When humans are blessed with a vision outside of ordinary reality, we often make the enormous leap of attributing this opening to a divine presence. I am writing not to denigrate that leap, but rather to praise visions and to ask whether they are not a human potential we have often failed to encourage.
Stephen Jay Gould taught us to distinguish the two “magisteria” of religion and science. After the enterprise of science got going and yielded power, some of its practitioners said to spiritual leaders, “we will investigate the material world, leaving everything else to you.” However helpful the politics of this way of thinking has been to science, it leaves in the shadows a set of experiences that are precious but tend to get forgotten or possibly misinterpreted. Forgotten why? Because they are not easily described by language, are said to be “ineffable.”
Whether they are called visions, mystical experience, consciousness expansion, or awe, or by other names, they are quickly snatched up by spiritual leaders and offered as evidence for a divine reality. But to which “magisterium” do these experiences belong?
Despite such dazzling advances as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), our tools for exploring the human brain are still almost primitive as compared with the capacities of that organ. As compared with knowledge about sub-atomic particles, neurologists are just emerging from a dark ages. It’s a wonder that we know as much as we do, considering the complexity of the brain and ethical limitations in experimenting on human subjects.
What if we regarded human phenomena with the same humility as some scientists showed by no longer assuming the earth was the center of the universe? Some of the basic advances in science have followed de-centering, or casting aside assumptions such as the belief that humans were created as we are, such as the belief that consciousness encompasses reality. But even apart from Copernicus, Darwin, and Freud, are some of us not still ensorcelled by acting as if the human brain can’t possibly produce all the experiences that people have felt?
Even on the assumption that no human brain will ever understand the brain, how do we hold that not-knowing? Do we make the leap to assuming that anything we don't understand is evidence for a divine being, because somebody must understand, and because the phenomena are too unlike our ordinary reality? If so, might the species better be called not “wise” (as in homo sapiens) but desperate for meaning?
Religion offers many comforts. Sweeping across the cultures that have assumed some sort of divine being, I would note that religion (a) offers a story about origins, (b) imposes an ethics, (c) provides fellowship, (d) assures us that we will live on, will have an “after-life,” (e) in some cases, generates a book or at least an oral tradition to interpret, (f) in the case of proselytizing faiths, upholds the work of converting the heathen, (g) inspires art that depicts and ritual that enact these other benefits, (h) assures us of a divine being who can be petitioned, and so forth.
What’s not to like? In contrast to the “new atheists,” I propose a humble approach, which may appeal to some people who aren't attracted to religion but who lazily assume that science will eventually understand everything. This approach may even appeal to some “believers” who are willing to act as if any phenomenon we don't understand is not necessarily evidence of a divine being. In other words, there may be a ‘God,” or Gods but that doesn’t mean we are wise to attribute to Him (or Her or Them) anything we don’t otherwise understand.
Can this approach open up ant era of exploration as exciting as past physical exploration of “dark” continents? But instead of taking colonies, this time our ordinary reality may be redefined as a useful but limited faculty.
To recapitulate: faith in a divine being may be true, but it represents an easy leap as an explanation for what we can't grasp. Can we summon the humility to live in mystery?
Mystery has been the bailiwick of the spiritual. “God works in mysterious ways His wonders to perform,” as my Mom often used to say, misquoting a Cowper hymn. As a faithful Lutheran, she attributed anything she didn't understand to God. To a human it was mysterious; to God, a wondrous way.
I want to claim the mysterious for humans. My motive is less to add to the luster of science than to suggest we can meanwhile (or forever) live in the mystery. This appears to be hard for humans to manage, as it was hard to imagine the earth rotating as an explanation for why the sun appears to rise and set.
Just imagine it were no longer respectable to attribute anything we can’t understand to a divine being. Physicians, as I know from personal experience, have a fancy word for whatever their discipline hasn’t grasped: “idiopathic.” It refers to an unknown and thus mysterious cause.
Ancient Greeks wrote of the terror of an unnamed disease. Once it’s named, you presumably feel better, even if the attachment of a name has not affected the physical condition. Perhaps we need to adopt a hundred-dollar term such as “idiopathic” for non-medical phenomena.
Some of the greatest openings in a human life are not possible to explain. Two difficulties: they are not easy to describe. They are often claimed exclusively by leaders of the “spiritual” magisterium. Thus, they are half-forgotten or hidden (“ineffable”)” or explained” as part of a divine realm, or both.
Perhaps these double difficulties have discouraged many people from venturing beyond ordinary reality. Regardless of whether scientific methods can soon (or ever) “explain” these experiences of awe, can we meanwhile encourage them?
A group in San Francisco focused on practices outside ordinary reality, and is to be praised for gathering many practices, including what a friend calls “mindful molecules.” This group told how to use these practices responsibly. It circulated reports from explorers. It defended our right to expand our consciousness. Can we do this while remaining agnostic about whether to treat these experiences as evidence for a divine realm?
Perhaps humans are even more wondrous than we thought.