Religion adopts two distinct and diametrically opposed forms: inwardly or outwardly focused, or "prophet versus high priest." Religious hierarchies have generally considered the living prophet the most dangerous of rebels because prophets expose the deceits and pageantries of outwardly focused religion. The visionary draws prophetic ability from within himself, perhaps from his imagination (Aldous Huxley or George Orwell, for example). A prophet who ostensibly draws inspiration from intercourse with a divine spirit (Jeremiah or John the Baptist) simply exerts authority over himself: he shears the veils of illusion woven by priests and politicians who wish to exert lordly authority over the masses. The prophet's keen observations, humble garments, and simple admonitions contrast starkly with the obtuse mumbo jumbo, ritualistic or regulatory hoopla, and pretentious attire of haughty priests who aim to gain authority, control, and wealth through confusion, superstition and intimidation.
Rationalism, like mysticism, appears to take opposing forms: one benign, and one that I consider treacherous. A person appropriately makes rational decisions on his own behalf, in light of his knowledge and experience, and exercises individual autonomy. However, if I apply my individual rational processes as a standard to judge the rational processes of other autonomous people I attempt to substitute my own inward authority as an unhealthy external surrogate for the inward authority of others. Religious and political strife appear primarily to arise from this insidious type of subtle, largely invisible aggression.
On various occasions I've set out to read books by Ayn Rand and each time I've felt like I was attempting to scale a fortress wall topped with barbed wire coils. Still, I seemingly encounter her ideas or reflections of them everywhere and they usually provoke a subtle sadness in me. So many of Rand's insights seem straight on and astute, but in relentlessly disparaging mysticism Objectivism may have overlooked a baby in the bathwater with the potential to eventually free humanity from perennial bondage to coercive authority.
When Jesus said, "The kingdom of God is within you," He was pointing out by contrast the hypocrisy of priests who claimed to hold the keys to the kingdom of God in order to compel obedience and elicit tribute. When Jesus said, " For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you," He clearly recommended the exercise of care regarding the way that our rational judgments shape our attitudes about others and influence relationships with people around us.
Mysticism and rationalism coexist nicely when their practitioners respect the principle of inward authority, and peaceably refrain from projecting expectations outwardly onto others. Placing undue faith in the superiority of my reasoning abilities may lead me to disregard the fact that other people make personal decisions or form beliefs on the basis of differing knowledge and experience that may not align with my own. My failure to accord respect to reasoning processes that I do not comprehend or honor beliefs and decisions that seem wrong or nonsensical to me naturally leaves me at a disadvantage in bargaining for respect from others. My reasoning processes may seem as impenetrable to you as your mystical insights seem inscrutable to me, or vice versa: reciprocating respect establishes peace between us, allowing us to pursue autonomous individual paths.
The twin perils of religious and political authority constantly competing to foil human progress strike me as a Scylla and Charybdis through which the self sails to a freedom beyond them, or becomes a casualty of the voyage. The alternate paths of rationalism and mysticism may each present an unwary traveler with the hazards of hubris and the conviction that only his path is the correct one. A true path to freedom lies inward, away from the deceits and seductions of worldly power toward a sense of competent authority to govern oneself and an ability to respect the sanctity of the inward voyage as a uniquely individual, and even highly subjective, process.
One of these days, perhaps I'll find a way to get over the seemingly insurmountable wall that leaves Ayn Rand's writings emotionally inaccessible to me. I find much to admire about Rand: her tremendous influence on an intellectual level, her apparent strength and determination, and her astonishing achievements as a writer and philosopher. For the time being, I'm left to contemplate the meaning of that formidable wall as I experience it and wonder if I'm alone in bashing my head against it. Perhaps the intangible barrier that leaves me feeling like an Objectivist outsider may insulate the Objectivist insider to some degree as well. I see no reason why rationalists and mystics can't get along: but I do see every reason why voyagers that value individual liberty might strive for mutual respect.
How does popular prejudice against the intuitive mind or the path of mysticism enhance our intellectual and imaginative liberties? People who utterly dismiss the non-rational aspects of the human mind and psyche remind me of those folks who bitterly despise the opposite sex, and refuse to appreciate men or women as unique individuals. I suspect the world might seem a darker place today without Jesus, Buddha and other exemplary souls who chose the less commonly traveled path of mysticism. Perhaps freedom is another name for truth? Perhaps freedom to forge your personal pathway through life in pursuit of truth may make all the difference between experiencing heaven or hell in the world?
published at Endervidualism on 4/27/04