Tuesday, March 09, 2010

Mysticism in a Modern World

Ross Douthat writes interesting columns on religion. Recall his column on Avatar - how concerned he was with the rise of "pantheism"?
Traditional theism has to wrestle with the problem of evil: if God is good, why does he allow suffering and death? But Nature is suffering and death. Its harmonies require violence. Its “circle of life” is really a cycle of mortality. And the human societies that hew closest to the natural order aren’t the shining Edens of James Cameron’s fond imaginings. They’re places where existence tends to be nasty, brutish and short.

Religion exists, in part, precisely because humans aren’t at home amid these cruel rhythms. We stand half inside the natural world and half outside it. We’re beasts with self-consciousness, predators with ethics, mortal creatures who yearn for immortality.
Okay, so if people "aren’t at home amid" the "cruel rhythms" of pantheism, assuming for the moment that people are drawn to pantheism in a manner greater than "That was a cool movie," what does Douthat believe draws them to it?
We pine for what we’ve left behind, and divinizing the natural world is an obvious way to express unease about our hyper-technological society. The threat of global warming, meanwhile, has lent the cult of Nature qualities that every successful religion needs — a crusading spirit, a rigorous set of ‘thou shalt nots,” and a piping-hot apocalypse.

At the same time, pantheism opens a path to numinous experience for people uncomfortable with the literal-mindedness of the monotheistic religions — with their miracle-working deities and holy books, their virgin births and resurrected bodies.
It would seem fair to say that many people have a romanticized concept of nature, being as removed as we are from the natural world. But that's not Douthat's explanation for his perception. Instead he argues that people are drawn to apocalyptic interpretations of nature - a cruel, not kind Mother Nature - a theory at odds with his notion that people aren't at home with nature's "cruel rhythms". In his view, they're magnifying nature's cruelty. Further, if Douthat truly believes that people yearn for immortality, and that's a big part of what turns people toward religion, how is that need satisfied by pantheism? Douthat offers no explanation, a fault in his column that would be more glaring if I accepted his thesis. But I don't share Douthat's perceptions (or fears) of the emergence of "a faith that equates God with Nature, and calls humanity into religious communion with the natural world", and thus am not particularly surprised that Douthat doesn't offer that level of consistency.

What emerges from that column, at least as I read it, is less that pantheism is on the rise, and is more that Douthat is uncomfortable with approaches to religion and faith that don't largely overlap with his own acceptance of Roman Catholicism. He has a need for an "upward" escape from the physical realm, implicitly discounting any religion that posits that the afterlife may be lateral - reincarnation, perhaps into a lesser life form - and is deeply uncomfortable with the idea that when the lights go out, he may find nothing but darkness.

Douthat, accepting the Catholic interpretation of God, raises the issue of theodicy,
Traditional theism has to wrestle with the problem of evil: if God is good, why does he allow suffering and death?
If you step outside of the dominant Christian interpretation of God, the answer seems easy: God doesn't have the power to stop suffering and death. Or perhaps God is indifferent. Or perhaps you're from a polytheistic faith in which some Gods use humans as playthings and are intentionally cruel. When you add the assumption that God is omnipotent, the most obvious interpretations are that God is indifferent or cruel. If you assume that God is all knowing, the most obvious interpretation is that God lacks the power to prevent suffering. If God must also be benevolent, an omniscient God with limited power can still explain human suffering. It's when you believe that God is omnipotent, omniscient, and is a force of absolute good that you end up tied in knots.

Not only does Douthat see a disturbing rise of "pantheism", he is also concerned about the demise of mysticism.
Monasteries have dwindled. Contemplative orders have declined. Our religious leaders no longer preach the renunciation of the world; our culture scoffs at the idea. The closest most Americans come to real asceticism is giving up chocolate, cappuccinos, or (in my own not-quite-Francis-of-Assisi case) meat for lunch for Lent.
Of course, not all religions believe in ascetism - not even all Christian faiths. But part of the reason that we, as a society, focus less on the "ascetic and ecstatic aspects of religion" is that we have far more wealth and knowledge than we did in the good old days dark ages. For all this talk of ascetism, the noble classes and religious leaders of that era lived well in comparison to the (literally) unwashed masses. Today, no apologies necessary, we look up what was once a deep mystery - let's say, a solar eclipse - and we know what it is.

Douthat isn't sure what to make of "democratized" mysticism:
A would-be mystic can attend a Pentecostal healing service one day and a class on Buddhism the next, dabble in Kabbalah in February and experiment with crystals in March, practice yoga every morning and spend weekends at an Eastern Orthodox retreat center. Sufi prayer techniques, Eucharistic adoration, peyote, tantric sex — name your preferred path to spiritual epiphany, and it’s probably on the table.

This democratization has been in many ways a blessing. Our horizons have been broadened, our religious resources have expanded, and we’ve even recovered spiritual practices that seemed to have died out long ago....

And yet Johnson may be right that something important is being lost as well. By making mysticism more democratic, we’ve also made it more bourgeois, more comfortable, and more dilettantish. It’s become something we pursue as a complement to an upwardly mobile existence, rather than a radical alternative to the ladder of success. Going to yoga classes isn’t the same thing as becoming a yogi; spending a week in a retreat center doesn’t make me Thomas Merton or Thérèse of Lisieux. Our kind of mysticism is more likely to be a pleasant hobby than a transformative vocation.
Of course not. But during what part of history did the masses have the opportunity to pursue mysticism as a transformative vocation? Can we agree, never? And what is the net effect of this modern free-for-all?
In 1962, after a decade-long boom in church attendance and public religiosity, Gallup found that just 22 percent of Americans reported having what they termed “a religious or mystical experience.” Flash forward to 2009, in a supposedly more secular United States, and that number had climbed to nearly 50 percent.
So... the touchy feely, do what you want to do approach seems to be generating a lot more mystical experiences than what came before it. And although I am amused by the idea that much of the change comes from the use of illicit drugs, I expect that's a modest part of the story.

The larger part may well be that religion has changed from our primary explanation for life and the natural world to something allegorical. With due respect for those who insist that their religious text be interpreted literally, that's no longer realistic. For starters, we now know that the Earth revolves around the Sun. Is it more of an embrace of mysticism to accept the literal teachings of your holy book when, to the best of your knowledge, they're consistent with the natural world? Or in the modern world in which you believe that they're not? I would argue the latter.

Douthat recognizes that "Most religious believers will never be great mystics", as has always been the case, but he frets that modern America may be "too accommodating" to "those of us who won’t".
Even ordinary belief — the kind that seeks epiphanies between deadlines, and struggles even with the meager self-discipline required to get through Lent — depends on extraordinary examples, whether they’re embedded in our communities or cloistered in the great silence of a monastery. Without them, faith can become just another form of worldliness, therapeutic rather than transcendent, and shorn of any claim to stand in judgment over our everyday choices and concerns.1
I'm not sure how much of an example the typical cloistered monk served to people of eras gone by... being cloistered, and all... but let's step back for a moment. Yes, an encounter with a "great mystic" (who shares their faith) may help people who are wrestling with their faith. But ponder this: Maybe there's something to be said for struggling with your faith. My guess is that pretty much anybody Douthat would regard as a mystic has worked through a lot of doubts along the way.
1. If you're Christian, shouldn't Christ be sufficient to fill this need?


  1. Douthat's essays would likely seem less wobbly and more consistent if he would be honest about (what I assume to be) his belief in Roman Catholicism as the one true faith.

    Note: ascetism; not ascetism.

  2. People write about mysticism, which is an experience with the Divine in a critical way because they have not had that experience. People who have had the experience write about the joy, awareness and positive change in attitude.

  3. So you didn't read the post?

    I see that you offer a path to mysticism for only $14.95 a copy.


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