Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Always Look on the Bright Side of Life

While munching on a lonely dinner I visited John Cleese's web site, where you can watch the great man explain why it just makes sense to believe the founders of religions were esoteric (read: intentionally not making sense). Not that Python is where I would like to expend my thinking energy, but the popular idea (I at least hear it a lot arount here) of mystics being incapable of communicating in a "literal minded way" just doesn't fit when you actually study mystics. Sure, you have people who just say and do really weird stuff (in my studies, Symeon Stylites, Symeon the Holy Fool). However, this picture is the product of our lack of evidence of Late Antiquity and does not mean that the utterances of mystics are or were beyond intelligent interpretation, or that they even intended them to be such. (see Michael Dols, Majnun: The Madman in the Medieval Islamic World or Sergei A. Ivanov's Holy Fools in Byzantium and Beyond who elsewhere argues that in imperial Russia these holy mystics speak the same "language" as the Tsars, but that is a whole different debate.)

The extremely popular (available in any Borders) Jelaluddin Rumi, the 13th century Anatolian mystic who is one of the figures that people like Cleese most latch onto is one I am studying. The reason you can think people like this are not understandable in the most basic sense is because you are reading one-page selections of their strangest poetry and sayings in your highly illustrated coffee-table volume. It annoys me because the underlying assumption is that these people were supra-moral, supra-political, supra-social, etc.. Whereas in reality all of the founders save one of the 13th century mystical movements that I am studying (both Christian and Sufi) were explicitly politically involved, and a huge percentage of that remaining one's disciples were political figures, so either they all didn't "get it" or Cleese isn't "getting it". In any case, all of them were quite willing and capable of explaining things in rational statement about God when they wanted to.

The basic argument for Cleese seems to be: God is That-Which-Is-Unexplainable. Mystics experience God. Mystics can only express their experience of Unexplainable by being inexplicable. The thing is, they aren't. If they do want to be non-sensical, they only want to be so to "the uniniated", so they explain things in ways that only their disciples can understand. I think this is obvious and it is not worth belaboring the point.

There is, to be fair, a very true idea at the core of the Cleese-doctrine. It is impossible to positively explain the experience of a relationship. But I don't think it is limited to God-relationships at all. Try to explain in positive statement to anyone what it is is to love your lover and you'll soon be stuck as well. However, contra-Cleese, this does not mean that those who experience God cannot communicate about God, or that God cannot communicate about Himself. This is why we use negative statement and metaphors -- not to render ourselves inexplicable, but because they actually explain more.

What I can't figure out is why people like Cleese stick to this goofy line so fervently. To me it seems a) uninteresting and unstimulating, because you have backed yourself into a position where to actually say anything begs the question and b) strikes me as an excuse to keep doing whatever it is that you do unless you happen to be hit by the Unexplainable, which is highly unlikely, since we like to think of mystics (and their God) staying on The Mountain (or on our bookshelf in the "Multi-Faith Chapel of JC"). To come full circle, this is the irony of the site, which is dedicated to John Cleese unashamedly marketing every bit of himself (see the Ring Tones page) and his California Ranch so he can keep collecting Lemurs and Gyneth-Paltrow-the-Emus.*

*None of this changes the fact that Monty Python is the best comedy group of the Modern Era and will continue to make me giggle.

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