Chapter Summary: This chapter shows how mysticism can be misused, and then discusses the need for a way of judging supposed mystical statements. Judging with science’s way of knowing would yield a scientific religion. The chapter discusses how the four elements of science’s way would apply to mystical statements. After re-stating some fundamental premises, the chapter closes with an allegory.
We’ve seen that mysticism means direct experience of either the Ultimate Ground of Existence or a God who is a Person. “Mysticism”, however, is also used—or rather, misused—to mean the psychic, the magical, the occult, and even the demonic. A popular publisher, for example, offers a Mysteries of the Unknown series whose topics include UFOs, astral projection, clairvoyance, channeling, and ([M19]) Mystic Places. Shops which sell love potions, good luck charms, and charms that ward off the “evil eye” also sell “mystic” dream interpretations books. And even the prestigious Scientific American magazine published the following.
Superstitions, cults and mysticism appear with surprising consistency during a social crisis. Today it is ESP and UFOs, astrology and clairvoyance, mystic cults and mesmeric healers. . . . [A]t the same time the fortunes of these mystics have risen, the number of popular science magazines and television programs has declined markedly. ([K01],34).
Throughout this book, “mysticism” is used in its proper sense, to indicate direct experience of the Ultimate, not UFOs or ESP. But it’s worth investigating how the other meanings arose.
Imagine a person with a newly-found interest in things which seem outside the natural world. Since mysticism, magic, the psychic, the occult, and the demonic all concern such things, a person at first might see them as similar, and mistake one for the other. Or a person interested in one might naturally wonder what the others were about, too. It’s not surprising therefore that
. . . in every period of true mystical activity we find an outbreak of occultism, illuminism, or other perverted spirituality . . . ([U01],149).
Mysticism, magic, the psychic, the occult, and the demonic are indeed similar in that they all treat things beyond the normal, every-day world. But they are fundamentally different, too. (The seventh chapter of [U01], by the way, describes some of the differences between mysticism and these other types of activity.)
In time, anyone who progresses in mysticism (or in the other activities) will realize their own genuine interests. They’ll learn to distinguish the mystical from the magical, the psychic from the occult, and may even come to see them as different as day and night. The unaware person, however, may still lump them all together. Thus, to the uninformed “mystical,” “magical,” and “occult” may suggest more or less the same thing.
This book is not about the psychic, the magical, the occult, or the demonic. Such phenomena don’t concern us, even when they’re inappropriately labeled “mysticism,” as long as it’s understood that they aren’t genuine mysticism. Unfortunately, even when all such phenomena are ignored, there remains a large number of ridiculous, perverted, and even insane acts and beliefs that seem based on genuine, though perhaps inferior and misinterpreted, mystical experiences and ideas. As Underhill observes, great indeed are the errors
. . . into which men have been led by a feeble, a deformed, or an arrogant mystical sense. The number of these mistakes is countless; their wildness almost inconceivable to those who have not been forced to study them. ([U01],149).
We’ll examine a few instances, specifically the Nazis, the Ranters, some deviant Sufis, and Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh.
While it’s well-known that the Nazis murdered millions of people during the Second World War, it’s often forgotten that their ideology was based, in part, on mystical and scientific ideas. Mystical ideas, particularly those of the medieval mystic Meister Eckhart, formed a part of Nazi belief. A forward in a book published in 1941 about Eckhart has:
According to the Nazis, Eckhart is a member of their party in good standing. ([M11],xv).
However, science (or, at least, what was thought science) contributed much more to Nazi ideology than mysticism. In an illuminating article, Biological Science and the Roots of Nazism, George Stein writes:
Hitler’s views are rather straightforward German social Darwinism of a type widely known and accepted throughout Germany and which, more importantly, was considered by most Germans, scientists included, to be scientifically true. . . . Hitler did not invent national socialist biopolicy. . . . [A]lmost every element of Nazi biopolicy was already well established in the German political culture in both a vulgar, man-in-the-street sense, and, more importantly, among the educated elite who took their views from the representative science of the day. ([S21],51),
There really was very little left for national socialism to invent. The foundations of a biopolicy of ethnocentrism, racism, and xenophobic nationalism had already been established within German life and culture by many of the leading scientists of Germany well before World War I. ([S21],57).
Given the disastrous consequences of Nazi beliefs, it might certainly be argued that the mystics are best left ignored, and that science should stay within its present boundaries and not meddle with the values, ethics, and morals that have traditionally been the concern of religion. Yet if this reasoning is accepted, wouldn’t similar reasoning about the Inquisition and other religiously motivated atrocities prove that religion also fails as a sure guide to right and wrong? If the Nazi episode demonstrates a fatal flaw in the scientific way of knowing, then doesn’t the Inquisition expose a similar flaw in the religious way of knowing? Perhaps, they do. Perhaps, both ways of knowing are imperfect. But I believe the scientific way is the better of the two.
The Nazis were primarily a political movement; perhaps it’s not surprising that removing mystical concepts from their spiritual context and forcing them to serve political, nationalistic, or imperialistic causes had disastrous results. Of course, the results aren’t always unfortunate. Democracy and the idea of the equality, I’ve read, derive from mystical ideas. Certainly, equality isn’t a common sense idea. After all, even some children (generally one’s own) are brighter, stronger, more agreeable, more attractive, better behaved, etc., than others.
Sadly, mystical ideas are subject to abuse and misapplication even in a religious context. For example, about the time the Society of Friends—the Quakers—was being born in England, another group, the Ranters, was also growing. The Ranters seem to have had some appreciation of the Ultimate Ground of Existence.
The central idea of Ranterism was the doctrine that God is essentially in every creature. ([J03],467).
One Ranter claimed
. . . that he was not the God, but he was God, because God was in him and in every creature in the world . . . ([J03],475).
“He was not the God, but he was God” expresses an idea that understood, would have saved many a mystic from torture and death. It denies the Ranter is Jehovah or Jesus, but says he’s identical with the Eternal Substance, his ground of existence.
Unfortunately, some Ranters fell into the mistakes Jones and Rolt mentioned at the end of the last chapter. They decided that because they “were God” moral or legal rules weren’t binding. A critic accuses them of believing
. . . nothing is sin, if a man himself do not count it sin and so make it sin unto himself. . . ([J03],472).
And since they were “God” religion had nothing to teach them.
They admitted that Paul had the spirit, when he wrote, but they said: “Have not I the Spirit, and why may not I write Scriptures as well as Paul, and what I write be as binding and infallible as that which Paul writ?” ([J03],474).
The Ranters held an uncommon view of scripture, diametrically opposed to the usual orthodox view. Both views are extreme. Science has a more balanced view of its writings. It doesn’t believe Einstein’s theories are divine, flawless, and absolutely true. Yet it recognizes genius and relative worth, and doesn’t equally value the theories of all physicists and would-be physicists.
The Ranters were a short-lived sect. Yet even ancient, established mystical traditions sometime fall into wild errors. For example, Sufism has produced many sincere and saintly mystics. It also produced an early extremist sect, the Malamatiya, who believed
. . . the true worship of God is best proved by the contempt in which the devotee is held by his fellow-men . . . ([A08],70).
The Malamatiya committed scandalous sins to generate condemnation so they could show their contempt of public opinion. During the 15th and 16th centuries C.E. attitudes similar to the Malamatiya’s became prevalent throughout Egypt.
To live scandalously, to act impudently, to speak unintelligibly—this was the easy highroad to fame, wealth and power. ([A08],119).
For example, one Sufi, ‘Ali Wahish,
. . . made a special point of displaying his bestialism on the common highway whenever opportunity presented itself. ([A08],120).
Today, the misuse and abuse of mystical ideas and principles continues. The last illustration we’ll consider is Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh. His followers believe he lived in an elevated mystical state we’ll discuss later, a state above the duality of liking and disliking, a state of pure is-ness.
Bhagwan does not either need or like anything! . . . He is. In is-ness there is no like or dislike. ([M15],157).
Yet, although he didn’t need or like anything, at one point Rajneesh owned 80 Rolls Royces. His method of raising funds for things he didn’t like or dislike was inventive. At a fund-raising interview a follower was given a brandy and told Rajneesh
. . . could see you were ready for a great jump, but . . . [y]our money is a barrier . . . The time has come to . . . give everything! . . . [Y]ou are going to feel so good, so clean, with all this . . . off your hands! ([M15],222).
Later, the method was refined: the brandy was laced ([M15],290) with “Ecstasy,” a euphoric drug.
Once obtained, the funds might have been better spent for food and medicine rather than Rolls Royces.
There were to be many deaths . . . from hepatitis and other diseases which could have been cured with proper medical attention. Rajneesh never gave enough money for food . . . and was not concerned when we worked too hard or slept too little. ([M15],97-8).
Nonetheless, Rajneesh was popular, partly because early in his career he had
. . . a reputation as the ‘sex guru’. This description seemed to refer both to his personal tastes and the content of many of his lectures. ([M15],55).
And he had ([M15],115-8) sexual intercourse with numerous female disciples.
Unrestricted sex was common among his followers themselves, also. To avoid pregnancy, sterilization ([M15],159) and vasectomy ([M15],160) were “recommended.”
It was only possible to avoid the operations by being adamant . . . and such refusal sometimes meant having to leave the . . . workforce. ([M15],160).
Some women were as young ([M15],321) as fourteen when they were sterilized. Years later, the doctor received ([M15],320) hundreds of letters asking if the operation was reversible.
Since unrestricted sex was so common, it’s perhaps not surprising that when money was needed
. . . many of the girls turned to prostitution. ([M15],154).
Other followers raised money by dealing illegal drugs.
Whenever a disciple was about to make a drug run, they would ask Bhagwan whether it was a good time to go . . . ([M15],155).
About 1980, Rajneesh and a few select followers fled India, eventually settling on a ranch in Oregon. His other followers found themselves abandoned. Some who had little or no money turned to parents or friends. Not surprisingly, others turned to
. . . the now traditional . . . ways of making a quick buck—drug running and prostitution. ([M15],191).
The Oregon ranch soon had thousands of followers, including over a hundred trained ([M15],288) with automatic weapons. Eleven armed watch towers ([M15],291) were built. Eventually, bugging and wiretapping equipment ([M15],288) was installed.
For followers who had thoughts of leaving the ranch mind-altering drugs ([M15],290) were prescribed. Such drugs were also mixed in the food ([M15],292-3) of thousands of homeless people who were bussed to the ranch to help win a local election. As legal troubles increased, some followers ([M15],295) plotted the murder of a local political official.
Mysticism is powerful. Historically, its ideals and ideas, its practice and theory, have shown themselves capable of deeply influencing the lives of individuals and entire civilizations. Unfortunately, what is powerful is often dangerous, too. For example, nuclear energy and biogenetic engineering are very powerful and very dangerous. Mysticism’s power demands safeguards. If it is to remain healthy and sane, a mystical culture must always guard itself against ills such as superstition, charlatanry, mystification, degeneracy, and anti-intellectualism.
One safeguard is evaluating the alleged mystics themselves. Are they interested in God or their followers’ bodies and money? Are they above liking and disliking or very much drawn to people and things? A later chapter discusses how mystics themselves might be examined. Another safeguard is testing and evaluating not the alleged mystic but rather their observations and statements.
But how can alleged mystical statements be tested? How can we judge the private visions of an individual? And how are we to distinguish the assertions of healthy mystics from deranged mystics?
It’s the function of a way of knowing to test and verify statements. As we’ve seen, a way of knowing is a way of answering questions such as: “How can I acquire knowledge? How can I be sure my knowledge is true?” Applied to mysticism these questions become: “How can I acquire knowledge of God? How can I be sure my knowledge is true? How can the mystical be differentiated from the magical, psychic, occult, and demonic? How can healthy mysticism be distinguished from unhealthy or perverted mysticism?”
But which way of knowing should we use to judge alleged mystical statements?
Traditionally, religion’s way of knowing has been used to evaluate such statements. Typically, religious systems accept as true only mystical visions and experiences that agree with their divine, complete, and final scripture. That is, mystical declarations are subjected to the test of religious orthodoxy; experiences and statements that disagree with scripture are declared wrong, and the alleged mystics are subjected to varying degrees of rejection—from disbelief to condemnation to torture to death.
Measuring statements against scripture has a few shortcomings. First, it inherits all the shortcomings of the revelational way of knowing. Second, it’s sometimes sadistic: condemning writings should be sufficient, is it also necessary to torture and murder the writer? Third, it sometimes condemns seers whose only “crime” is seeing clearly, and honestly telling what they see. That is, mystics are sometime condemned for their truthfulness, vision, and forthrightness.
For first-hand knowledge often disagrees with second-hand knowledge. Suppose some official keepers of the “Truth” know New York City only by books they’ve read. Suppose they choose a list of canonical books, “true” books, about the city. Suppose they “harmonize” any disagreements among the books with appropriate hermeneutic principles. Finally, suppose they solemnly declare the result the “One and Only Truth.” Anyone who actually travels to New York is liable to see things that don’t agree with the “Truth.” And anyone who has the forthrightness to tell what they saw may suffer at the hands of the official “Truth” keepers. Mystics have often expressed truths which did not fit into their religion’s established dogma or world view—and suffered the consequences.
Today, there’s another way of knowing, the scientific way. Physics, chemistry, sociology, psychology, anthropology, and many other fields accept it as their way of knowing. Some previously followed a way of knowing much like the way used by religion: they relied on authority to decide truth. Let’s look at some examples.
As we’ve seen, physics once accepted a way of knowing similar to the revelational way. Aristotle’s teachings were once believed because they were Aristotle’s teachings. Eventually, physics abandoned that way of knowing and adopted the scientific way. How much more advanced would we be today if physics had changed its way of knowing earlier? We can only guess, but it’s suggestive that
Aristarchus of Samos, about 270 B.C., proposed a system identical with the Copernican . . . [I]t attracted few, if any, followers, however, and there was talk of a charge of impiety being brought against him. ([T02],30).
Today, only a few fields still use the revelational way of knowing. One is astrology, which doesn’t accept the scientific way of knowing and therefore is not a science. In contrast, geometry long ago abandoned the revelational way and accepted a method of knowing that eventually evolved into science’s way. Because it did, even Euclid, perhaps the greatest geometer of all time, couldn’t merely declare something true—he had to prove it. And his geometric theorems remained open to question, criticism, revision and refinement.
For example, for over two thousand years geometry was based on the work of Euclid: geometry was Euclidian geometry. Yet, when mathematicians discovered Non-Euclidian geometries in the nineteenth century, they weren’t declared heretics or burned at the stake. No doubt some people initially questioned the usefulness of the new geometries. Eventually, however, Einstein based his theory of Relativity on one of them.
For fields such as physics that once accepted the revelational way of knowing, adopting the scientific way has proven a great step forward. In field after field the revelational way of knowing has been abandoned for a superior way of knowing, the scientific way. And in field after field, this change has led to great progress.
So, even though alleged mystical statements have traditionally been evaluated with religion’s way of knowing we can ask if science can evaluate such statements. That is, can the scientific way of knowing be used to decide religious questions and questions of ultimate value? If it can, then science may someday be able to discuss topics that presently lie outside of its domain, inside the domain of religion. It may someday be able to create a “scientific religion.”
But is it reasonable—and is it in keeping with the spirit of science—to ask science to discuss “supernatural” questions? Arthur Compton, who won the Nobel Prize in physics, was one scientist who believed it was. Compton believed the scientific method could be applied to part of the religious domain, to what he calls the “supernatural” realm of “visions and hope and faith.”
Those whose thinking is disciplined by science, like all others, need a basis for the good life . . . They need a faith to live by. . . . [V]isions and hope and faith are not a part of science. . . . They are beyond the nature that science knows. Of such is the true “supernatural” that gives meaning to life. This supernatural is as real as the natural world of science and is consistent with the most rigorous application of the scientific method. ([C15],369).
Of course, Compton’s “supernatural” realm isn’t the same as religion’s domain, because most religions include more than visions, hope and faith: they include dogmas and a God who is a Person.
The scientific way of knowing rejects blind faith and insists on understanding and proof. Therefore, a religion that wanted to employ it couldn’t teach that its truth or revelation is beyond the power of the human mind to discover, understand, criticize, test, modify, or reject. Instead, all of its beliefs would be subject to testing by the scientific way of knowing. And any belief that couldn’t be proven would have to be abandoned or, at best, accepted as a theoretical construct.
Perhaps existing religions could justify abandoning dogma as intellectual humility. After all, religion has sometimes insisted on some dogma (that the sun rotates around the earth, for example) which it later admitted was wrong. So perhaps existing dogmas could be relabeled as the official expression of religious truth according to admittedly fallible human thinkers. Dogma, then, might be downgraded from divine, unerring truth to ideas that are open to adaptation and change, able to conform to new insights and truths.
But could existing religions ever abandon their Gods who are Persons? Would they have to? Would a religion necessarily have to abandon the idea of a God who is a Person if it sought to employ the scientific way of knowing?
Gods who are Persons may be divided into two types: Gods like Jehovah and Allah who have not assumed human form, and Gods like Jesus and Krishna who have. The scientific way of knowing does not recognize superhuman god-men. Mozart, his almost supernatural musical gift notwithstanding, was still an ordinary fallible mortal. Gauss, his huge mathematical gift notwithstanding, was one, too. The ideas and theories of Mozart and Gauss are subject to disagreement, correction, and revision. Therefore, because the scientific way of knowing insists on understanding and rejects blind faith, the dogma that Jesus or Krishna was God in human form is incompatible, because the dogma is based on faith and not open to scientific testing or proof.
What about Gods like Jehovah and Allah, for whom no human incarnation is claimed? As we’ve seen, there’s natural monism and religious monism. The two types of monism have much in common. In fact, a scientific religion can be built upon the common area they share. But neither type of monism accepts a God who is a Person as the ultimate entity. Natural monism ignores such a God entirely; religious monism stipulates a Godhead, an Ultimate Ground of Existence, upon which all Gods who are Persons depend for their existence.
Therefore, a scientific religion built on monism probably wouldn’t include any actual Gods who are Persons. As we’ll see later, however, a scientific religion might emphasize an aspect of the Uncreated that is very similar to Gods who are Persons. In fact, the idea of Gods who are Persons may have originally derived from this aspect of the Real: they may be this aspect of the Uncreated, misperceived or misunderstood.
But isn’t the idea of a God who is a Person a necessary part of religion? Albert Einstein, for one, didn’t think it was. In fact, he believed the highest type of religion was free of this idea. Einstein described three types of religion: a primitive “religion of fear” ([E03],37), a more advanced “moral religion” ([E03],37), and a third type, “cosmic religious feeling” ([E03],38), which has
. . . no anthropomorphic conception of God . . . no dogma and no God conceived in man’s image . . . ([E03],38).
Einstein believed that
. . . teachers of religion must have the stature to give up the doctrine of a personal God . . . ([E03],48)
[t]he main source of the present-day conflicts between the spheres of religion and of science lies in this concept of a personal God. ([E03],47).
And he believed science could help “purify” religion of the idea of a God who is a Person, as well as give our life spiritual meaning.
. . . [S]cience not only purifies the religious impulse of the dross of its anthropomorphism but also contributes to a religious spiritualization of our understanding of life. ([E03],49).
Would a religion without dogma and a God who is a Person still be a religion? It would. In fact, a few existing religions already meet these requirements. Some Buddhist groups make no claims to revealed truths or to founding by a god-man or God who is a Person. To these sects, Buddha was a man who discovered certain important truths in a natural, human way, just as Euclid, Einstein, or Gauss made their discoveries. Some ultra-liberal Christian groups, and perhaps analogous groups in other religions, have similar beliefs. Such groups might easily apply the scientific way of knowing to the religious domain.
However, most major religions, which believe in Gods who are Persons and in revealed, unchangeable scripture, would have to change what they’ve taught for hundreds, even thousands, of years to meet the requirements of the scientific way of knowing. They probably never will.
But there’s another possibility: science itself could extend its domain by applying its way of knowing to the raw data that the mystics provide, the descriptions of their experiences. If it did, the extension would include some of what has traditionally been in the domain of religion. The extension would be a scientific religion.
What would a scientific religion be like? Like any other scientific discipline, it would have the following elements: 1) its domain of knowing, 2) its raw facts, the outcomes of experiment and observation, 3) its generalizations of fact, that is, hypotheses and laws, and 4) its explanations of fact, theories. Let’s discuss each element in turn.
Biology’s domain of knowing is living creatures. Sociology’s domain of knowing is groups of people. What would be a scientific religion’s domain?
We’ve seen that science’s domain already includes the Ultimate Ground of Existence, because the eternal Basis of the universe is already studied objectively, “from the outside,” by nuclear physics and, in a sense, by all the sciences. Now, through the acquisition of a scientific religion, science’s domain would gain the study of the Uncaused Cause “from within.” Direct experience—mystical experience—of the Eternal Root would be incorporated into science’s domain. A scientific religion would use the instrument of mystical awareness to study and explore the Eternal Ground of Existence.
But mystical experience isn’t limited to the Eternal. Some mystics describe the Root as It relates to the external universe. And others describe the Center as It relates to our deepest selves. Therefore, a scientific religion might have something to say about the external universe and our deepest selves, too. Questions such as Who are we? Why are we here? What is our place in this world? and What happens when we die? could be addressed and perhaps answered.
Moreover, mystics have recommended certain values, attitudes, and actions, and have censured others. Either explicitly or implicitly, they’ve addressed the questions What is the best way to live one’s life? What is life’s greatest good? and How can life’s greatest good be obtained? Therefore, these questions, as well as the morals and ethics that derive from them, might also fall within the scope of a scientific religion.
As we’ve seen, Gods who are Persons would not be in the domain of a scientific religion. Therefore, no claims would be made about Gods such as Jesus and Jehovah, Krishna and Allah. Statements such as Jesus is the only begotten Son of God, Jews are God’s chosen people, Muhammad is the Seal of the Prophets, etc., would remain in the domain of religion.
A scientific religion would take as its raw data the observations of those who claim mystical experience. It would be based on the statements and experiences of healthy mystics, no matter what their world view, religion, nationality, or era. By applying the scientific way of knowing to such raw data, a scientific religion would eventually distill its hypotheses, laws and theories.
Pharmacology developed in a similar way. For centuries, various cultures used a variety of folk remedies. Some remedies worked, some didn’t, but none had a scientific basis. Pharmacologists investigated the remedies, discarding the useless, extracting or synthesizing the active principle of the useful, then scientifically proving effectiveness. For example, Quinine, used to treat malaria, was extracted ([S17],9) from cinchona bark; ephedrine, helpful for asthma, was isolated ([N05],v11,825) from the mahuang herb; and reserpine, derived from the rauwolfia plant, has recently been used ([N05],v11,825) to treat high blood pressure.
A scientific religion would perform an analogous process. For centuries, various religions have believed supposed mystical insights and principles, some healthy and true, some nonsense, but none having a scientific basis. A scientific religion would examine these ideas, incorporating the true ones into its own framework of hypothesis, law, and theory. And it would reject statements it found untrue, no matter who said them. So, while it might accept some of the ideas of Jesus, Moses, Mohammed, Ramakrishna, and Buddha, it might reject others. A scientific religion would not be Christian, Jewish, Islamic, Hindu, or Buddhist but, no less than pharmacology, would constitute its own integral discipline.
Returning to the analogy, after the active ingredient is isolated, there’s no need to take the herb or plant in its natural state for the remedy to be effective. And there’s certainly no need to adopt the folk beliefs of the culture that originally discovered the herb or plant. Though it’s been taken out of context twice—from the plant in which it occurs, and from the folk culture that discovered it—the active ingredient works.
Similarly, a scientific religion would use mystical insights and ideas removed from their original context, the religion or culture that discovered them. But rather than forming an incompatible mishmash the insights and ideas would fit like pieces of a puzzle, because they’re different aspects of a single Truth.
But don’t mystics of different religions disagree? The Christian mystic talks to Jesus while the Hindu mystic has a vision of Rama or Kali, who is a woman. The Islamic mystic knows nothing of Buddha, the Buddhist mystic knows nothing of Allah. Mystics of different religions generally experience different Gods who are Persons. Such contradictory experiences are what we’d expect of dreams, not perceptions of an objective reality. How can they fit together like pieces of a puzzle?
They can’t—yet another reason why a scientific religion would have little to say about Gods who are Persons, why it would leave such Gods in the domain of religion. Nonetheless, such Gods, though not ultimately real, may be as real as you or I. A later chapter returns to this issue.
Experiences of Gods who are Persons often contradict each other, but experiences of the God which is not a Person generally agree. This explains why
. . . many works on mysticism tend to either of two . . . positions . . . One school supposes that mystics are basically all alike, all representatives of the philosophia perennis which transcends religions and cultures; the other that all non-christian mystics are not mystics at all. ([R03],213).
The second school bases its judgement on the experience of mystics who identify God with some particular God who is a Person, Jesus Christ for example. To such mystics, the experience of Kali or Allah isn’t experience of (their) God. Therefore people who experience such Gods aren’t (in their view) mystics at all. This is one reason why religion has often denied the validity of other religions. Indeed, it was not too long ago Christianity considered all non-Christian groups, be they Hindu, Buddhist, Islamic, Jewish, or other, to be “of the devil.” Other religions have shown similar prejudices. (Fortunately, however, ecumenicalism has recently fostered a mutual recognition of different religion’s merits, so that some religions grant the validity of other religions.)
In contrast to the second school, the first bases its judgement on the experience of mystics who experience the Ultimate Ground of Existence, an Entity that is objective and universally the same. Therefore, it finds—rightly—that the experiences are “basically all alike,” that they transcend religion and culture, and are all expressions of a common experience, described by the philosophia perennis, the “perennial philosophy.”
What is the perennial philosophy? The phrase was coined by Leibniz ([H11],vii) but popularized by Aldous Huxley, who recognized common elements in the mystical writings of various eras, places, cultures, and religions, in
. . . Vedanta and Hebrew prophecy, in the Tao The King and the Platonic dialogues, in the Gospel according to St. John and Mahayana theology, in Plotinus and the Areopagite, among the Persian Sufis and the Christian mystics of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance . . . ([S18],11-12).
Huxley collected these common elements in a book which he called The Perennial Philosophy. About 1955, Schrodinger wrote:
Ten years ago Aldous Huxley published a precious volume which he called The Perennial Philosophy and which is an anthology from the mystics of the most various periods and the most various peoples. Open it where you will and you find many beautiful utterances of a similar kind. You are struck by the miraculous agreement between humans of different race, different religion, knowing nothing about each other’s existence, separated by centuries and millennia, and by the greatest distances that there are on the globe. ([S07],139)
Huxley’s The Perennial Philosophy [H11] is one attempt to capture in writing this world view, based on the insights of the mystics. A Treasury of Traditional Wisdom ([P12]) is another. It’s an extensive compilation of quotations from the world’s religious and philosophical traditions, grouped by topic, that records many of the mystical utterances upon which the perennial philosophy is based. These and other compilations could provide much of the raw data necessary for a scientific religion. The mystical statements they contain exhibit such a degree of agreement and consistency—exactly what we’d expect if mystical experiences are experiences of an objective, universal reality—that science could take them as its raw data and fuse them into a single system, a scientific religion.
Yet, isn’t science based on observations that are open to the average person? Anyone can witness an eclipse or the outcome of a chemical experiment. But how can they see what the mystic sees?
They probably can’t. Yet, this does not make the observations any less scientific.
After all, many scientific observations are not open to the average person but are only accessible to someone who has the proper equipment. As Huxley ([H11],x-xi) observes, astronomy isn’t based on the observations of uneducated, naked-eye observers. A person can prove to themselves a certain galaxy exists by looking through a telescope, but without the telescope the galaxy is unobservable. Astronomy’s objective, testable, and replicable—to the person with proper equipment.
Moreover, some scientific specialties demand above average intelligence, that is, part of the “equipment” they require is an above average intellect. Such sciences, therefore, aren’t testable by the average person. Certainly, many a person with even an above average intellect could attend course after course and still remain unable to understand, and therefore verify, some of science’s more esoteric areas—quantum mechanics or algebraic topology, for example.
Indeed, some scientific journals regularly publish papers which are understood by, perhaps, less than fifty living specialists. Yet, the fields aren’t considered less than scientific, even though the papers remain unverified and unverifiable to most people. And the handful of specialists aren’t considered less than scientists. For their work is verifiable—to anyone with the necessary talent, time, motivation, intelligence, and education.
Mystical experience is also open to those with the proper aptitude who are willing to do the necessary preparation. Not that after a fixed number of prayers, fasts, or meditations, a direct experience of the Eternal is guaranteed, of course. The Unconditioned certainly isn’t subject to human compulsion. But if the past is any indication, the Source does appear to those who truly want to experience, and prepare for it.
Moreover, even if the Eternal Substance could not be seen by any and all who wished, this would not necessarily invalidate its objective reality. To those who are blind, the existence of certain galaxies will forever remain an article of faith. Yet, the galaxies exist.
Even if the mystics observe an objective Reality, science can’t blindly accept their declarations. It needs a way to test them. Religion uses fixed and unalterable scripture to test supposed mystical declarations. How can science test mystical observations for itself? Science tests its data by replication—others repeat the experiment, trying to obtain the same result. Will science’s method work with mystical observations, even if it’s granted they are observations of an objective Reality? After all, even if mystics have more or less the same vision, and experience more or less the same Entity, they view that Entity “from within.” Are such experiences replicable?
Partially. In an exact science like mechanics, the behavior of a falling metal ball can be replicated at will. The ball falls the same way each time. If mystical experiences were as replicable they could be repeated, exactly, by any other mystic. They aren’t. Any particular mystical experience may fail to match, even remotely, any other. How, then, is mystical experience replicable?
It’s replicable in a statistical sense. Even some branches of physics, thermodynamics and quantum mechanics, for example, have phenomena that defy exact replication. In such cases, exact laws don’t hold, but statistical laws do. For example, quantum mechanics can’t predict when a particular uranium atom will fissure into two barium atoms. It only knows the atom’s average behavior. Similarly, actuarial science can’t predict exactly how much longer a particular 30 year old man will live, but it can predict how much longer the average 30 year old man will live. Quantum mechanics and actuarial science can only describe statistical behavior. Yet both are sciences.
In the same way, it would be quite sufficient if many or most mystics have similar experiences. As we’ve seen (and shall see again), many do. Their differences don’t necessarily disprove the reality of their experiences. Indeed, would we expect someone visiting New York City to have precisely the same experience as someone else? Or have the same things to say about it, or describe it in the same way?
The type of mystical observation that’s objective, testable and statistically replicable, could serve as raw data for a scientific religion. Though religions disagree with each other, a scientific religion could begin with mystical observations, by mystics of any or no religion, and proceed from there—just as, if each folk culture declared all other remedies useless, pharmacology would test and verify each remedy for itself, and accept those it found effective.
What would the hypotheses of a scientific religion be like? Some might be similar or identical to the raw data, because what is a fact to a mystic is a hypothesis to the rest of us. For example, that the Eternal Light underlies all that exists is an observation, a datum, to the mystic who can “see” It. To the rest of us, it’s an hypothesis, or a law if we’ve somehow proved it to ourselves, using modern physics perhaps. Another hypothesis is that it’s possible to have direct experience of the Eternal Substance. Another, that the most intimate form of such experience transcends the triad of knower, knowing, and known, uniting the knower with the known; while in less intimate forms, the experiencer sees the Eternal as something different from themselves. Yet another hypothesis is that a person can so intimately unite with the Eternal that their individuality is lost.
Such hypotheses may be true or false, but they are derived directly from the statements of recognized mystics.
What would the laws of a scientific religion be like? Some scientific laws express a static relation, like Einstein’s E=mc2, which expresses an unchanging equivalence of energy and matter. The law that all things are a manifestation of an eternal substance expresses a similar static relationship. Other scientific laws express a cause and effect relationship, such as Newton’s law that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. Buddha expressed a law of this type in his famous claim that desire leads to suffering.
Coming chapters contain many other hypotheses and laws: among them that 1) pleasure and pain are co-dependent and inseparable, but perception of the Eternal is beyond them both; 2) that such perception offers escape from pain and pleasure; 3) that dying to self is immortality; 4) that we are not our body, emotions or thoughts—rather, we perceive them; 5) that the Ultimate Ground of Existence is our true and enduring self; 6) that we have no true and enduring self; 7) that perception of the God which is not a Person is truer and purer than perception of any God who is a Person; 8) that relating to the Absolute as if It has a personality makes sense and, furthermore, may be how the idea of Gods who are Persons originated; 9) that component entities, entities with relative existence, and actions, all lack an absolute identity; 10) that decay is inherent in all component objects; 11) that a person may make mystical experience a goal; lastly 12) that meditation and contemplation aid the mystical quest.
Once we’ve established facts and laws, we can attempt to explain them; that is, we can construct theories. How are pleasure and pain co-dependent? Why does desire lead to suffering? The next chapter uses the theoretical construct of yang and yin to explore those questions. In what sense is perception of the God which is not a Person truer and purer than perception of any God who is a Person? We return to that question in the ninth chapter. Why is decay inherent in all component objects? The tenth chapter examines that question on an abstract, theoretical level. How do meditation and contemplation aid direct perception of the Real? Part III discusses that question.
Of course, a scientific religion’s hypotheses, laws, and theories would always remain subject to improvement and revision. A scientific religion would have its beliefs, but it would have no dogma.
Coming chapters explore some of the hypotheses and laws we’ve discussed. In doing so, they demonstrate what a scientific religion might be like. This brings up two questions: 1) is what those chapters present actually a scientific religion? and 2) if so, is it the only such religion possible?
The answer to both questions is no.
The answer to the first question is “No” because the material of Part II and III isn’t fully scientific. Why? Because it’s the view of just one person, the author. Science is a group enterprise. Fact, hypothesis, law and theory must be tested, replicated and judged by other scientists, to be fully scientific. Though coming chapters try as far as possible to construct a scientific religion, the most they can do is serve as a starting point, a seed, a beginning. If other people accept, extend, prune and nurture that beginning, however, it may someday evolve into a scientific religion.
Or, perhaps, multiple scientific religions. This brings us to the second question, whose answer is also “No”.
It’s probable that two or more scientific religions could exist, at least initially. That is, two scientific religions might share the same domain, the same raw data, but nonetheless derive different “mental models”—different laws and theories. In the classic The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Thomas Kuhn describes this situation in other sciences, past and present.
For example, Kuhn writes that in the early study of electricity,
. . . a number of theories, all derived from relatively accessible phenomena, were in competition. ([K09],51).
One school of scientists tried to understand electricity ([K09],51) as a kind of fluid. Their efforts to bottle it led to the discovery of the Leyden jar. In their struggle to understand electricity, scientists developed other mental models. Eventually, Benjamin Franklin introduced a single body of law and theory—a single mental model—that explained known electrical phenomena so satisfactorily, other researchers accepted it as true. Where there had been different competing theories of electricity, now there was one.
Scientists studying electricity were fortunate to reach agreement after a relatively short time. Sometimes it takes much longer: for example, witness the long road from alchemy to chemistry. Indeed, even today consensus eludes some sciences. Kuhn notes that “it remains an open question what parts of social science” ([K09],12) have achieved the unity of a single body of theory and laws. Moreover, Kuhn offers no guarantee that the social sciences will ever accept a single theoretical framework, a unified body of hypothesis, law and theory. He observes:
Philosophers of science have repeatedly demonstrated that more than one theoretical construction can always be placed upon a given collection of data. ([K09],63).
What does the future hold for scientific religion? If we suppose a future similar to other sciences’ past, then a few obvious possibilities come to mind. First, perhaps a single, unified scientific religion will develop relatively quickly. Second, perhaps a unified scientific religion will develop only after a long time, after several competing religions find a body of law and theory they can all accept. Third, perhaps competing scientific religions will exist indefinitely, each with different laws and theories about mutually accepted data. Of course, another possibility is that no fully scientific religion will ever exist, for one reason or another.
Of these possibilities, the third is the most interesting. The first and fourth are simple and conclusive—either it happens or it doesn’t. The second is a bit more complex, but just as conclusive—after, perhaps, a very lengthy time a single scientific religion emerges.
The third possibility, however, which parallels the present-day situation of the social sciences, is indeterminate. With this scenario, applying the scientific way of knowing to the religious domain doesn’t yield one, single world view, one mental model. Rather a family of different world views are derived. Differing hypotheses and theories are constructed depending on which mystic’s declarations are accepted, which declarations are rejected, and how accepted declarations are interpreted.
The third possibility has both positive and negative consequences. On the negative side, the existence of more than one scientific religion again seems to imply no objective Reality exists, that the mystics “observations” are, in fact, dreams or personal delusions. Yet, many people, I suppose, agree that human nature exists, that all human beings, by the very fact of being human, share certain traits. But the social sciences have yet to discover a single mental model, a single theory, that explains all these traits. Why? Because a single human nature doesn’t really exist? Or because human nature is very complex?
Perhaps, a single, comprehensive theory of human nature is possible, but centuries away. After all, it took centuries for alchemy to turn into chemistry, and for chemistry to understand the nature of chemical interactions. Kuhn points out:
History suggests that the road to a firm research consensus is extraordinarily arduous. ([K09],12).
But not hopeless, because
[i]n the free community of scientific discourse, untrammeled by doctrinal bounds, convergence of opinion yet takes place. ([S03],10-11).
Moreover, if multiple scientific religions fail to reach agreement in the short term, the consequences need not be entirely negative. A positive consequence of multiple mental models follows from a surprising fact: our mental model can affect our perceptions. We’ll discuss two illustrations.
In medieval Europe, the stars were thought fixed and unchangeable; this theoretical model seems to have influenced perception!
Can it conceivably be an accident . . . that Western astronomers first saw change in the previously immutable heavens during the half-century after Copernicus’ new paradigm was first proposed? The Chinese, whose cosmological beliefs did not preclude celestial change, had recorded the appearance of many new stars in the heavens at a much earlier date. ([K09],95).
Another, and more dramatic, example of how mental models can effect perception—and more—occurs in religion. Western Christianity emphasizes the suffering Christ; Eastern Christianity, the risen, transformed Christ and the Uncreated Light. Vladimir Lossky, who claims “spirituality and dogma, mysticism and theology, are inseparably linked” ([L08],14), makes the following observation.
No saint of the Eastern Church has ever borne the stigmata, those outward marks which have made certain great Western saints and mystics as it were living patterns of the suffering Christ. But, by contrast, Eastern saints have very frequently been transfigured by the inward light of uncreated grace, and have appeared resplendent, like Christ on the mount of Transfiguration. ([L08],243).
Multiple models, it seems, foster a wider range of observation and even experience. Although these many insights probably make the victory of one, single model much more difficult, any theoretical model that does unite such a diverse body of observations will probably be much closer to the truth than if it had a lesser number of insights to explain. The final result might well be a more comprehensive picture of truth.
To conclude, science, which investigates so many other objective, statistically replicable phenomena, could investigate mystical experience, too. It could develop a religious world view by subjecting the declarations of the mystics to the test of the scientific way of knowing. Such a scientific religion would be descriptive and explanatory. It would describe and explain the visions and statements of the healthy mystics, past and present. It would develop theories to explain their experiences. (One such theory, a world view derived from mystical visions, is presented in subsequent chapters.)
A scientific religion would be descriptive and explanatory. Could it be experimental, too? For non-mystics, as for those who study continental drift or supernova, there would be no possibility of direct experimentation. But for those who decide to undertake the mystic quest, a scientific religion would also be an experimental science. The effect of practices and beliefs on experience would constitute experiments.
Could a scientific religion ever, in any sense, be predictive or exact? We’ll return to this question much later.
Now that we’ve now completed the first and most fundamental part of this book, let’s review our basic premises. They are:
- the scientific way of knowing is superior to the revelational way:
- the God which is not a Person is the basis of all that exists;
- both science and religion seek to know the God which is not a Person; both scientist and mystic seek to know the single unity behind seeming diversity, the difference being the scientist seeks to know mentally while the mystic seeks to know by experience;
- some mystics have had direct, first-hand knowledge of the God which is not a Person;
- the experience and statements of such mystics exhibit a significant degree of agreement, and may be considered varying expressions of a single, underlying world view, called the “perennial philosophy;”
- the perennial philosophy could supply the initial laws and theories for a scientific religion;
- a scientific religion would use the scientific way of knowing to evaluate the declarations of past and present mystics;
- a scientific religion would not necessarily be unique, more than one scientific religion might be possible;
- the laws and theories of scientific religions would always remain subject to revision and improvement; a scientific religion would have no dogma, no truths above human understanding.
Testing the declarations of the mystics with the scientific way of knowing would yield comprehensive, integrated world views. Extending science’s domain to include part of what is now the domain of religion would yield truths satisfying the demands of both science and religion. The resultant scientific-mystical discipline would truly be both science and religion, a scientific religion that satisfies the opening quotation of this book. Moreover, the incorporation of a scientific religion into science would transform our present-day agnostic science into a science which includes religion. We would no longer have separate scientific and religious world views, but integrated world views, fully scientific and fully religious. Science would offer an explanation of not only the behavior of electric current in a circuit, but of our place in the universe as well.
We’ve completed the most basic material, but an important question remains: what would a scientific religion look like? The remaining chapters attempt to give one answer to this question. Based on the declarations of acknowledged mystics, a particular world view is presented. A necessarily personal view of one possible scientific religion is described.
To someone who is not a mystic much of the previous material is speculative. The Ultimate Ground of Existence and Gods who are Persons aren’t actual, vivid experiences, but beliefs, ideas, theoretical constructs. What we actually experience may be divided into two separate realms, an exterior world of people and things, and an interior world of thoughts, feelings, and bodily sensations.
We look out upon these two worlds but do not see down to their deepest level. The Ultimate Ground of Existence—if It truly is ultimate—must underlie the universe of people and objects, as well as the deepest level of our psyche. The mystics have had much to say about the relationship of the self-existent, eternal Basis to our two worlds.
Therefore, the following chapter describes the relationship mystics see between the Eternal Substance and the outer world, the universe. The subsequent chapter describes the relationship they see between the Real and our inner world, ourselves. Then, the relationship between the Unformed and Gods who are Persons is explored. Lastly, some ideas which apply to all three—the universe, ourselves, and Gods who are Persons—are examined.
Also, up to now we’ve been content mostly with description. Now, in addition to describing mystical observations and experiences, we’ll construct a theoretical framework within which these observations and experiences are understood.
We’ll close Part I with a short allegory. About three hundred years ago, when alchemists were still vainly trying to turn lead into gold, Sir Isaac Newton discovered some fundamental equations that accurately describe the physical world. In our tale, let’s give Newton’s discoveries to people who regard them religiously. We’ll call these people “religious Newtonians.” The religious Newtonians are religious because they follow the revelational method of knowing truth. They’re Newtonians because they accept Newton’s theories.
And let’s give Alchemy to people who regard it scientifically. We’ll call these people “scientific Alchemists.” The scientific Alchemists are scientific because they follow the scientific way of knowing truth; they are Alchemists because they accept the theories of Alchemy.
So “religious” or “scientific” indicates the way of knowing, the way of finding new knowledge. And “Newtonian” or “Alchemist” indicates the theories currently accepted as true. Our tale will illustrate that the method used to find and test beliefs may be more important than the initial beliefs themselves.
Our tale opens in the seventeenth century. The religious Newtonians believe in calculus and the basic laws of Newtonian physics. They worship Newton as a god and venerate his writings as divinely inspired and perfectly true. Following the ideas and theories in his writings, in “holy scriptures,” the religious Newtonians are beginning to understand the natural world. New discoveries in mathematics, mechanics, astronomy, and navigation are being made almost daily.
The beliefs of the religious Newtonians are substantially correct and many centuries of progress await them.
Our other group, the scientific Alchemists, follow not Newton but Aristotle, particularly his theory of the four basic elements: earth, water, fire, and air. According to Aristotle’s ideas, it’s possible to turn lead into gold. And that’s what the scientific Alchemists are trying to do. Into their crucibles, flasks, mortars, and pots, they put eggs, toads, snakes, herbs, urine, entrails, lead, mercury, sulfur, and saltpeter. They grind, mix, filter, hammer, and heat them. They describe their experiments with bizarre symbols such as toads, dragons, birds, stars, crowns, keys, and planets.
The beliefs of the scientific Alchemists are wrong and their quest is doomed to failure.
Notice that we’ve given the religious Newtonians a lot of correct physical knowledge. We’ve given them an kind of head start in the race toward more and more truth about the physical world. But we’ve given them a poor way of knowing, a way that binds them to a “divine and unchanging” truth.
In contrast, we’ve given the scientific Alchemists a serious handicap in the form of erroneous physical theories. But we’ve given them a better way of knowing, a way that allows revision and progress. Which will prove more important in the long run, the knowledge currently accepted as true, or the method of testing current knowledge and discovering more knowledge? Let’s return to our tale.
As time passes, the scientific Alchemists slowly and independently discover some laws of nature that the religious Newtonians believe to be divine and unchangeable truth.
“You’ve found,” say the religious Newtonians, “but a tiny portion of our divine Dogma. Surely, your mortal, imperfect minds will never uncover all of our complete and perfect truth. God gave us our revelation. It’s far beyond what we fallible humans can find, alone and unaided. Why then do you not give up your slow, painful search for truth and embrace our Truth?”
“Never,” reply the scientific Alchemists. “Truth is to be earned, to be understood. You are satisfied to follow blindly, without understanding. We are not. Even though some of our truths now match your faith, one day we may find other truths of which you are ignorant.
As the decades pass, the scientific Alchemists independently uncover, test, and accept more and more of the truths held by the religious Newtonians.
“For many decades now,” say the religious Newtonians, “our sacred scriptures have held the full and complete truth. Ignoring these writings, you have been winning, bit by bit, through much labor and suffering, what was already fully given to the fathers of the fathers of our fathers. Our way to truth, the way of divine revelation, the way of our fathers, is ancient and sure. Why then do you not cease your needless searching and accept out divine revelation?”
“Never,” reply the scientific Alchemists. “No book can hold the full and perfect truth. Our way of knowing is a never-ending process of observation, hypothesis, theory, and experiment. Even as knowledge is limitless, the search for knowledge must be unending. This is our way of knowing. One day our knowledge shall surpass yours.”
By the end of the nineteenth century, the scientific Alchemists have independently found and verified all the beliefs of the religious Newtonians.
“For centuries now,” say the religious Newtonians, “you have groped in the dark while we, following the divine knowledge given in our holy scriptures by our god, have lived in the light. Now, after much error and effort, you have finally reached the Truth. Will you not now admit the inspired nature of our religion and join us in our worship?”
“Never,” respond the scientific Alchemists. “Your way of blind acceptance is not our way. We are pledged to follow the truth; you to follow your holy books and god. We are free to go wherever the truth leads; you are bound to a fixed, limited knowledge now hundreds of years old. One day we shall go beyond your knowledge.”
So for centuries, the religious Newtonians have gone nowhere, they’ve stayed bound to their “holy and eternal” truth. But the scientific Alchemists have outgrown their initial “knowledge” and have acquired—earned—a truer, more accurate knowledge. One way of knowing has led nowhere, the other has discovered more and more knowledge.
In the early twentieth century, a thinker named Einstein claims the theories now accepted by both religious Newtonians and scientific Alchemists are not actually true, but only a near approximation of the truth. He proposes radically different theories, superior only in that they explain the orbit of the planet Mercury a bit better. The new theories demand, however, a drastic, new view of space and time.
“Blasphemy!” shout the religious Newtonians. “Heretical, perverse, mind-twisting ideas of an iconoclastic rebel. Surely our Holy Faith, the faith of our fathers, will prevail against such diseased drivel!”
“It seems to be the truth!” reply the scientific Alchemists. “We shall test it and, if true, we shall accept it. We are long accustomed to molding ourselves to the truth, not molding the truth to ourselves.”
Twenty years later, the two camps welcome the theory of Quantum Mechanics in much the same manner. The religious Newtonians reject Quantum Mechanics as heretical nonsense; the scientific Alchemists test and then accept it. Using the Theory of Relativity and, more significantly, Quantum Mechanics, the scientific Alchemists begin to surpass the religious Newtonians in their understanding and control of the physical world. Using Quantum Mechanics they discover atomic energy, semiconductors, lasers, and computers. The religious Newtonians, bound as they are to a way of knowing that limits what they can know, refuse to accept or use the new discoveries. The world beyond their holy scriptures, the world of computers, lasers, nuclear energy, and space-time, is a world which they, as believers, can never enter.
Our tale attempts to dramatize that a way of knowing can be more important than initial beliefs. The scientific Alchemists were given a lot of erroneous beliefs based on Alchemy. But they were given the scientific way of knowing. Since their method of acquiring and testing knowledge was sound, they eventually corrected their initial misconceptions. The religious Newtonians, on the other hand, were given a lot of accurate physical knowledge based on Newtonian physics. But they were given a religious way of knowing. Since their method of acquiring and testing knowledge was faulty, eventually their beliefs became outmoded, a hindrance to finding more truth.
So even if scripture is eternal and inerrant truth (and this is debatable), the religious way of knowing hinders the search for more truth. And even if science’s ideas are all wrong (this, too, is debatable), its way of knowing leads to more and more truth.
Our tale compared the scientific way of knowing, the way of knowing accepted by science, with the revelational way of knowing, the way of knowing often accepted by religion. It showed the scientific way of knowing the superior method—at least, for understanding the natural world. Is it a better way for understanding the “supernatural world” too?