Countering the Literal Truth

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.

He wrote:

“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.

16 Replies to “Countering the Literal Truth”

  1. Ted,
    Thank-you for another thought-provoking post.

    I studied a short tome by Bertrand Russell in philosophy at Uni (a great free liberal arts education thanks to the Whitlam government). In it he tried to convince me I was not really experiencing the table I was touching – quite a stretch for an 18 year old with limited life experience. He gave no hint of his mathematical capabilities.

    On the topic of the rational vs the spiritual/reflective – I appreciate your post and interpret it as meaning that I can replace “vs” with “and” for a rounded life. I am sure that those with extreme views (at either end) hardly suffer the uncertainty the rest of us often experience.


  2. Thanks for you comment Geoff. You are right – those who seem to be able to come to grips with life in a meaningful way are able to balance both spirituality and rationality. You are well-equipped with your rationality but I suspect you have managed to balance that with your spirituality. Those that cannot countenance points of view in opposition to their own will always have diminished world-views. Those who seek to maximise the distinction between self and other will always end up demeaning themselves.

  3. Great blog Ted. I applaud your use of Christian scripture. There is much to be learnt from pondering all spiritual material and there is a huge amount of it about. Opening the mind and allowing the underlying message to be felt not understood is the key to this and for some of us with environmental influences from a very young age it is easier to open the mind to some material than other.

    The trick is to be discerning but not literal in our interpretations and not try too hard to understand, just feel and know. I have had philosophical discussions with my wife over a glass of red wine on many Saturday evenings and on numerous occasions she would say “I almost had it and then it was gone” and I know exactly how she feels. You think and discuss the story or the statement and somewhere in your mind a candle lights but when you turn to see it the disturbance of your movement blows it out. The trick is, don’t turn, leave it alone knowing that it is there but not needing to rationalise it. Reading and then pondering the stories can reveal things to us but only on the edges of our consciousness. The harder we try to make them rational the more elusive they become and of course explaining it to others is counterproductive for both the giver and receiver. “He who knows does not speak, he who speaks does not know”.

    On the human brain, we are kidding our self if we ever think we will understand it. If the human brain was simple enough for us to understand, we would’t know it existed.

  4. Your beloved sister-in-law obviously has more influence than I.

    But I’ve only been nagging for a couple of years.

    Thank you beloved sister-in-law.

    And Greg, only on Saturday evenings?

    I would suggest more candlelit evenings.

    There are still six left.

  5. Aldous Huxley wryly observed ‘The path of spirituality is a knife-edge between abysses’.

    The abysses are heresy (Theist) and lunacy (Atheist)

    “The body is always in time, the Spirit is always Timeless and the psyche (Soul) is an amphibious creature…
    In the statement, ‘At one time I am Eternal, at another time I am in time’ the word ‘I’ stands for the psyche, which passes from time to Eternity when it is identified with the Spirit and passes again from Eternity to time, … when it chooses or is compelled to identify itself with the body…
    The present moment (NOW) is the only aperture through which the Soul can pass out of time into Eternity…”

    Aldous Huxley, The Perennial Philosophy

    One of my heroes.

  6. “But in the end a rational explanation for the world in the sense of a closed and complete system of logical truths is almost certainly impossible. We are barred from ultimate knowledge, from ultimate explanation, by the very rules of reasoning that prompt us to seek such an explanation in the first place. If we wish to progress beyond, we have to embrace a different concept of ‘understanding’ from that of rational explanation. Possibly the mystical path is a way to such an understanding. I have never had a mystical experience myself, but I keep an open mind about the value of such experiences. Maybe they provide the only route beyond the limits to which science and philosophy can take us, the only possible path to the Ultimate”

    Paul Davies, ‘The Mind of God’, conclusion

  7. Thanks for your insightful comment Greg.

    And thank you Father Robin for the great quotes from Huxley and Davies. You have excelled yourself this week!

  8. We justify faith by reason. You come to faith via reason i.e. I have faith because I know I have reasoned that I cannot reason any further.

    We justify reason by faith i.e. we have faith in reason.

  9. “This might suggest that the so-called imaginary time is really the real time, and that what we call real time is just a figment of our imaginations…
    A scientific theory is just a mathematical model we make to describe our observations: it exists only in our minds. So it is meaningless to ask: Which is real, ‘real’ or ‘imaginary’ time? It is simply a matter of which is the more useful description.”

    Stephen Hawking ‘A Brief History of Time’

  10. And a final favourite quote from Big Al:

    “There are only three people in the world who understand the ‘Theory of Relativity’.

    One of them is Bertrand Russell and I don’t know who the other two are.”

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