Response to Modern World-View Responses

I begin with a confession of electronic communication ignorance: I have not yet learned how to reply to “replies” to my blogs. I’m working on it. And so in this blog, I reply to a repeated theme in the replies.

Namely, why do I not regard mystical experiences as divine interventions? I begin by recognizing that they feel like interventions. William James in his classic description of mystical experiences in his equally classic “The Varieties of Religious Experiences” lists as one of their characteristics “passivity” – by which he meant that one receives them; one can’t actively make them happen. Rather, they happen.

I have no idea why everybody doesn’t have them, though perhaps we all did in very early childhood but no longer remember. The few statistical studies I’ve seen suggest that about 1/3 of American adults have had at least one, and about 5 to 10% several or many. I do not know whether statistics for other parts of the world, or earlier times, would be different. However, the evidence is overwhelming that people in every culture we know much about have them. They are not the property of just one religious tradition.

Modern Western culture may interfere with such experiences. Think of how different our lives are from our ancestors just over a century ago. To a large extent, we live and work inside, insulated from nature, its rhythms and seasons, its beauty and terror. We have domesticated the night and the glory of the night sky with the marvel of electricity and light 24 hours a day. We live in a world of perpetual sound, including virtually omnipresent Muzak. The dominant understanding of our world not only has labels for everything, but domesticates the world and thus disenchants it. And modern Western culture is focused on making and consuming, which leads us to focus on the surface level of reality, as Paul Tillich pointed out in the middle of the 20th century. So perhaps mystical experiences happened more often in the past.

The reason I do not think of these as divine interventions is the same as the reason that I don’t think God does things like parting the sea a long time ago for the sake of the fleeing slaves, but doesn’t regularly do that for people in peril. Examples could be multiplied. And so with mystical experiences – why would God “decide” to give them to some people and not others? Why not be content to say: mystical experiences happen – and we don’t know why they happen to some and not to others?

Do such experiences prove the reality of God? No. But for those who have them, they carry with them the conviction that reality is much more, much grander, much more glorious, than we commonly experience it to be. They are, to use a phrase from Abraham Heschel, experiences of “radical amazement.” And they are marked by gratitude. They are so extraordinary that they commonly lead to the exclamation, “Oh my God!”

Finally, I add that Buddhist mystical experiences of “nothingness” may be the same as many Christian mystical experiences. More than one Christian mystic has spoken of God as “nothing” – that is, as not “a thing” like other existing “things,” not “a being” like other existing “beings,” but as “the Nothing” (the no-thing) that is present everywhere. Of course, I cannot speak for Buddhists. But the contrast that is sometimes made between Buddhist mystical experiences (especially in its Zen form) and Christian mystical experiences may not really be a contrast.

So. Mystical experiences, yes. Divine interventions, no.

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  • In Bible study last night, we had a long discussion about the concept of “the elect.” Why is it that some people respond to religion and some don’t? Why is it that some have mystical experiences and some don’t? And one woman hypothesized that maybe this is where the doctrine comes from… There are those who have mystical experiences and those who don’t. The trick is keeping this doctrine “a healing teaching.” It has easily been used to cut others and not heal them. And people who don’t have mystical experiences get frustrated and felt left out. And those who do struggle to put words to their experiences… Frustration all around.

  • I acknowledge that things happen which I cannot explain. Also that explanation may not be possible. Also that explanation is limited and consolidates my learning at the level of the explanation leaving me stunted in this area. At present I am looking into the mind of the poets of the psalms and the redactors. It is clear that the exodus is parable. But this is not an explaining away of the exodus. (Read Psalms 49, 78). My latest foray is into the mind of the Jesus who produced the poem we call the beatitudes. It is here. (Not a very easy read-sorry)

  • Agni Ashwin

    The Sufi poet Rumi also described experiencing Allah as “Non-existence”, an experience of “what no mind ever conceived”.

  • Murray Richmond

    The problem I have with this
    response is the way you seem to understand “Divine Intervention,” as if it were
    a case of God randomly reaching into creation, and knocking a few things around
    to prove his existence. Perhaps intervention is the wrong word to speak of God’s
    presence in the life of people. Few of the historical mystics would, I think,
    put their experiences in the same category as the parting of the Red Sea. For
    one thing, the Red Sea, were that to a have happened, would have been an
    physical intervention, while the mystic usually claims a non-physical

    There is a big difference
    between the parting of the Red Sea, and the experiences of Thomas (Aquinas) at
    the end of his life, St. John of the Cross, or Julian of Norwich. If there is
    anything to the immanence of God, it does not make sense to exclude intense
    experiences, because they seem too “real” and not fair to others who do not receive

    And that is the deeper issue. You
    state, “And so with mystical experiences – why would God “decide” to give them
    to some people and not others?”

    You have assumed that God must
    be totally egalitarian in nature, and that if person x experiences a benefit
    from the almighty, then EVERYONE should have access to the same experience. I
    do not know of a single case where this is true, and in many cases this would be
    a harmful way of dealing with people. I have three children, and while I try to
    love them equally, I do not treat them the same. What one would see as a gift,
    another would see as a burden.

    I remember in one of your books
    where you described as a child wanting an unmediated experience of God. (I don’t
    remember the exact phrase you used, but it was something like that.) It was disappointing
    not to have that. I share some of your disappointment. I have had a few of
    those experiences, but only enough to whet my appetite. I cannot say with
    certainty they were from God, but as far as I can tell, they were. Would that I
    had more, but maybe it would not be all that good for me! Or maybe there is
    another reason. Maybe it was just that God expected me to be able to function
    without them. Who knows.

    But I don’t think you can rule
    out that God somehow “touches” people on this side of eternity. It’s just that
    those touches, in the end, do not mean as much as when a person reached out to
    the hungry or sick or prisoner.

    • “mystic usually claims a non-physical experience”. Really?

      What is unspeakable is not without testimony and it is ‘sensible’ in the same manner as God is incarnate. Even Paul is direct – the body is for the Lord and the Lord for the body. And the Psalms do not speak of what is not sensible – able to be sensed. God doing judgment for the oppressed, giving bread to the hungry, יהוה releasing the prisoners, יהוה giving sight to the blind, יהוה consoling the disturbed, יהוה loving the righteous, יהוה sheltering the guest, orphan and widow he restores, and the way of the wicked he subverts.

      Is the poet of Psalm 146 a mystic? Perhaps if mystic is indeed _not_ sensible, the term should be dropped.

      • Murray Richmond

        Those are not, to my way of thinking, mystical experiences. For me the mystical experience is a merger of the Transcendence and Immanence of God in one revelation. I do not see the author of Psalm 146 as a mystic, at least not in the same sense as the author of the Cloud of Unknowing or Ruysbroek.

    • DeSean

      Greetings Murray…
      I do understand that you would not necessarily do for all three of your children what you might do specifically for one… But would it be safe to assume that you’d want, and would go through extreme measures, to make sure that they all had food to eat and clean water to drink?

  • Carl Hoffman

    I have had at least 2 mystical experiences. One happened over 30 years ago and in my evaluation it was not divine. For several years after the experience I thought it was a divine experience. The last one was about 8 years ago. There were no words spoken only something visual appeared in my mind in response to an angry prayer I said as I was beginning to recover from fundamentalism. In retrospect, it was divine to me. I have also captured the experience with an abstract painting that was done without having this in mind last year. It was only later when it became clear this painting represented what I saw in my mind. That means I gave it meaning which is very subjective. With that said, I have a modern world view and accept the scientific view of understanding the world. I see no conflict with science and honest rational-minded religion. I firmly think we need a new way to express theology, for lack of a better word, that is post-enlightenment. The old pre-enlightenment terms to describe theology are loaded with contradictions and ambiguity. That is my opinion why today Christianity is lacking in leadership because the best and brightest minds have moved onto other things that provide more meaning in their thinking. The movie “The Life of Pi” provided me a prime example of how a story can be told in a different way to have a more powerful meaning. Could it be that the biblical writers were doing the same thing?

    • Muzi Cindi

      “The old pre-enlightenment terms to describe theology are loaded with contradictions and ambiguity”.
      I fully agree with you.

      Here’s MY STORY:
      I was introduced to Prof. Marcus Borg after an “epiphany” I experienced on 17 August 2007. I subjectively experienced God “intervening” in my morning shower, and felt DIVINE LOVE. I was on my way to becoming a militant Atheist! It was after completing Richard Dawkins book, THE GOD DELUSION. I vividly heard God tell me that Richard Dawkins is correct. In other words, The God rejected by Richard Dawkins DOES NOT EXIST!
      I didn’t know of The Jesus Seminar, Bishop Spong, Marcus Borg & others. It was only after the experience that I was introduced to them and have now read much of their works over the past six years. This has greatly enhanced my Spiritual Journey. This leads me to the subject of EVOLUTION, described by Richard Dawkins as THE GREATEST SHOW ON EARTH!

      Can we not replace “intervention” with EVOLUTION? Eckhart Tolle emphasizes THE POWER OF NOW. This is all that we can have, and makes sense of this thing called LIFE.

      LIVING IN THE NOW has given me INNER PEACE!!!
      I now define God as “NOW”! — By consciously getting into THE NOW;
      I AM…….

      • Carl Hoffman

        I thank you for sharing your story because it reinforces my experience. I have read Dawkins, Harris, and others and I could see they are rejecting the metaphor while the fundamentalists make it literal. You use a metaphor of “Now” Borg talks about “Panentheism” and I talk about a consciousness. Apparently, at least to me, is we need new post-enlightment metaphors to describe these experiences where many can agree.

  • Murray Richmond

    I was serving communion once, and doing what every good Presbyterian pastor does as the elements were being distributed–I was going to check to see how much time we had before the service went past noon. As I was getting ready to check my watch it was like a voice went off in my head, and said “Don’t look at your watch. This is an eternal moment.” I really cannot describe much of what happened next, except to say that I felt swept up in a wave of timelessness. One the one hand I was fully aware of what was going on around me. The elders were passing out the trays of bread, the choir was singing, the clock was ticking; but somehow it was all standing still for me. The elders came back, I gave them trays of juice, and they went and passed those out, but time stood still. The air was thick with the presence of God, in a way I had never before experienced, nor have I experienced anything like that since. As the service wound down I slowly entered back into the reality I usually inhabited, but for that period…there was no time.

  • From my perspective, this is the central conversation to be having within Christianity, and in all spiritual circles – Thank you Prof. Borg.

    I believe Jesus’ main message, the Kingdom (Reign) of God (Heaven),
    IS the Mystical expereince of Spiritual Reality Now,
    some call this God-Consciousness.

    An example, one of Many verses which I find relevant to this conversation:
    Luke 8:1 – 21:

    Jesus is speaking about our actual experience-Word of the Living God,
    from the same Father with whom Jesus was in constant communion,
    whose Light is experienced when we see Jesus.

    Jesus gives a parable of how mystical experience comes to us,
    and how most of us do not let this in or let this thrive in us.

    But for those of us who do allow our expereince of God to grow: the fruit is Abundant!
    And, the more we behold and reflect the Word/Light/Glory of the Lord, the more we receive.

    Lastly, those who hear God and do God’s will that we directly hear, like Jesus did,
    we are Jesus Family (he is the first of many brethren)

    This is my truth:
    The Good News is we can Experience the Kingdom of God Now.
    This IS our mystical experience,

    Blessings, Wendy

    And it came to pass thereafter,
    that he was going through
    every city and village,
    preaching and proclaiming
    good news of the reign of God…

    And a great multitude
    having gathered,
    and those who from city and city
    were coming unto him,
    he spake by a simile:
    ‘The sower went forth
    to sow his seed,
    and in his sowing
    some indeed fell beside the way,
    and it was trodden down,
    and the fowls of the heaven
    did devour it.
    ‘And other fell upon the rock,
    and having sprung up,
    it did wither,
    through not having moisture.
    ‘And other fell amidst the thorns,
    and the thorns
    having sprung up with it,
    did choke it.
    ‘And other fell upon the good ground,
    and having sprung up,
    it made fruit an hundred fold.’
    These things saying,
    he was calling,
    ‘He having ears to hear —
    let him hear.’

    And his disciples
    were questioning him, saying,
    ‘What may this simile be?’
    And he said,
    ‘To you it hath been given
    to know the secrets
    of the reign of God,
    and to the rest in similes;
    that seeing they may not see,
    and hearing
    they may not understand.
    ‘And this is the simile:
    The seed is the word of God,
    and those beside the way
    are those hearing,
    then cometh the Devil,
    and taketh up the word
    from their heart,
    lest having believed,
    they may be saved.
    ‘And those upon the rock:
    They who, when they may hear,
    with joy do receive the word,
    and these have no root,
    who for a time believe,
    and in time of temptation fall away.
    ‘And that which fell to the thorns:
    These are they who have heard,
    and going forth,
    through anxieties, and riches,
    and pleasures of life,
    are choked,
    and bear not to completion.
    And that in the good ground:
    These are they,
    who in an upright and good heart,
    having heard the word,
    do retain it,
    and bear fruit in continuance.

    And no one having lighted a lamp
    doth cover it with a vessel,
    or under a couch doth put it;
    but upon a lamp-stand
    he doth put it,
    that those coming in
    may see the light,
    for nothing is secret,
    that shall not become manifest,
    nor hid, that shall not be known,
    and become manifest.
    ‘See, therefore, how ye hear,
    for whoever may have,
    there shall be given to him,
    and whoever may not have,
    also what he seemeth to have,
    shall be taken from him.’

    And there came unto him
    his mother and brethren,
    and they were not able to get to him
    because of the multitude,
    and it was told him, saying,
    ‘Thy mother and thy brethren
    do stand without,
    wishing to see thee;’
    and he answering said unto them,
    ‘My mother and my brethren!
    they are those who the word of God
    are hearing, and doing.’
    – Luke 8:1 – 21 (YLT)

  • tortugas

    Does God intervene? To state that God probably doesn’t because of some innate sense of fairness (Why for you, but not for me) seems little different than suggesting that mystical experiences can’t be real. Why? Because there is no mystical anything, only matter in motion. That would be the scientific perspective.

    Let’s take Professor Borg’s example of the parting of the Red Sea. Is it the size of the miracle, or the abrogation of natural laws that is at issue? Or, is the problem miracles of any kind?

    According to the bible God delivered the Hebrews after long centuries of bondage and hardship. This is a constant theme of suffering and hardship echoing throughout all of scripture, from Adam to Jesus. Even then, God acted because “Israel” served a greater purpose. God’s mercy was always about more than the individual or group.

    Here’s a question; does God have a greater purpose?

  • Fran Ota

    I agree. About seven years ago I had a deeply mystical experience – in the middle of the night, unbidden. I went about for a couple of months afraid to speak of it, and finally decided that the one person who would likely understand was a friend who is a Buddhist priest. His comment was “We don’t know why these things happen – my guess would be something inside *you* shifted, and allowed this to surface.” I would never have seen it as divine intervention in the sense you describe. His advice was not to dwell on it, just hold it lightly. – that often people try to re-create the experience and are endlessly frustrated. I do think that the experience helped me to understand my concept of God a little better – but God did not *do* it.

    • Agni Ashwin

      Sounds like the Buddhist analogy of how nirvana is realized. Nirvana doesn’t do anything; it’s always there. It’s you who took a few steps in the nirvana-direction.

      • R Vogel

        Beautiful analogy.

  • Josh Magda

    An intensely personal, and speculative, recent journal entry on the particularity of the mystic’s journey. Here I am not talking about “everyday” “ordinary” mystical experience (I must use quotes here as there is nothing ordinary about the ordinary)- but about what has traditionally been called gnosis: a mystical experience of such profundity that it is salvific in a way that nothing else is for the mystic. Thereafter, The Reality experienced becomes the center of the mystic’s life: everything else, consciously or unconsciously,  is seen, without any contrivance whatsoever, in light of this Reality.

    To say that ultimate reality doesn’t matter is ok and quite true for people who are not intellectuals in the classical sense. It does indeed take all kinds for the world to go round, and one vocation is not better or worse than the other. “Intellectual” here is the unchosen spiritual temperament of people for whom the longing for the real is the paramount experiential reality of their everyday waking life. People who, like myself when I was six years old, would tearfully break down and realize that Santa Claus was not real because “that would make him more powerful than Jesus, and no one is more powerful than Jesus!” To my young mind Jesus=God, and I was torn apart then by the thought that God was less real than a fairy tale. Now true, a good deal of this being torn asunder is the intellectual’s own neurosis, which I have had a hefty share of.

    But I think that this is mostly because God is so obvious to me, yet there is so much suffering in the world, and this discontinuity has driven me to a breaking point psychologically. It has worn away at me, year after year, utterly destroying and ruining my ability to have any semblance of a normal life. The only peace I have ever really experienced throughout this ordeal are the times God has taken me aside and had Her way with me. Like Thomas, it has never been enough to hear by the hearing of the ear alone- I must directly taste and see that the Eternal is good. And I have been to the Door enough times now to have what could even be called certainty about the reality of God.

    What is the reward, if any, of the intellectual’s spiritual journey, compared to some other way? Only this: the intellectual has the good fortune of knowing in the depths of her being the correct solution to the God-World relationship, this understanding being a small and simple but utterly vital part of humanity’s collective spiritual wisdom: the spiritual wisdom of the eye, or vision. And the one who has the privilege of Knowing has the responsibility of acting!

  • Craig

    Prof. Borg, I’d like to hear you discuss the possibility of non-mystical, debunking explanations of mystical experiences.

    No matter how convinced I may be of a mystical experience in a given moment, how do I avoid, in months following, giving in to any number of plausible debunking explanations of said experience? If I knowingly wall off such explanations (dismissing them outright, or knowingly neglecting to seriously explore debunking explanations as possibly viable), this seems less than truthful. If I simply insist (as others seem to) that I cannot believe any debunking explanations, this is less a statement of fact than it is an expression of a personal decision. Pretending otherwise is less than honest. To baldly concede, however, that I am simply committed to interpreting my experience as mystical is just to concede that I am walling off certain possibilities that I lack any known justification for precluding.

    What do you do? I find it hard to believe that someone as obviously intelligent as you cannot discover/formulate plausible non-mystical explanations of your “mystical” experiences.

    • R Vogel

      It would be helpful if everyone would define their understanding of ‘mystical experiences’ since it s a vague term. Visions of white lights might be a form of epilepsy, hearing voices might be a sign of mental illness, is this the kind of thing you mean? Because those are very different from what I will clumsily refer to as enlightenment. I think of someone who spent their whole life having no appreciation of poetry until one day they read a certain poem and it speaks to them. They experience something they have never experienced before. I am not aware of any scientific explanation of why some people appreciate poetry, while others are moved to tears while listening to a symphony.

      • Craig

        Yes, I think you’re right R. Vogel. It’d be worthwhile to pursue clearer definitions. Thank you.

        In your view, would scientific explanations of your experiences of poetry and music deprive those experiences of any of their content or significance? I find it hard to understand why they would. What, then, is added to the significance of these experiences by regarding them as scientifically unexplained? If nothing, then are mystical experiences, as opposed to non-mystical ones, of any special significance? Why?

        (A modest conclusion: if “mystical” is to carry the significance we are inclined to associate with it, we certainly shouldn’t define it merely that which is currently unexplained by science.)

        What makes an experience “enlightening”? When an adolescent suddenly experiences sexual attraction for the first time, isn’t this typically enlightening (as well as bit perplexing)? Such enlightenment has nothing to do with whether or not we have a good scientific explanation for sexual attraction, or whether or not such attractions are in any important sense “mystical” or “divine”.

        • R Vogel

          In your view, would scientific explanations of your experiences of poetry and music deprive those experiences of any of their content or significance?

          I guess it would depend on the explanation, but probably not. Any more than knowing the sexual attraction has a clear evolutionary purpose detracts from that experience.

          if “mystical” is to carry the significance we are inclined to associate with it, we certainly shouldn’t define it merely that which is currently unexplained by science

          That essentially does away with ‘mystical’ experiences for the materialist, since there are only 2 categories, that which has been explained by science and that which has yet to be explained by science. I’m OK with that. I see how someone might come to that conclusion. In many ways I am sympathetic with the materialist since there is no way the divine could exist in the sense that the material world exist. We exist, the earth and universe exists. The divine doesn’t exist. Existence, in my mind, carries with it the possibility of extinction. Therefore neither could right be applied to the divine. I’m not asking anyone else to bless my personal experience, however. Judge my actions. In the end this experience may simply be a poem I tell myself to add depth and richness to my life, in the same way studying science may add depth and richness to someone else’s. I’m OK with that.

          What makes an experience “enlightening”?

          I’m not sure I grasp this last piece, I apologize. I think the example is a great one – enlightenment is simply an awakening of some part of the mind, like sexual attraction. Sexual awakening is the result of a bunch of chemicals firing off in the brain as a result of millions of years of biological evolution. No mystical explanation needed. The only problem I see is that sexual attraction is almost universal. Whereas divine experience is not, so it might be harder to pin down to evolutionary causes. Sexual attraction is the result of an observable physical process, I’m not sure if divine experience is also. It would be interesting to see if it was. I believe they can stick a probe into someone’s brain and stimulate sexual desire, do you know if they can do the same with experiences of the divine?

  • Josh Magda

    At the risk of taking up too much space here, I feel it is important for me to add that I affirm the usual caveats from 1 Corinthians 13, the greatest commandment, about the primary importance of Love in Action, given some hypothetical choice between It and gnosis. The prophetic is also nonnegotiable for me, and is at the center of my worldview.  I don’t say that as an add-on or afterthought; I say it because it is entirely consistent with the Truth of these experiences. 

    It is just, as an intellectual, I don’t know how to process the sort of thing I hear all the time from progressives, though I’ve tried, such as “feeding the hungry and the like is, at the end of the day, more important than ultimate reality.” It isn’t to me! For me, I NEED TO KNOW that feeding the hungry is, at base, the way things really are: that God, as it were, has the last laugh in the face of the immensity of human suffering. Nothing matters more to me. And I have come to the place where I honor and except the primacy of the partial Truth I have been privileged to experience, even as others of different temperaments relate what is certainly true as well, that this stuff is less important than the Gospel in action.

    • I hear you Josh. I can relate to your struggle, and yearning.

      Everyone comes from a different place.
      To Me, our service, our action, shines out of the Truth, Love, Light, Way we expereince in alignment with our Source. From this place we Know who we are, who God is, who/where/how we are to serve in this world, and that God is in the Heavens and all is well in this world.
      Otherwise, we are the blind leading the (more or less well-fed) blind.

      I believe you are barking up the right tree, in wanting to know spiritually what is up with ultimate reality. I pray that God leads you in your unique way, to ever-deeper expereince of Spiritual Reality.


      • Josh Magda

        Thank you, Wendy. The great difficulty of my life has been my refusal to choose between God as being, or transcendent, and God as becoming, or immanent, in the midst of a cultural and religious climate that would have me do one or the other. As much as I know, affirm, and experience that God shows up when I act Godly, I still need to know that God is there when the lights go out. It appears I am a big fan of having my cake and eating it too! It is also the reason I remained a Christian after a very painful religious past, because I see this same refusal, this mystical-prophetic intensity in Jesus and those that authentically walk his way. Love- Josh.

        • Andrew Dowling

          Well stated Josh . .you are certainly not alone in facing these predicaments.

        • Hannah Rush

          There is nothing to choose. There is no place, geographical, emotional, or spiritual that God is not. God is not present in the darkness, God IS the darkness, as well as the light (e.g. Saint John of the Cross and the Dark Night of the Soul as one example). Using another John’s (New Testament) words “God is Love.” Love is the source of life itself, and there is no place it is possible to be where it is not. Do you understand what I am trying to express here? Sometimes it is only in the darkest pain that we find the well-spring of divine compassion. The whole thing is scarey. The whole thing is wonder.

          • Josh

            Oh, I didn’t say that my difficulty had not yielded an Answer, though I am neurotic enough still to challenge even it on occasion.. ;-). The spiritual journey could almost be described as a long and torturous process of exhausting every possibility other than Thou Art That.

          • Hannah Rush

            Well, you are ahead of me if you’ve had answers as such. I have not. I like what Rilke had to say:

            …I would like to beg you dear Sir, as well as I can, to have
            patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the
            questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very
            foreign language. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to
            you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live
            everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future,
            you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.
            Rainer Maria Rilke, 1903
            in Letters to a Young Poet

          • Josh

            One of my favorite poets 🙂 Though I must say, the via negativa is not my “favorite” aspect of divinity, as it was his. The via positiva is where it’s at for me, though I’ve spent the majority of my adult life walking the negativa.

            And I am not ahead. With God there is no ahead or behind, there is only the intimate space where each of us is, which is precious no matter where it is on whomever’s conceptual continuum. One day maybe we will really believe that, myself included, and enjoy the journey; after all its the principal reason we are here: to have a good time. 🙂

            Brightest blessings.

          • Hannah Rush

            I’ve never heard of or read about vias negativa or positiva. But I doubt the terms have any more relevance than did my use of “ahead” in this context. Like you are saying, it is all a part of the journey, and the journey is good.

            And brightest blessings to you too.

    • ortcutt

      You need to distinguish the difference between (1) a need to know and (2) a need for felt certainty. If I’m in the airport with 10 minutes to spare until boarding ends, then I need to know which gate my flight is departing from. Feeling that I know isn’t what I’m after. In fact, incorrect felt certainty would be a big problem, because I would confidently go to the wrong gate and miss my flight. What you seem to be saying is that you need to have felt certainty that there will be eventual justice, not that you need to know it. Faith is a great way to acquire felt certainty, but it’s a lousy path to knowledge. All I can say to you is that there are hundreds of millions of people who live fulfilling lives knowing that the world is not just. There was no just conclusion to the Holocaust. It wasn’t all sorted out the right way in Heaven and Hell. The best we can do is to live our lives trying to make the world a little bit more just.

      • Josh Magda

        I disagree with this, though I might have agreed with some of its tenets even a few years ago. Now, I actually think human beings have a right to Know the basic Truth about who they are. The fact that all human cultures other than our own have affirmed that death is a continuation rather than an annihilation matters to me. However, what really matters to me even more than this is knowing the way the world is at an ultimate level directly affects the possibilities of what we can experience, or probably more accurately, allow ourselves to experience, in the here and now. As I said, I understand and respect the position of those “doing the best they can do day by day,” as my Mom says, quite accurately, as it yields much spiritual fruit in her life. In India her path would be called the path of karma yoga, which she most assuredly is. That path is not my path.

        • ortcutt

          I don’t know of any culture that believed that infectious diseases were caused by bacteria and viruses before the 19th Century. But as it turns out, that’s true, and as it turns out, every culture that said something else was wrong. Arguing from what various cultures believe isn’t a path to knowledge.

          • Josh Magda

            But directly experiencing what they all universally claim, is. Let’s turn the germ theory analogy around. If older cultures universally taught the existence of bacteria and viruses, and, in the present day, I were to be infected by one, over and against a hypothetical present cultural hegemeony that denied the possibility of infection, who would be accurate? It comes down to this: we’re telling you that we have been infected and, as it happens, that the infection has been described, to a tee, by people everywhere since the dawn of our humanity. You are saying that we, and everyone else before and since, is hallucinating the illness, because you cannot see the virus by a particular means that you have come to rely upon in other areas, in this case, telling a poem ( reversing the analogy that usually depreciates poetry as means of discovering truth). We say, based on our significant experience with the virus, look through the microscope if you want to have a chance of seeing the virus, the microscope in this instance being humanity’s treasure trove of spiritual wisdom, community, and practice. 

          • Josh

            I guess I should say that when I look through an actual microscope, all I can see is God, too. Of course, that applies to everything and everyone for me as well. For instance, I routinely put a picture of the Boston bombers hugging each other when they were younger, before bad religion got a hold of them, on my desktop. It’s an interesting life. I am NOT a determinist and do not say that everything that happens is God’s will. In the West, and here I think we are right and the East is wrong, justice must be carved out, in Reb Heschel’s words. I do say that good is incommensurably more powerful than evil, based on directly experiencing it as such many times, and Very Good is what our universe is, past, present and future, in the final analysis.

          • ortcutt

            If you see God through an actual microscope, please publish a paper on the subject and collect your Nobel Prize, because that really would be a blockbuster result.

          • Josh

            I think that the “Nature” and “Naturalism” you and other hyperphysicalists describe is an unworkable and wildly inaccurate philosophical abstraction, born as it is from the categorical rejection of all ways of knowing and being other than the one(s) you find most congenial to you, usually but not always the ways of knowing popularized by modern science, such as rationalism and physicalist empiricism. Without meaning to be unfair or unkind, what it boils down to is that I think my Nature is bigger than your Nature(!) My Nature includes everything you celebrate and affirm, and a whole lot more. There are voluminous data sets coming out of traditions of disciplined inquiry that your position does indeed send to the rubbish heap, because you demand that red be blue in a purple world. You are correct that our conceptions of Nature are greatly influenced by how we relate to these other streams of data from extra-scientific sources. Are they germane to the discovery of the constitution of the real world, or not? You seem to be saying an emphatic “no,” and I an emphatic “yes.” It is only natural and logical that we would come to different places given our starting assumptions about what counts as real and what counts as evidence.

            I am very glad to see scientists in love with their work and passionate about that which they study; I wouldnt have it any other way. The best scientists are awash in Mystery, letting it flow through them as an invigorating stream. So I do not think that the small but vocal cadre of scientistic eliminative materialists bent on disabusing us of the real Real World with their conceptual shrink-ray guns and poetic descriptions of a less real, tragic universe that is small enough for them that to deal with, are going to be very successful in the long run. Even if they were, as you have said, truth is not finally determined by cultural consensus. 

            Yours- Josh 🙂

          • Josh

            PS this is my final response

          • ortcutt

            You’re missing the point. Cultural hegemony isn’t epistemologically relevant. It’s the evidence that’s relevant.

            Alleged mystical experience isn’t like a microscope either. We know how microscopes and eyes work, so the causal story about how light hitting the bacteria makes an image on the retina of my eye or a photograph is something within science. What is your causal story for how the “much grander, much more glorious Reality” impinges on my mystical experience organs? There is none.

          • Hannah Rush

            Of how many past and present cultures do you have in-depth knowledge?

            And where is your proof that our current understanding of pathologies will be any more “accurate” to our descendents than the understanding of bodily humors is to us?

          • ortcutt

            “And where is your proof that our current understanding of pathologies
            will be any more “accurate” to our descendents than the understanding of
            bodily humors is to us?”

            If you have some evidence that bacteria, viruses, or other microbes aren’t the causes of infectious diseases, please publish it. Idle speculation doesn’t contradict evidence.

  • ortcutt

    The biggest modern barrier to the mystical experiences of the pre-moderns is training in science. We learn through our scientific education that not all of our experiences and thoughts are veridical. We are evolved organisms with all of the cognitive biases that entails. We need to learn to make correct statistical inferences, and we need to learn that striking mystical experiences might be something entirely in our brains and not evidence of anything “much more, much grander, much more glorious” other than the complexity of our brains.

    • Josh Magda

      Or our sacred brains could be participating in a much grander, much more glorious Reality, in which there is no conflict between flesh and spirit. Spirituality is to some degree innate in the human brain, as is language and affect and cognition. Because the brain helps to generate these processes, does that mean that language, for instance, is a hallucination? To the mystic, the Sacred creates/emanates brains, along with the rest of Creation.

      • Josh Magda

        I say this as someone who has worked in a laboratory setting before and seen the biological aspect of our humanity blip across the screen, with gratitude. Yet I like what Wayne Dyer said once to his neurosurgeon friend when the friend remarked he had never seen any signs of “spirit” in his line of work: “The next time you slice open a brain, and see a thought fly out, get back to me.”

        • ortcutt

          Well, it’s pretty clear that Wayne Dyer doesn’t know the first thing about Cognitive Science, because I’ve never heard any Cognitive Scientist claim that thoughts are the sort of thing that could fly out of the brain. It seems like he can’t conceive of how the brain could produce thought (through the action of brain cells). The inability to conceive something doesn’t mean it’s not the case. It’s a purely biographical fact about Dyer, nothing more.

          • Hannah Rush

            I’m sorry, but if you knew much about cognitive science, you would have seen and appreciated the humor in the Dyer quote.
            “The inability to conceive something doesn’t mean it’s not the case?” You are entangling yourself in your own argument; challenging your own thesis.

          • ortcutt

            I’m open to the possibility that there is a “”much grander, much more glorious Reality”, but where is the evidence? Evidence is epistemologically relevant. Conceivability isn’t. It’s just biography.

      • ortcutt

        1. The problem with this is that there is absolutely no evidence that it is a participation in any “much grander, much more glorious Reality.” What we find instead is that people have mystical experiences that fit into the religious tradition into which they were indoctrinated. Do we find Amazonians having mystical experiences of the Virgin Mary (before contact with the West)?

        2. I don’t understand why the supposed innateness of mystical experiences is an indication that they indicative of something beyond the experience itself. We are born with all kinds of cognitive errors, from sensory illusions to statistical errors, to our brains confusing disgust with evil.

        3. I don’t know what it means to say “to the mystic”. I have no doubt that many mystics believe that they mystical experiences are of a “much grander, much more glorious Reality.” The question is whether they are right or not. People believe all sort of things that aren’t actually true.

        • Josh Magda

          I call your position hyperphysicalism. And there is no real way to argue with it. You have decided that all that is in our universe a) must have a direct, empirical and physical underpinning that b) is in principle capable of being detected by quantitative methods, such as science and, furthermore, c) the human mind and imagination cannot be a seat of sacred encounter with Truth without the permission of a and b. The fact that people have claimed to experience and are experiencing a qualitative dimension to reality that cannot now, nor in all likelihood will ever be able to directly satisfy these enjoinders, seems to be irrelevant to hyperphysicalism. If the qualitative reality is, it is there objectively, meaning whether or not all individuals can detect it. And if it is a reality that is transpersonal or transempirical in nature, no amount of seeking to find it with a microscope or telescope will do, just as holding a stethoscope up to window and attempting to see out of it will never work. It must be addressed and sought on its own terms, not terms we are necessarily comfortable with handling, especially terms popular in modernity that would allow us to control and manipulate it.

          As regards the virgin Mary-and using the language analogy again-would we expect an Amazonian to speak native English? How is the presence of more than one language a blight against language itself?

          Finally, Wayne Dyer. I think the coy comment was meant to suggest that brain and mind are not ontologically the same thing. No amount of probing around in the brain has given us the phenomenological details on what a thought is. Of course, psychology has abandoned its more robust origins which included introspection and phenomenology in favor of the crass materialism maintained by most modern psychologists. 

          Yet brain and mind are not in conflict with each other, typically, any more than incarnate Spirit (traditionally called “flesh”) and disincarnate Spirit (traditionally called “spirit” or “soul”) are. Flesh and Spirit are lovers. If the physical reality scientists celebrate is one band on a spectrum of Reality that includes alongside it and at a minimum, the bands of qualia and consciousness, how does this detract from the beauty, of say, the rainbow’s red band! Is there something wrong with the other bands because they are other than red? Surely, the presence of other colors can only enhance red’s beauty. Must the rainbow be at war with itself? Mystics such as myself who celebrate the goodness of Creation honor both the colored light of Creation, including the physical, and the pure white light of Spirit that the various colors are a subset of.

          All the best on your spiritual journey. 

          • ortcutt

            1. Naturalism is a methodological principle of science. If I submitted a paper to the journals Science or Nature, or Brain and Behavior Sciences that depended on supernatural causes, they would throw it in the trash. I don’t know why you’re calling this “hyperphysicalism” either. There’s nothing hyper about it. It’s absolutely bog-standard scientific methodology.

            2. If you want to argue that mystical experiences are veridical perceptions of “much grander, much more glorious Reality”, present some evidence. The burden of proof is you. So far as I can see, neither you nor anyone has met that burden.

        • Hannah Rush

          1. We find people, across time and cultures, experiencing grander, more glorious, more compassionate and loving realities. That they are interpreted/shared through the experiencer’s own language and cultural/religious understanding is rather unavoidable, don’t you think?

          2. What in the world do you mean by “statistical errors?” Or even “cognitive errors?” You do realize, don’t you, that “statistics” are a construct of human “cognition,” and that “cognition” is a label of the human brain’s invention to classify all of its functions (including ALL perceptive and intuitive functions) in order to more fully study and understand itself? If you don’t consider that sort of comical/mystical in and of itself, I don’t think anything could ever qualify for you.

          3.Yes, just as people don’t believe many things that are actually true. What’s your point?

          • ortcutt

            1. There’s a difference between experiencing as-if and experiencing something that exists. I have no doubt that some people have experience as-if of a “much grander, much more glorious Reality”, but that isn’t evidence of the existence of that, unless the experiences are veridical.

            2. See,



            Some of the biases are statistical errors. We invented statistics in part to overcome our innate statistical errors.

            3. It’s worthwhile to remember that people make errors and believe false things, given that some are treating mystical experiences as indubitable evidence of a “much grander, much more glorious Reality”.

      • Hannah Rush