Wednesday, February 19, 2020

Ain't No Place for Sissies

It was Bettie Davis who coined the phrase “old age ain't no place for sissies.” As someone getting closer to that train stop, relatively speaking she's spot on. Absolutely speaking, I would say seeking God (or allowing God to seek you) tops the list. Too many think they want to find God, wake up, be Self-realized, when it's just ego trying to feel good about what it's doing for itself. (“Those who turn to God for comfort may find comfort, but I do not think they will find God.” — Mignon McLaughlin)

While the journey to God may be simple from a certain vantage point, it's not necessarily all that easy. Just take a look at the path Bernedette Roberts laid out that she went through (assumingly similar for many others also)... 
From Bernedette Roberts “The Christian Contemplative Journey”
Sure, there a some priceless experiences. But there are the dark nights, the voids, and all this ending in an annihilation. What ego—in his/her right, contracted mind—would want to go through this? Mine sure doesn't on some days; it would rather stream Netflix, play out lustful thoughts, and fear the Coronovirus.

I recently read a radically honest book by David Carse. He notes, 
“If you're going to do anything, do this. First, figure out whether this waking up, this enlightenment is really something you want. Do you really want to die? Do you really want for 'you' not to exist; and for living to continue, if it does, not as who you know and love as yourself but as a hollow husk with impersonal Consciousness blowing through it? If this is what you want (how can you possibly?) then you are talking about waking up from the false dream of individuality, and then you can proceed. Your thinking, your praying, your meditating, your asking questions at satsang, whatever you 'do,' will be with the realization that what you think you are is illusory, and with the intent of exploding, obliterating, that illusion called 'you.' Can you 'do' this? Of course not; 'you' is a dream character following its role in the dream. But who knows what that role calls for? If that role calls for this character to wake up, then it has to start somewhere, and the character may find itself engaging in things that will ultimately bring about its own death. Not physical death. These are disposable containers; look around, they're being recycled constantly. Rather, real death, as real as death gets. Death of the one who cares.”
Okay, you've got my attention! Carse continues,
“If you decide that what you really want is something other than this complete and ultimate 'waking up,' then bless you. Have a wonderful life; enjoy the incredible edible banquet of material and spiritual and psychological and New Age goodies that are out there. Grow and expand and change and develop and improve your life immeasurably; evolve and become more mature and deeper and wiser and more beautiful. Discover your higher self and your higher purpose and fulfill them. I mean this absolutely sincerely; and even, I notice, with a touch of delicious wistfulness from what's left of the david thing. This is not in any way some kind of second class status; there is no such thing. Take what the dream has to offer; that's what the dream's there for, to be enjoyed. Consciousness only enjoys it, only perceives it at all, through the dream characters, and there have to be some through which can be experienced enjoyment of the whole panoply of the spiritual marketplace. But in that case don't come here talking about waking up; that just doesn't make any sense at all.”
Fair enough. But the issue is once we get a taste or intuition of something more, we can never go back and be the same. It's as if you're selling yourself out for who you're really not. We may enjoy the finite rewards at times, but the restless heart will always endure until the search is over for the infinite. We will always have a felt sense of, what David Walsh calls, “the unspoken irritant of all our aspirations” in the background. 

As such, I'm willing to suffer and sacrifice myself for what is.

As a reminder to myself, Sister Wendy Beckett (from Spiritual Letters) offers this precious insight:
“Patience is far more profound and more all-embracing than it appears to be. To enter deeply into patience means accepting our lowliness and, equally, his power and will to transform us.
Reality is his message and patience leads straight to it. We seem to see our shabbiness and conclude we are getting absolutely nowhere. It may not be so at all. We long to push ahead, to ‘take it by violence’. But helplessness, accepting the ordinariness of our day is the divine means of purification: all this is painful. So my first word is patience. Affirm his power; wait in trust. And my second is to remind you that pure love is usually experienced as nothingness. If all is his, what is there left for self? So never seek to judge from how it ‘feels’. To go on and on and never see anything ‘happening’: what trust we need!”

Tuesday, February 11, 2020

We Can’t Explain God and Ourselves Away

The concept that the path is the goal and the goal is the path seems like an irreconcilable tautology. What are we trying to say here? It's definitely like saying the means is the ends and the ends is the means. In a spiritual practice, we can often throw the baby out with bathwater, and focus on the gifts without the repentance. In other words, we want the experience of God without ever obeying Him. Esoteric is prioritized before exoteric, when instead it should be proportional to each other.

Bernadette Roberts says, “Where people regard knowledge as a means and experience as an end, I regard experience as a means and knowledge as the end.” So while experience matters, it also matters what is experientially learned. She continues: “In other words, if the means (religion) is not proportionate to the end (Truth), or if the means did not already contain the goal or end to be realized, then religion cannot get us to the end and would be valueless as a means.” It would seem that we can't disconnect the mystic from their religion!

Some skeptics may argue that mystics always end up reiterating the same truths they began with. But we can't have spiritual experiences from a blank slate. Non-symbolic experiences have to be expressed through the symbols we embody prior to our realizations/revelations. We are always mediated in any experience.

Roberts says, “What is ironic about this complaint is that he [the skeptic] does the same thing. What he starts out believing about religion and mystical experience he ends up believing, his conclusions are no different than his premises. Should one's premises be wrong or false, of course, then his conclusions could never be right—it would be logically impossible. So everything depends on the premises you start with because it dictates what you will, or can, end up with.”

So here again, first principles matter—as our experiences only confirm them! Besides, you will never experience God directly as Cause (only Effect), because God is beyond experience. So while we're on this side of the grave, we can only work with what He gifted to us.

If you've traveled in neo-advaita circles, as well as some Buddhist camps, you'll hear about nonduality. The realization that subject and object collapses and all is not-two. But this may be more of a concept than a reality. I've never been comfortable with people expressing their nondual realizations, as if everything can be explained away — including a God, a world, and themselves. Just watch this who's on first performative dance known as the “advaita shuffle” (As a side note: I like Tony Parsons as a person from what I can tell, it's just the approach I find problematic.) This approach just takes the easy way out, that in long run won't make things easier for anyone trying to include and discern all aspects of reality.

Roberts says, “The fact of our natural oneness with God neither makes us God nor robs us of a Godgiven individuality. We are like dependent babes in the womb, dependent yet separate.”

If we look at the dualities of subject and object, absolute and relative, God and man, Atman and Brahman, transcendence and immanence, whole and part; then we then have to ask “If all these dualities are negated, how could we possibly end up with "one" – one anything? Negate these dualities and nothing remains to be called "nondual".” 

Negate all dualities, and you are pretty much left with nothing. But last time I checked, there is definitely a something rather than a nothing. Our chosen realities cannot really be independent of our discriminating individuality. Any union is a fusion of God’s attributes, but not a union with God that our identities become fused. Reality exists, and we participate in awareness of this as persons.

Monday, January 13, 2020

What If We Didn't Invent God—And Where SBNR's Go Wrong?

There was a time when I would have identified myself as SBNR—spiritual, but not religious. Now I'm more SAR—spiritual and religious; sort of an esoteric Catholic, semi-Buddhaholic, potential mother fakir. Not sure how to pin it all down beyond it being part of a branch in raccoonology. I became disenchanted with being SBNR, soon realizing that if you don't have a real religion, then you'll manage to come up with a pretty crappy one.

I'll go along that some need to find their own road to Shangri-la, but when I was on that path I found it best to read the signs where the trails have been blazed by greater souls than myself. And in those moments I cynically believed those greater souls (saints, sages, seers, super slackers) didn't exist, then I'd just find another off ramp to perdition. By not committing to a tradition, I began to intuit that I'd be wise to take religion more seriously than the cradled lightweights who have the label—but not the heart (see: me in my formative years).

At present, I take the catholic in Catholicism seriously—meaning I don't see any dissonance with exploring other spiritual views or practices, as long as I remain centered around tradition. Even the Roman Catholic Church, while seemingly believed to be rigidly dogmatic by the unlearned, embraces the definition of catholic: which is to be all embracing, allowing for a wide variety of things. This is the notion that nothing is to be excluded, yet put in its proper order of “both/and.”

G.K. Chesterton once said that Catholicism keeps its beliefs “side by side like two strong colors, red and white...[yet] it has always had a healthy hatred of pink.” With the SBNR disposition, there is way too much pink for me. And pink drowns the polarity/paradox of truths into bland half-truths.

I recently read a book by George Weigel in which he mentions his discontents with a shallow ecumenicalism that began to permeate during his formative years (ecumenicalism more broadly today could include the SBNR ilk). What helped bring clarity to his dissonance was a 2-page document by some of the most influential thinkers in North America at the time—called “An Appeal for Theological Affirmation” (a.k.a. the Hartford Appeal). This document highlighted some of the biggest errors that are made once we move away from tradition, with beliefs such as:
  • Modern thought is superior to all past form of understanding reality;
  • Religious language refers to human experience and nothing else;
  • All religions are equally valid;
  • To realize one's potential and to be true to oneself is the whole meaning of salvation;
  • The sole purpose of worship is to promote individual self realization and human community;
  • Institutions and historical traditions are oppressive and inimical to our truly being human;
  • The world must set the agenda for the Church;
  • The struggle for a better humanity will bring the Kingdom of God;
  • An emphasis on God's transcendence is at least a hindrance to... social concern and action; and
  • The question of hope beyond death is irrelevant.

While these themes were written in 1975, they appear even more relevant today with the SBNR movement. While there may be an impulse with the SBNR follower to rebel against religion in order to return to the essence of the teaching, there is often a lack of spiritual adeptness that often leads to a confusing eclecticism. We can see how this confusion creates an incoherent narrative where God is made a silent partner, religious differences and institutions are marginalized, experience is elevated over metaphysical rigor and revelation, cultural trends and novelty are privileged over a well traveled lineage, and human achievement is given more reverence than the grace of divinity.  

The Hartford Appeal turned this posture on its head when it claimed “We did not invent God; God invented us.” Therefore, it was not up to us to cherry pick what makes us feel good, or what allows us to continue with our lifestyle choices, or what doesn't make any demands of us. 

It began by challenging the view that “modern thought is superior to all past forms of understanding reality,” such that “modern thought” stands in judgment on tradition. This provocation opens us to consider the merit of this bias. While we are in some ways more clever than our ancestors, it can easily be debated as to whether or not we come close to their depth of being. Not to mention, that the modern notion that reason trumps faith is a limited view; where true faith is intertwined and prior to reason so that the mind is not closed upon itself. Our ancestors often saw reason beyond being merely instrumental and logical; but instead drawing on the whole of intelligibility.

By claiming “All religions are equally valid,” the Hartford Appeal notes that this “fails to respect the integrity of other faiths” and that “Truth matters; therefore differences among religions are deeply significant.” While there may be an esoteric core that the SBNR follower is aiming at with respect to the religions, the unique interpretations and revelations concerning that essence still do matter.

Weigel says, “And while worship is personally and communally enriching, it's a fundamental mistake to assume that the only purposes of worship are self-realization and human community. Worship is a response to God's initiative. We do not worship God because it makes us feel good or more connected; we worship God because God is to be worshiped, and doing so arises out of the fundamental human desire to know, love, and adore God.” The SBNR follower is more apt to worship something imminent, magical, or goddess-like than anything transcendentally omnipotent.

The Hartford Appeal goes further to take on the propensity toward modern thought with the notion that imperfect human beings cannot create a perfect society... God has his own designs which confronts ours. The modern pursuit of liberation from all constraints, including death, becomes a dehumanizing endeavor as it obscures our destiny to be with God. The SBNR follower is playing the modern game with pagan toys, and in the end falls short by distorting or watering-down the teachings, discipline, and structures that truly can be life changing! 

Instead, spirituality without religion becomes an insubstantial recreational attempt at “personal growth” that can be compartmentalized along with all the other current-day hobbyist pursuits. “No spiritual quest can progress very far without becoming religious” (May). 

And so if we can't even master ourselves, how do we expect we can master the right sort of path for ourselves? Weigel notes: It's not something we [can] make up for ourselves. It's something we can only receive as a gift.

Sunday, January 5, 2020

In Principle with Certitude

We are always living from and asserting ideas based on first principles, whether or not we are aware of what those may be. This is what first principles are: the axioms of our belief system, in which our belief system can never prove (“that's right!” says Gödel). Because first principles are not to be proven, but can only be confirmed!

For most of us, first principles operate in the background and may be inherited from tradition and common sense. As Edmund Burke pointed out, life would become impossible if we tried to think through every new situation from first principles from a blank slate, disregarding both our own experience and the wisdom of our culture.

Other aspects of first principles can only become to be known through an illative sense. This is John Henry Newman's notion as how we go about making primary judgments; not just from reason and logic, but many fragments of experience that distill into a single and unified conviction. This includes an accumulation of our sentiments, observations, tradition, imagination, intuitions, and instincts.

While these are deeper convictions, we can never have complete certainty of them. Besides, certainty never belongs to the mind. If we are blessed, we can be certain of Truth in our heart, but only have certitude (or sureness) once we speak of it. First principles have the ring of Truth, but are not Truth in itself. 

Think of these principles like an asymptote—a line approaching a given curve, but never quite getting there while going on for infinity. All we can do is aim for some coherence that vibrates higher as we approach the horizon. Without coherence, we will falter from Truth even further. Poor principles, bad consequences.

This leads me to articulating my first principles that inform my life. I've taken these from a recent post by Edward Feser who states them so well; however, I did make some edits to massage these closer to my convictions. Here are the seven key principles
1. The cosmos has a systematic unity, given by the divine that is both outside (transcendent) and within (immanent).
2. This unity reflects an explanatory hierarchy and in particular a “top-down” approach to explanation (as opposed to the “bottom-up” approach of naturalism), especially in the two key respects that the simple is prior to the complex and the intelligible is prior to the sensible.
3. The divine constitutes an irreducible explanatory category, and is to be conceived of in personal, as well as impersonal terms. The divine is relational and absolute—both triune and one.
4. The person also constitutes an irreducible explanatory category. We can't be reduced to nature or nurture.
5. Persons are part of the hierarchy and their happiness, as well as purpose, consists in recovering a lost position within it, in a way that can be described as “becoming like God.” [The quest, thus, has no external 'object,' but is reality itself becoming luminous for its movement from the ineffable, through the Cosmos, to the ineffable. — Eric Voegelin]
6. Moral and aesthetic value is to be analyzed by reference to this metaphysical hierarchy. The good and the beautiful are not relative, but universal. The divine is in all things, but to different degrees.
7. The epistemological order is contained with this metaphysical order. Truth is not relative, but universal. Once again, the divine is in all things, but to different degrees.
Assuming you were a materialist and relativist, your first principles would reverse many of these statements. Everything would be reducible to nature (or nurture), and there would be no hierarchy or systematic unity. And your principles would have no coherence to explain intelligibility or higher order/values.

If you were an pantheist, everything equally would be an immanent spirit. But without a transcendent, there would no distinctions around a higher order/values nor would there be any motivation for “becoming like God.” There would again be a lack a coherence, as the world would mostly be explained away as an undiscriminating divine oneness.

First principles matter! So as they say: as above, so below.

Wednesday, January 1, 2020

The Decade of Hope, Humor, and Homing In

As an interesting exercise, I recently asked a group I meet with to come up with a new decade intention—sort of like a New Year's resolution with a significantly longer time span. I couldn't fairly ask others to consider this without looking at this for myself. I'm not particular fond of resolutions, since I see persons as part of an ongoing process. And to break up the intentions of our life's arc or teleology into discreet calendar years seems a bit absurd. Yet, there may merit in taking inventory of where we are in the moment, so we can become the people we were meant to be for eternity.

I've distilled some recent preoccupations around this “triple h” phrase of hope, humor, and homing in that I'd like to try to engage with as a practice over the next decade. I could have probably said these things mattered to me in my younger years, but they had a different flavor—often operating at a lower octave as the preoccupations of youth never allowed me to deepen their significance. Hope for me as a younger man, would have led me to dreams around achievements in career and relationships. My ideas around humor would have been limited to being gratified by satire or irony at another's expense. And if I was homing in on anything, it was just sharpening some skills to get affirmation or approval from others.

And if these concepts have a different meaning to me now, and going forward, I can truly thank that cliché of a good old fashion mid-life crisis. The things that worked in the past to preoccupy our deeper soul level wounds, don't work so well when you see time caving in on one's youthful zeal. We can be overcome by an existential dread and anguish, novel enthusiasm can begin to wane, and we can sense fractures in belief systems and passions that once gave us an identity. But with this dissonance, we can also feel a calling to go deeper while going through it. It's as if there is an invitation to change through the suffering, and not become static in one's being.

Looking at hope, its primary enemy is despair. Despair becomes this insidious posture that nothing will change, and that somehow God made things this way. It is one that I can feel creeping in often; where I can see my karmic ideas around my circumstances were meant to be. But looking at this from a different vantage point, I can see how prideful this is. Whatever despair I may feel is not God trying to crush me, but may actually be an avenue to higher virtue and a deeper way of being. In Catholic theology, hope is one of the three transcendental virtues, along with faith and love. Hope is grounded in faith meaning we need this hope to come from someplace beyond ourselves, and in time, it can lead us to a deeper love where our limited selves have been used up for some greater embrace. Whatever finite things we hope for will always be ephemeral, and eventually leave us unsatiated by a deeper longing. Moreover, hope may not be getting the things we want, but ultimately may need. As Václav Havel said: “Hope is not the conviction that something will turn out well but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.”

Humor is a quality and creative endeavor I admire in and with others. I recall an ex-girlfriend mentioned that she had a friend who couldn't decide whether to join a monastery or become a stand-up comedian. While I found the juxtaposition amusing, I also didn't see these choices as that far apart. I often can learn just as much about human nature from watching an act by Bill Burr or Dave Chappelle as listening to a monk's dharma. Moreover, the levity of good comedy lightens us up, and in the laughter we can feel an authentic moment of release that can bring us closer to God. While there is certainly a dark side to it, I still see that aspect as a wholesome revealing. It calls us to look within, and not take ourselves so seriously. It places light on the shadows of our humanity, and to take inventory of where these fallibilities reside in us. Life may be a human tragedy from one level, but can also be seen as a divine comedy from another. Humor can be a vehicle that gives us some distance from our adversities, bring us in to deeper communion with others in friendship, and draw us closer to a mysterious presence in our laughter.

I've probably been homing in on an unlimited longing for most of my life. When I was in my early twenties, I confronted my father after he attempted to give me life advice that there had to be more to life than work, family, and money. He said to me bluntly, “there isn't!” A dread overcame me, but there was still a part of me that wasn't buying it. I had to flail around for a while before I found some reliable fingers that were pointing towards that “more.” Once I got a taste, I knew that to be at home in life, I would need to home in on Truth. This became my quest, and while it still fires with many cylinders, I am more aware of a spiritual dryness that still overcomes me. Part of this has resulted with too many preoccupations that lack significance and take me away from a deeper yearning. I recall reading Mark Manson's The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck a couple years back. His variation on a Buddhist insight is not that we should say f--- it to life, but f--- it to the things that don't matter in life. Sometimes this requires courage as it requires going against the cultural grain. Other times, it's just a matter of having some will to avoid the vices of unhealthy escapism and narcissistic gratification. Moreover, I feel it has to be a real surrender and repentance. As I get older, the stakes get higher and I can no longer play the god of my life. I need to give over to the mystery, and allow myself to be guided as to what I am to become. 

The practice of hope sustains me when I fail at this homing in, and humor gives me permission to not take myself so serious in the process. I can only home in on the mystery when I remain vulnerable to life and fall in to the love that truly guides me; and while this may be a decade long intention on my part, there will always be a place of unknowingness as to how this unfolds beyond whatever I may intend.

Wednesday, December 18, 2019

Truth Enfleshed — In a Culture Against It

In my last post, I wrote that the only way to explain Truth is to be Truth. Great then, so how are we suppose to do that? 

It’s a good question that won’t be answered by just any-body, but only through your body. Because here again, the path to Truth is our goal and our goal to Truth is the path. So all we can do is live it, or practice it.

A friend of mine mentioned he came across Merton is saying something about how we need to stop writing (and reading) books about praying, and to actually start praying. So what am I doing here other than dancing with words around the Truth.

I recently came across this pretty good discussion with James K.A. Smith. He also makes the case that Truth is not about believing: it's about giving oneself over a set of psycho-semantic practices, rituals, and rhythms even on the days I don't believe in it or feel it or am suspicious of it.

We have to practice our way into a different way of being. And this requires habit forming heart shaping rituals, rhythms, and routines. This is truly incarnational where there is a particularity to the Incarnation, and an embodiment of it that is always ongoing. We are ensouled in a way that bodies can only grasp the metaphysical story.

So here again, we can’t think our way into being Truth. 

But as Smith acknowledges, we can choose to become intentional in giving ourselves over to a different community of practices which will then transform our heart habits so we can love something or someone else. But what this is is Truth: not ideas, but Truth enfleshed.

Even our postmodern thought(less) leaders, despite leaning on relativism, can offer assistance in pointing us to a Truth that can not be constructed, but only received.

Smith has a charitable take on postmodernism that many advocates of orthodoxy would not. In that, he argues that while postmodernism points us away from there being any relative truth, it does not necessarily point us away from the Absolute Truth and tradition.

For instance, Derrida’s phrase that “there is nothing outside the text” may challenge pure objectivity from the human perspective, but not necessarily from a transcendent view. We are finite beings, so our truth will always be limited by our finiteness. And while we may interpret and mediate many partial truths without ever reaching the apex of Truth, there may be vertical mediations that can impel the necessary conditions for a deeper Truth. For Smith, this Truth is revealed. 

In regards to Lyotard’s skepticism for metanarratives, Smith says this is more a critique of modernism in that the “incredulity of postmodernity toward metanarratives derives from the fact that modernity denies its own commitments, renounces its faith, while at the same time never escaping it.” So according to Smith, Lyotard is not against narratives, but suspicious that we can transcend them through modernity’s sensibility of autonomous reason without any ultimate commitments. We are all part of a grander story, so as part of that Truth we need to own up to it by acknowledging where we in stand in the particularity of that story.

Lastly, Foucault’s mantra that “power is knowledge” does not mean that all power is bad. While Smith acknowledges Foucault’s analysis that the mechanisms of discipline through institutions and society serve to form individuals, Smith also believes it is “wrong to cast all such discipline and formation in a negative light.” We are not purely autonomous agents, nor do we live in a vacuum. In order to surrender to something Higher and be transformed, we require a mature obedience to positive institutions that can facilitate this. Therefore, Truth can be cultivated through the practices we inhabit through institutions such as the Church and other contemplative communities.

This creative retrieval of tradition in a postmodern context can lead us to an embodied Truth without negating the culture we reside in. We can’t go back to a time of simplicity in regards to our options. To come to an end of ourselves and be Truth, we need to take on the complexity of our times head on! This isn’t a performative action of human will power, but the practice of truly seeing what is and letting be. 

Tuesday, December 3, 2019

To Be The Truth is The Only True Explanation of What Truth Is

We begin the title of this post with a quote from Kierkegaard. It’s the sort of quote that we can begin to unpack or unwind with words, but it can’t really be done purely with reason. Instrumental reason will help with relative truths, but never ultimate Truth.

Let’s say you’re trying to use the mind to come up with Truth. You may succeed at coming up with some disembodied notions of it, but it will eventually become unsatisfying. Consider the causal loop you can get into trying to come up with your own meaning and purpose to life:
(1) secular culture says there is no normative good or bigger narrative to live for —> (2) feels liberating! —> (3) but now, I have the burden to come up with this story for myself —> (4) feels exhausting, too many choices, lots that are not satisfying! —> (5) I've created a new prison for myself believing I can do this for myself —> (6) I become despondent, in need of deeper meaning/purpose again —>(7) go back to (1)
At best, we may come up with some helpful content to work with. But immersing yourself in the ego-drama of coming up with a narrative for yourself still places your life being about you on your terms. And we need to move beyond a you

Paul Tillich would say the seeking of Truth means you have already been seized by Truth. In some sense, the seeking is the finding; and as that deepens, the being of Truth is the founding of it. Yet, it can never be contained.  

The error is not unrelated to the mistake that C.S. Lewis (Surprised by Joy) acknowledges committing when he sought to recover the experience of "Joy" by focusing on the thoughts and feelings generated by the experience within him. He recalls how this discovery flashed a new light back on his life: 
“I saw that all my waitings and watchings for Joy, all my vain hopes to find some mental content on which I could, so to speak, lay my finger and say, “This is it”, had been a futile attempt to contemplate the enjoyed.”
David Walsh notes, “All that he [Lewis] could find in such introspection was the sediment or trace of Joy. The reality which had been enjoyed disappeared once his attention became wholly directed toward the inner event itself. ... There is no surer way of missing the reality of human self-transcendence than to focus exclusively on the processes, the techniques or the ideas in which it is expressed” (emphasis mine).

I can certainly relate to the intellectual quest, and at times we do have to dance with at least some of the words we got. But eventually the words need to be made flesh! And this can only come from a submissive attunement to the whole of the reality. 

Walsh says, “As human beings we are not closed in on ourselves, or enclosed within the instrumental reason of subject/object relationships, but rather engaged in the whole of reality long before reflection or instrumental reasoning begin, and able, indeed impelled by our deepest humanity, to engage in this wider reality and articulate our participation in luminous symbols that express our attunement to this embracing ordering reality.” 

Walsh concludes: “Ineluctably we are existentially embedded, and morally engaged in reality, as a part taking part in the whole, unable to see the whole, only ever able to see an infinitesimal part of it, and only ever able to see it from within.” 

Want Truth? Be Truth!

Friday, November 29, 2019

Barfield Keeps Evolutionary Spirituality On Track

I just finished a better than expected book, Romantic Religion by R.J. Reilly, which explores the way imagination was evoked in works of the four major Inklings: Owen Barfield, Charles Williams, C. S. Lewis, and J. R. R. Tolkien. Surprisingly, the book gives more emphasis to Barfield, primarily because of the four Inklings he was the one that constructed a newer theory of knowledge that, similar to his counterparts, was still grounded in Christian worldview.  

Barfield took up a topic that was not necessarily undiscovered, but coherent and consistent enough with tradition that it did not require man to create another religion. His main thesis is that the evolution of nature is inseparable from the evolution of consciousness. And that Christianity could be seen in a fresh light from this current milieu as God reveals “His word to man in the way that man at that particular stage of civilization is best fitted to receive it.”

But how is this different from other espousers of evolutionary spirituality (or process theology)? First, Barfield did not see God as evolving; it is only our relationship to Him that evolves. Barfield disagreed with Teilhard de Chardin's mystical evolution to the Omega Point, because “it begins with the old Darwinian assumption that matter preceded mind, that, over aeons, matter evolved into ever more complex organisms, and that eventually the increasing complexity of structure in matter produced consciousness.” Barfield did not stray from God as Creator, and with his study of language he found that the ancients participated with phenomena less distinctly and more intuitively. The “Fall” has been a process of making finer distinctions of phenomena, thereby granting objective existence to our collective representations. If we were to evolve from here, it would require us regain our conscious participation and continue upward toward Eternal Spirit. Reilly notes, “From the purely temporal point of view, then, we may say that God is manifesting Himself in man; but He is not thereby diminishing Himself, nor is He evolving.”

Also, Barfield differed from other theories of evolutionary spirituality in his importance of maintaining the distinction between God and person. His view was “that evolution is a descent from unindividualized spirit into individualized spirit and matter—man and phenomena—and then a continuing upward movement back toward spirit—a return to the One, but not a submerging of the individual spirits in the One, rather a convergence of the fully individuated and fully conscious Many in the One” (emphasis mine). God remains a mystery above and beyond man, but coinheres in the individuated personhood of man. C.S. Lewis appreciated this perspective, and sided with his colleague and friend Barfield that “among Pantheists we must emphasize our independence of God, while among Deists we must stress his Divine presence.”

Lastly, Barfield saw that true evolution was not necessarily always moving in the way man may see it; and that history was a “series of conflicts between the impulse toward true evolution and the impulse toward substitution.” Since man is condemned to religion, he will find false substitutes if the demands of tradition do not suit the times nor his temperament. Such as we can see through history with the trends of marxism, socialism, materialism, scientism, environmentalism, and new ageism. Reilly adds, “We may choose a further evolution toward an even greater idolatry, choosing to cut ourselves off even more from the world outside us.” Barfield's fear is that this would eliminate all meaning and coherence from the cosmos, because our participation would not be primarily with God.

On a final matter, Barfield did not dismiss the Incarnation as symbolic gesture, but a true myth that aligned with his temporal theory: “At a certain point in time—the time of the historical Incarnation of Christ and His subsequent death—the process became one of ascent, or re-ascent. Diagrammatically, Barfield says, the process of evolution appears not as a straight line sloping always upward but more as a capital U.” The flight from God requires us, as Barfield said, to “find our way back to her again.”


I particularly recommend this short film on Barfield. I find this gives one a good sensibility of the man, and his transmission of ideas. I've also noticed a recent uptick of people recognizing his work again.

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.