Sunday, September 26, 2010

The Face of God

I'm about to start discussing philosophy of religion in my introductory philosophy classes. I'm tempted to start with the following passage from the Sufi mystic Ruzbihan Baqli's The Unveiling of Secrets:
The face of God most high, transcending the indication of thought, was unveiled to me. I hid [from] the faces of the Living, the Substantial One, who is most high and holy. He manifested himself within me, and from the vision of his face came the sweetness of longing, the melting of the spirit, the agitation of the inner consciousness, the shattering of the heart, and the annihilation of intellect. If an atom of this befell the mountains of the earth, they would melt from sweetness. I was sighing, weeping, turning, and sobbing. God took me into the angelic realm, and he placed me at the door of eternity. Then he manifested himself to me as greatness and magnificence. I saw light upon light, glory upon glory, power upon power, and I cannot describe it. I was unable to proceed a step closer because of his majesty and power. If I looked at it forever, I would be unable to understand an atom in the likeness of any of his pre-eternal qualities. But God is beyond anyone's description. (Sec. 124, "The Face of God")
I read this book years ago as an undergraduate, and recently remembered it. The line, "If an atom of this befell the mountains of the earth, they would melt from sweetness," was one of my working epigrams for "The Difficulty of Experience," and I think it is an amazing sentence (which may, since I don't read Arabic, owe as much to the translation as to the original). But I have to figure out how to get from Baqli to Aquinas without being droll, or saying something too much in the positivist tenor of, "This is fine poetry, but does it express any true propositions?" (Or better, I have to figure out how to ask that question without sounding like an ass.)

At the same time, students often like to asks questions like, "What was he smoking?" in response to thinkers like Descartes and Derek Parfit. And so maybe that points to an angle into the question: "Look, (many) people have powerful, overwhelming experiences of something beyond themselves. But it's fair to ask whether that points to something deep within us or something that's actually beyond us. And one way of doing that is to ask whether, putting poetic expression (and appeals to authority) aside, we can establish that there is (or must be) a particular sort of being, God, which answers more or less to our poetic descriptions." I find that if I just launch into the "proofs," many students think the exercise is pointless, since "it's all about faith." Not that using Baqli will help with that. I wonder--and have no predictions--what percentage of my students have had something they might recognize as a religious experience. Perhaps I'll find out when I see either yawns or looks of recognition when I show them the Baqli passage.


  1. Try asking about the experience of asking a question?

    Try "Wonder, Intimations of the sacred in a Post Modern World" by Jerome Miller

  2. or 'the experience of finding a clue'

    'the experience of taking care of something'

    'the experience of taking care of someone'

    'the experience of realizing you've lost something'

    'the experience of being watched'

    'the experience of being alone'

    'the experience of being part of something'

    'the experience of needing something'

    'the experience of needing nothing'

  3. So did you read them this passage? How did it go? And did you see any of the PBS series on God in America? Lots of 19th Century evangelicals seem to have had ecstatic religious experiences of roughly this kind (involving weeping, for instance). I wonder how alien this is to our students.