A few introductory comments.
First, Helen has interviewed various philosophers on the relationship between their professional work as philosophers and their spiritual journey. Her interview with me was the ninth in the series. I’m grateful for the invitation she extended to me to participate in this wonderful interview series. I recommend her interviews with other philosophers for those interested in the type of exploration Helen has documented.
Second, this is my first extended discussion of my spiritual journey since my rather infamous January 2012 “Open Letter” that announced my departure from Christianity and entrance into eastern spirituality. To her credit, Helen was one of the few academically trained philosophers who sensibly weighed in on the backlash against me at the hands of some conservative but sadly uninformed Christian bloggers. Helen’s observations at the time were a breath of fresh-air over against the tabloid-like demonstration of sensationalism and libelous personal attacks.
Finally, although in 2013 I published an account of my spiritual journey from my teenage years through my embrace of the Hindu bhakti (devotional) tradition of Vaishnavism in 2010 (see My Spiritual Journey), in Dr. De Cruz’s interview I discuss for the first time my subsequent involvement with Advaita Vedanta and Zen Buddhism. As I emphasize in this interview, and contrary to misreports among certain Christian bloggers, I have not abandoned Vaishnavism for Buddhism. Neither Zen nor Advaita Vedanta is an alternative to devotional religion in general or Vaishnavism in particular.
Helen De Cruz Interview at Prosblogion
This is the ninth installment of a series of interviews I am conducting with academic philosophers about their religious practices. In this series of interviews, I ask philosophers about their religious practices and the influence on their philosophical work. Follow the links for parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 and 8. The contributors are in various stages of their career, tenured and untenured. Interviews were conducted through e-mail and responses are not edited.
This interview is with Michael Sudduth, a full time lecturer in the Philosophy Department at San Francisco State University, where he is also the coordinator of the university-wide religion program. He has been teaching at SFSU since January 2005.
Can you tell me something about your current religious affiliation/self-identification?
My upbringing was moderately religious, mainly under the influence of my grandmother rather than my parents. My mother had been a nominal Christian in Iran before she came to the United States in 1964, but my exposure to Christianity came mainly from grandmother who gave me my first Bible when I was about 9 years old. She was a fairly liberal Protestant Christian. While she didn’t attend church much, she was always reading the Bible and “spiritual” books. Although encouraged to explore spirituality, I didn’t really take up the pursuit until my teenage years, during which time I explored occult phenomena and eventually had a conversion experience that eventually led to my embracing one of the most rigid forms of Christianity I could find – Calvinism. After flirting with the Christian Reformed Church, I ended up settled in the Calvinistic Baptist church for many years.
I gradually disengaged from my strict Calvinism in the course of my formal education, first at Santa Clara University (where I learned that Catholics could be good Christians, much to the horror of my fellow Calvinists). Later, at the University of Oxford, I developed an inclusivism that embraced all types of Christians. I remained fairly conservative for about ten years (through several teaching positions, first at Calvin College and then Saint Michael’s College in Vermont). By the time I returned to California in 2004, I was pretty much done with Calvinism, and within a few years I was done with Christianity too. I don’t mean to suggest, of course, that Christianity altogether ceased to be an influence, only that I ceased to identify myself as a Christian.
After taking up a teaching position at San Francisco State University in 2005, I began teaching World Religions and related philosophy of religion courses each semester. This led to my deeply engaging the eastern religious and philosophical traditions for the first time in my career. In early 2011 I officially announced my movement into the Indian Vaishnava bhakti tradition, though my heart and interests had been in this tradition for a few years at this point. In 2013 I returned to a study of Advaita Vedanta, the Vedic-Hindu tradition of non-duality, which I had taken up on earlier occasions since 2006, both Shankara’s Advaita and more contemporary versions of Advaita. This quickly led me to Zen Buddhism, which at least from one angle could be described as a particular variant on the non-dual tradition associated with the Upanishads and Advaita Vedanta. I began practicing Zen meditation in late 2013, and in June 2014 I moved into a Zen retreat center, where I’m still a resident.
While you could call me a “Zen practitioner,” I don’t care much for the label “Zen Buddhist” or “Buddhist.” As I explain on my professional website, my spiritual journey has taken me on many paths, each of which informs my current approach to the Sacred or Transcendent. I still enjoy good Christian gospel music and on different occasions chant “Hare Krishna,” but I try to make as much room as possible for silence, which for me is the more challenging and lively dance with God.
Could you say a bit more about the reasons that precipitated your taking up these very distinct spiritual paths?
In the first instance, I would emphasize that my movement through these distinct spiritual paths reflects an evolving total life situation over the past 30 years. I think one’s religious orientation is strongly conditioned by personality, experience, and reflection—constituents, we might say, of the total life situation. I think these factors combine to just make one tradition “feel” right. There was a time when Christianity felt right, and there was a time when it no longer felt right. We might say that Christianity ceased to accommodate my total life situation, but Vaishnavism felt right. This was not a sudden shift, but, as I suggested above, a gradual transition over a few years.
Of course, just to be clear, in taking up Vaishnavism, and later Zen, I continue to carry aspects of the earlier traditions with me. All traditions with which I have connected at earlier times inform my present understanding of the Transcendent. This is why I don’t particularly care for the term “conversion,” as I think it ignores the persisting influence of one’s earlier orientation. I see my taking up different paths at different times as more about an evolution and enlargement of spiritual orientation. To be sure, certain beliefs or practices fall away in the transitions, but there’s always been important continuity for me.
Now I’d say that there have been four general kinds of considerations that have precipitated my taking up the traditions I have at particular periods. First, does a tradition illuminate what I already know about my life? Second, how well does a tradition fit with my overall intellectual outlook (be it informed by science, philosophy, psychology, etc.)? Third, how connected do I feel to the “truth” as expressed through the symbols of the traditions? And finally, do the spiritual practices of the tradition facilitate my moral and spiritual development in a way that is important to me at the time?
Let’s take up the first factor. There were very specific events and patterns in my life that gradually seemed better illuminated by eastern spirituality and philosophy than Christianity. Some of these events and patterns concerned my relationships with other people, my attachments and corresponding experiences of suffering, and so forth. What I found in the exploration of my own experience was confirmed and deepened by the insights of eastern spirituality and philosophy. In my “Open Letter” (2011), in which I announced what at that time I described as my “conversion” to Gaudiya Vaishnavism, I explained the role that the Bhagavad Gita played in illuminating various aspects of my life, and I compared it to how the Gospel according to John had illuminated my life in my late teens and early twenties. In each case, it was not a matter of interpreting my experience in the light of the teachings of the texts, though of course there’s something to be said for that too, but the initial connection was grounded in how the text provided further illumination on matters already known directly from my experience.
As for second factor, after teaching world religions regularly for many years I concluded that the different religious traditions of the world shared a basic vision, worked out in different ways according to one’s individual dispositions. Inclusivism seemed more plausible to me than exclusivism, and this made Vaishnavism and the philosophy of Vedanta intellectually appealing. But there were many other philosophical issues that made the eastern traditions more appealing to me as a religious philosopher, for example, a strongly apophatic approach to the divine, panentheism, monism, and a more empirical and pragmatic epistemology. Around 2010 my interest in psychology also took off in a big way, largely as the result of a deeper engagement with the work of William James. This led me to depth psychology, and specifically Carl Jung, and eventually an exploration of depth-psychological therapeutic modalities and their interface with eastern spirituality. My own emerging psychological views struck me as more at home in the climate of eastern spirituality than Christianity, and this actually played an important role in my adopting a non-dual interpretation of the bhakti traditions and my eventual movement into Zen.
Now I must grant, and several Christians have repeatedly noted, that much of what I have said above would be equally accommodated in the mystical streams of Christianity. To a certain extent, yes. Two points though. First, some of my more recent philosophical and psychological views strike me as more at home in the eastern traditions. For example, I think what I would now characterize as my “pluralistic” approach to religion is more at home in texts such as the Upanishads or Dogen’s Genjo Koan than in the Bible. And this pluralism also fits nicely with my Jungian view of the unconscious. Second, and more importantly, above I noted two other kinds of reasons for taking up these various traditions, and these reasons clearly favor eastern spirituality over Christianity for me.
The symbolic expression of religious truth has been increasingly important to me over the past nine or ten years. As I was exposed to eastern religious symbolism, for example, the murti (images of the divine) and the poetry of the Indian mystics, I just connected with it more than I did with Christian symbolism. Curiously, during the second half of my life as a Christian I had developed an attraction to Christian artwork, something contrary to my original iconoclastic tendencies when I was under the influence of Calvinism. Also, my aesthetic appreciation of nature really kicked in after an automobile accident in March 2011. As a Christian my experiences of nature often triggered experiences of God (typically feelings of awe and reverence), but after my accident God was more directly present in the experiences of nature, and often not as a personal being, and the overall feeling was more intimate than what I had earlier experienced. Eastern religious symbolism captured such experiences of intimacy with the world and God in a way that deeply resonated with me, more so than Christian symbolism.
As a theoretical interjection, I would add that when it comes to our attraction to symbols, I think we’re often not aware of the whole situation, the deeper layers of the attraction. The subjective factor here is deeply rooted in unconscious material. The symbol in my view represents a situation in the unconscious life and facilitates an engagement with it at the level of consciousness. But something is working itself out, and I would say that it is God that is present and moving this process, something James proposed in his Varieties of Religious Experience and Jung later further developed. So I’m quite happy just to let things unfold and be with and learn from whatever is arising. This is part of what it means to dance with God, an important motif in the bhakti traditions of India and, in its own way, in Advaita Vedanta and Zen.
Finally, the effectiveness of eastern spiritual practices was a very significant factor facilitating my embrace of eastern spirituality. For example, the devotional practices associated with Vaishnavism, and subsequently the meditation practices of Advaita and Zen contributed to important progress in my moral and spiritual development. Zazen (Zen meditation) has also interfaced in profound ways with my psychological and psychotherapeutic interests, ranging from my interests in trauma, addiction, and dissociative phenomena to my involvement with (Jungian) analysis and Internal Family Systems therapy.
While I enjoy good intellectual exercises, fundamentally for me it’s about spiritual practices. Do they work for me? Do they give me insight into myself? Are they efficacious for cultivating virtues such as love and compassion? If chanting Hare Krishna is going to make me more mindful of God’s presence in my life and intensify my love for God, I’ll do it. If Zen meditation is going to make me conscious of what I am otherwise unconscious, make me more satisfied with each moment of life, and make me more receptive of people and their needs, I embrace it. As I see it, our individual relationship to God is not something separate from all this. It’s very much the essence of it.
You mention that you’ve engaged in devotional practices associated with Vaishnavism, and now the meditation practices of Advaita and Zen. Could you say a bit more about what these practices comprise (in a way that people unfamiliar with the traditions get a sense of what it’s about and what you do?).
Vaishnavism is a Hindu devotional theistic tradition in which Vishnu or Krishna is worshipped as the Supreme Being. The spiritual practices in Vaishnavism consist of different modes of devotional service (bhakti) designed to cultivate a personal and intimate relationship with God. Bhakti includes mantra meditation (usually with beads), devotional singing, meditating on Krishna (though images or scriptural narratives), and the making of various offerings to Krishna, especially food offerings. Really anything done for Krishna is devotional service to him, but these are some of the regular practices. Although Vaishnavas worship in temples, consistent practice of devotion at home is important, and this includes having an alter with images of Krishna (and often also one’s guru), mantra meditation, and the regular offering of meals to Krishna.
The height of my Vaishnava practice was early 2011 to summer 2013, during which time I also visited Audarya, the Gaudiya Vaishnava ashram in Northern California where Swami Tripurari is the guru. Tripurari was an influence on me for several years, and I spent time at the ashram in 2011 and also in 2014. I was deeply impressed with the kind of devotion I observed, as well as the kindness of the devotees. I have a deep appreciation for my experiences there. I think the ability to practice in a spiritual community is a rare and wonderful opportunity, and it can be deeply transformative. I should add that contrary to what a number of Christian bloggers have incorrectly reported, I was not, nor have I ever been, a member of or otherwise affiliated with ISKCON (the International Society for Krishna Consciousness). There are many strands of Gaudiya Vaishnavism, and ISKCON, though significant, is only one among many Gaudiya traditions.
For me, Vaishnavism really inspired a commitment to daily meditation practice, whether practiced at home or outdoors. The practice involved focusing my mind on Krishna as the object of my devotion, regularly though not exclusively as mantra meditation with japa beads, usually doing several rounds of chanting each day. In a sense the term “practice” can be a bit misleading because eventually the activity I’m calling “practice” here just becomes a spontaneous and habitual orientation. Also, for me, the richly aesthetic nature of Vaishnavism (true of bhakti traditions in general) offered something more meaningful to me than the aesthetically sterile Protestant traditions with which I was associated for 20 years.
What I find particularly fascinating is my movement from this form of theistic meditation to forms of non-theistic meditation, which led me to rediscover Advaita Vedanta and eventually to take up Zen practice. Contrary to what one might suppose, this was actually a very natural progression for me.
According to Gaudiya Vaishnavism, devotion moves in the direction of deeper intimacy between the self and God, and in that intimacy the separateness between the subject and object gets dissolved. Gaudiya and Sufi love poetry each wonderfully represent this in the language of lovers who lose themselves in each other. Devotion begins from the standpoint of the duality intrinsic to the subject-object relation, but this just falls away at some point when bhakti is ripened. The movement that begins with the attraction to the other (as the other) ends in the dissolution of the subject and object. Hence, Rumi said that lovers experience what love requires, namely their own death. We might say that the two become one. Better yet, the two have always been oneness dancing as two. What is true of human lovers is true also in the case of love for God. You cannot experience God in the deepest intimacy until the ego dies and the sense of separateness vanishes.
To be clear, Gaudiya Vaishnavism asserts a persisting duality between the self and God, and this duality is supposed to be essential to devotion. However, for me even this fell away. By this I don’t mean duality is not experienced, just that it’s understood to be a relative or provisional feature of devotional experience. In other words, I came into a non-dual understanding of devotion, a view that certain strands of Vaishnavism and Shaivism (another Hindu devotional tradition) have accommodated.
Here’s how the transition occurred. In 2013 my meditation practices began gradually shifting away from attention to the object (God or Krishna) to the contemplative exploration of the nature of the very consciousness by which Krishna is known and experienced. Who is this one meditating on Krishna? Who is this one loving Krishna? It is I, but who is this I? At first glance, this appears to be a turn from the object “out there” to some subject “in here,” but in a sense it’s the dissolution of the distinction altogether. I experienced what Ramana Maharshi spoke of as going or falling into the heart. If I begin with any I-thought (whatever it happens to be), and I inquire into it, I’m led to its source, an “I” behind the “I,” the I-am-ness from which the belief and subsequent feeling that I amthis or that arises. What’s here in this I-am-ness is simply the abiding presence of awareness. Moreover, when I more deeply explored this awareness through various contemplative and meditative exercises, it became clear to me that this awareness was not something separate from anything that was happening: a bird chirping in the tree, a car racing down the street, a person smiling at me in some café, a Jimi Hendrix song playing on my computer, or Krishna looking at me through the eyes of the murti (divine image). If I lend my attention to what’s appearing in the form of thoughts, feelings, or sensations, I have no direct experience of these apparent objects as separate from the knowing by which they are known.
Importantly, it’s just this sense of non-separateness that is spontaneously present in the natural course of life, in falling in love, in the depth of playing a musical instrument or singing, painting or sculpting, or pulling weeds in one’s garden. From one vantage point, when we’re lending attention to apparent objects, we might speak of the presence of awareness as the witnessing background of all experience. But if we relax attention to objects, this presence of awareness is very much on the face of experience. Like a television or movie screen, we’re always looking at it, but it goes unnoticed because attention is directed to an unfolding narrative.
What I have just described is “Self realization” in the Hindu philosophy of Advaita Vedanta, the non-dual branch of Vedanta, or the no-self teaching of Buddhism. I’ve discussed this and correlated ideas in greater detail in several blog posts over the past year, for example in “The Myth of Enlightenment” and “Zen Sinking in the Ocean”. Roughly stated, in non-dual traditions, the practice of meditation aims not at attaching one’s mind to a God or anything else through devotional service, but realizing that behind the self, behind this body-mind, there is the Self (Advaita Vedanta) or Big Mind (Zen), which is none other than the awareness that is non-separate from life as it is happening. In a sense, meditation discloses this by disclosing the unity of the knower, knowing, and known. What’s interesting here is that I very naturally found myself on this path of practice from the path of devotion. In this way, the intimacy I initially experienced with Krishna was transformed into the seamless intimacy of all experience. In this intimacy, this I–loving-Krishna is non-separate from the Krishna-loving-me because we are oneness appearing and dancing as two. As Meister Eckhart more beautifully put it: “the eye by which I see God is the eye by which God sees me. My eye and God’s eye are one eye, one seeing, one knowing, and one love.”
In my exploration of contemporary Advaita Vedanta (e.g., teachers like Rupert Spira and Adyashanti) I came into contact with Zen. I ended up reading Suzuki Roshi’s Zen Mind, Beginners Mind, Sekkei Harada’s Essence of Zen, and Eihei Dogen’s Genjo Koan. I connected with Zen largely because I realized that I was already very much in the kind of practice-experience described by these authors. I wanted to venture further into it, and it also nicely fit the psychotherapeutic modalities I had been exploring for a couple of years.
So I have characterized myself as a “Zen practitioner,” and this is informative to a certain extent. The heart of Zen is its meditation practice, called zazen. Like all Buddhist meditation, zazen involves looking at what we’re normally looking at but noticing what we typically don’t notice, a kind of clear seeing, as well as mental tranquility. However, zazen is somewhat unique in the way it achieves or exhibits this. It’s not a classical form of meditation. There’s no attempt to alter or otherwise control the mind, for instance, by directing or keeping one’s attention fixed on some particular object, e.g., an image, mantra, thought, or even one’s breath. In this way, zazen differs from other Buddhist meditation practices that involve guided meditation or other techniques for directing the mind in particular way. Zazen is simply letting the mind be and just watching or observing whatever is arising in the way of thoughts, feelings, and sensations, but where this seeing takes place non-reactively, without clinging or aversion.
As part of my exploration of Internal Family Systems (IFS) therapy, which grew out of my previous and continuing interest in Jungian analysis, I had already been cultivating mindfulness. The ability to observe sensations, feelings, and thoughts as they arise in particular circumstances, even develop a kind of conversation with them as expressions of “parts” of oneself, plays an important therapeutic role in IFS. Among other things, it allows us to discover and compassionately engage more subtle psychological patterns associated with trauma and suffering, and which play a powerful role in influencing behavior. However, it was clear when I began studying Zen that in my existing mindfulness practice I was running straight into phenomena highly salient to Buddhism: the impermanence of things, including the complex and fluid nature of “the self,” my attachments, and also how suffering or lack of satisfaction was rooted in attachments. Ultimately, I saw that “the self” that I thought was here is a fiction. In fact, there is no “me” at the center of my life; indeed, there is no “me” and there is no “center.” We can use these words of course, but in fact there’s just life happening, and there’s really not even that. I’ve tried to express the experience here and its implications for spiritual practice through aphorisms and various contemplative exercises in the blog posts cited earlier, as well as others such as “Ode to Autumn – the Sweetest Freedom” and “The Boundless Ocean of Experience” .
This attraction to meditation, and zazen in particular, arose because it brought together the whole of what I call my experience in a natural and evident manner. I don’t separate psychological wellbeing, understanding, and spiritual attainment. Everything that is happening is part of the path, and so becomes practice, practice illuminating and cultivating practice, which of course from the non-dual Zen perspective is not something separate from the goal. So in the Soto Zen tradition (with which I’m involved), we emphasize shikantaza (just sitting to sit). This is the idea of “goalless practice.” For me, this just means practicing, regardless of what goal or intention the mind may frame for the practice at a given time, and ultimately just not caring so much about whether or not there’s some goal there or what the goal happens to be.
As readers of my blog on my professional site are aware, since May 2014 I’ve been living at Jikoji Zen Center in the Los Gatos mountains in the California Bay Area. So I’m deeply connected to Zen practice on a daily basis and in the context of a spiritual community (sangha) of fellow practitioners committed to Buddhist precepts and Zen as a way of life. Although as a resident at Jikoji I’m involved in formal Zen training, I think Sekkei Harada has best summarized the way of Zen when he said that Zen is finding great satisfaction in every moment, down to the smallest detail of life. This is just another way of saying that the fullness of life is non-separate from fullness that is what I call “my” life.
All the members of our community (the sangha) have individual practice agreements with the teaching leadership at the center. These agreements are crafted to enable each of us to pursue and cultivate Zen practice given our diverse personal and professional responsibilities. An important part of the individual practice, of course, is our practice as a group. We practice zazen as a group, usually once or twice a day for a period of 30 to 40 minutes per sitting. The first sit is at 6:00am, and the second in the evening, after dinner. Group meditation takes place in building called a Zendo, where we sit on a cushion in silence, room lights dimmed, and our eyes open (though gaze softened) facing the wall a foot or so away from us. Morning sits conclude with a short service that involves chanting (sometimes in Japanese), the offering of incense at a central alter, and prostrations to Buddha, the Dharma (truth), and the Sangha. On Sundays we have two sits in the morning, a dharma talk, and a group lunch. Several times a year we also have intensive meditation periods (between a few days to a week long) called sesshins. During these times we may sit in meditation for up to ten to twelve hours a day, and they also include periods of teaching on Buddhist precepts. Our practice also extends to various tasks we have to maintain the Zen center.
So for my last question, I’d like to ask, how your own spiritual journey has impacted your work as a philosopher?
Most generally stated, I’d say there’s been something of a reciprocal relationship between my spiritual journey and work as a philosopher. On the one hand, my spiritual interests and experiences have guided my philosophical work in some important ways, but my philosophical work has also played a significant role in influencing my religious beliefs.
Let’s go back to my first twelve years in professional philosophy. I was focused on the epistemology of religious belief during this period, and my main project was devoted to synthesizing Reformed epistemology (with its emphasis on the proper basicality of belief in God) and the tradition of natural theology. This project grew out of my earlier interest in apologetics as a young Calvinist in the 1980s. After a four-year flirtation with the presuppositional apologetics of Gordon Clark and Cornelius Van Til, after enrolling at Santa Clara University I began a serious engagement with the broader climate of contemporary Anglo-American philosophy of religion. By the time I reached my senior year as an undergraduate at Santa Clara University, I had started to form some preliminary ideas in religious epistemology concerning evidentialism and properly basic theistic belief. These ideas took off during graduate school at Oxford under the supervision of Richard Swinburne, and they came to culmination after a dozen or so articles with my book The Reformed Objection to Natural Theology (Ashgate 2009).
A few things strike me about this first phase of my work as a professional philosopher.
First, I think it’s pretty clear that the experience of God as a significant feature of my spiritual journey gave rise to and subsequently sustained my long-standing philosophical interest in the epistemology of religious experience, and more specifically the idea of immediate knowledge of God or properly basic theistic belief. My attraction to Christianity in my late teens and early twenties was rooted in personal experiences of God. This impressed upon me early in this journey the deeply intuitive or experiential nature of the grounds for belief in God. And the post-Christian phase of my spiritual journey has confirmed this as well, as I’ve had Vaishnava theistic experiences and also many non-dual or monistic experiences.
Second, as far back as I can recall, I’ve always been prone to a reflective habit of mind, seeking clarification, confirmation, and the elaboration and systematic articulation of what is given more directly in my experience. (In my pre-teens I was a huge Elvis Presley fan. My mind wanted to do something with the aesthetic enjoyment of the music, and so I created the first analytic discography of Elvis Presley music.) I think this explains the specific contours of my interest in religious epistemology, specifically my interest in synthesizing religious experience and reasoning as equally important grounds for our knowledge of God. Fundamentally, I think this has been motivated by my personal interest in synthesizing two aspects of my own experience and personality: intuition and reasoning. In other words, there’s an important motivation here to understand the unity of two distinct cognitive functions, a subtle mode of self-exploration stimulated by my encounter with the numinous at an early age.
Were it not for my spiritual experiences, I doubt I’d be much interested in the nature and epistemology of religious experience. (Similarly, were it not for my having various ostensibly paranormal experiences, I doubt I’d be very interested in the critical exploration of these phenomena.) In fact, I might not even be a philosopher. It’s not simply that the spiritual journey has placed certain questions on the radar for philosophical exploration. It’s supplied me with experiences that have stimulated the asking of philosophical questions of a far-reaching sort.
Of course, given the importance of religious experiences in my spiritual journey, I’ve relied on philosophy to assist me in reflecting on the nature of these experiences, to critically work out an interpretation of religious experience. This is one reason why I’ve adopted a pluralistic understanding of religion and religious experience. While I’m convinced there is something veridical occurring in these experiences, the critical exploration persuades me to reject a kind of naïve realism about the experiences, whether its Jesus or Krishna one is experiencing. This also nicely fits with the Advaita and Zen understanding of religious experience. So there’s actually an important convergence of my current spiritual practice and my philosophical understanding of religious experience.
From the perspective of my more recent and present eastern spiritual practice, I’d say that I’ve opened up to a more diverse range of modes of philosophical inquiry. I remain very committed to and interested in the rigorous logical and conceptual analysis characteristic of analytic philosophy, but it no longer has a monopoly on my intellectual life and approach to philosophy. I see its limits in a way I didn’t earlier, and I certainly have no interest in utilizing it for the purposes of apologetics, so much an integral part of my use of philosophy in my Christian days. So let me say a few things about this.
When I took up Vaishnava practice, I think a number of Christian bloggers thought I was going to become some sort of apologist for Vaishnavism. I’m quite happy to have disappointed them. I never intended to become an apologist for Vaishnavism, nor do I intend to be one for Advaita or Zen. Indeed, the entire idea just strikes me as misguided and utterly uninteresting. When I moved into eastern spirituality I had already taken an important step in the direction of having no interest in defending my beliefs or trying to convince people to believe what I believe. To be sure, many people have a need for this, and I don’t intend to discourage them from pursuing it. But my experience after nearly two decades of Christian apologetics and philosophical debate gradually fostered a deep skepticism about this sort of activity, something my study of the psychology of belief has also reinforced. I think much philosophical debate, and especially religious apologetics, tends to be less about the issues ostensibly being discussed, much less a search for clarity and truth, and more about the persons themselves, expressions of their need to be right, to be seen or validated, and so forth, which at least for myself was motivated by my own insecurities.
Eastern spirituality brought a significant psychological shift for me. I was simply more interested in cultivating spiritual practice (e.g., meditation), reading the relevant literature, and working on intellectual projects simply because it was enjoyable to do so regardless of where I went with it or whatever anyone else had to say about it. From a psychological perspective, I’d say that the more conscious I became of the psychodynamics behind my engagement with apologetics, the activity became less tempting, but inevitably and naturally the energy behind the activity gets re-channeled. As the apologetic function of philosophy dissolved for me, philosophical inquiry became more about a process of self-exploration, and this was intrinsically satisfying to me. And while conceptual analysis and rigorous argument are still important to how I do philosophy, they don’t have a monopoly on it. Equally important, as a result of my Zen practice, there’s a significant degree of cultivated non-attachment to expectations and outcomes of intellectual activity.
To illustrate, I just finished writing a book (forthcoming in the Palgrave Frontiers in Philosophy of Religion series) in which I apply confirmation theory to the tradition of empirical arguments for life after death. The topic has interested me for many years, in a sense all my life, and on multiple levels. But my attitude towards the book and its argumentation is very different from the attitude with which I approached my first book. While I’ve taken care to write a scholarly work, and I think I’m basically correct in my critique, I’m not too concerned about whether I’m correct. I’ve written it with what I take to be a warranted confidence but also with a deep sense that the project is something of an adventure, something exploratory, and the analytical approach I take captures only one aspect of a many-sided debate. As for the analytical rigor, I find it an enjoyable exercise, quite independent of where it all goes (or does not go). Moreover, it allows me to meet, in a conscious and fairly playful manner, an important assortment of psychological needs. In a way, the whole thing becomes therapeutic, even a kind of meditation, and consequently can facilitate deep self-revelation. I’ve explored this in depth in my blog post “Confessions of a Bullshit Philosopher”. And this is an important way in which Zen has impacted my work as a philosopher. The whole force of Zen practice is to observe what is happening in this moment. It’s not about stopping or controlling what the mind is doing but taking a “backwards step” from what the mind is doing, observing it, maybe chuckling a bit at it, letting it pass through you, and just moving on. In other words, enjoy philosophy, but just don’t take it too seriously.
Equally important, though, I acknowledge that analysis and logical rigor constitute only one kind of philosophical inquiry. In contrast to my forthcoming book on empirical arguments for post-mortem survival, I’m currently writing a book that explores love, awakening, and God, but I’m using a contemplative and poetic approach. This is an approach I’ve used in many of my blog posts on my professional website during the past year. This is very much in the spirit of Advaita and Zen, aimed at facilitating a certain kind of engagement with the unconscious, enlargement of our experience, and transformation of our orientation towards the world. I agree with Jung that “we should not pretend to understand the world only by the intellect,” for at best the intellect reaches and coveys only a very limited domain of truth. Other modes of inquiry, exploration, and expression are equally important: meditation, poetry, fiction, music, and various psychotherapeutic modalities. I wouldn’t say that these approaches are intrinsically any less philosophical than the methodology of analytic philosophy. In fact, I’d say that when a philosopher owns anything in the deepest way, it becomes philosophy.
And, for me, the connection with spirituality is transparent. I’d say that we encounter God in a very broad continuum of human experiences and expressions of human nature. Indeed, there is nothing that can fail to mediate the Sacred. So what I pursue as a philosopher is, if I may use the language of William James, from the “remoter side” of consciousness, very much God pursuing me. Consequently, the right path is simply wherever I am. There are, of course, from the mystical or pluralistic viewpoint, many such paths leading us to God, apparently even for me over the course of this experience I call “my life.” Yes, I have chosen analysis and critical reflection, but I have equally chosen what Rumi aptly called “the path of song and dance.”