Every third Saturday of the month I intend to re-post something I wrote for one of my assorted old blogs or tumblogs. This week I am revisiting the Thinking Grounds for “On Mystics and Postmodernists,” which is somewhat more frankly autobiography than usual.
On Mystics and Postmodernists
This post will barely rise above the autobiographical, but perhaps despite that it will be of some use to someone; I intend to discuss the way in which my (mostly former) interest in mysticism has been related to a sympathy for (but lack of identification with) postmodernism.
I remember, towards the end of high school, engaging with certain skeptics and atheists among my classmates. When I say, “engaging,” I should really say, “imagining engagements,” since I do not think I ever tried my arguments out against my classmates, prefering to debate my imagined versions of those classmates. One of my arguments I later learned was already famous as Pascal’s wager, which I have subsequently found less than compelling; another was that humans, being finite and imperfect, could not reason accurately about God, who was infinite and transcendent. As evangelism, this argument is a non-starter; as defensive apologetics, it suffices, but hardly. I admit I was naïve. For a pre-existing and self-critical faith, however, the idea that humans cannot accurately reason about God is almost certainly a necessary component, so while I’ve stopped using it (or imagining that I use it) to defend my faith against critics, I’ve found it a fairly good idea to hold on to.
A logical consequence of the idea of a God that is beyond human comprehension and also interacts with the world we experience is that the world we experience is, in at least some ways, beyond human comprehension. By the time I got to university I started engaging with people on these questions and, for the most part, I had trouble finding anyone who would give me good reason to believe that the world was perfectly comprehendible to humans; everyone wound up begging the question in one way or another (or so I thought). And so I was especially receptive to the idea of mysticism in a religious studies seminar I took in second year. You can read some of the fruits of that receptivity if you follow the “mysticism” tag in my labels.
I was frustrated by what seemed to me the deliberate opacity of some mystical writing (certain Tantric instructions come to mind), and I was frustrated, too, by what I felt was my own lack of mystical ability, but I appreciated the idea of ineffability. In particular, it worked well with the idea that logic could not wholly describe reality; logic, after all, is constrained by language and linguistic categories, and so it makes sense that if there is a God beyond reason, than this God would also be beyond language, too. Indeed, with or without a God beyond reason, it would make sense that humans could not reason perfectly about the universe because there are gaps in language which must also appear in logic (because, again, logic is constrained by language).
As I’ve already discussed, taking classes in the humanities, especially in English, is an exercise in learning postmodernism without quite knowing you’re learning postmodernism. And so, in tandem to learning about mysticism, I found myself attracted to ideas about linguistic bias, the ways in which human institutions are constructed, not inevitable, and human assumptions are often culturally-determined and not universal. Professors griped about the biology department’s evolutionary anthropologists trying to explain culture with reproduction, ignoring both the differences between cultures and the pre-existing explanations for them; I learned about feminism and learned to avoid gender essentialism; although I was not at that time receptive to existentialism, I recognized that writers like Neitzsche and like St. Teresa of Avila both launched similar rebellions against common sense and slavish reliance on rationalist logic. Even my philosophy classes, which were Anglo-American to a fault (with the exception of PHIL-101, thank goodness), prepared some of this ground with a discussion of multiculturalism in my ethics class (Kymlicka) and fictionalism and Quinean pragmatism in my philosophy of mathematics class.
When I finally started to learn about postmodernism formally, I began recognizing the differences between mysticism and postmodernism. I suppose what stuck out most to me was how conventional mystics sound. Huston Smith, for instance, has observed how mystics from all religions tend to sound alike; for Smith, this is evidence that they are all getting at the same thing, but I realized that to a postmodernist who bothered to look at this sort of thing (which isn’t common), it would be evidence that even the supposed experience of that which is beyond language has a set of conventions covering it. While the failure of language suggests for the mystic that something exists beyond language and logic, something which can be experienced but not truly understood (or true understanding cannot quite be remembered after the experience itself), the failure of language suggests for the more radical postmodernists that truth is impossible, since all experience derives from linguistic categories. The mystic tends to look to the self for truth, turning inward and imagining an individual relationship with God or Reality or what have you as essential for the best kind of knowledge; the postmodernist tends to be skeptical that there is such a thing as an inner self, and considers communities, social roles, and conventions as important to the pursuit of truth as acknowledging individual differences is. The mystic tends to worry about authenticity; the postmodernist cannot remember what they ever thought authenticity meant.
But beyond this mystics and postmodernists do seem to have a lot of in common. Both, as covered, are skeptical that either rationalist logic or common sense can approach true understanding of the universe we live in. Both have a certain attachment to inherited traditions (albeit a nostalgic or ironic one for the postmodernist), but both also tend to be willing to reject elements of those traditions without guilt, to resist institutional authorities in those traditions, and refashion that tradition to address new experiences and needs. (Even mystics that tend to be very scrupulous about checking in with their religious authorities, like St. Teresa of Avila, are often considered threats by the religious establishment because they claim to have religious knowledge that comes through other avenues than mere inheritance—at least until they are deceased.) Both put a very high priority on experience as a basis for knowledge, but both also acknowledge that that people must subsequently interpret that experience and the interpretation might be fraught. Both tend to see the self as more complicated and more relational than common sense has it (though they may differ when it comes to who that relationship is with). Both tend to conveniently overlook the ways in which they themselves have become conventional and locked in their own assumptions. And, of course, postmodernism owes a lot to Buddhist mysticism.
I generalize more than I like here. Of course there is more to both traditions—mysticism and postmodernism—than I suggest. I represent my experiences of them. And it is worth noting that I have become far more impatient with mystical claims than I used to be; I have a reputation among some as being highly, even excessively, logical. You can determine for yourself how deserved this is. Anyway, I thought it worth noting that the origins of my interest in mysticism is identical to the origins of my interest in postmodernism.