Thursday, December 7, 2017

Top 10 Ways to Deal with the Dark Side

Sorry Star Wars fans, this post is not specifically for you. It's a trojan horse as to how to relate to real evil. We don't like the word evil very much these days. It's too objective and judgmental for our cultural sensibilities. Yet, evil (or darkness beyond the psychological) really exists. Even Jung didn't quite get it right, as he just saw evil as complementary to the good. That's mostly because he didn't believe in an Ultimate good beyond man (he came to regret his television interview response as to whether or not he believed in God: “I don’t need to believe, I know.”). 

Coincidentally, George Lucas was influenced by Jung's harmonious balance between lightness and darkness. That made for a good sci-fi romp, but it added little to good theology. 

As William Wildwood says, “Good is good and evil is evil and there can be no alliance between them... Evil must be overcome not integrated either outwardly in the world or, especially, inwardly in oneself.” The tricky thing for people these days is to truly discern what evil is.  

In any case, real evil is beyond the scope of anything we can resolve by ourselves. Bob recently got an email asking him “advice on how a Christian is supposed to love our zombie invaders.” He then replied with a Top 10 in the comments section that I thought was worth re-posting. More so, because I see this an inventory of profundity to deal with general evil in the world. I interject a few thoughts in brackets:

The world is your challenge, precisely. Let the world be the world, because that is what it is always going to be anyway. Your task is to participate in it, but from a transcendent point of view. If you think we're f*cked now, you are correct. But history teaches that this has always been the case.

[As the Chinese alluded, we are always living in interesting times. But at least today, the phones keep getting better.]

Always be practicing karma yoga, which means engaging in good works for their own sake, while renouncing any fruit thereof. Don't be good for a reward -- otherworldly or thiswise -- but because you love virtue.

In the long run, all the idiocy in the world tends to cancel out.

Davila: “Christianity does not solve 'problems'; it merely obliges us to live them at a higher level.”

God himself is crucified in and by history. That's called a hint. And “you shall be persecuted for my sake.”

Abandon mere horizontal hope and try to see things from the perspective of eternity.

[I'm reading a terrific book on the Inklings, and it appears Tolkien used imagination beyond the everyday world to give readers an escape from death and the resolution of eucatastrophe to offer vertical hope.]

You can't change yourself. What makes you think you can change the world? However, this doesn't mean change doesn't take place. Unexpected vertical interventions are everywhere. 

[Bob elaborates on this: “You might say that man is a necessary but not sufficient cause of his own betterment.” Or in other words, we must take responsibility for our change through effort, but real change can only come from grace.]

There are no solutions, only trade-offs.

[So much for the experts.]

Don't worry, it will all be over soon. Practice transcendental humor. Life is ridiculous. Don't wait until you are sick and dying before you realize this, but live your terrestrial life in light of its end.

[Peter Kreeft said it best: “Life is neither a tragedy nor a comedy but a tragicomedy. If we do not both laugh and cry at life, we do not understand it.”]

Nothing is possible without God, without whom you are condemned to an absurcular existence, devoid of liberating graces from above. Aspiration, rejection (of unreality), and surrender are the keys. You cannot lift yourself by your own buddhastraps, so the sooner you turn yourself in and surrender peacefully, the better.

[Or maybe this could be summed up in three short verses from 1 Thessalonians 5: Rejoice evermore. Pray without ceasing. In every thing give thanks.]

Friday, December 1, 2017

The Perennial Problem

I can sympathize with the syncretic endeavor in religion. It reaches out to see the patterned relationship in all things to cohere an elegant map that simplifies all the roads to God. That's what drew me to Wilber, Almaas, and Schuon. But like any 'ism, perennialism has its share of cracks in the foundation. Jorge Ferrer recently gave a compelling talk that makes this point explicitly.
Is this Reality?

So what's the issue with perennialism, neo- or otherwise? It comes down to spiritual ultimate and goals are not all valued equally in the major traditions. Some value awareness, some the Trinity, others more embodiment. Where I don't agree with Ferrer is his concern for sectarianism (or spiritual elitism) becomes pernicious. Yet, he clearly espouses a participatory framework that is very relational, and some metaphysical systems are clearly more relational than others. If we can't reconcile it all in a neat little bow, let's not diminish quality when we see it.

(In my view, the ultimate is relational. But that's another story for another time.)

Alasdair MacIntyre noted the need to situate oneself in tradition to know the standards of the tradition. In other words, you can't find a universal standard by which to measure traditions’ rightness. The standards are always internal to a tradition and therefore requires membership in that community, making a syncretic approach to all traditions untenable. As they say, if you believe in everything equally, you essentially believe in nothing.

MacIntyre argues that philosophy in general and ethics in particular cannot proceed by means of reasoning from neutral, self-evident facts accepted by all rational persons. And if our philosophical/ethical communities are incommensurable, then we need to accept that any attempt at perennialism will also fall short.

So maybe we can't create a synthesis of the Religion of Tomorrow. But taking Ferrer's and MacIntyre's perspective into account, it may be we are best served by situating ourselves at home in one path or possibly some hybridization approach. Truth and method can come from different traditions, but not all the traditions. (I've always contended to be open to Truth wherever it can be found.) Moreover, being in a tradition does not have to compromise our ability to hold a critical eye towards it. We can always have both a keen sense of irony and reverence towards any rock we stand on.

But I will leave with a quote from Nikos Kazantzakis that Ferrer mentions in his presentation that gets to heart of the matter of the perennial problem:
Within me even the most metaphysical problem takes on a warm physical body which smells of sea, soil, and human sweat. The Word, in order to touch me, must become warm flesh. Only then do I understand — when I can smell, see, touch.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Random Signals #2

David Warren mentions, “We make fun of things because they are wrong, yet at the same time, we candidly admit their attraction. We use humour to flash moral insight, and to disarm.” But now the subject of moral insight (or lack thereof) is the comedian himself.

Et tu, Louie?

Louie CK, like for many, has been my latest preoccupation in today's comedy scene. Unlike some professional tricksters, he cleverly brought his essence (albeit perhaps contrived at times) to his humor. Now we find out he was fallible to weird sexual proclivities brought upon by a power dynamic he took advantage of with several women. The dark underbelly of comedy has crossed another line.

His actions are not defensible and this blemish probably recontextualizes my relationship to his art. The demarcation between art and the artist has always been a challenging one, since great art has not always been made manifest by great men.

But let's consider the outrage in this time in culture. Could it also be that our sensitivities have resulted from the secular edifice we now stand on? Maybe if we took transcendence more seriously, we wouldn't take ourselves so seriously. Instead, we have become fragmented and tribal, looking for our next scapegoat to release our existential anxiety and anger. Some justly deserve their fall from grace, others are just a product of their time.


Speaking of our times, one astute facebook poster observed that “students are trying to deconstruct what they have not properly constructed yet.” As such, we are burdened with a generation full of contradictions: “they are dogmatic about relativity, ethnocentric about cultural acceptance (you’re either an “ally” or an enemy), hateful in the name of compassion, etc.” Again, it's a good prognosis that can't be equally matched with a proper cure. We just have to go through it, and see what we have wrought


I suppose we can also grapple with what in culture today will remain tomorrow. We speak of some artifact groping for the Eternal. NPR recently considered this with music. I am not sure what music from today will last through the ages, if any. But there are some examples I would place bets on. For instance, take a popular gem from Al Green. It's about as perfect as you can get with soul music, and it nearly fulfills Josef Pieper's insight: “Music opens a path into the realm of silence. Music reveals the human soul in stark “nakedness,” as it were, without the customary linguistic draperies.” 

Al Green, incidentally, gave up his commercial success to do gospel music. He probably got to the place where he felt soul music wasn't enough. But this was:

And then there are lesser known gems that deserve more recognition:

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Commitments that Cohere

Commitments are not always the strongest suit on my end. I suppose it's an issue on honing in on passions (as well as placing too much emphasis on passion) or the fear of being duped (by a passion). But I've always intuited there are always the decisions in life that matter over the frivolity we spend so much time on.

This builds on a recent post I wrote about the complementary of freedom and order. As Tim Keller states, “Freedom is not so much the absence of restrictions as finding the right ones.”

So what are the right restrictions? Or commitments, for that matter? I came across a recent speech from David Brooks, who seems to be channeling some ideas from Charles Murray, around the commitments that matter. These are:
      • To a loving partner/spouse and family.
      • To a vocation.
      • To a community.
      • To a philosophy or faith.
The issue is it's either a failure to see or a failure to move. First, we need to see the significance of these commitments. That can only come from an innate wisdom, the mores of a culture or tradition, or exemplars that can guide us. As Brooks and Murray have pointed out, a life is usually fulfilled when most or all of these commitments are aligned to Truth.

But once we see the see this, then we need to act. In some cases, that motivation can be out love or a yearning. We fall into it by grace or are nudged towards it by a innate seeking. But if the motivation doesn't come, then we need discipline. That's why passion is such a tricky thing. Sometimes it takes effort that begets the grace of true passion. 

It is also a matter of seeing where our commitments are coming from. Brooks elaborates, “Imagine finding a faith and saying, "Does this serve my needs?" That's not a faith, that's just  opportunism. ... So you have to adopt a different lens, a moral lens which is beyond rationality, which takes you beyond utilitarian thinking, when you have to just throw it all in. People who adopt a moral lens are looking for ways to forget themselves, surrender themselves, throw themselves into something without counting the cost. They understand, if only by instinct, that their true joy is found on the distance side of unselfishness and not on this side. People who has used a moral lens don't ask, "What do I want from life?" They ask, "What is life asking of me?"”

Even when it comes to relationships, people with this moral lens “don't ask, "Is this person right for me?" They ask, "Can I love her in a way that brings out her loveliness? Can we take our private passion and direct it outward? Can we -- can I go through every day assuming that my own selfishness is the core problem in our relationship?"” I wonder how many singles have come across these values on Tinder? 

In our best moments, we can intuit that coming from a place of less self-centeredness is what gives our commitments meaning and purpose. But here again, it often takes effort to see this and to move on it. 

It's not always easy, but the things that give life richness and fulfillment often never are.

Friday, November 3, 2017

Gardeners Wanted

We can't force plants to grow. In any garden we tend to, we can only cultivate an environment that spurs the growth on. This includes all the tilling, planting, nourishing, and pruning that constantly needs to be done. And yet, we have no control of the broader environment, therefore we often acquiesce to what nature has in store. But these days we see everyone wants to be a builder. We want to master and take ownership of any growth we do — whether we are an ambitious materialist or a spiritual aspirant.

I appreciate one version of growth depicted in a Bruce Charlton post, taken from William Arkle's A Geography of Consciousness, depicting a spectrum of spiritual progress:

lower man > average > responsible > sophisticated cynic > idealist > poet > mystic > higher man.

The point is not to worry so much where we are, or to force ourselves to be at the higher end of the spectrum. The significance of this is to keep moving forward, gently and wholly. As they say, many are called but a few are chosen.

(BTW, if you're reading this, you're probably at least above average.)

So here's the scary thing when it comes to growth: there is one place many of us get stuck, not quite as in a stand still, but more like a cycling between progress and regression in a pool of fragmented turmoil.

The place where this turmoil happens the most is with the sophisticated cynic. As Charlton notes, “the sophisticated cynic is at the Dead-Centre of the evolutionary scheme - poised, suspended, trapped between lower and higher consciousness. This is a state of wide awareness of options and possibilities; made possible by increased knowledge and learning - but experienced as a pervasive relativism.”

Relativism is a metaphysical resignation with the culture at large. And when you're intelligent, you've got all the more excuse to drop any convictions and stay in dead-center. 

“And the centre is 'dead' because there is a state of demotivation. The longer a period of time that is spent in the dead centre; the harder it gets to escape.” Talk about the inertia one must work through even if we want to grow! I'm reminded of Augustine when he said in his younger years, “Lord, make me chaste – but not yet!”

The sophisticated cynic's “materialism and hedonism reduces and deconstructs all higher values - while he 'knows better' than the natural, spontaneous, instinctive Man - and he finds he just cannot forget or discard his sophistication, science, philosophy, ideology... They come back, again and again, to haunt him.” We are all condemned to "religion", but many of our priests are full of clever foolishness.

“The sophisticated cynic is therefore pulled in both directions; and also repelled by both directions. The sophisticated cynic is the permanent adolescent - too mature to be a child, too immature to be an adult; too bored by both immaturity and maturity, seeing-through the innocence of childhood and the responsibility of adulthood. He is cut-off from the basic satisfactions of simply getting-by in practical, material life; and also from the spiritual satisfactions of living for ideals located outwith mortal life and human limitation.” This is Peter Pan syndrome, but without the flying.

“The sophisticated cynic knows that the world of communications - of nature, of other people, of his own evanescent thoughts - are doubtful and unreliable: he has often experienced this unreliability. This insight itself implies that some other and solid form of knowing exists (with which communication is implicitly being contrasted); but when it comes to any specific knowledge, the sophisticated cynic remains unsure: he lives in an atmosphere of doubt... Yet at the same time, he doubts his own doubts, suspects there is 'more to life', and cannot embrace a fully nihilistic skepticism.” 

This is one hell of a diagnosis, but for Christ's sake where's the doctor's cure?!

“We begin as immature little-children of God; in spiritual adolescence we solipsistically assert ourselves to be the one-real-God in a universe made-up by our-selves; in maturity we recognise that we are products-of and inhabitants-of the framework of God's creation; destined to become a multiplicity of gods; destined to become God's grown-up children and loving companions both of each other and of the deity. And this is the basis of new, real, permanent relationship.”

Once again, it comes down to relationships. But here with True metaphysics! And in that we develop our capacity to consciously relate to the Spirit, and to make conscious connections that enable us to identify and grasp the whole of reality. 

And yet again, this is like the gentle growth of gardening. We tend to what we can, but allow nature to take its course. Like our flora, we flourish, but forward by the way of upward instead of the reverse. 

“The phase [of the sophisticated cynic] is a necessary point through-which Men must pass if they are to attain the autonomy required by higher consciousness; but if the lessons are to be learned, then the phase must feel real - must indeed be real - at the time it is being experienced. There must to be a pause in progression - and this pause may become prolonged and arrested into stasis.”

In such spiritual desolation, sometimes it is best to do nothing but to bear witness.

I recall this beautiful passage in MotT:
Now, we occultists, magicians, esotericists and Hermeticists — all those who want to "do" instead of merely waiting, who want "to take their evolution in their own hands" and "to direct it towards an aim"—are confronted with this choice in a much more dramatic way, I should say, than is so for people who are not concerned with esotericism. Our principal danger (if not the only true danger) is that of preferring the role of "builders of the tower of Babel" (no matter whether personally or in a community) to watching over "as gardeners or vine-growers the garden or the vine of the Lord". Truth to tell, the only truly morally founded reason for keeping esotericism "esoteric", i.e. for not bringing it to the broad light of day and popularising it, is the danger of the great misunderstanding of confusing the tower with the tree, as a consequence of which "masons" will be recruited instead of "gardeners".
Better that gardeners shall apply. No need to concern ourselves with collective utopias; instead, we sort ourselves out with our internal, external, and Higher relationships under a coherent metaphysical ideal. Then we can grow in the way that was Infinitely intended.

Friday, October 20, 2017

Eternal Sunshine of the Moral Mind

Jonathan Haidt's The Righteous Mind is mostly a delightful read. It opens you up to the moral matrix we all are guided by. And not necessarily by reason, but by intuition. Yes, we go by the gut and then explain it to ourselves or whoever will listen to us afterwards. David Hume was on to something, with the exception that we may be more like servants than slaves to our passions.

Moreover, the biologists are confirming genetics probably plays a bigger role than we would prefer to give credit to. Our habits always comes down to this nature/nurture debate, but nature seems to win out (mostly). Certainly you can think of your genetic proclivities more like a first draft of a book. Then we get to live out the re-writes. Some never get past the editor's desk.

So what's guiding our moral intuitions? According to Haidt, it seems our reputations matter: “People are trying harder to look right than to be right.” He goes on to surmise that “Our moral thinking is much more like a politician searching for votes than a scientist searching for truth.” Hmm, kinda cynical.

Yet, Haidt is a scientist searching for some truth, although like many of his peers I gather he has a materialist orientation. That's not to say he doesn't respect religion — but more for its functional usefulness.

“Sacredness binds people together, and then blinds them to the arbitrariness of the practice.” This bind/blind tension is a repeating theme in all his moral categories: care, fairness (equality or proportionality), loyalty, respect for authority, and sanctity.

Haidt gets into his conversion from a lefty to someone more tolerant of the right as he developed his moral matrix. The catalyst for his is when he realized while people of the left tend to prioritize care and fairness, the folks on the right tend to value all five categories. (The caveat here is fairness: where the left sides more with equality and the right with proportionality). As someone on the left may say: “Loyalty to a group shrinks the moral circle; it is the basis of racism and exclusion, they say. Authority is oppression. Sanctity is religious mumbo-jumbo whose only function is to suppress female sexuality and justify homophobia.” Haidt counters this conventional thinking with more nuanced consideration.

He goes on to say: “Those bonded groups may care less about outsiders than they did before their bonding—the nature of group selection is to suppress selfishness within groups to make them more effective at competing with other groups. But is that really such a bad thing overall, given how shallow our care for strangers is in the first place? Might the world be a better place if we could greatly increase the care people get within their existing groups and nations while slightly decreasing the care they get from strangers in other groups and nations?” It relates to something I once heard: he cared for humanity so much, he didn't have time for his own family.

Haidt is partial to the Durkheim notion that these moral systems “suppress or regulate self-interest and make cooperative societies possible.” That's all fine and dandy for our secular friends. But there is one exception he grapples with: sanctity. As I was reading this section, I could sense Haidt's struggle as he was trying the fit the pickle in the jar. We know the human endeavor towards depth and meaning can be quite superfluous when looking at it from a materialist lens. So why do it? 

Haidt makes an ample attempt at showing why we lose ourselves in the transcendent is so we can form stronger in-group bonds. This hive switch gives us a trance-induced state of belonging to something larger than ourselves. It becomes a sort of “transubstantiation of pluribus into unum” where we can satisfy our hunger for deep meaning and deep connection. In coming together around the sacred, we are not alienated individuals without purpose. Our “happiness comes from between.”

Haidt gets into the collective rituals and practices we partake to affirm this posture. I recall reading about this in another book, where the authors talk about the whooshing up of group ecstasy as a relief for isolation in the modern age. It can happen at a religious gathering, a sporting event, and a rock concert. But not a fascist rally — those are merely spectacles than festivals.

And while these communities can be enmeshed in a set of moral norms that bind and protect the group, there is more to consider. Our horizontal relationships are also tied to our vertical relationship of something Higher. We can engage this relationship as an individual endeavor also (via prayer, contemplation, and meditation). To this, Haidt does not have much to say. Other than maybe for him, he would see this as the spark to create and/or maintain religious groups. 

Haidt, rightfully, comes to warn about our increasing secular society: “Religions are moral exoskeletons.... We evolved to live, trade, and trust within shared moral matrices. When societies lose their grip on individuals, allowing all to do as they please, the result is often a decrease in happiness and an increase in suicide, as Durkheim showed more than a hundred years ago.” 

Furthermore, the loss of religion allows for more secular values to undermine our sacred values. One such example is our emphasis around group diversity. While groups that cohere need trust as bonding capital, in societies there is also the need for bridging capital — which allows for trust between groups who have different values and identities. Oddly enough, diversity is seen to reduce both kinds of social capital. Haidt states, “Diversity seems to trigger not in-group/out-group division, but anomie or social isolation. In colloquial language, people living in ethnically diverse settings appear to “hunker down”—that is, to pull in like a turtle.” Par for the times when we also consider our political climate.

It seems there will always be competing moral sentiments that can't be perfectly harmonized, so it will always be more fruitful to understand our limits than to impose our ignorance. But look on the bright side: morally, we've got more than enough to work with in one eternity.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Faithfully Reasonable

This is typical conventional wisdom these days: “Atheists tend more intelligent than religious people because they are able to rise above the natural instinct to believe in a god or gods, scientists have said.”

I once understood this to be true also. After all, there's much positive self-regard to being so intelligent in the secular world. Like most in this sophisticated tribe, I believed reason trumps unreasoning.

But during the western Enlightenment, reason became more limited than originally intended. Kant said we can't know the thing-in-itself, so he made reason all about epistemology in a narrow sense. Reason was no longer rooted in ontology, and anything beyond its boundaries were seen as speculative belief (or an unreasoned faith).

This view is quite contrary to John Henry Newman's quote that “Faith is a reasoning of a religious mind.”

The atheist would most likely retort: “that's the problem: the religious mind is less than adequate.”

And yet, Newman was pointing to a mind that was not dogmatic, but more integrated and whole. Behind all the tools and machinations we do with the mind, there is a pure, unencumbered intelligence (also known as nous) that is in accord with reason, and more than reason. Micheal Polanyi would also call it a tacit knowing.

We can be presented with all the facts about something, but at some point we need to make a choice about things that can't be supported purely by facts. And if we are really thinking and non-thinking for ourselves (as opposed to being indoctrinated), we will eventually intuit something more than pure reason can offer. This deeper unveiling that leads to a choice, is not opposed to reason, but a trusting response to its revelation. We found faith.

It doesn't necessarily mean faith will point us to the Truth, as it can be quite incomplete and distorted. Let's not forget that human psychology is rather complicated. As such, it ultimately depends how awake, coherent, and conforming we are to all the dimensions of the nous. For some, it is latent and for others not so much. While faith can influence our reasoning, reasoning alone will not give us authentic faith.

In a sort of irony, some recent reasoned research is confirming the limits to reason. I'm currently reading this great book by Jonathan Haidt, where he notes that French cognitive scientists reviewed the vast research literature on motivated reasoning. They concluded, “skilled arguers ... are not after the truth but after arguments supporting their views.” Without the privilege of such research, just a few hundred years earlier Jonathan Swift said, “reasoning will never make a man correct of an ill opinion, which by reason he never acquired.”

The western Enlightenment's version of reason makes no room for the things we know more than we can say reasonably. Such influences also include our sentiments, observations, experience, traditions, imagination, and instincts. While reason can refine our views, we are often rooted in the leaps we make beyond it.

Either intelligence is in principle unlimited, or else it is arbitrary, relative, and illusory, incapable of saying anything with certitude. But the shallow contemporary thinker wants it both ways: the omnipotent ability to know where to place an absolute line between what is knowable and what is not. — Robert Godwin