The Orthodox Mysticism of John Caputo

by Micah Cavaleri

We may be starting with a senseless oxymoron in the minds of a few.  But I can’t help myself.  I recognize the faith of John Caputo (Hoping Against Hope) as a member of the family from which I draw my own faith.  Caputo knows the God, Father and Son and Holy Spirit, I am growing to trust and have fallen in love with over the years, although Caputo would object to the assertion of knowledge.  His radical theology creeps into my preaching, shapes my responses to my daughter’s worries about the truth of our faith, and he would be a most honored guest at my pulpit or confirmation class.

The existence of God has long been exposed as a lost cause to anyone with familiarity with formal logic and a willingness to drink in the explanatory power of the sciences.  People such as Alvin Plantinga are intellectually dishonest in their attempts to place faith at the foundation of our knowledge.  The worries over faith of any child, as well as the most gifted adults, give away the uncertainty of religious beliefs.

Immanuel Kant’s notion of antinomies helps to illustrate what is wrong with the thought of people who want to talk about the existence of God and knowledge of God.  The concept of a divine creator is incoherent and gives rise to wildly divergent claims about any theological matter under the Sun.  Kant held that the incoherence showed an uncertainty in our knowledge, but what it opens up for all to see is that the concept of God is not defined in such a way as to make existential and epistemological claims possible.  Religious history is testimony to the fact that humans do not know God.

Caputo correctly refuses to fit the God of experience, the God of the mystics, into the box of existence.  Institutional orthodoxy wants to force us to choose sides here.  Caputo clearly sees that and chooses to correct the confused existence and knowledge claims of theologians by denying the existence of God, replacing existence with the category of insistence.  In my mind, orthodoxy, not the monster that has been taken over by institutions, does not choose one side.  Rather, orthodoxy chooses all sides: human and divine, one and three, saint and sinner.

The human categories of existence and knowledge are just that… human.  Orthodox theology insists on incomprehensibility.  It affirms a divinity that is uncontained.  We cannot, then, simply deny or affirm God’s existence, as Caputo writes.  What we can do is search for a third alternative.  Caputo chooses insistence.  I choose a description of God as exceeding the boundaries of reality.

I suspect Caputo may agree with me here, but which conception is correct misses the point entirely.  The God of mysticism, the God of the orthodoxy that refuses to be contained by institutions and binaries, lives.  The God who is found in the darkness of faith refuses our intellectual arrogance.  We are continually changed by the Incomprehensible One who is Love.

How can we talk about God then, you may wonder? The world is full of answers, and, with a heart full of thanks I can say, full of mystics.  We cannot reach the Incomprehensible, but the Incomprehensible reaches out to us.  For we who are Christians, Jesus is the Incomprehensible One reaching out to us.  How dangerous that was, when Jesus was rejected by the people of Galilee because they knew his mother and father and sisters and brothers.  God is with us, but we cannot find God because we know God too well.

May we all fall in love with the pregnant emptiness that is underneath all that is.  Amen.

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The Occult and Spiritual Growth

By Frater Yeheshuah

Occult wisdom and practice attracts many but is given time by very few.  For instance, the Thelemic community does not even represent a rounding error in the census of the US population; the name of Aleister Crowley and his story of an order of magical illuminati, however, permeates our culture.  Magical thinking certainly has a death grip on American society.  The spiritual paths of the occult, I believe, can lead to growth and enlightenment.  The Incomprehensible One, after all, stands above the heavens and bows beneath the hells.  Magick often proves to be a dead end with nothing of value to live in or explore in the cul-de-sac, though.

It occurs to me that the problem is not just with magick and the occult.  Religion, my own chosen path of Christianity, is almost universally an intellectually empty, spiritually valueless enterprise.  Religion, I include the occult in this category, is largely lived out at a very low, unreflective level… as is the case with politics and education and ethics and whatever other categories of action we might come up with.  When it comes to magick, this lack of insight turns into love spells and pretend access to secret knowledge, fortune-telling and healing potions.

I have found… or, I think I have found… that the occult can be translated into wisdom by the alchemy of honesty and devotion.  I do not know why it is I have such a strong attraction to the study and practice of religion.  It is more than likely a personality quirk, a matter of my history and neurochemistry.  That set of material facts has made me a devoted practitioner of magick and mysticism over the years.  In my attempts at honesty with myself, and I do not claim to be the most successful in this arena, I have noted peace and joy and love develop within me.  What I have not once witnessed is an unexplainable event or otherworldly apparition.  Spirit and body, as far as I can tell, are one.  Magick does not grant one spiritual control over the material world.

Based on my experience and experiments as well as the witness of history and science and the demonstrable inability of witches and warlocks to exercise even the slightest control over nature, magick as it is generally understood is a useless endeavor.  Using the language of the mystic rather than the magician, the world is a place of grace.  There is magick at work, which is seen by a transformed mind and heart made new by devotion and honesty.  The wisdom that is gained is rather simple as I have it, which is that we find the world a place of deep value and life, even with its suffering, worth the trip, and we are given the resources to make it through our journey.

The real difficulty that creeps in the background is how to share that grace with those who cannot see grace anywhere and who lack the privilege I have been born into.

Secrecy in the Spiritual Life

By Frater Yeheshuah

In my experience, there are no mystical secrets or hermetically sealed spiritual truths… none, at least, that ought to be secret.  Great care needs to be taken at times to heal a sister with my own bit of insight rather than damage her more severely than has already been done.  But, it seems to me, those insights are not to be protected by secrecy, but need to be handed over with attention to the sister who receives them.  People who are familiar with the OTO and related magical and mystical societies will know that oaths of silence on certain matters are extracted from those who would pass through the initiations and receive an order’s teachings.  Freemasonry’s highest secret truth is that of the need for each of us to love our brothers and sisters.  OTO’s highest bit of gnosis, the 9th degree secret teachings, is, in part, that Jesus Christ is God made flesh, the Second Person of the Triune God.  These are not secrets.  Rather, that they were imparted to the seeker at all is the secret.  (And since I have received these truths without the obligation to secrecy, given the way I became aware of the secrets, I am able to share their content with you.)

In 1917, the founder of the OTO, Theodore Reuss, wrote an introduction to Crowley’s Gnostic Mass wherein it is explained that the purpose of the order, in its form as the Ecclesia Gnostica Cattolica, is to establish a purified Christianity.  If that statement was being made openly, why does the order work so hard to keep such secrets hidden.  “Why?” is not for me to determine.  This I do know: if I had smelled Christianity around the OTO almost 20 years ago, I would never have approached them or worried at all about their teachings.  My heart and mind needed to be renewed.  I needed to die and rise again.  And I did.

So, I am a Christian now, although I am still a member of the OTO.  Magick has fallen away in favor of the deeply healing personal experience of the Incomprehensible One who is Love, mysticism.  Magick itself is a sort of smoke screen, confusing the seeker.  There is no occult mastery of nature.  Spirits never convey Nobel prize-winning scientific insights.  The miraculous is a means of keeping the secrets hidden.  Mysticism, however, is ordinary and breaks through the screen.  Or, mysticism is the ordinary experience of the Son leading us through the smoke.

May the Spirit which is poured into us at Baptism give us new hearts.

Thomas Keating and the Psychology of Centering Prayer

Father Thomas Keating has done wonderful work by making contemplative prayer a form of prayer for the laity.  His books make Centering Prayer simple and clear and systematic.  We do not have to search the often confusing history of mystical Christianity.  With Fr Keating’s work, we are able to enter an ongoing experience of the Incomprehensible One Who is Love immediately… if only we have the desire, which is the presence of the Holy Spirit in our hearts.

There is a great deal to celebrate in Fr Keating’s work.  My attention, though, has been drawn to certain failures of the Centering Prayer movement that threaten access to the contemplative life Fr Keating wants to help us live.  There are two major shortcomings I think we need to note here.  First, Fr Keating tries to modernize Centering Prayer by couching the practice in terms of Freudian psychology.  Secondly, Fr Keating’s work tries to distinguish Christian contemplation from other forms of mysticism such as Buddhist Zen meditation, painting a harmful picture of Christian exclusivism that needs to be grown out of if Christianity is to get beyond its deadly, destructive history.

In principle, there is no problem with using contemporary science to analyze spiritual practice.  Fr Keating, however, seems unaware that Freud’s school of psychology is wholly unscientific, a modern myth rejected by empirically-minded experts and refuted by research and philosophy.  For instance, in his book Open Mind, Open Heart, Fr Keating defines the concept of Unloading the Unconscious as follows: “The spontaneous release of previously unconscious material from early childhood in the form of primitive feelings or a barrage of images or commentaries; it may occur during the time of centering prayer and outside the time of prayer.”  To put it directly, there is no such unconscious material.  The unconscious is a figment of the Freudian imagination.  There are, to be sure, damaging memories and destructive habits, but the unconscious as conceived of by Freud does not exist.  Unconscious energies do not register on any meters.

Going beyond the philosophical and scientific critique of Freud’s model of the mind, experience teaches that Fr Keating’s claim that contemplative exercises risk a flood of “primitive feelings or a barrage of images or commentaries” is pretty clearly false.  The gentle practice of meditation and contemplation is healing and lays down a solid and stable foundation for a psychologically and spiritually healthy life.  Letting go of attachments and assumptions clears the mind and allows it to drink in reality without worry or the distorted values we usually assume in daily life.  There are often enough difficult lessons along the way.  We are fallen, after all.  As the mind clears, we see sometimes painful truths.  But there is no risk to anyone who wants to sit and pray.  There is no need for special retreats, a spiritual director or an analyst to help us sort through our unconscious detritus.  The only thing we need to begin is the desire that is poured into our hearts.

Fr Keating’s Christian exclusivism is much more alarming than his reliance on Freudian psychology.  By way of example, look at this passage from Open Mind, Open Heart: “Noticing one’s breathing can also serve as a sacred symbol of one’s consent to God’s presence and action within.  In this case, one does not follow one’s breathing physically as is done in Eastern techniques of meditation, but simply observes it.  In centering prayer the purpose is not simply to let go of all thoughts but to deepen our contact with the Divine Indwelling.  The intentionality of faith is fundamental.”  It is a truly strange set of remarks, perplexing because Fr Keating is, in fact, familiar with Eastern practices.  Observing and following the breath are identical techniques.  Fr Keating is making a distinction without a difference for the sake of preserving what he sees as the “Christian essence” of Centering Prayer.

The attempt to paint Eastern meditation as simply a matter of letting go of thoughts is equally troubling.  In Zen, for instance, all of the eightfold path and the paramitas flow out of the practice of sitting.  Meditation is not a mere relaxation technique.  It is the source of life, exactly as it is for the Christian.  Furthermore, Fr Keating’s remark that the distinguishing characteristic of Christian contemplation is faith and seeking “to deepen our contact with the Divine Indwelling” blindly ignores the need for the difficult work of careful translation between the religious vocabularies of different holy traditions.  Of course a Buddhist will not describe her practice in terms of the Divine Indwelling or as flowing from the theological virtue of faith.  That is because she uses her own language and her own experience and her own tradition to make sense of the spirit… or emptiness, or whatever concept she finds appropriate and useful.  Attending lovingly to our sisters and brothers is the only way to escape the deep and enduring hate of our long history.

Religion is scarred by narrow-minded theologians and the smallness of politics and the ugliness of self-righteousness.  Yet, I believe, it is too precious to leave to rot in sin.  We must be careful not to lapse into the religious hypocrisy Jesus condemned, for the sake of our own health and the well-being of our friends and neighbors.  Contemplation is a gift.  If the Spirit has given you desire, follow the Spirit.