The Bible, Poetry and Mental Sensations

Jeff CarreiraBlog Posts, Philosophical Inquiry8 Comments

By the early part of the nineteenth century the Age of Reason  had made it increasingly difficult for progressive religious thinkers to accept a literal interpretation of the Bible. It was clear that many passages of that sacred text could no longer be accepted at face value. There was a rush of interest in biblical criticism aimed at determining what actually could be trusted in the Bible. And the door to important questions about language and its relationship to truth was flung wide open.

The Bible was the word of God and yet much of it appeared to be untrue. What could this mean? Some felt that the Bible had to be examined like any other book as an imperfect interpretation of truth created at a specific time by specific individuals. The truth might have been seen directly by those who wrote the great book, but their recording of it in words was flawed by their own personal and cultural biases.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge saw a different possibility. Words are the medium of record for one kind of knowledge that he called ‘understanding.’ Understanding is derived from the senses as the knowledge about things. This form of knowledge is held in the mind symbolically as images, feelings or more universally in the form of language. And it is only this kind of knowledge that can be recorded in the form of text.

The other form of knowledge Coleridge called ‘Reason.’ Reason is a direct knowing or intuition. It is a mental form of sensation. Just as we have physical sensations that are direct perceptions of physical experiences, we also have mental sensations that are direct perceptions of mental experiences. Coleridge further believed that the highest form of ‘Reason’ is spiritual Reason or the direct perceptions of spiritual experiences otherwise known as revelations. This way of thinking came to the New England Transcendentalists and was adopted as the essential core of the canon of Ralph Waldo Emerson.

It also appears to me that this distinction was an initial step toward the later philosophy of Charles Sanders Peirce. Peirce’s conception of Firstness has similarities to Reason in that Firstness is the essential nature of anything and Secondness is the encounter with that nature. Reason, therefore, is a kind of mental Firstness, the essential nature of a mental perception. Peirce described this mental Firstness as the materiality of thought, directly perceived thought-stuff.

A mental sensation – a piece of reason – can itself become the object of further understanding. We can have a revelation and then an understanding about it. The initial mental sensation is the knowledge of Reason and the secondary knowledge about that mental sensation is the Understanding. According to this way of thinking the Bible may have been inspired by a revelation of truth, but all that could be recorded of that revelation in words would be the after-the-fact understanding of it.

Coleridge and Emerson felt that if we use language correctly we can communicate Reason and Revelation. Language cannot record the truth of revelation in literal terms, but in poetic form language can provoke the same revelation in the reader. The Bible should not be read as a poem to be experienced rather than literature to be criticized.

To Emerson it was the poet that brought truth to the world by using the revelatory power of words. This understanding of the poetic use of language as a medium to provoke subtle and profound truths became a fascination of the Transcendentalists and much later the same idea became important to the 20th Century German philosopher Martin Heidegger.

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Liesbeth
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Liesbeth

This is really interesting to read Jeff. I always thought it was the habit in that time to speak in ‘story’s that made clear the truth. Like I see now people can talk Truth in the language of their time (cultural): Reason is kept but Understanding changes. I had to think of Andrew saying ‘there is no time’ during meditation or spiritual experience. This is absolutely true on the level of Reason but as soon as we get to Understanding problems arise.

françoise
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françoise

One of the greatest “mystic” in Christianity, St John of the Croce. wrote in the 16th century 3 poems/poetry which are and remain a major contribution to the Christian world long centuries afterwards ; which is fascinating is, beyond the poetry, the long explanation he gave about his own understanding of the absolute dimension of life. A work of transmission.

Catherine
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Catherine

Jeff, I follow you and it is very interesting. I want to raise a point here. What looks very interesting to me is the following idea that, if at any time someone wrote a text under the Inspiration of Spirit, then even if the transcription of this revelation is very clumsy, very poor poetically, very primitive, if the guy was authentic, this Inspiration is not lost, it is just “hidden in the text”. I mean that it can be recovered by deep spiritual contemplation of the text. I like this idea very much and I believe very strongly in it.… Read more »

Christophe
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Christophe

When I read “Enlightment is a secret”, I could feel the inspiration of Spirit in myself through the words. I didn’t have any effort to make. In that sense, I would say that the transmission was there and there was the revelation of the truth. Even if the Bible relates to perenial truth, it is sometimes difficult for us to interpret it because our cultural context is so different than the one in which the Bible was writen. Also, sciences gives us a new understanding of the Universe and in the Bible the vision of the world is smaller and… Read more »

Catherine
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Catherine

Dear Christophe,

I find is really great to see you on this blog ! one month ago had an experience similar to you in a church. I went to a catholic service and was almost propelled into ecstasy during it. As if for the first time the words
were touching me.

It is a fascinating effect of following authentically a spiritual Teachings, it looks as if the Truth was becoming inclusive, and the old dusty bible now could reach my heart… at last.

Liesbeth
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Liesbeth

I can contemplate nothing but parts, and parts are all little! My mind feels as if it ached to behold and know something great, something one and indivisible. And it is only in the faith of that, that rocks or waterfalls, mountains of caverns, give me the sens of sublimity or majesty! Samuel Taylor coleridge, 1797 During the eighteenth century, when rational modes were particularly dominant, poets came to cencern themselves with the theme of nature, and particularly with those sapects of nature which transcended or escaped the ordered patternings of mathematical form. In addition they ecame interested in certain… Read more »

liesbeth
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liesbeth

I will read your book. I look forward to it.

Lilian
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The only way to be saved, is by believing that Jesus died for our sins and rose from the dead. Believe, and you are saved! It is that sipmle When you believe in Jesus, then you are given the Holy Spirit. You can pray and ask Jesus for more filling of the Holy Spirit if you like, but it is believing that Jesus died for your sins and believing that Jesus rose from the dead, that saves you Salvation is a FREE GIFT that happens in a split second when you believe in Jesus alone to save you! It is… Read more »