In Praise of the Illogical
by Douglas S Johnson
If we look on our whole mental life as it exists, on the life that lies in us apart from learning and science, we have to confess that the part of it of which rationalism can give an account is relatively superficial.
One of the things that most impresses me about Rachel Remen, author of Kitchen Table Wisdom, is that, as a physician of the spirit as well as the body, she sees that there is much in life's mystical nature that "medical materialism" and "physics philosophy" simply can't explain. This view is rare among those in the scientific community, and it becomes increasingly so in the throbbing, harried world at large.
Among other afflictions, there is a particular curse that almost inevitably befalls industrialized nations based heavily upon the constant cash flow of big business. The upshot of that curse is that anything that does not fall within "logical bounds" or ultimately "doesn't add up" is sold down the road in favor of something more tangible or utilitarian. In fact, a general hostility toward the "illogical" invariably arises at some juncture, and often to the point where even those who have not bought into wholesale nihilism or cost-effective atheism wish to argue the existence of their God with something as ineffectual for that task as a syllogism.
No matter how we try, however, logic often fails, and yet we have been trained to cling to it like it was the last straw in a maelstrom. Far too often, in the name of logic and intellect, we arrogantly explain away with flippant nonsense what we do not like, and then turn right around and apologize for what we espouse with the most eloquent phrases of illogic, calling them good sense.
Why do we do such a thing? Why don't we simply allow the "illogical" or the intuitive as being sometimes more valid than the "logical," and so dispense with the obvious hypocrisy? Probably because it would terrify us to admit all that we do not and can never properly comprehend.
Many have tried to dispel much in the name of logic. It has been said by some that Saint Paul was an epileptic and that this explains away and negates the vision at Damascus. Saint Teresa, who claimed she could see God's face in the wrinkles of the convent's laundry, has been dismissed as hysterical, sexually repressed and thus mentally unbalanced.
But who is to say that divine providence did not do Paul a great blessing of insight and prophecy in granting him grand mal seizures? What if Teresa's was a divine madness? For that matter, what if, as many Indian tribes believed, madness is the purest divine state? There simply is no logic to prove or to disprove such things, and in such cases, we must fall back on our intuitions and beliefs, which, in the end, are often much more convicting than mere logic.
I grew up in a family of right-handed farmers, bankers, and business managers: rational, hardcore fundamentalist Protestants who would never have spoken above a whisper about having a "mystical" experience. (After a while, we did learn to secretly give reverent heed to the dreams of warning that my quasi-psychic mother and grandmother had, though openly, we, my mother and grandmother included, would mock such "foolishness" as ESP and premonitions.) Such things, after all, belonged to the "New Age freaks" and the charismatic preachers on television at whom we jeered for Sunday evening entertainment.
About the time I entered college, I started becoming what I am today: a left-handed poet who once asked a professor to prove with a sound syllogism that his "impenetrable" logic wasn't really his own personal insanity, a feverish dream from which he might eventually awaken. (I got a B- in the course.)
It worries me sometimes, the possession of these right-brained tendencies that so often get me misunderstood and then stuck at the end of the family dinner table (to avoid a collision of elbows). I was of late fretting about this very circumstance when two fair occurrences came into my life as though Providence had arrived to visit and dropped me a calling card.
The first was that a copy of William James' Varieties of Religious Experience practically fell off the shelf and into my hands in a bookstore in which one would be more likely to scout out Tim Allen's latest contribution to literature than discover a book of philosophy. The second, which happened during the same week, was much more dramatic.
On Tuesday, Roberta, a woman in her sixties who is taking one of my writing courses, was absent from class for the first time all quarter. Another student in the course, with whom Roberta works, informed me that the former had left her job early that day due to a sudden onset of what seemed to be the flu. I was concerned, but not acutely so, and thus after class, I went on with my life and my own busy thoughts as usual.
On Wednesday afternoon, I drove home from school, thinking of Roberta. "Perhaps I ought to give her a call and check on her," I thought. I quickly dismissed the notion, however, assuring myself that though she lived alone, her son resided in the same town and would no doubt be contacted by her if there was serious trouble.
Besides, I knew Roberta to be a very independent woman who had said on more than one occasion that she did not like uninvited encroachments upon her genial but well-protected privacy, even from close members of her family. ("I won't be treated like some old lady!" she once told me.)
So it was that once I got home, again I let the situation more or less slip from my consciousness as I settled down next to the fireplace in order to steal a few moments of warmth from November and some reading time from my crazy schedule.
I had not made it more than a page or two into James' lengthy exposition on mystical experiences when I was seized and shaken by a state of considerable anxiety. Attached to it was a message that arrived not in words, but in the form of a metaphysical Morse code of corporeal angst so profound as not to be ignored: call Roberta, it insisted.
I obeyed, and immediately found my ailing student to be quite dazed and disoriented. (She kept thinking I was a doctor and repeatedly asked how I had gotten her number and how I had known she was sick. Finally, when I got her to understand who I was, she started fretting about an upcoming paper for the class!) I insisted she call her son immediately, and, though still confused and groggy, she promised that she would.
Some might call it a minor miracle. As it turns out, Roberta had contracted bronchitis that had run rapidly into pneumonia, and my call had awakened her after she had begun to slip into the beginnings of a feverish, and potentially deadly, coma. When her son got her to the hospital that day, she was deeply unconscious and so dehydrated and hypotensive that the medical staff couldn't even take a blood sample.
Within 24 hours, her doctor was able to get her vitals back to normal and thus effectively treat the disease that threatened her. When I heard of this on Thursday, it made me happy, of course, but there was another brand of joy, a singular pleasure that almost made me swagger with pride for a day or two. I had a very certain conviction that I had been party to something amazing, illogical, and maybe even divinely orchestrated. (It is a curious and wondrous little profession I have gotten myself into, this teaching thing, because often enough, interaction with my students teaches me a whole lot more than I could ever teach them.)
To add to all of this, Roberta called me today from her hospital room, and she told me about an extraordinary experience she had. On Wednesday evening, after she had been taken to the hospital, she awoke for just a moment from her comatose state, touched, she thought, firmly on the hand; she turned her eyes upward, expecting to find me looking over her, but, of course, this was not the case.
Then, several hours later, she awoke once more, this time to a lighter touch. She felt the presence of a feminine spirit that assured her that she would recover and that all would be well; when she opened her eyes this time, she was, seemingly, again alone in the room.
Were these mere tactile hallucinations borne of a feverish mind? Some might say so, but there are interesting factors that might argue against such an easy dismissal. As it turned out, the time of the first touch coincided with a period when I was doing some pretty intense praying for Roberta. The second touch occurred when my wife was making petition for my student's recovery.
It was no doubt all a coincidence, the logically-minded unbeliever might say, this praying and the perception of a phantom touch; furthermore, the fact that the phone call came just before a serious loss of consciousness was naught but dumb luck, a stroke of good fortune. But what good scientist would not immediately jump on evidence of this kind, hailing it as logic of the highest order, if it meant a possible discovery that would make his fame?
It is not difficult to confound logic: simply walk out on a winter's night, look up at the cold stars and ask, "why?" The soul cannot answer such an inquiry with logic, only wonder. There are experiences like the one I recently had with Roberta that make me wonder, that make me reconsider the world in which I live. They cause me to begin to see the deity once again as a wondrously immanent force not to be squeezed into the straitjacket of a mathematical proposition.
Maybe these times of non-rational realization are the most fulfilling of any. Perhaps the practical products of all our long hours of hard deliberation are ultimately insignificant compared to the blessed rewards of these few brief moments of real transcendental knowledge.