I’ve been reading some of the “Homebrewed Christianity” guides recently, courtesy of a sale by Fortress Press which reduced the price to one which didn’t evoke deep feelings of guilt in me (and which will probably be over by the time I post this, for which my apologies!) One such is the Guide to God by Eric Hall. Like the other Homebrewed Guides, it is “theology with snark”, which is something I really appreciate (the Guide to the End Times was, to me, hysterically funny much of the time…)
But I’ve been having problems with the Guide to God, probably primarily because Eric Hall is a philosophical theologian. He’s also recently converted to Catholicism, so it was hardly surprising to find that there was more than an edge of Aquinas there. And Aquinas has got up my nose for years, with his “proofs of God”, all of which I consider to be <cough> flawed, though in some cases it took me quite a long time to work out where the flaw lay. I had a Religious Instruction master at school who was keen on those (he was an ex-Jesuit), so I had an early-ish exposure to them.
I am probably not a philosopher. That’s on the basis of a talk by Keith Ward, when he was promoting his book “Why there almost certainly is a God”, in which he presented something very like Alvin Plantinga’s richly reworked version of one of Aquinas’ proofs, and paused, and said “At this point, some of you are probably thinking ‘That’s rubbish’; you’re probably not philosophers. Some of you are maybe thinking ‘Now that raises some interesting points’, and you probably are philosophers”. I was in the first category. I would have been in the first category even had I not encountered Plantinga’s argument some years previously, thought “That’s just reworked Aquinas, I think” and spent quite a few hours working out how it in fact was just that. Ward’s book is mostly not about that, though, it’s mostly an extended argument for idealism, and, based on that idealism, for “God” being at least a reasonable hypothesis.
I’m not an idealist either… In fact, what I am is mainly a scientific rationalist with a mystic somewhat uncomfortably grafted on. And, unfortunately, quite a bit of the latter part of Hall’s book consists of arguments based in idealism. But that isn’t the bit of the book which I want to concentrate on, or which gave me the majority of my problems with it. After all, I’ve seen arguments from idealism before, notably in Ward’s book.
Hall starts interestingly by describing five different God-concepts, which he (snarkily) describes as Miagi God, Jersey Shore God, Retired Oprah God, Hippie Aunt God and Joan of Arc God.Very briefly, Miagi is the God of the Philosophers (ground of being, ultimate guarantee of meaning etc.), Jersey Shore is omnipotence gone wild, subject to absolutely not constraints (things are good and bad merely because God says so), Retired Oprah is the God of Deism, who set up the system but is really a former CEO (referencing Oprah’s media empire), Hippie Aunt is the God of Process, intimately involved in everything (and wanting to set up a drum circle, for some reason which escapes me) and Joan of Arc is the God of the totally unexpected (as seasoned soldiers in Mediaeval France didn’t expect to be surrendering to a peasant girl…).
Of those, Miagi and Hippie Aunt are probably closest to me (with Miagi a distant second to Hippie Aunt), and with a side order of Joan of Arc. I needed to look up Jersey Shore; it sounds like a cross between “Big Brother” “The Only Way is Essex” and “Made in Chelsea” to me, all reality TV programmes I have little time for. (OK, as an admission, I did watch a couple of series of “Big Brother” back when I was really very ill, and “Jeremy Kyle” (an English version of Jerry Springer) was too intellectually stimulating for me). The characteristic feature is unrestrained ego… and there’s one of my problems; I fancy that label will grate a little too much with those who major in divine omnipotence. Miagi gave me little problem, despite being somewhat related to my own God-concept, as did Joan of Arc – but “Hippie Aunt” is, to me, too dismissive of the God of Process, which is a hairs-breadth from the Panentheist God. But hey, the series is labelled as being “theology with snark”, so having my treasured God-concept slightly lampooned is maybe to be expected. Hall is, however, wrong in calling Hippie Aunt a modern phenomenon – while Process dates from the 20th century, Panentheism dates back at least as far as Dionysius the pseudo-Areopagite and probably a lot further.
I had far more problems when Hall came to discuss mysticism. I was initially hopeful – after introducing the metaphor of bourbon tasting (and criticising “spiritual but not religious” as being perennial tasters who never bought a bottle), he wrote “The mystic seems to be the original claimant to the title of taster, managing to do so without even wearing today’s customary yoga pants. Mystics look behind the confines of human language and engage the being of God through “mystical experiences”.” Aside the putting of mystical experiences into inverted commas, a common way of calling something into question by implication, this was looking reasonable. He went on to write (after extending the metaphor to breaking open all the barrels of bourbon in a warehouse and flooding the place) “Any way you look at it, mystics seem to swim in the flooded warehouse of bourbon unhindered by the barrels of human language, taking the immediate experience of the divine flood of bourbon and trying to put that experience into a set of words that extend beyond their normal usage”. Well and good, but then “This fact also confirms a second point. Mystics do generally sound drunk when you try to read them.”
Oh dear. In a line from this article on Wittgenstein as a mystic, I find “The problem is, if you haven’t had a mystical experience, mystical writings seem like, well, woo” . Yes indeed. To the man who has only a hammer, either everything looks like a nail, or it’s nothing to concern yourself with. It seems similar with philosophers, and particularly analytic philosophers. Hall indeed continues “As good as this sounds in theory, I have serious reservations regarding how far we can go with this type of experience and rejection of human language, especially when we begin thinking that the experiences are totally delinked from tradition that emerges in and through our forms of talking”.
I cannot blame him too much, to be fair. Early in my own search for a language of description for mystical experience, for which I found I had a sudden pressing need, having had such an experience, I read F.C. Happold’s “Mysticism: A Study and Anthology”, which, apart from convincing me that what I had experienced was a mystical experience and that such experiences were found across a wide spectrum of world religions (and, indeed, outside them), also made me very strongly suspect that either the founder or very early adherents of most, if not all, religions had themselves had mystical experiences. And I formed on that basis a hypothesis that the entire remainder of religion involved non-mystics misinterpreting the words of actual mystics. To carry on the analogy, I was a man with a screwdriver, and everything looked like a screw to me…
I have since discovered, not least from William James’ “Varieties of Religious Experience” that mysticism is not the only way to experience something religious, and have been interested to find out to what extent (if at all) the experiences of those who have other species of experience are similar to those of mysticism. Those, incidentally, seem without exception closed to me – which means that I still have only a screwdriver, but an at least conscious that other tools exist and maybe, just maybe, there may also be nails in the world… or that a hammer might actually drive a screw into wood, though perhaps not with the finesse and durability of fixture afforded by a screwdriver.
Maybe I’ve over-extended that metaphor now?
I think Hall is wrong in saying that mystics are “unhindered by the barrels of human language” and “totally delinked from tradition”. Most mystics have been very thoroughly situated in a tradition (including Meister Eckhart, who is mentioned by Hall as being a Catholic), but have found the language of tradition inadequate to express the fullness of their experience. The Wittgenstein article suggests that they pursue a form of apophatic theology, but that isn’t strictly correct; what they do is try very hard to convey their experience using exactly the language and tradition in which they are situated. Let’s face it, in Christianity and Islam, at least, mystics who strayed too far from the bounds set down in the religion tended to get executed as heretics (which, in fact, Meister Eckhart avoided by dying of natural causes first). That heresy-hunting tendency may have a lot to do with the fact that so many people are identifying as “spiritual but not religious” in a time when a hugely greater percentage of people polled are saying that they have had a mystical experience themselves than at any time in the past.
I suppose that, mostly, Hall frustrates me. He comes so close – he acknowledges that mystics appear to have a privileged manner of experiencing God, he concedes that mystics provide a valuable lesson that theological formulae may be only approximations at best (“seeing through a glass darkly”, one might say), but then discounts them as having nothing useful to say beyond that.
This is all the more curious as, later in the book, he takes reductive scientific naturalism to task for having a set of criteria within which it is very good at providing answers, but saying that outside those criteria things are meaningless – because they don’t take the form in which one can reliably repeat experiements.
And he does reference Thomas Aquinas’ statement, after having had a mystical experience late in his life, that everything he had written was chaff. I am inclined to say that, unless you take on the reports of mystics as to their experience and try to incorporate that into your theories (rather than dismissing it as “drunk” or “woo-woo”) and attempting to improve the language of tradition to take those reports into account not just as an interesting but not serious phenomenon, but as primary evidence, you will join him in writing chaff.
There is, of course, the other old saying “In the country of the blind, the one-eyed man is king”, and I am very seriously suggesting that, in this field, the mystic (together, perhaps, with some other varieties of experience) is at least partially sighted. But H.G. Wells was pretty much on the mark in his story, in which the blind decide that the sighted visitor is deranged, probably as a result of having eyes, and propose that they be removed… That has been the fate of far too many mystics over the years, and perhaps I should be happy just to be sidelined as largely irrelevant. Though my scientific rationalist self rails at the ignoring of so much primary data…