Literalists, Mystics and Empiricism

To my mind, one of the ways mystical religion differs from other forms of religion (i.e., more dogmatic, doctrinally-based systems) is that mysticism concerns itself primarily with experiencing what is (or, to be fair to those who are skeptical, what it perceives to be what is), and then applying reason, where possible, to rationally integrate that experience with the rest of one’s religious ideas, modifying those ideas as needed according to experience—whereas non-mystical religion typically begins with dogma and doctrine and attempts to filter experience through the framework of that dogma and doctrine, accessing the experience accordingly. So, very roughly speaking, if a mystic has a transcendent encounter with the Divine which leaves the mystic with the impression that everything about a given life situation is fine, then the mystic will reconsider his or her present intellectual opinions about the situation and (re)order them according to the experience (e.g., “I always believed that this was a horrible thing, but in light of this experience obviously it is not, so my intellectual beliefs will now change”). The non-mystic, on the other hand, will first hold to his or her intellectual belief, and this attachment will by and large determine his or her ability to process any such experience (e.g., “I realize that in this moment the situation appears to be fine, but I know that doctrine clearly teaches it is not, so this is my own fallible human opinion/feeling that is trying to usurp the truth I already know.”)

Everything is a bit more involved than this, and there is no concrete demarcation between mystic and non-mystic, but it serves well enough to make the point: The two approaches are radically different. Oftentimes and unfortunately, it is practically impossible for either side to comprehend the other. As a mystic, I have continually been dumbfounded by the ability of some people to assign priority to words on a page of a holy book over what I consider the clarity of mystical experience. On the other hand, I have been in groups of such people who did not know I am a mystic, and listened to them laugh, giggle and joke about the totally misguided concept of mysticism. Granted, given the vast differences between these two approaches to the Divine and that there are many poor human examples of each approach, It’s understandable that each side views the other as dubious.

In this post, I’d like to point out something basic which Christian mystics and Biblical literalists have in common, and the fact that in each case there is an often overlooked irony. Generally speaking, both of these groups can and often do harbor a bit of contempt for Man’s science. An easy example to cite in the case of the literalists is the idea of creation and evolution. I don’t know many people anymore who believe that the world was created in six literal days. There are people who believe this, and indeed I would say that a strict literalist must indeed believe it. But even those who (admittedly or not) have departed from a strict literalism and are willing to view those six days as metaphorical still cling closely to literal interpretations. They might, for example, tell children not to pay any attention to their science teachers in class when they speak of the big bang. “There’s no big bang in the Bible, so there was no big bang,” they might say. Trust me. I’ve heard it said. Recently. Working very hard here to avoid going off on a tirade of why (in my opinion) Biblical literalism not only fails but in fact does not exist, I’m going to stick to my point. Biblical literalists are no fans of science whenever it places itself over against whatever the Bible “says.” Literalists place little if any stock in the validity of the scientific method and, indeed, many of them would be happier if science were to go away and the Bible was the last word on everything. Some mystics would agree with this in a sense, in that mystics have little use for the scientific method. Intuition, gut-level feelings, and experience of the Divine trump everything. To the mystic, the idea of trusting only in what can be seen, touched, heard or tasted is not a good way to find the truth. Not only is truth beyond the senses, but how in the world are you supposed to verify that any sensory data is valid? You can’t do so. Empiricism is a crock, and in so far as any science is based in empiricism, it too is a crock.

But here’s the irony. The first irony, faced by the literalists, is immediately obvious to the mystics. While the literalists rail against the science of Man, the science born of Modernity, they never seem to figure out that their literal interpretation (and, yes, it’s an interpretation) is one deeply, fully and probably inescapably buried in the Modern mindset. The literal view of scripture is, today, a view born of the scientific mindset. It is often impossible for the literalist to ever think that many of the Bible’s stories would have originally been heard and understood as metaphors. It is the legacy of the Modern mind and its science that has resulted in a view of scripture which says, “Given that scripture is true, then it must also always be historically factual and impervious to logical error.” The literalists claim Man’s science is inferior, battling against it with that same inferior science. Irony is the kindest word I use for this.

On the other hand, mystics face a similar irony and are loathe to admit it, if they are even able to recognize it. The mystic who scoffs at science’s empirical base, who oftentimes holds in contempt the Biblical literalist, considers him or herself to be beyond both. Why? Because of direct experience (albeit admittedly an experience held in a “cloud of unknowing”) of the Divine, of course. Only the mystic knows of God. Everybody else denies God, or merely talks about God via the language of religion. Admittedly, I have said this myself. So here’s the irony: what is such experiential knowledge of the Divine but simply empirical knowledge? The irony is that the mystics, for all of our talking, are the people who place the most stock in empiricism. It is not an empiricism based in bodily senses or scientific instruments, but it is empiricism none the less.

The lesson here should bring to us something that all good lessons do: humility. Literalists should ask themselves if they are really interested in God, or only in their own ideas and opinions about God. The question is warranted. On the other hand, we mystics always need to ask ourselves what faith may or may not be, and remember a biblical principle—if not its precise words: Quia vidisti me, credidisti. Beati, qui non viderunt et crediderunt!

The bottom line? We’re all in this together, and none of us has the corner on the market of truth. Let’s be humble in the face of God, accept one another, and trust in the Gracious Divine to make up for all of our shortcomings.

You may also like...

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

eighteen − 9 =