International Journal for Philosophy of Religion 20 (2/3):109 - 129 (1986)
I do not for a moment question the fact that many people have experiences of a special type which may be termed “religious”, The extent to which religious experience may be regarded as a reasonably common phenomenon in present-day Britain is shown clearly by David Hay in his Exploring Inner Space, Harmondsworth 1982. that such experiences often involve reference to something which appears to display a radical unlikeness to all else and that they are therefore in some sense inexpressible. Doubtless the ideas I have put forward about the possible source of such unlikeness and ineffability might suggest models of God which would not find much theological approval, at least within any mainstream theistic tradition, since some sort of pantheism seems inevitably to be implied. But however this might be, the concept of radical unlikeness as it has been analyzed here can, I think, help us towards understanding certain problematic areas in religion quite apart from the issue of intelligibility, which has been the focus of this discussion. To begin with, radical unlikeness suggests a way in which the historical continuity of concepts of the transcendent might be upheld against the discontinuity suggested by the diversity of interpretations through which they have moved. Ancient and modern outlooks on, say, God differ enormously, as indeed do the range of co-temporal accounts at many particular moments. But, by and large, theologians firmly maintain that it is a single and unchanging phenomenon which is being dealt with. Unless we can point to some common element which is both specific enough to create a binding sense of common tradition, yet never completely expressed by any attempt at understanding it within that tradition (thus persistently demanding new attempts to apprehend it), then given the widely differing views of God within, for example, the Christian community, it is difficult to see how we could assume that in fact they all stemmed from the same source and were talking about the same thing. The idea of radical unlikeness could provide an element with just these required characteristics: it could be seen as what all the accounts attempt to net, with varying degrees of adequacy, within their offered interpretations. It could be seen as what remains constant, constantly elusive yet constantly generative of fresh attempts to apprehend it, throughout a history of intra-religious diversity. This sort of explanation could, presumably, be applied to the intra-religious diversity of the non-Christian traditions too.Secondly, radical unlikeness might suggest a possible way of understanding inter-religious diversity in a way which allows that whilst such diversity exists, whilst the differences between religions are real, they are grounded in a similar root-experience. It may, at first sight, seem difficult to continue thinking of the various religious traditions as truly separate phenomena if they are taken as being grounded on experiences whose ineffability stems from the unlikeness of experiencing things as a whole. Here we must stress again that if they are to be considered intelligible, radically unlike experiences cannot be considered completely so - or putting this another way, we cannot more than approach experience of totality. Sense can be given to religious claims of ineffability by suggesting experience of near totality, where we reach the last point on the scale of inclusiveness which complies with the logical criteria demanded of something for it to be possible for us to be aware of it. We might thus attempt an explanation of inter-religious diversity based on the view that Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity, Islam etc. acquire their differences from the different elements included in their experience of near totality. Taking totality to be represented by the scale of one to ten, Hinduism might be seen as grounded on experience of 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-9-10, Buddhism on experience of 1-3-4-5-6-7-8-9-10 and so on. The resulting dissimilarities are thus centred not on different types of experience, but on different areas of inclusiveness. This is, of course, to suppose that the various religious traditions are all based on the same degree (as opposed to the same elements) of inclusiveness, but it is by no means clear that such a supposition is justified. Continuing with our decimal analogy, might it not be suggested that whilst Christianity stemmed from experience of 2-3-4-5-6-7-8-9-10, Jainism was founded on a less extensive encounter with the divine (say 4-5-6-7-8-9-10)? It is, however, uncertain how we can compare and evaluate different religious traditions in such a way as to be able to comment on such claims. A definite danger of comparative religion is that by concentrating on establishing and exploring inter-religious likenesses, it may obscure the radical unlikeness of religious phenomena. It should be borne firmly in mind that such likenesses as may be established within comparative studies may not win religious phenomena a place within our understanding comparable to objects of more everyday concern. Statements found in the Old Testament, the Qur'an and the Vedas, for example, may, on occasion, be alike, but at the end of the day such things are often alike only, or chiefly, in so far as they display the same radical unlikeness in relation to the non-religious elements in our outlook.The analysis of radical unlikeness and ineffability which has been advanced might also suggest a way in which certain passages in religious writings could be understood, passages which at first sight can be seriously perplexing. If, for example, to return to the quotation given in the introductory section of this paper, we continue to think of accounts of the nature of Shiva as being attempts to describe some discrete, objective entity, then it is inevitable that either we will share the Puranic writer's puzzlement or that much of what we read about Shiva will appear as the muddled and extravagant thinking thrown up by an uncritical and over-fertile mythological imagination, consisting of little more than a hotch-potch of contradictory elements. But if we see such accounts as attempting to say something about everything, as symbols of near totality stemming from experiences which verge on the holistic, then what we read - with all its ambiguities - may become somewhat more meaningful. Thus W.D. O'Flaherty comments that Shiva “embodies all of life in all its detail at every minute” (Asceticism and Eroticism in the Mythology of Shiva, London 1973, p. 315). Similarly Alain Dani41ou sees Shiva, ultimately, in terms of his being "the supreme state of reality" beyond whom there is only "non-existence" (Hindu Polytheism, London 1964, p. 190).This analysis of ineffability and intelligibility seeks to introduce for debate a possible way of understanding the radical unlikeness which accounts of religious experience apparently attempt to speak about. It does not, however, claim to present an exhaustive treatment of the issues raised, on the contrary, I am conscious of many shortcomings and omissions. For instance, it remains to be seen under precisely what conditions something counts as being an elucidating likeness (presumably all experiences are, for example, temporal, yet temporality alone would not seem to offer a particularly elucidating comparison). Moreover, the degree to which appeal to likeness is allowed operation in actual accounts of religious experience needs to be explored. In addition, the notion of categorizing experiences according to the extent to which they approach a point of total inclusion requires careful clarification. To begin with, according to what criteria could we establish that one experience was more inclusive than another? However, such issues can only be mentioned here, any adequate consideration of them would require a separate paper.In conclusion, I would suggest that to use radical unlikeness and/or ineffability simply as devices by which to halt any process of investigation, proclaiming that the thing in question is not like anything and so is beyond all words, risks making unintelligible and placing beyond all further inquiry an important and extensive area of human experience. As William Alston put it, to label something ineffable in an unqualified way is to shirk the job of making explicit the ways in which it can be talked about. William P. Alston, “ineffability”, Philosophical Review 65 (1956), 522. It is surely more accurate to take ineffability as a “qualifier”I.T. Ramsey, Models and Mystery (Oxford 1964), p. 60. which “multiplies models without end”Ibid. than as an absolute which prevents the construction of any elucidating models
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References found in this work BETA
Mysticism, Contradiction, and Ineffability.Galen K. Pletcher - 1973 - American Philosophical Quarterly 10 (3):201 - 211.
Citations of this work BETA
Concepts, Mystics and Post-Kantians.F. C. White - 1993 - Australasian Journal of Philosophy 71 (3):305 – 315.
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