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Spiritual Meditations ( 12 Jan 2018, NewAgeIslam.Com)

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Engaging with Russell on Ethics, Religion and Mysticism


By Dr Muhammad Maroof Shah

11 Jan 2018

“There is a little wisdom in the world: Heraclitus, Spinoza, and a saying here and there—I want to add to it, even if only ever so little.” Bertrand Russell

Bertrand Russell has been quite popular and influential figure in a host of disciplines and continues to be widely read and admired as a philosopher and mathematician and loved or criticized for certain political, religious and other opinions. There is much insight and beauty in much of what he wrote. One can sift the best of him and appreciate that in turn in light of the best we have from the world of sages. We especially note key to the wisdom of the best minds– Heraclitus and Spinoza – he recommends for us. Let us, first, note certain nuggets where he has largely stated collective wisdom of humankind in his inimitable style.

      For Russell “The good life is one inspired by love and guided by knowledge.” “I have believed in the value of two things: kindness and clear thinking.” “The man capable of greatness of soul will open wide the windows of his mind, letting the winds blow freely upon it from every portion of the universe.” It implies dogmatism even of secularist variety with blind faith in progress and truncated view of reason is dangerous. Those who claim to have all the answers, to be guides for others and don’t understand how “God is not an answer, but a Question” are here put on trial. “Not to be absolutely certain is, I think, one of the essential things in rationality." "The opinions that are held with passion are always those for which no good ground exists; indeed the passion is the measure of the holders lack of rational conviction. Opinions in politics and religion are almost always held passionately.” “Few people can be happy unless they hate some other person, nation, or creed.” “It is a waste of energy to be angry with a man who behaves badly, just as it is to be angry with a car that won't go.” “The trouble with the world is that the stupid are cocksure and the intelligent are full of doubt.” “Most people would sooner die than think; in fact, they do so.” “No man is likely to have arrived at complete and final truth on any subject whatever.” 

We can identify fundamentalist mindset by its irritation with these views and association with, as Jonathan Sacks notes, imperialistic mindset that attempts “to  impose  a single truth on the  plural world.” Every great poet and mystic has satirized Mulla’s or Pharisee’s literalism, legalism, moralism, textualism and suspicion of creativity or thinking.

The certainty of the intellect and its knowledge of the Absolute that alone explains taking seriously our devotion to truth, our faith in reason, scientific endeavour and certain objective order not of our making and our judgments that doubt merit of particular judgments is not disputable and if disputed, not acceptable. Russell distances himself from cut and dry scepticism elsewhere. He questions claim of certainty in issues that don’t universally compel assent.

      Russell has been widely mistaken in certain views such as: "I think all the great religions of the world - Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity, Islam, and Communism - both untrue and harmful. It is evident as a matter of logic that, since they disagree, not more than one of them can be true." To say religions are untrue is to miss the essence of religion that consists in not propositional statements or beliefs true or false but attitudes, directions (as pointed out by we better think of God as a direction rather than an object.), existential ”statement” of faith rather than dogmatic belief statements, pre-reflective awareness/intuitive conviction  rather than speculative opinions. Religions alter our relationship to the world rather than alter the world.

 To judge them as true or false is to echo old epistemology we have learnt to discard following Heidegger and others. Religion’s objective is, not unlike poetry’s, opening us to the joy and wonder of being and freedom from ignorance and bondage or alienation. Its objective is theosis (becoming God like, as perfect as possible) of man rather than affirming existence of personal God. It has also been forcefully shown that religions don’t disagree in their supraformal essence or esoteric depth but only in formal theologies and thus all revealed/inspired religions are true at the source in the Transcendent. “Religion is based ... mainly upon fear... fear of the mysterious, fear of defeat, fear of death.” This sweeping judgment has been almost decisively discredited by modern studies on religion. Religion is based on awe/reverence and its sole object is to liberate us from the bondage of fear. Fear of wrongdoing/sin is another thing and that is morality that Russell himself endorsed (especially when we understand existential dimension of the notion of sin as explained in Kierkegaard, Bonheoffer, Tillich and others.)

      Despite his differences with what he considered dogmas of world religions, Russell burned with religious passion that never left him – it was only sublimated in his work on mathematics and in his wide ranging activism against moral pathologies of capitalism, war, totalitarianisms and abuse of human rights. “The centre of me is always and eternally in terrible pain... A searching for something beyond what the world contains something transfiguring and infinite.” “Three passions, simple but overwhelmingly strong, have governed my life: the longing for love, the search for knowledge, and unbearable pity for the suffering of mankind.” “Nothing can penetrate the loneliness of the human heart except the highest intensity of the sort of love the religious teachers have preached.” “My whole religion is this: do every duty, and expect no reward for it, either here or hereafter.” In the midst of the destruction in the Second World War, Russell wrote “What is needed is something in the nature of religion, not in any dogmatic sense but as a source of serious and determined effort towards something better than the present.”

Earlier he had said that he has so far failed to articulate what he considered essential to him “the very breath of life, fierce and coming from far away, bringing into human life the vast and fearful passionless forces of non-human things.” In the end, Russell seems to have adopted tenets “that are well articulated in the New Testament: stories of turning the other cheek, the commandment to love our neighbours, and to follow the example of the Good Samaritan who affirms that our neighbours are of a different race, class, and culture than our own.”

      Indeed Russell’s reputation as an agnostic and offensive critic of religion is not fully warranted as he affirms the core of wisdom in mysticism which constitutes key to world religions and makes possible the affirmation of the Sacred. “The mystic emotion, if it is freed from unwarranted beliefs, and not so overwhelming as to remove a man wholly from the ordinary business of life, may give something of very great value - the same kind of thing, though in a heightened form, that is given by contemplation. Breadth and calm and profundity may all have their source in this emotion, in which, for the moment, all self-centred desire is dead, and the mind becomes a mirror for the vastness of the universe.“..I cannot admit any method of arriving at truth except that of science, but in the realm of the emotions I do not deny the value of the experiences which have given rise to religion. Through association with false beliefs, they have led to much evil as well as good; freed from this association, it may be hoped that the good alone will remain.” 

      Russell sought union of science and mysticism and considered it “the highest eminence... that it is possible to achieve in the world of thought.” Russell rejects scientism and admits the value of non-scientific approaches with certain qualifications. He recognizes that “The philosophy based on mysticism has a great tradition, from Parmenides to Hegel.” And he appreciates scientific spirit of mystical approach of Heraclitus. Russell admired most, amongst the philosophers, Heraclitus who was indeed a sagely figure and Spinoza who comes close to affirming central theses of intellectual mysticism. What Russell affirmed is Spinoza was the mystical “ethic of impersonal self-enlargement.” According to this ideal, “the best life is lived in awareness of the Other.”

This is what Islam’s demand for submission to God as the Other or first two commandments of love of God and love of neighbour practically converge with. For Russell “To abandon the struggle for private happiness, to expel all eagerness of temporary desire, to burn with passion for eternal things—this is emancipation, and this is the free man’s worship.” This echoes the ideal Hazrat Ali proposed in his famous distinction between the worship of slaves, traders and free men. Russell asks us, as one commentator puts it, “to take the tragedy of life into one’s heart, and respond with renunciation, wisdom, and charity,” and thus through the “contemplation of Fate and tragedy subdue them.” Whitehead is reported to have said that Russell was a Platonic dialogue in himself and this implies he should not be identified with certain of his views but with the dialectical tension between various views or the attempt to appreciate the best which he, not unwarrantedly in most cases, identified with the best defensible view on rational or experiential grounds.

The task is to show how religion doesn’t trade fear and violence, doesn’t court the Utopian kingdom of the world, doesn’t reject the world or posit a belief in the other world at the cost of this world, recognizes the rights of intelligence and the spirit of time, embraces the other unconditionally and contributes to what is noble and good and beautiful and Russell would be happy to join it. And this is precisely what has been, almost demonstrably, shown by the great theologians, mystics and philosophers such as Tillich, Maritain, Kreeft, Lonergen, Swinburne, Hick, Schuon, Iqbal, Heschel and Whitehead. Russell’s critique of religion would hardly be relevant if applied to essential spiritual and ethical foundations of world religions and if we take the case of Islam we can say Islam as understood by the best of Sufi sages such as Hafiz and Rumi and Muslim philosophers such as Ibn Sina and Ibn Rushd.

      I would apply Ibn Arabi’s estimate of atheism to Russell. For Ibn Arabi atheists too have Tawhid though somewhat limited understanding of it and he invites them to preserve the question that is Reality i.e., shun dogmatism and move on and be receptive to wonder and mystery of existence. We can assert that “The part Russell misses is the rich spiritual life and the rich life lessons that come out of religious thought.” We need to read Russell’s key writings on religion in light of such classics by his contemporaries as Whitehead’s Religion in the Making, Wittgenstein’s Culture and Value, Tillich’s The Courage to Be, Huston Smith’s Why Religion Matters? Herschel’s Between God and Man and Schuon’s Logic and Transcendence and one finds what he misses, what he misconstrues and what he affirms despite his apparent denial.

Post Script:

Wittgenstein’s humorous suggestion that all of Russell’s books should be bound in two colours, “those dealing with mathematical logic in red –and all students of philosophy should read them; those dealing with ethics and politics in blue – and no one should be allowed to read them” is perhaps noteworthy regarding Russell’s Marriage and Morals. Russell’s own ethics has not been quite exemplary on many points. And we can see his readers paying the cost who take some of his opinions too seriously. The Sacred dimension of sexuality and marriage and family life has been missing from our secular philosophies. For appreciating much ignored (in practice) view that takes the Sacred seriously, one may see “Celibacy, Marriage or ‘Free Love’... which way to Choose?” by Bishop Alexander (Mileant).