An argument for the existence of God from mystical experience (part 1)

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,

FIRE.

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.

Personhood in Medieval Philosophy (Personhood Part VI)

The history of medieval thought is largely a history of attempts by various thinkers to bridge the gap between and create a synthesis of biblical faith and Greco-Roman philosophy within the context of the Christian Church. As is to be expected from any attempt to reconcile such disparate sources as Plato, Aristotle, and Genesis, and to create a coherent whole out of this reconciliation, this medieval synthesis of Western thought was often an uncomfortable amalgam of contradictory elements. Medieval ideas about personhood are largely the result of this tension and combination.

One relatively early example of this tension in Christian thought is demonstrated in the words of the fourth century bishop Gregory of Nyssa in his work “On Infants’ Early Deaths.” In that work, Gregory refers to a newborn who has died shortly after birth as passing away “before he is even human,” adding to this statement the parenthetical explanation that “the gift of reason is man’s peculiarity, and he has never had it in him.”69 For his belief that reason is the defining feature of humanity, Gregory drew upon the ideas of the extremely influential late second and early third century Christian author Origen, according to whose assertion, “we hold the resemblance to God to be preserved in the reasonable soul.”70 Origen, who drew heavily on Greek philosophy to explain biblical ideas, in turn, drew on that philosophy for this explanation of the content of the Imago Dei. The Bible itself, however, offers no such identification between human reason and the Imago Dei. In bringing together the Greek philosophical idea that reason is the defining feature of personhood and the biblical idea of the Imago Dei, the beginning of the uncomfortable synthesis of the Greco-Roman with the biblical is demonstrated. In spite of his denial of full personhood to an infant, however, an apparent departure from previous Christian understandings, Gregory nonetheless does not express doubt in the same work that said infants possess immortal and complete human souls.

Another fairly early example of this uncomfortable synthesis that marked medieval Christian thought occurs in Augustine of Hippo’s early fifth century work “On the Holy Trinity.” In that work, as in much else that he wrote, Augustine exhibits a bizarre mix of Platonism, Judaism, and Christianity. This amalgam leads him, in a discussion of women, to draw simultaneously on the opening chapters of Genesis and on 1 Corinthians 11:3-12, interpreting both through the lens of Neo-Platonic philosophy. The rather strange conclusion that he reaches is that a woman herself does not bear the Imago Dei but is the Imago Dei only in conjunction with her husband. According to Augustine, “woman herself alone … is not the image of God; but as regards the man alone, he is the image of God as fully and completely as when the woman too is joined with him in one.”71 The uncomfortable mixture of the biblical and Platonic in Augustine’s thought runs throughout his discussion of the Imago Dei and reaches its high point when he, along with Origen and Gregory before him, identifies the Imago Dei with a “rational mind.”72 He is forced to admit, in order to remain true to the biblical text and to traditional Christian anthropology and soteriology but clearly in contradiction to what his previously stated views on women imply, that “it is clear, not men only, but also women have” full possession of this “rational mind.”73

Perhaps the most conspicuous example of the tension between the biblical and the Greco-Roman in medieval Christian thought on personhood is in the ideas of the thirteenth century theologian Thomas Aquinas, whose influence on Western Christianity is arguably less than only Paul and Augustine. Whereas Augustine struggled to find a synthesis between the Neo-Platonic and the biblical, Aquinas sought to bring Aristotle’s philosophy together with the Bible. Just as in Augustine’s work, this attempted synthesis creates a tension that is a palpable and ubiquitous presence in Aquinas’s works. His thoughts on women certainly present an outstanding example of this uncomfortable synthesis, as is exhibited by his discussion of women in his Summa Theologica’s Question 92.74 There, Aquinas almost desperately attempts to make the statements of Genesis in regards to the creation and dignity of women agree with Aristotle’s thought on women in his work On the Generation of Animals. In order to make two very different and ultimately mutually exclusive accounts agree, however, Aquinas is forced to perform strenuous mental gymnastics. In his First Article, Reply to Objection 1 in that section, for instance, he is forced to affirm both that woman is a good and complete creation of God, as Genesis claims, and that she is “defective and misbegotten,” as Aristotle claims. In spite of his very best mental gymnastics, Aquinas is clearly unable to make Genesis and Aristotle agree.75 

Notes

69 Gregory of Nyssa, “On Infants’ Early Deaths,” in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers , 2nd series, Vol. 5 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2004).

70 Origen, Against Celsus, book 7, ch. 66.

71 Augustine of Hippo, On the Holy Trinity, ch. 7, in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers , 1st series, Vol. 3 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2004).

72 Ibid.

73 Ibid.

74 Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, Question 92, in Thomas Aquinas: I, ed. Robert Maynard Hutchins (Chicago: William Benton, 1952).

75 I have adapted most of the preceding paragraph from a post to my blog. David Withun, “Aquinas’s uncomfortable synthesis,” Pious Fabrications, 4 April 2013, http://www.piousfabrications.com/2013/04/aquinass-uncomfortable-synthesis.html (accessed 20 April 2013).

"I have to find Zaabalawi"

Naguib Mahfouz’s short story “Zaabalawi” exhibits the qualities of both the traditional allegorical stories often told in the mystical traditions of many religions as well as the dreamlike tales of twentieth century existentialists such as Franz Kafka. In bringing together these two streams of thought, Mahfouz establishes himself directly in the line of religious existentialists such as Soren Kierkegaard and especially the storytellers of that tradition, the most remarkable of whom is probably Fyodor Dostoyevsky. Mahfouz also brings a unique element to this synthesis of mysticism and existentialism in drawing upon the contents of his Islamic heritage to present a story that is both universal in its meaning and yet unique Islamic in its content.

The character from whose perspective the story is told is never explicitly identified by name. As with other stories which stand in the existentialist strain, the identity of the main character as an individual person is unnecessary and perhaps evens a dangerous distraction. Rather, the story itself is a means by which the reader can enter into the subjectivity of another. The main character has no individual identity; the reader is expected to identify himself or herself with that character. In this story, the character is suffering from “that illness for which no one possesses a remedy.” Although ailment remains unexplained and undefined throughout the story, it is clear that the reader is expected to identify with it; it is the universal human condition identified by Kierkegaard as “the sickness unto death,” a state of despair at the meaninglessness and ennui that permeate human life.

The main character of the story, and the reader through him, sets out on a desperate search to find Zaabalawi, the only one who can heal his affliction. Although Zaabalawi is identified as a holy man and sheikh, it is clear from what is said about him that he stands as a symbol of God. The first sentences of the story, in which the character explains why he decided to search for Zaabalawi, make this connection clear. He explains that “the first time I had heard of his name had been in a song.” The connection with Islamic worship practices, in which prayers are generally recited in song and chant, makes the identification of Zaabalawi with God obvious.

The ensuing search for Zaabalawi consists of a number of short scenes in which the main character questions various characters concerning the nature and whereabouts of Zaabalawi. Each of these characters represents a group in Islamic society and their stereotyped reactions to and thoughts on God. A businessman, for instance, exhibits little interest in Zaabalawi and even seems to imply he may be dead, a parallel with Friedrich Nietzsche’s famous exclamation on the death of God, that is, the irrelevance and unsustainability of the idea of God in the modern mind. Similarly, a theologian who is questioned about Zaabalawi responds to the main character by drawing a complex map the character is unable to understand, a scene which conjures the famous words of Thomas Aquinas, a Medieval monk who is one of Christianity’s most prolific and influential theologians. Late in his life, he experienced a mystical vision which caused him to state to his companions that “all that I have written seems like straw compared to what has now been revealed to me,” after which statement he never wrote again. In other words, the both Aquinas and Mahfouz reject the complicated conjecture and theory of the academic theologians in favor of a direct approach to God through mysticism. Interestingly, all of the characters who is featured in this series of scenes exhibit a felt absence of someone who is very important to their lives. Although not all of them are willing to acknowledge the importance of this person to their lives, each clearly feels that something is lacking because of this person’s absence.

After a series of such encounters, the main character finally has a direct mystical experience of Zaabalawi/God. In line with many mystical traditions from around the world, including the Sufi tradition of Islam, this experience is presented as a state of intoxication and a kind of stupor. The main character experiences a “deep contentedness” and “ecstatic serenity” as well as ontological unity with the cosmos. The disorientating imagery used by Mahfouz to describe the experience, including phrases such as “the world turned round about me and I forgot why I had gone there,” is reminiscent of the practice of whirling famously associated with certain groups of Sufis.

Following his experience, the main character is unaware that he has had a direct experience of Zaabalawi. He becomes more determined in his search. Mahfouz’s conclusion once again brings together the mystical and existential in his thought. The main character confides that he sometimes doubts Zaabalawi’s very existence and yet he asserts that he is unable to go on without him. His search for Zaabalawi, he concludes, must continue.

Aquinas’s uncomfortable synthesis

Just as Augustine’s ideas were largely a Christianized version of Plato’s thought, Thomas Aquinas’s ideas were, for the most part, a Christianized version of the thought of Aristotle. Following Aristotle, Aquinas identifies the highest good of man as happiness and the means by which happiness is attained he identifies, in chorus with Aristotle, as virtue. Where he differs from Aristotle is in going beyond Aristotle. Whereas Aristotle believed that man could achieve eudemonia, or perfect happiness, in this life, for instance, Aquinas declares in his Summa Contra Gentiles that “man’s ultimate happiness will consist in that knowledge of God which he possesses after this life.”

Important in Aquinas’s thought is his concept of eternal law and natural law. For Aquinas, eternal law is the law of God which can be known only through the revelation of God. Natural law, on the other hand, can be discerned through reason. This is why Aquinas was able to borrow so heavily from Aristotle; he viewed Aristotle and other Greek philosophers as having attained the highest knowledge that can be attained through reason. Christianity did not contradict but instead completed this knowledge through revelation.

This idea of eternal law and natural law is also important to Aquinas’s ethical theories. For Aquinas, as for other thinkers, both pagan and Christian, before him, there is a transcendent and eternal order of reality by which societies and individuals can be measured and judged and to the dictates of which they should seek to conform. The particulars of the values Aquinas arrives at via this method derive from both Aristotle’s works and the biblical tradition. As Augustine’s philosophy often appears to be a bizarre mishmash of Platonism, Judaism, and Christianity, so Aquinas’s philosophy is often an uncomfortable synthesis of the thought of Aristotle and the contents of the Bible.

His thoughts on women certainly present an outstanding example of this uncomfortable synthesis, as is exhibited by his discussion of women in his Summa Theologica’s Question 92. There, Aquinas almost desperately attempts to make the statements of Genesis in regards to the creation and dignity of woman agree with Aristotle’s thought on women in his work On the Generation of Animals. In order to make two very different and ultimately mutually exclusive accounts agree, however, Aquinas is forced to perform strenuous mental gymnastics. In his First Article, Reply to Objection 1 in that section, for instance, he is forced to affirm both that woman is a good and complete creation of God, as Genesis claims, and that she is “defective and misbegotten,” as Aristotle claims. In spite of his very best mental gymnastics, Aquinas is clearly unable to make Genesis and Aristotle agree.

Perhaps the earliest and greatest feminist rebuttal to Aquinas is Christine de Pizan’s Book of the City of Ladies. There, she points out precisely the question-beginning nature of the assertions about women found in so many philosophers before her, including not only Aquinas but also Aristotle, Plato, and Augustine. They all lived in a society which simultaneously denied women the right to a full education and, in turn, used women’s lack of education to continue to justify their exclusion from education.

Although Maimonides wrote before Aquinas, his work also stands as a critique of Aquinas’s thought in pointing out its question-begging nature in a more general sense as well. Maimonides points out the question-beginning of Aquinas by doing exactly what Aquinas does, namely adapting Aristotle to his own religious beliefs and viewing those beliefs as the completion of Aristotle’s philosophy. For Maimonides, however, this is medieval Judaism and not Aquinas’s medieval Christianity. In the end, Aristotle, Maimonides, and Aquinas all make the same mistake of identifying the eternal order with the particular cultural or religious norms they assume as true, while failing to actually prove that those cultural or religious norms are in fact the truest or best norms and are identical with God’s eternal law.