Over the last few weeks I've shared some perspectives on the work of Robert Graves and some psychological aspects at play in the reading of Tarot. In each of those articles I asked, does it really matter if it's ahistoric, or if it's based on spurious scholarship? Does it matter if we are engaging in a psychological activity in the guise of a mystical activity? In each case I said no, and I still hold that to be true. But I want to clarify that statement a little bit in light of an article that came out this week.
At the blog Pagan Square Ivo Dominguez Jr. shared his insights into what he calls "Chosen Belief
." For Ivo, reconciling the scientific worldview with the mythic experience is akin to the same experience we have when we engage in a willful suspension of disbelief when entering a theater to watch a movie, or when we read a book. We know that the film we are about to see or the book we are about to read is a work of fiction and yet we accept the experience on its face an immerse ourselves in it anyway. Ivo lays out an axiom for this methodology.
The extension of the practice of the willing suspension of disbelief to the willing acceptance and empowerment of beliefs as a set of virtual truths for a given span of experience.
Ivo echoes the work of Karen Armstrong, where we explore spiritual truths in the context of playing "make-believe." I have some mixed feelings about these sentiments. So let me unpack it a little.
There is a dichotomy between belief and fact. Facts are what we obtain through reason and inquiry. We test them, challenge them, put them aside if we discover them to be untrue. It is a product of the best work of the scientific method. Belief is the step beyond the realm of fact, and into the realm of speculation via trust (faith). The "leap of faith" is made in the absence of empirical evidence. The realm of the spiritual has been pretty solidly in the quadrant of faith. The suspension of disbelief asks us to put aside reason even if only momentarily and to accept as true that for which we have no tangible evidence, or that which may be contradictory to established fact. It is engaging with a fiction. But is that what we're actually doing? Well, perhaps partly, but I think it's more complicated than just walking into a fiction.Experience of the Spiritual
T.M. Luhrmann in her book "When God Talks Back" explores the phenomenon of people engaging in a dialogue and relationship with the Christian God as expressed in the evangelical Vineyard Church. These people have crossed a kind of mental threshhold past the realm of reason and engage in conversations with God. And they engage in these conversations all day long, every day, living in God 24/7. We see this exact same experience in Pagan traditions, where people speak either with the voice of a Goddess, or who hear, internally, the voice of a Goddess (or God, Daemon, Spirit, Angel, What Have You). When we walk into a ritual circle we see the Priestess calling down the Goddess, and hear Her speak to us. This phenomenon is documented time and time again, and people believe these experiences to be true encounters with God (et al.). Where suspension of disbelief comes in is when we choose to believe that it is a God. Whether it is in fact a God, or whether it is, as Julian Jaynes posits, a function of the human brain is almost irrelevant. The belief that it is a God is unnecessary to the process. There is a physiological, psychological, emotional experience on behalf of the individual. The experience itself is real.
Personally, I believe that voice and that power comes from a place inside our brains, and it uses the component pieces of our subconscious minds to tell us things. In fact, if we explore the kind of experience presented in Malcolm Gladwell's "Blink"
where flashes of insight and gut reaction have a basis in reality, the information that comes from that experience can prove exceptionally useful. But its physiological and psychological origin does not detract from the message. Rather, I believe it lends more weight to the value of the experience, because it is constructed from our own experiences, knowledge, and feelings.Revelation
The spiritual experience provides additional information to the individual. Dream states, trancework, meditation, prayer, ritual, drugs, divination, communing with God, whatever the method, the individual engages in a world rich with symbols, connections, words, parables... all of this is data. The immersion in this experience brings out and highlights certain elements above others, and the individual walks away with more information than he began with. This revealed information may or may not carry weight with the indvidual depending on what he does with it.
When I look at Robert Graves, plunking away at The White Goddess
, pulling out his dusty old books and cobbling together a justification for the Triple Goddess, or Margaret Murray looking for the Witch Cult
, I see two things. I first see revisionism, shoehorning history to fit a spiritual narrative. But secondly, and more importantly I see vision. In my mind, Graves did not need to qualify the existence of a triple Goddess through historical or literary source materials in order to prove her reality. His vision of her was the key experience. The method by which he attained this vision was through what he calls the "analeptic memory
" which posits that "forgotten events may be recovered by the exercise of intuition, which affords sudden glimpses of truth 'that would not have been arrived at by inductive reasoning." That is direct, experiential, vision. This image of a triple Goddess came to him from any number of disparate elements and manifested in his brain. Everything else that he did to justify it after the fact was window dression for the purpose of advancing the vision. But it was that seed, born of a visionary experience, that holds the kernel of truth.Meaning Making
When presented with information revealed in a spiritual context the individual begins making new mental connections linking his personal life experience with the divine revelation. He becomes actively engaged in the process of making meaning of his life. It is an act of self-analysis, decision making, and ultimately about telling the story of one's own life through the lens of the mystic. We contextualize our experiences to build meaning for ourselves where none is apparent.
When we look at the Tarot, we not looking at a deck of cards that can accurately forecast the future. What the Tarot does, is it activates those disparate elements lurking in the back of our brains and bubbles them to the surface. We take all those pieces and we tell ourselves a story about our lives, and the people in our lives, and we examine our circumstances in the light of that story and how it may or may not play out. That is a direct, experiential, vision used to make meaning of one's life.
I believe that the physiological, psychological, and emotional experiences that we have in sacred space should be seen as a direct experience; whether or not we classify the experience as "spirit" or latent phenonomena of the brain shouldn't matter. Because of their basis in direct experience, the spiritual experience, or anything revealed during a spiritual experience, may be classified as a "virtual truth," but it is always a unique, and true, experience for the individual in the context of his own life and mind. What the individual then does with that spiritual revelation is to use this information to make meaning of the component pieces of his life in the context of the mythical superstructure of his tradition/culture. This act of self-analysis is unique, personal, and has very real impacts upon the life of the individual. For some people, this process is an ongoing, permanent state of being, constantly engaging with the spiritual for information and interpreting their life in the continued context of revealed information, without arbitrary delineations of sacred versus profane.
Where the spiritual experience always runs aground is when people, like Graves or Fundamentalists, look at this spiritual information as something more than myth or context, but rather as historic or future facts. We don't need to rewrite history to prove the existence of a global matriarchal goddess cult for the Triple Goddess to have meaning. Similarly we don't need to dig out caves to live in the apocalyptic future revealed by some monk who lived in the desert for a tale of crisis to help us understand a society falling apart at the seams. Spiritual information is a means of helping us understand the human condition. It doesn't need to supplant reality, but complement it. UPDATED TO ADD
Over on my facebook page Ivo suggested that I re-read his article, because his point was not directly about the suspension of disbelief about about choosing instead to empower a set of symbols in order drive magickal action. It's a distinction worth noting. However, as the axiom posited above states chosen belief is an extension of suspension of disbelief, which moves it from a passive consumption to an active practice. This ties in interestingly with a video I watched recently on PBS "Off Book" where they explore how fandom changes the practice of media consumption from a passive to an active practice
But I have to ask myself, because I'm always asking myself questions, how is this different from any other time when we choose to believe something? Scientific inquiry gives us a lot to think about, but there are still a number of speculations that we have which have theoretical models, but no evidence one way or another. For instance, the big bang, and whatever preceded it. Theoretical astrophysics doesn't really know what happened. But what we can see is that there is a point in our universe from which all other astral bodies are radiating. From that we deduce the origins of the universe from a central point, and construct a narrative of the big bang as the source of the creation of our universe. But we don't really know for certain how or why it occurred, and we're also not really sure about what's going to happen to us in the end. And so we develop models and tests and look for more data to support or discard those models. Following the line of reasoning established by science, and the deductions that one makes in support of those models is the same thing as choosing to believe a particular narrative of existence. It is a choice that has a lot more data involved in it, and it also has a lot more doubt.
And I think I'm okay with that. Mostly because I'm more concerned about empowering concepts that may not have any basis in fact, or that may contradict fact.
As I've written a lot on here, I consider myself going down a road of a somewhat rational mysticism. There are things I don't understand, and I'm kind of agnostic about some things. But there are other things that I'm less willing to part with because they speak to a reasonable understanding of the world. So for instance when I look at magickal action, I look at understanding methods of control and flexibility more generally, and how they apply in the physical world we live in. I don't really buy into mystical energy working like Reiki or chanting causing the bonds of fate to snap. For me, magickal action is conscious operation. It is awareness of your impact upon your environment, and the changes that you can make within the bounds of your circumstances.
The best example I can think of to illustrate this actually comes from an episode of Doctor Who. At the end of the first new Christmas special entitled "The Christmas Invasion" then Prime Minister Harriet Jones uses a giant laser beam to blow the Sycorax out of the sky. The Doctor, livid at the fact that she has done this, and with technology that is clearly alien, and far beyond the means of humanity in 2006 tells her "I can take you down with six little words." He turns to one of her security guards and whispers to him "Don't you think she looks tired?" And this starts a chain of events of a whisper campaign, talking about how she is unfit for the role of Prime Minister and that it's taking a terrible emotionally exhaustive toll on her. That evening the Doctor watches her in a press conference denying rumors of her growing emotional and psychological exhaustion until she ultimately resigns from the role of PM.
That is a magical action. It takes nothing numinous or supernatural to make that happen. It simply takes an understanding of the way that people behave, how they think, and how to influence people. Books like How to Win Friends and Influence People
or Getting to Yes
illustrate the same kinds of principles.
So if we are choosing to empower a set of beliefs, I choose to empower a worldview that incorporates psychology, communication skills, biology, chemistry, physics, and neuroscience. If there are Gods I see them as waystones to understanding. If there are plant spirits, I see them operate through their botanical chemical properties. I also know that there are many things I don't know, and I try and retain an open mind to the possibilities that are out there. My starting point will always be the rational. And if I can find a rational explanation then I will go with it. If I can't, then I will look beyond.
Want evidence of my beyond side? Ask me if I believe in ghosts.