Ways of knowing God

The title deliberately evokes Danielou’s classic God and the Ways of Knowing, but I wanted to change the title a little, so that people don’t come in expecting a book review.

How do people relate to God?

  1. The sense of the sacred.  This is the most “democratic” of ways in that most people in societies more advanced than the pygmies seem to experience it.  It is, in fact, the only socially relevant religious sense, and societies have been built around it.  It involves a sense that the world is divided into sacred and profane realms which must be kept separate, and a sense of one’s own ontological poverty before the sacred.  Ours is, I believe, the only advanced society to lose this sense.
  2. Personal, affective devotion; love of God as one person loves another.  This kind of devotion is especially marked in religions like Christianity and Hinduism, in which the god becomes human and can be related to as such.  This is the highest level of religious sense that most people are capable of, and perhaps it is only in Incarnational religions that a majority is capable of it.  It is not spontaneous, but can be developed through frequent Bible reading and meditation on the life of our Savior, and the like.  It can, in times of great enthusiasm, become a social force.  More importantly, it can transform individual souls.
  3. Mysticism, a direct, superconceptual apprehension of God.  This is generally agreed to be the highest religious sense, but it is reserved for a small spiritual elite, an Ibn Arabi or a Pseudo-Dionysius.  It is socially irrelevant, because it is given to so few and is by its nature incommunicable.  Nor does it save many souls, but it does contribute treasures to a religious tradition for those few able to profit by them.

Those wishing to know God should start low and build up.  Each stage of ascent must be tested against those below.  There is a false devotion to Christ, an easy “Jesus is my boyfriend” familiarity that can be known as false because it offends against our sense of the sacred.  The higher forms should never contradict the lower.  There is a false mysticism, that of charlatans like Joseph Campbell, that attacks all distinctions between good and evil, between holiness and profanity, and which attacks the (tri)personal God of Christians and Muslims.  A heretic may have a mystic vision and blasphemously proclaim his own divinity, while a sounder mystic like al-Ghazali will find in devotion to Allah a fresh zeal for obeying a holiness law.

31 Responses

  1. Your mention of al-Ghazali recalls to my mind the well-known passage from his famous autobiography, “The Deliverance from Error”. (Google “Deliverance from Error” and pdf for McCarthy translation) Al-Ghazali, the most lauded scholar of his age, was inwardly called to move beyond philosophical speculation and embark more deeply on the spiritual quest. When he resisted the change, a spiritual crisis ensued, resulting in his loss of speech and the necessity of abandoning his academic position. After a decade of travel, search and spiritual retreat, he came back to his intellectual work an utterly transformed man. As he described:

    “There I also chose seclusion out of a desire for solitude and the purification of my heart for the remembrance of God….In the course of those periods of solitude things impossible to enumerate or detail in depth were disclosed to me. This much I shall mention, that profit may be derived from it: I knew with certainty that the Sufis [i.e. Islamic mystics] are those who uniquely follow the way to God Most High, their mode of life is the best of all, their way the most direct of ways, and their ethic the purest. Indeed, were one to combine the insight of the intellectuals, the wisdom of the wise, and the lore of scholars versed in the mysteries of revelation in order to change a single item of Sufi conduct and ethic and to replace it with something better, no way to do so would be found! For all their motions and quiescences, exterior and interior, are learned from the light of the niche of prophecy. And beyond the light of prophecy there is no light on earth from which illumination can be obtained.
    In general, how can men describe such a way as this? Its purity — the first of its requirements — is the total purification of the heart from everything other than God Most High. Its key, which is analogous to the beginning of the Prayer, is the utter absorption of the heart in the remembrance of God. Its end is being completely lost in God.”

  2. There is another option: God as the life of the community. That is how Christianity prevailed historically, for example in Iceland. That is how it prevails now, for example in East Timor, where the Catholic Church identified itself with the communal life of a people threatened with assimilation. And that his how it has prevailed in recent history for Whites in places like Poland, where religious identity was national identity, in tension with brute state power controlled by internationalist dogma.

    Individual loves can be shallow and disposable. (They can also be very strong and lasting. People vary in this, and the differences are probably heritable, and predictable in large populations, with some being more inclined to strong individual attachments and some being more collective-minded in the mass, or just tumbleweeds in general.) But for many, tribal loves, racial and national loves, love of one’s city or state as a people not just a structure of power are deep, strong and lasting.

    For people who think like that, Jesus or any other god appears as the life of the race / nation / tribe, or almost by definition not as the highest love but rather as an individual preference of – to put it harshly but I think accurately – spiritual convenience. Jesus, or some other god, can only be king (rather than at best like a beloved family idol) if he means what a king should ideally mean to his people.

    This is a natural way if thinking, and I think it’s a proper way of thinking.

    This is why it was reasonable and natural for some Jews to applaud Jesus when he seemed to be a national leader for them, and to turn against him when he proved not to be that. For those whose ultimate law is that they will not consent to the death of their race (which for the Jews is a race instituted by the one true God), and who appreciate the inevitable conflict of interest and that the time has come for their own people to choose, Jesus necessarily seems a false king, a usurper.

    This is why there’s a problem with the Church as an internationalist or really anti-nationalist force, above not merely any state but any people, and willing to expend, blend and expunge races and nations instrumentally for Jesus or practically speaking for itself. What the Jews (being smarter and more collective-minded than other people) correctly understood as a decisive break between the racial interest and the priestly or divine interest becomes a decisive break for (other) nations too, it just takes a lot longer for them to get there.

    Ultimately Christianity will always take everything for itself, if it can. The only peoples that can survive it are those who by their inherited constitution are simply not capable of following a glittering ideal to the ruin of their own interests. (The ideal remains incomprehensible to them, though they like the glitter; their collective interests, in a narrow sense, they follow with brutal instinctive inevitability.)

  3. Abbé Bremond, who produced the monumental 11-volume « Histoire litteraire du sentiment religieux en France depuis la fin des guerres de religion jusqu’a nos jours » and, perhaps, best known for his « Prière et Poésie » insisted the third, or contemplative, form is much commoner than you allow. “In the course of the normal development of man, there occur moments in which the discursive reason gives place to a higher activity, imperfectly understood and indeed at first disquieting…”

    He insisted, however, that this non-discursive knowledge is “like bathing in a fathomless ocean, or breathing an intangible and limitless air. It gives contact and certitude, but not understanding: as breathing or bathing give us certitude about the air and the ocean, but no information about their chemical constitution.” A salutary caution!

    Bremond’s unrivalled knowledge of mystical writings and his work on poetry, symbolism and romanticism earned him election to the Académie française and a eulogy from the French Symbolist poet, Paul Valéry.

    Daniélou was, like all his contemporaries, influenced by Bremond and by Joseph Maréchal

  4. He insisted, however, that this non-discursive knowledge is “like bathing in a fathomless ocean, or breathing an intangible and limitless air. It gives contact and certitude, but not understanding: as breathing or bathing give us certitude about the air and the ocean, but no information about their chemical constitution.”

    Beautifully put.

  5. You might be interested in taking up the new scientific literature on religion. I’d suggest the following to start off:

    Stewart Guthrie, Faces in the Clouds
    Jesse Bering, The Belief Instinct

    Other works by Pascal Boyer, Scott Atran, and Justin Barrett are well worth it too.

  6. “Mysticism… is generally agreed to be the highest religious sense, but it is reserved for a small spiritual elite, an Ibn Arabi or a Pseudo-Dionysius. It is socially irrelevant, because it is given to so few and is by its nature incommunicable. Nor does it save many souls, but it does contribute treasures to a religious tradition for those few able to profit by them.”

    This seems wrong altogether. The great Christian mystic Saints such as St Anthony of Egypt, St Cuthbert of Lindisfarne and St Seraphim of Sarov (but why include a Muslim who is presumably *not* communicating with God, but some other supernatural entity?) serve a *vital* role in communicating divine revelation, interpreting scripture, providing the highest spiritual counsel (which then spreads out through the community via Holy Elders etc) – and our course their prayers and intercessions are of incalculable benefit.

    For example, Dionysius (let’s drop the disrespectful, ‘modern Biblical criticism’ pseudo, please) is the source of much of our knowledge on angels – via Aquinas.

    Indeed a place, a country, a world without living mystical Saints is in great spiritual peril, as we are.

    But I quite agree that “Those wishing to know God should start low and build up. Each stage of ascent must be tested against those below. ” – it seems that even the greatest mystical Saints usually require 10-20 years, even longer, to reach their full ‘potential’ – before they are allowed to become solitary hermits, for example. There are no shortcuts – or rather, the shortcuts lead in the opposite direction.

  7. My wife and I were talking to a priest about precisely this subject last night at dinner. He was privileged to have reached level 3, whereas I appear to be languishing at level 2 (my wife has had a level 3 experience, but very rarely talks about it). The most striking thing about the priest’s account of his immediate experience of the divine is that he said that it frightened and disturbed him rather than filling him with peace and joy. It’s Otto’s “Mysterium Tremendum”. As to his everyday life, he says that, whereas most of us conceive of ourselves as the centre of our lives, he has the abiding sense that he is on the very periphery of something vastly larger.

  8. I would add that the priest explicitly referred to Isaiah 6.5 in this regard.

  9. “It involves a sense that the world is divided into sacred and profane realms which must be kept separate, and a sense of one’s own ontological poverty before the sacred. Ours is, I believe, the only advanced society to lose this sense.”

    I don’t know about this. I’ve always thought that Robert Bellah was on the money about this. I’d say that an atheist American reciting the pledge of allegiance at Arlington National Cemetery with the flag flying above him and the national anthem playing would have as much of an intimation of the sacred as many people do at Mass.

  10. Mysticism, a direct, superconceptual apprehension of God. This is generally agreed to be the highest religious sense, but it is reserved for a small spiritual elite

    I don’t agree with this at all. You haven’t had an “experience” of God, once in a while, during worship or prayer? I have, and don’t think it’s very uncommon.

  11. Dr. Charlton is certainly correct regarding his main point. A mystic can lead an anonymous life, completely unknown apart from a restricted circle and with little apparent effect upon the larger religious community, but such a figure can also have the most profound, wide-ranging and far-reaching effect, an effect that can persist for centuries. Apart from those he has mentioned, one could point to such obvious examples in an Abrahamic context as St. Francis of Assisi, the Baal Shem Tov and Jelaluddin Rumi, who transformed the religious tenor of their societies and whose influence has continued to the present day.

    Even the ‘anonymous mystic’ can have a profound impact, however. As St. Seraphim of Sarov witnessed in his famous conversation with his lay disciple Nicholas Motovilov regarding the acquisition of the Holy Spirit, “One shall move thousands and two tens of thousands” (cf. Deut. 32:30). Similarly, in one of the best loved sayings of the Saint, “Acquire a peaceful spirit, and around you thousands will be saved.”

    One of the most telling signs of the spiritual degeneracy of the present post-Christian West is simply that it is no longer productive of saints – those who have been utterly transformed by the experience of God. Such figures have always been somewhat rare, but now they seem almost completely absent from the scene. Another way of framing the same observation is that, while in traditional societies, including the Christian West, the saint was societally viewed as a pinnacle of human possibility, presently, the aim of such societal aspiration has been displaced to the actor, athlete or businessman.

    As for Dr. Charlton’s parenthetical remark regarding Muslim mystics such as al-Ghazali, Ibn ‘Arabi and Rumi not communicating with God, I might recommend by way of rebuttal a perusal of the Persian poet and mystic Farid al-Din Attar’s “Memorial of the Saints” (translated under the title, “Muslim Saints and Mystics”; see http://www.omphaloskepsis.com/ebooks/pdf/mussm.pdf), in many ways the medieval Islamic equivalent of the popular Western medieval Christian work “The Golden Legend”. In any case, the closely related question of whether Muslims worship God has been extensively defended on this blog previously.

  12. We should distinguish between experiencing the sacred and experiencing God. The former is pretty widespread and common; holding one’s newborn baby in one’s arms, witnessing a gorgeous sunset or stunning landscape, receiving communion, etc., are all instances of the former. Direct apprehensive experience of God is pretty rare, and evidently with good reason — it practically killed no less pious a man than Thomas Aquinas.

  13. I’m with Proph on this.

  14. Direct apprehensive experience of God is pretty rare, and evidently with good reason — it practically killed no less pious a man than Thomas Aquinas.

    Are you guys talking about, like, a burning bush-type experience – an actual encounter with the living God? I find a lot of the discussion so far vague and ambiguous.

  15. I suspect that’s what is meant, yes: direct, incontrovertible revelation, of the sort experienced by St. Paul, by Aquinas, or by the three children of Fatima — the sort that leaves a man utterly transformed.

  16. I believe so, and I would suggest: “Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground.” (Ex. 2.5)

  17. For me, Fatima is the Catholic slam-dunk. It is very, very difficult to assilimate it into a materialistic, secular view of the world.

  18. The secularist materalist could simply say the children were liars or victims of a hallucination. That they were vague and horoscope-like and their supposed resemblance to real-world events accidental or exaggerated. Certainly wouldn’t be the most objectionable thing such as them have said!

  19. Nevertheless, I think that one would have to explain the miracle of the sun, which was independently attested by witnesses from a crowd of 50,000+….

    However, I think that the kind of personal revelation that Bonald has in mind in category 3 would be very different – intensely private and personal.

  20. So the “spiritual intuitions” that Thursday is always talking about are in Category 1. I get it.

  21. Right. I think by its nature such a revelation would be non-sensory (as opposed to a miracle) and non-conceptual (It wouldn’t just feed new religious doctrines into your head. This is why I think it’s possible that adherents of false religions can have genuine mystical experiences.) The experience would be difficult if not impossible to share.

    I myself, not being what you call a “naturally religious” type, mostly exist at category 1 and extend a bit to category 2. I’m hoping that greater attention to my spiritual life will bring me solidly into category 2. I have absolutely no expectation of ever being a mystic. Of course, you could say “neither did Saul”, but I mean I *really* think it’s unlikely.

  22. I’d never read about the miracle of the sun. Interesting stuff. Reading up on it, though, it appears the atheists/secularists do have an official line on it: bleaching of photoretinal cells caused by prolonged staring at the sun.

  23. As an example of the latter, here is the beginning of the letter Blaise Pascal had written to himself as a memorial to a mystical experience he had when he was 31, found sewn into the lining of his coat after his death:

    In the year of grace, 1654, on Monday, 23rd of November…from about half past ten in the evening until about half past twelve.

    God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob,
    Not of the philosophers and scholars.
    Certitude. Certitude. Feeling. Joy. Peace.
    God of Jesus Christ.
    “Thy God and my God.”
    Forgetfulness of the world and of everything, except God.…

  24. I used to be very taken with Joseph Campbell – I bought and read pretty much everything he wrote – although I found Hero with 1000 faces to be perhaps the worst of his books (and ideas) and never bought that one. There is certainly a sense in which that type of study of mythology is predicated o the falsity (indeed wickedness) of Christianity. Nonetheless, interestingly, it was one of the things which led me to Christianity (from an initual stance of very materialist, anti-spiritual hedonism) – because Campbell was quite insistent that a spiritually attuned person would find their life ‘worked out’ – a path opened for them. A version of Jung’s synchronicity idea (meaningful ‘coincidences’ showing the proper path ahead). And as I have argued elsewhere, if synchronicity is real – as I always felt from experience it was – then it seems to point to a personal God (or else why and how could the universe be concerend with what was best for us?). So Campbell (and other New Age writers) ended by making me a theist. This did a lot of the heavy lifting of conversion.

  25. This is at the heart of a paradox. From my own perspective, I am an active, causal agent, a Second Cause, interacting with other Second Causes. On the other hand, my existence is something continually welling up from the creative act of the First Cause, the Prime Mover, so that, from God’s perspective (if one may so speak of it), “I” am not a centre, at all, but something on the circumference of His activity.

    But, God’s perspective is simply the perspective of Mind, as such, reflecting the real structure of existence.

    It follows that, in some sense we cannot fathom, both God and the creature are enacting the creature’s existence, including the creature’s acts of understanding and will.

    No wonder, then, that an apperception of this sublime reality has led some Eastern sages to regard the self as an illusion; our everyday world-environed self (“the autonomous self!) really is an illusion. They are wrong in their pantheistic conclusions, but their intuition is sound.

  26. No, I think what we have in this post is an artifact of our host’s own peculiar temperment, a physicist with strong feelings about purity and sanctity. Most people’s religious intuitions point to something personal out there with which they have relations. So, for most religious people Bonald’s Level 2 is probably their Level 1.

  27. Though love and devotion do tend to come in with the higher religions.

  28. Hi TMWW,

    You might be right about that. I would be very interested to hear about how other people experience things in terms of what comes easiest to them. As a ranking in value, I think my ordering is correct; I expect that God values filial affection more than trembling before the Absolute, although both are important aspects of a religious life.

  29. My own experience of listening to people with little or nothing in the way of a philosophical or religious education is just the opposite.

    What comes through quite clearly, however inarticulately expressed, is that they do not believe in a world where everything is separate and discrete and unconnected. They believe strongly in a world of discourse, a universe, and they spontaneously believe in God, as the ground of that unity and as the answer to Wittgenstein’s question, “Why is there something, rather than nothing?”

  30. I just came across this fascinating account of ‘witch doctors’ in Africa (and other places) – which has implications for humans natural and spontaneous religiousness/ spirituality :


  31. Approximately 33 years from initial conception to birth, going through the three stages identified in Rev. 12:11 ” (1) and they overcame him, (the adversary), by reason of the blood of the lamb; (2) and by reason of their witnessing word; (3) and they loved not their own life even until death”.

    Many reach (1) or (2), but few reach (3).

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