Saturday, December 10, 2005

Rationalism vs. Mysticism

I recently posted a blog entry entitled The Science of Man and the Art of Loving in which I narrated my discovery of Erich Fromm's brand of humanistic existentialism at the ripe old age of 17, the growth of my understanding of Fromm's philosophy from a particularistic understanding to a more holistic one, and my eventual transcendence of Fromm's world view. For the most part, I still find Fromm's logic to be impeccable and his arguments to be persuasive to the point where they are overbearing. As such, transcending Fromm's world view was no mean feat for me. One of the things that helped me emancipate myself from Fromm's world view was religious mysticism.

Fromm considered himself an "atheistic mystic," stating that "mysticism is rationalism's most daring and radical consequence." And yet Fromm relied very heavily upon biblical allegory when setting forth his own philosophy, and his intellectual pedigree included the likes of St. Thomas Aquinas. More important to me, however, is the fact that Fromm was an intellectual lightweight when compared to rationalist philosophers who were unabashedly religious, such as Rene Descartes and Immanuel Kant. By positing the existence of God from the fact of their own existence, Descartes and his intellectual successors were able to question the very essence of reality, whereas Fromm took his own heavily ethnocentric world view for granted.

If any one thing freed me from the yoke of Erich Fromm's overbearing yet slightly myopic intellect, it was the book Journey of Awakening by Ram Dass, and I owe an eternal debt of gratitude to the friend who first introduced me to that book. Among other things, Journey of Awakening was a guidebook that gave me step-by-step instructions for practicing various forms of meditation. By following those instructions, I soon found myself experiencing periodic states of religious ecstasy during meditation, and I came to consider and recognize these states of religious ecstasy as one of the most noteworthy hallmarks of mystical awareness.

There is a tendency among rationalists and scientists who have experienced religious ecstasy to dismiss it as a physiological state that is no more remarkable than experiencing a vivid dream. And while there is no doubt in my mind that religious ecstasy can be described and explained as a physiological state, that sort of explanation sort of misses the point. To wit, religious ecstasy is an ineffable mystical experience that provides people with spiritual fulfillment that reason and science simply cannot provide.

To his credit, Fromm understood the importance of spiritual fulfillment, but he drew the line when it came to acknowledging the possibility of the supernatural. To wit, Fromm clearly believed that reality begins and ends with the natural world that we all experience and perceive. However, as I mentioned earlier in this post, other more noteworthy philosophers (i.e., e.g., Descartes) did not impose such limitations on reality. Indeed, Descartes asserted that the nature of reality is so extraordinary as to be beyond the scope of our imagination. As such, if we can posit the existence of something that we cannot disprove with reason - i.e., God and/or the supernatural - than that is proof that that thing already *DOES* exist.

In sum, while Erich Fromm had a phenomenal intellect and was eminently rational, I think he had a blind spot when it came to the fact that meaningful answers to the problems of human existence can be found through religious mysticism. I didn't recognize this blind spot until I had my own mystical experiences during meditation, and that revelation was a gift that had nothing to do with reason. Rather, it was the beginning of a new period of spiritual growth that I encountered because I was willing to embrace the possibility of the supernatural, a choice that put me on a path that was very different from the one that I was following while trying to embrace Fromm's naturalistic world view.


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