Thursday, September 16, 2021

Lao Tzu’s negative theology

Among the most interesting things about Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu (fl. 6th century B.C.) is that he did not exist.  Or at least, that’s what some modern scholars tell us.  I’m skeptical about his non-existence myself, and so will refer to him in what follows as if he were a real person.  In any event, that existence and non-existence are both attributed to Lao Tzu is oddly appropriate given what his classic work Tao Te Ching says about the ultimate source of things: “All things in the world come from being.  And being comes from non-being” (II, 40, Wing-Tsit Chan translation).  What does this mean?

Even the casual reader of the Tao Te Ching quickly notices its love of paradoxical formulations.  But they have a serious purpose; indeed, Lao Tzu could not say quite what he wants to say without them.  But a little stage-setting is required in order to understand what is going on.

The central concept of the Tao Te Ching is, of course, that of the Tao.  Literally, this means the “Way,” and the notion of the Way as a moral path is central to ethics and political philosophy in the Chinese tradition.  But the Tao Te Ching raises the Tao to the level of a metaphysical principle as well.  The idea is that following the Tao conceived of as the moral path of the sage and the wise statesman has to do with mirroring the Tao conceived of as the metaphysical first principle or source of all other reality.  (The Tao Te Ching, like Plato’s Republic, is no less concerned with metaphysics than it is with ethics and political philosophy – and indeed, like Plato’s classic, takes its moral and political conclusions to follow from its metaphysics.  But in the present post I’ll be focusing only on the metaphysics.)

The Tao is “the origin of Heaven and Earth” and “the mother of all things” (I,1), and “all things depend on it for life” (I, 34).  It is “eternal” (I, 32) and possesses a “simplicity” (I, 32 and 37) that is prior to the “differentiation” we find in the world around us (I,32).  Lao Tzu writes:

Tao produced the One.  The One produced the two.  The two produced the three.  And the three produced the ten thousand things.  The ten thousand things carry the yin and embrace the yang, and through the blending of the material force (ch’i) they achieve harmony. (II, 42)

In another passage, the Tao seems to be identified with “the One”; and of Heaven, Earth, gods, lords, princes, and creatures, it is said that “it is the One that makes these what they are” (II, 39, Lau translation).  As if to summarize these themes, the Tao Te Ching says:

There was something undifferentiated and yet complete, which existed before heaven and earth.  Soundless and formless, it depends on nothing and does not change.  It operates everywhere and is free from danger.  It may be considered the mother of the universe.  I do not know its name; I call it Tao.  If forced to give it a name, I shall call it Great. (I, 25, Wing-Tsit Chan translation)

So far this sounds like a kind of theism, albeit the Tao is commonly understood to be impersonal rather than a literal heavenly mother or father.  In particular, it is reminiscent of the Neo-Platonic theism that takes all differentiated and composite things to derive from an absolutely simple first cause, by way of emanation.  And since what we have here is a philosophical doctrine (even if it is not one for which detailed and rigorous explicit arguments are given) rather than a purported revelation, it amounts to a kind of natural theology.

However, we have not yet addressed the most striking aspect of this natural theology.  It is evident from the start, in the famous, haunting first lines of the Tao Te Ching: “The Tao that can be told of is not the eternal Tao; the name that can be named is not the eternal name” (I, 1).  Hence, as the passage goes on to say, the Tao is “nameless” as well as “named.”

There is paradox here, but no contradiction.  What Lao Tzu is telling us is that while of course the Tao can be named or spoken of in one sense – that’s the point of saying what we’ve so far heard him say, after all – what we are speaking about is something that ultimately cannot adequately be captured in language, because it is so radically unlike the temporary, changing, differentiated, dependent things of our experience.  In that sense it is nameless.  The best we can do is to suggest the ways in which it is not like the things of our experience – it is not temporary, not changing, not differentiated, not dependent, and so on.

In other words, the Tao Te Ching is in part an exercise in what has come to be referred to in the West as negative theology or apophatic theology.  The theme runs throughout the book.  We are told that the Tao is “empty” (I, 4) and “has no name” (I, 32).  It is the “Invisible,” the “Inaudible,” the “Elusive,” and “infinite and boundless, it cannot be given any name” (I, 14).  Though its “essence is very real,” it is “deep and obscure” (I, 21).  In the world of our experience, we find beauty and ugliness, good and evil, being and non-being, difficult and easy, long and short, high and low, front and back, and so on (I, 2); but, the implication seems to be, the Tao transcends all of these, and thus “the sage… spreads doctrines without words.”

This, I submit, explains the meaning of the remark cited above to the effect that “being comes from non-being.”  The Tao is not like any of the finite things of our experience – it is not merely one further item of furniture in the universe, not a being alongside all these other beings.  In that sense it is a kind of “non-being,” but this is not meant to imply that there is no such thing as the Tao.  After all, here Lao Tzu is affirming its existence and telling us much about it.

In an especially striking remark, he tells us that the Tao “seems to have existed before the Lord” (I, 4).  (Lau translates this as: “It images the forefather of God.”)  This is reminiscent of Paul Tillich’s notion of the “the God above God” – the idea that the God of classical theism transcends the excessively anthropomorphic conceptions of deity one finds not only among uneducated believers, but even among some theologians and philosophers. 

What exactly is the relationship between the Tao and the world?  What has been said so far might indicate that they are utterly distinct, as God and the world are taken to be in mainstream Western theism.  However, we are also told that the Tao “is to the world as the River and the Sea are to rivulets and streams” (I, 32, Lau translation).  This seems to imply a continuity between the Tao and the world, as rivers and seas are continuous with rivulets and streams.  Indeed, as Frederick Copleston notes in his book Religion and the One: Philosophies East and West, the Tao Te Ching says that the Tao “moves” by “turning back” (II, 40).  Copleston says that all of this “suggests that the One is the universe, which pursues a cyclic course, producing the Many in a process of self-transformation, absorbing them into itself, and then reproducing them once more” (p. 46).

How does this square with the idea that the Tao is changeless, given that the world is changing?  Copleston proposes that we interpret the Tao Te Ching through the lens of the distinction drawn in later Chinese philosophy between substance and function.  The substance of the Tao, on this interpretation, is the Tao considered in itself, which is one, timeless, and unchanging.  The function of the Tao is the Tao considered in terms of its manifestation in the world of our experience, which is many, temporal, and changing.

This doesn’t quite imply pantheism, since there isn’t a complete collapse here of the distinction between Tao and world.  But the distinction is arguably sufficiently attenuated that we have a kind of panentheism.  I would propose that “apophatic panentheism” might be an apt label for Lao Tzu’s brand of natural theology.

77 comments:

  1. Dr. Feser, you might enjoy some Christian engagements with Taoism, namely Christ the Eternal Tao by Hieromonk Damascene, written from an Orthodox perspective. The author learned from Seraphim Rose, who immersed himself deeply into Chinese thought before turning to Orthodoxy.

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    1. I was going to recommend this book, with caveats; the author depends extensively on Catholic authors, artists, translators and reference to institutions, without indicating their Catholic origin or association (for example, John Ching Hsiung Wu, who tutored thomas Merton in his rendering of Chuang Tzu as "the way of chuang tzu"). Now an Abbot, Damascene has distanced himself from the book, I'm sure it's noted elsewhere, but this I had heard from someone who had discussed it with him. There are contemporary Asian authors on Tao/Dao and 'chi' as a classical concept in 'the east', and Christian Pneumatology, I will try to addend some titles shortly. On panentheism, "in whom we live and move and have our being" ed. Clayton/Peacocke, has two sections on 'Orthodox' and 'Western' Christian perspectives, including M. Kallistos Ware, Andrew Louth and Denis Edwards (Australian Catholic U).

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    2. @Anon,

      Could you go into more detail about how or why Damascene distanced himself from his book?

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    3. JoeD; I wish I could, but the person I had heard it from had visited the monastery for a lecture where questions were asked, and he'd asked him regarding the book and the abbot noted he not longer supported what he'd written, there wasn't any detail. He was a student of Seraphim Rose and ROCOR, so probably having personally 'moved on' from anything regarding another religion in a collegial way.

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  2. It is quite close to the metaphysics of Adi Shankara's Advaita Vedanta, a metaphysics and vision of consciousness so fascinating and profound that I wish Thomistic thinkers would look more into it (apart from the Calcutta school, there is not much). Very good article!

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    1. Well, thomists seem a bit closed-up, i guess. The recent interactions with naturalists seemed to be caused more by necessity that anything else. Maybe it can be only a impression of mine, but it does look like the average thomist, tends to dedicate more time to internal subjects.

      But speaking of Shankara, since reading Nagarjuna i got the impression that there is a kinda thick language barrier between thomism and indian philosophy, just like between thomism and modern philosophy, so i can see why there is not much interaction(besides, you know, they being relevant on diferent places).

      For instance, the buddhist seemed to take "substance" as that which is essencially independent of everything else and so aways the same, his arguments against it depends in that. If this is the meaning that Shankara took for granted, it could explain why he takes only Brahman as actually real, and a thomist would agree if asked with a diferent wording. This makes misunderstandings pretty easy, so it could help explain why few thomists bother knowing these ideas.

      Not that Adi and Aquinas agreed on much, something like creation ex nihilo would be insanity for a indian mind, for instance, but Aquinas itself probably would try to read Shankara if he knew it.

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    2. @ Om

      I don't mean to sound dismissive, but what is there for the Thomist to engage with? In terms of theology, to the extent Advaita is a Vedantic position, precisely, the Thomist, who does not recognise the authority of the Vedas, does not have much to work with, unless, of course, actual evidence for said authority is forthcoming (to be dealt with in apologetics). Philosophically, let's just say it's not at all clear that Advaita is, strictly speaking, a philosophical metaphysics, rather than a “revealed” account fleshed out in terms of metaphysics/with metaphysical implications. Would you say it's possible to arrive at Advaitin conclusions apodictically, without reliance on the Vedas or private revelation, but merely through employing what the Thomist would call the natural light of reason? Would attempting this be feasible or even legitimate, given Advaitin positions?

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    3. Yes it is true that language is a barrier (less so than with Nagarjuna I think), but we are no longer in the early 20th century and now there have been attempts to translate and rephrase the Vedanta arguments in more modern and analytical terms (with Eliot Deutsch "Advaita Vedanta : A Philosophical Reconstruction" or with Chandradhar Sharma "The Advaita Tradition in Indian Philosophy" for example), or even in near neo-Thomistic terms with Guénon.

      I would not go so far as to say that the Thomists are closed-up, the Thomist school of Calcutta has produced very interesting work. I would just say that it took them a while to think that there might be some interesting things to be found in the pagan philosophies of the East.

      "If this is the meaning that Shankara took for granted, it could explain why he takes only Brahman as actually real"

      Yes, this is a good example. What the vedantins call "real" is that which is "absolutely real", eternal and unchanging, i.e. that which is fully Being, where we also speak of real for the "less real" beings that receive their existence. Once the definitions are clarified, the Thomist and the Vedantin would agree: only the Absolute IS fully and absolutely, the rest exists in radical dependence.

      "Not that Adi and Aquinas agreed on much"

      I think that the two come together on more issues than one might think at first glance. On that, I refer to the articles "Beyond the Dualism of Creature and Creator" by Daniel John Soars and "Advaita Vedanta and Christian Faith" by Bradley Malkovsky.

      "something like creation ex nihilo would be insanity for a indian mind"

      Daniel John Soars has a whole chapter on this in his article and he argues that "the unique manner of divine originative causality which Christians call ‘creation’ is much closer conceptually to the Vedāntic idea of satkāryavāda than first appearances might suggest". So who knows?

      "Aquinas itself probably would try to read Shankara if he knew it."

      It is certain, and I can only dream of the synthesis he would have made of it... I honestly think that Adi Shankara could perhaps have inspired him as much as Aristotle! At least on the nature of the subject/mind/soul and the mystical experience. Moreover, there is a lot of work to be done on the explanation of the other mystics, and apart from an article by Garrigou-Lagrange ("Prémystique naturelle et mystique surnaturelle") I haven't seen much.

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    4. @Mancz Pompon

      "I don't mean to sound dismissive, but what is there for the Thomist to engage with?"

      The theological-philosophical arguments that this tradition gives about the nature of God, of the self, of mysticism, etc.

      "Would you say it's possible to arrive at Advaitin conclusions apodictically, without reliance on the Vedas or private revelation, but merely through employing what the Thomist would call the natural light of reason?"

      Yes, totally. Bernardo Kastrup, for example, is a contemporary thinker who arrives at a somewhat similar position solely on the basis of his reason.

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    5. @Om

      I need to read the articles you mentioned. From their abstracts, they are probably going in interesting directions, even if i'am pretty happy with the creature/Creator thing :)
      About language, exactly. The vedantists and other pagan mystics seems to understand suprisingly well how diferent God is from the world and their works show how hard it is to understand and describe how things are. As a believer on Christ revelation(not excluding the jews, of course), i say that metaphysics is hard even while knowing the Creed!

      And yea, it is sad that St. Thomas was itself a mystic but never writed on it. I never founded a thomistic take on it before and it is sure a important part of catholic spirituality(besides other faiths).

      Also, i would not really compare Shankara with Kastrup, the indian had a very diferent mindset. Bernardo is a contemporany man that saw some problems with the materialist paradigm.

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    6. "And yea, it is sad that St. Thomas was itself a mystic but never writed on it. I never founded a thomistic take on it before and it is sure a important part of catholic spirituality(besides other faiths)."

      You may be interested in the book "The Ground of Union: Deification in Aquinas and Palamas", which deals with the question of mysticism in Aquinas' writings.

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    7. Here is a paragraph from Prof. Feser: "We are told that the Tao is “empty” (I, 4) and “has no name” (I, 32). It is the “Invisible,” the “Inaudible,” the “Elusive,” and “infinite and boundless, it cannot be given any name” (I, 14). Though its “essence is very real,” it is “deep and obscure” (I, 21). In the world of our experience, we find beauty and ugliness, good and evil, being and non-being, difficult and easy, long and short, high and low, front and back, and so on (I, 2); but, the implication seems to be, the Tao transcends all of these, and thus “the sage… spreads doctrines without words.”

      There is a classic work that has some relevance to this: "The Silence of St. Thomas," by Josef Pieper. I would recommend it for any Thomist; or really, just anyone.

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    8. @Om

      Actually, i did read this book and it is very good. It is just that i don't remember it going deep on mystic experience, more on how it happens on St. Thomas thought and its effects.

      Describing it, the phenomenology, that is more the job of other saints like St. Therese of Avila.

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    9. @ Om

      “The theological-philosophical arguments that this tradition gives about the nature of God, of the self, of mysticism, etc.”

      Concurring with Chris below, I submit that this response seems question-begging. What reason does a Thomist have for engaging with arguments ultimately based on the authority of the Vedas/renowned teachers (such as Badarayana) and presumed content of supposed mystical experiences? For any of this to be sufficiently philosophically interesting (apart from the method employed in treating such topics), the positions in question have to be argued for philosophically. To the best of my knowledge, the key, cornerstone doctrine of Advaita, that of the identity of atman with Brahman, is not established via philosophical argument, but is rather “revealed”/ (supposedly) intuited mystically. As the Thomist qua such does not concede the corresponding premises and isn’t, seemingly, at least, given reasons to do so, this seems to vitiate the value of the exploration you propose with respect to all of the items you mention.

      An example to illustrate my point: Trinitarian theology is articulated with a great degree of philosophical sophistication in the Catholic tradition, but per se it is of small philosophical interest, and recognition of the truth of Christian revelation is, rationally, a prerequisite of taking theological interest in it.

      “Yes, totally. Bernardo Kastrup, for example, is a contemporary thinker who arrives at a somewhat similar position solely on the basis of his reason.”

      I’m admittedly ill-versed Kastrup’s thought, but Advaita Vedanta is to my knowledge markedly different from his idealism; does he perchance attempt to demonstrate, in the Scholastic sense, the truth of “tat tvam asi”? Does anyone in the actual Advaitin tradition, for that matter? That would be more to the point.

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    10. I confess it's been a long time since I read the article, from memory he says that their mysticism is a prefiguration of the Christian mystical life. This is why he speaks of "natural premysticism/mysticism", to be distinguished from the supernatural mysticism of the Church.

      I quote:

      "True mysticism, which involves and at least soon prepares the quasi-experiential knowledge of God present in us, is not possible outside the state of grace; but outside the state of grace there can be natural premysticism and also diabolic influences. This natural premysticism can exist at the same time as present graces which dispose us to salvific acts not yet meritorious; it can even exist in souls in a state of grace, who perform meritorious acts, as we have seen in particular in Christian philosophers of Platonic tendency.

      (...)

      On the subject of this natural contemplation we must remember what Ruysbroeck and Tauler say about it. The latter says in Sermon LV, 5: "If anyone were to look upon this path (of high contemplation) with undue freedom and false light, it would be the most regrettable way of doing things that one could have at the time. The path that leads to this end must pass through the adorable life and passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ... It is through this lovable door that one must pass by forcing nature, by exercising oneself in virtue with humility, gentleness and patience. Know this for a fact: he who does not go this way will end up going astray[41]". This remark is certainly made for Christians, but it shows what an immense difference there is between supernatural contemplation and that found in Plotinus or Proclus.

      Finally, let us recall the reasons why true mysticism, although it is the normal development of the life of grace, is, like perfect docility to the Holy Spirit, a rare thing even in the visible Church, even in religious orders, where there is nevertheless the help of the sacraments, daily communion. Although it is part of the normal development of the life of grace, the mystical life remains a summit, and where it exists it often does not go beyond the fourth abode or the prayer of quietude. The reason for this is that it usually requires as conditions purity of heart, simplicity of mind, true humility, love of recollection, perseverance in prayer, and fervent charity, which is obtained by making the best use of the great means given to us by the Church, the sacraments, Holy Communion, and by allowing oneself to be formed by the liturgy and the supernatural study of sacred doctrine. This set of conditions is not frequently found even among Catholics, let alone among those who do not visibly belong to the Church.

      And so, without denying in the least that pagans receive sufficient graces which enable them, if they do not resist them, to arrive at the infused faith of the truths absolutely necessary for salvation and charity,[42] it could be that the "experience of the divine" which is thought to be noticed in many "mystics from outside" is most often only a kind of natural premysticism, profoundly distinct from the true one, which is essentially supernatural. If there are some attempts at the latter, they seem to be only of short duration or to go no further than the lower degrees of quasi-experiential knowledge of God. "

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    11. @Mancz Pompon

      "Concurring with Chris below, I submit that this response seems question-begging. What reason does a Thomist have for engaging with arguments ultimately based on the authority of the Vedas (...) To the best of my knowledge, the key, cornerstone doctrine of Advaita, that of the identity of atman with Brahman, is not established via philosophical argument"

      This is where I said I disagree, the Advaita Vedanta thinkers do rely on scripture but they don't just assert dogma, the main metaphysical points are argued philosophically, by reason, in the same way that Aquinas relied on scripture but argued rationally.

      "I'm admittedly ill-versed Kastrup's thought, but Advaita Vedanta is to my knowledge markedly different from his idealism"

      Obviously his idealism is different, but he comes to several points close to Vedanta metaphysics by reason alone: for example, that there is only one consciousness, that our deepest consciousness is identical with the universal consciousness, etc.

      "does he perchance attempt to demonstrate, in the Scholastic sense, the truth of “tat tvam asi”? Does anyone in the actual Advaitin tradition, for that matter? That would be more to the point."

      Yes, there are philosophical arguments for each of these points. Arguments that we are really our consciousness and not our person/identity, that consciousness is one, that Brahman is, at the absolute level, indeterminate and non-dual, that the supreme personal God cannot be the Absolute, etc.

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    12. Thanks Om, i had no way of knowing aline what he said! Garrigou seems to anticipate some thoughts i also had about pagan mystics in a more ordered way, while i admit that my thoughts on these lack order. Maybe he could had argued for the diference between these two experiences, but maybe he finded that arguing against monism(as he did at least indirectly on other places) was enough.

      And oh boy, i wonder how much interesting texts out there are ignored on their native places and even more outside.

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    13. @ Om

      If this is correct, I suppose we can identify at least one reason for the lack of greater engagement with Advaita on the part of Thomists: your presentation of the nature of the enterprise differs substantially from the one (at least) some of us are familiar with. Would you be so kind as to direct us to the representative loci in Advaitin literature, apart from your secondary literature recommendations above?

      We could also attempt to make a difference and start discussing such arguments right away! If you were to present the first argument, I would be very grateful. The announced reductive (?) argument is really intriguing; I'm really curious if “consciousness” is the subject of philosophising on this account.

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  3. To understand how the apophatic panentheism of Eastern religions is close to Aquinas' vision, I refer you to Daniel John Soars' article "Beyond the Dualism of Creature and Creator".

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  4. Would this be an Eastern parallel to the Christian distinction between the economic and immanent Trinity?

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  5. So, Prof: Are you teaching a class in Eastern Philosophy this semester?

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    1. Nah, just finally getting to some posts that I've been meaning to write up for a long time.

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  6. Curious to see so many hopeful things lifted from Tao only to have it consigned to the pyre by Father Copleston SJ, along with Bruno and panentheism.

    Evidently Tao is just the universe and therefore not God. The antipathy of naturalism for a personal and speaking God has nothing to do with being in touch with the true God. All mankind has at least a corrupted memory of God making himself known and speaking (and not in an indirect, metaphorical sense), as this happened as soon as mankind was even able to think about such things.

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    1. "Evidently Tao is just the universe"

      No. The metaphysical panentheism of Eastern religions condemns pantheism, and therefore naturalism. About Advaita Vedanta metaphysics, which is quite close to Taoism, I quote ​Guénon:

      The Vêdânta, by the very fact that it is purely metaphysical, presents itself essentially as adwaita-vâda or 'doctrine of non-duality'; we have explained the meaning of this expression by differentiating metaphysical thought from philosophical thought. In order to make its scope as clear as possible, we shall now say that, while Being is "one", the Supreme Principle, designated as Brahma, can only be said to be "without duality", because, being beyond all determination, even of Being which is the first of all, it cannot be characterised by any positive attribution: so requires its infinity, which is necessarily the absolute totality, comprising in itself all possibilities. There can be nothing, therefore, which is really outside Brahma, for such a supposition would be tantamount to limiting him; as an immediate consequence, the world, understood by this word in the widest possible sense, the whole of universal manifestation, is not distinct from Brahma, or, at least, is only distinguished from him in an illusory mode. However, on the other hand, Brahma is absolutely distinct from the world, since none of the determinative attributes which are appropriate to the world can be applied to him, the whole of universal manifestation being rigorously null with regard to its infinity; and it will be noticed that this irreciprocity of relation entails the formal condemnation of "pantheism", as well as of all "immanentism". Moreover, "pantheism", if we want to keep a sufficiently precise and reasonable meaning to this denomination, is inseparable from "naturalism", which amounts to saying that it is clearly anti-metaphysical; it is therefore absurd to see "pantheism" in the Vedanta, and yet this idea, however absurd it may be, is the one most commonly held by Westerners, even specialists: This is certainly what gives Orientals who know what "pantheism" really is, a high idea of the value of European science and the perspicacity of its representatives!
      - Introduction Générale à l’Étude des Doctrines hindoues, chap. XIV. Le Vêdânta, p. 261-262

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    2. Can you elaborate on this negative appraisal of Tao? I know C.S. Lewis liked to talk about Tao as a kind of Estern version of Natural law. Is it completely irredeemable in your eyes? I always thought of it as one of those elements of truth that can be contained in other religions.

      Not sure what you mean in your second paragraph. Perhaps you can point to where these ideas are described and who holds them?

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    3. @Miguel

      One can't ignore the pagans errors, of course, but saying that the taoists are even close to naturalists is pretty mean. They clearly believe in a superior principle and do try to forget this empirical world to try to connect to the Tao. In even having a spirituality, and not "scientific-tested theraphy" or other modern crap, they are way above the naturalists, no?

      Several saints showed a degree of respect to some greek and roman figures because of their inteligent ideas and good morals, we can and should do the same with the higher non-christian figures. All in all, they sure have more elements of truth that today unbelievers and one does not need to ignore rhe truth of our faith to see that.

      Just look at the Guénon* quote, which naturalist can you see agreeing with that? They would see him as they see us...


      *who had some suprisingly good takes on modernity, btw. His criticism of protestantism are also awesome

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    4. "*who had some suprisingly good takes on modernity, btw."

      His half-Neo-Thomistic, half-Hindu analysis of modernity in "The Reign of Quantity" is, I find, fascinating.

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    5. I did read his "The Crisis of the Modern World" and was impressed on how much his thinking was similar to things you read on Dr. Feser and other catholics criticism of the modern views. He sure had a classical mindset.

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    6. If you liked his "The Crisis of the Modern World", don't hesitate to read his "The Reign of Quantity", which is his most accomplished analysis of modernity and the times to come!

      For each of the three main areas of his work (modernity, symbolism, metaphysics) he has written several books, from the most accessible to the most advanced.

      Yes, as you rightly point out, he obviously has a classical and traditional spirit. Let us not forget that he had a Thomistic education, and always remained in contact and dialogue (or debate) with neo-Thomistic circles throughout his life.

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    7. I did not knew that René had contact with thomism, that is interesting.

      And yea, i do have to read more of him on future.

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    8. @talmid

      Guenon cites Thomas quite a few times in the Reign of Quantity and he was friends, for a time, with Jacques maritain. Although Maritain came to be extremely critical of Guenon in his later years.

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  7. Taoist philosophy is in many ways Classic Theism in the Far East.

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  8. I'm nervous about the designation 'theology'--or at least an overhasty designation. By all means correct me if I'm wrong, but I suspect the choice to call what's going on in the Tao Te Ching 'theology' stems from the fact that the Tao is understood to be the ultimate metaphysical principle which grounds the existence of everything else (the 'ten thousand things'). In this regard, I think Dr. Feser is right to point out the connection with Neo-Platonism, but it's much more than Neo-Platonism, and the commenter 'Om' above takes the conversation where it needs to go, viz. Shankara and the Advaita Vedanta.

    In general, I'd really like to hear more of your thoughts on mysticism, Dr. Feser, as I know you've been critical of some aspects of it in the past (most recently, your criticism of DBH's identification of nous with atman and the seeming collapse into monism this entails (and you're right about that--it does seem to entail monism).

    But Lao Tzu (and Zhuangzi and the Liezi) are also robustly monist, albeit in a different way, and the cornerstone of Taoism is (I [following Burton Watson, Ninian Smart, R.C. Zaehner, etc. etc.]) think, mystical experience, and more specifically what writers in comparative mysticism call 'nature mysticism' or 'extrovertive mysticism' (Zaehner called it pan-en-henism, because he rightly saw there was nothing essentially theistic about it). The monism of the classical Taoists is not the monism of Shankara or the Samkhya yogins--it's the monism of many Zen Buddhists (as opposed to the nirvana of the Theravadins and Mahayanists), and the monism of nature mystics the world around (many of the Romantics fall in this camp): it's about shedding the intellect, the part of the mind responsible for rational and ethical discrimination; once reason (but not the senses) are transcended, there are no more distinct things--all becomes one and one becomes all. This is extrovertive mystical consciousness, and it is this that philosophical Taoism (and in particular the Tao Te Ching) is consistently encouraging the student to achieve. Chapter 19 lays out beautifully the path to (Taoist) enlightenment: "banish learning, discard knowledge, people will gain a hundredfold. Banish benevolence, discard righteousness people will return to duty and compassion...Look at plain silk, hold uncarved wood. The self dwindles, desires fade" (cf. ch. 19: "Banish learning, no more grief; ch. 16: "Great Tao rejected, benevolence and righteousness appear.")

    Also noteworthy is that the Taoists are consistently polemicizing against the Confucians--it is the Confucians who by 'inventing' ideas about good and evil, distinctions between things and their essences, etc. reject Tao. That is, Taoism is a self-conscious repudiation of Confucian ethics and rationality--Taoism is, as Zaehner once said, the "hippie charter" par excellence.

    I've gone on too long, but all this is to submit (with all due respect) that you may have, perhaps, missed the real core of what the Tao Te Ching is after; but once the mystical strain of the text is recognized, there are some seriously interesting questions to be asked of many classical theists once the transition is made to introvertive mysticism (of which many Neo-Platonists are a key instance)--both Christian and Islamic (many of whom were clearly monists).

    I wondered, too, if you had come across R.C. Zaehner? He has a fascinating change of opinion vis-a-vis classical theism and comparative mysticism in his final book 'Our Savage God', but his Gifford Lectures are phenomenal too.

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  9. PS. I see someone recommended Soars' article above. I read that a few weeks back, actually, and the argument is, by my lights, pretty on target. Augustine's mystical ascent in book 9 of Confessions, for instance, could have been written by any non-Christian Platonist, and that for me raises a number of very serious questions not many Christian philosophers of religions are asking.

    Some of you may be interested in a paper of mine, just Google: "The Challenge of Mysticism: a Primer from a Christian Perspective". I touch there on Merton and Abhishiktananda and some others--may be of interest (or it may not be).

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    1. Your paper was very interesting; thanks for mentioning it. I think a difficulty with some of the broader concerns you are drawing is that they are based on a narrow conception of mystical experience, whereas actual broader implications can only really be assessed on the full panoply of mystical experiences. If you only look at strongly unitive, revelatory, self-certifying experiences, you will naturally be pushed to a narrow band of positions, like monism; but mystical experiences are of all kinds -- there are mystical experiences of severance and remoteness (i.e., anti-unitive), mystical experiences that strip away one's certainty in truths rather than revealing anything, mystical experiences that are intensely ambiguous and uncertain, mystical experiences that are in themselves noncognitive, mystical experiences that are eventually repudiated as false, deceptive, or diabolical, and so forth. And here, as elsewhere, all very general concerns on the basis of experience need to be based on a fairly generous selection of relevant experiences, since we interpret experiences in light of other experiences.

      You're right that Neoplatonism is very relevant here, since Neoplatonism is a philosophical approach with a strongly experiential element (unlike, say, analytic philosophy, which has never been very experiential even in its primary domains).

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    2. Very interesting. I too had written a little text on the frictions I saw between mystical experiences and orthodox Abrahamic doctrines, especially from a soteriological point of view (the same mystical experiences seem to transcend religious boundaries, which is quite difficult to reconcile with a hard exclusivist soteriology, especially when you take into account in the balance the atheistic - but not without Absolute - religions like Buddhism).

      If you read French (or are willing to play with DeepL/Google Translate!), there is an excellent article by Garrigou-Lagrange on this question: "Prémystique naturelle et mystique supernaturelle". He identifies the problem perfectly, I quote (and translate):

      Moreover, as a missionary who is very familiar with these matters recently wrote to us, it is very easy, with the right choice - and is it not on choices of this kind that we base ourselves? - to group together a large number of descriptive texts of these mystics "from outside" who seem to express themselves, with a striking similarity of terms, like Saint John of the Cross on the essentials of the mystical life. And it will come down to this:

      a) For all: the essence of contemplation is indeed the general, loving, confused, indistinct knowledge, "without forms or images" that the Doctor of Carmel teaches.

      b) For all: the practical conduct to be held in contemplation is a kind of universal "nada", and consists in "abstracting the understanding from any particular notion" (Ascent of Mount Carmel, l. II, c. XII), and in "going about loving attention in God, without wanting to specify anything" (Vive Flamme, III, 3, § 6).

      c) For all of them (and this is perhaps the most remarkable) the apogee and perfection of the mystical life exists when the soul, "transformed totally into its Beloved", has become "God by participation" (Cantique spirituel, XXII).

      It seems, then, that all these souls, by whatever path they have progressed, with or without the help of the infallible doctrine and the sacraments of the visible Church, meet at the summit. Do they really come together?

      The question, we see, is most important:

      If, as we admit, the same sanctifying grace is presupposed in these diverse souls, it so happens that, from the point of view set forth above, everything would seem to happen as if this grace (together with faith in the first two truths of the supernatural order that God, the author of salvation, that God, the author of salvation, exists and rewards good works, and with charity) was sufficient to reach even the highest degrees of supernatural union with God, without the need for explicit knowledge of the mystery of the redemptive Incarnation and for the reception of the sacraments. This explicit faith in the divine person of the Saviour, his examples, the sacraments, the teachings and directions of the Church would then seem to provide the Catholic with only a secondary, not to say accidental, help, a greater security, the essential being elsewhere and above.

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    3. Brandon,

      You're absolutely right--and that's half of the difficulty there, getting clear on what is meant by 'mysticism'. By all means let's respect the full range of such experiences, create a rough typology, and proceed from there. There are a couple of reasons, though, that strongly unitive mystical experiences receive the bulk of the attention. First, no one disputes that these count as mystical (many of Teresa's experiences, for instance, might be considered 'numinous' rather than 'mystical' by some). Second--and probably more importantly--it is often the case that dualistic stages of mystic consciousness climax in a monistic interval which is the red meat, so to speak, of the mystical ascent--the preceding dualistic intervals are mere appetizers. But I do take your point! I'm glad you found the paper of some use.

      Om,

      Where exactly does the Garrigou-Lagrange quote end? I take it everything but the first two paragraphs is quoted material?

      I haven't read him on mysticism, and I'm very grateful for your translation here (I don't have French!). I agree that he sets the problem up nicely, and he gets a lot right. A couple of comments though.

      (1) I'm not convinced contemplation is an exercise in love "for all". Certainly many non-theistic mystics would resist the idea of 'love' being present--to me that looks distinctly like Christian assumptions being read into non-Christian mystical experience. For me, the jury's still out on many Christian mystics here: is love something phenomenally given in the experience itself, or is that just read into the experience later in light of their Christian faith?

      (2) One man's modus ponens is another man's modus tollens. Garrigou-Lagrange seems to want to argue:

      1. If non-Christian contemplation is the same as Christian contemplation, then (a) sanctifying grace is present and active in all people (at least when they meditate in the right way), (b) the highest degrees of supernatural union with God can be achieved without the need for knowledge of Christ, reception of the sacraments, etc.
      2. Non-Christian contemplation and Christian contemplation seem to be the same.
      3. Therefore, (a) and (b).

      I'm not Catholic, but I strongly suspect that conclusion would contradict a number of de fide dogmas; certainly it seems to contradict a good deal of biblical teaching. A Christian might well just deny the consequent and conclude:

      3*: Non-Christian and Christian contemplation are not the same.

      The alternative (which I'd tentatively endorse) would be to deny that there is any essential connection between 'contemplation' and 'sanctifying grace' or even 'God'. When you steep yourself in the mystical literature, it becomes quite difficult seriously to contest (2); if one is inclined to think Christianity unique (and true), then, it seems like you need to go with Miguel Cervantes below and say, "whatever these guys are doing, it's not Christian".

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    4. "I take it everything but the first two paragraphs is quoted material?"

      Yes.

      "One man's modus ponens is another man's modus tollens. Garrigou-Lagrange seems to want to argue (...) I'm not Catholic, but I strongly suspect that conclusion would contradict a number of de fide dogmas"

      No, the argument you present is not the one Garrigou-Lagrange defends, I should have specified that my quotation was obviously partial, and I was quoting him mainly because I find that he poses the problem well. In this quote, he exposes the argument that you describe, and that was put forward to him, and he spends the rest of the article answering it, because of course, as you have noticed, such an argument would attack many dogmatic foundations of the Catholic faith, which he did not accept. As he says just afterwards:

      Moreover, would not St. John of the Cross himself (who, in reality, it goes without saying, bases his entire mysticism on the fullness of the Revelation given by Our Lord, on the explicit knowledge of the mystery of the Cross perpetuated on the altar during the Mass and on the sacraments) seem, in the end, to define and describe contemplation in a way that would no longer be specifically Christian and Catholic, by means of notes and definitions which, in fact, are used to 'recognize' and 'authenticate' mystics from outside? Would this sufficiently safeguard the words of Jesus: "I am the way, the truth and the life"?

      The question thus posed is a serious one. If we follow the first tendency, which we have mentioned and which presents itself in more or less accentuated forms, will we not, under the pressure of present-day syncretism, gradually lose the sense of true contemplation, which is called by St. Paul the sense of Christ (I Cor., II, 16)? This is the question posed by the missionary mentioned above.

      The answer will undoubtedly be that the doctrine of implicit faith goes against this very syncretism and in no way means that explicit faith and the sacraments have only an accidental value.

      End of quote.

      "A Christian might well just deny the consequent and conclude:
      3*: Non-Christian and Christian contemplation are not the same."

      Yes, this is one of the possible answers that I touched on in my little text on the subject, and which I do not find convincing.

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    5. @Daniel123

      Interesting point that i remember noticing too. It truly is bizarre on a christian worldview that the pagans so have these kinda of high spiritual experiences. I admit that it is not expected. A couple of diferent possible answers that get into my mind are:

      1. God could just choose to reveal Himself to certain mystics on a very intimate way even while they do not know the christian religion. I remember finding, thanks to a tip on this blog, a part from one of Aquinas works were he(citing St. Augustine) defends that God could make miracles to the pagans in certain contexts. I think that the name of the work is "On the Power of God" or something like that and the example used is a history about a roman girl who got a miracle who helped her defend her chastity or something like that.

      Naturaly, the question would be them "why don't God never reveals the christian religion to this mystic?", and the christian could respond that maybe if the mystic just turned into a christian them history would go into a direction that God doed not want. Kinda like some answers to the divine hiddeness arguments.

      2. Maybe these experiences could be caused naturaly by using technics to put yourself on certain brain states, like materialists claim they are, and only the christian experiences are caused by God, the pagans by their brains. The diference between the pagan and the christian mystic them would be like between a guy who sees Jesus on front of him because of a hallucination and someone who see Jesus because He is actually there on the guy front(like St. Faustina is said to have seen Him).

      The thing here is that maybe these mystical experiences could only be caused by a supernatural being, it looks like so but i don't know the subject well, so this explanation would not work. It also would undercut a argument from mystical experience to God.

      3. Maybe demons could be capable of causing mystical experiences and so these pagan mystics were decieved by they. This would fit with St. Augustine explanation of most pagan miracles and also with the cases on catholicism of several so-called mystics who showed amazing experiences and powers but were frauds(aparently a very normal thing on monastic contexts, at least a few centuries ago).

      The thing here is that maybe demons could not be capable of causing these experiences. But the christian could just argue that they could, their limits are not that clear, really.

      4. Maybe the christian could admit that this is a very bizarre thing if christianity is true but that if religious universalism is true them it is even more bizarre that a exclusivistic religion(and therefore wrong) that is suported by miracles, has produced so much amazing saints, has changed history so much, was and is the spirituality of so much people and has so much mystics like the christian faith exist, so when we consider all the empirical evidence the christian faith has more chance of being true.

      One could them give reasons why something like christianity would have so much even while beibg wrong, argue that christianity is straight-up false or argue that christianity is actually universalist.


      That would be the answers i could think of. As a christisn myself, i day is truly a very strange fact that pagans have so many mystics.

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    6. @Om very interesting that Garrigou touched on that, it bothers me that few seems to notice it. Could you say how he tried to respond to the problem? Sadly, i don't know french and i doubt that internet translators would help much.

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    7. Hey Talmid,

      I can read French and have read the article.

      The problem he is trying to respond to is the idea that there is some kind of universal mysticism that all lead to the same summit of contemplation of the divine, due to some similarities they appear to have.

      He first talks about the two extremes to avoid:

      1-Extreme naturalism that denies all supernatural revelation. He specifically points to Spinoza her and his successors as examples. All religions, on this account, are just natural evolutions of a common religious sentiment. Implicit in this is a pelagianism that teaches that you can work your way to union with “divinity”. All you need is a proper education.
      2-Extreme super-naturalism that believes human nature to be so entirely corrupted after the fall that they can do nothing naturally speaking in relation to grace or towards obtaining union with God.

      The Catholic doctrine is that we can naturally accomplish good acts without the need for sanctifying. Anyone can do morally good works, whether they be Catholic or not. A person may even have a sort of love for God as the author of nature. He calls such a love in-efficacious though. By this I take it he means it cannot attain to divine union. They are also provided with what he called Actual Graces which they can cooperate with to do good works that will get them to a point where they get Habitual Graces, which is the basis for even acts that are meritorious in the eyes of God.

      He then quotes from Pius XI who talks about invincible ignorance, a doctrine original taught by Aquinas on account to noble pagans before the time of Christ who could be saved, which Pius applies to those who have never had a real opportunity to receive the Gospel. So long as they observe the natural law, they can obtain divine illuminations and graces from God such that they can receive the life of Grace, the germ of glory, and be saved. Such as these belong to the soul of the church.

      So this Catholic doctrine avoid the extreme of naturalism which denies the necessity of grace and the extreme of super-naturalism which denies that God offers to all adults sufficient graces to accomplish the precepts necessary for salvation.

      Within this context he says that belonging to the Catholic Church is a great grace and specifically mentions the benefit of infallible teachings, the holy sacrifice of the mass, and the other sacraments. Thus the need to send out missionaries to the ends of the world.

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    8. "@Om very interesting that Garrigou touched on that, it bothers me that few seems to notice it. Could you say how he tried to respond to the problem? Sadly, i don't know french and i doubt that internet translators would help much."

      Small mistake on my part, I answered above. :)

      This message:
      "I confess it's been a long time since I read the article, ..."

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    9. He next talks about two tendencies that are within the realm of orthodoxy when talking about these mystics that are outside of the church.

      1-Because we believe sanctifying grace, faith, infused grace and charity can exist in souls that are not part of the church, then this means there must also be many more real mystics out there to discover than we originally thought. Such as these talk about Islamic, Hindu, and Buddhist mystics as real mystics. Comparisons between such as these and Theresa of Avila or John of the Cross are often made.

      However, he states, this is the boundaries of nature and grace and it is not only dangerous but easy, to make false parallels, false generalizations, false conclusions when comparing.

      He states, even if we admit that the life of mystical union is the summit of the life of Grace, it is still the summit! Can we really expect to easily find this outside of the bounds of the church and her teachings? This summit is only rarely reached by actual Catholics after all, even in those religious order who have the so much supernatural lights, many examples, many graces, and in particular, the sacraments that are received daily! We can only assume that deprived of all of these benefits, it must be really difficult for a non Catholic to get to the same place!

      Now, it is within the context of this point 1 that we get to the point that OM quoted at September 18, 2021 at 8:47 PM. Note that he is quoting a missionary who wrote to him that it is very easy to develops this kind of universal mysticism idea. But this is precisely the kind of easy choice that Garrigou is warning us against in point 1. He asks the pointed question – Although they seem to share all these similarities and come together into one summit, do they really though?

      He goes on to cite the doctrine of implicit faith in Christ to solve the problem of this apparent syncretism and to show that by it, we do not have to set aside the faith and the sacraments as somehow secondary to salvation and union with God. Salvation can only come through faith in Christ. This is the idea that was deployed by Aquinas to talk about the salvation of all those who came before Christ, applied in the context of all those who now come after Christ but who have not been taught the doctrines of the faith. Merely having a belief that God saves human beings by means that please him is to possess such an implicit faith.

      All that being said, the idea of implicit faith just pertains to the idea that salvation is possible for non believers. But to use this to claim that implicit faith alone is sufficient to attain the heights of mystical union with God is to claim to much.

      With this in mind, Garrigou wants to make two points that should not be neglected in this discussion:

      1-Do we find in these external mystics, the collection of conditions, above all a deep purification that is required for a true mystic, which results in the supernatural contemplation and intimate union with God?
      2-Isn’t there rather in them, if they are in a state of Grace, a natural mysticism or pre-mysticism, such that our natural powers are capable off of the likes described by Plato and Plotinus, or even by some platonizing Christians like Malebranche?

      If we don’t consider these two points carefully, were are more likely to fall into the erroneous idea confusing what is of nature and what is of Grace in and of a universal mysticism illustrated above [see Om’s quote]. Our Christian mysticism would merely be just a more correct path to the same thing.

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    10. There is a lot more to the article, and I can continue with my paraphrasing if folks find it useful. But for now, I'll just say this - I think that the distinction between active and passive purification is important, in the theology of John of the Cross. The passive purification necessitates the active work of God working on us. It is not something that one can achieve by one's own efforts. And I can't imagine this being done without an explicit knowledge of God and the means of grace he has granted through his church to those involved in such a purification.

      Referring back to my previous post, point 1 Do we find in these external mystics, the collection of conditions, above all a deep purification that is required for a true mystic, which results in the supernatural contemplation and intimate union with God? I would say that it would appear to be very unlikely without an explicit knowledge of God and a knowledge of the truths of the Christian revelation. Far more likely is something akin to point 2 – A Plato, Plotinus, or Malebranche like experience. Granted, they are going in the right direction – but they can only get to what an active purification can achieve – they cannot be open to the radical submission of one’s entire being required for the passive purification. Just my two cents.

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    11. Hi Talmid,

      Yes, a list of possibilities is exactly what's needed. I'd want to focus on your number 2, but first a comment on:

      "It truly is bizarre on a christian worldview that the pagans so have these kinda of high spiritual experiences."

      By no means am I saying you're doing this, but I think it's all too easy for Christians in the modern (secular, materialist) west to assume that all spiritual experience is something that can fit more or less comfortably within a Christian worldview. But let's put ourselves in 1st century shoes: people are having spiritual and mystical experiences left and right. Hell, much of the Platonic philosophical tradition is plausibly indebted to Orphic and Pythagorean mysticism; there's, for example, that eyebrow-raising line in the Phaedo about how the practitioners of the psychedelic Dionysian mystery cult are precisely those who "practice philosophy in the right way" (go figure). When Christianity comes on the scene, the ones who have been having spiritual and mystical experiences are scandalized by this queer Jewish 'revelation'.

      "Maybe these experiences could be caused naturally by using techniques to put yourself on certain brain states."

      I think this alternative has a lot going for it, but it might have the consequence of calling into question many quintessentially 'Christian' mystical experiences. On the face of it, it does look like lots of mystical experience can be 'induced' fairly easily simply by doing the right things (though some complain that the word 'induce' assumes too much--'enable' is perhaps a more neutral word): breath control, fasting, meditating on certain things in certain stages; much of the Upanishadic material reads like a user manual of how to achieve mystical consciousness (as does, for instance, texts like The Cloud of Unknowing). Then there's the fascinating question of entheogens and the ability of certain drugs to facilitate mystical experience--and if taken purely phenomenologically, it does look like many non drug induced mystical experiences are identical to drug induced ones. And if that prima facie seems too strange to take seriously, remember that hashish was used copiously by Sufi mystics as an aid in meditation (as well as contemplating the beauty of young boys), the 'Soma' drug of the Rig Veda (either pot or some type of psychedelic mushroom), peyote in Native American religion, and so on and on and on from time immemorial. (There's also the recent find at Tel Arad in Israel of (presumably entheogenic) marijuana use in a temple. It dates from the time of Ahaz, though, and there are two altars, so it looks to be a case of pagan cultic import immediately prior to the Hezekian reform, but it highlights the pervasiveness of drug use to facilitate spiritual experience).

      All that to say, I think there's a very strong case to be made for this alternative, but, again, it might also throw (some) Christian mystical experience into question. That's not necessarily a problem, but I suspect it will be for many.

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    12. @Daniel(from Canada?)

      Thanks, man! You and Om sure helped a lot on that. Garrigou Lagrange touched on a subject that deserves more attention and did it on a interesting way. His point on these mystics being invencible ignorants and the Church rejection both of pelagianism and total depravity and how the french ties all up with the subject just suprised me on how that makes sense.

      It is true that on a christian worldview just having a degree of union with God comes not even close to what we believers have, so i can see why the idea that "mystics do not need to be evangelized at all" that comes to mind does not work.

      But i wonder how Garrigou would see cases of people who do know the christian faith but become mystics on other traditions. The other Daniel article has a example of a priest who starts to study advaita and get mystical experiences after probably having apostated from the catholic faith. Maybe one of my options above could help?


      @Daniel123

      It is cool than my options were helpful. I read your article and the subject does needs to be more discussed by analytical philosophers. Unfortunately, most of christian philosophers time invested on discussing other worldviews is spend on forms of atheism, so it probably will take a while to mysticism finally get more attention. When that happens, we probably see way more sophisticated takes on it(as Garrigou example shows).

      It is true that we tend today to be too ecumenical and so fail to see how radically diferent the christian faith is compared with the pagan ones. Take my number 3, for instance, it seems to me a pretty aceptable position going from how Scripture sees pagan faiths and how mystical aspirants being tricked by demons is a real danger on the catholic context, but i don't see much philosophers today being ready to defend it.

      And about number 2, yea, that some mundane methods seem capable of enabling these experiences does make one wonder if these experiences are normally a supernatural thing.

      It is true that it could be used against several christian mystical experiences, but that would be more of a problem to these that argue from these experiences to God, since them the appeal to mystical experiences would now need a lot of work to make the experience more plausible thought as supernatural. Besides that, i don't see much damage being done. Sure, a skeptic could argue that maybe all the christian mystics were wrong about seeing God, but we could just reply that the skeptic does not go from "i could be a brain in a vat" to "there is probably no external world" and let him do the connection.

      Number 2 actually would be way more of a problem to people like the perenialists or other pagans, for they defend that the Absolute can only be know by these experiences, while christians have other types of arguments. It just look like it would be stranger on a pagan worldview.

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    13. @Talmid

      Yes, I’m from Canada. :)

      I’m glad the article was helpful. Hopefully I’ve not distorted his ideas in m paraphrasing.

      “It is true that on a christian worldview...”

      I would personally say that there is no limits to what God can do by his grace, so I’m not willing to say it is impossible for a non-believer mystic to attain to divine union with God. But what I would say is that God would do this by special graces, often despite what their mystical practices teach. Having said that, I think there is a plurality of gifts and talents that God spreads out liberally on his people, both within and outside of the church. Not everyone is called to Carmelite spirituality and its way of ascent into Divine union. There are many other approaches and spiritualities and degrees of union with God, and every generation produces something somewhat different to the previous, although they have some common elements.

      I would say that the normal sacramental life is the ordinary way to salvation and to union with God though. And it is ordinary, only in the sense that it accords with the teachings of Jesus and his Church and are the standard sources of divine grace meant to help God’s people attain their final union with God at whatever degree of union God wills for them to attain to, beyond just mere salvation.

      “But i wonder how Garrigou would see cases of people who do know the christian faith but become mystics on other traditions. The other Daniel article has a example of a priest who starts to study advaita and get mystical experiences after probably having apostated from the catholic faith. Maybe one of my options above could help?”

      God will be the final judge of that priest’s life. Merton, for example, wrote beautifully on the mystical life but lost his way in Eastern mysticism. I would say he made a mistake. And the mystics such as John of the Cross and Theresa of Avila, would be the first ones to tell you that sin and apostasy is a real possibility at any state of life. But the church is not in the habit of declaring anyone damned to hell. We only do the reverse and declare some folks definitively to be in heaven.

      Going back to your post and options, let me give a quick impression:

      Option 1-Yes- I think this matches the idea that God’s grace is operative even outside of the Christian context. I think such mystics are possible, given the idea of implicit faith. But why does he not give explicit revelations of the Christian faith? I don’t know. I guess its a subset of the problem of evil. Or maybe God just chooses to not work that way. Yesterday, for example, was the feast day of the Korean martyrs. There are beautifull writings from those first martyrs of the 1500s showing such lively and courageous faith. Why did God wait 1500 years to bring the Gospel to them? Who knows. But surely his grace has been operative in their world, and that at the right time, he chose to plant his seeds.

      Option 2-Yes, there is certainly a natural component to what I would call natural mystical experiences. I would say God operates through natural causes and such as this is not a problem for me, personally. Ascetic activities can generate these. However, there is described in St. John of the Cross, for example, something called the passive purgation. I think this is strictly miraculous. You would have to read these mystics to get a better grasp about this.

      Option 3- The possibility of demons influencing mystics is a topic well known to the great Catholic mystics, as you said. But they do have some pretty good advice on discerning when this is happening and how to avoid it and distinguish it from authentic religious experience. Again, you’d have to read them to see all the details.

      Option 4- Hummm, if there is a natural pre-mysticism as Garrigou claims, and I think Augustine, for example would support, it is strictily limited by a brick wall of what can be naturally achieved without grace. And if they go anywhere beyond that, it is only because of special graces granted by God by his providential will.

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    14. @Daniel

      I think that i remember you mentioning Canads before, glad i was right! And thanks again.

      You are right that God could easily give these pagan mystics the graces that He wishes. His rules are only for us, of course, and we don't really have the knowledge to judge His actions or plan, so the pagans having this union while not knowing the faith is possible, that is why i put it as a option. The mention of the problem of evil also is interesting, for the non-christian would be using a similar reasoning on trying to contest option 1.

      My options were ways of trying to anticipate moves that a christian could make against a non-christian who tried to argue against the faith using the pagan mystics and the possible replies to these arguments, like analytical philosophers like to do. Daniel123 started the discussion talking about how this is a dificult to christians that is mostly ignored so i thinked that even my not that worked-out options would be of help.

      And i do need to read the mystics! The two Thereses are targets of mine and now i want to put St. John in the list too. That distinction between passive and active purgation is something that i heard before, even during a reading of a drop of St. Theresa that i and others did once, but not in conceptualized terms, so i failed to apply it here. I'am sure they would help with this question and also with, you know, understand and living the faith.

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    15. Hey Talmid,

      I think the options are helpful - thanks for posting them. I think going back to your point 4 about universalism and the probabilities argument for the truth of Christianity, I think it is important to keep in mind what the mystics are actually trying to accompish in the most general terms of Catholicism.

      As Catholics, we believe that we are given the sacraments that aid us to achieve salvation. And we have a reasonable hope of acheiving this salvation if we continue to make use of the sacraments. This include baptism, confirmation, communion, confession, marriage, holy orders, and last rites. When we die, our fate is locked in, so to speak. If we have unconfessed mortal sins on our conscience, we go to hell. If there are only venial sins (which most of us do) we go into purgatory. If we are free from all sins and are completely pure, we enter into heaven directly. The mystics are trying to do their purgatory on earth and go directly to heaven when they die. They are granted glimpses of heaven and of what union with God is as they progress on the way. But their goal is the same goal of all Catholics. Its just their vocation is to the celibate life and the means they use to attain this is adopting vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience as they live their religious life.

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  10. Om,

    I think the main problem with the position that Guenon sketches out is that is based on a rather questionable premise - a unanimous testimony of mystics / contemplatives from all over the world past and present . This is what some have called the Perennial Philosophy or the Primordial Tradition . But on what grounds can it be claimed that some mystical experiences are “ higher “ or closer to the Truth than others ? I think philosophy has to be called upon to adjudicate and that undercuts the Advaitan’s foundational point- that unqualified nondualism is not philosophy in the strict sense .

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    1. I don't understand the objection, one can appreciate the quotation from Guénon that I gave without accepting his doctrine of the Primordial Tradition.

      In any case, I disagree with you when you say that non-dualism cannot be a philosophy: it is not because its Absolute is necessarily supra-rational and ineffable that there is not a whole metaphysics around it. You only have to look at the rationality that Adi Shankara demonstrates, when he argues in favour of his position or against the positions of his opponents, to see that we are in the presence of a true thinker, a philosopher.

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    2. Chris, you are right to question the demonstrative value of mystical experiences (at least for those not receiving them). Indeed, asceticism, while presenting superficial likenesses in different religions, has different objects also, and this can vitiate the "experience". While we don't know the secret of men's hearts, and the invincibly ignorant of good will can certainly approach God, they do so in reality through the Church and grace. In such situations their mistaken religious ideas (and absence of a real knowledge or belief in God) are an obstacle, not a means to this end. Without faith it is impossible to please God said St. Paul. This holds despite what we call baptism of desire.

      These types of panentheism are in fundamental opposition to Christian doctrine. By making the world a necessary emanation from God and proposing self-engineered perfection as the "return" to identity with God, such ideas destroy what we know of the true God. Vatican I condemned the doctrine that all things evolve from God‘s essence.

      Christians believe that God freely created the universe; that he is personal; that men become holy by perfecting themselves as persons, not ceasing to be persons and returning by their own efforts to something out of which they evolved; creation is essentially distinct from God - to say that because god is infinite everything is part of him is a childish assertion that only proves the irrational and unphilosophical character of such doctrines.

      To deny these things is to reduce God to a phenomenon of the universe. Monism doesn't divinise the world, it naturalises God. None of this is new. Gnosticism, neo-Platonism, the heretical mystics of the Middle Ages - the Church has always kept them at bay. Deo Gratias.

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    3. Miguel Cervantes, I think you're really on to something. But if you're right, there's a potential problem: a good number of saints, mystics, theologians, and philosophers begin to look less like Christians and more like [Gnostics, Platonists, Hindus, Buddhists whatever].

      Eckhart is a hackneyed example--but reading him certainly feels more Nag Hammadi than New Testament; Ruysbroeck and Suso have their monistic moments, and folks like Hugh of St Victor are forthright in their disgust for non-contemplative states of consciousness and self-conscious existence more generally. But Hugh is mostly following Pseudo-Dionysius' mysticism (as are most medieval mystics), which forces us to ask the same questions of Denys himself (by the way, there are plenty of atheists out there today who have Denys-type mystical experiences and remain convinced atheists; I think there was a recent article in Religious Studies along these lines). This is all rather unsurprising, actually, given the medieval church very nearly accidentally canonized the Buddha (see Barlaam and Josaphat). How does the Church arrive at such a point? Two obvious options come to mind: either (say) Buddhism and Christianity are both really talking about the same thing (or something eerily similar), or else somewhere a significant part of the church lost its way.

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    4. @Daniel123, Can you explain more about how and why Hugh of St. Victor is disgusted with normal self-consciousness? That sounds interesting.

      As for why some Christian saints and mystics sound like Gnostics or Neo-Platonists - well, the influence is there. Keep in mind Eckhart wasn't just universally accepted but there were concerns his writings contained heresy, and even though IIRC he defended himself successfully against most charges, one can still object to his texts if one wants to.

      And yeah, from what I've read of Henry of Suso - literally saying we have 5 kinds of self and that the last kind is the individual self, which means individuality is bad - it seems some of the bad aspects of Neo-Platonism crept into Eckhart's students as well.

      The whole emphasis on annihilation, becoming one substance with God like wood literally becomes fire after being burned, and not being aware of anything but one simple Being which is God, all sound like negative things, and I wouldn't be surprised if a lot of that came from the bad parts of Neoplatonism.

      But I don't think that's really too much of a problem - the Church was kept from canonising Buddha, and truths of spirituality aren't really dogma beyond the most basic points.

      And then there are positive theology schools like Scotism which aren't as apophatic as Thomism or Pseudo-Denyisism, and have a metaphysically important place for individuality, so it's not like heavily apophatic Neoplatonic schools dominate Catholicism.

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    5. Hi Joe,

      The comment about self-consciousness was more of an implication; as far as I know, he never comes right out and says "self-conscious existence is wretched"; my comment was too strong. I'd still stand by it though:

      'Perfection' for Hugh is the contemplative state where we are "gradually drawn towards a unity, until we attain even to that simple oneness, that true simplicity and everlasting changelessness". Perfection isn't when the human *will* is unmoved, resting in God, etc.--that was what Adam had. Even Adam was involved in 'external' things and was consequently "subjected to change". The material creation seems to be partly (mostly?) as a diversion for the "soul that could not yet endure a total lack of change"; but the perfect man is called back to the changeless unity where "reaching the very centre, [the contemplative flame] has so to speak absorbed into itself everything it had found outside itself....Having brought everything beneath its own control and bound it up together in a sort of friendly likeness to itself, [one] sinks down in deep peace and silence. For it no longer finds anything other than itself, nor anything in opposition to itself" (i.e., there's no object distinct from subject; dualistic consciousness ceases in the 'perfect' state).

      Zaehner comments: "Like the Buddha, Hugh looks down on the phenomenal world and sees that all things pass away. He sees the ocean of samsara, the relentless ebb and flow of earthly life and death, and what once seemed pleasing now seems terrible. All this is vanity... This applies to everything--riches, friendship, the deceptive joys of married life and the tiresomeness of rearing a family, the world of learning and the acquisition of new skills, the arts and sciences and all they have achieved. All this is vanity because it does not abide, or as the buddhists would say, it is impermanent, it has no self, and therefore it is fraught with suffering. And just as the Buddha saw that beyond all this flux there was an 'unborn, not made, not become, uncompounded', so did Hugh seek a dwelling beyond this world 'in order to remain unmoved ourselves when all things in the world pass on.'"

      Aelred Squire comments in the introduction to Hugh's 'Selected Spiritual Writings': Hugh has a "positive terror of time and the time-bound."

      Perhaps it would have been more apt to say, "disgusted with normal human consciousness," but I think it's clear self-consciousness is a big part of that.

      I like the annihilation point, and we see that time and again with the Sufis--reminds me of the Simone Weil comment: "I want to un-be".

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    6. @Daniel,

      Interesting. Yeah, the emphasis of ignoring the material world or thinking of it as ultimately bad for your perfection is pretty clearly Neoplatonistic, and I think is an example of excess / error that was either left over from when Neoplatonism was still being incompletely Christianised or a mistaken conclusion / attitude reached by following wrong premises, or assuming them in the first place.

      Because it's pretty hard to see how to square this with the affirmations in Genesis of the material world being declared good prior to the creation of mankind. The Incarnation also seems like a vote against this, insofar as matter is intrinsically temporal and God will always be a human now.

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  11. I’ve heard people describe Tao and Ṛta as gesturing in the direction of Logos.

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  12. Worldly detachment is a difficult tension in the West. It is not seen as contrary to action in the world, but, paradoxically, both are to be pursued to the fullest extent simultaneously (though action tends to win out most of the time). How are we to understand detachment in the East where it appears (to Westerners anyway) that action in the world is seen in a more Manichean, anti-worldly way?

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  13. There is always a fine line between theism and pantheism, and I don’t think Taosim crosses it. It’s no more than Paul saying “For in him we live and move and have our being”. Because all things exist only in relation to god - and more - that he at times immanent within creation, it can never be a cartesian separation. Creation is not god, but what is creation without god? Most mainstream philosophy since Ockham - including german idealism - does collapse everything to pantheism. But the Tao does seem to me to retain the ‘otherness’ of christian neoplatonism at least. After all, if all things were created through the Logos, and the Logos is the ladder between heaven and earth - right to “me in them and them in me”, and the Logos is one with god, then god can be present at any point in the vertical.

    Its a bit like M Ferrari making cars, imagine he made all cars, and he owns some of them. You have a hierarchy of Ferraris, Mr Ferraris’ Ferrari, and the Ferrari that Mr Ferrari is currently driving. Mr Ferrari is ‘other’ than the cars, but it can sometimes be difficult to tell where he starts and ends…

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  14. Hi Om,

    I don' think so . When Guenon makes the distinction between metaphysics and philosophy, he's pointing out that the core doctrine of the Primordial Tradition is not based on philosophical reasoning or the senses, but on the spiritual experience of nondual realization. This is summed up in that famous Indian phrase Tat Tvam Asi or Thou Art That.

    Agreed- Adi Shankara was a brilliant philosopher and unqualified nondualism is articulated philosophically. But again, it's foundation is one of "vision" or "realization."

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  15. Garrigou LaGrange 3 vol. The Three Ages of the Interior Life deals with his views on mysticism and other topics. It can be found in libraries or bought at used booksellers.

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  16. Speaking of historical people I came across this article by a Mr. Tim O'Neill. Do you have any thoughts on it?https://historyforatheists.com/2018/12/jesus-apocalyptic-prophet/

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    1. Time O'Neill is a smart historian. His work is worthy of engagement by theists. Here is the opening statement:

      "For over a century, scholarship on the origins of Christianity has been dealing with a fundamental issue – the Jesus in the earliest Christian texts is presented as preaching an eschatological message about an imminent apocalypse. Despite ongoing rearguard actions, the idea that the historical Jesus was a Jewish apocalyptic prophet remains the most likely interpretation of the evidence."

      So this begs the question, why only the last century? Because prior to Schweitzer and other modern historians, it never was scholarly acceptable to separate the historical Jesus from the Jesus of Christianity. So in his interpretations of the Scripture, O'Neill reads into the gospels a gradual movement from "an end is near" to "an end is sometime soon". All of this side-steps the all important question. Why did anyone even care about Jesus' apocalyptic words after he died? If he was merely an itinerant preacher amongst others how does Christianity come to change the course of mankind? What Tim O'Neill can't do is explain this question in a non-theist scholarly historical Jesus approach because it not only begs the question, but it is also the most unlikely of explanations that some carpenter turned preacher among preachers was killed and his followers invent the resurrection. The resurrection is what needs to be explained. The empty grave, the willingness to be martyred, the experience of the resurrected body by Paul who never met the itinerant preacher Jesus. The resurrection is the most plausible (if you don't a priori dismiss supernatural explanations) for the endurance of his teachings and it is rather spurious to walk down the path of presuppositions of O'Neill without him first offering a naturalist explanation for the resurrection experiences.

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    2. I think Tim in a Twitter discussion once said concerning the Resurrection was -Thomas doubted until he saw Jesus. Matt 28:17 says "some doubted" even *after* they saw him. Which is ... rather fishy. This "resurrection" thing doesn't sound as solid as people like to pretend, even according to their own sources.-
      He also brings up the The Emmaus story. Mary thinking Jesus was the gardener and Paul counting his visions with the "appearances" of Jesus.
      Tim specializes in history not theology and has repeatedly stated he finds such discussions uninteresting, but will address them should someone confront him over them.

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    3. "Time specializes in history not theology." Which is why Tim's analysis of theological claims like eschatology is uninteresting. Why would anyone think that a superior analysis of a historical theological claim is made by insulating the claim contextually from the historical tradition that produced it?

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    4. Also proper exegesis of the gMatt 28:17 would contextualize that the audience the gospel was written for were 2nd temple Jews. Those that doubted, didn't doubt that there was a resurrected body in front of them, they doubted that the resurrected body deserved worship as that would be distasteful to worship anything but God. And this is why you can't separate theological claims from the tradition that produces them for an accurate historical analysis.

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    5. If he was merely an itinerant preacher amongst others how does Christianity come to change the course of mankind? What Tim O'Neill can't do is explain this question in a non-theist scholarly historical Jesus approach ...

      Bart Ehrman does exactly that.

      ... because it not only begs the question, but it is also the most unlikely of explanations that some carpenter turned preacher among preachers was killed and his followers invent the resurrection. The resurrection is what needs to be explained.

      There were three resurrections in the Prophets, IIRC (one by Elijah, two by Elisha). It's not like this idea was not already in the background.

      The empty grave, the willingness to be martyred, the experience of the resurrected body by Paul who never met the itinerant preacher Jesus.

      Historically, there is no known grave. Martyrs appear in a wide variety of religious traditions that (I would venture) you believe to be false. Visions are also common among a variety of religions.

      ... offering a naturalist explanation for the resurrection experiences.

      I don't think you can establish any single explanation among the dozens of plausible ways that this tradition could have arrived.

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  17. I think the first line of the Tao Te Ching is one of the most haunting and profound lines ever written. It often comes to my mind. It is rather similar to St. Gregory of Nyssa's: "Concepts create idols; only wonder understands."

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    1. People create idols. They can't even tie their shoelaces without concepts though. Sounds like the tao's logic is sloppy.

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    2. The quote you responded to in Maolsheaclann's comment was from Gregory of Nyssa, not Lao Tzu. People might need concepts, but what Lao Tzu points to is the fact that the concept is never the thing itself, and for your own faith this is absolutely true, as that is just what ineffability is, as the Christian God is said to be ineffable. Stop blindly swatting at everything and listen.

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    3. God is not nameless, and does speak. I was responding both to the reference to tao and the misrepresentation of St. Gregory of Nyssa.

      As for swatting and not listening, you are wrong again. I do not swat blindly, and I listen. I hear what Leo XIII orders Christians to do to naturalism, to "earnestly to strive for the extirpation of this foul plague". My aim is dog-like obedience.

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  18. "I’m skeptical about his non-existence myself . . . "

    shouldn't that be "I'm skeptical about his existence . . ."?

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    1. Nah, i'am pretty sure that Dr. Feser believes that the sage actually existed. Notice that he gives what you cited as justification of his treatment of Lao Tzu as a real person during the text.

      Saying "i don't believe that he existed and that is why i will pretend during the text that he did exist" would make even a chinese sage stop and say "be more clear, please".

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  19. Dr. Feser,

    There are a lot of interest suggestions going on in the comments about various engagements between Catholicism and eastern spirituality. Are there any works of this sort you find solid?

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  20. What a lovely piece Dr. Feser. Thanks very much.

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  21. “All things in the world come from being. And being comes from non-being”

    I don't think this means that the world comes from being which comes from the nothingness of Tao. The Tao itself is a non-rational principle which's being comes from nothing and being at the same time. The problem is the Western style of thinking which is not dialectic. A Thomist will never be able to understand other traditions as long as they insist on metaphysical causality as a linear process.

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