The Primordial Faith

Not listening and not inquiring is like being blind and deaf in the company of others.  –  Wenzi

This (all of Scorpionfish, really) is a working copy of a document; I’m totally winging this more than I should, but it’s one of those documents that was pondered and considered for years with nothing final ever materializing, so here’s the current state of consideration in all of its soaring neglect of the demands of detailed argumentation which left me previously utterly paralyzed.  Though I believe detailed arguments will ultimately vindicate this system of belief, albeit perhaps with minor alterations, I seek here with a confident fallibilism only to prompt reflection and awareness, and not to exhaustively detail and conclude.

A Brief Introduction

First and foremost to any study of religious matters lies the question: how ought one to proceed in such an endeavor?  With so many seemingly incompatible claims of primacy and revelation bandied about by human beings of various religious persuasions, one might be inclined to think a universal prescription in this matter to be out of reach.

But, of course, that many disagree is not evidence for the impossibility of a conclusion. A solid answer to this inquiry is desperately needed, for the modern man of God who seeks to understand and live righteously can do so only by some method, however implicit or subconscious.  It is the character of this method which must first be described in order that the remainder of the Scorpionfish project be rendered sensible.

Defining Religion

I propose first a definition of the category of thought within which I intend to operate.  Principally, I consider religion to be a way of life in which one seeks to live according to an understanding of the relationship between all that is and that on which there is universal dependence.  Religious thought is mankind’s endeavor to understand, insofar as mankind is able, the result of crucial Aristotelian interrogatives regarding that power by which all has been brought into being.  It is a fundamentally existential question, the answer to which one may expect to expound the moral nature of mankind, as well.

So when the various cultures of the world are approached in spirit of religious inquiry, they can be approached in a consistent and uniform fashion, asking after them what they have brought to answer that fundamental question which it seems no culture has yet left unasked.  Who or what brought mankind (and all of creation) into existence?  By what means and for what purpose was this done?  It is by virtue of this common inquiry that we who investigate the various approaches of mankind find a welcoming unity and coherence in our human brethren.

Adducing a Method of Religious Inquiry

The first precept which shall govern this inquiry is: religion must be commensurable with reason.

The superiority of man rests on the jewel of reason. It is meet that he should labour in its burnishing, and turn not from its instruction.  –  Akbar the Great

And of course, none but those operating out of sheer willful ignorance disagree.  After all, if religion should fly in the face of reason, mankind shall have no reliable method by which to select from the various religious assertions available to it.  Those who endorse such nonsense as “read and believe” are overlooking the very plain and obvious fact that, prior to reading, one must choose which scripture to read and believe.  Are they to argue that their endorsement of their particular scriptures is purely accidental?  They simply happened to come across whatever set of scriptures they now blindly follow?  What nonsense.  Human beings think and believe rationally, and it is clear that rationality has value which is critical to religious thought.

However, it is not the only faculty with value that is critical to religious thought.  In fact, I argue that it is the dependent, secondary faculty in a set of two critical faculties.  Here is where religion touches upon the very foundation of reality most directly; it is clear that reason cannot be the sole factor relevant to religious inquiry.

Indeed, to tell the truth, the contact we have with the divinity is not to be taken as knowledge.  Knowledge, after all, is separated by some degree of otherness.  But prior to that knowledge, which knows another as being itself other, there is the unitary connection with the gods that is natural <and indivisible>.  We should not accept, then, that this is something that we can either grant or not grant, nor admit to it as ambiguous (for it remains always uniformly in actuality), nor should we examine the question as though we were in a position either to assent to it or to reject it; for it is rather the case that we are enveloped by the divine presence, and we are filled with it, and we possess our very essence by virtue of our knowledge that there are gods.  –  Iamblichus

And though perhaps first and foremost one must acknowledge this principle not by dint of any polemical force, but rather purely as a result of consciousness itself, it may assist the reader to point out that purely rational inquiry must, it seems, admit of the failure of rationality to justify rationality, itself.  Reason, after all, demands causes for those effects in its purview.  As Aristotle pointed out, any attempt to expand the model of cause and effect to account for the entirety of reality falters when it reaches the notion of a beginning; some Prime Mover, transcending the demands of cause and effect, must exist to initiate all that is.  Lest there be some infinite regress (which, itself, seems contrary to reason), there must be a source which, itself, needed no mechanical cause, and therefore exists by some extrarational means.  It is the foundational nature of this understanding that characterizes religion independently from philosophy; whereas philosophy involves any critical, rational pursuit of the truth, religion establishes the foundation necessary to the germination of such an endeavor.

Summary by Precept

And so we have our two initial precepts by which we shall inquire of the world and its peoples for our answer:

  1. Religion must be commensurable with reason.
  2. Religion must provide an extrarational ground in which reason (and all of creation) can be firmly rooted and sufficiently explained.

I have struggled with this for a long time.  Initially, it was unclear to me how it might be that 1 and 2 should ever coexist, but the concept of extrarationality which is independent of irrationality pulled me from this intransigence.  Once I had formed a more sophisticated understanding of the extrarational (that which is neither rational nor irrational, but something entirely and incomprehensibly different therefrom), the possibility of commensurability between that which is rational and that which is not was made more clear; the transcendence of God became less a fanciful dream and more a serious theory.  Its explanatory power is mighty, and its coherence offers, in a conclusion whose vast breadth and depth at which I hope to gesture, explanatory value which resolves the fundamental problem facing justification for mankind’s moral obligation in the implementation of reason.

The Need for an Extrarational Foundation in a Theory of Religion

The understanding of the extrarational which I will put forth (better described by Immanuel Kant) is that of an object* which, by its very nature, cannot be understood.  At the same time, however, its apprehension is available to all creatures (and we can narrow that assertion to just human beings for the sake of this introductory explanation).  Human beings are aware of this extrarationality, it is argued, through the extrasensory apprehension of the free will by which human beings live, think, and function.  In short: we do not know we are free by rational means, but rather, it is something of an extrasensory intuition, perhaps, by which we know our own freedom.  No amount of empirical data can confirm or deny this intuition for us, but it is not an intuition which we can choose to disbelieve; one cannot dismiss one’s freedom with disbelief, after all.  That freedom remains present in spite of any such rejection, and one is forced to assume its presence and, it would seem, make use of it in order to act.

This freedom of will, if it is as it seems, cannot be considered the product of a rational operation in the sense that it is but an effect which is mechanically determined by some external cause.  To be free in the sense we mean by the term “free will” is precisely to be free from such external determination.  We are, it seems, capable of exercising some great power by which choices are made and actions brought into existence without determination by anything other than a judgment whose considerations and deliberations are entirely its own.  Though we are clearly influenced by external causes (e.g. hunger), the decisions made about those external influences remain undetermined by them (e.g. the decision to eat is not determined by one’s hunger, but rather, one’s hunger prompts one’s judgment and consideration in choosing to act or not to act to resolve that hunger).

Understanding the nature of free will provides is a very beautiful, simple insight; if free will is as it seems, each human being has available to it the apprehension of that which is incomprehensible.  One’s own free will operates by some non-deterministic means, whereas comprehension requires an understanding of determinations made by causal relationships.  If you are to understand some system (e.g. a car, perhaps), you must understand the mechanical relationships between the components of that system (e.g. pressing on the gas pedal sets off a chain of reactions resulting in fuel injection and combustion for greater power to the drive shaft).  For free will to be as it appears, it cannot be that it is merely determined in such a mechanical fashion.

There are other kinds of causes than purely mechanical, efficient causes, of course, and there are attempts at explaining the appearance of free will by teleological cause, for example.  However, it seems such explanations will ultimately only push back the questions required for understanding the phenomenon by identifying incomprehensible forces in reality from which the free will gains the capacity required for its activity.  To whatever extent free action is made understandable by such explanations, the foundational components of those explanations will be, of necessity, non-deterministic and therefore incomprehensible in the sense that there is no explanation for why they occur or exist at all.  Ultimately, all that is will be reduced to the fundamental question of the Prime Mover; the best we can do, empirically and rationally speaking, is to observe that such phenomena do exist, and that they do occur.

Implications and Constraints for a Theory of Religion

In this, I find the foundation we need to properly discuss religion which, it seems, is aimed at addressing the relationship between the extrarational and the rational in human existence.  As it turns out, this distinction is not unavoidably relegated to some purely esoteric mumbo jumbo, but rather each of us has access to genuine evidence which is experienced alongside the empirical data we are used to considering as evidence (e.g. in scientific pursuit).  We witness that there are phenomena which can be explained by deterministic causation, and we simultaneously witness the phenomenon critical to our very being which cannot be explained deterministically.

The most important point to be made here, I believe, is that there is no good reason to dismiss this extrasensory evidence or subjugate it to empirical data, for both are presented with equal force in our experience.  Neither can be denied, and therefore both must form the basis for our understanding.  We need not subjugate freedom to rational determinism, for example, hypothesizing that to the extent that  free will appears non-deterministic, it must be illusory.  The experiential evidence in favor of an extrarational freedom is just as weighty as the experiential evidence for rationally determined phenomena.

The Mystic Experience of the Divine Mind

With this simple clarity, a student of religion is provided a framework within which to approach and understand the multiplicity and unity of thought presented across world religions.  When the Chan Buddhist speaks of silent illumination, of just sitting in the awareness of Mind, it becomes clearly possible that this individual is speaking of that extrasensory apprehension of the incomprehensible.  When that same Buddhist speaks of being “in the world” but not “of the world,” one can more clearly understand that this may well be a reference to the distinction between the rationally-driven particulars of the world and the extrarational universal Mind which supports and set in motion such particulars.

Likewise, when the Abrahamic faith speaks of God as the creator of all that is, one can appreciate the link between a theoretical Prime Mover and the only force known to man which is capable of moving without external cause; Mind (a convenient term for the hypothetical source of freedom).  We cannot know with certainty that our great power is the source of all creation, but we do know that it is the only force of which we are aware which is capable of serving as that Prime Mover; it is the only force which sets in motion of its own accord.

I argue that mystic traditions worldwide are joined by their common attempt at expressing this extrarational experience.  And if the above understanding is proper, this is entirely expected; every human being experiences this same extrarational force of autonomy which cannot be understood and yet must be followed.  Such a unique force can rightly be considered divine, and it requires no strange esotericism to test the soundness of this theory.

The Straight Path

To this Divinity can be related all moral obligation, and this moral obligation again falls neatly into the religious speech of practitioners worldwide.  To submit to none other than God is not necessarily a strange injunction to follow some voice in the sky you have never heard, but rather it is perhaps a reference to the Injunction of Autonomy; to be morally good, we must follow none other than that freedom of will within.

To clarify moral obligations further, we can again turn to Kant who points out that freedom of will, when it acts, acts rationally, for irrationality is not possible.  A free will cannot bring about an impossibility (e.g. one cannot perform X and not X at the same time).  In its movements among creation, freedom of will is constrained by the rules of creation which, if that freedom is indeed the Prime Mover, have been put in place by that same freedom itself.

The Grand Thoroughfare

All of this points to the general conclusion I will draw that the purpose of existence, then, is something of a Divine Meditation in which God experiences God; it is an exercise of that force of freedom in, perhaps, justifying its Way by experience.  If God, Mind, the Prime Mover, is One, there is no other to whom God might prove God’s value, and therefore the only exercise to be undertaken is to know Oneself.  This is done by exercising that great power in the creation of conscious beings whose bodies and brains can think and interact by that great power with the rational machinery of creation.  Creation, it seems, is a grand experiment whose purpose, one might very reasonably suspect, is the justification of the Way of God by putting it up for scrutiny for the only force which may conduct such scrutiny.

With this theory, religion is given the universal nature religious practitioners expect it hold.  It is accessible to every conscious being, for the object of religion is that Divinity by which every aspect of creation is brought forth, moved, and dismissed.  Enlightenment, the Way of Righteousness, is nothing more than a life spent embracing the Divine Self and rejecting the confusions which have arisen as a result of the multiplicity of creation.  It is not that these bodies are not separate, but rather that they and all other existing objects are unified in Divinity, to whom all owe their existence and continued activity.  The continued discussion among mystics of multiplicity and unity, duality and monism, this is clarified by an understanding of the transcendence of the extrarational Divine Unity and its commensurability with rational multiplicity.

This is the means by which I have resolved many a religious quandary; often, particularly in Chan Buddhist or Daoist literature (but also Sufi, Stoic, Jewish, Christian..), apparent contradictions are provided to an audience as a means of provoking awareness of religious truth.  It is my suspicion that the proper understanding provoked thereby is in the distinctions provided above which make sense of the apparent contradictions, albeit by pointing to an extrasensory apprehension which, itself, cannot be comprehended.

And this brings me to my final introductory point about religion: religion is not about understanding so much as it is about a life spent in accord with a rationally justified faith.  As Chan Buddhists are quick to point out, understanding the distinctions above and the existence of Divinity is, alone, inadequate for the enlightened life.  What is necessary is a genuine, serious, and relentless commitment to a life which embodies this understanding.  One must not only understand that every human being is united in the Mind of God, but one must truly believe and behave accordingly.  Each and every activity in life is given an unprecedented gravity when it is accepted that the choice presented by each such activity is that of Divinity or its absence.

But the peace of righteousness which accompanies this gravity is extraordinary.  It is a liberation from anguish and sorrow, for the unpalatable encounters of these individual bodies are no longer individual torment, but rather universal opportunities to walk the Way of God.  Far from personal antagonism, the mindlessness of sin is that void into which the Light of Divinity extends; without it, there would be no opportunity for this Divine Meditation.  In both failure and success, justice and injustice, one learns the value of Mindfulness and the terrible alternative in mindlessness.  It is by this, the experience of life, that the Way is justified.

Given the above, I will attempt below to summarize as concisely as possible the conclusions drawn from the critical line of inquiry with which the rest of this present work shall be related.

The Primordial Faith

You say first, then, that you “concede the existence of the gods”: but that is not the right way to put it.  For an innate knowledge about the gods is coexistent with our nature, and is superior to all judgment and choice, reasoning and proof.  This knowledge is united from the outset with its own cause, and exists in tandem with the essential striving of the soul towards the Good.  –  Iamblichus

I am endeavoring here to simply, yet forecfully, trace the path from the edge of rational comprehension which bounds up against that innate, extrasensory religious perception present in every conscious body, to the ultimate inferences regarding the purpose of existence which might be derived from this religious sense:

  1. Developing a Serious Faith
    1. The very experience of autonomy intimates an uncaused cause, God, the Prime Mover from which all extends.  This Light of Lights, this One Mind is the divine source of the freedom of will which every conscious being experiences.
    2. The nature of God necessarily transcends reason, and therefore comprehension, as God is the extrarational cause of all that is.
  2. Submitting to Duty in the Divine Force of Autonomy
    1. All moral duty can be fundamentally reduced to a single injunction of autonomy; humanity is to submit to nothing but God and accomplishes this through fidelity to none other than the God-given power of autonomy.
    2. Virtue, the natural consequence of autonomy in the mindful development and exercise of excellence in meeting the end of Mind, is necessary and sufficient for happiness.
    3. Sin, the abdication of autonomy, carries the wage of death, for the mindlessness of its commission is tantamount to death.
  3. Cherishing Heaven’s Gifts
    1. The Way of righteousness in a life of virtue, is the study and cultivation of those methods by which one achieves total submission to the Way of God (through mindful obedience to the injunction of autonomy in every aspect of life).
    2. Walking this Way brings recognition of the Divine Unity, the elimination of false conceptions of the individuated self in favor of recognition for the Divine Self.
  4. Taking Form in the Theurgical Furnace
    1. The purpose of existence is the justification of the Way of God through the lives of the righteous and sinful alike.  The former shall reveal the peaceful glory of mindfulness where the latter shall reveal the chaotic tumult of mindlessness.
    2. The end of Mind to which the lives of the righteous are devoted is the excellent manifestation of transcendent universal love; that mystic, extrarational, and yet rationally commensurable, method by which particular entities relate to the Divine Unity.

The remainder of this work will be only the exposition of this simple, primordial faith written on the hearts of creatures.  For its entertainment and acceptance, there is no need for awareness beyond that provided directly to every being through its own nature.  In my studies, I have found this to form the invaluable core of every religious tradition.  It seems this line of reasoning has been subject to myriad influences, some illuminating and some darkening, and so mankind’s myriad permutations of faith arise, but ultimately and nonetheless it seems surely the case that this reasoning lies at the core of the human religious experience.

The whole of me performing what the Path
Provideth, in the manner that the Truth
Of me required, when I had joined the rift
So that the cracks that split the unity
(Through difference of attribute) (no ‘more
Dispersed) were closed, and naught remained (to cause
Estrangement) as between myself and my
Firm trust in love’s familiarity,
I realized that we in truth were one
And the sobriety of unison
Confirmed the blotting-out of scatteredness.

– Ibn Al-Farid

Know thyself, and know God.  One can do nothing else.  Let no set of words stand opposed to this awareness which precedes them all.  There is no revelation which relies not on the initial capacity for this awareness, this illuminating presence which God bestows upon every subject.  For without it, by what measure is revelation discerned?  By recognition of this unifying faith, there is not a religious system in the world which shall not be found enlightening.

O, God, in every temple I see people that worship Thee, and in every language I hear spoken people praise Thee. Polytheism and Islam feel after Thee. Each religion says, ‘Thou art One, without equal.’ If it be a Mosque, people murmur Thy holy prayer and if it be a Christian Church people ring Thy bell from love of Thee. Sometimes I frequent the Christian cloister, and sometime the Mosque. But it is Thou whom I search from temple to temple. Thy eclect have no dealings with either heresy or orthdoxy; for neither of them stands behind the screen of Thy truth. Heresy to the heretic, and religion to the orthodox; But the dust of the petal belongs to the heart of the perfume-seller.

-Abul Fazl

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4 Responses to The Primordial Faith

  1. Erik Elvgren says:

    In the spirit of this being a document in process let me ask you to consider something in addition to the two questions you raised about the purpose of religion. You said,”Who or what brought mankind (and all of creation) into existence? By what means and for what purpose was this done? ” Ravi Zacherias raises four questions for a religion to consider. First, Where did we come from? Second, Why are we here (purpose)? These seem very similar to yours. But he then adds to those the questions of: “How should we then live?” and “Where are we going?” This may expand your considerations more than you intended but I thought them worth considering..

    • Well, in my estimation, if we ought to live in a certain way, then it will be implied by the answer to the question of why we are here. All of these high level questions become complicated upon inspection, but insofar as providing a high level starting point goes, I think it’s a safe bet that an inquiry after the purpose of our existence is sufficient to gather for us an answer regarding the way in which we ought to live.

      As for where we are going, it’s unclear to me that this is answerable or that an answer is necessary. Perhaps, but it does not strike me as integral to the more important question of why we are here (and what we ought to do about it).

      • Erik Elvgren says:

        I can agree with your first paragraph that our purpose has some overlap or can provide implied insight into how we should then conduct ourselves. But I am not sure it is enough to complete the task. For example, you may believe that your purpose in life is to submit to the will of Allah and yet it is hard to know what this entails if one does not also know about the disciplines which describe how to specifically do that (prayer, fasting, alms, declaration of faith, pilgrimage, proselytizing, living after the example of the prophet etc…) A religion cannot stop at “your purpose is to do the Will of Allah” and then say no more or it would not be of much use. This may be a more practical consideration than what you are trying to discuss.
        The significance for “where we are going” may also be wrapped up in the question of our purpose so there may also be overlap there. But it certainly can be a source of inspiration and comfort to those who are concerned about the “why” we ought to discipline ourselves in a certain way. If our activities here lead to a better next life after reincarnation then that can be motivating. Or a communion with the creator can be a great encouragement as one decides whether or not to lay down one’s life for one’s neighbor. In a sense it may even shed light on the purpose for our existence. How can you adequately consider our full purpose if the whole picture of reason for being is broader than just this one life?

  2. Right, so one of my goals is to infer wholly from human experience how one follows the will of God. What I’m trying to discuss is indeed very practical; it’s a process of inquiry by which we might take the object of that inquiry as the human experience and, with the assistance of no particular text or teaching, infer our proper conduct. One might consider it an endeavor in natural theology, but where it is separate from those attempts which have seemed to fail in the past is that it begins with the nature of the human subject.

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