December 17th, 2008

Generic Meditation Issues: Agnostic Spirituality.

I am reading Sidney Poitier's  Measure of a Man.  Its subtitle is "a spiritual autobiography;"  A few months ago I read  a book titled A Private History of Awe; and about a year ago I read Richard Jeffries'  The Story of my Heart (which F. C, Happold believed had "a significant place in the history of mysticism."  I am also reading Etty Hillesum's  An interrupted Life, but find it tough going.  I can't say I didn't like these books, in fact, I enjoyed each one very much; but with each one I was thinking: if this is spirituality, anything and everything is spirituality.  Yet, when I tried to put into words what my discontent was--when I tried to say what was missing compared to say: Mystical Theology, or Masnavi, or the Tao te Ching, or The Cloud of Unknowing, or Dark Night of the Soul I couldn't come up with any words or thoughts,

I undertook each book with the understanding that I would be reading a spiritual work by a person who is or was agnostic.  This is certainly true of Jeffries and the author of "Awe", but Poitier seems a bit of a Christian and Hillesum a practicing liberal Jew.  Although I haven't finished Poitier or Hillesum yet, I seem to be coming up dry from each.  Though I share the apparent agnosticism of these authors, I have found the Catholic and Sufi texts far more inspirational. 

The exception. of course is the Tao te Ching.  Its author might well have been an agnostic. "The gods" are only mentioned once and that was a somewhat disparaging remark.  But I am hooked on this.  I have five translations (my wife and I together have four Bibles).  I read from it almost daily to help keep my life steady, my vision clear, my behavior benign.  With Lao Tsu's guidance I can marvel at the mysteries of existence.  It is my Magnificat.  The Tao te Ching proves to me that agnosticism and spirituality are compatable and possibly even mutually enhancing.  But it seems to me to stand alone among the spiritual classics.

Perhaps I should not expect anything else.  Agnosticism is, after all, the residue of the conflict between Deism and Atheism.  Agnostics are usually people who are afraid to be atheists in a very religious society or afraid to be religious in an otticially atheistic state like China or Mongolia. It is often taken to be the "default" category for people unwilling to think seriously about mystery or theology.  It is a manifestation of secularism and modernization (in 1900, the "non-religious" were less than two percent of the world's population)

Because God is approached by mystics through the  via negativa, I would not expect those people who can't know God (mystics) to differ much from those who don't know God (agnostics).  But maybe the difference between "can't" and "don't" is s really big difference.  Perhaps I had better figure out which is my perspective.