Secular mystic

I told a rabbi that I am a “secular mystic”.

What do I mean by that? I see the transcendent realm as inexhaustibly understandable. The act of understanding incomprehensible phenomena increases our capacity to understand. The very increase that makes the understanding possible makes us aware of new incomprehensible phenomena (and with it, the limits of our understanding), re-arousing the need to understand.

I am most interested in the experience of these limits. This problem could probably be called “hermeneutical liminality” but these days I’m trying to find clearer, prettier and more pregnant language to express this kind of idea, which is precisely why I’m interested in religion. But I find that most people are so misaligned on what religion is and does that use of religious (or “spiritual”) vocabulary leads to instant misunderstanding. “Threshold” is pretty. Limbo? Border or boundary? For now, I’ll just call them “boundary experiences”.

What are boundary experiences like when we encounter them? How do we recognize them? What are their characteristics? What are our natural responses, and are other, better responses available to us? In other words, what are the ethical implications of boundary experiences? When do we keep going, and when do we stop? When and how do we involve others in boundary-crossings?

And then: where have boundary experiences been misunderstood? And what does that look like?

My hostility toward magic is bound up with this last question: what do misunderstandings of boundary experiences look like? What artifacts of such misunderstandings remain in our culture? My attitude toward magic has nothing to do with how it conflicts with science’s current view of the world (about which I am grossly under-informed, anyway) and everything to do with the functioning of religion. Magic forecloses religious questions, and removes intellectual tensions required for religious insight.

Again, Arthur C. Clarke’s famous maxim comes to mind: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

Or so it all appears to me right now, as I stand at the the threshold of Judaism. And one thing I’ve learned about thresholds is that something unexpected is always waiting in ambush — some unnoticed detail that changes everything.

3 thoughts on “Secular mystic

  1. Epiphanies galore!

    “The very increase that makes the understanding possible makes us aware of new incomprehensible phenomena (and with it, the limits of our understanding), re-arousing the need to understand”.

    This evoked the metaphor of “ever progressing towards an ever-receding horizon”, which I immediately googled. Bingo: “The history of astronomy is a history of receding horizons.” – Edwin Hubble. I can’t believe I didn’t think of this beautiful alternative metaphor to asymptotic progress.

    What’s misleading about the asymptotic metaphor is that assumes a fixed, unmoving destination. But if the destination is moving as fast as something approaching it, then the appropriate metaphor is “ever progressing towards ever receding horizon”. I’ll have to go back to see if David Deutsch (“The Beginning of Infinity”) uses this “ever receding” metaphor. He definitely uses similar metaphors:

    “we are only just scratching the surface, and shall never be doing anything else”
    “Neither the human condition in particular nor our explanatory knowledge in general will ever be perfect, nor even approximately perfect. We shall always be at the beginning of infinity.”
    “[I]f unlimited progress really is going to happen, not only are we now at almost the very beginning of it, we always shall be.”

    Your discussion of limits, boundaries, liminality, thresholds, etc. made me question the metaphor of “crossing” boundaries. Do we ever really cross a boundary? Or do we simply change the boundary in some way? The metaphor of an ever-expanding boundary suggests that we don’t cross a boundary, we merely shift it. Also, it begins to feel to me that crossing a threshold or a boundary undercuts the fact that we don’t ever leave “the other side” behind.

    Even in cultures with “threshold” crossing traditions, e.g., becoming an adult, I would argue that we don’t really leave our childhood behind. It now strikes me that the metaphor of crossing boundaries smacks a bit of dualism due to the notion of a divide between the two sides. Somehow the notion of restructuring or reweaving the boundary feels more apt. I’m going to have to think about this some more.

    Thanks for giving me more to think about!

  2. Re: moving toward receding horizons vs crossing horizons — This is an interesting point, and directly related to the Guenon I’m currently rereading. If I understand him, would probably assign the difference to whether we are relating to that horizon on a horizontal or vertical plane. If we approach a horizon horizontally, yes, the horizon moves with us without any real gain in scope, except as a cumulation of perceptions. If, however, we relate to the horizon vertically, we do gain a wider horizon of increasingly unobstructed access to the full 360° view as we rise above sea level — and we take in more in a synthesizing gaze. (Yes, I use “gaze” significantly, here.)

    Of course, I’m not reading to Guenon to be initiated into his philosophy. I’m plundering him for time-tested enworldment design patterns. So I immediately link these perpendicular relationships to horizonality with one of my favorite images from Thus Spoke Zarathustra, the snake carried in the talons of the eagle. This is Nietzsche’s version of the old symbol of the Ibis or snakebird, the synthesis of bird and serpent, who can also float upon the surface of water. That is, it can integrate the highest-soaring synthesis, with a belly-on-the-rough-ground close analysis, and arrive at a second-natural enworldment capable of allowing us to walk upright on the stormy surface of chaos. This is why I chose the Hebrew name Nachshon.

    Even writing this, I can feel my enworldment crystalize. This is the kind of symbol-use I’d like to make available to my antithaumaturgist friends.

  3. “Synthesizing gaze”!

    That’s exactly what I’m trying to express. Crossing a boundary isn’t abandoning all the old and replacing it entirely with the new. It is transforming the old by synthesizing it with the new. This is why I love ‘verwindung’. Because it emphasizes “putting the old to new purposes”.

    I like the horizontal vs vertical metaphor, but I think they’re a lot more alike than we think. While the vertical metaphor obviously has a wider and scope as we rise, it doesn’t actually have a 360 degree view. If you watch the “Powers of Ten” video, you’ll notice that we never see what’s behind the camera! This is like the angel of history facing backwards as they move into the future.

    So in both the horizontal and vertical metaphors we never get any closer to what is beyond our horizon: it is ever receding before us (horizontal) or behind us (vertical).

    The Dao is the ever receding horizon. We synthesize/verwindung the novel myriad things newly emanated from the Dao with the older myriad things we’ve already woven together.

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