Tuesday, July 8, 2008

The Struggle between Mysticism, Magic, Miracles and Religion

While we tend to think of mysticism, the claim to possess some sort of individual knowledge or relationship with a divine or metaphysical being, as being synonymous with religion, in truth mysticism poses a challenge to established religions that is actually quite similar to the challenge posed by science. While all religions rest upon mystical claims, such as Moses receiving the Ten Commandments, Jesus sitting at the right hand of the Father or Mohammed receiving the Koran, these are all things that supposedly happened far in the past and are divorced from reality as we know it today.

As I have argued before, established religions are built not just around doctrinal claims, but also around traditions, which grant authority to established power structures. For example, Judaism claims to be not just a true doctrine, but also to be the heir of the Mosaic tradition. This view is encapsulated in the opening of Ethics of the Fathers: “Moses received the Torah from Sinai and gave it to Joshua and Joshua to the Elders and the Elders to the Prophets and the Prophets gave it to the Men of the Great Assembly.” (Ethics of the Fathers 1:1) Similarly, replacement theology Christianity, which believes that Christianity is “Verus Israel,” the true Israel, claims to be the heirs of that same tradition, in addition to the New Testament tradition while Duel Covenant Christianity only claims to be the heirs the New Testament tradition. As with magic and miracles, mysticism is an end run around such traditions. The moment one can claim to receive information from a maggid, Elijah the prophet, the Angel Gabriel or for that matter Jesus or the Virgin Mary, then you no longer need to submit to any religious tradition and can stand in defiance against any priest, rabbi or imam. Because of this both Judaism and Christianity, while in theory being open to mystical claims, have, have in practice treated mystics with great suspicion.

What does this have to do with science; science makes empirical claims, subject to outside verification while the mystic’s claim is completely subjective? When dealing with science, the usual temptation is to focus on how scientific claims often contradict established religious doctrines. The problem with placing such emphasis on such a threat is that it ignores the history of theology and it fails to take into account the scope of different religious traditions.

The notion that a religion might be contradicted by outside forms of thought is hardly a product of the Scientific Revolution. Contrary to the traditional Whig narrative of medieval intellectual history, medieval thinkers were not simply devoted to reading the Bible literally and accepting Aristotle as the something infallible. Ever since Philo, Jews, Christians and, later, Muslims, have struggled to understand their respective faiths in light of the challenge posed by the Greek philosophical tradition. This, attempt to harmonize the Judeo-Christian and Islamic traditions with Greek philosophy, formed, as Harry A. Wolfson argued, the foundation of the medieval religious tradition.

There are many parts of the Bible that, from an Aristotelian point of view are problematic. So geologists, in the early nineteenth century, came along and showed that the Earth was millions of years old. According to how most medieval thinkers understood Aristotle, Aristotle believed that the universe was never created and always existed. So Copernicus and Galileo raised certain issues about how to understand the miracle in chapter ten of the book of Joshua, in which the sun stands still. In Aristotelian thought all miracles are problematic. If you assume that the universe has always existed, then the laws of nature become logical necessities. This would mean that miracles do not just violate the physical laws of nature; they also violate the laws of logic as well. As such, miracles are not just physically impossible but logically impossible as well.

Why is science threatening in ways that Aristotle never was? One possible explanation is that science forms its own authority structure, with its own traditions and, most importantly, its own “miracles.” The philosophy of Aristotle never claimed to perform miracles nor did it ever radically change people’s lives. This is not the case with science; we live in a world blessed by the creations of science, its “miracles.” In fact, I am typing these words, at this very moment, on one of these “miracles” of science. These “miracles” of science, like the miracles of traditional religions, testify to the truth of science. They also create a system and tradition of authority to which one can appeal to. Even if science never made a heterodox claim, the mere fact that science can operate as a system and tradition of authority makes it a threat to any established religion.

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