The Blessed Remystification of the World
A commenter yesterday chided me for poking fun at atheists, but I actually sympathize with them. As I have said before, when I ridicule them, I am specifically referring to the obnoxious, militant ones who get their jollies belittling religion in such a lowbrow way. I'm just punching back in the way that boys will do. No hard feelings. Assholes.
But I always emphasize that agnosticism is a completely honorable position, and I have no problem with atheists who refrain from becoming evangelists of stupidity. Look, for some people, religion comes quite naturally. It makes total sense to them, so they never had to grapple with whether or not the Creator exists, and what to do about it. There are also people to whom atheism comes quite naturally. Human traits are distributed along a continuum, and spiritual receptivity just happens to be one of those traits. Just as there are mathematical or artistic geniuses, there are surely spiritual geniuses. Necessarily there are spiritual dunces, imbeciles, and morons.
The difference between Vincent van Gogh and a Sunday painter is more or less infinite, which itself is a mystery to ponder. Likewise the distance between Van Morrison and Bon Jovi, or James Madison and John Edwards. Similarly, if you are sensitive to spiritual matters, you soon realize that history has probably deposited as many or as few authentic spiritual geniuses as artistic or scientific ones along the way.
We tend to think of history as self-propelling in the direction of progress, but as Charles Murray pointed out in Human Accomplishment -- in which he attempts to quantify human excellence from prehistory to the present -- you don't have to subtract too many people before history becomes an even bleaker place than it already is. In fact, when you assemble the list of people who have contributed the most to art, science, philosophy and technology, "only a few thousand people stand out from the rest. Among them, the people who are indispensable to the story of human accomplishment number in the hundreds. Among those hundreds, a handful stand conspicuously above the rest."
Those who stand conspicuously above the rest cut across disciplines. A religious genius and a scientific genius will have much more in common than either will have with a mediocre mind such as Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, or Richard Dawkins. Most people can sense this: that depth converges, regardless of the discipline. This is why people can be spiritually invigorated, say, by great music or poetry.
But we can also be spiritually nourished by science, so long as we do not reduce it to the enclosed and circular little world of scientism. The more science discovers about the cosmos, the more reason for awe and wonder. I don't think science has demystified the world at all; rather, it has remystified it, especially after a little sidetrack down the paths of empiricism and positivism that only lasted for a couple hundred years at the most. The universe is so much stranger than supposed by antequated materialists, that we literally cannot suppose how strange it is. In order to be sufficiently puzzled by reality, we have to crank our puzzler up to 11.
But there is something in the human mind that wants to contain novelty and demystify the world -- to make the anxiety of not-knowing go away. In a sense this is perfectly understandable. Ironically, it is a legacy of our evolved nature which, after all, was not designed to ponder the mystery of being, but to survive and get tenure.
It is almost as if the atheist sophers from a hypertrophied "empirical ego," so to speak -- that is, the part of the mind which is more or less exterior to being, and is mostly an adaptation to its environment. As such, it just wants to map reality in the simplest way possible, irrespective of distortions and omissions impossible. This is why most cultures have generally produced one dopey map after another. They are simply ad hoc affairs, aimed more at diminishing group anxiety than approaching and assimilating Truth.
As I have mentioned before, science proceeds from the unknown to the known, while religion proceeds from the known to the great unknown. I have also made the bobservation that science is the subjective study of the ultimate object, whereas religion is the objective study of the ultimate Subject. Clearly, science involves human subjects attempting to understand reality by quantifying it. But science can never offer any ultimate explanation, because the scientist doing the explaining will always defy quantification. For he is an irreducible subject, an ontological category that slips through the coarse cognitive nets of science like trying to eat a soupy herd of Jello cats nailed to the wall with a fork.
One of my favorite little signposts along the way was The Philosophy of Consciousness Without an Object by Franklin Merrell-Wolff. It is a day-to-day, somewhat dispassionate autobiography of a spiritual transformation. At the time I read it, I found much in common with my own experience. It begins,
"The ineffable transition came, about ten days ago.... At the time, I was engaged in the reading of portions of The System of the Vedanta.... I had been led to this specific program of reading through the realization that Shankara's words had a peculiar power, at least in my own experience. For some time I had spontaneously looked to him as a Guru with whom I was in complete sympathetic accord. I had found him always clear and convincing, at least in all matters relative to the analysis of consciousness, while with the other Sages I either found obscurities or emphases which which I could not feel complete sympathy...."
He goes on to describe the experience of a subtle current of transcendental joy that seemed to result from persistent efforts "to reconcile Transcendent Being with the physical universe. The idea is that ponderable matter -- meaning by that term all things sensed whether gross or subtle -- is, in fact, a relative absence of substance, a sort of partial vacuum." The effect was "a far more effective acceptance of substantial reality where the senses reported emptiness, and a greater capacity to realize unreality -- or merely dependent and derivative reality -- in the material given through the senses."
In short, he had reversed figure and ground, so to speak, in exactly the manner implied above, in that that he was vouchsafed the objective experience of the transcendent Subject. At once he realized the error in looking for an "ultimate object," either in science or in religion. Instead, he "abstracted the subjective moment -- the 'I AM' or 'Atman' element -- from the totality of the objective consciousness manifold." Looked at another way, he had an experience of the implicate ground of consciousness itself: "The Silence is Full and Pregnant, and out of It flows the Stream of all formations in endless variety: symphonies, philosophies, governments, sciences, arts, societies, and so on and on and on."
Yesterday we touched on the philosophy of Sri Aurobindo. In his approach to yoga, the initial stage involves the "awakening" or identification with what he calls the "psychic being" (not to be confused with "psychics," channelers, and the like). Although Aurobindo gave it a particular name, I obviously believe that he was describing something universal, and which is recognized in some form or fashion in all the major religions. Looked at in the most abstract way, we would simply say that it is that part of man which exists on the vertical plane, both "behind" and potentially "above" the ego. It is both the subject of spiritual knowledge and the object of spritual growth. In my book, I give it the symbol (¶) to distinguish it from the horizontal self, (•).
Baby's up. Back in a bit... He's got a cold, so this may take awhile....
Longer than I thought. Mrs. G was up with him several times last night, so she just went back to bed. Now my hands are full. Better just post now and continue tomorrow. In any event, I hope this post has nudged you a bit toward the remystification of your world, or what we call "higher coonfusion."