Tuesday 27 October 2009

The Unspeakable Experience

Considerations about ethics and mysticism on the basis of Jacques Ellul and Henri van den Bergh van Eysinga
The following is a speech, delivered on a seminar on mysticism and ethics, in Aberystwyth, 2002.
I can now add that reading the book by Chastenet mentioned below, particularly the non-story of Jacques Ellul's mystical experience to me dwelled on being such an experience itself - sitting and reading in the grass of a meadow on a hilltop in Wales, for a child of the Low Countries an Experience in its own right...
What I call the across-the-canal-experience must be the subject of Sheldrake's The sense of being stared at, which I have not managed to finish yet.

The first question to be asked when one speaks about mysticism and ethics is whether there can be any separation between the two. Or - putting it more practically: can there be any difference between experience and consequence?

Mysticism can only be based on experience. Most people will find this a disturbing statement. You need not be an atheist to react this way. Mysticism belongs to "the others", and it should not come nearer than the content of the New Age Shop in the High Street. It is Dorothée Soelle's idea, in Mystik und Widerstand, that every human being must have some experience with mysticism, and she wants it to be popularised, nay democratised. But you still must dispense with the idea of buying incense and practicing breathing meditation as a replacement (it may be a consequence).

The Dutch theologian Van den Bergh van Eysinga [1868-1920], on whose mystical ethics this contribution is based, equates religion totally with mysticism - and they cannot be separated from ethics either, but more on that later. You may well know that for example the Roman Catholic Church makes a difference between sainthood and "ordinary believers" - and mysticism to the general official practice is indeed something for the Others. This may be subject to change in the future, but that is as far as I know still the official Catholic standpoint. In the Eastern Orthodox churches mysticism is part of living religion, and generally speaking the same goes for Judaism and Islam. For the greater part of humanity the equation between mysticism and religion may be self-evident, when explained - if it can be explained in terms of separation between the two. Probably the problem of separation is a Roman Catholic speciality, and a Protestant one - and of course, of atheism, which is unmistakably an offshoot of both.

Etymologically, the word "religion" in itself already refers to what I shall call henceforth The Experience. The Latin word religiomeans: awe, deigning back in humility or even fear - taking a step backwards for Something beyond daily experience. This must have been part of life in what we call pagan Rome, as much as in any other part of the world. That the etymological explanation of the word has been "handled" in the Roman Catholic Church to suit a separation between Experience and official religion is part of the problem of this separation. Being united with the other and the Completely Different is implied in the original Latin meaning of religio, and yet the Experience can only be personal. It also means a call to doing what lies beyond daily practice: a call to ascesis, and in that way a call to ethics.

To Protestants, especially of the Reformed denomination - usually referred to by outsiders as Calvinist - the separation between Experience and official religion is even more complicated than in Roman Catholicism. The Reformed tradition asks, according to Scripture, everybody personally to be holy (Matth. 5:48). This is a task which from the start should be seen separated from Experience - reading the bible should be enough to teach you ethics and ascesis alike. I hope you can accept the simplification which is necessary in the framework of this communication. Real calvinists in the Netherlands, the bevindelijken [roughly translated: Those speaking from experience], certainly stress the importance of personal religious experience. They even do not object to mysticism - provided you do not call it that way. But the mainstream Reformed way is to abhor from anything which might bear the connotation of the original religio. One of the staunchest strugglers against mysticism I know is the French reformed sociologist-theologian Jacques Ellul. He is so much against it, that he blames the muslims for introducing it into Christianity - it does not belong there, to him it is some medieval invention which came to Christians through Spain - the trovadors apparently being the sinners in this respect. Ellul was anti-islamic before this became topical or fashionable. Being Reformed, and stressing the need to go back to the basic idea of being a follower of Christ, he can simply overlook a tradition as old as Christianity itself. His personalist approach brings him to stating that christianisme itself is anti-Christian.

Be this as it may - and fortunately I may still deem Ellul an interesting thinker without having to agree with him on this -, Ellul has his own story to tell, and I must say I was amazed to read it. It simply is not in line with his written thought. In a series of interviews with Patrick Chastenet (Entretiens avec Jacques Ellul. Paris: La Table Ronde, 1994) Ellul comes to the autobiographical point where he has to explain how he became a confessing Reformed himself. He is very reluctant to tell about it. Even in the context of something as immodest as being interviewed about your life and views there is something to retain modesty about. And this is it: Ellul has had an Experience. Apparently it happened to him whilst reading Goethe's Faust. And no, he does not tell what the experience was, except that he had to flee from home and get outside, running away from it seems to be the fitting expression. After that he was a confessing Christian. That is all he has to say about that.

I certainly would not like to advocate anything else but modesty about what I call The Experience. That might be explained with my own Reformed background, but I see no reason to look at it in any other way. In fact, the modesty Ellul expresses, to me makes it all the more convincing that he had this personal Experience. The amazing thing about it is, that his ethics apparently is based on this Experience, and yet it includes complete rejection of mysticism. Perhaps it means he does not accept the separation of religion and mystical experience, but that is not what he says. We might consider the modesty as religio in the original sense: the experience is so awesome that it is unspeakable. Soelle may be proven to be right again: an anti-mysticist turns out to be a mysticist himself. Perhaps we should have a new look on Karl Barth too, but I will not venture on that dangerous ground.

Some final remarks to this introduction, still, I hope, within the boundaries of well Reformed modesty. Sceptical reductionists may say that this Experience after all is only a neurophysical reaction. I might answer this with Schumacher's remark that the only thing scepticists are not sceptical about is - their scepticism. But that would be too easy in this case - a more adequate answer would be that it never can be proper to call any physical reaction "just a physical reaction". But, not knowing about neurophysiology, I shall try to say something about the Experience, approaching the general idea without crossing the line of modesty - and in passing yet answering a probable question.

To begin with: forget the notion of anything supernatural or occult. I am inclined to deny the idea of a sixth sense, which should be the religious sense, an idea which I think can only be a manner of expressing, not referring to anything existing (since senses cannot exist separated from the living body I think postulating this sixth sense would mean introducing the supernatural again through a backdoor). Neurophysiologists may be able to explain what I call the across-the-canal-experience. Living in Amsterdam, indeed on a canal, I know sitting near the window when someone passes on the other side. It is a quiet, unknown canal, there are not many passers-by. I look out of the window, see the person walking on the other side, and if I look long enough he or she somehow will feel being watched, and will feel more or less exactly where the eyes are located which are watching him or her. What sense made me look nearly automatically, what sense made the passer-by look in return? The sense of the Experience must be akin to this - and if there is a convincing neurophysiological explanation for this experience (with lower case e) still the question will remain: how can one sense a Presence which sensible people will say is not there? I do not accept the verdict "hallucination" for this.

Which brings me to the last point: is this sensual Experience a human speciality? Intersubjective communication between humans about it may be difficult enough already, but when one does away with fear or modesty, it should be possible. Communicating with other conscious beings is nearly impossible, especially on this point. But human beings should certainly be modest about this. If hippopotami really have a mourning ritual, as was shown once in a television documentary which went beyond the usual chase-and-eat-spectacle (after all, hippopotami do not fit into that scheme), then they must have some idea or experience of what is beyond the visible. There is nothing more that can be said about that, other than that anthropocentrism makes talking about religion or mysticism more questionable than is necessary.

This is a long introduction to a Dutch reformed reverend who at the end of the nineteenth century went against the modernist current in his Church by equating mysticism with religion and with ethics and ascesis. This equation can be called dialectical. Indeed, the reverend was a dialectic, inspired mostly by Hegel, and by Von Hartmann and Schopenhauer. The man I refer to is Henri (H.W.Ph.E.) van den Bergh van Eysinga. Born in 1868, having studied theology and - as his name immediately betrays - if indeed social reality at the fin-de-siècle were not enough - a son of the ruling elite in the Netherlands, as several other modernist dominees he was touched deeper by the reality of class society than his elder colleagues. What these dominees, who called themselves "the young" as oppposed to the well-settled practised pastors, saw was a debased class of underfed, drinking, toiling mass which completely had lost any sense of living religion. The young accused the settled of having a materialist look at ethics. It seemed to be enough not stealing your neigbour's chickens to be holy and religious. But what if you were forced by hunger to indeed steal those chickens? And anyway, what kind of ethics could this be to inspire anyone? Christianity had become trite and tedious, and had incorporated atheist materialism itself.

Interestingly, most of the dominees I refer to identified themselves with anarchism - religious or as they called it then by this new name, Christian anarchism. As you can infer from their ideas, rejection of the powers that be, in state and church, to them was the exact opposite of atheism. The idea was helped by Tolstoy and - more on the background - Dostoyewsky (mostly The Brothers Karamazow). Outsiders called these Dutch Christian anarchists of the fin-de-siècle Tolstoyans, though only a few of them really were, and accepted this name reluctantly. This Christian anarchism in the Netherlands is an independent current of socialism alongside the parliamentary social-democracy and atheist anarchism. It emerged in the weekly De Hervorming, the paper of the radical modernist current in the Dutch Reformed Church. Going through the columns of this paper, I must say that the writings of the radical-liberal so-called older dominees look less dated than the angry young modernists, who want to add more feeling to all the intellectual writing. Alright, Bileam's donkey did not speak - what has that got to do with living religion, Van den Bergh asks. But what he had to offer instead probably was not less difficult to accept for the working masses he wanted to see organised for Sharing, Freedom and Fraternal Love - socialism, that is, according to his words.

He called supranaturalism actually equal to atheism, the mystical approach necessarily led to agnosticism. Accepting and using all the knowledge science has to offer you can stress the beauty of creation by evolution, the unfolding of the Divine Idea (Hegel!). And the best way to offer mysticism for the masses (these are my interpreting words) is by inspired poetry: Shelley, Tennyson, Whitman, Baudelaire, Goethe (Faust again), Dutch contemporaries like Gorter and Van Eeden and many others. The intersubjectively communicable experience is through poetry, Van den Bergh states - and indeed, the more conscious parts of the working class he wanted to enthuse were willing to take notice of poetry. These were the workers who also saw the need to organise, and who were not willing to be brought back to church. Those below, whom may be referred to not necessarily jokingly as the drinking class (de natte gemeente), were beyond poetry or church and maybe even organising - in fact, there should still be a task ahead nowadays, things have not changed in that respect.

In the early days of his reverendship Van den Bergh's mystical approach was based on the image of the Pale Suffering Young Man at the Cross (he refers to Him as being blonde as well). The living Christ would be that of Tolstoy. Not much later he rejects this as being too uncivilized an invention. The settled dominees of De Hervorming as good modernists could not accept this image, and they expressed mild and polite but still strong rejection of this "young idea". To Van den Bergh it was probably his reading of Hegel that brought him back from the idea of Christian anarchism in this style. The other young organised around a new bi-weekly Vrede [Peace]. Van den Bergh wrote his thesis and went his own way in the margin of social-democracy. This complete revolution inside and then outside the modernist tendency of the Dutch Reformed Church happened within four years: Christian anarchism was presented as such in 1893, Van den Bergh totally embraced Tolstoy's ideas in 1895 and in 1897 he rejected them. The speed of these developments justifies the word "revolution" - and by the way, the christian state authorities had it crushed in 1903, the last year which smelled of revolution in the Netherlands. Van den Bergh did not go along to the Vrede-groep since he apparently had discovered his own mystically based system of ethics, which I shall dwell upon now.

His thesis, Levensbeschouwing (A look at life - 1897), asks for Reason to be taken as the prime source of religious view. Believing in miracles means unnecessarily asking to do away with Reason. Yet, like Shumacher whom I mentioned earlier, he states that scepticism asks for one truth at least, so there is no point in denying the existence of Truth altogether. He rejects the possibility of consciousness ever knowing itself. We can only infer by belief that others have consciousness, and we must believe that there is an objective non-I, an objective world. The idea that there is no Beyond the discernible outside world is naive and childish. There must be Something transcending the material reality, a Something, or rather the Absolute which is the foundation of the sensually discernible world. We are indeed living in Plato's cave, there is no escaping. The consequence of this is that we can only interpret the Absolute in human terms, with the tools for thinking we have, but the Absolute continually asks us to cross borders in this respect.

The Absolute is not an unchangeable Being, it is perenially in movement, it is a Becoming. And so striving for unity with the Absolute, which striving is called religion, must indeed be just that - it can only be striving. There is only this striving, and in this striving we are one with the Absolute, with God. This means that we never can accept the world as it seems to be given - we must reach for the harmonious, the reasonable, the ethical, the aesthetic. Yet again the consequence is that there can be no such thing - sit venia verbo - as Christianity. One can only a posteriori decide to comply with Christ's striving.

Like the other "young" in the radical-modernist Reformed Church Van den Bergh was very impressed with the "Parliament of religions" at the World Fair in Chicago, 1893. It showed them the deeper relationship between the religions, a common idea of the Absolute in all religions - which they saw as basically monotheistic. That is why they welcomed the Brahmo-Somaj movement in what we call "hinduism". Important for those days, and for these days as well, is the conclusion that there is no superiority in civilisations or race - this really meant going against the current in the heyday of imperialism or colonialism.

Striving can only work towards harmony, through dedication and ascesis to Beauty. And in this respect there is progress: we can look at humanity as a whole, and we will succeed in reaching this unity. It will not be the work of the masses, it is a cultural task - and culture, as Von Hartmann says, is always a matter of minorities. Despite the barbarism of the Great War Van den Bergh believed this harmonious socialism through culture could be reached. He was spared what might have been disillusionment, he died rather young in 1920.

This ethical-mystical world view had been developed rather cerebrally in his thesis, and it could not be otherwise. He was Reformed, which implies, as I said earlier, a tendency to keep silent about what looks like the Unreasonable. Can a lifelong work of looking for the meaning of the Absolute be based on The Experience? Van den Bergh does not mention any knowledge of it.

Yet I must conclude that in this silence there is eloquence on a Something which must have been beyond that which he thought Reasonable. It should have been unreasonable to spend a life looking for the Absolute and the harmony which It demands without an Encounter. The work is the proof. Giving this glimpse in a mystically based ethical idea is meant as an invitation to see what must have inspired any author or artist worthy of the name - The Unspeakable Experience. And so this essay ends where it really starts.

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