On November 15th and 16th, the Jung Society of Utah hosted Dr. Tom Cheetham, Fellow of the Temenos Academy, for a discussion and workshop on Mystical Islam as seen through the eyes of Dr. Henri Corbin, a prolific scholar and intellectual bridge between the mysticism of the East (Sufism) with the ethical philosophies of the West. My friends Machiel Klerk and Cheryl Forester invited me to come and bring some sculptures from the 99 Names Project. I brought Holy, Victorious, Maker of Order, Shaper of Beauty, Knower, and Constrictor, hoping they would be appropriate to the setting. I was very excited to meet Dr. Cheetham because of his work and connection with Temenos Academy (one of the first organizations to offer words of advice and encouragement as I began the 99 Names Project) and I prayed all day that I would not embarrass myself, him, or my friends with the Jung Society. There was no need to worry – Dr. Cheetham is super cool in person and great fun to visit with.
Dr. Cheetham is a biologist who found the ideas of mysticism and the work of Dr. Henri Corbin so compelling, he’s devoted himself to sharing what he finds with others, and has written several books about Corbin and Islamic Mysticism for Western audiences. The discussion Friday, and going more in-depth in the workshop Saturday, revolved around the adjustments in world-view that allow us to first, open the door to understanding and appreciating Islamic mysticism, and second, learn the tools to open our own world of experience. He spoke about the Zoroastrian conception of angelic beings, how they represent intelligences that become bridges between things and whatever is closer to the experience of Divinity, and that every thing perceptible in our world of experience has these things, angels, or bridges. One question was asked by a documentary film-maker, “If everything has these ‘angels’ to act as bridges in the direction of the Divine, may we as humans also serve that function to beings further away from the Source than ourselves?” That was a great question, and Dr. Cheetham had a lot of fun thinking about it.
These angels are not creatures of the order we think of as angelic beings from Abrahamic traditions – super-human ministrants with wings and paranormal powers; this concept is more a device through which to view the world. Every thing we come in contact with as human beings we, on some level and to wildly varying degrees, give personality to and respond as if the thing has its own identity. Many people, for example, name their cars, and all of us can identify with computers or machines we feel respond to us as if they have minds of their own. We understand these things may not actually have free will as we appreciate it, but we still personify them, or give “person-hood” to them. When we apply Plato‘s world of the Ideals to this, we recognize that the things are real as things themselves, but also exist as signs or bridges of sorts to the Ideals ‘behind’ them. Then, we can imagine the Source ‘behind’ that world of the Ideals – this allows us to see these ‘things’ as the sort of ‘angel’ being described; the bridge between us and something infinite.
One thing that I felt was particularly wonderful about the presentations comes from Dr. Cheetham’s background. His discussion was not central to any particular religious tradition, but he has found this can apply to the world view or cosmology of anyone. We have a tendency to look at things through a tube, and see everything as being near or far, left or right, up or down, better or worse, when in actuality the universe is an ever-expanding, edgeless sphere exploding from us as the center. We only see the up and down, and give little regard to the rest of the volume in this soup of infinite experience. This recalled to my mind Dr. Bernie Siegel’s comments on optimism: “The optimist will live longer with a better life than the pessimist in any given situation, even if the pessimist’s view of the world is more accurate.” Regardless of whether or not we choose to believe in a personal God, angels, or anyone’s religious cosmology, the concepts Dr. Cheetham shared were invigorating, enlightening, and expanding – it’s healthy and hopeful to believe that everything is linked and can help lead us to something better, and that each of us is important enough to something for everything in existence to possess bridges drawing us closer to the Source of creation.
Friday after the presentation I stood by the sculptures answering questions and visiting with people. One young lady and I shared views on Dr. Tariq Ramadan‘s book The Quest for Meaning, another couple and I visited about what happens when we choose to grow from our interactions with people far different from ourselves, I met a Muslim couple interested in learning about Christianity as a way of gaining greater appreciation for their own Muslim faith, and I got to meet a remarkable man – Dr. Rasoul Shams of the Rumi Poetry Club. He is deeply spiritual and excited about everything that can draw people together as friends, and has more energy than some of my kids. He grew up fluent in Farsi and has recently released what I hope will be the first of a series, his personal translations of the writings of Jalaluddin Rumi, Rumi: The Art of Loving.
It was a terrific opportunity for me to reconnect with my friends at the Jung Society of Utah, meet several truly remarkable people, and get my horizons stretched. I told Dr. Cheetham afterwards that I was very grateful – he opened another door in my mind I had no idea existed, and the vista through the door way (as is often the case) is beautiful. Everything in the universe is connected, and it’s wonderful to have our vocabulary for expressing these things expanded.