Wednesday, June 16

Wholly Missing the Whole of the Holy

This will probably sound strange coming from me.  But … here goes … I miss God.

Well … even that is not quite accurate.  If by the term “God” you understand the traditional, orthodox conception of God as basically “a really, really, really big Person writ large,” then … no … I do not miss that God, the kind of God Samuel Taylor Coleridge, somewhere or other, referred to when he said that the average Englishman’s conception of God is as “of an immense Clergyman”; the kind of God Whose eye is on the sparrow; the kind of God Who numbers the very hairs of my head (in my case, a task easy even for human beings, let alone God); the God Who browbeat poor, innocent Job. In other words, I do not miss the kind of God who Sees Things And Runs Things, the Great Cosmic National Security Agency, the Celestial Surveillance Drone.  I do not miss that kind of God. Quite the contrary, in fact, I agree with Christopher Hitchens’ remarks to … I think it was … Kathleen Parker in a years-ago interview in the Washington Post, when “Hitch” said that such a God would turn the Universe into an immense North Korea.  Concluding disclaimer:  that is precisely the kind of God I believed in and faithfully served, to the point of a degree of stress that eventuated in near-suicidal depression, from childhood until my middle 50s:  roughly half a century.  Then, quite by happenstance, I discovered the history and principles of the European Enlightenment, especially as they were embodied in the Declaration of Independence, the American Revolution, and the US Constitution.  I learned better. I still admire Jesus as a moral preceptor. But for a general Weltanschauung, I now find Madison, Jefferson, Blackstone, Justice Story, Locke, Voltaire, and Rousseau better mentors.

I guess a better phrasing would be to say that I miss the Holy, specifically the Holy as described by Rudolf Otto in his classic The Idea of the Holy mysterium tremendum et fascinans, the awesome and attractive mystery. As much as I admire Otto, though, the phrasing of his book’s title is unfortunate. For the essence of the Holy is less an idea than a pure and ultimately ineffable  experience. The indescribability is captured in the Latin mysterium, which derives from an even older Greek root that means “not to be spoken”. That is what I miss:  the “spots of time” William Wordsworth referred to several times in his great autobiography The Prelude, or the experience of Joy C. S. Lewis, an otherwise orthodox and pedestrian enough Anglican, described in his utterly entrancing spiritual autobiography Surprised by Joy:

As I stood beside a flowering currant bush on a summer day there suddenly arose in me without warning, and as if from a depth not of years but of centuries, the memory of that earlier morning at the Old House when my brother had brought his toy garden into the nursery. It is difficult or find words strong enough for the sensation which came over me; Milton's 'enormous bliss' of Eden (giving the full, ancient meaning to 'enormous') comes somewhere near it. It was a sensation, of course, of desire; but desire for what?...Before I knew what I desired, the desire itself was gone, the whole glimpse... withdrawn, the world turned commonplace again, or only stirred by a longing for the longing that had just ceased... In a sense the central story of my life is about nothing else... The quality common to the three experiences... is that of an unsatisfied desire which is itself more desirable than any other satisfaction. I call it Joy …

Or the experience related by the fictitious Anglican clergyman, the Rev. Thomas Hampole, in Arthur Machen’s haunting and evocative novella N:

Has it ever been your fortune, courteous reader … to rise in the earliest dawning of a summer day, ere yet the radiant beams of the sun have done more than touch with light the domes and spires of the great city? . . . If this has been your lot, have you not observed that magic powers have apparently been at work? The accustomed scene has lost its familiar appearance. The houses which you have passed daily, it may be for years, as you have issued forth on your business or on your pleasure, now seem as if you beheld them for the first time. They have suffered a mysterious change, into something rich and strange. Though they may have been designed with no extraordinary exertion of the art of architecture . . . yet you have been ready to admit that they now “stand in glory, shine like stars, apparelled in a light serene.” They have become magical habitations, supernal dwellings, more desirable to the eye than the fabled pleasure dome of the Eastern potentate, or the bejewelled hall built by the Genie for Aladdin in the Arabian tale.

(If you are interested in reading other case studies, you can do no better than to study R. M. Bucke’s classic Cosmic Consciousness .)

That – name it as you will – is what I miss.

I have had such experiences before.  I have described them in previous "Skeptics Collection" columns:  here, here, and here. So I feel justified in drawing several conclusions, not dogmatically, but as feathers held on the back of my hand:

o Jesus Christ was right:  you cannot control experiences of the Holy

The wind blows where it wills, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know whence it comes or whither it goes; so it is with every one who is born of the Spirit. (RSV)

This, to me, is the fallacy of the drugs-for-mystical-experience subculture:  the attempt to place the Holy at one's beck-and-call on speed-dial. Except for a couple of years of experimentation with weed when I was a graduate student in physics, I have never used drugs to attain religious insight and experience. (Even in my student days, I did not smoke weed primarily for religious reasons, but mostly because of fun and fashion.) And whatever experimentation I engaged in was deeply under-whelming. I think I would have attained the same profundity of insight by drinking 3 or 4 3.2 beers in rapid succession onto an empty stomach. I remain deeply unimpressed with drug-centric religious quests. People often counter by quoting Aldous Huxley:  “If the doors of perception were cleansed, the world would appear as it is:  infinite”.  I agree with Huxley, but cleansing the doors of perception with drugs is like trying to wash one’s car by splattering it with even more mud:  self-defeating. Drug-centric religious disciplines are merely attempts to control the Un-Controllable, to put human impetuousness and imperialism in charge of an essentially ineffable  process by undertaking the pharmacological equivalent of salvation by Works, not by Grace. (The sheer gratuitousness of the experience of the Holy is, I think, what Christians really mean -- whether they intend to mean it or not -- by the word "Grace".) And if the drugs backfire on you – weed usually gave me a headache – you become a classic case of the dog that actually caught the speeding car. Even absent that, there remain epistemological problems:  how do I know that my presumptive “insight” is not just the cannabis talking, and if it is, then how does cannabis-driven insight differ from beer-driven differ from meditation-driven counterpart experiences? And if the whole thing only transpires between my ears and inside my skull, then why bother at all?

o Religion in the creedal / propositional / doctrinal / discursive sense arises from a core experience that is none of those things

That is quite OK and legitimate. I have no heartburn with that.  But, as a matter of boots-on-the-ground practical fact, this usually becomes a case of the map being confused with the territory, the recipe with the meal.  The Tao Te Ching is right:  "The Tao that can be named is not the real Tao". Remember the “sacred sandal” sequence in Monty Python’s Life of Brian? The Jesus figure in Brian leaves a sandal behind. The sandal then becomes, not just a shoe, but The Sandal, and an entire Sandal-centric religious cult coalesces around it. Or the writings of Saint Leibowitz in A Canticle for Leibowitz, which text turns out to be – spoiler alert! – Leibowitz’s pre-holocaust grocery list.  This is almost unavoidable. It is how the Lotus grows up around the Jewel.

I imagine if my experience at my father-in-law’s memorial service in 2008 became the center of a religious cult, people would travel to Hilo, Hawaii – they would call it a “holy pilgrimage” – to go to my in-laws' mortuary and visit the memorial service of, perhaps, total strangers, crash the post-celebration luncheon / pot luck, etc., etc., all in hopes of replicating my experience. Or if my experience at the Collegiate Church of St. Nicholas in Galway, Ireland, were similarly fated, “Nicholas-ites” or – Great Cthulhu help me! – “Cowles-ites” might wait until the early autumn, undertake a pilgrimage to Galway, wait for a dusky, drizzly evening, enter the tenebrous interior of the 14th-century church, and fumble about in the dark, stumbling on the cobblestoned floor – all in hopes of replicating my experience with those lines from T. S. Eliot’s “Burnt Norton”. Granted, all the above is a grand exercise in point-missing by overlooking the Jewel and concentrating on the surrounding Lotus. Furthermore, precisely because such  experiences are ineffable and uncontrollable, I cannot say categorically that such monkey-see-monkey-do mimesis would never bring insight.  That would be to err in the opposite direction. (Of course, such an occurrence might also be an instance of the crowing rooster taking credit for the dawn!) The point, rather, is not that creedal / propositional / doctrinal / discursive religion is “bad”, but that it is a map and not the territory, a way, usually under the technical name of "theology," to have a common language to talk about something that is literally "un-talk-about-able":  ineffable, inexpressible, mysterious in the Greek etymological sense of "mystery" as myein, meaning "to close the mouth". So what I miss is, not the Lotus, not the doctrines, not the propositions, but the Jewel they conceal.  Many of us – maybe most of us – remain with the outer shell of the Lotus, not seeing the Jewel. That’s quite OK, too.  As T. S. Eliot says at the end of "The Dry Salvages"

[T]he rest is prayer, observance, discipline, thought and action …
For most of us, this is the aim

Never here to be realised;
Who are only undefeated

Because we have gone on trying.

o For many people – admittedly, this is my personal opinion – the closest intentional approach to the Holy is through music

There is something about music -- not necessarily music that is explicitly "religious," though I do not rule this out -- that somehow gets below or beneath or within the Lotus, below or beneath or within all the verbiage, and penetrates to at least the surface of the Jewel itself. (I wrote about this a couple of years ago.) I well remember going to St. Aldate's Anglican Church in 1988, when I was at Exeter College, Oxford University, because I "pant[ed] like a hart for the water brooks" of the St. Aldate's choir singing evensong. I am sad to see from St. Aldate's web site that, evidently, sometime after 1988, St. Aldate's, which is a full century older than Oxford University itself, has updated and contemporized its liturgy to attract the participation of Oxford undergraduates. Having observed such liturgical innovation in American churches, I fear that what St. Aldate's has gained numerically, they may have lost liturgically -- though I hope to find it otherwise when Diane and I return. (Christ Church Chapel still has traditional evensong on most evenings:  there is hope.) The effect of evensong on me was magical:  I walked back to my Exeter College quarters in a state of everything's-the-same-yet-different consciousness, rather like the faux quotation from Rev. Hampole's book in the Machen novella:  seeing everything as the embodiment of that wonderful old Anglican hymn declaring all to "stand in glory, shine like stars, apparelled in a light serene". Music transforms one's perceptions, therefore one's world -- and therefore one's very self.  Eventually, of course, like all things temporal, the Glory fades, as Wordsworth says in "Ode: Intimations of Immortality", into "the light of common day".  But I am convinced from personal experience that such occasions afford us a Moses-like glimpse into the Promised Land from our own Mt. Pisgah -- the World as it really is, the Present Moment as Eternity.

That is probably the best we can hope for.  At least for now.  But between occasional and altogether gracious visitations from the Holy, I do miss it -- the great Paradox being, as C. S. Lewis noted, that the very missing of the Experience is the Experience itself. So just perhaps, even for curmudgeonly old skeptics like the undersigned, Dame Julian of Norwich was right:  "And all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be most well".

James R. Cowles

Image credits:
Prayer for Peace ... ... Public domain
Buddha ... ... Public domain
Church interior ... ... Public domain
Lotus ... ... Public domain
Sandal ... ... Public domain
Mystery religion meeting ... Fyodor Bronnikov ... Public domain


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