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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.


Alden Smith said…
How should you know indeed! and thank you for your reply, it has put to sleep for ever two myths (no, not the myth that contains truth, the other one) that I have always entertained about Anglican Vicars – One that they all have in their respective studies a big fat phone with the word God emblazoned on the front, I have always envisioned the Vicar on ringing God to hear a voice saying “Yes the answer is 42, but let me first define my terms before you hang up.” – But I digress. The second myth that has been sundered from my consciousness like the birthing of an iceberg is the notion that somewhere, somehow, sometime in the midst of the inextricable interwovenness of some sort of Tantric meditation scenario some light from the Ineffable Wise One might have enlightened you in a manner that makes you able to answer with authority any question I put to you.

So have you failed Kelvin? Well no not at all. In the great Western tradition of rational thinking I put to you John Hicks rational opinion and asked for your rational opinion of this idea, no more no less. You gave your opinion. Your answer was a rational one within this tradition that values intellectualism and belief over personal experience and you said – “I can see that philosophically John Hick is right” you expanded this later with some wise advice implying the road to the understanding of the nature of mystic experience is to pursue it for oneself – sage advice indeed – and as always an answer written with intelligence, wit and insight.

And by the way, what the bloody hell is bok choi juice – its not another of those pretentious Dunedin inventions like Soy Coffee is it? – Dude if you are going to come motorbike riding ……… here’s a new mantra for you when you meditate (to the rhythm of Ommm), Sp – ei – ghts .
Kelvin Wright said…
Bok Choi is a green vegetable. Looks a bit like short faded silverbeet. I drink juice - carrot juice and green juice every day. The novelty wears off pretty soon, let me tell you, but I persist. The worst are the green ones. I've tried all manner of plants,in a struggle to find something palatable and this was a first try for Bok Choi. Clemency says it looks like a snail that's been stood on. It might taste the same too, but I have only ever eaten snails cooked in black butter and garlic, so I wouldn't really know and I'm not about to find out. How's the bike shopping going? I'm shelving the idea until we get back from Europe in the middle of next year, but it's still a great afternoon's entertainment going for test drives.
Alden Smith said…
I am in the midst of end of year madness at the moment - still looking at Mbikes, still undergoing deep psychological counselling by my wife. Haven't been for any test rides yet, but there is a long holiday coming up, roads are dry, the transport industry is keener than it has been since the last great depression to sell things, so who knows.

Has bok choi been checked out by our version of the National Food And Drug Administration? - I thought I saw some paint stripper in the WareHouse called bok choi - but obviously if you are still drinking the stuff it must be ok - whatever it tastes like I'm praying real hard that it works.
Anonymous said…
Well, fellas, I'd like to pick up our discussion of language again, if nobody minds! Things have gotten so here that even our tv commercials have become unbelievibly fouled up. I have watched one several times lately wherein the voiceover announcer wsay 'for generations the monks of Oka, Quebec have known how to make cheese like the back of their hand'. Now, who would want to buy cheese that looked like some hairy old one-armed monk's hand?

Now Alden, you know if God had a direct line to his vicars, they'd be getting iarte phone calls all the time! Now Kelvin, you just ignore him, he is probably hiding horns under all that mop! I continue to pray for you too...
Alden Smith said…
Janice: I must say I feel a bit miffed at having my hair, that talisman of my rakish, renaissance man good looks referred to as “that mop” but not insulted at all by your insinuation that I am some how the incarnation of the devil. I have a lot of sympathy for the devil actually. I think he gets a bit of a bum rap really. I think this mischievous metaphor has been overused, done to death really.

The gassing of Jews , the killing fields of Cambodia, a thousand years of misguided Christian abominations actually have nothing to do with the devil – he’s a scapegoat.

It is selfishness, fear and ignorance pretty much in that order that does the devils work. Since you are talking about language - it’s a real pity that the words ‘Selfishness’ and ‘Self Centeredness’ have such a nondescript sound. Self centeredness almost sounds like something you would find in the middle of a piece of chocolate. Selfishness should have the sound that jolts our being like – holocaust, pogrom, murder, betrayal and genocide - I guess that even with words, wolves sometimes come dressed in sheeps clothing.
Kelvin Wright said…
The study of language has never been the same since Noam Chomsky. What he, and the evolutionary psychologists tell us is that language ability is built in: there are several, eveolutionarily designed (and what a wonderful word evolutionarily is) structures in the brain which enable language. There are two groups of structures: one handling vocabulary and one handling syntax. This means that all languages behave by a set of invariable rules: to behave by anything other than the inbuilt rules would mean that the language was incomprehensible. All this is spelled out in Colin Pinkers How The Mind Works and even more clearly in The Language Instinct and Words And Rules This means that all languages, including those variants dismissed as slang, and those half languages- pidgins and creoles - have about the same level of complexity, and obey the same psychological rules. What we deplore as the decay of language is really just part of the inevitable shift of language - its evolution.
Think for example of the slang expression abso-bloody-lutely. Like it or lump it, we all understand instantly what it means. But then think of other possible ways of constructing the word: ab-bloody-solutely or absolut-bloody-ly. These don't work - they don't sound right. Why? They don't obey the mind's inner rules, that's why.
We may deplore the changes in language around us - and is anything uglier than the emerging New Zealand accent? - but trying to stop it is an exercise in Canute like futility. Today's slang is tomorrow's Queen's English.
Anonymous said…
Oh, Alden, you are a fickle devil too! Just when I'm having a little fun, you go and get all serious on us...What's up, you don't like someone taking the mick? And yet, you can be such fun!!

Kelvin, I loved your story, and I am really hoping you are working on that book!! It seems you have a great talent for writing, in fact, I'll bet you and Alden could put together something quite funny, if he gets his sense of humour back...
Alden Smith said…
Janice I am not miffed at all really. I think I am one of those stream of conciousness types. My writing style may well be a function of my Briggs Myers 'Type' profile. i.e. writing and talking and thinking happens all at the same time for me.
Sometimes my writing becomes a bit like a dream sequence, one idea like a big fat railway carriage bangs into the next and it all sort of concertinas down the line.
My first paragraph was tongue in cheek the next thing I know I was at the lecturn sermonising - I'm sure you could see me doing it - I was the one with the mop of hair and the horns.

The truth is I could probably do with some of those writing lessons Kelvin is talking about, and take a more studied and circumspect approach to things, I don't really what the devil gets into me sometimes.
Alden Smith said…
That's - "I don't really KNOW what the devil gets into me sometimes."

See, I told you I need writing lessons (with a large proof reading component in the syllabus)
Kelvin Wright said…
One of the things Iliked about John Hick's book was his brief analysis of the shift in religions pre and post axial age.He talks about what the religions were for: pre axial religions were about integration with the known, ensuring the known cycle of seasons continued etc. There was no concept of another place after death - other than some vaguely defined sheol or perhaps some other realm, such as Mt Olympus where the gods lived. Post axial religions saw a shift to humans related to another place and the religion had a function related to that other place - earning entry or avoiding unpleasant pitfalls. It strikes me that the role of the devil could be seen as another marker of what a religion is actually for. I could work this up into something quite long, but I'll avoid that now.
Anonymous said…
Alden, I'm not miffed either, I just like pulling your leg; I think you are very amusing, in fact. I like New Zealanders very much, based on you and Kelvin, (?), and I met a young fellow from Dunedin last week when I was in hospital, he is a nurse. My son greatly admired his technique with me, he pointed out that Peter was determined not to let me make him lose his temper or waste his time, did it quite diplomatically, too. Not that i go around delibreately trying to make people do that, but sometimes my sense of humour has that affect. Please forgive me if I get up your nose when trying to be funny! God bless you both~!!!!!
Alden Smith said…
Jance, There is nothing to forgive and I really enjoy your posts and your humour.

Thankyou for your compliment regarding our kiwi sense of humour.
- there a sort of blokey humour in NZ which incorporates a fair amount of mockery of the other person and what is called here as "piss taking" (sorry about that language wise but that is the local expression)- it is all pretty harmless and is in fact a sort of blokey show of affection and acceptance. Blokes in NZ don't kiss each other on the cheeks when they meet like continentals do, (the odd hug does happen which is healthy)- rather, shows of solidarity and affection and even concern are expressed in the form of a barrage of insults - but the annetanne that computes the nuance, the attitude and intention of the insult is finely tuned and can quite quickly morph into a very sharp axe that can split a hair at forty paces, so we pretty much know when and when not to take offence.

If Kiwi blokes were to try the facial pecking of Continentals the result would be a lot of heads down shuffling of feet, hands deep in pockets and lots of grunting. Communication would take about a fortnight to commence - far better to get in first with a couple of good insults.

Humans ARE bloody strange aren't they???
Anonymous said…
A lot bloody stranger than huwomans!
Alden Smith said…
Well - you rest you case don't you, you clever clogs. :-)

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