Mystical Engagement with Ultimacy according to the philosophy of Robert Cummings Neville
The purpose of Chapter 16 of Neville’s Philosophical Theology Volume 1 ‘is to explore paths of spiritual cultivation that make possible and promote the development of concrete, materially constituted, acts of symbolic engagement of the ultimate understood as the ontological act of creation.’
According to Neville, ‘these paths of spiritual cultivation are defined by goals of spiritual virtuosity that are beyond most people but that are known and somewhat understood in larger communities within which the virtuosi live. The vague term mysticism has been applied to them all.’
(Neville, 2013, 301)
According to Neville, there are four paths ‘of relating to the transcendental traits of harmony.’ He is clear to explain that ‘the distinction between the four comes from philosophical considerations and can be illustrated by various spiritual techniques from different traditions.’ These are not self-enclosed paths however and ‘actual spiritual practices can combine elements from the paths’ which he distinguishes and he wonders whether ‘in some sense the ideal adept follows all the paths.’
The four paths, constituting different ways of relating to ultimacy, are those ‘of meditation aiming at experiencing the ultimate as the creation of unity in diversity; of contemplation aiming at experiencing the ultimate as the creation of diverse things such as they are; of the mystical abyss aiming at experiencing the ultimate as the creation of an extensive world from nothing; and of love or devotion aiming at experiencing the creation as the ultimate act of value-making.’
(Neville, 2013, 303)
The path associated with meditation and aiming at experiencing the unity of the radically contingent creation is extremely broad with many interweaving wagon tracks. One track is intellectual with both epistemological and ontological interests. With regard to the former, part of meditation is to understand what meditation is. The meditative practices of yoga, for instance, long have been associated with the Samkhya philosophy of purusha and prakriti, with its analysis of consciousness, mind, will, identification, and the like that provided the terms for the long traditions of debate about meditation in South Asian conversations. Neo-Confucians, with great moral urgency, debated with Chinese Buddhists about meditation. The epistemology for meditation in this Philosophical Theology is a naturalistic account of causal perception giving rise to intentional fulfillment, elaborated in Philosophical Theology Two, Part III. With regard to the ontological interests in meditation is the development of metaphysical theories about the nature of ontological unity. Perhaps the most famous, most elaborate, and most discussed is the Advaita Vedanta theory of nondualism elaborated by Shankara and developed in many subsequent ways. Whereas the yogic traditions of meditation involve long years of sitting in special postures with controlled breathing and exercises for the focusing of attention, the Vedantic practices emphasize more the long years of sitting with a guru commenting on texts. The “aha!” moments of Vedantic understanding change the material qualities of meditative symbolic engagement just as do the long years of yogic meditation. The argument of this Philosophical Theology is that the intellectual side of meditation is best served by the cultivation of the thinking of the ultimate as the ontological act of creation, as described in Part III and chapter 15.
The point of the meditative path is to be able to feel the unity of things as positive, in light of the finite/infinite contrast in which there might be nothing at all. Cultivation practices of feelings of unity are extraordinarily diverse, as are the ways of fitting of such feelings together. Nature mysticism is important in many forms of meditation, as is face-to-face communing with other people. But so also is the feeling of one’s body: Often, nonadepts feel their bodies as distractions from meditation, a jarring cacophony of feelings.
This is why meditation is sometimes associated with practices of martial arts, or the asanas of yoga.2 Feeling oneself as whole and unified is a difficult accomplishment. The development of effective material symbols, based in one’s context, body, and interpreting feelings, constitutes many more tracks in the meditative path.
The spiritual path of meditation, in its various tracks, aims at unity. Looking toward the future, unity lies in possibilities, and so does the value that unity always has in the unifying patterns with their complexity and simplicity. As we have seen, the unity is not only in trivializing environmental distractions and unifying the sense of bodily singleness, but also unifying one’s sense of being with others. The distinction between self and other falls away in advanced meditation, as does orientation to others in existential fields. The aim of the meditative experience has something to do with attaining an immediacy of unity.
(Neville, 2013, 303)
The path of contemplation takes a somewhat opposite direction. Instead of being oriented to unification, it is oriented to the components of harmony, or of life, explicitly attempting to set aside the task and effects of unifying the components. The path of contemplation aims to deconstruct the self in ways that compensate for the fact that usually the components of the contemplator are biased and modified by virtue of being harmonized within the contemplator. The aim of contemplation is to attend to the things of creation such as they are, without the bias of the contemplative perspective. The ultimacy in this is that the ontological act of creation creates the determinate things just as they are, just fitting together.
Of course the basic fact exists that we do integrate our experiences to a great degree, as indeed we must in order to be at all attentive on any spiritual path whatsoever. Ordinary life means that we subordinate many of the contents of our lives to its overall shape and purposes, most of which are legitimate. We need safety, nourishment, associations, and love. Economic work is necessary, as is the political activity of organizing social institutions from friendships and family to communities and nations. Purposive activity is necessary and requires adept habits of keeping ourselves and our relationships balanced and harmonious. So it is unrealistic to say that we can become adept at contemplating the components of our lives without integrating them and changing them in the integration. The ordinary truth of things is that we relate to them perspectively from a more or less centered sense of self and purposeful direction.
(Neville, 2013, 306-7)
The way of the mystical abyss embraces signs for the entire existential field, thereby including signs for essential and conditional components alike, and moves to the consideration of the radical contingency of the whole creation, and from the contingency of the creation to the act of creation, and from that act to the absolute nothingness that would be the case were the ontological act not to create. This is perhaps the most familiar kind of mysticism in the West, expressed in Tillich’s rejection of (determinate) God in favor of the God beyond gods, in Nicolas Berdyaev’s abyss with the fire of creation, in Meister Eckhart’s God beyond the Godhead, and in many other mystical writers.5 The movement from determinate contingency to the creation of that contingent world and then beyond to nothing is not limited to Western mysticism, however. Chapter 6 discussed the dialectic of Ishvara the creator, on to Saguna Brahman, and then to Nirguna Brahman; chapter 12 quoted and discussed Zhou Dunyi’s model of the 10,000 things resting on the five elements that are constructed of yin-yang patterns, which arise out of the Great Ultimate, which follow on the Ultimate of Non-Being.
(Neville, 2013, 309)
The paths of meditation, contemplation, and the mystical abyss correspond roughly with engaging ultimacy through the tropes of the transcendental traits of harmony: form, components to be formed, and existential location in a field encompassing all determinate things. The transcendental trait of ultimate value-identity provides the tropes for the way of love. The path of love is very broad indeed, including all the bhakti dimensions of South Asian faiths, the devotionalism of much Christianity, Judaism (especially in its Hassidic forms), Islam in its Sufi forms, Pure Land Buddhism, popular Buddhist devotionalism (as to Guanyin), the cultivation of the bodhisattva’s compassion, and the cool kinds of love in the Confucian cultivation of humaneness or ren.
(Neville, 2013, 312-13)
Neville, R.C., (2013) Ultimates: Philosophical Theology Volume 1. New York: SUNY Press