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Rational, mystical, or both?

Earlier, I noted Paul Tillich's views on Quakerism losing its mystical edge. Later in A History of Christian Thought, Tillich looks at that issue again in a somewhat more positive light:

Rationalism and mysticism do not stand in contradiction to each other, as is so often thought. Both in Greek and modern culture rationalism is the daughter of mysticism. Rationalism developed out of the mystical experience of the "inner light" or "inner truth" in every human being. Reason emerged within us out of mystical experience, namely, the experience of the diving presence within us.

This can be seen most clearly in the Quaker movement. Quakerism in George Fox's time was an ecstatic, mystical movement, as were most of the radical movements of the Reformation and post-Reformation periods. Already in the second generation of Quakerism there developed a moral rationality from which have come the great moral principles of modern Quaker activities. There never was the feeling on the part of Quakers that their rational, pacifist, and in certain respects very bourgeois morality stood in conflict with their mystical experience of intuition. Therefore, it is useful to study the development of Quakerism in order to understand the relationship betwen mystical and rational inwardness. Both of them exist within our subjectivity.

The opposite of a theology of inwardness is the classical theology of the Reformers, namely, the theology of the Word of God which comes to us from the outside, stands over against us and judges us, so that we have to accept it on the authority of the revelatory experiences of the prophets and apostles. (315)

Earlier I worried that Tillich was suggesting that mysticism burns out and all that is left is rationality. Here he seems to be suggesting that the two can co-exist. For myself, I think they have to co-exist, and one without the other is too weak to stand against the claims of those who insist purely on authority.


Friend Simon,

I have two things to share:

1) The points you make here, and in your earlier posts on the same subject, speak to me. Yes: one thing that has always fascinated me about Quakers is our seemingly odd combination of mysticism and rationality. I had only recently begun to figure out what Tillich had noticed: that the two really do have a lot in common, especially when contrasted with more authoritarian approaches.

This reminds me of Raymond Williams' Keywords (a tiny but provocative academic book), which traces both the subjective word "experience" and the scientific word "experiment" back to the same root, seeing both as flowering from the same concept of testing truth, of measuring it through one's own senses or discernment. Fox's "experimental" religion, then, is for me the religious version of inductive reasoning (vs. deductive, unscientific, top-down "reasoning").

Perhaps this is why so many Quakers have been scientists. Perhaps this is why so few of us seem to have any problem reconciling religion and science or rationality. At any rate, I agree with your sense here that they are really two sides of the same coin.

2) I am a fairly new Friend who, in the past couple of years, has enjoyed West's Quaker Reader -- as well as Rex Ambler's more recent stuff, Rosemary Moore's extraordinary The Light in Their Consciences, a lot of Pendle Hill pamphlets, Lloyd Lee Wilson's writings on my YM's (NC-Conservative) website, and a whole bunch of Quaker blogs. I only discovered your blog a few days ago, through the QuakerQuaker site. Since then, I have read the entire text, from February onward.

I rarely leave comments, but I just want to let you know how very happy I am that you are keeping this blog & sharing these things with us. I find your comments particularly thoughtful and helpful. And I am especially glad to find all of the links you provide to the core texts of Quakerism.

Thank you, Friend, for offering us all such an informed and wonderful resource for our faith and growth!

A mystical experience is being aware of perfection. Rationalism is seeking that same state through thought and reason.