Thursday, 26 January 2012

What is mysticism?

 I like to think of mysticism as the art of meeting reality, or the art of richer and deeper awarenesses. ... It is an experience that comes unbidden ... [It is] a very special experience ... of that Oneness, a rare and wonderful realization of what always is but of which we are seldom aware, flooding in to overwhelm the illusion of aloneness, separateness. ... There are moments when life seems vivid and resplendent, when a more than mortal splendor breaks in, when there is a touch of grandeur and of glory in just being alive. ... In our experience ... of those moments when we're rapturously one with the wonder of all that is, we have some indication of what has been meant by the mystic experience. 
Jacob Trapp was a Unitarian Universalist minister who served congregations in Salt Lake City, Denver, and Summit, New Jersey, he was the editor of Modern Religious Poems and author of the hymn, “Wonders Still the World Shall Witness.”

Prayers by Jacob Trapp

Wednesday, 18 January 2012

Fire in the darkness

Fire illuminated the darkness,
swinging in arcs and swirls
A fire-juggler in the street
Fire in the darkness
primordial comfort
primordial magic
I stopped to admire the dancing flames,
the skill of the juggler
maintaining three flaming torches in the air at once.

Friday, 13 January 2012

epiphany moments

It's still the season of Epiphany, until Candlemas / Imbolc.

Malcolm Guite's epiphany poem today reminds us that epiphany is about seeing things differently, perceiving something with the eye of the heart, opening the way from heaven to earth.

Sometimes one meets a person who is illuminated from within, or perceives the world and nature as illuminated from within. Sometimes gazing at the Moon and the stars can bring about an awareness of the numinous.

This set me thinking about the experience of epiphany as a moment of transformation. As Blake put it, "if the doors of perception were cleansed, we would see everything as it is - infinite". Blake it was who saw angels in the trees, and heaven in a flower.
To see a world in a grain of sand,
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
And eternity in an hour. 
William Blake - Auguries of Innocence

I have had moments of transformed perception when I perceived the numinosity of everything, as it were the immanent indwelling divine light shining though things. These moments cannot be induced, they just happen, a gift from the universe to remind us that all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well. Even through the suffering and the sorrow.

It is hard, in the experience of the daily grind, of feeling depressed, sad and lonely, to recall these experiences and make them live. Perhaps that is what meditation and contemplative prayer is for - to open the way for the numinous to make itself felt.

Monday, 9 January 2012

In praise of Alain de Botton

Quite possibly single-handedly responsible for reviving interest in philosophy among the general reading public (that is to say, the small proportion of the population that actually reads books), de Botton has certainly made philosophy accessible to me. I wanted to be interested in philosophy, but found the long-winded, overly abstracted and tortuous way it is generally written completely inaccessible. De Botton's engaging and laconic style, however, makes it available, and interesting, and applicable to the real world.

I started with The Art of Travel, which explores the experience of travel, why we do it, and which bits we focus on and which we ignore. Then I read The Consolations of Philosophy, which explores the approaches of various different philosophers to the common problems of life (love, death, meaning). Then I read The Architecture of Happiness, which looks at which types of architecture make us happy, and which make us miserable, and why. I am currently reading The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work. I've only got as far as chapter 1, on logistics, which explores why we ignore the romance of goods coming from far away places and being delivered to our doorsteps, and why we allow warehouses and distribution centres to be so ugly and boxy. But it's very good indeed and promises to be as interesting as his other stuff. I look forward to reading his next book, Religion for Atheists. A timely offering if ever there was one - there are plenty of religions which don't mind if you're an atheist (Unitarians, Quakers, Pagans and Buddhists all welcome atheists and don't try to change them into theists).

De Botton's writing does what good poetry and comedy should do: it looks at the world from a different perspective, and makes connections between things that no-one else had noticed a connection between. Presumably that is what good philosophy should do, too. He also asks why things are as they are, and whether the status quo could or should be changed - or, if he doesn't ask this question himself, he certainly provokes it in the reader, and gives the reader the conceptual tools to ask the question, and work towards an answer.

It is a truism that the in France, philosophers are held in popular esteem, whereas in England, they are regarded with suspicion. De Botton has single-handedly reversed that trend, so that it is cool to be seen reading one of his books. And about time too.

Of course there have always been people who enjoy Wittgenstein and Bertrand Russell and so on, but they were few and far between; now there are more people who read and enjoy philosophy, thanks to de Botton, who has succeeded in popularising something without dumbing it down.

Friday, 6 January 2012

Tradition and particularity

There is a peculiar tendency in Western thought (probably introduced by deists) to assume that
there is "behind", "underneath" or "at the back" of everything something that is the really real, the real truth, the essence of religion/philosophy etc
as my friend Andrew Brown wrote in a comment in reply to me (and he is rightly critical of and resistant to this tendency).

I think it is possible to draw parallels between, and gain illuminating insights from comparing, different religious traditions, without saying that they are the same or that there is an essential underlying truth which they both fall short of. For instance, it is fruitful to compare Christian contemplative prayer with Buddhist meditation, without saying that they are both imperfect expressions of some lost original. However, I do think that all these practices and ideas are grounded in some actual psychological experience which is common to human beings because we are finite entities in a physical world yearning for epistemological transcendence. I have tried to draw such comparisons in a previous blogpost which was a reflection on a paragraph from his previous blogpost.

I think I still failed, and still fell into the trap of assuming an underlying reality to which different traditions point, though. It's easier to make a distinction between practices than it is between abstract ideas.

However, I know that you can't simply transfer symbolism from one tradition into another. For example, the Unitarian interpretation of Hanukkah seems rather different from the traditional Jewish view of it. Similarly, someone once asked me to "do a service about Wicca", and I found that it was impossible. You can't understand what Wicca is like and why it is attractive without actually participating in it fully, and that means being initiated and really immersing yourself in the symbolism, the mythology and the seasonal festivals. Anyone trying to experience a taste of Wicca through the medium of the Unitarian hymn sandwich would come away sadly perplexed; and if you tried to do a Wiccan ritual in a Unitarian church, you'd end up watering certain things down to the extent that it just wouldn't be Wicca any more.

I get different things out of being a Wiccan than I do out of being a Unitarian. Both are necessary to my spirituality, but in very different ways. And you can't translate the one into the other. In order to enjoy Unitarianism, you have to be immersed in its symbol-systems and assumptions about how the world works. You can find places where Unitarianism and Wicca overlap; you can use ideas from one to illuminate the other - but they are not interchangeable.

Similarly, you can't assume that the Runes are a "Norse version of the Tarot". The Runes are a symbol-system in their own right, with their own cultural and historical background, which is very different from the cultural and historical background of the Tarot. It might, however, be interesting to do a rune-reading and a Tarot-reading on the same issue, and see how the two systems described it.

So I do agree with Andrew - we should not assume that all religions are imperfect views of the same underlying mystery. They are each unique and beautiful symbol systems, and it reduces them to something less than they are to try and shoehorn them into a "Theory of Everything". That's not how religious language works; it is metaphorical and embedded in its particular context.

I think the metaphor of religions as languages is helpful here. Sometimes it is possible to translate from one language to another, but sometimes the metaphor and symbolism is lost. Some authors cannot be translated from their original language because the imagery is lost thereby. Sometimes there is a word or expression in one language which has no satisfactory equivalent in another language. This is because its network of connotations and denotations is different. This is even true for closely-related languages like English and German, and is even more true of distantly-related languages like English and Sanskrit. Words used for complex concepts in Buddhist and Hindu thought have often been mistranslated or poorly expressed in English. The same thing happens when you try to import a practice or a concept from one religion to another. Especially if one of those religions is a conscious attempt to recreate an initiatory mystery tradition, and the other is an heir of the Enlightenment impulse to de-mystify everything. Even if you try to translate the concept of the real presence in the Eucharist, or different models of the atonement, from one form of Christianity to another, confusion and miscommunication can result. In order to understand a concept or practice thoroughly, you really do need to be immersed in the tradition from which it comes. That's not to say that a reasonable level of understanding cannot help to illuminate one's own practice and theology; but we should beware of facile borrowing just for the sake of innovation or "being inclusive". Some attempts at including elements from other traditions can seem patronising or inept, or just plain fluffy. (I've seen this happen.)

Pagan deities as expressions of values

Some Christian theologian or philosopher (was it Tillich? Ricoeur?) came up with the idea of contrasting the self-emptying of God in the Nativity with the old gods as expressions of "totalitarian power, dominion and violence". The self-emptying of the Divine into the human is a powerful idea; indeed most mystics affirm the path of kenosis or self-emptying as the path to union with the divine, or theosis. However, as this is presumably a fairly universal experience, stemming from human psychological processes, I would be surprised if it was invented in the Axial Age, unless that represented a shift in consciousness as well as culture.

Maybe some of the old Greek and Roman deities were expressions of "totalitarian power, dominion and violence" - however this was not true of all of them. I think it's a lazy reading of pagan mythology, and a failure to note the many historical and cultural shifts in antiquity, such as the transition from a nomadic hunter-gatherer existence to an agrarian one; the emergence of city-states; the imposition of new deities by Arian invaders, the rise of patriarchy, and so on. Apologists for Islam also like to claim that the way in which the worship of Allah transcended local and tribal deities and loyalties was a force for unfying the warring tribes and bringing peace to the Arabian peninsula. Maybe it was, but the local tribal deities were not all that was lost in the transition to the worship of a supreme deity. The worship of goddesses and the respect for spirit of place were also lost.

The rural deities who were expressions of spirit of place, change, and process were not expressions of "totalitarian power, dominion and violence" - I'm thinking of Pan, Faunus, Pomona, Vertumnus, Picus, Silvanus, etc. Even city deities (such as Athena) may have been seen as expressions of democracy (though that is admittedly a bit of a stretch).

The story of Pomona and Vertumnus - where Pomona is courted by Faunus, Silvanus, and Picus, but chooses Vertumnus, who came to her disguised as an old woman to put forward his own case as her suitor - could be applied to the search of the soul for union with the divine.

Faunus is the god of animals; Silvanus is the god of woodland; Picus is the woodpecker-god. Each is charming and rustic, and represents an aspect of nature. Vertumnus is the god of change (and of constant surprises, as U A Fanthorpe so memorably put it). In other words, he is the deity of processes within nature. He also has the ability to disguise himself as something more humble than his god-self (indeed, many deities of antiquity are said to have masked their divine glory when visiting the Earth, so as not to overwhelm humans, which must also have involved a self-emptying).

So Pomona, goddess of orchards (of Nature domesticated) is allied with wild nature and the process of change in the form of Vertumnus. Is it too much to see in Pomona a symbol of the soul, and in Vertumnus a symbol of epistemological transcendence? (Of course, there's nothing to stop would-be theologians from applying new meanings to old myths.)

The message of the story is that change is desirable, and that growth comes from being open to new experiences and an encounter with wild nature, not just enclosed in the managed environment of the orchard (the world of "prune, graft, spray and pick").

These deities of Nature are a far cry from the warrior deities of urban Greece and Rome. They are expressions of an older spirituality which was in touch with Nature and its rhythms. To be sure, the emphasis in antiquity was mostly on propitiating the unruly forces of Nature rather then getting in tune with them (a preoccupation introduced by the Romantics after the Industrial Revolution removed the direct experience of nature from many people's lives). But this story is not about deities who are expressions of "totalitarian power, dominion and violence".

There are plenty of other examples - Hermes Kriophoros, the ram-bearer, also known as the Good Shepherd (a title which was reused by followers of the Nazarene); the psychopomp deities who guided souls to the afterlife (Charon and Hermes); Demeter who mourned for Persephone and created winter in her grief; Hecate, goddess of the Moon and the underworld; Cupid and Psyche, and so on. Indeed, these stories persisted in Greek folklore long after the advent of Christianity.