Atheism for Lent: A mystic’s view

Doing Pete Rollins “Atheism for Lent” again, at least cursorily (it is, after all, the fifth time…) we got, again, to Anselm’s “proof” of God, which is in a week otherwise largely populated by mystics. Like most “proofs of God” it sticks in my craw, and particularly so as it’s presented as the argument of a mystic – and as far as I can see, Anselm wasn’t a mystic, he was a philosopher. It is supremely a philosopher’s argument. The course quotes from Anselm’s “Proslogion”:-
Therefore, Lord, who grant understanding to faith, grant me that, in so far as you know it beneficial, I understand that you are as we believe and you are that which we believe. Now we believe that you are something than which nothing greater can be imagined.Then is there no such nature, since the fool has said in his heart: God is not? But certainly this same fool, when he hears this very thing that I am saying – something than which nothing greater can be imagined – understands what he hears; and what he understands is in his understanding, even if he does not understand that it is. For it is one thing for a thing to be in the understanding and another to understand that a thing is.For when a painter imagines beforehand what he is going to make, he has in his understanding what he has not yet made but he does not yet understand that it is. But when he has already painted it, he both has in his understanding what he has already painted and understands that it is.Therefore even the fool is bound to agree that there is at least in the understanding something than which nothing greater can be imagined, because when he hears this he understands it, and whatever is understood is in the understanding.And certainly that than which a greater cannot be imagined cannot be in the understanding alone. For if it is at least in the understanding alone, it can be imagined to be in reality too, which is greater. Therefore if that than which a greater cannot be imagined is in the understanding alone, that very thing than which a greater cannot be imagined is something than which a greater can be imagined. But certainly this cannot be. There exists, therefore, beyond doubt something than which a greater cannot be imagined, both in the understanding and in reality.

Leaving aside the plethora of well known objections to ontological arguments (assuming this to be an ontological argument, which Pete contests, though some of them do seem to me to bite on this argument whatever it actually is), mystics do not, it seems to me, start from general characteristics ascribed to God and then apply logic, they attempt to describe their experience of God (and fail to do so in any rigorous way; poetic expressions are perhaps most successful). OK, some allow many preconceptions to slip into their descriptions, but inasmuch as they tend to the apophatic (and it’s a very strong tendency) that just indicates that whatever they write about the experience, it fails to catch the fullness of that experience.

It’s from that standpoint that I start by asking why Anselm starts by defining God as “something than which nothing greater can be imagined”. I wouldn’t be writing about theology and spirituality were it not for mystical experience, and in particular a peak experience when I was 14. Before that, I was an evangelical atheist.

So, that isn’t an assumption about God which I make. The only warranted assumption, it seems to me, is that this undefined something which many other mystics refer to as “God” is the cause and/or subject of mystical experience. Other statements about God must relate to some aspect of that experience, insofar as that aspect is common to all mystics, surely?

Yes, experience indicates (via a powerful feeling) that God is very great indeed, but my mind is, I find, incapable of grasping anything really large – for instance, I can only hold an image of a very few things in my mind at the same time (frankly, I have problems with more than about ten unless they’re just points), and my ability to hold an idea of distance in my mind is constrained by how far I can see. Anything larger than that has to be the result of applying this “more than” concept. And I can do that ad infinitum, as in Euclid’s proof that there is no largest prime number. Indeed, it is really only by a combination of this principle and the fact that we have coined a word to express a thousand million that I can understand the wealth of a billionaire at all. I can’t hold even a hundred things in my mind at the same time, far less a thousand, million or billion.

This means, from my point of view, that I can think in a way referring to a possible billion without actually conceiving of a billion, and it seems to me that Anselm’s argument fails on that basis – I can conceive the possibility of something greater than I can conceive, but I have not thereby actually conceived something greater than I can conceive, just as I can conceive the possibility of a billion without actually conceiving a billion in any real sense.

The course also quotes Emil Cioran, a Rumanian philosopher and student of at least Western mystics. Part of that quote (from The Temptation to Exist reads “Refractory by vocation, rampant in their prayers, the mystics play with heaven, trembling the while. The Church has degraded them to the rank of supernatural mendicants so that, wretchedly civilized, they might serve as “models.” Yet we know that both in their lives and in their writings they were phenomena of nature and that no worse disaster could happen to them than to fall into the hands of the priests. Our duty is to wrest them away: only at this price could Christianity still admit even a hint of duration. When I call them “phenomena of nature,” I am not claiming that their “health” was foolproof. We know that they were sick. But disease acted upon them like a goad, like a factor of excess. By sickness, they aimed at another genre of vitality than ours. Peter of Alcantara managed to sleep no more than one hour a night: was this not a sign of strength? And they were all strong, for they destroyed their bodies only in order to derive a further power from them. We think of them as gentle; no beings were tougher. What is it they propose? The virtues of disequilibrium. Avid for every kind of wound, hypnotized by the unwonted, they have undertaken the conquest of the only fiction worth the trouble; God owes them everything: his glory, his mystery, his eternity. They lend existence to the inconceivable, violate Nothing in order to animate it : how could gentleness accomplish such an exploit?

I definitely do not see myself reflected there. I don’t think mysticism is remotely a sickness, for instance, though many of the pre-20th century Western Christian mystics were extreme in pursuing ways of repeating the mystical experience. It is a fact that, for instance, sleep deprivation and fasting are somewhat conducive to mystical experience; some find that other physical privation is also useful. They aren’t necessary. These do not characterise the whole experience any more than we would say that the findings of a scientist who neglects sleep and eating in pursuit of a discovery are characterised by sleep deprivation and fasting.

There’s also a quote from Ludwig Feuerbach, (from “The Essence of Christianity) part of which reads “God is the explanation for the unexplainable which explains nothing because it explains everything without distinction — he is the night of theory, nonetheless making everything clear to the mind by removing any measure of darkness and extinguishing the light of discriminating comprehension — the not-knowing which solves all doubts by repudiating them, which knows everything because it knows nothing in particular and because all things which impress reason are nothing to religion, lose their identity and are nil in God’s eye. The night is the mother of religion.”

This is also, to the mystic, wholly missing the mark. For the mystic, God is the explanation for a particular species of human experience, and while such experience might well be (and, it seems to me, usually is) radically transformative, it is not an “explanation for everything”, not does it remotely make everything clear to the mind except in the moment of mystical experience; that clarity does not survive returning to mundane existence and trying to communicate the peak to others. If anything, mystical experience disturbs you, unsettles you, makes you see things differently – though not, I think, to the extent that Cioran writes of.

A friend recently posted a quote from Pope Francis “Mystics have been fundamental to the Church. A religion without mystics is a philosophy”, and it brought into focus feelings I’d had about Anselm, Cioran and then Feuerbach.

I’m a mystic. I didn’t choose to be, I had a peak mystical experience thrust upon me in my teens which wrecked my then atheism, so I start any thinking about God with what I feel to be and thus think of as direct, unmediated experience of God. That is, after all, how mystics tend to report it. I don’t see Anselm as a mystic, I see him as a philosopher. Cioran is also a philosopher, although one studying mystics (I fancy almost exclusively mystics in Western Christendom, as mystics have not been historically marginalised to the same extent elsewhere). He seems to me to see mystics as putting forward a philosophical argument – and that, it seems to me, is what Pete does in “mystics week” as well. For the purposes of “Atheism for Lent”, the mystics are negating the concept of the naive supernatural concept of God which I regard as typical of Sunday School – and much of conservative Christianity.

The thing is, mystics aren’t, as far as I can see, engaged in negating concepts of the agent God, they’re exploring ways in which they can communicate about God when the basic experience is impossible to communicate to someone who hasn’t had cognate experience themselves – and nothing I see in Cioran or Anselm induces me to think they had mystical experience themselves.

Feuerbach is also a philosopher, though he might be functioning more as an anthropologist in the excerpts we have. He effectively dismisses mystics as not representing the bulk of religion, and doesn’t actually engage them at all (which is not unreasonable historically for an anthropologist, but isn’t remotely a negation of mystics’ viewpoints – and a fairly recent survey indicated that as many as 40% of those responding reported some mystical-type experience, which is many times the proportion which applied in my youth). I couldn’t help thinking that Feuerbach’s critique was remarkably similar to Voltaire’s comment “In the beginning God created man, and ever since then, man, being a gentleman, has returned the favour”, and also recalling a rather acerbic comment I made some years ago that “the whole history of (Christian) theology is of non-mystics misinterpreting mystics”.

The thing is, I agree with Feuerbach to a considerable extent – anything we say about God is inevitably a human construction, and I might comment that in Voltaire’s formulation, there’s an implicit feedback loop – and in any feedback loop, working out where it started is rarely useful. Could start with “God”, could start with humans. Whichever is the case, humanity has been moulded by concept-structures involving some conception of God, whether or not a God which is more than just a construction has been doing any moulding as well either at the outset or on a continuing basis (and my out-of-the-blue peak mystical experience definitely *felt* as if I was being moulded by something other than myself).

Epistemic humility compels me to accept that my experience is inevitably not actually quite direct (which, as mentioned above, is what it feels like to mystics) as it has to be processed by some part of my brain, and is therefore subject to possible cognitive distortions – or even (as some atheist friends suggest) might be nothing more than a cognitive distortion. I can entertain that as a possibility, but I can’t really think that it can be the case, because it’s to me such a poor “explanation” of what mystical experience feels like.

The course continues with other writers. Marx seems again to me to be missing the point of what religion actually is with his “opium of the people”. To me, and it seems to Pope Francis, it is an expression (albeit a possibly somewhat misunderstood expression) of what is at base mystical experience. Marx looks merely at what it has done in one field, the sociological and economic (and largely in one geographical area), and again approaches religion as a philosopher. So do Hill and Goldman, from whom there are later quotes; they are attacking things which have been done in the name of religion.

All of these approaches, to me, smack of the principle that “to the man who has only a hammer, everything looks like a nail” (to the man who has only philosophical thinking, everything looks like a philosophy, i.e. in Francis’ and my thinking a denatured version of religion) and also of the idea that I have a very large textbook, “Gravitation” on my shelves; I could use it as a doorstop, I could use it to prop up another book. Other things might fulfil either of those functions better than “Gravitation” does. Indeed, dropping it on your toe might be an illustration of it’s subject matter in a trivial way. None of these, however, capture what the book is about or what it’s really for. Or, at least, what it was for in the 1970s; theoretical Physics has moved on since then, and it’s possible that these days it actually is more useful as a doorstop or book rest…

So, why am I following this course yet again? Well, for one thing, it keeps forcing me to think deeply about God and religion in a way which is unlikely in a church setting and which is largely absent from my editing work, and that is a good thing in and of itself. Yes, I think the vast bulk of the critiques and counter-critiques which we look at in the seven weeks of this exercise completely miss the mark for the mystic, but they do bite, and bite hard, at the majority of religious expressions which are around absent the heights of a current mystical experience. And there’s something about radical theology which I continue to feel might have something to say to me, something which might give me a better expression of where I am situated.

Even if it’s as simple as John Caputo’s “It spooks”. My strong tendency when dealing with all the critiques of ideas of God is to answer in the manner of Galileo “eppur si muove” (nevertheless, it moves, in Galileo’s case referring to the earth). “Eppur si spaventa”, perhaps.

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