Daily Archives: September 2, 2007

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Quasi-mysticism

Ch.1, §1: ‘Deserved Respect’ (pp.31–41)

Dawkins begins with the story of the boy who was to become his school Chaplain having a ‘quasi-mystical’ (32) experience while contemplating the grass in front of his face, overwhelmed by the complexity and interconnectedness of the world he saw there.

Suddenly the micro-forest of the turf seemed to swell and become one with the universe, and with the rapt mind of the boy contemplating it. He interpreted the experience in religious terms…. (31)

Dawkins then describes his own similar experience when contemplating the stars (31-2), before saying:

Why the same emotion should have led my chaplain in one direction and me in the other is not an easy question to answer.

Three phrases leap out at me as I read these first paragraphs of The God Delusion. The first is ‘become one with the universe…’. I presume that it means something like this: that the boy saw not just grass in front of his nose, but a complex and vital ecology, in which each part was caught in webs of dependence and interaction with other parts, and the visible and tangible features floated on a sea thick with such connections and influences. And then, from being something he was looking at, relatively isolated in front of him, the boy began viscerally to imagine the way that these connections did not stop with the turf, but stretched to include every part of the cosmos: it was all one system, all one set of interdependencies – including him, the observer. In fact, he experienced the cosmos as a cosmos: as some kind of whole, himself included. That, or something like it, is what I take Dawkins to be describing.

The second and third phrases that strike me, then, are ‘He interpreted the experience in religious terms’ and ‘Why the same emotion should have led my chaplain in one direction and me in the other…’. They both suggest that two distinct things are going on: an experience or emotion, followed by a distinct process of ‘interpretation’. And I’m not quite sure that’s right. It seems to me that the experience described is already an experience of interpretation: it is an experiece of ‘seeing-as’. The boy sees the grass in front of himself as a teeming microcosm; he then ‘sees’ the whole world, including himself as cosmos. And I presume that he sees himself and the world of which he is a part as a cosmos having some character. The experience could have been one of terror, for instance, or a feeling of utter insignificance; it could have been an experience of profound ‘at-home-ness’ in the universe, and so on.

If this is right (and I am going by other descriptions and discussions of such experiences, not simply by Dawkins’ brief description of this one) then two things follow. In the first place, we would need to know a good deal more before being able to say that Dawkins’ and the Chaplain’s experiences were the same (and we probably wouldn’t call them ’emotions’).

In the second place, it may be that the religiousness of the Chaplain’s response was not an interpretation susequent and secondary to the experience; it might have been, as it were, built in. It is possible, for instance, that the boy experienced this cosmos as welcoming, or as gift, or as sustaining him benevolently or lovingly – or something similar.

I am not going to suggest that this experience as I have (speculatively) redescribed it is any kind of proof of the existence of God, or that my redescription offers any reasons for thinking that the Chaplain’s religiousness is to be preferred over Dawkins’ atheism. And I certainly do not wish to pour any kind of scorn or scepticism on Dawkins’ description of his own experience. If the Chaplain’s experience did take the form that I have suggested, it might well be (in Dawkins’ terms) delusional in some way; I have said nothing to suggest that it is not – and have read far enough ahead to know that Dawkins is going to deal sharply with claims to prove the existence of God on the basis of ‘religious experience’.

All that I want to note at this stage is that, if the Chaplain did have an experience of this kind, and if it was a ‘religious’ experience in something like the way I have suggested (and if his was not, we have accounts of others that were), then the difference between his experience and Dawkins’ would not most naturally be described as a difference over a particular empirical matter of fact. It is, rather, a difference between two overarching ‘takes’ on the world: two ways of seeing, two different senses of the whole, two ways of reading the text of the world. And how one is to adjudicate between two such ways of seeing is, as Dawkins says, ‘not an easy question to answer’.

Where God fits (or does not fit) into this picture is a topic we’ll be coming back to.

The God Delusion

The God DelusionIt has become so popular, so widely discussed, so much a feature of discussions on the Guardian’s Comment is Free site and Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science site (sites I visit a lot), that I have decided to take the plunge, and read Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion. I plan on providing a running commentary on what I read here in my blog (even though it does not have a great deal to do with the blog’s initial aims).

A couple of preliminary comments before I start:

  1. I am not planning on reading through, organising my thoughts, and then writing an organised critique, theme by theme. Rather, I’ll comment on what I find, as I find it, not knowing quite where he or I will end up.
  2. I will, however, cheat to a certain extent: I’ve been scribbling notes to myself as I read, and my blog entries are worked up from those notes. At the time of writing, I’ve read (and scribbled) up to somewhere in ch.3, and have glanced ahead to the start of ch.4. So this isn’t quite pure ‘stream of consciousness’ reviewing.
  3. I’m reading the 2007 Black Swan paperback edition.
  4. I have read several newspaper articles and blog comment pieces about the book; I have also read an article by Nicholas Lash in the latest New Blackfriars, but I have not tried (and probably will not try) to read widely in the secondary literature that the book has already generated. So apologies if I flog here horses that have already died elsewhere.
  5. No-one, if they spend a moment to check who I am, is going to expect me to be a huge fan of the book. I hope, though, to be a generous, fair and open-minded reviewer, even (especially) when it annoys me. If anyone is reading this blog, I hope they’ll keep me to that in the comments.

Continuity and Discontinuity

I’ve been on holiday for a week, in (mostly) sunny Cornwall, and confirming that Kynance Cove is one of my favourite places in the world (and the Lawrences some of my favourite people).

Anyway, just one last post to put the ‘abducting John’ strand of thinking to bed. I have spoken of a ‘dialectic of description and registering resistance, within a life in pursuit of holiness’, and then suggested that needs to be rethought. I’d like instead to suggest that a theologically nuanced reading of the relationship between John the Baptist and Jesus in Mark (and, more deeply, between Mark’s Jesus and the ‘as it is written’ of the Prophets) will start with a ‘reading for continuity’: reading John in terms of Jesus and Jesus in terms of John: John the Baptist as the one who made Jesus possible; Jesus as the one who was made possible by John. Reading John as theotokos, as I put it a long time ago). This is itself an ongoing process, a matter of continual adjustments in reading as a better ‘fit’ is sought between the two sides; it is not a matter of a static, achieved interpretation.

This ‘reading for continuity’ will be shadowed and interrupted, however, by ‘registering discontinuity’. Register the resistances on both sides: that in Jesus which exceeds anything we can see made ready in John; that in John which is unassimilated, unpreseverved, unfulfilled in Jesus.

Mark’s Gospel lends itself to reading for continuity (that is how it tells the story) and to seeing the ‘resistances’ on Jesus’ side. It allows glimpses or hints of resistances on John the Baptist’s side only indirectly, through the gaps in what it says. When it comes to the Prophets, and to the Hebrew Scriptures in general, those resistances are considerably more visible.

What I am suggesting has some connections to the ‘criterion of dissimilarity’ and opposing proposals of a ‘criterion of similarity’ in Jesus research – but I am not proposing criteria for judging historical authenticity: rather, I am proposing (to myself, if no one else) a set of questions to have in mind when reading, a set of processes of reading to go through, and hold in tension, in order to be sent more deeply by these texts into serious thought.

And I have one last complication to throw back in, from another strand of posts on this blog. ‘Reading for continuity’ may well be rather complex, if one of the forms of such continuity involved is precisely the ‘prophetic’ continuity of speaking from within the excess involved in any attempt at continuity. John the Baptist is made, in Mark, to stand (in part) precisely for that inspired discontiunity-for-the-sake-of-obedience which is an authentic, continuous strand in the Hebrew scriptures…