Love and doubt: the central truth of existence

I’ve been working for a long time to arrive at the central truth of my existence.

In search of answers I’ve read extensively the works of mystics, saints, sages and great teachers from a variety of religious and spiritual traditions.

I’ve read New Age books and talked to psychics and healers.

I’ve studied philosophy in an academic context, and theology in a private one.

I’ve read various texts from psychology and psychotherapy, undergone counselling and hypnosis, examined my quest from the point of view of mental illness and personality disorders.

I’ve tried Yoga, Qigong, martial arts, reiki, and various forms of meditation and prayer.

And through all this I’ve spent more than eighteen years analysing, questioning, struggling and striving, tying myself in knots and trying to untie them again.

What have I learned?

Some parameters

I’ve learned that the pursuit of some truths is unhelpful.

It eventually became clear to me that my path was different from most other people I know. It took longer still for me to stop apologising for this.

Part of me – both for intellectual reasons and for personal ones – has sought to universalise my conclusions. If, for example, I had the thought that “all wealth comes from God”, I would immediately think of counter-examples: drug-dealers, pimps, exploitative corporations and businesses, where clearly people are making money from the exploitation and harm of others.

Is their wealth “from God”?

Well, even asking the question is departing from my original intent. I want to get to the central truth of my existence, not come up with a universalisable moral theology of economics. The counter-examples my mind produces are not a part of my experience. To even consider them in this context is to set up obstacles to what is clearly a more faithful and God-centred view: that all wealth comes from God.

In other words, you can always find excuses to shake your faith and trust in God and in love. You can always find reasons to doubt.

So I took from philosophy a parameter that we could call subjectivism, so long as we don’t get distracted by the broader (and decreasingly relevant) context of that term in philosophy.

Subjectivism in the context of my search for truth means that I am not going to accept at face value the things that are not a part of my experience.

Many bad things happen in the world, don’t they? But in my experience, these global events are just news reports. I’m not looking to call God to account for earthquakes and wars on the other side of the world, I’m looking to call Him to account for my own subjective sense of something wrong in my life, and my experience.

Charity begins at home, or as John Wyclif apparently put it in the 14th Century: Charite schuld bigyne at hem-self.

What I’m looking for is the truth of my existence, and searching for objections in what I have heard from others’ experiences is an unnecessary constraint on finding answers.

Because there are answers I will find that defy the worldly view, and it would be ridiculous to turn to the world to confirm or repudiate answers I’ve sought from God, when the whole point of these answers is that the world could not provide them!

Nothing is impossible for God.

Over time I’ve become aware that my experience is profoundly shaped by my own beliefs, choices, and emotional states. I might be conscious of real, insurmountable limitations and obstacles in the world, and yet those limitations and obstacles have simply evaporated as my belief in them, or my underlying emotional state, has changed.

Like the previous parameter, this often emerges as a conflict between faith and doubt. Love may point in directions that the world or our own experience say is impossible, implausible, or even undesirable. It helps to remember that the limitations and obstacles presented by the world or our past or current experience are at least shaped by, and sometimes wholly constructed from our beliefs and emotions.

This can be as simple as a depressed or anxious person projecting their own negative thoughts onto others, and anticipating social rejection. Or it can be as profound as admitting that the whole of space and time is known to me only as a series of impressions, and that all existence and all consciousness emanates from, and participates in, the being we call God.

God could repair the world, or end it at any moment. Don’t talk about what is and is not possible based on the limitations of your own experience, when our own existence is barely distinguishable from a dream.

Love makes room for itself.

The obstacles and limitations that present themselves in the face of love are not substantial. They subsist foremost in our own doubts and fears, and the corresponding beliefs. They are only as consequential as we allow them to be.

Hence we can choose love over doubt, trusting that the conditions that seem to validate doubt will disappear or be resolved or somehow overcome through love itself.

Otherwise we are caught in an absurd situation, with love or hope that can’t be reconciled with “the world” or our own experience, precisely when what we yearn for, and what brings us true fulfillment, must necessarily repudiate the limitations and obstacles coming from the world.

So with all these parameters in mind, I’ve found that my experience of suffering arises because of complex sets of beliefs and emotions in my own mind, which both shape my experience and are reinforced by it.

If I want to know why my experience feels always insufficient for happiness, then I only need to look at the fears, doubts, and sense of insufficiency in myself.

How do I feel about life, about myself, and about the world?

It turns out that my whole psyche is packed full of conflicted and negative beliefs and emotions.

But by tracing those chains of cause-and-effect backwards, I’ve come at last to the fundamental choice from which all the subsequent flawed efforts stem.

The fundamental choice is a choice between love and doubt. I describe it as doubt rather than fear, because doubt is much more insidious and plausible. Yet doubt originally meant fear or dread anyway. It comes originally from the same root as “two”, and implies duality, double-ness, and the uncertainty evoked by suddenly having two alternatives to consider.

Recapitulating the fall.

Again without seeking a comprehensive theological framework: our original, fundamental choice between love and doubt reflects and recapitulates the fall of man in the garden of Eden.

In essence, human beings were at one with God and in paradise. Yet the serpent tempted them to doubt. 

In Genesis 3, the serpent essentially casts doubt on God’s command not to eat from the tree of knowledge, and defies God’s justification of the command. He presents to Eve, and by proxy to Adam, an alternative option, an option in which God – who is Love itself – has ulterior motives.

And from that moment erupts human suffering with temptation, blame-shifting, and fear dominating the human experience.

This doubt arises in our own lives continually. We have continual opportunities to choose between doubt and love. Yet for most of us the original doubt has grown and developed into a convoluted web of subordinate doubts, fears, temptations, and other psychological maneuvers, all designed to help us avoid, overcome, or shift the suffering that arose from that original doubt.

The original doubt would have been reflected back to us as it shaped our experience. In a vicious circle, our experience would have seemed to vindicate the doubt, in much the same way that a self-conscious, anxious person may act in ways that elicit negative attention from others.

The experience of doubt is painful, since it would have seemed to nullify or render-hollow the prior experience of love, just as the serpent cast doubt on the goodness of God’s motives in commanding the first humans not to touch the tree of knowledge.

To escape this pain, what can we do? Well, we can blame other people for our suffering. Or we can blame ourselves for our suffering. Either option gives us a sense that maybe we can regain the love we lost when we entertained doubt.

But both are false. And both elicit a chain of psychological “moves” that attempt to shift the pain around in the vain hope of eventually removing it.

If you blame yourself for your suffering, then yes you have the hope of changing and redeeming yourself, but you also experience an additional pain of self-blame and recrimination.

And now you must pursue self-improvement and redemption.

It is no coincidence that such a central theme of Christianity is the insufficiency of our efforts to redeem ourselves, and the depiction of Christ’s death on the cross as the one true and eternal sacrifice for our redemption.

I’ve never appreciated the idea that God required a sacrifice, rather it is we who needed to know that our attempts at redemption would never succeed.

We can’t go forward from doubt into love. We need to go back to the original choice, to our own choice and repudiate doubt at the most basic level. That’s why the centrality of God’s love is the most prominent theme in Christianity.

If you choose doubt, no amount of love can overcome it. If you choose love, no trace of doubt can shake you.

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The zone of silence: rediscovering non-fiction

I’ve been working on a short book about dieting, weight loss, and the ideal relationship with food.

But it’s been a while since I did any real intellectual work – long enough for me to forget all the lessons I learned years ago working in bioethics, where I had the privilege to dive headlong into all-consuming questions day after day.

That’s why it took 18 attempts before I remembered how to write non-fiction again.

The French Dominican philosopher Sertillanges wrote:

Do you want to do intellectual work? Begin by creating within you a zone of silence, a habit of recollection, a will to renunciation and detachment which puts you entirely at the disposal of the work; acquire that state of soul unburdened by desire and self-will which is the state of grace of the intellectual worker. Without that you will do nothing, at least nothing worthwhile.

That zone of silence is essential. To create it means rejecting every other thought, idea, desire, or preoccupation.

You cannot think “I want to write a book”. You cannot have your audience in mind. You cannot harbour any thoughts of how people may react, or how well your prose matches the conventions.

Create that zone of silence, and into that space a pure, authentic, unadulterated idea will come forth.

Proposition by proposition the text will grow, until there is enough substance to continue.

Without this detachment, this freedom from desire and self-will, the work cannot be fresh or original. It will shrink and curl, and take the shape of cliched and familiar expressions.

I’ve written a lot about fiction recently, but I’m thrilled to rediscover these deeper levels of non-fiction I had neglected for so long. I’ll keep you posted on this new book, but in the meantime I’d be remiss not to mention my recent fantasy novel.

To Create a World is a unique tale of magic and meaning, our longing for adventure and our deepest fears and desires. Click on the image below to find out more.

The antidote to Pride

Some people think the antidote to pride is humility. Others claim that the antidote to pride is actually love.

I’m going to go with humility, but it depends on your interpretation.

I suspect what’s going on here is that there are two components to the spiritual path: love and truth. Some people are more drawn to truth than love, some more drawn to love than truth.

God is both, which means that love and truth are – in their essence – inseparable. But human beings approach God from different directions, which is why some are more moved by truth, and others are more moved by love.

Regardless of the path, the obstacle is the same: pride. Pride is the desire for control, the desire to be the author of our own existence, our own success, our own conclusion.

That’s why both love and humility can overcome pride. Love overcomes pride because the devotee loses himself in love of God and others. Love, by its very nature, softens the artificial barriers our pride has constructed.

Humility, in its more profound form, is truth. It comes from the Latin for “ground” and implies lowliness but also an understanding of our relationship to God as creatures. That is, we were formed out of clay.

Humility overcomes pride because the truth is that all pride is delusional. We cannot exercise self-control because we are entirely at the disposal of our creator. We can’t be the author of our own existence, because that role is already filled.

True humility sees through the facade of pride. Love overwhelms it.

I’m told that you can’t pursue truth without love developing, and you can’t develop love without learning the truth at some point. The two are inseparable, it’s really more a matter of emphasis.

 

Good Friday notes 2016

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Reaching the end of your tether can be a positive experience. It’s a little cliche to say “the darkest night is before the dawn”, but I’m okay with letting the cliche stand when it’s this important.

Today is Good Friday in the Western Christian calendar, and though it isn’t the darkest night – the dawn being still two days away – it is nonetheless a grim entry into the event that epitomises the principle of reversion.

Reaching the end of your tether can mirror this principle of reversion to greater or lesser degrees once we realise that our old ways, our old efforts, our old self is just not going to cut it; when we recognise without caveats or excuses that something more is required.

For me this has translated into a sincere conviction that without some kind of spiritual/mental discipline I am in danger of being entirely depleted by the demands of daily life.

When it comes to such disciplines, I’ve done a lot of window-shopping and a lot of test-driving. I’ve seen and read enough to make me cynical of some people’s aims, methods and intentions as well as pessimistic about the benefits that accrue.

But a sincere effort requires a careful retreat from cynicism and pessimism. It’s true that there’s a lot of rubbish being sold, and a lot of things presented as one-size-fits-all solutions. That hasn’t worked for me in any other area of life, so why would it work in this one?

Struggling to learn a martial art has taught me that I can’t afford to take anything for granted. Nor is it simply a matter of asking lots of questions. We have to bear in mind personal idiosyncrasies, temperament, life experience, and individual circumstances, and the more you diverge from the mean, the more the onus is on you to recognise and understand where and how you diverge.

We are all individuals, but some of us are more individual than others.

For this reason I wouldn’t try to sway other people any more than I would let myself be unduly swayed. I have to practice a kind of philosophical autarky.

This also means I need to advance on the basis of what I know to be true, not on the basis of what I can prove to others, and on the personal level of overcoming compulsions and dealing with harmful emotions it is far more important to adhere to a discipline that works than to seek theoretical certitude of its metaphysics and merits. Just as you can accept life-saving help from a stranger without first establishing an internally coherent and externally robust theory of charity, reciprocity, and justice.

I once read a description of a philosopher as someone who worries that what works in practice might not work in theory. It’s especially apt in my context, though a little more defensible than it sounds. Nonetheless, the prevailing theme of 2016 for me appears to be one of putting aside theoretical doubts about things I have known for many years to be useful, valuable, and true.

Beautiful writing

What makes writing beautiful?

It is not enough to use beautiful-sounding words or avoid crude and ungainly ones. Beautiful writing is more than empty form. Beauty implies a relationship between form and function: beautiful writing is not vain or ostentatious; and since the most noble function of writing is to convey the truth, truly beautiful writing must be true as well.

To write the truth and do it beautifully is a worthy goal. But such writing takes time, effort, and insight. What is it, apart from truth, that makes writing beautiful?

There are evident mistakes: excessive convolutions such as unnecessary adverbs, or an overly confusing structure that includes too many subjects and objects in complex relationship. There is a simplicity to beautiful writing, or rather, simplicity is one aspect of beauty, where simplicity is in proportion to the aim. Beautiful writing should be neither too simple nor too complex for the truth it conveys.

Nothing I have written so far is especially beautiful, and that is because I am not taking the time to fully grasp the truth I wish to convey, and to translate it into its most fitting written form.

I am not taking the time because I do not think it is worth the time, and that in itself reveals assumptions, faults, and errors in my own thinking and attitude. If it is worth doing, is it not worth doing well? If beautiful writing is a skill worth having, should I not take the time to investigate and practice it?

What my investigations tell me is that beautiful writing should reflect the reality, the truth, behind it.

This sentence is not especially beautiful. I can pick its faults, beginning with the word “what”. “What” is redundant. It also subverts the sentence structure, bringing the yet-unknown subject to the forefront.  It would be sufficient to write:

My investigations tell me that beautiful writing should reflect the reality, the truth, behind it.

Another fault: it is not necessary to preface the substance of the text with “my investigations tell me”. This reflexive statement is overly descriptive. It brings me twice into the text. It makes “my investigation” the subject, the matter at hand, and thereby diminishes the authority of the subsequent words:

Beautiful writing should reflect the reality, the truth, behind it.

Parsing for additional faults: “should” and “shall” denote obligation. Obligation implies that beautiful writing ought to, but might not reflect reality. Is this what I mean to say?  Would it not be stronger and more accurate to state that:

Beautiful writing reflects the reality, the truth, behind it.

Is it a fault to follow “the reality” with “the truth”? Is either term redundant, or do they together imply more than either would alone?  In this instance, offering an equivalence of reality and truth implies a realist interpretation of truth: reality is true and truth is real. Far from being redundant, the two terms encompass a whole philosophical outlook between them.

Now that we have removed all the obvious faults, we might consider if the same meaning could be conveyed differently. We have reduced the statement to its essential ingredients; is this their best arrangement?

Writing is beautiful when it reflects the reality, the truth, behind it.

This arrangement draws our attention to the inclusion of “is”, which subtly alters our focus. It is as if someone has asked “when is writing beautiful?”  Giving the impression of having answered a question can add value to a phrase under certain circumstances. It may enhance the authority of the statement, by bringing to mind the unspoken question. But as an aphorism the former is superior.

Could we go further?

Beautiful writing reflects the reality, the truth, behind it.

I would not change beautiful or writing. I would not change the reality or the truth, since the definite article implies an objective standpoint. What about reflects, or behind?

Here it is useful to consider in greater depth the truth we are trying to describe. In this case, I am trying to describe how beauty relates to the function of language. But the function of language is a controversial subject, and I approach it from a preconceived philosophical perspective. Not only am I a realist, but I hold to a correspondence theory of truth, and a teleological view of language as primarily a truth-telling enterprise. In other words, I believe that:

  1. There is an objective reality.
  2. ‘True’ means ‘corresponding to objective reality’.
  3. The purpose of language is primarily to communicate truth.

The third proposition should be considered broad enough to incorporate or at least be sympathetic to elements of Wittgensteinian “language games”.

In this context, reflects and behind appear to be appropriate metaphors for the relationship between beautiful writing and reality.

People with diverse and divergent philosophies would not agree with my statement that “Beautiful writing reflects the reality, the truth, behind it.”  Perhaps they would argue that the beauty of writing is an entirely subjective phenomenon, or a socialised construct, or that beauty itself is a construct, or God knows what else.

I do not undertake this procedure whenever I write. Clearly I have not applied this level of rigour and parsimony to the whole of today’s post. In practice it seems best to aim first for the deepest truth we wish to communicate and to dwell on that truth until we are confident in expressing it as simply, appropriately, and therefore as beautifully as we might.

Quid est Veritas?

More from Sertillanges:

Is it not natural…that the man of vocation should put away and deliberately forget his everyday man; that he should throw off everything of him: his frivolity, his irresponsibility, his shrinking from work, his material ambitions, his proud or sensual desires, the instability of his will or the disordered impatience of his longings, his over-readiness to please and his antipathies, his acrimonious moods and his acceptance of current standards, the whole complicated entanglement of impediments which block the road to the True and hinder its victorious conquest?

I was going to continue on from the previous post’s conclusion, but it struck me as I transcribed Sertillanges’ text that he capitalised ‘True’, and yet of course he was writing in French and would have used vérité.

Why does this matter?

Well the etymology of ‘true’ implies ‘steadfast, solid, firm’, whereas the etymology of vérité appears to imply instead a compact or a bond, a relational basis of trust.  This might be splitting hairs, but the Greek term used in philosophy and apparently in the Gospel is alethea, which has in turn a third implication of being ‘unhidden’ or disclosed.

I have a tentative theory that these kinds of etymological peculiarities are significant even if we do not fully understand them explicitly or in everyday language.

That is: there are subtle differences between truth, vérité, and alethea, which alter how we conceive of the object behind the word.

What is truth like? Is it like a solid, firm, steadfast object, or a deep and trustworthy bond, or is it a disclosure, a remembering, something entirely unhidden?

When Christ says “God is a Spirit: and they that worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth” I think it does make a difference to understand truth as alethea.

These different etymologies all point to the same thing, and the differences are minor. Still, I think the weight of English leaves us with a sense of ‘the truth’ as something solid, untarnished, but very much an object out there in the world, waiting to be discovered.

For me alethea denotes something more immanent, a state of knowing and of recognition yet to be attained. It is, after all, a supposedly a negative, with the prefix a- making it not concealed, not hidden. Truth is something we dis-cover, and it therefore implies also an element of subjectivity…not relativity, but the existence of a knowing subject to whom the reality is no longer concealed.

 

 

 

You think too much

I’ve often been told I think too much, but it has – with no sense of irony – taken years of thinking for me understand what this means.

I would have said that in fact I do not think enough, and I continue thinking precisely because I have not yet arrived at the answers I seek.

Recently I have been thinking about the difference between training and performance, specifically in a martial arts context. My natural tendency upon encountering failure or less-than-ideal circumstances is to think about it. I think because experience has shown that thinking often helps me to understand, and that understanding helps me to do, and to do better than I would if I didn’t understand.

But there are exceptions, and martial arts is one of them. Because, if instead of ‘performing’ the moves I go back to thinking about them and analysing them, the actual quality of the move changes dramatically.  It turns out you cannot both perform a move and analyse a move at the same time. Then the question arises: what are you actually practicing when you practice your martial art? Are you practicing ‘performing’ or doing the moves, or are you practicing thinking about and analysing the moves?

By analogy, it’s as though I’ve found driving a car to be uncomfortable, confusing, and overall dissatisfying, and so I’ve resolved to stay on my learner’s permit for as long as it takes for me to “work it out”.  Sixteen years later, my instructor is thoroughly sick of me, and I’ve finally had to admit that there aren’t really any secrets or revelations to acquire from the learner’s stage, and that I will only ever be good at driving normally if I practice driving normally.

This has particular relevance in martial arts where various luminaries have extolled having a beginner’s mind a la Zen Buddhism, and others have admitted amidst the heights of their skill to be nonetheless always learning.

We obviously aren’t talking about the same thing.

I don’t really know what to make of having spent so long in a flawed approach to practicing a martial art. And paradoxically I still have to credit analysis and “thinking” with having brought me to these realisations. The best I can say is that previously I was thinking about the wrong things. Or I lacked information that I could only come across via the frustration built up through years of dissatisfying practice.

It took years of failure to break through the assumption that kung fu is somehow not dependent first and foremost on a sound physique, or that being bad at sport generally would have nothing to do with being bad at a martial art. Or that the esoteric allure of kung fu might be glossing over a number of more mundane requirements.

Ironically, if I had seriously thought about kung fu in the way that I have learned to think about philosophy, ethics, and other subjects, I would have known to start without assumptions, without desired outcomes. I would have been highly suspicious of the wishful thinking at the heart of my motivation.  At the same time, being more detached from the object of my desire might have left me more open to improvements and inspiration “out of left field”. Instead, my doggedness to pursue this long-standing ideal has been thoroughly detrimental to my development.

All I can say in favour of it is that I have persevered for a long time; but paradoxically, if I had not stuck to this unexamined ideal for so long I might not have needed to be so blindly perseverant.

Craving or desire warps the intellect. We tend to cling to our cravings and desires because they feel so deeply a part of us. But there is always something deeper and more wholesome that is not dependent on external conditions, and if I had been more honest with myself I would have recognised that the very appeal of esoteric martial arts was in fact a symptom of a deeper and more constant awareness that I was not physically strong, balanced, or at ease.

Sertillanges writes in The Intellectual Life:

Do you want to do intellectual work? Begin by creating within you a zone of silence, a habit of recollection, a will to renunciation and detachment which puts you entirely at the disposal of the work; acquire that state of soul unburdened by desire and self-will which is the state of grace of the intellectual worker. Without that you will do nothing, at least nothing worthwhile.

I am familiar with this “zone of silence”, and it is the natural answer to the problem of “thinking too much” and thinking not enough. It is not thinking that matters or that gives answers; we do not arrive at truth by thinking about it, rather thinking is merely a manifestation of the work of attending to the truth in its entirety and without holding anything back.

This is our noble and excellent calling, and it is only in stupidity and vanity that I have failed to turn it to other areas of my life, somehow imagining that truth has no bearing on the mundane or strictly personal, perhaps afraid of what I might find when turning that brightest of lights onto the mess and darkness of my own orbit; or intimidated by the magnitude of the task ahead, bringing my own admittedly pathetic self into the same domain as exalted abstractions, principles and truths.

It’s one thing to know truth, quite another to know that you do not measure up to it, or how far you fall short; better not to ask that question, isn’t it?

Indeed, the prospect of bringing my own deeply held desires and ideals, the very personal themes with which I identify, and submitting them to this “zone of silence” is immediately terrifying. And that, more than anything, indicates that I should do it.

 

How not to heresy

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I got caught up this morning in a piece on the ABC titled “Why should we believe unbelievable religion?”

So what does he make of the feeding of the multitude tale, when Jesus reportedly fed 5,000 with five loaves of bread and two fish?

‘In my view nobody at the time would have read that particular miraculous feeding literally,’ says Tacey. ‘In other words, they sat at his feet, he provided spiritual nourishment and it was as if they were fed with loaves and fishes, and then there were 10 baskets full in the end to collect.’

It’s one thing to find such an interpretation more satisfying or credible than the miraculous version, and I can sympathise with people for whom the standard interpretations of Christianity seem insufficient.  But despite the caveat “in my view”, I bridled at the subsequent “nobody at the time”. Unless by “in my view” the speaker means “I prefer to believe that…”, it strikes me as insufficiently humble for someone explicitly breaking with a long-standing tradition to not maintain the weakness of their own position.

After all, the root of ‘heresy’ is ‘choice’; why not own up to it as a choice, instead of trying to pass it off as the obviously and self-evidently preferable, more intelligible, and more spiritually rewarding interpretation?

Yet for all their efforts to disentangle the historical Jesus from the web of mythic stories about him, have these scholars offered Christians a Jesus they can believe in?  If miraculous stories involving Jesus are merely reworked stories about Moses, do they leave Christians with a more appealing focus of faith?  Tacey thinks not.

‘They’re the ones who I think are in danger of ending up emptying Jesus of all his spiritual significance, so that he simply becomes a community health worker or something like that,’ he says.

Of course: my personalised heresy that I developed in the context of a post-Christian society and my specialised and eminently democratic skill-set as a professor of literature with a background in Jungian psychology is in every way superior to the interpretations favoured merely by the credulously devout of the past twenty centuries.

It makes perfect sense that a professor of literature might find more meaning in miracles as metaphors than in miracles as miracles. However, it is one of the more intriguing aspects of Christianity that it embraces the supposed dichotomy between the spiritual and the material, binding the two together in a great and unfathomable mystery.  It is, for instance, by no means novel to read into the feeding of the five-thousand a metaphor of spiritual food. Indeed, as the short form of the forthcoming Corpus Christi sequence states:

In figúris præsignátur, Cum Isaac immolátur: Agnus paschæ deputátur Datur manna pátribus.

It was prefigured in types: when Isaac was immolated, when the Paschal Lamb was sacrificed, when Manna was given to the fathers.

It’s not that tradition doesn’t recognise the metaphors, just that it doesn’t hold with the modernist certitude that metaphors must only be metaphors, that an event can’t be both real and symbolically meaningful at the same time. It is, ironically, a much less nuanced perspective to hold either that the miracles have no greater significance, or that they are so full of significance that they can’t possibly have happened.

Personally, I don’t understand why some people are so wedded to the conviction that miracles cannot have occurred as they are claimed to have occurred. What’s the big deal? It’s as though they’ve been told that faith itself must hinge on belief in second-hand accounts of miracles, and hence find themselves riven by existential doubts, like a born-again Christian trying their hardest to feel appropriately saved.

Skepticism alone doesn’t account for such doubts.  A skeptic is free to doubt the existence of miracles, but they’re equally free to doubt the staid pseudo-skepticism that insists that miracles are not possible. Again, it shouldn’t be such a big deal to admit the possibility.  What kind of person has a world-view and identity contingent on the insistence that the biblical accounts of miracles are false?

I won’t pretend to understand people’s emotional or ideological baggage around miracles – whether they’ve been force-fed a false piety, or long to rehabilitate their spiritual life in the good graces of some kind of anti-supernaturalist clique.  Listening to the broadcast itself, Tacey contrasts his parents’ view of the bible as a “history book” with his own eventual discovery of it as “a long sacred narrative poem”; but he makes somewhat inconsistent references to his own perspective being on the one hand “not for everyone”, while on the other hand claiming that “official” Christianity has erred in taking any of Jesus’ teachings literally.

The irony is that Tacey extols the ability to live with uncertainty rather than having everything nailed down, yet in his discovery of metaphoric scriptural interpretation turns adamant that a metaphoric interpretation is the only valid one.  He accepts that Jesus did exist and was crucified, but that his life was subsequently converted into a metaphoric or parabolic story in its own right, and eventually converted by literalist Western Europeans into a series of lies told for God.

Tacey doesn’t see this interpretation as diminishing Christianity, but perhaps only because he is in the grip of a false dichotomy: the scriptures are either literally true with no metaphoric significance, or they are metaphorically true and not to be taken literally.  Yet as far as I am aware, there exists a substantial orthodox tradition of viewing the scriptures as true both literally and metaphorically.  In fact you could go so far as to say that the tying together of spiritual significance with real events is kinda the whole point of Christianity.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

How to win an internet argument

Ever wanted to win at internet arguments? My latest piece on MercatorNet shows you how:

We would ridicule a sportsman who delights in devastating much weaker players, and for the same reasons we should ridicule in ourselves the temptation to interpret others’ arguments in their weakest possible ways.  And though many sportsmen are obsessed with winning within the rules, what we admire most of all is the kind of person who regards even winning itself as trivial – a mere by-product of a good game that pushes all players to do their best.

Comparative mysticism at Christmas

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When I was young I read a lot of books about religion. Around the same time I stopped going to church as soon as my parents would (reluctantly) allow it.

My approach to religion was quite ambitious in its scope: I believed that religions were a mix of essential and non-essential beliefs and practices, that all religions would converge on the essential, and that by comparing them all I could work out what they had in common and hence what lay at the heart of true religion.

The answer was mysticism: the search for and experiential knowledge of ‘ultimate reality’.

All religions had mysticism in common, and so I concluded that mysticism is the heart of religion and therefore the only thing worth pursuing. Everything else: the rituals, the prayers, the meditation, the complex beliefs; these were at best only a means of inducting people into mysticism and at worst they were misguided accretions derived from culture or lower aspects of human psychology.

I spent most of my time at university reading the works of different mystics and the mystical branches of different religions. I even wrote my Honours thesis on the subject, attempting to show how a set of mystical traditions contained the same basic approach to reality: a recognition that human experience is ‘not right’, identification of a transcendent reality or being that is right, and a method of approaching this transcendent reality that requires a shift in attention away from external, worldly affairs and interests, a ‘quieting’ of the mind, and an openness to this fundamentally different kind of being.

My actual thesis was not a good piece of scholarly work by any means. At that stage in my education I was so focused on this personal search for knowledge that I failed to heed or really comprehend the requirements of philosophy as a scholarly discipline. What I wrote may have been interesting to a small group of people, but all it really showed was that I had a particular belief about religion, and I could find selective evidence to support my belief.

Having seen religion in such a light, it is very hard to ‘unsee’ it. It is difficult for me to pretend that the different religions really are strikingly different where it matters. Yet I’m also conscious that my perspective may be tautological: “religious similarities are similar”; or as G.K. Chesterton put it:

Students of popular science, like Mr. Blatchford, are always insisting that Christianity and Buddhism are very much alike, especially Buddhism. This is generally believed, and I believed it myself until I read a book giving the reasons for it. The reasons were of two kinds: resemblances that meant nothing because they were common to all humanity, and resemblances which were not resemblances at all. The author solemnly explained that the two creeds were alike in things in which all creeds are alike, or else he described them as alike in some point in which they are quite obviously different.

Thus, as a case of the first class, he said that both Christ and Buddha were called by the divine voice coming out of the sky, as if you would expect the divine voice to come out of the coal-cellar. Or, again, it was gravely urged that these two Eastern teachers, by a singular coincidence, both had to do with the washing of feet. You might as well say that it was a remarkable coincidence that they both had feet to wash. And the other class of similarities were those which simply were not similar. Thus this reconciler of the two religions draws earnest attention to the fact that at certain religious feasts the robe of the Lama is rent in pieces out of respect, and the remnants highly valued. But this is the reverse of a resemblance, for the garments of Christ were not rent in pieces out of respect, but out of derision; and the remnants were not highly valued except for what they would fetch in the rag shops. It is rather like alluding to the obvious connection between the two ceremonies of the sword: when it taps a man’s shoulder, and when it cuts off his head. It is not at all similar for the man.

These scraps of puerile pedantry would indeed matter little if it were not also true that the alleged philosophical resemblances are also of these two kinds, either proving too much or not proving anything. That Buddhism approves of mercy or of self-restraint is not to say that it is specially like Christianity; it is only to say that it is not utterly unlike all human existence. Buddhists disapprove in theory of cruelty or excess because all sane human beings disapprove in theory of cruelty or excess. But to say that Buddhism and Christianity give the same philosophy of these things is simply false. All humanity does agree that we are in a net of sin. Most of humanity agrees that there is some way out. But as to what is the way out, I do not think that there are two institutions in the universe which contradict each other so flatly as Buddhism and Christianity.

Identifying mysticism as the common core of religion might be similarly problematic. It may be true that the mystics within various religions invoke strikingly similar themes in their disciplines, but this does not mean that mysticism is necessarily central to religious truth. Mysticism might be just an addendum to the truth of a religion. It might be an interesting yet ultimately non-essential aspect of religious practice. After all, if we assume from the outset that mystical experience is the true heart of religion, then of course we will place less emphasis on the cosmological and teleological content of religious beliefs. For the student of comparative mysticism it doesn’t really matter whether we call our goal the realisation of buddha-nature and nirvana, or the beatific vision and the enjoyment of eternal life in heaven; we already accept the mystics’ claim that the experience of ‘ultimate reality’ is beyond words.

How different are Buddhism and Christianity really? More to the point, how are we to determine what are and aren’t meaningful differences? If the ultimate reality transcends language, then we must accept that the contradictions may only be skin deep. Chesterton’s knowledge of Buddhism was admittedly superficial and mediated apparently by the idiosyncratic interpretations of his contemporaries – Buddhism under the influence of Theosophy and Orientalist popularisers; but one needn’t be well-acquainted with Buddhism to realise that there is a danger in upholding the common ground between two faiths as the only ground worth inhabiting. To interpret everything through the lens of similarity begs the question, diminishes differences before we even get to them.

Nonetheless, the reality of mysticism is compelling, and the ubiquity and consistency of it throughout human religious experience is hard to deny. Conversely, adopting the perspective of comparative mysticism distances us inevitably from the formal, exclusive, and particularist aspects of any one religious system. It doesn’t mean we can’t critically assess the strengths and weaknesses of different religions – and even come to recognise truly unique and revelatory elements within a religion; but it will always be somewhat distant, the observations and understanding of an outsider looking in.

To have this perspective and not promote it as necessarily superior, objectively true, and appropriate for others puts me in an unusual position. There’s not much I can say about it, and since most of my friends and acquaintances are either strongly religious or not religious at all, I tend not to discuss it with anyone. But it is nonetheless a view I have formed, examined, and considered over and again for more than half my life, and to which I keep returning, or should I say: it keeps returning to me. As indistinct as it may be in my own daily life, I have to acknowledge it as a profound influence on all aspects of my view of the world.

As Christmas approaches I can’t help but see it through this lens: the incarnation of that ‘ultimate reality’ within the utterly humble and unspectacular domain of ordinary human existence. Over the years I’ve come to appreciate the uniqueness of Christianity, not in as something that denies or refutes the past, but as fulfillment and reaffirmation of what has gone before. Not only God incarnate in its own terms, but a kind of ‘metaphor incarnate’ if we can set aside the misleading implications of such a phrase. To me this is the greatest sense I can make of it; a sense that grounds the metaphysical and ontological mysteries in the lived experience of the individual. An incarnation that mirrors the presence of the ultimate reality in the microcosm of the individual human being.