Translating the Mystics

2,000 words

The mystics, east and west, are a key resource in the pursuit of the universalism that I am convinced lies at the heart of all religions and traditions, among which I include compassionate atheism. The mystics are cherished everywhere, but in the west particularly, they are not taken seriously as a source of “truth.” They are considered rather as visionaries, poets, holy to be sure and inspiring but not entirely reliable because the considerable emotion they display gives rise to the suspicion that they are subjective.

In the Christian west, Jesus fared no better. Observers will notice that gospel accounts do not record that Jesus enunciated virtually any of the “doctrines” that were later counted as core truths of Christianity. Hundreds of years later, as Christian doctrine came to be “defined,” mainly by councils sponsored by the Roman emperors, Jesus was divinized and treated more like an object of worship than a source of doctrinal truth. He was sidelined like all the mystics, even though it was his “defined” divinity that was called upon to “prove” doctrinal infallibility.

In the east, in contrast, the words and practice of Buddha became the subject of discussion, debate, interpretation and eventually canonization in the form of written documents considered by consensus to accurately reflect the mind of the founder. What there is of authentic dogma and ritual in Hindu-Buddhism, is closely linked to practice and bears no reference to the anatomy of the universe or the favor of the gods. The focus is what in our tradition we would call “prayer life,” and spiritual transformation; that practice, among Buddhists, is specifically meditation. Doctrine amounted to accurately identifying and applying the methods of meditation and, of course, achieving its goals: individual peace and social harmony in this world.

This was not true for Christianity where the words and attitudes of Jesus were used to justify a religion structured around dogma and rituals created by the Roman Empire broadly patterned on its earlier state religion. Early Roman religion was a local version of the polytheism common to the Mediterranean region built on the myths of the gods. It was not complex. Its purpose was to secure divine favor for the advancement of the interests of the polis. Social harmony and consensus among the citizens came as a byproduct of that, but were hardly secondary. By the beginning of the fourth century the old state religion of the mythological gods, whose adolescent antics were ridiculed relentlessly by the philosophers, had lost all credibility and the Roman Empire needed a replacement. It selected Christianity. As part of that award, not only the buildings and temple paraphernalia of the gods were turned over to the Christian Church, but with the “donation of Constantine” came a responsibility: to sustain the worldview and purposes of the Roman state religion. Christianity re-invented itself as the ground for Rome’s theocracy.

The “Way of Jesus” which had produced the gospels was ultimately swallowed up by the Imperial embrace. Jesus himself was not interested in using “God” as a prop for state power, so if his followers were to fulfill the role offered to them by Rome they would have to stop following Jesus. Effectively, the religion that came to bear the name “Christian” found itself required to reinterpret Jesus’ words, attitudes and behavior, lifestyle and motivations, in order to subordinate them to Roman priorities. It made Jesus an inspirational, even consoling figure, but it prevented the codification of his message, which was so thoroughly opposed to the demands of the Roman state that it got him killed. Jesus’ use of the words “kingdom of God” was precisely intended to situate ultimate loyalty and behavioral compliance in justice and compassion among people not in any state authority, whether it be the Jewish nation or the Roman Empire. In the frenzy to accommodate themselves to the windfall of Constantine’s “donation,” Christians had to ignore all this. They did. Some say they still do.

Roman “Christian” Doctrine came to be determined on other bases, some a crass, politically motivated exaggeration, like the Greek philosophical divinization of Jesus pressured by the emperor himself at the Council of Nicaea, and others the result of the interpretative fantasies of Hellenizing Jews like Paul of Tarsus and John following Philo, and neo-Platonic Roman philosophers like Augustine of Hippo who concocted “doctrines” like Original Sin which were not part of the Jewish doctrinal legacy and never even alluded to by Jesus. Nicaea, taking place in Constantine’s own private villa and with his dominating personal participation, proceeded to its decisions despite the fact that not only did the assembled bishops try to resist the emperor who insisted they use the word “homoousios” to describe Jesus’ divinity, but also with Jesus himself who, as recorded in the gospels, explicitly denied being “God.”

What “divinization” missed was the heart of the matter.   What made Jesus a great spiritual teacher was the fact that he was an ordinary human being whose extraordinary human experience had brought him to a profoundly human reinterpretation of the theocratic Jewish tradition and turned it into a potential universalism of irresistible appeal. It was providential that his message was preserved in the gospel narratives of his life and work or we may never have known what it was, for it is not borne forward by the dogmas of the religion. He saw “God” as a loving Father, not a demanding and punitive Monarch who would reward you with conquest and slaves if you obeyed him. The gospels, written by his earliest followers for whom it was entirely enough to say that Jesus was God’s messenger, have preserved for us the character and significance of his message. The claim that he was a “god.” or even, outrageously and blasphemously that he was “God” himself, served to distort, undermine and fatally emasculate the radical transformative power of his discovery and his invitation.

Re-forming Christianity

But while the theocratic exploitation of Christianity has created outrageous doctrine that because of its antiquity, we realize now, will never be repudiated by the Churches whose success is tied to the appearance of tradition, the authentic religious endeavor should nevertheless move resolutely to the task of a new kind of codification: to identify and articulate the vision of Jesus in the light of the universalism it shares with all other religions. And in pursuit of that end, as a first and immediate item of common data across time and traditions, the experience of the mystics should be considered foundational. What Jesus and the mystics all have in common is the recognized superlative nature of their lived religious experience and practice. “By their fruits you will know them,” Jesus is recorded as saying. Indeed. It is the only test of religious truth.

Religion is practice. It is the art of living humanly. It is not primarily focused on “truth” taken as objective “scientific” knowledge. This should not be misunderstood. Knowing what things really are is important for determining what they can and should do; that holds true for humankind as well. But in our case, knowing what we are as human beings comes at the end of a process of discovery. We know what we are by seeing what we do that works. So practice, the lived experience of people like Jesus and the mystics who have achieved unequaled success in the art of living, has been the origin and energizer for most religions throughout history.

Unfortunately, because of the “other worldly” emphasis of mediaeval Christianity, some mystics expressed their discoveries in terms of visionary experiences. Despite their own clear rejection of assigning any importance to these forms of expression, the word “mystic” in the popular mind evokes enthusiasts who have psychedelic and hallucinatory experiences. But in reality, as a serious reading of their work will show beyond any doubt, their “doctrines” were about the moral and emotional transformation of the selfish individual into a generous and compassionate human being, for the benefit of all, and the practices necessary to achieve it.

Religious reform, then, which amounts to a re-appropriation of religion’s original vitality, should be equally based on the experience of these extraordinary people.

Jesus was one of the mystics. Christianity originally began as an attempt to follow and elaborate on his lived experience. That process got sidetracked and in many ways actually reversed by the Roman take-over. That reversal is not an insignificant development in the history of humankind. Among other things it has meant, after two thousand years of Christian “truth,” the domination and exploitation of the rest of the globe by White European Christians who falsely identified the wealth and power of their nation-states with the success of their “faith” applying the theocratic justifications embedded in Romanized Christian doctrine.  Correcting the false directions taken by Christianity and undoing the damage done by Christian theocracy will require reinstalling the lived experience of Jesus and other mystics from across the globe at the foundation of a new doctrinal edifice. There is no alternative. Many who have accurately seen the source of the problem, and yet, in an attempt to respect traditional institutions, believed that somehow the damaging effects of doctrine could be ignored and authentic religious experience pursued on a parallel track, have again and again had their hopes dashed as “reform” has been demolished by theocratic doctrine. We should have known better. The very attempt is schizoid. It belies the obvious integrity of the human organism whose thoughts and actions can be split from one another only at the cost of sanity. It is not insignificant that some have defined holiness as a profound and available sanity. What is eluding us transcends “truth.”

The mystics’ vision

I suggest starting here: Mystics, east and west, broadly speaking, agree on one foundational experience that characterizes their practice: the self is intimately one with all things. It has two aspects: (1) There is an intimate connectedness among all things creating an inescapable bond of unity with the whole universe. This is, in practice, most often seen in action within the human community in the form of justice, compassion and mutual assistance. (2) The practitioner’s self has a unique role in the establishment of the religious relationship which grounds universal connectedness. The human individual’s intimate relationship to all things originates in the depths of the self. The self is the wellspring of the principle of unity.

In practice, while the first expresses itself most often in human society, it is fundamentally universal; we see it functioning today in a concern for the whole planet. The second corresponds to a sense of ground residing in one’s own interior depths. It also sets up a relationship with that ground which may or may not be interactive as between two “persons.” All this remains to be explored in detail.

Both of these aspects of common practice give rise to other secondary explanatory “doctrines” which differ among the traditions depending on the “scientific” (philosophical) context provided by the local culture in which they are occurring. But I want to emphasize: the two foundational items are features of direct experience. They are not beliefs or objective truths “out there;” they are the descriptions of personal experience that are universal among the mystics. There is, initially, no talk of “God” or of any explanatory “entities” not encountered directly in the process of living. Such second tier explanations are claimed to be “revealed,” or conjectured, or inferred, but in all cases they are ancillary and, despite the dominant role they may come to play for the particular tradition, they are the doctrines that vary most among the mystics. What all mystics have in common with little divergence is the originating experience: a oneness with all things realized through the source of unity found in the depths of one’s self.

This is absolutely universal among them. For the mystics, we are intimately related, by dint of something resident in the self, to everything that exists, even the inanimate. I want to sit quietly with this for a while as experience before analyzing it in future posts. I think it is fair to say that it is not unfamiliar territory for any of us.

“Perfect Joy”

from The Little Flowers of St. Francis of Assisi

1,230 words

I personally do not share the enthusiasm of the author of this mediaeval legend for the motivation he offers as a conclusion.  But I am presenting this tale exactly as written because I think it illustrates the depths to which a functional, realistic spirituality must reach in any age if it is to serve the needs of the aspirants that rely on it.

There are extremes to which life can go that are not anticipated by the ordinary mechanisms of coping. If the answer to life is an equanimity rooted in trust, how far can/must trust go? Is it possible to trust life so profoundly, with such total abandon, that absolutely nothing can overcome it? In our search for a spirituality that serves our needs in our times, what is required to make total trust possible, credible? As Ugolino seems about to say at the end, isn’t that within our purview? Or did such a possibility end with the middle ages?

[THE LITTLE FLOWERS OF ST. FRANCIS OF ASSISI

Author: Brother Ugolino

Publisher: Christian Classics Ethereal Library, Grand Rapids, MI

Description: Arthur Livingstone, editor of this 1930’s reproduction of Little Flowers, characterizes this text as a masterful work of folk literature from the Middle Ages. The phrase “little flowers” refers to “notabilia,” or a collection of noteworthy events in the lives of St. Francis and his followers. These stories were originally collected and compiled by Brother Ugolino during the early 1300’s. Ugolino attempted to draw out similarities between Jesus and St. Francis, since both leaders taught their disciples to deny the things of this world and to instead seek humility and holiness. Ugolino’s original Latin text was lost, but by consulting a variety of sources, scholars have worked to reconstruct Little Flowers into both Italian and English translations. Livingstone advises readers to enjoy Little Flowers with a sense of humor, as the contents of several stories contain much irony and amusement.                                                                                                                                                                                                                          Emmalon Davis CCEL Staff Writer]

 

PART I, CHAPTER VIII

How St Francis, walking one day with brother Leo, explained to him what things are perfect joy

One day in winter, as St Francis was going with Brother Leo from Perugia to St. Mary of the Angels, and was suffering greatly from the cold, he called to Brother Leo, who was walking on before him, and said to him: “Brother Leo, if it were to please God that the Friars Minor should give, in all lands, a great example of holiness and edification, write down, and note carefully, that this would not be perfect joy.”

A little further on, St Francis called to him a second time: “O Brother Leo, if the Friars Minor were to make the lame to walk, if they should make straight the crooked, chase away demons, give sight to the blind, hearing to the deaf, speech to the dumb, and, what is even a far greater work, if they should raise the dead after four days, write that this would not be perfect joy.”

Shortly after, he cried out again: “O Brother Leo, if the Friars Minor knew all languages; if they were versed in all science; if they could explain all Scripture; if they had the gift of prophecy, and could reveal, not only all future things, but likewise the secrets of all consciences and all souls, write that this would not be perfect joy.”

After proceeding a few steps farther, he cried out again with a loud voice: “O Brother Leo, thou little lamb of God! if the Friars Minor could speak with the tongues of angels; if they could explain the course of the stars; if they knew the virtues of all plants; if all the treasures of the earth were revealed to them; if they were acquainted with the various qualities of all birds, of all fish, of all animals, of men, of trees, of stones, of roots, and of waters – write that this would not be perfect joy.”

Shortly after, he cried out again: “O Brother Leo, if the Friars Minor had the gift of preaching so as to convert all infidels to the faith of Christ, write that this would not be perfect joy.”

Now when this manner of discourse had lasted for the space of two miles, Brother Leo wondered much within himself; and, questioning the saint, he said: “Father, I pray thee teach me wherein is perfect joy.”

St Francis answered: “If, when we shall arrive at St Mary of the Angels, all drenched with rain and trembling with cold, all covered with mud and exhausted from hunger; if, when we knock at the convent-gate, the porter should come angrily and ask us who we are; if, after we have told him, ‘We are two of the brethren’, he should answer angrily, ‘What ye say is not the truth; ye are but two impostors going about to deceive the world, and take away the alms of the poor; begone I say’; if then he refuse to open to us, and leave us outside, exposed to the snow and rain, suffering from cold and hunger till nightfall – then, if we accept such injustice, such cruelty and such contempt with patience, without being ruffled and without murmuring, believing with humility and charity that the porter really knows us, and that it is God who maketh him to speak thus against us, write down, O Brother Leo, that this is perfect joy.

And if we knock again, and the porter come out in anger to drive us away with oaths and blows, as if we were vile impostors, saying, ‘Begone, miserable robbers! to the hospital, for here you shall neither eat nor sleep!’ – and if we accept all this with patience, with joy, and with charity, O Brother Leo, write that this indeed is perfect joy.

And if, urged by cold and hunger, we knock again, calling to the porter and entreating him with many tears to open to us and give us shelter, for the love of God, and if he come out more angry than before, exclaiming, ‘These are but importunate rascals, I will deal with them as they deserve’; and taking a knotted stick, he seize us by the hood, throwing us on the ground, rolling us in the snow, and shall beat and wound us with the knots in the stick – if we bear all these injuries with patience and joy, thinking of the sufferings of our Blessed Lord, which we would share out of love for him, write, O Brother Leo, that here, finally, is perfect joy. And now, brother, listen to the conclusion.

Above all the graces and all the gifts of the Holy Spirit which Christ grants to his friends, is the grace of overcoming oneself, and accepting willingly, out of love for Christ, all suffering, injury, discomfort and contempt; for in all other gifts of God we cannot glory, seeing they proceed not from ourselves but from God, according to the words of the Apostle, ‘What hast thou that thou hast not received from God? and if thou hast received it, why dost thou glory as if thou hadst not received it?’ But in the cross of tribulation and affliction we may glory, because, as the Apostle says again, ‘I will not glory save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.’ Amen.”

 

 

Night-Blooming Cactus

night blooming cactus

night-blooming cactus with Spike Zwicky, McAllen TX, Lent 2000

I know my time, which is obscure, silent and brief
For I am present without warning one night only.

When sun rises on the brass valleys I become serpent.

Though I show my true self only in the dark and to no man
(For I appear by day as serpent)
I belong neither to night nor day.

Sun and city never see my deep white bell
Or know my timeless moment of void:
There is no reply to my munificence.

When I come I lift my sudden Eucharist
Out of the earth’s unfathomable joy
Clean and total I obey the world’s body
I am intricate and whole, not art but wrought passion
Excellent deep pleasure of essential waters
Holiness of form and mineral mirth:

I am the extreme purity of virginal thirst.

I neither show my truth nor conceal it
My innocence is described dimly
Only by divine gift
As a white cavern without explanation.

He who sees my purity
Dares not speak of it.
When I open once for all my impeccable bell
No one questions my silence:
The all-knowing bird of night flies out of my mouth.

Have you seen it? Then though my mirth has quickly ended
You live forever in its echo:
You will never be the same again.

Thomas Merton
(1915 – 1968)

What you see is what you get

2400 words

Of all the cultural phenomena we share as a species across divisions of land and language, religion stands out as perhaps the most common. Its characteristics are similar everywhere. It is the expression and the enjoyment of a bi-valent relationship that has many of the characteristics of a family. Like a family, religion binds together a number of individuals on one level, who, on another level, claim to be related to the same source of their organic life ― as the offspring of the same parents are brothers and sisters to one another. This two-directional characteristic is common to all religions. Even though some may emphasize one or the other of the two components, religion, as suggested by its Latin root re-ligere, “to bind,” celebrates the mutual binding of those who are all bound to the same source of life.

The claims of Religion, like the family, are based on objective, physical reality: the generation and survival of the living human organism. The expressions that religion creates ― creeds, rituals, moral behavior ― are all, in theory, designed to support and enhance those relationships that bind those bound to LIFE.

What sets religion apart from other families, however, is that the relationship to the source of life is disputed, not only with regard to its character, but also to its very existence. The foundational source of the religious relationship ― the “parent” ― is not visible. There is no known cause of human life beyond the reproducing human individuals. As far as human knowledge is concerned, no one directly knows who or what the ultimate, originating source of our life is.

Despite that, the great majority of humankind seems to have always had a conviction that such an ultimate source not only accounts for our abilities and dispositions as humans, but is responsible for our continued existence as a family in the here and now, and plays a determinative role in the direction of human social affairs, especially the macro-political. (Political power has been believed since ancient times to be a direct result of divine selection and conferral; and the chosen ruler has been taken to act in the place of the absent “god.” That means that religion and politics are intimately linked. Indeed, in the history of humankind most governments have been theocracies, and even our supposedly “secular” American system is grounded on tacit religious assumptions which many feel should be made explicit.) A implication is that the state is a religious entity. This is not an insignificant aspect of our history as a species.

This conviction of a common organic source has led religion to claim that its common destiny as a family is not gratuitous, but has arisen naturally and inevitably from its origins which continue to sustain human social existence here and now. In other words Religion, as a global phenomenon (disregarding local exceptions), is not a self-defense mechanism, a “circling the wagons” by terrified human beings who find themselves naked and alone in an alien and hostile universe. In the aggregate it has assumed just the opposite. Religion is the attempt to extenuate into adulthood the sense of family that naturally arises for every individual during the long period of nurturing that follows birth. Psychologically speaking, religion is simply the expected continuation ― the unsurprising furtherance ― of a lived reality in which the individual is loved, cared for and directed by the people who gave it life. As the individual continues its identity, it continues to expect that a protective, familial context will enwrap it.

An illusion?

Sigmund Freud in his 1927 book The Future of an Illusion, identifies the child’s fantasy of always having a hovering, protective parent providentially overseeing every event of its life ― a source of psychological security and optimism ― as the ultimate source of (western) religion’s projection of an imaginary Father-God. This dove-tails with the family view suggested above. But, basing itself on science, it denies the perennial claims of western religion that it is grounded on the creation and continuation of life. Western religion has always made a quasi-scientific claim about the origin and nature of the universe. It has always assumed the Biblical book of Genesis to be a literal rendering ― a kind of science ― which said that “God” made this universe of matter. It is precisely religion’s physical, material claim that was denied by Freud that makes religion an illusion.

The fact of the matter is we now know that the Genesis account is not literal; it’s an imaginary reconstruction. But at the same time, logically speaking, it seems Freud overreached, because modern science hardly has much more to offer. All science can verify is that there is no rational teleology ― no discernible purpose ― functioning in our universe, and as far back as its origins in the “big bang,” there is no evidence that there ever was. The universe and its evolution are a function of the autonomous evolution of material energy, not the work of a rational craftsman no matter how omnipotent and omniscient it is said to be. But as to the source of life, science admits that it does not know.

The conflict here between Freud and the traditional view is representative of the way we have generally approached religion: as a question of knowledge. Traditional religion claims it knows “God” created the world, and Freud claims that science knows that there is no cosmos-con­struc­ting “God.” But, in fact, no one knows. Western religion did not know that “God” created the world, it believed someone’s imagined narrative; and Freud did not know the origins of LIFE; he simply believed science would “someday” discover it. But regardless of the collapse of his premise, Freud’s decision to explore the psychological origins of religion as a semi-patholo­gi­cal clinging to childhood ― a refusal to grow up ― is now generally acknowledged to have revealed a distortion of religion’s family sense: he correctly saw that western religion involved the projection of “God” as a micro-mana­ging parent. I do not consider religion an illusion, but I wholeheartedly agree with his assessment.

Knowledge

This conflict has divided humankind’s self-perception, and sense of family, in profound ways. But it turns on our reliance on knowledge, and knowledge cannot solve this conflict. But if we approach the question from a different angle altogether ― from human experience ― a way opens that bypasses knowledge and apprehends reality affectively.   By “affective,” I am referring to sensory features of the human organism that have emerged precisely to provide a direct and consistently reliable contact with the entire material environment for the purposes of securing survival. What makes this type of contact objectively valid is that it works. Affectivity is a term that I am using to acknowledge the multiple pathways to the apprehension and embrace of reality other than the conscious thinking associated with the use of words, the symbols of human mental images. A large and complex observational apparatus is available to the human organism that provides individuals with a much wider and richer “picture” of the reality around them ― a picture that cannot always be put into words ― but that is not based on fantasy and projection. The information these less acknowledged pathways supply to the organism is often absorbed subliminally, which the conscious mind is unaware of but the organism as a whole “sees” and reacts to in ways that we call “instinctive.”[1]

By “instinct” I do not mean guesswork, a parallel pathway to knowledge that avoids the hard work of research and testing. I mean the unrecorded somatic reactions that direct a quarterback, for instance, to anticipate with amazing accuracy exactly where his moving receiver will be when his pass arrives; or the unthinking but infallible gyrations changing the center of gravity that occur when someone slips on a banana peel and keeps themselves from falling. In introducing these instinctive pathways, I do not mean either to exclude the more conscious conceptual connections or to trivialize them. I am merely trying to broaden our usual imagery about ourselves to include what science now knows to be an array of unconscious and semi-conscious receptors that enhance our survivability within our environment by giving us a more complete objective picture of reality. The organism as a totality “sees” more than the mind; and what it “sees” is absolutely factual: it helps it to survive.

The fact that these many tentacles to the things around us are not all conscious draws attention to our seamless unity with the world. We are not bodiless “minds,” alien spirits wandering on a planet of hostile matter; we are multifaceted biological organisms immersed in our earth matrix like a sponge in the sea. We are the spawns of this planet, its offspring. We remain connected to it umbilically for life-support; if you separate us from it we will die. We belong here and nowhere else.

When we allow ourselves the affective contact with reality that the entire sensory apparatus of the human organism is designed for ― transcending the narrow, myopic, truncated, word-based mental operations traditionally considered “knowledge” ― suddenly “reality” takes on a new and unexpected dimension. We “see” things as perhaps never before. For the material human organism finds itself in a state of a deep and quiet joy simply being embedded in and connected to the life support systems for which it evolved its particular forms and features. When the human being is allowed to be what it really is: a biological organism fully enjoying its perfect adaptation to the earth’s environment from which it emerged, the disequilibrium that is said to uniquely undermine and sicken human existence, instantly evaporates.

This experience gives rise to the suspicion that, all along, there was an erroneous identification of the human being with an imaginary separate entity called “mind,” together with an idolatrous exaltation of abstract thought ― knowledge ― as somehow divine, that contributed to our malaise. We are bodies, but we told ourselves we were disembodied spirits. We tried to live that way and it made us sick. When, finally, we allow ourselves to be what we are, and our survival community shares, supports, promotes and defends that biological reality, we live in a state of inner peace individually, and in harmony with one another socially.

Growing up

In addition, with the disappearance of the alienation generated in us by our tragic belief that we are disembodied spirits, we find we no longer need to maintain the infantile fantasy of a hovering, controlling “Father-God” whom we imagine to be a “spirit” who wants us to be good. “Being good” in our tradition has always meant to become a “spirit” like him: to identify with our rational minds and to disassociate ourselves from our bodies and everything material as alien to our “spiritual” destiny. And to that end “God” was said to send us impulses (grace) that would generate guilt and aversion for what our bodies incline us to do, and entice us away from “this carnal world” with offers of immortality as spirits in the world of no-bodies to which we have been taught we really belong.

But once we no longer need a “God” to help us to be what we are not, we find ourselves secure in what we are. We discover that we have all the equipment and instincts we need to nestle safely in our earth home with our family, ruled by systems of justice and works of compassion that WE have devised for ourselves after millennia of living together. We put what we learned into the mouth of “God” to make it easier for our children to follow our advice.

We become increasingly awestruck at the child-like qualities of the powerless invisible SOURCE OF LIFE, whose effusive and selfless material energy constitutes our bodies. It is that fertile living energy that has driven evolution and produced these marvelous organisms that we cherish and enjoy. We can acclaim that SOURCE OF LIFE for what it is and what it has done, without even knowing it directly. We don’t need to project onto it our regressive needs to have a parent who tells us what to do and reads us bed-time stories that death is not real. We know what to do. And we know we will die. Our multi-valent, instinctive bodies tell us what to do and they know how to let go when death comes. And we can love our SOURCE OF LIFE for the gentle, fragile and defenseless thing it really is, and what it has made of us, and stop fantasizing tyrants taken from our own worst examples of people who need to dominate others to engorge and deify themselves. We have often imagined “God” that way.

When we finally grow up, we no longer project a “God” of our imagination that is not there. We begin to cherish and try to imitate the real SOURCE OF LIFE that comprises and suffuses our bodies, an invisible living energy at the very core of our being that we are in touch with every moment of every day, that is more intimate to us than we are to ourselves, the ground of our being-here, whom our ancestors called by many names: “LIFE,” “Fire,” “Wellspring,” “Ground,” “Source,” “Breath,” “Love,” “Being,” and, the name that is the most cherished of all: “mySELF,” whom I love as a man worships the woman he loves, as a woman adores the man she loves, SELF-EMPTYING LIFE ITSELF, masked with my face.

I am that very same living material energy gathered, evolved and nested on this planet with my family ― all of us are the masks and offspring of the same divine fire that burns in every living thing. My body “sees” and is embraced by this reality, perhaps without ever translating it into words or pretending to call it know­ledge.

 

[1] Leonard Mlodinow, Subliminal, Pantheon, NY, 2012, passim; but see especially chapter 2, pp. 30-52

Knowing and not-knowing

2,000 words

The ancient Platonists proclaimed the unknowability of the “One” based on an analysis of the concept of Being.  The concept was absolutely universal and included everything that existed.  Since it included everything, Being was not different from anything and therefore could not be the object of human know­ledge which functioned by distinguishing one predicate from another.  The human mind knew realities by genus and specific difference, and “Being” had neither. Hence “God” could not be known by the human mind.  The concept of Being justified not only the characteristics of “God’s” nature that were derived from an analysis of the concept, but it also explained why no one knew “God”: he was unknowable.

If, now, I have decided that I cannot use “Being” as the ultimate definition of “God” anymore because, in contrast to Plato, I do not believe that concepts represent independent entities, where does that leave me? I not only have no basis for listing the properties of the divine nature, but I cannot explain why no one knows “God.” The characteristics of “God” that were associated with an analysis of the concept of Being are pure conjecture with no basis in fact. Not only do I not know “God,” I now realize that I don’t even know what “God” is supposed to look like. I don’t even really know what I’m looking for.

What am I left with? Experience. Relationship to the source of my existence ― Religion ― is not grounded in an intellectual premise, an “eternal conceptual truth,” it is just a emergent fact, the result of millennia of human living. My contention is that after all this time we know that we don’t know. We trust what we don’t know. The claims of “divine revelation” made by the various traditions across the globe all shows signs of fabrication or projection. They may legitimately be said to broker trust, but as know­ledge, none are reliable. Of course it is undeniable that we are related to the source of our existence which we have no choice but to trust, but what it is no one has ever known.

I also know that we have elaborated all the tools that one might need in finding what I am seeking. There is no new telescope, no “God” particle, no future re-arrange­ment of concepts, that will get us any closer to knowing what the truth is. That means we know that we will never know. At some point after ages upon ages of repeated confirmation, these facts become uncontestable, undebatable, indisputable ― not in some absolute sense of “principle” that would only be true in a Platonic universe where “ideas” had their own independent eternal reality, but in the real sense of a living organism having learned through experience what it can and can’t do on this earth, what is real and what is not real in real time. The human organism knows it will never see “God.”

There are many similar things we know beyond the shadow of a doubt. That we will all die, for example. It’s absurd for logic to insist that such a claim is “limited” because all we have to go on is past experience. It is said that no past experience no matter how universal and invariable can preclude the possibility that somebody alive today will not die. I’m sorry. After all this time anyone who would seriously make that statement is either a very young child, insane or acting with the sophistry that only abstract logic allows. (I leave out intentional fraud or pathological sub-conscious self-deception, which includes mass religious hysteria). It confirms the ordinary people’s mistrust of abstract thought. Similarly, I contend that it is as solid a conclusion as can be drawn about anything in life that “God” (a word I use reluctantly to refer to the origin, explanation and ultimate destiny of our material cosmos, including us) is simply and conclusively not knowable. The experience is so universal and so invariable that it effectively exonerates those who believe there is no “God.” There is nothing unreasonable about being an atheist. “God” is simply not there to be known.

Someone might object: then why talk about “God” at all? If your argument from experience is so compelling, why doesn’t the experience of never seeing “God” constitute a proof of “his” non-existence and therefore that the entire religion-project is just fantasy?

I would answer that I am very intentionally avoiding the word and concept “God” because I do not believe that the source of our being-here is credibly revealed by either mediaeval conceptual analyses or ancient tribal myths, which have been the source of the idea of “God.” I believe the existence (and character) of our existential source is revealed by the experience of being-here. Religion, in my view, is a collective human project of gratitude and appreciation at the fact of our existence as a family of human beings. That includes a trusting relationship to our source ― which is objectively established by the mere fact that we exist as we are ― even though we do not know what that source is.  We trust what we do not know because we are in awe at what we are and that we are-here.

There is an appropriateness in beginning with the results of human experience and not with somebody’s abstract philosophical “principle” or some ancient tribe’s imaginary “revelation” from another world, because the subsequent elaboration of the religious project continues to be the ongoing development of an empirical relationship occurring in this world ― further experience. Religion is our embrace of ourselves here and now ― our joy in being-here alive, our love and compassion for one another ― that is inseparable from our trusting relationship to our source, for it is all one and the same thing. Let me explain.

If I know that I am not the source of my being-here (because I didn’t put myself here, design my body or mind, and I can’t prevent myself from not being-here) and yet I am-here now, that means my source also has to be-here now because I am dependent on my source even though I do not know what it is. I have to trust it with my very existence. The source of my being-here must necessarily be contemporaneously co-extensive and commensurate with my being-here.

We are the human individuals we are because we are biological organisms. We are made of the living matter that enlivens and delights us. That living organic matter, whatever else might exist in the chain of causes responsible for us being-here, is the most proximate and it is taxative — i.e., it is exhaustive, there is no other evident source. Even if there were some unseen immaterial mind, some invisible rational designer-reality behind and beneath the matter that forms the parameters of our organism and the horizon of our lives, that source has chosen matter ― our matter, evolving autonomously in real time on this earth ― as the exclusive and impenetrable interface between us. From our side of the divide, matter is all we see, it is all we have ever seen. There is nothing else visible. Living matter is clearly the most proximate source of our being-here, but we also have to be prepared: it may very well be the only one. Are we willing to concede that our source may be exactly what it appears to be? Whatever it happens to be, we have no choice but to trust it with our material survival.

Whatever else might constitute our reality, we are matter in a world of matter and our survival is a material achievement. Matter is the reality we must live with. There is no way out. That is a truth we have learned from experience, and a truth that leads to more experience. Living matter is either our source or it is the exclusive instrumental extension of our source, its unique agent.

Religion, then, following this empirical path, shows itself to be the continuing evolution of human experience; it starts from experience and goes from experience to experience. There is no line of division between ongoing human experience and some fixed eternal “truths,” or some unchanging immaterial lawmaker residing in another world. So-called “eternal truths” are idealist fictions, the results of reifying our ideas, of believing our “thinking” somehow belonged to the world of the gods and was not an emergent property of matter. And the “revealed commands,” similarly, are in fact the result of millennia of human experiments in social living ― the wisdom of humankind ― imputed to “God” because they were “sacred.” (Yes, they are sacred. They are sacred to us because they are precious lessons learned from experience that allow us to survive and thrive as a family of human beings, not because they are the “will” of some non-human “person” who is telling us something we could not discover on our own.)

One of the great lessons we have learned is that we have virtually no control over the conditions of our lives. We are totally dependent on the near-perfect interlock between the matter of our organisms and the material in our surroundings on this planet: food, air, water, temperature, materials for shelter, etc. We emerged step by step from the very same earth and never lost our umbilical connection to it. Our destiny is inescapably tied to the material matrix that spawned and sustains us. As we are continuing to learn that the life-support systems on earth are fragile and vulnerable to our ever more demanding presence, our impact as matter on matter becomes undeniable. We can no longer afford fairy tales of belonging to another world. The very fact that our stories tell us that we need to die in order to get to that other world, should be enough of a clue of their origin in fantasy. It’s not hard to understand these imaginings or to have compassion on those who cherish them; they are the daydreams of people who feel trapped. But there is no way out.

 

So it begins to dawn on us that, in fact, we know all we need to know, because what we know about our source is all there is to know. There is nothing else to know. What we complain about not knowing are the imaginary projections of belonging to other worlds that do not exist and not belonging to this one as biological organisms that live and die. What we don’t know is not something that can be known, because it’s not there, and all we need to know is right here in plain sight.  We are-here together, with these incredible, astonishing bodies and the minds they evolved, having arisen from and remaining nested in an earth-matrix teeming with so many life-forms that we have still not been able to name and count them   . . .   and all of it spinning through an expanse of space so vast that we cannot translate the numbers that measure it into images that fit in our heads  . . . filled with spectacular galactic structures made of the exactly the same matter that constitutes our bodies which we are just beginning to explore and understand. That our human organisms emerged from all that tells us all we need to know about our source. If it could do that, it can do anything.

Those who see religion as an escape to another world are unwilling to look at the height and depth, the breadth and intensity of what we are and where we live. They refuse to acknow­ledge that this world is transcendently sacred, in itself, as it is, with us in it as we are, without reference to some other world or some other life, or even some source other than the living matter which constitutes us all.

Religion should be our shout of joy at being-here now, being together, and being free. We are the evolved product of living matter’s total autonomy. Living matter put us here. It can be trusted. Living matter continues to constitute us exclusively, sharing with us its own dynamism for more life, its own trial-and-error autonomy, leaving us free to love, to create, to sit quietly weeping in astonishment at what we are. We are living, autonomous, self-transcending material organisms because we are made of living, autonomous, self-transcending matter.

We know all this. It’s all in plain sight. None of it is hidden, esoteric or arcane. Unless what we’re really looking for is a way out, what more do we need to know?

a confession

2,000 words

In response to comments from readers, and despite the risk of accusations of duplicity, I would like to confess that I am really operating on two levels simultaneously and never refer to it. On one level, I try to elaborate a plausible physical/metaphysical worldview that is consistent with all the relevant data: modern scientific thinking, the core features of the religious legacy of our ancestors and the common consensus of the global community. The result of that work is a world­view that I call Transcendent Materialism. Its details can be found described and defended throughout these blogs and in my books. I work hard at assembling that conceptual system and try to cover all the bases, fill in the corners and tie up loose ends as much as I can. My goal is to construct a synthetic worldview that is consistent within itself and synchronizes with all aspects of reality as we understand it today.

I am convinced that there is an underlying concurrence among those sources which I try to uncover and bring to light. I am convinced it accurately represents reality. But I am quite conscious of the fact that it is a theory. I am only concocting something that is plausible. It is conjecture, well founded, perhaps and sincerely held, but still guesswork. I do it because I feel it offers a better explanation for our cosmos than all others that I have encountered. But at the end of the day I am well aware that I don’t know. The value of such a worldview, in my own mind and intention, is that it will be recognized as indisputably more plausible than the medieval world­view offered by Christianity since the 13th century to insulate the absolutist dogmas which are central to its theocratic pretensions. I want to make clear now, if it has not been obvious before this, that my primary purpose is to challenge arrogant Christian claims to absolute truth ― claims that have been used to justify the western domination of the globe.

Undermining the Catholic/Christian pretense to supremacy is the whole point of the exercise. At the end of the day I am hoping that people will come to the realization that Christianity’s absolutist declarations are self-serving and of dubious credibility. I am not saying its teachings are lies; the motivations are sincere. But I would like everyone to understand that, like the rest of us, the Christian Churches simply do not know. Christianity, like all other religions, offers symbols for the unknown source of our material universe and ourselves as its progeny. The best we can say is that some of that symbolic imagery evokes an attitude of awe and trust ― what I believe is an authentic human response to being-here.

 

Having said that, on another level altogether (the level where I personally live) my view on the unknowability of “God” implies a very simple response. I know that everything I write and most of what I read is speculation. I know that I know nothing. Beneath the sophisticated guesswork there is a very simple bedrock, and what can be said definitively about it is limited to very few words, for it is not knowledge about absent or invisible things, it is the description of the terms of a surrender.

For me not knowing is more than just the way things happen to be. Rather, it’s because things happen to be that way that there needs to be religion. Religion is not necessary in any absolute sense. Religion is necessary only because we do not know. Religion is the symbolic interface with a reality that is beyond the reach of our knowledge. Theology begins here. Far from being an obstacle or a liability, not knowing is the indispensable condition for the existence, authenticity and vitality of the religious quest. Religion is the poetic representation of a living presence that we experience in our material organisms but do not know.

We do not know the answers to the most fundamental questions of the source and ground of reality (which includes us), that have engaged enquiry for as long as humankind has been-here. But rather than a problem and source of contention and conflict, I maintain not-knowing defines and directs religion: it guides it. It’s a corrective that eliminates the wrong directions and false turns that have historically resulted in competing claims among traditions that have caused such violent conflict among us. In strictly methodological terms, The theology of unknowing that I am proposing is not a speculative system, it is a guide for making practical choices in the absence of knowledge. It is a religious pragmatism based on the solid conclusions of experience recognized by everyone, everywhere and at all times since the emergence of humankind on this planet. The authentic human response to LIFE is not knowledge and control but gratitude and trust. Growth in human authenticity (holiness) is growth in those attitudes and corresponding behavior.

Theology should be focused on clarifying and specifying what the terms of surrender are. Not-knowing, unlike “dogma,” is not a symbol or a conjecture or a plausible guess. Not knowing is a raw naked fact, perhaps the most significant and undeniable fact bearing upon our relationship to our source. Theology, insofar as it is committed to discovering and submitting to the truth, is built on this first and indisputable fact: we do not know. Religious universalism derives directly and unconditionally from that. No one knows . . . no one has ever known.

APOPHATIC THEOLOGY

The word “apophatic” is of Greek origin and is usually reserved for the mysticism of “unknowing” associated with the writings of an anonymous sixth-century Christian Syriac monk known as Pseudo-Diony­sius. The monastic tradition it comes from is actually much older and pre-Christian.  It is a neo-platonic pan-entheist vision focused on relationship to “God” as the transcendent source and matrix of our existence. While I personally disagree with the metaphysics, I propose returning to the fundamental contours of that theology ― its dynamic import and intention ― and assigning it the principal role for guiding our religious lives.

The word “apo­phatic” means “speechless” and immediately redirects the one seeking the face of “God” from the intellect to the will. The quest is not about knowing. It is about a surrender in trust impelled by an intuitive grasp of the abundant generosity of life.

“God” cannot be known. The word “God” itself is only a placeholder for the unknown source and sustainer of the cosmos. The conceptual, propositional, ritual and disciplinary edifice that we call “religion” should be constructed firmly on that basis: we do not know, and not-knowing is a desideratum, a gift to be embraced, the fertile ground in which our religion takes root and grows. Not-knowing is intrinsic to the authentic religious quest; it makes quite clear that the ascent is a growth in trust fed by an ever deeper gratitude for life and appreciation of one’s own material organism. To embrace oneself is to embrace that “in which one lives and moves and has one’s being.” It is to embrace whatever the word “God” might ultimately refer to.

Trust also corresponds to an ever wider circle of letting-go. Letting-go means accepting ourselves as material organisms subject to the unavoidable conditions of our materiality in a material universe. We have to let go of attempts to escape that fundamental reality. We have virtually no control over (1) our biological inheritance, (2) the material and social conditions required for our continued survival, and (3) that we will all certainly die. The “escape” we must let go of includes such fruitless reactions as self-aggrandizing selfishness, individual or tribal; the refusal to collaborate with others for mutual survival and the search for justice in society; and I personally would include as an escape the projection of a future life in another imaginary world as an excuse for exalting oneself over others and not cooperating with the universal human community. Learning to live within the parameters possible to us ― which includes the necessary self-regulation and communal collaboration that are necessary to survival ― is the human quest. There is no other, for there is no way out of being material organisms in this material cosmos. It is the human condition.

The correlate to not-knowing is trusting, just as its opposite, knowledge, seems to promise control. I am focused on building a theology on the foundation of an unknowing trust that besides setting us reliably on the paths that all our great teachers, east and west, have laid out for us, simultaneously generates two important by-products for the human community:

(1) it undermines any claims to absolute truth and the corresponding “supremacy” of any religious tradition and its ethnic-tribal adherents over others.

And (2) it establishes an unambiguous parity with those who, avoiding verbalized “beliefs” altogether, have been denigrated by self-exalting religious prejudice as atheists, agnostics, apostates, materialists, non-belie­vers, pagans, etc.

Everyone must trust. The material conditions of our lives is the great leveler. The most convinced atheists spend their days in trusting reliance on the common source of our living organic inheritance whatever that might turn out to be just like the rest of us; and they face death with the same apprehension and the same frustrated expectation to live on that comes from our biological organisms. We all have the same desire to live forever. Some think, despite every indication to the contrary, that we will live again after we die, and others, accepting the evidence of the universal experience of all organic life, don’t. The common denominator is that in each case we are dealing with opinion; no one knows.

The fact that religious people choose symbols to stand in the place of their ignorance and non-religious people refuse to use any symbols at all, doesn’t change the common condition that affects us all: none of us know; all of us live in a state of utter existential vulnerability; we all go reluctantly into that dark night; all of us have to reach out to one another if we are going to survive; and at the end of the day we all have to learn to let go because ultimately we have no idea of what is going to happen to us. “Religions” that exploit human insecurity and offer a quid pro quo of one kind or another that supposedly guarantees a control over our destiny after death, are in fact, working in direct opposition to the objective of authentic religion which is to trust despite the darkness. At best, such guarantees may be acceptable as symbols for the trust that our awe of life evokes in us.

At the same time it must be said that those who take the absence of knowledge as justification for a nihilistic disdain for life and contempt for the struggle of people to survive in a just society, have to suppress their own bodies’ natural joy in living, instinct for self-preservation and empathy for others. Not knowing is just that. A nihilistic response is an unwarranted claim to know.

 

That is the theology I pursue and propose. The rest, which includes physical/metaphysical theories of reality and the polemics they generate is optional, conjectural, somewhat arbitrary and at all times secondary to what I consider authentic religion. That doesn’t mean such “scientific” pursuits are invalid, just that they are not religion. Religion is surrender in darkness driven by the awe and appreciation of being-here. It does not depend on what we think we know or don’t know about the ultimate source and destiny of it all. Once that premise is clearly stated and understood, the wider discussion can proceed. Otherwise, the elaboration of a compelling worldview that correlates to our real condition will necessarily become distorted in the vain attempt to assign it absolute value and turn it into religion. For, without a clear and universal acceptance of the supreme value of not-knowing, conjecture will be conscripted by our insecurity to play the role of “the answer” ― knowledge ― skewing everything that follows and re-instal­ling the conflict of warring absolutes (built on fictional securities) that now characterizes religion.

Ignorance and Bliss

a theology of unKnowing

Theology, following the common consensus of the ancient Mediterranean world, begins with the premise that “God” is unknowable.

The unknowability of God came directly from Plato’s theory of the utterly inaccessible transcendence of the “One.” The One was pure spirit with no admixture of matter. That absolute immateriality meant that “he” was totally beyond human comprehension, unchanging, impassable, simple, motionless, without even a ripple of a divided thought. Without division and multiplicity, the human intellect cannot function, hence cannot know “God.” The “One” dwelt alone in a self-contem­pla­­ting serenity that was so remote and unreachable that, in Plato’s fertile imagination, it required the emanation of a secondary divinity called “The Crafts­man,” which later Platonists would identify as the Nous, the Mind of God, to interface with the world of matter and insert the divinely conceived “ideas” of the things that inhabit the earth so that “God” may be known.

Philo of Alexandria, a first century diaspora Jew who was pursuing the intriguing parallels between the Septuagint Bible and Greek philosophy, said Plato’s Demiourgos-Craftsman matched the Bible’s image of “God’s” word which had creative power; so he called it Logos. The development of the Trinity in Christian thought ultimately came from Philo’s assimilation of the Hebrew Bible to Plato. “Theology,” for Christians, was simply the attempt to braid together the story of Jesus’ mission and message with Plato’s  narrative of the origin of the material cosmos guided by Philo’s Bible-based interpretations. It was all a derivative of the unknowability of an immaterial “God.”

What is remarkable Is that later, in the middle ages, dogmatic theology would operate on the opposite assumption; for it proposed to make “God” known in clear, comprehensible propositions. This apparent anomaly is not hard to understand once you realize that it arose in response to a different need.

Starting In the early middle ages the task of making the propositions of belief clear and unambiguous became a necessary part of the social/political cohesion that accompanied the rise of papal power. Submission to the “truths” of Catholic belief effectively equated to submission to the social/political authorities. Making those propositions intelligible and logically irrefutable was an integral part of the dream of Christian unity (and the earthly paradise it promised) that captivated the European imagination as a feudal, Germanic society melted and molted in the forge of Mediterranean Catholicism.

In the eleventh century Anselm of Canterbury called the theological enterprise “faith seeking understanding.” In his era, “creeds” which had originated in ancient times, were gathered along with the subsequent pronounce­ments of councils and popes into collections of “decretals.” Those propositions were variously labeled as more or less necessary to be believed. It turned them into verbal formulae demanding acquiescence ― effectively, commands to be obeyed. They functioned for the cohesion of a Church-run society. The study of the decretals by Canon lawyers was the origin of dogmatic theology.[1]

The great summae of the 13th century were its direct extensions. They nested the propositions of belief in a such a wrapping of unassailable rationality and logic, that acquiescence was assumed automatically to follow; dissidents would find disagreement almost impossible to sustain, and infidels and heretics would be converted. Aquinas’ Summa Contra Gentiles was written specifically to assist Christians in their debates with Arabic interpretations of Aristotle at the university of Salamanca in Spain where, in 1250, “Moors” still controlled a third of the peninsula. Mediaeval theology served to solidify the social and political hegemony of Christendom. Dogmatic theology was never intended as a vademecum for the Christian faithful. It was not focused on faith, but beliefs, control, obedience. Dogmatic theology was a user’s manual for theocracy.

 

Traditionally ― since the end of the middle ages ― theology (as an ecclesiastical discipline separate from the study of law and ritual) has been divided three ways: dogmatic theology, moral theology and mystical theology. Of the three, dogmatic and moral theology were considered fundamental because they dealt with the essential elements of salvation. If you failed to comply with either the requirements of orthodox belief or the commands of Christian morality, you risked eternal punishment.

Mystical theology, on the other hand, was considered somewhat superfluous. Since it dealt with the progress of the “soul” that had already achieved a basic compliance with faith and morals and wished to advance in holiness, it was treated like a playbook of the saved. Those occupied with such matters were well beyond the danger of losing their souls. Since most people were struggling to simply keep the commandments, what mystical theology had to offer was, so to speak, none of their business, and they were explicitly counselled to stay away from it. The result was that mystical theology got sidelined to the monasteries and along with it the tradition of the unknowability of “God.” Theology, to all extents and purposes, meant dogmatic theology.

Hence, in the pursuit of what was demanded for clear and unambiguous acquiescence of the “faithful,” dogmatic theology made every effort to make “God” and the things of God clear and articulate if not totally comprehensible. The orthodox Christian had to be able to say the officially designated truth in words that were recognizable to the authorities. Whether the people understood the truth in question or knew how it applied to their lives was not the principal concern.

In such a context, the unknowability of “God” was not conducive to the theologians’ agenda; and while the ancient traditions demanded that it be acknow­ledged, it was always something of an embarrassment. Its pursuit was quarantined to the monasteries. This was not only because it invalidated the inquisition’s main probe, but because it had profound repercussions on Church control. For consider: (1) if “God” is unknowable then it is reasonable to doubt that we know what “he” wants. (2) That doubt, in turn, challenges the inerrancy of the biblical documents used to establish “God’s will” and the authority of the Church. Also, (3) if I have no idea what “God” wants, I cannot rely on my obedient compliance to guarantee “salvation.” All quid pro quo is vitiated. (4) My relationship to an unknowable “God” is reduced to sheer trust. (5) Morality then, without a divine lawmaker, is an earthly matter, the consensus of the community about living in harmony here on earth. Church teaching (and control) loses its weight, and the quid pro quo adjudicated after death in another world ceases being the sole determinant of human behavior.

At the end of the day, for the authorities who believed themselves divinely mandated to control the social order, an entire society for whom life was an unmoored adventure in community cooperation sustained by a trust in the creative benevolence of an unknown loving Source, was a nightmare. It certified a radical freedom that was unheard of, and considered subversive. The last person who spoke in those terms was crucified for it, and the inquisitors knew why.

2

Mystical Theology, grounded in the unknowability of “God,” is really “theology” ― the inheritor of the earliest traditions ― displaced and disenfranchised by dogmatic theology and the theocratic imperatives of mediaeval Christendom. What Gregory of Nyssa in the 4th century would call theology was, in mediaeval Europe, relegated to “house arrest” in the monasteries.

Christian monasticism, which became the guardian of ancient theology, since its inception in the Egyptian desert, has represented something of an alternative current to mainstream Christianity. It is not insignificant that Antony, considered the founder of Christian monasticism, chose to withdraw from the world in the era of Constantine’s ascendancy. By then the Christian Church had become a respectable institution that had spread throughout the Roman Empire. The belief that a “church-of-the-catacombs” was selected to be the state religion of the Rome is complete fiction; the Church that Constantine knew was prominent, prosperous and propertied.

It was in this context that, according to Athanasius’ biography, Antony understood that the call of Jesus to sell all you had, was no longer a poetic exaggeration. It was literally applicable to Christians like himself who had become comfortable in an empire that the scriptures had once condemned as “the Whore of Babylon.” Antony gave away his entire inheritance including hundreds of acres of farmland, moved into the desert and sustained himself by the work of his hands. It was a rejection of the Church-as-Imperial-enterprise. Over time others joined him, traditions were established and passed on. Kindred spirits from the West like John Cassian and Benedict of Nursia came to Egypt and took back with them the core of the monastic vision, including its theology. A communal way of life developed that was a distinctly Christian vision of personal transformation and an implicit repudiation of the Church as it had become.

The fact that the monks’ vision was grounded in that version of theology that we now call mystical suggests that, had the ancient traditions prevailed over the demands of the mediaeval Church to provide a hieratic underpinning to the imperial autocracy that ran civil society, the western “Church” might have remained more like the Christian Community that many dream about in our times. Ancient theology was not primarily focused on another world. It saw the material universe as the emanation of “God’s” own reality and therefore concluded that contact with “God” in this universe was not only possible but was the very reason why “God” created the world of time and matter. “God” wanted to be known and loved in this life.

Hence, mystical theology, unlike dogmatic theology, was not concerned about burning in hell. It imagined Christian life, rather, as a daring ascent to reach the peak of a forbidding mountain where a reward beyond words awaited the victor in this life. The reward was the consummation of a relationship which was conceived in psycho-erotic terms: a conjugal relationship with Esse ― the existence at the core of one’s being that sustained all things. One did not become Christian for safety and security, but rather to engage in a perilous journey of self-conquest and self-realization as the necessary path to absorption into the very heart of reality. The goal was bliss, here and now; you didn’t defend and preserve yourself, you lost yourself in the abandon of combat and let yourself be embraced by the “Other” in Whom all things, including you, lived and moved and had their being. It was not a business transaction, a quid pro quo, it was an adventure of discovery and delight: a love affair beyond all others, to find and feel the contours of the face of God.

And the unknowability of “God” established the essential conditions of the ascent. For without the clarity and control of knowledge, you had to fly blind. You had nothing to go on but the scent of the beloved that arose from the longings of your own flesh which in fact was where “he” resided. You had an ultimate trust that your way up the mountain would be sustained by a guiding wind that would not fail you. It was the activation in your own lifetime of the reditus ― the return of all things to their source ― that was the ultimate destiny of the universe. You were a microcosm of the cosmic narrative.

So ignorance was the condition for bliss. Happiness was not in the control and possession that knowledge appears to offer; it lies rather in unknowing, letting go, self-abandon, stepping into the void, embracing the emptiness that is yourself. The ancients like Dionysius were quite explicit: you met “God” in a cloud of unknowing.

Not-knowing implies trust. There is no way out of our entrapment; there is no exit for us. We are part of a universe of perishing matter strewn out by “God” to delight us and draw us to himself. There is no place to go, nothing to accomplish; there is no security to be gained. We stand at the still point of our turning world ― given ― and the only thing worth striving for is to learn to trust the unknown current ― the giver ― in which we ride.

[1] Brian Tierney, Foundations of the Conciliar Theory, Cambridge, 1955.