Mysticism and Christianity

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Teresa of Ávila, Ulm, Germany

Teresa of Ávila, Ulm, Germany (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Contrary to a common stereotype, mystical thought has always played a role in the development of Christian thought, just as it has in other religious traditions. While eschewing Gnosticism, Neoplatonist pagans such as Plotinus were used by Christian writers, and the Pseudo-Dionysius’ writings could be called mystical works from a Christian perspective. The Eastern Orthodox Church has emphasized contemplation, and this trend became dominant during the late states of the Eastern Roman Empire just before Constantinople was taken by the Turks in 1453. In the Western Church, St. John of the Cross, St Julian of Norwich, and St. Theresa of Avila were only a few of the great mystics. The Church has taken care regarding mysticism, not in order to make life difficult for the mystics, but to make sure that the teachings of the mystics were in line with Christian teaching. St. Theresa of Avila gladly submitted to that rule and did not begrudge it–anyone with doubts should read her writings. There were a few exceptions, but this was not due to the authors’ mysticism. The problem was the teachings of certain mystics seemed to conflict with the teachings of Christianity. I am not sure if Scotus Erigena was a mystic, but he was clearly a pantheist, and while not formally condemned, his position was stronger than the alleged panentheism of Meister Eckhart–Erigena clearly identified God with the universe in his dynamic pantheistic system. Meister Eckhart, on the other hand, believed, as far as I can follow his thought, that the was a good Thomist–if every contingent thing that exists is radically dependent on God, then without God all contingent things are literally no-things. Thus God is all in all. Eckhart’s teachings could be a form of panentheism, and one could even interpret them in terms of classical theism. In my judgment, Eckhart’s heresy trial was based on a misunderstanding of his teachings.Mystics tend to emphasize the untiy of all things in the One, and sometimes they seem to subsume creation into God so that God is the only reality and contingent things are unreal. R. C. Zaehner has argued that Christian mysticism always kept the God-world distinction in the background while Eastern mysticism did not. That is a widely disputed point; many writers would claim there is a strong cross-religious and cross-cultural commonality to religious experience. Huston Smith has argued that within a religious tradition that approves their use, psychedelic drugs may be a way to reach the transcendent. From a very different perspective, Stanislav Grof has argued that high doses of LSD can put some persons in contact with transcendent reality. Even the majority of mystics who do not use drugs use fasting, chants, and other methods to focus the mind. However, as William James notes in his Varieties of Religious Experience, there is a passivity to mystical experience–ultimately it is a gift of grace. James is also correct in noting the ineffable quality of mystical experiences. It is not that mystics cannot communicate anything about their experience–otherwise, why would they write books about mysticism–but that language does a poor job in communicating the experience. In December 1273, St. Thomas Aquinas told his secretary that he had a mystical experience of God of such power that everything he had written before was “straw.” He died shortly afterward in March 1274.

Mystics also have a sense, as James noted, of certainty that the experience they had was real. The experience itself does not last long; James is probably not far off the mark when he states that most experiences last less than half an hour. These special gifts of grace are the height of the contemplative (Mary-type) life as opposed to the more practical Martha-type life. The church requires both.

Christian mystics should always keep in mind the fact of the incarnation (as did St. Theresa of Avila). Matter is good and redeemed by God through Christ. Any mystical experience that denies the goodness of matter is heretical from a Christian perspective. What mystical experience tells Christians, among other things, is how small we human beings are in comparison with God. Even the Beatific Vision will not result in anything close to a complete knowledge of God. It is good for humans, who have a tendency toward pride and arrogance, to realize their smallness, their nothingness, in the face of Existence Itself.

Atheism, Agnosticism, and Psychologists

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A 2006 study in Sociology of Religion found that 50% of American psychology professors were atheists and 11% agnostic, making psychologists less religious than professors in any other field, including the other sciences. What is it about the field of psychology that lends itself to a non-theistic world view? The problem seems to be that psychology remains stuck in the nineteenth century, both in its overall world view and in its naive conception of science.

The nineteenth century non-religious intellectual usually rejected belief in God because there seemed to be no role for God in a Newtonian cosmos. Although Newton himself was a theist who believed that space is the “sensorium” of God, his followers generally saw no need for God in a mechanistic universe; as the French scientist Laplace famously said concerning God, “I have no need of that hypothesis.” A world of machines governed by deterministic laws could exist on its own without any God to sustain it in existence, a fact that the Irish philosopher George Berkeley recognized despite the problematic nature of his own idealistic metaphysics. The Newtonian world seemed to leave no room for “God, freedom, and immortality,” and Kant felt forced to accept at the level of phenomena a godless, deterministic universe, but affirmed God, freedom, and immortality to be postulates of practical reason. As Kant himself eventually realized (in his posthumously published writings), his view, at best, implies that human beings must act as if God, freedom, and immortality exist, but that these things belong to the unknowable realm of noumena about which we must remain agnostic.

After Darwin interpreted biology in terms of a Newtonian mechanical world view in his theory of evolution by natural selection, some intellectuals who hated the abrogation of any spirituality from the world turned back toward Descartes‘ dualistic philosophy in which mind is free, mind can exist after death, and with God being a great Mind, the fact that matter is determined by strict Newtonian laws does not oppose freedom and spirituality. Some of these intellectuals focused on alleged empirical evidence for mental powers above the physical and for survival of death by a mind, and thus the philosopher Henry Sidgwich and the classicist turned psychologist F. W. H. Meyers founded the Society for Psychical Research in London in 1882. Later, in 1885, the American Society for Psychical Research was founded, with the philosopher and psychologist William James serving as its second president. By studying phenomena such as telepathy, clairvoyance, psychokinesis, and mediumship, these intellectuals desired to discover an empirical basis for the mind having powers beyond the standard interpretation of Newtonian laws. Although influential for a time, the Society suffered from vicious attacks from defenders of the strict Newtonian paradigm.

In England and in the United States, idealistic (in England) and pragmatic (in the United States) systems of philosophy were overwhelmed by the early analytic movement in philosophy, including the logical positivists. The Vienna Circle in the 1920s and 30s supported the position that only empirically verifiable statements or tautologies such as those found in mathematics and logic were meaningful. In psychology, the earlier open-mindedness of William James was replaced by the dogmatic behaviorism of John Broadus Watson which was continued by B. F. Skinner. Watson, influenced by the Vienna Circle, excluded all considerations of consciousness and other “unobservable” behaviors from psychology, focusing only on observable behavior as shown in stimulus-response behavior in mice and other animals. These animal “machines” were thought to be appropriate models of the behavior of “human machines;” thus both non-human animals and human beings were considered to be “automata.” God, as an unobservable entity, could have no meaning in such a world view.

Later, the cognitivist revolution in psychology overwhelmed behaviorism, but even cognitive psychology uses mechanical models for human cognition and behavior. Computational models, connectionism, neural network theory, and even functionalism are all basically mechanical models of cognition. They have difficulties dealing with the first person perspective of consciousness and both qualia and intentionality. With such a mechanical model of nature, there is still no room for a deity. Even with the quantum revolution in physics, which seems to oppose both absolute determinism and a mechanical model of the universe, most psychologists have stubbornly held on to the Newtonian world view, leaving no room for belief in God.

Psychologists, with some important exceptions, accept a nineteenth century view of science that has its ultimate origins in the thought of Francis Bacon in the seventeenth century. The notion of one “scientific method” in which the scientist collects observations, formulates a hypothesis, and tests the hypothesis through observation has been discredited by both philosophers of science (Popper, Lakatos, Kuhn, Feyerabend, Laudan) and scientists (Kuhn was a physicist, as was Michael Polanyi, an important critic of the “received view” in the philosophy of science). Although physicists and chemists who actually do cutting edge research recognize that there are actually multiple methods in science, as well as some biologists (though some radical Darwinians are just as extreme as most psychologists), psychologists still retain an outmoded view of science and of the “scientific method.” They also tend to believe that science is the only reliable source of knowledge, ruling out knowledge via philosophy, religion, art, and literature. Scientists in other fields are not as closed-minded, and this leads to more openness to the possibility that a God might exist.

Psychologists need to move into the twenty-first century since most of them bypassed the twentieth century and stayed in the nineteenth century. They need to examine how changes in sciences such as physics have called to question the Newtonian world view and mechanistic model of the universe. They should read work in contemporary philosophy of science that challenges their naive hypothetical-deductivist system and take it seriously instead of merely dismissing it. They should be open to all empirical data, including actually reading articles on psi, instead of finding one or two “straw man” articles to attack in their introductory textbooks on research methods. Finally, they should be open to the possibility that there are other means of gaining reliable knowledge than a narrowly conceived “scientific method.” Only then will academic (mainly experimental) psychologists be open to other views than atheism and agnosticism concerning the existence of God.

Hostility to the Hereafter and the Movie “Hereafter”

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I have seen the Clint Eastwood-directed movie Hereafter and have been surprised by the extremes in reviews. Roger Ebert gives the movie four stars and an “A” rating. On the other side of the spectrum is Peter Ranier of The Christian Science Moniter who accuses the movie of “quackery” and gives it a C- rating. Other ratings ranged anywhere from a numerical rating ranging from a low of 56 to a high of 100. A similar phenomenon was seen with the initial release of Stanley Kubrick‘s The Shining, which is almost universally recognized today as an innovative classic of the horror genre.

Hereafter is the story of a dissatisfied medium, George Lonegan (played by Matt Damon), a French journalist, Marie Lelay (played by Cecile de France) who has a near-death experience in the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, and an English schoolboy, Marcus (played by both Frankie and George McLaren), whose brother Jason (also played by both Frankie and George McLaren), who come together at the London Book Fair in circumstances that seem almost providential, but which could also be attributed to chance. A similar ambiguity is found in the movie Grand Canyon. Hereafter explores the issue of whether we survive death through the characters, and the screenwriter, Peter Morgan, whose previous credits include The Queen and Frost-Nixon, clearly has done his homework. As Roger Ebert notes, the movie does not say that an afterlife is proven by George McLaren’s genuine abilities; as parapsychologists know, veridical evidence from honest mediums can be due to telepathy from living persons or from clairvoyance. The ambiguity of the NDE is also noted, as well as Marie’s being absolutely convinced that her experience is real (what William James calls “noetic quality). The emotions the movie evokes are genuine, and though the movie veers perilously close to sentimentality, it does not cross that line. It is one of the best movies I have seen.

What accounts for some of the hostility toward Hereafter. I cannot read reviewers’ minds, but I would speculate that some reviewers are so hostile to any notion of survival of death that they are offended by a movie that is open to the possibility. Some of the evidence for survival is indeed suspect, but the movie recognizes this and shows Marcus visiting a number of fake mediums. But there are people in the world who would not be convinced of survival of death even if their mothers returned from the dead and hugged them. Survival of death is not possible in their world view. Thus, even though Hereafter can be interpreted as open to the possibility of life after death without affirming it, that possibility is too much to admit for the radical secularist.

On the other side of the issue would be individuals who want the movie to be less ambiguous on life after death–to affirm an afterlife without reservation. Morgan, who personally opposes an afterlife, and Eastwood wisely avoid reaching such conclusions. In real life they go beyond the evidence, but I think the ambiguity makes a better story–the audience begins the movie with wonder and ends the movie with wonder. This is a movie I definitely plan to purchase when it comes out on DVD.

“Cosmic Memory” and the Mind of God

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Harvard University image of Whitehead, circa 1924

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There has been a great deal of talk about “cosmic memory,” “Akashic Records,” and so forth among both mainstream parapsychologists and New Agers. This is an old idea that was revived not only by Theosophists, but also by philosophers such as William James, and there are some affinities with Jung’s “collective unconscious.” Ervin Laszlo has written a great deal on “Akashic memory,” as Edgar Mitchell and Stanley Krippner accept some version of cosmic memory placed in the framework of contemporary physics.

Such views remind me of Alfred North Whitehead‘s notion of “objective immortality.” For Whitehead, like contemporary advocates of cosmic memory, every event in nature is interconnected. As events constantly flow into the past, they are recorded in the mind of God, where they are stored forever. Whitehead himself denies subjective immortality, the notion that individual humans, for example, will live forever. But he accepts the idea that God remembers every event, and in that sense everything is immortal. These memories enrich the life of God, and He can use them as He continually aids the world in enfolding toward greater enrichment of value. Thus, Whitehead accepts a theistic (specifically a panentheistic) view of cosmic memory as existing in the mind of God.

None of these positions would suit traditional Christianity–but there is a version of cosmic memory that can–that of St. Thomas Aquinas. For Aquinas, God eternally holds every object and event in His mind. Although that is not the same as something existing in re, in itself, in another sense existing in God’s mind is more real than existing in re. Now Aquinas believes in subjective immortality; that is, he believes that God will raise all humans from the dead, restoring their souls to new bodies that are in a real sense continuous with the old. While Aquinas’ version of the afterlife sounds boring (“the beatific vision of God,” in which the saved contemplate God forever), as the late Father Joseph Owens of The Medieval Institute of the University of Toronto has noted, such an afterlife need not be boring at all. If all events and all places, everything that has ever existed or happened, exist virtually in God’s mind, then a resurrected person could have an experience of walking through the fields of his childhood. This sounds like a George Berkeley-like view of Heaven, or perhaps H. H. Price’s image-world with God as a ground of stability. My one caveat would be that if I exist in such a world, I would want the animals I have loved to be really, not just virtually, present–with their conscious lives restored and intact. If all else is composed of images in the mind of God, what would be the practical difference between such a world and a material world? Does the substrate out of which solid material objects is made really make a difference? There would be still be, to use Christian terminology, a “New Heaven and a New Earth.” On this view, the Beatific Vision of God would mark the fulfillment of our materiality rather than its repudiation. And the full truth of cosmic memory would be fulfilled in the ultimate vision of God’s memory playing a role in the blessed life of the resurrected.

Society for Psychical Research Annual Meeting, Sheffield, UK

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Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Resea...

I just returned from Sheffield, UK, where I presented a paper at the annual meeting of the Society for Psychical Research. That organization dates back to 1882, when Henry Sidgwick, his wife Elenore, Frederic W. H. Myers, Edward Gurney, William James, and other intellectuals decided to investigate both survival after death and extended powers of the mind (psi) using scientific techniques. These scholars were disturbed at the cold, mechanical, Newtonian world of modern science, especially after such a Newtonian view was applied to biology in Charles Darwin‘s and Alfred Russell Wallace‘s theory of evolution by natural selection. The world of nature seemed, as Alfred, Lord Tennyson put it, “red in tooth and claw,” as cold and uncaring as the ocean waters surrounding sailors trapped on a dingy after their boat capsized. Christianity seemed hard-pressed to deal with the empty, heartless universe of science.  Some scholars, such as Wallace, believed that empirical evidence could be found to justify a more spiritual conception of the universe. Incidences of apparent telepathy (mind-to-mind communication), clairvoyance (gaining information from the environment) and various stories of hauntings and ghosts as well as readings from mediums were studied, and some useful case studies can be found, for example, in Edmund Gurney‘s and F. W. H. Meyers’ Phantasms of the Living. Many cases involved a recently dead person not known by family to be dead appearing to a family member. Mediums, such as Mrs. Leonora Piper, gave information about those who have died that was so accurate that it is difficult to explain by her own psychic abilities alone.

Although after the work of J. B. Rhine at Duke University psychical research (now called parapsychology) became more experimental in approach. But the Society for Psychical Research highlights a broad spectrum of studies. At this years’ annual meeting in Sheffield, there were experimental papers, theoretical papers, including a few oriented toward philosophy, and field studies. Topics ranged from telephone telepathy to appearances of black dogs, from ganzfeld experiments to survival of death. The variety of papers and viewpoints was impressive, as was the high level of scholarship. To say that psychical researchers/parapsychologists are not using a scholarly approach is sheer ignorance. I was part of some of the best intellectual conversations I have ever experienced.

I strongly support continued research in the traditional areas of parapsychology, including conceptual and philosophical papers. Extreme, “fundamentalist skeptics” have aggressively attempted to halt parapsychological research, and have to a large degree succeeded. But the Society for Psychical Research continues its mission, and I hope to submit a proposal to next year’s conference.