Looking through Roman glass

Peter Rollins has just embarked on another course (“An Experiment in Criticism”, which is available to his Patreon supporters), this time resting on works by C.S. Lewis. Lewis was a native of Belfast, as is Pete, and this is part of the explanation why there’s a fascination with Lewis’ writings running through much of Pete’s work. There are many others, not least the fact that Lewis was, inter alia, a philosopher, and like calleth unto like there. On the other hand, there are many differences between them; for one thing, Lewis was an idealist, while Pete’s work is far more founded in materialism (which forms a substrate for much of postmodernism, which is largely where Pete’s philosophical inspiration comes from).

The first seminar in the series starts out with a look at Lewis’ conception of myth and his criticism of the “demythologisation” of Christianity which is linked especially with Rudolph Bultmann. Lewis thinks that, rather than remove myth, the main thrust of Christianity actually lies in myth, and there Pete agrees with him. So, in fact, do I, though I bristle at the suggestion from Pete that Jesus’ ethical (and, presumably, economic and political) thinking can be largely safely ignored in favour of the myths of incarnation and atonement, which Pete rightly identifies as being the creations of Paul, not Jesus. I think he’s missing a lot of the subversive nature of Jesus’ lifetime teachings by labelling them as (to paraphrase) not very innovative or suprising – anyone who has read this blog for a while will know that I find a lot of innovative and surprising things there, even while I accept that those were not a major discontinuity with the Judaism of Jesus’ time.

As an idealist, Lewis considered that the myth preexisted, and that one of Christianity’s triumphs was that it was given historical expression, so it was a confluence of fact and concept, of phenomenology and ontology. Pete remarks that a more materialist reading can find that there are multiple possible readings of a myth, with the implication that these flow from the facts rather than the facts flowing from the concepts (or “ideals”, i.e. myths), and there I agree completely with Pete (though not so much so in his distinction between “enjoyment” and “contemplation”, enjoyment being the actual experiencing of things, contemplation being reflecting on them – as a mystic, I prefer to keep contemplation as a technical term for something which is very much experience rather than thought, though Pete may have some truth in “enjoyment yearns for contemplation and contemplation for enjoyment”, and certainly doing either tends to be exclusive of the other).

As my favorite under-appreciated philosopher is Terry Pratchett (who shared with Lewis being better known for works of fantasy than of philosophy, but whose fiction I prefer to Lewis’ as Pratchett was consistently hilarious), I can’t help thinking of Pratchett’s description of humanity not as “homo sapiens” (the wise man) but as “pan narrans” (the story-telling ape); Pratchett plays in his writing with the concept that story can drive events, and that narrative tropes might take on real existence (which would probably be Lewis’ actual view; Pratchett is using the concept very much tongue in cheek…) We tell stories about our experience, our reality, and, from my point of view, a story can resonate with you or not, but the issue of whether things actually happened that way is irrelevant. We then tell stories about the stories, giving rise to the fact that good stories are commonly capable of multiple meanings – and Pete is a fine example of this, reinterpreting Christianity to produce new ideas. Or, in this case, reinterpreting Lewis’ interpretation of Christianity…

In this particular case, although Pete advances as “critiques” (hence the name of the course) three arguments which might counter Lewis, actually, as he says, they are more reinterpretations of Lewis, taking him in a different direction.

The three arguments are first the unpicking of Lewis’ idealism which I talked about earlier, second the observation that in telling a story about reality you are shaping what reality is (at least for you and anyone else who picks up the story you are telling), which goes on to talk of myths having multiple meanings and to the concept of a myth as “event”, the telling of which changes reality for multiple people, as did, for instance, the telling of the story of the crucifixion and resurrection. The third (unsurprisingly from Pete) suggests that Lewis, although seeing oppositions within myth, saw the resolution of these as bringing a message of “wholeness and completeness”, and that thinkers such as Hegel and Tillich saw (better than Lewis, arguendo) that Christianity can depict an incompleteness, a deadlock, a brokenness at the heart of reality.

This reinterpretation deals with “eloi, eloi, lama sabacthani” (my God, my God, why have you foresaken me) which, coupled with the idea of Jesus being the divine incarnation, is God experiencing the loss of God. From there Pete suggests that Christianity expresses, uniquely among religions, a fundamental rift at the heart of reality.

He goes on to an interpretation of Paul’s words in 1 Cor. 13:12 “For now we see through a glass, darkly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; but then shall I know, even as also I am known.” He (rightly, in my eyes) rejects the “conservative interpretation” that in Jesus’ death and resurrection, the glass is broken such that we now see fully. (One might think that this was an example of “the event” producing a radical shift in understanding). Liberals, he thinks, consider that we now see partially (which is used to suggest that all religions have portions of the truth) but will later achieve a synthesis.

Pete thinks both of these are fundamentally wrong, though he thinks conservatives are closer to the truth. As it happens, I agree that both are fundamentally wrong, though I think liberals are closer to the truth. But he goes on to say that there’s a point where we only partially know, and that’s mysticism. “There’s a secret which I don’t know; I lack the secret”. “I cannot grasp the truth of the divine, but the truth is out there”… He goes on to suggest that the conservatives are more right, in that once the event happens, we see clearly that there is nothing to clearly see – that there is a sort of fuzziness to reality. He links this to quantum mechanics and quantum indeterminacy – which I think is an example of picking up a scientific concept valid at one scale of reality and trying to apply it to a different scale, which is very commonly the same mistake as is made by New Agers talking of different levels of vibration in respect of human beings (a concept which works at the level of fundamental particles, but not at the level of human beings).

Unfortunately, I think he is woefully mischaracterising the mystical insight, and I think there of an article by David Steindl-Rast in which Br. Steindl-Rast says, talking of the mystical core of religions and the establishment of doctrines and practices responding to the insights of the mystics “Fortunately, I have not yet come across a religion where the system didn’t work at all. Unfortunately, however, deterioration begins on the day the system is installed. At first, doctrine is simply the interpretation of mystical reality; it flows from it and leads back to it. But then the intellect begins to interpret that interpretation. Commentaries on commentaries are piled on top of the original doctrine. With every new interpretation of the previous one, we move farther away from the experiential source. Live doctrine fossilizes into dogmatism.”

Some years ago, in a moment of frustration with some conservatively minded theologians, I wrote “The whole history of Christian theology is of the misinterpretation of the words of mystics by non-mystics”, and I think that is pretty much Br. Steindl-Rast’s observation – except he puts it far more politely than did I!

The mystic absolutely does not report that there’s a secret he or she doesn’t know but that it’s out there; the mystic reports that there is a truth to reality which he or she has experienced, and experienced with supreme clarity – but that human language and concept structures are inadequate to convey it with any precision.

So, going back to the “through a glass, darkly” quotation, I wonder how many readers have actually inspected a sample of Roman period glass. It tends to be more translucent than transparent, producing a rather misty view; it’s almost always significantly coloured, and it is never of uniform thickness, which produces distortion. Anyone looking through Roman glass is going to have seen a misty, distorted, coloured picture. That is, of course, a function of the glass, not of the thing observed (the inverse, really, of Pete’s analogy of Bigfoot possibly being by nature fuzzy, rather than the camera or cameraman being at fault for a fuzzy picture).

Mystics may well talk of “coincidenta oppositorum” (the coincidence of opposites), which may be interpreted as seeing a fundamental opposition or rift at the heart of reality. Radical theology has a tendency, which Pete joins in with, to take this as a statement of ontology – reality, for them, IS incomplete, flawed, contradictory or absurd. What I suggest, however, from my mystical perspective, is that the incompleteness, flaw, contradiction and absurdity is in the language and concept-structures which we are trying to use to describe the mystical experience. We are, in effect, looking through a distorting glass – and I would argue that an even better analogy would be a distorting glass with a crack in it. Of course we always see a flaw when we look at reality through the lens of human thought, but the flaw is in human thought. The mystic will report with complete confidence that there is no flaw in the reality experienced in mystical experiences; it is whole, it is One and it is complete.

It just can’t be described in significantly more detail than that without us inserting problems, rifts, oppositions where none was there originally – and no, I have no idea how this can be the case, I just know that it is.

Pete does have a point when he suggests that mystics are keenly aware of inadequacy, but it’s their inadequacy (and that of humanity generally) to describe reality as it really is. He is even getting at something in positing a basic rift – but it’s a rift between experience and concept (or, in Pete’s terminology, enjoyment and contemplation); concept can never quite adequately describe reality. We can never, in fact, know the “ding an sich”, the thing in itself.

He also has a point in talking of the event, the formulation of words (perhaps a story, perhaps a metaphor or analogy) which suddenly puts everything in a new light. That sudden understanding of things in a new light is, to me, analagous to the mystical experience (so can be hearing the unexpected punchline to a joke, viewing great art or natural beauty or even hitting a perfect shot at golf or cricket – though those analogies are weak, and none of them comes anywhere really near the intensity of the mystical experience). I can even hope that the philosophers or scientists, the rationalist jugglers with words, or the poets, the instinctual jugglers with words, may come up with something as yet unknown which will, at long last, actually have the ring of confidence for the mystic and render them able to say “Yes, that’s it exactly” without immediately adding “but…” So far, the poets are doing a lot better than the philosophers, but neither are particularly close to avoiding the “but…”

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