I grew up Catholic. I went to Catholic school 5 days a week, church on Sunday. I was an altar boy.
By and large, I was Catholic because in Chicago in the 1980s and 90s, if you could scrape together the money for tuition, Catholic school was the better option. The faith was kind of a secondary concern. Perhaps tertiary — as the local Catholic school was also close enough for me to walk to with our older neighbor kids.
But for whatever reason, the mystical part of the faith appealed to me. The idea that I could be, or was, tied into something above or infinite — something beyond the normal explanation of the world and its workings — was appealing. When I prayed as a young boy, I did so in a way that felt like closing your eyes as you hit the apex of a jump on a trampoline — not like I was begging a deity for something. I felt something — something ineffable — but something beyond the everyday material stuff.
When my parents moved us out to the suburbs, I started going to public school. After that, I began to depart from religion in general, thinking that my increasingly scientific worldview left no room for it.
I began to consider anything that wasn’t spoken in the dry vocabulary of accepted popular science to be “mystical”. And surely a practical person like me had no time for mystical things.
Here’s the thing. The more I learn (especially about science), and the more I experience of life, the less I am inclined to dismiss the various forms of mysticism that pop up in the course of a life.
I think there is room for the mystical and magical in an intelligent worldview. If not only because our individual experiences make it reasonable for us to believe in something a bit more, but also because such beliefs can be beneficial to us. It’s not that we’re justified in believing an entire religious system or anything like that. It’s just that we’re justified in being both scientific and mystical at the same time — and it’s a good thing.
Why Do We Believe What We Do?
After being raised with a little bit of mysticism in my life, I left it behind in favor of a materialistic view of the world. But these days, I wonder about what that decision has cost me, and what it costs others. I gave up a belief in something magical and mysterious, so that…what?
So that I can claim to adhere more closely with the data from the most widely accepted scientific experiments?
So that I can believe myself to be doing a more rigorous intellectual examination of things than people who allow magic and mystery into their worlds?
What does that ultimately get me? What does it get anyone?
Let me be clear here: I’m a fan of the scientific method. I think it’s a great way (probably the best way) to try to explain reality. However, there are many things that we humans experience in our lives for which there is no full and complete scientific explanation forthcoming.
A scientific worldview requires that we be open to new data, and allow for that data to change our theories about how things work. Then, we need to test those theories, and adjust them as the evidence supports them or fails to. What it doesn’t require us to do is reject or try to explain away the validity of anything that doesn’t fit into the going theories.
This is especially true of our subjective experiences.
Two Paths of Explanation
Let’s say you’re alone in your home one night . You’re feeling down, kind of sad. All of the sudden, you feel comforted for some reason. You get a feeling that is the opposite of loneliness. It’s not that you think some other person is with you — just that you don’t feel alone anymore, and quite all of the sudden.
Furthermore, the feeling is familiar to you. It feels just like a feeling you used to have in the presence of your beloved, but deceased grandmother.
There are 2 ways to try to explain this experience:
- accept your feeling as you felt it OR
- try to use the current vocabulary of neuroscience, psychology, and biology to explain what exactly happened and reject any data that doesn’t seem to fit
What I am arguing is that there is no scientific reason to take the second approach. Science requires rigor. Rigor requires allowing all of the data available to be considered, and allowing that data to possibly influence the theory. Our subjective experiences — even subjective, mystical ones — are data points. To reject them because they don’t fit with the going theory isn’t scientific. So there’s no shame in having these experiences.
I’m not saying go tell everyone that you were visited by the ghost of a relative. That might be going too far. You do have enough evidence to say that you felt the presence of someone close to you who has died. But you don’t have enough evidence to make a sweeping claim about what happens to people after death. Those are two largely different beliefs.
All you have evidence for is that you felt a presence. It is small, but it isn’t nothing. It impacted you; you felt it. So explore it. You might find — as many people do — that exploring it can actually provide you with some benefits.
There’s no need to go further and classify what happened. Simply use it. The experience made you feel better, it made you feel connected and loved. Use that to enrich your day, and perhaps begin to enrich your life. Remain open to other experiences like it. Accept it like you’d accept another tool in your toolbox — until it doesn’t work anymore.
I’m thinking about these things now because I’m not so sure of the value of intellectual rigor alone. There are zealots, fanatics, and dogmatists all over — both in religion and science. They are both dangerous to the prospect of a rich and varied individual life.
We can be intellectually rigorous while accepting elements of mystical experience into our lives. We can, and should, listen to the theories of religion and spiritual traditions as we listen to what’s published in the latest scientific journals.
We as individual humans are doing nothing more than trying to build a life based on what we see working for us. It does us no good to reject the things we experience because someone we don’t know has a theory that doesn’t have room for it.
It’s a thin line to walk, for sure. We don’t want to believe in delusions and oversimplified explanations of things. We also don’t want to eliminate any mysticism from our lives because we want to believe what the scientific cool kids believe. It’s not easy.
That’s open-mindedness for you, though. It’s a tightrope walk — dangerous, but exhilarating and rewarding. And you can’t have the exhilaration without the danger. They come as a packaged deal.