Last week I wrote of how we need to meet our spiritual needs in order to attain a sense of wholeness in our lives. It is our spirituality that enables us to reintegrate with the One. This probably seems like gobbledygook to the more rational of you.
I was heartened during the week to come across some quotes of G. K. Chesterton’s that both amused me and appealed to my sense of the numinous.
“Mysticism keeps men sane. As long as you have mystery you have health; when you destroy mystery you create morbidity.”
“The whole secret of mysticism is this: that man can understand everything by the help of what he does not understand. The morbid logician seeks to make everything lucid, and succeeds in making everything mysterious. The mystic allows one thing to be mysterious, and everything else becomes lucid.”
We have seen some good examples of the “logicians making everything mysterious” in our discussions of quantum physics in previous blogs. But the best example comes from mathematics. I refer here to the Incompleteness Theorems of the Austrian mathematician, Kurt Gödel.
His first theorem appears in his 1931 paper “On Formally Undecideable Propositions in Principia Mathematica and Related Systems I”. [Principia Mathematica is a three volume work on the principals of mathematics written by two giants in the field, Bertrand Russell and Alfred North Whitehead.] Gödel showed that there was a problem with classical mathematical systems.
Gödel’s theorem was articulated using mathematical concepts which are not very accessible to the average reader. The American philosopher Douglas Hofstadter translated his theorem into plain language this way (and some of you might complain that this is not much clearer!):
“All consistent axiomatic formulations of number theory include undecideable propositions.”
It turns out that in number theory you can either have a theorem that covers everything but includes contradictions or you can have a theorem that is consistent but can’t include everything.
In Physics I believe the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle embodies the same dilemma – ie the closer we try to examine physical phenomena the less certain we can be about our observations.
What then is this failing that humankind has that prevents it from knowing the world directly? It seems to me that it is simply lack of capacity. Take a simple example. Is it possible that we should know how the brain functions? Well, to my mind it isn’t. And that is because that which is doing the knowing is a subset of that which it is trying to know. How can a part ever understand the whole? And when we move from the concrete brain to the abstract mind the problem is further exacerbated.
This is why there is so much that we can not know directly. However we get glimpses of the unknown through our intuition. There are ways of knowing indirectly. I have talked before of the power of parables and analogies. Carl Jung promoted the value of “symbolic truth” that wasn’t accessible by reason. Here again we run into the conflict between the literalists and the mystics.
Remember, for example in the Gospel of John, Jesus’ discussions with Nicodemus. The Pharisee, Nicodemus, came in the night to learn from Jesus. (There are some important allegories even in this statement – but I won’t have the opportunity to go there this week!) When Nicodemus asks Jesus to give him the benefits of his wisdom, Jesus responds, “I tell you most solemnly, unless a man is born from above, he cannot see the kingdom of God.”
Nicodemus not understanding the metaphor replies, “How can a grown man be born? Can he go back into his mother’s womb and be born again?”
Jesus responds echoing his previous words:
“I tell you most solemnly, unless a man is born through water and the spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God: what is born of the flesh is flesh; what is born of the spirit is spirit.”
Jesus is saying to Nicodemus do not think about this literally. His message is metaphorical. If Nicodemus can’t throw off the yoke of literal thinking then he will be unable to assimilate the spiritual message that is given to him through a metaphor.
Jesus finally admonishes Nicodemus using the most telling spiritual metaphor.
“Do not be surprised when I say, you must be born from above. The wind blows wherever it pleases; you hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. That is how it is with all who are born of the Spirit.”
And thus he counters the rational enquiry of poor Nicodemus with something very poetical, something seemingly irrational but something very meaningful nonetheless.
Jesus in this metaphorical exchange was saying to Nicodemus “Do not think literally because that will lock you into the trap of the physical, the flesh. But if you think symbolically you will be able to engage with the spirit and it is the spirit that liberates us.” I have often referred to the problem of literal interpretation of enduring truths.
Carl Jung complained, “Even intelligent people no longer understand the value and purpose of symbolical truth, and the spokesmen of religion have failed to deliver an apologetic suited to the spirit of the age.”
Knowing then from Gödel, Heisenberg and the quantum physicists that our best rational efforts to understand the world leave us with uncertainties and mystery, is it not sensible that we should draw on our “other ways of knowing” to come to grips with the world. Isn’t Chesterton right in asserting that drawing on our sense of mystery, our sense of the spirit and our intuition is just as likely to enlighten us as relying on physics and mathematics?
(Among those who have argued this position was the German philosopher and poet, Johann Christian Friedrich Hölderlin. He maintained that poetry gave superior access to the truth. He wrote:
“and what are poets for in a destitute time?
But they are you say, like the wine-god’s holy priests
Who fared from land to land in holy night.”
Unfortunately, perhaps he couldn’t reconcile the duty of the poet with his personal well-being, ending his life in a mental institution!
This theme was taken up by the German philosopher, Martin Heidegger, who, drawing on Hölderlin’s work, wrote a famous essay “What Are Poets For?”
Even the French deconstructionist, Jacques Derrida, towards the end of his career came to the realisation of the importance of spirituality.)
We should not discard insights that come to us independent of reason and rationality because these are limited faculties. On the other hand we can’t discount rationality. If we can envisage worlds that are illogical and put our faith in what they have to offer we are just as likely to be as disappointed as the rationalists that won’t allow mysticism into their worldview. Mysticism grounded on knowledge and reason lets us see further. Mysticism without knowledge and reason falls into superstition. Mysticism does not discount rationality. It allows us to go beyond reason. This is not an “either or” choice. We need both intuition and reason just as we need both science and spirituality.