Thursday, November 3, 2011

Mysticism, Liberalism, and Post Modernity

Yesterday, as I walked to get dinner on a clear and beautiful Fall evening, I found myself inexplicably musing on a tension that exists between my own strain of flagrant and unrepentant liberalism and the liberalism of post-modernity.

I'm unquestionably a liberal, by any meaningful definition of that term.   I think the first response that any sentient being needs to have to an encounter with the new or the different needs to be openness, consideration, and forbearance.   That leads me to be open to gays and lesbians, open to people of other faiths, and open to individuals of varying political philosophies.  It doesn't extend to tolerance of intolerance, violence, and hatred, of course, but otherwise, we cool.

Underlying that worldview is a rather fundamentally mystic view of the nature of existence.  I believe that all things are interconnected, that I and you and everything are woven together in ways that we understand only through a glass dimly.  That sense of interconnectedness is itself undergirded and founded on my Christian faith, as I see my Creator's work all around me, and the potential grace of the Nazarene and the light of the Spirit in every human being I encounter.

Here, though, if I am honest, I think my foundation for liberalism diverges from that of secular post-modernity.

As I grasp that worldview, the underlying assumption is that all meaning is socially-mediated or derived from particular individual contexts.  There is no "truth," at least not with a capital "T", beyond those truths that we fabricate for ourselves.  What is good is what we individually say is good, and it is not possible to make any assertion of the good that extends beyond individual preference.

Within the context of that radically individualistic and particularistic worldview, tolerance of other perspectives arises from the assertion that if no perspective is normative for all, then no perspective is invalid.   We must accept all perspectives, because our own is just ours.

While both can yield acceptance of the stranger, one is an ethos of separation and difference, another, the ethos of interconnectness and union.

This, I think, may be one of the more significant distinctives between being a progressive person of faith and a secular progressive.  


  1. Interesting. Except that you are forgetting that not all secular progressives are moral relativists. Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens and Noam Chompsky are three important secularist and progressive intellectuals who believe very strongly in truth with a capital T, including moral truths. The difference there is that this kind of secularist believes that moral truths cannot be derived from divine revelation, which are clearly very often, as you say, "those truths that we fabricate for ourselves." Which is not to say that such revelations might not sometimes lead to moral truths, but much in the same way that rolling the dice might sometimes give you the correct answer to an arithmatic problem. You find the real answer by doing the math. And revelations so often give an answer that is clearly exactly wrong. For example, that is morally admirable to be willing to kill a child when instructed to do so by the voices in your head, the choice of K's "knight of faith." In fact, certain kinds of liberal progressives recognize such willingness is objectively wrong, and that is precisely why mysticism is so morally dangerous.

  2. Heh indeed. I picture a short video of Noam in one of those "nomnomnom" videos, right after the gerbil, but before the baby bunny.

    As for mysticism being dangerous, it isn't, not by any definition of the term "mystic" that has meaning. Bertrand Russell grasped this, as did Einstein, and a few other small-minded sorts I've read on the subject. Yeah, yeah, "absent authority," you chide, but you know what I'm talkin' 'bout, bro.

    Now faith, well, faith can be, if it is faith in the wrong thing. Like, say, faith in the power of reason, particularly if it is reason consumed with metrics and analyses and cold hard facts. Divorced from the poetry and intuition and compassion that arise from a mystic view of being, reason can be quite dangerous indeed.

  3. Which does lead me to wonder, in the interests of not always engaging in our highly entertaining jousting, what your sense of that PoMo ethos is. Given your proximity to a Center O' Higher Learnin', you must encounter it.

    Am I typifying it accurately? What do you think of that perspective as a worldview?

  4. "As for mysticism being dangerous, it isn't, not by any definition of the term "mystic" that has meaning."

    I'm not sure how you define mysticism. I think of it as being direct personal experience of what (one believes) is divine. And this is often dangerous, as one of the foundational myths of Christianity and Judaism clearly demonstrates. God told Abraham "Kill me a son." Does that story not fit your definition? Further examples are can be found in every culture and in every period of history.

    I suppose you could claim that any such experience that does not jibe with your own expectations of what it should be like is inauthentic. (In fact, I think from previous conversations, this is more or less what you do.) But that leaves open the question of how do you, or how does anyone, know that their particular mystical experience is authentic? I would like to think, or at least hope, that if I experienced a sensation that God was trying to get me to perform a human sacrifice, I would on some level know that I was in desperate need of psychiatry. I would know that this situation was wrong, and objectively wrong, because I can test my mystical experiece aganst those things I know to be true through more reliable means.

    Re: Russell, and Einstein: No, I don't know what your talking about, bro, which is why argument by absent authority is always dirty pool. Just because your smart doesn't mean you can't be wrong. Newton was possibly the smartest human to ever walk the earth, and he believed in alchemy. But I can't judge the persuasiveness of Russell's or Einstein's thoughts on this matter when you can only allude to them so vaguely.

    "Divorced from the poetry and intuition and compassion that arise from a mystic view of being, reason can be quite dangerous indeed."

    I agree that compassion is essential to morality, and anything undertaken without it is dangerous, but I disagree that it is derived from mysticism. I don't require a supernatural experience to care about my own children. Nor yours. Nor those I've never met. It is enough for me to be able to imagine, even imperfectly, what it must be like to be someone else. That capacity is human and evolved and augmented by rationality. Intuition is great stuff sometimes, but ultimately it's just the result your brain spits out when it works on something outside of consciousness. And it can be wrong as well, and often is. Every time you are fooled by an optical illusion, that's your intuition reaching a false conclusion. And poetry? In the sense you use it, it is profoundly important to every secular progressive that I admire. Richard Dawkins whole career, for example, is about helping people to appreciate the poetry of the universe, and how much more awesome and beautiful it is when the supernatural is left out of it.

    I often encounter the PoMo ethos, and I think it is just as you describe, which means that it is ethically and rationally incoherent. I more or less despise it. Sam Harris's *The Moral Lanscape* confronts it directly, and does so precisely because it is often used to defend the worst practices of religion. He was specifically inspired to write it when he had an argument with an intelligent academic who was appointed to a panel on medical ethics by the Obama administation who claimed that it would be ethical to blind children if a religion required it, because there is never any objective way to judge the ethics of religions. Wrong! Objectively, provably wrong.

  5. Actually, speaking of "oughts," I ought to leave this conversation where it lies, because I'm trying to write a novel (NaNoWriMo) and I've already generated enough words commenting here that I matched my output over the last two days. Ah, procrastination! DId you ever finish that one you were writing?

  6. @ Browning: I'd define mysticism as a sub-thread within each of the world's religions, which typically involves a direct engagement with the Divine/Godhead/Maker that isn't "personal," but more "transpersonal." Meaning, that sense of losing oneself in both being and the source of being. One finds that ethos consistently arising in Christianity, Judaism, and Islam...not to mention Buddhism and certain forms of Hindu practice. It is notably distinct from fundamentalism, legalism, and "Jesus, Please Bring Me What I Want" forms of religious expression.

    As for my citing Russell, I'm referring to his assessment of the dynamics of faith in "Why I'm Not A Christian," and the distinction he draws in the final chapter between mysticism (as I've presented it) and faith as superstition. The latter he views as a threat to human dignity, the former, essentially harmless, rationally comprehensible, and not worth assailing.

    Yes, I did finish the re-write of the kid's novel, which I put up on Kindle. I'm currently about 20,000 words in to a work of speculative theology, which I'm sure the reading public is eagerly awaiting. ;0)

    And why are you still reading this? Write, man, write!