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Mysticism, Theology and Philosophy

January 13, 2013

“The head of the sacrificial horse, clearly, is the dawn” – thus begins the Brhadaranyaka Upanishad (how I love the use of “clearly” there). It’s one of the central works of Hindu scripture and when I started reading it the other day I was forcibly struck by the thought that it was almost impossible to imagine a book of the Bible beginning in such a bewildering manner – the nearest, I’d say, was the Gospel of St John (“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God”); and I think it’s fair to say that in the context of the gospels St John sticks out like a sore thumb.

But that’s the thing about the Upanishads: to say the least they wear their mysticism on their sleeves. They are constantly striving to express what they call “the real behind the real”. They present us with a vision of the world in which everything is connected to everything else; everything is literally itself and yet also a symbol for something else; everything grasps and is grasped. And behind it all, within it all, lies Brahman:

You can’t see the seer who does the seeing; you can’t hear the hearer who does the hearing; you can’t think of the thinker who does the thinking; and you can’t perceive the perceiver who does the perceiving. The self within all is this self of yours. All else besides this is grief!

Brhadaranyaka Upanishad. Chapter 3, part 4

Compared to this sort of stuff the books of the Old Testament prophets – perhaps even the Book of Revelation – are relatively straightforward. Obviously I’m not saying there isn’t any mysticism associated with Christianity (or Judaism or Islam, come to that); the very concept of a single, all-powerful God becomes pretty baffling and mystical as soon as you try to unpack it. But that’s exactly the problem: the Bible itself never really does get round to unpacking it. Instead, it focuses on narrative stories, moral laws and warnings of doom to come. Within all this, God is presented (albeit symbolically) in straightforwardly personal terms. He is “our father”, the Lord, etc.

Even more strikingly, the Bible’s two great works of wisdom, Ecclesiastes and Job, seem actively intent on discouraging mystical expression. The moral of Job is: you can’t understand God so shut up. And on surveying the endless troubled flow of human life, the preacher in Ecclesiastes puts it bluntly: “man cannot utter it” (Ecclesiastes, chapter 1, verse 8, KJV). It’s hard to be sure, but it seems to me that in these two books the Bible acknowledges the mystical while warning against sullying it by attempting to put it into words. It is spiritually ascetic and prefers to stand silent in the face of the ineffable.

That’s a respectable response, of course, but it’s also (a) deeply frustrating, and (b) not exactly helpful if you’re called upon to explain or justify the deepest aspects of your religious worldview. Perhaps that’s why Christianity has developed into the theological religion par excellence. The Bible is a pretty long book, but it’s a mere pamphlet compared to the endless tomes dedicated to elucidating such concepts as God, Christ, heaven, the Holy Trinity, the soul, etc, etc. Of course for the most part Christian theology is not presented as mystical. Rather, it claims to be based upon reason. To this day the Catholic Church frowns upon anything that smacks of “mystery”, and even Luther – who called reason a “whore” – used rational arguments when defending his position. But for all that there just is something mystical about Christian theology. The harder it tries to pin down the qualities of God the clearer it becomes that it’s dealing with something that cannot even be put into words, let alone proved by rational deduction. Here’s the brilliant Catholic theologian, Cardinal Newman:

This absence of all potentiality in God obliges Him to be immutable. He is actuality, through and through. Were there anything potential about Him, He would either lose or gain by its actualization, and either loss or gain would contradict his perfection. He cannot, therefore, change. Furthermore, He is immense, boundless; for could He be outlined in space, He would be composite, and this would contradict his indivisibility. He is therefore omnipresent, indivisibly there, at every point of space. He is similarly wholly present at every point of time, – in other words eternal. For if He began in time, He would need a prior cause, and that would contradict his aseity. If He ended, it would contradict his necessity. If He went through any succession, it would contradict his immutability.

The Idea of a University, Discourse III, §7

As a series of rational proofs this is pretty-much hopeless, but surely that’s not where its ultimate value lies? For although it doesn’t make much literal sense it is nevertheless beautiful, evocative and curiously moving. It points to something beyond the words – “the real behind the real”. And this is true of theology generally; its intricate, interlocking web of concepts and deductions starts to look more and more like a disguised, yearning prayer to the Unknowable. St Augustine himself hinted at this when discussing the Trinity: “We say ‘three persons’ not because this expresses just what we want to say, but because we must say something” (De Trinitate). Words are inadequate but silence is not an option. Isn’t that precisely the mark of the mystical?

Seen from this viewpoint, we can perhaps understand the continuing appeal of theology – an appeal which persists despite the fact that in two thousand years it has strikingly failed to establish one single incontrovertible truth about God. That sounds damning, but it misses the point. The conclusions are unimportant; the value lies in the contemplation required to produce them. Theology is disguised mysticism for an age that feels uncomfortable with anything that doesn’t present itself as rational.

Of course, our age isn’t just uncomfortable with the non-rational; it is increasingly uncomfortable with the idea of religion itself. No amount of theology, mystical or otherwise, can compensate for that. I’d suggest, however, that it’s no accident that the birth of science in the 17th Century also saw the re-birth of philosophy. In one sense this is trivially true: early Rationalist philosophers such as Descartes and Liebniz were explicitly reacting to exciting new scientific and mathematical developments. But I think there’s more to it than that. Rationalism, with its emphasis on reason and scepticism, might seem like the polar opposite of religion, but it’s worth remembering that it grew out of theology – or, at least, grew up in its shadow. Theology was the great intellectual construct of the day, and in establishing itself as a credible discipline Rationalist philosophy instinctively adopted many of its methods and approaches. Hence its thirst for eternal truths and unshakable foundations.

Now, if I’m right that theology is disguised mysticism, then we might expect to find this aspect embedded in philosophy as well. And frankly, we don’t have to look too hard to see it. For a start, the very notion of reason as a shining light which reveals incorrigible truths (Descartes’ “clear and distinct perceptions”) has more than a whiff of the mystical about it. It is, after all, a metaphor, but a metaphor for what? Since Rationalism is all about plain truths Descartes might have been a bit less poetic here. Instead, we get a little piece of mysticism lurking in the very heart of the Rationalist enterprise. Thereafter the list multiplies rapidly: Descartes’ mind/body dualism; Liebniz’s infinity of souls within an infinity of souls; Kant’s noumena and the binding logical connection between perceiver and perceived (which sounds exactly like something from the Upanishads); Hegel’s world-as-will, struggling through successive dialectical transpositions towards perfect consciousness; Satre’s existential struggle between being and nothingness – on and on to present-day philosophy with its “aspect dualism” and metaphysical truths that hold good in all possible worlds. These are dazzling visions, and even a hard-nosed materialist like Francis Crick is not immune to their lure:

The Astonishing Hypothesis is that “You,” your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behaviour of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules. As Lewis Carroll’s Alice might have phrased it: “You’re nothing but a pack of neurons.” This hypothesis is so alien to the ideas of most people alive today that it can truly be called astonishing.

The Astonishing Hypothesis (1995) Chapter 1

Philosophically speaking, this is horribly confused. It simply dreams up a conception of “self” to suit its own purposes. But perhaps that misses the source of its appeal. For with its sense of awe and strangeness, what is it if not a deeply sublimated mystical vision? – An attempt to show us “the real behind the real”.

Like theology, philosophy has failed to establish a single incontrovertible truth throughout its lengthy history. But as with theology that isn’t the point. Philosophy is disguised mysticism for an age that has given up on God.

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