J. EDWARD MERCER, D.D., OXON. BISHOP OF TASMANIA
A wave of Mysticism is passing over the civilised nations. It is welcomed by many: by more it is mistrusted. Even the minds to which it would naturally appeal are often restrained from sympathy by fears of vague speculative driftings and of transcendental emotionalism. Nor can it be doubted that such an attitude of aloofness is at once reasonable and inevitable. For a systematic exaltation of formless ecstasies, at the expense of sense and intellect, has a tendency to become an infirmity if it does not always betoken loss of mental balance. In order, therefore, to disarm natural prejudice, let an opening chapter be devoted to general exposition of aims and principles.
The subject is Nature Mysticism. The phenomena of “nature” are to be studied in their mystical aspects. The wide term Mysticism is used because, in spite of many misleading associations, it is hard to replace. “Love of nature” is too general: “cosmic emotion” is too specialised. But let it at once be understood that the Mysticism here contemplated is neither of the popular nor of the esoteric sort. In other words, it is not loosely synonymous with the magical or supernatural; nor is it a name for peculiar forms of ecstatic experience which claim to break away from the spheres of the senses and the intellect. It will simply be taken to cover the causes and the effects involved in that wide range of intuitions and emotions which nature stimulates without definite appeal to conscious reasoning processes. Mystic intuition and mystic emotion will thus be regarded, not as antagonistic to sense impression, but as dependent on it–not as scornful of reason, but merely as more basic and primitive.
Science describes nature, but it cannot feel nature; still less can it account for that sense of kinship with nature which is so characteristic of many of the foremost thinkers of the day. For life is more and more declaring itself to be something fuller than a blind play of physical forces, however complex and sublimated their interactions. It reveals a ceaseless striving–an élan vital (as Bergson calls it) to expand and enrich the forms of experience–a reaching forward to fuller beauty and more perfect order.
A certain amount of metaphysical discussion will be necessary; but it will be reduced to the minimum compatible with coherency. Fortunately, Nature Mysticism can be at home with diverse world-views. There is, however, one exception–the world-view which is based on the concept of an Unconditioned Absolute. This will be unhesitatingly rejected as subversive of any genuine “communion” with nature. So also Symbolism will be repudiated on the ground that it furnishes a quite inadequate account of the relation of natural phenomena to the human mind. The only metaphysical theory adopted, as a generalised working basis, is that known as Ideal-Realism. It assumes three spheres of existence–that which in a peculiar sense is within the individual mind: that which in a peculiar sense is without (external to) the individual mind: and that in which these two are fused or come into living contact. It will be maintained, as a thesis fundamental to Nature Mysticism, that the world of external objects must be essentially of the same essence as the perceiving minds. The bearing of these condensed statements will become plain as the phenomena of nature are passed in review. Of formal theology there will be none.
The more certain conclusions of modern science, including the broader generalisations of the hypothesis of evolution, will be assumed. Lowell, in one of his sonnets, says:
“I grieve not that ripe knowledge takes away The charm that nature to my childhood wore For, with that insight cometh, day by day, A greater bliss than wonder was before: The real doth not clip the poet’s wings; To win the secret of a weed’s plain heart Reveals some clue to spiritual things, And stumbling guess becomes firm-rooted art.”
Admirable–as far as it goes! But the modern nature-mystic cannot rest content with the last line. The aim of nature-insight is not art, however firm-rooted; for art is, so to speak, a secondary product, a reflection. The goal of the nature-mystic is actual living communion with the Real, in and through its sensuous manifestations.
Nature Mysticism, as thus conceived, does not seek to glorify itself above other modes of experience and psychic activity. The partisanship of the theological or of the transcendental type is here condemned. Nor will there be an appeal to any ecstatic faculty which can only be the vaunted appanage of the few. The appeal will lie to faculties which are shared in some degree by all normal human beings, though they are too often neglected, if not disparaged. Rightly developed, the capacity for entering into communion with nature is not only a source of the purest pleasure, but a subtle and powerful agent in aiding men to realise some of the noblest potentialities of their being.
When treating of specific natural phenomena, the exposition demands proof and illustration. In certain chapters, therefore, quotations from the prose and poetry of those ancients and moderns who, avowedly or unavowedly, rank as nature-mystics, are freely introduced. These extracts form an integral part of the study, because they afford direct evidence of the reality, and of the continuity, of the mystical faculty as above defined.
The usual method of procedure will be to trace the influence of certain selected natural phenomena on the human mind, first in the animistic stage, then in the mythological stage, and lastly in the present, with a view to showing that there has been a genuine and living development of deep-seated nature intuitions. But this method will not be too strictly followed. Special subjects will meet with special treatment, and needless repetition will be carefully avoided. The various chapters, as far as may be, will not only present new themes, but will approach the subject at different angles.
It is obvious that severe limitations must be imposed in the selection from so vast a mass of material. Accordingly, the phenomena of Water, Air, and Fire have received the fullest attention–the first of the triad getting the lion’s share; but other marked features of the physical universe have not been altogether passed by. The realm of organic life–vegetable and animal–does not properly fall within the limits of this study. For where organised life reveals itself, men find it less difficult to realise their kinship with existences other than human. The curious, and still obscure, history of totemism supplies abundant evidence on this point; and not less so that modern sympathy with all living things, which is largely based on what may be termed the new totemism of the Darwinian theory. But while attention will thus be focussed on the sphere of the inorganic, seemingly so remote from human modes of experience, some attempt will nevertheless be made to suggest the inner harmonies which link together all modes of existence. A further limitation to be noted is that “nature” will be taken to cover only such natural objects as remain in what is generally called their “natural” condition–that is, which are independent of, and unaffected by, human activities.
Let Goethe, in his Faust hymn, tell what is the heart and essence of Nature Mysticism as here to be expounded and defended.
“Rears not the heaven its arch above? Doth not the firm-set earth beneath us lie? And with the tender gaze of love Climb not the everlasting stars on high? Do I not gaze upon thee, eye to eye? And all the world of sight and sense and sound, Bears it not in upon thy heart and brain, And mystically weave around Thy being influences that never wane?”