Posts Tagged ‘Spirituality’

The maddening thing about Mysticism

April 9th, 2017

… is, firstly, that it is possible that it might literally drive you mad. Karen Armstrong records in her autobiography the discovery that her own powerful mystical experiences emanated from her suffering from Temporal Lobe Epilepsy, Peter Rollins identifies the collapsing of the boundary between self and other as being characteristic of psychosis and Robert Sapolsky talks in his Stanford lecture on the neurobiology of religion about shamans clearly suffering from schizotypal personality disorder.

Granted, those instances serve to show that people with certain conditions commonly considered as “mental illness” also sometimes have what appear to be mystical experiences, not that having mystical experiences can lead to mental disorders. My own peak mystical experiences did not stem from any of the “usual suspects” among mental illnesses, and I don’t seem to have developed any of those conditions in the nearly 50 years since my first such experience.  In fairness, however,  I have since developed diagnosed depression and anxiety, neither of which is linked with mysticism as such, though the “dark night of the soul” talked of by some mystics looks a bit like depression. So, perhaps, you can chalk up “might lead to profound depression” as a “maddening thing”.

But that is to take the title far too literally, and in religion, a literal leaning is a dangerous thing (to quote Dennis Norden, who was not talking about religion…).

The thing which tends to madden other people about mysticism is the apparent inability of mystics to talk in nice, simple to understand, concrete terms about their experiences. As Peter Rollins also says, mystics tend to be “slippery”; there’s a tendency to say something and then say “but it wasn’t like that”. Eastern traditions perhaps do it better, with “The Tao that can be spoken is not the true Tao” and “What is the Buddha nature? The sound of one hand clapping”.  I can cheerfully talk about experiencing being nothing and everything at the same time (and no synthesis seems available) and say that that was being “one with God”, so God is all and nothing simultaneously as well (side note – most mystics could cheerfully say “I and my father are one” were it not for an anticipation of straightjackets these days or impromptu bonfires in times past, without claiming to be a person of the trinity…).

Believe me, mystics find it maddening as well, or at least this one does, and not a few others have written about the difficulty of putting into words what is an ineffable experience.

I should clarify here that I am really talking of the full blown, falling off your horse version of the experience. Lesser versions, which I tend to refer to as having “an edge” of the full experience can be described much more easily; Peter Rollins refers to mystical experience as “oceanic”, which would be a good description of the edge – but not of the full spectrum experience. I do not remotely decry the “edge” experience – it is very good in and of itself, and has served well to assuage my feeling of needing the full version for long periods of time.

The full experience has only come to me on a very limited number of occasions, and while I’ve written of it that it is “better than sex, drugs and rock & roll”, that is pretty faint praise of something which, when it originally happened to me, changed me utterly and dictated a course of living which I’ve adhered to ever since, as best I could. It’s sufficiently good that many people have given over their lives to its pursuit, sometimes walling themselves up in small cells, sometimes taking themselves off into the desert, sometimes squatting on pillars. The edge is something which you can actually experience while, for instance, walking down the road or doing the dishes, while the full spectrum would result in you walking into lamp posts or needing a new set of crockery.

So another problem, which could madden at least an outsider, is that mysticism pursued vigorously can leave you pretty useless to humanity generally.

The full spectrum version can also be intensely scary – another “maddening thing”. If the overpowering impression of having your “self” extinguished, ground into nothingness in relation to the immensity of all that is were not sufficient, it also not infrequently includes a taking stock of what has gone before – a little like the suggestion that when you die, your whole life flashes past your eyes. My best imagery for it from Christian sources would be that you are judged on the spot, with as much of the attendant hellfire and brimstone as your subconscious has internalised (to me, the Last Judgment is today, yesterday and every other day in history, though most of us aren’t summoned on a regular basis). Relatively few people of my acquaintance are anxious to sit before the Judgment Seat of the Lord today (rather than at some point in the future) – though I can also attest that it comes with a side-order of complete acceptance and forgiveness, at least in my case. Even then, however,  there is an imperative to restore anything damaged by your actions – and I am not fond of making grovelling apologies or striving to repair things which may actually be irreparable. Having your faults and wrongs “burned out of you by fire” is not comfortable.

So there’s also a concealed price. It’s a little as if the best experience I could wish for someone was ringed with electrified barbed wire – you can, perhaps, reach in and grasp it, but you’re likely to end up shocked and torn up a fair amount as well.

Lastly, despite my best endeavours over many years, I can’t turn to you and say “do this and you will definitely have a peak mystical experience”; I can point to many contemplative traditions and say “these give you a very fair chance of having an oceanic experience (a lesser mystical experience) if you stick with them long enough”, but the full spectrum experience? No, that seems obstinately to be an “out of the blue” occurrence with little or no rhyme or reason about why it happens when it does.

And that maddens me, and has maddened quite a few people to whom I’ve waxed lyrical about mysticism as well.

Believe me, if I knew how it happened, I’d be encouraging everyone to give it a try, even with caveats about electrified barbed wire!

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Save the Cheerleader?

February 9th, 2017

I have been wondering about going offline and avoiding all news, such is my current feeling that the world is “going to hell in a handcart” as my grandmother would have put it. Brexit here and Trump in the States makes me feel that everything is falling apart – “things fall apart, the centre cannot hold” as Eliot put it. In truth, though, I merely feel it’s doing that a lot faster than was previously the case; regular readers will know that I see neoliberal financialised capitalism as pervasive, becoming stronger (at least until it crashes on all of us) and as being “the System of Satan”. At least one facebook friend welcomes Brexit and Trump, possibly out of a Dada-esque liking of absurdity, possibly out of a feeling that only in the flames of the old can anything new be born. And I find it difficult to see anything I could do about it…

I think a significant factor in both the Brexit vote and the Trump win has been a large pool of people who have similarly been feeling that things have either been getting steadily worse or at least not getting better for them over the last decade or so. I can understand people thinking that Obama talked a good line, but that the average person didn’t see much (if any) improvement during his presidency, and similarly here a lot of people thought that Blair talked a good line, but things didn’t improve much for them (and the coalition and then the Conservative win just put the icing on that cake for them). With a young friend of mine, they then voted Brexit because “I want to see the world burn” – and I think the same may be true for a significant number of Trump voters. Enough desperation, and you’re ready to unleash destruction without having a clear plan to replace anything; to clutch at straws, or vote for men of straw.

I am frankly afraid of “tear it down, something will come up and it’s got to be better” attitudes – those have fuelled a lot of revolutions, and whether the end result has been positive or negative on balance, the common factor tends to be a lot of suffering. What to do in the meantime, though? How can I, not in a position of great power of influence and without the funds to buy even a very low ranking politican, have influence in a positive way?

For those with health, energy and youth on their side, I strongly suggest involvement in the political process – if you don’t like what politics is producing, do something to change that. It’s by no means too early to start campaigning for 2020; building up a strong organisation and widespread support can easily take three or four years.

In any event, though, I suggest doing the small right things. Richard Beck wrote about the “little way” a while ago, while I’ve meditated on the last few verses of Matthew 25 (you help the disadvantaged or marginalised, you help Jesus…). What springs to mind today, however, is that we people feel powerless to save the world, and it looks as if it might need saving. I remembered the repeated message in the first series of “Heroes”, which was “Save the cheerleader, save the world”.

Now, OK, in that case, saving the cheerleader did save the world, as the cheerleader saved the world. But there’s another very similar line in the Jewish Talmud: “Whoever destroys a soul, it is considered as if he destroyed an entire world. And whoever saves a life, it is considered as if he saved an entire world”. (Yerushalmi Talmud 4:9). This exemplifies a principle in Judaism which is more strongly expressed there than any other tradition, namely that any general thing has to have particular expression – a generalised compassion, for instance, is considered worthless unless you are compassionate in a practical way to a particular person. Perhaps this echoes the particularity of Judaism itself; Israel is God’s chosen people, which prompted William Norman Ewer to write “How odd / of God / to choose / the Jews”, exciting people to claim this was antisemitic and write rejoinders such as Ogden Nash’s “But not so odd / as those who choose / a Jewish God / but spurn the Jews”.

Actually, though, I think it was probably meant in a kindly spirit. Many Rabbis have, in the past, expressed some surprise that Israel was chosen, and some have just rested on that rather than tried to find hidden reasons. There had to be a particular expression in order for the general compassion and care of God to be demonstrated (just as I would say there had to be a particular incarnation of God in Jesus in order for the original incarnation in existence as a whole to be demonstrated, though that may go too far for the non-panentheist).

When the opportunity arises, save someone. If enough of us do that, the world will get saved.

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One man and his God?

December 3rd, 2016

I’ve been struck over the last couple of days by two articles. The first, an interview with Donald Hoffman, a professor of cognitive science, contains these words:-

“I call it conscious realism: Objective reality is just conscious agents, just points of view. Interestingly, I can take two conscious agents and have them interact, and the mathematical structure of that interaction also satisfies the definition of a conscious agent. This mathematics is telling me something. I can take two minds, and they can generate a new, unified single mind. Here’s a concrete example. We have two hemispheres in our brain. But when you do a split-brain operation, a complete transection of the corpus callosum, you get clear evidence of two separate consciousnesses. Before that slicing happened, it seemed there was a single unified consciousness. So it’s not implausible that there is a single conscious agent. And yet it’s also the case that there are two conscious agents there, and you can see that when they’re split. I didn’t expect that, the mathematics forced me to recognize this. It suggests that I can take separate observers, put them together and create new observers, and keep doing this ad infinitum. It’s conscious agents all the way down.”

The second is a piece by Keith Frankish, a philosophy lecturer in a similar area of research, who says, among other things, “As well as being embodied, mental processes can also be extended to incorporate external artefacts. Clark and fellow philosopher of mind David Chalmers propose what’s since been called the Parity Principle, which says that if an external artefact performs a function that we would regard as mental if it occurred within the head, then the artefact is (for the time being) genuinely part of the user’s mind. To illustrate this, Clark and Chalmers describe two people each trying to work out where various shapes fit in a puzzle. One does it in his head, forming and rotating mental images of the shapes, the other by pressing a button to rotate shapes on a screen. Since the first process counts as mental, the second should too, Clark and Chalmers argue. What matters is what the object does, not where it is located. (Compare how a portable dialysis machine can be part of a person’s excretory system.) The rationale is the same as that for identifying the mind with the brain rather than the soul; the mind is whatever performs mental functions. “

These seem to me to give a real basis for some of the intuitions carried by the mystical experience; firstly (per Frankish) that the boundary of the self is extremely “fuzzy” and can be much smaller than the extent of the “mind” or extend much further than the extent of the physical body, and secondly (per Hoffman) the feeling of being part of and connected with something far larger than the self, which something has at least some characteristics of a consciousness (or, if you like, “person”).

I was searching for an analogy to use for this, and thought of my wife (who is currently starting training our one year old german shepherd for working trials) and recalled the BBC television series “One man and his dog”. Watching a well-handled sheepdog herd sheep, the dog becomes very much an extension of the handler, which is two consciousnesses acting as one, despite the fact that the dog (the subservient partner) has a consciousness all of its own. That’s something my wife is currently battling with, as Lutz has a very well developed willfullness all of his own, and she isn’t yet completely attuned to the subtle signals Lutz gives off about his intentions.

Now, I’m sceptical about the validity of Hoffman’s more general claim that, in essence, it’s “consciousness all the way down” and that we should think of the whole of existence as a collection of consciousnesses, or at least proto-consciousnesses. That said, Frankish makes me think about Heidegger’s picture of the man wielding the hammer, in which the hammer becomes in a sense a part of the person wielding it. I would myself be inclined to think that for something to be a consciousness, it would need some sense of self, some feedback loop giving it a concept of what it is in itself. We certainly have that, and frankly I think Lutz does as well, although in his case it isn’t nearly as well developed (if I were asked to guess why, I’d say that it’s because he doesn’t have the same memory retention characteristics as humans do). But in the case of “One man and his dog”, I think we have a clear case of a single consciousness temporarily formed out of two – and it might be possible to stretch and say that the ensemble of man, dog and flock of sheep became a single consciousness for at least short periods.

Suddenly it doesn’t seem quite so far-fetched that I could write of feeling at one with a consciousness greater than myself of which I am integrally part…

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On the other side of the “end times”…

November 30th, 2016

Richard Beck has a great series of blog posts on preterism (the belief that the apocalyptic statements of Jesus refer to the events of 70 CE, when the Temple was destroyed and, to a great extent, Palestinian Judaism with it – the second had to wait for the Bar Kochba revolt of 135 to be fully the case, but if you take the “end times” as being 70-137, that would be full preterism). Here’s the first, and the most recent is here.

After a lot of thinking, I’ve arrived at a full preterist understanding of the gospels myself, in that I do not think any “end times” described there have yet to come. This means that while I tend to read Jesus mostly as Marcus Borg’s “spirit man” (a mystic, in other words), I also read him as an apocalyptic prophet, prophesying the appalling actions of the Romans in 65-70 and 135-137. And I read him as a social and religious reformer (albeit not proposing reform imposed from the outside, but resulting from a metanoia, repentance, a turning to God and away from the courses of action being taken in those days).

However, just because I think we are nearly 2000 years after the “end times” of the gospels doesn’t mean that some of my more conservative fellow Christians are completely incorrect, and that we are not, perhaps, looking at a new “end times” – certainly, all of the factors mentioned by George Monbiot in a recent Guardian article are cause for concern.

But, of course, this merely means that when Richard stresses that the Kingdom of God is already here, among us, that is still the case. There is hope – but there may also need to repent of a lot of things which we are currently doing.

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Nevertheless, God…

November 8th, 2016

Some while ago I wrote a post with the provocative title “God – WTF?”. Having reread it, my thinking has not changed all that much. However, another slight spin on the topic came to mind earlier this week, when I was engaged in my other part time occupation of research assistant in a chemical process lab.

We were looking at a process which we had gleaned from a scientific paper, and (inter alia) speculating about how this particular reaction actually worked. If we can work out how it functions, we have a hope, at least, of making it work better – and the commonly used process for this chemical is only about 27% efficient; we want something as close to 100% as we can get.

Now, you can’t see a reaction happening, as such. Sure, you can detect that the stuff in the flask has changed colour, or become more or less viscous, or has started (or stopped) giving off bubbles. You can (as we did) take samples out at regular intervals and look at them with various instruments (in our case, chiefly a UV-Visible spectrum spectrometer, though we have also resorted to high pressure laser chromatography and, by sending samples away, mass spectroscopy and nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy). These techniques let us at least guess at what the actual chemicals present in the reaction at that point are (the pinpoint identifications common in forensics based TV programmes are rather beyond what can actually be achieved in many labs, and rely on someone having identified a chemical previously so you have a characteristic trace for it).

None of this, however, is actually seeing the reaction, particularly as current theory holds that temporary intermediate chemicals are formed and quickly reformed in the type of reaction we are looking at, and will not be seen if you take out a sample and look at it at leisure – it will by then have reacted on or gone back to it’s original constituents. We are inferring what is actually happening from what we see, which is definitely second-order (and, of course, as with the equipment I have listed we are not looking directly at a chemical, we are looking at a trace on a screen produced by some physical process plus a set of fairly complex electronics, usually dissolved in something which itself affects the result).

One of the things we have decided during the last week is that the intermediate chemical in this process is not what the original scientific paper said it was. We have a number of possibilities, but it is pretty definitely not what the original authors (who were writing quite a while ago and probably didn’t have instant UV-Vis and HPLC results available to them) said it was.

This all reminded me of the position I was talking of in that post. I’m a mystic – I have experienced (and hope to experience again) something which I find past mystics have labelled “God”. I do not know (at least not with confidence, given a rather sceptical and enquiring nature) what that something is. It may be something which could reasonably be talked of as a person; certainly most theology in the Abrahamic traditions of Judaism, Christianity, Islam and their offshoots talks of God that way. It may be something more akin to a process – as John Caputo puts it “what is going on in the name of God”. It may be an emergent property, possibly an emergent property of mind, as I’ve speculated previously. It might even be just a meme (and even Richard Dawkins would agree that it is at least one meme…).

What I see from atheists, however, appears to me to be along the lines of “well, it isn’t A, and it isn’t B, and it isn’t C, so it doesn’t exist”. This, to me, is like saying that if in the experiment I mention we have ruled out the possibility of the reaction involving compound A, compound B or coumpound C, then the reaction isn’t happening. I can see it happening in the reaction vessel, even if I don’t know exactly how it is happening. Likewise, I can experience God (to a greater or lesser degree) without needing to know what it is that I am experiencing with any clarity – and, for me, that is a difficult thing to write, because I want to know with clarity how everything works!

It isn’t just atheists who are culpable here. A facebook friend involved in a webinar recently talked of people in his past (at a seminary) who held that if you had the wrong “doctrine of God”, you were damned. That, to my mind, is saying that the compound absolutely has to be compound A, whatever anyone else says – and, in a sense, that if it isn’t, for you, most likely to be compound A then, again, the reaction won’t happen.

Galileo is reputed to have said, in response to Church statements that the earth could not move (in order to orbit the sun) “eppur si muove” (nevertheless, it moves). God exists (or insists) and does what God does irrespective of your doctrine of God and irrespective of those who say that if we don’t understand it, it can’t happen.

For some value of “exists”…

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Musing…

October 26th, 2016

Peter Enns mentions, in a post which is mostly about incarnation, the fact that some scholars don’t take inspiration and revelation seriously.

Probably, the more “liberal” your theology (or “progressive” if you like) the less you’re likely to regard these as important terms. However, by almost any standards other than out and out atheist, I’m pretty much firmly in the liberal/progressive camp, theologically speaking – but I do take both of these concepts very seriously indeed.

That’s because I’m at root a mystic. I wouldn’t be writing this kind of post or reading a stack of theology, biblical study and spirituality material if it weren’t for that fact; the me aged between about 8 and about 15 was a complete atheist, and was frankly happy with that state – and there’s probably no room in an atheist, materialist worldview for inspiration or revelation. A mystical experience, however, whatever framework of interpretation you apply to it, comes with a large dose of self-verification – in other words, it tells you that it’s true, and more true than anything experienced through more mundane channels.

That said, it’s also incredibly difficult to communicate (at least to anyone who isn’t themselves a mystic) – mere words just don’t quite seem to hack it. They might for a poet, I suppose, but I don’t think I’d ever qualify as a poet (an occasional versifier at best…). I don’t think my “muse” is poetic.

I keep that very centrally in mind when talking either of my own experience or of the words of others which have been widely identified as “inspired”; the experience in and of itself may well be completely true, but by the time it’s filtered through the concept structures and language I have available, in my case at least it’s only somewhat true – and I expect that to be the case with any other person’s inspired statements. That means that I need to do some digging within the words used to try to discern what the original inspiration may have been – and that is particularly true where the original writer was using a set of concept structures and language which are foreign to me. On the most simple level, I need it translated into English. However, I also need it translated from, variously, a first-century Hebrew set of concepts or a first century Greek set of concepts when dealing with scripture, and translating into a modern-to-post-modern set of concepts.

The “post-modern” bit of that is a bit of a saving grace. The viewpoints Dr. Enns is talking of are, by and large, modern – and a modern view of inspiration is that it needs to be entirely rationally sustainable and reducible to material elements; this is what produces an insistence on an historical Adam and Eve, an historical recent creation and an historical flood. Those events have to have actually happened exactly as the literal words describe, otherwise they’re of no use whatsoever – a view agreed on by atheists and fundamentalists alike.

I can try to look behind the literal meaning and seek the inspiration which gave rise to to that kind of expression, given (in those cases) a several-thousand-year old Hebrew viewpoint on the way things were. A lot of what I post here involves that kind of process; I am working through scripture, reinterpreting it along the way as I am forced to do by not having an Iron Age Hebrew worldview and concept structures, and I am working through doctrines with the same compulsion caused by not having a first century Greek worldview and concept structures (particularly their philosophical ideas).

I haven’t got round to all scripture yet. There are some passages of scripture in which I find it so far impossible to discern an inspiration which I can regard as “true” – particularly those passages in which God is seen, ostensibly, as counselling genocide (the Amalekites in the Hebrew Scriptures, for instance) or as effecting it himself (the flood, or some interpretations of Revelation, for instance). Maybe those will never make sense to me as being inspired by or a revelation from God. Maybe they weren’t, and were inserted in what is definitely in part an inspired set of works by some thoroughly uninspired individual. I prefer, however, for the moment, to assume that at some point in the future I may work out how it is that they are divinely inspired, and in the meantime just not act on any of them which does not seem to me to display injunctions to love, not hate, and to peace, not strife.

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Growing churches and flying buttresses

September 5th, 2016

It would seem that the church in England has stopped declining, from this article. Others question whether this is a pause before Church of England attendance (at the least) falls off a cliff – there are a lot of regular attenders in most congregations who are over 70, often over 80, and they will not be there in 20 years, whereas most Anglican congregations have far fewer people under 30.

However, the growth talked about in the article is generally in the sub-30 year old group, and is most commonly the result of congregations either planted by Holy Trinity Church Brompton or which fit pretty well into the HTB mould. The primary vehicle of evangelism for them is the Alpha course, about which I’ve written quite a few posts (it isn’t used solely by Anglicans, several other denominations use it as well).

What we are seeing, in other words, is the replacement of the Anglican Church as it has been with a set of clones of HTB, and the main evangelical technology being the Alpha course (although most HTB style churches also do street evangelism and the non-talking type of evangelism which I favour, caring for the poor, sick, homeless and marginalised).

A little under five years ago I was persuaded by a friend to go along to a set of talks and discussions about aspects of faith and various features of the modern world (such as science) being held at St. Michael le Belfrey, York. This was an early foray into trying to connect with people again after several years of being “incurvatus in se” as a result of chronic, serious depression and chronic anxiety. I asked some pointed questions, and the organiser took me on one side after the last of that series of talks and asked if I’d like to attend an Alpha course.

Somewhat taken aback, I said I didn’t know – I had already attended one and a half Alpha courses some years earlier (I was invited to stop going to the second, ostensibly because I might become an “Alpha addict”, but more probably because I displayed no sign of stopping asking awkward questions, which was actually a mistake on their part because I was there as company for someone else who hadn’t done the course and who promptly stopped going…) and I said I would perhaps be a disruptive influence. The organiser said that was fine, Alpha welcomed discussion and my presence would allay his fears that no-one would ask any of the difficult questions. So I accepted – and then found that I was listed as a “helper”.

A week before the Alpha “Spirit weekend”, my depression lifted overnight – was this Godly intervention? My friends from the course certainly thought so. Was it because I’d been a member of a recovery community for six years? My friends there certainly thought so. Was it because my antidepressants had just changed? Possible, I suppose, but the effects shouldn’t have been seen for at least a week or two, and the effect was instant, at least within 8 hours. This enabled me to do what I’d been thinking about for some weeks, and actually attend a service at the church – and I carried on doing that until earlier this year, when a combination of circumstances made me wish for something closer to home.

St. Mikes fitted a lot of my wishes for a church. It was welcoming of everyone (even people like me with seriously nonstandard theologies), it did quite a bit of social gospel work and it had a cell group structure into which I slotted myself. I do massively better in groups of 5 to 10 than I do in larger gatherings, and I really like studying scripture and sharing interpretations of it and reactions to it.

Over the next three years I helped with another 7 Alpha courses, assuming that by “helped” you include not only the grunt work but casting some doubt in discussion on most of the apologetics used. However, the people running the Alphas changed, and with them went a positive wish to engage alternative perspectives. The previous Alpha coordinators went off to seminary (which may be a good sign for the future of the clergy!) and my home group disintegrated, with several members going off to other churches. It seemed that the season when it was right for me to be there had passed…

What I learn from the article I link to is that increasingly, Anglican churches are going to fit the mould of St. Mikes and its like. This is something about which I am a little ambivalent.

The plus side is that they are very welcoming to the “seeker” and the new member, at least initially, and in at least some cases are prepared to accept people with divergent theologies as long term members of their communities. They stand some chance, through Alpha, of markedly increasing the number of self-identifying Christians, and could at least conceivably provide congregations with the size and diversity to cope with a variety of styles of worship and, just possibly, even a variety of styles of theology – it would not need much tweaking of their structures to achieve the last of these, but might need a lot of tweaking of their attitude to theology. They also have enough young people to make social gospel endeavours practical (which by and large they are not for ageing congregations in expensive-to-maintain structures), and they definitely have the will to do that.

However, they have not at least so far, so far as I can see, implemented the changes which would be needed to accommodate variant theologies, and they are producing significant numbers of people who think that “The Gospel” is basically just Penal Substitutionary Atonement. I can recall the confusion caused in one young and enthusiastic  church worker when I said I didn’t much like PSA, and he said “but that’s the Gospel…”, so I outlined another six or seven atonement theories to him and pointed out that none of them was actually part of any of the Anglican statements of faith.

The sponsorship by churches in the HTB mould of new seminaries such as St. Melitus (mentioned in the article) and St. Barnabas (my more local version) seems to me likely to produce generations of “ones size fits all” theologies in clergy, and it has definitely seemed to me that St. Mikes was moving in that direction.

And I have difficulty feeling at ease in such a congregation, as do a lot of people who would now describe themselves as “post evangelical”, “liberal” or “radical”. Unless they are open to the idea that people may have very differing theologies from the standard evangelical rubric, they will continue to make uneasy, alienate or exclude all of these strands of Christian thought, and by and large, however apparently welcoming of variant viewpoints they may be in Alpha discussions, at root they are not open to this; the way is extremely narrow which leads to salvation for them (Matt. 7:14) rather than the father’s house having many mansions (John 14:2) or Jesus having other flocks (John 10:16).

Looking to the future, then, what is going to become of those whose thoughts either start to move beyond the evangelical model or which cannot bring themselves anywhere close to it in the first place? Are there going to be no churches, or even no communities, where they can find a home, at least not within Anglicanism – and the same may well apply to Christianity more generally?

I suppose that to some extent, this post is a lament. For many years I used to say that in respect of the church, I was like a flying buttress – I supported it, but from outside. For a while with St. Mikes, I felt more inside than outside – and now I feel outside again.

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Timings – questioning the panel

August 15th, 2016

After day 1, I was mulling over some of the things said by the speakers, and put together things which Pete Rollins and Rob Bell had said to form a question – which, as it was solidly in Roger Bretherton’s area of expertise, seemed to me like a good question for the last session to put to the whole panel of speakers. As it ended up multi-part and a little long, I took a few moments in breaks to write it down and gave it to Pete on the morning of day 2, thinking that it was only fair not to ambush everyone with it.

As it turned out, Pete talked about it with his fellow speakers (he said it was a pretty decent question), but suspected the organiser wouldn’t want to use it, and he was indeed right. I gather the organiser’s reason given was that he thought he’d mess it up reading it out, but actually the questions he put were just right to wrap up the event, and my question would have opened up new avenues which wouldn’t necessarily have been helpful.

As nearly as I can reconstruct it, but with a little more detail, here’s the question:-

Peter talked about the existential lack at the root of being, which (as a gift) gave us our individuality, and in the process said that people who didn’t feel this separation from “the other” were commonly labelled psychotic.

Rob, on the other hand, talked with conviction about God being present in all places. Now, I’m not sure whether he did this as a result of having a mystical experience of oneness with everything, but it is the kind of thing someone who has had such an experience is guaranteed to say.

Now, I’m a panentheist mystic; I wouldn’t have followed the spiritual path leading to me being at Timings had it not been for an out of the blue peak unitive mystical experience which hit me when I was 14. One powerful feature of unitive mystical experiences, no matter which religious tradition they occur in, is that the boundary between the self and the other weakens or vanishes. (At the time, I was intellectually an evangelical atheist, so it was extremely unexpected and very life-changing.) It was a sufficiently good experience to set me on a path of trying to repeat it. (I’ve tended to say it was “better than sex, drugs and rock & roll”, though that was in hindsight as I hadn’t experienced any of those aged 14).

However, if I take Pete at his word, this means that my initial experience may have been psychotic.

I have in mind here Robert Sapolsky’s Stanford lecture on the evolutionary neurophysiology behind religion. Sapolsky identifies, for instance, Luther as having created his theology out of an obsessive-compulsive personality disorder, several other religious giants as probably having temporal lobe epilepsy and shamans (he thinks shamanism is at the root of many other religious leaders) as having schizotypal personality disorder.

Part 1 of the question, therefore, particularly directed at Pete, is “Are we to believe that all powerful religious experiences are the result of mental disorder?”.

Part 2 is “Does it matter?”

Part 3 is particularly addressed to Rob, and is “I’ve been preaching for years that an unitive mystical experience is something everyone might wish to aspire to – have I been suggesting to them that they should become psychotic or otherwise mentally ill?”

and Part 4 is “Does that matter?”

As it turned out, I was able to have a chat with Roger Bretherton after the last session and ask him his thoughts. He suggested that this kind of “surge” or “flow” experience didn’t completely fit the definition of psychosis. He also mentioned to me an incident where the hypnotist and illusionist Derren Brown had induced an experience in an atheist who afterwards didn’t want to accept that it was not a “true” experience, which I found interesting (I think I’ve found a video of that incident on You Tube, but it’s blocked by Channel 4 in the UK; most of his “atheist conversions” seem to have reverted to atheism later). I’d have liked to do the same with Rob Bell, but I had stretched my elastic to breaking point by that point, and for that reason and because Pete looked as if he was in the same condition (and admitted to me he was) I left discussion with Pete to a promised email exchange later.

My thoughts? Well, as I mentioned, when my first peak experience arrived, I was an evangelical atheist, and it was a severe shock to my system. My first thought was, in fact, that there was something wrong with my brain, and I went to my GP. Apparently at the time there wasn’t (though in a spirit of complete openness, there is now – I have diagnosed PTSD, chronic depression and chronic anxiety, though only the anxiety is really a significant ongoing problem and I manage that fairly reasonably). It didn’t involve any of the other factors which might provoke similar experience, such as drugs, sleeplessness, starvation, oxygen deprivation or electromagnetic stimulation of the brain either. I do not know why it happened when it did.

As I mentioned before, it was a VERY good experience. Clearly dopamine, seratonin or both were involved, because those are how the brain gets to feel really good. I therefore put aside worries about why it happened, and went looking for a repetition by any means which I could find written about as tending to produce mystical experience. If anyone’s faith tradition talked about mystical experience, I tried any techniques they said produced it.

For what it’s worth, the conclusion I eventually came to was that none of these would (at least in me) guarantee a repeat, but some of them looked as if they increased the likelihood of a peak experience and definitely were conducive to lower level experience (which I’ve tended to describe as an “edge” of full mystical experience) but which was sufficient for maintenance purposes. Sometimes there would be something a lot stronger, and that was good, but you couldn’t go round in a peak experience all the time, as you’d be non-functional for almost any other purpose. Being a fundamentally lazy individual, I hit on a set of low level practices which did this job without taking up too much time or energy, and didn’t involve anything illegal or dangerous.

Courtesy of The Religion Forum, I’ve been able to go through the various physiological symptoms and the circumstances with a friend, George Ashley (another psychology professor, now sadly deceased) in detail; George was an out and out atheist and was pretty certain there must be some mental abnormality there, but he couldn’t put his finger on it – he finally put it down to “a brain fart”, bless him. Another friend from there, Mel Bain, remarked to me that it sounded as if it was addictive – it sounded, he wrote, as if I was “Jonesing” for another “fix” of it – and I took that on board; it is definitely that.

Does it matter what caused it, then? I don’t think so. I have in mind Karen Armstrong, who found that her own peak experiences were the result of temporal lobe epilepsy and went through a period of atheism as a result; she however eventually seems to have concluded that the origin of the experience didn’t matter, and is now what she describes as a “freelance monotheist”; she has a fairly serious mystical streak to some of her writing. I have in mind several people with bipolar disorder, some of them famous (like Stephen Fry and Robin Williams), some of them people I’ve come to know well (which category doesn’t include famous people). Many of them value their manic phases so highly (despite knowing they’re part of a mental illness) that they won’t take drugs which would prevent them, and in some of those cases (Fry and Williams) the world would be a poorer place without their manic genius. But, of course, it eventually killed Robin Williams… I had my own taste of mania for 12 days three years ago when my depression lifted, and I can understand their attitude – it was an incredibly creative and productive time for me. But I wouldn’t have wanted it to go on much longer, I’d have burned out. I think of Van Gogh, as well, who probably painted his amazing works out of schizophrenia. Clearly, some mental conditions labelled as illnesses can produce remarkable things – and, indeed, as Sapolsky says, the people of a village he mentions are very glad that they have one schizotypal shaman – though they wouldn’t want a second one.

The second “does it matter?” is maybe more of a worry. I’ve rhapsodised about peak mystical experience for nearly 50 years now, and the thought that this may only be available through what is viewed as mental abnormality does concern me. Certainly all the experimentation and discussion with other mystics I’ve done over the years inclines me to think that at least the most intense forms of unitive experience are only felt by relatively few people, though many more describe experiences which I think might be taken as a base, worked on through various practices and perhaps might become more intense as a result.

But do I want to encourage others to go down that road? Initially I most definitely did – it was a supremely good experience, and I wanted others to have that. It had a lot of pluses from my point of view. It made me, for instance, a much nicer human being (it’s hard not to think of others when the border between what is you and what is them is blurred or nonexistent, and massively increased empathy is a typical result). It makes it pretty near impossible to feel an existential lack of “the other”; it strongly tends to stop one being at all worried by the thought of death. It also gave me a peculiar certainty- not intellectual certainty (I am still baffled by that-which-is-God) but emotional/spiritual certainty. I used to write sometimes that I didn’t need to believe in God, I experienced God.

A concern was that it might be that not everyone could have such a peak experience, even with a lot of work, and I started early on warning that nothing seemed to guarantee a peak experience – certainly, I never found a way of guaranteeing one in myself, merely guaranteeing an “edge” experience. Some of the well attested routes are illegal where I live (many drugs, for instance); some are physically dangerous.

Mel Bain’s comment also concerned me – yes, I found these experiences addictive, and that led me to warn against that aspect as well.

However, there is another potential downside which has concerned me more since my long period of depressive illness (which happily seems at the least to be in remission, albeit medicated, since 2013), and that is that this is something which messes with your psychology, and any amateur messing with psychology is potentially dangerous. I’ve interpreted that depressive illness as at least partly my “dark night of the soul”, which several mystics have identified as a normal part of a mystic’s journey. However, it was also most definitely mental illness, and it nearly killed me, several times; I also spent some years (10 or so) frankly despairing of it ever being over, and I’m not sure there was ever any guarantee it would be.

That is not an experience I feel I can in conscience encourage others to go through. It also leads me to warn that going seriously down the contemplative mystical path can lead to mental illness and possibly death. Pete’s warning about psychosis only feeds a little into that – depression is quite bad enough!

It might have been easier to deal with, less dangerous and more certain of coming to an end had I identified it as a “dark night” and had I had a spiritual director (rather than or in addition to psychiatrists and psychologists) at the time; that is perhaps the only saving aspect – but from my own experience it is only a possibility.

So I have to say that the mystical path comes with a pretty severe health warning.

However, so does any other technique which tends to produce radical psychological changes in people, including (unfortunately) the standard Evangelical “pray the sinners’ prayer and give your heart to Jesus” model, particularly if you also experience the “slain in the spirit” phenomenon. There are a lot of cases of people scarred by past experience of the Evangelical mould of conversion and its follow-on (which I tend to criticise all the more because, to my mind, it seriously fails to deal adequately with spiritual growth after the initial conversion). There are some theologies, as well, which are particularly conducive to producing or worsening anxiety disorders or which at the least exacerbate obsessive-compulsive tendencies.

Radical psychological change, it seems, comes with radical dangers.

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I would mention that one result of the “beneficial” aspects of the unitive experience is that I find it difficult to engage with some of Pete’s work other than on a purely intellectual level, because he regards the existential lack as fundamental, and the fear of death as not much less so – and I don’t really feel those.

 

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What’s love got to do with it?

July 17th, 2016

There are at the moment a set of posts on Patheos about the intersection (or not) of faith and reason. Many of them merit a read.

One of those which most connects with me is from Barry Harvey, who (to my mind rightly) points out that:- “When we talk about faith in relation to reason we naturally focus on its cognitive aspect, but this isn’t its only or most significant dimension. As Augustine noted, to believe in God is ultimately to love, delight in, and draw near to God, and to become a member of the body of Christ. The cognitive aspect does contribute to this understanding of faith, for we can only love, delight in, and draw near to that which we know. At the same time, however, we can never reduce faith to a set of abstract beliefs to which someone gives mental assent.”

I’ve complained about the identification of faith with intellectual assent to a set of propositions before. That is belief, in one sense of the word, but it doesn’t amount to faith, which (as Harvey and Augustine point out) is a matter of personal relationship with God. If I say, for instance, that I have faith in my wife, this is not saying that I accept a set of propositions about her. It is to say that I love and trust her.

And, of course, love is an emotion. For the record, I don’t think it can be a “second hand emotion”, referring to the song my title is drawn from; you can’t love someone second hand. In this respect, I tend to think that the evangelicals (who I normally don’t see eye to eye on on very much) are right in stressing the need for a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. As they consider that Jesus Christ is the accessible aspect of God, this does not raise my theological hackles very much at all, though I might prefer to stipulate that what is required is a personal relationship with God. How someone conceives of God is, to me, much less important.

How, I ask, can you love someone you’ve never met? I don’t think that can truly be described as “love” – it sounds more like stalking to me – and yes, I think a lot of theologians past and present have been theological stalkers.

Is it rational, then? Well, frankly, of the set of options Patheos give, I would plump for “arational”. Love does not really have anything to do with rationality – it may be rational, it may be irrational, but that is supremely not the point.

So what I’m actually saying is “What’s reason got to do with it?”

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3D, 4D and Theology

June 21st, 2016

Peter Enns blogged recently about the task of Biblical Scholars, which he identifies as trying to find the best narrative which explains all of the evidence (in this case the narratives of the Bible), and I warmed to that – after all, this is what I do as a scientist (originally a Physics degree, now doing some occasional part time research in Chemistry) and is part of what I did as a lawyer when doing court work, particularly in criminal defence. He particularly likened his work to putting together a jigsaw, where perhaps 200 or so pieces are there out of a 1000 piece jigsaw, with some pieces which do not obviously seem to go together.

The thought which immediately sprang to mind was “But what if there are pieces from more than one jigsaw there?” That is something which has in fact happened to me a number of times, usually when there are just a few pieces which have strayed from another puzzle into this one, but occasionally when two or more puzzles have become completely mixed.

What, say, if the pieces were of a three-dimensional jigsaw, but we were interpreting them as only pieces of a two dimensional puzzle? What if they were indeed two dimensional representations of the same thing, but from a number of completely different directions?

Again, what if they were an attempt to combine several images into one, which would not make much sense as a two dimensional graphic unless you realised what was being attempted, as in Marcel Duchamp’s “Nude descending a staircase”, which looks to combine several viewpoints in space and in time.

Has this, I wondered, happened with the Bible? Of course, the standard conservative hermaneutic demands that the whole text, Old and New testaments, is all divinely inspired and is telling a single consistent story. Though most will say that they don’t hold to a theory of divine dictation, that is effectively what they end up with. This looks to me very much like deciding from the beginning that there is only one picture here. John Wesley, for instance, said that we must not “fragmentise” our study of scripture. “When a verse seems contrary to the overarching biblical message, we must look at the verse in question macrocosmically rather than microcosmically”. Was he right?

Slightly less conservative scholars will readily concede that the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament) are composed of a mosaic of texts composed at different times by different people with different agendas and which therefore reveal significantly different viewpoints. The documentary hypothesis, for instance, sees four major strains of thinking, and indeed several different conceptions of God. However, most scholars take the view that, underlying this, there is actually only one God at work throughout this collection of texts. Where there are different concepts of God (the Jahvist and Elohist traditions, for instance) they are just different views of one YHVH/Elohim deity.

There are, of course, a lot of themes in the Hebrew Scriptures. The dominant one is probably the redemption of Israel from slavery and return to the promised land, but there is also a strong narrative of prophetic challenge to kingly authority, God -v- mundane rulers, an increasing insistence on monotheism to the exclusion of “other gods” (OK, conservatives will try to tell me that the scriptures are monotheistic from the start, but that is not borne out by the text), and there’s a narrative of sin (usually collective sin) and how to make ones self right with God again. There are others, but these are probably the principal ones.

On to the New Testament, and the vast majority of scholars (and particularly those who are primarily theologians rather than biblical historians) are looking for a single narrative of the purpose of Jesus; many if not most will then refer this back to the Hebrew Scriptures and principally use them as a foundation for their NT work, seeing the themes of the NT prefigured in them. Most will acknowledge that the Fourth Gospel has a viewpoint radically different from the three synoptic gospels and that Paul and the author of James have significantly different stresses, but there is still a strong theological urge to find the same message in each strand, an underlying theory of what it was (or is) that Jesus did for us.

But what if there is more than one thing which Jesus did, more than one way in which he was significant which is of importance, and those things are not obviously connected except in the person of Jesus?

Some while ago I wrote a post titled “God: WTF?”, in which I suggested that the only appropriate response to peak mystical experience was something like “WTF?”; it is just too overwhelming and multi-faceted to make it susceptible to description (and the best attempts are wildly poetic rather than coldly analytic). The more I read of the New Testament writers, the more I think that they were struggling with the question “Jesus: WTF?”. At the most basic level, they knew he had lived, taught, healed, gathered a following, died and had then become alive again to some of his followers in some sense, and they knew that he was important. That is to say “IMPORTANT!”. Some of them experienced him as being present to them in, so far as I can understand it, much the same way as that in which I think of God as being present to me in peak mystical events – Paul and John, at least, are identified by F.C. Happold as “Christ-mystics”, and I agree; quite some number started to include him as a figure of worship.

It was not, however, sufficient to say “come and follow Jesus; this is what he said we should do”; they had to make sense of what they experienced about him. Starting with Paul, all the NT writers wrote using the vocabulary of talking about God which they had available, which was mostly the Hebrew Scriptures – and they mined every area of those in which they thought they could find an analogy to Jesus or a new way of considering his importance.

He needed to be like Moses, so he was saving his followers from some form of slavery, variously the Devil, or Sin, or the Romans. He needed to be like Elijah, so he was prophetic and worked miracles (a very similar set of miracles). He had died voluntarily at the hands of the occupying power, faithful to the last, like the Maccabean martyrs, so his death was an atonement, and was a substitution (the Maccabean martyrs arguably saved many others from death by their actions, and in dying they could be thought to suffer the death or failure to remain faithful – which in Judaism is often regarded as much the same thing – which may otherwise have come upon many Israelites).

He needed to be kingly, as being the Messiah, so naturally acquired titles similar to those of Caesar (for instance, Son of God), and he needed to be more universal than even Caesar, so gentiles and Jews both had to be included. He also needed to be priestly, so the author of Hebrews reinterpreted him as ascending to make an ultimate sacrifice (of himself) in the imagined heavenly Temple. As a sacrifice, he needed to recall the passover, so he was the passover lamb, but he also needed to recall the Feast of Atonement, so he was the Yom Kippur goat – or, actually, he was both of the Yom Kippur goats, the one which was ritually sacrificed and the one which bears all the sins of the people and is driven out of the assembly.

Out of all these different perspectives, theologians starting with Paul have tried to construct a coherent single message. As one might have predicted of an attempt (inter alia) to make Jesus simultaneously into one lamb and two goats, sacrificed for two different reasons on two different occasions (and surviving in the case of one goat), the result either forces pieces of the picture into a scheme they don’t fit into, or ends up as initially confusing as Duchamp’s nude, or both.

And yet, and yet… look at the statement I highlighted in yellow above. I am clearly there putting forward a theory of Jesus, even though it’s a severely stripped down one (there are a lot of pieces I have left out…). We are, I think, inevitably going to do this, and the most I can ultimately ask is that we exercise a little humility and accept that there may be other ways of fitting the pieces together, other pictures which can be reached.

Back to the Hebrew Scriptures and the concept of God. The Hebrew Scriptures conceived of God in a lot of ways, and strict monotheism wasn’t the start point. There’s strong evidence that YHVH started off as a purely national god of the Israelites (consider all the references to “other gods”) and became a conflation of YHVH and Elohim, YHVH being a god of wrath and war, Elohim being much more of a creator and sustainer. The writers moved on to thinking of God as supreme among other gods (henotheism), and finally to God as the only deity – “Hear, O Israel, the Lord your God, the Lord is one”.

They didn’t, however, conceive of God in the same way as the Greek philosophers, for whom God was much more like an abstract principle. Some of this way of thinking crept in to the NT writers, particularly John, whose first chapter (so far as I can see) lifts a huge amount of thinking from Philo of Alexandria’s attempt to synthesise Greek philosophy with the Hebrew Scriptures (look in particular at Philo’s conception of “Logos”, otherwise “Word”). For the Hebrews, God was very much a personal God (and a national one, as Israel were the “chosen people”), for the Greeks the ultimate God was far beyond personality (the philosophers had largely dispensed with the very personal pantheon of Greece a long time previously to Aristotle, to whom I link – note that this kind of thinking looks a lot like the later thinking of Christian theologians).

Are these different concepts actually just different views of the same [   ] (to avoid any label at all)? Well, this is not a dead issue, as witness the suggestions recently that the God of Islam is not the same God as the God of the Bible. Judaism, of course, moved steadily in the direction of categorising other gods as false, and eventually demonic. So, largely, did Christianity, save that in Western Christianity a very large number of saints seem to resemble remarkably local and tribal gods.

In this area, I have taken the view that yes, there is One God (my peak mystical experience does not admit of its source being other than all-encompassing) and that this is the foundation of all mystical experiences in multiple religious traditions, for which insight and argument I am indebted to F.C. Happold. I am therefore committed to there being a single underlying reality, and thus in some way, the different ways in which mystics of varying religious traditions have talked of God must in some way be different images of the same God, however difficult this is to understand.

I gave up the concept of syncretism (trying to meld together a set of different viewpoints) many years ago – the result tended to look too much like Duchamp’s painting, confusing and inadequate at best unless and until you got the trick of looking at it, and not really representing any single viewpoint adequately. I am, however, increasingly coming to the view that Christianity in and of itself is already trying to meld viewpoints which are not so much inconsistent as just looking at things from totally different standpoints (and that Judaism before it was also trying to do that, with slightly fewer viewpoints).

So, to theologians, I suggest that for any problem, no matter how complex, there is a simple, understandable solution.

And it’s wrong.

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