To what extent is mystical experience shaped by language? To what extent does it touch on an absolute, immediately given, beyond the grasp of language? This is a tired old question, but we can perhaps renew it and make it fruitful by drawing on the Indian topos of the twofold truth (dva-satya), taken as a theory of how conventional historical religious languages can serve as vehicles for insight or revelation having the quality of ultimacy. I shall use 'ultimacy' freely here as a phenomenological term, meaning that which is recognized as supremely, undeniably, unsurpassably real. It does not have the metaphysical implication of terms such as 'absolute' or 'transcendent' nor does it have, as these do, the status of a unitary principle. It is more adjectival than substantive, in that it can attach to a great variety of experiences. Yet it is not merely subjective, but is recognized by the subject as irreducible bedrock reality. A question that will occupy us in the following pages is the degree to which not merely the conventional languages of religion, but even the ultimacy of which they are a vehicle, can be conceived of as a pluralistic, culturally contextual phenomenon.
Mâdhyamika Buddhism connects the lighting up of ultimate reality (paramârtha-satya) to the skillful deployment of a given conventional set-up (samvrti-satya): 'Without relying on the conventional (vyavahâram), the ultimate cannot be taught' (Nâgârjuna, Mûlamadhyamakakârikâ 24:10, trans. Garfield). The word samvrti has the connotations of something that covers, occlusion, a surface reality that occludes the true nature of things. The word vyavahâra refers to the conventional, pragmatic realities of everyday life. Conventional truth is a truth agreed on for practical purposes. All the realities of our world have a merely conventional existence; the ultimate truth about them is their emptiness; yet the truth of emptiness is realized only in constantly dismantling the delusions of substantiality to which the conventional world gives rise. The two-truths doctrine ‘establishes the ontological basis of Madhyamaka and at the same time its soteriological basis: to understand the two realities correctly means to know the world and its true essence, and this is the knowledge that brings redemption… Every other theme is related to this, directly or indirectly’ (Tauscher, 3).
As Mâdhyamika reflection advances, the ultimate truth becomes increasingly elusive, so that in the end we seem left with little more than a skillful play with conventions. The two-truths theory is a logical and historical quagmire. Within Mâdhyamika, the most authoritative and influential accounts are those of the Tibetan Gelugpa, as formulated by their founder Tsong Khapa (1357-1419); yet even within the Gelugpa there is a great variety of interpretations of its meaning (see Newland). Some Buddhists have a ‘sliding-scale’ conception of the two truths, what is the ultimate truth at one stage of analysis turns out to be a conventional truth at a higher stage (see Dunne). It is remarkable that an entire religious culture should center on so rarefied a matter, and the relevance of this to Christian concerns may seem remote. Still, I believe that immersion in two-truths theory can free up our thinking on the historical and textual embeddedness of faith, doctrine and mystical experience. It may indeed abolish the entire idea of 'mystical experience,' which is all too redolent of a fixated clinging to a reified ultimacy. The idea of 'the emptiness of emptiness' thwarts any tendency to cling to emptiness itself as a privileged object of a special experience, and sends us back instead to engagement in the world, an engagement that has become free, vital, and creative because emptied of fixations.
In the present essay I shall not enter into any details of Buddhist debate, but merely allow a general sense of the interplay of the two truths to guide my reflections. I shall argue that the embeddedness of religious experience in a given historical, cultural, traditional, and linguistic context means that that experience cannot be treated as a pure delivery of ultimate reality. Certainly any attempt to formulate it as such is immediately compromised. Ultimacy can only be indicated obliquely by the torsions of a manifestly non-ultimate language. Even silence, situated at the end of a traversal of speech, is always located as a signifier within a certain cultural context: a world separates the silence of Vimalakîrti from that of the Pseudo-Dionysius. Ultimacy is encountered situationally, as confirmation and fulfillment of a pre-given language but also as revelation of its inadequacy. At the very point where the conventional web of religious discourse is most charged with a sense of the ultimate, it is also shown up in its thinness, almost to the point of breaking. Here the text will start using the negative terminology of ineffability or incomprehensibillity, or will burst into poetic metaphor or nonsensical paradox, mantras, glossolalia. In the past there was a certain security in such apophatic rhetoric, for the writer was securely situated in prayer before the divine incomprehensibility. Today our religious metaphors are more likely to have a spectral quality, as remnants and quotations from a historical repertory.
Very interesting to the theologian are those figures, such as Plotinus and Augustine, who after experiencing a powerful encounter with ultimate reality turn back to the realm of conventional language, which they revise in light of the encounter. Mysticism thus impresses its mark on language. The comprehensive critical labors of the Neoplatonists or the Mâdhyamika thinkers are a clearing of the pathways of thought and language that lead to and from the breakthrough to ultimacy. These include the pathways of established religious tradition, Hellenic or Indian, now purged of representations that have become obstacles to insight, and given a relativized and more functional status. Today the movement of history brings breakthroughs to a simpler vision of what matters in religion, and these breakthroughs, though more of an existential than a mystical order, are our cues for reappropriating the radicality and clear-sightedness of the classic mystical texts. Reassessing conventions in light of ultimacy takes on today a historical depth. We measure the entire sweep of religious traditions by the orientation to ultimacy manifest in classic mystical texts, and in doing so we gain a new sense of the radical contingency and conventionality of religions as historically constituted. This allows us to acquire a free relation to the tradition, so that instead of being a prison that blocks out all sense of ultimacy, it becomes a repertory of skillful means (upâya) that can serve in varying manners to orient the religious quest to its ultimate goal.
It might be objected that this critical enterprise can proceed on the basis of modern theological common sense and that there is no need to invoke the luxuries of mysticism. But if mysticism is really nothing more than a matter of seeing things as they are, and thus filling in the central piece in the puzzle of existence, then theology at its moments of highest lucidity may find itself rejoining the insights of those contemplatives who grasped most clearly the phenomena that are religion's concern. However, there is a more serious objection to harping on ultimacy and mystical breakthroughs -- namely, that it misses the point of the biblical revelation. If God has come to humanity, incarnately, in a generous outpouring of the Spirit, then mysticism and contemplation are no more than a registering of this reality, within the context of the total response to it constituted by the multi-faceted life of the people of God. To talk of the ultimate or of religious experience is to cut across the breadth and wealth of biblical language and lifestyle, intruding on them an alien and narrow concern. Philosophers of religion are quite likely to project a warped theology in their preoccupation with such matters as religious experience and mysticism. The theologian cannot in any case ignore the heritage of mystical texts, but he will bring to them critical discernment, even suspicion, as for example Luther did in esteeming Augustine and spewing out the Pseudo-Dionysius. Luther was able to read Augustine's contemplative texts as revealing an entire life-style, both individual and ecclesial; perhaps those of Dionysius could have been read in the same way if Luther had been attuned to the life-style of the Eastern Church. Perhaps one may say quite generally that mystical experience gains its meaning and validity only within the total context of the way of life that secretes it. The fleshliness of the biblical world is then not the exception but the rule. Even mystical purists such as Plotinus, if looked at closely, may be found to be engaged in wide-ranging communal praxis, within which the rare encounters with the One acquire their full significance.
The cosy frequentation of approved classics is no doubt a narrow and old-fashioned approach to religious experience. But it can be argued that the enduring classics of religious articulation offer our best defence of sanity and rationality in the religious sphere, and that these qualities are even more important than mysticism at a time when civilization is threatened by religious irrationality. The classic status of certain contemplative breakthroughs in the history of religion, which realize in a ripe and illuminating form the spiritual potential of the tradition within which they arise, and in turn serve as the foundation for further developments of the tradition, has usually been secured by a correspondingly great literary text -- such as the Bhagavad-gîtâ, the Enneads, the Epistles of Paul, the Zen kôan-collections. As an object of study this can be more fruitful than any phenomena of real life, not only because of the vast historical reach of the classic text, but also because the textual inscription reveals that the mystical witness is involved with all the conventionalities of a given culture, and in addition exposes it to the various treacherous features of textuality rehearsed so dramatically by Jacques Derrida at one time: dissemination, citationality, iterability, and all the other dimensions of la différance.
The achievement of the religious classics is that they succeed in disposing the resources of their cultural context toward the dimension of ultimacy, allowing it to react on that context with critical and illuminative force. A mystical text empties out conventional language before the ultimate, burns the language like straw, but in such a way that it then functions as a burning bush, indicating the contours of the numinous real by its stammerings and silences. This eloquent breakdown of the conventional before the ultimate is favored by cultural crisis or by a meeting of cultures, a fusion of horizons, in which conventional frameworks are enlarged and broken open. The traumata of the twentieth century have enabled artists to approximate to the dynamic of mystical expression: I venture to mention Anton Webern and Paul Celan. To read a mystical text one has to be attuned to the contemplative wavelength of its author; that is the reason why for most of us, most of the time, mystical texts are not the most attractive reading. Of course there are countless mystical texts that fail to communicate at all, either because they merely repeat the conventional spiritual jargon of their time or because they flounder helplessly in their effort to articulate the ineffable.
The Case of Augustine
Though Augustine of Hippo was a very busy ecclesiastic and a very productive intellectual, his works are steeped in a steady contemplative awareness, which at times blossoms into direct testimony to experiential encounter with the divine. It was at the time of his conversion, in 386-7, that mystical aspirations gripped him most; his experiences of that time are written up in glowing colors in the Confessions (401), but the mystical does not retain the central place in his preoccupations. It had given him just enough light to illumine the great public mansion of his thought, without withdrawing him into an esoteric sphere. In contrast, Plotinus, whose writings kindled Augustine's mystical period, was single-minded in pursuit of direct encounter with the One. Porphyry tells us how 'that God appeared who has neither shape nor any intelligible form... To Plotinus "the goal ever near was shown": for his end and goal was to be united to, to approach the God who is over all things. Four times while I was with him [in Rome, 263-270 CE] he attained that goal, in an unspeakable actuality and not in potency only'. Porphyry himself 'drew near and was united' only once in his sixty-eight years (Porphyry, Life 23). Plotinus himself tells us: 'I have come to that supreme actuality, setting myself above all else in the realm of Intellect. Then after that rest in the divine, when I have come down from Intellect to discursive reasoning, am puzzled how I ever came down' (Enn. IV 8, 1). Plotinus's circle was a laboratory of the spirit, and in Milan Augustine frequented a circle modeled on it. But already in his own circle in Cassiciacum the wider world of the Church is shaping spirituality in a more homely, communal, down to earth manner (see O'Leary, 2001).
A fusion, or mutual cracking open, of cultural horizons (Gadamer's Horizontverschmelzung) underlies the spiritual synthesis that Augustine wrought. The classical world and its values had entered a twilight zone of incertitude, intensified by the barbarian menace, whereas the Christian Church, having secured its basic dogmas, was crossing a new threshold of self-conscious lucidity. In Augustine's thought classical values are Christianized wholesale; most notably, the Platonic tradition of philosophical eros, which ascends to the ecstatic vision of Beauty and, beyond that, to a mystical contact with the One, is transformed through encounter and synthesis with the New Testament mysticism of the divine agape poured forth in our hearts as a gift of grace descending to our fleshly, historical world. The mutual transformation of the two horizons is not only philosophical, but is lived out in contemplative experience. Augustine had appropriated two languages, two cultures, which were already intersecting in previous Christian tradition. Milan in the 380's was the site of a repristination of both traditions. The Latin reception of Plotinus and Porphyry revealed an unsuspected spiritual majesty in Greek thought. The Latin appropriation of the spiritualizing, Origenian approach to Scripture, represented by Ambrose, made the biblical tradition equally fresh and exciting. Augustine steeped himself in these currents. His mystical experience is inconceivable apart from them, and represents his internalization of them, his appropriation of the existential possibilities they opened up. The traditions prepared the ground for his breakthrough to an ultimate level, and this in turn permitted him to retrieve the traditions with a lucid mastery which is not merely intellectual but is constantly referred to that encounter with ultimacy as to its foundation..
Disentangling himself from Manicheanism, Augustine was plagued by dualistic and reified conceptions of the world of spirit. His confusion on this account had become a nagging koan. The words of Plotinus, like those of a perceptive Zen master, cut these knots and kindled an enlightened awareness:
Et inde admonitus redire ad memet ipsum intravi in intima mea duce te et potui, quoniam factus es adiutor meus (Confessions VII 16); 'And being thence admonished to return to myself, I entered even into my inward self, with you as my guide: and I was able, for you had become my Helper' (trans. Pusey, modified).
The taste of ultimacy here is also a taste of spiritual freedom. In Buddhist terms it is an experience of emptiness: his mind is emptied of the reified conceptions of self on which a deluded and superficial self-consciousness battened and he is freed to rejoin the pre-reflexive awareness that precedes the construction of that rather opaque object we call 'I' and 'me.' Consciousness, Sartre says, in words that resonate suggestively with Buddhist themes, is 'l'existant absolu à force d'inexistence' (Sartre, 26). This 'non-substantial absolute' (25) also resonates with Plotinus: 'He has nothing and is the Good by having nothing. But then if anyone adds anything at all to him, substance or intellect or beauty, he will deprive him of being the Good by the addition' (Enn. V 5, 13). Contemplative awareness is intrinsically empty of substantiality, empty of being. It opens up at the 'absolute near side' (Keiji Nishitani). It is a joyful unfolding of the light of the phenomena such that distinctions between subject and object do not arise. The self that clings to itself, that projects itself as a solid substance, then clings to objects, gives them substantiality too. The ego, as Freud and Lacan show, is a projection of our deep-rooted needs, an objectification of self that, by masquerading as the true subject, actually shelters us against true subjectivity and alienates us from our original empty freedom. Such an ego will cling also to fetishized objects in the world around it. But the self that has discovered its emptiness also lets objects go in their emptiness and abides in a state of pure experience in which subject and object have not arisen.
Augustinian caritas opens up at this radical level; it is not, originally at least, an objectified psychic construct: 'to place interiority before one is necessarily to give it the weight of an object. It is as if it shut itself up, offering us only its external aspects... an interiority closed on itself' (Sartre, 66). However, it is true that caritas gives an interiorizing and spiritualizing inflection to biblical agape and is shaped and limited by a kind of Platonic self-containment. Lutheran scholars such as Anders Nygren have pointed to the task of finding the way back from this enclosure to the open horizons of agape. Caritas, for Augustine, was supreme reality, the inner light of love. Yet after centuries of caritas-thinking -- one could list, in the manner of Von Balthasar, figures such as Bernard, the Victorines, Dante, Petrarch, Pascal, Fénelon -- we can see that the regime of caritas is a product of cultural conditions, which could function within a medieval regime of truth as a useful convention for attunement to a gracious ultimacy, but which is less immediately functional within modern horizons of thought. Charity and grace are indeed ultimate and unconditioned realities, yet there is a specifically Augustinian staging of their emergence. Augustine's conventional world, with its notions of the human psyche, of temptation and sin, and its residual Platonist preoccupations and structures, belongs to a past epoch, so that we cannot fully assume it as coterminous with our own world. The style in which he figured the presence of the divine as gratia and caritas, is no longer ours. We must seek the ultimacy specific to our present conventional world, the specific way in which our world signals its limits, its emptiness. Here we sight a paradox of the intrication of ultimate and conventional in religious experience: Augustine broke through to the pneumatic immediacy which is the milieu in which one can begin to apprehend the divine, yet the ultimacy of this experience comes to us now shackled by the time-bound conventions of thought and language that once were its perfectly efficacious vehicle.
Augustine's earliest references to the enlightenment he experienced in Milan on reading the libri Platonicorum (Contra Academicos II 5; De Beata Vita 4) are more nakedly Plotinian than the account in Confessions VII, without the rich biblical harmonies of the later text. Thus such expressions as quoniam factus es adiutor meus (Ps. 29:11) may refer less to the phenomenology of the original quasi-Plotinian experience than to a retrospective recognition of divine providence and grace at work in it. (For Plotinus's own sense of grace, see Sorabji, 171.) The borderline between experience and interpretation, already problematic at the heart of the experience itself, becomes more so in the case of the rememembered experience. The joy and light of Milan and Ostia had their own irreducible reality, but their articulation in words, the interpretation of their theological and metaphysical implications, and their placing within the total edifice of his vision required many years of further study and reflection. At least in Augustine's case, breakthroughs to ultimacy are inseparable from the long processes of interrogation and interpretation that precede and follow them. The classic religious vision is by the same token inseparable from its classic literary expression in the text of the Confessions itself. Here again the intrication of ultimacy and its conventional vehicle turns out to be more intimate than one might expect.
Thus despite the powerful unity and simplicity of Augustine's experience, the harmony between Plotinian and biblical sensibility in his account of it harbors tensions that lie open to deconstructive interrogation (see O'Leary 1985, ch. 4). The retrospective biblical recuperation of the Plotinian experience may be an act of hermeneutic violence, erasing the pluralism implicit in the difference between Plotinian ultimacy (Book VII) and Pauline ultimacy (Book VIII). Augustine is constantly weaving a unitary language of the spiritual realm from his two sources, the Platonist and biblical traditions, and the seam between them, with the occasional dropped stitches, marks the conventionality and constructed quality of his vision. The Augustinian system began to unravel when Luther pulled more heavily on the Pauline thread, releasing a dynamic of agape that could not be recuperated within the regime of Platonist interiority.
Intravi et vidi qualicumque oculo animae meae supra eundum oculum animae meae lucem incommutabilem, non hanc vulgarem et conspicuam omni carni... sed aliud, aliud valde. 'I entered and beheld with the eye of my soul, (such as it was,) above the same eye of my soul, above my mind, the Light Unchangeable. Not this ordinary light, which all flesh may look upon... but other, yea, far other.' The phenomenon that Augustine first names is a new intimacy with an inner depth in himself to which his access had been blocked. As Zen masters also testify, enlightenment is not merely a change in subjective vision; it is a return to the bedrock reality of one's being, from which one had been cut off by the fabric of habitual deluded thinking; hence the Japanese term for enlightenment, kensho 'beholding (one's) nature'. Immediately supervening on this is a new awareness of God as spirit, imaged as the Plotinian sun (the One) that rises above Intellect itself which contemplates it: 'One should not enquire whence it comes, for there is no "whence": for it does not really come or go away anywhere, but appears or does not appear. So one must not chase after it, but wait quietly till it appears, preparing oneself to contemplate it, as the eye awaits the rising of the sun... What is the horizon which he will mount above when he appears? He will be above Intellect itself which contemplates him' (Enn. V 5, 8). The intima mea are not quite identical with the eye of the mind which perceives the divine light. The spiritual freedom that allows one to be fully present to oneself is the milieu within which the eye of the mind, the purified intellect, can open. In Augustine the light and the mind that contemplates it differ as creator and created: superior, quia ipsa fecit me, et ego inferior, quia factus sum ab ea; 'above to my soul, because It made me; and I below It, because I was made by It.' Is this recognition of the light as creator a retrospective construction or was Augustine's experience conditioned by his biblical formation, recently renovated by the sermons of Ambrose? A retrospective resfashioning of the experience would be facilitated by the fact that Plotinus, too, speaks of the Good as making all things (through the Nous and the Soul), so that the realization ipsa fecit me could have been part of Augustine's Plotinian vision without the fully-developed biblical sense of a personal Creator.
The next phenomenon noted is the sense of unworthiness that overcomes Augustine faced with the purity of the divine light:
Et cum te primum cognovi, tu assumpsisti me, ut viderem esse, quod viderem, et nondum me esse, qui viderem. Et reverberasti infirmitatem aspectus mei radians in me vehementer, et contremui amore et horrore: et inveni longe me esse a te in regione dissimilitudinis, tamquam audirem vocem tuam de excelso: `Cibus sum grandium: cresce et manducabis me. 'When I first knew you, you lifted me up, that I might see there was something I might see, and that I was not yet such as to see. And you beat back the weakness of my sight, irradiating upon me most strongly, and I trembled with love and awe: and I perceived myself to be far off from you, in the region of unlikeness, as if I heard your voice from on high: "I am the food of adults; grow, and thou shalt feed upon me."'
The Platonic language here corresponds to the sense of the numinous as fascinosum (inspiring amor) and tremendum (inspiring horror); though as the coiner of these terms points out, it is the fascinosum that prevails in Augustine (Otto, 232). The voice of God that is imagined to be speaking is a later gloss ('as if') on the gulf Augustine feels between his own want of being and the supreme reality of the spiritual realm. The gulf Augustine perceives will be interpreted in Pauline terms as a bondage to sin, to be broken at the end of Book VIII. But the Pauline and Platonic scenarios, with their respective traditional terminologies, do not coincide automatically. Throughout his oeuvre (notably in the De Trinitate) Augustine yokes them together in a constantly reworked collage; but the classical topos of how the mind is dazzled and thrown back in mystical vision (see Finan) has no immediate connection with the Christian topics of sin and faith. The same note of failure or incompleteness inheres in Augustine's post-conversion mystical moments also, and the explanation of it in terms of moral weakness is an extrinsic, ideological interpretation. In the anti-Pelagian writings the Pauline framework dominates and references to the mystical scenario recede, so that we have a more consistent, but narrower Augustine. Both the Platonic language of vision and the Pauline language of grace were vehicles of encounters with ultimacy for Augustine, yet the tense pluralism between them, and between the corresponding experiences, is not erased in any leveling vision. Augustine needs to narrate his spiritual voyage. since no closed systematic presentation can do justice to the variety of encounters it embraced.
Augustine's encounter with the reality of God in this moment of intense vision yields a new vision of the reality of the world, a vision unfolded in calm reflection:
Et inspexi cetera infra te et vidi nec omnino esse nec omnino non esse: esse quidem, quoniam abs te sunt, non esse autem, quoniam id quod es non sunt (VII 17); 'And I beheld the other things below you, and I perceived, that they neither altogether are, nor altogether are not, for they are, since they are from you, but are not, because they are not what you are.'
This vision is personalized by a Psalm quotation: Mihi autem inhaerere deo bonum est (Ps. 72:28); in my want of being I can truly be only by dwelling in the one who is. The biblical quotations serve throughout to Christianize the Plotinian experience. From there he expounds his ontological vision of the convertibility of being and goodness, with the corollary that evil has no real existence, which overcomes Manicheanism at its root (VII 18-22). Are these ontological considerations seamlessly derived from the religious experience, or is Augustine reading back the fruits of years of thought into a single dawning of fresh insight?
Does ontological speculation already begin to project a space of thought that is in tension with the space opened up by the vision, and tends to screen it out? Is the vital immediacy of consciousness being replaced by a reflective objectification? Is speculative interest thwarting the unfolding of the phenomenological insight lying at the root of such convictions as the convertibility of being and goodness? If so this process is carried further in the De Trinitate, where the experience of God as Spirit cohabits uneasily with the analysis of God as substance, and where analysis of triadic structures of an objectified `soul' is in tension with evocations of its pre-objective consciousness (see O'Leary, 1981).
Augustine tells how he sought to recapture the visionary moment by the practice of a Platonic ascent (as opposed to the complete gratuity of the initial enlightenment), passing by degrees (gradatim) from the beauty of bodies to that of the soul, and thence to the inner sense that even animals have, and to the reasoning faculty which judges the deliveries of that sense, until he reaches the level of intelligence, of nous, and above it the light whereby the intelligence judges. The ascent culminates in another ecstatic encounter with what truly is: et pervenit ad id quod est in ictu trepidantis aspectus (VII 23); 'And thus with the flash of one trembling glance it arrived at That Which Is.' Augustine again falls back, more quickly this time:
sed aciem figere non evalui et repercussa infirmitate redditus solitis non mecum ferebam nisi amantem memoriam et quasi olefacta desiderantem, quae comedere nondum possem. 'But I could not fix my gaze thereon; and my infirmity being struck back, I was thrown again on my wonted habits, carrying along with me only a loving memory thereof, and a longing for what I had, as it were, perceived the odour of, but was not yet able to feed on.'
Here the labor of deliberate cogitation precedes the mystical moment rather than subsequently reaping its harvest of insight. This intrusion of intellectual reflection into the sphere of infused contemplation has led one author to suppose that there is nothing mystical about the Milan experiences at all. Even the first experience (VII 16) would represent 'not a mystical intuition of God, but an implicitly reasoned ascent of the mind to the height of truth which is God... God is pictured as engaged in a brief I-Thou dialogue in which he tells Augustine that he is "I am who am." But this utterance is essentially an intellectual or quasi-theological locution, not a mystical deliverance' (Quinn, 258). This is a flat and literalistic paraphrase of Augustine's sublime words: et clamasti de longinquo: immo vero ego sum qui sum. Et audivi, sicut auditur in corde. 'The analytical invocation of God's self-given name does not affectively move him or set his spirit afire; rather, it fills his mind with light... the satisfaction consequent upon a perception or experience characterized by expressions such as "Aha!" or "Eureka!"... He achieved intellectual fulfillment with an intense delight that Catholics born into the faith can abstractly conceive, but never concretely imagine' (258-9). 'Arrival at the apex of his reasoning process is accompanied by an undeniable intellectual pleasure as well as a peripheral affective satisfaction; still, neither of these affective modes even approaches full-flowered mystical experience. Significantly, the decisive factor of passivity is missing' (265). The intellectual and the affective are dissociated here in a manner which cannot do justice to such passionate thinkers as Plotinus and Augustine, in whom intellect and passion worked together in constant mutual illumination and stimulation. To see mysticism as a matter of 'affectivity' and to suppose that because Augustine, following Plotinus, describes a mystical enlightenment of the mind, which also stuns the mind and exceeds its grasp, he must therefore be talking about something 'merely intellectual' (though his language is charged with wonder and joy) is to bypass the phenomenon the text presents through reliance on cut-and-dried binary oppositions. (For the vibrant, indeed violent affectivity of Plotinian mysticism, taken up by Augustine, see Sorabji, 159-60, 165, 169.)
Quinn finds genuine mystical passivity in the Ostia experience, and ascribes it to the grace of the sacraments Augustine received and the spiritual life he practised after his conversion. The idea that Augustine could have enjoyed mystical experience while in his unconverted state seems to Quinn to presuppose a special miracle, one God was unlikely to work. But there are many 'mute inglorious Wordsworths' to vouch that mystical experience is not tied to the sacraments. Augustine does underline the greater perfection of the joy of Ostia, firmly rooted in the practice of agape, and of friendship, and the communion of saints. But the Milan experience, at least in VII 16, has the notes of passivity and grace as well, as the phrases duce te and tu assumpsisti me indicate. Id ipsum, id quod est, is touched in a moment of pure ecstasy, in ictu trepidantis aspectus. Ego sum qui sum is no abstract proposition, as Quinn thinks, but auditur in corde - it is a homecoming to the maternal breast of being and to the paternal abode. The presence of God is with Augustine as a holy sweetness -- dulcedo mea sancta (I 4), an inner light, food, strength, and the breast on which his thought reposes: lumen cordis mei et panis oris intus animae meae et virtus maritans mentem meam et sinum cogitationis meae (I 21).
The imagery of ascent can be translated into the more 'passive' imagery of stripping-away, Plotinian aphairesis. Like the Zen suppression of thought and images (munen muso) it allows the mind to be receptive to phenomena. The ascent is inward, away from the tumult of sense involvement, thus in the direction of non-involvement in external activities, and of passivity before the higher light that enlightens the mind. Eckhart's reading of this passage, in a sermon on the feast of St Augustine, responds sensitively to its witness to a pati divina: quando scilicet lux divina per effectum suum aliquem specialem irradiat super potentias cognoscentes et super medium in cognitione, elevans intellectum ipsum ad id quod naturaliter non potest; 'when the divine light through one of its special effects irradiates upon the cognitive powers and the cognitive medium, elevating the intellect itself to that of which it is naturally incapable' (Lateinische Werke V 93-4; quoted, Lossky, 180-1). The language of elevation is perhaps misleading, and it irritates us now by a certain archaism.. The One of Plotinus is not only 'above'; it is the reality nearest to hand. The negations of apophatic theology serve not to climb a ladder to a remote beyond, but to remove illusions that prevent God from speaking to us here and now. In Mâdhyamika and in Vedanta this is clearer; the dialectical negations serve not to take us beyond the world but to reveal emptiness or the Self in the here and now (see O'Leary 2003).
Both Milan and Ostia are breakthroughs to ultimacy, but the Ostia experience is richer and more integrated. Between them lies the moral conversion made possible through the impact of the words of St. Paul (VIII 29), another breakthrough to ultimacy, which allowed Augustine to be serenely at one with himself and with his fellow-Christians. A crisis of Platonic eros is enacted in the 'drop' Augustine feels after his first experience at Milan; the crisis is resolved when eros is inserted in the context of communal agape, caritas, and at Ostia Monica and Augustine taste the delights of this more securely rooted contemplation. Augustine is now on a spiritual plateau, in daily enjoyment of the internum aeternum (IX 10). Though the language of the Ostia experience is still that of Platonic ascent, and in fact is close to the willed tentative mystique of Milan (see Courcelle), the affective tonality is very different. The subject of the experience is not an isolated philosophical seeker, but two friends united in serene praise of God in his creation.
Erigentes nos ardentiore affectu in id ipsum perambulavimus gradatim cuncta corporalia... Et adhuc ascendebamus interius cogitando et loquendo et mirando opera tua et venimus in mentes nostras et transcendimus eas, ut attingeremus regionem ubertatis indeficientis, ubi pascis Israhel in aeternum veritate pabulo... Et dum loquimur et inhiamus illi, attingimus eam modice toto ictu cordis; et suspiravimus et relinquimus ibi religatas primitias spiritus et remeavimus ad strepitum oris nostri (IX 24). 'Raising ourselves up with a more glowing affection towards the "Self-same," we passed by degrees through all things bodily... We were soaring higher yet, by inward musing, and discourse, and admiring of your works; and we came to our own minds, and went beyond them, that we might arrive at that region of never-failing plenty, where you feed Israel for ever with the food of truth... And while we were discoursing and panting after her [Wisdom], we slightly touched on her with the whole effort of our heart; and we sighed, and there we leave bound the first fruits of the Spirit; and returned to vocal expressions of our mouth.'
Here again Augustine's displays his inspired mastery of the conventional techniques of contemplation, of metaphysical analysis, of a rhetoric of eros mounting to meet the descending manna of agape (ubi pascis Israhel), and of the arts of fictional and dramatic presentation. Ostia might be seen as a synthesis or a dialectical result of the metaphysical vision of Milan and the moral liberation of the tolle lege scene, producing yet another form of experiencing ultimacy. Perhaps we might call it a Johannine ultimacy, given the key role of interpersonal love and the eloquence with which Augustine will discourse on this theme in his homilies on I John. The whole of Scripture is for Augustine a set of occasions for breaking through to the ultimate level of vision, and his hearers are urged to knock constantly until the light of intellectus dawns for them: Surge, quaere, anhela desideria, et ad clausa pulsa... (Tractatus in Johannem 18.7). The taste of ultimacy gives him great freedom in imaginative penetration of the biblical text, handled as a functional 'skillful means' for evoking contemplative vision.
All of this work with conventions circles around the vividly experienced truth-event, the encounter with id ipsum, an intimacy with the divine in conjunction with a privileged moment of intimacy with a beloved human being or in communion with the quest of the praying pilgrim community. Fragile and elusive as the moments of intellectus are, their value as clues to the ultimately gracious nature of reality spurs us to work on the conventions of our religious discourse to make them more effective antennae for picking up such signals. Augustine's entire theological oeuvre is an effort to render the conventional transparent to the ultimate. He joyfully disposed the linguistic and intellectual resources of his culture into alignment with this contemplative ultimacy. The equivalent achievement for theology today would be to explore the horizon of ultimacy onto which the questions, the lack, the unease of modern civilization open out, and to revamp religious discourse so that it no longer obstructs access to this realm, but kindles experiences of ultimacy through a recognition of its own thorough conventionality.
Ultimacy Under Fire: Psychoanalysts and Religious Experience
A religious experience such as Augustine describes bears witness to a dimension of reality that triumphs serenely over death and meaninglessness. The authority of this witness comes from the quality of ultimacy inherent in the experience itself, rather than from the metaphysical ideas and scriptural teachings linked with it. Of course a scriptural word may be the occasion of the experience. Then it is that living word that has authority and ultimacy, not the mere text or secondary elucidations of it. The image of hearing a word may originate in the conviction that the experience is not merely subjective but is an encounter with the real. We saw how in the later account of his Milan experience, Augustine claimed that he heard the voice of God declare 'I am who am.' In Vedanta, too, the non-duality of atman and Brahman is not simply an insight, but a revelation, something heard (sruti), which as in the case of the Prophets and the Quran refers more to the mode of encounter with the divine than to the authority of canonical texts. Phenomenologically, the deliveries of religious experience impose themselves as unmasterable (Barth's Unverfügbarkeit), as 'saturated phenomena' (Marion), which we cannot go behind or seek to subordinate to any explanatory framework. The reality encountered is to be accepted entirely on its own terms, which are those of supreme being, awareness, bliss (the Vedantic sat-chit-ananda). Were one to grill it, to seek out its hidden background, to query its legitimacy, that would be a demonstration of phenomenological ill-breeding, or what Aristotle would call apaideusia. In the numinous moment there is no room for doubt or questioning. The reality apprehended is more undeniable even than the reality of the everyday physical world: non erat prorsus unde dubitarem, faciliusque dubitarem vivere me quam non esse veritatem... (VII 16), echoed in Newman's reference to an `inward conversion of which I was conscious (and of which I still am more certain that that I have hands and feet' (Newman, 127).
Nonetheless, the rights of the conventional will not be denied. Orthodoxy attempts to regulate and assess religious experience in terms of its conformity to doctrine. Mystics will have trouble honoring the constraints of doctrinal discourse, which may not fit well with their more vivid sense of the realities to which dogma points, since the entire realm of words and ideas belongs to conventional or world-ensconced truth whereas religious experience is a breakthrough to the paramârtha level. The wise mystic will patiently negotiate the realm of conventional reason. That Augustine could do so with such aplomb perhaps suggests that he was not primarily a mystical type at all; his contemplative serenity positively throve on the cut and thrust of doctrinal debate. Plotinus's cogitations are turned inward: he pursues his philosophical riddles as a spiritual exercise, in a spirit of play; the themes of Aristotle and the Stoics, even those of ethics, logic, and cosmology, are rehearsed, but in a perspective remote from their this-worldly concerns; they become the occasion of a perpetual rethinking which enacts the soul's effort to locate itself before the One..
Psychoanalysts practice a hermeneutics of suspicion that would trace everything back to the subject. While they respect experiences that show the subject engaging in the symbolic order in a realistic give and take, they tend to view religious experience as a saturnalian feast of the unconscious, in which all its repressed grandiose desires are given free rein. They assume it can be nothing more than an immanent psychic process, a blind jouissance, an oceanic feeling linked to pre-natal bliss. Many find in the Confessions nothing more than libido on the loose, ego inflation, masochistic self-annihilation before the super-ego. What a catastrophe it would be not only for religion, but for civilization, if these dismal diagnoses turned out to be the 'truth' about Augustine.
Slavoj Zizek points out that in religious ecstasy, according to St Ignatius Loyola:
the positive figure of God comes second, after the moment of 'objectless' ecstasy: first we have the experience of objectless ecstasy; subsequently this experience is attached to some historically determined representation -- here we encounter an exemplary case of the Real as 'that which remains the same in all possible (symbolic) universes.'.. precisely jouissance as that which always remains the same. Every ideology attaches itself to some kernel of jouissance which, however, retains the status of an ambiguous excess. The unique "religious experience" is thus to be split into its two components, as in the well-known scene from Terry Gilliam's Brazil in which the food on a plate is split into its symbolic frame (a coloured photo of the course above the plate) and the formless slime of jouissance that we actually eat... (Zizek 1997:50).
To contest the phenomenological adequacy of this description we must focus on the illuminative power of contemplative experience. The 'inner witness of the Holy Spirit' lights up the biblical text and charges it with radiant meaning. Religious experience, as Augustine's account shows, is also a source of metaphysical insight, yielding a renewed vision of the world and of being. Even if one calls this body of scriptural and metaphysical insight an ideological construction, the relation between the insight and the ecstasy is more integrated than Zizek recognizes. To be sure, there is an excess of the joyful sense of ultimacy over the framework of understanding which it both confirms and shows up as 'mere straw' (Thomas Aquinas), a vessel of clay. 'We have this treasure in earthen vessels, to show that the transcendent power belongs to God and not to us' (2 Cor. 4:7). For Paul, the excess is a mark of the divine glory, not of an obscure psychic murk. The darkness of divine glory is further along the trajectory of dazzling insight that the religious experience conveys: 'Dark with excessive bright thy skirts appear.' If what is touched in mystical ectasy exceeds the grasp of the mind -- 'what no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man conceived' (1 Cor. 2:9) -- this is not because it is a slippery preconceptual slime, but because only the Holy Spirit can investigate it: 'The Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God' (2:10). Contemplation is access to the dimension of Spirit, pneuma, marked by an intensification of the sense of reality, as 'seeing' gives way to 'touching.' (Here, though, I am again yoking together two disparate traditions, the biblical pneuma and the Neoplatonic touching, thiggein.)
If the core of religious experience is a blissful pneumatic illumination, this is in close conjunction with an illuminating word. Both aspects are transformative: the spiritual bliss is a liberation from chains of delusion, from psychic blockage; the word associated with it is a judgment of truth, cutting through the false or unreal positions in which one had been entangled and establishing a secure new perspective. Even if jouissance were always the same, the word in which it finds expression inevitably varies according to the context of the experience. The word cannot be a pure expression of ultimacy, as it invariably relies on the conventional data of the given context. One may also ask if even the core jouissance itself is shaped by its context, so that the effect of ultimacy could never be disentangled immaculately from the culture-bound contingencies of its emergence.
This dynamic of transformative illumination in religious experience is not undermined by the discovery of a connection with erotic drives. Those places in poetic or religious texts when we perceive the dawning of the sublime often bring a surge of erotic excitement or delight: consider the blissful release in the second variation of the third movement of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony (bars 99-114) or the vaulting quasi-fugato of the final movement (bars 432-525). To be 'surprised by joy' is an erotic experience. But to reduce every summit of religious or aesthetic joy to instantiations of an invariable blind animal ecstasy is a doctrinaire curtailment of the phenomena and their significance. The idea that jouissance is always the same scarcely applies even to physical eroticism. The mood of sexual delight lights up intensely the varied beauty of the objects that elicit it, Analogously, the light and joy of the Spirit constantly reveals fresh aspects of the object of contemplation.
'In our era of modern science, one can no longer accept the fable of the miracle of Resurrection as the form of the Truth-Event. Although the Truth-Event does designate the occurrence of something which, from within the horizon of the predominant order of Knowledge, appears impossible (think of the laughter with which the Greek philosophers greeted Paul's assertion of Christ's Resurrection on his visit to Athens), today, any location of the Truth-Event at the level of supernatural miracles necessarily entails regression into obscurantism, since the event of Science is irreducible and cannot be undone' (Zizek 1999:142). The primitive resurrection kerygma no doubt concerns a physical raising of Christ from the tomb, seen as the first-fruits of the general resurrection of the dead. Demythologizers in the line of Schleiermacher and Bultmann have reinterpreted this ancient language as referring to a pneumatic eschatological event, which no longer clashes directly with science. 'The resurrected Jesus can be seen only in the conversion he came to preach about, not in some supernaturally perceptible coming back to show his new glorified body' (Keenan, 394). The miracle of resurrection is not the literal raising of a corpse but the conquest over exactly the dead-end beyond which Zizek believes it is impossible to go. 'After Freud, one cannot directly have faith in a Truth-Event; every such Event ultimately remains a semblance obfuscating a preceding Void whose Freudian name is death drive' (154). The resurrection obfuscates the Real manifested in Christ's death, 'the lowest excremental remainder' (228). Yet in the Christian kerygma this Real is not eluded: Ego sum vermis et non homo (Ps. 22:6). The abyss of the Triduum is the condition of the Paschal dawn.
Zizek himself speaks of revolutionary acts that 'miraculously' break through the constraints of a given symbolic order. Correlative with resurrection is forgiveness: 'the miracle of Grace which retroactively "undoes" our past sins' (331). Here it is not science which objects, but a scepticism based on the feeling that this is a tired old ideology. The phenomena of forgiveness and being forgiven provide, however, an empirical basis for belief in this miracle. The impact of Christ's revolutionary act of forgiveness can be described in Zizek's own terms: 'An act proper "miraculously" changes the very standard by which we measure and value our activity; that is, it is synonymous with what Nietzsche called "transvaluation of values"... The act occurs when the choice of (what, within the situation, appears as) the Worst changes the very standards of what is good or bad' (307). Christ 'becomes sin' to free us from sin, and his resurrection is perhaps the dialectical reversal brought about by this radical confrontation with sin and death. The joy of the resurrection is not sparked off by the news of a fabulous miracle; rather it is correlative with a vision of the full significance of Christ's teaching and his death, the vision that 'God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself' (2 Cor. 5:19).
Beyond the finality of physical death lies the ultimacy of the death drive, the meaningless entropic noise at the heart of the universe. It is heard as a sublime interruption in a love-lyric of Catullus: Nobis cum semel occidit brevis lux/Nox est perpetua una dormienda. Freud and Lacan have increased the pervasiveness of this dark sublime. It, too, is unmasterable, there is no going beyond it. Yet Christ 'abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel' (2 Tim. 1:10). The dark places of death are entirely comprehended by the light of the gospel word, so that their meaning changes. 'The grace that is in Christ Jesus' (2 Tim. 2:1) is known on a nearer acquaintance with suffering and death. It is not by eluding the phenomena of sin and death, but by surrendering entirely to their claim, that one enters the domain of the forgiveness of sins and the resurrection from the dead.
Religious experience, then, is a miraculous breakthrough to a realm of freedom -- be it nirvana, enlightenment, resurrection, the Vedantic Brahman, or the Plotinian One. Is there a specific form in which this 'truth-event' is to be sought today? The leveling and alienating effect of the machine of global capitalism reduces all experiences to commodities. Religious vision is stymied by it much as artistic and political creativity are. When we study the breakthroughs to ultimacy recorded in the classic religious texts of the past and attempt to discern how they related to the historical and cultural contexts in which they emerged, we may find clues for an opening up of the contemporary context to a liberating ultimacy. A thorough recognition of the historical pluralism and the contingent, conventional status of all our languages of ultimacy will be a distinctive feature of a contemporary retrieval of mystical traditions, and we may draw from Buddhism the encouraging thought that to recognize the conventional as conventional is to be already aligned to the ultimate.
The Conventionality of Religious Experience
Religious experience should bring a sense of freedom and flexibility in dealing with the conventions of religious discourse. But when means and ends, the conventional and the ultimate, are confused, the result is a sclerosis of the religious tradition, some form of absolutism, fanaticism, or fundamentalism. To be sure, in the contemporary context a rigid fundamentalism may be more conducive to mystical breakthroughs than a liberal and pluralistic attitude. Yet perhaps if we go all the way with pluralism, recognizing the utterly contingent and conventional status of all religious constructions, we can traverse the religious fantasy (as Zizek might put it) and re-enact more skillfully the religious disposal of words, ideas and actions in view of ultimacy. When people take up religious words and attitudes, they are aware that they are subscribing to a historical tradition. Today that historical self-consciousness embraces not only one's own tradition but the wider community of faiths, bringing a critical sense of the non-absoluteness of one's mode of engaging with ultimate reality. The community that recites the Lord's Prayer is increasingly aware that they are enacting a specifically Christian convention, while neighboring communities enact conventions no less efficacious for them. Such awareness might undercut conviction at first, but subsequently it can renew one's relations to the forms one uses, as they are reappropriated in their fragile status as historically tried and tested means of opening to the divine. Can even the Eucharist be rethought in these terms? It is a form used by Jesus, drawing on all the riches of the Jewish heritage, and exhibiting the sense of his death. To reenact that form is the richest way we have of realizing the Paschal sense of Christ's death, attuning ourselves to his pneumatic presence, and realizing communion with one another in him. The rite 'works' for us as it did for Jesus. It is an eloquent and effective convention.
For Henri Poincaré geometry is not an immediate datum of experience; neither is it a Kantian a priori structure, an inbuilt necessity of the mind. A geometry is freely chosen, as a conventional construct, constrained only by the necessity of avoiding contradictions. Einstein adds that physical geometry, or practical geometry, is constrained in addition by the empirical reality of solid bodies. When the purely theoretical conventions of mathematical geometry are put to practical use, we are forced to recognize a single specific geometry as that of our cosmos. This geometry turns out to be Riemannian rather than Euclidian, so that all the confirmations of Euclid and of Newton that centuries of experience provided now need to be recontextualized. But the move from theoretical to practical geometry is by no means a step out of conventions into transparent realities. Straight lines still remain idealized fictions which have no actual existence in nature.
If geometry is a convention, philosophical systems must be much more so. 'In the endeavour to live up to traditional ideals of completeness and ultimate justification, a philosophical tradition or school tends to define and explain its basic notions in terms of the notions belonging to its own terminological core. Its arrangement of basic notions is in that sense circular, and it is by training and by allowing oneself to become convinced of its trustworthiness that one gets into that circle' (Stenlund, 196-7). The world yields to the analytic methodology of a strong philosophical system, but the bulk of the system's progress lies in its internal self-confirmation and self-perfecting, sometimes to the point where it seems to exclude worldly reality from the crystal palace of its own purified reconstruction of the world (a critique addressed to Husserl by Adorno).
Analogously, Jonathan Z. Smith once compared religions to packs of cards. They are systems of conventional symbols and rules for playing with them. This conventionalist reading of religion has become very tempting as we take religious pluralism seriously, and realize that no one religion can set itself up as the ultimate norm whereby all the others are judged. Humans have forged religious systems from the materials available in their different cultures in complex historical trajectories. Faced with the contradictory variety of the results we are forced to wonder if religious discourse has any substantial referent.
If we think of the chief referent of the biblical religions, God, it seems that God's 'housing problem,' long ago diagnosed by David Strauss, is more severe than ever. The notion of God has no steady place in our contemporary experience of worldhood. Even our grammar seems to exclude it, for the texture of signification no longer depends on a logocentric reference to stable substances. A Buddhist ontology of dependent co-arising, of a universal conditionality that functions without stable entitative causes, seems better suited to contemporary experience. As the most self-critical and thoroughly reflected of religions, Buddhism has a key role to play in resolving current questions about the status and function of religion and of theism. Buddhism is happy to see religions as conventional constructs, or as provisional skillful means to be used for purposes of spiritual liberation.
Religious experience provides empirical confirmation to religious systems just as the physical world confirms geometrical systems. But the confirmation does not take away the conventional status of the system. At best it shows that the system has a useful function in favoring the occurrence of religious experience. Perhaps there is one correct 'practical geometry' of the religious cosmos. Buddhism, the most methodical of spiritual paths, may have unveiled the lineaments of this realm. Or Buddhism may be one conventional map alongside others, and all the maps may have to be corrected as we close in on the true shape of religious reality. Or all the maps may be equally valid, and conventionalism thus have a wider scope in spiritual than in physical space.
For Poincaré the question, 'Is Euclidean geometry true?' had no meaning. Similarly the questions 'Is Buddhism true?' 'Is Christianity true?' could be construed as having no meaning. Both religions are skillful means for lighting up a spiritual space and traveling in it. Any other religion that works as effectively and as consistently would do just as well. We do not ask 'Is Mozart true?' 'Is Beethoven true?' as we travel in the space they open up. A conventionalist would say that within a certain geometrical set-up there are true and false propositions, while the question of the truth of the geometry as a whole cannot be asked, for there is no external, objective 'space' with which one could compare it. Any non-contradictory geometry will fit our spatial experience, and the question, 'which fits best?' reduces to the question of which is of most pragmatic value in a given context, or which best serves the evolution of the species. A religious conventionalist, analogically, could say that within a certain religious language-game there are true and false propositions, but the question of the truth of the religion as a whole cannot be asked, for there is no external, objective religious space with which one could compare it. A religion is a human method of tuning in to ultimate mystery. Its language generates propositions which have their own inbuilt, autonomous logic, just as those of geometry have. In Euclidean space it is true that the angles of an equilateral triangle are equal, and false that they are not. The truth-effect is embedded in a context, inscribed within a web of writing that exceeds and encompasses it; and that writing itself eludes the question, 'true or false?,' as Derrida argues. In terms of the dyad of samvrti-satya and paramartha-satya, all propositional truth is conventional or world-ensconced truth, not ultimate truth. But the careful tending of the garden of conventional truth is a condition for the blossoming of ultmacy. Thus the dogmatic wrangles of the past had a point. Unfortunately, instead of being seen as labor on the conventional in service of the ultimate, they were seen as themselves ultimate and degenerated into a clash of absolutes.
In Christian religious space it is true that God, Logos, Spirit are equal, and false that they are not. But the dogmatic truths about the Trinity are embedded in a web of writing that ultimately eludes the question of truth or falsity. Mapping their experience in terms of God, Logos and Spirit, the biblical writers were not aware of any tensions or contradictions of an ontological order. Only with the emergence of theology, fashioned after the Greek philosophical model by Philo and Justin, did questions about the ontological conditions and foundations of the biblical language begin to take a sharper character. The inspired utterances of the Johannine contemplative community offer little foothold for determining the ontological status of Christ; when John (1.1) writes that the Logos was theos (not ho theos) he is not stating that the Logos is lesser in divinity than the Father, but only apprehending the phenomenon of the Logos as one who comes from the intimacy of the divine realm; conversely, when he has Thomas call the risen Jesus ho theos (20.28) he is not defining Jesus as truly God; it is a contemplative utterance, a recognition that the encounter with Jesus is an encounter with God.
The construction of trinitarian and christological orthodoxy is a skillful theological performance within an intellectual framework that is ill matched to the world of the texts on which it works, and that is not entirely suited to expounding the faith (though it was commonly taken to be the ideal, providentially supplied framework for clarifying Christian truth). Now that we have worked with the dogmatic framework for two millennia we can see that for all its power it has a rigid and sterile cast; it no longer provides a basis for creative development. Dogma developed according to its intrinsic metaphysical logic up to the fourteenth century, with the result that scholastic brilliance replaced authentic clarification of the biblical phenomena. From the Reformation on, creative theology has focused on tracing dogma back to its biblical roots. Systematic theologies in all Christian confessions today will normally adopt a biblical pattern of exposition, as in Melanchthon's Loci and Calvin's Institutes. This biblical refashioning of dogmatic thought has revitalized basic dogmatic claims, recontextualized others, and cast others into the shade. It has exposed as inadequate the classical frameworks of dogmatic thought, shaped by canons of rationality deriving from metaphysics.
Today the intellectual space or regime of truth within which dogmatic truths enjoyed an immovable security has become obsolete. What is left of dogma survives only on the strength of biblical support and within a space of Christian thinking quite foreign to that of the Fathers, Councils, and scholastics. Little weight attaches to 'dogmatic' claims unless they carry the mark of ultimacy -- unless they could be candidates for a mystical level of contemplative apprehension. The Vedantic revelation, 'that are thou' (tat tvam asi), and the Mahayana paradox, 'samsara is nirvana,' are claims of that sort. 'He was delivered for our sins and rose for our justification' (Rom 4.25) and 'The Word became flesh' (Jn 1.14) are such claims too, if apprehended in their original contemplative context, without the intrusion of inappropriate ontology. The language of religion is primarily a language of mystical ultimacy, a language voiding itself before the numinous real, the divine. The more systematic down-to-earth explication of religious world-views that most religions offer as well, the kind of thing Augustine spells out in The City of God will have little of the character of ultimacy, and the texts devoted to it will be much imprisoned in their time and culture than those, like the Confessions, that boldly run up against the limits of language.
Ultimacy is not a thing, a noumenon to which the merely phenomenal paths of the various religions would point. Ultimacy is rather adjectival, a quality attaching to a certain specific vision. Thus the language expressive of it does not convey new substantive content, but a new depth of realization. Systems of religious thought centered on ecounters with some ultimate reality, such as those of Plotinus, Augustine, Sankara, retrieve previous tradition in a key of greater simplicity, radicality and integration. Even if most of the traditions they rehearse are now outdated, their work on them is graced by a sense of the due roles of the conventional and the ultimate. They handle the conventions with wisdom and respect, yet one senses that they all the time have a quiet awareness that the ultimate, the one thing needful, is around the corner, and that the conventions need not be worried about excessively. Augustine never becomes excited as he contemplates the fall of Rome and unrolls his panorama of history and eschatology; but when it comes to the topic of grace, a topic central to his encounter with God, his tone is urgent, impassioned. He becomes even fanatical, trapped in the horrendous theologoumena of predestination. Yet as in the case of Luther's reply to Erasmus, On the Bondage of the Will, the value of the texts lies in their exemplification of an indefectible sense of the reality of God and grace, a constant effort to let the ultimate be spoken in words that can only be the feeblest, most fragile of vessels. Though The City of God is weighed down by desultory lore and though the writings on grace err through hammering too hard at the essentials, Augustine can stand as an exemplar of the interplay of ultimate and conventional, unfolding the doctrines from the central vantage-point of his contemplative vision, setting each element in its place, a relative and auxiliary one, as his mind ranges freely through the system in a spirit of play, knowing that all its constructions are mere provisional conventions at the service of the one thing needful, the internum aeternum.
What we call divine revelation is not an alien force that strikes from outside. It emerges within the conventions of a given historical world as a breakthrough to a new level of interiority or lucidity. Though it shatters the conventions prepared to receive it, as the real always shatters the merely notional, it does not offer a new empirical datum calling for categories not anticipated in the previous tradition. Although a revelation is stamped with the quality of ultimacy, that ultimacy always has a basis in the conventional; it is the ultimacy of this conventional world, the unconditioned that this particular set of conditions allows to emerge. Breakthroughs to ultimacy happen in function of particular conventional set-ups. The irreducible and unmasterable core of the revelation event both fulfills and overthrows the context in which it emerges. It is not derived naturalistically from this preceding context, as a psychologist of religion is tempted to think: 'Every religious phenomenon has its history and its derivation from natural antecedents' (James, 23). But the manner in which its transcendence is manifest always exhibits a reference to the context. Even as the visionary struggles to express the 'wholly other' character of what is manifested the words that surge up to express it are those of the religious culture he or she had already acquired, words that now take wing, charged with new immediacy and fullness of sense.
In the Buddha's enlightenment the conventional constructions of centuries of Indian religious exploration click into a new and luminous perspective. In the resurrection of Jesus the conventional constructions of centuries of Jewish religious exploration find a new bearing. The resurrection is the happening of ultimacy amid the conventional. In the breakthrough to ultimacy Gotama becomes Buddha, and Jesus becomes Christ: 'descended from David according to the flesh, and designated Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead' (Rom. 1:3-4). Ultimacy is a radical transformation of the conventional world, and it can be known only in this way, starting from this conventional basis. The Pauline movement from flesh to spirit is the movement from conventional to ultimate.
Ultimacy, despite its 'wholly other' quality, dwells in conventionality, and we remain open to it only in disposing the conventional world in line with its ultimate orientation. In Buddhist vision, ultimate reality is not some hidden thing-in-itself, but is fully accessible to enlightened awareness. The ultimate is not hidden behind the conventions. Etymologically, it is claimed, samvrti-satya is not merely 'screening reality' but also 'revealing reality'; to experience the conventions as conventions is already to be attuned to their emptiness, to ultimacy.
The mystical texts of the past give ample evidence of the flimsiness of even the most privileged religious language. To read them is to visit a museum of rusty old flying-machines. There is a whole collection which is built according to the Neo-Platonic model, and which includes Gregory of Nyssa, Augustine, Pseudo-Dionysius, Eckhart and many other princes of Christian mysticism. That the machines flew need not be questioned, nor have the fundamental laws of aviation changed. But we no longer know how to build those contraptions. Despite the gap between the claims of ultimacy made by mystics and the manifestly culture-bound language they use, their fragile myths did function as vehicles of ultimacy for them -- an ultimacy that could be expressed and experienced only in terms of those specific myths. Our present conceptions of spiritual space and of the technology for its conquest generate a very different body of conventions from those of classical mysticism, and these in turn will seem as farfetched to people in the future as the mystical maps of the past seem to us. Yet past texts, including the biblical ones, speak to us through the core phenomena of spiritual freedom to which they attest, despite the elaborate interpretative framework in which these phenomena are enshrined.
But are the core phenomena themselves a conventional formation, arising in dependence on a congeries of contingent historical conditions? In the case of the Protestant peasant who is related to have spent days lost in contemplation on reading Romans 8:1 -- 'There is now no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus' --, should we say that, rather than appropriate the meaning of Paul in a luminous communication, the reader constructed his own contemporary vision, kindled by Paul's words, and shaped by subsequent theological development, notably the creative retrieval of Paul in the Lutheran tradition?
A common core-experience cannot be distilled out of the various languages of ultimacy. Each of them is from the start a rich particular texture, and the ultimacy they secrete is the fine fruit of an entire religious culture. Like the experience of listening to a Beethoven quartet, 'music heard so deeply/That it is not heard at all, but you are the music/While the music lasts' (T. S. Eliot), the interiorized appreciation of the images, truths, presences constructed by a given religion is not an external confirmation of these, but their product. Yet as a musical ecstasy confirms the greatness of a musical opus, so a religious ecstasy confirms the greatness of a religious vision. Something clicks, something chimes, and one cries: 'That's it!'
A context-free description of ultimacy might be possible if it was essentially a psychological experience. Then one might discover the corresponding brain-waves. But ultimacy is a matter more of being than of consciousness. It is a quality of reality itself. To isolate that quality independently of the cultural vehicles that open access to it would entail finding a truer, more objective, more universal language of ultimacy than any concrete tradition has found. It is as if one were to seek a true, objective language of beauty that would surpass and replace the many languages of the great poets. One might trace general patterns of the emergence of ultimacy in religious traditions or of the emergence of beauty in poetry. But ultimacy and beauty are not things but 'effects.' The effect of beauty in poetry is on each occasion singular, unrepeatable. The effect of ultimacy in religion has a similar individual irreducibility. One can be initiated into a religious tradition and led to its vision of ultimacy, so that one 'repeats' the experience of one's predecessors on this path. Similarly, one can come to appreciate a great poem and have the same experience of beauty as its previous readers had. There is a tradition of experience, its transmission from mind to mind. But just as the poetry is not a dispensable vehicle of the experience of beauty it transmits, neither are the conventions of a religious tradition separable from the ultimacy they convey. They are not ways of cutting a pre-given experiential cake according to culturally conditioned conceptual or linguistic schemes. The schemes are intrinsic elements of the cake, which is always already rich in intelligible patterns.
Opposing talk of religious experience as culture-bound and historically contextualized, Anne Klein points to the direct perception of emptiness in Tibetan Mâdhyamika Buddhism. She claims that the immediate experience of ultimacy becomes independent of its conventional vehicles and in consequence attains a universality that common experience lacks. The conditioned makes the unconditioned possible, as the dissolution of conditions and the discovery of a realm of unconditioned freedom. It is thus that the ordinary mind can'experience a state that is unconditioned, omniscient, and pure,' 'direct experience of the final or ultimate nature of things' (Klein, 269). 'This knowledge and its object are unconditioned by particularities of history and thus accessible in the same form, albeit through different means, to all persons regardless of cultural or psychological particularity' (270). The cultural particularity of religious paths fades into insignificance when the ultimate emerges. The conundrum of 'how conceptual conditioning yields a nonconceptual experience of the unconditioned' (271) is solved by a gradualist approach in which conceptual analysis applied to the data of conventional awareness works in tandem with an abandonment of conceptuality for a nonconceptual, nondualistic experience of emptiness. This abandonment is achieved through mental calming and concentration, which allay the tensions between conceptual thought and direct perception and reduce the impact of conditioned objects on the perceiving subject. Here a path of awareness opens up that is less and less subject to the conditioning that provides the basis for historicist and constructivist epistemologies. Insight into the constructed character of mental experience is not the highest insight for Buddhism; for such constructions are seen as interfering with cognition of the unconstructed, emptiness.
Against this, one might recall that in Mâdhyamika thought 'emptiness' is always 'emptiness of'; ultimate truth has as its basis some conventional truth; the unconditioned dawns on a conditioned mind, and emerges as the dissolution of just those conditions already in place. Buddhism may seem to preach a simple transcendence of constructions toward an experience of emptiness that is invariable, but in practice emptiness emerges on each occasion as a deconstruction of a given construction. Not the endless deconstruction of Derrida's différance, to be sure, but a deconstruction that finds something unconstructed, unconditioned at the heart of the constructed, conditioned. Ultimacy is always known as a conventionality deconstructed.
Thus, while in its inscrutable inner core the unconditioned may lie beyond all conventional contexts, in its actual emergence it appears in a variety of styles. Plotinus's One is not the same thing as Buddhist emptiness, though both are given as the ultimate nature of things. The One emerges as a simplicity transcending the noetic realm, as mapped in the theory of the Nous, whereas emptiness emerges in the quiescence of the distinctions of our conventional dealings with the dependently arisen world, as mapped in Buddhist theory. The unconditioned in each case takes its color and its mode of emergence from the conditioned set-up in terms of which it is sighted, even if it defines itself entirely by negation of the conventional conditions. A Pauline mysticism of grace, similarly, depends on a specific mapping of the human condition in terms of bondage to sin and death and condemnation by the Law; the unconditioned that emerges is the unconditioned of this particular conditioned. Even when mystics insist most radically on the unconditioned nature of their vision, they do so in a way that involves reference to specific cultural conditions: Plotinus has set up his entire conceptual machinery so as to allow the unconditioned to manifest itself in this way. In itself utterly simple, the unconditioned nonetheless comes into view in function of the conventions prepared for its apprehension. The various discourses about the unconditioned, whether it is envisaged as nirvana, Brahman, spirit, or the Good converge in attributing to it such qualities as absolute simplicity. Yet the simplicity overcomes a different complexity in each system.
The Buddhist doctrine of the twofold truth frees us then for a double reception of mystical witness: on the one had we recognize that the classic accounts remain beacons of ultimacy, on the other we recognize the constitutionally broken character of these accounts, all linked to archaic historical contexts, when a certain makeshift human language served effectively as a provisional skillful means for tuning in to ultimacy. We rejoice in this brokenness and irreducible pluralism, since it clarifies the conditions of a contemporary quest for ultimacy, holding out the promise that the ultimate is not hiding in a recondite past but is ready to be found anew in our present rag-and-bone shop of samsaric conventions.
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