Making Fundamental Distinctions in Religion

Defining the subject

The religion which will be of particular interest to this study is not that of the social, political and cultural institutions, which the major faiths have created – although they are of enormous consequence.  This intends to be a more fundamental study: the origin of personal religion in the experience of deep-thinking individuals, who believe that they have been in contact with ‘the divine’.  By this they mean something which is present, not just in themselves, but in all humans, or throughout the universe.

To judge whether such a personal experience is worthy of notice by anybody else, one has to look in two directions.  Firstly, one has to compare it to the religious experiences of others, to see whether it may have a more universal psychological validity.  Secondly, one must look at the effect that this experience has had on the individual’s own behaviour, to see whether it was useful, positive, effective and benign.  The spiritual experiences that will figure in this history were beneficent in their intention, and may point to some general truths about personal religion.

The specific aim of this history is to study illuminist and pantheist tendencies in the central Middle Ages, and to throw more light upon some less well-known religious writers, thinkers and mystics.  I shall need to define terms like illuminism and pantheism, but I will begin with a fundamental analysis, based on observation rather than dogma, of what religion is.

I take the word ‘religion’ to refer, very literally, to what a person feels bound  by.  (Its Latin origin comes from the word to bind, ligare.  The same root has given us words like ligature.)  It is a set of precepts for living, based upon an understanding of one’s place in the scheme of things, which a particular individual or community accepts as having binding authority.  This study will be interested in the individual and his personal religion, rather than in organised religion (which is anyway ultimately dependent upon the personal spiritual experiences of its founders).

Religion, in this broad sense, can encompass all sorts of philosophical and theological positions: it is what you turn to, in order to determine what is right.  Whenever you have a decision to make, how do you choose what to do?  When you are helping your children to grow up, what do you give them as the ultimate authority for their judgements?  This will show you what your religion is.

The search for religious authority

You do not have to believe in a God to have such a point of reference, which is both within and outside yourself.  It does have to be outside or beyond the self: it must transcend the interests of any individual.  We know, by looking around, that those who just follow their selfish desires make a mess of our society.  If we cannot consider the interests of anyone but ourselves, we will fail as lovers, fail as parents and fail as members of any community.  The religious quest is the search for the authority by which we can live the best possible life, not just as individuals or citizens, but as parts of an interconnected world.

Most people will take their religion on trust from their parents or from the social groups in which they live: such religions can rightly be called faiths, because they are simply accepted without question.  Other, more independent, people have to work out their own religious position from their own experience.  It does not matter which route is followed, as long as an authority is found, which is at once immanent (in you – found through prayer and deep thought) and yet transcendent (found generally, not solely in you).

When we know what we ought to do and what we ought not to do, and when we keep to our principles, we begin to feel good about ourselves.  We feel mature, whole and trustworthy.  If we are honest when we do not have to be, or if we do some good deeds when there is nobody to see them, there may be no tangible reward, but there is a much more important gain: our (often unconscious) respect for ourselves starts to rise, and this is the key to adult human development.  Without this, our development is not complete: our humanity is not whole.  Religion encourages integrity, which unconsciously generates self-esteem.  Such self-esteem is purely internal; we may not know, ourselves, and nobody else can know, whether we have it, – although we do make it painfully obvious to others, by our behaviour, when we have no integrity and no self-esteem.

If the religion, to which we feel bound, is a profound and worthy one, it will show us to what extent we need to keep close to our origins among the animals, and to what extent we need to repress our bestial nature in favour of moving towards a better human condition.  Religion has to show us how to strike the right balance.  On the one hand, it is obvious that our human capacity for victimisation (mocking, repressing and hurting other people, – or “only joking”, as bullies call it, – which comes naturally to all of us) is so dangerous that it has to be rigorously curbed and, if possible, channelled into other activities.  On the other hand, if we deny our equally natural bodily needs, and if we refuse, for example, to acknowledge the circadian rhythms of our biology in favour of the unnatural shift working of a 24-hour economy, we know our health and well-being will suffer.  We need religion to put our biological and our social needs into perspective, so that we make the right choices.

A religion, which is worthy of our allegiance, will also show us how to balance our concern for the improvement of ourselves and of our species, with a proper respect for the needs of the rest of the creation.  It is usually those who are more aware of a spiritual dimension who have to remind people about the interdependence of all creatures, the importance of sharing resources, or the potentially disastrous consequences of global greed by one arrogant species.

I see religion in the broadest of terms; it would include most faiths and most philosophies (it would certainly embrace modern atheist humanism).  Organised religions always serve a number of diverse purposes, – social, political, artistic etc., many of which are not religious at all, and some of which might horrify their founders, – but most people would probably agree that, to warrant the name, a religion has to concern itself with two important things: the relationship between mankind and the universe (metaphysics) and how humans treat each other (morality or ethics).


There are two more terms that need to be defined, before they cause problems.  The first is the word ‘soul’.  In this history, it will be used in its medieval sense, to signify everything about a creature that is not corporeal and functional.  It will therefore be very unspecific.  It can refer to a creature’s identity as a species, or to its identity as an individual; and it can encompass all the intangible products of its brain or nervous system, such as thoughts, emotions, attitudes and so on.  In addition, the human soul was believed to be spiritual (i.e. it was aware of the divine; it was capable of contact with the universal spirit of humanity) and immortal (i.e. it would continue to exist after death).

The second difficult term is the word ‘God’.  The people studied here all knew what they meant by God (and the terms used would have been masculine).  God was the eternal, the infinite, the One, the source of all Being, the Father, the creator, sustainer and redeemer of the world, the King of heaven, the Lord Almighty, the omnipotent, the omniscient, the Truth, the sum of all goodness and love, the only guide, the source of all light, etc. etc.  Therefore in this history, God is likely to mean: all of the above, and much more besides.  It is an unhelpfully all-embracing term.  I should therefore like to start by suggesting some distinctions, which seem to me to be of fundamental importance for the study of religion.

The concept of God

Presumably, when early humans needed to give thanks or make requests (for fertility or food, sunshine or rain), or when they needed protection (from inexplicable earthquakes, famines and diseases), they had to humanise the forces of nature in order to relate to them.  They had to give whatever was controlling them a human face and human reactions; they had to imagine them as gods.

As the concept was refined and consolidated into that of one supreme god, this deity was endowed with all the best human characteristics, becoming the exemplar of all that is admirable in humanity: intelligence, goodness, justice, love and so on.  God thus became the supreme example of every quality that humans should aspire to possess.  This is the impossible position that has been bequeathed to the monotheist religions.  God is claimed to be both the pattern of all that is good for humanity, and the creator or first principle of the natural universe, its life-force, or more accurately, its Being (since there is much in the universe which does not have life).

Perhaps the concept of being needs some explanation.  Everything that exists in the universe is impermanent.  Nothing stays the same for ever, not even the stars.  All things develop, change and decay, but over massively different time-scales.  However, what composes them is not lost.  Things may decompose into their elements or into their atoms, or into subatomic particles of energy et al., but the basic components, whatever they may be, remain to be made into new creations.  Lives come to an end; existences finish; identities disappear; but being persists.  Being is eternal.  Being is in everything that is.  Humans are no more and no less involved in being, and therefore in eternity, than anything else in the universe, whether that be a dragonfly or a table or a mountain (but, of those, only the mountain seems to be permanent, which is why it makes a good symbol for Being (and why it has often been seen as the ‘abode of the gods’).

God as Being (or God as Creator) and the universe that has been created are often seen as good; but the universe is, in fact, neither good nor bad.  Is a volcano good or bad?  It is neither; it is just a consequence of physical processes; but its destructive power can be very bad for humans.  Good and evil can only be understood in human terms, in relation to us.  God as the creator or controller of the natural universe can be neither good nor bad.

But God – as the very form of the word in English implies: God / Good – is also the supreme example of what is good for humans; God is the highest good, the ultimate moral authority for humans.  These are two distinct poles of religion, but both are called God.  As Being, God is universal, eternal and amoral.  The contrast between good and evil does not belong to the realm of Being, of eternity, and of universality, but to the realm of Becoming, of time, and of one particular species, ours.  It would be helpful to have different names to distinguish God as Being from God as the Highest Good.

Christianity, with its remarkable doctrine of the Trinity, ought to be in a position to help out.  God the Father, the Creator, seems to stand for God as the universal, eternal principle, while God the Holy Spirit seems to be the spirit of morality, the voice of conscience within humans.  Good and bad are moral, human terms and refer to good or bad human behaviour.  The Holy Spirit, or Spirit of Man, is God as the spirit of humanity, God as the moral authority for mankind.  (It is a pity that Christians call the principle of eternal creativity and being God the Father, rather than God the Mother, which would keep a better symbolic balance between the passive acceptance of Being and the active morality of the Holy Spirit or Spirit of Man.)

In the study of religion, it is helpful to distinguish God as eternal, universal Being, from God as the moral authority for humanity.  However, almost all the medieval thinkers, whose ideas are going to be studied, believed that God was both the principle of nature and the pattern of moral, human behaviour.

The exception would be the dualist heretics, the Bogomils in Greece and the Balkans, and the Cathars in the West.  They distinguished between nature and spirit, equating what was natural with evil and what was spiritual with good.  This might at first seem reasonable: Nature is, in Tennyson’s phrase, “red in tooth and claw”, while the Spirit guides humanity towards perfection.  On deeper reflection, it becomes clear that this would have the unfortunate logical consequence that a couple’s sexual love for each other, or a mother’s natural love for her child, would be part of the evil world; whereas anything unnatural or artificial might be expected to be part of the spiritual and good world.

This dualism, which has always looked so attractive, should be confined to the sphere of ethics, to distinguish what is good for humanity from what is bad for it.  To make this moral polarity into a metaphysical one is based on a false dichotomy, because both our spiritual development and our propensity for committing appalling evils are ultimately derived from our animal nature.  Both what is good for humanity (love, trust, creativity, mutual support etc.) and what is bad for it (greed, domination, victimisation, slaughter etc.) have their origins in nature.  The proper metaphysical dualism should be between Being and Becoming, between eternity and change.  Religion should concern itself with both polarities: the metaphysics of being and the ethics of right behaviour.

That people should confuse God the Supreme Being with God the Spirit of human morality is understandable, because when, in prayer or meditation, they delve into their own minds to find the universal, the divine, within their own selves, they find links there to all the principal stages of our evolution.  As they go down through the layers of education and ancestral memory, they may make contact with the Spirit of Man, that voice of conscience in all humanity, or with the Life-Force of all living creatures, or with the Creator of the natural world, or with the Being of all that is.  These are all immanent (in individuals) and transcendent (beyond any individual), and maybe they could all be called god, but I fail to see how conflating all these different gods into one could ever be helpful.  That just makes a dangerous muddle. 

Much religious teaching limits itself to dealing with the two extremes, the two poles of our development: the universality of Being at the start of everything, and the perfection of humanity, as the only fitting end, which our species can aim for; the foundation and the goal; metaphysics and morality; our relationship to the universe and our behaviour to each other.

The dangers of faith

Most people like to leave unnecessarily difficult work to others, and in particular to put any burden of responsibility upon other shoulders.  Most people’s religion consists in accepting that someone else will be their saviour, and that all they have to do is to believe in that saviour (or in his book), and to follow the rituals and rules of the faith.  Such faiths can do a lot of good; but they find it hard to develop, as any advance is seen as a challenge to ‘divine’ tradition.  Indeed, one of the great dangers of faith is that its adherents think it has a monopoly on truth, and therefore anyone hoping to develop its insights, or anyone professing a different faith, is liable to be persecuted.

It is easy to understand how this comes about.  It is clearly advantageous if the whole of a given society can agree on the same standards and follow the same moral authority.  This is why monarchs and political leaders have always tried to interfere, when the religious status quo (orthodoxy) has seemed to be threatened by new or different ideas (heresy).  Unfortunately, they have unfailingly confused the socially useful moral authority of religious belief, with the dogmas, practices and institutions of one particular faith, church or sect.  Thus there is always persecution by the ignorant, often using extreme violence, before any development can occur in the religious understanding of any society.

This is tragic.  A main purpose of all religion is the continuing moral development of humanity; and yet any new development is seen as being ‘against religion’ because it implies a criticism of the absolute truth or ‘word of God’ that must not be questioned!  People who argue in this way are blind to history, which would show them that the ‘infallible truth’ of their faith had, at its revelation, replaced the ‘infallible truth’ of the faith that preceded it.  This is a problem for all faith groups: how to keep the emotional strength of child-like religion, while encouraging their adherents to grow into strong, open-minded spiritual adults.

If most people were looking for a period, in European history, of child-like faith, they would nominate the medieval period.  At a time when the population was largely illiterate and superstitious, those in power in the church colluded with the military leaders (the crowned war-lords and their descendants) in support of an unquestioning obedience to each other’s institutions.  However, there was always a minority who wanted to think for themselves, who needed to undertake their own spiritual quest, and who tried to find God in their own experience.

Illuminism and pantheism

Many of them had a handy way of distinguishing, in their meditations, between what could properly be attributed to God, and what could not.  The test was one of light.  If God was involved, the experience could be symbolised using the imagery of light.  The symbolism of fire and light had been important to Zoroastrians, Hebrews, pagan Celts and many others, and this interest was inherited by all the religions that touched medieval Europe.  Light is especially associated with experiences of God as the Spirit of Man.  (Christian scriptures are full of light symbolism: examples would be the transfiguration of Jesus, the light on the road to Damascus that transformed Saul the persecutor into Paul the missionary, and the tongues of fire that symbolised the presence of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.)  This spirit brings wisdom and enlightenment.  The voice of conscience is perceived as an inner light.  This is the reason why those, whose religious authority is the Holy Spirit, – or God illuminating the soul from within, – are called illuminists.

For many of the bold seekers of religious truth who will come into this history, religion has to be based upon an inner, personal experience of God.  These are the mystical experiences, which will be at the heart of this study, and they will be of two kinds.  If the inner experience is of God as Spirit, as the illuminating spirit of humanity and morality, it can be called illuminism.  If, however, this experience is perceived as a union with the All or the One, if it is an inner experience of God as Being, it can be called pantheism. 

In their accounts of their own mystical experiences, which are given by people brought up in the three main monotheist traditions, Jewish, Christian and Islamic, no distinction is made between illuminist and pantheist mysticism.  For someone who wishes to study this phenomenon, however, it is important to keep the distinction in mind, because there are really two different interior experiences going on.  Pantheist mystics seek union with the One, with God as Being.  This is transcendent, as the being of all that is, but also immanent, because each particular thing has being.  Illuminist mystics seek union with the Holy Spirit or the Spirit of Man.  This is immanent, because in each human being, but also transcendent, because in all human beings.  Thus the polarity between pantheism and illuminism is that between being and spirit; between, on the one hand, God as Being, the Creator, the principle of nature and, on the other hand, God as the Good, the Spirit of Humanity, the principle of truth and justice.  The duality of pantheism and illuminism follows from the fundamental religious dichotomy between metaphysics and morality.  We accept the universe as it is, but we have to mould humanity into what it needs to become.

Immanence and transcendence

It is important to distinguish pantheism and illuminism from their debased forms, with which the orthodox monotheists have always been keen to confuse them.  The debased form of pantheism, experiencing the immanence of God in one creature, forgets that God is also transcendent, – i.e. is much more than any one creature, – and equates the creature with God.  Similarly, the debased form of illuminism, experiencing the immanence of the Spirit within the self, forgets that it is also transcendent, – within everyone else, – and equates one person with the Holy Spirit.  In studying the medieval testimony of hostile witnesses to pantheism and illuminism, it is well to remember that they always assumed it to be of the debased kind.

The terms, immanence and transcendence, can be used on different levels. Monotheists, such as Jews, Christians and Muslims, see God as immanent in the universe, while also being transcendent, being much greater than the whole universe, existing prior to its creation.  However, for the pantheist and the illuminist, immanence and transcendence can both be understood within the universe: immanence in the particular, transcendence in the general.  Most medieval pantheists and illuminists would probably have accepted that immanence and transcendence worked on both levels at once.

It may be of passing interest that, just as there is a corrupted form of pantheism which ignores divine transcendence and only considers its immanence in one individual, so there is a corrupted form of theism, which sees God as completely transcending the world and refuses to accept his immanence in it at all.  This is an exactly equivalent limitation but in the other direction.  However, whereas pantheism and its corrupt form are both called pantheism; the corrupt form of theism is, conveniently, given another name: deism.

That even our vocabulary is against an easy understanding of the religious attitude which this history wishes to cover, is another warning that the study of radical or heterodox thinkers is always difficult.  In part, this is because those in power can remove the evidence, and rewrite the memories, of individuals or groups, denying them their true identity.  In part, it is because such thinkers, knowing what the consequences might be, will be very circumspect about what they say, and in particular, what they put down in writing.

Philosophy and mysticism

The people who are going to be of interest to this study are those who think that religion is far too important to be accepted without deep consideration, and who have to seek answers that satisfy both their reason and their own religious experience.  They are therefore going to be drawn to philosophy, to find religious answers that are acceptable to their reasoning minds.  They are also going to be drawn towards the sort of mysticism that focuses their contemplation inwards upon their own religious experience, to see if they can find the transcendent (sometimes ambiguously called the universal Self) within their own self.  Because of the difficulties mentioned in the previous paragraph, and because of the nature of the two activities, it is sensible to keep in mind that it is always easier to find evidence for the philosophical background than for the mystical practice.

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