Book review by David Lorimer
In this brilliant and searching study, Harald Walach argues that the Enlightenment is as yet incomplete, having thrown out the baby of spirituality along with the bathwater of dogmatic Christianity (‘science freed itself and the intellectual minds not from spirituality and its essence, but the doctrinal building’). He brings together the two senses of enlightenment, East and West, contending that science now has to incorporate spirituality in order to attain a deeper sense of enlightenment as true knowledge. He distinguishes between spirituality representing the experiential core of religion from its outer doctrinal-dogmatic clothing. In the introduction, he characteristically and frankly describes his own presuppositions, of which the most significant are that spiritual experience is always one of reality and that consciousness is more than neurons firing in the brain – these go against mainstream thinking, even if there are good reasons for supposing them to be true. The next chapter continues this expository process with further clarifications and presuppositions relating to key terms like experience, spirituality (‘related to a reality that transcends the ego and its goals’) reflecting a deeper sense of connectedness, spiritual experience (‘a direct, unmediated experience of an absolute reality that is beyond the experiencing self’), religious experience, religion, religiosity, faith, doctrine/dogma, God and spiritual practice.
Harald follows the radical empiricism of William James in asserting the primacy of experience and the basis of religion in the experience of its founders and saints. In the Catholic tradition, this was embodied in mystical theology (see my review of David Torkington’s book below) with its emphasis on the primacy of experience. However, the Church has always been suspicious of its mystics – Meister Eckhart is a prime example – and the spirit is converted into the letter, an emphasis on the water shifts to the container and, as Harald observes, the training of clerics focuses primarily on ‘doctrine, faith, cognitive skills in teaching, but not experience and individual spirituality’. (p. 25) This expresses the classic tension between spirit and letter, prophet and priest, experience and formulation/proposition, right and left hemisphere. In this sense it is true to say that dogmas are ‘doctrinal condensations of experience and metaphors’ and should not be mistaken for propositional descriptions of reality (p. 33). It is here that spiritual practice is pivotal in denoting ‘all intentional human acts which were used to show, document, practice, or renew our connectedness to a reality that transcends us.’ (p. 34) The basis of such practices ‘is to achieve experiential access to that realm of absolute reality which is the goal and core of spiritual experience.’ Although he does not mention the word, this is a good description of gnosis, or direct insight, beyond pistis – as was also embodied in and expressed by CG Jung and representing an intuitive way of knowing beyond the senses and reason.
The next historical chapter gives the reader a new understanding of the mediaeval concept of experience and the emergence of a new spirit of enquiry in universities. Harald describes how Roger Bacon formulated ‘an experiential way of knowledge’ consisting of the three elements of a) outer or sense experience, b) formal mathematical analysis of this experience and c) inner experience – this corresponds to the three eyes of Bonaventure, namely the eye of sense, the eye of reason and the eye of contemplation. Bacon further explains how this inner or experiential science has seven levels. Harald sees this as the forerunner of a future all-encompassing science in which inner and outer experience were one and where ‘scientific and spiritual experience were two sides of the one process of understanding and knowing, called experience.’ He then moves onto a thinker new to me and I imagine to readers of this review – Hugh of Balma, with his experiential knowledge of God through the sensus interior and leading to an expression of all-encompassing love. The important point is that spiritual experience was and is a valid epistemological option. Harald develops this theme further in his discussion of Aquinas and Eckhart, showing how this holistic view of experience also emerges in William James and Franz Brentano as opposed to Wilhelm Wundt, who considered non-ordinary states of consciousness beyond the pale.
Harald advocates – and I agree with him – an extended notion of rationality to include spiritual experience – this was and is a central concern of the Network, bringing together intuitive insight with rational analysis and arguing for the epistemological and ontological reality of the inner. This brings up the question of epistemological authority. Ironically, in freeing itself from ‘doctrinal bondage and dogmatic slavery’ under the churches, the Enlightenment moved towards its own dogmatic formulation as positivism and scientism. This latter term was apparently coined by William James and Edmund Husserl and represents the conversion of science as a method into a belief system. In the process, ‘science is assuming the very authority that it is taken away from religion over the centuries’ (p. 63) and becomes intolerant of heresy in its turn, as Harald himself has experienced in his researches on parapsychology and homeopathy. This raises questions of politics and power in suppressing, denigrating or ignoring evidence inconsistent with scientific materialism. Logically, however, (p. 64) as Collingwood and others have pointed out, science is also subject to Godelian incompleteness because ‘the final foundations science is resting on cannot be provided within the framework of the system itself’ – it necessarily rests on fundamental metaphysical presuppositions.
This brings Harald on to a discussion of the reality of consciousness and the epistemological status of inner experience with a reminder that the Nietzschean death of God is in fact the death of a doctrinal entity rather than a realm of experience. He explores idealism, materialism and dualism before explaining his own view in terms of complementarity entailing an ontological monism allowing for phenomenological dualism in terms of our experience of one underlying reality – here a reference to the work of David Bohm on implicate and explicate orders would have been relevant. This leads on to his epistemology of inner experience, drawing on Brentano and proposing that ‘inner experience, the experience of consciousness, will also be an access route to reality in its totality and this inner mode of knowledge from inside’ (p. 88), including direct knowledge of God as the totality of being – however, one should not forget at this point that our ‘outer’ experience is also mediated by consciousness. Epistemologically, the referent of this inner, spiritual experience is the structure of the world from within. This can be illustrated from the phenomenology of the NDE with its various stages, although such structures and constructs are also culturally conditioned.
The next chapter explains in more detail examples of secular, non-dogmatic spirituality potentially leading to a more complete and humane science. Harald provides a useful diagram of conscious states with two axes: on the vertical conscious/unconscious and on the horizontal collection/fragmentation. In our distracted age, we are becoming all too familiar with fragmentation and dispersion, which is perhaps one reason for the recent popularity of meditation and mindfulness as forms of collection. This leads on to an extensive and well-informed section on the neurobiology and physiology of concentration and relaxation and a discussion of the psychology of meditation and spiritual practice, eventually bringing him back to Roger Bacon and his contention that spiritual practice leads to more certainty about spiritual realities and the development of ‘a science of experience in the broadest sense’ (p. 145). Such practices can and do lead to experiences of unity, joy, freedom, love and light as practitioners experience deeper levels of reality and act from these, as we know from research work on the transformative power of NDEs and spiritual experiences, as also found in the work of Sir Alister Hardy.
In the final part of the book, Harald identifies some ideological dangers, observing that spirituality can have a corrective function in reminding us ‘that our opinion or model of reality is not reality itself’ (p. 180). Narcissism is also a danger in view of the task of spirituality in transcending the ego. More generally, we face a crisis of meaning and the threat of narrow fundamentalisms, not excluding scientific fundamentalism. Rather – and I agree here – we should consider the primacy of interconnectedness and a holistic view arising out of an experience of unity and interconnectedness on the basis of a culture of consciousness and spiritual experience. Scientifically, we are still hampered and limited by our materialistic understanding of consciousness and reality, based as this is on the primacy of the outer over the inner, of matter over mind. However, the inner experience of consciousness is our immediate reality and inner structures such as relationships, purpose, meaning and values are central to our well-being. Working towards a spiritually informed science is an eminently worthwhile and significant project to which the Network is devoted, and this book makes a hugely valuable contribution to articulating the necessary steps in order to achieve this – these will also involve the development of our education system in educating the inner person and introducing practices of silence (this has already started). Then we can hope for a fuller realisation of enlightenment.
Buy Secular Spirituality here.