Saturday, June 02, 2007

Why I am not Spiritual

Or poetic for that matter. Bryan Appleyard recommends this book review by Marilynne Robinson of "American Religious Poems, ed. by Harold Bloom and Jesse Zuba". Appleyard quotes this particlar passage as exquisite:
'To associate religion with unwavering faith in any creed or practice does no justice at all to its complexity as lived experience. Creeds themselves exist to stabilize the intense speculations that religion, which is always about the ultimate nature of things, will inspire.'

If you agree with that statement, then you are probably an acolyte of the Mystery school of religion, that group of believers that sees the infinite not as some dark unknown realm that needs to be mapped and explained in a way to assuage the fear of the unknown and to describe a path to salvation, but as a blank canvas on which to let loose the spiritual imagination. Andrew Sullivan is a good exemplar of this school, as he writes on his blog in response to Sam Harris:
But why is it so hard to embrace mystery? It is so tightly woven into our human experience. The search for answers to even the most basic questions about ourselves can take us to unplumbed depths of the unknown: Who am I? Not my name, not what I do, but who am I? What do I want? Why do I love this person? What is the meaning of this experience? Try to really answer these questions, really answer them, and you inevitably run up against the unknown. And the unknown only grows and multiplies when we ask the even bigger questions that reach beyond ourselves: Where did I come from? Why am I here?

Maybe this is the fundamental disconnect between believers and non-believers - that the latter insist on answers, and if the answer appeals in any way to mystery, then the answer must be wrong. But practical human experience shows us that mystery is all around us, and that answers to even the simplest questions often cannot be found or must bow, at least somewhat, to mystery - not as a cop-out or a catch-all explanation, but as a humble acceptance of the limitations of human understanding and the possibility that the answers are more than we can know.

That's all nice and good, but both Sullivan and Robinson get it wrong when they say that doctrine and certainty aren't the hallmarks of religion. I'd say that the bigger half of all religious believers aren't looking to revel in mysteries as much as they are looking for a simple explanation stated with certainty to dispel all mysteries. Call it the Certainty school.

Of course religion is infused with both schools. Robinson is right to point out that the Certainty school does not account for all of the complexity of lived experience that we describe as religious. Another word to describe the Mystery school is Mystic. All of the great religions have had Mystical traditions that lived within or as offshoots to the Dogmatic tradition. Catholicism has its Scholastics and Mystics. Protestants have the Charismatic and Pentecostal movements. Judaism has the Kabbalist movement, and Islam has the Sufi sect. The only way that I can think to explain it is that it is a left brain/right brain phenomenon, the logical and rational left brain types dominating in the area of dogma and theology, whereas the intuitive and holistic right brain types dominating the inspirational and visionary aspects of faith.

Now it seems obvious that most atheists are of the left brain persuasion, and the religion that they reject is more often the dogmatic, theological version of faith. While they may share a love of logic and precision with their left-brained adversaries in the theological ranks, their dispute is over the process and methods used to arrive at theological truths. For the left-brained atheist, religions biggest sin is that it is wrong.

Now I've never quite figured out whether I am a left brain or a right brain person. I've always assumed left, but my Myers Briggs type is INFP. Now there is no mapping of Myers Briggs types to left brain/right brain types that I know of, but it seems that the Feeling vs Thinking is more a function of the right brain. Whatever. But there is an atheist critique of the Mystery/Mystic religious tradition, which is the main thrust of this post, using Robinson's essay as an exemplar of that tradition.

Robinson makes the link between the poetic and the religious mind:
There is every reason to turn to poetry in order to acquire a sense of the nature of religion. The two seem always to have been intimately linked. This deep and ancient affinity cannot be accidental. One does not "understand" what Aeschylus or Isaiah wrote, because poetry is not, in the ordinary sense, "understood." If it is great, it is lived with over time by individuals and civilizations, interpreted again and again in its impact on language and thought and the arts, and on all those souls who are sensitive to its pleasures and sufficiencies. In just the same way, religion is not to be "understood."

Again, Robinson is ignoring the attitude of the vast majority of religious believers for whom understanding is the primary goal of religion. But to continue, she then delves into the central appeal to both religion and poetry:
Likewise, to the exasperation of those rationalists who wish they would just say what they mean, religions interpret themselves in religious terms. If the Gospel of Luke doesn't make sense to you, Augustine and Luther won't either. Those who look into this anthology are likelier than others to have some experience of poetry and to recognize the inadequacies of interpretation and paraphrase. But religion, not only in America, has been seriously distracted by the supposed need to translate itself into terms a rationalist would find meaningful. So liberals have set out upon a long, earnest project more or less equivalent to rewriting Shakespeare into words of one syllable—if such a thing can be imagined as an effort fired by moral passion and carried out by people who would themselves confess to a deep affection for Shakespeare.

This is one of the things I found so exasperating about Catholicism, this tendency toward the self-referential use of language which allows no strict analysis and comprehension. To me much of Catholic inspirational writing sounds familiar to Postmodern writing, with its usage of special vocabulary that seemingly can be used randomly to assemble statements that all have the quality of sounding profound whilst yielding little of meaningful content. Like poetry, it is often impenetrable. I guess it suffices to put the religious and/or poetic mind into a state of heightened feeling. But drugs can do the same thing.
Impenetrability, however, is not the biggest sin of mystical/poetic religion. The biggest sin is the exaltation of the inner dialogue, to the point of solipsism and auto-deification. Robinson quotes from the Puritan Renaissance Humanist Jean Calvin:
"the human body shows itself to be a composition so ingenious that its Artificer is rightly judged a wonder-worker....Certain philosophers, accordingly, long ago not ineptly called man a microcosm because he is a rare example of God's power, goodness, and wisdom, and contains within himself enough miracles to occupy our minds, if only we are not irked at paying attention to them....For each one undoubtedly feels within the heavenly grace that quickens him. Indeed, if there is no need to go outside ourselves to comprehend God, what pardon will the indolence of that man deserve who is loath to descend within himself to find God?...such agile motions of the soul, such excellent faculties, such rare gifts, especially bear upon the face of them a divinity that does not allow itself readily to be hidden....Manifold indeed is the nimbleness of the soul with which it surveys heaven and earth, joins past to future, retains in memory something heard long before, nay, pictures to itself whatever it pleases. Manifold also is the skill with which it devises things incredible, and which is the mother of so many marvelous devices. These are unfailing signs of divinity in man."

It is not indolence which prevents me from delving into my own mind to find God, it is prudence. The last thing I want to do is convince myself that I am God, for many practical reasons having to do with reconciling my godhood with my atrocious golf swing or my countless other limitations, both trivial and not so trivial. But beyond that I'd rather think that God, if he exists, and the universe if He doesn't, is a more wondrous thing than what can be dredged out of the oozing muck of my own psyche.
This ecstatic delight in the human mind and person is a constant in his metaphysics, a Christian anthropology clearly akin to the celebrations of the human one finds in Emerson and Whitman, clearly anticipating Dickinson in its assurance of the revelatory character of deeply inward experience. In an early sermon, Emerson speaks of a culmination of life:

when this planet we now inhabit shall have been swept from its system, and its system is no longer reckoned in the astronomy of the Universe; when the fires that now roll in these heavens above us, have combined in new constellations, or obey new laws; or when, by that dread will which peopled eternal space with their burning hosts, they shall disappear; when God shall be all; when you shall be nourishing the powers of an angel's intellect, and exploring the height and depth and length and breadth of the wisdom of the knowledge of God.



The thrill of imagining consciousness freed of limitation may have been the impetus that moved Emerson to reject the church, but it is nevertheless an impetus he could have taken from that same religious tradition.

I've highlighted two other thoughts where I take issue with the mystic tradition. First is the danger of treating inward experiences as revelations. If they do reveal, they reveal the self, not the universe. But the religious mystic has no problem treating his inner voices as the voice of God, and imposing those revelations on others. Religious tyranny owes as much to the deified revelations of interior monologues of mystical prophets as it does to the relentlessly dogmatizing logic of theologians. Does anyone else see the danger of thinking that voices in your head are God's? If not danger, then potential madness?

The other criticism I have is toward this notion of freeing consciousness of all limitations. This is a very appealing notion, especially to our American psyche that values freedom above all else, but what does it really mean to free your consciousness of limitations? We gain knowledge through a slow process of accumulating limitations on our thought processes. When we learn something, we close our mind on that thing. It is this, and not that. Our mind's openness on that subject is eliminated. Gaining knowledge and wisdom is a process whereby open minds are closed. We all rail reflexively against closed minds, but what is this attitude except a desire to regain the wonder and excitement of past youth? It's a desire to once again be ignorant and unwise, and be freed from the burdens of knowledge and wisdom.

Robinson cites Whitman as one of the exemplars of this poetic religion of unbounded exuberance. I've read some Whitman, and it is this very quality that irritates me so much about him. Whitman was one of the greatest solipsists of all time. His poetry celebrated the breaking of all boundaries, all except that of himself. The poems, it seems, were always about him. It was "I am the farmer in the field" and " I am the mother nursing her child", I am the this, I am the that, I am the world, I am the children, I am music and I write the songs, yada yada yada. The I never disappeared when the boundaries were broken. Everything was absorbed into him. I wonder how many times the phrase "I am" appeared in his works. And isn't that the phrase that God used to describe himself? Reading Whitman is like listening to your senile grandparents tell you every great and wonderful thing they did in their lives, real and imagined, a la Abe Simpson.

As far as I'm concerned, I like boundaries. My life is bounded and limited, and that's how I like it. I used to bemoan my limitations, but now I enjoy them. They're comfortable, like an old shoe, and they keep me from doing stupid things like running for office or climbing a mountain or running a marathon. I like them for what they keep out, like the farmer in the field or the mother nursing her child, or any of the other seething multitudes yearning to breathe free off of my psychic dime. I'll watch y'all from the cozy confines of my mental cottage. And stay off the grass!

8 Comments:

Blogger Hey Skipper said...

It is truly amazing the vacuous nonsense that passes for devotional / inspirational writing. The authors, and, obviously, their readers, fall so in love with the sonorous pedantry of sacred syllables strung together that they completely lose sight of the hopeless leaps from complete mystery to absolute certainty.

While there is undoubtedly some "mystery" in any religion, religion and mystery are, by definition, exclusive: the coercive urge at the heart of all religions is utterly dependent upon certainty.

Andrew Sullivan repeatedly ran hard aground on this reef, although he never apparently twigged to it. He so focussed on Harris as an atheist, when anti-theism is what is at issue, that Sullivan ended up winning Harris's argument for him: where there is mystery aplenty, there is no place for religion or its illusory, and often destructive, certainties.

The breakdown is most apparent here:

Maybe this is the fundamental disconnect between believers and non-believers - that the latter insist on answers, and if the answer appeals in any way to mystery, then the answer must be wrong.

Sullivan has succeeded in completely replacing topsy with turvy. It is the former who insist upon answers, and the latter who are willing to accept "dunno", or, beyond that, answers that are there, but decidedly offputting.

Religious believers love to revel in how mysterious all that certainty is: isn't it just so totally mysterious that God exists without creation.

It is difficult to imagine a more graphic completely mysterious certainty. From that singularly unpromising beginning, all sectarian conflict is born.

This is one of the things I found so exasperating about Catholicism, this tendency toward the self-referential use of language which allows no strict analysis and comprehension.

That is true of all religious writing. What is just as prevalent is the egocentrism, verging on solipsism (as you mention), that pervades virtually all religious writing: man is G-d's special project; G-d listens to my prayers, etc.

Which puts the lie to some religious commentators assertions that anti-theism is egocentric. Just as with Sullivan, they have this completely backwards.

Whitman, clearly anticipating Dickinson in its assurance of the revelatory character of deeply inward experience.

Considering how antagonistic religions are to actual masturbation, it is surpassing odd how they encourage the mental kind.

June 03, 2007 2:05 PM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...

Again, Robinson is ignoring the attitude of the vast majority of religious believers for whom understanding is the primary goal of religion.

There is your problem right there, Duck.

June 03, 2007 4:30 PM  
Blogger Duck said...

No, that's not my problem. I have many problems, but that isn't one of them. How do you explain the strength of young earth creationism if not as a manifestation of a driving desire to have a book that explains everything literally?

John Derbyshire backs up my point in his May Diary on NRO:

"The Darwin/Conservatism event went off very well. It left me realizing, though, that a great many people simply don’t get science. In the question period afterwards, a very pleasant gentleman, with whom I had chatted at the pre-event mingling, and who had declared himself an evangelical Christian, asked this: “The Ptolemaic system for describing the orbits of the planets was orthodox science for over a thousand years, yet we now know that it was all wrong. Would you have had that system taught in schools if you had been around in, say, A.D. 1200? Me: “Of course I would. It was the best explanation then available. What would you have had them learn — the Newtonian system? Newton hadn’t been born yet!”

"I sort of see what the guy was getting at, though. He wants certitude; and anything that is not a hundred percent certain seems wrong to him. Scientific truths, which are always relative and provisional, leave a bad taste in this guy’s mouth.

"In a lot of other people’s, too. There are people who yearn for certitude, and who believe they have found it in sacred books. To people with this cast of mind, the relativism of science is abhorrent. Contrariwise, there are others to whom the questing, testing, curious, provisional approach of scientific inquiry, is very fascinating and exciting. To this company, the certitude of believers is disturbing and presumptuous."

June 04, 2007 5:34 AM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...

How do you explain the strength of young earth creationism if not as a manifestation of a driving desire to have a book that explains everything literally?

The same way I would explain fanatical Islamists, Trotskyites, Maoists, Nazis, Minutemen, etc. But I would never describe such people as the "vast majority" of Muslims or leftists or Chinese or German nationalists or American exceptionalists. And I wouldn't tell more subtle varieties they were just hypocrites too weak or afraid to confront the full implications of their beliefs.

June 04, 2007 6:13 AM  
Blogger Duck said...

And I wouldn't tell more subtle varieties they were just hypocrites too weak or afraid to confront the full implications of their beliefs.

I would never do that. I'd just tell them that they are happy walking around in a fog of mystical goo. Just watch out for those solipsism hazards.

June 04, 2007 6:46 AM  
Blogger Alex said...

Duck,
Excellent post again on the problem smart, thinking people have with religion(s.

Now, have a preference for a very general Deism--nature approach. Permit me to recommend nature-based phil. of Marcus Aurelius, and Epictetus(far superior to Socrates circular......)

Marcus Aurelius basically says whether another life or not is not something we should concern ourselves about...when we die we'll know whether is another existence or not.
_________________
It makes it extremely difficult to be around any associates or family members still in the myopia of religion. Same re members of political parties.
_________________
All those tests are generally devised by right brainers. And, figure out yet the type(s) who goes into becoming a psychologist or org. man.?

June 04, 2007 10:03 AM  
Blogger Oroborous said...

For the left-brained atheist, religions biggest sin is that it is wrong.

Amusingly, that belief is, in and of itself, also wrong.

So "left-brained atheists" are most-annoyed at religion for inaccurate reasons, which is a failure of "logical and rational" analysis - kinda self-refuting.

June 08, 2007 7:20 AM  
Blogger Alex said...

Orob. comment just prior is circular, myopic, based on belief, and in error.


Forgot to add to previous comment re Marcus Auelius & Epictetus that living according to basic standards and avoiding vices is a base.

June 09, 2007 1:30 PM  

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