by Saad Ismail
In a scene from Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins, we see the caped crusader cornered in an inner-city high rise, with no escape in sight. The entire fleet of the Gotham City Police Department has him surrounded and SWAT teams are storming inside from every direction. Batman knows he cannot come out of this on his own. He instinctively activates a high-pitched frequency meant to signal his “backup”. The police outside soon start noticing an illegible screech that seems to be growing louder. All at once, the infantry is overtaken by a sudden barrage of bats violently bursting onto the scene, breaking the barricade, blinding the officers, shattering glass windows, and flying frantically towards the signal that had just been triggered. Right before the swarm catches up with the source, Batman throws the beacon away, and the bats dive toward it. With that misdirection, Batman takes his cue and secures his escape in the commotion.
The reason we are revisiting this scene from what is now an iconic film has to do with the need for better Hindu-Muslim dialogue. But first, a word about the sketchy science behind the scene. It seems unlikely that a simple supersonic frequency could have communicated to the bats, what must have been a complex message, that Batman is in danger and needs the help of the bat army. Admittedly, even if it was something as simple as a mind-altering soundwave, triggering an erratic zomboid reaction from the flying mammals, it is still unconvincing. A more successful human-bat conversation can be imagined – and, indeed, appears in the Batman comics – where we have a hybrid half-human, half-bat creature.
The Man-bat from the DC Comics is a scientist-turned super-villain who has concocted a serum that turns him into a giant bat with super-human strength and hearing. But when the zoologist is under the effect of the serum, his IQ falls precipitously and he turns into a creature of pure instinct. However, there are occasional lucid spells where the monster recovers some of his human intelligence. This lucid interval is the key to Hindu-Muslim dialogue, as we will soon see.
But we have a better candidate for our purpose. Morbius, the new entry into the Marvel Cinematic Universe, is a character with an origin story that resembles the Man-bat origins so closely, that one wonders who stole whose idea? There is one key difference, however. Morbius is not an altogether hideous and brutish creature like Man-bat. He is able to keep his human wits and charms intact, on most days at least. In order to learn what such characters can teach us about Hindu-Muslim dialogue, we will need to use our creative imagination. Imagine an entirely new superhero in a new fictional universe, who moonlights as a vigilante, and has his own secret lair filled with bats – which he also happens to be experimenting with. Let us call him Charles. What is unique about Charles is that he will protect us from any copyright infringement suits that these other characters are likely to land us in.
Now, Charles has been experimenting for years with recombinant DNA technology. Finally, one fateful night, he has a breakthrough. He has cracked the serum. He can now access bat-like powers, without in the least bit compromising the integrity of his human intelligence. Having administered the serum to himself, he can now communicate with the bats in his cave.
At first sentient contact, they are both too spooked to talk about it and retire for the night into their respective sleeping chambers. Early next morning, as Charles climbs down the spiral stairway into his lair, with his Espresso in one hand and a fresh copy of The Guardian in the other, he almost spills the coffee stopping suddenly in his tracks. The bats are hanging from the ceiling stalactites as usual, but today the otherwise obstreperous bunch has organized itself in a show of unnatural discipline.
“Salams!” they greet him in unison. He’s taken aback, equally by their legible vocabulary as by their surprising Muslim disposition. He freezes for a few seconds while they silently smile in their awkward and snarly way. With a groggy head, Charles hastily gulps the steamy espresso, burns his tongue, and pretends to regain composure.
“Walekum Salam” he remembers to return the greeting, half out of fear that they might treat his fumbling as a sign of hostility.
“And may the mercy and blessings of God be upon you”, they quip in unison.
An elder bat then flies and perches right in front of him. “Don’t be afraid Charles- ” reassures the elder, “ – we have been observing you. We saw how you experimented on our brethren. But that is not the issue. We do not mind being experimented on. It is the natural order of creation that to Man has been subjected the earth and its creatures. But your species never appreciates all that we animals provide, for which you and your kind must indeed feel ashamed.”
“Of course! I was just about to say how sorry I am. It was never my intention to harm your friends. I assure you I have great compassion for all animals, but most of all for bats. I would never harm them.”
“We accept your sincere, albeit terrible, apology. Don’t worry, we mean no harm either. You and all other carbon-based lifeforms can rest assured of that. Of course, our courtesy doesn’t apply to your ‘smart’ machines of course, that so-called ‘artificial intelligence’. ”
“Excuse me…” Charles gulps down the choking feeling in his throat and feels his heart racing in his chest. He finally musters enough courage to speak his first objection to them, “… A.I. is actually a form of consciousness. And with future technological advancements, it can very well overtake human consciousness.”
“Maybe. But not with the Turing machines that your species is currently using. As long as it’s a Turing-based system – which includes practically all your modern computers and smartphones – it can never become conscious or be the subject of phenomenal experience.”
“What makes you guys so sure?”, asks Charles increasingly feeling out of his depth.
“Really, Charles?”, the elder looks into the poor vigilante’s eyes with the confidence and imperturbability of a seasoned philosopher. “Have you never heard of Searle’s Chinese Room argument? Like a Turing machine, the Chinese room can imitate a task perfectly well, without having to understand it. Understanding or thinking, by contrast, is a human activity. ‘Intelligence’ is supplied externally to the system.”
Charles almost staggers in his place. He hastens to change the topic, imagining how embarrassingly he would fare in a debate on the philosophy of mind, particularly with a talking bat. He finally expresses his initial surprise “I never would have taken you to be Muslims, or even assumed you had religion in your colonies too.”
“Strange that you should say that. We have always surrendered to the laws of our natural calling. That is our Islam.”
Silence. Neither of them speaks for a bit, and the pregnant pauses become too much for Charles. Seeing his dazed expression, the elder speaks reassuringly “If it makes you feel any better, we equally accept all incarnations of God – not just Muhammad.”
“Wait. Muhammad was a messenger of God, not God Himself…”
“Whoever gave you the absurd idea that an incarnation is the same as God Himself? Spoken like a true ignoramus, Charles. You really should know your Ramanuja better. The One Brahman is manifest as Para, Vyuha, Avatara, Antaryamin, and of course, the form least understood among your tribe, the Arcavatara – what you condescendingly term the ‘idol’…”
“Whoa… heavy stuff”, Charles says reeling.
“But sure, Muhammad is God’s messenger, if that is your preferred theology.”
“It’s not! I’m just correcting a factual error.”
“Ah, you humans get hung up on those, don’t you? And often for things that do not concern you at all. We animals never understand why God chose you for the gift of higher consciousness.”
“Facts are important! I mean! Aren’t they?…” Charles peevishly implores, struggling hard not to sound desperate. He sees that the bats aren’t ones to insist on theological pedantry. They prefer to entertain the happy beliefs of their interlocutor, rather than argue. Unable to contain himself any longer he confesses. “I’m an atheist though, as you probably know.”
“Yes, we’re aware. And we don’t mind your theological ignorance in the least bit. As far as we’re concerned, your nocturnal actions are those of a virtuous man. Well, with some exceptions.”
“Wait, do you mean that night when I… umm, well, never mind.”
“Time for Surya Namaskar!” one of the bats announces before the congregation quickly retires in an orderly manner.
“What?! However do you manage the asanas?”
They leave before he can get his reply and he stands dumbstruck staring at them as they retreat into a nearby hollow. Unable to process any of what he just witnessed, he consoles himself with the thought that he might just wake up from this unhappy nightmare. He drowns the remaining cold espresso in a single gulp, collapses into the chair, and sits motionless with his face in his hands.
Over time, their conversations have shifted from religious and philosophical themes to more practical matters of daily crime-fighting. But there remains one philosophical argument that Charles cannot simply let go of. The most drawn-out and intractable debate that they have among themselves is on the topic of ‘color’. Charles feels the burden of responsibility that might have plagued that single prisoner who escaped Plato’s cave, saw the world outside, and returned to explain its features to his fellow prisoners. However, since the prisoners only ever knew the world through shadows falling on cave walls, they had no sensory experience with which to make sense of their former companion’s new ramblings. Charles feels similarly caught as the tragic Platonic hero, trying hopelessly to persuade his blind bat friends that there existed such a thing as ‘color’, and that the world was full of it.
Being courteous creatures, the bats don’t let on that they see Charles’s protracted monologues as all but nonsense. Although, his peculiarly human hubris is a habit that has started to get on their nerves. They reassure him that they will take his word for the existence of these ‘colors’ that he seems so stiff-necked about.
“But that’s not enough for you, is it Charles?”
“No. Look, for the millionth time! This is not something you should take on ‘belief’! This is the objective reality of the world. This is empirical truth!”
“For you, perhaps. Regardless, we have Kantian and Wittengsteinian license to maintain our silence whereof we cannot speak. Have you always been such a logical positivist?”
“What is that? Anyway, your fancy philosophy doesn’t mean anything when the verdict of science has come. Why can’t you accept the scientific evidence I have so greatly detailed for you time and again?”
“We have read the relevant science. And we are genuinely intrigued by wave-particle duality. But be careful now. Quantum physics can be a risky recourse for a committed logical positivist like yourself. We doubt if you are even any different to average logical positivist who is as much a “believer” in the fictional mythologic narrative that is sold along with the science. What pass as peppering are actually enframing devices. The celebrity scientists aren’t popular only for talking about science, they are also narrating a story that you want to believe in.”
“Nonsense. Belief has nothing to do with science. I don’t take anything on belief. I do my own reading and research.”
“That’s good to know. So we take it you have read Aquinas and are familiar with classical Thomism?”
“Sorry, I haven’t.”
“That’s okay. Maybe you went through Avicenna’s ontological argument, or perhaps Ibn Arabi’s philosophy of Wujud, or indeed, Shankara and Ramanuja acharyas’ various commentaries on the Gita and the Vedanta?”
“Well, you must have surely read Kant, Heidegger, or Wittgenstein?”
“Tell me you have at least seriously tried mindfulness meditation of some kind.”
“I’m not into such things.”
“It is as we were afraid. You are no atheist, Charles… you are just an ignoramus.”
“Don’t say that, I have come to my atheism independently through reading my Dawkins, Hawkings, Dennett, and Pinker.”
“It is adorable that you read even as much as you do. You did admittedly do some independent reasoning initially which led you to your conclusions. But now that you have come to those conclusions, and over time grown comfortable in them, you are no longer as mentally agile as you were when you first started out.”
“What else would you have me do?”
“Challenge yourself, Charles. Read beyond your ‘church fathers’. The church of logical positivism has had many great recent revivers that have indeed done well to popularise science. In our estimation, Dawkins and Sagan have written some of the most eloquent and inspiring passages on nature and the cosmos. But the genre, in general, has had the unwitting effect of turning many good-willed non-partisans into positivists. It was sad to see the great Stephan Hawking, who announced the “death of philosophy” shortly before his own death, similarly stepping into a terrain his training in physics had ill-prepared him for. I know what you’re thinking. No. This wasn’t nearly as monumental an event in literature as Neitzsche’s prophetic proclamation of the death of God. It was all but a cheap parody.”
“You guys can be quite preachy, you know that. You have so much to say all of a sudden. You used to be deceptively quiet in the beginning.”
“Well, we didn’t want to scare you. Atheists are easily scared.”
“What do you mean? We are definitely more courageous than most religious believers”
“Sure. When did we deny that? We’re talking to you now, aren’t we? Whataboutery is never helpful. Think about yourself, Charles. Have you had the courage and the patience to read the other side? I mean truly read them. To read them in their most eloquent and profound of writings. But in order to begin grasping their advanced ideas, you need time, my friend, to orient yourself with their ideas and at least “hang around” in their world for a considerable time as your social anthropologists do. Also, do yourself a favor and read better atheists. You can never go wrong with the classical anti-theists. Read Hume, Freud, Camus, Schopenhauer, and most importantly, read Nietzsche. We have deep respect for those whose kalima is “There is no God and Nietzsche’s Zarathustra is His prophet.”
Charles snickers goofily.
“And seeing as you are so caught in your analytic mind,” continues the elder, “make sure to cultivate a taste for literature and poetry.”
“Oh yes. I’ve wanted to read some classics for a long time. Thank you for all the suggestions. I always appreciate a good book recommendation. Some of these books are indeed on my reading list. But you should admit it’s not easy for everyone to always be so self-critical.”
“It’s not easy for anyone.” says the elder matter-of-factly. Then continues with concern “… because once it has become easy, it has stopped being an active process.”
“I see your point. I had a Hindu martial arts teacher in Kathmandu who taught this class on the Kena Upanishad that I now recall. I should revisit my notes again. Neti, Neti, all the way, am I right?”
“Precisely. The same teaching has been known in other places as negative or apophatic theology in Christendom or as tawhid salbi, in Arabic. The virtue of this teaching lies not only in the knowledge of the Divine but in knowing your true self, as you would no doubt recall from the Kena Upanishad. You surprise us sometimes with your familiarity with the Eastern canon. Particularly since you are so fond of bandying about your logical positivism.”
“I suppose you can call me a child of the East and West. I believe in taking the best from both worlds.”
“That is good. But make sure you do not say such lofty things in vain. Make sure to live up to your ideal, if indeed it is one for you. Sometimes you need to take a leap of faith, in order to understand. What we’re asking is no different than what your literary theorists call suspension of disbelief, which is what we do whenever we approach an art-form, whether in reading a novel or in watching a film. If you’re watching Nolan’s Inception, you don’t ask how dreams can be intercepted? how the technology works? You won’t get more than a few minutes into the movie if you get keep lingering on that. Instead, to grasp the movie, you suspend disbelief, as it were, for the two or so hours. Or was Inception’s run-time even longer, Charles?”
“Sorry, Inception, did you say? Haven’t heard of it. And I’m afraid this Nolan guy isn’t on my radar either.”
“Of course. We forget that you are part of a fictional universe disconnected from the real world. Plus, the fourth wall doesn’t collapse for you as it does for Deadpool.”
“This is the real world! And what is a deadpool?”
“Ryan Reynolds. You don’t know the guy, do you?”
“Didn’t think so.”
“Well, I think I see the merit in that suspension of disbelief that you were suggesting. But surely you’re not asking me to give up all that I have learned so far in order to learn something new.”
“Of course not. But you can never learn something you think you already know.”
“What? Can you be less cryptic, please? Let me be be clear, I can never bring myself to abandon empiricism or what you’re calling ‘logical-positivism’. It defines the core of my worldview. It is simply who I am.”
“Why do you care so much about who you are or where you stand, Charles? Is it for the sake of your social image or even for your self-image? You shouldn’t be so bothered about cosmetics if you’re interested in making real progress. Your self-image too is an idol that you need to bring a sledgehammer to. Objectivity is a spiritual skill.”
“I never thought of it that way.”
“Isn’t it always so? Isn’t the ego the surest way to muddle your perception of whatever has seized your attention? Particularly when it comes to your worldview, you need to make sure you adopt or reject reasons purely for objectivity’s sake. While in itself an incomplete step, it is nonetheless a prerequisite to objectivity that your judgment remains unclouded by personal prejudice. You will most likely not be persuaded by the Quran’s insistence on taking the ego as your enemy. But what if Ryan Holiday, the Daily Stoic himself, were to say the same? Then perhaps you would appreciate the dangers of vanity!”
“Ego is indeed the enemy… Guys, this might sound strange… But I have dreams, which feel like more than dreams, where I am a wealthy New York City investment banker who is the epitome of vanity, to the point that it has driven him to become the most depraved, debauch, and murderous human being… I know it makes no sense…”
“Interesting. It actually makes perfect sense. The American Psycho did star as Batman in an alternate universe.”
“What?! Stop this mumbo jumbo, will you? Speak plainly for once!”
“Well, let’s just be thankful it wasn’t your test in this lifetime.”
“Now, what does that mean? You use such mystical language which I simply cannot process. There is only this life, and there is nothing beyond it!”
“Metempsychosis is very much a reality, dear Charles. Just because you don’t remember, doesn’t mean no one does. How else do you think we are having this conversation if the Jivas within both of us weren’t of a kind?”
“But what about science?!” asks Charles almost having a panic attack.
“Our debate has never been about the science. Has it, Charles? Or are you as convinced of your scientism as you will ever be? Try this. Take a hard look at Schrodinger’s equation and honestly tell us you don’t feel your head spinning from its sight. Do you honestly not feel challenged in your positivist convictions by studying such a thing as the Observer-Effect? If nothing assails your unshakeable fortress of mind, you should consider whether you have anything worth preserving within the boundary of those mental ramparts you have erected for yourself.”
Charles bows his head staring into the ground with a hollow expression. Then raises his right index finger and recites. “I bear witness that there is no god but God and that Muhammad is His Messenger”
“Ooo kay… That wasn’t necessary.”, the elder exchanges embarrassed looks with his fellow bats.
“Got you!, Hahahaha!” guffaws an insufferable Charles.
“Child, you’ve got nothing still… ”, the elder sighs, slightly irritated but mostly relieved. He speaks somberly now. “You should know that accepting God as One does not mean that there is only one path or prophet or Avatar. The Islamic Kalima is no different than Advaita Vedanta in this sense. Both speak of Absolute One-ness in different ways. Both are therefore amenable to short-sighted readings that preclude diversity. In fact, to even call such reading shortsighted is unfair. It is only a reading that is blind to the meaning of the scripture that can so distort it. Also… nevermind.”
“What were you going to say?”
“Well, even when reading scripture, it helps not to be a logical positivist”, the elder can’t restrain his smirk.
“There you go with it again! I don’t like this name-calling. It’s insulting!” protests Charles.
“Firstly, there’s no need to take every statement as a personal accusation. Secondly, shut up! You don’t even know what the term means.”
“We forgive you. Now pay attention. Absolute Reality is one. There are multiple view points or Darshanas of knowing It/Him/Her. ‘Ekam Sat, Vipra bahuda vadanti. “Truth is one. The wise call it by many names”, to cite the Rig Veda. Mind you, this is not an invitation to philosophical relativism. Notice, it is the wise that know Truth through multiple names. Not every name of Truth is equal. “How can those who know be equal to those who do not know?”, to quote the scripture you were just mocking.”
“Hey, I wasn’t mocking Islam. I care deeply about my Muslim fan base.”
“Exactly. What greater mockery than not giving it the courtesy of being treated as a valid philosophical option. It is a misguided liberal assumption to believe that your indifference to others’ beliefs amounts to your care for their beliefs. Remember Charles, public indifference to truth is no less harmful to a civilization than fanatical insistence on truth.”
“Why do you always have to speak in such obscurantic terms ?… You guys are impossible!”
“So we are. Speaking of impossibles, this miraculous conversation that we are having is soon coming to an end. The God given gift is returning back to its source.”
“Again, with God?! Why don’t you see that the success with the serum was my own doing entirely? God had nothing to do with.”
“Yes, whoever said it wasn’t your own doing? That is of course your phenomenological experience. However, ontologically speaking, God is still the cause of every accident that comes to be.”
“How can I take such a tall claim on mere faith?”
“You don’t have to. You merely have to read some Hume and Ghazali to deconstruct your everyday confidence in causality. And, if you are up to the task, the Hand of God can be seen firsthand. It is everywhere, and nowhere. Hidden, yet everywhere apparent. It is indeed possible to see the world in what Spinoza called ‘under the aspect of eternity’, sub specie aeternitatis, which is also what the Stoics encouraged. However, the Buddha can help you here more than Marcus Aurelius. Though, you would be surprised, to what extent Aurelius can take you if you follow him too.”
“Hmm… I don’t believe in this, you know.” says a resigned Charles, weary by this point.
“Your belief or disbelief makes no difference to the Universe. God does not need you. You, however, might need Him/Her/It every now and then. But if you are closed to that which is Beyond, we can do little to open that dimension for you. We can ask you to keep an open mind, of course, as we have. But in our experience, mere ‘open-mindedness’ is seldom enough for this kind of self-growth. Sometimes, the self has to be broken open. The wound is where the light will enter you.”
“Rumi!”, Charles interjects, thrilled at having caught the reference.
“Yes. The memes aren’t entirely useless apparently” the elder replies amused. “Now, is there anything else we can do for you?”
“Yes, there’s something I’ve been dying to ask you guys since 1974”
“Yes?” the elder pouts quizzically.
“What is it like to be a bat? Hahaha!”
“Don’t be silly. Of course, you know the answer to that. It is impossible for a human to know what it is like to be a bat.”
“Really? I thought now that we were able to speak among each other, we would no longer have that barrier.”
“It’s not so simple. Of course, that 1974 paper by Thomas Nagel marked a milestone in consciousness studies. In fact, credit where it is due, it was one of our bat cousins who inspired him when they used to frequent his home at the time.”
“Yes, but don’t be absurd. That wasn’t the only reason, of course.”
“Of course”, mutters Charles half-heartedly.
“Well, Nagel chose our species for his thought experiment because of our unique sensory apparatus of echolocation. We can perceive things in a manner that you will never know what it is like to perceive. Echolocation isn’t just another modification of visual or auditory perception. It is something else entirely. To perceive something through echolocation isn’t to see it with eyes closed and as X-Ray outlines, as Marvel’s Daredevil wants you to believe. It isn’t even to hear more acutely and catch the decibels that miss most human ears. No. It is rather like hearing color or like seeing sound. If it makes no sense in the vocabulary that you are equipped with, it is because your vocabulary is constrained by your limited experience. Thus, if we had to describe it, we would not be able to describe it to you. If you were to describe the sweetness of sugar to a Martian who had never tasted it, you could never do so. Sure, you can describe it as a biomolecule composed of Carbon, Hydrogen, and Oxygen atoms combined in the empirical formula of Cm(H2O)n. This is all true. But notice, it captures nothing of what it is like to taste sugar. This, dear Charles, is the notorious hard problem of consciousness.”
“Wow.”, Charles doesn’t conceal his amazement. “Wait… so this is probably why I failed so terribly to communicate the sense of color to you?”
“It is precisely why. Well done, Charles!” the elder says proudly. “So you see, this is why no amount of verbose description or scientific evidence would furnish the knowledge in this situation what a single gaze by the human eye can provide. When it comes to knowing color, all the science, however convincing, is no substitute for a single glimpse of the rainbow.”
“Fascinating”, Charles is excited, half out of the praise he received a moment ago.
“And this metaphor has long been used by yogis and sufis of old. Spiritual truths are not the kind that can be brought down to the democratic lowest common denominator of language. Only those who know will understand. Only those who have had the experience, in some measure at least, will have some sense of the spiritual dimension. It is indeed, preeminently, a matter of tasting, or dhawq as the Sufis call it.”
“This is Brilliant!” Charles utters excitedly, then follows it hesitatingly “… but I will of course have my reservations you know…”
“Of course. And we invite you to have reservations. Do not simply take our word for it. Seek the experience, Charles. A moment’s tasting will tell you what it is like more than any number of scientific or philosophical books can.”
“And this experience is accessible only to a religious believer?”
“Yes and no. It is accessible in a way to anyone who has a mind. In principle, you need nothing more than yourself to grasp the deepest spiritual mysteries. But in practice, we often need a system, as in all things, to make steady and sustainable progress.”
“And so you would want me to accept religion?”
“I want you to accept nothing. I want you only to keep an open mind. Be open to everything. Do not dismiss something now just because you had dismissed it in the past. Let each embrace/dismissal be as fresh as the brand new moment you always encounter. And you should know that most religious traditions have stood the test of time for thousands of years primarily for their experiential dimension. The true test of religion then, is less as doctrine and more as a spiritual tool – what the Buddhists call an upaya, and what Foucault terms ‘technologies of the self’. We encourage you, Charles, to use religious rituals and practices as psychologically rich tools of knowing the reality of yourself: either by honest and introspective self-talk, or in moments of silence, quiet contemplation, and reverie, or through the therapeutic experience of standing naked before God/the Universe – baring all out, pouring your heart out. Just like the gopis at the bank of the river Yamuna lost their clothes before Sri Krishna. Their nakedness being symbolic of how we too must present ourselves before the knowing and loving gaze of the Universe.”
“Illuminating. I must admit, this is a very practical and utilitarian way of looking at religion. As a means to an end.”
“Right. And, isn’t that how it should always be, Charles? Religion was always meant to be a means to the realization of God/Self. The problem arises when believers stop worshipping God and start worshipping religion. In this way, it is believers who are often most insulting of God.”
“I agree. Which is why religious people are most off-putting in my experience.”
“Indeed, Charles. It is humanity’s most beautiful ideas that have the most potential to turn the ugliest. Only organic matter can really decompose. Plastic doesn’t rot.”
“This is all good, but were we getting at something with this?”
“Yes, returning to the hard problem of consciousness. Perhaps this will be our final lesson for now. Remember, language is always reductive compared to experience. Right?”
“I guess so.”
“This is always true, but it seldom poses a problem, because the two parties in the communication each know what emotion or experience a certain word functions as a stand-in for. But it becomes particularly difficult when both parties in conversation do not share the same experience. It is practically impossible, as we saw with the sugar and martian example, or indeed the color and bat example.”
“Yes, I’ve understood those points.”
“So, you might also understand why we can say that a person who has no foretaste of spiritual experience is apriori predisposed not to grasp spiritually descriptive language. When Osho or Krishnamurti talk of the Witnesser, you will never know what they are getting at unless you know it. There is no other way to express this fact. Of course, language can and indeed does serve as a temporary conduit in getting you from here to there – if that weren’t true, there would be no spiritual gurus or books or journeys. Each human would be hopelessly caught in an eternal Cartesian self-reflexive navel-gazing.”
“Haha. Way to throw shade on Descartes for no reason.” Charles says snickering.
The elder smiles unapologetically. He then continues, “So, you see Charles. This is the insight I was sent to teach you about Hindu-Muslim dialogue.”
“Wait, you were sent here? by whom?”
“Who else. Anyway, you must understand now that at the heart of religion is practice, and at the heart of practice is experience, and experiences are fundamentally qualia, to borrow a term from philosophy of mind. Which is to say, no one else who has not had the experience can really know what it is like. Thus while Hindus and Muslims will attempt to read about each other, and talk to each other, with howsoever much amount of sympathy they bring, their ambition of ‘understanding’ is fundamentally doomed. They will never fully understand. Because to understand is to experience. As outsiders, they will never penetrate the inscrutable and irreplaceable heart of the Other’s tradition. And, of course, one cannot truly dispute or take issue with what one does not fully understand.”
“Hmm… ” Charles is still processing. “Aren’t we getting into the same navel-gazing loop you just disparaged Descartes for?”
“Not quite. We must certainly assume that a large portion of the spiritual practice of a religion will remain incomprehensible to those who are not its practitioners. In effect, the entire religion remains inscrutable to the outsider who has little sense of the living spirit of the tradition. But notice, what we are saying is that such experiences cannot be communicated to someone who hasn’t in some sense glimpsed something of that category of experience. By extension, in order to understand the spiritual heart of another religion, it helps to first understand the spiritual heart of one’s own religion. Once light is recognized, it can be seen in other places too.”
“But that’s not all.” the elder quickly continues, “Only a person deeply informed by the lived practices and rhythms of a tradition may grasp the tradition and speak about it with any authenticity. Even then, they may not speak for the other practitioners of the same tradition. Scripture is not simply read like any other book. It is chanted, recited, lived upon, and forms the foundation for the various rituals and practices that punctuate the various sacred as well as mundane occasions of life.”
“If this is the case, isn’t all interfaith dialogue, indeed, all dialogue itself, doomed?”
“It is never a simple matter of all or nothing, dear Charles. Indeed there may be precious little that an outsider can denounce or disprove or debate about a tradition not their own. Thus, the need to always be intellectually humble. But we are, indeed, allowed to maintain our positions and even defend them. However, we must never assume that what for our internal reasons seems plausible must also do so to another person who does not share our framework or experience. The moral philosopher Bernard Williams suggests that we only ever have recourse to internal reasons. We can indeed, try to persuade our interlocutor to what seems right from our reasons and by our lights, but we can only successfully do so using reasoning that is internal to them. We will have to offer reasons that they find compelling, from their sources, and in a manner that is respectful of their traditions of interpretation.”
“So, you see Charles,” the elder continues while Charles has fallen silent, “there is indeed scope for dialogue. However, our argument only suggests that there be more humility in our mutual dialogues about each other’s traditions since we can never truly know the Other as we know ourselves. We must always seek to further our understanding of the Other while bearing in mind that we will never fully do so. And ultimately, interfaith dialogue is a chance for us not so much to speak or teach, but to listen and learn. To know the Other through their own self-description.”
“Brilliant! Well, doc. This has been lovely. We should do this more often.”
“Well, our purpose here has been served, we will return to where we came from.”
“Huh?… what does that mean?”
Charles’ peripheral vision has started to blur, it feels like the lights are fading. He cries out exasperatedly “No wait! How is this happening?”
“Neither of us ever really knew that, did we?” the elder replies unfazed by the apparent breaking down of space-time. “Though Doctor Strange has probably mis-spelled a few of his spells again.”
“No, that’s the time traveler.”
“This doesn’t make any sense.”
“Not everything has to.”
“Wait, is this all real? Or is it just happening inside my head?”
“Of course, it’s happening inside your head, Harry. Why should that mean that it’s not real?”
“Harry?? It’s me Charles, guys! What are you saying?”
“There is more to the Heavens and the Earth, Charles.”
“Wait, this I know… Shakespeare!”
“Really? Isn’t that Hamlet? So who else says that?”
“And literally every other scripture, of course.”
“Now, there is no backtracking on the Shahadah. Once a Muslim always a Muslim. Aren’t you glad to be one now?”
“Gee, I guess so. But can I think more about this before committing myself, I mean I’m not sure I thought this through fully. I know Ramadan is coming up, and yes it fits perfectly with my pre-existing nocturnal habits, but I’m not sure I can give up, you know, all the unlawful sex… and the violence too of course. Can I still beat people up when I’m fasting?”
“Got you.” the elder says snarling with the satisfaction of his comeback.