I am prompted to write by a brilliant commentary on the dark of the soul and the new atheists
by the Maverick Philosopher.
(Hat tip to Frank Wilson
for the link.)
The Maverick Philosopher's short article takes on professional gadfly and contrarian, Christopher HItchens, one of the loudest voices of the so-called New Atheism:Hitchens, like the other members of the 'Dawkins Gang' as I like to call them, does not have a religious bone in his body. He simply does not understand religion, and has no sympathy for it, so much so that he must dismiss it as nonsense.
Lack of religious sensibility is like lack of aesthetic sensibility. There are people who lack entirely any feel for poetry and music. They lack the 'spiritual organ' to appreciate them, and so their comments on them are of little interest except as indicative of the critics' own limitations. Others are bereft of philosophical sensibility. I have met mathematicians and scientists who have zero philosophical aptitude and sense and for whom philosophy cannot be anything other than empty verbiage. These people do not lack intelligence, they lack a certain 'spiritual organ,' a certain depth of personality. And of course there are those with no inkling of the austere beauty of mathematics and logic and (let's not leave out) chess. To speak of their beauty to such people would be a waste of time. They lack the requisite appreciative organs.
Hitchens is also, right now, dealing with esophageal cancer, a life-threatening illness with a low survival rate, despite chemotherapy, radiation treatment, etc. I've known other people dealing with esophageal cancer, and it very much depends on when they catch it, and if they are able to remove all the affected tissue.
No one expects Hitchens to have a religious conversion due to his illness, and no one expects him to be anything but continuously contrarian. I for one would never require any person to have a religious conversion, nor would I require them to change themselves in any way contrary to their nature. Nonetheless, serious illness promotes change. We have two usual responses to serious, life-threatening illness: one is to resist mightily and fight hard to retain our identity; the other is to give in to the process, float along with the changes, and emerge as a pilgrim on the other side, one who has undertaken the journey and emerged changed. As a natural part-time Taoist I tend to go with the flow, but there are times when I also fight hard to retain some sense of the self that I used to be.
However, just this morning an artist friend of mine sent me a quote relevant to her upcoming New York gallery show, on the topic of pilgrimage:Only the walker who sets out toward ultimate things is a pilgrim. In this lies the difference between tourist and pilgrim. The tourist travels just as far, sometimes with great zeal and courage, gathering up acquisitions and returns the same person as the one who departed. The pilgrim resolves that the one who returns will not be the same person as the one who set out. The pilgrim must be prepared to shed the husk of personality or even the body like a worn out coat. For the pilgrim the road is home; reaching the destination seems nearly inconsequential.
—Andrew Schelling, poet and scholar, from the anthology Meeting the Buddha,
edited by Molly Emma Aitken
It's hard not to view my last few years as a pilgrimage. This chromic illness that I have waded into full-body has elements of pilgrimage. I resist the New Age cliché that all experiences are teaching experiences, because that is too glib, as usual; nonetheless there have been lessons learned from my illness that are life-lessons, that have utterly changed the way I perceive the world, and my relationships. Many insubstantial relationships have fallen by the wayside, leaving me often alone, and just as often embraced within the circle of my closest friends. You know, those real friends who are there for you no matter what, and you return the favor.
I set out on each longer roadtrip, those trips of a month or more, with the hope of pilgrimage: the hope of returning changed. So far, so good. My last roadtrip out to the winter mountains and the stormy winter Pacific Ocean did accomplish this ambition, at least in part. You cannot expect your life to utterly change, when you go away and return: you also have to integrate the new experiences, somehow, into your returned, existing life. Re-entry to that normative life within the normative social order can be relatively painful, the more you have changed during a journey, the intense the pilgrimage has been, and sometimes the urge to just stay on the road and never go home seems unbearable. And when on a longer roadtrip I do function as a pilgrim, as Schelling says, when reaching the destination seems nearly inconsequential.
I never feel freer than when I drive only so far in a day, and stop early, make camp in a state or national park, wander about seeing the sites, then make a meal slow-cooked over woodfire or the Coleman stove under the stars. I do some of my best thinking during those long drives. I sometimes settle life-long issues in heart and mind. More often, I find my own inner philosopher, the part of me who is able to articulate, often in poetry or essay, what most matters to my life. And I make dozens or hundreds of photos; the process of sorting might not begin till months after I return, but the process of making fresh images of favorite scenes, under the changing light, is itself a reward, itself a kind of pilgrimage.
And so I return to the Maverick Philosopher's point about sensibilities, aesthetic, philosophical, and religious: It is obvious that an aesthetic sensibility is in play when I'm out on the road, making photographs. I have had friends and other photographers question me, while watching me at work, about my working methods. My method is to look a long time before raising the camera to my eye and making a single image. I watch the light change till it's just perfect. A lot of my best photographs were made by being in the right place at the right time—often when no one else was around. Several good photographers looking at the same scene will often make very different images, since each sees through his or her own eye and experience and desire. This has been made obvious every time I've taught a photography class, and I do encourage it when teaching: the group scatters on location, and almost no one duplicates an image by another.
Nonetheless, I am often questioned as to why I don't make more images than I do, on location, and why I often contemplate a scene in nature for a long time before making an image. The answer I give in the moment is usually that I'm waiting for the right moment, waiting for the light. And while that's true, it's also true that I am waiting for my heart and soul to quiet and become still, as reflective as a still mountain pool reflecting the moon. I am waiting for my inner stillness to reflect the scene before me. At that point, I'm ready to get to work, because making a photograph for me is not about "artistic self-expression," it's about reflecting and responding to what is already there. This process has little place for egotism. I am often waiting, when I wait, for my ego to dissolve into some larger vessel, so that it doesn't get in the way of making the photograph. It's not that the "I" completely goes away—one still has to retain enough "I" to manage one's camera, and to be aware of where the trail approaches the cliff—it's that the "I" doesn't dominate the aesthetic experience, the artistic process.
With regard to the religious sensibility, which I must point out overlaps significantly with the aesthetic sensibility, at least for many artists and musicians of my acquaintance, as well as for myself, the Maverick Philosopher continues with the meat of his commentary:Hitchens, who remains a man of the Left in his total lack of understanding of religion, doesn't seem to appreciate that [Mother] Teresa was a mystic and that her dark night of the soul was not a crisis of faith, where faith is construed as intellectual assent to certain dogmas, but an experiencing of the divine withdrawal, an experiencing of God as deus absconditus. A believing non-mystic might lose his faith after applying his reason to his religion's dogmatic content and then finding it impossible rationally to accept. Although I haven't read Teresa's letters, I suspect that this is not what happened in her case. After the fullness of her mystical experience, she experienced desolation when the mystical experiences subsided. So, contra Hitchens, it was not a realization of the "crushing unreasonableness" of Roman Catholic dogma that triggered Teresa's dark night, but her experience of the divine absence, an absence that is an expression of the divine transcendence.
I suggest that an atheist like Hitchens, for whom theism is simply not a live existential option, cannot understand the spititual life of a person like Mother Teresa. He can understand it only by caricaturing it.
The reason this makes so much sense to me is that the Maverick Philosopher has put his finger on the experience of the dark night, and why it's not a merely intellectual or moral choice. It often strikes me that the New Atheists have no sense of life whatsoever beyond the intellectual. Do they ever actually stop to appreciate a sunset? Perhaps, but they never write about it (except to negatively claim that their enjoyment of a sunset didn't require God's presence), so there's no evidence of it.
Let me be clear: I have no use for most of organized religion. I am a person who has had numerous mystical experiences, including the dark night of the senses and the dark night of the soul. I have no more use for the organized Christian church than do the New Atheists. Where we differ is that I do have a religious sensibility, and have had mystical experiences. We also differ in that I don't attempt to explain away my experiences as mere brain chemistry, or with merely intellectual rhetoric. The Maverick Philosopher is quite correct that the New Atheists seem unable to even comprehend mysticism, even accept it as an existential possibility, and so they must do their best to denigrate it.
In the year 1990, for several years, I was lost in what St. John of the Cross termed the dark night of the senses.
The religious sensibility was taken away from me. Everything I had ever believed, every idea or belief I had had about my personal spirituality and connection to the Divine, was removed from my sight. Everything was hollow, meaningless, pointless. I was terrified of the emptiness. I had had my first real vision of the Void, and I could hear its emptiness continuously, in every waking and sleeping moment, for about four years. I couldn't find belief, much less faith, anywhere. Everything crumbled as soon as I touched it. Every tenet became provisional. Nothing had any substance, any reasonable verity. it was all hollow and blank. You could try on a belief system, but it was exactly like trying on a coat: something you could shrug off again all too easily. During those years, I did indeed throw a lot of paint at the wall of spiritual practice and belief—but nothing stuck.
I continued to have what some would call visions, what others would call waking dreams, but which are so normal to me that just call them "Oh, you again." It was during this period that I realized the full truth of what Rilke wrote about in his Duino Elegies:
that Every angel is terrifying.
So one could say the messengers, the intermediaries, the animal spirits, the angels, were still tapping me on the shoulder. But nothing they had to say meant anything. At least not then.
And then it was over. About four years after my first vision of the Void, I had a second, even more powerful Vision of the void, which was curative and healing. It was the moment of Letting Go. Even though meaning did not suddenly flood back into the world, even though tenets and dogmas have remained always provisional, suddenly I was at peace. It didn't matter anymore what I or anyone else believed. It didn't even matter if
they believed in anything. I had re-found, or more accurately I had been re-gifted, my own center. My tenets to this day do not require anyone to share them, nor even for anyone to believe in them, or in anything I have to say on the topic.
The great science fiction writer and philosopher Erik Frank Russell once defined our fundamental basic right as: "Every man has the basic right to go to hell in his own way." My approach to that tenet, which I largely agree with, is to have become ever less willing to intervene in anyone else's progress or process. Non-intervention. The Prime Directive. Individual destiny. Whatever you want to label it.
At the same time, my capacity for empathizing with the suffering of others, my capacity for compassion, was deepened by the visions of the Void, by my experience of the dark night of the senses. I am politically as well as naturally Taoist, yet the Vow of the Bodhisattva means a great deal to me: I vow to put off my own escape into nirvana until I have been able to assist in the enlightenment of all other sentient beings.
In practical terms, this means you have to stand by while others fail, but bear witness to their lives, and be there to offer help if they ask for it. Some will never ask for help.
Have you ever noticed how so many of the New Atheists commit the sin of pride, if only by their extreme lack of humility in their opinion that they're right and everyone else is wrong? The New Atheists are as convinced of the rightness of their beliefs as are many religious fundamentalists; indeed the psychological parallels are noteworthy. (cf. Eric Hoffer's The True Believer
for more on the psychology of political and philosophical fundamentalism) A genuine commitment to the truth cannot be hampered by ideological prejudice. You have to be open-minded enough to admit that you might be wrong. That's something I can't imagine Christopher Hitchens ever admitting, not even on his probable deathbed. His utter certainty about the verity of his own opinions leaves no tenet unprovisional. It is this very smug self-certainty that undermines everything the New Atheists have to say that I might otherwise agree with; after all, their critique of organized religion has some very valid points, some very harsh but true criticisms of the evils that organized religion has perpetrated on humanity. But in their utter certainty that religious belief itself
is the cause of all this evil, and their total lack of religious sensibility, the New Atheists succeed in undermining themselves, and in the end convincing no one. (Except each other—which is one psychological characteristic equally shared by high school cliques and ideological cults.)
By contrast, even now, every tenet I hold remains provisional. This is the truth of mysticism: that unknowing is as important and valuable as knowing. After experiencing the dark night, I can never have total certainty again about any idea or belief. There remain a few certainties that I hold as valid and true, even if I might sometimes myself question them: That everything will die; that resisting entropy is nonetheless worth the fight; that I can discover beauty in almost anything if I look long enough; that there deep inside me, when you strip everything else away, something unbreakable, undefeatable, indestructible. During even my worst days and nights, when I'm ready to give up because I just can't take it anymore, I remember that despite all the times I might have died, I'm still here. I'm still here.
In 2004 I moved to New Mexico to live for six months in the desert outside Taos. I was lost again. I had hit a career dead end, and stagnation. I was laid off just before 9/11 and like the economy itself, I had never really recovered. So I pulled up stakes in the Midwest and tried to start over again in a new place. But this was the beginning of the period of my life, still ongoing, when things, no matter what I tried to do, seemed to only get worse.
In the desert of New Mexico, for six months, I experienced the dark night of the soul full force. Actually it lasted longer than that, in fact it's been revisiting me this past year of major illness, but my desert sojourn is a convenient marker for those who need bookends to every experience. The Presence of the Divine was withdrawn from my cognition. make no mistake: I have no use for the word "God" precisely because we all use it thinking it means the same thing when it never does; so it's a label I avoid. My desert dark night experience taught me that the truest, most potent name for the divine, at least for me, is Mystery. I thrive on the Unknowing, on not-knowing the true nature and depth of the divine. My tenets all remain provisional. It is not that I tolerate and put up with not having all the answers, it's rather that I actively and passionately embrace not having all the answers. My life's experience has given me many answers to specific situations, always somewhat provisional of course, that I find myself repeating when asked for them by someone I'm teaching or mentoring or discussing life with. But the last thing I'll claim is certainty that I have all the answers. I know that I do not, and never will, at least not while I still inhabit this flesh. Paradoxically, I suppose, I am certain that my certainty has severe limits.
How can you go through life not knowing all the answers?
An indirect yet very necessary response to that question is to point out that the idea that one can
know all the answers is an intellectual, rational, logical-positivist idea, one which contains its own assumptions and ideological baggage. The New Atheists, many of whom are renowned scientists, seem unable to comprehend that their own position is an ideological position, and not representative of the way science is actually practiced: that is, experimentally and provisionally.
I trained in science from a young age and all through my college years. As a result, I am not likely to agree with the committed religious that science is the enemy, because they too misrepresent what science actually is: a method of study of the natural world that is based on observation and provisional questioning.
From my viewpoint, which is a mystic's viewpoint, both the New Atheists and the religious zealots who are their most profound mirrors, are wrong, and wrong-headed. Both of these opposing camps are certain of their own tenets. Both camps are sure they possess the truth, and no one else does. This accounts for their equal zeal in trying to convert others to their way of thinking—as well as their intolerance for internal dissent amongst their rank and file. Again, the psychology of each camp seems mirrored in the other.
A second response to the question, How can you go through life not knowing all the answers?, lies in the tenet that many spiritual traditions hold: That one must learn to be comfortable with uncertainty. Even, with practice, to make uncertainty into a positive value, not merely something one tolerates because one must. This is the way of Unknowing. It turns up as a mystic's wisdom expressed in all the world's major religions; it is as often expressed in Tibetan Buddhism as it is by the Medieval Christian mystics such as Meister Eckhart and St. Teresa of Avila. The wisdom of uncertainty lies at the very root of Taoism, and therefore of Zen Buddhism, which is a blending of tenets that occurred when Indian Buddhism was brought to Confucian and Taoist China centuries past.
So it seems to me that one of the aspects of religious sensibility that the intellect-based New Atheists such as Hitchens cannot seem to ever comprehend is this very truth of Unknowing. Once again, they dismiss it as a merely intellectual belief. "Of course we can eventually know everything! That's the magic of human consciousness!" This intellectual certainty of the New Atheists' response to the tenet of uncertainty seems like an almost allergic reaction: an instant denial that is more knee-jerk than thoughtful, exactly like you how can't help sneezing when hay fever strikes.
One the chief lessons of the dark night of the soul is that one must become comfortable with uncertainty. There really is no choice. It's one of the profound lessons of the experience: because you don't know what's going on, or why, you are forced to accept that you may never know what's going on, and may never know why. When you're in the dark night, it's impossible to see the exit. There is
no exit. There is only the dark night. It is a self-contained experience, and it takes place inside a container with no doors, no windows.
Eventually, someday, a little light comes in. I knew that I had begun to emerge from the dark night, or at least from that period of the dark night, when it didn't matter to me anymore that I couldn't feel the divine presence anymore. All I could perceive was Mystery, and that was as it should be. The dark night is key to the mystical path of the via negative,
the Negative Way, which is the Way of Letting Go, the Way of Unknowing. You have to learn to trust and surrender to the experience of the darkness itself. This is a profoundly non-intellectual experience, because if there is one thing the ego and the intellect have difficulty doing, it's surrender and trust. In the dark night you discover that "trust" and "surrender" and "faith" are all the same thing: just different labels for the same attitude, the same feeling, the same groping, the same experience. I still struggle with this. It's hard for me to trust that "All shall be well again" one those days when the only truth I can confront with certainty is that "pain hurts." This isn't a matter of belief.
It's a matter of the religious sensibility.
For myself, one way I have managed to survive the dark night is by discovering that for me, as for many other artists and musicians, the aesthetic sensibility and the religious sensibility overlap to a great extent. My practice of faith is in my art-making, in my music. Johann Sebastian Bach signed every one of his musical manuscripts, Deo gratias,
"To the glory of God." I don't have a relationship with the straightforward Christian God, even though like Bach I was raised in and participated in the Lutheran church. It's not that I had an atheistic conversion and left the Lutheran church in a huff of annoyed resentment, it's rather than I outgrew the tenets I had been raised with. The version of the Lutheran church that I was raised in was a very rational church—miracles only happened in the Biblical era, and in our contemporary world they had no more existence. So what was the Lutheran church to do with a boy who started having visions of angels and other worlds from the age of five? I hold no resentment, and I held no resentment back then; rather, I think I just outgrew the Lutherans. By the time I had my first vision of the Void, and the dark night of the senses that followed, I had long since moved on.
(The only point of resentment and distrust between myself and the church I was raised in centered on the issue of my homosexuality. I don't want to make that big a deal out of this. I was not cast out or dramatically condemned the way so many other gay men were; I don't carry those anti-Christian wounds that many gay men suffer for decades after being vilified and ejected from their home churches. My Lutherans were far too rational and liberal-minded for that sort of casting-out and hatred. They were at most just uncomfortable and perturbed. I did leave the church in part, it's true, because I was gay, and felt I had no place there anymore; that was part of my coming out process, as for many other gay and bisexual men. But again I don't want to make it into more than it was. The deeper reason I left was because I had outgrown it. There was no rejection, but rather a realization on my part that I would never really fit in. It was also about my lack of interest in group worship, as opposed to solitary spiritual practice, my preferred mode. About twelve years after I had left my church, I first started seriously reading Thomas Merton, the contemporary writer and mystic. It was through Merton's mysticism and example and writings that I found my way to accepting that the Christian church was not all bad, in fact it had some good aspects. Merton was my path to genuine acceptance, and perhaps forgiveness. I remain unaffiliated with any organized religion, and I remain a maverick, fitting poorly into group worship situations, preferring to follow my own idiosyncratic path wherever the visions have led.)
So for me, making music, making art, making poems, is very much akin to a religious practice. It is a daily practice: I make something every day, even though I don't write a poem every day, or record a piece of music every day. I know a lot of the musicians I work with would agree that most of their spiritual awareness and experience goes into their music. Few of them would frame this using any variety of religious language. Most of them would squirm at the very idea. But some would agree with me that the aesthetic experience and the religious experience are sometimes indistinguishable. One or two might even frame the overlap between the aesthetic and the religious as I have here.
Pity the poor atheists, who have nothing in them that allows them to partake of the aesthetic sensibility, the religious sensibility, or the philosophical sensibility. I express neither judgmentalism nor pity when I say that I would find such a life hellishly empty and excruciatingly hollow, devoid of even a sense of sacredness of place, or of the solace of art-making.
Labels: atheism, dark night of the soul, New Mexico, philosophy, pilgrimage, religion, roadtrip, spirituality, void