Given the geographically, culturally, and chronologically widespread occurrence of mystical experience and the important place it has held in the creation of cultures and civilizations, mystical experience is not something that can be ignored or cast aside as unnecessary or insignificant. On the contrary, the evidence indicates that mystical experience is an innately and universally human phenomenon that has played a significant role in the shaping of historical events. That it is innate and universal does not imply that all persons will have such experiences. Rather, what is meant by innate and universal is that these experiences have occurred to a number of individuals in nearly every culture in the world and these individuals have in large part claimed that these experiences are possible for others given the right conditions and effort toward that end. Mysticism, then, stands in need of an explanation if one is to hold a worldview that is consistent with the facts of actual human experience. There are three possible explanations, though not each is equally plausible.
One possible explanation of mystical experiences, and perhaps the first resort of the strict materialist who wishes to maintain his worldview intact, is that those who claimed to have undergone such experiences are, simply put, lying. It is possible for the atheist to argue that many of these experiences exist only within the realm of legend and hearsay. The experience of the Buddha, for example, was not written down for some years after his lifetime and may reflect legendary accretions to his original account of whatever happened to him under the bodhi tree. It may very well be the case the bodhi tree itself is such a legendary accretion. The biblical accounts of the experiences of Abraham, Moses, and the apostles have been the subject of particularly vehement attacks by modern atheists, given the Western cultural context in which most atheists have been bred. Those cases that fall within the more potentially trustworthy record of history, such as the claimed experiences of Benedict of Nursia, Muhammad, Thomas Aquinas, Guru Nanak, and Blaise Pascal, cannot be dismissed so easily as legendary accretion. If one is to hold that all accounts of mystical experience are fabrications these cases must be deemed cases of intentional fabrication.
The motivation for such a fabrication on the part of many of these figures seems wanting, however. While one might argue that Muhammad, for example, created a story of a vision of an angel and his subsequent revelations from God in order to unite the disparate Arab tribes and forge the new political and military power he did indeed create, others among those who made the claim of a mystical experience seem to have had no such ulterior motive. In Aquinas’s case, the mystical vision he claimed to have experienced led him to abandon his writing, the very act through which he gained fame and honor. Pascal kept his mystical experience a secret throughout his life and never attempted to gain wealth, prestige, or any other goods from it.
There is, in addition, the problem of the widespread nature of these claims. These claims have occurred, as has been shown, in a wide variety of locations and are spread out through the whole of recorded history and beyond. In addition, as has been shown through the use of William James’s four criteria of authentic mystical experience, the reported mystical experiences bear a great deal of similarity to each other, an especially surprising fact given the wide divergence in cultural context and idiom between the various claimants to these experiences. For the position that each of these claims are intentional fabrications to be a claim that accurately accounts for all cases, it must be maintained that multiple individuals independently invented nearly identical fabrications. If this were the truth, it would be more miraculous than if the mystical experiences themselves are true!
A second possible explanation for the occurrence of mystical experiences is that the experiences have their source not in contact with a divine and transcendent being but rather as the product of physical processes. It may be that these experiences were hallucinations of one sort or another. One proposed physical explanation that has maintain its popularity since it was first posited is the idea that these mystical experiences may be the product of epileptic seizures. The response of the early 20th century occultist Aleister Crowley to just this assertion regarding claims of mystical experience seems as appropriate today as when he wrote it over a hundred years ago, however: “Even if epilepsy were the cause of these great movements which have caused civilization after civilization to arise from barbarism, it would merely form an argument for cultivating epilepsy.”
Mystical experiences have been the defining moments in the lives of those who have had them. Aquinas stopped writing; Pascal began writing; Paul became the leading advocate for the religion he would eventually die for. Mystical experiences have been the defining and originative moment in nearly all of the world’s great civilizations. The culture of East Asia is in large part the product of the Buddha’s experience under the bodhi tree. Western Civilization is the product of the conglomeration of the movements that resulted from the experiences of Abraham and Moses, the prompting of Socrates’s daemon, and the visions of James, John, Peter, and Paul. Islamic civilization traces its origins to Muhammad’s vision of Gabriel in a cave in Arabia. That the great bulk of mankind lives within a civilization that is the product of a mystical experience and that the greatest achievements of mankind have been the products of these civilizations seems a fine case for cultivating epilepsy or whatever other mental illness is responsible for these visions in the first place, if indeed they are the product of mental illness. Indeed, it seems rather to be the case that the common state of rational thought and ordinary brain functioning is the worse of the two possibilities and is itself the illness if hallucinatory man creates civilizations while rational man merely lives within them and enjoys the benefits of the insanity of the former.
There is a third explanation, however, and this is the most plausible of the three, when the implications of the former two proposed explanations are taken into account. The third possible explanation for mystical experience is that these experiences are, in all truth, authentic experiences of a divine and transcendent order or being. The implications of such an explanation of mystical experience are, no doubt, quite extensive. If mystical experiences are authentic, God does exist and religion, at least one of them, is correct.
It is an interesting, though not entirely ironic, feature of atheism that more than not its best arguments against Christianity are those which are made upon the principles it derives, through its own cultural heritage, from Christianity. This is the case, to use one very great example, with the very use of reason as a weapon against faith. The belief that reason is capable of discovering truth is an old Christian superstition that depends, with total unsubstantiated faith, upon a belief in the reasonableness of the world, the trustworthiness of the human senses and rational faculties, and, as if those were not enough, upon the attainable of truth itself. That’s a great leap to take for anyone, especially for someone who believes that all human thought is merely the movement of chemicals in the brain of a bipedal ape which possesses no more cosmic significance than the wind blowing through the trees.
The principled objector whose principles fit better into the philosophy he objects to than into his own position is just what we encounter with this book. When he’s not busy with inane and insane conspiracy theories, Wells attacks Christianity in the form of the Roman Catholic Church for the moral shortcomings of so many Christians throughout history. The real punchline, seemingly unnoticed by Wells, is that the morals he accuses these Christians of violating are Christian morals.
This leaves us with something of a dilemma. Is it that Mr. Wells really believes these morals to be good, right, and true and therefore condemns those who violate them? But why does he believe these morals to be good, right, and true? Why just precisely these Christian morals? You have to have the cake to have the frosting my friend. When a set of morals derives from a specific theology, you can’t discard the theology and expect the morals to stand. Is it that Mr. Wells does not believe in these morals himself but is condemning these Christians for hypocritically violating their own morals? If this is the case, I have to wonder why Mr. Wells cares at all. Mind your own business, Mr. Wells, is what I say to that.
The irony that underlines all irony is that this book was written in the 1940s — and Mr. Wells attacks the Catholic Church first and foremost because he sees the Church as the primary opponent of the modern socialist project at the head of which project Mr. Wells himself identifies Russia and China. Perhaps Mr. Wells did not realize that even at that very moment there were other atheists out there in his beloved China and Russia — atheists who took quite seriously their realization that Christianity was wrong and therefore its morals must be wrong — slaughtering innocent millions because they didn’t fit the paradigm of his brave new world. Poor Mr. Wells.
After the gulags, the famines, and the cultural revolutions, one can hardly see this book as anything but a rather off-color jest by a sorry court jester. It might have been better if Mr. Wells had stuck with writing second-rate science fiction rather than delving into third-rate politics and fourth-rate philosophy.
Though it has never, by its very nature, possessed the ability to thrive and create new systems of thought, atheism was once a radical and fascinating philosophical position with some interesting potential as a portal to exploration of the innate human tendencies to doubt and despair. This 18th century project took on its most energetic and interesting forms near the close of the 19th century as thinkers like Nietzsche sought to envision a world that was truly devoid of God, a world that Shakespeare already imagined in the 17th century in his tragedy of King Lear but which Nietzsche and Dostoyevsky brought into even finer detail when such a world really seemed, if only for a brief moment, intellectually feasible.
Alas, the golden age of atheism did not last long. Perhaps it was fated so by the nature of atheism itself. When doubt becomes the new certainty it takes on all the staleness of the old and ostensibly outworn orthodoxies. When something as radical as atheism trickles down and is taken up by those who don’t understand it and, whether through ignorance or cowardice or, more likely, a pitiful combination of both, don’t wish to live out their supposed intellectual convictions in any meaningful way, the inevitable result is the vapid and utterly unconvincing — not to mention uninteresting — wasteland of atheism at the dawn of the 21st century.
While atheism was certainly never a viable philosophy, logically speaking, it was a worthy exercise in absurdity that could have, had it been able to maintain its vigor, plumbed the depths of doubt. It could have been an opportunity to delve into the abyss, even if for just a brief moment. It could have been a worthy project. But, it seems, the gods fated for it to become another bourgeois puritanism under the auspices of Dawkins, Dennett, Hitchens, et al. — a cabal not even good enough to be evil.
What David Bentley Hart provides in this book is a final beautifully ornate, hand-sculpted nail in the coffin of a philosophical position that committed suicide with an overdose of tranquilizers quite some time ago. Hart takes up an argument that, in just over 300 pages, comes down to this: Plato already demolished atheism — didn’t you hear?
Now, I must immediately add: that last statement is not to say that this book is not worth reading. On the contrary, it is essential reading for anyone interested in the question of the viability of authentic doubt in the modern age as well as anyone so insipid that he can’t conjure the modesty to avert his gaze from the horrible collision of clown cars we call atheism. I hope, for your sake, that you are over the former sort, though it must be admitted that almost all of us are of one of those two sorts — or, perhaps, both at once.
What makes this book an essential contribution to the discussion of God are two aspects of it especially. First, there is Hart’s delightful ability to uncover the great similarities at the heart of the world’s spiritual traditions, to discover beneath the dross of accumulated cultural artifacts the shared human experience which underlies the search for the Divine by anyone in any culture. As the title of the book has it, he is writing about the experience of God — not just in the great visions of mystics and saints but in the everyday experiences of goodness, truth, and beauty — which are (or, should I say, which is) God. Second, and as important, is Hart’s ability to make the ancient relevant. We have developed the unfortunate belief that old and irrelevant are synonymous. Hart’s look at ancient ideas through contemporary experiences is a precious reminder that they are not.