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A sense beyond the rational

[Based on a post of mine about a month ago on the Quaker-L mailing list.]

I didn't think any spiritual part of me had been dead or comatose until a few years ago, but gradually it dawned on me that I'd been missing something, looking in all the wrong places. Until you're using this sense, you may not notice its lack, or think the lack comes from other problems.

It's good to be in awe of the natural world, but it's not a substitute. The natural world, for all its virtues, is easier to approach, more tightly bound to the ways, for instance, that (most) schools train us to think and see. We can learn great lessons from the natural world, find great beauty in it, and enjoy its wonder. That doesn't mean, however, that the natural world is all there is.

I don't think it's easy to approach the Bible when we've been drenched in rational explanations of a complex world. It wasn't easy for me to approach the Bible, certainly. I'd always had one available as a reference, but didn't turn to it for inspiration. The first Bible I really read and enjoyed was the Jefferson Bible - Thomas Jefferson's cut-and-paste of the gospels, minus all the supernatural stuff he just didn't find plausible. "The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth," as Jefferson called it.

Over time, though, I found myself missing the stuff Jefferson didn't like, as Christ's message is difficult enough for humans that telling it as a simple set of morals we should follow is just, well, inadequate. That combined with other doubts I'd had about the sufficiency of a naturalist explanation of the world to make me look harder for other possibilities. Something was clearly missing.

I found those possibilities in Quaker meeting, of course. I'd been going on and off for a long time, but now I go regularly. There's still a lot of figuring out for me to do about how best to integrate this new sense into my life, but I'll get there, listening to this new sense. Mysticism without this sense never made much sense to me; now it feels complete, and completing.

As for the Bible itself, I still definitely veer more toward the New Testament than the Old, but I'm finding that yes, I can appreciate all of it. I certainly wouldn't have predicted this for myself fifteen or even ten years ago.


I am much moved by the simple, straightforward honesty of this confession.

Simon, I don't want to begin an argument, or insist you believe the way I do, as this issue can itself become a rationalistic (or "notionistic") distraction from spiritual living.

But I would ask that you at least remain open (as you perhaps already are) to the possibility of the natural world being all there is, and to other Friends believing this is so (as again, you perhaps already are).

To me what you seem to be hungering for - experiencing the world in a mode other than simply the rational - is separate from the question of whether the world includes supernatural things.

During meeting, and in much of the rest of my life, I try to experience life in a way other than simply rationally, a way I would describe as mystical. But I think there are times for trying to explain things rationally. To me it seems likely that as time goes on, even the numinous elements of spiritual life may become better explained by science - even as the lived experience of them will always remain the important thing.

Is it possible that the natural world is all there is?

Of course.

Do I think it makes sense to live with that as a foundation assumption?

Absolutely not!

The question of rationalism here operates on a few different levels. I have doubts that rationalism is the best way to approach the world generally, even if there are no supernatural things out there, but it also feels to me that privileging rationality and empiricism creates a barrier to evaluating the existence or non-existence of supernatural things.

Your closing sentence - "that as time goes on, even the numinous elements of spiritual life may become better explained by science" strikes me as far too hopeful for science. Attempting to reduce religious experience to brain chemistry and social experience seems to me a bad idea with negative consequences all around, even as I doubt whether the project can succeed.

You're correct that "the lived experience of them will always remain the important thing." The problem I find is that perspective changes experience.