Saturday, October 25, 2014

Spirituality: The Case of Sam Harris, entry 2

     Here I'm going to digress onto some of his comments about Christianity and its relationship to mysticism. I'll open by quoting the opening of Dante's Paradiso:

"The glory of the One who moves all things
permeates the universe and glows
in one part more and in another less."

This is from the Allen Mandelbaum translation. Other Christian mystics, many of whom are quoted in The Perennial Philosophy, which Harris takes to task for being an inaccurate representation of Christianity, make similar points to the above.  I see the mysticism in Christianity as not merely the result of a few outliers, but as part of the mainstream integration of Greek thought into Christianity. The opening Gospel of John is as mystical as anything you are likely to read:

"In the beginning was the Word
and the Word was with God, and
the Word was God ...
All things were made and came into
existence through Him; and without Him
was not even one thing made that has
come into being. In Him was Life, and the
Life was the Light of men.
And the Light shines on in the darkness, for
the darkness has never overpowered it"

     This shows an obvious neo-Platonic influence, whereas the Dante bit has a strong dose Aristotle as well. There is thus a tendency toward union with God that runs throughout Christianity that Harris downplays in remarks such as

"In Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, the human soul is conceived as genuinely separate from the divine reality of God. The appropriate attitude for a creature that finds itself in this circumstance is some combination of terror, shame, and awe. In the best case, notions of God's love and grace provide some relief -- but the central message of these faiths is that each of us is separate from, and in relationship to, a divine authority who will punish anyone who harbors the slightest doubt about His supremacy."(Harris, pg. 21)

His description here does NOT represent my own experience of being a Christian, nor do I think it adequately represents the relationship to God most of the Christians I know have, or think they have. God represents that which is the most real in the self, yet transcends the self. A relationship with God is with an entity that invades the soul, remakes the soul, unites with the soul. Harris' characterization, while good fodder for his atheist readers(including myself) is, in my opinion, a misrepresentation of a wide swath of Christian experience.


Lest you think this type of mysticism is only a Medieval Church thing, protestant thinkers like Paul Tillich(Martin Luther King wrote his dissertation on him) emphasized 'The Ground of Being' etc.. as central to his thought. This kind of talk can be hard to parse, and there is not the same emphasis in Christian thought as there is in Eastern religion that the self IS God, more that God is the activating principle behind all things, including the soul.  This element is different from Eastern thought, but is not given its due by Harris. Aspects of this tendency are in the usual 'come to Jesus' invitations to allow "Jesus into your heart".

     Finally, I'm not arguing that the Inquisition didn't come out against many mystics, of course it did, but I am saying that the experience of Christianity has had an element of UNION with God that is undeniable and Harris just misses the boat here.

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