Future, Present, & Past:

~~ Giving itself latitude and leisure to take any premise or inquiry to its furthest associative conclusion.
Critical~~ Ready to apply, to itself and its object, the canons of reason, evidence, style, and ethics, up to their limits.
Traditional~~ At home and at large in the ecosystem of practice and memory that radically nourishes the whole person.

Oυδεὶς άμουσος εἰσίτω

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Metaphysics of thanksgiving

By way of preface, I want to say that among the many many things for which I am grateful is all the dialogue I have had on this blog. This post, which is only a sketch of some meta-considerations and not an (impossible) enumeration of everything that elicits my personal gratitude, is but an indirect expression of that thanks; but I feel it keenly.

A very good friend of mine, whose pertinent comments on liturgy and the implausibility of Biblical literalism have appeared on this blog before, used to be heavily involved with inter-religious dialogue between Christianity and Buddhism. John's got one degree in Old Testament studies and one in Buddhism. It was while he was working on this latter, at Naropa, organizing conferences at which various monastics and teachers from both traditions would that a Japanese Zen master made the following remark, which has stuck with me every since John recounted it. A propos the well-known but easily overblown difference between the Buddhism and Christianity on Theism, he said: "When I first heard the Dharma, I realized that I was very grateful. I don't know who to."

In the last of these three videos I saw at Perverse Egalitarianism, Daniel Dennett remarks to the effect that, when one feels fortunate to be alive, to be able to think, learn, experience, one naturally wants to express that thanks. But for someone like him, who believes in no God, who is to be thanked? No one... "just my lucky stars."

Ernst Tugendhat, the philosopher who long before it was cool to try to breach the gap between Analytic and Continental philosophy was reading his teacher Heidegger back-to-back with P.F. Strawson and John Searle, offers in this lateessay a meditation that starts and ends with this same question: Who to thank? Now of course Dennett does not really mean he thinks his lucky stars have intentionally given him good fortune, but he still feels the urge to offer thanks somehow. For Tugendhat, Dennett's "lucky stars" are nonsensical objects of gratitude:
it seems evident to me that you can only thank a being whom it makes sense to ask something of. And it makes no sense to ask something of a non-personal being. So it seems absurd to pray to a non-personal instance, or to thank that instance. Consequently it is senseless to thank for things for which you cannot thank a natural person.
But this does not mean that the urge to give thanks goes away, as Dennett acknowledges and Tugendhat concurs:
In terms of cultural history, one may say that there are certain things, for example one's own existence or that of a loved one, for which people have always, or at least overwhelmingly, felt the need to thank a supernatural personal being. What happens to this need, and to one's attitude to these things, when you can no longer thank for them? A specific form of transcendence seems to be lost, flattened.
It could easily be argued that this urge to offer thanks is just a misfiring of some mental module, which tries mistakenly to apply social habits to a context in which they don't apply. Tugendhat more or less concludes, somewhat mournfully, that it's a perfectly natural mistake, but a mistake nonetheless. He asks speculatively whether a sort of mysticism that eschewed propositional belief in the supernatural might suffice for the people to retain this "essential aspect of their lives," or at least compensate adequately for its loss.

It is interesting to compare Tugendhat's meditation (and I hope someday soon his later philosophy will be available in English) with John Schellenberg's trilogy on the philosophy of religion. Schellenberg's first book is (as per its title) prolegomena, laying down principles and definitions; most significantly, he distinguishes very carefully between faith and belief. His second volume has been mined by many opponents of religion for its subtle and careful arguments against any belief in God, afterlife, or extra-mundane justification of morality. His third book has been more or less left severly alone by the same crowd, who realized, if they read it at all, that he means to adhere to the definitions very carefully Schellenberg defines "Ultimism" as a sort of bare minimum outline of any religion worth the name, and its chief characteristics are two: that there is a reality both "ultimate" (a sort of Anselmian metaphysical absoluteness) and "salvific" (vital to human beings' being fully alive). Belief in Ultimism is, in the second volume, shown (he takes it) to be unwarranted; the third volume is devoted to not just a defense but a positive commendation of faith (albeit a "skeptical faith") in ultimism. This sort of quasi-religious agnosticism entails eschewing any dogmatic denial or affirmation of positive ultimist propositions, but has plenty of room for "voluntary assent to a proposition, undertaken in circumstances where one views the state of affairs it reports as good and desirable but in which one lacks belief of the proposition" (my emphasis). Just how this differs from a kind of chastened wishful thinking, or again from the theological virtue of hope, is a matter that will be disputed. One can thus, Schellenberg claims, rationally represent to oneself that the world is such that ultimism is true, knowing that one wills this and is not compelled by evidence. One may also rationally, he says, act "on propositional religious faith," "in pursuit of a religious way." May one coherently, on these terms, participate in a spiritual community, engage in theology, watch for revelation? In some sense the answer is certainly "yes," albeit in a persistently as-if key.

Schellenberg's philosophy of religion does seem close to Tugendhat in some ways, especially in the latter's resolute refusal to deceive himself--
For me it would be much easier, instead of cultivating a neutral Daoist or Stoic attitude, to turn to God and say: "Thy will be done!" Yet I must expressly forbid myself from saying this because of course I know that God is only a construct of my need, and that if I let myself be determined by this need, I would end up lying to myself. No other option remains open to me than to withdraw to the impersonal, purely mystical standpoint. But this standpoint turns out to be inadequate in terms of my need for a positive attitude to my frustrations.
--though I think Tugendhat overstates the case for skepticism and slips into active denial when he argues that our need to believe is evidence that the belief in question is false--an argument which would seem bizarre if it was re-framed in terms of, say, our need to eat. Specifically as regards thankfulness, as an expression that might satisfy Tugendhat & Schellenberg, and maybe (in his poetical mood) Dennett, I offer in conclusion this by Mark Strand, who if not a Zen master is at least a fine poet:
Visions of the end may secretly seduce
our thoughts like water sinking
into water, air drifting into air;
clouds may form, when least expected,
darkening the glass of self,
canceling resemblances to what we are.
Even here, while summer sunlight
falling through the golden
folds of afternoon
brightens up the air, we mark
our progress by how much
we leave behind. And yet,
this vanishing is burnished
by a slow, melodious light,
as if our passage here
were beautiful because
no turning back is possible.
It is our knowledge of the end
that speaks for us, that has us weave,
as slowly as we can, an elegy
to all our walks. It is our way
of bending to the world's will
and giving thanks.

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