the way ahead

My current blog is called the way ahead.


Okay, I lied.

I said in my last post that my next post would be my last on this particular blog. But at the time I was expecting to return to blogging by late November or December, and now I have decided not to do that. I will return, but it will be in a few months’ time, possibly May or (more likely) June.

I’ve had some new ideas for my blog, and this is the main reason for the delay. I want to do something a little bit more ambitious than what I had originally envisioned. I also want to write longer series of connected posts, and I’ve learned from experience that it’s best to complete an entire series in advance rather than posting individual parts as I write them. I also want to give myself more time to revise my work; I’ve posted a lot of first drafts on this blog, and the quality of my writing has not always (or even usually) been at the level I expect of myself.

When I do start blogging again, I will announce it here. If you would like an email notification, my email address is:


Too Far from Rome

A couple of days after my last post I moved into a new house and had to go a few days without internet access. This rather strange experience gave me the idea of undertaking an “internet fast,” which I’ve broken only three times to check my email (not reading your email for four weeks = very bad idea!) and now to write this post and download some of my online subscriptions. So that’s why I haven’t posted anything in so long. It’s been a good experience, and I intend to continue it for another month, at least.

Being offline has given me more time to focus on other things, including my meditation practice, which always seems to lapse in the summer (i.e., when I don’t work and therefore don’t have much of a schedule to live by). I’ve also been doing a lot of reading, a lot of writing, a lot of thinking.

In addition, I’ve also decided to end my active participation in the sacramental life of the Church. Like my internet fast, this was precipitated by my moving house, but it’s actually been a long time coming; I suspect that anyone who has read my blog for a while will understand that.

There was a time when I thought it was important for progressives to remain in the Church. I’m not so sure about that anymore. Cathleen Kaveny, in a recent Commonweal column, wrote about others who have come to the same conclusion:

From the perspective of these Catholics, doctrine and practice are not developing but withering. But why not stay and fight? First, because they think remaining appears to involve complicity in evil; second, because fighting appears to be futile; and, third, because they don’t like what fighting is doing to them. The fight is diminishing their ability to hear the gospel and proclaim that good news. The fight is depriving them of the peace of Christ.

I certainly recognise myself in that description.

I’m going to return to blogging, maybe in a month or so. But my next post on this particular blog will be my last; it will provide a link to my new blog.



Reason and Contemplation

That discursive reasoning cannot attain contemplative wisdom or enlightenment is obvious enough. As I mentioned in my last post, if it this was possible, enlightenment could be attained in much the same way one follows a reasonable argument in a book. But enlightenment is not attained in this way; the great mystics of every tradition are unanimous on this point. It follows an experience, and one cannot simply "think" one's way into the experience.

Nevertheless, mysticism cannot be irrational, though some people see it this way. This is true both of detractors of mysticism as well as some who embrace it.

Ken Wilber writes, "all true mysticism is transrational and never antirational; 'right thought' always precedes 'right meditation.'"1 He is alluding here to two elements of Buddhism's Eightfold Path.

Traleg Kyabgon Rinpoche, a high-ranking teacher in the Tibetan tradition, make a similar point about "right view," or "correct view," as he calls it.

Traleg Rinpoche notes that a lot of Westerners who are interested in Buddhism are very into meditation, but become resistant when it comes to studying the philosophy of Buddhism. I think this is true of a lot of people interested in contemplative spirituality in general: they want to meditate, but they don't care for philosophy.2

Traleg Rinpoche notes that many Western Buddhists believe "that meditation is all about getting rid of views or that all views will hinder us from attaining our spiritual goal." On the contrary, he says, "It is only incorrect views that we need to overcome. The correct view is to be cultivated with great diligence."3

The reason this is so important is that the experience of a higher state of consciousness is simply that: an experience. It is not itself knowledge. It has to be understood, and it will be understood within a particular framework. Taking care to ensure that the framework is adequate—that is, to make sure we have the "correct" or "right" view—is of great importance if our experience is going to be translated into authentic wisdom. As Traleg Rinpoche says, "We cannot simply practice meditation and hope for the best; we need a conceptual framework that is based on correct view."4

For people at the "Synthetic-Conventional" stage (or earlier), the framework in which they understand their experience will be one that is largely, if not entirely, unexamined. If someone at such a stage has a vision, there is a good chance they will take it at face value. So if I am at this stage and I have a vision of Mary or Jesus (or Krishna or Kuan Yin, or whoever) I will probably understand it quite literally as being that person or deity (or bodhisattva, or whatever).

A more rational perspective will recognise that the sensible content (visions, auditions, etc.5) of such an experience is likely drawn from the imagination of the one having the experience. It's not an accident that it's usually Catholics who have visions of Mary and Hindus who have visions of Krishna.

Even higher mystical states that do not feature any kind of sensible content have to be understood or interpreted. The understanding then has to be judged (which is to say, reasonably affirmed) for it to count as actual knowledge. The adequacy of this understanding and this judgment will depend on a large extent on the adequacy of our prior conceptual framework, even as this framework will likely undergo some changes as a result of the experience.

So I would say that rationality plays two very important roles in mysticism: first, in cultivating a correct view, which is to say an adequate framework in which the experience will be understood; and second, in judging whether the insight that results from the experience is itself correct.

The implications of this, as I see it, are twofold: First, you should not embark on the contemplative path unless you are willing to also learn philosophy and cultivate a correct view; you will not be able to properly understand your experience otherwise. Second, you should not simply assume that whatever insight occurs to you during the experience is correct. It is quite possible to have a mistaken insight during such an experience, and the powerful quality of the experience can too easily convince the person having the experience that the insight is correct.6

Cultivating a correct view, of course, is not simply something that happens before the experience, but also after. So it is not as simply as, "philosophise now, experience later." Wisdom, I think, is refined through an ongoing dialectical process of thinking and experiencing, thinking more, and experiencing more.


[1] Wilber, Sex, Ecology, Spirituality, 179.

[2] One reason for this, I think, is that a lot of people become interested in this kind of spirituality when they reach James Fowler's Stage 5, the post-modernist "Conjunctive" stage, which corresponds with Wilber's "green altitude." For more on the relationship between Fowler's stages and Wilber's "altitudes" see "The Colours of Spiritual Development."

People at every level tend to be very resistant to certain tendencies that are characteristic of the previous level. The previous level in this case would be the modernist "Individuative-Reflective" stage, at Wilber's "orange altitude." The orange stage is characterised by what the green stage sees as a too-strong emphasis on rationality.

The next stage, Wilber's teal-altitude Integral stage, seeks to correct this by reclaiming rationality against green, but correcting the error of orange, which generally rejects the idea that valid knowledge can be attained in non-normal states of consciousness. I've written about this stage before in "The Problem is Orange." Note that Wilber's understanding of teal-altitude spirituality is quite different from Fowler's sixth (and final) stage, the "Universalizing" stage. A number of critics have found Fowler's Stage 6 problematic, as it is not based on the same kind of empirical evidence as the previous stages. See, for instance, Romney M. Mosely's "Forms of Logic in Faith Development Theory," in Christian Perspectives on Faith Development, Jeff Astley and Leslie J. Francis, eds., Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1992: 169.

[3] Kyabgon, Mind at Ease, 25.

[4] Kyabgon, Mind at Ease, 26.

[5] I use the term "sensible content" to refer to things that do not literally involve the senses, but which are described as though they were. So one does not actually use one's eyes when one has a vision, but it nevertheless has a visual character.

[6] Traleg Rinpoche says,
"Some meditative experiences may have the appearance of being genuine, but in reality are false and misleading. Such experiences can be deceptive, giving us the false conviction that we have attained a particular meditative state when in reality we have simply gone astray or fallen victim to fanciful thinking. To separate the wheat from the chaff, so to speak, and to endeavor to find out whether anything genuine has occured, we must make use of conceptual tools that steer us in the right direction. That way, we can purposefully continue with our spiritual practice by critically examining and refining our views." (Mind at Ease, 26)
The failure of some people to recognise this, I think, stems from the erroneous belief that knowledge is attained simply through experience, which is sometimes called "naive realism": I saw it, therefore it's real.

Others might assume that whatever "insight" they had from the experience is necessarily true, apart from (or prior to) any kind of reasonable affirmation. This likely happens because the experience of having this mystical insight is so powerful that whatever one understands from it is simply accepted without question. It seems to me that the monistic non-dualism of the Advaita Vedanta tradition probably originated in this: I experience myself as "one with everything," so everything is "one," and so multiplicity is illusory. That’s kind of a complicated topic, though, so I won't go into it right now.

Labels: , , , , , , , ,


Wisdom 9.13-18

Undoubtedly most homilies yesterday focused more on the Gospel reading (Luke 14.25-33), in which Jesus tells large crowds that they must hate their families, "and even life itself," if they wish to be his disciple. It's an interesting passage to be sure, but the first reading was, for me, maybe a little more interesting. In this post I'm going to try clarify some of the words used in the text, and in my next post I'll reflect on the meaning of the passage in a broader context. Here is the NRSV text, which is used in the Canadian lectionary:
For who can learn the counsel of God?
Or who can discern what the Lord wills?
For the reasoning of mortals is worthless,
and our designs are likely to fail;
for a perishable body weighs down the soul,
and this earthy tent burdens the thoughtful mind.
We can hardly guess at what is on earth,
and what is at hand we find with labor;
but who has traced out what is in the heavens?
Who has learned your counsel,
unless you have given wisdom
and sent your holy spirit from on high?
And thus the paths of those on earth were set right,
and people were taught what pleases you,
and were saved by wisdom.” (Wis 9.13-18)
It's a quite a good translation of the original Greek, but there are some words that I think require clarification.
...the reasoning of mortals is worthless...
Here "reasoning" translates the plural noun logismoi, the singular of which is logismos. This word appears elsewhere in the Wisdom of Solomon. The word is not negative in itself, but in this book logismos is always modified by a negative adjective or otherwise disparaged.1

Here the reasoning of mortals is "worthless" (deilos).2 We cannot come to know the will of God with our limited reasoning.

The next part attempts to explain why:
...a perishable body weighs down the soul,
and this earthy tent burdens the thoughtful mind.
Here the NRSV's "thoughtful" is somewhat problematic. It translates the unusual term polyphrontida, which appears nowhere else in the Bible. The problem is that "thoughtful" has a rather different meaning than "full of thoughts," which is what is called for here. The NAB, which is used in the American lectionary, provides a more adequate translation of this particular phrase: "the earthen shelter weighs down the mind that has many concerns."

Some commentators detect the influence of Platonic dualism in this verse, but I don't think this is necessarily the best way to interpret it. The mind weighed down by "many concerns" reflects a life oriented toward merely human problems. There is an analogy here, I think, with Paul's distinction between living "according to the flesh" and living "according to the spirit." It's not that flesh is bad and spirit good. It has to do with how we orient our lives.3

The answer to the question at the beginning of the passage comes toward the end, in the form of another question:
Who has learned your counsel,
unless you have given wisdom
and sent your holy spirit from on high?
It is not, then, by our limited reasoning that we can learn God's "counsel," but only when God has "given wisdom." Such wisdom is not taken, but received, as a gift.

This speaks to something I've been giving a lot of thought to lately. On the one hand, it's clear enough that we cannot reason our way into enlightenment. Were this the case, enlightenment could be attained through a process similar to following a philosophical argument in a book. It just doesn't happen like that.

So the higher states of consciousness that we associate with wisdom or enlightenment (words I use interchangeably) are often called "transrational," and this is appropriate as far as the attainment of the experience is concerned.

And yet, "transrational" is different from "irrational." Reason cannot be discarded entirely. So what role does reason play? I think the confusion over this stems from the word "reason" being used to denote too many things.

I'll explain why I think that in my next post.


It says near the beginning, "For perverse thoughts (skolioi gar logismoi) separate people from God" (1.3). A couple of verses later it says "a holy and disciplined spirit will flee from deceit, and will leave foolish thoughts (logismōn asynetōn) behind" (1.5). Later we find reference to "foolish and wicked thoughts" (logismōn asynetōn adikias; 11.15). It says that the "way of thinking" (ho logismos) of the ungodly "will never change" (12.10). Later, "fear is nothing but a giving up of the helps that come from reason" (logismou; 17.10). Finally, it speaks of a "foolish decision" (logismon anoias; 19.3).

For deilos the NAB has "timid," the Jerusalem Bible "unsure," and the NJB "inadequate." To use "timid" or "unsure" is defensible, but this meaning would normally obtain when deilos is used to describe a person. In this instance I think "worthless" or "inadequate" are superior, as they more closely parallel "likely to fail" (episphaleis, lit. "dangerous" or "unsafe").

[3] I've written about Paul's distinction between living "according to the flesh" vs. "according to the spirit" here.


Questions about Paul

I've tried writing about Paul's view of the law, but I'm finding it very difficult. When I think I've come to understand something about his understanding of the law, I discover something I had previously overlooked that contradicts it. I'm quite willing to accept that Paul contradicted himself, but for now I'm willing to give him the benefit of the doubt and suppose that I've misunderstood him.

One series of statements that he makes has struck me as rather curious.
Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death came through sin, and so death spread to all because all have sinned— sin was indeed in the world before the law, but sin is not reckoned when there is no law. Yet death exercised dominion from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sins were not like the transgression of Adam, who is a type of the one who was to come. But the free gift is not like the trespass. For if the many died through the one man’s trespass, much more surely have the grace of God and the free gift in the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, abounded for the many. And the free gift is not like the effect of the one man’s sin. For the judgment following one trespass brought condemnation, but the free gift following many trespasses brings justification. If, because of the one man’s trespass, death exercised dominion through that one, much more surely will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness exercise dominion in life through the one man, Jesus Christ. Therefore just as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all. For just as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous. But law came in, with the result that the trespass multiplied; but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, so that, just as sin exercised dominion in death, so grace might also exercise dominion through justification leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord. (Rom 5.12–21)
I've italicised the last two verses because it's these that struck me as odd. Paul says in a number of places that the law increases sin. For example:
While we were living in the flesh, our sinful passions, aroused by the law, were at work in our members to bear fruit for death. (Rom 7.5)
He is careful to say that he is not directely blaming the law for sin:
What then should we say? That the law is sin? By no means! Yet, if it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin. I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, “You shall not covet.” But sin, seizing an opportunity in the commandment, produced in me all kinds of covetousness. (Rom 7.7-8)
It's not the law that is responsible for his sin, but sin (understood here, apparently, as a kind of malevolent cosmic power) used the law to make him transgress the law.
I was once alive apart from the law, but when the commandment came, sin revived and I died, and the very commandment that promised life proved to be death to me. For sin, seizing an opportunity in the commandment, deceived me and through it killed me. (Rom 7.9-11)
He seems to be saying that the law, which he acknowledges comes from God, was given despite the fact that the malevolent cosmic power of sin would only use it to make people sin even more.

This would seem to raise the question, why would God give the law if it was only going to increase sin? Paul answers this, kind of, in Galatians:
Why then the law? It was added because of transgressions, until the offspring would come to whom the promise had been made; and it was ordained through angels by a mediator. (Gal 3.19)
In the same letter he says "the law was our disciplinarian until Christ came" (Gal 3.24). But if the law was supposed to act as a "disciplinarian" (paidagōgos, someone involved in the education, discipline, etc., of children), and so presumably given in order to decrease sin, does this mean God didn't know that the opposite was going to happen? It is difficult to imagine Paul thinking that.

Granted, he made these conflicting claims in separate letters, Galatians first, and then Romans. It is apparent that his thinking changed over time. This would explain the conflict between Galatians and Romans, but it doesn't leave the weirdness of Romans unresolved.

For instance, he writes:
For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. (Rom 8.19-21)
And later:
For God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all. (Rom 11.32; cf. Gal 3.22-23)
It is difficult to escape the conclusion that Paul thinks it was God's will that humans sin, just so that God could later save humans (i.e., through Christ).

I find this impossible to accept. But there is one thing about this idea that I think is of value, namely the idea that what Paul calls "sin," which is what we experience as estrangement from God, is not something unintended by God.

This is something I'll have to explore further in the future.

Labels: ,

Creative Commons Licence
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Licence.