Monday, November 11, 2019

Our Violent Nature Is a Feature — Not a Bug!

I was watching a recent interview with Peter Thiel, and then decided to read his white paper called The Straussian Moment. For high tech mogul, Thiel is certainly unique from the Silicon Valley mindset. He understands there is an indoctrinated mentality of his peers who believe in the power of the will over reasoned inquiry of metaphysics, morality, human meaning, and the order of being or its transcendent ground. As such, Thiel is concerned that the technologists of today have abandoned the question of human nature and teleology over a materialistic mono-culture of entertainment, naval-gazing, and cultural Marxism.

With no real vision for humanity tomorrow, we begin to lose sight of the things that matter today.  

Thiel, as a René Girard'ian at heart, also sees we are sweeping an elephant under the rug: humans are and will always be violent as part of our nature, and violence can be a great unifier if we don't have something to counter this. The Enlightenment values may have attempted to counter this with the idea that we will use reason to form social contracts, but in truth, such reason needs a virtuous and principled underpinning. Without it, we can easily become swept up by the will for power — even if it's only accumulating more followers of our tweets.  

Our ancestors found a way to keep our violent nature at bay; however, with a price to be paid: the scapegoat. Thiel says, 
“That murder is the secret origin of all religions and political institutions, and is remember and transfigured in the form of myth. The scapegoat, perceive as the primal source of conflict and disorder, had to die for there to be peace. By violence, violence was brought to an end and society was born. But because society rests on the belied in its own order and justice, the founding act of violence must be concealed - by the myth that the slain victim was really guilty. Thus violence is lodged at the heart of society; myth is merely discourse ephemeral to violence.”
But this is how things use to work. It doesn't mean our violent natures went away, its just the Enlightenment took over with the belief there is a natural goodness to humanity and we can all come together and form our social contracts. But violence can be activated in every direction; from the common man to the intelligentsia (as we've seen with the 20th century atrocities). With myth abandoned, we are living on borrowed time before the malice of humanity is unleashed.

To think we have matured beyond our violent past, Kevin Williamson notes: “About 13 percent of Republicans and 18 percent of Democrats believe political violence would be justified in 2020 if their party lost the presidential election.” If 10 percent is a tipping point, we are getting closer to trouble. As mob rule becomes more dominant, then Thiel is correct that the will to power will superimpose itself over any real discourse. As Williamson adds, “Groups do not think in any meaningful sense. People think — one at a time.”

In his excellent book, Violence Unveiled, which honors René Girard's work, the author Gil Bailie notes:
“When cultures lose their ability to generate lasting forms of camaraderie at the expense of their victims and enemies, they are soon overtaken by the social tensions and fractional rivalries their sacrificial mechanisms can no longer reconcile. Unless one of these factions can convincingly declare its violence to be metaphysically distinct from the violence that is physically indistinguishable from it, no resolution is possible, and the society teeters on the brink of “apocolyptic” violence.”
Girard's brilliance was to see the only way out of mimetic violence was not to return to the sacrificial and scapegoating myths of the past, or even a purely intellectual process of the Enlightenment philosophers, but to find real religious transcendence. Since we are condemned to religion through our passional instincts, we require the transcendent mystery of God to do a Will that transcends our will to power.

We begin to realize the beauty of the Gospels where the Christ figure overturns the victim by converging it with the prophet. Christ dies to undermine the structures of our sacred violence, and is resurrected to show us how to live sacredly without such structures. His sacrifice points us to an end of all external sacrifice as a means to a transcendent order — which can only happen through our own internal sacrifice! Mimetic violence is turned on its head as the one true myth deconstructs it and, in turn, offers a God-centered way of being that holds all factions together.

The stark contrast of this choice from where we are today only supports Thiel's concerns going forward. The real issue at hand for the modern world is its belief that it can “fulfill the requirements of the second commandment without having to bother with the first” (Bailie). 

We probably can not.

Tuesday, October 29, 2019

People Persons

One of the most brilliant ideas to come across in the history of western civilization is the idea of personhood. It’s the basis of our dignity and liberty; however, we take it for granted these days to the point where we have no issue with sledgehammering its foundations. 

There was no fated reason for this idea of personhood to take hold in the west. We certainly had other ideas about the person: some that arrogantly believed there was a grander to man (at least for some more than others), and other ideas that saw us no better than being animals, reinforcing our violent and selfish nature!  

But the Greeks and furthermore some early Christian thinkers saw it best to see man as a “middle being”. The notion of “middle being” balanced the person between time and eternity, matter and spirit, body and soul. Plato may have certainly emphasized the soul more than body. For him, the body was something to transcend with its fallibility and finiteness. 

Christian thinkers decided this needed to be better integrated. We would no longer be just a soul, but a whole human person, with body and soul together. We were embodied spirits!

Today you’ll see people who want it both ways, but in a way that is completely disjointed: humans are just pure matter, but able to act like gods.  

Materialists will note that we share 98% of our DNA with primates, but that other 2% is quite a qualitative difference. It should also be noted we share 25% of our DNA with dandelions, but I don’t find myself acting a quarter dandelion (at least not on most days).

But the embodied spirit leads us back to the purpose for man to exist. W. Norris Clarke remarks,
“Thus the union of matter and spirit in us is not an unnatural, forced one; God has deliberately created the human soul as the lowest of the spirits, one that by its very nature reaches down into matter to take on a body for itself, thereby lifting up matter into the light of consciousness and enabling the material world to return to God in the great circle of being (emanation and return: the basic structure of the whole Summa Theologiae)—through the mediation of the soul as embodied spirit, that is, through the human person as the natural unity of both worlds. Matter is made as gift to spirit” (emphasis mine).
As such, God was in all things, but in different degrees. There was a hierarchy of being, and the human person was ontologically in the center as the mediator between God and nature. This wasn’t pantheism which leveled everything to being the same. Nor was it a dualism of two different substances, but the “same richly complex substance” on different levels.

Clarke further elaborates,
“Saint Thomas resolutely rejected this doctrine of two natural faces of the soul, one looking down into the world of matter, the other looking directly up into the world of spirit. The structure of our natural human knowledge is far more humble, he believed. There is only the one face of the soul, which is turned directly toward the material cosmos around it only, as presented through the senses. Then, by the application of the basic inner dynamism of the mind, its radical and unrestricted exigency for intelligibility—which can be expressed as the first dynamic principle of knowledge: the principle of the intelligibility of being, ‘‘omne ens est verum’’—we can step by step trace back the intelligibility of this material world to its only ultimate sufficient reason, a single infinite spiritual Cause that is God. The human being is the lowest and humblest of the spirits, whose destiny it is to make its way in a spiritual journey through the material world back to its ultimate Source and its own ultimate home” (emphasis mine).
Clarke also makes a good point in that personhood gets further elaborated with later Christian thinkers who saw that personhood is always substance in relationship, and that ‘‘relationality and substantiality are equally valid primordial modes of the real.’’ We are authentically real not as solitary self-sufficient persons but as persons-in-relation. And we can act this out on two levels: “the level of [our] natural potentialities and the supernatural level—that is, act out Christ in [our] own lives.”

Brilliant stuff, but almost forgotten!

Tuesday, October 15, 2019

I'm Bored with (the Politics of) the USA

The fact that so many successful politicians are such shameless liars is not only a reflection on them, it is also a reflection on us. When the people want the impossible, only liars can satisfy. — Thomas Sowell

There's an amusing song by Father John Misty that sums up the acedia and ennui of our times. But it seems much of this disenchantment of one's spirit gets channeled into politics these days. It's a bad form of idolatry that is really masked as pseudo-righteousness. I recently had someone tell me that to really get to know someone these days, you just need to know their political leanings. Really? Sounds like we're judging the book by how the author votes.

Douglas Murray offers this pointer in his recent book:
“One of the ways to distance ourselves from the madnesses of our times is to retain an interest in politics but not to rely on it as a source of meaning. The call should be for people to simplify their lives and not to mislead themselves by devoting their lives to a theory that answers no questions, makes no predictions and is easily falsifiable. Meaning can be found in all sorts of places. For most individuals it is found in the love of the people and places around them: in friends, family and loved ones, in culture, place and wonder.”
I could not agree more. And whatever interest we have in politics should go beyond politics itself. Politics is always downstream from culture which is downstream from metaphysics. What is grounding all of this? should be the essential question we ask. In other words, there is a correlation to our interest in how we govern and what we believe to be True.

In his essay Democracy, Ethics, Religion: An Intrinsic ConnectionW. Norris Clarke makes the key point that democracy requires more than just political leadership and institutions: 
Our central claim is that democracy is not a form of government that can maintain itself effectively over the long term through its political resources alone. It needs rather to be inserted in a larger supporting web of human culture within which a normative code of ethics is accepted and practiced (for the most part) by a significant majority of its citizens, and within which some form of religious belief that transcends the human order supports this normative code with its own ultimate moral authority.”
But today we have splintered ourselves between hyper-individualism and tribal identity politics, therefore losing a civic, moral, and spiritual center. This has led to a discontent that politics could never cure.

It is much like how David Foster Wallace noticed a subtle suffering in many of his friends: “Something that doesn't have very much to do with physical circumstances, or the economy, or any of the stuff that gets talked about in the news. It’s more like stomach-level sadness. I see it in myself and my friends in different ways. It manifests itself as a kind of lostness. ... This is a generation that has an inheritance of absolutely nothing as far as meaningful moral values.”

Today's moral and spiritual values are incomplete and incoherent, partly running on the fumes of a fading tradition as the secular left rises. The emphasis tends to lean on sentimental activism for tolerance of non-western values, “open-mindedness”, social justice, and political correctness. But that can't be the source for meaning, because it undermines ultimate meaning. It creates a world we where we are playing God and standing in judgement of others without any belief of God or an order to existence. Kevin Williamson notes, “That is one of the great ironies of our time: that the tribe least interested in traditional religious observance should have made its politics those of seeking the Kingdom of Heaven on Earth in the present—to immanentize the eschaton.”

The subtle point the left forgets is our traditional faith was never to bring the Kingdom of Heaven on Earth through policies from the top-down, but first and foremost, through opening our hearts to God and our fellow man from the bottom-up!

Tuesday, October 8, 2019

Kenosis or Power?

There can be no vacuum in existence, so we are left with two metaphysical choices that can fill the void: Truth or Power. Truth, or more specifically kenosis, is a Relationship with the Divine that can only happen through our self-emptying. But relationships take time as we must build trust gradually in our all our interactions (vertical and horizontal). That’s probably why institutions, such as the Western Church, relied more on rules/ideas/rituals. These are more scalable for a culture; however, at a cost.

Unlike the late-Augustinian influenced Roman Catholic Church, the Eastern Orthodox Church understood that Truth can be experienced genuinely in this life (and not the next). Eugene Webb makes an insightful point in his excellent book:
“Here we can see emerging in the different traditions of East and West two contrasting paradigms not only of authority but also of Christology, ecclesiology, and soteriology: one conceives the Church as the body of Christ, whose sonship to the Father is the true life in which all members participate, receiving the Spirit as Jesus himself did, and moved by the “Spirit of truth” (John 15:26) in their efforts to understand the Triune God from within by participation in Christ; the other conceives the Church as a society of obedient followers under tutelage, led by those who represent the various levels of authority in an official hierarchy under a God who is known from without through the mediation of that hierarchy. For the one, salvation consists of present participation in Christ’s life; for the other, it consists of the avoidance of punishment otherwise due for original sin and of the reward to be gained in return for obedience to God’s commands as relayed by the chain of authority.”
Things didn’t need to be grasped through legalism or rites, but “a mystery that can be approached through inward participation and the illumination of the Holy Spirit.” Yet, the Western Church was drawn more to its formalities around rules/ideas/rituals. While this scaled mimetically better than mysticism (often better suited for spiritual monastics and adepts), it also created a loss of a rich inner life for its laity. At best, the Church managed to offer a mirage of spiritual ascent through rote practices and sacraments, while keeping the laity bound to the material world. 

Not unexpectedly this approach allowed the Western Church to continue to fill much of the void with power, not just power of its dominating hierarchy which led to many historical transgressions, but also reinforcing the internal power dynamics we sinfully adhere to. This is not only taking on the power to stand in judgement over others, but to stand judgement over ourselves as well. While self-mastery requires constant discernment and repentance, it not about acquiring power for the self but preparing the self to receive a Relationship with God. 

For instance, believing yourself to be a good Catholic, spiritual person, or humanitarian because you’ve followed certain guidelines or acted virtuously can do more harm than good. You’ve hypnotized yourself into a kind of tunnel vision, ignoring some unconsciously repressed or negative feelings. As your positive self-regard grows, so does the negative (where one foot is in heaven, the other is in hell). Eventually this edifice collapses under its own façade. The control of one’s image (power) has not allowed one to see reality as it is in the image of God (kenosis).    

While the Eastern Church has affirmed kenosis over power more so than the West, Webb does not let either Church off the hook:
“A tradition of spiritual understanding and practice is not something that simply by its intrinsic merit can be a secure possession of the Christian East any more than of the West, and to the extent that its full depth and beauty become partially lost by either, they can also be regained, in the West as well as in the East—but only by self-emptying openness, serious intellectual labor, earnest moral and spiritual excavation, and perhaps painful repentance.”
In other words, no institution can save us. We must do the work for ourselves!

Monday, September 23, 2019

Fancy Artists Need Not Apply, Real Imaginative Co-Creators Wanted!

Think of all the creativity at our disposal now, and the lack of real imagination that has inspired it. You may assume technology has opened the possibilities up since the artist is no longer limited by easel & brush or a patron commissioning. Thomas Howard says, “There is an irony, of course, in the elusiveness of the very thing that all the technology claims to be about, namely, an increase of human freedom… [but] in the name of the immediate, we have lost our grip on the immediate.”

Today’s freedom has allowed creativeness fall into mere random clutter, in that, we “discover that the declaration of autonomy has issued not in a race of free, masterly men, but rather in a race that can be described by its poets and dramatists only as bored, vexed, frantic, embittered, and sniffling.” And you should see how the audience feels?!

What is lacking is the “immediate” or an immediate Presence that is aligned to our imagination. Imagination appears to be a tricky term, since we all know people with colorful minds and discombobulated output. But one bad apple never kills the Tree of Life. Howard notes, that real imagination “is a synthetic faculty in the first place, it is, secondly, an image-making faculty; that is, its tendency is from the abstract toward the concrete.” And for many, their colorful minds are too incoherent to synthesize, and too flighty to stay grounded.

If imagination is more a flight to the real than what meets our fancy, then why are so loose with the term? Howard discusses as to how we have lost our order to things (seeing God on top, and reality tv stars somewhere near the bottom). In addition, we don’t apprehend things as significant (what it means is whatever we want it to mean on top of any given feeling we may have about it). And lastly, we don’t have a purpose or telos to all of this creative output (where is this all going for you other than Botox injections and assisted living?).

Howard says “Whereas their forebears could evoke and celebrate a world in which the appearance of things answered to the nature of things, and hence furnished rich materials for the imagination, these men have to find some source for aesthetic satisfaction other than this fortunate correspondence. Hence also the overwhelming sense of experiment and exploration in modern painting and sculpture.” But all that adventure leads to our misadventure on Truth. It may be clever and subversive, but it is rarely transfigurative.

In keeping with the theme, I also read Gary Lachman’s Lost Knowledge of Imagination which perfectly overlaps with Howard’s terrific book. Lachman posits along with many of western esotericists he covers that our language may have initially been figurative and poetic, and it is only with the rise of civilization that we became so narrow and precise, and therefore losing our imaginative faculties. But today instead of going to the Source of this loss, we instead indulge in novel self-expression that lacks any self-mastery.

Lachman brings in Coleridge’s distinction of primary imagination and secondary imagination. “Primary Imagination, he said, is ‘the living power and prime agent of all human perception’ ... It is ‘a repetition in the finite mind of the eternal act of creation in the infinite I AM’. When we perceive the world then, according to Coleridge, we echo the Creator’s creation of it. Our perception is itself creative. … [On the other hand] Secondary imagination … is an ‘echo’ of the Primary Imagination, ‘co-existing with the conscious will’, and differing from the Primary Imagination only by degree. It ‘dissolves, diffuses, and dissipates, in order to recreate’. Its action is always and essentially vital, that is living, having an ‘inside’, whereas objects, as objects, are fixed and dead.” This is why true imagination as manifest is always both impersonal and personal. The mystic or master meditator isn’t always a masterful co-creator, because true images come from both “no-mind” and the personal sub/conscious mind. Moreover, true imagination also requires logic and reason so it does not fall incoherently astray.

Coleridge also notes that modern creativity is often more of a fancy, which is not any sort of true imagination. These are mostly fragmented ‘fixities’ to play with and is nothing more than “a mode of memory emancipated from the order of time and space.” It is not creative as the secondary imagination because its source is a narcissistic closed system of self-indulgence.

The truly imaginative creator works concretely from the bottom-up and aligns with Source as an open system so that he/she “can see those commonplaces as images of that ultimate glory, and find in them clues as to the nature of that glory” (Howard). It is God himself that Creates the intelligibility and creative impulse in us so we can participate in all creation through our imaginative potentials. And towards our end, there's nothing fancy in this.

Wednesday, September 4, 2019

The Plight of Mixing Worlds

Seeing beyond the division between the transcendent and the immanent must be done with great care, and even then, it must always be recognized from this side of things that the gap exists. Even Jesus acknowledged, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's; and to God the things that are God's.”

There has always been a tension in most religions between the heavenly City of God and the earthly City of Man, which is never completely reconciled although there are sacred practices and places where the tension can be inhabited. The issue has become when we reduce one to another. This has sometimes happened with traditional religions, creating all sorts of corruption and distortions. And it shouldn't come to be any surprise that it is still happening in the more progressive circles of secularism and postmodern spirituality.

According to the secular left, it is our common humanity that brings us together in an imminent embrace of solidarity. Part of this belief is more an ideal since tribalism still exists even for those who espouse universalist values. (I'm current reading this great book by Amy Chua that confirms tribalism is our default posture no matter what our worldview.)

And since we are condemned to being religious about something, the transcendent pointers for most on the secular left comes in through identity politics, scientism, recreational pursuits, and celebrity idolatry where there are many pagan "gods" to worship. When identifying with this something, we actually become separate from what we really are. The identification is all mind, when in Truth we are that and more. Otherwise, we just become limited to what we worship.

“The modern world applies truths that relate to the pure spiritual world of oneness to the material world of duality and multiplicity where they do not apply” (William Wildblood).

Brilliant! Yes, according to the secular left: we are all one and the same in the world, but with many pagan gods and goddesses to look up to.

Now, let's see this mixing of worlds from the neo-advaita perspective which espouses since we are all one, then nothing really matters in this world. That sounds crazy to most of us, but only a psychopath like Charles Manson would take it all the way. Then, there are the milder psychopaths who just call it crazy wisdom.

I don't care how Realized you are (or think you are), limits are still limits. Maury Lee says, “Knowing that reality is non dual, forms still exist. There is the Absolute and there is the relative world of plants and animals. There are universal laws that obtain to all creatures, including realized beings. Regardless of the level of realization, the personal body and mind continue to exist. That existence is in the relative world, and the relative world has universal laws which apply.”

Crazy wisdom just becomes crazy if it doesn't see the person, the world, and the Absolute as distinct. We are one from God's eye view, but no-one in this town is God. Therefore, morality exists to create proper boundaries for the relationships between us. 

So we are always minding the gap, even though there is no gap beyond the mind. We can only be reasonably and intuitively discerning to not elevate the idol and immanentize the eschaton.

Tuesday, August 27, 2019

The Meaning Crisis is a Crisis of Incoherent Self Concern

I've been following the Intellectual Dark Web (IDW) movement over the last couple years with an intent of making sense of what's really new here. It's a nebulous movement with thought leaders such as Jordan Peterson, Eric Weinstein, Sam Harris, and several others. An astute tweeter recently distilled the IDW into the people who hold these three positions: (1) those who pursue of truth instead of power; (2) those who favor understanding over judgment; and (3) those who value ideas more than identity. I tend to like this check list, but I also don't see anything that new in it. This is how the great philosophers and theologians have been orientating themselves for eons.

At its core, the IDW is also attempting to identify today's meaning crisis and to come up with alternatives that could serve to ameliorate it without going back in time to something more traditional. The reason of it being dismissive of traditional forms of meaning is that we can't unlearn what we have already learned, and at this stage of the game we have all been heavily indoctrinated into modernity and post-modernity. The assumption is we can't believe in biblical revelation, a virgin birth, and the Eucharist to explain things anymore. (Ironically, many of today's New Age pagans have bought into the healing power of crystals, Divine goddess worship, and alien abductions.)

Many in the IDW have a God allergy, but are pointing to ideas that have a religious fervor. We see a striving to come up with a new myth that puts on a fresh coat of paint on the crumbling walls of western civilization. I don't think it is a fruitless effort by any means, since it is lighting many up to look beyond their indoctrinated beliefs. And if it's a Trojan horse to something higher and deeper, then all the power truth to it. My point is to contest the idea that our search for meaning can be fulfilled by any belief system by itself — as it can only point us to ultimate meaning which is beyond the searching! Otherwise, we are just grasping at belief systems to create another identify for ourselves.

Our meaning comes through our being, and there are three ways of being a person in the world: “(1) knowing Tao; (2) not knowing Tao; and (3) instead of knowing Tao, or clinging to a Taoist teaching” (Shaw). (1) will always provide a deeper realization than (2) or (3). In the case of (1), you know Truth, trustingly, beyond any belief system. It is not a borrowed Truth, but is a known meaning that is ours. The paradox is ultimate meaning does not come from searching for it, but is allowed by reversing our intention for searching for meaning. 

(1) goes by many names other than Tao. Shinzen Young, in Return to the Source, compiles a great list of the unseen order that gives life significance:

Pure Consciousness (Purusha in Yoga)
Cessation (Cittavrittinirodha in Yoga, Nirodha in Buddhism, Cesó in St. John of the Cross)
The Source (Ha Makom in Kabbalah, Kongen in Sasaki Roshi)
The Witness (Drashtri in Yoga)
True Self (Atma in Hinduism)
No self (Anatma in Buddhism)
The Unborn (Ajata in Buddhism and Hinduism)
The Undying (Amrita in Buddhism and Hinduism)
Emptiness (Shunyata in Buddhism)
Fullness (Purna in Hinduism)
Nothingness (Nihil in Christianity, Ayn in Judaism, Ākiñcañña in Buddhism)
Ground (Grund in Christianity, Gzhi in Tibetan practice)
Peace of Heaven (Shalom bimromav in Judaism)
Void (Shunya in Buddhism, Xūin Daoism)
True Love (Shinjitsu no ai in Sasaki Roshi)

Shaw notes, “belief systems are to be valued for their effect rather than for their informational content, and yet from this side their content is indispensable.” Meaning via a belief system can come from the distilled experiences of others, through the traditions, so the wheel does not have to be recreated through the one's own self indulgence. This can be useful, where we can become reenchanted with a religious faith/spiritual path despite seeing the cracks and loving it still.

But we must also realize Truth by practices that take us beyond all concepts. To seek meaning through doctrines, theories, self-expression, and reason will always be limiting and prolong the existential crisis. Only by turning to God with an open heart, aligned as body and soul, can we really find the meaning we desire because He is the Source of our being and the Reality of what we truly are. 


Ultimate meaning = Self realization beyond time and self actualization in time.

Wednesday, August 7, 2019

As It Is

For most of us, grace does not always spontaneously reveal itself and we need to pick ourselves up from our own Buddhastraps. One way to do this is to immerse yourself in S.N. Goenka's 10-day Vipassana course which I've heard about for years but was always hesitant to take on. I somehow thought it was too simple in its dharma and approach. What I found out is there is an elegance to its simplicity.

There is the technique of scanning the body for sensations, distilled from the Buddha's original Pāli Canon which was preserved as a practice in Myanmar (Burma). With awareness of gross, subtle and very subtle sensations, the saṅkhāras (formations/impurities) can begin to be cleared away. Otherwise, the mind just becomes a stick in the mud craving this or averting that. And I definitely experienced the mud! As the sediment of the mind is churned up through the depths of the practice, those waters can become very murky for a while. As they say, it gets worse before it gets better. 

While there were moments of utter agony where my ego was shouting at me, there were also many moments of ecstatic bliss that lured me down the wrong way. In either case, I was always applying effort to come back to what is experiencing all this experience. Eventually this allows for a posture of equanimity which sees experiences with non-attachment; not an aloof detachment, but more like an “holy indifference” that is intimately sober. Goenka kept going back to the core of the teaching: to see reality as it is, and not the way we want it to be. 

That bears repeating: to see reality as it is. If we could take that teaching all the way in and out, the timbers to man would not be so crooked. We would not continuously wannbe, but just be. Even chasing enlightenment is a wannabe'ing away from being. The problem is always not seeing the mirage as a mirage.

There was the bottom-up approach to the technique, but in the end it culminated for me with top-down love. What made the difference with the practice is I ultimately fell in love with Goenka which came in a tearful, joyful moment.

While possessing a magnetic presence, Goenka also had a grandfatherly decency and pragmatism about him that sweetly resonated with me. God finds all sorts of interesting conduits. In the 1991 discourses, Goenka talks about the dangers of idolatry. If devotion arises, it should be devotion for the good qualities of character you see in another. While that may an astute point, it's never feasible to detach qualities from the overall goodness and beauty of the man. It's in the integration of personhood where it all comes alive! And for me, he did breathe life into the structure of the retreat.

Siddhārtha Gautama said there were four types of people: those who come from the darkness and move toward more darkness, those who come from lightness and move toward darkness, those who come from lightness and move towards more lightness, and those who come from darkness but move their way to lightness. I am probably in the latter category based on the low bar of wisdom I came in to this world with. But I always had a sense there was more. And these retreats are the times when that more is confirmed as a direct encounter — an encounter with the mystery and reality as it is


“All nature is but art, unknown to thee;
All chance, direction, which thou canst not see;
All discord, harmony not understood;
All partial evil, universal good.
And, spite of pride, in erring reason's spite,
One truth is clear, 'Whatever is, is right.”
― Alexander Pope, An Essay on Man

Wednesday, July 17, 2019

Drawn by Beauty, Changed by God

I recently came across Christian Wiman's My Bright Abyss. It's a beautiful meditation on modern faith and confronting mortality. While I'm not compelled by its unorthodoxy, I do appreciate much of the poetic prose that unfurls the interplay of one's struggle with absoluteness in the face of contingency.  

Here is a quote that captivates a central theme where I believe his disposition falls short. While on the surface it does resonate as true, on an another level it gave me pause...  
“The purpose of theology—the purpose of any thinking about God—is to make the silences clearer and starker to us, to make the unmeaning—by which I mean those aspects of the divine that will not be reduced to human meanings—more irreducible and more terrible, and thus ultimately more wonderful. This is why art is so often better at theology than theology is.” (emphasis mine)
What Wiman eloquently says here is definitely necessary, but is it sufficient? I, like many others, acknowledge the transcendent aspect of art. It is beauty which often leads us to a sense of depth. 

For me, it tends to come through most often in music, in some cases a great film. As an example, I got to see Belle and Sebastian live recently. They are such a delightful band, and I really enjoy much of their stuff, including songs like this, this, and this (great homemade video). This song, for me, is particularly transcendent inducing:



But I've always sensed art was not enough. In today's secular world, art often replaces religion as a form of mass consumption and we can now see how that has worked out as a vehicle for transformation. While I understand Wiman is pointing to deeper sense of mysticism, and that literal theology is too arid, art can not itself be replacement for true theology.

Kierkegaard wrote on the aesthetic (the Beauty) as the door that opens things up for most. But if such enrichment just becomes a narcissistic consumption of experience, it will not necessitate that one become better for it. It also can an alienating existence, where it requires constant re-entry from the transcendent experience to a mundane life.

Kierkegaard acknowledged we eventually need to move to the ethical (the Good). What inclined us by beauty can eventually instill obligations and commitments for us. We begin to see we are embedded in a community with others and that bonds are formed through reciprocity, trust, and friendship. Beauty and goodness become two faces of the same reality; goodness being an internal beauty, and beauty being an external goodness. (On this note, I recall Dennis Prager saying when he was in summer camp, the women he found attractive at the beginning of the season were not the same as the women he found attractive at the end of the season. Once he got to know them more, he got a better sense of their inner/outer/whole beauty which included their goodness. The person can never be reduced to mere appearances.)

And yet, we can see how goodness may not go far enough also. With the ethical stage, we can get stuck projecting our unwanted thoughts on others or denying them within ourselves. This leads to righteous moralizing, politically-correctness, or the shallow goal of being a “nice” person. Without a metaphysical narrative and the power of grace, there is no real motivation and discernment to master ourselves within before considering how to appropriately respond with others.  

As Kierkegaard noted, it only as we move to the Religious mind (the True) where real spiritual progress can be made. This stage requires faith in God. While the aesthetic can bring in the transcendent, it tends to leave God out. It is only with God that the context of beauty and goodness makes coherent sense. While we may be initially drawn to God by beauty, it is on the journey with God where we are deeply moved in our souls to become beautiful (or saintly).

With that being said, I'm about to embark on a 10-day silent retreat. I hope to use that time to truly immerse myself in the deep Beauty that permeates all of Life. And for someone like myself who has an intellectual bent, it is necessary every so often to embody those “aspects of the divine that will not be reduced to human meanings.” The art of silence has its time (of no-time) and place (space).


In truth, experience means nothing if it does not mean beyond itself: we mean nothing unless and until our hard-won meanings are internalized and catalyzed within the lives of others. — Christian Wiman