Skip to content

On mysticism and metaphor

02003_hiresLast weekend I went to Wilderness festival and gave a couple of talks. It was a magical festival – the musical acts weren’t that stunning, but there was lots of marvelous, weird, dreamy stuff happening that I wandered into, like a Mardi Gras parade and a mock fertility ritual with a man dressed as a penis and a woman dressed as a vagina. It was all very Dionysian.

I was there at the invitation of Sunday Assembly, the ‘atheist church’, and gave a talk in their Sunday service  to around 1200 people – on the benefits of spiritual ecstasy! It felt an unusual topic for a humanist church, but good on Sunday Assembly for inviting me and embracing what I said, and even asking me back! The only time I’ve ever been invited to speak by a Christian church was to say how amazing the Alpha course is (I went down like a sausage at a bat-mitzvah when I started talking about Greek philosophy).

After that high-point, I went to do a talk at the Now mindfulness tent, which was full of people mindful-meditating, mindful-dancing, mindful-running, mindful-knitting, mindful-colouring, mindful-sleeping, and so on.

In my talk I asked whether there’s such a thing as western contemplation, and if it’s worth reviving. I noted that when I went to the International Symposium of Contemplative Studies last year, there were over 100 presentations, but only one on Greek philosophy, and one on Christian contemplation (and that was cancelled). All the other presentations were on non-Christian contemplation – probably 70% Buddhist, 20% yoga, and the rest Taoist and Sufi. Is it not odd, at a western conference, to so completely ignore the 2500-year-old indigenous traditions of western contemplation? Is that not a regrettable act of cultural forgetting?

In my talk, I tried to paint a brief history of western contemplation, starting with the Greeks – Plato, Aristotle, the Stoics, the NeoPlatonists – and then looking at Christian contemplation, and how it played a central role in the thought of the Church fathers (Augustine, Origen, Gregory of Nyssa and others) and then in later mystical thinkers such as Meister Eckhart, Nicholas of Cusa, St Theresa, and so on. It wasn’t a great talk at all – the material is too new to me, plus my practice is woeful – but you have to start somewhere.

51bKLoudTdL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_My knowledge of Christian contemplation (or mysticism) is not very advanced, but it’s been hugely helped by two books. Firstly, Olivier Clement’s The Roots of Christian Mysticism (1995), which is a wonderful collection of writings by the Church Fathers from the late fourth and early fifth century AD. Their writing is so beautiful, poetic and radiant with love and spirit, it’s been a revelation to read it. For example:

In the house of God there is never-ending festival; the angel choir makes eternal holiday; the presence of God’s face gives joy that never fails.

So sings that well-known raver, St Augustine. And here’s Gregory of Nyssa – another of the greatest theologians of the church:

The soul then says: ‘Bring me into the banqueting house. Spread over me the banner of love’ (Song of Songs 2.4)…Her thirst has become so strong that she is no longer satisfied with the ‘cup of wisdom’ (Proverbs 9.2). The whole content of the cup poured into her mouth no longer seems able to quench her thirst. She asks to be taken into the cellar itself and apply her mouth to the rim of the vats themselves that are overflowing with intoxicating wine. She wants to see the grapes squeezed into the vats and the vine that produces these grapes, and the vinedresser of the true vine who has cultivated these grapes…That is why she wants to enter the cellar where the mystery of the wine is performed. Once she has entered she aspires still more highly. She asks to be put under the banner of love.

Who knew those old Church Fathers could dance with such abandon! But then, they did invent the concept of perichoreisis, or the cosmic dance of love.

I particularly liked the excerpts from Origen and St Isaac of Nineveh. Origen was never canonized, because he believed in reincarnation and was therefore a Bad Thing, but he’s acknowledged as one of the most influential thinkers on Christian theology. Interestingly, both Origen and Isaac had great faith in God’s mercy and love, so much so, they believed it was possible that all would be saved, even Lucifer!  ‘As a handful of sand in the boundless ocean, so are the sins of the flesh in comparison with God’s providence and mercy’, writes Isaac. Origen agreed: ‘For the Almighty nothing is impossible, nor is anything beyond the reach of cure’. And Gregory of Nyssa wrote: ‘Our Lord…heals the inventor of evil himself’. Odd that the God of those stern Church Fathers should be so much more merciful and loving than the God of the modern church.

The other book that’s been really helpful and enjoyable is Bernard McGinn’s Essential Writings of Christian Mysticism. It’s like Clemont’s book – a collection of extracts, organized by themes like ‘rapture’, ‘dereliction’, ‘mystical itineraries’ and so on. But McGinn’s book goes from the Church fathers all the way to modern contemplatives like Thomas Merton. It’s been very helpful for giving me an overview of the history of mysticism, something McGinn has explored at length in his seven-part history of mysticism (he’s written five parts so far). He makes the convincing case that mysticism / contemplation, far from being something on the dodgy fringes of Christianity, is or should be a central part of it.

51etjs4EaCL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_The book is full of treasures, but a particular treat has been discovering the mystic philosophy of Nicholas de Cusa, a 15th century humanist and papal envoy whose scientific discoveries included the idea of measuring the pulse as an indicator of health, and also the idea (before Galileo and  Copernicus) that the earth is not the centre of the universe, that it is likely that intelligent life exists on other planets, and that planets do not move in perfect circles. He saw no contradiction between his scientific and his mystical investigations, writing such Zen-like wonders as ‘What surpasses all reason involves a contradiction…the opposite of opposites is an opposite without opposite just as the end of things finite is the end without end.’

I’ve already written too long, so let me make three quick observations from my research so far.

First, the more one reads of the mystics, the more one realizes how deeply Christianity is influenced by Greek philosophy – the Stoics, Aristotle, and particularly Plato and the Neo-Platonists. As a lover of Greek philosophy, I feel much more at home in the writings of the early church than with modern Protestant theology, because there’s so much more Greek philosophy in the Church Fathers and in medieval mystics like Eckhart. Nietzsche went as far as to suggest Christianity was Platonism for the masses, but I’d rather put it like this: Christian culture is like a 2000-year-old musical improvisation, a fusion of Judaism and Greek philosophy, in which successive musicians explore different themes – the nature of Christ, identity, the  Feminine, God’s unity and trinity, the problem of evil, and so on – and perform calls and responses to each other over the centuries. That improvisation is ongoing – McGinn suggests one of the ‘new themes’ in modern mysticism is the body and sexuality, and their incorporation into the mystic life, as seen in Donne, Shakespeare, Swedenborg, Blake, DH Lawrence or Pentecostalism.

One of Hildegard of Bingen's illuminations
One of Hildegard of Bingen’s illuminations

Secondly, many of the classic Christian mystical texts are by women. This is in contrast to Buddhism and Hinduism, where almost all the classic texts are by men. In Sufism there are some great female saints, but I think Christian mysticism is more female-dominated. Christian mystic women were cultural pioneers – the first book in English by a woman was by Julian of Norwich, the 14th century English nun; the first autobiography in English was by Margary Kempe, a 14th century lay-woman. Hildegard of Bingen, a 12-century German nun, is particularly remarkable, as one of the earliest-surviving female composers and female artists in Europe. They were also politically active, establishing and running nunneries, reforming movements.

Does this mean mysticism is gendered, that it’s a particularly feminine capacity to surrender one’s soul into ecstatic union with Christ? That was certainly argued by 19th century psychiatrists looking to pathologize ecstasy as ‘feminine hysteria’. I’ve sometimes wondered if perhaps women and gays are more into visualzing ‘the kiss of the mouth’ from Jesus than heterosexual men. But in fact, what strikes me about mystical experience is that it’s gender-bending. Look at Tiresias, the Greek prophet, with both male and female genitalia. Look at Dionysus, the cross-dresser, how he made King Pentheus dress up as a woman. Or the followers of Cybele, also cross-dressers. Look, in medieval mysticism, at the gender-bending, where the soul is now described as the female bride awaiting the bridegroom, and now as male suckling at the breast of Jesus the mother or embracing Lady Wisdom.

This suggests to me that our soul –  our fundamental identity – is not essentially male or female, but rather both, or neither…a dancing flickering fire of Being. It doesn’t surprise me that one of the proponents of mystical cinema – Larry Wachowski, director of The Matrix and Cloud Atlas – recently changed sex and became Lana. My soul is not male or female, introvert or extrovert, intellectual or emotional. It is all these things and more.

Third, and finally, what strikes me about Christian mystical books is their use of metaphor. They offer a dazzling array of metaphors for the soul and its transformation: the soul as mountain, the soul as mansion or castle, the soul as garden, the soul as mirror, the soul as ladder, the soul as ark, the soul as bride.

Mysticism is a collection of metaphor-maps to memorize information, structure thought and emotion, and explore and expand consciousness.
Mysticism is a collection of metaphor-maps to memorize information, structure thought and emotion, and explore and expand consciousness.

This makes me think that metaphor is crucial to consciousness-exploration and inner work. We live in such a rational, empirical and literal era, when metaphor is seen as something slippery and suspicious. And there are those, like Sam Harris, who want the science of altered states to deal only in ‘empirical facts’, stripped of all ritual and metaphor. Harris writes: ‘Mysticism requires explicit instructions, [with] no more ambiguity in their exposition than we find in a manual for operating a lawn mower.’

This is ultra-Protestantism: do away with all metaphors and symbols, leave just the facts! But, as the great consciousness-researchers Julian Jaynes and Owen Barfield both explored, it is very difficult to talk about consciousness except through metaphor. And the metaphors we use for consciousness are not just descriptive, they are creative. They create new ways of thinking, new realities, new worlds. Among Jesus’ greatest gifts to us were new metaphors for the soul – it’s like a mustard seed, it’s like buried treasure. These were not just descriptions but creations. In the beginning was the metaphor!

The mystics likewise used metaphors as ways of remembering information, structuring thought and emotion, and exploring and expanding consciousness. Metaphor-maps play a crucial role in guiding the soul to new forms and realizations.  One could think of mysticism as a forge where new metaphors are created, new ways of experiencing the inexhaustible play of Being. And the clash between the institutional and the mystic wings of religion is in part a clash over metaphor – the institutional wing wants to fix God into particular metaphors and insist they are true forever, rather than a way of putting it.

The central role of metaphor in experiencing and shaping consciousness is one reason why religious studies scholar Jeffrey Kripal is right that the humanities have a central role to play in consciousness-research – they help us to explore the metaphors and stories by which we structure and expand consciousness. Neuroscience is also very helpful in that process, but the metaphor of ‘brain as computer’ can only get us so far.

Why isn’t there more philosophy on TV?

Programme Name: Socrates: Genius of the Ancient World - TX: 12/08/2015 - Episode: Socrates: Genius of the Ancient World. (No. 2/3) - Picture Shows:  Bettany Hughes - (C) BBC - Photographer: Tim KnightThis Wednesday, at 9pm, a rare event is taking place: the BBC is showing a TV programme about philosophy. Yes, a philosophy TV programme! Rarer than a blue moon or a Scottish Labour MP. Classicist Bettany Hughes (that’s her on the left) presents a three-part show on BBC 4 called Genius of the Ancient World. The programmes explore the ideas of Socrates, Buddha and Confucius, and how these three ‘axial age’ thinkers challenged the dogma of their times and (it is argued) moved towards rationalism, coming up with fascinating answers to that perennially interesting ethical question: how should we live?

It’s rare for the BBC to have a TV show on philosophy, or even a mention of philosophy in one of its arts or history programmes. Why is this? And does the BBC’s religion and ethics department, which produced this programme, have a naturalistic bias (by which I mean it tends to favour rationalist / naturalist / atheist philosophies and view-points)? I asked Aaqil Ahmed, head of religion and ethics at the BBC.

This is the first series on philosophy for years, or so it seems. How hard is it to get philosophy programmes commissioned? Why are there so few philosophy programmes on TV?

It’s a fair question if you say is this specifically about philosophy and not a hybrid of many genres and subjects. There are many big thoughts that get pondered on television as well as moral and ethical debate but it’s been a while since there was something specific that shouted very loudly that this is a series about philosophers. It wasn’t a hard sell as the stories are so good because as long as the subject area and presentation of it feels like it will engage with a wide enough audience then the idea will get commissioned. The point of connecting these three minds to a particular collective moment in time and making the assertion that their philosophies in some way still affect us today was what made it stand out. The addition of Bettany Hughes and the track record of the team behind it in making similar high quality programming for BBC Four was a further factor as was the Open University’s support for the series.

If there so few programmes on philosophy it’s probably more down to the fact that finding an engaging vehicle and unique selling point has been harder for other ideas.

Why did you want to make this programme?

These are key characters who are globally recognised as having an impact on how we approach various notions of community, virtue and the self. And the fact that they all live in a similar time frame will be fascinating for many of our viewers.

An engaging series on them will both be of interest today to our audience who are aware of their impact but don’t necessarily know a great deal, but also tomorrow as part of learning journeys that our audiences can go on to help with religious literacy.

The programme description describes Socrates and the Buddha as naturalists moving humans beyond supernaturalism. Is that true?

The series shows how the  three philosophers played their part in a wider shift towards a more rationalist approach to the big questions of human existence. However, we see that they were still very much men of their time and didn’t deny the existence of Gods and spirits.

Aaqil Ahmed, head of Religion & Ethics at the BBC
Aaqil Ahmed, head of Religion & Ethics at the BBC

This line from the Socrates episode kind of sums up this balancing act: “Socrates didn’t deny the existence of the Gods, but his emphasis on the capacity of humans to shape their own destiny, could be seen as challenging their traditional authority.”

We learn that The Buddha also harnessed the power of the human mind, to examine his experiences, to work out, for himself, a solution to the human condition. But his understanding of the cycle of birth, death and rebirth, that humankind was trying to escape from, still included the possibility of re-birth in the form of a God.

We explore the notion of a higher, more comprehensive ‘human good’ that seemed to interest all three philosophers: something to be worked out, through our own reflexive, analytical capabilities, without recourse to metaphysical speculation, or blind faith; and in terms of personal morality – comprehensive answers to what constitutes a good person and a good life, in this world, is what they come back to.

In the series we look at how Confucius was unwilling to talk about the spirits of the dead in any length. But he still seems to have accepted their existence. He says, in relation to a question from one of his students, about ancestor worship: “You are still not able to do your duty to the living, how can you do your duty to the ghosts and spirits.” He adds: “You do not understand life, how can you understand death”.

We examine how their beliefs seem to have been a question of emphasis, and priority. Socrates, Confucius and the Buddha were all ‘religious’ to a degree. But what fascinated them far more was a systematic understanding of what humans could achieve on their own. This did often mean challenging and transcending pre-existing conventions, traditions and values, but not necessarily replacing them.

In general, it seems to me the BBC’s religion and ethics department has a naturalistic bias and is wary of supernaturalistic explanations and beliefs. So even if you make a series on pilgrimages or the history of Christianity for example, you get agnostics or atheists to present them, like Simon Reeves. Why is that?

I don’t agree with that, this series and many of our other documentaries are shown in prime time and we want to work with prime time talent. All the usual factors apply to the selection of on-screen talent such as knowledge, appeal and time slot suitability. Over the last few years that has included historians such as Dairmaid McCullough, Simon Sebag Montifiore and Bettany Hughes; journalists such as Simon Reeve, Rageh Omar and Anita Anand; academics and theologians such as Robert Beckford, Peter Owen Jones and Francesca Stavrakapolou; writers such as Melvyn Bragg and Myriam Francois Cerrah and talent such as Fern Britton, Nicky Campbell, Meera Syal, Mark Dowd and Ann Widdicombe. It’s a fairly eclectic group and some are religious and some not, but all of them have been and are key talent for the BBC’s factual religion and ethics output.

So there you go – not sure he answered the last question entirely, or what naturalist versus supernaturalist beliefs have to do with ‘prime time talent’. Are atheists more prime time than theists?

Anyway, there’s still plenty of philosophy on BBC radio 4, it just hasn’t found much of a place yet on TV. That’s probably as much the fault of philosophers as the BBC – philosophers have lost the art of public communication, and academic philosophy lacks giants of the stature and celebrity of, say, Bertrand Russell. TV is also very much a visual medium, and it’s hard to bring ideas to life visually – it needs a decent budget, imagination, and a creative and ambitious producer. Perhaps young philosophers like me need to think of other ways to get their ideas out there, like YouTube channels, Udamy courses, or crowd-funded documentaries. In the meantime, this sounds like a good series, and proof that people are still interested in philosophers’ answer to the question: how to live?