Sweet Soul Music

We have just passed the 10th anniversary of the death of Mother Teresa, and much is being made of letters, recently publicized, that indicate that she had grave doubts about the existence of God, and was deeply tormented by her own lack of faith.

As all of this was making the rounds a few days ago, I assumed that we might expect to hear a few words from Christopher Hitchens, who was, to put it gently, no great admirer of Teresa. I visited his website, found nothing there, and, distracted by one thing or another, looked no further. But Hitchens did indeed write an essay as expected; it appeared in Newsweek on August 29th, and Bill Vallicella, the Maverick Philosopher, has brought it to our attention today in a characteristically interesting post about atheism and mysticism. (Do go and have a look.)

Dr. Vallicella, a theist, argues that there are some of us (for example Christopher Hitchens) who are simply not constituted for belief in God, and he likens such people to those who are tone-deaf, or who cannot appreciate the beauty of mathematics. He writes:

There are people who lack entirely any feel for poetry and music. They lack the ‘spiritual organ’ to appreciate them, and so their comments on them are of little interest except as indicative of the critics’ own limitations. I have met mathematicians and scientists who have zero philosophical aptitude and sense and for whom philosophy cannot be anything other than empty verbiage. These people do not lack intelligence, they lack a certain ‘spiritual organ,’ a certain depth of personality. And of course there are those with no inkling of the austere beauty of mathematics and logic and (let’s not leave out) chess. To speak of their beauty to such people would be a waste of time. They lack the requisite appreciative organs.

This is certainly an understandable suggestion for a believer to make. As one who is just the sort of person Bill refers to, however, I think he is mistaken in his imagination of what it is like to be someone like me, as well as overlooking an important weakness in the analogy itself.

I do agree that there are some people who, it seems, simply cannot believe in God. I appear to be one of them. That such a being as God (and here I am referring to God as customarily imagined: an omniscient, omnipotent, omnibenevolent Creator, who sustains everything that exists, and whose divine Plan encompasses the entire scope of the Cosmos, throughout all of time) exists as anything more than a creation of the human imagination is, it seems to me, unlikely in the extreme, and I find it profoundly strange — frankly, astonishing — that so many intelligent and educated people actually believe it. So Bill clearly has that part right.

Where he goes wrong, however, is in the further assumption that nontheists lack the capacity for spiritual or mystical experience. I for one have been pulled all my life by the sense that there is in Man a hidden potential for an enlightened inner understanding, for a higher awareness of our deep connection to the Cosmos, for a transcendent consciousness of the numinous beauty and harmony that unites all and everything. To this end I have thoughout my adult life sought this understanding, this awakening, along many different paths, in the belief that behind the veil of ordinary perception, and beyond the sleep of inattention in which we pass our lives, there is a unitary Truth that, with the right sort of conscious effort, it is within our power to apprehend. Because I do think that this truth is not fragmentary, not relative, but One, I imagine that there are many roads to this summit: science, philosophy, music, art, literature, and mathematics, to name just a few. And there are other avenues as well: esoteric and exoteric systems of inner development — some of which I have worked at for many years, and which have offered me priceless glimpses of what is possible for us all.

Does Dr. Vallicella imagine that an atheist like me is incapable of deeply spiritual experiences? He is utterly wrong. By conflating this feeling of oceanic awe — of a beauty, depth and wonder that both dwarfs and exalts us — with the necessity of an explicit belief in God, he mistakenly tries to fit the immense breadth of human spiritual potential into his own, narrow, Procrustean bed.

Finally, his analogy itself is critically flawed. While there are indeed, for example, those who cannot enjoy music, it is nevertheless a public, objective, indisputable fact that music exists. What Bill conspicuously, and tellingly, ignores is that the same cannot be said for God. We have no need of that hypothesis.

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  1. Malcolm, what do you mean by “transcendent”?

    Jeffery Hodges

    * * *

    Posted September 8, 2007 at 8:38 am | Permalink
  2. Malcolm says

    Hi Jeffery,

    Thanks for asking; I can see how that word might cause some confusion.

    I have experiential reason to believe that our customary state of consciousness is fragmentary and narrow in scope, and that with the right sort of effort it can transcend these limitations. It is the difference, roughly, between sleeping and waking.

    Posted September 8, 2007 at 11:32 am | Permalink
  3. Thanks, Malcolm. I guess that I understand, roughly, what you mean.

    Much of the tone and language of your 5th paragraph sounds ‘religious’, and I assume that this was intentional. Would you say that yours is a nontheistic, cosmic religion like Buddhism? Buddhism without the accretions picked up over the centuries, I mean.

    From your critique of theism, I gather that you’re bothered by evil in both its forms, i.e., personal and natural. Does evil pose a problem for what you describe as “the numinous beauty and harmony that unites all and everything.” I’m not being snarky, understand. Rather, I think that some of the classic problems confronted by traditional theism — as understood in the West, anyway, where God is supposed to be omniscient, omnipotent, and omnibenevolent — also emerge in nontheistic traditions. Same pattern, different terms.

    For instance, I once heard a neopagan ‘worshipper’ of the ‘goddess’ that she called “Mother Nature” voice worried thoughts about Mother Nature’s cruelty in sending earthquakes, among other things. Earthquakes bothered this neopagan because they weren’t something remotely attributable to human causes, unlike hugely ferocious storms such as hurricanes, which might plausibly be blamed on the moral evil of putatively global warming caused by the ‘sin’ of industrial civilization.

    I’m not suggesting that you’re a neopagan, of course. I’m just providing an example of a systemic problem that crops up in many religions and wondering if it poses any difficulty in your own personal religious views.

    Jeffery Hodges

    * * *

    Posted September 8, 2007 at 3:29 pm | Permalink
  4. Malcolm says

    Hi Jeffery,

    Excellent questions, and I thank you for asking them, as I can see I have been far from clear here.

    I will respond with another post. But in short, no, evil is not a “problem” for my worldview, in contrast to theism, as I expect Nature to be nothing but indifferent to our fate.

    Posted September 8, 2007 at 6:22 pm | Permalink
  5. bob koepp says

    Hi Malcolm – I think I’m with you in finding highly dubious the existence of a “God as customarily imagined: an omniscient, omnipotent, omnibenevolent Creator, who sustains everything that exists, and whose divine Plan encompasses the entire scope of the Cosmos, throughout all of time.” But I’m much less dubious about a something that would “naturally” be described in such terms by highly intellignt people. Problems arise when, instead of seeking out this something, people take the word of others for its presence, and worse, treat the words of natural languages as more significant than that toward which they point.

    Posted September 9, 2007 at 1:56 pm | Permalink
  6. Malcolm says

    Hi Bob,

    I agree; I think much of the confusion arises from our wired-in habits of agent-detection, and the robustness of certain well-evolved memes.

    Posted September 9, 2007 at 2:34 pm | Permalink
  7. As I read the article in Time devoted to what you describe, and once I became aware that these were her written confession to her confessor, and that they are printed and made public against her wishes (she wanted her confessor/s to destroy them), I immediately put down the article out of respect. All theological stuff aside, I believe the woman is entitled to privacy, even in death, a very public life and ministry notwithstanding.

    Posted October 2, 2007 at 3:23 pm | Permalink
  8. Malcolm says

    Awfully hard to put the toothpaste back into the tube…

    Posted October 2, 2007 at 3:30 pm | Permalink
  9. Yes; however, it is easier to discreetly clean it up, and put the cap back on, and let the remaining paste remain in the tube. She may have been a larger-than-life celebrity to some. Her life may have been an example to others. Yet, she still has a soul. And those words, they were a transpiration between her and the Almighty, not something for the masses to consume and analyze.

    Posted October 3, 2007 at 12:28 pm | Permalink
  10. Malcolm says

    Well, when one rises to the level of celebrity that she did — something she didn’t resist — this is what happens. Public lives are inevitably subject to public scrutiny, and she made a highly public figure of herself.

    Posted October 3, 2007 at 12:34 pm | Permalink