I blissfully believe in God. That is enough in the minds of some people for me to be classified as mentally unbalanced. I also delight to believe in angels and in healing, thus making me suspect in the minds of some believers. I even thrill to accept what the apostle Paul wrote in Romans 8 that nothing will be able to separate us from the love of God, not angels, nor powers, nor principalities (which I interpret to refer to different kinds of superhuman beings, giving still more people grounds to regard me with suspicion if not contempt).
What does my complex belief system have to do with Cervantes’ immortal novel, Don Quixote? A brief plot summary implies much of the answer. In Part I, we meet Don Quixote, who has filled his mind with the complicated and colorful absurdities found in mythical books with stories of knights who went around slaying dragons and doing heroic and impossible exploits in the intended service of some noble lady to whom they had pledged total idealistic devotion. Quixote comes to the fever pitch of going mad, and he sets forth on his horse in search of such adventures, and he persuades the more realistic but still gullible Sancho Panza to accompany him as his squire. The best-known of these disastrous and painful follies is the story of our knight attacking thirty or forty windmills, which he believed to be giants that he was called upon to kill. With unflinching confidence in his interpretations of reality, and with the highest courage and capacity for enduring harm, Quixote perseveres through one episode after another.
Part II shows Don Quixote to waver occasionally between two minds. Cervantes reveals the structure of self-deception in that, with part of his mind, Quixote is lucid or at least entertains realistic interpretations of some of the phenomena that set him off on crazy escapades. With another part of his mind, he persists in his delusions. At the end of Part II, Quixote relinquishes his attachment to the imaginary world of the mythical knights of old, accepts the mundane world as it presents itself, and dies in disillusioned contentment.
Now my religious beliefs have been so strong for so long that I almost never suffer even a shadow of doubt to come across my mind. But reading Don Quixote, I came a few days ago to identify so much with the main character, whose simultaneous doubt and conviction were being masterfully portrayed by Cervantes (and his translator, Edith Grossman!), that a shudder of doubt rippled through my frame.
I have long realized that my beliefs regarding superhuman agents make me liable to superstitious interpretations of events that deserve to be simply explained in terms of material causes. I have long taught that the momentum of brain processes and the forces of the unconscious mind often play a larger or smaller role in what people regard as their spiritual experiences. And five years ago I learned to recognize self-deception in myself: part of my mind would be lucid and trying to warn me about something, while the dominant part of my mind would keep that marginal awareness at bay, so that it could not come to full focus—and all the while my own morally responsible personality was complicit in the affair.
For a moment the entire edifice of my complicated ideas about superhuman beings quaked. But only for a moment. Putting the disturbing novel down for a few days, I adjusted my approach to reality (although mostly for reasons independent of this shudder), and I have now regained my enjoyment of Part II. I’m reading this brilliant novel as a challenge to idealists of every stripe. We are all prey to error. Some of our “inspired” moments that feel intuitive and insightful are more or less mistaken. We blow things out of proportion. We bring discredit on the values and the Deity whom we would serve. Like everyone else, we are fallible. How glorious that God can still lead us forward in spite of it all, so that his kingdom, the spiritual brotherhood of man, survives the sifting and testing of these tumultuous times and always rises from the wreckage to keep plowing ahead.
(Here’s a reproduction of Thomas Cole’s Voyage of Life series, this one titled “Youth,” and housed at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., which makes available such downloads). The youth is attracted by a vision of celestial glory, while the angel waits patiently behind him.)
I have rededicated myself to a life in which wisdom’s job is to coordinate the scientific and spiritual dimensions of living. To me this means that I will unceasingly continue to accumulate knowledge relevant to my pet projects and to living on Earth today. I will increasingly regard things in terms of their causal properties. In noticing facts, I will more often ask myself what science(s) are relevant to confirming them or disconfirming or modifying my understanding of them. Facing a particular situation or project, I will more often bring to mind what I know of the relevant sciences.
And I will coordinate the meanings of scientifically understood facts with the meaning of spiritual experiences with relevant specific value of goodness—all unified by the heavenly Father’s love, brought home to me through the presence of his spirit within. The coordination of the scientific and spiritual dimensions will sooner or later prevail, and we can determine to be part of that emerging triumph.
(The archives for this weblog have just been reorganized—thank you Blake Warrington!—so that you go to the weblog landing page, find “archives” on the right pane, select the “science” option, and then go back three tabs to May of 2014 where I began a series on scientific living that gives many more details on the stages summarized here.)