Sunday, September 09, 2007

Dark Night of the Nontheistic Soul?

Saint, Skeptic, or Both?
(Image from Wikipedia)

The recently publicized letters of Mother Theresa, which reveal her expressing grave doubts about the existence of God, have thrown a spanner into the works and days of some folks, I guess. Other individuals, both theist and atheist, have taken them in easy stride.

I've only skimmed the response in Newsweek by Christopher Hitchens, who never much cared for Mother Theresa when she was still drawing breath and who made a documentary about her back then called Hell's Angel, and I only bothered to skim his certainties on her doubts because I needed the background for some musings of mine.

Hitchens claims that the letters show that Mother Theresa recognized the absurdity of Catholic dogma and despaired over this.

My friend, the Maverick Philosopher Bill Vallicella, posted a response to Hitchens, arguing 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." Bill further suggests that Hitchens lacks a 'spiritual organ' for understanding religious individuals like Mother Theresa.

Bill's 'frenemy' Malcolm Pollack, of Waka Waka Waka -- that's a wacky name for a blog partly dedicated to giving theistic religion a few whacks -- responds to Bill by arguing that Bill doesn't understand that many nonbelievers such as Hitchens do not lack spiritual sensitivity, and he says this about himself in a blog entry titled "Sweet Soul Music":
Where he [i.e., Bill Vallicella] goes wrong, however, is in the further assumption that nontheists lack the capacity for spiritual or mystical experience. I for one have been pulled all my life by the sense that there is in Man a hidden potential for an enlightened inner understanding, for a higher awareness of our deep connection to the Cosmos, for a transcendent consciousness of the numinous beauty and harmony that unites all and everything. To this end I have thoughout my adult life sought this understanding, this awakening, along many different paths, in the belief that behind the veil of ordinary perception, and beyond the sleep of inattention in which we pass our lives, there is a unitary Truth that, with the right sort of conscious effort, it is within our power to apprehend. Because I do think that this truth is not fragmentary, not relative, but One, I imagine that there are many roads to this summit: science, philosophy, music, art, literature, and mathematics, to name just a few. And there are other avenues as well: esoteric and exoteric systems of inner development — some of which I have worked at for many years, and which have offered me priceless glimpses of what is possible for us all.
In turn, I wondered what Malcolm meant by "transcendent" and thus asked him. He replied:
Thanks for asking; I can see how that word might cause some confusion.

I have experiential reason to believe that our customary state of consciousness is fragmentary and narrow in scope, and that with the right sort of effort it can transcend these limitations. It is the difference, roughly, between sleeping and waking.
His reply suggests that he is a more spiritual individual than I, for I've had no 'mystical' experiences (other than a 'miracle' once with a television set), and I suppose that I could inquire further about his experiences, but I was already thinking about a different issue that Malcolm's original post had resurrected in my mind, so I posted a follow-up comment on that:
Thanks, Malcolm. I guess that I understand, roughly, what you mean.

Much of the tone and language of your 5th paragraph sounds 'religious', and I assume that this was intentional. Would you say that yours is a nontheistic, cosmic religion like Buddhism? Buddhism without the accretions picked up over the centuries, I mean.

From your critique of theism, I gather that you're bothered by evil in both its forms, i.e., personal and natural. Does evil pose a problem for what you describe as "the numinous beauty and harmony that unites all and everything." I'm not being snarky, understand. Rather, I think that some of the classic problems confronted by traditional theism -- as understood in the West, anyway, where God is supposed to be omniscient, omnipotent, and omnibenevolent -- also emerge in nontheistic traditions. Same pattern, different terms.

For instance, I once heard a neopagan 'worshipper' of the 'goddess' that she called "Mother Nature" voice worried thoughts about Mother Nature's cruelty in sending earthquakes, among other things. Earthquakes bothered this neopagan because they weren't something remotely attributable to human causes, unlike hugely ferocious storms such as hurricanes, which might plausibly be blamed on the moral evil of putatively global warming caused by the 'sin' of industrial civilization.

I'm not suggesting that you're a neopagan, of course. I'm just providing an example of a systemic problem that crops up in many religions and wondering if it poses any difficulty in your own personal religious views.
I'll be interested in reading Malcolm's thoughts on this, and when they appear, you can also read them over at his place.

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At 8:16 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have found myself all over the place until a certain "occurence" solidified my Spiritual related ideology. I'm not qualified to comment on this.

However I note the Scholar has used a certain term perhaps due to his failiarity with the internet. I do apologize, it's just one of my idiosyncracies. It shouldn't be "spammer" but rather "spanner."

Feel free to delete this observation and comment as it is not pertinent to this subject.


At 8:27 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

JK, thanks for pointing that out. I was thinking "spanner" but hit the emm key twice without even noticing!

I'll correct it.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 9:08 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I did some reflecting following my comment. I do admit to jumping the gun on too many occasions. I bow to my friends superior understanding and nuanced diction.

That Hitchens would use such a personage and come to any sort of valid conclusion is a bit of a stretch. And, given that most spam is perceived by some (at least to myself) as essentially junk. Perhaps the word in this case was contextually correct. In fact I think it might be taken (in light of the new medium) as a valid use of the word.

I may've been hasty. Perhaps this site's author could well earn a place in the OED. I hope I've not allowed my elliptical thinking processes to lose for my friend an earthly immortality.


At 11:30 AM, Blogger Malcolm Pollack said...

Thanks very much as always, Jeffery. I've posted a response.


At 2:45 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

JK, perhaps I should take out an intellectual property patent?

I also rather liked "spammer" when you pointed it out, and perhaps I'll use it in another post, but I didn't want anyone to think that I was ignorant of the fact that a "spanner" is British English for "monkey wrench"...

Jeffery Hodges

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At 2:49 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks, Malcolm. I've looked at it and look forward to hearing more.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 9:15 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've never understood the genesis of "monkey wrench", with its' adjustable spanning capability why would we not have simply adopted the more correct term?


At 9:39 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Must be part of our rebelliousness during the 'Merican Revolution.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 1:42 AM, Blogger Malcolm Pollack said...

I believe the wrench in question was invented by a man named Monke.

At 1:58 AM, Blogger Malcolm Pollack said...

By the way, Jeffery, I hope my response to the "problem of evil" question didn't seem to dodge the issue. It's just that it is only a problem at all when it forces a contradiction in an entity that is previously assumed to be benevolent, an assumption I don't make.

At 2:32 AM, Blogger Malcolm Pollack said...

Also by the way, Jeffery, I'd still like to think of myself as a friend of Bill V.'s, rather than a "frenemy". We do have our intellectual differences, but certainly no personal animus that I'm aware of.

At 5:51 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Malcolm, thanks for the various replies.

I'll file away that info on Mr. Monke. Good for trivial pursuits.

I don't think that you dodged the issue, though I do have a lingering question, but I'll put off asking it until I have some more time.

The 'frenemy' point was intended as a joke, so maybe I don't understand the word "frenemy" as well as I had thought, which is probably the case since I only learned it a couple of days ago.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 6:41 AM, Blogger Malcolm Pollack said...

Well, I hadn't seen the word "frenemy" before seeing it here just now, so likely I was the one who misunderstood.

At 6:52 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Malcolm, I just now did what I should have done first. I looked "frenemy" up in the Urban Dictionary and discovered that it has a broad range of meanings encompassing both our intuitions.

For a single word, that's both useful ... and not very useful.

Jeffery Hodges

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