Small Epiphanes

Image Leaving the Church and more broadly, Christianity, has been a path paved with epiphanies. Realizations would dawn suddenly but  just like the light of day they had grown gradually from dawn to sunrise, from the first defused glow of light gradually increasing until there is a blaze of realization. I would finally see clearly with articulated thought that which had lain below it’s horizon only moments before. After the first blaze of blinding recognition, full daylight would illuminate the landscape of my thinking and that clarity of vision would become the new day.

Such was the case recently when I realized the decree to which I had ceded all the BIG and IMPORTANT questions and questing to religion. There was an un-articulated belief only religion whether traditional, ancient, new age or of other ethnic origin, was the only sort of inquiry that could delve into the depths of life’s most tenaciously held secrets and the deepest desires of the human heart and mind. I had consigned the most significant truths to the a realm beyond evidence and rational argument, essentially to “faith” and subjective personal experience.

It is really a matter of epistemology. How do we know what we know, and can we be comfortable with what we don’t know and perhaps never will be able to know? Can we be comfortable and secure knowing what it is possible to know and declining to force certainty where it is not? Can we live with a partial understanding which, admittedly, may change? In it’s absence do we, like Esau, trade our rational heritage for a mess of pottage just to fill out bellies and quell the haunting hunger of uncertainty.

Every religion of which I am aware relies on “revelation”. If you have been raised in the west in the bosom of Christianity, that revelation takes the form of a book which in turn is the record of the personal revelation given to individuals or groups. That revelation was then supposed written down having been passed from mouth to ear until someone recorded it. So, even in those religions who revelation is enshrined in print, personal revelation based in subjective personal experience is at their heart. Furthermore, even in when the predominant revelation is in print, there is still a significant role for revelation of a more personal, immediate and subjective nature.

For example, there are Pentecostals and other groups that believe God continues to reveal truth to them directly though dreams, visions ad prophecy along with the gift of tongues and “interpretation”. Even among those who eschew these gifts and graces as belonging to the infancy of the Church, there is a recognition of the need for the interpretation and application of texts to the immediate and personal situation and circumstances of the individual and the Church, an interpretation that is supposedly the supernatural, though rather mundane, work of the Holy Spirit. It is believed and taught that without the enlivening power of the Holy Spirit, the text cannot be properly interpreted and applied. Unless one has been “born again”, they are to a great degree blind to the true meaning and interpretation of Scripture. While they are very clear this is not “inspiration” of the same character as that which gave rise to Scripture, it is, nonetheless, a form of revelation. In the evangelical groups of which I was a member in college it was common to say “God showed me” or “God taught me”, when referring to some realization about a Biblical text especially as it applied to someone personal situation. Also, within the Christian tradition there are the mystics who share the epistemology of all forms of mysticism.

In all of these cases, “knowledge of the truth” is ultimately outside the reach of reason, observation and evidence. It lies in a distant land accessible only by personal immediate experience of varying degrees. In this regard Christianity is not alone. This was one of my first epiphanies. Take any religion in the world including those which are often advertised as immune to this sort of bifurcation of truth like Buddhism, especially Zen, and you will they are all the same. To a greater or lesser extent, when it comes to the core truths, knowledge of the truth is a matter of revelation. Simply because such revelation of truth may be open or more open to any individual does not change the fact that it is still a matter of an epistemology of immediate personal, subjective experience.

Buddhism and Daoism are often described as “philosophy” rather than religion. They are described as non-dogmatic with truth being a matter of observation and experience, or experimentation through the methods of the particular practice. This quote from the Kalama Sutta is proudly displayed.

““Now, Kalamas, don’t go by reports, by legends, by traditions, by scripture, by logical conjecture, by inference, by analogies, by agreement through pondering views, by probability, or by the thought, ‘This contemplative is our teacher.’ When you know for yourselves that, ‘These qualities are skillful; these qualities are blameless; these qualities are praised by the wise; these qualities, when adopted & carried out, lead to welfare & to happiness’ — then you should enter & remain in them.”

Brad Warner puts it this way in his book, “Hardcore Zen: punk rock, monster movies & the truth about reality”. This is taken from the back cover of the book.

“QUESTION AUTHORITY. QUESTION SOCIETY. QUESTION REALITY. QUESTION YOURSELF.

Question your conclusions, your judgement, your answers. Question this. If you question everything throughly enough, the truth will eventually hit you upside the head and you will know..But here’s a warning: it won’t be what you imagined. It won’t even be close.”

Sadly, as you read Warner’s books, especially his most recent, “There Is No God and He Is Always with You: A Search for God in Odd Places”, he pulls up short when it comes to his core assertions about reality. Much of what he relates in his books is biographical and includes a great deal of personal experience, some described, some only hinted. However, it is from these personal, subjective and immediate experiences, experiences conveying knowledge which is not, indeed cannot be, mediated by reason and discursive thought, knowledge which, in fact, cannot be adequately conveyed in words or descriptions but must simply be experienced, that he derives his “truth about reality”, a source and truth he ultimately refuses to question.

“You may want to ask me how I can know that experience [the experience on the Flower Bridge] was real and not a hallucination. You may want to challenge me to prove how what I’m saying here about this experience is different from some guy saying how when he was gonr again God told him to hate fags. I understand that. But I’m not really interested in pursuing those kinds of questions. I don’t want to prove to anyone that my experience was real. It’s not necessary or even possible. It won’t make what happened any less real if you disbelieve or any more real if you believe it.” [page 59]

In the course of his book he also becomes quite dogmatic about this truth. He recognizes for him to say something is true must necessarily mean something else is false, that’s just the way it is. Throughout the book he repeatedly takes many and varied people and beliefs to task for being wrong, and at times rather obviously so, based on his own personal, subjective experience. Experience which he refuses to questioned and, when criticized, he retreats to the Zen aphorism that his words and descriptions are only a “finger pointing at the moon” and not the moon itself, so, of course, they are not entirely defensible. When I raised this question in response to a post on his Facebook page, he told me to “go sit for five or six years and then you’ll know”, something to that effect. This is not different than the Christian believer, who when pressed regarding the paradoxical or non-scenically nature of their belief, fall back on the assertion, “I just know”. Further, if you accept Jesus, you can know too! Obviously accepting Jesus is not the same as having a sitting meditation practice, but the result is the same, personal subjective certainty of the truth.

Compare Warner’s approach to the question “Can We Communicate With The Dead”. Based on a personal experience which might easily be explained in terms of the operations of our brain. However, apparently “our consciousness” never dies and so we can encounter dead people. All of this he concludes based on a subjective personal experience, the truth of which he relates with great gravity and conviction. Yet, in his above referenced book, Warner blithely dismisses the experiences, probably equally compelling, of those like Eben Alexander and Colton Burpo who recount how they visited heaven or some afterlife dimension from which they draw equally sweeping cosmic conclusions about reality.

I use Warner only as an example of how even the most epistemology punk can still fall into the morass of subjectivism and dogmatism, and poor epistemology, in an effort to assert the truth of things which cannot be proven and to erase uncertainty around the BIG questions. Question Everything apparently doesn’t mean EVERYTHING! Warner relies on revelation no less than the Christians he criticizes.Warner castigates atheists as well, ironically, for fearing the unknown and trying to erase uncertainty, in this case, uncertainty generated by the truth of religious experiences like his own. Speaking in the context of Sam Harris and the New Atheist “movement”, Warner carps below.

“Many in the atheist camp want to deal with their fear of the unknown and the unknowable by believing in what others have said about them in more recent books. If they believe that all spiritual experience is based on hallucinations or imbalanced brain chemistry, then they have nailed it and it is no longer unknown and, therefore, no longer scary.” [page 119]

So, whether you are talking about rather traditional conservative Christianity, Christian mysticism, Buddhism or Daoism, they each rely on a form of revelation of a mystical sort. Mysticism of this stripe, holds that the only means of coming to a knowledge of the “truth” with a big “T”, is by immediate experience which is always personal and subjective experience. It is a personal and subjective experience which cannot be apprehended by anyone else simply because it is subjective and personal. It cannot be observed or measured or validated in any way other than through you own personal, subjective experience. It cannot even be adequately described or conveyed by words or reason. It is entirely and completely outside that realm of operation. However, it is the ONLY way “truth” with a big “T”, can be pursued and known AND it is a reliable way by which it is to be known.

As a result, mystics like Warner take their own personal, subjective experience and draw great sweeping cosmic conclusions. They believe what they experience maps onto and is a reliable guide to reality. So reliable a guide that it countermands observations, experimentation, reason and evidence. They draw conclusions which themselves open an Pandora’s box of other assertions and conclusions which must also be true and are equality fantastic. William of Ockham is spinning in his grave!

Back to my Epiphany! For years, even in the blooming of skepticism, I had taken ideas like Warner’s and other of the religious for granted without question. Science was for the physical world, but there were elements of reality which did not appertain to the method of science. These, these most important questions could only be apprehended through the methods of religion and the more ancient the better. That was an adjunct of the larger idea, that it was a matter of fact that ancient wisdom trumped modern thought every time. Why believe Nietzsche when you have Lao Tzu. Why listen to Bertand Russell when you have Jesus. Certainly THEY must have more and better things to same than anyone modern.