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.

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Thursday, February 4, 2016

"...the intriguing insanity of religion..."

"... you’re one of the few that I’ve come across, probably the only one that is openly available for dialogue, that seems to have faced the void in all its implications, and somehow came through with his faith intact. I suppose I simply want to know how you did it."
This from Kalimere, who in several lengthy comments on a couple of posts from last year has raised in pressing terms the question of how or whether one can face down nihilism consistently and coherently -- especially now.

I think Kalimere's questions deserve a better response than I can offer, mostly because they are a version of the only question worth asking. Caveat lector: I am nobody to give out "spiritual advice," and insofar as my own idiosyncratic "spiritual" (Ha!) biography is of the slightest interest, I would think it would be as an ongoing cautionary tale. Nonetheless, I am going to offer some few reflections because I was asked, which is really what it comes down to.

One of my responses to Kalimere's assertion is almost a scoff: "Intact," indeed. I am strongly tempted to say "only a broken faith is worthy of the name 'faith,'" or some such. I am merely naming this, precisely as a temptation, because I think it is a bit of a cheap and too-easy pseudo-paradox. There are a few exemplars of such faith who I can think of -- recent ones are Sergio Quinzio, Ivan Illich, Simone Weil, Elie Wiesel -- but I don't want to enumerate a little pantheon or wrap myself in a mantle-by-association; nor do I for a moment demean (though I cannot really relate to) the faith of ordinary believers who would never dream of the temptation of cursing God or suggesting that He has always been a landlord absconditas. Moreover, as I say in the post to which Kalimere is responding, I don't see any meaning to the idea of piety that is not enacted in worship. The worship may be like Job's, but I truly hold that it must be worship, prayer. Mere "theology" as "God-talk" is so much flatus vocis, but if we want to really pray, this means using forms of worship which we find -- which we do not make up ourselves -- for if we make it up ourselves, we run straight into the arms of mere egoism, be it ever so concealed under the abnegation of the ego (and everything else). One's faith may indeed be broken, but talk about "broken faith" runs a dire risk of more-broken-than-thou syndrome. You can't contend against the wiles of the ego with a strategy you make up yourself. You need traditional forms.

But why would one think that traditional forms are anything other than "the rotted names," to use Stevens' line? This brings me to my second response. The void was not discovered by science and it has not been made especially More Void-y by it. The void has always been there. I have learned a great deal from historicism, and it's an important part of my philosophy that there has been what I'll abbreviate as an "evolution of consciousness;" but I absolutely deny that our dilemma is in any decisive sense completely new and without precedent. Nihilism has always been "at the door," to those who had the skin to sense the chill. If there was ever a real response to it, there remains one now. So I do not concede the case (pressingly made by R.S. Bakker, for instance) that our circumstance has somehow encountered a game-changer in science. Science can be carried out in a (perhaps unconsciously) nihilist spirit. And it articulates a thousand-and-one reasons for nihilism if you are already leaning -- the slightest bit, perhaps -- that way. I don't wish to dismiss that lean; I simply dispute that there is any inherent connection between it and science per se.

I take this nihilism very seriously. I am, indeed, an ultimate "optimist," in the sense that I maintain (without being able to really imagine) that "All shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well." But I am also a proximate "pessimist" -- there is no reason to assert that at any moment before the eschaton, any given thing need be "well" at all. I am, by the way, leaving wholly aside the complicated questions of what sort of philosophy of time and history this involves; but I grant that it may well feel like insanity to "expect" or even hope for such a denouement of reality -- some kind of big "Roll the Credits" at the End of Everything. Obviously I don't grant that it is stupid, or immature, or the craven echo of our ancestors' bad dreams or bad reality; but those who want to say that such eschatology is just another alibi for denialism are welcome to do so -- I don't believe I can persuade them against their will. (I do believe there is a question of will here). On the other hand, those who want to say that eschatology is more accurately a discourse of absolute doom -- that there is an End to All Things a-comin', and it will be cold, and meaningless, like everything that came before, but this time undeniable -- are, whether they know it or not, trading upon a secularized version of categories to which they have no legitimate claim.

But unlikely though it may seem, one can also combine faith with just such a bleak outlook. I drew upon Derrida a good deal for part of the work which drew Kalimere's comments; but probably the writing of Mikhail Bakhtin is more pertinent here. Bakhtin's dialogism was often associated with deconstruction when I was first exposed to this milieu; but as also happened with the work of Michel Serres, gradually people realized that there was a significant difference. Bakhtin's work does indeed strongly claim that "meaning is never foreclosed," and like Derrida there's a strong element of play in it ("carnival," it's often translated), but it's striking that Bakhtin never feels like he flirts with nihilism, though there is plenty of dourness, as might well be the case for a theorist whose works were forged under Stalinism and were often published posthumously (if they were not lost entirely). This won't be a post on Bakhtin, but I want to recall a relevant anecdote: Bakhtin, whose work is surprisingly and esoterically shot through with Orthodox Christianity, was once asked by a friend "whether or not good will eventually triumph." Bakhtin responded sharply: "No, of course not." This, I take it, is a rejection of the terms of the question. Whatever "All Manner of thing shall be well" looks like, it will not look like triumph, even though such categories may offer a rough analogy for now. Perhaps it would be better to say, as Lesslie Newbigin said: "I am neither an optimist nor a pessimist. Jesus Christ is risen from the dead."

In an article wrestling with Christian doctrines of eschatology and creation, David Bentley Hart, while also giving a long litany of the horrors of the world both moral and natural, then writes:
. . . It would be impious, I suppose, to suggest that, in his final judgment of creatures, God will judge himself; but one must hold that by that judgment God truly will disclose himself (which, of course, is to say the same thing, in a more hushed and reverential voice).
Yes, my faith is eschatological. But as Hart points out, this by itself does not suffice. One way of putting my own master-question, the question which in some senses characterizes my entire project, is, What is the right voice for philosophy? The right tone? And before we go to the easy, too-easy answer -- "more than one" -- I'll point out that Hart has already used more than one above, but he gives the last word -- the provisional "last" word, the last word here -- to the reverential. Yes, more than one, and yet, one. Which, when you stop to think about it, is the question of the One and the Many, the question philosophy is always asking.

My post's title comes from Kalimere's comment when he responded to my remark that "the watchword here is paradox;" it reminds me that Socrates tells Phaedrus that the poets are mad, but that "madness is the greatest of gifts, when it comes from the gods." There is another maxim, often thought to have been current in Socrates' day, to wit: "Whom the gods would destroy they first make mad." In fact, in that form the saying is not ancient -- it's by Longfellow -- but there are variants enough, that go back far enough, to justify the supposition that something like this was probably written by Euripides. And so it would seem to be an issue not just of a distinction of the source (gods or not) of the madness, but of the motive of the gods for the "gift." Bakhtin in Art and Answerability says: "Inspiration that ignores life and is itself ignored by life is not inspiration but a state of possession." There would be, then, madness and madness; perhaps there are gods, and gods. It is hard to know the difference sometimes. One of the lessons I have imbibed from deconstruction is that there is no simple distinction to be made here, at least not by me. It takes someone with far more spiritual discernment than I to tell where one shades off into the other. The only thing I can claim is that such discernment is not a meaningless idea. In short, there is more than one sort of paradox; there is faith that is just a turning-away from reason, and there is faith that is the culmination thereof. I am sure I don't always know the difference; but I am sure there is a difference.


  1. Excellent, thank you! Much to be explored further.

  2. JTolle wrote:

    Apropos the "faith that is the culmination thereof" with which you end, a passage from Eric Voegelin's "Quod Deus Dicitur" (1985): "We are not facing God as a thing but as the partner in a questing search that moves within a reality formed by participatory language.... The process of our intellectus in quest of our fides, a process that also can be formulated as our fides in quest of our intellectus, is a primary event."

    [This comment was accidentally deleted. My apologies. --skholiast]