Given the importance and widely acknowledged greatness of this book, I would like here, in lieu of a “review” in the traditional sense of the term, to offer instead a few thoughts and comments toward a possible interpretation.
There is a great deal of Christian religious symbolism that runs throughout the book. There is, for example, the wonderfully succinct statement of the shortest chapter of the book, and perhaps the shortest meaningful chapter in all of English-language literature: “My mother is a fish.” The words of a child; simple, yet poignant and bursting with possibilities. What Faulkner has done in this single simple sentence is to turn the symbol of a fish, the ichthys of Christianity, a traditional symbol of the resurrected Christ, into a symbol of the finality of death, of the eternal absence of return. His mother is a fish because, like a fish, her eyes are lifeless, she has been gutted (metaphorically, in the case of the mother), and, of course, she flops around in the water when her casket falls into the river as they attempt to ford it.
It is in this Christian symbolism, I believe, that we can begin to arrive at a possible interpretation of the ostensible insanity of Darl. Darl is not insane in actuality, but is perceived as insane by the others because of his failure to conform to their expectations. He is different. He sees through things, he knows things, and he understands things. He is the only one of the members of the family that sees into the inner worlds of those around him, that is not entirely preoccupied with his own concerns. Dewey Dell even imagines that she has a conversation with him that takes place entirely in the realm of the mind. He penetrates her thoughts, he surpasses her objectivity.
And because he surpasses subjectivity he is frightening to the others. The rest of the family prefers their private obsessions. They do not want to be known. For this reason they have him taken away. They want to be away from his presence and the insight he has into each of them.
If all of this holds, Darl may be seen as a Christ-figure. He behaves in ways that do not meet other’s expectations and so makes them uncomfortable. He understands them perhaps better than they understand themselves, again making them uncomfortable. And he attempts to save them through a means which they do not understand and will not accept. In the end, they send him away because they want so badly to be out of his presence. There are, however, something (quite modern) fundamental differences between Darl and the usual Christ-figure. He is not killed and there is no resurrection; there is, therefore, no redemption.
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.
One typical example of contemporary debate concerning the existence of God is the 1994 debate between William Lane Craig, a prolific and popular Christian apologist, and philosopher Michael Tooley, held at the University of Colorado Boulder. In that debate, both participants, the theist and the atheist alike, focused upon the various rational proofs for the existence of God. Indeed, in his opening statement Craig listed five rational proofs for the existence of God, including some traditional ones like the cosmological argument as well as a few that are either original or are updated versions of traditional arguments, such as his argument from intelligent design. There is no small irony, however, in the reliance of modern apologists for religious belief upon these logical proofs of God’s existence in their attempts to persuade atheists. While it must be acknowledged that certain of these arguments do hold some persuasive power, all traditional religious systems, including Christianity, disclaim the power of reason to comprehend the divine. Instead, it is the unanimous testimony of all of the world’s great religions that the summum bonum of the religious life is the suprarational mystical experience of the utterly transcendent.
Even Thomas Aquinas, whose famous “Five Ways” are among the rational arguments most commonly used by the proponents of theistic belief systems, found himself forced to disavow, or at least disvalue, his life’s work in the face of his own mystical experience of the transcendent. According to Alban Butler’s 18th century Lives of the Saints,
… while saying Mass one day, he had some sort of visionary experience that caused him to stop work on the Summa theologica and declare that he was done with writing, as “All I have written seems to me like straw compared with what I have seen and what has been revealed to me.”
The early modern French philosopher Blaise Pascal seems to have experienced something similar to Aquinas one night in 1654, prompting him to write an ecstatic poem which he sewed into the lining of his coat, where it was discovered only after his death. The description he provides of his experience begins,
From about half past ten at night until about half past midnight,
GOD of Abraham, GOD of Isaac, GOD of Jacob
not of the philosophers and of the learned.
Aquinas and Pascal each seem to find themselves incapable of describing their respective experiences without resorting to cryptic, metaphorical language. While Aquinas, Butler writes, never described his experience to anyone, Pascal, describing it only to himself, can find only the word “fire” to explain what he has experienced. Each of them had discovered that, as the Christian bishop and mystic Gregory of Nyssa wrote in his fourth century mystical treatise on The Life of Moses, “the divine is by nature something above all knowledge and comprehension.” Aquinas was inspired by his experience to cease his writing while Pascal was inspired to begin his; both men were prompted by their new awareness of the insufficiency of human reason to understand God.
The abundance of accounts such as those of Aquinas and Pascal both lead the Christian apologist away from an over-reliance on the rational arguments for God’s existence and themselves act as an alternative to these rational arguments. The ubiquity of accounts of mystical experiences from within each of the world’s great religious systems provides a compelling argument in favor of the existence of a divine transcendent order or entity, the simplest English term for which is God.
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.
Zarathustra is not Nietzsche’s greatest work, but it is one of his most interesting. In a departure from his other works, Nietzsche abandons his aphoristic style (with some exceptions) and instead embraces an approach that consists of more narrative and poetry. This is both its great strength and its great weakness.
It is a great strength in that it allows Nietzsche to explore his unique ideas (especially the eternal recurrence, the Higher Man, and the death of God) with more depth than in nearly any of his other works. Nietzsche adopts a negative approach to philosophy in most of his other works, gleefully smashing his way through the idols of the marketplace. Here, in Zarathustra, he comes his closest to formulating a positive philosophy.
This philosophy is one that presents a challenge to any perceptive reader. The Christian, for example, will be challenged by Nietzsche’s razor-sharp criticisms of Christian beliefs; Nietzsche’s critique is not to be lightly dismissed. The atheist, on the other hand, if he is an attentive and sympathetic reader, will be challenged by Nietzsche’s own exuberant, even mystical, atheism, a far cry from the dry scientism that predominates in atheist circles today.
The style and content of Zarathustra also represent a weakness of the work in that one must be familiar with other works of Nietzsche in order to understand and appreciate it as well as one should. To this end, I particularly recommend reading Beyond Good and Evil, Human, All Too Human, and The Gay Science before one plunges into Thus Spoke Zarathustra. So properly prepared, a mindful reader of any particular philosophical persuasion will inevitably benefit from the monumental genius that was Friedrich Nietzsche.
The Sickness unto Death, like all of Kierkegaard’s works, is as relevant today as it was when it was first published in 1849. In fact, it may very well be even more relevant as the downward spiral of Christendom has continued in the century and a half since the death of Kierkegaard. In this work, Kierkegaard identifies the illness of man, “the sickness unto death,” as the state of despair and offers the bitter but effective medicine of the truth of the Christian faith.
Despair, says Kierkegaard, is the state in which the vast majority of men live. Despair is to desire to establish oneself as an unique individual through one’s own efforts and, equally, it is the obverse: to attempt to the best of one’s abilities to blend in and subsume oneself within the mass of one’s society.
The only means by which despair can be overcome is to realize oneself in the presence of God. It is only through seeing oneself as God sees one and conforming oneself to God’s desires for one that a person becomes, in the fullest sense of the word, a self. What Kierkegaard offers here is, really, a brief but intensive summary of the Gospel.
In addition to the perennial applicability of Kierkegaard’s insights on the nature of despair, faith, and selfhood, his comments on the state of the Christian Church are insightful indictments which every Christian should read. I recommend this book for anyone who is interested in the most important question a person can ask: “how then should we live?” (Ezekiel 33:10).