|Christian scepticism as applied mysticism?|
We live together, we act on, and react to, one another; but always and in all circumstances we are by ourselves. ... By its very nature every embodied spirit is doomed to suffer and enjoy in solitude. Sensations, feelings, insights, fancies—all these are private and, except through symbols and at second hand, incommunicable. ... From family to nation, every human group is a society of island universes. -- Aldous Huxley
No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. -- John DonneIn I was brought up I describe my Christian up-bringing and my journey back to faith via Cambridge university, atheism, Buddhism, homelessness and Christian community. In Pursuing Faith this came full circle with me having to reconcile my faith to how I saw the world and spirituality without faith. This article is a further exploration of how I am pursuing a genuine and deeper spirituality.
My faith is a rational pursuit. It has to be. A genuine faith has to engage your mind as well as your emotions. Rational scepticism is the foundation of science, which if not the foundation itself is at least a cornerstone of modern society. Rational scepticism is essentially the refusal to believe something unless it can be proven. For many Christians (and non-Christians) this makes scientific scepticism, and perhaps therefore science itself, the enemy of faith.
The trouble with this mindset is that rational scepticism is so damn useful. Over a precious few centuries the ability to reliably tell the difference between potential truth and definite falsehood, to inexorably circle closer in on a better picture of truth, has built up an unimaginably enormous body of knowledge; leading to computers, health care and medicine, space travel and worlds' worth of wonder, fun and progress. Not to mention that making science an enemy is problematic, because, you know, it can be proved that it works. I'm a fan of rational scepticism and I don't believe that science is the enemy of faith.
To a certain extent science has to reject God and the supernatural. Science is an exploration of truth, but very specifically an exploration of truth about the rules and order of the universe around us. If it admits "the supernatural" as an explanation for any natural phenomenon how could any hypotheses be made? Only by assuming a natural explanation and rejecting the possibility of the supernatural can the rules of the natural world be determined. This is why many who ascribe to a firmly "scientific world view" feel that they too must reject the possibility of God. But the reality of how we know God is a very different kind of truth to scientific truth, or at least entered into by a very different method.
I don't believe that Christian faith can be a blind faith, a faith that is denied by proof. As I explain in Faith versus belief, "trust" is a better synonym for a living Christian faith than belief. Unfortunately Christianity is often offered as a large pill that can only be swallowed whole. Faith only works if you believe, so doubt is the enemy. Take it all or leave it all is the message.
But humans just don't work like that. We can't, except in precious few rare cases, accept a new world view and be changed right down to the core of who we are. That's the ideal of conversion but, unless we become perfect in an instant, faith is a process. Even when we think we've swallowed the pill whole we haven't, and the freedom that Christianity offers is different to what we may think (see Sin and Freedom). We haven't escaped the fog and we don't see perfectly, there are parts of our soul (who we are) that haven't yet met with God.
To accept we have doubts isn't to admit defeat, it doesn't make us less of a Christian or not a Christian. Acknowledging our doubts is merely an acknowledgement of reality. The only way to come to Jesus is as we really are, not how we think we ought to be. We can only bring our whole selves to God if we are prepared to accept who we are. Too many of us are afraid of who we are, afraid of what's inside us. We can't acknowledge our doubts and fears because we can't face what we're really like, we're afraid of ourselves and keep our eyes tightly shut. God can't help us if we won't let him in, and we can't let him in if we're desperately afraid of going in ourselves! Remember how Jesus treated Thomas the doubter, not with rejection but with love.
Taking a wider view, doubt about the existence of God seems like an entirely reasonable position to take in this world, both wonderful and terrible, of ours. But we know that reality is very different from how we perceive it. Basic science tells us that all matter is almost entirely empty space, the solidity we see around us is a very clever illusion. Modern psychology tells us that just about everything we think about how we make decisions is wrong, a clever trick reality plays on the conscious mind to make it think it's in charge.
Our experience of life so far, and society at large, tells us how to understand the world and what to expect from people. We wear these filters (our soul - see Dividing Between Soul and Spirit for a clearer explanation of what I mean by soul) like coloured sunglasses, the filters tell us how to interpret life but they also obstruct from vision much of the world. (Huxley called these the "doors of perception" and described them as an evolutionary way of coping with a confusing world by reducing the amount of information we have to process.) We live in such a small proportion of reality, what I call a "constructed reality". A reality of concrete and tarmac, of rules and expectations, but only part of reality.
Often as my cat hovers by the back door, deciding whether or not to go outside, I wonder about the reality she lives in and how she sees the world. It's very different from my world, much closer to nature and full of territories, prey, enemies and opportunities that I just don't see. She also occupies a portion of reality, no less real but still a world apart from mine.
The rabbit hole goes deep. Very deep. So far that it is almost impossible to escape as we are its very progeny, made up of the same stuff. It takes an act of force to get closer to seeing the world as it really is, and understanding ourselves. (See Rehabilitating Intensity and Christian Meditation and Mindfulness for some of the ways I'm escaping the rabbit hole.)
We have a problem in trying to understand the world, and as always the problem is us. This problem has various names, but I'm thinking specifically of apophenia and confirmation bias. Apophenia is the human propensity to see patterns where they don't exist. It's how we can see happy faces in plug sockets for example. Confirmation bias is our need for what we already believe to be true. We'll find confirmation for our beliefs everywhere and ignore things that don't fit. Both of these truths about human makeup can (and have been) demonstrated by modern experimental psychology.
Our faith is appealing, it provides answers to some of the most basic questions of humanity, and we're very invested in it being true. If we really want to examine our faith honestly, and not be caught up in a fantasy constructed by our minds, can we escape this? Maybe some sceptical rationalism would be useful, but how can we apply this to faith? Finding patterns in our own psyche and the world around us, and calling it the work of God, is not faith. In fact it's the opposite. If we're not careful we can be subconsciously afraid that what we want to believe isn't true and desperately look for confirmation. A genuine discernment and rejection of the false isn't the enemy of faith but the route to real faith, a sifting out and refining of the truth.
The trouble is that Christianity presents us with something of a Catch-22, it only works if you believe it! Hebrews 11 verse 6 (one of the few bible verses I quote in this article and one I learned as a child from a song), says "without faith it's impossible to please God". Fortunately Christianity, despite what you might have been told, isn't an all or nothing proposition. It's fine to come to God as you are, doubts and all. Eyes wide open.
For me my faith, my journey so far, is my "best working hypothesis". I acknowledge that I understand so little, I see so little. I don't know the ultimate truth and I don't claim to. Anyone who claims they do is lying, mostly to themselves. They don't see either or they'd be very different. In fact this attitude is essential to coming to God. Drop all pretence you know and understand anything, come to God empty. Because whatever you think you know, God is more. A lot more. Unimaginably more.
As my faith grows I can put more weight on it. Part of ever increasing faith, an ever increasing power of faith, is both an increasing certainty based on experience and an increasing understanding of how faith works (how we apply our faith). Certainty and understanding aren't separate. To genuinely carry spiritual power requires both and growing in one causes growth in the other. But with a strong tendency towards being deceived (the human heart is deceitful above all things) how can we distinguish between a mere experience of the human psyche and one of the living God, between wish fulfilment and truth?
Our whole experience of life is mediated through our psyche, everything we think and know and experience comes through our senses and the filters of our soul. It's no surprise that religious experience has an electrical and chemical counterpart in the brain. It would be an astonishing surprise if it didn't! We are physical body, no point in denying it, but we are a physical embodiment of a soul (and spirit). If we are to assign any meaning to "pyschic phenomena" (by which I mean the experiences of the mind), how can we know our faith is real, how do we prove it? The process of proving it is not just for the satisfaction of the intellect, nor a stick to beat those who don't believe, but only as we become convinced to the core of our being that what we profess is real are we able to really trust in it and have genuine faith based on reality. We prove the substance of our faith to ourselves in order to be capable of placing more trust in it.
Have you ever heard anyone say, "what if we really lived as if we believed what we say we believe", or words to that effect? The trouble is that we believe with our mind, but our soul isn't convinced. It needs convincing, it needs to really meet with God. Closing our eyes and trying to believe harder doesn't work. We need a path of increasing faith that accepts the reality of where we're starting from and is willing to really search for the truth. But if we can get there, if we can push through the deception and find the depths of who we are and who God is... what a people we could be!
Of course if natural science, as we currently understand it, is to be believed then perhaps the answer is clear. If there is no spiritual (beyond the electro-chemical symptoms) then consciousness itself is purely a by-product of biological processes. An emergent property perhaps, but strictly governed by chance and deterministic processes. All decisions, all thought, is the result of these processes and so free will must be an illusion. We are no more free than a computer programmed to tell you it is free. This is the ineluctable conclusion of a purely materialistic outlook on life. Scott Adams calls humans "moist pink robots" for this very reason, a conclusion that I think is at least honest. To both believe in pure materialism and free will is a contradiction. True contact with another human soul is not possible simply because it is a meaningless concept.
I'm not satisfied being an island universe, no matter how big or how beautiful a universe I might be. The promise of Christianity is more than that. But if I'm to really believe it, to put my faith in it, then it isn't real until it explains the world around me, more than that - until it affects the world around me. It's not real unless it can change people.
Two concepts I've found useful for thinking about faith in action and proving faith are "crossing the soul gap" and "crossing the air gap".
The soul gap is that distance between the island universe, the distance between two souls. Can my soul, and the life and power of God in me - the substance and outworking of my faith, produce life and change in other people. The air gap goes beyond that, from the world of pure psyche and into the material world. Christianity professes a God that created and sustains the physical universe, not an absent God but a very present one (omnipresent indeed) and able to change it.
I can conceive of mechanisms for crossing the soul gap, how one soul can bring life, peace and healing to another. And the soul and body are not distinct but a continuum, so this extends to some physical healing too, particularly for problems with a stress related or psychological origin. Have you ever noticed someone who makes you feel at peace, just by their mere presence? You don't need to posit supernatural explanations for this, but at the same time it demonstrates how one psyche can effect affect on another. This is normal and every day stuff, but how far can it go, how much can love do?
As I massage people's bodies I can find the knots and release the tension. So it goes with souls. Because I can conceive of these mechanisms, even perhaps at a distance, I can pour my life, faith and hope into this kind of prayer. I don't see a great deal of it happening, except as very slow processes, but it's not hard for me to reach out in faith that it can happen.
Of course it's not just about soul healing, but about living in true communion with one another. Being of one heart and soul. Being a continent together rather than a collection of islands, what Jesus called his kingdom.
However, when change in a person's psyche is initiated through the faith of another person it doesn't constitute ultimate "proof" of God. An experience of the psyche is still an experience of the psyche, miraculous and wonderful though it maybe. The human mind is an incredibly powerful thing, I'm counting on that and pursuing it with everything in me, but I won't be deceived by it.
Crossing the air gap is a different matter to crossing the soul gap. I have no conception of the mechanisms that God might use for this, beyond supernatural magic wands which isn't how I believe God operates anyway, so it's harder for me to have substantial faith for crossing the air gap. But when it happens, if it turns out that consciousness is contiguous with physical reality, then it'll be pretty gloriously awesome. This connection is central to Christian faith, Christianity is meaningless without it, and it is the very meaning of the name of God revealed to Moses: יהוה, Yahweh, "I am". The fundamental truth of the universe is "being".
Is it worth hoping to cross the soul gap? Are we alone, island universes? We like to think we're so very self-contained, but we are the product of history and chance. Everything about who we are, how we see the world and how we think, was shaped by the forces of genetics, nature and culture. And they produced everyone else alongside us too - the same forces that produced us also produced everyone else, and we all shape each other and the world around us in a glorious feedback cycle. The Greeks and Hindus attempt to abstract these common elements of the human psyche and culture, that extend out into the wider world, into gods with stories and personality. Jung called them "The Archetypes". Christians call these "personified" forces that shape lives and history (although really it is us that are "personified"), Angels and fallen angels.
So we're not truly separate. Who we are is mostly subconscious, our motivations, and desires and the prejudices and filters we apply to the world around us. Whether or not we're aware of it we're constantly influenced by (and in turn influencing) the same things as everyone else. We're unique in the particular pattern of these currents that have produced us, but it's the same currents of nature, culture and history that produce myriad unique souls in different colours and combinations. Abstraction or ultimate reality, who knows, but we're not as much of an island as we think we are. Our very nature has been formed, and is being formed, in glorious dis-harmony with everything around us.
If you're a Christian living in a western culture, is it just a happy coincidence (for you) that the religion you've decided is true just happens to be the one adopted by the prevailing culture that produced you, that you grew up with. Have you swallowed whole a mindset and belief system that shaped your culture, and therefore like-it-or-not the way you see the world, or have you really been transformed by the creative mind and heart that produced the universe - which is what you claim? Let's be real about who we are. The western Christian mindset, it's traditions and orthodoxy, is inextricably intertwined with politics and the historical culture this tradition grew up alongside (including entrenched misogyny, power and control structures plus many other unpalatable background truths about our culture).
Let's acknowledge this and dig deeper. Let's not be satisfied with half a life and beliefs swallowed whole without critical examination, with the form of religion but not the power. Because surely we want the truth, we want to meet the real God and know the reality of his life and power. And if it's not true let's work out the truth. If you're not willing to consider your beliefs, if you're not open to truth, then you're not really open to God. Being open to God means being able to discern the difference between truth and lies, being able to get beyond the soul's tendency to see patterns in everything. If you can't discern the difference then you can't really meet with God because you can't find truth if you can't reject falsehood. If your faith can't cope with this kind of examination, if questioning it causes it to evaporate, what kind of faith is it and where is its substance?
Let's not be stuck in the shallows but pursue real depth. If God is real, let's prove it together.
"The method of science, the aim of religion."