Arguing Theology and Mysticism

Here’s an excerpt of a comment I’ve left on one of last week’s posts on this blog, in response to some other folks’ comments. I thought it was worth highlighting here on center stage.

Mysticism breaks down as soon as we start to argue about it. I have friends online (mostly evangelicals) who love to get into these detailed arguments about the sovereignty of God, or the true nature of the ecclesia, or how best to unpack the Holy Trinity. My eyes always quickly glaze over whenever I encounter one of these threads. Not because I don’t think we should ask the questions — I think all questions are vital, including heavily theoretical ones — but because it seems to me that as soon as we stop declaring what we ourselves see and experience, and start to criticize what others are seeing and experiencing, then that fragile thing we call “living in the spirit” seems to immediately come under duress. Maybe others are gifted at living in a state of prodigal love and grace while criticizing and being criticized, but frail sinner that I am, I’m not there yet.

The purpose of … the book I’m writing, and indeed this entire blog — is not to win arguments, or to declare once and for all what the Final Truth is regarding mysticism. As if any of us could package and trademark God! Rather, all of my writing is mainly a report on how the cosmos looks from behind my particular set of eyes. Thanks to everyone who shares how they see things differently. But please don’t get disappointed if I disagree with you but shy away from arguing about it.

What Has Not Yet Been Revealed
Is Mysticism Genetic?
Seven Books I Hope to Read in 2014
Meet the Newest Doctor of the Church: Saint Gregory of Narek
About Carl McColman

Author of Befriending Silence, The Big Book of Christian Mysticism, Answering the Contemplative Call, and other books. Retreat leader. Speaker. Professed Lay Cistercian.

  • Don

    I agree. I’m turned off by many books that attempt to explain mysticism or mysticism in strictly theological terms. I came across a quote from the Talmud which states, “we don’t see things as they are, we see things as we are.” I think that what each of us perceived in our mystical journey is what we see based on where we are on the journey. There are no absolutes. Absolutes might exist in theoology, but not in mysticism whether Christian or some other tradition. I’ve added you to my blogroll. :-) Don

  • Carl McColman

    Can you provide me a citation for that Talmudic jewel of wisdom? Would love to use it in the book.

  • Kristen

    Funny, I was just discussing this exact fact on the phone last night with my best friend. :)

  • ned

    Hi Carl — thanks for your response to my comment on the previous post. Not to get into a debate, and I respect your clarification about not wanting to argue these things (I completely agree as I think metaphysical speculation from a mental perspective is a complete waste of time), but I wanted to clarify the point a little bit …

    I guess I was mainly responding to the assertion that Christian mysticism is not about monism. If Christian mysticism refutes monism, then what it does is, it denies the key liberation in Advaita Vedanta, which sages throughout the ages have had! (Even in Sufism, you have Mansur al-Hallaj, with his famous monistic statement that got him killed eventually, An al-Haqq, or I am Truth.) Now personally I have never had a monistic liberation. My own experiences are very similar to what might be considered Christian mystical experiences — I have experienced myself as a soul in relation to Spirit, and I have experienced a theistic Divine Grace which has a personal relationship with that soul. So I don’t deny that there is a soul that isn’t exactly identical with the Divine; however, equally, I could never say that the experiences of so many sages who had this monistic liberation were wrong!

    It’s here that I really, really like Sri Aurobindo and the Mother, because they aren’t concerned about any one religion. Although Sri Aurobindo uses the language of the Vedic texts, it’s obvious he has no problems with deviating from traditional Vedanta or Hindu philosophy — indeed, he deviates from it in so many ways that many people see “The Life Divine”, his magnum opus, almost as a synthesis of Hinduism and Christianity. Not that Sri Aurobindo was a syncretist in the sense of trying to mentally tie in a lot of traditions and come up with an undisciplined New Age hodge-podge of some sort. No, he just had lots of spiritual experiences of different types, and he developed a highly-disciplined vision and gnosis of the finest degree as a result. He writes in “The Synthesis of Yoga”:

    “But the Divine is in his essence infinite and his manifestation too is multitudinously infinite. If that is so, it is not likely that our true integral perfection in being and in nature can come by one kind of realisation alone; it must combine many different strands of divine experience. It cannot be reached by the exclusive pursuit of a single line of identity till that is raised to its absolute; it must harmonise many aspects of the Infinite. An integral consciousness with a multiform dynamic experience is essential for the complete transformation of our nature.”

    So Sri Aurobindo encourages us to actually aspire to have as many different liberation experiences as possible, and not just get stuck at one of them. It simply can’t be the case that one type of mystical experience is right, and all the others are wrong. If we fall into that trap, we become fundamentalists again — perhaps esotericist fundamentalists, but fundamentalists nonetheless. Notes Sri Aurobindo:

    “The Mayavadin talks of my Personal God as a dream and prefers to dream of Impersonal Being; the Buddhist puts that aside too as a fiction and prefers to dream of Nirvana and the bliss of nothingness. Thus all the dreamers are busy reviling each other’s visions and parading their own as the panacea. What the soul utterly rejoices in, is for thought the ultimate reality.”

    “When thou affirmest thy soul-experience and deniest the different soul-experience of another, know that God is making a fool of thee. Dost thou not hear His self-delighted laughter behind thy soul’s curtains?”

    All these experiences — the theistic experience of a soul in relation to a Divine Grace, the monistic experience of identification with the Divine, the Nirvanic experience of annihilation into nothingness (no sense of an “I”) — are valid. I don’t think the Divine can be neatly collapsed into any one category or type of experience, I think Reality is far too vast for that (according to Sri Aurobindo the Divine has different “poises”).

    Also a lot of people in the developmental/Wilberian camp think that there is some sort of “ultimate” liberation in the end (for Wilber it is the monistic liberation ala Mahayana Buddhism), but I think it is not quite so simplistic. I think that for those of us still in the realm of mental speculation it is impossible to know these things one way or another until we have actually had spiritual attainments. However, what Sri Aurobindo says is quite stimulating, because his point is that an integral consciousness is borne of having multiple spiritual attainments and synthesizing *those experiences* (i.e. not a mental synthesis, which is syncretism and is a house of cards, really, but a *spiritual* synthesis that comes from gnosis and higher “seeing”).

    Meanwhile, I’m still struggling to become more grounded in the soul ;-) — no Brahman or Nirvana or Christ-consciousness or what-have-you for me for some time I think … ;-)

  • ned

    Carl, you might also find this dialogue I had with another Christian friend interesting:

    It is about Sri Aurobindo’s notion of the “three poises” of what he calls the Supramental consciousness … these three poises reminded me very much of the Holy Trinity in Christianity (and it turns out I’m not the only one to notice the parallels here). Anyway the whole idea is that the Divine is multifaceted and can’t be experienced in just one way.

  • Carl McColman

    Ned, I think you and I (and Sri Aurobindo) are in broad agreement here. Please note that I do not see the Christian mystical tradition as claiming monism is “wrong” or that monistic experience is somehow inferior or fraudulent (although certainly you could find voices within the tradition that would make such statements). My use of the word “reject” in regard to monism might be unfortunate, I don’t mean that in the sense of “refusing to accept” but rather in the sense of “casting off” — in other words, Christian mystics cast off the language of monism precisely because it doesn’t square with their experience. I’m really quite comfortable with the idea that different schools of mysticism lead to initiations into radically different experience. Christian mysticism leads to communal/trinitarian experience, at least according to most of its witnesses. But that’s not to say that there isn’t a “monistic” element within the Christian tradition, although it tends to be shrouded in the language of negativity. There’s a reason why the centering prayer folks tend to prefer The Cloud of Unknowing to Teresa of Avila! I don’t see how it is a diminishment of Christian truth or the veracity of Christian mystical experience to accept the phenomenological evidence that monistic mystics exist and have fundamentally different experiences than do Christian mystics and talk about these experiences in fundamentally different ways — and it’s okay. But I think “vice versa” applies here as well, and I’m tired of monistic mystics (like Swami Abhayananda) who insist that monistic experience is the only “true” enlightenment. Neither “theatre” of mystical experience is better or higher than the other (that’s one of my gripes with Wilber, who insists that deity mysticism is lower on the evolutionary totem pole than formless or nondual mysticism).

  • ned

    Interestingly Carl, Sri Aurobindo’s experience completely contradicts Wilber’s view about monism being the highest form of enlightenment. According to Wilber you experience the Personal God first, and then the formless Impersonal, but for Sri Aurobindo it was the opposite! He reports experiencing the Impersonal Brahman first, then Nirvana, and the experience of the Divine Personality (which he calls Krishna) after that:

    “Beyond Personality the Mayavadin sees indefinable Existence; I followed him there and found my Krishna beyond in indefinable Personality.”

    So much for the idea that the Personal God is some kind of immature stage of development! (This is one of the many ways in which KW doesn’t understand Sri Aurobindo btw.)

    Jorge Ferrer, who is kind of a deconstructionist in some ways (he goes a bit too far for my taste) but still very good to read, has an interesting term for the notion of different mystical liberations: “ocean of emancipation”, where different liberation experiences are seen as the different shores of the ocean.

    There may be an “ultimate” salvation in the sense of the collective integral, physical salvation and redemption of the universe, but we are really quite far off from that at this point and again, personally I’m just in the realm of mental speculation so I can’t say anything about it for sure!

  • ned

    Btw I think that the whole reason why everyone wants to pin down some “ultimate” enlightenment is just the human egoic lust for certainty again. We can’t just trust the Divine and be willing to be led by Him wherever he takes us . . . we just need to know and calculate everything in advance. I think this is rather pointless.

    The second reason why I think people are fond of this monism = ultimate enlightenment idea is because it bothers a lot of people that all mystical traditions don’t say the exact same thing (Jorge Ferrer is very useful here btw, he totally deconstructs perennialism in his book “Revisioning Transpersonal Psychology”, which as you would expect, Wilber dismisses as being too “green” — oh well). People who haven’t developed some sort of inner awareness or gnosis and are very dependent on mental maps or symbols to hold on to their faith, need this type of ideological map-making in order to stay committed to the spiritual path. I remember I used to be very stuck on this sort of approach because it seemed to me that if all the mystical traditions didn’t map out the exact same planes of Reality or the exact same experiences or the exact same ultimate liberation, then they lacked the objectivity of the sciences! ;-)

    (Thanks to Sri Aurobindo, I have a much more mature idea of what objectivity is now. ;-) )

    In any event, it used to bother me that all mystical traditions don’t lead to the exact same liberation in the end or don’t predict the exact same destination, but it no longer does. After all, who knows what the Divine has in store for us in the future? And what use is it to speculate what it could be? Let’s get on with enjoying this amazing, beautiful ride, let’s stop trying to calculate what might be and just learn to love Reality!

  • Peter

    Thanks, ned, for your contributions here, and especially for your insight not to take our own mental speculations concerning what might or might not await us in the Spirit too seriously.

    Though I have not always consistently implemented this, I found out several years ago that personal stories or “testimonies” of our own spiritual experiences are far more effective means of communication (communion) with other seekers than mental speculations or statements of theory–no matter how internally consistent these latter may appear.

    So I am making a general turn in this direction. I have declined several invitations lately to “argue theology,” largely because I see that kind of arguing (which I used to greatly enjoy) as a waste of energy, a contribution to separation and disunity when my commitment is to harmony and unity.

    And along this direction, like Sri Aurobindo (and unlike Ken Wilber), I have personally experienced the Impersonal Divine earlier in my journey, and then later the Personal Divine which (whom) I now embrace with all my being–to use your terms, with all my “soul.” I have made a kind of temporary formula (useful perhaps as a kind of tool or scaffolding on a building, disposable as the work gets done): it seems to me that in researching a new (= as-yet-unknown-to-me, not claiming anything as silly as truly or absolutely new) area of truth or understanding, the Truth seems to lie in the most complete, most wacky or radical, most unlikely, most comprehensive, most lovely and honoring direction as opposed to that which is dishonoring, disgraceful, incomplete. I’ll use one ordinary example, and then make my point: for example, in the case of slavery, a nearly universal human practice until quite recently, and still common in much of our 21st century world: What is the Truth concerning slavery? Without going into the whole history, I could summarize and say that the most honoring and liberating idea is that no human has the right to own another; this (along with all the other evidence) confirms the moral sense that slavery is not ok and should be abolished.

    It may be a big jump from here to the monism / personal God thing, but in speculating (which I admit this to be) about whether God is personal or impersonal, the most wacky and interesting and unlikely and honoring and complete and complex possibility seems to me to lie in the direction of God as a person–along the lines of Intelligent Design (which btw I read that Ken Wilber also likes). The reasoning here is that it does not make sense that something or someone LESS intelligent, perceptive, spiritually sensitive, etc. could be the creator or origin of something/someone MORE like this than what it came from. This leaves wide open all the usual questions as to whether this creative intelligence is single or multiple, and our communication with the Divine, etc. I am not trying to re-hash the Scholastic “arguments for the existence of God” here, but I am being a bit speculative, so let me return to the more solid ground (as I claimed in the beginning) of my own personal experience.

    I went from a serious, devoted Catholic background (including some time in a Jesuit seminary) into a wild ride through all kinds of monistic and nirvana-based experiences, some drug-induced and others not. It was after all this that I discovered (or perhaps re-discovered) the personal God expressed in Jesus, who revealed himself to me at the unique place in the universe that he holds: the Lamb slain from before the foundation of the world, the eternal High Priest ever living to make intercession for us. I have been captivated by Him ever since, and I see no end to my fascination with His person and the riches of His glory that are quite capable of holding my attention, my obsession, to the endless ages.

    Of course I can’t say that Wilber is absolutely wrong in his hierarchic or holarchic view that the experience of the formless Impersonal is later than and higher or better than the experience of the Personal God; but I can say that I personally disagree with him in this, based on the limited but very real perception of Reality that I have experienced: the Personal “submission to God” or perhaps theosis-style “union with God” suits who I am far better than the “annihilation” or “nirvana” of monistic Mahayana Buddhism. And this works a lot better, too, for my daily experience of prayer and two-way communication with the Personal Divine.

    The ultimate redemption that you speak of has a place in what I see (or foresee) too: “that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God.” (Romans 8:21) What I can say about this is that I am quite sure that it is in store for us because I have foreseen it in a shadow; I have had a foretaste of it; my vision of it is beyond the “mere fantasy or imagination” of my dreams and established in a secure future reality rooted in the timeless. However, if I attempt to go much beyond this I will again be guilty of the very bad habit of slipping back into mental speculation and, worse, confusing that with what I “know” to be real. Maybe a major victory in spiritual growth comes when we learn with some degree of reliability to distinguish these from each other: what we “know” from what we “think we know.” At this point I am glad to re-state what Carl and others often repeat, that humility is the best attitude here: “Take off your shoes, for you are on holy ground.”

    All replies welcome, from all viewpoints. Thank you for your patience!

  • ned

    Dear Peter,

    Thanks for an excellent response! I especially resonated with this:

    ‘Maybe a major victory in spiritual growth comes when we learn with some degree of reliability to distinguish these from each other: what we “know” from what we “think we know.”’

    Wonderful! Because there is the soul’s inner knowing, and then there is our mental opinions, prejudices, preferences, etc. etc., and there is a world of a difference between them. And we have to be ever watchful and be sure that we don’t confuse the latter for the former. Opinions are all well and good, just as long as we remember that they are time-bound and that our souls exceed our opinions. We must never chain our souls within our opinions.

  • Peter

    Agreed, ned.

    I think this stance contributes to unity as well, because if we stick with what we really “know” internally we will, by definition (based on the essential unity behind all appearances that I really do believe “is there”), agree.

    In a parallel vein, in our daily prayer assembly this morning, I suggested that we request, for ourselves and many others that we carry a concern for, a sharp discernment between the Kingdom of God (what He has sovereignly designed and built) and the kingdoms of man (what we have built for our own honor and the promotion of our egos and agendas). To apply your words to this: “We have to be ever watchful and be sure that we don’t confuse the latter for the former.”

    Meanwhile, regarding our opinions and preferences (acknowledged as such), vive la difference!

    Very enjoyable discussing this with you,

  • Benjamin

    “we don’t see things as they are, we see things as we are.” –Kahlil Gibran

    since you wanted the citation