Thus the Supreme as containing no otherness is ever present with us; we with it when we put otherness away. It is not that the Supreme reaches out to us seeking our communion: we reach towards the Supreme; it is we that become present. We are always before it: but we do not always look: thus a choir, singing set in due order about the conductor, may turn away from that centre to which all should attend; let it but face aright and it sings with beauty, present effectively. We are ever before the Supreme–cut off is utter dissolution; we can no longer be–but we do not always attend: when we look, our Term is attained; this is rest; this is the end of singing ill; effectively before Him, we lift a choral song full of God.
Mention is rarely made of the fact that the teaching about God in the Summa Theologica begins with this sentence: “We are not capable of knowing what God is, but we can know what he is not.” I know of no textbook of Thomistic thought which contains the notion expressed by St. Thomas in his commentary on the De Trinitate of Boethius, namely that there are three degrees in our knowledge of God: the lowest, the knowledge of God as he is active in creation; the second, the recognition of God as mirrored in spiritual beings; the third and loftiest, the recognition of God as Unknown, tamquam ignotum. Or consider this sentence from the Questiones Disputatae: “This is what is ultimate in the human knowledge of God: to know that we do not know God.”
Wittgenstein famously and rightly disses attempts to follow rules privately. But it seems to me that ultimately Gilbert’s quest uncovers as an attempt at just such private rule-following: she will have her own ritual, her own ceremony, her own meaning. Sure, she gabs on about these as she does everything else; yet she cannot, and in a way knows she cannot, and in a way she does not want to really share them with anyone else. To be able to do so would be for them not to be hers. As long as it means something to her, it means something. Admittedly, that sounds tautological. But given what she wants, it is not. She wants it to mean something only to her, because then it really means something. She wants something of more grandeur than a bettle in a box; she wants a Beetle, her Beetle, in the Ark of the Covenant.
Now someone tells me that he knows what pain is only from his own case!–Suppose everyone had a box with something in it: we call it a “beetle”. No one can look into anyone else’s box, and everyone says he knows what a beetle is only by looking at his beetle.–Here it would be quite possible for everyone to have something different in his box. One might even imagine such a thing constantly changing.–But suppose the word “beetle” had a use in these people’s language?–If so it would not be used as the name of a thing. The thing in the box has no place in the language-game at all; not even as a something: for the box might even be empty.–No, one can ‘divide through’ by the thing in the box; it cancels out, whatever it is. –PI 293
I’ve been thinking a bit more about Gilbert’s book. I realize now that she smudges the idea of faith. She does not, as I said, want a faith–but she does not clearly want faith either, despite claims to the contrary (e.g., sec. 57 of the book, if I remember correctly). The sort of mystical religion that I believe she ultimately (albeit confusedly) wants is a religion that actually has no grammatical space in it for the notion of ‘faith’. Instead, it has what I will call the grammar of ‘experience’. Central to it is the notion of ‘the experience of oneness’ or of ‘becoming one with the Infinite’. It is a religion that really has no place for notions of ‘guilt’ or ‘repentance’ (although both ‘guilt’ and ‘repentance’ whirl around on Gilbert’s pages, the first mostly to be rejected, the second as little more than the act of apology to herself for failing to accept herself as herself). Nonetheless, Gilbert takes herself to have glommed something essential to religion, to all religions, including Christianity.
I suppose Gilbert would say something like this: “But look, it takes faith to start on the journey to the experience of the Infinite.” I admit that there is something to this, but less than Gilbert thinks. This is not a sense of ‘faith’ that overlaps much with the Christian sense of the term. Notice that hers is, crucially, an ahistorical sense of the term; it may look up but it does not look back, back into the past. But I take the Christian sense to look back, to be deeply historical. It looks back, to put it simply, to the Incarnation. (The Christian sense looks up by looking back.) Gilbert finds the Incarnation limiting–like many mystics, she finds Christ foolishness: she is quite sure she can get to the “Father” even while bypassing the “Son”.
But all this means that Gilbert is talking right past the Christian even though she thinks she is not. She has not got hold of some “core” of religion that belongs alike to all the major religions, but only of a word (or a small set of words) that is featured in many of them. Gilbert thinks she grasps the essence of religion, and so of Christianity; yet all she grasps is what is essential to her own conception of religion. What she needs is someone to teach her differences–but if someone did, that would make it harder for her to believe that all is one.
During much of an almost twelve-hour drive home to Ohio, my daughter read me the Pray section of Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love. My reaction to the book is almost wholly negative but nonetheless complicated. There are funny bits. Gilbert is almost charmingly oblivious to her second order self-centeredness as she yammers on and on and oh-gosh!-look-at-me-not-looking-at-me on about overcoming her self-centeredness. The section I heard is unequal parts Plotinus and soccer mom (more soccer mom and less Plotinus). She provides an account of her boutique Beatific Vision that makes the via negativa seem like an aisle at Target. Strangely, she admits to cherry-picking her religion; yet she makes spiritual progress almost exclusively when she does, by obedience and against her will, something that is integral (and is done as integral) to the existing yogi tradition she wants to cherry-pick. Her fall from the Beatific Vision is occasioned by a litany of self-assertion, of will: ”I want…”, “I do not want…”. But she still advocates going through existing religions with an “I want…”, “I do not want…” procedure. She wants to have faith but not a faith. Unfortunately, the first lacks content without the second (unless mental pictures of butterflies or feelings of celestial warmth can do duty for the content of a faith–which I doubt). Mysticism this misty involves a letting-go that truly empties the letting-goer (but the emptiness comes at the wrong end: at the beginning of the mystical effort and not at its culmination).