Friday, August 11, 2017

Imaginal Ways (or Shamanic Postmodern Tantra of Alien Communion)

I recently went on a walk on the wildly Gnostic side with my reading, and took on The Super Natural by Whitley Strieber and Jeffrey Kripal. Strieber wrote the seminal Communion many years back, which I never read but was aware of. Although I've always have some fascination with the possibility of alien encounters, I think it had more to do with all my exposure to sci-fi entertainment in my childhood. I am not sure if there are or have ever been alien visitors (but neither are the authors).

As Kripal notes early on, “It all comes down to how one believes, not whether one believes.”

That's the side where Kripal lands. He's a contextualist. As a professor of comparative religion, he brings some rigor by interjecting theories around Strieber's explicit adventures. Yet his take on religion verges on the humorous.

Kripal says, “I do not think it is too much of a simplification to suggest that the entire history of religions can be summed up this way: strange super beings from the sky come down to interact with human beings, provide them with cultural, technological, legal, and ethical knowledge, guide them, scare the crap out of them, demand their submission and obedience, have sex with them (often forcefully), and generally terrorize, awe, baffle, inspire, and use them.”

Hmm, not my God.

But I am a sympathizer for Kripal's approach at times. We often need to make sense of the sporadic mysteries of the cosmos. Yet, as Gödel notes, we are going to be either consistent or complete (not both). Kripal sides with the complete, and throws in some tools to help cultivate our notions. 

As he says, “It is very easy to claim a theory of everything if you get to decide what that everything is.”

Kripal finds Henry Corbin's idea of the imaginal useful in this context. That is, there is the empirical/material world and there is the intelligible/rational world. In between is the imaginal world, and this is the space were imagination and symbols coexist. 

Strieber, on the other hand, is the “ordinary man appearing in the middle of an otherwise completely fantastic narrative.” I can't say for sure what has happened to Strieber, but I came to believe that something has happened. And this is nub of the book. Are such experiences Real or all in the head? As Kripal notes, “Plainly, whatever is happening, it is not "all in the mind." Or, if it is... the mind is not all in us.”

Surprisingly, Strieber's take is more humble than expected. He acknowledges his experiences may not simply be real aliens from another planet: but maybe plasma-like energy, something from another dimension, glowing orbs of spiritual bodies, or possible trauma induced trances. 

But he doesn't dismiss it as all mind-stuff, as he has some empirical evidence to back his experiences: implants, injuries, other witnesses. Something is real, but we are also somehow playing a part in it in a quantum-like way.

(He also notes a story where a military General believed that the US government avoided disclosing their knowledge of UFO sightings because “obscure laws of physics might prevent them from entering our reality without first convincing us that they were real, and that official admission might be the tripwire that would enable them come through.”)

Ultimately Strieber counters Kripal's contextualism with some essentialism. There may be an ontological grounding to all this. We aren't just purely creating our Reality, but possibly co-creating it through our interpretive instruments along with a Creator. And that could be the Real that matters — all else is up for grabs in this mysterious story.

All this leads to Kripal believing we need a new story: one that is aware that it's still a story. He ends with a Philip K. Dick quote that concludes, “we are not the artists but the drawings.” To me, the idea of being drawn seems to look back to some older story that may still have its place in our day.

Friday, July 28, 2017

Random Signals #1

There are times I can't complete a sentence, never mind a full post. There's a distraction of many bits of excitable thoughts that can't completely cohere, but need to be expressed. So here it is that I present to you a piecemeal post of random signals (as opposed to all the noise in my head). 

There does to appear to be a rejection of Aristotelian logic in many circles these days, especially in regards to the law of non-contradiction. While the orthogonal approach of both/and works in many cases to limit binary thinking, there are time when either/or is unavoidable. Trying to come up with a philosophical system that works for everyone can be manipulative, as it casts aspersions without clarity and accountability.  You are left with no actual principles with which to live by, leaving it difficult to get your arms around anything substantive and concrete.

As I heard recently, when the British Parliament call for a vote, they also say they are calling for a division. Sometimes we need to take a side; hopefully the more logical side, no matter how large our vista, how grey our choices, and how ill-prepared our courage. 

I've been reminiscing of my past entheogen experience as I recently came across William Wildwood's post on Drugs and Spirituality. I tend to agree with his point that, “the real aim of the spiritual path is not to achieve a higher state of consciousness (if it were, why be born?) but to acquire virtue using that word to encompass all that is involved in the idea of the good, the beautiful and the true.” That's not to say I have any regrets at all. Even he acknowledges that, “experiencing these states could reorient a person to the spiritual but even if that were true (and I don't dismiss the idea) then once is enough.” So maybe I had my once and done experience, and there is no need to get on that wagon again, and instead continue with meditation, prayer, and study. 

Not to mention the downside. One astute facebook poster was commenting as to why some people don't change after indulging in entheogens. His point: while “sure entheogens are strong medicine, no doubt. But, speaking from experience, the powerful impression of great clarity and insight can also be yet another veil and bulwark against utter nakedness.”

I am more convinced that to become utterly naked before the Divine, it may be better to drink from the cup of suffering and joy (over the cup of plant medicine). 

David Brooks recently took on the notion of coolness. He says, “It emerged specifically within African-American culture, among people who had to withstand the humiliations of racism without losing their temper, and who didn’t see any way to change their political situation. Cool culture in that context said, you can beat me but I am not beaten, you can oppress me but you can’t own me. It became a way of indicting society even if you were powerless, a way of showing your untrammeled dignity. It was then embraced by all those who felt powerless, whether they were dissident intellectuals or random teenagers.”

It certainly does have a Christian ring to it when we refer to the turning of the cheek doctrine. 

While being cool created a stance of moral ambiguity and emotional detachment, it also allowed for mystique of character that would often be admired and emulated. It appears internet culture has brought that all crashing down. Who is really cool today?

I saw two great films recently: Dunkirk and War for the Planet of the Apes. Dunkirk is a masterpiece in the many ways the critics are raving about. One observation is the chaos of war from many angles and vistas can leave one emotionally detached from the suffering. Maybe Stalin was right: “One death is a tragedy; one million is a statistic.” We can't surpass the tragedy of one, as the masses just obscure the infinite value of the loss.

With War for the Planet of the Apes, the opposite was true. I found the intimacy and subtle resonance of the film to bring me to tears at times. Oddly, the film's title doesn't do justice to the contemplativeness that underlays the arc of the narrative.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

I Can't Go On, I'll Go On

Samuel Beckett's aphorism seems to reflect my stance best these days.

I know there is much to be grateful for, yet I also have to be grateful for the cross I bear. It's a familiar pattern, full of fleeting fears around abandonment, resignation, and defeatism.

Without the need to get into particulars, it feels so familiar to me I often wonder if this is my natural disposition. Is the desolation more real than the consolation?

Yet, there is something I get closer to in the suffering. I sense a richer humanity that is in tune to the suffering in others. I am not as dismissive of the subtleties of pain despite the contraction that takes me over. While it may be a psychological desolation that takes me there, there is also a spiritual consolation in all of this.

I am reminded of some words by Parker Palmer...

That without pain, there is no joy. 
That from despair, hope emerges. 
That out of death, new life always emerges.
That real life hurts.
That real life is beautiful.
That hearts are meant to love and live and breathe and connect.
That hearts are meant to break.

Palmer notes that there there are two kinds of hearts that break. The first is the unresolved broken heart that inflicts its pain onto others. I am definitely not immune to this. When in the pain, the horizon looks shallow. Possibilities seem bleak. I feel recoiled from what is. I want to lash out with sadness and anger. 

Palmer also points to another heart that is broken open “into the largeness of life, into greater capacity to hold one's own and world's pain and joy.” Oddly in my contracted suffering, I can simultaneously sense into this world too.

There is a Hasidic tale where the rabbi is asked why does the Torah ask its followers to place the words upon our hearts — and not in our hearts? The rabbi answers, “It is because as we are, our hearts are closed, and we cannot place the holy words in our hearts. So we place them on top of our hearts. And there they stay until, one day, the heart breaks, and the words fall in.”

Maybe this is where suffering can move us forward, to a larger and deeper embrace of the wisdom that has been imprinted in our soul. 

As one sage once said: “Life can be transcended, or it can be repeated, but it cannot be fulfilled.” It seems the real challenge is to live in the tension of immanence and transcendence. Or as Palmer says, stand in the “tragic gap,” the “gap between what is and what could and should be.” 

It's in this tragic gap where all the suffering can enrich and embody a deeper joy that eventually ensues.

And so for now, I'll go on.

Monday, July 10, 2017

Patterns of Deceit

When we're orientating patterns in an historical-cultural context, we always have to be careful because the particulars do matter. While I've been drawn to meta-theories, like spiral dynamics, I do see more problems than good from them. First, historic paradigm shifts as not as clean as often depicted, such that many of these patterns overlap with prior epochs. These theories often privilege recent cultural trends over many of the high culture achievements in more pre-modern times, often dismissing these periods as "less-evolved" than ours. Moreover, these models often represent trends and patterns to justify speculative non-empirical outcomes.

When looking at a meta-view, I can empathize with the Levinas position that responsibility precedes any "objective searching after truth". Or another way to consider this is while the part is always in the whole, the part always needs to be made whole.

Maybe that's why I prefer how Kreeft depicts these historical-cultural patterns, since he doesn't attempt to place them hierarchically. We can see how Kreeft draws on Christianity as a synthesis of virtue in theory (Hellenism) and practice (Hebraism): or the True and the Good.
He also sees the postmodern period as leading to a new axial age resulting from the Western Enlightenment and Continental Romanticism. I am not sure if it's a revival or a dead-end, but there many people attempting to grope for the next, new thing.

In the dead-end camp, David Bentley Hart eviscerates the notion that we have come up with a deeper ethical stance in our postmodern milieu... 
“Even when we have shed the moral and religious precepts of our ancestors, most of us try to be ethical and even, in many cases, “spiritual.” It is rare, however, that we are able to impose anything like a coherent pattern upon the somewhat haphazard collection of principles and practices by which we do this. Our ethics, especially, tends to be something of a continuous improvisation or bricolage: we assemble fragments of traditions we half remember, gather ethical maxims almost at random from the surrounding culture, attempt to find an inner equilibrium between tolerance and conviction, and so on, until we have knit together something like a code, suited to our needs, temperaments, capacities, and imaginations. We select the standards or values we find appealing from a larger market of moral options and then try to arrange them into some sort of tasteful harmony.”
And he also does a beautiful job deriding our approach to religion, and how cultural sophistication has undermined spiritual depth and rigor...
“As for our religion, much the same may be said: few of us really feel that the creeds we espouse are more important in giving shape to our ethical predispositions than are our own judgments. We certainly, at any rate, do not draw near to the “mystery of God” with anything like the fear and trembling of our ancestors, and when we tire of our devotions and drift away we do not expect to be pursued, either by the furies or by the hounds of conscience. This is especially obvious at modern Western religion’s pastel-tinged margins, in those realms of the New Age where the gods of the boutique hold uncontested sway. Here one may cultivate a private atmosphere of “spirituality” as undemanding and therapeutically comforting as one likes simply by purchasing a dream catcher, a few pretty crystals, some books on the goddess, a Tibetan prayer wheel, a volume of Joseph Campbell or Carl Jung or Robert Graves, a Nataraja figurine, a purse of tiles engraved with runes, a scattering of Pre-Raphaelite prints drenched in Celtic twilight, an Andean flute, and so forth, until this mounting congeries of string, worthless quartz, cheap joss sticks, baked clay, kitsch, borrowed iconography, and fraudulent scholarship reaches that mysterious point of saturation at which religion has become indistinguishable from interior decorating. Then one may either abandon one’s gods for something new or bide with them for a time, but in either case without any real reverence, love, or dread. There could scarcely be a more thoroughly modern form of religion than this. It certainly bears no resemblance to the genuine and honorable idolatries of old, or to the sort of ravenous religious eclecticism that characterized the late Roman Empire. The peoples of early and late antiquity actually believed in, adored, and feared their gods. No one really believes in the gods of the New Age; they are deities not of the celestial hierarchy above but of the ornamental étagère in the corner, and their only “divine” office is to give symbolic expression to the dreamier sides of their votaries’ personalities.” 
And in regards to our god(s) today...
“They are purchased gods, gods as accessories, and hence are merely masks by means of which the one true god—the will—at once conceals and reveals itself.
Ouch! But probably more accurate than not. I often believe postmodernism is a result of modernity's tantrum with civilization than a true step forward. Patterns may emerge, but whether you see things progressing or not comes down to where (and how whole) you stand.

Friday, June 30, 2017

My Apologies Mr. Holmes

A mind that is stretched by a new experience can never go back to its old dimensions. — Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.

It's interesting that I named this blog as such as I did. I took it from a terrific William James's biography I read several years ago. In it, it mentioned how Mr. James and Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. would gather on the weekends to deliberate about their latest philosophical musings. Mr. Holmes would call their discussions twisting the tail of the cosmos (or twistlig the tail as they would say in old speak).

I fell in love with the phrase. It sort of encompassed what I wanted this blog to be about. Exploring truth (and beauty) and looking at it from a vast vantage point. 

But Mr. Holmes would not be a fan.

Mr. Holmes, one of our country's finest lawyers, Supreme Court justices and statesman, was also a polymath: well read in philosophy, economics, sociology, and literature. Having such breadth of knowledge allowed him to argue positions from many sides, without the need or desire to land anywhere.

In an article in the New York Times (from 1964), Alpheus Mason reviews some of Holmes's correspondence. Mason says, “Holmes's skepticism, ex­pressed in words that sometimes shock, belies deeply religious feeling. Awed by man's pro­found ignorance, he was hum­bled before the great mystery posed by the unknown and un­knowable. The assumption of absolute truth revealed arro­gance—the one sin he could never forgive. He hated the man who knows that he knows.

And yet, there were some key principles Mr. Holmes knew that he knew.

In regards to natural rights, Mr. Holmes said, “I see no reason for attributing to man a significance different in kind from that which belongs to a baboon or a grain of sand.” And that “truth is simply the majority vote of the nation that could lick all the others.” Such statements reflects a man hell bent on denying any absolutes to the point of radical relativism.

So much for intellectual (or ontological) humility.

Truth is a tricky thing. We want to be open, but not so open that are minds fall apart. And we don't want to dismiss the paths of wisdom open to us, nor the source of that wisdom. In the process, we can make explicit our principles of Reality, because they are there whether we are aware of them or not.

Mr. Holmes was open to inquiry, but somewhere within the bounds of scientism and populism. As many in our era, it is part of our (post)modern disease.

He would consider this blog to be full of ontological arrogance (or at least arrogance he would not agree with), since my inquiry always hangs off God. As such, we never exclude anything in that inquiry, but put them in their proper order.

For that sir, I am sorry. But I do thank you for the phrase anyhow.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Pride Addicts

Robert Barron mentioned in a recent podcast how the root etymology of the word 'addiction' in Latin is 'to lose one's voice'. We are all addicts in some way. The question is whether or not our vice is inherently evil. Some vices are only dangerous in excess, but can be fine in moderation. But when it comes to vices that deny goodness (and our voice) all together, then there should be no compromise. 

The good news is if you invert these vices, you have opposing virtues that can render these demonic impulses harmless to the soul. 

But let's hone in on pride, because it seems to be the one vice that even takes down the most spiritually committed aspirant. It also seems to be the most challenging to see. It's sometimes difficult to discern if I'm searching for God, or if I'm an ego searching for God. On most days, I probably will admit it falls somewhere in the middle.

The real clincher for me is how Kreeft points out that the introvert can often be more prideful than the extrovert. The extrovert may be more vain, because he/she is concerned with their standing with others and is therefore less focused on the self. But an introvert may be less inclined toward their social status in the world, and have alienated themselves from others. Sadly, “the truly proud person couldn't care less what others think of him.” 

As an introvert, it does seem hopeless sometimes. And yet, there is hope.

Humility is the only cure for pride, and “The only way to become humble is to admit you are proud. (Kreeft)”

Kreeft elaborates: “C. S. Lewis encapsulates Augustine's essential point in The Great Divorce: "There are only two kinds of people, in the end: those who say to God, 'Thy will be done' and those to whom God says, in the end, 'thy will be done.' " This is what theologian Karl Rahner calls everyone's "fundamental option", being for or against God, however imperfectly known. God is a gentleman and respects our fundamental choice-eternally. Pride is the greatest sin because it is the living heart of all sins. Every sin says to God, "my will be done".”

So it's a 12-step program compressed into three: admit your pride and that you're helpless in dealing with it on your own, surrender yourself to a higher power, and then realize your life is not about you. 

Sounds like a plan that was never my plan.

The Buddhist and the Stoic and the "peace of mind addict" teach detachment for the sake of tranquility or nirvana, but the Christian wants to be unclothed with the world and the goods of the body and the body itself only to be reclothed with Heaven and the resurrection body. — Peter Kreeft

Friday, June 16, 2017

The Experiencer Experiencing Experience!

Wisdom is the recovery of innocence at the far end of experience. — David Bentley Hart

Some books fade over time, but others seem to grow in their significance. It's not that I can remember the details, it's more like this pull to keep going back to them and appreciating the way they convey Truth to me with a deeper richness. I'm sure there's reciprocal relationship going on here; between myself, the author, and the space in between.

I've been watching some videos on David Bentley Hart, and that's what made me revisit his Experience of God. (I also plan to read another book by him very soon.) When I see him on video, I can pick up on the cantankerousness and cynicism at times, but along with the lucid and exalting articulation. So he may not have the transmission of a saint, but I'm okay with that. Moreover, his writing style is so beautifully impactful, that I am willing to give him a pass on his humanity.

Let's look at some highlights. On the idea of alternative facts (before the phrase became fashionable), he makes this interesting quip:

“In the end, pure induction is a fantasy. The human mind could never arrive at an understanding of reality simply by sorting through its collections of bare sense impressions of particulars, trying to arrange them into intelligible and reiterative patterns. It must begin the work of interpretation at even the most elementary of levels, by attempting to impose some kind of purposive meaning upon each datum.”

We can't live on facts alone! Especially when we all have those narratives living our lives. And on those who believe the only things that can be known to be True must be verified: 

“Most of the things we know to be true, often quite indubitably, do not fall within the realm of what can be tested by empirical methods; they are by their nature episodic, experiential, local, personal, intuitive, or purely logical.”

If you really think about it, the things we value the most can't be quantified. And for those that want to believe life is one big random contingency: 

“As a brilliant physicist friend of mine often and somewhat tiresomely likes to insist, “chaos” could not produce laws unless it were already governed by laws.”

Doh! Who created the order in the chaos? And don't tell me it's turtles all the way down! And how about the process/evolutionary types who believe God evolves along with us:

“God cannot change over time, moreover, as he would then be dependent upon the relation between some unrealized potentiality within himself and some fuller actuality somehow “beyond” himself into which he may yet evolve; again, he would then be a conditional being... it means only that his knowledge or bliss or love does not involve any metaphysical change in him, because it is not based on a privation; it is not a reactive but a wholly creative power, not limited by that difference between active and passive states to which finite beings are subject. God’s knowledge of something created is not something separate from his eternal act of creating that thing; so he is not modified by that knowledge in the way that we are necessarily modified when we encounter things outside ourselves.”

I couldn't say it better myself. And on the concept of progress itself:

“But there really is no such thing as general human progress; there is no uniform history of enlightenment, no great comprehensive epic of human emergence from intellectual darkness into the light of reason. There are, rather, only local advances and local retreats, shifts of cultural emphasis and alterations of shared values, gains in one area of human endeavor counterpoised by losses in another.”

I sort of believe this be true at times, and other times not so much. I do appreciate some exterior advancements, but at times I feel we are still the same, old fallible human. And on those who think AI will become conscious: 

“We have imposed the metaphor of an artificial mind on computers and then reimported the image of a thinking machine and imposed it upon our minds.”


“All computation is ontologically dependent on consciousness, simply said, and so computation cannot provide the foundation upon which consciousness rests. One might just as well attempt to explain the existence of the sun as the result of the warmth and brightness of summer days.”

Ha! Also...

“When Kasparov lost his game in 1997, he was defeated not by a machine but by a large alliance of human opponents, himself among them.”

And when he gets to the topic of consciousness...

“Consciousness does not merely passively reflect the reality of the world; it is necessarily a dynamic movement of reason and will toward reality.”


“Individual psychology is complicated, but subjective consciousness is simple.... [It] perfectly possesses the end it desires.”

Beautifully said. And then on God: 

“Whatever image of God one abjures, it can never be more than an idol: a god, but not God... God is the source and ground of being and the wellspring of all consciousness, but also therefore the final cause of all creation, the end toward which all beings are moved, the power of infinite being that summons all things into existence from nothingness and into union with itself; and God manifests himself as such in the ecstasies of rational nature toward the absolute.”


“God is known in all experience because it is the knowledge of God that makes all other experience possible.”

I believe that earns a mike drop. Boom!