It’s Lent, and (for the fourth time) I’m currently following Peter Rollins’ “Atheism for Lent” course. The term was coined by the philosopher and theologian Merold Westphal, who proposed giving up God for Lent, rather than giving up something mundane.
I strongly recommend this. There’s a cost, but it’s fairly modest, and you get a lot of material – and a lot to think about. I support Pete on Patreon, so I get most of his output without paying anything more. I’ve always posted something in response to the AfL content, which changes year to year, so it’s worth going through again just for that, but there’s also a facebook group and the reactions there bring in new takes on it every year. This year I’ve not posted anything here yet – the world has gone slightly crazy, and other things (including another online course and a glut of editing work) have intervened to leave me little time for contemplative writing, but I’m now effectively locked in at home for the next twelve weeks and have at least partly adjusted to that, so…
For those who aren’t familiar with it, week one of AfL is an introduction, week two comprises standard atheistic critiques, week three considers the mystics, week four is the materialists, week five is “death of God” theology, week six covers some inventive theologies since that and week seven deals with Pete’s “Pyrotheology”. We’re in week five at the moment. Let’s backtrack a little, though.
My overall reaction to week two is always pretty much that of Archbishop Rowan Williams who, when asked how he got on with the celebrated atheist Richard Dawkins when they were both faculty at the same Oxford college, said he had no problem. “What about his strident atheism?” was asked, and Williams responded “It’s not a problem – the God he doesn’t believe in, I don’t believe in either”. This year, that came back to me hugely in week four, which started with Ludwig Feuerbach and went on to cover Marx, Joe Hill, Emma Goldman, Freud and Nietzsche. Pete has helpfully recorded a talk on Feuerbach, Marx and Hegel which is publically available, which means I can actually link to something he’s said on the subject.
Now, as I’ve written about before, I was an evangelical atheist by the time I was 9, and I’d probably have carried on being a scientific rationalist materialist and not concerning myself with God or religion at all had I not had an overwhelming mystical experience out of the blue when I was 14. It was a very good experience, sufficiently so that I both wanted to talk about it with others, so I needed a language of expression for it – scientific rationalism really doesn’t express mystical experience well! – and wanted to experience it again, so I was looking for practices, substances or concepts which would produce more of the same. In the search for this, I explored every avenue available to me over the next ten years or so, through my last few years at school and my time at university (studying theoretical Physics, at least as far as the university and my BSc were concerned), eventually arriving at practices which I concluded at least tended to improve the chances of me having peak mystical experiences (nothing I know of guarantees them) and which, by the time I was at university, gave me a low level mystical sensibility which was available merely by pausing for a moment and turning my mind in “the right direction”. OK, it was a bit like riding a bicycle – you learn how by doing it, and explaining how you do it is near impossible.
The trouble with Feuerbach, from my point of view, is that he starts by excluding (these days, a common term is “bracketing out”) mystical experience from his critique. Now, I accept his observation that the vast majority of religionists are not mystics (or, at least, in his day were not mystics, as some interesting recent studies have shown that nearly half the population in some Western countries say that they have had at least some kind of experience which could be labelled “mystical). Certainly, back in the late 60’s and early 70’s, there were relatively few people I talked with (and I talked with people obsessively about the subject) who were clearly mystics themselves. Feuerbach was writing a century earlier, and if the trend I see between the 70’s and today is projected back, there were probably very few mystics around.
The thing is, in my studying of various religious and religion-adjacent traditions, I had come to the conclusion which I first saw expressed in F.C. Happold’s book “Mysticism: A study and anthology”, that at the heart of any religion was at least one mystic, often more. Eastern religions, it seems to me, have always been more accepting of their mystics than the Christian West, and it was very attractive to me to “go eastern” like Alan Watts (whose work I encountered while at university). I ended up with a mainly Christian concept-set and praxis for complicated reasons which I’ll maybe write about separately, but have frequently been frustrated by Christianity, once to the extent of writing “the whole history of Christian theology is of non-mystics misinterpreting the writings of mystics”, which was a drastic overstatement, but which I think has a strong kernel of truth in it.
In other words, I don’t think you get a religion unless you have a mystic or two in there, and in the case of Christianity, I identify Jesus, the writer of the Fourth Gospel and Paul as being foundational mystics (as Jesus wrote nothing himself, it is thinly possible that some of the other gospel writers were mystics but that Jesus wasn’t, but as I find massive mystical sensibility in both the gospels of Matthew and of Thomas, I tend to think that Jesus himself was the foundational mystic, and to me, his career makes perfect sense as that of someone strongly affected by mystical sensibility).
When Feuerbach brackets out mystics, therefore, I see him as bracketing out what is really the whole point of the religion. That struck me very forcibly this year, and I came close to stopping bothering with AfL for the remaining weeks. However, I persevered, and observed through Marx, Joe Hill, Emma Goldman and Freud, at least, that what they were talking about was the way the followers of Christianity were acting as a result of their tradition’s developed ideas in economics, social organisation and psychology. Nietzsche I leave out – his wild vision might just possibly have something of the mystic about it.
It also struck me that they were taking a view rather similar to that of B.F. Skinner, who thought of psychology purely in terms of the actions it results in. This is regarded these days in virtually the entire psychological establishment as an excessively reductionist view. Yes, organised religion does produce results such as those criticised by Marx, Hill, Goldman and Freud, but in each of their cases, I could criticise them on the basis that, if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail, and also on the basis that they neglect the fact that even if you remove all of the interpretational and philosophical superstructure of religion, you are still going to have people having mystical experiences, which are experiences of God. There is an experiential reality there which they are completely missing.
Week six has so far covered Bonhoefer’s “religionless Christianity”, Tillich’s idea of absolutes and Altizer’s “Death of God” concept. All of those are, to a great extent, philosophers (philosophical theologians) trying to modify the philosophical content of Christianity in the light of the failure of traditional ideas of God; Tillich does in his work express an appreciation of mysticism, but in essence he is using terms in philosophical theology to attempt to arrive at something rigorous. I can’t claim to have completely got my head round Altizer’s work yet, and I’ve been living with it since, in my late teens, the then vicar of Selby Abbey caused a major stir by preaching an Easter sermon based on Altizer; I had several conversations with him following that. The other two, however, seem to me to be trying to do something with philosophy which philosophy is not equipped to do, to produce something coherent out of mystical experience.
One of the major features of a large amount of mystical writing is the “coincidenta oppositorum”, the coincidence of opposites. The mystics’ experience of God is best conveyed poetically, I think (and poetry does not lend itself to philosophical analysis any more than it does to scientific rationalist analysis, which may be the same thing) but a frequent feature is the statement of two totally opposing things which are true simultaneously, an example being the common feature of mystical experience that the sense of self is at the same time expanded to fill the universe and contacted to nothingness, something I have felt many times. There are other totally contradictory statements which can be made similarly… Logic does not know what to do with that coincidence; in logic, and so in both science and philosophy, a proposition and its negation (or two mutually exclusive ideas) cannot both be true. But to the mystic, occasionally they just are.
[I may be assisted in the coincidence of mutually exclusive ideas by having been a Physicist – a basic requirement of undergraduate Physics is to accept wave-particle duality, for instance.]
We will, at the end of the course, arrive at Pete’s Hegel-inspired idea of there being a fundamental opposition, which he also describes as a deadlock, in the structure of reality. Now, I have some difficulty with overriding statements about the underlying nature of reality; if I’ve understood anything of Kant (which, I admit, is a dubious proposition), I’ve taken on board the concept that we really cannot say anything conclusive about ontology. Personally, I incine towards the idea that there are a number of competing ontologies and one may be useful in one circumstance whereas another is more useful in a second, but that maybe, just maybe, someone will eventually come up with an ontology which encompasses both and resolves the apparent conflict. But that is really just a pious hope; maybe Pete is right, and reality really is divided against itself. I keep following him in the hope that I may sometime actually be able to borrow his concept for myself; at the moment his thought and mine coincides sometimes but disagrees on other occasions.
There is certainly a very ample amount of absurdity evident in the world at the moment!