Saturday, 13 December 2008
Into The Shining Ocean
I'm sitting here enjoying a delicious glass of bok choi juice and this sentence contains two absolute lies. Or at least, one absolute lie and one debatable opinion. I'm sure you can figure which is which.
In a comment to a post a couple of weeks back, Alden asked me for my opinion on an opinion of John Hick's. To wit, and why anybody in the 21st century except an owl would use the term to wit is beyond me, there is a constantly recurring description in the mystical writings of all the great faiths that the mystical experience is of oneness with God (or Brahman, or the Buddha mind, or Atman or The One or whatever....). The experience is that of a drop of water sliding into the vast ocean and being one with the ocean. John Hick's opinion is that this is a metaphor for an experience beyond words, and is not absolutely true. After all, the mystic is now sitting at a desk somewhere, quill in holy hand, remembering and writing about the memory. Individual identity has obviously been retained throughout the experience in order for there to have been an experience at all. Individual identity is retained in order for the mystic to be remembering, and to be able to say "this is what happened to me".
"What," asked Alden, "is my opinion?"
Easy. How on earth should I know?
I can see that philosophically John Hick is right. I can see that the great mystics are struggling to put into words something that pushes the boundaries of their linguistic abilities to explain. I know that I have not experienced what the great mystics have experienced, so how can I possibly comment on the adequacy or otherwise of the metaphor they choose to approximate their experience? Religious activity is a complex business. In his book The New Frontier of Religion and Science, John Hick talks of the ordered spirituality of tanscendence which is stock in trade of the great monotheistic faiths. This is a belief in a God who is other. The business of the religious organisations is to safeguard this belief and to teach people to order their lives according to the standards of the transcendent other God. This type of belief stands over and apart from what Hick calls "spirituality" (with the inverted commas). "Spirituality" is the pursuit of inner disciplines or practices for the sake of self improvement or the advancement of one's own inner life. There is no necessary reference to anything outside the self in "spirituality". "Spirituality" is seen in the plethora of new age practices of which our society seems to be increasingly fond, but also in some of the trendy liturgies and hymns and resources of modern churches. Hick says that there is also another deeper strand: Spirituality (no inverted commas) or Mysticism which is the cultivation of the direct experience of the divine. The mystical experience is what ultimately lies behind and gives rise to the religions, and it can be found within the religions still, but it is not always obviously present. Pursuing the mystical experience is not only hidden in most religions, it is energetically, sometimes ruthlessly suppressed. He uses an old Buddhist metaphor: the different faiths are like different fingers of a hand pointing at the moon. Religious scholarship and philosophy spends a lot of time examining the fingers, but precious little trying to understand the moon.
I guess my own path has led me to the brink of this experience. To use the Buddhist's metaphor I find myself caring less and less about the fingers; but looking around there is a dim silvery glow which I recognise as moonlight. That's where I would like to explore - following the glow to its source. More and more I am realising that I'm going to have to make the journey alone. But I have no idea whether the metaphors used by past mystics to describe the end of the journey are accurate, or whether John Hick's critique is sound; any more than you will know whether bok choi juice is delicious or whether, truly, I enjoyed drinking it. All you can do is try it yourself and then make a guess -but only ever a guess - whether your experience is similar to mine.