IN SEARCH OF OTHERWORLD

by luketarassenko

DRAMATIS PERSONAE  

(all inhabitants of the city of Nephesh, close to the forest of Dochima)

RUDOLF OTTO                    an Otherworld enthusiast

WILLIAM JAMES                an Otherworldologist

JOHN MACKIE                    an Otherworld skeptic

RICHARD SWINBURNE     an Otherworld apologist

NINIAN SMART                  an Otherworld theorist

BLAISE PASCAL                 an Otherworld advocate

ABDULLAH                         an Otherworld Seeker

SIDDHARTHA                     an Otherworld Seeker

KRISHNA                              an Otherworld Seeker

THEOPHILUS                       an Otherworld Seeker

*

It was a bright morning in Nephesh. The sun lit the city so well that each person or building took on a special clarity. This was the day that the Seekers began to return. The Seekers: four men who had been selected for displaying a particularly advanced sensibility for Otherworld. They had been sent into the forest of Dochima to settle the question once and for all of whether the Otherworld actually existed. After all, as had become one opinion in Nephesh, might it not all be a superbly elaborate self-deception?[1] That had been forty years ago. Once news that the first Seeker had returned spread, the six elders gathered together to welcome him and interview him to discover what he had learned. So it was that Abdullah found himself in the city square, watched by an enormous crowd of seekers of another order, encircled by Rudolf, William, John, Richard, Ninian and Blaise, being asked to give an account of what he had experienced in Dochima.

“Tell us, Abdullah,” Rudolf began, “what did you find in Dochima? What have you to tell us of Otherworld?”

“The Other revealed himself to me. He spoke to me through an angel,” Abdullah told them.

“What did it feel like?” enquired William enthusiastically.

“I felt a sense of awe, of terror before the Other, wholly beyond my reach, infinitely greater than and beyond myself. My only response was reverence.”

“Excellent, excellent,” commended Rudolf. “It is as I expected. You have had an encounter with the Holy, the mysterium tremendum et fascinans, in Dochima. This is an irreducible sui generis category of experience; none of us can question it.”

“Not so fast, Rudolf,” interjected John. John was the only one of the elders who did not in some capacity hold to belief in the Otherworld. “I should like to learn more about this ‘encounter’. When did you have it?”

“Exactly one year ago,” Abdullah informed him.

“And you can remember it clearly?” continued John.

“As clearly as if it were yesterday.”

“And what were your immediate circumstances prior to the revelation?”

“Well,” recalled Abdullah, “I had been fasting for about forty da–”

“Aha!” yelled John. “Fasting? By this you mean that no food passed your lips?”

“Of course,” nodded Abdullah. “It is a valuable method of Seeking.”

“Are we not in agreement,” John addressed his fellow elders, “that neglecting sustenance for a prolonged period of time is liable to put a man in an unbalanced state of mind?”

“That may be agreed…” conceded Richard after a brief ponderous silence.

“I put it to you then, dear elders,” –John’s voice grew bolder, he spoke so that the whole of Nephesh could hear– “that Abdullah here has not had a revelation from the Other at all. Rather, in his weakened physical condition, his unbalanced mind has conjured up an illusory messenger to dictate comforting but ultimately ethereal precepts to him. Even what he classes as genuinely Otherworldly experiences do not resist explanation in purely human terms. And this seems fatal to any argument from his experience to any conclusions about the Otherworld at all.”[2]

A hush fell on the onlookers as John’s words sank in. They were persuasive. Now they all looked on Abdullah with a mixture of suspicion and condescension.

Then, after some time, William spoke up. “I suppose, John, that by your scientific theory you think that the Otherworldy authority of all Seekers is undermined.[3] But I ask you, how can such a scientific account of facts of mental history decide in one way or another upon their spiritual significance? Worldly theories are organically conditioned as much as are Otherworldly emotions.[4] I do not see how by merely outlining the history of a feeling you may claim to undermine its content.”

The elders murmured in assent. The patronising stares of the crowd were turned almost instantaneously back into admiring gazes.

“But how then,” protested John, “can you possibly claim that anything of the Other has been revealed here at all? If the mechanisms of the World bear so little upon our understanding of the Otherworld, what does Abdullah’s experience teach us?”

The population of Nephesh hovered between condescension and admiration. They were unsure what to believe.

“I have an answer,” said Richard confidently. “Let us define the kind of experience that Abdullah has had as ‘an experience which seems (epistemically) to the subject to be an experience of the Other or the Otherworld’.[5] Now, I present to you the Principle of Credulity: If it seems to a subject that x is present, then x is probably present. Obviously there are special considerations to take into account when applying this principle. I take it, for example, Abdullah, that you did not have this experience of the Other on one occasion only, and that you could repeat the experience under certain conditions?”

“Yes. If I went back into Dochima I could have the same experience.”

“And I assume that were we to send others into Dochima they would have similar experiences, and so also be able to testify to this?”

“I believe so.”

“We shall await the return of the other Seekers who will no doubt reinforce your belief. What is more, you are obviously a man of sound mind, or else you would not have been chosen to be a Seeker in the first place. Therefore, owing to my other principle, the Principle of Testimony, I conclude that it is reasonable to believe in the Other based on your credulous report of experiencing it. Unless we take perceptual claims seriously, whatever they are about, we shall find ourselves on an epistemological Queer Street.”[6] (It should be noted that at this point the inhabitants of Queer Street took offence at Richard’s derogatory remark, but no-one else in Nephesh paid this much attention.)

The crowd applauded Richard for his confident and convincing employment of the Principle of Credulity and the Principle of Testimony. They took Abdullah’s perceptual claim seriously, and believed in Otherworld, in the Other. John was not satisfied at all, but he held his tongue. He was still of the minority opinion, and the people of Nephesh were an intolerant bunch. It was not often that he found the courage to speak out against the other elders. Furthermore, he had a suspicion that sooner or later someone would come along who would cause problems for this newly formed dogma of Otherworld.

He only had to wait until the next day for confirmation of this suspicion. That night the people of Nephesh, having become Abdullaheans, went to bed after praying to the Other in reverence, convinced of his existence. But with dawn, the second Seeker returned. News spread, and once more the elders gathered together to welcome and interview him to discover what he had learned. So it was that Krishna found himself in the city square, watched by an enormous crowd of seekers of another order, encircled by Rudolf, William, John, Richard, Ninian and Blaise, being asked to give an account of what he had experienced in Dochima.

This time Richard began the questioning. “Tell us, Krishna, what did you find in Dochima? Did you have an encounter with the wholly Other like Abdullah did?”

Krishna did not provide him with the answer he wanted. “I do not know what Abdullah encountered in Dochima, but what I experienced was a sense of the fundamental Unity of all things, of how the Other is in fact not distant and unknowable, but immanent in the World. In fact I felt as though my sense of self was merely illusory. I believe we must all return to Unity with the Otherworld, so that it ceases to be ‘Other’ at all.”

“Ah,” said Ninian, “so you have not had a numinous experience of the Other at all then!” Rudolf gave a little twitch. “Rather you have had an Otherworldy experience of quite another kind –we can loosely term it a ‘mystical’ experience: the World is not in truth divided but composes a fundamental Unity, is that what you experienced?”

“Yes,” replied Krishna.

“Hold on,” exhorted John, “what are we now to make of Abdullah’s experience? Is there a transcendent Other or not?”

“This does seem to present a problem,” commented Richard with a distraught look. John smiled.

Nepesh waited with baited breath. Once more it was William who was the first to break the hush. “I suppose that the variety amongst the Otherworldy experiences we have thus far had reported to us might lead us to suspect that they are merely fabrications,” he began. At length he continued “But I can identify certain characteristics which are common to all of them: Both Abdullah and Krishna have come to believe on the basis of their experiences that there is an Otherworld from which this World draws its significance, that our true end is harmony with that Otherworld, transcendent or immanent as it may be, and that this can be achieved by inner communion. Furthermore, they have clearly had imparted to them an uncommon zest for life as a consequence, not to mention a temperament of peace. I do not think that this diversity of creed is regrettable. We would expect the totality of the Otherworld to disclose different of its aspects to different people in different ways. Pragmatically, we may say that the Otherworld is real since it produces real effects.”

“I agree,” said Ninian. “The correct belief must clearly harmoniously combine these two types of Otherworldliness. At base we must concede that there is an Otherworld. It is clearly most sensible to assume that Abdullah and Krishna merely grasp different aspects of the same Other.”

Just as the people of Nephesh were ready to announce their new status as Williamites and Ninianites, John took courage and gave voice to his concerns once more.

“Wait a moment, Ninian, I do not see how that follows. You give no real argument to support this opinion.[7] Was it not to Richard’s Principles of Credulity and Testimony that we resorted yesterday in order to justify belief in the Otherworld? Yet now we have been presented with what seems like quite a different credulous report, and as such it has provided us with an alternative testimony. These experiences lack both the degree of independent testability and the degree of regularity which in the case of sensory experience allows us to speak of experiences supporting our physical object scheme.[8] Moreover, I have other issues that I did not voice yesterday which have become even more problematic now that our second Seeker has returned from the forest.”

“Pray tell, what issues?” encouraged Rudolf.

“Well,” said John, “it seems to me that is very difficult to see how either Abdullah or Krishna have really experienced anything at all. Both tell us they have had certain feelings that have led them either to posit the Otherworld as transcendent or immanent. I am suspicious that these Otherworldy dogmas are simply psychological projections onto what are really quite common feelings. For where is the object of their experience to be located, even in their discourse? Abdullah claims the Other is totally transcendent. In which case, is it not a defiance of his dogma to claim that the Other can be experienced at all? How has he bridged the gap between World and Otherworld?”

“There is no gap,” said Krishna. “One must realise they are a unity.”

“In which case, Krishna,” continued John, “why speak of an Otherworld at all? Is there not simply a World? And if there is no ‘self’, who is it that has experienced this ‘Unity’? To whom shall I address my objections?”

At this a tremendous ruckus broke out. All the elders started talking loudly over another, all save for Blaise, who remained silent, listening to what the others had to say. Eventually the sun went down and the arguments were forced to wait until tomorrow to resume. Nephesh went to bed divided that night. Some entered their dreams as Abdullaheans, some as Krishnas, some as Williamites and Ninianites, and some even, like John, refused to commit to any dogma of Otherworld at all.

With the dawn, the third Seeker returned. News spread, and once more the elders gathered together to welcome and interview him to discover what he had learned. So it was that Siddhartha found himself in the city square, watched by an enormous crowd of seekers of another order, encircled by Rudolf, William, John, Richard, Ninian and Blaise, being asked to give an account of what he had experienced in Dochima.

“Tell us Siddhartha,” said Ninian in an exasperated tone, “what did you find in Dochima? What have you to tell us of Otherworld?”

“I have nothing to tell you of Otherworld,” said Siddhartha calmly. A gasp went up amongst the crowd. “How could I? It is Otherworld. Rather I have observed this. All existence is craving, craving gives rise to suffering. We must free ourselves from the cycles of craving and suffering. This is to be done by walking the Middle Way. We must realise our basic unity with all things and attain harmony with the World.”

“That sounds a lot like what Krishna had to say,” observed William.

“Yes, I met Krishna on my journeys in the forest. We seem to potentially agree on a number of matters. But I do not see why he persists in his belief in an Otherworld. There is only one World available to us, and we must free ourselves from the suffering in it by attaining a kind of stopping, which I call ‘nibanna’. This is enlightenment. I have attained this through meditation.”

“I find this position much more attractive, though I still have reservations,” said John.

“But Siddhartha has not solved our problem of what to believe about Otherworld,” said William. “Here we now have offered to us at least four different dogmas, each claiming some kind of experiential vindication. Which should we select?”

“Reason gets us neither way,” said Blaise. It was the first that he had spoken these past three days.

“By what criterion then are we to decide what to believe about the Otherworld?” asked John.

“Do not worry about that,” advised Siddhartha. “That is like being shot by an arrow and asking ‘where did this arrow come from?’ Rather, worry about the wound itself.”

“But what,” suggested Blaise, “if the cure of the wound is to be found with the source of the arrow?”

This question prompted another ruckus, with each elder being equally convinced of his dogma and yet unable to give a reason for why they should be convinced of it. Once more Blaise remained silent. Once more Nephesh went to bed divided, only now Siddharthism had been added to the variety of dogmas.

With the dawn, the fourth Seeker returned. News spread, and once more the elders gathered together to welcome and interview him to discover what he had learned. So it was that Theophilus found himself in the city square, watched by an enormous crowd of seekers of another order, encircled by Rudolf, William, John, Richard, Ninian and Blaise, being asked to give an account of what he had experienced in Dochima.

“Tell us Theophilus,” said John, “what did you find in Dochima? What have you to tell us of Otherworld?”

“I did not find anything. Far greater, I was found! I was lost, but now I’m found. I met somebody in Dochima. He taught me about how the Other is unknowable by our own efforts, but about how the transcendent Other has made himself known to us in love by entering into our humanity as a person called Jesus Christ –the Otherman! This has made it possible for me know the Other in love. The Other is love.”

John was unsatisfied, as ever. “I put it to you, as I put it to Krishna yesterday, Theophilus, that you have not actually had an experience of the Other at all.”

“In a sense, I agree,” said Theophilus. “No-one has ever seen the Other face to face, I’ll grant you that. But I believe that I have experienced the Other through my experience of the love of the Otherman. If we love one another, the Other lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.[9] Anyone who claims to know something does not have the necessary knowledge. But he who loves is known by the Other.[10]”

“Well Theophilus,” said Ninian, “granted you do seem to have potentially avoided our problem of transcendence versus immanence by postulating the idea of the transcendent Other lovingly becoming immanent. But I do not see how it is now rational for us to believe in the Other simply on the basis of your alleged experience of the ‘Otherman’ and his ‘love’.”

“Hmm…” pondered Theophilus. “Yes, I see how it would be difficult for you to accept this based on the force of my experience on its own.”

“But is this not the manner in which you came to believe yourself?” pounced John.

“Yes,” conceded Theophilus. “Though my own experience is more valuable to me than anyone else’s. All I know is that I was blind, but now I see.”

“Well then, how could you ever hope to communicate what sight is in the country of the blind?” John’s rhetorical question rang triumphantly out over Nephesh.

On this day it was Blaise’s turn to break the prolonged silence.

“What if there were documented instances of this ‘Otherman’ claiming to be the Other incarnate, performing repeatable signs that point to the Otherworld and confirm his identity? Would it be more rational to invite others to trust in your experience then?” asked Blaise.

“I suppose…” mused Theophilus. “In any case the certainty of the Other would might not wholly spring from rationality, but the rational element in Nephesh would be more satisfied.”

Someone came and handed him a book. His name was Luke. It began “Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things that have been accomplished among us, just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the Otherman have delivered them to us, it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught… [11]

Footnotes

[1] Ninian Smart, Philosophers and Religious Truth (1964), p119.

[2] J. L. Mackie, The Miracle of Theism (1982), p181.

[3] William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience (2002), p13.

[4] William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience (2002), p14.

[5] Richard Swinburne, The Existence of God (2004), p246.

[6] Richard Swinburne, The Existence of God (2004), p276.

[7] J. L. Mackie, The Miracle of Theism (1982), p183.

[8] Anthony O’Hear, Experience, Explanation and Faith (1984), p47.

[9] The apostle John, The New Testament, 1 John, 4:12.

[10] Paul the apostle, The New Testament, first letter to the Corinthians, 8:2-3.

[11] Luke the evangelist, The New Testament, Luke 1:1-4.

Written in response to an undergraduate Philosophy of Religion essay question, ‘Is it rational for those without the benefit of religious experience to believe in the reports of those who have?’ at Worcester College, Oxford, 2007. Very slightly modified from its original version and presented as a group-read short story to the Magdalen College School Philosophy Society on 4th October, 2013 as ‘In Search of Otherworld: Can we trust religious experience and, if so, which religion?

Advertisements