Future, Present, & Past:



Speculative
~~ 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, April 28, 2010

at least it's not hemlock


I know very well all the anti-academic arguments about philosophy--all the stuff about how turning it into a "subject" rather than a way of life has more or less eviscerated it of any depth. I half-agree with this caricature myself sometimes, and I've made more than one complaint in the same vein, not just re. philosophy but about the teaching of the humanities in general. To loosen the Analytic stranglehold on philosophy departments even a little, it pretty much took all the excesses the post-structuralism parties in the English departments down the hall, to show that there was another, funner, way. (And that was quite a high price to pay, and of course was just another version of what was wrong with university humanities programs.)


But the fact is, that reading phenomenology or the scholastics or neoplatonism is hard. One does often need a teacher, and schools are still the most likely place to find one. So although I know no one personally who goes there, and can't work myself up to indignation, I am nonetheless shaking my head over the announced intention of Middlesex University to close its acclaimed philosophy program. This is one of the most successful and well-known philosophy centers in Europe, in terms of crossing the stupid no-man's-land between the much-abused "Analytic" and "Continental" labels, and is certainly that for which the University itself is best-known. But--this just in--philosophy apparently doesn't make big money, you know? As I say, I don't have any personal stakes in this except that thinkers I respect are signing the petition (which you can access via the link above) to reverse the decision; and I am no big fan of the "university system" in any case. It generates jargon, mutual-admiration societies, and the churning out of endless paper in pursuit of tenure. Yes, all that and more. Sure. But the venal rationale put forward to justify the closure is just another instance of what's been wrong with that system from the get-go. I might even say, let it go, man, let it go; but still, you gotta sigh when the explanation is that philosophy makes no "measurable contribution." The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Beyond ≠ beneath


Last post, I concluded with: "What I hope for is the acknowledgment that the territory [of spirituality] is real, and that the real journey is far more interesting and worthy (and less
dangerous) than an imaginary ride on an imaginary chairlift."

So what would an account that "recognizes that the territory exists" look like? How would one acknowledge the spiritual realm without merely ceding all responsibility to reflect rationally?

It ought to be surprising that this question should even arise, when there are so many precedents, but we live in a culture in which reason is very casually treated, by both its attackers and its defenders.

Ken Wilber's essay "The pre/trans fallacy" very nicely summarized what this costs us. (My argument here draws on, but does not try to faithfully represent, Wilber's whole argument or its context.) Reason, after all, is opposed to the
irrational. It is sometimes suggested, for instance, that there is no more evidence for the existence of God than for the Flying Spaghetti Monster, an argument that is somehow supposed to demonstrate that all such assertions are more or less on the same level of indemonstrable irrationality. To this, one might counter with the experiences of the great mystics, say St. John of the Cross or Vivekananda (I cite cross-cultural examples here because this is the context of Wilber's thinking and my points at this stage will not involve the differences between spiritual traditions). These great friends of God report an experience which may or may not be "the same" in every case, but they do have at least one common feature--they do not report encounters with the Flying Spaghetti Monster.

Wilber would say that the reductionist claim that assertions about God are all on the level of assertions about the F.S.M. have fallaciously collapsed the
trans-rational into the pre-rational. It may well be that many accounts of God do indeed arise from what Christopher Hitchens calls "the bawling and fearful infancy of our species." God as wish-fulfillment, God as the fantasy of revenge on my enemies, God as the maker of rain and the bringer of earthquakes; all these are pre-rational memes, and the God they describe does not hold up under scrutiny. The classic instance of this critique is Freud's The Future of an Illusion, which of course accounted for every "experience" of God as essentially the work of the psyche performing some mighty act of denial or projection or just succumbing to a comforting fantasy occasioned by an idiosyncratic neural tic. This is made the more plausible because mystics' experiences are all, notoriously, impossible to describe in the medium of rational discourse. But this by itself does not justify the wholesale dismissal of assertions of encounter with God, or the reduction of theism to irrationalism, because (Wilber says) there is more than one kind of assertion that is "irrational." The transrational may be formally indiscernible from the prerational, from the perspective of a reductionistic rationality. This argument itself can only strike one as a version of Russell's teapot--a difference that doesn't make a difference--unless, of course, one has other reasons for buying into it, reasons which may themselves be prerational (say, commitment to a community) or transrational (having had a mystical encounter oneself). The point is that against the acidic critique of reductionism there is no extra-experiential defense. The only way to convert the rationalist is to induce an experience that is outside rationalism. And even this of course may not work, because any such experience--one's own included--can still be made the object of skepticism.

This much of Wilber's argument goes down rather nicely for those who want to be able to have their theology and their science too. But Wilber warns that not all theology is created equal. There is a parallel danger to reducing every transrational experience to the prerational, and that is to elevate the prerational to transrational status. By
their fruits you shall know them, not by somebody elses; in vain will one appropriate the mantle of St. John of the Cross to cloak the Roman Catholic version of fundamentalism in a spurious dignity. Not every light that shines down on you is the breaking-in of the divine fire, and the fact that there have been those on whom the divine fire has shone does not prove that it has shone on you. In short, sometimes an illusion is just an illusion.

As Freudianism provides the classic instance of the reductionist version of the pre/trans fallacy, so Jungianism shows all the hallmarks of the fallacy in the other direction. There are indeed pre-rational "encounters" with archetypes, psychic upheavals of a purely subjective nature, sometimes reinforced within cultural systems and discourses that lend it a contextual "legitimacy" that falls away when one views it from outside. There are pathological devolutions of psychology, mere madnesses, which may include aspects or glimpses of genuine transrational insight but lack the psychological scaffolding to grow. And there are plain old fakes, delusions, mistakes, and nonsense.

In such terms, Wilber diagnoses vast swathes of the New Age movement. Particularly in his major work to date,
Sex, Ecology, Spirituality, (I have a short review of the book here), Wilber offered a vigorous (and, in many critics' opinions, overly polemical) critique of postmodernism and newageism alike. (I will note parenthetically that this polemical streak in Wilber appeals to me, but that especially in its online voice, comes off as very much over-the-top sometimes, especially when he is "correcting" critics who frequently turn out to have misunderstood him, and sometimes to not even have the requisite altitude to evaluate him properly. I do think that these critics have a point or three, but you don't have to be a die-hard skeptic to find this uncomfortably close to self-validation. In any case, let me state unequivocally: I have no pretense of having exhaustively described Wilber's position--or anyone else's for that matter. All my accounts are, I believe, plausible and responsible, but they are also corrigible.)

Wilber is thus engaged in a two-front struggle; on the one hand against the reductionists; on the other, against the indiscriminate elevators of their favorite flavor of spirituality. Wilber's names for the makers of these two mistakes are "descenders" and "ascenders," respectively, and his critique of each is extensive, scathing, nuanced, and complex. I haven't duplicated it here. But whatever my differences with Wilber (and they are not few, as the review linked to above will suggest), I appreciate very much this double-pronged stance, which for obvious reasons reminds me of my own position on the Abrahamic traditions. (I might add that Kierkegaard had a similar dance to dance in his Book on Adler, though in his case he was not arguing against fundamentalism but against a sort of 19th-century version of newageism.) What I gloss as Christianity's imagining of a "chairlift," is my version of a critique of Christianity's pre/trans fallacy. To put all your effort into a tremendous denial of thinking in the name of "belief" is to make a travesty of human personhood. On the other hand, to yawn, sneer, or shout at every prophet or mystic (to deny the very existence of a "territory" of spirituality) betrays an intransigence and incuriosity that is hardly better. To break out of this false dichotomy will require some version of a radical empiricism that takes account of genuine "transrational" experience while remaining on guard against collapsing these into their prerational simulacra. Wilber's synthetic account of evolutionary philosophy--which would require its own post, or more than one--may or may not provide the best apparatus for doing this sorting; but he has provided an invaluable service even by pointing out that the job is there to be done.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Novus novus ordo seclorum


I was lately pointed to this a review by Stanley Fish in the New York
Times of the book An Awareness of What is Missing, by Jürgen Habermas and interlocutors, on the matter of secularization. (A while ago I semi-colluded with Amod in too-easily dismissing Fish--this was with regard to a different review--so this may seem like a bit of back-pedaling here, but my interest here is with Habermas, who is a much heavier hitter). Fish describes Habermas as "the most persistent and influential defender of... Enlightenment rationality" (which, I would say, he is, along with his contemporary the late Hans Blumenberg), so it is of some interest to compare Habermas' recent thinking on religion and secular society with those of Tzvetan Todorov, whose book In Defence of the Enlightenment occasioned the conversation between him and A.C. Grayling on which I remarked last post.

One can also check out Habermas' views in this interview, or this
article.

In thinking over the issues raised in the comments to my little rant about Grayling's dismissive attitude towards religion (specifically, but not limited to, Christianity), I've been asking myself, what sort of relationship do
I envision between various religious traditions and secular discourse? On some accounts, Fish's included, Habermas would seem to be ready to be satisfied with secularism playing nice, and the religions offering their essentially therapeutic and pastoral insights for the purposes of laying pedagogical foundations in ethics.
“…the religious side must accept the authority of ‘natural’ reason as the fallible results of the institutionalized sciences and the basic principles of universalistic egalitarianism in law and morality. Conversely, secular reason may not set itself up as the judge concerning truths of faith, even though in the end it can accept as reasonable only what it can translate into its own, in principle universally accessible, discourses.”
So Habermas. Fish comments:
Religion must give up the spheres of law, government, morality and knowledge; reason is asked only to be nice and not dismiss religion as irrational, retrograde and irrelevant. The “truths of faith” can be heard but only those portions of them that have secular counterparts can be admitted into the realm of public discourse. (It seems like a case of “separate but not equal.”) Religion gets to be respected; reason gets to borrow the motivational resources it lacks on its own, resources it can then use to put a brake on its out-of-control spinning.
The very basic notion here is that liberal rationalism, or rational liberalism, can tell us how to be reasonable, or tolerant, or kind, but not why, and therefore that it is defenseless when challenged by those who accuse it of bankruptcy or ask it flat-out to defend its values. Habermas thus proposes that these values shall be justified not by secular discourse at all, but by the traditional discourses--i.e., religions--which have always provided such rationale.

So far as this goes, I am more or less sympathetic to this, though I don't doubt that many a nonbeliever will be able to insist that "we can be good without God," (a claim I do not dispute, assuming we mean "without believing in God").

But it's important to note that Habermas' revisiting the question of secularism is essentially a sociological, not a philosophical, intervention. He is questioning whether "the decline of religion" really is a foregone conclusion. (Blumenberg also came to suggest that this was not so; that religion, or at least myth, was likely to be always with us.) Habermas' reasons for this reconsideration are at least as empirical as they are formal. Religions are in fact not retreating like glaciers in the face of secularist warming trends. The dangers of this sort of empirical reasoning are, I trust, apparent, and I certainly do not hang my own hopes upon them. Trends come and go and even a century does not provide a good statistical data set, especially in our age of accelerating change. In fact I do not think there is any way to settle such empirical questions about history except the old fashioned wait-and-see method.

This isn't to rule such exhibits out of court; just to reiterate Lessing's point that no amount of historical facts can get us to the eternal.

The most interesting and, to me, congenial thinking on secularism is being currently done by Charles Taylor, whose book A Secular Age, and talk here (hat tip to Archive Fire), go a long way to articulating the ways I think we can fruitfully think the secular, and within the secular. (The site Immanent Frame also offers a good deal of worthwhile speculation and thought following on, among other things, Taylor's proposals). Taylor offers, it seems to me, a coherent (albeit somewhat revisionist, in today's academic climate) historical account of the genesis of secularism and, more importantly, a plausible vision of how religious (and not only religious) values can function within a society that sees itself as secular in a sense, precisely by showing the ways that
religious encounters are served by the terms of secular vocabulary (which, a questioner during the Q&A following the talk astutely points out, are essentially liberty, equality, and fraternity). This turns around the situation that Habermas envisions; Taylor not only suggests what's in it for religions, but intimates that this is really one ultimate reason for defending a secular world.

I largely agree with Taylor here, so I want to conclude with a very brief sketch of what I envision as the desirable balance between a secular "suspension" or "bracketing" of spiritual questions, and the various traditions which pursue them. My sketch here focuses on Christianity, but I fancy it could be expanded. However, it's in part a critique of a good deal
of contemporary Christianity, and this I don't feel competent to undertake with regard to other traditions.

While these musings on what's amiss with Christianity are essentially moves in an intra-Christian polemic, and so not always of interest to those on the outside, I do want to offer a brief expansion, because this polemic is for me one side of a two-front war. (I can't really apologize for the combative language; I use the metaphors that lie to hand, and at the moment this is how I see it).

In the last post, I said: there is all the difference in the world between having a star to steer by, and riding a tram car. What I meant here is that there is a genuine territory called spirituality, for which the great religious traditions offer descriptions, maps, compasses, even sometimes guides, but no instant and easy access. Getting there, and finding your way around there, is up to you. (This is a call for responsibility, not for some "theology of works," I am obliged to say in the interest of forestalling a predictable Protestant objection. Doubtless there is a moment or a sense in which it makes sense to realize and say that "I have done nothing at all, God has done everything." But the notion that faith will settle all your questions is of such evil fallout that one is bound to fight against it. Count me, in this respect, on Bonhoeffer's side against the notion of "cheap grace.")

Far too many, on either side, think that the tram car is what is offered; they only disagree with whether there is a tram car or not. I maintain that there is no tram car
and that there is a real mountain.

The critics on the one hand have concluded that since the tram car does not exist, neither does the territory or the journey itself: those who are on the journey are really, I don't know, sitting in their rooms pretending. But those on the other side have decided that they will line up for any tram car, even one that is really just a waiting room and a travel brochure, rather than "settle" for an actual journey; if they can't have the tram car, they don't want the territory.

I don't want to take this metaphor and run away with it; to get snagged by arguments over who says "the territory is real but you can only reach it via this mountain pass," for instance. But I do know that I am hard pressed to say which are worse, those who settle for a pretend tram, or those who claim that the journey itself is only pretend.

What
I hope for in a rapprochement between secularism and spiritual traditions is not the detente Habermas seems to envision, nor even Taylor's secularism-for-religious-encounter, though he comes closer. What I hope for is the acknowledgment that the territory is real, and that the real journey is far more interesting and worthy (and less dangerous) than an imaginary ride on an imaginary chairlift.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

"Open" questions


In conversation with Tzvetan Todorov, A.C. Grayling remarks:
When you think scientifically, you think in an open-minded way, in which questions of practicality, empirical test of hypotheses, and public debate, are central. This contrasts sharply – because of its open-endedness, its preparedness to live with uncertainty, and with the creation of new problems from the solution of old problems – with the old narrative structure of theistic explanations of the world. Those narratives are very neat – human beings like a nice simple story. We can tell the religious story in ten minutes, but to explain science takes years.
Wow. Ladies and gentlemen, Professor A.C. Grayling.

Ten minutes! I mean, c’mon, it takes a good three minutes, at least, just to tell the gist of Genesis; with twenty-four books in the Old Testament (I'm counting Jewish-wise not Christian, here), you're clocking over an hour even before intermission. O.K., sure you can skip some of the begats and thou shalt (nots). But to tell the whole religious story, I don't see how you can possibly do it in under an hour and a half. Plus commercials.

Faced with this sort of depressing caricature, one might just sigh and give up. The poor we will always have with us, apparently, including a poverty of worthy opponents. This, what we might call the cliff-notes argument, would have it that because Newton’s laws were three, Newton must have been telling a fairy tale. Come now. Just because one can sketch an outline does not mean you have read the Odyssey. Try explaining—let alone grasping—the Athanasian creed or the Abdhidharma in ten minutes!

To be fair, this is an offhand comment that Grayling makes in the midst of a conversation, and I wouldn’t want to be called to account for every stray remark of mine. It is also, by far, not the most interesting thread in the conversation, about which I will have something else to say in a later post. (The discussion is occasioned by Todorov’s book In Defence of the Enlightenment.) But Grayling’s error is more than an exaggeration; it’s a drastic mischaracterization. Nor is it primarily about the time exposition takes; it’s about simplistic dichotomy according to which religion eschews open-endedness, whereas science cultivates it. Tell this to the dreamers of a final theory. The deep desire to wrap the whole thing up with a nice syllogism or equation or rhymed couplet is as old as human discourse, and is right at home amongst the godless reductionists.

While I couldn’t agree any less with Grayling’s too-stark-by-half contrast, I agree with every word of the aspiration.
Though I would stipulate, with Aristotle, that not every realm of inquiry admits the same degree of certainty, or even discussion, I too hold that we ought to think “in an open-minded way, in which questions of practicality, empirical test of hypotheses, and public debate, are central...[with] open-endedness, ...preparedness to live with uncertainty, and...the creation of new problems from the solution of old."

Religionists have indeed done more than their share of avoiding this, and I know very well from experience what it is to stare into the uncomprehending face of God-said-it-I-believe-it-that-settles-it. But really, does anyone think this sort of know-nothing cretinism characterizes Aquinas, or Nagarjuna, or Gandhi? Or even Mother Teresa? Even the most vehement and eloquent defenders of faith—say, Pascal, or Luther, or Kierkegaard—trouble to, you know, defend it. The author of The Cloud of Unknowing is about as opposed as you can get to modern scientism (which Grayling thinks is a straw man—quite wrongly, as witness this chapter in a book worth arguing with). Writing in the 14th century, taking medieval Catholicism for granted, undreaming of double-blind experiments and quite comfortable, as far as anyone can tell, with pre-Copernican geocentrism. But the picture of the spiritual life that emerges from a reading of The Cloud is precisely one of unknowing. To take any religion seriously at all does not deliver one into certainty and comfort, but into radically unfinished territory, the territory of one’s own salvation, which is to be worked out in fear and trembling.

To be sure, there is a human craving for security, and religion has bought into the notion that it ought to provide it. Indeed, there is a degree to which, or a sense in which, this desire is legitimate. But there is all the difference in the world between having a star to steer by, and riding a tram car. There is a seven-word sentence I read in Voegelin’s New Science of Politics which turned my understanding of religion upside-down:
Uncertainty is the very essence of Christianity. Between this and Todorov’s concurring reply to Grayling, “We have entered an age of uncertainty via the Enlightenment,” lies the whole question. When the best minds of any given religion buy into this mistake, they wind up infantilizing themselves and reinforcing the perception that faith means refusing to look through Galileo’s telescope, or indeed to entertain any questions at all—that is, to stop thinking. So my assertion that Voegelin is right and that Grayling is wrong—wrong about Christianity, though not necessarily about the Enlightenment—is addressed not primarily to Grayling and those like him; it is addressed to those within Christianity whose assumption, often unexamined, is that Grayling is right.

Grayling also likes to make this move by which he strips contemporary Christianity of its pretensions of having made this or that contribution (a move he makes against Todorov’s somewhat more generous read of Christian universalism, for instance). One could be forgiven for the impression that Grayling thinks that Christianity is really a religion of plagiarists:
When you look in the fourth/fifth century Church, you see how much they import into Christian moral thinking and metaphysics from Plotinus and neo-Platonism and the rich ethical resources of Stoicism. And of course later in Aquinas you get another import from Greek philosophy. When people attribute things to Christianity, I see through the veil of Christianity, I see the Greek classical tradition. For example in Stoicism there is a universalising ethics.
This is what you might call missing the point with a machine gun. Even if we stipulate the completely counter-factual claim that there is no universalizing strain in the Biblical tradition, the fact remains that Christianity as Christianity was capable of assimilating and wanting to assimilate this tonic of the classical tradition. So it is pretty clear that the Christian animus Grayling sees against it was not so strong as to be able to reject out of hand all that pagan wisdom which must’ve seemed a pretty big threat (and which, indeed, we know to have been problematic for certain strains in Christianity). Such scholarship, if you want to call it that, is about as sensitive a portrait as an x-ray (and mind you, even that metaphor is pretty poor for the “seeing through the veil” Grayling says he does.)

Sorry to mash up my figures of speech like that, but nothing like getting a bit riled to turn on the writing. I’m not sure it makes for the best thinking, though, so if I’ve made some mistake, please call me on it. I am in agreement with Grayling that religion ought not to be a sacrosanct and undiscussable topic; and I find a number of his positions (on all sort of matters from skepticism to ethics) worthy of engagement. Besides, he writes in a way that gives pleasure. But alas, on this matter, Grayling's thinking, if open at all, is open at the wrong end.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Two obituaries


I recently chanced upon news the recent deaths of two thinkers, a Biblical scholar and a philosopher, who in different ways epitomize, to my mind, the manner in which debate between theist and atheist should be conducted: honestly, seriously, and without acrimony.

In a comment recently, I referred to Michael Goulder, and in following up on dropping his name, I learned he had died last January 6th. Goulder's obituary in the London Times mentions his scholarly mastery in both Hebrew and Christian canons, an increasing rarity (and also increasingly indispensable), which allowed him to take a number of controversial positions. He famously rejected the common assumption that the synoptic gospels' parallels needed to be explained by the hypothetical source "Q," in this following his mentor Austin Farrer (one of the great under-appreciated theologians of the 20th century, by the way). Later in life he developed possibly the most scholarly take on the notion that Christianity was born out of the tensions between the Jerusalem church under James and Peter, and the missions of Paul. To my mind, more interesting (as well as more controversial) is Goulder's suggestion that the gospels were written with the Jewish year in mind, as literary attempts to match the festival cycle with readings that the Christian community could employ for the occasions. This suggestion has not met with widespread scholarly acceptance, and it might need to be modified; but it did bear significant fruit in inspiring the well-known, not to say notorious, John Shelby Spong,
Bishop (now retired) of Newark in the Episcopal Church, whose book Saving the Bible from Fundamentalism served as a popularizing of Goulder's lectionary hypothesis.

Equally significant about Goulder, though, was his eventual abandoning of his faith and his clerical calling. This came shortly on the heels of his having contributed to the scandalous (for its day) anthology The Myth of God Incarnate, and editing the follow-up volume Incarnation and Myth. (I remember finding these books in the downtown city library--they would never have made it to the small local branch in my neighborhood--as a late teen with a budding interest in theology, and the vague sense of contraband that still clung to them). Goulder's loss of faith was characterized by a painful honesty--painful for both him and his colleagues--and by a respect for, and from, what he was leaving behind. This respect was often remarked. He spoke about it more than once, for instance in this interview, in which he reiterated his rejection of faith and his love for the tradition that had nonetheless nourished him. He steadfastly declined to see that affection as a reason for declaring a belief he found untenable. But no one could suspect his scholarship, no matter how against-the-current, of being motivated by anything but love for the truth.

As I was thinking of this, I came across this obituary of Antony Flew, who made a sort of reverse transition from Goulder's. One of the great champions of atheism in the 20th century, Flew spent a long career devoted to arguments against belief in God. His books God and Philosophy and The Presumption of Atheism both argued that atheism was the rational default assumption for philosophy until such time as compelling evidence for the existence of God emerged; several works followed through the implications of this working assumption, either on his own or in dialogue with believers, mainly Christians, including on specifically intra-Christian concerns such as the resurrection. Then, true to his commitment to follow the evidence,
Flew made a shocking and controversial declaration of theism after concluding, in dialogue with several partners including Gary Habermas (who had debated the plausibility of the resurrection with him) and Roy Abraham Varghese, a proponent of a version of Intelligent Design (as far as I can tell, more physics- than biology-oriented), that the universe had all the hallmarks of a work of purpose.

Inevitably, Flew's late-in-the-day (though hardly deathbed--he announced his shift in 2004) conversion drew criticism, not so much of him (though there was some of this) as of the way certain Christians were held to have exploited it.

This reminds one a little of the interviews with Jean-Paul Sartre which Benny Lévy published under the title Hope Now; Levy was accused of having exploited the failing Sartre, especially when some of the conversations were steered towards a kind of messianic Judaism. Sartre issued a statement shortly before his death verifying the authenticity of the interviews.

In Flew's case, it was suggested that he'd been manipulated, pressured, "influenced" (curious how this word can take on such a sinister whiff), in particular by Varghese, whose name gets billing as co-author with Flew's own on the title page of Flew's last book, There is a God: how the world's most notorious atheist changed his mind.
Like Sartre, Flew had to issue a statement insisting that all the positions in the book reflected his own views accurately. The whole debacle has been chronicled, with additional links here, and here, and in the Wikipedia article on Flew. In any case, if Flew had been pressured by Christians, he certainly didn't cave much. He had come around to a more or less deistic stance, even advocating the teaching of Intelligent Design in schools; but he continued to have no truck with revelation, salvation, or an afterlife (though, true to form, he maintained that he was "open" to hearing evidence of such). Flew unwaveringly maintained not only that he had not converted under outside pressure, but that what had moved him was entirely a matter of reason and evidence. He had simply become persuaded that the universe looked too much like the product of intelligence to justify any other interpretation.

But long before his change of mind, Flew had maintained an air of respectful engagement with his opponents; his atheism was old-school, urbane and cordial, not given to the barely-contained contempt that one finds on the market today. His shift in position makes for an interesting story, and in the eventual biographies will doubtless either (depending on who's writing) be relegated to the sorry status of a coda, or inflated into the secret meaning towards which everything was tending. But Flew's life was spent in respectful yet strong argument with opponents who he thought wrong about very important issues. His legacy should be not just that he could change his mind (though this, it must be said, is hardly negligible, and should not be the object of sneers); but rather that he could maintain his position and believe his opponents wrong without believing them stupid, wicked, or in bad faith.

A comment on comments


From an email from an SCT commenter:
As you can see, I've tried to contribute a bit, but (as I think you hinted in response to my most recent posting) my critiques tend to be pretty "meta" and "outsider-ly" and therefore might not be well-suited for what you're aiming to do with the blog. I'll consider that fact before posting further...
I have expressed myself poorly indeed if I've implied that anyone's comment have in any way been beside-the-point. On the contrary, comments are precisely what I hoped for when I started the blog in the first place. There may be some who want a megaphone to shout into a soundproof box, but that's not me. It is possible that we might wind up "talking past" each other at first, but to my mind--and I really cannot emphasize this enough--the how of the exchange is every bit as important, if not more so, that is the what, the substance or content. If I miss your point or you miss mine, I am interested, precisely as a philosopher (I really do hold that philosophy is about love), in us "getting it." Of course this might require more patience or time than anyone can muster at any given moment (I have failed, and will fail, to respond to every comment, partly from following doctor's orders to forgo always having the last word, but also partly out of sloth and inattention). But human failings or the proclivities of chance are to be forgiven. One hopes.
What I mean is that if you have a notion triggered by something I write, even if it were pure free-association on your part, it would behoove me to understand the relevance you sense. I don't have to agree, and I don't have to think it important, but if I am responding, I ought to understand what I'm responding to. I keep saying "metalepsis," a word I use in order to keep the cloud of connotations it has, but this "getting it" is a huge part of what I mean. This is the following of the "secret roads that go from world to world," in this case the world you inhabit and the one I am in. If you are writing one poem and I am writing another, there is some way between them, and it's this way I am interested in. The "aha," "eureka" moment of seeing what the other person means is not just a necessary preliminary to discourse; in a certain sense it's the whole. damn. thing.
This isn't a promise to be interested in every comment equally, nor to pretend to be; nor is it to imply that there are not differences between the informed and the uninformed or even the pertinent and the impertinent. (Nor, needless to say, is it carte blanche to trolls or even lapses of (n)etiquette.) What it means is that if I think you're saying something irrelevant, that I just don't get, or for that matter (not that it's happened so far, but a glance through comments on other blogs makes me shudder sometimes) something downright rude, I will say so clearly, and not imply it. And if you think I've missed your point, you may feel free to clarify.
The take-away is, if you feel like commenting, for heaven's sake please do. I genuinely want this. In fact I would go so far as to say that for me the blog only gets really interesting in the comments. The more I have a sense of exactly who I am writing to, the better I write, and the better I think. The posts themselves are often mere journalism. The typeface is bigger, so they have to keep their hair combed and mind their manners. The comments are the fine print--the details. And you know who's there.
This pertains to any post, no matter when it was posted.
Now that I've said it, I'm realizing I'll probably have some cause to regret it.... Do I really have the guts to click "post"? Let's find out.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

The partisan review


Joe has a new review up of Carl Schmitt's
Theory of the Partisan. Like all of Joe's reviews, this one is cunning and provocative. Since this book by Schmitt is still on my to-read list, I cannot comment on its adequacy of Joe's review qua review, but as an essay in its own right, it's a small gem. I'm particularly struck by his imaginative reconstruction of the encounter, mentioned by Jacob Taubes in his book on St. Paul, between Schmitt and Kojève. (Taubes I have read, and his application of Schmitt's notion of "political theology" to Paul is just one of the dazzling anachronisms which fill this slim volume. Such anachronisms are part of the inevitable motley which scholarship must don in the courts of philosophy.) Joe suggests that Kojève, the "universalist" philosopher-cum-civil-bureaucrat, and Schmitt, the "particularist"jurist-scholar, very likely discussed Theory of the Partisan when they met in 1967, soon after it had been published. The "partisan" is simply the fighter for a particular cause, unaligned with a state but attached to a locale, irregular and mobile, and, in short, very hard to tell (despite Schmitt's demurral on this point) from what today's headlines call the terrorist, formerly known as the freedom fighter. Joe is understandably awed by Schmitt's prescience in pointing to the partisan as the key figure in contemporary history, to risk an oxymoron, and suggests that both Kojève and Schmitt would have seen in the partisan "the vanishing of Reason from History. For the one this meant the impossibility of (Hegelian) Knowledge, while for the other this meant the impossibility of Political Order."

Interestingly, both Joe's review, and this other one I have found online, trouble to underscore the same phrase from Schmitt's citation of Lenin, whose thought clearly impacted him strongly. Lenin of course had thought long and hard about the way the partisan could be employed in the struggle to bring about a Communist revolution, and considered that unless it was directed to this end, partisan struggle was mere "anarchistic riffraff." "For Lenin, only revolutionary war is genuine war, because it is based on absolute enmity. Everything else is conventional play," a game with "good guys" and "bad guys." Why? because only the class struggle gives one a genuine
enemy, an irreducible entity for Schmitt. Reading this in the wake of the second Iraq War, I shudder to recall the characterization of the first one by Baudrillard: it was a spectacle, a T.V. show, a video game. Could it be that Lenin rightly saw that within liberalism, all warfare would ultimately reduce to a diversion? And if so, at what price would we regain the seriousness of war, the nobility of struggle that would be more than dressing up and mouthing to ourselves, "Dulce et decorum est..."?

So what remains for us of Schmitt's critique today? Today, the movement today which most strikingly exemplifies the position of particularism in the face of a certain version of the universal--that is to say, the anti-globalist movement--stands almost at one with partisans the world over against the politico-economic hegemony of corporate "democracy." There are times when one could be forgiven for suspecting that the radical edge of anti-globalism--say, the Invisible Committee, for instance, or the John Zerzan-inspired anarcho-greens--envies the more stereotypical "terrorist" of today (say the partisan of Islamist extremism); envies their headlines, their apparent ideological coherence, and even their semtex, or at least their willingness to use it. Schmitt likely would not recognize today's anti-globalists as the partisan in his sense, even if they do have recourse to armed struggle, except in certain cases like the Zapatistas where there is a clear "telluric" connection to place. It is possible that Lenin might be more generous, though he too would have his doubts. Are we left then with a case of dwindling significance, a curious book with a kind of "period piece" interest and nothing more?

This I doubt.
Schmitt's account may need to be expanded to account for certain permutations that were still hidden fifty years ago, but both Schmitt and Kojève were aware of a certain kind of seriousness that comes only with the "existential struggle," that is, the willingness to risk and to inflict death. (This is the key to Kojève's whole reading of Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit.) In the proximity of this boundary, is it any wonder that themes of religion, "political theology," and so on arise? Quite to the contrary of the easy critique of the old "new" atheists, it might well be that religion does not generate martyrs, but vice versa. If so, the "vanishing of reason from history" could well be, as Vico might have guessed, the end of one era and the beginning of a new one, full of gods and terror.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Testing, testing


An amusing and fairly well-designed test on politics, according to which I am, like all right-thinking people, more or less in line with Gandhi and the Dalai Lama, though when they got these luminaries to take the test I don't really know. I approve of the expansion of the political spectrum beyond the obsolete, one-dimensional opposition left-right--a recipe for defeat is ever there was one, as it unreasonably constrains the various alternatives we might envision in a linear straight-jacket. While the solution they come up with, a Cartesian grid, is a bit gimmicky, it also has an elegance to it. I'm inclined to think it still a bit simplistic--we might really require a three- or four-dimensional model with a "spiritual" axis for starters to really capture the nuances, but of course one of the points of a model is the simplification.

In search of further self-knowledge, and along these spiritual lines, I dipped into the decidedly less scientific tests over at Quiz Farm. Putting "theology," and later "religion," in the Search Bar, I took the "What Type of Christian Are You?" quiz; thirty or so questions later, and lo! I am deemed a
Spirit filled Christian: Spirit Filled Christian! You seek to have a faith just as it was described in the Bible and first century Christian records. Accountability, relationship, forgiveness, grace, mercy, and love are your calling cards.
Huh. Well, sorta.... But I suspect that some who know me might be surprised to learn this.

Turning then to the "What's Your Theological Worldview?" quiz, I learned that apparently I am
Emergent/Postmodern: You are Emergent/Postmodern in your theology. You feel alienated from older forms of church, you don't think they connect to modern culture very well. No one knows the whole truth about God, and we have much to learn from each other, and so learning takes place in dialogue. Evangelism should take place in relationships rather than through crusades and altar-calls. People are interested in spirituality and want to ask questions, so the church should help them to do this.
Well, O.K. then. Except that, if you know my stance on liturgy for instance, you might guess that my response to the "disconnect" between "older forms of church" is not really that of the postmodern, while not really buying into the paleo-traditional answer either.

Now, I was pointed to these tests by my friend John Burnett, so I figured that like him I'd go for the third-time's-the-charm and see about my Eucharistic Theology. I am happy to report that, just like John, and despite my belonging to a schismatic sect with it's origins in Henry VIII's marital difficulties, I am hereby certified as
Orthodox: You are Orthodox, worshiping the mystery of the Holy Trinity in the great liturgy whereby Jesus is present through the Spirit in a real yet mysterious way, a meal that is also a sacrifice.
Then, for good measure and fairness, I decided to find out "What Kind of Atheist Are You?" This should be interesting, I thought. Insert coin, pull lever (no, really I answered the questions honestly) and out comes
Agnostic: Agnostics consider the possibility that they may be wrong about God's existence, no matter which side of the fence they stand on. Agnostics are the penulimate skeptics in the religious debates.
So there you have it. I'm a spirit-filled, postmodern, orthodox agnostic. Just like the Dalai Lama and Gandhi, no doubt.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

"Oh, my favorite kids are always the rebels."


Sure they are.

All sorts of teachers say this. Even more say that they value creativity in their students. They genuinely believe this. But as we know, what we serve with our lips is not always what we treasure in our hearts.

A new study, which I found via Mind Hacks and The Frontal Cortex, reports that while school teachers self-report that they love creative students, when they actually describe the students they deem their own favorites and least favorites, it turns out to be the least favorites who sound for all the world like kids who in any other context would be called--creative.

There's more than one explanation for this, of course, but education theorist Sir Ken Robinson thinks it's in part because we educate our children to be "successful" or to "compete" in today's world, rather than to create tomorrow's. Robinson's presentation on this topic at TED is a bit on the laugh-a-minute side, but the substance is there and worth thinking long and hard about.

Peter Gray has another take on why public schools are as they are. After my last post on education, Richard mentioned an article by Gray. I've read Gray before but hadn't read this article. The readers' comments, as is so often the case on the web, are a frustrating mixture of mutual-admiration and catcalls from the peanut gallery, with the occasional well-thought-out (though hardly dispassionate) demurral. There were even one or two from people who said they'd gone to Sudbury Valley and felt it hadn't been the paradise it's sometimes said to be (imagine). But one, which I paraphrase, struck home with me. Yes, schools are more or less prisons--this is merely the consequence of not dodging the real meaning of "compulsory education"--but to really fix this would require extraordinary changes, not just in schools but in our whole societal structure. It is not simply a matter of better teachers, or better curriculum, or even replacing public schools everywhere with something more like Sudbury. The educational system is of a piece with the alignment of our national economy, our political systems local and national, our whole vision of ourselves as a society. To challenge it is to call for very deep-ranging practical steps that would (if ever implemented) change the way we live.

Beyond which, of course, it is also to challenge people's values--and God knows, nothing will get you in trouble faster than implying that people could do with rethinking their child-rearing decisions.

And, of course, it challenges our self-images. This, too, is a practical and not just a theoretical question. After all, if I don't really value the creativity in children that I say I do--if I don't know myself well enough to know what I really value--then how well do I even know what I am teaching?

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Dharma and Gospel on evil


This post has its origin in an email I got from a friend, a convert from Mormonism to Tibetan Buddhism. The issue at stake was the problem of evil, and whether either tradition could justly claim to have a completely satisfying response to it. With his permission, I cite a relevant passage of his email before getting to my response. My friend observed,
This is the point where every Tibetan Lama I have met and been able to converse with privately...feels they have the Christian perspective in checkmate.

But I just don't get the logic because it would apply to emptiness to. If emptiness really is compassion, then why are there horrible things within form. The Gulag, the inquisition, Chinese eating babies and almost a million things each day in the news. The Buddhist answer is: it's ignorance; we are not seeing these things correctly; it's all a big misperception. What's the Christian answer?
I dare not call myself a scholar of Buddhism, and must be open to correction on this point (as on so many), but my understanding is that the Buddha more or less declined to discuss the question of the "origin of evil." He spoke a great deal about the genesis of sufferings, but as to "why the cycle of karma exists," he maintained silence. The passages I know include the one in which he likens asking after the origin of evil to one shot by a poisoned arrow demanding to know the name, address, & ancestry of the one who had shot the arrow before accepting any treatment for the wound. The message seems to be, "Not Relevant." Whether you accept "God" or "Emptiness," the riddle of why there is suffering at all remains an irreducible mystery.

Buddhism overflows with practical wisdom about how to alleviate and end suffering. Some of this advice is common-sense, some of it is deep psychology, some of it is mantric or otherwise occult. Christianity also has a wealth of such practical wisdom. On this level I do not see a great deal of divergence between the traditions.

(Note, in what follows I will say "Buddhism" or "Christianity" quite a lot. I have in mind here not the lowest common denominator of any of these, but the best and the deepest. I am not talking about Bible-belt anti-intellectuals or Mormon fundamentalists or culturally-Buddhist folk who don't take practice seriously. I know that this leaves a huge amount out, and could be critiqued as rendering a false image of the traditions, cut off from 'real-world' context, but I think what I will say holds more or less as a rough sketch).

Unlike their practical wisdom, the cosmological assumptions upon which the religions base their practices do diverge. The Buddhists are right to maintain that they differ from Christianity on the issue of whether there is a God. I find all the attempts to draw a big "equals" sign between God and Emptiness misguided. While the adjectives used for the one are often those used for the other (and this is not irrelevant), so far as the testimony of the two traditions goes, it is pretty clear that the two are not conceptually identical. I am utterly incompetent to have any opinion as to whether they are "really" the same, i.e., in experience. I have no experience to judge by. So I am reduced to the position of a commentator on texts when it comes to this subject.... not a very interesting position to be in, frankly, given the universal insistence on the part of both traditions that you can't get to the heart of either of them by reading books.

However, from this very limited perspective I can offer a few tentative speculations. Indian philosophy has tended to distinguish between bhakti and jnana, "devotion" and "wisdom," more or less (I can't translate from Sanskrit, so I'm relying on the usage of others). Now for all the insistence that jnana and bhakti are equal, there is no question in my mind that there is a subtle privileging of jnana; this is because whether one is a Buddhist and denies that there is a Self, or a Hindu and holds that Brahman is Atman, all devotion, all bhakti, is ultimately directed at some provisional target-- a god, a guru, a teacher, a Bodhisattva, an avatar, who is not the ultimate object of wisdom.

But in the west, the Biblical intuition is that the encounter with a Thou is irreducible either to encountering myself, or to emptiness. In Christianity, and I would also say in Judaism (and perhaps in Islam, but I am not competent here either), it really is more important to love than to understand. (I think that even the Talmudic saying, "Would that [my people] would abandon me, and keep my Torah," [Yerushalmi Talmud, Hagiga 1:7], on which the Ba'al Shem Tov is said to have often meditated, should be understood in this light, since the Torah here is devotion and practice, not "theology.") Kierkegaard puts this strongly, for instance in Philosophical Fragments, when he contrasts Socrates and Christ. In the case of Socrates as a teacher, there is a sense in which Socrates' teaching is far more significant that Socrates himself. But this is unthinkable in Christianity w/ regard to Christ; in His case, who the teacher is is (in one sense) more important than what he teaches. (You will note that this is just what many will say is the problem with Christianity, that it "became a religion about Jesus instead of "the religion of Jesus".")

This means that in the west, or at least in Christianity, bhakti is given a kind of priority over jnana (though of course these terms aren't used), and this is essentially a part of the practical wisdom of Christianity I referred to above. Practical, because it is irreducibly a matter of what I do, and not of anything that can be said.

I think that there is a manner in which the Western, Biblical religious worldview, common to the prophets, the Gospel writers, Dante, and Kierkegaard alike, must maintain that this priority of devotion over wisdom holds with regards to any encounter with anyone at all, not just with regard to Christ. After all, if I love someone, it is far more important to concern myself with them than with with some account of my love, or indeed even with the fact of my love. They become more significant than any words for them or me or the relationship.

But this priority of bhakti is very paradoxical. Why? partly because to say any of this about the priority of bhakti turns it into more jnana, more wisdom. Partly, too, because to say my loved one is more important than my love seems to cut off the branch I sit on, since this importance does after all seem both to follow from my love for the other, and to have a kind of imperative logical consequence: therefore, love!

I can put this in terms of evil or sin, too. It is a commonplace that sin is often thought of as the transgression of some kind of rule: I told you a lie, and it says here Thou shalt not lie; I have infringed on the law, and so am guilty--guilty in the abstract. But there is a different and to my mind more relevant way of thinking about what went wrong: I told you a lie. This has bent, misformed, wronged our relationship, and the guilt I feel comes not from having broken a rule but from having wronged you.

This of course is not an explanation of evil, but a way of engaging with it existentially. Note though that this insight, if such it is, can always be abstracted from and put into some general form, i.e., some rule: "Don't wrong your relationships!" What I want to say is that no matter how compelling this move is, it always gets something amiss. This is not to say that "all morality is contextual" or whatever, because that too is just more abstraction. I don't have any problem with abstractions, but I think that they are never the end of the matter. What matters most is always the relationship with this person, this sentient being (note I do not insist on the object being a human or indeed perhaps even an animal or plant-- it could even be a abstract object or idea (consider for instance the mathematician's love of a theorem)--what is nonnegotiable however is that it be this relationship, my-encounter-with-this-now, and that this human being, or houseplant, or angel, or painting, or ecosystem, or scientific principle, or whatever, takes a kind of irreducible priority over the fact that it is my encounter with it. (This is crucial, otherwise it turns into more egoism).

You'll note that at every turn I court contradiction; I can hardly employ a semicolon without plopping it down in the middle of some abstraction or generalization, and yet I seem to be saying that abstraction and generalization are wrong somehow, divorced from the real context of encounter. I think the paradox is not just me, but lies at the center of the Biblical account. There are plenty--not just Buddhist lamas-- who would regard this paradox as a checkmate indeed. Kierkegaard (or maybe Hegel or Jacobi) are the first modern thinkers I know if who show how to turn this apparent liability into a virtue, but obviously it has been a possibility in the Christian tradition since the beginning, which you can see from Pascal ("You would not seek Me unless you had found Me") or Luther, w/ his emphasis on faith & grace, or Augustine ("I believe in order to understand") or Tertullian ("It is certain because it is absurd") or even St Paul.

This is a long and roundabout way of approaching the question about evil, but I hope the relevance is apparent: Both Christianity and Buddhism (in my understanding) actually lack a satisfactory theoretical "answer" to the problem of evil. And both of them decline the question as far as theory goes; the Dharma by the Buddha's silence, the Gospel by offering a response that is not theoretical at all. The problem of evil's origin is "resolved," if that is the word, in just the same way as is the problem of evil's resolution. On the theoretical level it can only look like a rhetorical fiat, a flat-out assertion: the mystery of iniquity on the one hand, the mystery of God's righteousness on the other. This looks illegitimate, and indeed is so, from the point of view of "wisdom," for the Gospel is "foolishness to the Greeks;" but from the point of view of devotion, it is capable of intelligible unfolding.

Simone Weil writes somewhere that "Insofar as God is a consolation, the atheists are right and the believers are wrong." I think I more or less agree with this--or rather, it resonates with me, for it isn't a question of "agreeing." I have certainly experienced what felt to me like the absence of God-- not just a withdrawal, but the lived assumption that there was none. In fact the existence of God does not make things better or nicer or even alleviate suffering. I know that many believers want say that it does, but I can't really get behind it. Eli Wiesel recounts (& dramatizes in his play The Trail of God) that one night in Auschwitz God was put on trial for breaking His covenant with the Jews and abandoning them to meaningless suffering. The trial went on all night, with many arguments, but the evidence was all around them. Just before dawn, the rabbi who had presided over the trial pronounced verdict: God was found guilty; guilty of betraying his chosen people, guilty of leaving them to their enemies, guilty of absconding at the very moment when most His power should have stood against what His righteousness ought most to have abhorred. The verdict hung in the air amid silence. In the bleak sky over Auschwitz, the sun was coming up. Then the rabbi said quietly that it was time for morning prayers.

I don't wish to cloak myself in the mantle of anyone else's suffering, much less suffering like the Shoah, groaning under its unsought iconic status. My own suffering has been "a poor thing, but my own." All I can say is that the God I worship and love is not a God who will kiss it better, not the deus ex machina of a fairy tale, but a God who suffers with and in the sentient world.

I know that there are problems with this. My assertion, that "God suffers," is of course already in some sense on (or from) the further side of what can be meaningfully said; and moreover, as I know very well, there is a sense in which the Christian tradition can be held to "make it better." To such a presentation of Christianity, I can only say that I don't understand it; it is either below or far above the level at which things make sense to me. I do believe that "All shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well;" but this is as it were a function of bhakti; the love I feel for God, my paltry shadow of imperfect love, is dwarfed by God's love for the world; and this being so, it is bound to be that "all shall be well."

So at least thus far I agree with the Buddhist lamas my friend cited, who say that we are in ignorance, that we are not seeing correctly--that we are prey to misperceptions. Not, however, because evils are not evil, but because they cannot (no matter how they seem to) ultimately undo the meaning of the world.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

The sublime synapse


Not one but two different SCT readers pointed me in email to an NY
Times article on the attempt by literary theorists to harness neurology and cognitive science. The Times has since followed up with a collection of essays ruminating on the never-ending search in Humanities departments for the so called Next Big Thing, of which this engagement with neurons is the latest chapter. (The trend is more than just a fad; dissertations are being written and careers founded. One website devoted to developments in the field is this one, with a useful page of further links).

It all brought to mind an article I read some time ago by philosopher Raymond Tallis. Tallis belongs to the venerable tradition of doctor-thinkers that stretches from Heraclitus to Karl Jaspers. When he opines on matters medical, he is remarking on something he knows a little bit about. It's somewhat refreshing, then, to read his curt dismissal of what he sees as the pretensions of scientific accounts of consciousness. I don't know whether he is right or not, but Tallis' emphasis on how little we know, and his argument that consciousness does not reduce in any simple sense to brain states, just smells better to me than the over-confident predictions I read of being able to model states of mind or to "explain" consciousness. (It's the over-confidence, not the explanation per se, that I don't trust). In the case of our aesthetic experiences, Tallis is quite impatient with claims to account for them, or even to shed much light on them, via neuroscience.

Likewise with spirituality; Tallis contends in this article that attempts either to defend or to attack spirituality by finding some basis for it in brain science, or in evolutionary psychology, are misguided. The believers are wrong to think that a neural or evolutionary hardwiring of the religious instinct would lend much weight to the case for belief--not unless you are prepared to buy into intelligent design, which already betrays the premises of the evolutionary psychology it relies on; but, Tallis says, the nonbelievers are wrong too, because the explanations just don't work for anything as complex as religion in any case. (Tallis has spelled out some of his own account of human nature and culture in a number of works, most notably his trilogy, The Hand, I Am, and The Knowing Animal.)

For the record, I think Tallis somewhat overstates his negative case (I am more enthusiastic about his positive formulations, insafar as I understand them). While he's clearly sensed that some of the motivation behind "neuro-(a)theology" is to "cut religion down to size," the value of science, even when spurred by unscientific motives, is not nil. The refusal to look through Galileo's telescope is not, and never was, tenable. But how to understand what any sort of -scope shows, is a different matter.

For myself, while I take pleasure in Tallis' acerbic prose, and I welcome the arguments of an atheist chiding his fellow atheists for over-reaching (to forestall the objection that any criticism of gung-ho scientism must be motivated by some irrational religious ideological commitment), I'm pretty content to let the whole thing go by; count me as already persuaded. Both literature and spirituality (whether you want to talk about the latter in terms of "beliefs," "states," "practices,' even "memes," or whatever) are certainly going to have a lot of physiological and neural substrata--it's almost laughable to even have to say it--as they are things that human beings do, and humans come with their nervous systems or not at all. To be interested in these substrata is not inherently to be a reductionist. But reductionism is a real (and mistaken) possible stance, and not always an avowed one. Tallis' warnings against it may be over the top (Sam Harris certainly thinks so), but his point is well taken.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

New paper up


Posted a new paper of mine at Scribd. Actually it's partly an old paper, on Nietzsche, with some considerable expansion especially towards the end. Dy0genes will recognize a lot of it from a class we once took together (from the late, great Fred Hagen). He may not remember all of the critique he gave me at the time, but I sure do, and I hope I have done it justice.

The title of the paper, incidentally, is "The Will to be God." But the name of the file, much more prominently displayed than I had anticipated, is "The Will to be God Formatted," which strikes me as a potential weird and techno-theological heresy in a pseudo P.K. Dick scenario, if only I could think of what it would entail.

Comments are always welcome. All papers up are of course drafts and (in the unlikely event that anyone is tempted) should not be cited without permission; they could change at any time.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Theology between speech and song


(This post is in part a reflection on some points made by John Burnett at his blog here).

I've mentioned before that I'm a musician. Not a great one; I play keyboard well enough to comp my way through some jazz standards and to have played in a few rock bands (you wouldn't have heard of us); and I can sing. My vocal music has been mostly choral (I had too little stamina and too many inhibitions to be a lead singer, though I liked to chime in in the background), and now that I'm not in a band anymore, I sing mainly in the car, and in choir of my Episcopal parish. This, as you might imagine, is a little bit of a shift in style (the style of my Anglo-Catholic parish is more Thomas Tallis than "praise songs"). (I still get my rock'n'roll in the car.)

On Good Friday, I had been asked to sing in my parish's passion narrative. Specifically, I was asked to sing the part of Jesus, which turns out to be a somewhat important role. Happily, I did not choke up (thanks to good coaching and timely advice by the woman who has hitherto sung the part--"just remember," she told me, "it's all a conversation between you and Pilate, or you and Caiaphas, you you and whoever"), and my somewhat softer voice turned out to be an asset (you don't really want a strident Jesus).

This experience, and that of singing regularly in a liturgical setting generally, has helped to crystallize a few reflections (still quite tentaive) I've had for a while about music and theology.

Once upon a time, as our contemporary demythology would have it, it was possible for a Christian believer to declare their faith in a more or less unproblematic way. "Ascending into Heaven," for instance, or for that matter, "rising again on the third day" were not especially challenging notions in a culture that imagined heaven as a place to which one could ascend, and which took miracles for granted.

Hmmm. Well, I have my doubts about this scenario. The idea that the Resurrection was somehow easy to swallow by the credulous age of Cicero, Virgil, and Seneca, of Hillel, Gamaliel, and Akiva, to say nothing of that reluctant enthusiast St. Paul, strikes me as, shall we say, a bit of an over-simplicifation. I didn't really need N.T. Wright to convince me of this, but it's nice to have his solid, sane and magisterial scholarship to remind us that death has always been seen as the great irreversible, no less to the first century A.D. world than to today's. Likewise, whatever undoubtedly separates ancient cosmology from our own, and notwithstanding both the verb "ascended" and various artistic depictions of the Ascension, I am unconvinced that the faith of the ancient church included a heaven that could be reached if one traveled perpendicularly to the earth's surface far enough--at least, if we are talking about the saints whose experience informed the creedal definitions.

Still, one has to admit that those stories and declarations exist-- "On the third day he rose again...He ascended into Heaven..." "the communion of saints, the resurrection of the dead and the life everlasting..." And of course, it's not unlikely that many people did believe in a Heaven spatially located "up there;" not just because it's intuitively "obvious" to our embodied minds, but because it seems that a number of people still do.

I'm not going to turn this blog into a pulpit. But I want to make a suggestion about how Christian doctrine, or indeed religious doctrine in general, can be apprehended in a way that offers a high road around certain easy (too easy) objections that are often made against it. My approach may raise as many difficulties as it solves, but I think these new difficulties are more interesting and more profitable.

I start with the hypotheses, first, that the best guide to the meaning of a religious tradition is not the overt statement of belief, but the patterns of worship--the liturgies--that shape the life of individual and community; and secondly that those liturgies which are most conservative will best manifest the formative intuitions of the traditions in question.

The liturgical traditions that best preserve their antique practices--Eastern Orthodox Christianity, and Orthodox Judaism--are also, and not coincidentally, the most
sung liturgies. To this day the one Jewish rite of passage that every gentile knows the name of, the occasion that marks the entry of the young Jew into the adult community, requires the careful learning and recitation of scripture not as a memorized text alone but as enshrined in a melody that may be more than two millennia old.

This could simply mean that religious traditions, inherently conservative, tend to keep their forms; if it was sung back in the olden days, and no Zwingli or Henry VIII has come along in the meantime, it's likely to still be sung today. This is true so far as it goes, but more is involved than resistance to change. In fact it is well known that liturgical forms do change. But until the Reformation, the sung or chanted character of all scriptural texts was a given. And when one actually pays attention to the character of this recitation, one notes something.

Given any text at all to read, one is immediately faced choices, choices about speed, volume, emphasis, tone, emotion; choices that multiply with every word. To speak aloud even a single written sentence is not an innocent act; with every syllable, one construes the silent text into a heard experience. And this transformation always imbues the written word with something not on the page. A reading can be "dramatic" or wooden, seamless or awkward, inspiring or confusing; but it is never "just the text." This is not, n.b., a function of bad readers. There are plenty of bad readers--readers whose voice rises and falls in pitch, crescendos and dies to a whisper; readers whose emotions spill over; readers who can't resist the extra pause before what they see as the poignant moment or the punchline; who can't, in short, avoid telling you what text "means" in their manner of reading it. The great irony is that those readers who are the most "boring"--the most monotone, the least "inspiring"--are the closest to the ancient practice of chant--minus, of course, most of the beauty of the form. What a chanted text gives you is--ideally--the text minus the interpreting ego of the reader; for the multitude of possibilities of tone of voice, chant gives a single, clear tone. ("Ideally," I said; of course the more the cantor concentrates on technique or "effect," the more the ego intrudes. A chanted scriptural text is not an operatic recitative.)

The Bible (as it currently stands) is
meant to be sung. A look at the Hebrew text confirms this-- the Masoretic text includes both vowel points and te'amim or cantillation marks (though a kosher Torah scroll for synagogue use omits these [thanks to John Burnett for setting me straight on this matter]). In the case of the New Testament the case is more complex; there is no single canonical text, no similarly universal tradition of cantillation, and no single set of melodies; but the ancient liturgical practice in both east and west, and continuous to this day in many traditions, is certainly the chanting of all texts with the exception of the homily (and for all I know, even this sometimes).

Having now spent a good while in the choir singing a lot of liturgical material, especially the psalms, I have noticed something about how music impacts the reception of texts. Bypassing the ego of the singer, the chanted text also largely bypasses those of the listeners. When I am singing a text about, say, the resurrection of the dead, I am never concerned to ask "what is the resurrection supposed to be like?" The questions of the "literal" ramifications of a sung text do not arise. This is very different from reading a text, listening to it be read. Unless one is simply swept along in a narrative, the questions "did that actually happen?", or "what did that really look like?" inevitably arise. But this is not the case when one sings or hears music. One can ask if a story is true, but no one asks if this is a true song.

The sung text is addressed, as it were, to a different faculty of the soul than is the spoken text. The Bible was not intended by the peoples that produced it to be evaluated in terms of historical or scientific veracity; and far less in terms of "futural" accuracy or indeed of rules for living. (There are some elements of all of these in the original textual strata of the Bible, the so-called J, E, D, and P texts and their hypothetical cousins; but even in those cases--and I must emphasize how speculative all reconstructions of the "original text" are--I am convinced that the ancients never meant just what a modern literalist would mean by the questions "is that how it really happened?" or "when will this happen?" or indeed "is that, then, how I must live?") The Bible as chanted--which is to say, the Bible read as the text we have asks to be read--is not primarily aimed at the parts of the human person that makes those evaluations. This doesn't mean that music is a sneaky way for Biblical fundamentalism to get past the mind's bullshit detectors. Rather, it means that those who shaped the Biblical text in its current form were not fundamentalists.


Well, then, what is the Bible? For a long time I took pleasure and relief (after being raised in a more or less biblical literalist household) in realizing that the Bible was a sort of "library," i.e., not a single book but a collection of disparate material from many eras. In this I am pretty much a died-in-the-wool subscriber to the "Documentary Hypothesis" in its loosest form. I think there is little real question that the Bible as we have it was "edited together" as a process, the very last phase of which happened probably as a response to the destruction of the Temple and Jerusalem. Although I remain cheerfully agnostic about any particular accounts of this process and especially about attempts to reconstruct the "sources," the basic notion that something like these sources existed once and were used to make the text we now have cannot, I think, withstand serious question.

With that caveat, however, I have to say that the Bible is meant by its final editors as a whole, as one story. And that is really what the Bible is: a story. A story, moreover, that has been extremely carefully shaped, down to the level of the letter sometimes and certainly to the words. What makes the Biblical story different--and to its detractors, pernicious--is that it's a story that invites you inside, that asks you to see yourself as living within it in some sense.

But in what sense? Did I not just say, or imply, that the Bible is neither a book of cosmology, nor of history, nor of foretellings, nor or rules of conduct? And if it's not these, then how exactly am I supposed to "live" it?

One "enters", consciously participates, in the Biblical story, in the sort of manner I have already tried to indicate with regard to poetry: by metalepsis. But lest this sound like some esoteric and/or question-begging answer, let me rephrase it. As I have mentioned earlier, metalepsis (which just means "participation") happens in liturgy. The liturgical setting and enactment is what makes possible the present-tense living in the story; the cyclical nature of the liturgy is how one gets a sense of the story as being a whole, and not a set of discrete parts labeled "the message for us today." In short, you don't get liturgy on a one-time basis, you have to swim there; but outside of the liturgy, the sung liturgy, you don't get Christian scripture "as it understands itself" at all.

I do not know enough about the Vedas, the Sutras, the Qur'an, or other scriptures, though I would not be astonished to learn that something like this is true of them as well; i.e., that they too are not primarily, and certainly not solely, intended for the mental faculty that asks, "is that what the camera would have recorded?" My suspicion is that they too must be "entered into" in a way that is very different from simply coming at them with questions.

Questions of historical truth and falsity are not irrelevant; the human faculties which ask after this are, after all, part of the human being, and the Biblical message is about the whole person. "How is the resurrection of the dead supposed to be possible?" has a meaning, but only within the story. And I'm rather strongly suggesting that one can't tell the story from the outside at all, and that one can't tell it from within, in any way but song.

This rather hyperbolic claim is not one for which I am sure I want to go all the way to the wall, but I am putting it in this admittedly provocative form, precisely to highlight the potential problems. I'm willing to face up to the difficult questions that follow--hopefully in dialogue--but I don't think anything is served by hiding how difficult they are. In short, am I really suggesting that the critique made by the intellectual faculties (those that do ask "did it really happen that way?") simply can't touch the Biblical story because-- well, because that sort of discourse doesn't sing? No. In fact I'd say that the discursive intellect does "sing," albeit in a different register; the texts of the creeds for instance are sculpted by and for the intellect as well; but then they were made also to be sung. Theology is a dialogue of singing and speech.

Even this blog post, one will note, is read, and not sung; it is thinking reflection upon experience of a different order. One steps in and out of music. But the intuition of wisdom is that this stepping in and out happens according to a deeper music.