Mysticism--Opiate or Caffeine?

Scholarly objectivity, a formula for nihilism. The professoriate as the three degrees of Blue Lodge. And more on mysticism, and whether it heightens or lowers alertness toward the world. With a closing autobiographical note. Standard disclaimer: From a letter to a friend, early '99, reprinted by permission.

I take it from some of your remarks that you have had encounters with academics who consider themselves guardians of "scholarly objectivity"? Yes, I am familiar with the like. The Graduate Program in Religion at Duke was balanced like a wooden plank across the two "sawhorses" of the Divinity School and the Religious Studies Department. I met some great religious studies folks; with many of them I could even have fruitful conversations. But some of them held an attitude akin to hostility toward what they openly called "believism."

All in the name of "scholarly objectivity," as if ordinary human religious concerns were somehow bogus and contemptible.

I think "objectivity" makes some sense in math, physics, chemistry, astronomy, biology, and the other physical sciences. Although even here, pure Spock-like objectivity would lead in time to a drying up of the wells of creative insight. And the cultural side-effects of an exaggerated "objectivity" in the sciences have been calamitous enough. Consider the Joe Doxe who takes it for granted that "science has proven" that the "real world" is meaningless, and that ordinary human concerns "are somehow bogus and contemptible." Consider the scientist who takes part in work on the atom bomb, and looks on it as nothing more than an intriguing application of nuclear physics.

"Objectivity" makes a good deal less sense in the social sciences, and no sense at all in the humanities. More appropriate in these fields would be something like a sense of intellectual integrity, fairness, or sportsmanship: virtues which are tellingly lacking in many of the guardians of "scholarly objectivity"!

I don't know just when the "objectivity" fetish really took hold in higher education. The dream of, say, making sociology more and more like physics has been there for a long time. Though longer in some countries than in others. Germany? Since back into the 19th century. Britain? Some reading of mine this past week took me back to Oxford in the 1920's, where I catch only the faintest whiff of it.

I would guess, just guess, that the "objectivity" fetish really took off in the U.S. only since 1945, when our colleges and universities began to grow from "education for the million" into "education for the millions." One concomitant of this growth was that the professoriate took on more and more of the trappings of a guild, including the "Masonic handshake" of "publish or perish," and the "Masonic due-guard" of "scholarly objectivity." So we get assistant, associate, and full professor, an initiatory grading rather reminiscent of Entered Apprentice, Fellow Craft, and Master Mason!

And so in religion, we got the "split" between the age-old field of theology, and the newcomer known as religious studies. And many folks in religious studies have swallowed the "objectivity" fetish, hook, line, and sinker.

Much to its credit, theology-- at least, any theology worth its salt-- has not gone along with this shift. Theology (along with the other "seminary" fields) remains one of the last intellectually rigorous disciplines which traffics without apology in beliefs and ultimate commitment. Which, I suppose, is one reason why theology has gone from being "queen of the sciences" to being the "black sheep" of the university. I say, in refusing to allow itself to be fragmented into "subjective" versus "objective," theology has done the right thing. And, as I said in my last letter, if the religious studies crowd don't like it, "Let them yell! It will be good for their lungs."

By the way, have you noticed how some of the staunchest partisans of "scholarly objectivity" will fall over, without skipping a beat, into radical subjectivism? I guess when method becomes absolute, truth becomes relative! Or more like, when sociology becomes like physics, human beings come to be treated like ricocheting gas molecules. Hence the spectacle of the "good German" who can weep over Wagner and Schelling today, and acquiesce in holocaust tomorrow. Radical objectivity and radical subjectivism coexist in the same "split brain" without communicating: a combustible formula for nihilism. In this regard, I find a troubling resemblance between the "good German" of the Weimar Republic, and a certain kind of "good," socially conscious but trendily nihilistic academic today.

Have you ever read anything by Walker Percy? His last novel, The Thanatos Syndrome, deals with this point. Like everything by Percy, worth reading.

Cycling back to the topic of my last letter-- "Mysticism: Opiate or Caffeine?"-- I was chagrined to realize, after I sent it off, that it was a rather tangled and murky production.

You say your interest in the kabbalah "has to do with 'denial mechanisms' of oppressed peoples." As in, is the kabbalah primarily a "denial mechanism"? Zeroing in on this angle, I would rephrase and clarify my argument of last letter more or less as follows:

(1) Mysticism may function as an opiate, or it may function as caffeine. As an opiate, it is indeed sometimes a denial mechanism. But when mysticism functions as caffeine, it may contribute to a sharper and deeper awareness of the world around us. Abusus non tollit usum.

(2) Mysticism is probably just as integral to our humanity as is language. I suspect the human brain is hardwired by evolution for mysticism and/or alternate states of consciousness, just as it is for language. So the absence of mysticism from the mainline of modern Western culture is an anthropological enigma: Imagine a society that somehow abandoned language! Under the circumstances, it is no wonder society teaches us to equate mysticism with denial or escape.

(3) I suspect that, in truth, "caffeine" mysticism or something like it is integral to normal human ways of knowing. Hence any epistemology that leaves it out will be truncated or crippled. I have just finished reading a dense but fascinating book on Goethe's approach to science, by a British physicist & philosopher of science. What he has to say about "objectivity"-- as he interprets Goethe's approach with the aid of Husserl, Heidegger, & Wittgenstein-- would curl your toes! Sorta like my remarks on "objectivity," only moreso. What I'm calling "'caffeine' mysticism," he calls "participatory knowing": he and I would agree that this was part and parcel of Western culture up through the late Middle Ages, then somewhere between then and the dawn of the modern age it got "lost." And its loss has been a calamity.

(4) Mysticism of itself does not directly deepen or sharpen our view of things. (Though to the neophyte in the first flush of mystical euphoria, it may feel otherwise.) But as mysticism becomes habitual, it shapes the way we view the world around us, and also the way we interpret sacred scriptures and traditions. It is as these are gradually shaped that our view of things is sharpened and deepened.

(5) Some mystical practices may have more "caffeine" potential than others. Obviously, mysticism which spurs us on to ethical action falls in this category. Less obviously, contemplating things around us also has great "caffeine" potential. Call it the "Psalm 8" approach! A slow, quiet day spent in the woods, or out on the lake fishing in a boat. Or (I mean this quite seriously!) there is wisdom to be found in watching dust motes drift in a beam of sunlight. There are also much more intentional and disciplined mystical practices along these lines.

(6) Even the more "opiate" side of mysticism (imageless meditation, theurgic ritual, etc.) has its place. "There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of" in many a modern-day philosophy. And dealing with them is also part of our proper role as Maximus the Confessor's "priests of the cosmos." (Cf. Heidegger: "shepherds of being") Our consciousness ascends toward God in prayer like incense, bearing within it all the world which we have taken up into our consciousness: I paraphrase Maximus poorly, but you catch my neoplatonist drift.

(7) Whether mysticism at any given place and time was being practiced more as an opiate, or more as caffeine, is a historical question: "Look, and find out." I have ransacked my kabbalistic bookshelf, and can find no clue as regards your question. So I leave this up to the results of your historical research.

I think you are quite right, the poor and oppressed are more drawn to a "supernatural" and "otherworldly" view of things. In part, this may be religion as "the opiate of the masses." But in part, may it not be that the downtrodden have been wiser than the high & mighty? Cf. Paul's argument in 1 Cor. 1: "God's wisdom is foolishness to man." And "not many of you were wise, or rich, or powerful."

A closing autobiographical note.

My initial engagement with mysticism came the summer I did a unit of CPE at St. Luke's Hospital in Milwaukee, amidst such experiences as seeing six people die in one sleepless 24 hour stint which I spent as the on-call chaplain.

My latest journey deeper into the heart of mysticism & meditation began in my recent hardscrabble times, when my finances & fortunes had collapsed like a house of cards, and I could not foresee how, when, or whether I would ever break free of getting up at 5 AM five and six days a week, to go in to the wholesaler's warehouse. This was in the months after I had fallen back to earth from Seattle, like Icarus who flew too close to the sun. And somehow, in the hopeless quiet flow of day-to-day routine, I found God close to me in a strange new way.

Opiate, or caffeine? Denial mechanism, or genuine insight? Breaking under pressure, or breakthrough under pressure?

Either/or? Or in some unfathomable way, by God's grace, both/and?

Ever since, I have been wrestling with these questions. "With all my heart, and with all my soul, and with all my strength, and with all my mind."

You are quite right, in some matters "scholarly objectivity" just will not cut it.

In Christ,

(s) Paul