Monday, June 02, 2014

Studying God in the University of the Cosmos

Read a certain book over the weekend with the intriguing title, The Book of Certainty. Yes, it is by a Sufi, but Sufis have a quite universalist perspective, and this book goes precisely to the universal principles that underlie religion per se.

First of all: is that even true? Most thoughtful people will probably agree that, say, moral codes exemplify universal principles that are accessible to man's reason, i.e., natural law.

But what about revelation? Does revelation exemplify or instantiate or conform to higher and more general principles, or is it utterly sui generis, a thing in itself that can't be related to anything else?

If so, then the vertical ingression will be literally impossible to understand, and will have to be taken on faith alone. It will be like a fact completely isolated from all other facts, and therefore unsusceptible to systemization or contextualization.

And many fundamentalists and evangelicals embrace just such a view, e.g., "God said it, I believe it, and that settles it." Don't bother asking how or why, just accept it. Which is fine for them. But people are different, with different needs.

Sui generis means, of course, one of a kind; it is a class of one (and therefore not a class), utterly unique and irreducible to anything else. One of the universal principles that animates the Christian West in general and the United States in particular is that human beings are sui generis, each a unique and irreplaceable unit of humanity.

Even so, a human being as such obviously isn't a radical novelty. Rather, he is the unique expression or mixture of certain universal elements such as intellect, will, and emotion. He may be unique, but he is still human.

But although we use the word "God," God is not really a member of the class of gods -- at least if one adheres to monotheism. If this is indeed the case, then God is radically incomprehensible, for there is nothing whatsoever to compare him to.

To which I say: YesBut God must still have a nature to which he himself conforms, unless he is either complete chaos on the one hand, or arbitrary and unpredictable willfulness on the other, a la allah.

In fact, if one sticks to this antirational logic, it is unclear how we could know of or even entertain the idea of such a unique entity. This would ultimately amount to saying that intellect is the problem, and this makes Bob uncomfortable because Bob cannot understand why our most precious gift would turn out to be a curse when it turns to the higher and highest realities. Bob wants to ask: what is the principle that explains why intelligence should ultimately be rooted in stupidity?

I will admit that my mind is always on a mission to detect ideas beneath appearances, or the principle beneath the manifestation. This is how both science and reason proceed (not to mention psychology), each under the assumption that events exemplify principles.

It is admittedly difficult for me to chuck my whole self -- which is, after all, a sui generis gift from God -- in attempting to comprehend the giver of the gift. The question is, is this trait of mine a stumbling block or a foothold, a promethean problem or the humble solution?

Along these lines, Stark suggests that theology really only developed in the Judeo-Christian world because of certain principles, including the principles that God is reason and man is in the image of God. With these two extremely generative principles, just look at what results!

Stark writes that "The most fundamental key to the rise of Western civilization has been the dedication of so many of its most brilliant minds to the pursuit of knowledge." Well, isn't that what brilliant minds do?

No, not at all. The minds Stark has in mind did not devote themselves to illumination, to moksha, to nirvana, to enlightenment or even to wisdom but to empirical facts on the ground, so to speak. "And the basis for this commitment to knowledge was the Christian commitment to theology."

Er, how is that? Well, theology -- for example, the sort of theology we routinely discuss here -- "has little in common with most religious thinking, being a sophisticated, highly rational discipline that has roots in Judaism and Greek philosophy..."

It "consists of formal reasoning about God," with an emphasis "on discovering God's nature, intentions, and demands, and on understanding how these define the relationship between human beings and God." This presumes "an image of God (one God, not many gods) as a conscious, rational, supernatural being of unlimited power and scope."

So, God is not limited by our principles, but that doesn't mean he cannot be illuminated by them. Contrast this with mainstream Islam, which "rejected science as heretical" because it implies that Allah is limited by natural law.

Back to this book on certainty. First of all, there are levels of divine certainty, just as there are with the terrestrial world. The author uses the example of fire: there are people who have heard about fire, and there are those who have seen it. Then there are those who have been warmed and even consumed by it. You could say that to be consumed by fire is to be annihilated and reborn in the living presence of God, but we're getting ahead of oursufis.

Analogously, we could say that there is the lore of divine certainty (scripture), the eye of certainty (gnosis), and the truth of certainty (illumination or union). You could say that the first involves hearing the divine message and feeling it "click" inside. It sounds "right," even though you have no conscious idea of why this should be the case.

But as we progress, that initial click begins to be be filled out by knowledge. It is like a seed that sends out shoots in all directions, and begins reorganizing the psyche in new ways.

This is followed by the truth of certainty, which is reserved for the genuine saints and sages who sing the song supreme because they have been singed by the flames.

Such a "universal man" eternally realizes "the Truth that he is nothing and yet that He is everything" -- which kind of exemplifies the principle that the poor in spirit are blessed because theirs is the kingdom of heaven, or that the most humble is the most exalted, etc.

As it so happens, this can be geometrically depicted with a cross, "which is another symbol of the Universal Man in that the horizontal line represents the fullness of his earthly nature, whereas the vertical line represents the heavenly exaltation..."

To be continued...

5 Comments:

Blogger USS Ben USN (Ret) said...

To which I say: YesBut God must still have a nature to which he himself conforms, unless he is either complete chaos on the one hand, or arbitrary and unpredictable willfulness on the other, a la allah."

And thank God he ain't!
Bravo zulu on the allah a la mode. :)

6/02/2014 10:38:00 AM  
Blogger USS Ben USN (Ret) said...

And many fundamentalists and evangelicals embrace just such a view, e.g., "God said it, I believe it, and that settles it."

Even when I was an evangelical that phrase always made me wince.
Mostly because it stops all further thinkin' on the subject or object.

It's akin to saying "shut up! This is the way it is, period! Because I said so!"

Well, that don't sit well with me.

6/02/2014 10:46:00 AM  
Blogger USS Ben USN (Ret) said...

If one ain't got room to grow or coontemplate then that ain't a good religion (unless one is happy just being static but not ecstatic).

I mean, speaking for myself here, "is that all there Is?" Simply ain't good enough for me.
Ain't no liberty or creativity in that cookie cutter approach to God.

6/02/2014 11:02:00 AM  
Blogger julie said...

And many fundamentalists and evangelicals embrace just such a view, e.g., "God said it, I believe it, and that settles it."

Yes, this is one that irritates. Mainly because it almost always accompanies a very shallow understanding of what it was that God said. For instance, there are Christians of my acquaintance who consider it a mission to try and convert any Jews that they know, because Christ is the Way, Truth and Life. When I observed that the Torah is all about Christ, and thus anybody devoted to studying the Torah is in fact studying Christ, well, let's just say it didn't get through.

Along those lines, the wedding I attended last week was a Jewish wedding. One of the things that struck me about the ceremony and the traditions is how thoroughly Jewish the roots of Christianity really are, only the vast majority of Christians don't seem to know that. Particularly the blessing and breaking of bread before the meals; it resonates. Having had that experience, I couldn't possibly, for instance, tell a rabbi he's going to hell because he hasn't confessed Christ. If he is true to his faith, then his whole life is that confession, even if he never knows the name.

6/02/2014 11:38:00 AM  
Blogger mushroom said...

Yes, being made in the image and likeness of God, we ought to get the idea that a truly whole human is an expression of that nature to which God conforms. Jesus does it right, but we each are an expression.

... then his whole life is that confession, even if he never knows the name

That's good. It would be nice if more Christians would read the New Testament instead of reading the footnotes.

6/02/2014 01:07:00 PM  

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