Lately, the basic nature of our perceptual apparatus as been on my mind. I keep thinking about how, generally, we see very little of what is actually in front of us, relying instead on our sophisticated sensory apparatus to fill in all the details we are not in fact attending to. I want to focus on the eyes for a moment.
Back in my first year or so of graduate school, I attended a lecture on the importance of writing in mysticism. I wish I could remember the name of the woman, but it escapes me. I carried a copy of it around with me through a few moves, but there have been just one or two many sharp turns in my life since then; it fell off the proverbial truck.
It was the late 1990s and she had come of age reading Derrida and De Man, but beneath the veneer of deconstruction there was an astounding core: for a group convinced of the ineffability and transcendence of the divine, mystics were obsessed with writing about it. It’s almost compulsive. Rather than a via negativa that opens to a pleroma, what if it only ever opens to a threatening negativa, which it is the work of writing to obscure?
Please indulge me as I wax philosophical. If we define religious experience as experience of the spiritual plane, then it makes sense to explore it on its own terms. While our attitudes, expectations, and behaviors shape how we approach it, there is something distinctive to it that resists our expectations. That resistance demands some sort of response such that the understanding we develop about the spiritual world and how we behave toward it tell us something both about ourselves (individually and socially) and the spiritual world. Because the spiritual world isn’t just any way we want, but has its own substance, we can discern its reality ‘beneath’ the descriptions and rites. This makes it both possible and reasonable to compare one form of religious expression with another. The way in which we make that comparison, though, needs to keep those variables in mind and try to make sense of the different forms of religious expression ecologically rather than getting carried away with superficial similarities.
[For those who are fans of technical philosophical vocabulary, we might call this strategy critical, phenomenological, and pragmatic. If you don’t care about those terms, don’t worry. You don’t have to be connosieur to enjoy the wine.]
In his advice to fellow gnostics, Ibn al’Arabi warns that one of the most common mistakes made on the path entails confusing the truth of one level for the truth of another. That is good advice, but as always the devil lies in the details. How, after all, do we distinguish one level from another?
I propose that at least part of the answer may lie with reversing the formula–i.e,, when you cross from one level to another, the truths of the previous level cease to hold. That pushes us back to what defines gnostic work in the first place, knowledge. Knowledge is a matter of determinations, of limits, and we find those limits more often than not by crossing them, by making mistakes and discovering ourselves as having made mistakes.