Mystical Theology Needs Liberation Epistemology

Mystical Theology Needs Liberation Epistemology September 2, 2019

Is Theology Studying God?

Do you want to perceive and know God? I assume that’s why you engage in religious practices, and why you’re reading this blog. (I also know some people engage with religion to feed a god complex or play an intellectual game they seek to win. Such people aren’t my audience; I don’t have time to play those games.) Others practice religion as an insurance policy against a powerful, fiery force consuming them. I hope these will dare to come closer to the burning bush to see that it does not consume, and develop greater curiosity about the source of this mystery. But let me just address the God-seekers.

You might think that theology is studying God to see and understand more of this inexhaustible Source of life and truth. But all too often theology gets waylaid in the academic garden of studying what an elite group of men have thought and said about God. Academic theology has an important function in the Body of Christ—don’t get me wrong—but a lot of people get stuck here, never progressing further toward the Beatific Vision because they mistake the academic garden for a preview of Paradise. If seeing and knowing God Himself, rather than what other people have said about God, is your aim, then mystical theology is your main course of study.

Sts John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila visualize the Trinity, oil on panel from a Brazilian cathedral / public domain

Mystical theology seems to have become a lost art in Western Christianity, at least from the 17th century onwards. But it is by no means extinct, as Eastern Christian traditions have continued to value and pursue this path with regularity and intentionality. Is it possible for Western Christians to make this course of study without joining an Eastern monastic or liturgical tradition? And why has it been so muted in the West for the past 400-some years, since the brilliance of Saints Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross crossed from this world into their full Beatific Visions?

Before we can progress in perceiving and knowing God, we need to have a clear idea of how we perceive and know anything. That is, we need a functional epistemology about lesser things before we can approach knowledge of the Great I AM. By epistemology, I mean a theory of how we acquire true knowledge, accurately separating perceptions, opinions, or beliefs into categories of true, false, and unknown.

A Realistic Understanding of the Construction and Limits of Knowledge

Whenever we perceive a thing, we first have the raw sensory inputs, and then our brain constructs an idea about the thing. Sensory inputs are usually correct but incomplete when they reach the rational (cerebral/processing) brain. I see the side of the thing that faces me, but not the back side. I also cannot see it at the molecular level, or certain frequencies of light. If I have an ocular migraine my vision may scramble involuntarily before it can be rationalized, and if I am blind I may see nothing at all, but these are not the norm for human beings. We can trust our initial sensory inputs to the brain to be true-but-incomplete unless we have a specific sensory disorder.

The second process of our brain is deciding how to use these sensory inputs. Most information simply dissipates from our neural system because our brain determines it to be irrelevant. What we choose to “focus” on instead is categorized and added to prior information that we deem related according to our categories. As our brain executes this pattern repeatedly, we begin to form robust ideas about a thing. We fill in gaps in our actual perception using our imagination in order to form a multi-dimensional idea about an object. The imaginary filler that is part of our “objective” understanding of a thing is always at some degree of deviance from the actuality of the thing. But if we’re going to take the next step and interact with the thing, we need something more solid in our perception than unorganized sensory inputs.

We tend to construct sensory inputs into ideas about an object when we think interacting with the object (or avoiding interaction) will be useful to us. There’s nothing wrong with this per se when the object is not itself a conscious subject with the capability to direct their own subjective use. But even with unconscious objects, we need to be cautious about the consequences of inaccuracies in our perception. We especially tend to overlook the connection of objects to each other, ignoring their relationality. When we wrongly assume that a force applied to one will not have adverse chain reactions, we can do a lot of damage to the world around us.

When we intend to use an object by applying force, we need to try to acquire as much accurate information as possible about the object and its relationships to other objects first. We need to minimize the imaginary filler before acting. The greater the force to be applied, the more we need to maximize our confidence level about the consequences first. On the other hand, if our only “use” of an object is to appreciate it without pushing on it, there is no risk to adding a lot of imaginary filler. When a person constructs an impressionistic vision of a flower, or even an absurd or surreal one, the universe in no way suffers from this “counterfactual” appreciation. Perhaps this vision will take on a reality of its own on an artist’s canvas, but the original flower that may have prompted this idea continues its own reality unmolested.

So let’s return to the epistemological question: how do we know things about objects and their relationships with greater certainty? How do we move more of our conceptions from imagination into the bucket of truth? One way is to gather more sensory input, more raw data, and see if it fits the construct or requires reordering to fit together. Another way is to experiment—to form a theory that if we push a certain thing in a certain way then the theory would predict that we see a particular consequence, and test to see if that indeed happens. We don’t have to do all this data gathering and constructing and experimenting personally; we can use the information acquired by others if they share it truthfully with us.

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  • gloriamarie

    Great article. Have you read Mertons “Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander?” He was certainly a mystic that believed in acting for social justice.

    Evelyn Underhill in her definitive work on the subject, “Mysticism, wrote, and I parapharase, that the way to tell someone was truly a mystic was if the love of God experienced by the mystic poured out of the mystic’s very pores in loving service to all.

    True mystics have known all along that they cannot hoarde the love of God they exeperience but share it with the rest of the world in acts of social justice. We see this in their writtings from the get go in the Desert Christians of the 3rd century on.