Chapter Summary: The chapter discusses types of knowledge with emphasis on direct knowledge, particularly of God. It discusses people who claim such knowledge, mystics. Direct knowledge of the God which is not a Person is discussed, along with mystics who claim such knowledge. Lastly, various levels of direct knowledge of God are explored.
How did they know?
Was the anonymous Carthusian monk only stating dogma when he wrote “God is subsistent being itself”? Was Buddha just voicing an opinion when he said “There is an Unborn, Unoriginated, Uncreated, Unformed”? And was Ramakrishna merely repeating something he once heard when he claimed “God alone is real, the Eternal Substance”? How did they come to know? How did they acquire knowledge of God?
If scriptures are true, a person can gain knowledge of God through religion’s way of knowing. If the “fundamental entity of the universe” is identified with the God which is not a Person, a person can gain knowledge of God through science’s way of knowing. But in each case, the type of knowledge is “second-hand.” Ramakrishna, Buddha, and perhaps the Carthusian monk, seem to have had a different kind of knowledge, “first-hand” knowledge. We’ll discuss these two types of knowledge before we discuss the knowers themselves.
What is “second-hand” knowledge? It’s knowledge derived from books or another person. It’s also called ([T07],212) “knowledge by description.” A court of law would call it “hearsay” knowledge.
How is second-hand knowledge acquired? For example, how can I acquire second-hand knowledge of New York City? I might talk to people who have been there, or read travel books, historical books, and descriptions of the city’s history, politics, peoples and neighborhoods, streets and transit system, etc. Similarly, to acquire second-hand knowledge of God I might listen to the accounts of holy people or read sacred scriptures and other holy books.
First-hand knowledge, also called ([T07],212) “knowledge by acquaintance,” is a different kind of knowledge. A court of law would call it “eye-witness” knowledge.
How is first-hand knowledge acquired? I can acquire first-hand knowledge of New York city only by traveling there and seeing it myself. Similarly, only actual, direct experience of God qualifies as first-hand knowledge.
First-hand knowledge—direct experience—of God is the domain of mysticism. From an encyclopedia:
[M]ysticism . . . the doctrine that a person can experience direct awareness of ultimate reality . . . ([M13],v13,41).
First-hand experience is also called “gnosis”, an ancient Greek philosophical term that means
. . . direct knowledge of God . . . not the result of any mental process . . . ([N11],71).
More broadly, it means knowing and occurs in the English words “agnostic” and “diagnostic.”
“Gnosis” has another meaning we should discuss. Some early Christians who claimed first-hand knowledge of God were labeled “gnostic.” The Gnostic Gospels ([P01]) presents a vivid historical and philosophical picture of those ancient Christians. Throughout this book, however, “gnosis” doesn’t refer to those Christians or their doctrines. Rather, it means mystical knowledge: direct experience of and even union with the Eternal.
So, mysticism and gnosis concern direct experience of the Real.
Mysticism . . . an experience of union with divine or ultimate reality . . . ([C14],v17,114).
The mystic’s first goal is direct experience of the Center. The mystic’s ultimate goal is union with It.
The goal of mysticism is union with the divine or sacred . . . [M]ysticism will always be a part of the way of return to the source of being . . . ([N06],v12,786).
Buddha and Ramakrishna, and perhaps the anonymous Carthusian monk, acquired knowledge of the Eternal through direct experience. They “saw” It.
Direct experience of and union with the Ultimate Ground of Existence is the topic of this chapter. We’ll examine the writings of those who claim first-hand knowledge—direct experience—of the God which is not a Person.
Let’s begin by discussing what mystics don’t know. Often, mystics who know the All are loosely spoken of as “knowing everything.” Do they really know everything? In one sense they do, because they know the Root and Source of everything. Yet, as one writer asks, what ancient mystic knew
. . . that Hydrogen and Oxygen combined to produce water? . . . [W]hy could they not know that man can fly like birds in the air with the help of machines? ([S01],586).
Therefore, in the literal sense mystics don’t “know everything.” Mystical experience doesn’t give full and complete knowledge of mathematics, history, physics, finance, music, the past and future, etc. Attaining direct knowledge of the All is not the same as attaining all knowledge.
Yet devotees sometimes think of mystics as “knowing everything” in the literal sense. For example, one mystic, Therese Neumann, conversed from a state of “elevated calm” where
[s]he would sit up straight and almost immobile, her eyes closed, her face happy and relaxed . . . Her responses were lively, clear, and so tactful that many people . . . were deeply moved and even shared her serenity. ([S22],34).
People who wished to build low-income housing ([S22],36-7) took her praise as a guarantee of success. They went ahead before all the necessary legal permits were approved. When the projected failed, they sustained heavy financial losses.
Therese was in fact a genuine mystic; we’ll see more about her later. However, her mystical attainment didn’t make her a financial advisor, political advisor, or expert on the local bureaucracy.
Mystics don’t speak infallibly, even about religious questions. For example, many mystics have predicted the world’s imminent end, a belief which is dogma in some religions. So, even though mystics sometimes accept and preach their religion’s dogmas, those dogmas aren’t necessarily true. Indeed, other mystics often disagree with some dogma or other. Rather than follow the religious way of knowing and uncritically accept the claims and insights of the mystics, we’ll follow the scientific way of knowing and critically evaluate the mystics and their claims.
Mystics don’t have knowledge of any and all things. They do, however, claim direct knowledge, that is, direct experience of God.
How can direct experience of God be described? If the God in question is a God who is a Person, scripture often has an answer. Moses on Mount Sinai, the transfiguration of Jesus, and Arjuna’s experience of Krishna are descriptions of such experience. So, a mystic who experiences some God who is a Person may have a vision of Jesus or Krishna, or feel the presence of Yahweh.
But what is an experience of the God which is not a Person like? Since most of our experience is sense experience, we might expect a direct experience of the Uncreated to be in some way like sense experience. In fact, mystics sometimes do “hear” ([U01],77) the “Divine Harmony.” More commonly, however, the mystic raises
. . . the eye of the soul to the universal light which lightens all things . . . (Republic 540, [D07],VII,406)
and “sees” the Uncreated Light. Such a mystic might take a liturgical phrase such as
Light of light, enlighten me ([H12],71)
A mystic who has seen the Uncreated Light has been “illuminated” if only for a short while. Such mystics
. . . assure us that its apparently symbolic name is really descriptive; that they do experience a kind of radiance, a flooding of the personality with a new light. . . . Over and over again they return to light-imagery in this connection. . . . [T]hey report an actual and overpowering consciousness of radiant light, ineffable in its splendour. . . ([U01],249).
Mystics sometimes experience the God which is not a Person as Uncreated Light. Sometimes, their words accurately describe their experience. Other times, their statements are inaccurate, or are misunderstood or misinterpreted. Why? First, the word “light” is misinterpreted as intellectual understanding. Phrases such as “a light dawned” or “seeing the light” demonstrate this meaning. Second, “light” is misunderstood as a reference to some God who is a Person. Perhaps, such misunderstanding is why “light” is so often applied to Gods who are Persons. For example, the following are from a Presbyterian hymnal.
Christ, the true, the only Light . . . Fill me, Radiancy divine ([H12],52),
O God of Light, Thy Word, a lamp unfailing, Shines through the darkness of our earthly way . . . Guiding our steps to Thine eternal day. ([H12],217).
Lastly, the mystic misunderstands the experience. Imagine someone who experiences the Uncreated Light. They intuitively know It is holy, so they naturally try to understand It in the context of their religion. They call It the Light of Christ or the Light of Krishna. Thus, what was actually an experience of Uncreated Light is inaccurately described as an experience of Christ or Krishna.
Many of the mystics we’ll meet are religious figures: some were monks and nuns who lived hundreds, even thousands, of years ago. But it would be wrong to think that mystical experience only happens to those who are religious, or that it’s a thing of the past. It’s still going on today. Let’s look at a contemporary instance.
The World Was Flooded with Light, subtitled A Mystical Experience Remembered was published in 1985. It recounts the spontaneous mystical experience of a woman who was raised Protestant and had become a Jungian psychiatrist. She had read about mysticism in college as an English major, in her study of the Catholic Mass and the mystical hymns of the 14th, 15th, and 16th centuries, but she had found it
. . . all very far away and long ago and not to be taken seriously except as an object of literary study. ([F05],33).
In the spring of 1945, however, when she was 42 years old, a mystical experience forever changed her world view. For five days,
[t]here was light everywhere. . . . [T]he world was flooded with light, the supernal light that so many of the mystics describe . . . [T]he experience was so overwhelmingly good that I couldn’t mistrust it. . . . [G]lory blazing all around me. . . . I realized that some of the medieval poems I had been so innocently handling were written to invoke just such an experience as I had had. (That stuff is still alive, I tell you.) ([F05],43-4).
In 1985 at age 82, she says her experience was
. . . so far from anything that I had thought in the realm of the possible, that it has taken me the rest of my life to come to terms with it. ([F05],36).
The preceding account describes a mystical experience that was accompanied by a supernatural light and had a life-long effect. Can we identify that light with the Uncaused Cause? Might there be a purely natural cause? In some cases, there probably are. Or might the light be the radiance and glory of some God who is a Person? Perhaps. In others cases, however, it seems direct experience of the Ultimate Ground of Existence is the best explanation. Some of the accounts we’ll see only suggest such experience of the Uncreated Light. Others have explicit descriptions of It. Let’s turn to one now.
The Confessions of Saint Augustine was written by one of Christianity’s most influential figures. It describes an experience of an Unchangeable Light that is God.
And being thence admonished to return to myself, I entered even into my inward self, Thou being my Guide: and able I was, for Thou wert become my Helper. And I entered and beheld with the eye of my soul (such as it was), above the same eye of my soul, above my mind, the Light Unchangeable. Not this ordinary light, which all flesh may look upon, nor as it were a greater of the same kind, as though the brightness of this should be manifold brighter, and with its greatness take up all space. Not such was this light, but other, yea, far other from all these. Nor was it above my soul, as oil is above water, nor yet as heaven above earth: but above to my soul, because It made me; and I below It, because I was made by It. He that knows the Truth, knows what that Light is; and he that knows It, knows eternity. Love knoweth it. O Truth Who are Eternity! and Love Who art Truth! and Eternity Who art Love! Thou art my God . . . ([A14],126-7, Bk. VII,Ch.X).
Augustine saw an Unchangeable Light, said It was not like ordinary light, and called It God. He also said It’s above him because It made him. In what sense did It make him? In what sense does It make us? In the sense that It created us, brought us into existence, caused our birth? Or in the sense that It composes us at this very moment? That our existence depends upon It’s Existence even now?
Like Augustine, George Fox saw the Light. Unlike Augustine, he identified it with a God who is a Person. Fox writes in his journal that
. . . there did a pure fire appear in me . . . The divine light of Christ manifesteth all things . . . (Ch.1,[J05],14).
Had Fox been born in India would he have called the Light the divine light of Krishna? I don’t know. But he certainly emphasized the experience was an experience of Light. Fox’s emphasis on Inner Light pervades the religious group he founded, the Society of Friends, also known as the Quakers.
Early Friends made constant reference to the Light Within. ([F01],7)
In fact, Fox’s early followers called themselves ([F01],1) “Children of the Light.”
But how did Fox come to know about the Light? A contemporary Friends’ pamphlet, What is Quakerism?, asks and answers this question.
How did Fox know? “Experimentally” . . . “know” had a somewhat different meaning before the scientific revolution. Today we almost unconsciously think of knowing as a subject-object relationship, the way a scientist observes facts . . . In the seventeenth century knowing still had its Biblical (e.g. Jeremiah 1:-10) dimension of the union of knower and known. To Fox his experience was a transforming power that changed his daily behavior. ([P08],10-11).
Fox was a mystic; he knew by direct experience.
Even today, Quakers know that the Light isn’t merely a thought, an intriguing idea. Rather, it’s something that can be directly experienced and change a person’s life. Some Friends even seek something more than direct experience. They seek union. They seek not only to experience the Light, but to unite with It.
Early Friends often emphasized the experience of obedience to the Inner Light; while some modern Friends . . . speak of the total immersion of the individual will and identity in the divine One. ([P08],10).
We’ll discuss union with Uncreated Light later.
Pascal also seems to have had a mystical experience of Light. Blaise Pascal was one of the great mathematicians of the seventeenth century and with Pierre Fermat discovered the theory of probability. When he died, a servant discovered a piece of parchment sown up in his jacket. On this parchment, the Memorial of Pascal, Pascal recorded the memory of a mystical experience, written around the figure of a flaming cross. Translated from the French, part of the text is as follows:
From about half past ten in the evening until half past twelve – FIRE. God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob, not of the philosophers and savants. Certitude. Certitude. Feeling. Joy. Peace. ([C12],137-8).
Pascal, too, seems to have experienced Light and Fire, and associated It with a God who is a Person.
Of Pascal’s Memorial, Evelyn Underhill in her classic work Mysticism: A Study in the Nature and Development of Man’s Spiritual Consciousness writes:
He seems always to have worn it upon his person: a perpetual memorial of the supernal experience, the initiation into Reality, which it describes. ([U01],188).
She believes the experience concluded
. . . a long period of spiritual stress, in which indifference to his ordinary interests was counterbalanced by an utter inability to feel the attractive force of that Divine Reality which his great mind discerned as the only adequate object of desire. ([U01],189).
Underhill mentions other Christian mystics whose experience of Light parallels the experience of Augustine, Fox, and Pascal.
LIGHT, ineffable and uncreated, the perfect symbol of pure undifferentiated Being: above the intellect, as St. Augustine reminds us, but known to him who loves. This Uncreated Light is the “deep yet dazzling darkness” of the Dionysian school, “dark from its surpassing brightness . . . as the shining of the sun on his course is as darkness to weak eyes.” It is St. Hildegarde’s lux vivens, Dante’s somma luce, wherein he saw multiplicity in unity, the ingathered leaves of all the universe: The Eternal Father, or Fount of Things. “For well we know,” says Ruysbroeck, “that the bosom of the Father is our ground and origin, wherein our life and being is begun.” ([U01],115).
Is not the Ultimate Ground of Existence our ground and origin, root and source as well? Is not Energy pure Isness, pure Suchness, pure undifferentiated Existence?
Of course, other religions speak of direct experience of the Eternal Light. Hesychasm, a mystical tradition of the Eastern Orthodox Christian Church, is particularly explicit. The Eastern Orthodox and the Roman Catholic churches were once branches of a single Christian church. About 1054, the two divided. Hesychasm is the monastic tradition of the Eastern Orthodox church that expresses its ([M02],106) “central mystical doctrine.” Hesychast monks claim direct experience of God in the form of Uncreated light.
One of the greatest Hesychast saints lived about a thousand years ago. His name is Symeon. He’s called “the New Theologian” to indicate he ranks second ([S26],37) only to theologian “par excellence,” Gregory of Nazianzus. In his Third Theological Discourse, Symeon writes:
God is light, a light infinite and incomprehensible . . . one single light . . simple, non-composite, timeless, eternal . . . The light is life. The light is immortality. The light is the source of life. . . . the door of the kingdom of heaven. The light is the very kingdom itself. ([S25],138).
We’ve seen how Energy is simple and non-composite (not composed of parts), timeless and eternal.
Symeon emphasized it’s possible to experience the Light which is God.
Our mind is pure and simple, so when it is stripped of every alien thought, it enters the pure, simple, Divine light . . . God is light—the highest light. ([W11],132),
For if nothing interferes with its contemplation, the mind—the eye of the soul—sees God purely in a pure light. ([W11],137).
How did Symeon know that God is a simple, non-composite, eternal Light which can be seen? He claimed his knowledge was first-hand.
I have often seen the light, sometimes it has appeared to me within myself, when my soul possessed peace and silence. . . ([L09],118-9).
Symeon’s relation to the Light was anything but cold and impersonal. In his twenty-fifth hymn he writes:
- But, Oh, what intoxication of light, Oh, what movements of fire!
Oh, what swirlings of the flame in me . . . coming from You and Your glory! . . .
You granted me to see the light of Your countenance that is unbearable to all. . . .
You appeared as light, illuminating me completely from Your total light. . . .
O awesome wonder which I see doubly, with my two sets of eyes, of the body and of the soul! ([S26],24-5).
And he left no doubt he considered this Light God.
It illuminates us, this light that never sets, without change, unalterable, never eclipsed; it speaks, it acts, it lives and vivifies, it transforms into light those whom it illumines. God is light, and those whom he deems worthy of seeing him see him as light; . . . Those who have not seen this light have not seen God, for God is light. ([L09],121).
As might be expected, the experience of the Light which is God can be quite intense.
If a man who possesses within him the light of the Holy Spirit is unable to bear its radiance, he falls prostrate on the ground and cries out in great fear and terror, as one who sees and experiences something beyond nature, above words or reason. He is then like a man whose entrails have been set on fire and, unable to bear the scorching flame, he is utterly devastated by it . . . ([W11],113).
Some years after Symeon, the orthodoxy and validity of the Hesychast experience of God as Light was questioned. Many rose to Hesychasm’s defense. Gregory Palamas (1296-1359) is perhaps the most famous. Palamas gave the Hesychast experience of Uncreated Energy a philosophical basis acceptable to Orthodox Christianity.
Gregory argued that the divine energies manifest the Godhead in an effulgence of light, which it is possible for humans beings to see, God willing. The light that the apostles saw on the mount of the transfiguration was uncreated light, not a created effulgence. ([P15],69).
Like Symeon, Palamas insists Uncreated Light is an actual experience, not a symbol or a metaphor for intellectual understanding.
Palamas affirms the utter reality of the saints’ vision of God, constantly repeating that the grace that reveals God, like the light that illumined the disciples on Mount Tabor, is uncreated. ([M14],120).
Palamas’s defense of the Hesychast experience was successful. The Orthodox Church ([N04],v11,465) accepts his teachings and numbers him among its saints.
Hesychast monks almost always describe their experience of God as an experience of Uncreated Light. They associate that Light with the light of a scriptural incident.
Take for example the term “Taborite light,” with which hesychasts always describe their experience of God. For they identify the divine reality that reveals itself to the saints with the light that appeared to the Lord’s disciples at His Transfiguration on Mount Tabor. Such an identification seems to them justified not merely as a symbol but as something very real. ([M14],116).
But why is the Light called Uncreated? The biblical account doesn’t use that word. It says while Jesus was praying
. . . his face changed its appearance, and his clothes became dazzling white. . . . Moses and Elijah . . . appeared in heavenly glory . . . his companions . . . saw Jesus’ glory . . . ([G02],Lk 9:29-32).
But Luke doesn’t call the light “uncreated” and neither does Matthew (17:1-8) or Mark (9:2-8). Matthew uses light imagery when he describes Jesus’ face (Mt 17:2,[G02],18) as “shining like the sun.” And Mark says (Mk 9:3,[G02],42) Jesus’ clothes “became shining white—whiter than anyone in the world could wash them.” But why is the light called Uncreated? Perhaps, the monks’ experience of the Light which is Uncreated came first, and identification with the light which shone on Mount Tabor second.
Imagine monks see a reality within themselves. The reality is a kind of Light. They realize that the reality is God, that seeing the Light is an experience of God. So they naturally identify It with an incident in their own scriptures, the Light that shone at the transfiguration of Jesus Christ on Mount Tabor. But if the same Light was experienced by a Hindu mystic, would it be called the light of Krishna? Might not a Buddhist identify such a light with the pure Essence of Mind or the Clear Light of the Void?
Could it be that mystics of all times and cultures have had vision of the same Eternal Light? Was the Islamic mystic, Sumnun, speaking of that Light when he wrote
I have separated my heart from this world -
My heart and Thou are not separate.
And when slumber closes my eyes,
I find Thee between the eye and the lid. ([S04],62)
And was Angelus Silesius, a Christian mystic of the 17th century whose simple, clear verses have a Zen-like quality, speaking of that same Light when he wrote:
A heart awakened has eyes:
in dark of night. ([B05],109)
And how might a scientist who happened to see that Light speak of It? As the E in E=mc2? Probably not. If they spoke of It at all, it would probably be in a religious context.
We’ll see other mystics’ records of the Light, but let’s pause to consider a question. Of God, St. Paul writes:
He alone is immortal; he lives in the light that no one can approach. No one has ever seen him; no one can ever see him. ([G02],1Tm 6:16).
If Paul was right, then the mystics are wrong. They didn’t see God at all. Who is wrong, Paul or them? Paul, I believe.
It is probably worth re-emphasizing that this book’s world view agrees with some beliefs of established religions and disagrees with others. Since religions disagree among themselves, no world view could possibly agree with all beliefs of all religions. So I usually don’t remark when a point I’m making disagrees with some religion or another, except when the disagreement, like the one we’re discussing now, brings up an interesting point.
Can God actually be directly experienced. Can God be seen? Vladimir Lossky in The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church writes:
It would be possible to draw up two sets of texts taken from the Bible and the Fathers, contradictory to one another; the first to show the inaccessible character of the divine nature, the second asserting that God does communicate Himself, can be known experimentally, and can really be attained to in union . . . ([L08],68).
(Lossky, in fact, draws up such a list in the second chapter of The Vision of God ([L09]), a book which treats the above contradiction in great detail.) He continues:
The question of the possibility of any real union with God, and, indeed, of mystical experience in general, thus poses for Christian theology the antinomy of the accessibility of the inaccessible nature. ([L08],69).
The Eastern Orthodox Church resolves this scriptural contradiction by distinguishing between the essence of God, which is inaccessible, and the “energies” of God, which are
. . . forces proper to and inseparable from God’s essence, in which He goes forth from Himself, manifests, communicates, and gives Himself. ([L08],70).
The famous philosopher Immanuel Kant has a similar idea: he defines
. . . noumena, the things in themselves, which we can never know, and the phenomena, the appearances, which are all that our senses can tell us about. ([D04],329).
An analogy to both ideas might be this: No one has ever really experienced fire’s essence; they’ve only experienced fire’s energies, that is, seen its light, felt its heat, or heard the sound of its burning. Similarly, the God which is not a Person may be considered (compare [U01],109) transcendent, inaccessible, and unknowable. From this viewpoint, Energy is not identical with the God which is not a Person but rather is that God’s first emanation, the primary manifestation upon which the entire universe is based. This distinction may be applied to the Christian Trinity so that the Father is transcendent existence, and the Son or Logos is the Father’s first-born, the first manifestation through which the universe is made.
God has real existence in the world insofar as He creates the world, i.e., gives it existence by giving it a share in His own real existence in and through the energies. ([M03],72).
Therefore, the Logos is the Uncreated Light considered as the Root of the universe, exterior to one’s self. Paul pictures Jesus, the Logos, in this way:
Who is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of every creature; For by him were all things created . . . And he is before all things, and by him all things consist. ([H08],Col,1:15-17).
And what is the Spirit? The same Root and Source seen interiorly, as one’s own Ultimate Ground of Existence.
Let’s now turn to other religions and examine what Jewish, Islamic, Hindu, Sikh and Buddhist seers say about the Light which is God.
Jewish records I’ve found aren’t as explicit as Hesychast descriptions of Uncreated Light. Yet, some Jewish mystics do speak of divine Light. In fact, Rabbi Kook expressed the mystic’s goal in terms of Light.
The divine light sustains all life, is to be found in everything that exists, and is also the goal of all creation . . . [T]he mystic’s goal is to perceive and experience this divine light and to be united with the universe. ([C16],30).
Was Kook, a man who undoubtedly believed in a God who is a Person, speaking of the God which is not a Person? Perhaps. It’s hard to see how perceiving the radiance of some God who is a Person, separate from creation, would unite a mystic with the universe. But perceiving the universe’s ultimate Substance unites a mystic with the universe in an obvious and intimate way.
In any case, Kook identifies light with God. He writes of ([K05],221) “the light of En Sof, the light of the living God” and says that
holy men, those of pure thought and contemplation, join themselves, in their inner sensibilities, with the spiritual that pervades all. Everything that is revealed to them is an emergence of light, a disclosure of the divine . . . ([K05],208),
and also writes of ([K05],225) the “light of eternity . . . in which the temporal and the eternal merge in one whole.” Might not a vision of Eternal Light merge the temporal and eternal—for instance, the table and its Eternal Basis—into one whole?
The next religion we’ll discuss is Islam. The Quran, Islam’s scripture, speaks of Allah’s Light.
Allah is the light of the heavens and the earth. His light may be compared to a niche that enshrines a lamp, the lamp within a crystal of star-like brilliance. . . . Light upon light; Allah guides to His light whom He will. (Sura 24:35, [K07],217).
And the Sufis, who are Islam’s mystics, call themselves ([N11],1) “the followers of the Real”, and speak of “a pillar of light formed from the souls of . . . saints” and “the preexistent light of Muhammad” ([S04],56), as well as the “light of God” ([S04],60) which guides the mystic.
Ghazzali is one of the most famous Sufis. His The Niche for Lights ([A03]) “shows a highly developed light metaphysics—God is the Light” ([S04],96). Moreover, Ghazzali believed mystics can see God. He writes:
. . . Allah’s gnostics rise from metaphors to realities . . . and at the end of their Ascent see, as with the direct sight of eye-witness, that there is nothing in existence save Allah alone. ([A03],103-4).
[t]hese gnostics, on their return from their Ascent into the heaven of Reality, confess with one voice that they saw nought existent there save the One Real. ([A03],106).
If someone could see down to each and every entity’s ultimate level, the level of its Ultimate Ground of Existence, would they not see there that nothing is in existence but That?
Other Sufi mystics also describe their experience of God as experience of Light. Abu Yazid al-Bestami, for instance, writes
I gazed upon God with the eye of certainty . . . He had advanced me to the degree of independence from all creatures, and illumined me with His light, revealing to me the wonders of His secrets and manifesting to me the grandeur of His He-ness. . . . I saw my being by God’s light. ([M18],105-6),
while Abu ‘l-Hosian al-Nuri says
I saw a light gleaming in the Unseen. . . . I gazed at it continually, until the time came when I had wholly become that light. ([M18],226).
And al-Shebli uses light imagery to describe a meditative experience.
It was a soul severed from all connections, passed away from all carnal corruption. It was a soul come to the end of its tether that could endure no longer, visited successively inwardly by the importunate envoys of the Presence Divine. A lighting-flash of the beauty of the contemplation of this visitation leaped upon the very core of his soul. ([M18],283).
Eastern religions also speak of God as Light. From the Hindu tradition, I’ll present the writings of the contemporary mystic, Swami Paramananda, a monk of the Ramakrishna order. He addresses the Uncreated Light when he writes:
O Thou Effulgent Light,
Thou who are ever unchanging, without beginning or end,
Make Thy effulgence felt in my heart.
Fill my whole being with it, leaving room for naught else. ([P04],137),
I know in my inmost depth
That no mortal light
Can reveal Thy immortal face;
Thou art seen only in thine own effulgence. ([P04],112).
Did Paramananda directly experience the Light? He writes:
Out of the deep darkness of night
A light burst upon my soul,
Filling me with serene gladness.
All my inner chambers
Are opened at its touch;
All my inmost being
Is flooded by its radiance. ([P04],108).
I know of no first-hand account of the experience of Guru Nanak, who founded the Sikh religion. But in his hymns we find:
Blend your light with the Light Eternal
Mingle your consciousness with His . . . ([H13],71),
Men of God see the Divine Light. . . .
In every heart shines the Light Eternal . . . ([H13],71),
God is hidden in all things
Those that serve Him attain the gates of paradise
Those whose bodies and souls
Are permeated with the divine Word
Blend their light with the Light of God.
Evil-doers perish, are reborn only to die
Men of God merge with the True One. ([H13],177).
Did Guru Nanak believe experience of God was possible? W. McLeod in Guru Nanak and the Sikh Religion writes:
The ultimate essence of God is beyond all human categories, far transcending all powers of human expression. Only in experience can He be truly known. ([M09],165).
The last religion we’ll discuss is Buddhism. Buddha not only said the Uncreated exists, but made Its attainment his goal, a goal expressed in terms of light: to achieve the Uncreated is to become enlightened.
The Master described his Enlightenment: . . . Being liable to birth because of self, to age and sorrow and death, I sought the unborn and undecaying and undying. I attained this in the last watch of the night and won the stainless, the freedom from bondage, Nirvana. Knowledge and vision came to me. ([W07],26).
And another Buddhist scripture has
Is not Amitabha, the infinite light of revelation, the source of innumerable miracles? . . . Amitabha, the unbounded light, is the source of wisdom, of virtue, of Buddhahood . . . Amitabha, the immeasurable light which makes him who receives it a Buddha . . . ([C04],172-3,175).
So, direct experience of Uncreated Light is what transformed the man, Siddhartha Guatama, into the man who was called Buddha. “Buddha” means the “awakened or enlightened one,” and Siddhartha Guatama deserved that title only after attaining enduring vision of the Unborn, the Undecaying, the Undying.
Yet another Buddhist scripture, The Tibetan Book of the Great Liberation, also mentions a
self-originated Clear Light, eternally unborn . . . non-created . . . Total Reality ([T06],218-219).
Although the Clear Light of Reality shines within one’s own mind, the multitude look for it elsewhere. ([T06],220).
Can science’s way of knowing be applied to religious questions? Can science address ultimate questions? What might a scientific religion be like? We’ve posed those questions more than once; now we’ve covered all the material we’ll need to answer them. Before we do, however, we’ll finish our discussion of knowers by discussing some mystics who claim to have gone beyond first-hand experience of God to a more intimate relationship, a claim that shocks many people. How to judge those mystics and their claims leads us to the application of the scientific way of knowing to religion, in the next chapter.
We’ve discussed second-hand knowledge of God and a more direct type of knowledge, first-hand knowledge. Is second-hand knowledge of God actually possible? The atheist would say no; God doesn’t exist therefore no true knowledge of God is possible. But most religious people would agree second-hand knowledge of God is possible.
Is first-hand knowledge of God—knowledge by acquaintance—actually possible? Here, even a religious person might answer “No. Not in this life. It may have occurred to Moses or Mohammed, but it’s certainly not possible for an ordinary person.” Yet, as we’ve seen, some people have had such experience. The Jungian analyst and Pascal, for example, seem to have had at least one first-hand experience of God. Though the experience faded, each life was deeply affected.
But is a single, brief experience of God the most intimate kind of relationship possible between a human being and God? First-hand knowledge is also called knowledge by acquaintance, so the question can be re-phrased “Is acquaintance the most intimate relationship possible between a human being and God?” Asked that way, the question almost answers itself. There are many levels of intimacy beyond acquaintance. For one, there’s friendship. And, indeed, mystics who are blessed with numerous experiences of the Eternal, as was Symeon, sometimes view God as more than an acquaintance, as Friend.
Of course, it could be said that God, for each and every person, is much more than acquaintance and friend: God is our Father and Mother. However, we are discussing what relationship a person directly experiences for themselves. Even if God actually is everyone’s ultimate Parent, some people would say they have had no experience of God at all, others would claim an occasional experience, while a few would claim frequent first-hand experience. Such people might be called strangers, acquaintances and friends of God, respectively.
So, by stranger we mean someone who has never “met” God, in the sense of a direct experience. By acquaintance, we mean someone, Pascal, for example, who has had at least one meeting with God, one direct experience. And by friend, we mean someone, like Symeon, who regularly experiences God first-hand.
But is friendship the highest type of relationship possible between a human being and God? Or is a relationship even more intimate than friendship possible? What is the highest degree of intimacy with God possible to an ordinary person? What is the most intimate knowledge of God possible to a human being? The remainder of this chapter discusses those questions.
Can a person enjoy a relationship with God even more intimate than friendship? Some mystics say “Yes” and see in marriage a symbol of their relationship with their God, who is usually a Person. In fact, wedding symbolism is common in some religions. For example:
To women mystics of the Catholic Church, familiar with the . . . metaphor which called every cloistered nun the Bride of Christ, that crisis in their spiritual history in which they definitely vowed themselves to the service of Transcendent Reality seemed, naturally enough, the veritable betrothal of the soul. . . . [T]he constant sustaining presence of a Divine Companion, became, by an extension of the original simile, Spiritual Marriage. ([U01],138).
The imagery of marriage is appropriate for several reasons. First, the stereotype in many cultures of women as passive suggests the helplessness of a soul, often pictured as female, even a bride, waiting for the male Lord to initiate union.
‘Let Him kiss me with the kisses of His mouth.’ Who is it speaks these words? It is the Bride. Who is the Bride? It is the Soul thirsting for God. (St. Bernard, Cantica Canticorum, Sermon vii, in [U01],137).
Second, the desire of husband and wife for each other suggests the intense desire of the mystic for God. Third, the delights of sexual union suggest the rapture of first-hand experience.
There is no point at all in blinking the fact that the raptures of the theistic mystic are closely akin to the transports of sexual union, the soul playing the part of the female and God appearing as the male. There is nothing surprising in this, for if man is made in the image of God, then it would be natural that God’s love would be reflected in human love, and that the love of man for woman should reflect the love of God for the soul. . . . To drive home the close parallel between the sexual act and the mystical union with God may seem blasphemous today. Yet the blasphemy is not in the comparison, but in the degrading of the one act of which man is capable that makes him like God both in the intensity of his union with his partner and in the fact that by this union he is a co-creator with God. All the higher religions recognize the sexual act as something holy: hence . . . adultery and fornication . . . are forbidden because they are a desecration of a holy thing . . . ([Z02],151-2).
Lastly, though the image of marriage expresses closeness and intimacy, it also maintains the eternal distinction and separation of human being and God. Even if two married people enjoy such an intimate relationship that they feel united and one, they nonetheless retain their separate identities. Like two strands woven into one cord, husband and wife unite together but remain separate persons. Therefore, marriage is an apt symbol for the relationship some mystics feel between themselves and a God who they regard as an actual, separate Person. It expresses the feeling of intimacy and union as well as the reality of eternal difference between them and God.
Of course, marriage isn’t the only symbol of intimate relation with God. Another is iron in fire. The Sufi Hujwiri ([N11],159) uses that image, as does John Ruysbroeck, a great medieval Christian mystic, when he writes:
[A] piece of iron is penetrated by fire, so that with the fire it does the work of fire, burning and giving light just as fire does . . . and yet each retains its own nature—for the fire does not become iron, nor the iron fire, but the union is without intermediary, for the iron is within the fire and the fire within the iron . . . ([R07],259).
We’ll soon return to Ruysbroeck’s idea of union with and without intermediary.
We’ve examined four degrees of intimacy with God: the stranger, who has had no first-hand experience of God; the acquaintance, who has had a rare, perhaps single, experience; the friend, who has regular experiences; and the spouse, who has frequent, intimate experiences. Of the four, the spouse enjoys the most intimate relationship with God.
Is a degree of intimacy even above spiritual marriage possible between mystic and God? Is full and complete union with God possible? The question is difficult to answer, partly because “union with God” has so many different meanings. So, before we discuss degrees of intimacy beyond spiritual marriage, we’ll need to examine the many different things “union with God” can mean.
Let’s begin with the plainest, simplest meaning. Just as a raindrop merges with the ocean until it loses its own identity and becomes the ocean, union with God (in the plainest, simplest sense) occurs when a person loses their own identity and merges with God, becomes God. Of course, whether “union with God” in this sense is possible, whether it’s impossible, whether the very idea is blasphemy, are entirely different questions (which this chapter discusses). But the plain-and-simple meaning of the phrase is union, merging until only God remains.
But is this plain and simple sense what most mystics mean by “union with God”? No. Many mystics claim “union with God.” A few of them mean union in the sense just described, but many don’t. They don’t mean they have become God, and would be shocked to hear anyone claim identity with God.
Similarly, many religions speak of “union with God.” As Geoffrey Parrinder in Mysticism in the World’s Religions writes:
The religious experience of the ordinary believer is often spoken of as ‘communion’ with God, and this is one of the commonest Christian expressions . . . ‘Comm-union’ means ‘union with’ . . . That the ordinary believer seeks communion with God is witnessed by countless hymns and devotional writings, Christian and Hindu, Muslim and Buddhist. ([P05],191).
A few of those religions mean union in our sense, but many don’t. In fact, many religions explicitly deny that union in the raindrop-and-ocean sense is possible.
What, then, do mystics and religious people mean by “union with God”? They may mean almost any type of experience of God. They may mean second-hand experience. Or first-hand experience. Or a type of experience even more intimate than first-hand experience.
For example, Ruysbroeck seems to use “union” for all three types of experience. Ruysbroeck describes someone who is “united” with God through a virtuous life, through grace, or through the Church’s sacraments as ([R07],253) united “through an intermediary”. Such union seems to be second-hand experience of God, or perhaps a weaker type of first-hand experience. He also describes another type of contact with God, which he ([R07],259) calls “union without intermediary.” Such “union,” which he symbolizes by iron in fire, seems to be first-hand experience. Ruysbroeck also speaks of a third, more intimate type of union, “union without difference,” a
. . . state of beatitude . . . so simple and so modeless that . . . every distinction of creatures pass away, for all exalted spirits melt away and come to nought by reason of the blissful enjoyment they experience in God’s essential being, which is the superessential being of all beings. ([R07],265).
“Union without difference.” “Every distinction of creatures pass away.” “Melt away and come to nought.” The phrases suggest a more intimate relation than spiritual marriage. They suggest the raindrop-and-ocean union of human and God until only God remains. Is this what Ruysbroeck means?
Perhaps not, because he also insists there’s ([R07],265) “an essential distinction between the soul’s being and God’s being.” And he says that union in the sense we’ve discussed is impossible.
[N]o created being can be one with God’s being and have its own being perish. If that happened, the creature would become God, and this is impossible ... ([R07],265-6).
In fact, he even denies such union to the soul of Christ.
[N]o creature can become or be so holy that it loses its creatureliness and becomes God—not even the soul of our Lord Jesus Christ, which will eternally remain something created and different from God. ([R07],252).
The logic is clear. Christ has a human soul. Human souls are created things, forever different from God, who is uncreated. Therefore, Christ’s human soul will remain forever different from God. Of course, as an orthodox Catholic, Ruysbroeck admits Christ also has a divine nature which is God. Our concern, however, is not the dogma of Christ’s dual nature, but various types of union with God.
Ruysbroeck denies that any person can achieve union with God in the raindrop-and-ocean sense. His denial accords with traditional Christian dogma, which rejects the idea of utter transformation of human into God until only God remains. Like many other religions, Christianity believes that because God is a separate Person, human and God are eternally different and distinct, so no literal union of human and God is possible. It sees two forever separate persons, God and mystic, so no union like raindrop and ocean can occur.
Nonetheless, Ruysbroeck’s “union without difference” seems to describe just that type of union. Augustine and Athanasius speak even more explicitly of such union. Augustine writes of a voice which says:
I am the food of grown men: grow, and thou shalt feed upon Me; nor shalt thou convert Me, like the food of thy flesh into thee, but thou shalt be converted into Me . . . verily, I AM that I AM. ([A14],127, Bk.VII,Ch.X).
And Athanasius writes:
The Word was made flesh in order to offer up this body for all, and that we, partaking of His Spirit, might be made gods. ([S08],88),
He was not man, and then became God, but He was God, and then became man, and that to make us gods. ([S08],88).
“Thou shalt be converted into Me.” “Might be made gods.” Augustine, Athanasius, and, at one point, Ruysbroeck, appear to disagree with the Christian dogma that says a person can never unite with God in the sense of merging, of becoming God. Yet all three men are Christians-in-good-standing; Ruysbroeck is called blessed, while Augustine and Athanasius are saints. It seems we’ve uncovered another contradiction, reminiscent of “seeing an unseeable God.” Now, the contradiction is that Western Christianity says a person cannot unite with God in our raindrop-and-ocean sense, but some of its representatives say such union is possible.
A similar contradiction appears in Eastern Christianity. The Eastern Orthodox Church also affirms the basic distinction between human and God.
In Palamite terminology, as in that of the Greek Fathers, God is essentially apart from other beings by His uncreated nature. The proper condition of these beings is the created state . . . ([M14],120).
Yet, it also speaks of union with God—for when created entities
. . . transcend their own domain by communication with God, they participate in uncreated life . . . [W]hat the Christian seeks, what God grants him in sacramental grace, is uncreated divine life, deification. Knowledge of God, then, according to Palamas, is not a knowledge that necessarily demands that the knowing subject be exterior to the object known, but a union in uncreated light. ([M14],120).
God is “essentially apart from other beings.” Yet, a mystic may achieve “union in uncreated light” and even “deification.” A contradiction? Of course. The solution? The mystic transcends their own domain (the domain of normal, separate human existence, apparently) and participates in uncreated life.
What is participation in uncreated life? Uncreated life apparently indicates God. Ruysbroeck’s iron-and-fire analogy illustrates the idea of participation.
Iron in fire experiences fire’s heat and light. As the experience continues, the iron begins to radiate heat and light, and becomes more and more like fire. By participating in fire’s “life,” the iron in some measure transcends its own nature and takes on the nature of fire. Yet, it always remains iron and never becomes fire.
Similarly, the mystic in God experiences God’s energies, God’s awareness and love. As the experience continues, the mystic begins to radiate awareness and love, becoming more and more like God. By participating in God’s “life,” the mystic in some measure transcends their own nature and takes on the nature of God. Yet, the mystic always remains their self and never becomes God. We’ll call such first-hand experience of God “participatory” union.
Islam has a similar contradiction and another solution. Like Christianity, Islam believes God is a Person. Yet, some accepted Islamic mystics speak of union with God in the raindrop-and ocean sense. Ghazzali, who we’ve met before, uses the idea of “illusory” union to resolve the contradiction.
Ghazzali describes mystics whose experience of God is so intense that they feel they’ve become God, because they feel they’ve lost their individual self. Those mystics reach such a level of what Ghazzali ([A03],108) calls “unification,” “identity,” “extinction,” (and, might we add, deification?) that they feel like the famous Sufi mystic Hallaj, also known as Mansur, who said:
I am He whom I love and He whom I love is I. ([A03],107),
I am The ONE REAL! ([A03],106).
However, says Ghazzali, when such mystics regain their senses, they realize they have not achieved
. . . actual Identity, but only something resembling Identity . . . ([A03],107).
According to Ghazzali, some Sufis experience the illusion of union but don’t actually experience union itself. Glowing white hot, participating in fire’s life, the iron (he seems to say) may forget itself and believe it has become fire, when in fact it has not. We’ll call such first-hand experience of God “illusory” union. Illusory and participatory union are the most intimate types of union possible in a religion that believes God is a Person.
We’ve discussed many types of union, from Ruysbroeck’s three kinds of union, to the union of spiritual marriage, to participatory and illusory union. None is union in the plain, simple sense. None is like the union of raindrop and ocean. Now, we’ll discuss union with God in the sense of raindrop and ocean. For brevity, we’ll refer it as simply “union.” So, from now on “union” means the joining of human and God, until only God remains.
Various mystics suggest such union is possible, and even claim it for themselves. For example, Meister Eckhart, one of the leading figures of medieval German mysticism, writes:
[W]e are not wholly blessed, even though we are looking at divine truth; for while we are still looking at it, we are not in it. As long as a man has an object under consideration, he is not one with it. ([M11],200),
[W]hen I cease projecting myself into any image, when no image is represented any longer in me . . . then I am ready to be transported into the naked being of God, the pure being of the Spirit. . . . I am translated into God and I become one with him—one sole substance, one being, and one nature: the Son of God. ([M12],134).
Eckhart’s last statement and others like it—for example,
The ground of the mind and the ground of God are one sole essential being. ([M12],107)
—aroused the interest of the Inquisition. He was brought before religious authorities but escaped with his life. Hallaj, as we’ll see, was not so fortunate.
Even in Islam some mystics claim union, Ghazzali’s explanation notwithstanding. For example:
Some one came to the cell of Bayazid and asked, “Is Bayazid here?” He answered, “Is any one here but God?” ([N11],159).
And Jalalu ‘d Din, said:
With Thy Sweet Soul, this soul of mine
Hath mixed as Water doth with Wine.
Who can the Wine and Water part,
Or me and Thee when we combine?
Thou art become my greater self;
Small bounds no more can me confine.
Thou hast my being taken on,
And shall not I now take on Thine? ([U01],426)
Lastly, we have Hallaj who once declared:
Thy Spirit is mingled in my spirit even as wine is mingled with pure water.
When anything touches Thee, it touches me. Lo, in every case Thou are I! ([N11],151),
In another instance, knocking at a door Hallaj was asked “Who is there?” He answered:
I am the Absolute . . . the True Reality . . . ([S04],66).
For such statements, the Islamic orthodox convicted Hallaj of blasphemy, cut off his hands and feet, and sent him to the gallows.
Can a human being actually unite with God, become God? Many people find the idea blasphemous or absurd. Historically, the mystic who claimed such union risked torture and execution. Today, that mystic risks the same treatment in some countries. In others, they risk being committed to a psychiatric institution. But are all mystics who claim union deluded? Or are some speaking the simple truth?
Union (in the sense we’ve now discussing) seems incredible when the God in question is some God who is a Person. It means the mystic has become God. It means the mystic who claims union with Jehovah has become the Person who created the world in six days. It means the mystic who claims they’ve united with Allah gave the Quran to Mohammed. It’s hard to see how such a claim could be true.
On the other hand, when the God in question is the God which is not a Person, the claim of union might well be true. How? One way of understanding such union is as a kind of dissolving back into the ocean of Uncreated Light in which we live. Movies offer a helpful analogy. (Free-standing, three-dimensional holograms would be a better analogy.)
Consider a movie. All that exist on the movie screen is actually light. Because of the way the light “dances” on the screen, we see people, animals, trees, sky, and buildings on the movie screen. Yet all that exists, all we ever see, is light.
Similarly, Energy, the Uncreated and Unchangeable Light, composes us and the rest of creation. All that exists in our world is that Ultimate Reality. Because of the way It “dances” (whatever that might mean; more later), we see people, animals, trees, sky, and buildings.
Understood in this sense, Hallaj and Bayazid speak the simple truth. They, you, I, and every other entity is a manifestation of the one Eternal Entity. We are images of the Eternal Light which is God. So the Christian mystic Angelus Silesius speaks the simple truth when he says:
I am not outside God.
He is not outside me.
I am His radiance;
my light is He. ([B05],109).
And even Eckhart speaks the truth when he says
God’s being is my being . . . ([M12],87),
if he’s understood as saying that he, we, and any God who is a Person all share the same Ultimate Ground of Existence.
The movie analogy also applies to second- and first-hand experience of God. Second-hand experience is like a movie-screen person reading a book about the movie light which is their root, source, and ultimate ground of existence. First-hand experience of Uncreated Light—also called illumination, as we’ll see—is like a movie-screen person experiencing the movie light as something other than and external to themselves, though it is in fact their root, source, and ultimate ground of existence.
Finally, union with Uncreated Light is like a movie-screen person experiencing the movie-screen light as their own ultimate ground of existence, realizing it’s not something different from them, but rather is their own, true, inmost self. Such experience isn’t second- or even first-hand experience. Rather, it’s a third type of experience, unitive experience.
Knowledge which derives from unitive experience is called unitive knowledge. For unitive experience and knowledge, the analogy of wood and fire applies better than iron and fire, because wood not only gets hot and glows like fire, it not only participates in fire’s life, but it eventually is consumed and transformed into fire itself.
The movie analogy and the wood-and-fire analogy are two ways of understanding unitive experience. Another way, which occurs often in mystical literature, involves the idea of the triad of knower, knowing, known. Unitive experience and knowledge is said to occur when separation dissolves, when the knower unites with the Known, transcending the triad of knower, knowing, and known.
But what is triad of knower, knowing, and known?
Second-hand knowledge has three elements: the knower, the act of knowing, and the known. For example, when someone acquires second-hand knowledge of God through scripture, the “known” is the scripture, the knowing involves reading and understanding, and the person reading the scripture is the knower.
First-hand knowledge has the same three elements: knower, knowing, known. If New York city is known, then seeing and experiencing directly is the knowing, and some person is the knower. If God is known, then the knower has direct experience of God and therefore is a mystic.
In second-hand knowledge of God, the knower’s separate identity remains. Even in first-hand experience of God, also called “illumination,” the knower’s separate identity remains intact.
All pleasurable and exalted states of mystic consciousness in which the sense of I-hood persists, in which there is a loving and joyous relation between the Absolute as object and the self as subject, fall under the head of Illumination. ([U01],234).
In both types of knowledge, the knower remains distinct and separate from the Known. I-hood, the separate personality of the knower, remains. Even in the most intimate degrees of union—spiritual marriage, participatory and illusory union—the triad of knower, knowing, and known remain.
Yet, many mystical traditions speak of transcending the triad. Nicholson speaks of it when he writes the Sufi’s path leads to the realization that
. . . knowledge, knower, and known are One. ([N11],29).
The Hindu sage Ramana Maharshi also speaks of it when he says that:
(d) The one displaces the triads such as knower, knowledge and known. The triads are only appearances in time and space, whereas the Reality lies beyond and behind them. ([T03],173-4),
a conclusion he bases on three insights—that Reality is:
(a) Existence without beginning or end—eternal.
(b) Existence everywhere, endless—infinite.
(c) Existence underlying all forms, all changes, all forces, all matter and all spirit. . . . ([T03],173).
Lastly, The Awakening of Faith speaks of transcending the triad when it describes how Buddhist knowers
. . . realize Suchness. We speak of it as an object . . . but in fact there is no object in this realization . . . There is only the insight into Suchness (transcending both the seer and the seen) . . . ( [A15],87).
With unitive knowledge, our New York City illustration fails. There is no way for a person, in any sense, to actually transcend the triad and unite with, become one with, the city—though a person might feel united with it or feel they participate in its life. There is, however, an apt Hindu analogy. The mystic who aspires to first-hand knowledge of God is like someone who wants to taste sugar. To enjoy the taste of sugar, the taster must remain distinct from sugar. The mystic who seeks union with God, on the other hand, is like someone who wants to become sugar. That mystic seeks actual and literal union, until only the One remains.
But aren’t we already united with our Ultimate Ground of Existence? Yes. Every human being is already united with the God which is not a Person. Every human being is already one with their Ultimate Ground of Existence. We all have union with that God. But only a few of us are conscious of it.
Such consciousness is what mystics like Hallaj claim. They claim that they have directly experienced what is for others a theoretical identity. So, instead of claiming identity with some God who is a Person, mystics like Eckhart and Hallaj claim conscious union with the God which is not a Person, of which everything, including Gods who are Persons, are a manifestation.
Therefore, a mystic like Hallaj may not see himself as fundamentally different from anyone else. In fact, far from feeling his personal self is exalted, he may feel individual personhood is an illusion.
Why? Imagine a person who experiences their Ultimate Substance, their real Self, which is God, the God which is not a Person. They see, perhaps for the first time, their real, eternal Self. In contrast, what they have previously considered their self, their ego, may seem insignificant. Writes Underhill:
All its life that self has been measuring its candlelight by other candles. Now for the first time it is out in the open air and sees the sun. ([U01],200).
Therefore, the person who experiences the Ultimate Ground of Existence as their own real Self, may well come to consider their individual, distinct personal self as an unimportant illusion. The Christian saint Catherine of Siena may have come to this opinion after she heard a voice which said:
In self knowledge, then, thou wilt humble thyself; seeing that, in thyself, thou dost not even exist.” ([U01],200).
In any event, mystics who aspire to union with the God which is not a Person often desire
[n]ot to become like God or personally to participate in the divine nature . . . but to escape from the bondage of . . . unreal selfhood and thereby to be reunited with the One infinite Being. ([N11],83).
And, in fact, such mystics sometimes reach the state of
. . . passing-away in the divine essence . . . He contemplates the essence of God and finds it identical with his own. . . . [H]e becomes the very Light. ([N11],155-6).
The mystic who reaches such a state of union may claim identity with God because they can find no other Self to call their own.
As the rain-drop ceases to exist individually, so the disembodied soul becomes indistinguishable from the universal Deity. ([N11],167)
. . . self-annihilation in the ocean of the Godhead. ([N11],168).
Of such union, Nicholson writes:
Where is the lover[?] . . . Nowhere and everywhere: his individuality has passed away from him. ([N11],119).
Ramakrishna likened ([G03],103) unitive experience of the Eternal to a salt doll dissolving in the ocean. Ramakrishna himself ([L07],153) experienced this state, which is called “Nirvikalpa Samadhi” in Hindu religious literature.
Many scriptures hint at the identity of human self and the God which is not a Person, or even state it outright. For example, words in the very first chapter of the Bible.
So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them. ([H08],Gn1:27).
Of course, someone who believes in a God who is a Person might think these words mean that God has two arms, two legs, a torso, and a head with two eyes, ears, one nose, etc., and so created us in His own image. But someone who believes in the God which is not a Person would probably interpret them as saying that we are literally, at this very moment, an image of the Uncreated Light, the Absolute Existence and Ultimate Ground of Existence. Like fish in an ocean of water, we live in an ocean of Uncreated Light. From this viewpoint, words from a Christian hymn are literally true:
Lord, Thou hast been our dwelling place
Through all the ages of our race ([H12],84),
as are words the Christian Saint Paul spoke to the people of Athens before their high tribunal, the Areopagus,
For in him we live, and move, and have our being . . . ([H08],Acts,17:28).
Sometimes, followers of the God which is not a Person who have realized that, in the ultimate, ontological sense, they already are the Ultimate Ground of Existence, that their inmost self is identical with that God—sometimes they celebrate their intimacy, union, and identity in word and song. In some religions, their exaltations are understood. More commonly, however, they are misunderstood, often because our two ideas of God are confused.
For example, returning to Hallaj, it’s probable that he and the Islamic orthodoxy who executed him had two very different ideas of God in mind. Reynold Nicholson in The Mystics of Islam describes these two ideas, as they occur in Islam.
Both Moslem and Sufi declare that God is One . . . The Moslem means that God is unique in His essence, qualities, and acts; that He is absolutely unlike all other beings. The Sufi means that God is the One Real Being which underlies all phenomena. . . . the whole universe, including man, is essentially one with God. . . ([N11],79-80).
Nicholson even implies that orthodox religion and mystic habitually see God in these two different ways.
Religion sees things from the aspect of plurality, but gnosis regards the all-embracing Unity. ([N11],74).
Therefore, Hallaj probably meant he had achieved unity with the God which is not a Person. In fact, a few other mystics understood his claim in exactly that way.
“I am the Absolute Truth,” or, as it was translated later, “I am God,” led many mystics to believe that Hallaj was a pantheist, conscious of the unity of being. ([S04],72).
Tragically, the Islamic orthodox did not.
Many chapters ago we posed a question: Can the scientific way of knowing be applied to religious questions? that is, can it be applied to the religious domain of knowing? Before we could answer this question we had to investigate the domains of science and religion. The third and fourth chapters showed the Ultimate Ground of Existence lies within both domains. This common ground makes the task of constructing a scientific religion much easier. After all, the difference between religious monism and natural monism is one of attitude. One regards the Eternal Substance religiously, the other does not.
Religions obtain much of their knowledge of the Ultimate from writings which they suppose perfectly true. Science does not allow itself such blind belief. Science has obtained whatever knowledge it has of the Eternal through its investigations into physical phenomena. But such investigations, though valuable, have failed to address life’s really important questions.
We saw in this chapter that human beings can have, and in fact have had, direct experience of the God which is not a Person, the Ultimate Ground of Existence.
For people who’ve experience It, the Real is a concrete reality; indeed, sometimes the only Reality. For others, however, the Eternal is a concept, an abstraction, a theoretical construct. We’ve seen that scientific theories often contain theoretical constructs, things whose existence is provisionally accepted until their existence is either proved or disproved, experimentally. In this book, the Root is an theoretical construct. Anyone interested in experimentally proving or disproving It’s existence for themselves is free to adopt some form of mystical life.
We’ve also seen experience of the Ultimate Ground of Existence—either first-hand or unitive—comes under the heading of mysticism or gnosis; that the pinnacle of mystic experience is union with Ultimate Reality; and that mystics who achieve such union sometimes describe the experience as one of “deification.”
Deification. At first sight, the word may seem shocking, absurd, or blasphemous. And even when its meaning is understood—the transformation of human self until only God remains—it’s still easy to feel uncomfortable. The term seems too liable to be misunderstood, misused, or exploited.
When the God in question is the God which is not a Person, “deification” implies only becoming conscious of what already is. Our union with the Eternal is already a fact; the deified mystic is someone who has realized this in a vivid and concrete manner.
On the other hand, when the God in question is some God who is a Person, the idea of deification has a great potential for misuse and exploitation, especially since it’s often accompanied by the following reasoning: Since a God who is a Person isn’t bound by religious observances (this reasoning goes), and since everything such a God does is moral, even if it seems otherwise, the same must apply to one who has achieved deification and is united with that God. Therefore, even if a deified person steals, rapes, or murders they commit no crime, for they are above all earthly laws and understanding.
The dangers inherent in such reasoning are obvious. As Rufus Jones writes:
These doctrines—that the universe is a Divine Emanation, that God is being incarnated in man, that each person may rise to a substantial union with God, that external law is abolished and ceremonial practices outdated, that the final revelation of God is being made through man himself—these doctrines are loaded with dangerous possibilities as soon as they receive popular interpretation. ([J03],188-9).
Rolt comments on some similar ideas in the writings of “Dionysius”:
His doctrines are certainly dangerous. Perhaps that is a mark of their truth. For the Ultimate Truth of things is so self-contradictory that it is bound to be full of peril to minds like ours which can only apprehend one side of Reality at the time. Therefore it is not perhaps to be altogether desired that such doctrines should be very popular. They can only be spiritually discerned, though the intensest spiritual effort. Without this they will only too readily lead to blasphemous arrogance and selfish sloth. ([D08],47)
The next chapter presents instances of the inappropriate, unhealthy application of some mystical ideas. The need for some way of evaluating mystical claims is presented. The revelational way of knowing is shown to have been the way such claims were evaluated in the past. It’s suggested the scientific way of knowing should be used to evaluate such claims today. Lastly, details of the application of the scientific way of knowing to the claims of the mystics are considered.