Sofia #84 - Editorial - Experience will decide?

This issue is about religious experience and whether the undoubted fact that human beings have been having experiences which can be described as religious for thousands of years proves that there is anything supernatural ‘out there’. Two distinguished theologians give opposing points of view. Trevor Greenfield looks back over the forty-thousand-year history of religion and notes that ‘the personae dramatis have changed over time, stood down, been defeated, been replaced, and re-emerged like an exercise in supernatural re-cycling’ showing that Christianity, like any other religion, is culturally conditioned and ‘the mantra of the Sea of Faith becomes self-evident: religion is a human creation.’ But he disagrees that the object of religious faith expressed in many ways by these many changing cultures, what he calls ‘the transcendent’, is also a human creation. He thinks that those millennia of encounters ‘with a transcendent reality’ more than suggest it isn’t just a fiction.

On the other hand, Anthony Freeman, writing from the point of view of consciousness studies, asks: What is Mystical Experience? He says: ‘All of the experimental work so far described serves to affirm the reality of mystical experience,’ but concludes: ‘Such a [supernatural] reality might indeed exist, but equally it might not, and since we have no possibility of contact with it or knowledge of it, it might just as well not exist.’

Next, David Boulton comments on the Pope’s recent abolition of Limbo, reducing it overnight from a doctrine to a product of the imagination. Why can’t we do the same, Boulton asks, for other religious doctrines? The Pope, he says, ‘tells the faithful he hasn’t so much abolished Limbo as re-envisioned it. Re-envision Limbo and we can re-envision the entire lexicon of Heaven and Hell, God and the Devil. We don’t have to call that abolition. We can call it creative imagination.’ In two further pieces, retired Presbyterian minister Philip Smith confesses he finds himself ‘drowning in the Sea of Faith’ and Dorset Humanist David Warden reflects on the ambiguous meaning of ‘religion’.

Sofia’s editorial policy is to publish articles expressing the range of views within the Network, which sometimes conflict. Censorship would be absurd – and make for dull reading. At the same time, the Editor will express her own views plainly. You are free to disagree!

In his article, Trevor Greenfield flatteringly refers to my Sofia 82 Editorial praising its ‘perceptiveness’ and then softly, softly subverts it. Ah, theologians! My editorial quoted Don Cupitt’s article in that same issue: ‘In the words of the English romantic poets, our world is partly perceived and partly imagined by us’. (In Tintern Abbey Wordsworth speaks of what we half create and half perceive.) I suggested that Don’s thinking might be shifting towards that half and half. I concluded: ‘I think it is vital to acknowledge this half and halfness, respect both imagination and the dignity and reality of matter, life and death, and manual labour....' Half my concern was for recognition and respect for the body, which philosophers in an idealist tradition, including postmodernists, may lack. Otherwise, how could they say such silly things as ‘The Gulf War didn’t happen’? No, it didn’t happen in Paris or London – we saw it on television – but it did happen in the Middle East; people suffered real pain and really died and now in another war in that region continue to do so.

What we ‘half create and half perceive’ is the physical world. Yes we bring language, imagination and poetry to our experience of it but we bring it to something that is physically there. We make the Earth human; we don’t make the Earth. We are not pure spirits and (despite a vein of clerical loathing of women that has persisted over the centuries) recognition and respect for the body are a necessary condition for both ethics and poetry.

Greenfield subverts this position by suggesting that there is no difference between our perception of something that is physically there like a tree, and an experience of ‘the transcendent’. However, with physical bodies there is usually some way of checking their existence independently of our own minds. For example, if I eat a hearty breakfast and someone shoots me dead, a forensic scientist will be able to find that breakfast in my stomach when I am no longer able to tell him anything about it. With ‘the transcendent’ it is possible to verify the experience, but not the independent reality of what is experienced.

Thinking about this, I returned to Tintern Abbey and the words the poet uses to describe his ‘transcendental’ encounter: ‘I have felt a presence’; ‘a sense sublime of something far more deeply interfused’; ‘that serene and blessed mood’. I thought here was a clue. Experience of ‘the transcendent’ is not the same as eating breakfast or picking apples from a tree. It is more like a feeling, a sense, a mood. Mystics have frequently described it as like falling in love. Falling in love is a common, powerful occurrence and no one could possibly deny that it happens. But the strength of the feeling does not prove that the love object exists.

At my school, girls were frequently ‘madly in love’ with fictional characters – from the Scarlet Pimpernel to Mr Darcy – and people from history, such as Sir Philip Sidney, Rupert Brooke or Bayard, ‘le chevalier sans peur et sans reproche’, whom we learnt about in French. Even if you fall in love with someone who is alive at the time, your passion does not necessarily tell you much about him. Our Arts Reviewer tells me that when she was at school she was in love with Sherpa Tensing, whom she had certainly never met. (We were both at school in the 1950s.) Even if later you meet and fall in love with someone who is actually a possible mate, there is a big difference between lying in bed daydreaming about him when he is overseas, and having him there in bed beside you. Bodily presence can have consequences which daydreaming cannot – such as pregnancy.

Nevertheless, defending the reality and dignity of the body, including Planet Earth as a material body, does not mean devaluing the imagination, described by Mary Wollstonecraft (who was in Paris at the time of the French Revolution) as ‘the true fire stolen from heaven’. No revolutionary change takes place by brute force alone; imagination is also required. Keats passionately defends ‘the holiness of the heart’s affections, and the truth of imagination.’ The cosmos and its inhabitants are vast, glorious and mysterious enough to arouse the widest possible range of human feelings and responses – including ‘oceanic union’ and erotic mysticism – without having to call in the supernatural. Some people love London and feel it has a ‘spirit’. Some love Exmoor and feel it has its own spirit too (as Emily Brontë loved her moors). Others are devoted to certain trees (those ‘mighty senators’, Keats called them) and even pray to them. These are all natural feelings and probably the best way of describing them is poetic. Of course, not all imaginary conversations with ‘spirits’ or fictional or historical characters are erotic. For example, in this bicentenary year, one might converse with Toussaint L’Ouverture about slavery. The young Wordsworth, his contemporary, addressed him in one of his best sonnets.

It belongs to humanity to deal imaginatively with our world and that is what makes human life so rich with layer upon layer of metaphor, personification and allegory in an absorbing, ongoing conversation. Thus we can ‘transcend’ our own time and place. Love is a powerful force even if its object is wholly or partly imagined. For example, as well as the girlish, probably transitory ‘crush’, someone may develop a love that determines and informs their whole life, such as a love for Jesus as divine or even love for a disembodied God. However powerful this love or ‘feeling of presence’ may be, in this case too, the feeling cannot prove that the object of that feeling exists.

In The Windhover Hopkins calls Christ ‘O my chevalier!’ and in The Wreck of the Deutschland he describes an overwhelming religious experience (possibly from the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises) as a night with a tremendous lover:

I did say yes …
Thou knowest the walls, altar and hour and night: the swoon of a heart that the sweep and the hurl of thee trod …
In the second part of the poem he identifies his experience with that of the nun on the wrecked ship, who calls out to Christ, as the poem reaches an orgasmic rhythm:

But how shall I … make me room there:
Reach me a ... Fancy, come faster –
Strike you the sight of it? look at it loom there,
Thing that she … there then! the Master,
Ipse, the only one, Christ, King, Head.

Poets have often expressed mystical experiences in female erotic terms. But that does not mean experience of ‘the transcendent’ is confined to the erotic or can be reduced to sexual fantasy. ‘The transcendent’ can be encountered in many ways: for example, as the extreme and dangerous Other; as absolute Power; as Beauty so old and so new; as cosmic Music. These can all be understood as imaginative, poetic encounters with our own material universe – its otherness, power, beauty and harmony (Pythagoras discovered the ‘harmonious pines’) and show both the glory of the material universe and the marvellous strength and breadth of the human poetic genius.

One final example comes from Hopkins’ Hurrahing in the Harvest (which his friend Robert Bridges tutted tutted was ‘in poor taste’):

And the azurous hung hills are his world-wielding shoulder Majestic – as a stallion stalwart. very-violet-sweet!

Hopkins had a Jesuit training in philosophy and theology and of course he did not think the blue hills were really Christ’s (or the Greek god Atlas’s) shoulder. It is a metaphor expressing a moment of ecstasy. Its poetic power (the substance, ‘vehicle’, of the metaphor) derives from the fact that strong and beautiful blue hills, male shoulders and horses physically exist and can be apprehended by our senses. Beauty is splendor formae: the shining of shape. Hopkins almost certainly thought that ‘Christ God’ also really exists somehow. But the poetic power and the ecstasy remain even if we think the hills are being compared to an imaginary god.

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