Some of the most interesting recent writing in the field of mysticism is coming from atheists such as Sam Harris. What they are saying, effectively, is, "Let's separate out the actual phenomena from the stories that have traditionally accompanied them, and see what tools are available to examine these phenomena."
While Harris is adamant that religion in its dualistic form is well overdue for discarding by civilised people world-wide, he is quite respectful of mystical phenomena. He just doesn't want to attach to them any concept of God, given the baggage that typically accompanies the term.
The emergent field of neurotheology, for example, is attempting to bring together the latest information about neurological function and correlate this with mystical phenomena of various kinds. Both atheists and mystics are prominent in the field. I am watching keenly to see what they come up with.
I was speaking recently with my friend Simon and his position was fundamentally the same as that of Harris: he acknowledged the existence of spiritual or mystical phenomena as types of human experience, but wondered why I couldn't just experience the phenomena in their own right without attaching them to a series of improbable stories.
(You might say the same about sex, if you were careless enough. And I think we probably tried that in the sixties and seventies, since when sex has been captured by feminist politicians and redefined as male, predatory and abusive until proven otherwise.
Come to think of it, that's not a bad definition of conventional religion.)
I was caught slightly on the hop when Simon said this to me, and ducked behind some vague mathematical remarks to the effect that no explanation was just another explanation — the null set as it were — and he needed to justify that choice as much as I might need to justify mine. Not really satisfactory but it allowed us to pause for coffee with dignity.
So what might be wrong with cutting loose all the paraphernalia surrounding mystical experience and allowing science to shed some pure, rational light on the subject.
Well, for starters, the inhabitants of the various fields collected together under the general term social science — and neurotheology, I think, is properly one of these — probably disagree more profoundly and consistently than any comparable set of religious persons and/or groups I can think of. I doubt there is any pure knowledge to be had in the field that is in fact undisputed. Perhaps I exaggerate a little.
Secondly, to discard holus bolus an incredibly rich collection of myth, metaphor and symbol, I'd have to believe first that the application of scientific method was really the only way to know anything, that no knowledge was possible that was not arrived at through the application of scientific method, that anything else was spurious, no matter how comforting, no matter how plausible, no matter how hallowed by authority, by tradition, by consensus.
Scientists, of course, insist that any statement about the possibility of extra-scientific knowledge be examined using scientific method, which approach seems to me to have some inherent flaws in it.
We are all familiar with a number of scientific and mathematical discoveries that were not arrived at by logical process, but by an intuitive leap, an inspiration, as it were. Certainly the gaps were bridged subsequently in most cases by the appropriate intermediate logical steps; my point is that the knowledge arrived initially without the aid of these intermediate steps.
Now, there certainly exist areas of knowledge - mystical experience, for one - in which the only subsequent intermediate steps appear - at least historically - to consist of metaphors or symbols or parables of one kind or another, rather than rational process. My story, the Abyss, on this website exemplifies this quite well, as does the Buddhist tale accompanying it.
What Harris and others are suggesting is that these metaphors and symbols in the field of mystical experience get in the way of any scientific inquiry into the area.
What I venture to suggest is that the nature of scientific inquiry itself limits its applicability in this particular instance. I refer to Walter Stace's classic work Mysticism and Philosophy which is available on this site.
The basic thesis Stace advances in this book is that mysticism is an area of experience that is neither objective nor subjective, and one that is beyond the laws of logic. He sets out his basis for this conclusion with admirable clarity.
Logic is the set of rules which governs relationships between a multiplicity of things. When that multiplicity disappears in the undifferentiated unity of the mystical experience, so, according to Stace, does logic, and so does the subsequent order/disorder which Stace postulates as the feature that distinguishes objective from subjective reality.
So, rational process is appropriate for describing non-unitive reality. It breaks down when it has to deal with unitive experience. There is nothing to order, no other for anything to be related to.
And for that matter, when there is no other for me to be good or evil towards, and no other to be good or evil towards me, traditional moral structures vanish as well. The Kingdom of God sought by the mystics is not under any circumstances the Kingdom of Good at which the Pharisees aimed.
Sin is a spiritual state, not a moral one. The simplest definition of a sinner, in this sense, is "one who is separated from God", ie, a dualist. This separation is the original sin. All the rest follows from it. Scientists who are perhaps the supreme dualists are probably, therefore, by definition, among the greatest sinners. Amen. or QED, or something.
Now, there is a corollary to all this, or perhaps it's better described as a caveat.
What I am saying effectively is that mystical knowledge - direct mystical knowledge - is available only to a mystic. So, how can the public decide whether they're dealing with a mystic or a fraud? What about the spiritual leader who claimed that ordinary persons lacked the spiritual insight to evaluate his behaviour and should withhold judgement on that account?
Common sense can be used safely in cases like this, I think, and this is what the jury in fact exercised in finding him accountable and guilty as charged.
Joel Goldsmith placed no restriction on those claiming to be Infinite Way teachers or healers. He refused to certify or reject anybody. He said, had he done so he would have been wrong about a third of the time.
In the end, those who were able to realise, ie, make real, the presence of God, would thrive. The test was in the lives of the teachers and healers themselves.
Joel's income derived solely from the sale of his books and lecture tapes. Even so, he provided copies of his books free to any library that requested them. His international lecture tours catered for somewhere near 60,000 students at peak, but he insisted that the only advertising for his lectures be word of mouth. He provided no organisation that people could join, no graded hierarchy of students paying their way to certified enlightenment. Tape groups met weekly in private homes around the world to listen to tapes of his lectures. There was no charge for this, and no sales pitch, and no discussion afterwards. We simply went home with his words still with us.
The relationship was not with Joel, it was with God, realised internally. Joel's tapes simply shared his experience, confirmed, reminded us of what we knew already.