The Essence of Religion

It has been suggested that all modern philosophy begins with doubt (JC, p. 80). When one philosophizes, they agree to take nothing for granted, and even to question themselves backward into a corner if need be. Cornering oneself in such a way becomes the goal of philosophical inquiry, as once trapped by one’s own thoughts, the answer is deemed found, as the dialectic of doubt has seemingly lead one in reverse to the very base and background of all being (i.e., that which cannot be doubted). One merely needs to turn around and take note of the boundary, as here it must be that all being begins. But such a method-so perfectly calibrated to avoid all missteps and mistakes, so expertly designed to provide unquestionably objective knowledge of the world-can tell us nothing at all of the subtleties of life. Doubt leads us down a path that can end only with an indifferent truth: a truth of abstraction and rational argument divorced from the concrete and personal truth of bodily life. With doubt as our guide, the life of the body, the most tangible form of human existence, begins to resemble, in Hegel’s words, “a hole in being” (PP, p. 249). Explaining away the individual human life in such a way leaves one with a dead and dissected slab of meat, its life sucked out and absorbed by the universal truths discovered by way of methodical doubt. All its mystery has been swept up into the philosopher’s ink well and then neatly ordered and explained in writing upon the page for all to see and understand.
The method of this essay, in contrast, will not be philosophic; which is to say, it will not begin and end with doubt. Our topic is the essence of religion, that last remaining mode of expression where the simple mystery of individual existence finds its primordial importance even amidst the cluttered minds of modern men and women. We must ask the reader to suspend their doubting tendencies and to leave the religious question open so as not to approach it merely academically. Only then can it become a “genuine living option,” in James’ words (TET, p. 349).
This essay will be written in the manner of a gesture, rather than a discursive argument. Its meaning is intended to be taken “just so,” as though it were cueing something already obvious to the reader that has merely been forgotten. One can of course disagree with it, but know that in so doing one has turned down only an invitation, not a rational argument. The author is standing on the far edge of a precipice. The abyss between he and the reader is deep and darkness prevents them both from even guessing at the distance to the bottom. The author writes, not in an attempt to prove why leaping across makes sense, but to “flail his arms” so as to convince the reader to follow him across without knowing exactly why, as the reason only becomes clear after the invitation has been accepted and the leap has been taken.
Defining Religion
What is religion? As it is a question of essence, we can be sure it will not reveal itself easily. If we begin with etymology we discover that the word derives from the Latin, religare, “to bind.” This leads us only to a new question: What is it in religion that is bound together? After some thought, we may venture that religion binds what is human with what is divine. But by what method could such a connection be forged? It is the opinion of this humble author that such a connection becomes possible only as the result of an unmediated mystical experience. The essence of religion, then, may be described as “that” which is apprehended in a first-hand experience of the sacred.[1]
We may be tempted at this point to conclude that an unmediated mystical state of union with the divine provides an answer to the more functional question, Why do we need religion?, as though such an experience lead to an easier, more enjoyable and fulfilled life. However, posing such a question pulls the veil back over what we have just revealed to be essential to religion. As Keiji Nishitani has said, asking about the utility of religion “…obscures the way to its own answer from the very start. It blocks our becoming a question to ourselves” (E, p. 341). This becoming a question to ourselves is the crucial step toward experiencing the sacred. The person who first asks What for? does not realize that any answer already assumes the answer to For who? has been provided. The primary question for the religious person is always “Why do I exist?” The answer is never final or unambiguous because it is not the question itself that is of most import. Rather, it is the act of asking it-and asking it passionately-that brings us to the religious experience, to union with God, our truest identity.
Such a definition of religion strikes traditional theist as blasphemous because it does not respect the ultimate separation between creator and creation. For the atheist, it is merely more self-suggested nonsense created by the imagination to give meaning to a world that cares not the least about human beings. To the scientist, all such claims of unity with the sacred are first met with skepticism and finally dismissed when the burden of empirical proof appears lacking. The philosopher, the champion of logic and rationality, recoils at the assertions of mystics because they appear to him to be emotional pleas appealing only to the passions while often mocking the intellect. The politician sees in such mysticism a cowardly retreat from the reality of evil and an impractical distain for the day-to-day lives of average people. Lost in all this criticism of religious experience is the actual individual, the one who is born and who dies-the one who can never be quite sure of their own whence or whither. Our exposition will focus on this individual and on his/her solitary confrontation with and assimilation of the unknown and unconscious, with his/her experience of the sacred. We will, along the way, answer the critics (the theologian, the atheist, the scientist, the philosopher, the politician) using what might best be termed depth psychology. Our perspective will be one centered on the psyche, the whole human-body, mind and soul. We do so at the behest of Carl Jung, who reminds us that, “…all immediate experience, all that I experience, is psychic” (MMSS, p. 190-191). Our goal is to describe, as clearly as possible, what it means to be an individual asking the most central of religious questions: Who am I?
The Psyche
To begin, let us first clear up the ontology of experience as it relates to the term “psyche.” One may at first feel justified assuming that experience is what a psyche has, as though the psyche were the subjective self and experience were the objective world it encountered. This confusion is to be avoided. Such a dualism between mind and matter succeeds only in providing us with a conceptual distinction between appearance and reality. When it is of crucial importance that we understand the difference between what we think and what we know, as when we design and build skyscrapers or rocket ships, then distinguishing between my own mind and the matter at hand is quite an intelligent device. But when our task is to bring to light the nature of the psyche, we must remember that it “…does not trouble itself about our categories of reality, and it would therefore be the better part of wisdom for us to say: everything that acts is actual” (MMSS, p. 73). Viewing the human being as a psychic being amounts to no more than the admission that everything we experience, whether it arises out of mental or physical activity, is actual-it can and does matter for the individual. We could also put it as Kierkegaard has: “Immediate sensation and cognition cannot deceive” (PF, p. 82). To be clear, we must admit that many an illusion may appear to the psyche, but such illusions are “real” and cannot deceive because their immediate occurrence has a direct effect on the meaning of one’s personal life.
When seen as a psyche, the human being appears to suffer from an irreconcilably divided nature. On the one hand, we exist as finite beings born to a specific family in a specific place at a specific time. As a result we suffer all the characteristic flaws of carnal reality, ignorance and death chief among them. Most of us remain stuck in this kind of worldly existence and never take seriously intimations of anything more. On the other hand, those of us who don’t ignore such intimations and who are drawn toward a deeper understanding of our own identity may gain an inkling of the soul that remains unborn in eternity as an infinite being with direct access to a truth that transcends all finite categories. If we agree that nature can make no mistakes (if it did, who would be the judge?), how could we be anything but perfectly spontaneous and wonderful manifestations of the eternal becomingness of creation? How could a separation between creature and creation ever arise?
Wait a minute… one may say. I agree about my limits, but I have never been privy to eternity or transcendence, or to the becomingness of creation, and I’ve yet to see proof of any soul, what on earth are you talking about? Herein lays the essential difficulty of referring to any “mystical experience” to begin with. It seems to follow that there are some who have seen the light and some who have not. We might then assume that the experience must be wedged inside time between when one has not yet experienced it and when one has already experienced it. The apparent requirement that something eternal occur also within time gives rise to a paradox, and we draw our ego nearer to its own limit as we attempt to approach an understanding of it. “This,” Kierkegaard says, “is the ultimate paradox of thought: to want to discover something that thought itself cannot think” (PF, p. 37).
The Coincidence of Opposites
The one who claims never to have experienced eternity is caught in a profane world of passionless thoughts about thoughts, of self-reflection ad infinitum. The events of each passing moment become yet another chance to reinterpret some provisional understanding of what it means (or doesn’t mean) to be alive, though even calling it “meaning” seems to cheapen the word by leaving it always vulnerable to reinterpretation or negation. It is of no surprise then that this kind of person would report having had no knowledge of anything but his or her own every day life. But to concede that such a person’s entire being lacked some understanding of the mystical, of the presence of the infinite, would be to overvalue what the ego has reported and ignore what the unconscious has left unsaid. Because a human being is composed of both conscious and unconscious elements, we cannot always believe what consciousness appears to say, as it only represents the surface of the total substance of the psyche. Hegel, for instance, wants to see the individual as a “hole in being” because he acknowledges only the conscious half of the psyche, as any good philosopher is forced to do.[2] Only an individual with an empty hole for a mind could accurately gather up the objective truths of the universal without distorting them with his/her particularity. Our psychic perspective, however, sees the individual not as a hole, but “a hollow,[3] a fold, which has been made and which can be unmade” (PP, p. 250). Just as all light, to be noticed, must cast a shadow, all consciousness must exist in contradiction. The plain and ordinary life of the one who claims ignorance of the divine is no denial of the sacred at all, but a clear example of its necessity. A person may be conscious only of their finite ordinariness, but they understand themselves as such only in relation to the germ of heaven ruminating in them unconsciously (in the fold, so to speak).
This coincidentia oppositorum is a trick of the intellect, useful only “…if we are willing to contradict ourselves…” (MMSS, p.189). When we come upon something that eludes our conceptual grasp, we must resort to dividing it into its antithetical halves in order to make any sense of it at all. In the end, though, “the conflict of the material and the spiritual aspects of life only shows that the psyche is an incomprehensible something” (MMSS, p. 189). But rather then allow ourselves to merge with this unknown, this “incomprehensible something,” we cultivate the willingness to contradict ourselves, to be “a relation that [refuses to, or is unable to] relate itself to itself” (SUD, p. 13). We increase the crease of the fold in our being in an attempt to transcend ourselves objectively, from the outside in. This is the impetus that begins the process of becoming an individual. As human beings we are given the cultural task of self-definition, though we never succeed in achieving it once and for all. As Dante has said, “The desire for perfection [to be fully oneself] is that desire which always makes every pleasure appear incomplete, for there is no joy or pleasure so great in this life that it can quench the thirst in our soul” (GD, p. 45). We are told in the face of all life’s possibilities, not to mention the inevitability of our own death, that we must solve a problem that cannot be solved (this forces the experience of paradox upon us, whether we’re ready for it or not). We must become a free individual even while it is plainly obvious that our existence is wholly contingent on what is other than ourselves (our historical situation, future possibilities, etc.). “This style of man,” says Alan Watts, “must therefore see himself as the ghastly and tragic accident of sensitive and intelligent tissue caught up in the cosmic toils like a mouse in a cotton gin” (BT, p. 6).
And what do you propose we ought to do about it? As individuals, it appears at first as though we were trapped in a perilous situation. But before we resign ourselves to tragedy, let us attempt to ponder a solution by answering the critics.
The Critics
To the theologian, we respond that God cannot be made fully conscious, i.e. there can be no rational proofs of God’s existence. To think of God as another kind of being that might be understood as we understand a car or a house is to forget that God is not a single entity in space-time, but Being itself. Any attempt to describe God remains hopelessly flawed, as Being seems forever to jump ahead of the understanding, not because of its own motion,[4] but due to the understanding’s standing within the becomingness of time. If we assume for a moment that the theologian is Christian, we ask why the religion of Jesus became a religion about Jesus. That is, why must the story of Christ refer only to the single historical incarnation of Jesus of Nazareth and not to everyman whose paradoxical experience may lead them to the same transformation and rebirth? Why must the example of Jesus be worshipped rather than followed? I am not suggesting that the literal Biblical story be reenacted by moderns; just that such doctrinal restrictions leave Christians without an experiential connection to God because the savior appears to be a separate being with no significant relation to them. The market effect of this brand of Christianity has been to raise a society of moral lemmings in need of the educational support of an elite class of priests. In the case of reformed Christianity, church services have been reduced to “the centuries-old echo” of the “chatter among men about this thing” (PF, p. 71) the savior. Christianity has lost an essential component by not doctrinally offering an experiential connection with God before death. “Perhaps a particular philosopher had doubted for all just as Christ suffered for all, and is one now only supposed to believe it and not doubt for oneself?” (JC, p. 154).
To the atheist, we can say only that one need not deny something that does not exist. If it does not exist, why even bring it up? Nietzsche declared, “God is dead” (E, p. 67), but this in no way implies God’s non-existence. On the contrary, the psychic fact of God’s death has had an untold effect on the spiritual life of modern humanity. As we have already shown, anything that acts is actual. It matters not how we decide to divide experience into illusion and reality, as such distinctions occur after the pre-conceptual psychic facts have already had their influence on us. If the atheist must declare that he/she does not believe, the faithful can only respond by asking: What is it that you do not believe in? For the faithful themselves, mere words such as “God” or “Spirit” do not contain the mysteriousness of their own commitment. One has faith, not in an idea or a word, but in a non-idea, in an unknown. Surely then, to disbelieve, one must either, a) set up a straw man in place of true religion, thereby rejecting only an idol, or, b) be unable to let go of their own supposed knowledge of the truth.[5] It seems then that the faithful do not know what they believe and the unfaithful do not know what they disbelieve, the only difference between them being that the faithful admit their ignorance while the unfaithful wallow in pride.
To the scientist, we first applaud their open-mindedness. We next direct them to the intimate study of any one of a number of non-dual contemplative traditions, whether it be Vedanta Hinduism, Taoism, Sufism, Zen Buddhism, or even Christianity.[6] Each tradition provides a unique path or method of dialogue with the eternal that is designed to convince the seeker that they are the unity they are searching for. Each path amounts to an experiment; if the scientist consents to follow the way, they may experience something remarkable.
This remarkable encounter with the infinite may require that the scientist reevaluate their philosophical assumptions. This leads us to the philosopher, whose criticism it seems we must accept. Bertrand Russell put it thus: “I believe that, when the mystics contrast ‘reality’ with ‘appearance,’ the word ‘reality’ has not a logical, but an emotional, significance: it means what is, in some sense, important” (RS). We agree that it is important, but we find it of greater importance to explore exactly why the scientist’s philosophical assumptions may lead to a biased interpretation of said mystical experience. If it were true that the distinction between the sacred and the profane is an “emotional” one, then the scientist’s observational techniques would negate a priori the results of any contemplative experiment. The scientific method demands reason and reservation; it cannot run roughshod over the facts because it wishes to express an agreeable sentiment. But reason itself does not require that we employ a specific metaphysical interpretation to our direct experience. The scientist may remain lucid even while allowing their own subjectivity to become an aspect of utmost importance to their investigation. Much like the training required for traditional experimental scientific work, the mental training required before a scientist of experience were capable of such psychic gymnastics would be extensive. Indeed, we might even be forced to suppose that only those who are already naturally inclined to seek out so profound an understanding of themselves could fill such roles adequately. This is a complete makeover of our historical image of the scientist, that given him by Sir Francis Bacon as he who conquers and subjugates nature to his own will. Bacon’s science is the science of masculinity; it is sterile, penetrating, efficient, and manipulative.[7] The science we are attempting to articulate above is a feminine science; it is vital, expressive, and can observe without interference. Instead of accepting as evidence only what is sensed externally, it is open to what is intuited inwardly. The philosopher’s claim that emotion is essential to the mystical experience does not necessarily prevent scientific observation. On the contrary, as long as the scientist acknowledges their own subjectivity while retaining the discriminative abilities of their intellect, value can become a verifiable aspect of existence and a science of revelation becomes possible. This new science, though, is not a science whose truths are easily communicable. The study of higher states of consciousness is open only to individual scientists and its results may have little relevance for others who haven’t yet done the necessary experiments.
It is for exactly this reason that the politician is suspicious of the value mystics attribute to their “higher, holier purposes.” It is not because such values are too emotional, but because they are irrelevant to the lives of most people. The mystic contemplates God, delving into the unconscious realms of the psyche in search of the archetypal structures that hold the key to immortality and authentic existence, while millions of average people starve or are killed because of public inaction and negligence. Action, it would seem, is what matters for the politician. He demands real world results, changes that are seen and that have a verifiable effect on the lives of average citizens. More than anything else, though, the politician, the man of the world, demands that we confront and destroy evil. He says of the mystics that they ignore all the terrible and unjust aspects of the world, that they pretend everything reduces to unity and love when it takes only eyes to see that it does not. The mystic can only respond by questioning the politician’s understanding of evil. While the politician relates to evil heroically as though it were an outside force with its own autonomous will and motives, the mystic sees it as a psychic manifestation of everything the self cannot accept about its own nature. It is true, the mystic will agree, that evil may appear to be unrelated to good, but this is because those who define themselves as good do so only because they have repressed their evil side. This repressed evil is projected by the unconscious onto anyone who opposes the will of what has consciously been deemed good. This psychic mechanism of repression and projection is the individual’s only recourse after they have identified themselves with goodness. The good is not good unless it battles evil; it must have an enemy. “Therefore,” says St. Paul, “I discover the principle that in my willing to do the good, the evil is with me” (Romans, 7:21). This coincidence of opposites is the only universal law of the understanding. In all our thought, whether abstract or concrete, it is never transgressed.
The Court of God
Even God has a dark side, but Christian theologians often point to the historical incarnation of Christ as God’s way of absolving evil and redeeming His[8] creation from darkness and sin. God is therefore said to remain pure, as only His Son is given the task of doing battle with the devil. We might think of God as the judge presiding over Jesus as the defendant arguing against Satan as prosecutor. We are the one on trial, the individual facing the judgment of God. This situation creates in us a feeling of intense self-reflection. After deeper contemplation, we may become aware that this is a trial as much about the nature of God as it is about our own. God has set up the courtroom and allowed the forces of good and evil their equal say. He would only do so because He has not yet decided upon the matter for Himself. As likenesses created in the image of God, our fate is also His fate. God is preparing only His own judgment-and is not this ability to judge oneself from God’s perspective what our own consciousness really amounts to? We speak candidly of our normal, everyday selves as “conscious,” but could it be that in so doing we are giving our profane selves too much credit? Self-reflection may be a better term for the action of the secular self, as it suggests something more akin to self-manipulation or self-control. As self-reflective beings, we observe parts of ourselves (such as our memories or knowledge) and employ them to solve specific problems. We function in the world as a self-reflecting ego by being aware of one thing at a time, by making compromises and weighing disparate options. Through all this, though, we never become aware of our own unconscious. Only a fully aware and conscious being can understand itself completely. But it does not look back upon a part of itself in order to change it so that it might function more efficiently. It looks back only to behold itself as itself, with no thought of utility or effecting change. It does so because what it sees is the perfection of imperfection. It recognizes all at once that existence is beautiful beyond comprehension precisely because it often seems so ugly. Do not be fooled by these apparent contradictions; the religious state of mind becomes sheer nonsense when the logical methods of philosophy are applied to it. An unmediated mystical state cannot occur until the knot of the concept-bound mind, obsessed with language and pulled tight by doubt, has been released into the pure and immediate openness of faith.
Who am I?
We might say, then, that the mystical experience occurs when God beholds itself as “I,” the formerly separate, sinful individual. This mystical state of consciousness is human-remembering-divinity or a rebinding of the finite with the infinite. “It is precisely a failure to remember,” says Ananda Coomaraswamy, “that drags down from the heights of the soul that which has walked with God and had some vision of the truths, but cannot retain it” (EIC, p. 77).
The suffering individual may now be cast in a new light. Rather than a helpless cog thrown into an uncaring world alongside other beings utterly alien to ourselves, we become God in disguise playing at being a part of His own created world. In all our seeming anguish, we are never anything but our own victims. The “I” who suffers is an illusion brought about by a God that wishes to forget Himself. For what else could an omnipotent, omnipresent, omniscient God of love possibly want to do but suffer the exact fate of those He has created? The infinite implies all that is finite, as to be truly infinite means also to exist finitely, even if it is just for a time.
What, then, is the solution to the dilemma of the suffering individual? It is precisely to ask that most fundamental of religious questions: “Who am I?” I have asked the question repeatedly, one may say, and it has not yet brought me to God, only deeper into confusion and sin. We are reminded at this point that “the question is asked by one who in his ignorance does not even know what provided the occasion for his asking in this way” (PF, p. 9). The question may be re-posited, then, as: How are we to arrive at the dissolution of the dilemma of the suffering individual? In other words, how are we to come to realize that the occasion of the question itself created the problem? As William Blake has said, “The fool who persists in his folly will become wise” (MHH). Precisely by attempting the impossibility of coming to ourselves, of waking up once and for all, we realize that we “…cannot by any means do it [but] that IS it. That is the mighty self-abandonment that gives birth to the stars” (BT, 229). “That” is what the mystics know through unknowing, that “thou art that.”

Works Cited

1) Blake, William. The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. New York: Oxford University Press. 1975.
2) Cahn, Steven M. Ten Essential Texts in the Philosophy of Religion. New York: Oxford University Press. 2005.
3) Chaudhuri, Haridas. Evolution of Integral Consciousness. Wheaton, Ill.: Quest. 1977.
4) Harding, Sandra. Whose Science? Whose knowledge?: Thinking From Woman’s Lives. New York: Cornell University Press. 1991.
5) Kierkegaard, Soren. Trans. Hong, Howard V. and Hong, Edna H. The Sickness Unto Death. Princeton: Princeton University Press. 1983.
6) Kierkegaard, Soren. Trans. Hong, Howard V. and Hong, Edna H. Philosophical Fragments and Johannes Climacus. Princeton: Princeton University Press. 1985.
7) Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. Trans. Smith, Colin. Phenomenology of Perception. New York: Routledge. 1962.
8) Roheim, Geza. Gates of the Dream. New York: International University Press. 1953.
9) Russell, Bertrand. Religion and Science. New York: Oxford University Press. 1961.
10) Solomon, Robert C. Existentialism. 2nd Edition. New York: Oxford University Press. 2005.
11) Watts, Alan. Beyond Theology: The Art of Godmanship. New York: The World Publishing Co. 1967.
[1] The sacred is the holy. The holy is that which is whole, rather than fractured or partial.
[2] (At least any good modern philosopher). To have knowledge of absolutes, one must first absolutize knowledge. Such an absolution amounts to declaring everything to be conscious.
[3] Hollow is not synonymous with hole in this context because it refers to the middle space between something surrounding, rather than the purer emptiness suggested by Hegel’s “hole in being.” A hollow has an inside and an outside, while a hole implies only vacancy.
[4] Being is eternal and infinite. As eternity, it has no time within which to move. As infinity, it has no space through which to travel. Therefore, it is motionless.
[5] The atheist typically asserts that there is no truth, failing to notice their own contradiction.
[6] The list could go on indefinitely, the only qualification being that the tradition is non-dual. That is, the final and supreme truth for the tradition must be both all encompassing and completely ineffable. This assures that they lead to no specific finite dogmas, but remain fixed on the infinite and unknowable.
[7] Bacon: “For you have but to hound nature in her wanderings, and you will be able when you like to lead and drive her afterwards to the same place again. Neither ought a man to make scruple of entering and penetrating into those holes and corners when the inquisition of truth is his whole object” (WSWK, p. 43).
[8] The masculine personal pronoun used in this context is not at all necessary and might be better replaced with the androgynous “Thou.” However, the grammatical context makes this awkward, and so for aesthetic reasons I refer to God as “He.” Using “It” would further confuse the reader, turning God into an object when the author intends for Him to be confronted as a subject, or rather the subject.


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