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Scholarship versus Mysticism

October 11, 2010
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I would like to begin this essay by denying that scholarship and mysticism are opposed. I know, I know, I titled the article “Scholarship versus Mysticism”. I’m a jerk. Being a jerk it is somewhat tempting to end here, making this the blog’s shortest, and most hated, essay. However, I feel that perhaps I should expand upon these thoughts.

I will start by defining mysticism, mostly because it gets used (like the word “spiritual”) to mean all sorts of really flaky things. Merriam-Webster’s Online Dictionary provides a usefully-worded answer: mystic means “having a spiritual meaning or reality that is neither apparent to the senses nor obvious to the intelligence”. This is usefully worded because it hits on both the issues that make it so hard to for scholarship and mysticism to play well together. Mysticism (and I here refer to the Christian tradition of mystic experiences, especially among those who experience them frequently within the bounds of Church life, often as monks or hermits) is concerned with things that don’t appear to involve our senses or our intelligence. It’s simply hard to talk about these things.

Hard, however, is not the same as impossible. In fact, both science and historical studies deal with uncertain and difficult bits of data all the time. I’ll use Bigfoot as my primary example because I’m a zoologist (it may be worth pointing out that I don’t believe in Bigfoot, nor have I ever heard another scientist personally assert that they do). Imagine that someone comes to me and claims to have seen Bigfoot crossing the road. A lot of people seem to assume that I must either believe this claim or reject it. In fact, I have a third route open. I can treat this report as a piece of data with components which I can accept or reject. For instance, I might reject (or treat as unverified) the identification of this creature as Bigfoot, while accepting that someone has reported that something large and hairy crossed the road. If I get a number of reports I could claim that there was some unidentified animal in the area, or, to be more cautious, I could claim that there was something about the area (without specifying if this was a local species or not) which generates a lot of sightings of creatures not identified as any species recognized by science. This is important, because we also recognize something else: if I chose to reject these sightings as pieces of data my case would look less convincing. If I said, “There’s nothing there,” and someone asked me why, despite this, two hundred people had claimed to see Bigfoot, and I said, “I don’t know, maybe they’re crazy,” that wouldn’t come across as very convincing. If I could explain why they saw something and were wrong (“I have good evidence that a group of local teenagers have been dressing up in gorilla suits and scaring people”) I would be much more convincing.

Historians do similar things when dealing with primary sources. For instance, every written source we have about Alexander the Great draws on one of five sources. Each of these five sources was written by someone who participated in the campaigns, and each one of these sources has reason to make Alexander look good. At least two of the sources also participated in large enough ways that they inevitably talk about (and probably inflate) their own roles. Rather than throwing these sources out historians try to use them with proper caution, because if they did just throw them out they would be open to the charge that the primary sources disagreed with them!

This explanation has hopefully made two points: simply because a piece of data is vague does not mean it’s not data, and mysticism threatens to upend any scholarly theory that cannot account for it. Simply put, the scholar must be able to explain or make room for the mystic, because simply insisting that the mystic doesn’t exist doesn’t work. Scholars might prefer to work on data more attuned to the methods of scholarship, but the best scholarship will be able to deal with all the data.

If we left it at this point we would have settled in a realm familiar to many Protestant Christians. The real workhorse of theology would remain scholarship, while mysticism would be an expected but often uselessly vague interjection. It would remain an intensely personal experience, interpreted primarily as a sort of emotional boost because it could not be fitted into the scholarly task which has de facto primacy. I am not content to leave it there, however, and I owe a great debt to the Orthodox for giving me the words to think about this more clearly.

Scholarship is cataphatic, a word probably not familiar to most of you, but which refers to making positive statements about things. The opposite of cataphatic is apophatic which makes negative statements. Negative and positive here do not refer to the niceness of the statement, but whether it says something is or that something isn’t. For instance, saying “Hitler was a mass murderer” is a statement about something that Hitler was and so it’s a positive (cataphatic) statement even though it’s not a nice thing to say. Saying “Jesus is not evil” is a negative statement because it states what Jesus isn’t, even though it’s a nice statement. Crucially, cataphatic statements require a lot of understanding. If I say that the object you’re hiding behind your back is a toothbrush I’m making a much more certain claim than if I claim that the object you are hiding behind your back is not my house key. The value of cataphatic statements, and the cataphatic method, is this understanding. It’s very hard to talk about things that you don’t understand, and so if we’re to get any talking done (and scholarship is about talking because it’s about convincing others of your conclusions ultimately) we need to be cataphatic most of the time.

This said, scholarship is capable of hitting a wall, and of recognizing that it has done so. (At this point you could be excused for thinking that at one point this essay was titled “How Do We Know What We Know?: Part II”.) We can determine that we can’t determine something. What’s more, we can determine that we shouldn’t be able to determine something. A simple example may be in order. In my own research I must keep in mind that most animals see in different wavelengths than humans. For instance, birds see not only in the reds, greens, and blues that humans see in (all the colors we see are a mixture of these three primary colors in light [paint has different primary colors, but this isn’t a science article]) but also ultraviolet. I can discover this but, having discovered this, I cannot then figure out what the world looks like to a bird. I can use a number of approaches which may help me understand how a bird perceives certain items, but I cannot simply imagine a world in which there is a fourth primary color (and, for some birds, probably a fifth, a higher frequency in the ultraviolet) and use my own brain’s optical centers to “look” around that world. (There are a few serious nerds reading this who are going to tell me to simply contract the spectrum. I have two words for you: opponent processing.) I’ve hit a limit at which I’ve found something I cannot really grasp, even though I can think about how it effects the world I live in.

Any halfway-decent theologian should hit this very wall. For instance, to steal liberally from the Orthodox, we know that God’s love is far beyond our love. In fact, the Orthodox would say, it’s somewhat incorrect to talk about God’s love because when we say “love” we think of what we know as humans and that’s not what God is like. God is beyond that, in the realm of the things we cannot express. What we can express are approximations about God. God is love, which is to say God is far more loving than what we mean by love. We might even say that God’s love is a spiritual reality not apparent to the intellect, because the intellect cannot talk about the inexpressible. If we were to say that we would, of course, be borrowing phrases from the definition of mysticism I quoted at the beginning of this article.

The only way we could actually approach this next level of understanding would be through mysticism and through the apophatic way, the way where we use our words expressing human-limited concepts to state what God is not.

It’s important, though, that we don’t simply leave it at “mysticism is good”. Mysticism can also be extremely prone to error, and incredibly flaky. The cataphatic, scholarly road is much more sure. It allows us to check and correct each other. We understand it much better. We live in a world which is highly amenable to this way of thinking, and it’s the intellectual muscle we spend our lives using. Given the choice of an accessible, familiar method with error-checking versus a method that is accessible only when it wants to be, is unfamiliar, and lacks more than weak error-checking the decision should be a no-brainer. Go with the first one, scholarship. However, this is not the only choice that we are presented with. This choice eventually runs out, and we are suddenly faced with another: stop progressing, or use a difficult, unfamiliar method. Again, this choice should not be hard.

There is no conflict between scholarship and mysticism. They are both strong tools, for different places. One is a foundation, the other the lofty heights. One cannot survive without a foundation, but a foundation by itself is no building at all.

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6 Comments leave one →
  1. Matthew permalink
    November 2, 2010 8:19 pm

    For the most part I agree with this post, I am sympathetic both to scholarship and mysticism.

    I do caution the point you make: “The cataphatic, scholarly road is much more sure. It allows us to check and correct each other.” This is true, dependent on the base assumptions that the pyramid is built upon. Is scripture inerrant? More strongly, is my ability to understand the context, and intent of a passage inerrant. Many of the contemporary theological debates are over a verse of two of scripture, with an assumed connection to scripture. Inerrancy would be a big one to me. See Piper v. Wright for a good example.

    Second, contemplative mysticism, I think, can be a nice mix of scholarship and mysticism. It is comfortably resting in the unknown, and living in the known. Reading scripture, meditating on it, and trying to “live” through the passages that are a bit thorny. Not a full thought, but something I’ve been thinking about. Great post.

  2. Eric permalink
    November 3, 2010 10:46 am

    I certainly agree with your second point, and I’m not so sure I disagree with the first except that failing to check one’s premises is failing to do the checking and correcting I reference.

    Now, that’s not to say that everyone is very good at checking premises or remembering to allow the effects of a changed premise to radiate down the chain of ideas (a major complaint I have with a lot of New and Old Testament scholarship) but it’s part of any responsible idea of checking and correcting.

    I’m also not a big fan of the term “inerrant” mostly because inerrant presupposes that we have a clear idea what error would consist of.

  3. Ben permalink
    November 4, 2010 8:02 pm

    So, in coming to this kind of idea, I appreciate the idea that scholarship and mysticism could exist and not be in conflict. I appreciate the attempt to state this using terms like “scholarship” and “mysticism”. However, this is indeed a framework, and I wonder where this framework comes from. If the favoring of mysticism and the critique of “scholarship” is a typical Eastern Orthodox perspective, I’d like to know what date it stems from, what concrete controversies first lead to the creation of these categories, and how “scholarship” got applied to the west. Because I would hesitate to positively affirm that these categories come directly from an experience of God.

  4. Eric permalink
    November 5, 2010 10:18 am

    Well, this perspective is often mirrored by secularists who use slightly different terms. There’s ineffable nonsense and there’s research.

  5. Ben permalink
    November 5, 2010 10:49 am

    Hmm… and I’ve visited a church recently that said that we all need to go be alone with God so that we can receive “revelation” just like the apostle Paul. Perhaps they have a dichotomy of human thinking versus divine revelation.

    Do you want to lump the various groups that make such dichotomies, and kind of address all of them in this article?

  6. Eric permalink
    November 5, 2010 11:40 am

    Yes. I chose one set of terms because I felt that these terms did a better job delineating the divisions but the article is aimed at addressing the idea that one must choose a side in this debate.

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