Tuesday 14 August 2018

Spiritual signs. How can we, personally, know that this is a purposive and meaningful world?

It is an error to look for 'evidence' of God's activity in this world - this is a mind set that leads to a life trapped in end-less, open-ended 'research' - one will become a seeker, never a finder.

But, if you instead begin with acknowledgement that it is possible that this world was created by a personal God, who loves us as individuals; then there are plenty of events in your life which are consistent-with such an assumption.

Yesterday I mentioned personal-miracles. For example, you pray for something and it happens in such a way that you, privately - by your own standards and nobody else's, regard it as a miracle.

This granted-prayer may be absolutely 'trivial' both in terms of the world at large and your own life-span - but that is not the point. The point is that such miracles are consistent with the vision of this world as purposive and meaning-full.

Another example is synchronicity - phenomena that are oxymoronically described as meaningful-coincidences. Typically these events are also trivial; but the point of them is that synchronicity is exactly what would be expected in a world of divine Providence; a world in which God was 'behind the scenes' and organising things.

Peak experiences are another instance - brief times of transcendent happiness that come (apparently) out of the blue; and in which we powerfully feel life to be meaningful, coherent, purposive, benign.  

I think it is usually an error to try and understand the implications of the content of these spiritual gifts such as miracles, synchronicities, peak experiences. Not all are pregnant with guidance; some really are quite 'trivial'.

Such spiritual gifts are mostly 'signs' of the kind of world we live in. And they are also signs of us living well, living in a proper mode of consciousness - and such spiritual signs will apparently increase when we are in a Good frame of mind; and may well be utterly absent from a life wrongly-lived.

Spiritual signs might be absent from a materialist life that assumed there was no meaning or purpose, that the world was determined and/ or random (not created) - and if such phenomena do happen to occur, they will be regarded as insignificant, lacking importance, merely a species of delusion.

In sum - spiritual gifts are best understood as signs, consistent with the nature of reality; and we need not get too concerned by what the specific-content of each specific-sign specifically-implies for our own specific-life, or beyond...


Chiu ChunLing said...

I'd say the problem is looking for 'proof' without first establishing what counts as an adequate standard of proof. Though it's true that I'm not so much concerned with finding evidence as with discerning what it means.

And, while sometimes the meanings of things are fairly obviously specific, they are always part of a larger general pattern which has implications beyond particular events and acts. The great question is how shall we live? And while the answer to that includes things like "how shall I particularly find my things that I need today?", it is not limited to them nor can it be said to be fully composed of them.

Of course the general answer may be summarized as "with prayerful gratitude for all that the Lord hath done for us." But that takes a lot of prayer, and a lot of finding out what the Lord hath done. And a perspective of coming to understand how it was for us.

I feel that it is crucial to start with finding out who we really are.

Bruce Charlton said...

@CCL - In part this post is a contribution to a long running discussion with William James Tychonievich triggered by the (often) (apparent) triviality of the content of precognitive dreams, which he has studied intensively.

Also, the fact that The Book of Mormon was - for more than a century - regarded mainly as a sign that Joseph Smith was a true prophet of God, and that a new age of revelations had begun; and the specific (historical, doctrinal, theological) content and meaning of the BoM was not much attended to (indeed, there is little evidence that Joseph Smith himself took much interest in the specific content of the BoM after he had produced it - he seldom used it as 'a scripture').

Modern Mormons study the BoM very closely, and get a great deal from it (and a surprising amount of its history has turned-out to be consistent with what is known of the Ancient Americas and aspects of Ancient Hebrew life) - but the point is that its original value, in establishing the religion, was seen in terms of its form, its actual existence, more than the content.

I think this applies quite generally. The reason is that we are not often or usually able to understand the implications of signs - probably because of our own lack of knowledge and Goodness (we will, presumably - potentially, understand all the events of our own life eventually, post-mortally, if/ as we progress spiritually.

But from where we are here-and-now, we can often know *that* something *is* an example of divine Providence; but cannot know what it means. This shift in perspective makes a big difference, I find.

Wm Jas Tychonievich said...

I don't know that mere consistency with theistic assumptions is all that meaningful, Bruce. After all, if we concede that God moves in a mysterious way his wonders to perform and that, given the educational character of our mortal experience, his love for us might often be expressed in ways that are not easily recognizable as love from our limited perspective (for example, by allowing us to suffer terribly from seemingly meaningless things such as bone cancer), what conceivable experience would not be consistent with the assumption that there is a loving Creator?

Nor do I think we can honestly say that trivial synchronicities are "exactly what would be expected" from a loving God. I mean, if you had God's power, is that how you'd use it? To make funny little coincidences keep happening in people's lives? As a loving parent, is that something you're motivated to do for your children? God could operate that way, I suppose, but "exactly what would be expected" is a bit of a stretch, don't you think?

As I laid out in my Shining Buddha post, it doesn't seem possible to know that some particular event is an instance of divine providence, since of course there are such things as coincidences that just happen to happen and may occasionally seem meaningful just by chance.

Bruce Charlton said...

@William - I think you have contradicted yourself in saying firstly that we don't know that things really are trivial, because they may be significant in a larger persepctive; then in writing off sunchronicities etc as 'funny little coincidences' hence trivial and silly.

When such things are actually being-experienced, there is a *numinous* quality about them that tells us that it is not silly - it is typically only when we have (in recall, or when explaining) *reduced* the situation to a materialist summary, or by fitting into some trivial categories, than we get struck by a sense of triviality or sillness.

And when you say it doesn't seem possible to know that a particular event is an instance of divine providence, you are asserting the trivially true observation that there are *always* alternative explanations for *any* event (including every scientific experiment).

What I am saying is Not that we Always know the status of everything that happens to us, but that - given the correct assumptions - we Sometimes know divine providence, because it speaks to us as such.

Also, we shouldn't fall into the trap that divine providence should have no observable cause - as with the classical theological idea that real miracles are outwith the 'laws of nature' - Instead, I presume that spiritual signs always Do have causes, but that when Providence is intuitively discerned, God has arranged natural things such as to produce some sign in a particular circumstance, so that it is noticed and recognised by us.

Here is an example from Lord of the Rings:

Standing there for a moment filled with dread Frodo became aware that a light was shining; he saw it glowing on Sam’s face beside him. Turning towards it, he saw, beyond an arch of boughs, the road to Osgiliath running almost as straight as a stretched ribbon down, down, into the West. There, far away, beyond sad Gondor now overwhelmed in shade, the Sun was sinking, finding at last the hem of the great slow-rolling pall of cloud, and falling in an ominous fire toward the yet unsullied Sea. The brief glow fell upon a huge sitting figure, still and solemn as the great stone kings of Aronath. The years had gnawed it, and violent hands had maimed it. Its head was gone, and in its place was set in mockery a round rough-hewn stone, rudely painted by savage hands in the likeness of a grinning face with one large red eye in the midst of its forehead. Upon its knees and mighty chair, and all about the pedestal, were idle scrawls mixed with the foul symbols that the maggot-folk of Mordor used.

Suddenly caught by the level beams, Frodo saw the old king’s head: it was lying rolled away by the roadside. “Look, Sam!” he cried, startled into speech. “Look! The king has got a crown again!”

The eyes were hollow and the carven beard was broken, but about the high stern forehead there was a coronal of silver and gold. A trailing plant with flowers like small white stars had bound itself across the brows as if in reverence for the fallen king, and in the crevices of his stony hair yellow stonecrop gleamed.

“They cannot conquer forever!” said Frodo. And then suddenly the brief glimpse was gone. The Sun dipped and vanished, and as if at the shuttering of a lamp, black night fell.

Wm Jas Tychonievich said...

I don't think I have contradicted myself, Bruce. I don't deny that seemingly trivial occurrences might have hidden significance. (By small and simple things are great things brought to pass.) I just disagree that the seemingly trivial is precisely what we would naturally expect from God.

My own conclusion, as you know, is that the majority of synchronicities and precognitions are not the specific work of God but are rather just a result of the way things are. This is based partly on the apparent pointlessness of most of them, and partly on my own aesthetic revulsion at what I have called "the paranoid model."

You are right, though, that such experiences have a numinous quality to them, and that must mean something -- but not, I think, anything as prosaic as someone micromanaging events behind the scenes. Take the LotR example you quote. Supposing the floral "crown" had been deliberately put there by someone, by Gandalf say, for the purpose of buoying up Frodo's spirits, wouldn't that be *less* meaningful than the story as it stands? Synchronicities just have to be real coincidences, not fake ones, not secretly engineered by God or anyone else -- *and* they have to be really meaningful. How that can be, I have no idea, but it just has to be that way.

Bruce Charlton said...

@William - I think, from your last comment, that you are probably aware you are setting up your assumptions such that coherence is ruled-out in advance.

"I just disagree that the seemingly trivial is precisely what we would naturally expect from God." - I don't get this, unless you mean to imply that I am stating that we should expect *only* the seemingly trivial.

But if Life is not random, nor fully determined, then we should expect *many* things, including apprently trivial things, to have meaning and to serve divine purposes (seen from a Gods-eye perspective).

There are, in other words, very few coincidence - the normal state is that what happens does because these happenings are causally linked to divine/ angelic/ human agency.

My point is that there are quite a lot of things of which we can perceive enough to recognise that they are significant (and these can be regarded as spiritual signs, and we ought to try and notice them); but for which we cannot know what that significance is - and this is precisely what I would expect!

Chiu ChunLing said...

What I'm saying is that a 'true' synchronicity reveals the essentially loving order of the whole of Creation. We notice first those minor elements that correspond to fulfilling some immediate felt need of which we have been crying to God for relief. But what makes it a synchronicity is that it is consistent with the greater good of lives beyond our own and life as a whole.

It is not a matter of whether the particular event has been arranged or not...but that the particular doesn't exist in isolation from all other goodness. Yes, it is arranged, but as part of a grand masterpiece of all things together, and though we have only glimpsed the beauty of this detail for a moment, as we broaden our perspective and vision we see even more.

Wm Jas Tychonievich said...

Perhaps I misunderstood your original post, Bruce, which I took as asserting that most snchronicities are in fact trivial (not just seemingly-trivial) and that we should not necessarily expect any given sync to have any particular meaning. (You wrote: "Not all are pregnant with guidance; some really are quite 'trivial'.") It is this kind of actually-meaningless (not merely inscrutable) behavior that I would not expect from God.

Yes, I realize that I have accepted premises that appear to contradict one another. I did the same thing when I decided to accept the very obviously incoherent and self-contradictory idea of "free will," and I think I was right to do so. Coherence and consistency are among the goals of thinking, of course, but you can't insist on having them right from the start. You start with the data (mostly data of intuition, in this case) -- all of the data, whether apparently consistent or not -- and then go from there. The ideal goal is to find a way of conceptualizing things that preserves all the original data without being incoherent. If that fails, it may be necessary to sacrifice some of the data, but that's a last resort, not the first step.

Chiu ChunLing said...

I think that the point is that we should accept that, given our limited perspective (both morally and temporal/spatial), any aspect of grand cosmic truth and Creation we notice is going to be quite 'trivial' compared to the whole.

And trivial not just in comparison but also in the accident of it being something we were disposed to like rather than dislike. The grand design of truth includes all the things that we don't happen to spontaneously like so much the first time we encounter them, after all.

But noticing those elements isn't worthless, by doing so repeatedly we begin to become aware of the larger (and eternal) pattern of which they are all integral parts. And by coming to appreciate this great design we can begin to understand how all the things we do not like at first are also necessary to the design, and mostly even good in themselves.