Tuesday, October 2, 2012

What Is Philosophical Mysticism?

In the faces of men and women I see God, and in my own face in
            the glass. …
Do you see O my brothers and sisters?
It is not chaos or death…. It is form and union and plan….it
            is eternal life…. it is happiness. 

(Walt Whitman)


For me, mysticism is the doctrine that God and I, and you and I, are all, in an important way, One. And that consequently, you and I can be and are immediately conscious of God. Philosophical mysticism is the kind of mysticism that emphasizes the role of thinking, in this Oneness. We’re One, and we're conscious of God, through our deepest and most serious kind of thinking, which is indistinguishable from love. So in response to the common assumption that “mysticism” is vague and irrational, philosophical mysticism aims to show how, if we take seriously the thinking and loving that we do every day, this thinking and loving point beyond the usual assumption that God and I, and you and I, are ultimately separate and distinct. 

Involving thought and love in this way, my mysticism is obviously a matter not just of “theory” but of experience. It’s an endlessly fulfilling experience which I had barely dreamt of, before it came to me. For my first four or five decades, I inhabited what looks, in retrospect, like a spiritual waste land. In The God Within Us (an unpublished book) I’ve described some of the experience—of pain, despair, love, and thought—that brought me from that waste land to my current more or less ongoing ecstasy. 

My mysticism also reflects my study of philosophers including Plato, Immanuel Kant, and G.W.F. Hegel, and my reading of poets including Jelaluddin Rumi, William Wordsworth, Percy Shelley, Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Virginia Woolf, and Mary Oliver. These writers all reflect in various ways the sort of thinking and experience that I call "philosophical mysticism." My academic book, Hegel's Philosophy of Reality, Freedom, and God (Cambridge University Press, 2005) shows in some detail how Hegel's philosophical mysticism works. 

How can God and I be One? We can be One if my effort to be myself, is God. Such a God isn’t identical with my physical body or my habitual fears, desires and ideas. God may involve that body and those fears and so forth, but God is called “God” because he/she/it goes beyond (“transcends”) them. So when I say that this God is in me, I’m not saying that God is physically present in me or that God has the failings that I have. God goes beyond all of that. But a God who transcends those parts of me can nevertheless be present in me as my capacity for inner freedom, or self-determination: for being, or trying to be, something that goes beyond my physical and habitual aspects. In this way there can be, as the Quakers say, “that of God in everyone,” without this God’s being identical to anything merely physical or externally determined.

How can a person experience this presence of God within her? By observing her desires and thoughts, thus creating a space in which they can be reformulated so that they're more fully her own. This observing, and the resulting space, reformulation, “her-own-ness,” and opening up to the world, are God’s presence. For decades I was driven by fears and resentments that I couldn’t name, and that I consequently couldn’t observe, couldn’t get any distance from, and couldn’t reformulate. When I finally found some of this distance, with the help of twelve-step groups, of therapists, and ultimately of my wonderful wife, Kathy, my “self” finally began to assert itself, naming my fears and resentments and thus creating increments of distance, space, and reformulation. In this way, I discovered my capacity for freedom. 

Because it took so long coming, I don’t take my freedom at all for granted. Rather, I feel it as a gift—even while it’s effectively identical with (the real) me, which is finally emerging. I’m aware of the great disparity between what I was "by nature”—namely, fearful, resentful, self-protective—and what I can be by freedom; and thus I’m aware of how I “transcend” what I am "by nature." Consequently, I find it reasonable to think of this entire development as (in a significant sense) "super-natural,” going beyond nature, and thus as revealing the presence of something that we can very well call “divine,” in the world.

This observing, getting distance from, and thus (eventually) reformulating my desires, thoughts, and feelings, to make them more reflective of me, is what I referred to in my first paragraph as “the deepest and most serious kind of thinking.” Under the rubrics of the “soul,” the “self,” “freedom,” “autonomy,” and “authenticity,” this kind of thinking is what a great part of “philosophy” has been about, from Plato down to the present. Plato analyzes it especially in his account of the soul, and of the exit from the “cave,” in his Republic.

While this kind of thinking makes my life more reflective of (the real) me, it also integrates my life with every life, with the universe at large. This is where deep thinking becomes love, because if my thinking focused on myself as separate, it would focus on what separates me from others, rather than focusing on me. Deep thinking expresses the "I that is we," rather than the "I that isn't you, or you, or you...." The true self unites, rather than dividing. Plato explains this thinking/love in his Symposium, which is the foundation text of western mysticism, Greek, Jewish, Christian, Islamic, and Romantic (Wordsworth, Hegel, Whitman, et al.). 

To this broadly Platonic mysticism, traditional religious believers (on the one hand) and atheists (on the other hand) often object that a “God” who is “in us,” isn’t the God that they believe in or the God that they reject. It’s not “the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob,” as Blaise Pascal put it. I agree that this God looks different. But I think this God in fact captures what people really care about, in “the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.” First, this God transcends nature, in the way that I’ve described. Second, this God gives freedom and love, and thus “saves” or “enlightens” us. I certainly feel saved and enlightened by my new life. And third, this God gives me, and thus the world of which I’m part, a fuller kind of reality, by making us real as ourselves, rather than merely as products of our fortunate or unfortunate circumstances. This giving of (full) reality is analogous to the traditional role of the “Creator.” In all of these ways, this phenomenon seems to qualify as, in an important way, “divine.” 

If someone wants to call me a “heretic,” I have no problem with that. I don’t feel a need to be an “orthodox” anything. Though I wonder whether the stress that people put on “orthodoxy” doesn’t reflect their fear that without it, they’ll lose the God that they really care about; and I don't think that has to be true. 

I do want to insist that my experience is authentically religious. I don’t see how that could reasonably be denied. I also want to suggest that what I’ve found seems to represent an important middle ground between scientific thinking and traditional religious ways of thinking. My experience contains something that “transcends,” “saves,” and “creates,” and thus clearly deserves to be called “God”—but which doesn’t involve (“anthropomorphically”) projecting human characteristics onto a separate, divine “being,” and doesn’t conflict with modern (Darwinian) biology, and doesn’t depend on any kind of blind “faith.” The existence of this middle ground undermines the assumption, which is so widely made on both sides, of an inevitable conflict between science and religion.

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