Coming down the mountain

A conversation on facebook prompts me to recall a couple of TV programmes I’ve watched in the past (and I don’t remember enough details of either to provide a link, or even a title). Both involved someone from the UK exploring other forms of spirituality.

In the first, the presenter was in India, and found a holy man who was prepared to talk, and who claimed to have achieved enlightenment. The presenter was fairly impressed by some of this man’s statements, and asked if he could teach him more – and the holy man refused, saying that in order to teach, he would risk losing his lack of attachment to the world. In the second, the presenter was trying out the life of a Desert hermit in the tradition of the Desert saints of early Christianity. His guide and mentor for that had been living in a cave partway up a mountain for years, and expected to continue doing that. He said that his function was to pray for the world without interruption (a version, I suppose, of the “say one for me” statement which often accompanies me leaving for a church service when others in the house are staying at home). He wouldn’t normally have accepted anyone else to teach unless they were intending to be a long-term hermit themselves.

I could have gone in one of those directions around 40 years ago. I’d had my initial peak mystical experience, I’d sampled a stack of spiritual practices which promised to produce something like a repeat of that, and I’d developed my own praxis to the point where I could almost completely reliably drop into a non-dual consciousness with, in effect, a mere thought. OK, it wasn’t quite the mountain top of the original experience, but it was close enough for my purposes (and, in complete honesty, lacked the feeling that whatever it was that was “me” would be snuffed out, never to return, which is, to say the least, scary).

I did consider the possibility of joining some contemplative group and taking myself off to a mountain somewhere (and a close friend of mine at the time who had a similar consciousness did, as far as I know, eventually do that with a Zen monastery in Japan). I also considered the possibility of taking on students – there were certainly some people who were hanging on my every word at the time, and who regarded me as some kind of guru. That second path I rejected fairly easily; I did not feel that I had a praxis which I could guarantee would produce the same results as it did in me for others, so would be taking on students in bad faith, added to which the position of teacher was calling to my ego, which I felt was a bad thing. Shades there of the Indian holy man I mentioned… (In fact, I now look at those who teach contemplation and non-dual thinking, and in many cases think I detect people with a problem with ego – I’m glad I didn’t go that way, as I have quite enough problems with my ego without others puffing it up for me).

The first was, however, very attractive. If I devoted myself single mindedly to a contemplative practice, I could reasonably expect to be spending a lot more time “on the mountain top”, and if I lacked ties to the world outside, it would not matter if I died while in a state of ego-death. The trouble was, the initial experience had also given me an overdose of empathy and compassion, and withdrawing from the world seemed as if it would be cutting that off. I will grant that the amount of empathy I was feeling was positively painful, particularly as in most cases I was not in a position to alleviate the suffering I was feeling in others – “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change” was a fine sentiment, but the things I could not change were damaging that serenity badly, so again, like the Indian holy man, non-involvement was a possible way out.

The thing is, withdrawing from the world utterly failed to follow up on “The courage to change the things I can” – not that I was at the time yet significantly aware of the Serenity prayer, but its sentiments were definitely in my thinking and, above all, feeling. So I decided not to, and to go ahead and do the things which were pretty much expected of me, but with a somewhat different consciousness of my place in the world. T.S. Eliot wrote We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time”, and I had, in a way, arrived at the place where I started.

OK, I didn’t go in quite the same direction as I might have done if uninformed by mystical experience. I went into Law on the basis that that way, I could work at something which would give me an adequate income but would at the same time help others, and I later went into local politics on the same basis.

One day, perhaps, I will look at devoting myself single-mindedly to going back to the top of the mountain and staying there. In the meantime, however, I have taken on, quite deliberately, a set of attachments (which would probably horrify the Buddhists among my readers) and am content to live with those.

And, just maybe, I’ve found “the wisdom to know the difference”.

Panentheism, finding God in everyone and everywhere – The Alpha and the Omega

This is technically the fourteenth in a set of reactions to “How I found God in Everyone and Everywhere”, a collection of essays edited by Andrew Davies and Philip Clayton, for which there is at the point of writing the “Cosmic Campfire” book group, a crossover between Homebrewed Christianity and the Liturgists, studying the book over around four weeks. My first post deals with the first chapter/essay, which is by Philip Clayton, one of the editors of the book and includes my introduction of myself to the group; there are altogether twelve chapters which I have reflected on, plus one excursion prompted by some of the discussions I was having in the facebook group.

The other editor, Andrew M. Davis, provided the introduction and conclusion; hence, in part, “Alpha and Omega”. Alpha and Omega being all encompassing, I will start by saying that I really loved this book (as witness 14 blog posts!) and that it got me thinking in directions I haven’t previously considered very much. As Davis says, it is a journey, and one very much worth taking in my eyes, especially for those with an interest in mysticism, those who are drawn to panentheism and for process theologians and open theists.

Interest need not be limited to those categories, though – in discussing religion with very many atheists and agnostics over the course of the last 20 years, I have often heard them say something along the lines of “If I were going to believe in God, it would be something like the God that Chris talks about” – and that is the panentheist God-concept. So when Davis quotes Whitehead saying “The modern world has lost God and is seeking him”, indeed my best prescription for the kind of God-concept would be panentheism. He then goes on to talk of Nietzsche and the “death of God” which has founded much radical theology, and asks “Is there a way of returning to God after God, of (re) discovering a new God rising from the ashes of a dead one?”.

Well, insofar as what Nietzsche’s madman was talking about was the supernatural theist God-concept, yes, I think there is such a way, and so far as concepts go, panentheism (or possibly process if that can be fully separated from panentheism in practice) is that concept. However, if we are talking of the more radical sense of the death of God which founds, for example, the late Thomas J.J. Altizer and Peter Rollins’ work, I worry that the introduction promises something which the book does not deliver, namely a way in which to see panentheism through the eyes of radical theology or vice versa. There is no essay by a theologian from the radical tradition here, and I think that is a pity. That said, I don’t think either Altizer or Rollins connects with the panentheist god-concept at all (and I’ve been following Rollins work for some time). Those are theologians (if theologian is the right word) perched on the vertiginous brink of nihilism, for whom God is dead in all senses of the term. Perhaps the only radical theologian I can think of who could have perhaps usefully engaged with panentheism for this volume would have been John Caputo, whose concepts of “weakness of God” and “folly of God” would, I think, have found resonance.

I particularly like the stress in this volume on personal testimony, which is a thread running through all the essays; as Davis says “It is one thing to ask what these prominent contributors imagine of the divine in the 21st century, but quite another to ask how they have found their way”. Where that involves a description of their thinking process (as, for instance, Keith Ward) it is possible to criticise that, but no-one can criticise a personal testimony, only say “I didn’t relate to this”.

The introduction closes with a brief description of panentheism, and rightly, I think, stresses most the immanence and relational nature of God “And this relationship is often described in mutual ways: not only is God immanent in the becoming of the world, but the world is also immanent in the becoming of God – affecting God, sharing its own reality with that of the divine”.

What is not evident from either his introduction or conclusion is the fact that, according to his initial interview for the reading group, Davis is not himself a mystic or contemplative. It is, in my experience, rare to find a non-mystic theologian taking mysticism really seriously, and I commend him for that. I’m not unused to finding theologians completely dismissing mystical experience as a source of insight (including one who “didn’t believe in mysticism”, which I found incredible); it’s mostly for those that I reserve the comment “The whole history of Christian theology is of non-mystics misinterpreting the sayings of mystics”. I write that only slightly tongue-in cheek…

Having said that, the conclusion deals largely with the philosophical and (to a lesser extent) theological threads which he discerns in the essays, and not significantly with the experiential aspects. I might have liked to see a volume where threads of personal testimony were drawn together and shown to evidence a single root experience and then argue that the best explanation for the experience attested to was panentheism, as I am by original formation a scientist. However, as it turns out, the personal aspects of the essays do not lend themselves to that, but do lend themselves to extracting a set of theological and philosophical benefits of a panentheist conception of God. In point of fact, however, my confidence in my own sanity was much aided shortly after my first mystical experience by finding F.C. Happold’s “Mysticism: A Study and Anthology” which does take that approach to a selected set of writings of historical mystics from multiple religions, and reaches the conclusion that panentheism is the best explanation, so to have done this would in a way merely have brought Happold’s work up to date. As Ian Marra pointed out in the discussion group, this starts to feel like apologetics for a panentheist view, and while I have absolutely no problem with this (and I’ve done a lot of arguing for it in the past), that is different from the thread of personal testimony.

I think in the early parts of the conclusion that Davis is effectively setting up a conception of God as an imaginative human construction (which Feuerbach, with whom he opens, would probably have agreed with). Via Howard van Till (inter alia) he presents some conceptions of transcendence as an experiential reality, but then goes on to the “Masters of Suspicion”, Marx, Nietzsche and Freud). I might have liked here to find a Philip Clayton style rider that God is “not less than” an imaginative human construction, given that all the writers of the essays seem to consider God to be an experiential reality about whom we make our imaginative human constructions.

To me, the Masters of Suspicion mistake function for reality (or telos for ontos); they point to the various uses to which the god-concept of supernatural theism has been put  and say that those uses are all that there is there. This is a little like pointing out that they have noticed me using my screwdriver as a hammer, as a paperweight and as a measuring stick and saying that that is all there is to the screwdriver (and that there are better hammers, paperweights and measuring sticks); not only is there potentially (as in the case of the screwdriver actually) another function or functions unexplored, but this does not really adequately describe the screwdriver. I experience the screwdriver quite independently of its function; just so I experience something which I most conveniently call “God”, and I experience that as first and foremost something radically immanent, unitive and all-inclusive. I may well then use my conception of that experience in just the ways that Marx et. al. wrote of, but that does not explain the experience. Atheists are quite keen on quoting Galileo’s famous “Eppur si  muove” (nevertheless it moves), and my ultimate response to them is nearly the same quotation – nevertheless I experience it.

However, of course, the radically immanent God I experience is not the supernatural theist god entirely separate from creation but occasionally intervening in it; as Davis comments, this notion of God is effectively dead (and we have killed him, as Nietzsche’s madman said).

David then proceeds to take us on a journey through anatheism, quoting T.S. Elliot’s “We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started, and know the place for the first time” (which is so good a line that I cannot resist repeating it) to a restatement of panentheism at greater length, bringing in quotations from many other theologians and philosophers, with a nod to Eastern traditions. He quotes Marcus Borg (who is the only theologian of recent times who I have not, so far, found any reason to want to raise quibbles about), saying “[Panentheism] does genuinely resolve much of the intellectual difficulty posed by supernatural theism. For the most part, modern skepticism and atheism are a rejection of supernatural theism, but if God is not thought of as a supernatural being separate from the univerrse, the persuasive force of much of modern atheism vanishes. The resolution of this intellectual difficulty about God is no small matter, for it means that the ‘God question’ becomes and open rather than a closed one”. Just so.

His answer to “what is the lure of panentheism”, however, ends up identifying seven areas which have resulted in a “panentheistic turn”, and I am disappointed that this does not include (perhaps as a central circle overlapping all of the surrounding circles in his graphic) the directly experiential. After all, I got to panentheism myself without having any theological of philosophical argument, just experience and knowledge of the experience of others; the theology came later. Perhaps, though, this forms an element in the “Religiously more viable” circle? If so, perhaps that could have been more explicit. Inasmuch as I see a surge in spirituality (as opposed to religion) going on at the moment, I do find that a panentheistic god-concept is far more attractive to the “spiritual but not religious” than is any other (such as, for instance, supernatural theism or “imaginative construction”). Maybe this group could have been targetted more directly? On the other hand, I suspect that his group are probably not going to be buying many theology books…

I have, therefore, mixed feelings about the conclusion. On the one hand, it is an integral part of a book I will unhesitatingly recommend to a lot of people (the book needed a conclusion), and I enjoyed reading it and wrestling with the accounts in it hugely. On the other, it just slightly missed a mark which I would very much have liked it to hit.