A: You know what? I’m feeling pretty peeved this morning, and I have a lot of things I’d like to say about some of the mystical ideas we’ve been talking about this week. I think I know how the Gospel writer Mark must have felt when he first read Paul’s First Corinthians. Some ticked!
J (smiling): I’m all ears.
A: Thank you! All this talk about apophatic mystics and anagogic mystics has brought up some issues that have been bugging the heck out of me for years. But yesterday was the last straw. Yesterday I was in the mood to do some spring cleaning, so I tackled a pile of papers that needed to be filed. There I found a church newsletter from November 2010 with a review of Karen Armstrong’s book The Spiral Staircase: My Climb Out of Darkness (Toronto: Random House-Vintage, 2004). The reviewer dutifully tried to capture the content of Armstrong’s thesis about God, her discovery that “some of the most eminent Jewish, Christian, and Muslim theologians and mystics insisted that God was not an objective fact, was not another being, and not an unseen reality like the atom, whose existence could be empirically demonstrated. Some went so far as to say that it was better to say that God did not exist, because our notion of existence was too limited to apply to God.” Oh yeah? thought I indignantly. The reviewer went on: “Most would agree with the Greek Orthodox that any statement about God has to have two characteristics. One is ‘to remind us that God cannot be contained in a neat, coherent system of thought,’ and the other, ‘it should lead us to a moment of silent awe or wonder, because when speaking of the reality of God we are at the end of what words or thoughts can usefully do.'”
OH, YEAH? Really? That’s the best you can do, huh? You’re gonna just wimp out because intense emotions can’t be explained by using pure logic? You’re gonna just let yourselves off the hook that easily and give up on one of the best, most wondrous parts of the spiritual journey of redemption and transformation? You’re gonna just listen to these dopey mystics? Get a life, people! And I mean that literally. Get a life, and then get back to me on the question of who God is.
And you apophatic mystics out there — until you decide to get a whole life, a balanced life, a compassionate life, a forgiving life, I’m going to assume your biological brain circuits are seriously seized up in several crucial areas (your anterior cingulate, your amygdala, your orbitofrontal cortex, your right insular cortex, your caudate nucleus, and your hypothalamus). And if you think I’m wrong, then prove it to me. Volunteer to get your bran scanned. I’ve already had my brain scanned once. I’m game to go again. Show me your brain is healthy and fully functional and not damaged from psychoactive drug use. Then we’ll talk.
J: As you’ve said — and I totally agree — there’s no ethical mysticism without ethical scientific investigation.
A: I’m so upset about mystical claims that can’t be substantiated or corroborated. I’m upset about the sloppiness of current scientific investigation into mysticism, too. I’ve looked at some of the criteria for different “Mysticism Scales” used by researchers. Researchers such as Hood want to know if potential mystics have had an experience of transcending themselves or losing themselves in an experience of oneness. But this is only one type of mysticism — it’s a measure of apophatic mysticism, an experience that’s quite likely to be a highly dysfunctional dissociative disorder, not a true mystical state at all. There. I’ve said it. I think some of the highly revered mystics of the past have been severely dysfunctional. Especially the apophatic mystics — the ones who claim to feel only a void and empty unity. There’s something seriously wrong with a person’s brain if all he or she can feel is an empty unity.
J: Yet this is the state of so-called transcendence that so many seekers have been taught to seek.
A: Well, it’s not what I feel. And it’s not what you felt. So I guess that makes you and me the Popperian “black swans” of falsifiability. And you’re technically dead, which makes your soul mind pretty hard to study. So that leaves me, and others like me, as possible test subjects for a study of non-dysfunctional mysticism. Such a study can’t come soon enough, as far as I’m concerned.
J: Unfortunately, such a study would only help distinguish between those whose brains are reasonably functional and those whose brains aren’t. It would do nothing to identify the mystics of the past who were lying — the ones who intentionally invented a mystical journey for their own narcissistic purposes.
A: Ah. Pseudo-Dionysius comes instantly to mind. Pseudo-Dionysius, the great 6th century CE apophatic-anagogic inventor of Christian mystical hierarchy. The inventor of Christian angelology. The inventor of mystical theology. The bolsterer of Neo-Platonic Christian thought. The bolsterer of mystical church authority for the church of the Byzantine Empire. The man who cemented the worst ideals of Platonic mysticism into a church that wanted to utterly eradicate all aspects of your own core teachings on inclusiveness, forgiveness, non-chosenness, and heart-based relationship with the Divine. You mean that kind of liar?
J: I mean that kind of liar.
A: As I said earlier, I think I know how Mark felt when he read what Paul wrote about you. If I were a cartoon character right now, I’d have steam coming out of my ears.