In his 1972 play Artist Descending a Staircase, Tom Stoppard wrote a perceptive line when he might have only wanted to write a witty one: “Skill without imagination is craftsmanship and gives us many useful objects such as wickerwork picnic baskets; imagination without skill gives us modern art.”
This is one of those rare occasions when a thought is debatable in its immediate sense (not all modern art is without skill), but acquires a deep meaning when expanded to a general principle.
The highest forms of human activity don’t just require a natural aptitude – they also need to be expressed within a tight discipline. Without an inner discipline, music becomes cacophony, an argument becomes an exchange of rants, poetry becomes gibberish, and art becomes Damian Hirst.
This unbreakable symbiosis of content and form is especially prevalent in Western culture, springing – along with most of its other aspects – from the unity of God and man in the person of Jesus Christ.
The realisation that the ultimate truth of spiritual content could be contained within the physical confines of a human body shaped Western culture in unique ways. It’s in this synthesis that the West began to seek perfection, eschewing Hellenic reliance on form as its own content.
Predictably, as the West moved away from Christianity, it also began to lose the traditional unity of form and content. It was as if they went their separate ways, each trying to rely on its own resources only.
Many artists – and I am talking about real artists here, not charlatans like Hirst or Emin – began to look for perfection in form only, typically finding out that, emptied of its contents, the outer shape tends to collapse and disintegrate.
Faith and church also went in opposite directions, demonstrating that anticlericalism is the anteroom of atheism. The church gradually got to be seen not as the essential depository of religious truth, but as a sort of hobby venue, superfluous to the self-expression of man’s mystical intuition.
This broke the bottle that alone could contain the wine. The wine didn’t become liberated; it became a messy puddle on the floor.
This was accompanied by the same lexical confusion that’s so characteristic of every walk of modern life. Just as politics lost essential distinctions between freedom and liberty, law and justice, democracy and republic, representatives and delegates, religion and mysticism got to be perceived as synonyms.
In fact, they are closer to being antonyms. Natural mysticism isn’t a religion, though it can be the first step along the way.
Mysticism is amorphous; it’s a hazy instinct that hasn’t yet reached, and may never reach, God. It’s nebulous content in search of a form, not yet sure of itself and therefore uncertain which form, if any, will suit it best.
Only religion can steer a man to God, by crystallising a vague longing into faith and offering a moulded shape into which the longing can flow. The shape is well defined: whereas amorphous mysticism has to remain abstract, religion is always concrete. There exists no religion in general. There are only specific religions, each with its own revelation, dogma and rituals – its own way of looking at God and his world.
Mysticism, on the other hand, can only exist in general, and in that sense it is not merely different from religion but indeed opposite to it. That’s why many who flirt with mysticism often use it as a stick with which to beat religion on the head.
Since religion is both higher and grander than mysticism, it tends to subsume it, channelling it into religion’s own reservoir. Mysticism, on the other hand, sometimes refuses to be diverted into that conduit.
Mysticism relates to faith the way anarchy relates to liberty. At its most recalcitrant, it may rebel against faith to protect what may appear to be its freedom, but is in fact its amorphousness. When such a rebellion occurs, it may be expressed in ways that are not only non-religious but also actively anti-religious. Thus, while ‘an atheist Christian’ doesn’t sound plausible, ‘an atheist mystic’ does.
The mystical atheist happily coexists with another widespread modern type, the clerical atheist. These are exceptionally clever people who don’t believe in God but recognise the social and moral utility of the church.
They reduce Christianity to its morality and realise that modernity is demonstrably remiss in producing a viable replacement. The point I usually make when arguing with clerical atheists is that, if they believe Christianity is false, then it’s not a solid foundation on which to build a successful society. If Christianity isn’t true, it’s useless.
Arguing with clerical atheists is pointless; arguing with mystical atheists is impossible. Their reason seems to be as amorphous as their spiritual longings.
Many of them find solace in inward-looking Eastern creeds, especially Buddhism (as they understand it). When transplanted into Western soil, such faiths, or rather philosophies, encourage the innate solipsism of modernity. They liberate man from accountability to an entity not only outside him, but also infinitely higher than him.
By replacing prayer with meditation, such Westerners look for truth within themselves, unaware that themselves is all they can find at that site. They believe, wrongly, that such pseudo-spiritual transport will enable their minds to soar to heaven. In fact, it pushes their minds down to the ground, where high reason is replaced with quotidian rationalism.
For a Christian the absolute is unknowable completely. For a Buddhist the absolute is completely unknowable. It’s beyond human understanding, and paradoxically that appeals to the modern Western rationalist with a mystical dimension. He acknowledges nothing higher than his own commonsensical reason.
Therefore whatever lies outside his common sense either doesn’t exist or might as well not exist. To him, rationally unknowable means practically nonexistent. Thus mixed with Western rationalism, Buddhism – or any other abstract mysticism – naturally segues into Western godlessness.
It’s amazing how Yom Kippur, Judaism’s holiest day, that of atonement, evokes thoughts that go beyond elections, infections and depredations. One is reminded why our civilisation is called Judaeo-Christian, not Buddhist, mystical, spiritual or rationalist.