Thursday, January 20, 2011

A Question of Empiricism

In the 1950s, long before he became a superstar through his journaling workshops, clinical psychologist Ira Progoff translated The Cloud of Unknowing. Although his introduction is out of date as regards the identity of the author (now thought to be a Carthusian), and also as regards his application of a rather crude doctrinaire psychological analysis of what is going on in the work of silence, his introduction is well worth reading. It anticipates many of today's debates.

He sees the Cloud as a text that has a lot to offer to psychology, and this is his reason for translating it. He faces head-on the question of empiricism, and attacks clinical psychology for being too laboratory oriented. After all, he says, '. . . it is also essential to remember that psychology is the science devoted primarily to the study of the psyche, that is to the processes that operate within the human personality.'

He goes on to point out that biochemical—and now functional MRI and similar studies—'. . .apply only to a particular level of human functioning. They do not describe the more creative and also self-directive processes by which individuals, in non-mechanistic ways, seek to achieve a fuller development and realization of the capacities of the psyche . . .

'Those who seek to find the objective "mechanisms" of the psyche and who follow, consciously or not, a personal ideology of materialism in one variation or another, feel something alien in such procedures [development of the faculties of the inner life]. They react against them emotionally, castigate them as "spiritual", and dismiss them as non-scientific. The profound psychological significance of the many and varied disciplines of personality development is thus altogether missed. The evidence is dismissed peremptorily, simply by disdaining to discuss the subject. Thus in the name of science, a most unscientific act is committed; and the science of psychology is deprived of a source of information and insight that can contribute greatly to the task of understanding the dynamic processes at work in the inner life of man . . .'

Even more significant, perhaps, are these words: 'Nonetheless. . .experimental work has been going on for many, many centuries in the understanding and channeling of the dynamic processes of man's inner life. These. . .have not been "controlled" in the modern sense; nor have they provided quantitative data. But, by a persistent, cumulative gathering and testing of personal experience [he is using the medieval sense of the word], through individual trial and error over the years, by reflecting, reconsidering and reattempting the work, a process of experimentation in the disciplined development of the personality has been carried on and a body of knowledge has been accumulated.

'This knowledge is scattered in many traditions and is both concealed and conveyed in the symbolism of many religious and cultish doctrines. Because of the diversity of its symbolic forms, it is a knowledge that is not easily available to modern man; but it could be made available. . . if the science of psychology . . would take the trouble to study it interpret it, and apply its findings scientifically.

'If modern psychologists would turn their attention to studying some of the early records of disciplined psychological undertakings, they would soon realize that those prescientific men [and women] were working in a spirit of science not unlike their own, imbued with a high regard for the empirical testing of objective psychological truth. . .

[The Cloud] 'works toward . . .psychologically neutral ground . . . The author ' . . .never recommends that a given technique be taken over as a whole and applied in a fixed form, but rather that it be tested by the individual and adapted to meet the needs of his special case.'

Progoff even seems to understand the problem with the modern notion of 'experience', although he is quite careless in the way he uses the word. He writes, 'One main characteristic of the goal of this work is that it cannot be attained in the ordinary condition of human consciousness . . . If, for example, the individual feels or experiences himself as being in unity with God, that very feeling and awareness of an experience indicates that real unity has not yet been achieved. . .The mere fact that the individual feels his presumed unity with God as a personal experience indicates that he is still separated from God. the individual who experiences God thereby emphasizes the duality of his own individual existence, his personal thatness, and the existence of God as separate from him.' [All emphases are Progoff's]

I have long felt that from an institutional view the decline of the work of silence reaches its endpoint in the 15th century; at this time Christianity loses its empirical base, the actuality of the way the mind works that is the experiment Progoff described above. That leaves people with two equally heretical options based on 'experience' in the opposite, modern sense of a self-authenticating subjectivism, that grew out of a merely devotional matrix, among other influences.

On the one hand, Rome demanded assent to dogma, conformity in observance, and good works at the expense of interior life and maturity. On the other hand, Luther's approach and that of most other Protestants was fiercely and determinedly experience-based in the modern sense of subjectivity and self-authentication. Both were stuck in the merely conceptual sensory world; both failed to help those who sought, with Langland's Will, the 'kynde knowyng' for which he persistently asked: both Holy Church and, later, Protestantism, either ignored his question or inverted it. [See Langland's "Kynde Knowyng" and the Quest for Christ by Britton J. Harwood, Modern Philology, Vol. 80, No. 3 (Feb. 1983), pp. 242-255]

Both approaches are heretical in the patristic sense because they eliminate the work of silence, that is, putting on the mind of Christ, the work that the Cloud author and many other authors, Christian and non-Christian communicated through millennia from at least the time of Empedocles. Awareness of the mental model that underlies the Cloud and similar texts is very rare among contemporary scholars of ancient and medieval worlds; in consequence what is empirical in them has often been abstracted into metaphysics. In the patristic world theology and prayer were indistinguishable. If we are not to completely lose this heritage we must find a way to restore awareness of the actual.


Anonymous AM said...

I was scanning yesterday Anthony Storr's Solitude: A Return to the Self. Storr is a respected British psychiatrist from the Green College, Oxford. Reading here about Luther et. al and the trap of the quest for self-authentication, I somehow understand the project of Storr and many other psychologists that is merely a continuation of Luther's. The problem is popular and scholarly psychologists/psychiatrists like Storr, and to some extent Gerald May, are often taken for granted or read un-critically vis-a-vis other perspectives like Patristic theology.

12:57 am, January 21, 2011  
Blogger Maggie Ross said...

Thanks for a great post, Susan; you're right on. The issues you raise are addressed (for starters) in Olivier Clément's "The Roots of Christian Mysticism"; Andrew Louth's "The Origins of the Christian Mystical Tradition"; and Rowan Williams' "The Would of Knowledge".

10:31 am, January 22, 2011  
Blogger Maggie Ross said...

Having software problems. Here is Susan's comment:

An intriguing post, and it brings up something I've been meaning to ask you. From my recent studies in the patristic tradition of the Prayer of the Heart, and how that does (or does not) get carried forward into the West, I keep noticing what appears to be a significant shift from the understanding of mind as nous (as in Gregory of Nyssa, Evagrius, and The Philokalia) where it is understood to be the faculty capable (if purified) of direct apprehension of the divine (not to be confused with dianoia, or reason), vis a vis what seems to be the understanding in the West (Augustine, Aquinas, et al.) where the rational function seems to become primary, even to the exclusion of any perception apart from the senses—perhaps not the exclusion so much as a ‘displacement’ of any intuitive (non-rational) function into the affect or emotions?

As I’ve been working my way through some secondary sources (sadly, not having any Latin under my belt, and only a wee bit of Greek!), it seems as though this shift becomes more and more prominent right up through the 14th Century….which makes me think it perhaps correlates with your sense of the decline of silence.

And then of course there is a related puzzle of trying to correlate Augustine’s “memory, understanding and will” with the Eastern anthropology. I can never feel quite certain I truly know what is meant by any of them, but particularly “will”. Could it all be a function of the shift from Greek to Latin? Or is there something else entirely involved?

Ah, well, I think I’ll just be grateful that Gregory and Evagrius and Maximus the Confessor and Dionysius the Areopagite have become such close, and enlightening guides.

Nonetheless, I’d be interested in anything you might be inclined to share.

10:37 am, January 22, 2011  
Blogger fs said...

Maggie, I am unclear on your objection to experience as a way of describing the connection with God. An unexpected theophany revealed God to me and opened me into relationship with him (I use the personal pronoun because I like to). I think of it as an experience -- a unique (for me) experience, but something that I did, indeed, experience. Since then, I feel his presence when something in my chest area opens. It opens, and suddenly he's with me, in me, around me, here. I don't know anything else to call this but experience. It happens, and I feel it.

It is the best thing in my life; I would not want to live without it. It is the center.

Some people have visions. Some hear a voice. Some apparently connect mentally. These are visual, aural, cerebral people. But that isn't how it happened to me; I FELT his powerful, intelligent, otherworldly presence. What he gave me was complete love, acceptance, peace. I felt it. I wept. It has remained. I can only be grateful, just dumbly grateful, for what feels like unearned grace.

But I think of it as belonging within the realm of experience. And so I don't understand why you would have a problem with it.

6:35 am, January 24, 2011  
Blogger Maggie Ross said...

To FS: While we should always give thanks for experiences such as you describe, and learn from them what we can, however transfiguring they have been of our lives we need to regard them with a certain caution and we need to let them go. Otherwise they encapuslate us and they keep us looking for further experience instead of for God. We say to ourselves, 'God feels like this' when in fact while God may be in the experience, the experience is never, ever, God.

ALL experience is interpretation. All. Without exception. It is experience that makes us see through the glass darkly. Experience may register an encounter, but its interpretation will always be distorted and is entirely unreliable. The action of God takes place out of our sight. The effects irrupt into our lives; we sometimes also sense the threshold. But what we perceive as the effects and the threshold are also interpretation and unreliable.

The problem is that in the two approaches I am calling problematic, 'experience', whether subjectivism or mere rationalism, becomes the ONLY arbiter of what is holy and, even worse, of theology, and it is well known that the devil himself, as the Desert Fathers and Mothers are wont to say, can appear as an angel of God. It is the presumption to say that we can judge. We can't. We can do the best we can and relinquish our experience to the silence to be purified.

The best criterion is 'by your fruits you shall know them'. If what is perceived as an experience results in profound life-changes for the better (or so it seems to the best we can discern), then all to the good. But while God may be in it, it is not God. The most sublime feeling, the most inexplicable vision—none of this is God.

To know God is to touch the ineffable, beyond all sense or perception; to know God is to do the work of silence, which includes relinquishing all claims to experience and to let go even what we think of as our touching. The language of the spiritual senses that the great contemplatives use is entirely metaphorical and implicitly paradoxical: 'clinging' to God, for example, is in fact clinging to dispossession. 'Feeling' in texts such as the Cloud of Unknowing does not mean how we feel or what we feel but this touching of the dark, which paradoxically is no touch at all.

The early Church knew this; it knew the structure of the mind and how God works with it, and it was from this knowledget that doctrine arose (See Andrew Louth's Book 'The Origins of Christian Mystical Tradition'. Anyone today who observes their mind can have the same knowledge.

But due to formalism and the desire for control, and then in reaction to this formalism, this knowledge disappeared from institutional religion in the West, both Roman Catholic and Protestant, and there is now only making claims for experience, not relinquishing it.

In the middle of the 15th century the meaning of the word 'experience' changed to its opposite. It formerly meant 'experiment', which is, in fact what experience is: an experimental interpretation that needs to be given back to the silence and continually re-interpreted and refined.

From the 15th century onwards, however, the word 'experience' came to mean a self-autheticating claim, which is not in fact what experience is. And one reason religion in the West is in so much trouble is that it has based everything on making claims and idolizing experience, instead of the opposite. In consequence, much of Christian doctrine has come to mean the opposite of what it meant in the first six hundred years or so.

8:16 am, January 24, 2011  

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