Wednesday, 25 February 2009
Thoughts and Non-thoughts
Quite by chance, I was leafing through some old notebooks, and stumbled on notes from a lecture on St John of the Cross (date and name of lecturer not recorded), which I went to as a graduate student when I was supposed to be in the laboratory. The final sentence in my notes seemed unexpectedly apposite:
For some people, sensitive to the inadequacy of our knowledge culture, the alternatives may be atheism or contemplation.
I am not sure I understand what "our knowledge culture" is in this context, but with the apparent failure of both natural theology and scriptural authority, the only option left for the rescue of any kind of Christian religion beyond the merely subjective might have to be direct experience. That is, contemplative prayer. I see that I wrote about this in September: I have made no progress in any direction for four months! So I have signed up for a week of Guided Prayer next week. How that will work for an agnostic, I am not sure.
The advantage of Zen is that one doesn't need faith in anything beyond the process of zazen itself (and presumably, to some extent, in the wisdom of one's teacher). The Christian mystics seem more daunting in their assumptions. St John of the Cross, says my lecturer, described a process of "abnegation, with no satisfaction or reassurance - only longing for God and for all things only in God". The contemplative process is the spiritual parallel to the intellectual process which, through apophatic theology, denies everything said of God as inadequate. However, judging from the above quotation from John of the Cross, I am not sure that either strand of the via negativa would readily count "existence" as one of the attributes of God which might have to be negated.
Do I "long for God", or do I just seek security in the face of the universe? Einstein considered the basic question of faith to be "Is the universe friendly?"; but I don't know that he answered the question.