The Sacred Mundane

So I was read­ing (around the first half of) Adam Frank’s The Con­stant Fire, in prepa­ra­tion for my Blog­ging­heads di­alogue with him. Adam Frank’s book is about the ex­pe­rience of the sa­cred. I might not usu­ally call it that, but of course I know the ex­pe­rience Frank is talk­ing about. It’s what I feel when I watch a video of a space shut­tle launch; or what I feel—to a lesser ex­tent, be­cause in this world it is too com­mon—when I look up at the stars at night, and think about what they mean. Or the birth of a child, say. That which is sig­nifi­cant in the Un­fold­ing Story.

Adam Frank holds that this ex­pe­rience is some­thing that sci­ence holds deeply in com­mon with re­li­gion. As op­posed to e.g. be­ing a ba­sic hu­man qual­ity which re­li­gion cor­rupts.

The Con­stant Fire quotes William James’s The Va­ri­eties of Reli­gious Ex­pe­rience as say­ing:

Reli­gion… shall mean for us the feel­ings, acts, and ex­pe­riences of in­di­vi­d­ual men in their soli­tude; so far as they ap­pre­hend them­selves to stand in re­la­tion to what­ever they may con­sider the di­v­ine.

And this theme is de­vel­oped fur­ther: Sa­cred­ness is some­thing in­tensely pri­vate and in­di­vi­d­ual.

Which com­pletely non­plussed me. Am I sup­posed to not have any feel­ing of sa­cred­ness if I’m one of many peo­ple watch­ing the video of SpaceShipOne win­ning the X-Prize? Why not? Am I sup­posed to think that my ex­pe­rience of sa­cred­ness has to be some­how differ­ent from that of all the other peo­ple watch­ing? Why, when we all have the same brain de­sign? In­deed, why would I need to be­lieve I was unique? (But “unique” is an­other word Adam Frank uses; so-and-so’s “unique ex­pe­rience of the sa­cred”.) Is the feel­ing pri­vate in the same sense that we have difficulty com­mu­ni­cat­ing any ex­pe­rience? Then why em­pha­size this of sa­cred­ness, rather than sneez­ing?

The light came on when I re­al­ized that I was look­ing at a trick of Dark Side Episte­mol­ogy—if you make some­thing pri­vate, that shields it from crit­i­cism. You can say, “You can’t crit­i­cize me, be­cause this is my pri­vate, in­ner ex­pe­rience that you can never ac­cess to ques­tion it.”

But the price of shield­ing your­self from crit­i­cism is that you are cast into soli­tude—the soli­tude that William James ad­mired as the core of re­li­gious ex­pe­rience, as if loneli­ness were a good thing.

Such re­lics of Dark Side Episte­mol­ogy are key to un­der­stand­ing the many ways that re­li­gion twists the ex­pe­rience of sa­cred­ness:

Mys­te­ri­ous­ness—why should the sa­cred have to be mys­te­ri­ous? A space shut­tle launch gets by just fine with­out be­ing mys­te­ri­ous. How much less would I ap­pre­ci­ate the stars if I did not know what they were, if they were just lit­tle points in the night sky? But if your re­li­gious be­liefs are ques­tioned—if some­one asks, “Why doesn’t God heal am­putees?”—then you take re­fuge and say, in a tone of deep profun­dity, “It is a sa­cred mys­tery!” There are ques­tions that must not be asked, and an­swers that must not be ac­knowl­edged, to defend the lie. Thus unan­swer­abil­ity comes to be as­so­ci­ated with sa­cred­ness. And the price of shield­ing your­self from crit­i­cism is giv­ing up the true cu­ri­os­ity that truly wishes to find an­swers. You will wor­ship your own ig­no­rance of the tem­porar­ily unan­swered ques­tions of your own gen­er­a­tion—prob­a­bly in­clud­ing ones that are already an­swered.

Faith—in the early days of re­li­gion, when peo­ple were more naive, when even in­tel­li­gent folk ac­tu­ally be­lieved that stuff, re­li­gions staked their rep­u­ta­tion upon the tes­ti­mony of mir­a­cles in their scrip­tures. And Chris­tian ar­chae­ol­o­gists set forth truly ex­pect­ing to find the ru­ins of Noah’s Ark. But when no such ev­i­dence was forth­com­ing, then re­li­gion ex­e­cuted what William Bartley called the re­treat to com­mit­ment, “I be­lieve be­cause I be­lieve!” Thus be­lief with­out good ev­i­dence came to be as­so­ci­ated with the ex­pe­rience of the sa­cred. And the price of shield­ing your­self from crit­i­cism is that you sac­ri­fice your abil­ity to think clearly about that which is sa­cred, and to progress in your un­der­stand­ing of the sa­cred, and re­lin­quish mis­takes.

Ex­pe­ri­en­tial­ism—if be­fore you thought that the rain­bow was a sa­cred con­tract of God with hu­man­ity, and then you be­gin to re­al­ize that God doesn’t ex­ist, then you may ex­e­cute a re­treat to pure ex­pe­rience—to praise your­self just for feel­ing such won­der­ful sen­sa­tions when you think about God, whether or not God ac­tu­ally ex­ists. And the price of shield­ing your­self from crit­i­cism is solip­sism: your ex­pe­rience is stripped of its refer­ents. What a ter­rible hol­low feel­ing it would be to watch a space shut­tle ris­ing on a pillar of flame, and say to your­self, “But it doesn’t re­ally mat­ter whether the space shut­tle ac­tu­ally ex­ists, so long as I feel.”

Sepa­ra­tion—if the sa­cred realm is not sub­ject to or­di­nary rules of ev­i­dence or in­ves­ti­gable by or­di­nary means, then it must be differ­ent in kind from the world of mun­dane mat­ter: and so we are less likely to think of a space shut­tle as a can­di­date for sa­cred­ness, be­cause it is a work of merely hu­man hands. Keats lost his ad­mira­tion of the rain­bow and de­moted it to the “dull cat­a­logue of mun­dane things” for the crime of its woof and tex­ture be­ing known. And the price of shield­ing your­self from all or­di­nary crit­i­cism is that you lose the sa­cred­ness of all merely real things.

Pri­vacy—of this I have already spo­ken.

Such dis­tor­tions are why we had best not to try to sal­vage re­li­gion. No, not even in the form of “spiritu­al­ity”. Take away the in­sti­tu­tions and the fac­tual mis­takes, sub­tract the churches and the scrip­tures, and you’re left with… all this non­sense about mys­te­ri­ous­ness, faith, solip­sis­tic ex­pe­rience, pri­vate soli­tude, and dis­con­ti­nu­ity.

The origi­nal lie is only the be­gin­ning of the prob­lem. Then you have all the ill habits of thought that have evolved to defend it. Reli­gion is a poi­soned chal­ice, from which we had best not even sip. Spiritu­al­ity is the same cup af­ter the origi­nal pel­let of poi­son has been taken out, and only the dis­solved por­tion re­mains—a lit­tle less di­rectly lethal, but still not good for you.

When a lie has been defended for ages upon ages, the true ori­gin of the in­her­ited habits lost in the mists, with layer af­ter layer of un­doc­u­mented sick­ness; then the wise, I think, will start over from scratch, rather than try­ing to se­lec­tively dis­card the origi­nal lie while keep­ing the habits of thought that pro­tected it. Just ad­mit you were wrong, give up en­tirely on the mis­take, stop defend­ing it at all, stop try­ing to say you were even a lit­tle right, stop try­ing to save face, just say “Oops!” and throw out the whole thing and be­gin again.

That ca­pac­ity—to re­ally, re­ally, with­out defense, ad­mit you were en­tirely wrong—is why re­li­gious ex­pe­rience will never be like sci­en­tific ex­pe­rience. No re­li­gion can ab­sorb that ca­pac­ity with­out los­ing it­self en­tirely and be­com­ing sim­ple hu­man­ity... just look up at the dis­tant stars. Believ­able with­out strain, with­out a con­stant dis­tract­ing strug­gle to fend off your aware­ness of the coun­terev­i­dence. Truly there in the world, the ex­pe­rience united with the refer­ent, a solid part of that un­fold­ing story. Know­able with­out threat, offer­ing true meat for cu­ri­os­ity. Shared in to­geth­er­ness with the many other on­look­ers, no need to re­treat to pri­vacy. Made of the same fabric as your­self and all other things. Most holy and beau­tiful, the sa­cred mun­dane.