Why religion so absent from good conversation? When I speak with my friends I avoid the subject, good manners deeming as embarrassing subject not fit for polite conversation. Similarly religion is missing from serious public and political debate. Why when it informed the thinking of so many political and intellectual greats in the past?One reason is that peculiar kind of unthinking religion has crowded out other types of religious thought from the public and political debate. This religion is subordinate to a political ideology, that of the political conservatives. They use this sacred something from the past to counter all that they hate about modernity. Women controlling their bodies through contraception or abortion, is one such hated modernity
Religious conservatives may claim that I am wrong in calling there’s an unthinking religion or more unkindly a religion of ignorance. Having an interest in Hellenic philosophy and the Neo-Platonists, I have found that an American Catholic publisher that is a good source of texts on this subject. When scanning reviews of other books in the catalogue, I noticed one book by an author opposed to abortion. He claimed that abortion had long been regarded as wrong by Western thinkers, even those from the classical period. He cited Musonius Rufus, the Roman stoic thinker as such opponent of abortion. This was the same Musonius Rufus who in his role as magistrate had condemned Justin Martyr to death and ordered the torture and execution of his Christian followers. This writer’s failure to adequately check on his source is illustrative of the ignorance, so often demonstrated by the political religious right.
Obviously the barbaric actions of Muslims extremists as demonstrated in the Bataclan attacks discredit religion thinking from a place in the mainstream of political and public discourse. However there is another Islam that is very different, an Islam typified by Sufism. An Islam tolerant of others and one that emphasises concern for the community. A religion that has been subject to more violent attacks by Muslim extremists than any Western community.
What I want is good religious thinking and practice to replace bad religion so often used in the public discourse. A religion that admits of the mystery of life, best explained in the words of Heraclitus, ‘nature hides in plain sight’. Life is not knowable or at least in its entirety, there remains the part that is unknowable, and it is this unknowable that religion addresses. Religion is a paradox, it admits to the unknowable and yet claims to this unknowable makes itself known to man. William Hague is an unlikely figure to quote in support of my contention, he spoke of a feeling of oneness with nature, being part of something greater, when walking in remote parts of Yorkshire. A Christianity described as nonsense by the Archbishop of Canterbury. Yet for a deist it speaks of the mystery that is at the heart of religion.
What William Hague was expressing was the belief that appearance is not all, there is a something beyond immediate experience, that gives it its unity and coherence. When Carlo Rovelli suggests that there is a something, probably information that gives reality its structure, I feel that I am not so wrong after all. Heraclitus wrote that nature was hiding in plain sight. A statement of the religious experience that cannot I believe be bettered. This sentiment Pierre Hadot states has been the inspiration for thinkers since the classical period, German Romantic writers such as Goethe demonstrate this. For Goethe it was metamorphous that was the engine of natural evolution and change. He searched for the originals from which all things developed through the process of metamorphous. Later Romantics such a Schelling saw will as mysterious something that drove human development. He used the meanderings of the Rhine as a metaphor for the German will. The inevitable something that although it took many unexpected turns was the driving force of German history.
For me this something is an unknowable, I find the medieval text, ‘The Cloud of Unknowing,’ an expression of the mysticism which I share. Can I quote Joe a former teaching colleague and former Jesuit priest, ‘God is not some father figure up there, beyond the clouds‘.
There is a rational mysticism which I believe was demonstrated in the lives of the great medieval scholastics such as Duns Scotus. He writes that God is infinite and as such finite beings such as ourselves cannot have the means to know God. Although God is unknowable as such he does make himself known to humanity, though a variety of religious experiences. The rituals of the religious service are one such way. For a Catholic Christ’s presence is present in the ritual of Holy Communion. Although Duns Scotus practised those contemplative mystical practices of a cleric, yet he was also a supreme logician. Religious mysticism was the foundation on which his thought rested, but that mysticism did not cloud his thinking or make him less of a rational thinker. Descartes was one more secular minded philosopher that mined the writings off Duns Scotus for his use in his own work. Mystics can be as hard nosed and practical as others of a more secular persuasion. It is unfortunate that for many religious mysticism is associated with orange robed Hari Krishna monk.
Mysticism is for me accepting the mystery of life, a mystery that is not amenable to the reason or rational thought. Yet a something that informs my life. Not knowing means humility, accepting limits on knowing. Unlike the realist who knows, as everything that is, is out there to be seen and observed. Realism of this kind dominates the political debate. There is an arrogance in the speaking and conduct of those who know, if there are only a limited number of facts at your disposal, it is easy to know. Particularly if these known truths come in simple easy to understand ideological boxes, such as Neo-liberalism. The Neo-liberal confidence belief that they and only they know the truth means that it that they adopt a hectoring, bullying and often irritated tone towards those who don’t know. One merely has to hear a ‘knowledgable’ British politician speak to recognise this truth.
Not knowing means being respectful to others or other ideologies or beliefs. What it means is a profession of tolerance towards others. Perhaps this example illustrates my viewpoint. The Knights Templar were the successful shock troops of the Crusader army that invaded Palestine. Residence in Palestine bought them into contact with the ‘unknown heathen’. Evidence suggests that they adopted some of the beliefs and practices of the more educated and sophisticated Muslims. One was the requirement for initiates to the order to tread on and deface an image of Jesus Christ. This was not as the inquisition thought an act of blasphemy, but the Sufi religious practice of defiling images of God. In doing so the initiate learnt that the worship of God was not to be confused with the worship of idols. Ignorance of the Inquisitors prevented them from understanding that these Templars were acting according to the Biblical injunction that Christians should not worship any graven idols.* A very old story, but one that illustrates my point, that those who know that they know all to often act in ignorance.
Being religious to me means accepting the mystery and wonder that is life. What I profess is a Socratic ignorance. I don’t know the answers, as that would be thinking that I had the powers and knowledge of a being far superior to me. However what I do know is several possible and probable answers. In fact my knowledge of particular topics and subjects is often superior to those who ‘know’.
Practising mysticism is a uniquely individual experience. It’s a unique and exciting voyage of exploration, one in which there are no guides other than yourself. Mysticism is a uniquely individual act, is an act which is beyond the control of the church authorities. As it is a questioning of everything that is known, it is regarded as suspicion by these very authorities. Past mystics such as Theresa of Avilia are acceptable to the church as their works are part of the church’s canon and as such present no challenge to its authority. Contemporary mystics challenge the churches’ authority. The mysticism of the questioning individual is the religion for those that believe the best life is a pilgrimage, that is a constant but unfilled search for the truth. As J.S.Mill stated better a dissatisfied Socrates than a satisfied pig.
As J.S.Mill wrote better to be a dissatisfied Socrates than a satisfied pig.
*in 1307 the French king Phillip (a monarch desperately short of money) wanted the Knights Templars suppressed so he could acquire their wealth. The Inquisition provided a justification for the suppression of this order, by forcing these men under torture to confess to blasphemous acts.