by Ronald Pies MD
The French polymath and mystic, Blaise Pascal, famously described the human being as a “thinking reed”. (His observation begins, “Man is but a reed, the most feeble thing in nature; but he is a thinking reed…”). I resonate with Pascal’s noble sentiment, and as a physician and psychiatric researcher, I agree with Pascal’s enlightened exhortation to “think well”. But when I look at my own spiritual path, I have to conclude that I am more a “seeking mess” than a thinking reed.
The occasion for this reflection was a note I received recently from a physician colleague, who describes himself as an unabashed atheist. Like many atheists—and many “theists”—my colleague is entirely comfortable with his position. He expresses no self-doubt or skepticism—no nagging sense that maybe, just maybe, he is wrong on the matter of God’s existence. On one level, I envy his comfort, as I envy the settled certainty of those whose faith in an all-powerful, all-knowing Creator is unshakable. But on another level, I find my colleague’s complacent confidence puzzling. Can one really gaze into the starry sky on a crisp, October night, and be fully
convinced that there is no God? For all his praise of “thinking”, Pascal
himself understood that “The heart has its reasons, whereof reason knows nothing. We feel it in a thousand things. It is the heart which knows God, and not the reason.”
If we read the work of prominent atheists, such as Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins, we find an almost, well, Godlike reliance on reason. Hitchens and Dawkins conceive religion in terms of statements, claims, and
propositions—in effect, as a series of “lemmas” or logical claims. They do
not appreciate that, in its essence, faith is often a matter of “di-lemmas”
(dilemmas): of two problematic and conflicting logical claims. (For an
excellent deconstruction of Hitchens and Dawkins, see Terry Eagleton’s Reason, Faith, and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate). Perhaps that’s why theologian Paul Tillich insisted that doubt is a fundamental element of genuine faith.
My logical and scientific training convinces me that we have no credible arguments or evidence for the existence of an omnipotent and
omniscient Creator-God—much less one who cares a whit about what happens to me, my friends and family, or humanity in general. This part of me sees the universe as an eternally existing and timeless manifestation of physical laws—silent and indifferent to the pleadings of us poor homines
sapientes (and how we flatter ourselves with this claim of “wisdom”!).
And yet, and yet…there is that other side of me that feels something entirely different—who feels held, even cradled, by some benign and loving
Principle of Order and Goodness. “POG” is not exactly “GOD”, but it is a part
of my life that I will not renounce, though it may defy all logic. As I
explained to my atheist colleague, “I don’t believe in God, but I love Him/Her
very much.” And, of course, to the stringently rational mind, this is no
explanation at all.
The problem with the Hitchens-Dawkins position is that it is so benightedly out of touch with the mystical element of religion. By “mystical”, I don’t have in mind some esoteric fascination with Kabbalah or a renunciation
of ordinary, here-and now life on this earth. I am firmly rooted in all the
rich, redeeming pleasures and pains of our human predicament. Nor by “mystical” do I mean “irrational” or “unscientific.” No: by “mystical”, I mean a kind of supra-rational experience: an all-encompassing, life-changing experience of awe, humility, and gratitude, in the face of all we
do not know and all we have been given.
As Prof. Luke Timothy Johnson puts it in his introductory lecture on “Mysticism”, following the lead of sociologist Joachim Wach, the
religio-mystical experience is “…a response of the whole person to what is perceived as ultimate. It is characterized by a peculiar intensity and issues in appropriate action.” Thus, genuine religious experience is neither a series of logical propositions, nor merely a particular set of “feelings”; rather, it
is a transforming relationship with the great mystery outside our selves. The religious experience cannot be “refuted”, any more than love, or the seeking of justice, can be disproved or refuted. The mystical dimension of religion is either experienced or not; embraced, or not; lived out in one’s actions, or not.
For me, a commitment to such a spiritual path is a daily struggle. On a
good day, I’m cradled in my experience of the “ultimate”; on a bad day, I am
convinced that there is nothing out there but atoms and void. But on those bad days, I fight hard to find my way back—to whatever it is that I experience as “cradling” me. In the process, I stumble in a hundred ways and fall short in a hundred more. My mind staggers through a forest of contradictions. I am not so much Pascal’s “thinking reed” as I am a Seeking Mess.
Ronald Pies MD is Professor of Psychiatry and Lecturer on Bioethics and Humanities at
SUNY Upstate Medical University in Syracuse, NY; and Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at
Tufts University School of Medicine. He is also Editor-in-Chief Emeritus of Psychiatric Times. Dr. Pies is the author, co-author or editor of several psychiatric textbooks, and several books on religion, philosophy and spirituality (The Ethics of the Sages; Everything Has Two Handles; and, now in press with Hamilton Books, Becoming a Mensch). Dr. Pies is a past contributor to Tiferet and the author of a collection of short stories (Zimmerman’s Tefillin) and one of poetry (Creeping Thyme).
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