Mysticism is the mistake of an accidental and individual symbol for a universal one.– Ralph Waldo Emerson
I like to say I practice militant mysticism. I’m absolutely sure of some things that I don’t quite know.– Rob Bell
One of my favorite games is Civilization. I’ve put in several hundred hours in Civ V and catching up quick in Civ VI. And whenever I research the Mysticism civic in Civ VI, I’m confronted with the quotes above.
Civilization has always been liberal and Western in its reading of history. The quotes above illustrate this pretty directly. Mysticism is characterized as the foundation of organized religion, coming early in the player’s development, and it is characterized as a “mistake” in the first quote or willful ignorance in the second.
I find Emerson’s language particularly provocative, compelling even. “Mistake” rings true for me in many ways. His quote evokes imagery of the golem animated by the symbol for “truth” inscribed on its forehead; of the cross shape in the protein laminin to reflect a deeper Christian truth; of people seeing their god during a near death experience; of a witch using a few human words and hoping the universe will comprehend them.
A name for a god, or truth, will not animate clay. Laminin does not function in the body to remind us of the Christ-truth. Mystical near death experiences only confirms a person’s beliefs, not the truth beyond them. A witches’ spell is not a dependable way to shape the universe.
But quotes like this make me wonder, what am I doing here?
I hope to share these sorts of symbols with people. Terra. Familiars. Magic. The Soul. These and more are symbols which I believe provide connections to the divine. In many ways they are accidental (what is more so than our planet hosting life?) and individual (my culture has inevitably influenced how I see these things). So are these mistakes?
This evening I picked up my sister from the train. It’s only 19:00, but winter brings darkness up here in Canada. It’s a cool darkness this time of year, the chill not quite penetrating the light cast by my car. Doubt and insecurity soaked in my heart. Should I let this all go? Am I making the same mistake so many mystical thinkers have made? Even if no one reads this blog and I putter away at this little project for the rest of my life, I don’t want it to be founded in an error. I drove and brought my sister home.
Doubt is part of the path. I followed it here from old faiths and maybe I’ll follow it into new ones. It’s a diligent teacher.
This is what I figure: symbols are not universal, but the universe is. All symbols are attempts at articulating what is out there; headlights shining out into the darkness. A mystic begins at a symbol and works outwards to try to understand the whole; the truth. Who can blame them? But the mistake, and I believe this is what Emerson is getting at, is forgetting that the truth cannot be encapsulated in a symbol; we can’t stare into the headlights without being blinded. We must not mistake a symbol for the truth beyond it, the truth we are trying to understand. They are a tool to go out and come home.
For even if symbols aren’t universal, they are a part of the universe. A part implies the whole. You can start anywhere and go anywhere. It’s daunting, and so we use symbols as skipping stones to make the journey easier. The truth is between them all, seen in the leap from one stone to the next; in light overcoming the darkness.
We must all begin somewhere on this journey. There is no error in determining where to begin. I prefer to have anchors and a home base. But we must use these tools for what they’re meant for. Universal symbols are not the universe itself. They are only a small thing; to be left behind if necessary. The truth is so much bigger. Our symbols are universal only in the sense that they reveal our connections to the whole. Starting at the name of a god, or a myth, or a book, or an image, is how we can find connections to glimpse the larger truth.
And what does that look like? I believe it is a humbling sight. It is sublime, it is grand, it is divine. And all the universal symbols are in it. The ones you don’t begin with are still there, guiding someone else.
I believe that proper use of these tools is to see how they connect with one another. May they reveal the connections between our souls.