Friday, October 31, 2008

"If I Can't See It Then I Won't Believe It"

I think my short answer to this would take the form of this question: what if we were unable to see in the first place, what if we were born blind? Would any amount of visual description, from someone who could see, make any sense to us? And wouldn’t we be limiting our own understanding of reality if we did not accept what others related to us on faith?

Now, this question takes on even more significance in relation to the question of God’s existence because, as the Saints attest, it’s also directly related to our will; related to morality, consequently to the way we perceive and experience reality, and, in turn, to the attending degrees of happiness we can attain.

So, here’s the point. There are two worlds we know. We know the outer world we perceive with our senses and interpret through our intellects. We also know the inner world which is related to the outer through desire. The best we can do by examining the outer world is come to know about God’s existence through logical inference. But unless this “about” knowledge of God’s existence is connected to the inner world of human desire then it is, for all intents and purposes, practically useless -- thus irrelevant. However, to think of God purely as an intellectual object is to really miss not only the point of religious experience, of religion itself, but also the most fascinating fact about ourselves: "All [our] life an unattainable ecstasy has hovered just beyond the grasp of [our] consciousness.”

To Jews before the time of Jesus God answered to the thirst for justice and righteousness, to the promise of a kingdom which would establish these realities. To Christians, not long after Jesus’ time, inheriting the Greek notion of God as the Good, God thus answered, in addition to the need for a kingdom of justice and righteousness, to the human desire for an “unattainable ecstasy”, which not even God’s earthly kingdom could grant. God, then, according to the most holy saints, is directly related to us as an object of desire which is acquired by virtue and grace; an acquisition, a union, from which, once had, flows the unshakable happiness which only a being, existing above space and time in the eternal now, could induce.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

The Mystic Perspective

C.S. Lewis and, in a round-a-bout way, Aldous Huxley brought to my attention a dimension of depth to Christianity that I did not know existed by introducing me to the timeless and profound ideas and practices of the ancient Christians; ideas and practices which, incidentally, sometimes incorporated wisdom from non-Christian sources -- baptized them, as Lewis might say.

Looking back on it all I think my discovery can be generally summarized by the words of George Brantl:

The roots of religion must be sought in human need, its fruit in a personal response. It is only from the matrix of human need that reason can move, as it is only in the waiting, thirsting spirit that revelation can find reply.

Both Lewis and Huxley helped me realize that God is related to us not just in abstract propositions, the content of which we’ll know only after death -- in Heaven; but here and now in our most favored experiences and in potential degrees of union by which we can come to know Him, even to the extent that we can achieve, along with Brother Lawrence, a "faith [that] becomes so penetrating… it could almost say, ‘I no longer believe; I see and I experience.’”

To begin, I’ve gathered a collection of C.S. Lewis quotes -- taken from his various works -- regarding our deepest longing, which express an insight that really had an impact on me:

You may have noticed that the books you really love are bound together by a secret thread... though you cannot put it into words . . . Even in your hobbies, has there not always been some secret attraction . . . – something… always on the verge of breaking through… something which you were born desiring, and which, beneath the flux of other desires . . . you are looking for, watching for, listening for…

The longings which arise in us when we first fall in love, or first think of some foreign country, or first take up some subject which excites us, are longings which no marriage, no travel, no learning, can really satisfy…”

Other grand ideas—homecoming, reunion with a beloved—similarly elude our grasp. Suppose there is no disappointment; even so—well, you are here. But now, something must happen, and after that something else. All that happens may be delightful: but can any such series quite embody the sheer state of being which was what we wanted?

All your life an unattainable ecstasy has hovered just beyond the grasp of your consciousness... the human soul was made to enjoy some object that is never fully given--nay, cannot even be imagined as given--in our present mode of spatiotemporal experience...

If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.

What C.S. Lewis has just expressed as a result of his own experiences compliments well what we may call the mystical perspective. At the heart of mystical theology is what theologians call the Beatific Vision, the purpose for which man is made; this spiritual vision, as traditional Christianity has maintained, is a result of the union of the human soul, through Christ, with Almighty God -- thus resulting in a direct vision of Him. Mystical theology conceives degrees of union with God before death, but, according to Christianity, the ultimate goal and purpose of human life – the Beatific Vision – can only be attained after death.

Whatever else Heaven entails – glorified bodies, new heavens and a new Earth, reunions, etc. – first and foremost salvation is the attainment of what Lewis called the “unattainable ecstasy… hover[ing] just beyond the grasp of [our] consciousness”: God. Understanding God in this way helps remove Him from the unimaginable and unappealing world of abstract propositions and places His reality at the very center of our deepest, most meaningful experiences. Many have voiced, in one way or another, their own introspective discoveries. From ancient Christians like Saint Augustine:

"Late have I loved Thee, O Beauty ever ancient, ever new…Thou hast formed us
for thyself and our hearts are restless until they find rest in Thee."

To contemporary poets like Edgar Allan Poe:

The origin of poetry lies in a thirst for a wilder beauty than earth [this life] supplies.

To atheist philosophers like Bertrand Russell:

The centre of me is always and eternally a terrible pain-a curious wild pain-a searching for something beyond what the world contains, something transfigured and infinite-the beatific vision-God.

Each of us has a multitude of unique ways by which we’ve gained a “dim sense of something beyond [our] reach [which] far from dulling or emptying the actual world, gives it a new dimension of depth". It is this longing, this thirst, which, as Brantl elsewhere notes, is the very root of religion, and it is the only place we can really locate a common bond of all religions.


The mystic perspective understands God as the object of an experience too great for words, which (Christians would add), once had (in the Beatific Vision after death), will never end. Following Huxley, though taking some liberties, we can say there are three propositions at the heart of the mystic perspective. 1.) God is the source of all things, and cannot be known in the same way we know them. 2.) There are degrees of contact by which we may know God. 3.) The purpose of life is to achieve union with God, even here and now, through the Natural and Supernatural Virtues (Justice, Wisdom, Courage, and Moderation, and; Faith, Hope, and Love), understanding that ‘action is subordinate to contemplation’.

Concerning the first proposition, Christian mystics would agree, in a sense, with Huxley when he writes, “Let us consider these negative definitions of the transcendent and imminent Ground of being… God is equated with nothing. And in a certain sense the equation is exact…The Ground can be denoted as being there, but not defined as having qualities.” God is defined negatively, with the exception of his existence; in other words, He is unlike the things of our experience -- not finite, not sensible, not mutable, and not imperfect -- with the positive exception that He's like the things of our experience in so far that He has existence. Yet there are some colorful “metaphysical” angles, which add effect to viewing Christianity from this perspective. For instance, it’s inherent to this perspective that God is timeless, that He exists in an eternal Now, that He is self-sufficient, and that He is Pure Awareness, Being, and Bliss. C.S. Lewis comments,

Great prophets and saints have an intuition of God which is positive in the highest degree… they have seen that He is plenitude of life and energy and joy, therefore they have to pronounce that he transcends those limitations which we call personality, passion, change, materiality, and the like. The positive quality in Him…is their only ground for all the negatives… He is unspeakable… by being too definite. It would be safer to call His [reality] trans-corpreal, trans-personal.

The second proposition of the mystic perspective observes degrees of contact with God most generally known as the Purgative, Illuminative and Unitive ways. The Purgative way encompasses an initial conversion to Christ -- a turn from serious sin, a profession of faith, devotion and obedience to Him by baptism, prayer, Scripture reading, attending church, confession of sins, extending forgiveness, volunteering to help others, etc --; this conversion is often accompanied by various emotions and delights called “consolations.” In the Illuminative and Unitive ways persons can experience dark nights, visions of Christ, flights of ecstasy, and all manner of phenomena; but most important is the conformity of the persons will and character to the perfection of God’s will. Such persons who’ve attained a high degree of union with God, as reported by those who knew them best, have, as a result, also experienced things like the stigmata, bi-location, and incorruptibility after death (meaning their body does not decay, at least, not at the normal rate). The mere fact of these remarkable experiences can be edifying to us in the face of what may seem are never ending internal battles, as well as feeling distant from God’s reality.

I saw Him with the eyes of my soul more clearly than I could ever have seen Him with the eyes of the body…I was much harmed at the time by not knowing that one can see with other eyes than that of the body. –St Teresa of Avila

When we discover, perhaps only through second hand accounts, that the mere possibility exists for human beings to “see with other eyes than that of the body,” our Christian hope expands upon a whole new frontier. On the one hand, C.S. Lewis reminds us, in the face of dangerous esoteric mysticism, that first and foremost “[we were] born to adore and obey” -- taking his cue from the Scotch catechism which reads “man’s chief end is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever” (the old Catholic Baltimore catechism reads similarly: “we were made to know, love and serve God in this world, and to be happy with Him forever in the next.”) Yet on the other, Lewis was neither a Stoic nor a Puritan, and himself received otherworldly nourishment through the imagination. He writes, “…deception is… in that prosaic moralism… which never lets us feel in our face the sweet air blowing from ‘the land of righteousness,’”

There are two mutually opposing views about union with God. These two views equally effect how one views salvation, that is, the means or path by which we come to God in the Beatific Vision. The first view is that of the pantheist, who says God is equally present in everything; the second view is that of the Christian who would qualify that in words similar to Lewis’, “God is present in a great many different modes: not present in matter as He is present in man, not present in all men as in some, not present in any other man as in Jesus." Huxley takes the Eastern, esoteric view that there’s something in our soul identical to God, which means we are already God and we merely need to shed what is not Him. This view ultimately ends in the annihilation of our being. Christianity, on the other hand, says that we are not God but need to become adopted sons and daughters of God, become divinized, participate in God’s nature; yet we can do so only if God first became man. As Lewis put it:

[U]nfortunately we now need God's help in order to do something which God, in His own nature, never does at all--to surrender, to suffer, to submit, to die… But supposing God became man--suppose our human nature which can suffer and die was amalgamated with God's nature in one person--then that person could help us.

This idea that God is related to us somehow within our soul, that there are degrees by which we are connected to Him, has another important implication. John 1:4-5, 9 says the following: “In Him (Christ) was life, and the life was the light of ALL men And the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it That was the true Light which gives light to EVERY man who comes into the world.” This means that Christ speaks to every person in some way whether or not they’ve ever heard of the historical Christ who was crucified under Pontius Pilate, and that their response to Christ’s voice determines whether or not they partake in the divine nature which Christ, by “paying our debt”, is able to offer. Christians believe that, ordinarily, salvation works through the normal means Christ gave us: baptism, belief, and obedience. However, God is not bound by those means so that we can have a firm hope that sincere people of other beliefs will indeed participate in Heaven; Lewis put it this way, "[t]hough all salvation is through Jesus, we need not conclude that He cannot save those who have not explicitly accepted Him in this life."

Finally, the third proposition reverses what has rather recently become the accepted order of means and ends. The problem has a diagnosis--one fleshed out by many, including Mr. Huxley who puts it quite succinctly: “In traditional Christianity…it was axiomatic that contemplation is the end and purpose of action.” He later quotes St. Thomas, “Action…should be something added to the life of prayer, not something taken away from it.” Father Dubay has a complimentary insight, “Everywhere I meet sincere people who are hungering for something deeper than what they hear in the Sunday homily…men and women tell me that they never hear of contemplation.” The prayer of contemplation is an experience, which takes place beyond the senses, and beyond words and concepts; it is not the average laundry list type of prayer we all think of, it is, in fact, a deep union of spirit with Spirit.

There are constantly movements which seek to get back to the pure gospel and re-discover it’s power. All such efforts that I’ve seen are doomed to neglect the most historically obvious diagnosis of why we truly left it, and thus neglect the remedy: a countering of the effect which has confused ends and means. Since (contemplative) prayer has taken a peripheral role Christianity has consequently lost it’s inner depth—the contemplative dimension remains closed, the higher degrees of contact with God remain unknown, and the philosophical insights of the first proposition remain disconnected from any meaningful experience.

Where our fathers, peering into the future, saw gleams of gold, we see only the mist, white, featureless, cold and never moving.