect, is aesthetic. That is to say, the experience goes beyond all logic. Brahman, the absolute in Hindu mythology, is that reality from which all language turns back. The relationship of science and religion is better understood as the relationship between science and aesthetics. Between science and art. In fact, we propose (described in detail in our book Seeking Truth: Living with Doubt) that all religious expression is a subset of aesthetics; that theology, liturgy, preaching, is really a form of poetry. Theology, and philosophy--particularly in its metaphysical inflection--therefore, are an art, if an abstract art. This essay is an example of that sort of poetry.
The first leg of the religious tripod of knowing, like science, depends on a careful observation of the world. Here we use the word ‘world’ as Martin Heidegger used it, as opposed to the word ‘earth.’ ‘Earth’ is a word defining the physical cosmos. ‘World’ includes the Earth in addition to its social, psychological, aesthetic, and spiritual and human parts. Religion in our time, to be effective, must couch its poetry in the context of a modern scientific, artistic, social, and psychological world view. Religious people, especially in America. (who are to an alarming degree scientifically ignorant), ignore modern science at their peril. The universe is several billion years old, immense in size, and gives us no physical evidence of anything like a human personality behind it. To be convincing, therefore, poetry must embrace nature as we know it now, not a cosmos as some knew it 2500 years ago. This is easier than it sounds. What could be more productive of awe, even religious awe, than the sublimities of space and time and order, and of the mysteries of consciousness that have become available to all of us in the last century?
What is the analogy of the experiment in art and religion? That is, what is the second leg of the tripod? One aspect is the enduring image. A classic in literature is what can be reread, and experienced richly many times. If an experiment is a test, then works of art that endure have passed the test of time. Time is the laboratory that allows classics to become manifest. What fails the test of time are period pieces. Some parts of the Bible, such as, the Book of Job, the Gospel of Mark, and the figure of the historical Jesus as it is emerging as a result of the Westar investigations, are still classic. We can still read the 4,200year-old Epic of Gilgamesh and be moved to wisdom. Other parts of the Bible, for instance some of the more bizarre ethical and dietary rules of Leviticus and Deuteronomy, are period pieces, relevant to their time but not enduring. Theology based on those rules, like physics based on Sumerian cosmology, would be ideas from which history has departed. In fact, some outdated religious doctrines, such as those exclusive claims to the truth (the fault of many religions, especially the three monotheisms of the Levant) may even be dangerous. The emergence of Islamic Fundamentalist terrorism has certainly made this clear.
Still, within differences, commonalities can be noted. Theologies are both changeable over time, and cross-culturally comparable. They are not the final expression of any truth. (The mythologies surrounding the figure of the historical Jesus have altered from his historical ministry, through the early church to the present, as Jaroslav Pelikan presented so well in his book Jesus Through the Centuries.) Upon close examination, the cosmologies of East and West are similar. In our own pagan tradition, based on the mythologies of ancient Sumeria, we knew the ‘gods’ of earth and sky. The earth was a goddess, the sky a god. The sky is also the symbol of the infinite. When, according to the Jewish philosopher Maimonides, Yahweh created the heavens and the earth, that meant that God was so transcendent that He was beyond the infinite; in fact He created the infinite! (See his Guide to the Perplexed, Chapter LXXI. and in many other places where he describes the attributes of God.) This is not unlike the Hindu cosmologies with their perception of the vastness of space and time and, through Indra’s Net, our interconnection with that cosmos. The similarities of the concepts of time and space of Hindu cosmology to modern astrophysics are uncanny.
In an example from ethics, all of the major religions of the world share a Golden Rule. Christianity has one of the more radical expressions of this Rule: Love your enemies, but all major religious traditions come to this ethic. Consider, as well, the great hymn to Grace in Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, (Ch 5:9 ff) in which Paul holds that God’s acceptance of sinners is absolute and unqualified. The Buddhist notion of Emptiness--at least in part--instructs us that the conceptual traps, such as sin and guilt, condemnation and judgment, those that humans have put on themselves, are concepts empty of absolute meaning. To realize Emptiness, like accepting God’s Grace, is to become liberated. It is perfect freedom, as Martin Luther emphasized repeatedly. Liberation is the outcome of both practices. East and West meet when it is understood that Grace and Emptiness are equivalent and congruent ideas. Emptiness united to Compassion (Shunya with Karuna, Kenoma with Agape) is the root of the best of the religious life.
And, incidentally, of the political and social and personal life, as well.
Another aspect of this second leg of our tripod is meditation as method, that is those autogenic practices that seek the proper subordination of the ego to reality. It is that utter abolition of the ego that results in a completely open mind. This is the methodology of art and the life of the spirit. This is no less true of science. The point of both is to transcend self-absorption. Prejudgment in a scientific experiment leads to the failure of that experiment to create new knowledge. Similarly the lowest form of art is mere self-expression. The classic-creating genius, on the other hand, absorbs and animates great stories, the world’s deepest mythologies, and breaks new ground. The personality of the artist becomes irrelevant. The aim of all forms of meditation and certain kinds of prayer is to push oneself past the traps of egoism, to see and accept the world as it truly is as the beginning point for further thought, action, and creation. Art, including feeling, emotion, the analogical, points us to the raptures elicited by both science and religion, particularly as they confront those mysteries of Being commonly reported. For example, the metaphorical languages mystics use throughout history to give us a sense of the unity of nature and our interconnections with the cosmos, are astonishingly similar. These are grand metaphors common to all great religious traditions. These enduring images like those of great art are part of knowing.
The language of art and religion in the third leg of our tripod ventures far beyond the careful methodology of higher mathematics and the strict use of logic. An element of human feeling intrudes here. Indeed, art, and its subdivision religious expression, does not proceed with logic alone. Rather, its language is analogical. It uses imagery and metaphor, in the richness of poetry, fiction, painting, music, the abstractions of theological and philosophical poetry, to bring us to awe and the mysteries of human consciousness and the existence of the cosmos. That the world is, is the mystical, declares Ludwig Wittgenstein. Occasionally this experience of bliss is so intense that it is ecstatic, rapturous. This is the foundation of the ‘religious experience.’
The language of art transforms myth to metaphor. The mathematics of Art is metaphor. The best language of the spirit is, as Bob Funk insisted so many times, music, and painting, and drama, and poetry. Recent evidence for Westar’s serious consideration of this reality can be found in a 4th R article by Robert Jones, Language and Ritual (Vol 21, Number 5; September-October 2008), which is an examination of the relation of poetry to religious ritual, very much in line with the argument of this essay. The 4th R is one of the official publications of Westar Institute.
Making sense of the world through art and meditation is difficult. The process is always, always, done in the context of uncertainty and doubt. Poetry is not doctrine. Its language, though it may be helpful, is tentative. For example, a father who has lost a son in Viet Nam or Iraq or Afghanistan is heartbroken with grief. He has sensed a terrifying disorder in the cosmos. The child is dead before the father. Fathers should die first. That would be natural. That his beloved is dead before him is the wellspring of his rage, his sorrow. He has become a Lear uttering those heartbreaking monosyllables of grief at the murder of Cordelia. No, no, no life! Why should a dog, a horse, a rat, have life, And thou no breath at all?.... We see the father, we remember Lear. We learn that a broken nature is our lot. Life is suffering. We therefore can grieve with both. Our sympathy is at the heart of wisdom, attained from this classical text and the tears of the parent before us.
Just what is this wisdom?
Science in certain ways is easy. One sees, one experiments, one concludes. From the arts the reasoning is more difficult. Wisdom is purchased at a cost. One must read many texts, hear much music, view many paintings, meditate deeply, live deeply, know oneself intimately, and patiently come to the wisdom that humans have gained over thousands of years of feeling, of passion, of poetry.
So the tripod of knowing applies to art, science and mystical spirituality. Indeed, art and religion can be understood as science infused with feeling, logic companioned with analogic, poetry springing from the facts of the Earth and the World. Science plus aesthetics gives us art and and what many call religion. This is where the artistic and spiritual life are identical. None of this knowledge achieves the fundamentalist’s and ideologue’s sense of absolute certainty.
One of our favorite metaphors of the relation of the religions of the world to the mystical event is that of the Chinese lantern. A Chinese lantern ordinarily consists of panes of colored glass surrounding a light source, such as a candle. The light of that candle is filtered through each pane of glass. Those panes have been crafted by human hands. The light through them in its origin, as all fire, is of nature. Assume that the filtration of the light is not then the pure light. Each pane of glass can be compared to the religions of the world. Since these have been crafted by human hands, each pane and each religious tradition can be evaluated and criticized as anything made by human hands can be evaluated and criticized. This has certainly been the mission of Westar. For them the Bible is not a sacrosanct text. It was made by human hands. The glass is not the light. Indeed, the glass conceals the true nature of that light, as all religions hide and then interpret the primordial mystical event. The light filtered is not the original expression of that light. The modest claims of doubt and uncertainty prevent this. Our tripod is the beginning of knowledge for science, art, and that part of art that is the mystical. All epiphenomena that can be found in the great religions, such as their liturgy, theology and doctrine, and Biblical interpretation, are the curlicues of creativity that go beyond the fact of the mystical event; that is, the metaphors of unity and interconnection common to all cultures are how individual cultures interpret these experiences. Theological and aesthetic criticism and interpretation (the hermeneutic of Art) are human in origin and can be understood, evaluated, and criticized as such. They are never reality itself. The glass reveals only a version of the light, merely suggests that reality. Or to use a famous Hindu image, these are the fingers that point to the moon. The word is not the thing. And the finger is not the moon.
So the religions of the future, what Harold Bloom in his Western Canon anticipates as a New Age of Faith, will enjoy an easy companionship with art and science. This new spirituality, based on a rational mysticism, that is a mysticism that knows its limits, enthusiastically embraces all of science to deepen its knowledge of the world. It sees canonical art, like the contents of all science, the sanskrit of its higher mathematics and organic chemistry, as its new scripture, pointing toward transcendent questions. It employs art to enhance its worship, to struggle toward fresh and participatory liturgical practice, as Hal Taussig in his book, A New Spiritual Home: Progressive Christianity at the Grass Roots, has so brilliantly pointed out. With both groups equally devoted to what is knowable and not knowable, the metaphorical foundation of belief, and the awe and gratitude at the surprise of life itself, how is it not possible for science, art and religion to do anything but live together in an explosively creative harmony?
Steven Fortney born in Minnesota into a clerical family, has degrees in Classics and Philosophy and Education from the University of Wisconsin, and attended Luther Theological Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota. Married since 1960 to Ruth Geyer-Fortney, he has four children and eight grandchildren. He was a newspaperman for four years, a union negotiator for 25 years, an alderman for 22 years, and a high school teacher for 31 years. He took initiation in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition from the Dalai Lama, and received his Zen Buddhist name from Priest Sokyu Hashimoto of Fukujuji Temple in Miharu, Japan. He fishes, hunts, and gardens. He has published 9 books of fiction, poetry, and essays, and numerous published poems in various national magazines. He has been Associate of Westar since 1995.
Marshall Onellion, born in Louisiana, has an ethnic background that includes French, Irish, Scottish, English, Portuguese and 1/64 Cherokee Indian. He was an Eagle Scout at age 13, received a B.S. in math and physics from West Virginia University, served as an Air Force officer, and received a Ph.D. in physics from Rice University. He had been north of the Mason-Dixon Line only six months before he became a physics professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he has remained since 1987. He has 179 refereed journal articles and over 3,100 citations. Married since 1977, he and his wife VioletCastro are soft touches for stray dogs and cats. http://users.src.wisc.edu/onellion/marshall.html
Let’s pretend that a skilled neural scientist is able to locate exactly what part of the brain is activated when an auditor of Shakespeare’s Lear witnesses the terrible tragedy that occurs in the final scene of the play. With the imaging instruments now available, the crucial area in the cortex would be set aglow and filmed. This thought experiment is by no means far-fetched. Brain imaging of this sort is not uncommon. Mapping of this sort has already recorded language and other areas of consciousness successfully.
Now let’s imagine a person who has never heard of Shakespeare, much less seen Lear. Our researcher now will use electronic probes to activate those same areas of the brain. What exactly would our experimental subject feel? How would he report these feelings? Could he even describe them? Would he have language adequate to the task? Or would he only have vague feelings of something...pity, terror, catharsis? Perhaps. Whatever emotions he might feel would probably, in the absence of a concrete external experience to support them, be disquieting but meaningless. He may have even felt an inchoate sense of healing. But healing? From what wound? Our subject could not tell.
We sympathize with our experimental victim in much the same way we would feel pity for those suddenly seized with inexplicable and psychotic feelings of dread, or depression, or terror, unanchored in any concrete experience. To be stalked by a hungry tiger that is real is one thing. To be trailed by one you don’t see is quite another. That is the way of the neurotic. That is the way of madness. By the same token to be seized by an causeless ecstasy is termed mania, and is a symptom ordinarily companioned with depression. All these reactions appear to happen in the solipsism of a sickness one either grows out of or is killed by, spiritually or physically. The plight is terrible.
Shakespeare’s Lear is a towering work, perhaps the mightiest tragedy in our language. It is best seen live with expert actors, though Olivier’s filmed version made late in his life certainly is a far more than just a remarkable treasure.
The tragic denouement of the play emerges from the text and the skill of the actors animating it. Though others have exegeted the play in far more detail than planned here, suggestions of the outline of the play are in order. It begins in Glouchester’s words, with the corrupt state, tainted rule, stained authority. ....nature finds itself scourged by the sequent effects: love cools, friendship falls off, brothers divide: in cities, mutinies; in countries, discord; in palaces, treason....the king falls from bias of nature; there's father against child. We have seen the best of our time: machinations, hollowness, treachery, and all ruinous disorders, follow us disquietly to our graves. Lear Act I: Scene I:435-444
James I, Shakespeare’s contemporary and king, believed in the divine right of kings. We wonder what the playwright thought of this king. In that remarkable quartet of plays beginning with Richard II, the two parts of Henry IV, concluding with Henry V, Shakespeare meditated deeply on the human failings of kings, human corruptibility, the growth of princes, and the challenging responsibility of rule. Richard is appropriately deposed and murdered. Hal begins as a wastrel who eventually leaves his corrupt friends and becomes the triumphant and estimable Henry. What did Shakespeare truly think of the divine right of kings? As usual he hid behind his characters. But a careful and imaginative reading suggests: not so much.
Lear retires. He bequeaths his estate to his daughters, but first requires of them a declaration of their love for him. Regan and Goneril outdo each other with extravagant protestations. The foolish King is satisfied. He turns to his favorite, Cordelia, asking a statement from her. She tells him the truth. She refuses to compete with her hypocritical sisters. She loves proportionately and as reasonably as is expected and required. No more. When her father asks her to, she refuses to mend her speech and in a senile rage, Lear banishes his favorite, and divides her moiety between the politician sisters who have told the old man what he has wanted to hear.
The disasters of the play follow. Lear’s unreasonable demands are its fountainhead. Kings rule by divine right? Lear is a King, every inch of him. God’s agents have but the qualified merit of any sinful and alienated human. Lear’s rule is a disaster at its heart. Its very center is corrupt. A king is human. Humans are fallen creatures. Few are saints. All fall short.
We see the progress of Lear’s tragedy marked step by inevitable step. His clown, the only one who can tell him the truth, disappears half way through. Lear’s moral and critical faculties vanish when he needs them most. His vicious daughters, piecemeal, strip their father of his retainers, of the trappings of his power. His loyal retainer, Glouchester, is blinded. His subjects betray him. Poor Tom, the counterfeit madman, is stripped naked and shivers as a new fool, but becomes in the old King’s words, an unaccomodated man. Lear rages against storms, and cracks apart the very germans of nature itself. He goes mad; fantastically garlanded with wild flowers, he is reduced to rags, eating wild animals raw. His treacherous daughters die, his kingdom comes to war, France invades. Cordelia returns. Lear is captured and is briefly and pathetically reunited with her, only to see her murdered. She has preceded him in death. A daughter dies before her father, the final disordering of nature.
We are told that Laurence Olivier’s supporting actors wept as he played out that terrible last scene. They were not acting. What they were responding to was the final triumph of this brilliant actor at the end of his career playing out the final tragedy of an ancient fool of a king, who has finally gained at least a glimpse of the bitter heartbreak consequence of his first decisions. Lear is old before he is wise. We watch in pity and terror. We see what is most constant and grave in human affairs. Any one of ill-considered crossroad decisions can lead us to disaster. To live is to take great care. To recklessly adventure without wisdom is to invite tragedy. We see this as Lear stumbles to death and insight simultaneously. We hear him howl and howl and howl and ask to have his collar button loosed. We hear him utter those awful monosyllables of the grief as he carries his dead daughter in his arms. Our hearts break as his heart breaks. He dies.
But we live.
And we are strangely uplifted, as through the acting of this play, we understand and feel that strange and complex if darker joy that only the tragic sense of life can show us.
And, when giving ourselves wholly to this play, we learn. Unlike Lear we can reach for wisdom before we are old. And at the play’s conclusion, all its violence, all its redemption, an audience is exhausted, spent. We have seen great actors who have played Lear take their curtain calls with faces twisted with the grief of his part persisting. We have seen audiences replicate that same expression as they leave the theater. It takes some time for the shallowness of normal life to return. The descent from that mountaintop persists as we regain our comfortable and secure valleys. It is best, of course, that we never forget.
The scientist gleefully, hopefully, administers his probes.
He declares to his patient as he turns on the current: With this you now understand fully the tragic sense of life. You should appreciate the wonderful gift given you. And to think, you didn't have to read, or see, or experience a thing!
And of course though agitated by obscure, causeless and very troublesome emotions, our patient has no idea what this white-clad madman is talking about. One cannot get wisdom in a pill.
It should be evident by now the need for the text, for the experience of the play, of the tragic circumstance of the committed life. An aesthetic arrest without these instructs nothing. One needs Lear, Macbeth, Hamlet, Othello, Coriolanus, Anthony and Cleopatra and the ancient triad of Aeschylus, Euripides, Sophlocles. Tragedy needs story told. It needs its text. Only then can the one seeking wisdom begin to understand what is truly meant by the tragic sense of life.
The time-honored triad that accompanies the enlightenment experience according to Hindu thinking is Sat, Cit, Ananda. In our reordering, knowledge generates bliss, achieves wisdom. The true religious experience is an aesthetic experience. The wisdom gained by the awful stillness of the tragic crisis of Lear and the ecstasis of faith are rhyming if not equivalent states of mind. The death of Lear, of Cordelia, Desdemona, Anne Frank is tragic. The death of Jesus, if one defines tragedy (among other ways) as the violent collision of authentic forces, was a tragic death. That Jesus proclaims the Kingdom of the father when dwelling in the Empire of Rome sealed his fate, made his crucifixion inevitable. Jerusalem and Athens can get along more easily with each other, than these two can with Rome. Except when the two cities sell out to Rome. In our day, dominated by powerful and competing Romes, wisdom is beleaguered, and may easily perish.
When Zen Buddhists speak about the union of the Kensho event, they use neutral images. Images of light are common as are those of a cloudless sky, clear water, the naked and immaculate consciousness, the empty spaces between thoughts and images. Our first concern is the question: How neutral are these images? The Japanese and Chinese have a genius at clearing the underbrush and getting to the bottom of things. Their version of the enlightenment experience is a great improvement over the elaborate mythologies and metaphysics of India. But it is clear, however simplified, that they are not so neutral after all. All have their source either in nature (light, sky, water) or some aspect of daily consciousness. Indeed the word Nirvana refers to windlessness, the empty circle of the moment, the primordial present before it is sheathed by past and future, memory and anticipation. As the play’s the thing to reveal tragedy, Nature is the text giving birth to enlightenment. The great emptiness at the bottom of the life of the spirit can’t be spoken of. The texts, though secondary, are crucial here as well.
He grew up in a poor but secure household surrounded by many books, much music, elevated talk, and a hunger for eternal blessedness. He was raised as an army brat whose family before, during, and after W.W.II moved constantly. His mother died in her 25th house. He was also raised in an intensely Lutheran household, his father a Lutheran pastor and an army chaplain from 1939 to 1949. Albin Fortney served six parishes, three before and three after the war. His son was, paradoxically, with and without roots, deracinated in space, without a real physical home, but enjoying a real intellectual one. This paradox is something the son took as a matter of course, and with his brothers and sister, eagerly came to enjoy very much. As children they were always eager to explore the new home, make new friendships. He was also gifted with many experiences he would later describe as non-ordinary, where he left off his rational, sequential, and and atomic thinking, and dwelt in that vast intuitive cathedral of his intuitive and poetic being. The first of these occurred when he was ten, living behind the Iron Curtain in the Russian zone in the four-powered occupied Vienna of 1949. And these went on and on until the death of a beloved brother in Viet Nam forced him back into a critical mode that eventually reconstructed a whole world--political, economic, intellectual, spiritual. Part of this transformation involved an intense study of Asian intellectual history--including the study of Hinduism, Taoism, Buddhism and their similarities to the mystical inflections of the three monotheisms, Cabala, Hesychasm, and Sufism. After November 15 of 1975, and having undergone several initiations in Zen and Tibetan Buddhist traditions, he began a more or less regular meditative practice.
One night. One very bizarre night.
He has crawled out of bed. It is very late. He has not been able to sleep. He makes his way to the west window in his bedroom. He crawls onto the meditation station, which is a brown woolen army blanket that his father had ‘liberated’ upon being separated from the Army in 1949. He tries to get into a lotus position. He’s pretty old and stiff for this. He can’t easily tie himself into this knot. It hurts. He curses quietly at the pain. Pulling his ankle toward the crotch makes him fart a sodden blanket-smothered fart. His wife awakened by the fuss in their bed on the other side of the room starts giggling. He hears this. Ah, yes. The life of the spirit. A prophet is not without honor, save in his own bedroom. Then, suddenly, a gigantic, painful charley-horse hits his left thigh. Aw godammit! he says. The giggling becomes more hysterical. He straightens his leg and tries to think the charley-horse away. Doesn’t help. Finally he blurts: Aw the hell with this! He gives up. Straightens both legs and just sits.
Then it happens.
It is sudden, explosive and terrifying.
Later he is at a loss for words to describe this.
It creeps into his poems. The great/silence against our keening is immense,/the voices lost, no matter how high the shout./The nonwind voids and unwords all wanting.
It seems as though something debarks from his brain, his mind, somewhere, and gallops wildly, madly to his left. He has no idea why that direction. He is taken somewhere dark, somewhere immense, somewhere deep and high, and so huge his rational being cannot measure or comprehend it. It is power and extent frighteningly unimaginable. He does not know where he is! The poetry about it, like a tiny water spider in a Pacific churned by typhoons, touches it with only micron feet. All this happens quickly, a few seconds at most.
But enough time to frighten him. He is a dwarf cowering between fifteen hydrogen explosions. He wrenches himself out of his seat. He must stop this. He must stop this!
Just what was this mysterious, alluring thing?
Of course he did not know.
When he reflected on it later, he knew that he would have been tempted to ride it to the end. But he had been too afraid to do so. It would have been like riding an immense black stallion who whimsically took into his head to jump over the Grand Canyon, and then whether on purpose or no, missed.
What he did know that he ridden so, he would have died. Everything, every powerful thing that made up his sense of self would have been torn to shreds. This terrified him. The more potent the ego strength the greater the fear of death. He would not allow this. He had to stop this. He was in a panic. He stood up that night before the window at first, and then moved about until the images finally faded. He had made himself free from the most frightening and real thing he had ever experienced.
Some time not very much later as he was able to reflect, he puzzled over two very odd aspects of this experience.
He was raised in an intensely Lutheran family. His household was clerical, his experience of the church, his participation in all that for many years an unquestioned joy. He sang in choirs. He memorized Luther’s small catechism, and argued points with his father in confirmation class. He audited most of the Bible in the pericopes of the three year cycle of the church year, happily sang church liturgy. And he reverently read the Bible on his own. He enjoyed his father’s often brilliant sermons. He breathed delightedly the aromas of sanctity. He of all people, should have had in the context of his mystical rapture a vision of Jesus Christ. Or at least the seal of Martin Luther. But he did not!
Instead, his mind furnished him with quite another set of images. In those few potent seconds he saw comets and meteors and galaxies and exploding supernovas and the sublime spangle of the myriad stars. Why these and not some more conventionally pious icon? He should have encountered God in Christ. Instead he got astrophysics!
It is true that after having encountered Hume in college, he became a skeptic about religious matters, that, though he wanted it to, Kierkegaard could not counter. Though his principal impulse was literary and poetic, he had became fond of science and its modest rationality. At one time after his failed seminary career he might have become a geologist. He was good at this science. He was also offered a fellowship in philosophy which he did not take. What he wanted to do was to write poems and novels. As Robert Bly once noted: “a rash decision for a Lutheran.”
Without realizing it he had become modern.
Instead of encountering Christ, he saw stars.
But that was only the smallest part of the puzzle.
The eventual mystery was far deeper.
This question. Whatever images attending the experience, what actually did happen? Visions of mountaintops, burning bushes, the voice of Gabriel, the images of Christ or Buddha notwithstanding, these were and are only the product of the thing itself. What was actually happening? Was it an intense surge of energy in the corpus callosum, that thick highway of nerves that unites the two lobes of the cerebral cortex? Was it a sudden veering into the intuitive vastness of the right hemisphere, the left side? Since the matter-energy of the brain at its most profound subatomic depths is at one with the matter-energy of the cosmos itself, did consciousness in those split seconds encounter that deepest of all realities.
Words. Words. Words.
None of the explanations satisfied him.
If the life-energy force of the universe is capable of producing genius like John von Neumann, Richard Whitten, Emily Dickinson, Newton, Shakespeare, Mozart, Christ and the Buddha, one can legitimately ask, just what is the ultimate nature of a universe that can do that? That there is a connection between consciousness, genius, and deep physics must go without saying, though the bond between the two will create difficulties in their unraveling we can hardly fathom.
Let us assume that all religious genius is somehow animated by its own, individuated, mystical events. The first requirement that invites this remarkable state of mind is that somehow our ordinary daytime consciousness must be transcended. There are all kinds of techniques, broadly called meditative states of mind, to accomplish this. Among them is an intense cultivation of inwardness. The simplest poses the question, Just where does the self go in dreamless sleep? In death? David Hume once tried to capture a sense of the solid imperishable self, his own, but in his famous introspection found its existence elusive. Another is to be involved in intense physical activity. Some athletes in the course of their games report those rare and wonderful situations where intense play creates another reality where time seem to slow to a vanishing point and brilliant connections with teammates happen without apparent effort or plan. John Brodie called this the yoga of sport: Bill Russell reports a ‘Golden Eagle’ sitting on his shoulder as he plays the rare but unforgettable and perfect basketball game. Eric Sevaried reports intensified and extraordinary sublime states of mind while, during WW II, caught by the stresses of combat in war.
Sometimes intense intellectual activity produces this ego transcendence. The physicist Fritjof Capra in his Tao of Physics tells that after a week’s long intense work with his team at SLAC--Stanford Linear Accelerator--in San Francisco that exhausted him, he felt he had to take a break. He went to Golden Gate Park to relax for an hour or so. There he let go. Then the gift came. The vision was powerful. And couched in the language of physics. He ‘saw’, so he reported, the physical process of the universe in ways not available to the standard scientific way of envisioning. The experience dazzled him.
Arthur Koestler’s mystical language was taken from Sigmund Freud. In the stress of his imprisonment, just like his fictional character Nicholas Salmanovitch Rubashov in his novel Darkness at Noon, he reports a religious event that is at the same time both secular and religious. He uses the psychologist’s image of the oceanic sense to convey the matter of it. He thinks of a grain of salt dissolved in a vast ocean. Somehow the grain has both been absorbed in the ocean and at the same time contains the entire ocean. To a student of comparative religions, this imagery is consistent with the reports of all mystical experience.
Jill Bolt Taylor is a neuro-anatomist. Not long ago she suffered a severe stroke. Her recovery took months. But as a scientist she was able to study herself, as she put it, from the inside. One aspect of her recovery was that she was somehow easily able to travel back and forth between the right and left lobes of her cerebral cortex. As she told it, in the left lobe she experienced language, logic, her separated individuality. What moved her more deeply, however, was what happened when in her right hemisphere. This was wonderful, she reports, the emotion evident in her voice. It was warmth, and peace, and interconnection, and a sense of wholeness and the security that comes when ego is left behind and one is perfectly integrated with the cosmos.
Moses, Mohammad, and Joseph Smith are also cases in which altered states of consciousness seemed to have occurred. Moses climbs Sinai, isolates himself, and has a vision of the hinder parts of Yahweh. The experience is ineffable. One dares not thereafter utter God’s name. Moses is heir to Abraham; though it took effort and battle and suffering, the Israelites contribute to the history of religious ideas by inventing the concept of ethical monotheism, that God is one and God is just. Abraham’s covenant, established in the early chapters of Genesis, ratifies this idea: land and seed for loyalty to the law. Though we do not know who Moses was, or even that he really existed, the story has it that after his encounter with ‘I am’ he was given ten commandments to deliver to his now elect and peculiar people.
Mohammed found mystical trance in a cave on Mount Hira, where he often retreated for several weeks at a time. There he met Gabriel and was given his scripture. In his history, his intense associations with pagan, Jewish, and Christian ideas led him to the most absolute monotheism history has ever known. His prophesy is final and finished. Like the early Hebrews, a warrior people whose God was a King and the Lord of Armies, so also Islam pugnaciously worships a ‘sovereign of the day of judgment’ who favors and is merciful to his own, but whose wrath against ‘those who have gone astray’ is terrible indeed (See Sura 1:1-7, known as the little Koran).
Saturated as he was by Jewish, Christian, and Masonic thought, and caught in the middle of the religious upheavals of upper New York’s ‘ burnt over’ district (so called because revival after revival in the early 19th century enflamed the area), Joseph Smith of Palmyra, like Moses and Mohammad encountered a divine figure. His was the angel Moroni. He said he was visited three times by this figure who revealed to him under a tree a sacred text written on golden plates accompanied by two magic stones set in the twin breastplates of the Urim and Thummin of the Old Testament. These magic stones would enable him to translate the Book of Mormon. He dictated his book to his friend Oliver Cowdry, whom Smith put in one room while Smith himself was in another. Smith then put the magic stone in a hat. Then he buried his face in this hat so tightly as to exclude light altogether and then proceeded to dictate the content of this sacred book in a language Smith called Reformed Egyptian. The Book of Mormon results. It tells of a lost tribe of Israel who fled Jerusalem shortly before the destruction of the temple, wandered, built themselves a boat, launched it into the ocean, and eventually landed somewhere in America. After centuries of division and warfare, a remnant remained faithful, and the rest became unbelieving pagans. For this fabulous history and even more fantastic theology, of course, there is not one shred of evidence. The issue of altered consciousness can produce utter nonsense as easily as not.
Christ and the Buddha divided the hemispheres of the planet in two and between them changed the consciousness of the world.
The Buddha is the star of the axial age, says Karen Armstrong of this figure of two and a half millennia ago. Christ follows him some five hundred years later. Who were these men? The actual biographies of Siddartha Gotama and Yashu ha Notzri are lost to us. In the case of the Buddha that is of little importance since in that great religion it is the Dharma, the teaching, that is important, not the man. Until recently for some two thousand years the existence of the historical Jesus has been of central and transcendent import. The historical Jesus was proclaimed the incarnate son of God working out the Lord's redemptive purposes for sinful man in history. Without Jesus’s sacrificial death that purpose would have remained hidden and fallen man would remain lost. It was therefore essential that the Jesus of history through the redemptive power of God rose from crucifixion’s death to become the Christ of faith.
This picture is changing. The new quest for the historical Jesus so brilliantly undertaken by the Jesus Seminar of Westar Institute gives us quite a different picture. In it, by virtue of exhaustive and meticulous scholarship, the teachings of Jesus become paramount. The message and not the messenger, the teachings and not the teacher are now what is central. Therefore, the proclamation out of which teachings spring are the same for both Buddhism and Christianity, though the actual lessons are differently inflected. Jesus and Siddartha are not mythically important any more; what they taught is.
Legends collect around both men. Here’s where the similarities of both traditions become telling. Whether or not these legends come from a core of actual events is beside the point. They may in fact carry collective memories of early disciples beyond Jesus and Siddartha and express the detail of their experiences. Jesus and Siddartha may have been one of many teachers and, as time went on, this collective wisdom became Christ and the Buddha. Their historical existence, however, is attested to, it seems to me, in the case of Buddhism, of a singular and powerful philosophical genius; in the case of Christianity, of a unique and poetic voice of similar power.
What do these legends tell us?
Both came from human parents and a specific historical context: rabbinic Judaism and Hinduism. Both separated and abandoned themselves from family and society to undertake a spiritual quest. Both sought out teachers. Both entered a wilderness, a desert. Both endured austerities. Both sought a place to finally resolve all issues, one on a mountain top, the other under the world tree.
Both were tempted. Jesus in the desert for forty days with universal political power if he fell down and abandoned his Father for Satan. Siddartha with violent images of lust and sexuality and death. Not Satan but the gods Kama and Mara. Both successfully resisted these temptations.
Both had visions. Jesus the Jew, saturated as he was by the ethical context of his nurture, was shown all the political kingdoms of the world in their splendor. For Siddartha, the descendent of the ancient forest sages and their encounter with sat, being, and a devotion to reincarnation, it was a vision of an endless series of lives after lives imprisoned by desire, suffering endlessly.
Both overcame these temptations. Jesus was fed, ministered to by angels. Siddartha the monk given a nourishing bowl of rice milk by the Brahmin girl, his angel, Sujata. Jesus came down from the mountain. Siddartha touched with his right hand the earth.
Both had shattering enlightenment experiences, Monk Sakyamuni under the world tree where he saw how to end suffering and to achieve happiness; Jesus earlier at his baptism by his teacher John emerging from the water of the river Jordan he saw the heavens torn open and the spirit of God descending on him like a dove.
Jesus returns from the desert and Siddartha reconnects with his fellow monks. Both at the age of 33-35 then become wandering teachers of enlightenment.
Yashu ha Notzri and Siddartha Gotama became Christ the Buddha because they were mystics of the first rank. Their teaching came out of their nurture, their own religions traditions. These teachings finished, reformed and transcended the Judaism and Hinduism of their day. The teaching of Jesus is embodied in the parables and aphorisms suggested to be authentic by the Jesus Seminar; and of the Monk Siddartha in the Four Noble Truths, and the Eight-fold Path. Both are rooted in the enlightenment event. This as we know has changed the world. That change continues in poetry, art, philosophy, science, in the incredible variety that human inspiration is capable of. But the foundation experience, the deepest root cause of the enlightenment event itself remains elusive. It is that fundamental life experience that turns away all language, every attempt to conceptualize it. What happens behind, underneath its expressions in time is an experience of the thing in itself that the myriad issue of it are likely to neglect and then to forget. Then the vessels of that experience, the religions themselves, become absolute. Creeds, ideologies, persecutions, tyrannies abound. This is an all too human fault. It is at minimum unfortunate and injurious, at its worst, a disaster.
The text and acting of Lear points to the tragic reality of life. The texts of the religions, and the life of the spirit, point to the otherwise hidden mystical event, except in the East where the mystical experience is normative. Without the texts we would have little understanding or even knowledge of the existence of that reality. The first people who experienced this reality may have begun with an indeterminate sense and unattached feeling; but had to immediately give it the language that eventually became our world mythologies, religions, philosophies, arts and sciences. Can a mere illusion accomplish all this? When this had its start of course no one can know. The genesis is lost somewhere in our deep primate past. But begin it did. Its eventual outcomes are present for all to see.
How real is this event?
We cannot depend on the objective reality of the scientific experiment here. These deal with replicable phenomena. Rather, ours deals with the intersubjective agreement that aesthetic images have in common. When the images endure over time, they have survived the test of time. The images that the mystical event generates are numerous, in every culture, and are astonishingly similar. All of them point to a mystery that language cannot embody. Words and concepts are gestures of differing profundity. The variety is immense. But the mystery, however their worldwide and differing texts, remains beyond all texts.
But for those who have had direct experience of the mystery of Sat, Being, no matter how confused and various the words about it are: what is seen, however mysterious, however tremendous, however fascinating, remains to those lucky, or gifted, or disciplined enough to have attained it, remains the most real thing of all things that one can experience of the universe.
The tripod of the unfolding Order of Things is science; it is art, it is the encounter with Being, the thing in itself, whether by cool insight or ecstatic rapture. It is this trinity of knowing that makes life valuable and worth living, and living abundantly.
26 September 08
First Things First
When I opened the most recent copy of the ‘The Fourth R,’ as usual I looked forward to your introductory editorial (with which I was not, am never, disappointed); and did not dream that I would read an essay that would agitate me so much as John Kelly’s A Fine Mess, (Vol. 22, Number 1, p. 9 ff.) on the Realist/Anti-Realist dispute. I went to sleep that night, my mind churning, and woke suddenly before 3 AM; went downstairs and began rather feverishly making notes. What troubled me was the question nobody thinks to ask very often. Why are humans so keen to find transcendence? Why are we religious at all? Is Mircea Eliade right when he calls the human animal homo religiousus? It’s a question that persists in spite of the deep secularity of the industrial and postindustrial, and postchristian era we find ourselves in.
Well, you know me well enough by now to know that when aggravated by a puzzle, the poor mind will leave me no peace until the issues are addressed in an essay. When a poem is brewing the soul knows no rest until it is transcribed. It’s like fly fishing. You fish and fish, and you are never, ever, ready when the trout strikes. But then you must attend to the hooking and landing with all diligence lest you lose the fish.
This thought piece is rather long. But bear with me. The ideas contained in it are important to the Seminar, as they move toward a crucial point that I ’ve been mulling for most of my life.
First Things First
In the beginning was the void. But not the one you think.
'One reasons from, not to existence.' 'Man is the measure of all things.' 'Thought and Being are one.' Kierkegaard, Protagoras, and Heraclitus, qualified by all the history intervening, thought more deeply for us than even they could have imagined. There is a prephilosophical, pretheological reality that engenders faith. And most important, this reality exists before belief itself!
One reasons from existence, not to existence. This insight, in spite of Kierkegaard’s nearly two hundred year old warning, is at the bottom of a common error made by intellectuals, philosophers, theologians, believers, and ideologues to this day.
John Kelly in his important summary leaves us with two options: The Realist and the Anti-Realist. The dilemma he describes is how we think about religious issues. That’s the rub. Thinking itself.
The most frequent mistake made in trying to make sense out of religious language is in regarding it as a closed system, that it is a tertiam quid existing independently somewhere between the domains of science and art. Because of today’s inroads of a critical rationality that erode religious belief, it is thought that each major religion is somehow a thing unto itself, a community of faith that exists in isolation from others, in isolation from art and science; that the language of faith is the language of faith communities only, with no interrelationship with others possible. Kelly’s article in ‘The Fourth R’ strives to clarify this Realist/Anti-Realist dispute.
Religious Realists, those who espouse more or less traditional religion, declare ‘some [or all] affirmations found in scripture, prayer, liturgy, and doctrine as referring to a reality that exists independently of ourselves (p. 9).’ God is a Being ‘out there.’ Conservative and Fundamentalist religious, and probably most people, especially those of us raised in the traditions, will tend to think this way.
Anti-Realists, responding to the failures of Realist religion, hold that ‘our religious affirmations do not refer to a God, or any other sort of supernatural reality, existing ‘out there’...religious affirmations are not descriptions of the world that can be true or false but rather the expression of values created by human beings (p. 11).” This is a point of view espoused by longtime Westar Fellows Don Cupitt and Lloyd Geering, among others.
The latter postmodern and deconstructionist view comes close to believing that entire language cultures may have their own internal points of reference not to be trespassed upon by others, and that mutual tolerance must therefore be the order of the day. There is little chance for communication between them, since each is a system unto itself. That there is no such thing as objective truth or inter-subjective agreement as a way to the truth. Everyone is apart from the continent, distinct from the main. We are all islands.
Witness the discussion of the treatment of women between the humanist traditions of the West cited in Kelly’s article on the one hand, and the radical patriarchal structure of much traditional tribalism, not to mention fundamentalist Islam, Christianity and Mormonism on the other. These latter are thought to be communities sufficient only unto themselves. This notion presumes that there is little, if no, connection between the various communities of faith, and that the growth of the Enlightenment humanism of the West is merely but another parochial language community. (If it were, science would not be possible in India, China, or Japan, or in any place other than the West.) As a consequence, there can be no criticism of the wretched treatment of women in the extreme patriarchies. It is not the legitimate concern of enlightened reason. A weird and frustrating Prime Directive is invoked. The moral codes of one planet are not the concerns of another. The Starship, alone in space, does not interfere, no matter the moral imperative to do so.
That a father upholding the honor of his clan is justified in killing a daughter in love with a man not of his choosing is simply and absurdly not supposed to be our business. It is currently politically correct not to condemn behavior in traditional societies.
The supposition behind this is that there can be no such thing as objective truth. Even scientific enterprises are thought to be dependent on, and the outcome of, social conditioning.
Enter Bertie Pollock.
Bertie Pollock is the creation of Alexander McCall Smith in his 44 Scotland Street books. Bertie is 6 years old, the son of a terrifyingly grim and ambitious mother and a self- effacing father. The boy is a genius who has a wonderfully ingenuous and heedless way of telling the truth, both to power and ignorance.
He, with his saxophone, has been on tour to Paris with an Edinburgh orchestra and, by mistake, left behind. He is befriended by some university students who, on a lark, take him along to a lecture given by a famous scholar schooled in the philosophy of Lacan, Derrida, and Foucault. This speaker drones on and on his postmodernist nonsense, one part of which is the assertion that science is the result of social conditioning only.
Bertie is puzzled by this. He has studied the Venturi effect applied in aerodynamics--a tall order for most six year olds, but not this one. He whispers something in the ear of one of his adult companions. The man stares at him in surprise. And laughs. He turns to another student to repeat Bertie’s message. Who, in turn turns to others. Soon Bertie's words have traversed the entire audience. There is much sniggering, much laughter.
The message? Bertie has flown from Edinburgh to Paris on a jet airplane that reached an altitude of 33,000 feet. All truth is relative and socially conditioned? Why then does the airplane not drop out of the air and kill everybody if it flies only by virtue of social conditioning. How does it get off the ground at all? There is, after all, the Venturi effect. And science.
The laughter becomes raucous. It isn’t long before the poor lecturer is driven out of the room.
The truth of science, at its core, is not the result of social conditioning. It is not a fad nor is it customary behavior. As anyone with the least scientific literacy knows, good science is based on careful observation, the use of evidence, the careful employment of language tools (the most exquisite and difficult of which is higher mathematics), and the repeatable experiment.
Gravity is gravity. This needs no discussion from religious or ideological perspectives. The formula, inverse square and all, fits the evidence of our senses. The legend of Newton’s falling apple, though apocryphal, is an image of the power of simple scientific observation. A well-designed experiment yields the same results whether done at SLAC or CERN, Madison or Tokyo. That the results are identical posits that there is a reality ‘out there’ that the passenger on a jet flying at 33,000 feet can depend on. The truths of Nature are outcomes of experiment and observation and are not socially conditioned.
Bernard Brandon Scott once told the Fellows of the Seminar in my hearing that ‘science is our first magisterium.’ This is Westar’s reason for being. That applying a form of the scientific analysis to the evidence yielded by a close textual criticism of the documents on the historicity of Jesus has run counter to the received standard belief of religious Realists in our own time. The Fundamentalists are unsettled and even furious when confronted with the Seminar’s suggestion that perhaps only eighteen per cent of the sayings of Jesus in the Gospels can be traced to him. Everything else is spin, from Antioch, Rome, Syria, Jerusalem, and other ancient communities of faith.
Is literary criticism to be banished to the subjectivity of mere opinion? Not at all! A good case can be made, as Professor Onellion and I do in our book Seeking Truth, Living with Doubt/, that the equivalent of the scientific experiment in literature is the enduring image/. How a work of art lasts is the difference between a Classic and a Period Piece. The power of Lear can be audited in 2009 with the same intense fascination as it was by Shakespeare’s 17th century audience. An argument can even be made that we understand more of that play than its original audience did by virtue of over 400 years of the study of and the playing of that great text. The poetry of Samuel Daniel and Phillip Freneau and the dietary laws of the Torah are to be understood in their own historical context and not so much, if at all, in ours. A Classic is a work that has passed the test of time.
Classic works of art in all art forms endure because some human truth works in their images, whether in painting, music, dance, literature, or the most primal of all arts: poetry. Art is a way in which truth happens: truth's being is fixed in place in the image. And the image of this truth is successfully transmitted from age to age. The radical egalitarianism of the historical Jesus disclosed by the consensus investigations of the Jesus Seminar is no less relevant today than it was 2,000 years ago. The insights of the Buddha endure as powerfully as they did since he uttered them 2,500 years ago. The poignancy and pain of human mortality in Gilgamesh is as sharp to us as it was to its audience over 4,200 years ago.
The objectivity of the images of art is the objectivity of our inter-subjective agreement about those images. As with science, the truth of art as it is uncovered and described by critics in their Wisdom literature must be careful and precise. As with science, this objectivity is constantly qualified by various uncertainty principles whether enunciated by Heisenberg or John Keats’ Negative Capability. There are absolute truths in mathematics (2 + 2 will always equal 4 by definition) but only proximal ones when dealing with nature, human or otherwise. Nature does not speak English. Poetry points like a finger points to the moon, to the truth. The finger, the word, is not the moon. The moon is the moon. But we can usefully point to it. The images of poetry are transparent to transcendence.
Religion is a subset of Art. It is not the third something existing between or beyond science and art. The Religious experience is an aesthetic experience. All of the trappings of religions are works of art, some of that is art from which history has departed. Some of the utterances of all religious traditions have therefore become period pieces. One need not become anxious because of that fact.
An intense experience of a blooming rose gave Robert Burns his poem, My Love is a Red Rose. An intense observation of nature and the human condition gives us Shakespeare’s plays. Both classic works of art.
But what is the source for religious imagery? To answer this question it is necessary to look at the history of religions and the science of neuroanatomy.
On December 10, 1996, Jill Bolte Taylor describes in her book, My Stroke of Insight (Viking, 2008) a nearly fatal stroke that happened that day. (For a wonderful live account on YouTube of her experience, Google her name). This massive stroke virtually shut down her left hemisphere. She got a research opportunity few brain scientists will ever have: as a scientist she was able to observe her brain functions collapsing.
As moving and interesting as the account of her eventual recovery to this insult is, for our purposes, what she experienced when she fully inhabited her right hemisphere is very much to our point. Her stroke left her with the ability to migrate easily through the thick nerve fibers of the corpus callosum between the right and left hemispheres of her cerebral cortex. She reports that the experience of the left hemisphere brought her to the world of language, linear thinking, her isolated ego. So far this is a truism of contemporary brain research.
No less a truism is her experience when dwelling in the consciousness of her right hemisphere, and in her case richly stated. She says that once ”...I left the intellectual mind of my left hemisphere... [I found] that I was the miraculous power of life....I was simply a being of light radiating life into the world (p. 71)...The energy of my spirit seemed to flow like a genie liberated....like a great whale gliding through a sea of silent euphoria...was one of glorious bliss....dwelled in a flow of sweet tranquility (p. 67)....The essence of your energy expands as it blends with the energy around you, and you sense that you are as big as the universe....the richness of this moment, right here, right now captivates your perception. Everything, including the life force you are, radiates pure energy. With childlike curiosity, your heart soars in peace (p. 79)....”
“My right mind is open to the eternal flow whereby I exist at one with the universe. It is the seat of my divine mind.... It is my intuition and higher consciousness, (p. 140)....My right mind understands that I am the life force power of the fifty trillion molecular geniuses that craft my form! (And it bursts into song about that...) My right mind proclaims “I am a part of it all. We are brothers and sisters on this planet. We are here to make the planet a more peaceful and kinder place.”(p. 141)....Our right brain perceives...and recognizes that everything around us, about us. Among us, and within us is made up of energy particles that are woven together into a universal tapestry (p. 168)....”
Anyone with but a passing acquaintance with the mystical traditions of the world will recognize this language. It is the report of enlightenment experience, samadhi, kensho, satori, mystical rapture the world over. Indeed in her speech Jill Bolte Taylor declares that she has experienced something very like Nirvana.
So, in the beginning was the void. This one. Here is Agehananda Bharati’s account in his seminal book on mysticism, Light at the Center, The Context and Pretext of Modern Mysticism, of his own mystical experiences:
“One night when I was about twelve, it happened for the first time. I was falling asleep, when the whole world turned into one: one entity, one indivisible certainty. No euphoria, no colors, just a deadeningly sure oneness of which I was at the center--and everything else was this, this and nothing else. For a fraction of a minute perhaps, I saw nothing, felt nothing, but was that oneness, empty of content and feeling (p. 39)....I was one with all in me, but this time there was euphoria...that was unsensuous.... it corroborated the canonical text....Aham Brahmamsmi, I am the Brahman, (p.. 40).....I did not walk, but I was the universe moving itself. I saw my legs and all, but these were just two rather unimportant instruments among millions of unseen instruments that made the universe move; but I was the mover...(p.. 42)....I was again all that, with nothing whatever excluded...there was no god to speak of, except myself....I was it--not again but always (p. 43).”
The congruence between Jill Bolte Taylor’s and Bharati’s description of the mystical event cannot be more obvious. There are several images in common here: a sense of unity with the Cosmos, an inflation of the self to occupy the All that Is, a monism, euphoria, a certain comfort and sense of security in which an alienated ego is transcended/. Moreover these enduring images occur in countless accounts of enlightenment experiences the world over in every kind of human discourse. The fly fisherman:
“I sat there in the hot afternoon....I knew I was going to have a long time to sit here and forget, because my brother would never quit with three or four fish, as I had, and even he was going to have a hard time getting more. I sat there and forgot and forgot, until what remained was the river that went by and who I watched. On the river the heat mirages danced with each other and then they danced through each other and then they joined hands and danced around each other. Eventually the watcher joined the river, and there was only one of us. I believe it was the river.”/ Norman Maclean, A River Runs Through It, University of Chicago Press, 1976, p. 61.
'Almost I fear to think how glad I am....Standing on the bare ground,-- my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space--all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eyeball. I am nothing. I see all. The currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part and particle of God. The name of the nearest friend sounds then foreign and accidental. To be brothers, to be acquaintances--master or servant, is then a trifle and a disturbance. I am the lover of uncontained and immortal beauty.” Ralph Waldo Emerson, famously in Nature.
These experiences of the perception of alternate reality and a sense of unity behind the multiplicity of nature are found in many other places as well, Wordsworth’s Tintern Abbey, much of the rest of Romantic Poetry, in sport, in William James’ Varieties of Religious Experience, even detective fiction (such as in Boris Akunin’s Fandorin series, especially the recent Murder on the Leviathan), not to speak of the vast mystical literature of all the religious traditions of the world. In the East these experiences are normative and common in Hinduism and Buddhism. Even the hardest sciences we have, quantum mechanics and organic chemistry, attest to the unity of our being with the Being of the Cosmos. We are not separate from nature.
In beginning to answer the question as to the origin of religious belief, let us state the central premise of this thought piece as clearly as possible: The ultimate foundation of the authentic religious life is the mystical event, what Bharati calls the Zero Event. This is prior to all religious life and thinking. This and only this!
In the beginning was the void. This void.
Bharati calls it the Zero because the experience in its purest form is innocent of cultural content. That the images are common in all cultures, in all human activity, attests to that fact.
We can experience the mystical event dramatically as our examples above do, or we can, by a variety of yogas, sense the unity of our being with Being more prosaically. Joseph Campbell often said that he was not a mystic, that his only yoga was underlining passages in books. Karen Armstrong reports that every once in a while she experiences deeper and transcendent insights when in intense study or in the act of composition itself. Soldiers sense it while in heavy combat: time slows down and the warrior, and his non-lethal equivalent, the athlete, acts with a perfection unavailable in ordinary consciousness. The ordinary Joe or Jane can feel this while taking a walk, experiencing la petite mort, the ‘little death’ of lovemaking, selfless acts of service, or the beauty of nature. The sense is in fact quite common. But the mystic attends to and treasures and consolidates these experiences. The philistine brushes them off as temporary nuisances, and gets back to the rea business of life, getting and spending.
In our book Onellion and I illustrate the prior nature of the mystical experience to its culturally derived expressions with the following image.
Imagine a glass of distilled water. That is the Zero, the basic mystical state. Then imagine a glass of lemonade, iced tea, tomato juice. Each is water, yet each has added to it nutrition, color, flavor, matter. Tea, lemonade, tomato juice represent areas of the world called mythogenetic zones. As pure water is the foundation of these and other liquids, so is Zero the foundation of all religions. Basic to Buddhism is Zero. Basic to Hinduism, Christianity, Judaism, Islam and every other less universal religion is the Zero. Basic even to all art and science and action insofar as the Zero can be construed to be pure consciousness, and as these expressions to some degree reflect man's ultimate concern, is the Zero. Each drink has its foundation in water, yet each differs by what matter is added; by what psychology and culture it is filtered through. Some drinks appear to be disgusting to others. Some are even poisonous. Water is the foundation of blood, and some myth, action, and religion is bloody. The Watusis drink a mixture of blood and milk. It nourishes them. The religion of Kali, expressed recently in Islamic Fundamentalist Terror, has a bloody aspect. Some liquids that were benign once can turn into poison. Some myth and religion, particularly if they were left to stand still a long time and spoil, can have dramatically harmful effects. But a fundamental truth remains. Humans cannot live without water.
The Hindus, those psychologists of the religious experience par excellence, describe the two phases of religion as Religions with form and Religions without form. Religions with form are all religions tied to a specific culture. Religions without form are all based directly upon the Zero. The two modes of realization are called saguna brahman (the qualified absolute), and nirguna brahman (the unqualified absolute). The two related orders of meditation are savikalpa samadhi (discriminating absorption) and nirvikalpa samadhi (undifferentiated absorption). Deliverance through the first is accomplished through the mediation of creed, saint, avatar, or savior. Deliverance through the second is by direct insight. (See Campbell, The Inner Reaches of Outer Space, p. 68.)
The philosophy of the void (Sunyatadavada) as developed by Nagarjuna is not a nihilistic philosophy, Eliade asserts, it is an ontology, paralleled by a soteriology that seeks to free itself from the illusory structures that are dependent on language. This second century Indian genius criticizes and rejects any philosophy by demonstrating the care which must be undertaken when expressing truth in language, of which there are two kinds: conventional and ultimate. Most theology that claims to convey ultimate truths in fact really works with conventional knowledge. Theology, because of its constant proliferation of definitions and categories, which are basically the products of the imagination, in fact obscures the way to deliverance. From the perception of the voidness of the Zero, Nagarjuna demonstrates that all the language of theology is void. Even the difference between illusion (samsara) and reality (nirvana) is only a fabrication of the mind. Even the Tathagata (the Buddha) himself does not enjoy an independent ontological condition. In addition, everything in the phenomenal world is empty, without any nature of its own; and it cannot be inferred from this that there is an 'absolute essence.' There is no implication that there is in existence a transcendent reality. Eliade says, 'Ultimate truth does not unveil an ‘absolute’ of the Vedanta type; it is the mode of existence discovered by the adept when he obtains a complete indifference toward 'things and their cessation.' This is equivalent to deliverance. It is a practice of salvation, which enables him to obtain imperturbable serenity and freedom. (Eliade History of Religious Ideas, Vol. II, section 189.)
In ancient Israel the Zero gives rise to Judaism. Jesus’ universality is modified by the fact that he was a Jew. In India Siddartha’s universality is filtered through his Hinduism. LaoTze is, after all, Chinese. That universality of Dante and Milton in the context of Christian Europe. That universality of Shakespeare by the altering turmoil of the Renaissance. Of Newton and Einstein by the Enlightenment. Of Jill Bolte Taylor by her studies in neuroanatomy.
Inspiration, like voice, is universal. The expression of inspiration, like each individual language, is particular to a time and place. Inspiration based on the Zero, is common to all human experience. Of course, one does not make either the close observation of nature common to both art and science, and the results of experiment, and the commonality of the enduring images of art into anything like doctrine. Creeds are language. Creeds are not the Zero. The Hindus warn the West never to mistake the finger that points to the moon for the moon. The modesty of doubt, that ‘chastity of mind’ (in Heidegger’s phrase), and uncertainty must always be invoked. The tentativeness of science and the negative capability of poetry does not allow the dogmatic nor the fanatic to rule in these domains.
The Zero-based religiosity is inwardly addressed. The subject of effort is the miracle within our deepest consciousness. Mediated religion, especially in the three monotheisms of the West and Levant is outwardly addressed. The object of worship is a God ‘out there.’ All culturally based religions are worth the effort if their casuistries of theology, liturgy, ethics, practice are consistent with the Ethics Proper of the mystical experience. The unity of being contains the golden rule of the radical egalitarianism of the Kingdom as opposed to the hierarchies of Empire. We are brothers and sisters on this planet. We are here to make the planet a more peaceful and kinder place. This is the most brilliant insight of Jesus and Siddartha. Everyone is the Buddha. All are the Christ. Caste is abolished, women are accepted as fully human. All may banquet at the Father’s table. We are all the offspring of the Cosmos, each Immanuel, all equally as precious as we as individuals regard ourselves to be precious. We are all lilies of the field. Each of us is enjoined to watch and care for fallen sparrows.
The religious praxis of Zero-based faith is the inward prayer: meditation in all its forms. Because in our right minds, our immaculate consciousness, we cease to fear pain and death: the universe, our origin, our maternal nexus, suddenly becomes glorious, and beautiful, and safe! That is the faith of universal religion. When we treat each other as Gods visiting (the Hindu greeting, namasté, is an acknowledgment that the light within the other is identical with the light within ourselves), that is the ethic of universal religion.
“The aim of meditation is not to see, but to realize what one is, that essence; then one is free to wander as that essence in the world.... furthermore the essence of oneself and the essence of the world: these two are one. Hence separateness, withdrawal, is no longer necessary...there is no separateness....exile brings the hero to the Self in all....The question of selfishness or altruism disappears. The individual has lost himself in the law and has been reborn in identity with the whole meaning of the universe,” Joseph Campbell, Hero with a Thousand Faces, (p.. 386, edited.)
The Golden Rule in all its forms follows logically from our insight of the unity of all beings within Being, between little i to big I, to cosmos within Cosmos. Each separate personality, in the Christological language of Chalcedon, is of the same substance with the universe.
If this line of reasoning has any validity, then the various communities of faith the world over cease being islands suspended, or boats floating, sufficient only to themselves. We are not a craft floating on water. We are now water swimming in ocean. However they have individuated themselves by virtue of their unique cultural history, all religions at bottom connected to the sea of faith. Their craft, since it is a human artifact, as is anything made with human hands and minds, is not immune to criticism and judgment. Reason, evidence, and universal and enduring imagery, can evaluate whether or not a drink is healthful. They can determine where the poisons are. A reasonable and pragmatic and progressive mind can judge the treatment of women by the radical patriarchies to be wicked and evil. The liberated mind can criticize absolutist ideologies to be foreign for the health of the critical mind, and dangerous to it. It can criticize the Old Ways and explore the opportunities for a rich spiritual life that depart those conventional expressions.
Without science, broadly considered, including the power of enduring images of art (Bob Funk repeatedly declared that the richest outcome of Westar work would be in art and poetry), as its first magisterium, the work of Westar is pointless. This critical methodology is the very lifeblood of Westar. The work of Westar is not in any sense politically correct. Why otherwise does Bishop Spong (and did Bob Funk) upset so many? We rightly offend too many powers too often to fall into that trap. Otherwise we would descend into the horrors of mindless political correctness and the ill- considered foolishness of postmodern tolerance. Kelly concludes his article with the following:
“The question facing us in the United States at this time is not whether religion is to have a prominent role in public life. The problem is how we are to assess and adjudicate between the very different, and frequently conflicting, religious visions, that impact our lives. Realism offers us a promise--the idea of a transcendent standard for assessing religious beliefs--that it cannot fulfill. Anti-realism, on the other hand, has the effect of undercutting any attempt to draw a distinction between better and worse when it comes to religious beliefs and practices. As a result, we need to look elsewhere for intellectual resources to deal with what can only be called the conceptual and practical mess we find ourselves in with regard to the assessment of religious beliefs and practices (p..24).”
This dichotomy can now be rejected in favor of the relation of religious tradition to its primary fact, that is the mystical experience itself. If language is a closed system, then there is a solipsism to human thinking, a confinement out of which it is impossible to break. If language is thought of as a finger that points outward to a reality separate from itself, then it is certain that there is a real world outside language. This real world for religion is to be found in the profoundest depths of consciousness itself, that right hemisphere, the Nirvana Taylor describes so beautifully. And this reality is common in the mystical literature of the planet.
These new resources are far from merely intellectual. They are aesthetic, not logical but analogical, the wellspring of poetry. They use the whole of consciousness, the totality of being, not only the rationality of the left brain.
Why isn’t the right question ever posed? That is, why is it that humans throughout their long history have always sought transcendence? Have always expressed Ultimate Concern? Sought the Light? Why are we religious at all?
Again, the ultimate foundation of the authentic religious life is the mystical event. This is prior to all religious life and thinking. This and only this.
What are the consequences of putting such first things first? With the fact of the mystical event allocated to its rightful priority, one can have one’s cake and eat it too. That is, one can preserve and cherish the wellsprings of the devout and holy life, the earnest life of the spirit, and feel perfect freedom in assessing, criticizing, and judging the religious artifacts, the man-made poetry, of all the religious traditions of the world. It’s a case of the right brain knowing what the left brain is doing.
In the beginning was the void: the not-nothing of a something that blends the wonders and the depths of human consciousness and the unlimited universe together. Art, science, and spirit unite here, with a fearless capacity for us to exercise critical judgment in religious matters.
It will not be necessary ‘to look elsewhere for intellectual resources to deal with what can only be called the conceptual and practical mess we find ourselves in.’
All we need to do is to look within, to tap into that life-force energy of the universe that dwells there. One reasons from that existence. And then the Laurel and Hardy comedy of this Fine Mess can finally be laughed off the screen.
Page updated by TiPi, 2/03/2009