Madness, Mystery and the Survival of God
Publication details - O Books - Nov 2008
The conventional scientific world view cannot accommodate God. Yet, the world wide resurgence of religion, particularly in its most fundamentalist forms, flies in the face of science. Our seemingly secular society cannot tear itself away from fascination with the supernatural. Alongside the attraction of drugs, this reveals a yearning for something beyond.
This book offers a new way into the paradox. The feared experience of madness becomes the key to the human ability to operate in two ways at once. Science studies our individual side but is blind to our potential to participate in a reality beyond that which we can precisely know - the territory of religion.
Isabel Clarke is a psychological therapist, at home in her work with the experience of people diagnosed with psychosis and other severe mental health problems. Familiarity with their experience, together with a knowledge of the spiritual literature and of research into the processing capacity of the brain, led to her central conclusion:that psychosis and spiritual experience both inhabit that other reality - a reality that is integral and vital for all humans.
This new perspective on faith and psychosis offers insight into the unshakable conviction of both delusion and religious fanaticism. The survival of faith and superstition in a secular age is explained. God is located within the scientific world view in a way that respects mystery and so enlarges rather than diminishes our vision.
Preface. Experiences, Songs and Poems.
Chapter 1. The Religion versus Science Debate
Chapter 2. Two Assumptions.
Chapter 3. Truth and Myth.
Chapter 4 Religion: A Survival Story
Chapter 5. ‘the doorsill where the two worlds meet.’
Chapter 6. A Scattering of Saints and Visionaries.
Chapter 7. Travellers Across the Threshold.
Chapter 8. Making Sense of the Transliminal.
Chapter 9. Pathways in the Brain.
Chapter 10. A Neuron’s Eye View and Facing the Critics
Chapter 11. Shifting the Centre of Gravity – Towards Relationship
Chapter 12. Ideas and Power: Spotting the Transliminal at Work.
Chapter 13. Creativity and the Transliminal
Chapter 14. Mystery and Originality.
Chapter 15. About God
Books, CDs and Websites.
How do we account for the persistence of religion, the survival of God, in societies shaped and dominated by the triumphs of science? How is it that the thorough understanding of the physical world that modern science affords is not enough for the human imagination? Where does God, and that yearning for the irrational and infinite, fit into the tidy world view of the scientist? The pull of the supernatural and the sacred manifests itself both in the flourishing of religion and through other forms of spirituality, or indeed, superstition. So why have religion, spirituality not conceded defeat in the face of the technological revolution that has transformed our lives and eliminated so much discomfort and uncertainty (at least for those of us in the affluent world)? Why have these reminders of a pre-scientific world view not faded away in the blinding light of scientific logic? After all, science appears to many people to be on the brink of yielding the remaining few answers; the last pieces to slot into the gaps in the jig saw of knowledge.
What I wish to argue runs as follows: there are two ways of talking about the world that are different in character. However, both can be brought into one framework of scientific understanding based on what we know about connections within our cognitive apparatus; the way our thinking is wired up in our brains. My aim is to demonstrate that experimental psychology provides a basis for understanding that sense of connection and relationship with what lies beyond ourselves and beyond what we can precisely know – that is, the whole area of experience we label variously as spiritual, as religious, as supernatural or as sacred. The other side of this argument is more challenging: I will suggest that far from collapsing the spiritual within the confines of the brain, this perspective blows wide open our vision of the human being – wide enough to reach beyond the individual and embrace the infinite. And the key to this perspective is a new way of understanding that other commonplace of human experience, madness and breakdown.
Extract from Chapter 5. ‘the doorsill where the two worlds meet’
These two ways of knowing are based on a constant switching between two information processing modes in the brain, where one or the other can be temporarily in charge. Technically, this is called buffering. Which of the two is currently buffered will determine which side of the threshold we are operating from. The fact that we normally switch constantly means that we do not usually move very far from the door, and get to explore the room, so to speak. That only happens in the more extreme states.
However, the two rooms do have a rather different character. To play with this metaphor, let us imagine the room on this side of the threshold, the rational room, first. I see it with a desk and a computer; probably strip lighting and functional blinds at the window. The shelves are lined with useful reference books, and there is a sensible chair of the sort that does not wreck the back with long sitting. I can take in all the walls and the window at a glance.
The other room is altogether less clear. It seems to go on for ever, but the lighting, which is filtered to create fascinating textures and a muted range of delightful colours, fails to reveal much about the actual contours of the room or its extent. It does not help that these contours keep changing; what is that glimpse of a vista of endless landscape to that side? Turn the head for a moment and the whole appears quite gloomy and confined. What is that sinister shape lurking in the darkest corner? The furniture is similarly non-functional and unstable of state.....
As with all images, this little fantasy of interior design has its usefulness and its limitations. As a picture of the human condition, it is important to remember that we spend our time flitting back and forth between the two rooms, and normally, we never get to settle down in either of them. This does not sound very restful. Recall at this point the distinctly uncomfortable picture of the situation of humanity given in the two myths quoted in Chapter 3; banished from paradise or eternally chained to a rock. Dodging from room to room is not quite as bad as that, but this does appear to be a further example of the discomfort and unease theme.
What is useful to remember from this image is that the mysterious room is always around; we keep nipping into it; its influence seeps into the other one – perhaps some suspect books creep onto those tidy shelves? The odd richly decorated cushion might find its way onto that functional chair?
These two aspects of human experience correspond to the two ways of knowing introduced in the earlier chapters. The functional office represents the rational, either-or logic, way of knowing. The mysterious room with no clear limits corresponds to the relational and emotional, way of knowing that is based on experience. From now on I will refer to this aspect of experience as the transliminal, and the other as the everyday.