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On Mystics And Mysticism

( Originally Published 1907 )



WE set before ourselves at the beginning of this little book the question : ` How may men know God ? ' In the first chapter I tried to show that we must not expect to be able to reason the whole answer out by pure syllogism without assumption, because none of our knowledge in any department can be reasoned out by syllogism without assumption. All reasoning proceeds on assumption. ` All science starts with hypothesis.' Syllogism cannot begin without premises to build on. The assumption necessary to reasoning about God is the assumption that our own natural faculties are veracious. The premises necessary for syllogisms about God are those truths which are given in the deliverances of these faculties. My whole contention has been that in normal human nature there is provision for theistic belief—that assuming the truthfulness of human faculty, it follows that God is real and good and lovable.

You will no doubt have observed that through-out this long argument I have never once appealed to any authority whatever outside our own faculties. My appeal has been to the common reason, the common conscience, the common emotion. I have cited famous reasoners and teachers ; but only to put what they have said to the test of this common reason, conscience, and emotion. Have their utterances stood this test, I have adopted them ; have they broken down under it, I have rejected them. I have in no case said, ` This proposition must be true because it is vouched for by this Church, by this Book, or by this Man.' Herein I have departed from the almost universal practice of such as write or speak in the name of the Christian Religion. However free and able their reasonings upon that which is given them by Creed or Bible or Prophet —nay, even though in some portions of their argument they venture to go behind Creed, Bible, or Prophet for their premises, seeking them in our common human nature—all that vast class of writers of whatever school who are called Christian Apologists, do base some part of their argument on premises borrowed from Church, Book, or Teacher, or at least when they have constructed their argument, deem it incomplete till they have shown that Church, Book, or authoritative Teacher teaches just that same thing.

Now, though I shall have more to say about this in the next chapter, yet I may explain at once that my departure from this procedure is not due to any undervaluation on my part of that consensus of wise and pious men which may constitute the Creed of a Church, or of that gathering together of the words of the great and good which may invest a Book with the dignity of a Bible, or of that insight beyond the insight of ordinary men which makes the Prophet or the Seer. But my position is that the very existence of the Prophet and the Seer, the very existence, too, of Creeds and Bibles so far as these are representative of the wisdom of the Prophet or the Seer, is based on the normal human faculty which the Prophet and the Seer share with the rest of us, though in them it is greater in degree, more luminous, powerful, and distinct.

For, indeed, it is in this fact that all the authority of the inspired man lies. His apprehension of divine truth is keener than yours ; and that which you only apprehend when it is suggested to you, he apprehends in the fulness of his insight without human suggestion. The authority with which Jesus of Nazareth is said to have been felt by ordinary hearers to speak lay in this, that when he declared religious verities, they felt inwardly that what he said answered to the dim and hitherto unrealized monitions within their own breasts. It was as when a note is struck on a great organ or blown from a trumpet, it sets athrill in a neighbouring piano or violin the same note in tremulous response. This last is the violin's own music, wrought of its own faculty. Yet it would have been silent but for the call of the larger and mightier instrument. Or it is as when some noble singer is singing glorious music, but he does not so clearly articulate that you can gather all the words. Then a friend, who knows the song well, repeats the words to you ; and next time the noble singer lifts up his voice in the same great hymn, you hear every word distinctly, and marvel at the previous dullness of your ears. If a man is about to do wrong, and another argues with him, he may altogether fail to touch his conscience. But let the remonstrant fling out the force of his own conscience : ` You know it is wrong,' and the man of feebler moral fibre, whether he heed it or not, feels at once the quickening of his own conscience in response.

I believe, then, for my part in no other Revelation, no other Inspiration, no other spiritual Authority than that the seat of which lies in the Divine Word voiced in the common faculties of man.

Churches, Bibles, Prophets are media of Revelation, are vehicles of Inspiration, are of Authority to us all, just in the measure in which they quicken in us an answering inward sense of the verity of that which they allege. Whensoever and in whatsoever they fail to awake in us such response, they may or may not be true, but for us they are not and they cannot be media of Revelation, vehicles of Inspiration, Authoritative Teachers.

Although, then, these Societies, Literatures, and Individual Teachers may be and often are helpful to us beyond all measure as quickening our own moral and spiritual sense, although without them we should be in comparative darkness and ignorance, yet they do not affect the real bases and sources of fundamental religious belief, which lie in the normal faculties which are ours as well as theirs.

And accordingly in these faculties I have asked you to put your trust. I have maintained that by our sense of Cause we know God as Power ; that by our Moral Sense we are filled with awe of him as Righteousness; that through the sense of Beauty we perceive him as Love.

Now, amid all the official orthodoxies of the world which have enticed or constrained men to rest their faith on authoritative documents or teachers, there have always again and again sprung up men who have reverted to these innate faculties of their own and sought to know God through them. Some have relied wholly on intellectual methods, and these have been the world's philosophers. But others have chiefly relied on the more spiritual faculties, and from these have emerged those profoundly interesting groups of men who are known as Mystics.

The word ` mystic ' is no relation whatever to the word ` misty,' though many loose talkers seem to think that that is what it means. It is in its original Greek of the same stock as ` mystery.' But, though. cousins, the two terms, as used in modern English, have formed quite different connexions and can hardly be said to be speaking acquaintances. The best definition of the mystic known to me is in the first chapter of Dr. Charles Beard's Hibbert Lectures. ` The mystic,' says he, ` is one who claims to be able to see God and divine things with the inner vision of the soul—a direct apprehension, as the bodily eye apprehends colour, as the bodily ear apprehends sound.' And he goes on : ` His method, so far as he has one, is simply contemplative : he does not argue, or generalize, or infer : he reflects, broods, waits for light.'

Now, if this is a true account of mysticism, then wherever there is spiritual religion, there in its measure is mysticism. When Mr. Beard says that the mystic does not argue, of course he only means that the arguing does not belong to the mysticism. But a man may be a mystic and a philosopher, too. He may claim to see God with the inner vision, so being a mystic, and then he may proceed to defend the claim by reasoning, so turning philosopher. Some mystics have done this and some have not. But wheresoever men have revolted from the claim of Church or Creed to dictate the terms of their faith, and have struck direct for conscious contact with God, have declared that they heard him immediately in the voice of conscience, saw him immediately in spiritual contemplation, felt him immediately in the rapture, the ecstasy, the solemn awe, the deep peace of the soul, there there have been mystics and mysticism. And there is never any pure and unspoiled religion, but some element of mysticism lies at its root and gives it its sweetness and beauty.

The Bible is full of mysticism. A text starts up in my mind, as I write, from each of the Testaments carrying the very essence of mysticism in it. ` Be still and know that I am God,' sings the Psalmist, and we are reminded of that form of mystic piety called ` quietism '—an absolute stillness of the soul in which the sense of being wrapped in God steals over it. ` Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God,' says Jesus. And the text serves for a condensation of half the mystical writing of the fourteenth and following centuries.

You will perceive then that, in my view, the term ` mysticism,' so far from being rightly used as a term of reproach or scorn, really represents the central and ever-abiding principle of true religion. But just because I believe and feel this so strongly, and have indeed in these chapters urged on you much that is in the true sense mystical, I hold myself bound to warn you against both the intellectual and the moral dangers into which an enthusiastic mysticism is apt to run.

The intellectual danger of mysticism is that it should pass through and beyond the contact of man with God and God with man into the identification of man with God and God with man. Passing by the mystics of the ancient East, I suppose the first danger-signal in Christian mysticism may be found in such expressions of the Fourth Gospel as that in which Christ is made to pray for the disciples ` that they may all be one ; even as thou, Father, art in me and I in thee, that they also may be in us.' This bears, indeed, quite well the interpretation that all that is sought is complete harmony between man and God. But it also runs the danger of being interpreted as a seeking of actual unity, amounting to identity in personal essence of man and God. And so in the fourteenth century we have Eckhart, a great Master of Mystics, so describing the coalescence of man and God, that he says, ` While God makes himself man in us, he makes us divine in him.' This and the like are so beautiful, poetic expression so readily runs into similar forms, that we. are apt to be lulled into unconsciousness that we are passing the line between harmony and unity. To be at one with God is one thing ; to be one with God is another thing. Madame Guyon allures us in her exquisite hymnody into the like danger. If we take the following as poetry, it is as pure religion as the soul of man ever breathed forth. But if we take it as a literal expression of fact, we have passed the border line, and our mysticism has become the destroyer of our own sense of separate personality.

Madame Guyon writes :

I love my God, but with no love of mine,
For I have none to give :
I love thee, Lord ; but all the love is thine,
For by thy life I live.
I am as nothing, and rejoice to be
Emptied, and lost, and swallowed up in thee.

Such rapturous utterance entrances the religious mind. But it is absolutely essential to the balance of truth that we keep our grasp through it all on the fundamental fact that the man's Ego, the human self, is not God's Ego, the Divine Self, however fully the soul feels itself penetrated and permeated by the God who encompasses and sustains it.

To put the intellectual danger of mysticism into the language of philosophy, we shall have to say that the danger is lest the distinction between subject and object should be lost. The union of man with God must be like a marriage. The more perfect the union of will and feeling between man and woman in marriage, the more perfect is the marriage. But the very essence of marriage consists in the separate personalities of the two thus joined together. It is the sense of union, not with self, but with another than self, that constitutes all the beauty and solemnity of marriage. And in like manner it is the sense of union with Another, even with God, always other than self, however self be penetrated by God, that constitutes all the truth and holiness of religion.

In the most famous and influential of all the more recent modes of philosophical thought—that which is broadly known as Hegelianism—the mystic tendency has received a great development, and the human soul—together with the outward universe—seems to be absorbed into the being of God to such a degree that man is deprived of any proper individuality at all and of any freedom of will. And some, who are by no means Hegelians, such as my friend, Professor Upton, in his most admirable and luminous Hibbert Lectures on the Bases of Religious Belief, while fighting hard for the real freedom of the human will, yet are greatly allured by the idea of a certain flowing over of God into the human soul, so that a man is partly, or in some aspects, a separate individuality, but partly also, or in other aspects, of the very substance of God and not an individuality distinct from him. The chief intellectual temptation that leads thinkers of a very different school from Hegel's to make this concession seems to be that they may thereby be able to account for the wonderful fact of conscious communion between God and man. But I cannot help thinking that they deceive themselves in sup-posing that such a conception will really help them at all. The bridge by which one consciousness passes over to another consciousness is one that the thought of man can never conceive or even begin to understand. And it does not surely in any way make it easier if we say that there is a divine, universal, or God-consciousness in me as well as an individual-consciousness. The puzzle of how one of these passes into the other is not one whit mitigated by a juggle of words which declares them both to be comprised in my own person. The fact is that there are a multitude of these ` bridges ' in the physical and spiritual universes, in which we are obliged to believe, but which we cannot even begin to explain. Such is the bridge between a prick of my finger and a sensation of pain. Such is the bridge between a volition of mine and the lifting of my fist. Such is the bridge between the contagious emotion of two kindred souls. Such is the bridge by which gravitation acts between two distant bodies. Efforts are always being made in philosophy to figure forth or explain these ` bridges,' but such efforts are always and necessarily vain. They bridge over chasms which human thought cannot bridge.

It is really no easier to conceive of gravitation acting through a ` medium ' than through a vacuum ; and it would seem to have been pure dogmatism on Sir Isaac Newton's part to describe such action through a vacuum as absurd. And it is really no easier to conceive of God holding communion with the human soul by supposing God to be in part a constituent of that soul, than if God and the soul are absolutely separate and distinct persons. Neither science nor philosophy has any claim to state that God cannot institute such communion ; and experience has every claim to state that God does institute such communion.

And certainly the voice of experience goes strongly for saying that the inflow of strength or peace or gladness in answer to the soul's passion of prayer is not an inflow from another element of one's own nature supervening on the weakness or the grief of the properly individual element. On the contrary, the whole force and sacredness of this experience lie in the consciousness that the stream of hallowing grace comes, as I have said, from Another than oneself—One with whom the soul is brought, not into identity, but into communion, not into unity, but into union. If a man have no clear sense of this in his own spiritual experience, let him read the story of that arche-typal prayer, the prayer of Jesus in Gethsemane. Surely that cry of the Master was not to an element in himself, but to One above and beyond ; and that influx of spiritual might was no mere shifting of the elements of his own soul, but the coming of the Father to the rescue of his Son.

But the danger run by mysticism is a moral and spiritual danger as well as an intellectual one. The strength for a noble moral life which religion gives lies in the bestowal of a Companion, a Friend, on the lonely soul of man. But God cannot be felt as a Companion, a Friend, unless the man retain a vivid consciousness of his own individuality, a vivid consciousness that he is a separate person with a personal centre of his own capable of its own volition, its own emotion, its own personal life other than that of any other person human or divine.

And indeed history supplies us with some melancholy demonstrations of the danger in question. Mr. Beard very beautifully says of the mystic : ` He prepares for divine communion by a process of self-purification : he detaches his spirit from earthly cares and passions : he studies to be quiet that his soul may reflect the face of God.' Yes, but this very temper often holds a man off from the stirring duties of active life which no man may with impunity shun. ` The morals of mysticism,' says Mr. Beard, ` are almost always sweet and good.' Yes, but as he allows, not quite always. When a man has arrived at that degree of mysticism in which he thinks that all his feelings are divine, the time comes when evil feelings also are taken to be of God—to be indeed God's feelings ; and terrible sensualities have sprung out of this fatal error. Mysticism has sometimes toppled over into anomianism, which is Greek for lawlessness. Men have first said, ` I am filled with God ; my emotions are all of God'; and then they have proceeded to ignore all moral law save these feelings themselves and a distorted piety, an exaggerated pietism, has silenced and destroyed that other voice of God which we know as conscience.

But once warned of the intellectual and moral dangers of mysticism, let us revert to its virtues. ` Mysticism,' says a very great living philosopher and scholar, Dr. Otto Pfleiderer, ` overleaps all those channels by which religion is at once interpreted and obscured in the dogma and the worship of the Church, in order to find its life directly in religion itself, to experience the revelation of God in the heart of the individual, and to possess salvation now and here, in the sense of most intimate union with God.' ` As the kernel of religion,' he adds, ` does certainly consist in this, it cannot be without direct advantage for the philosophical comprehension of religion in general to sound these depths of the mystical consciousness as a guide to the innermost features of the religious life.' Those philosophers, like Mill, who will recognize no inlets of knowledge whatever in man except the avenues of the senses, naturally treat mysticism with impatient scorn. But every one of us who believes that we have faculties of direct apprehension apart from and prior to the senses, is a mystic just in the measure in which he holds that those faculties can directly apprehend that Eternal Power and Love to which we give the name of God.

If we desire an exemplar of the just extent to which mysticism may go, we have but to turn to the great Teacher who has given the world Christianity. No religious genius was ever more sensitive to the presence of God, or more vividly and joyously conscious of his touch upon the soul. None who has worn our flesh has ever lived with spirit more penetrated by the divine spirit. The communion which to most of us is the precious experience of our rarest and most sacred hours, would seem to have been to him the bright and invigorating experience of every day, the source of illumination and strength in every difficulty and every temptation, the uplifting consolation in the deepest and darkest sorrows. Yet no language can be more pronounced or emphatic than that in which, at any rate in the Synoptic (and, as I believe, more historic) Gospels, he speaks of—yes, and speaks to—God as other than, separate from, himself. He gave enduring currency to the one symbol which best expresses this dualism between man and God—this fellowship without merging of the distinctive personalities—when he himself called him and taught his hearers to call him ` Father.' No term could have been coined more distinctly illustrating at once the perfect closeness of converse and communion open to man with God and the absolute distinction of the personal centre of the human worshipper from the per-sonal centre of the Divine Being. I have been accustomed to think my own thoughts about much which Jesus is alleged to have taught. But I find nothing in literature which seems to me to comprise in brief so perfect, so irrefragable a philosophy of religion as the Nazarene's term ` Our Father ' as summing up what God is to man and all the relations between the Eternal Source of all things and the human soul.

A controlled and sober mysticism then, a mysticism that retains the full sense of the human personality as endowed with a centre of its own apart from the divine personality, yet by vividness of conscience feels God and by purity of heart sees God, nurtures a potency of manhood, an effectiveness of moral and spiritual character which nothing else can. It is men with a vivid sense on the one hand of their own personal being as responsible moral agents and on the other hand of God's actual touch with the soul at every point who everywhere make the renovations of humanity by their clearness of vision, their moral vitality, their sense of the smallness of conventions beside divine verities, their absolute fearlessness of men, their perfect faith in the power of man to realize his sonship to God. Such men are always condemned as heretics, generally rebuked as atheists. It is because their burning sense of the God-presence makes them indifferent to historic modes of stating it, impatient of conventions which deaden or conceal it. Of such on very different planes, but still always of such, have been, for example, Jesus, Paul, Luther, Wesley, Garrison, Mazzini, Theodote Parker. And it is a mark of such men that, while rousing the deadliest antagonism of some, they kindle in others passionate enthusiasm and regenerate the lives of these. In the proportion in which the tremendous twin truths of your own responsible personality and your power of communion with the personality of God possess you, will you rise to the like power and influence with such men as I have named.

To the above plea for the absolutely separate personality of man, let me very briefly add a vindication of the use of the term ` person ' as applied to God. Human persons, it is true, are limited beings, limited in power, in consciousness, in understanding, in faculty of every kind. But the essence of personality does not lie in such limitation, but in the consciousness of selfhood, of a self-determining will and self-contained capacity of thought. Nor have I, I must confess, ever been able to understand why so many even of the most spiritual interpreters of the universe assume that ` an infinite person ' is a contradiction in terms. At any rate, ` person ' is the highest entity of which we have know-ledge and of which we can conceive. And while I do not doubt that the Being of God comprises that which infinitely transcends the loftiest attributes of which we are able to frame an idea, I hold that we approach nearer to the absolute truth by describing God as ` person ' than by refraining from such description. He surely has whatever ` person ' has, even though he do not lack what ` person ' lacks. ` In any case,' as I wrote several years ago in my ` Man's Knowledge of God," if a religious man denies the personality of God, it is that he holds God to be above Person, not below, more than Person, not less.' And I rejoice to add to this, words with which I was not then acquainted, written by Prof. Joseph Le Conte in his truly admirable book on ` Evolution and its Relation to Religious Thought.' ` In our view of the nature of God,' says this clear thinker and lucid writer, ` the choice is not between personality and something lower than personality, viz., an unconscious force operating Nature by necessity, as the materialists and pantheists would have us believe ; but between personality as we know it ourselves and something inconceivably higher than personality Self-conscious personality is the highest thing we know or can conceive. We offer him the very best and truest we have when we call him a Person ; even though we know that this, our best, falls far short of the infinite reality.'

Before bringing this chapter to an end, it will perhaps be useful to refer in a few sentences to the method of reasoning which I have followed in this book. I have throughout ignored entirely certain great and momentous philosophical controversies which touch the very foundations of thought. I have, indeed, told you that some thinkers aver that the very idea of ` cause ' is a self-deception of our own minds, that it is a form of thought to which we are condemned, but which corresponds to no objective reality. But I have not told you that the same is the case with the idea of space, with the idea of time, with the idea of matter. The most illustrious of all modern philosophers, Emmanuel Kant, taught that `space' and `time' are ` forms of thought ' and forms of thought only. He meant that they are a kind of mould in our own minds into which we are obliged to pour our ideas of the universe and the objects and events therein, but that our being obliged to think in that shape is no guarantee that space and time are real. Again, there are others who teach that matter has no real substantiality in itself, but is perhaps merely a name we give to bundles of forces which are not material at all, but purely spiritual ; while others again teach that matter also is purely and solely a ` form of thought '—a mould through which we are obliged to pass our ideas of the existences around us. And yet I have throughout calmly talked of space, time, and matter as if they were as indubitably sure as the Ego which a man is himself, and God—the only two existences of which Cardinal Newman, even as a boy, felt sure.

Is it, then, that I think the contention that space, time, matter, are only forms of thought unworthy of notice ? Far indeed from that. The suggestion is to me of profound philosophical interest. And again, with regard to matter, even without going so far as to reduce it to a mere form of human thought, I am pretty sure that our current conception of it (if, indeed, we have any current conception of it !) is delusive, and I am very much taken by the suggestion that what we call ` atoms ' are in reality vortices of pure force ; though I feel that that too would be a dangerous hypothesis to insist on as abstract truth, inasmuch as a ` vortex ' implies both time and space, and it is difficult to conceive of force save as acting on something, and that something is pretty hard to distinguish from ` matter.' To parody the old Latin proverb, you may thrust out matter with a pitchfork, but it always turns up again. But, whether it be true or false that space, time, and matter are only forms of thought, or that the idea of matter is to be dissolved in the idea of force, at any rate space, time, and matter are forms of thought—necessary forms of human thought ; and, therefore, you and I, who are human, can do no other by any mental legerdemain than think them. If they are forms of thought built into the structure of our minds we must think in those forms, and it is vain to try to escape.

Does that, then, invalidate our reasoning ? Far from it. Some thinkers strive to think of the uni-verse and reason of it outside these forms. The result is inevitable philosophic confusion and darkness. Here and there they seem to get outside of the conditions of space and time and matter in their reasonings about the universe, but at the next turn they inevitably drop back into them ; and there is and can be no consistency in their language or their thought. He who thinks by cleverness to transcend his own intellectual nature necessarily meets with the like fate to the man who half-way up the ladder tries to pull the ladder after him that he may mount to a loftier height.

Whether you prefer to say that our faculties are the direct gift of God or that they are the product of evolution by survival of the fittest, we shall get nearer to truth, you may be sure, by faithfully using them than by any struggle to get outside them. Space, time, matter may be ideas corresponding to fact, or they may have in them elements of illusion. But either way they are guides for our thinking. In some higher state of being we may be able to escape from them and think a philosophy that dispenses with them. But the philosophy which we think now and here can only in the end prove translatable, transposable into that purer language of thought if we have patiently thought it out along the lines of our existing mental constitution.

In all things these minds we have now can at best think relative truth, not absolute. Only re-member that relative truth is truth. Truth for us consists in truly apprehending, not existences in themselves, but the relations existing between existences. I judge, when I find in my mind certain unescapable forms of thought common and necessary to me and to all men, that it is within the boundaries of those forms that I can most truly apprehend these relations which for me are the sum of truth. Therefore I put in a plea for the canon of Common Sense in philosophy, the canon which bids us think along the lines of the intellectual constitution common to our race and constituting its sense in the realm of thought.



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