A mercifully short (9:17) but very good YouTube video featuring commentary by name figures in the philosophy of religion including Marilyn Adams, William Alston, William Wainwright, and William Lane Craig. Craig recounts the experience that made a theist of him. (HT: Keith Burgess-Jackson)
As Marilyn Adams correctly points out at the start of the presentation, the belief of many theists is not a result of religious experience. It comes from upbringing, tradition, and participation in what Wittgenstein called a "form of life" with its associated "language game." I myself, however, could not take religion seriously if it were not for the variety of religious, mystical, and paranormal experiences I have had, bolstered by philosophical reasoning both negative and positive. Negative, as critique of the usual suspects: materialism, naturalism, scientism, secular humanism, and so on. Positive, the impressive array of theistic arguments and considerations which, while they cannot establish theism as true, make a powerful case for it.
But my need for direct experience reflects my personality and, perhaps, limitations. I am an introvert who looks askance at communal practices such as corporate prayer and church-going and much, if not all, of the externalities that go with it. I am not a social animal. I see socializing as too often levelling and inimical to our ultimate purpose here below: to become individuals. Socializing superficializes. Man in the mass is man degraded. We need to be socialized out of the animal level, of course, but then we need solitude to achieve the truly human goal of individuation. Individuation is not a given, but a task. The social animal is still too much of an animal for my taste.
It is only recently that I have forced myself myself to engage in communal religious activities, but more as a form of self-denial than of anything else. My recent five weeks at a remote monastery were more eremitic than cenobitic, but I did take part in the services. And upon return I began attending mass with my wife. Last Sunday a man sat down next to me, a friendly guy who extended to me his hand, but his breath stank to high heaven. Behind me some guy was coughing his head off. And then there are those who show up for mass in shorts, and I am not talking about kids. The priest is a disaster at public speaking and his sermon is devoid of content. Does he even understand the doctrine he is supposed to teach? And then there are all the lousy liberals who want to reduce religion to a crapload of namby-pamby humanist nonsense. And let's not forget the current clown of a pope who, ignorant of economics and climatology, speaks to us of the evils of capitalism and 'global warming' when he should be speaking of the Last Things. (Could he name them off the top of his head?)
But then I reason with myself as follows. "Look, man, you are always going on about how man is a fallen being in a fallen world. Well, the church and its hierarchy and its members are part of the world and therefore fallen too. So what did you expect? And you know that the greatest sin of the intellectual is pride and that pride blinds the spiritual sight like nothing else. So suck it up, be a man among men, humble yourself. It may do you some good."
I read about your recent experiences with communal
religion. Your self-reflection reminded me of something Rabbi Harold Kushner
writes about in his book WHO NEEDS GOD. He talks about visiting with a young man
who told him, "I hate churches and synagogues, they're full of nothing but
hypocrites and jerks"...Kushner says he had to fight the urge to say, 'yep, and
there is always room for one more'.
Apropos of my last entry, a warning to those may be thinking of heading for the desert. The following observation from a November 2009 post, "Demons of the Desert."
The desert fathers of old believed in demons because of their experiences in quest of the "narrow gate" that only few find. They sought to perfect themselves and so became involved as combatants in unseen warfare. They felt as if thwarted in their practices by opponents both malevolent and invisible. The moderns do not try to perfect themselves and so the demons leave them alone.
Distracted from your distractions, you may get more than you bargained for, phenomenologically, if not really.
A reader sent the following about half-way through my digital fast and blogging hiatus.
. . . I was hoping that when you emerge from it you might have some practical wisdom on how you went about it. What has your daily schedule been like? Have you struggled with the nagging urge to check everything all the time? I have been thinking a lot about the issues you raised both in The Big Unplug post and in your post on Mass Media and Spiritual Deterioration . . . . Thanks for reading this and for the writing you have contributed over the years - it has truly been signal amidst a great deal of noise.
How did I go about it? I got as far away as practicable from the hype and hustle and hyperkineticism of the modern world.
From July 26th to August 30th I lived in a hermitage on the grounds of the most remote monastery in the Western hemisphere in a place of great natural beauty. I have decided not to post any photographs or reveal the identities of any interlocutors in keeping with the monastic spirit of silence, solitude and seclusion.
An average day went something like this. Up at my usual time of 2:00 AM. (The monks arise at 3:30.) Instant coffee. I drank no good coffee for five weeks as part of the self-imposed discipline. Spiritual-philosophical reading until 3:00: Bible, Garrigou-Lagrange, Edith Stein, Theresa of Avila, et al. Formal, seated meditation until 3:30 in the hermitage. Then a 10-15 minute hike through a dark and spooky canyon to the oratory for Vigils at 4:00. This is the first hour of the liturgia horarum, the liturgy of the hours. It lasts one hour weekdays, one hour, twenty minutes on Sundays. Some of the 'little hours' are as short as ten minutes. The liturgy, chanted by the monks, is essentially psalmody with Christian elements interspersed. After Vigils, a light breakfast outside the monks' refectory. Then back to the hermitage for study and writing. I usually attended three of the seven hours per day and meditated on a 'regulation' Zen cushion and mat three times per day. I gave myself the rule, "No pray, no eat." So I attended Vigils before breakfast, Sext before the main meal, taken with the monks in the refectory, in silence of course, with one of the monk doing a reading, and Vespers before supper.
Did I struggle with the urge to check my 'devices' all the time? Not at all. I brought only a laptop computer for writing, but there was no wi-fi at the hermitage. For that I had to hike to the monastery proper where I could tap into a weak wi-fi signal. I did that a grand total of four times in five weeks, and only to check e-mail. The only other device I had with me was a primitive cell phone which was useless to me in the remote location.
From my journal:
Here in the hermitage I stand naked before my own conscience. Its penetrating power is enhanced by the exterior and interior silence.
No Escape. And now it is night. Alone in the hermitage which is itself alone and off by itself under stars undiminished by light pollution. Dead silence. No distractions of the usual sort: other people, pets, television, radio, Internet. Just me, my books, and my past -- and the spiritual dimension that the silence and solitude allow to approach. The hour glass of my existence is running out, which is why I am here to repent of my sins and prepare for death. The hour of death is the hour of truth when the masks fall, and evasions evaporate.
Modern man, distracted and diverted by endless self-referential yammering, firmly entrapped within the human horizon, is so deluded and lost as to be incapable of even raising the question, seriously, of whether anything lies beyond that stifling horizon.
Starting now, I will unplug from this hyperkinetic modern world for a period of days or weeks. How long remains to be seen. I will devote myself to such spiritual exercises as prayer, meditation, spiritual reading, hard-core philosophy and theology pursued for truth as opposed to professional gain, and the exploration of nature.
I will avoid unnecessary conversations and their near occasion, socializing, newspapers, telephony, radio, television, blogging, facebooking, tweeting, and all non-essential Internet-related activities. In a word: all of the ephemera that most people take to be the ne plus ultra of reality and importance. (As for Twitter, I am and hope to remain a virgin: I have never had truck with this weapon of mass distraction.)
But I am no benighted neo-Luddite. The air conditioning will stay on in my abode in the shadows of the Superstitions.
I ask my valued correspondents to refrain from sending me any links to events of the day or commentary thereon. I am going on a 'news fast' which is even more salutary for the soul than a food fast is for the body.
From time to time we should devote time to be still and listen beyond the human horizon. Modern man, crazed little hustler and self-absorbed chatterbox that he is, needs to enter his depths and listen.
Alasdair MacIntyre's 1981 After Virtue ends on this ominous and prescient note:
It is always dangerous to draw too precise parallels between one historical period and another; and among the most misleading of such parallels are those which have been drawn between our own age in Europe and North America and the epoch in which the Roman empire declined into the Dark Ages. Nonetheless certain parallels there are. A crucial turning point in that earlier history occurred when men and women of good will turned aside from the task of shoring up the Roman imperium and ceased to identify the continuation of civility and moral community with the maintenance of that imperium. What they set themselves to achieve instead –- often not recognizing fully what they were doing –- was the construction of new forms of community within which the moral life could be sustained so that both morality and civility might survive the coming ages of barbarism and darkness. If my account of our moral condition, we ought also to conclude that for some time now we too have reached that turning point. What matters at this stage is the construction of local forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained through the new dark ages which are already upon us. And if the tradition of the virtues was able to survive the horrors of the last dark ages, we are not entirely without grounds for hope. This time, however, the barbarians are not waiting beyond the frontiers; they have already been governing us for quite some time. And it is our lack of consciousness of this that constitutes part of our predicament. We are waiting not for a Godot, but for another -- doubtless very different -- St. Benedict. (University of Notre Dame Press, 1981, pp. 244-245.)
This was written 34 years ago, 20 years before 9/11. It is the charter for Rod Dreher's recent talk of a Benedict Option. Excerpts from an eponymous article of his:
Why are medieval monks relevant to our time? Because, says the moral philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre, they show that it is possible to construct “new forms of community within which the moral life could be sustained” in a Dark Age—including, perhaps, an age like our own.
For MacIntyre, we too are living through a Fall of Rome-like catastrophe, one that is concealed by our liberty and prosperity. In his influential 1981 book After Virtue, MacIntyre argued that the Enlightenment’s failure to replace an expiring Christianity caused Western civilization to lose its moral coherence. Like the early medievals, we too have been cut off from our roots, and a shadow of cultural amnesia is falling across the land.
The Great Forgetting is taking a particular toll on American Christianity, which is losing its young in dramatic numbers. Those who remain within churches often succumb to a potent form of feel-good relativism that sociologists have called “moralistic therapeutic deism,” which is dissolving historic Christian moral and theological orthodoxy.
A recent Pew survey found that Jews in America are in an even more advanced state of assimilation to secular modernity. The only Jews successfully resisting are the Orthodox, many of whom live in communities meaningfully separate and by traditions distinct from the world.
Is there a lesson here for Christians? Should they take what might be called the “Benedict Option”: communal withdrawal from the mainstream, for the sake of sheltering one’s faith and family from corrosive modernity and cultivating a more traditional way of life?
The broader topic here is that of voluntary withdrawal from a morally corrupt society and its morally corrupt institutions. There are various options. One could join a monastic order and live in community. This is the monastic cenobitic option. There is also the monastic eremitic option: one lives as a hermit within a religious context subject to its rules and having taken vows. Both the cenobitic and the eremitic options can be made less rigorous in various ways. One could attach oneself as an oblate to a monastery visiting it from time to time and participating in its communal prayers and other activities (Ora, labora, et lectio are the three 'legs' of the Benedictine 'stool.'). This could also be done in an eremitic way. (From the Greek eremos, desert.)
Spiritual withdrawal is of course greatly aided by physical withdrawal from cities into deserts and other remote locales; but one could voluntarily withdraw from a morally corrupt society while living in the midst of it in, say, Manhattan. (I cannot, however, advise setting up as the resident monk in a bordello in Pahrump, Nevada.)
What of the Maverick Option? As I have been living it since 1991 it does not involve drastic physical isolation: I live on the edge of a major metropolitan area which is also the edge of a rugged wilderness area. Ready access to raw nature (as opposed to, say, Manhattan's Central Park) may not be absolutely essential for spiritual development, but it is extremely conducive to it (in tandem with other things of course). Nature, experienced alone, removes one from the levelling effects of the social. (Henry David Thoreau: "I have no walks to throw away on company." That sounds misanthropic and perhaps from Henry David's mouth it was; but it can be given a positive reading.) It would be the height of folly to suppose that man's sociality is wholly negative; but its corrupting side cannot be denied. Encounter with nature in solitude pulls one out of one's social comfort zone in such a way that the ultimate questions obtrude themselves with full force. In society, they can strike one like jokes from a Woody Allen movie; in solitude, in the desert, they are serious. Nature is not God; but the solitary encounter with it, by breaking the spell of the social, can orient us toward Nature's God.
I will have more to say of the Maverick Option, its nature and pitfalls, in a later post.
Where Jeremiah counsels engagement without assimilation, Benedict represents the possibility of withdrawal. The former goal is to be achieved by the pursuit of ordinary life: the establishment of homes, the foundation of families, all amid the wider culture. The latter is to be achieved by the establishment of special communities governed by a heightened standard of holiness.
Although it can be interpreted as a prophecy of doom, the Jeremiah Option is fundamentally optimistic. It suggests that the captives can and should lead fulfilling lives even in exile. The Benedict Option is more pessimistic. It suggests that mainstream society is basically intolerable, and that those who yearn for decent lives should have as little to do with it as possible. MacIntyre is careful to point out that the new St. Benedict would have to be very different from the original and might not demand rigorous separation. Even so, his outlook remains bleak.
We need to catalog and examine all the options. A man once said that the unexamined life is not worth living. He was the wisest of mortals.
If a philosopher seeks the ultimate truth about the ultimate matters, then he should do so by all available routes. Qua philosopher he operates in the aether of abstract thought, on the plane of discursive reason, but he cannot consistently with his calling ignore other avenues of advance. It is after all the truth that is sought, not merely the truth as philosophically accessible. There is surely no justification for the identification of truth with philosophically accessible truth.
Meditation is difficult for intellectual types because of their tendency to overvalue their mental facility and cleverness. They are good at dialectics and mental jugglery, and people tend to value and overvalue what they are good at. Philosophers can become as obsessed with their cleverness and gamesmanship as body builders with muscular hypertrophy. Indeed, it is not too much of a stretch to say that the typical analytic philosopher suffers from hypertrophy of the critical/discursive/dialectical faculty. He can chop logic, he can mentally and verbally jabber, jabber, jabber, and scribble, scribble, scribble, but he can't be silent, listen, attend. He would sneer, to his own detriment, at this thought of Simone Weil (Gravity and Grace, tr. Craufurd, Routledge 1995, p. 107):
The capacity to drive away a thought once and for all is the gateway to eternity.
Compare this striking line from Evagrius Ponticus (The Praktikos and Chapters of Prayer, tr. Bamberger, Cistercian Publications, 1972, p. 66, #70):
To live beyond society, beyond the need for recognition and status. To live in truth, alone with nature and nature's God and the great problems and questions. There are the ancient dead ones for companionship. They speak across the centuries. With them we form a community of the like-minded in nomine scientiae.
I read the seventh and final volume of Thomas Merton's journals, The Other Side of the Mountain, in 1998 when it first appeared. I am currently re-reading it. It is once again proving to be page turner for one who has both a nostalgic and a scholarly interest in the far-off and fabulous '60s. But what a gushing liberal and naive romantic Merton was! Here is but one example:
Yesterday, quite by chance, I met Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche and his secretary . . . . Chogyam Trungpa is a completely marvelous person. Young, natural, without front or artifice, deep, awake, wise. [. . .] He is also a genuine spiritual master. (October 20, 1968, p. 219, emphasis added)
Unfortunately, the 'spirituality' of many 'spiritual masters' is of the New Age type, a type of spirituality that fancies itself beyond morality with its dualism of good and evil. One of the worst features of some New Age types is their conceit that they are beyond duality when they are firmly enmired in it. Perhaps the truly enlightened are beyond moral dualism and can live free of moral injunctions and prohibitions. But what often happens in practice is that spiritual aspirants and gurus fall into ordinary immorality while pretending to have transcended it. One may recall the famous case of Rajneesh. Chogyam Trungpa appears to have been cut from the same cloth. According to one report,
. . . Trungpa slept with a different woman every night in order to transmit the teaching to them. L. intimated that it was really a hardship for Trungpa to do this, but it was his duty in order to spread the dharma.
With apologies to the shade of Jack Kerouac, you could say that this gives new meaning to 'dharma bum.'
That Merton could be taken in by the fellow says something about Merton. A phrase such as 'genuine spiritual master' ought not be bandied about lightly. But perhaps Trungpa's excesses were not in evidence at the time.
Herewith yet another indication of why philosophy is essential to balanced thinking and living. Jerusalem and Benares are both in need of chastening, and Athens wields the rod. Although I maintain that philosophy needs completion by what is beyond philosophy, that maintenance is not a license to abandon rational critique. Every sector of life requires critique, including Philosophy herself, and Philosophy is the Critic.
As for putative 'spiritual masters,' run as fast as you can from any such 'master' or 'guru' who has something to sell you or is not in control of his lower self.
What is a contradiction from one angle is a koan from another.In a contradiction, logical thought hits a dead end. Discursive thought's road end, however, may well be the trail head of the Transdiscursive.
There is no point in begging for water with a leaky cup. Water thereby gained is immediately lost again. First fix the cup, then beg for water.
So also with the glimpses and gleanings and intimations from Elsewhere. They won't be retained in a perforated vessel. And if they are not retained, then they cannot do you any good. Moral fitness and intellectual discrimination are necessary for their recognition, proper evaluation, retention if judged salutary, and existential implementation. If you can't act right or think straight, then mystical, religious, and paranormal vouchsafings, whether they come 'out of the blue' or as a result of formal spiritual practices, may do more harm than good. They may inflate the ego or lead it into the dark regions of the occult.
The suggestion was made that I give a little talk to the monks of Christ in the Desert, a Benedictine monastery outside of Abiqui, New Mexico. I thought I would offer a few words in defense of the monastic life, not that such an ancient and venerable tradition needs any defense from me, but just to clarify my own thoughts and perhaps help others clarify theirs either by way of agreement or disagreement with mine. I will attempt three things. I will first list some convictions I hold to be of the essence of religion. Then I will suggest that the monastic path is an excellent way to implement these convictions. Finally I will ask myself why I am not a monk.
The Essence of Religion
There is much more to a religion than its beliefs and doctrines; there are also its practices. The practices, however, are informed and guided by certain central convictions whose importance cannot be denied. Religion is not practice alone. Now it is not easy to define religion, and it may be impossible. (Religion may be a family-resemblance concept in Wittgenstein's sense.) In any case I will not attempt to define religion by specifying necessary and sufficient conditions of the concept's application. But as I see it, most of the following are essential (necessary) to anything that deserves to be called a religion, and all of them are essential to Christianity. What I offer is a characterization, not a definition.
1. In first place, and not just in the order of exposition, is the belief that there is what William James calls an "unseen order." (Varieties of Religious Experience, p. 53) This is a realm of absolute reality that lies beyond the perception of the five outer senses and their instrumental extensions. It is also inaccessible to inner sense or introspection. It is also not a realm of mere abstracta or thought-contents. So it lies beyond the discursive intellect, as it does beyond the senses. One can reason about it, and reason to it, but one cannot access it directly via the discursive intellect. It is accessible from our side via mystical and religious experience. An initiative from its side is not to be ruled out in the form of revelation.
Compare the first item in Simone Weil's Profession of Faith: "There is a reality outside the world, that is to say, outside space and time, outside man's mental universe, outside any sphere whatsoever that is accessible to human faculties."
2. The belief that there is a supreme good for humans and that "our supreme good lies in harmoniously adjusting ourselves" to the "unseen order." (Varieties, p. 53) The Unseen Order is thus not merely a realm of absolute reality, but also one of absolute value and an object of our highest and purest desire.
Compare the second item in Weil's profession: "Corresponding to this reality, at the centre of the human heart, is the longing for an absolute good, a longing which is always there and is never appeased by any object in this world."
3. The conviction that we are morally deficient, and that this deficiency impedes our adjustment to the Unseen Order. Man is in some some sense fallen from the moral height at which he would have ready access to the Order which alone is the source of his ultimate happiness and final good. His moral corruption, however it came about, has noetic consequences. That is, our ability to know the saving truth has been impaired by our moral deficiency.
4. The conviction that our moral deficiency cannot be made sufficiently good by our own efforts to afford us ready, or perhaps any, access to the Unseen Order. Proximately, we need the help of others; ultimately, we need help from the Unseen Order.
5. The conviction that adjustment to the Unseen Order requires moral purification/transformation.
6. The conviction that help from the side of the Unseen Order is available to bring about this purification and adjustment.
7. The conviction that the sensible order, while not unreal, is not plenary in point of reality or value, that it is ontologically and axiologically derivative, and as derivative defective. It is a manifestation or emanation or creation of the Unseen Order.
Each of these seven convictions is an element in my personal credo. Can I prove them? Of course not. But then nothing of a substantive nature in philosophy, theology, or any controversial field, can be proven. But each of the above convictions is rationally defensible. So while not provable, they are not matters of mere faith either. They can be argued for, their negations are rationally rejectable, and there are experiences that vouch for them. (See Religious Belief and What Inclines Me to It.)
The Monastic Path
I will now suggest that the monastic life is perhaps the best way to realize existentially the above convictions, but also to have the sorts of experiences that tend to provide evidence for the convictions. One lives the convictions, and by living them is granted experiences and intimations that validate the convictions.
Let us suppose that you accept all or most of the above seven propositions, in their spirit if not in their letter, and that you also share with me the meta-conviction that these first-order convictions are to be lived (existentially realized, realized in one's Existenz) and not merely thought about or talked about or argued over.
Then it makes sense to go into the desert. The negative reason is to escape the manifold distractions of the world which keep one scattered and enslaved to the ephemeral, while the positive reason is to live a life focused on the the absolute and unchanging Source of all reality and value. The entrance into the monastery signals that one is truly convinced of the reality of the unseen (#1), it supreme value for us and our happiness (#2) and the relative unreality and insignificance of this world of time and change and vain ambition (#7).
To live such a focused existence, however, requires discipline. We have a fallen nature in at least two senses. First, we are as if fallen from a higher state. Second, we are ever falling against the objects of our world and losing ourselves in them, becoming absorbed in them. (Compare Heidegger's Verfallenheit, fallingness.) Here we find the ontological root of such sins of the flesh as avarice, gluttony, and lust. Given our fallen and falling nature, a monastic institution can provide the moral discipline and guidance that might be difficult if not impossible to secure on the outside, especially in a secularized and sex-saturated society such as ours has become. The weight of concupiscence is heavy and it drags us down. We are sexual beings naturally, and oversexualized beings socially, and so we are largely unable to control our drives to the extent necessary to develop spiritual sight. The thrust of desire confers final reality upon the sensuous while occluding one's spiritual sight. Sensuous desire, especially inordinate sensuous desire, realizes the things of the senses while de-realizing the things of the spirit.
Here, as I see it, is the main reason for sexual continence. We are not continent because we are undersexed, or prudes, or anti-natalists, or despisers of matter. (Certainly no Christian could despise the material world, and a Christian such as Kierkegaard who at the end of his life waxed anti-natalist veered off into a personal idiosyncrasy.) The continence of the loins subserves the continence of the mind and heart which in turn are probably necessary, though certainly not sufficient, for a Glimpse of spiritual realities. (I say 'probably necessary' because divine grace may grant sight to the committed worldling nolens volens.)
And then there is the great problem of suggestibility. We are highly sensitive and responsive to social suggestions as to what is real and important and what is not. In a society awash with secular suggestions, people find it hard to take religion seriously. Here is another reason why a community of the like-minded may be necessary for most spiritual seekers. They provide reinforcement and the requisite counter-suggestions. (It is worth noting that if cults can 'brainwash' their members, whole societies can go off the rails and brainwash their members.)
Why Am I not a Monk?
"If you think so highly of the monastic life, what are you doing on the outside?"
A fair question deserving a straight answer. I didn't come to religion; I was brought up Roman Catholic by a pious Italian mother and pre-Vatican II nuns and priests. But I had a religious nature, so the training 'took.' But I also had a strong intellectual bent and was inclined philosophically from an early age. So I couldn't avoid asking, and not just intellectually, but existentially as well: how much of this is true and how do I know? The ferment of the 1960s only intensified my cognitive dissonance as the religious upbringing clashed on the one side with my philosophical questioning, and on the other with the secular and counter-cultural suggestions of the 'sixties. I remember in 1965 listening intently to the words of Bob Dylan's Gates of Eden and trying to discern its compatibility, if any, with Catholic teaching. (By the way, attending a Dylan concert in those days was like going to church: the audience remained dead quiet, hanging on every word.)
So philosophy took over the role in the pious youth's life that religion had played. That kept me away from any conventional religious vocation. And so it kept me out of the monastery. For one cannot join a monastery in general; it must be either Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox or Buddhist or whatever, and to do that in good faith and with a clear intellectual conscience one must accept the central doctrinal content of those religions. But that content was exactly what to my mind needed examination. Athens at that point got the upper hand over Jerusalem. So why am I not a monk? Because of Athens.
But now, as I approach the end of the trail, I see ever more clearly the vanity of any philosophy that does not complete itself in something beyond it. But what? The empty discursivity of reason needs to be filled and completed by a direct spiritual seeing. Concepts without intuitions are empty. (Kant) So philosophy needs completion by mystical intuition, but this is rare and sporadic and fragmentary here below, mere Glimpses; to sustain us in the between times we need faith grounded in revelation.
I have been, and will continue, discussing Trinity and Incarnation objectively, that is, in an objectifying manner. Now what do I mean by that? Well, with respect to the Trinity, the central conundrum, to put it in a very crude and quick way is this: How can three things be one thing? With respect to the Incarnation, how can the Second Person of the Trinity, the eternal and impassible Logos, be identical to a particular mortal man? These puzzles get us thinking about identity and difference and set us hunting for analogies and models from the domain of ordinary experience. We seek intelligibility by an objective route. We ought to consider that this objectifying approach might be wrongheaded and that we ought to examine a mystical and subjective approach, a 'Platonic' approach as opposed to an 'Aristotelian' one. See my earlier quotation of Heinrich Heine. A marvellous quotation.
1. The essence of Christianity is contained in the distinct but related doctrines of the Trinity and the Incarnation. Josef Pieper (Belief and Faith, p. 103) cites the following passages from the doctor angelicus: Duo nobis credenda proponuntur: scil. occultum Divinitatis . . . et mysterium humanitatis Christi. II, II, 1, 8. Fides nostra in duobus principaliter consistit: primo quidem in vera Dei cognitione . . . ; secundo in mysterio incarnationis Christi. II, II, 174, 6.
2. The doctrine of the Trinity spelled out in the Athanasian Creed, is that there is one God in three divine Persons, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. Each person is God, and yet there is exactly one God, despite the fact that the Persons are numerically distinct from one another. According to the doctrine of the Incarnation, the second person of the Trinity, the Son or Logos, became man in Jesus of Nazareth. There is a strong temptation to think of the doctrinal statements as recording (putative) objective facts and then to wonder how they are possible. I have touched upon some of the logical problems the objective approach encounters in previous posts. The logical problems are thorny indeed and seem to require for their solution questionable logical innovations such as the notion (championed by Peter Geach) that identity is sortal-relative, or an equally dubious mysterianism which leaves us incapable of saying just what we would be accepting were we to accept the theological propositions in question. The reader should review those problems in order to understand the motivation of what follows.
3. But it may be that the objective approach is radically mistaken. Is it an objective fact that God (or rather the second person of the Trinity) is identical to a particular man in the way it is an objective fact that the morning star is identical to the planet Venus?
Perhaps we need to explore a subjective approach. One such is the mystical approach illustrated in a surprising and presumably 'heretical' passage from St. John of the Cross' The Ascent of Mount Carmel (Collected Works, p. 149, tr. Kavanaugh and Rodriguez, emphasis added):
. . . when a person has finished purifying and voiding himself of all forms and apprehensible images, he will abide in this pure and simple light, and be perfectly transformed into it. This light is never lacking to the soul, but because of creature forms and veils weighing upon and covering it, the light is never infused. If a person will eliminate these impediments and veils, and live in pure nakedness and poverty of spirit . . . his soul in its simplicity and purity will then be immediately transformed into simple and pure Wisdom, the Son of God.
The Son of God, the Logos, the Second Person of the Trinity, is 'born,' 'enters the world,' is 'incarnated,' in the soul of any man who attains the mystic vision of the divine light. This is the plain meaning of the passage. The problem, of course, is to reconcile this mystical subjectivism with the doctrinal objectivism according to which the Logos literally became man, uniquely, in Jesus of Nazareth when a certain baby was born in a manger in Bethlehem some 2000 years ago.
4. A somewhat less mystical but also subjective approach is suggested by an analogy that Josef Pieper offers in Belief and Faith, p. 89. I will explore his analogy in my own way. Suppose I sincerely and thoughtfully say 'I love you' to a person who is open and responsive to my address. Saying this, I do not report an objective fact which subsists independently of my verbal avowal and the beloved's reception of the avowal. There may be objective facts in the vicinity, but the I-Thou relation is not an objective fact antecedent to the address and the response. It is a personal relation of subjectivity to subjectivity. The reality of the I-Thou relation is brought about by the sincere verbal avowal and its sincere reception. The lover's speaking is a self-witnessing and "the witnessed subject matter is given reality solely by having been spoken in such a manner." (Pieper, p. 89) The speaking is a doing, a performance, a self-revelation that first establishes the love relationship.
5. The Incarnation is the primary instance of God's self-revelation to us. God reveals himself to us in the life and words of Jesus -- but only to those who are open to and accept his words and example. That God reveals himself (whether in Jesus' life and words or in the mystic's consciousness here and now) is not an objective fact independent of a free addressing and a free responding. It depends on a free communicating and a free receiving of a communication just as in the case of the lover avowing his love to the beloved. God speaks to man as lover to beloved. In the case of the Incarnation, God speaks to man though the man Jesus. Jesus is the Word of God spoken to man, which Word subsists only in the free reception of the divine communication. Thus it is not that a flesh and blood man is identical to a fleshless and bloodless person of the Trinity -- a putative identity that is hard to square with the discernibility of the identity relations' relata -- it is that God's Word to us is embodied in the life and teaching of a man when this life and teaching are apprehended and received as a divine communication. The Incarnation, as the prime instance of divine revelation, is doubly subjective in that subject speaks to subject, and that only in this speaking and hearing is the Incarnation realized.
6. Incarnation is not an objective fact or process by which one thing, the eternal Logos, becomes identical to a second thing, a certain man. Looked at in this objectivizing way, the logical difficulties become insuperable. Incarnation is perhaps better thought of as the prime instance of revelation, where revelation is, as Aquinas says at Summa Contra Gentiles, 3, 154, "accomplished by means of a certain interior and intelligible light, elevating the mind to the perception of things that the understanding cannot reach by its natural light." Revelation, so conceived, is not an objective fact. Incarnation is a mode of revelation. Ergo, the Incarnation is not an objective fact.
7. This is admittedly somewhat murky. More needs to be said about the exact sense of 'subjective' and 'objective.'
Thoughts don't like to subside. One leads to another, and another. You would experience the thinker behind the thoughts, but instead you have thoughts about this thinker while knowing full well that the thinker is not just another thought. Or you lovingly elaborate your brilliant thoughts about meditation, its purpose, its methods, and its difficulty, thoughts that you will soon post to your weblog, all the while realizing that mental blogging is not meditation.
"Man is a stream whose source is hidden," said Emerson and you would swim upstream to the Source. So you make an effort, but the effort is too much for you. Perhaps the metaphor is wrong. One from al-Ghazzali might be better.
A cooling evening breeze is more likely to come to the desert dweller if he climb to the top of the minaret than if he stay on the ground. So he makes an effort within his power, the effort of positioning himself to receive, when and if it should come, a gust of the divine favor.
He waits for the grace that may overcome the gravity of the mind and its hebetude.
To meditate is to wait, and therein lies or sits the difficulty.
This morning's session (sitting in plain English) was good and lasted from 3:30 to 4:25. Fueled by chai: coffee is too much the driver of the discursive. But now the coffee is coming in and I'm feeling fabulous and the thoughts are 'percolating' up from who knows where.
Dave Bagwill referred me to this entry from Zen Habits:
If you feel overwhelmed, breathe. It will calm you and release the tensions.
If you are worried about something coming up, or caught up in something that already happened, breathe. It will bring you back to the present.
If you are moving too fast, breathe. It will remind you to slow down, and enjoy life more.
Breathe, and enjoy each moment of this life. They’re too fleeting and few to waste.
Much good comes from daily, mindful, deep breathing. It is essential as a preliminary to meditation, but is also valuable throughout the day. Just remember to do it. In these hyperkinetic times, it is important to have at the ready various techniques for slowing done. For more on this theme, see my category Slow Down!
One needn't subscribe to the metaphysics of Zen Buddhism to make good use of its techniques.
We are too open to social suggestions. We uncritically imbibe dubious and outright wrong views and attitudes and valuations and habits of speech from our environment. They don't appear wrong because they are in step with what most believe and say. 'Normal' beliefs and patterns of speech become normative for people. This is the way of the world. We are too suggestible.
Thus nowadays people cannot see that lust and gluttony are deadly vices. The weight of suggestion is too onerous. The counter-suggestions from a religious upbringing are no match for the relentless stuff emanating from the mass media of a sex-saturated, hedonistic society. For spiritual health a partial withdrawal from society is advisable. It needn't be physical: one can be in the world but not of it.
A partial withdrawal can take the form of a holding free of the early morning hours from any contamination by media dreck. Thus no reading of newspapers, no checking of e-mail, no electronics of any sort. Electricity is fine: you don't have to sit in the dark or burn candles. No talking or other socializing. Instead: prayer, meditation, spiritual reading and writing, in silence, and alone.
So for a few pre-dawn hours each day you are a part-time monk.
But society and technology are in conspiracy against you. Have you noticed that the newer modems are not equipped with on/off switches? A bad omen for the life of the soul and the care thereof. I cannot abide a wi-fi signal during my sleeping and monkish hours. So I bought an extra power strip and put that in series with the modem and the main power strip. Wifey is instructed to turn it off before she goes to bed. And of course all computers and cell phones are off during the night and the hours of monkishness.
People are generally aware of the importance of good nutrition, physical exercise, and all things health-related. They understand that what they put into their bodies affects their physical health. Underappreciated is a truth just as, if not more important: that what one puts into one's mind affects one's mental and spiritual health. The soul has its foods and its poisons just as the body does. This simple truth, known for centuries, goes unheeded while liberals fall all over each other climbing aboard the various environmental and health bandwagons.
Second-hand smoke the danger of which is negligible much exercises our leftist pals while the soul-destroying toxicity of the mass 'entertainment' media concerns them not at all.
Why are those so concerned with physical toxins so tolerant of cultural and spiritual toxins? This is another example of what I call misplaced moral enthusiasm. You worry about global warming and sidestream smoke when you give no thought to the soul, its foods, and its poisons?
You liberals are a strange breed of cat, crouching behind the First Amendment, quick to defend every form of cultural pollution under the rubric 'free speech.'
To utter a declarative sentence is to say it. But the saying of a declarative sentence need not be an asserting of it or its content. Suppose I want to give an example of a declarative sentence in a language class. I say, "The average temperature on Mars is the same as on Earth." I have not made an assertion in saying this (false) sentence, but I have said something. So saying and asserting are not the same.
That's one argument. Here is another. One says one's prayers but in so doing one does not make assertions. Ora pro nobis peccatoribus, nunc et in hora mortis nostrae is not an assertion.
But this is not quite right. Allahu akbar -- God is great -- said by someone would constitute an assertion. And the same goes for the 'Who art in heaven' clause of the first sentence of the Pater Noster. It looks form these examples as if assertions can be part of prayer. So perhaps I should say the following. What is specifically prayerful about prayers is nothing assertive but something entreating, supplicatory, and the like.
But even this is not quite obvious. The contemplation of the existence and attributes of God is by itself arguably a form of prayer, a form free of supplication and entreaty. And then there is this marvellous quotation from Ralph Waldo Emerson:
Prayer that craves a particular commodity, -- anything less than all good, -- is vicious. Prayer is the contemplation of the facts of life from the highest point of view. It is the soliloquy of a beholding and jubilant soul. It is the spirit of God pronouncing his works good. But prayer as a means to effect a private end is meanness and theft. It supposes dualism and not unity in nature and consciousness. As soon as the man is at one with God, he will not beg. He will then see prayer in all action. The prayer of the farmer kneeling in his field to weed it, the prayer of the rower kneeling with the stroke of his oar, are true prayers heard throughout nature, though for cheap ends.
So my second argument may not work. But the first one does.
You blogged that doing philosophy has great value in itself; even if philosophy is aporetic. But how often, or how long per day or month, should one devote to it? Doing philosophy seems (to me at least) to have diminishing returns, if philosophy is aporetic. Or has your experience been different?
My approach to philosophy could be called radically aporetic. Thus I hold not only that philosophy is best approached aporetically, via its problems, but also that its central problems are insoluble. Thus I tend, tentatively and on the basis of inductive evidence, to the view that the central problems of philosophy, while genuine and thus not amenable to Wittgensteinian or other dissolution, are true aporiai, impasses. It is clear that one could take a broadly aporetic approach without subscribing to the insolubility thesis. But I go 'whole hog.' Hence radically aporetic.
I won't explain this any further, having done so elsewhere, but proceed to V.'s question.
I take our friend to be asking the following. How much time ought one devote to philosophy if philosophy is its problems and they are insoluble? But there is a deeper and logically prior question lurking in the background: Why do philosophy at all if its problems are insoluble? What good is philosophy aporetically pursued?
1. It is good in that it conduces to intellectual humility, to an appreciation of our actual predicament in this life, which is one of profound ignorance concerning what would be most worth knowing if we could know it. The aporetic philosopher is a Socratic philosopher, one who knows what he knows and knows what he does not know. The aporetic philosopher is a debunker of epistemic pretense. One sort of epistemic pretense is that of the positive scientists who, succumbing to the temptation to wax philosophical, overstep the bounds of their competence, proposing bogus solutions to philosophical problems, and making incoherent assertions. They often philosophize without knowing it, and they do it incompetently, without self-awareness and self-criticism. I have given many examples of this in these pages. Thus philosophy as I conceive it is an important antidote to scientism. Scientism is an enemy of the humanities and I am a defender of the humanities.
There is also the threat emanating from political ideologies such as communism and leftism and Islamism and their various offshoots. The critique of these and other pernicious worldviews is a task for philosophy. And who is better suited for debunking operations than the aporetician?
2. Beyond its important debunking use, philosophy aporetically pursued has a spiritual point and purpose. If there are indeed absolutely insoluble problems, they mark the boundary of the discursive intellect and point beyond it. Immersion in philosophical problems brings the discursive mind to an appreciation of its limits and raises the question of what, if anything, lies beyond the limits and how one may gain access to it.
I take the old-fashioned view that the ultimate purpose of human life, a purpose to which all others must be subordinated, is to search for, and if possible, participate in the Absolute. There are several approaches to the Absolute, the main ones being philosophy, religion, and mysticism.
The radical aporetician in philosophy goes as far as he can with philosophy, but hits a dead-end, and is intellectually hnest enough to admit that he is at his wit's end. This motivates him to explore other paths to the Absolute, paths via faith/revelation and mystical intuition. The denigration of the latter by most contemporary philosophers merely shows how spiritually benighted and shallow they are, how historically uniformed, and in some cases, how willfully stupid.
But once a philosopher always a philosopher. So the radical aporetician does not cease philosophizing while exploring the other paths; he uses philosophy to chasten the excess of those other paths. And so he denigrates reason as little as he denigrates faith/revelation and mystical intuition. He merely assigns to reason its proper place.
Now to V.'s actual question. How much time for philosophy? A good chunk of every day. Just how much depending on the particular circumstances of one's particular life. But time must also be set aside for prayer and meditation, the reading of the great scriptures, and other religious/ mystical practices.
For one ought to be a truth-seeker above else. But if one is serious about seeking truth, then one cannot thoughtlessly assume that the only access to ultimate truth is via philosophy. A person who refuses to explore other paths is like the churchmen who refused to look through Galileo's telescope. They 'knew' that Aristotle had 'proven' the 'quintessential' perfection of celestial bodies, a perfection that would disallow any such 'blemishes' as craters. So they refused to look and see.
One of my correspondents is a retired philosophy of professor and a Buddhist. He maintains that one ought to spend as much time meditating as one spends on philosophy. So if one philosophizes for five hours per day, then one ought to meditate for five hours per day! A hard saying indeed!
The search for the Real takes us outside ourselves. We may seek the Real in experiences, possessions, distant lands, or other people. These soon enough reveal themselves as distractions. But what about ideas and theories? Are they simply a more lofty sort of distraction? “Travelling is a fool’s paradise” said Emerson. Among lands certainly, but not among ideas?
If I move from objects of sense to objects of thought I am still moving among objects. To discourse, whether in words or in thoughts, is to be on the run and not at rest. But is not the Real to be found resting within, in one’s innermost subjectivity? Discourse dis-tracts, pulls apart, the interior unity.
Noli foras ire, said Augustine, in te redi, in interiore homine habitat veritas. “Do not wish to go outside, return into yourself. Truth dwells in the inner man.”
Do you regret in the morning the spare supper of the night before or the foregoing of the useless dessert? Do you feel bad that you now feel good and are not hung over? You missed the party and with it the ambiguity and unseriousness and dissipation of idle talk. Are you now troubled by your spiritual continence?
As for idle talk, here is something good from Franz Kafka: The Diaries 1910-1923, ed. Max Brod, Schocken 1948, p. 199:
In the next room my mother is entertaining the L. couple. They are talking about vermin and corns. (Mrs. L. has six corns on each toe.) It is easy to see that there is no real progress made in conversations of this sort. It is information that will be forgotten again by both and that even now proceeds along in self-forgetfulness without any sense of responsibility.
I have read this passage many times, and what delights me each time is the droll understatement of it: "there is no real progress made in conversations of this sort." No indeed. There is no progress because the conversations are not seriously about anything worth talking about. There is no Verantwortlichkeit (responsibility): the talk does not answer (antworten) to anything important in the world or anything real in the interlocutors. It is jaw-flapping for its own sake, mere linguistic behavior which, if it conveys anything, conveys: ‘I like you, you like me, and everything’s fine.’ An expression of boredom, it does little to alleviate it.
The interlocutors float along in the inauthenticity (Uneigentlichkeit) of what Heidegger calls das Man, the ‘they self.’ Compare Heidegger’s analysis of idle talk (Gerede) in Sein und Zeit (1927), sec. 35.
Am I suggesting that one should absolutely avoid idle talk? That would be to take things to an unnecessary and perhaps imprudent extreme. It is prudent to get yourself perceived as a regular guy -- especially if you are an 'irregular guy.'
If a philosopher who meditates spends five hours per day on philosophy, how many hours should he spend on meditation? One corresondent of mine, a retired philosophy professor and Buddhist, told me that if x hours are spent on philosophy, then x hours should be spent on meditation. So five hours of philosophy ought to be balanced by five hours of meditation. A hard saying!
What are the possible views on this topic?
1. No time should be wasted on philosophy. Pascal famously remarked that philosophy is not worth an hour's trouble. But he didn't say that in defense of Benares, but of Jerusalem. Time apportionment as between Athens and Jerusalem is a separate topic.
2. No time should be wasted on meditation. Judging by their behavior, the vast majority of academic philosophers seem committed to some such proposition.
3. Time spent on either is wasted. The view of the ordinary cave-dweller.
4. More time ought to be devoted to philosophy. But why?
5. The two 'cities' deserve equal time. The view of my Buddhist correspondent.
6. More time ought to be devoted to meditation than to philosophy.
What could be said in defense of (6)? Three quotations from Paul Brunton (Notebooks, vol. II, The Quest, Larson, 1986, p. 13):
The intuitive element is tremendously more important than the intellectual . . . .
The mystical experience is the most valuable of all experiences . . . .
. . . the quest of the Overself is the most worthwhile endeavour open to human exertions.
Recollection is a flight from the diaspora of animal inclinations and social suggestions. One collects oneself. Life is one long battle against the centrifugal pull of these two. Time too flees and flies not just by passing unaccountably but also by losing itself in the diaspora of its own modes, past, present, and future. What is, is not, because its element, time, is not, but is past, or future, or fleeting.
Among our fellows we ought to be as self-reliant as possible. But in matters moral and spiritual we ought freely to confess our exigency and ultimate inability to help ourselves. Honesty demands it. But to appreciate properly the need for outside help, one ought first to try to go it alone. When the self-therapeutics of Buddhism and Stoicism and cognate systems fail, then one will have a concrete motive for the confession of impotence.
I've recently been contemplating practising meditation. I decided to look up what you had to say on the subject, and I was happy to discover the "how to meditate" post. I was just wondering though, how long should a person meditate, and what should a first timer like myself expect to think or feel during the first few meditations?
How long? Between 15 and 30 minutes at first, working up gradually to an hour or more. What to expect? Not much at first. Mind control is extremely difficult and our minds are mostly out of control serving up an endless parade of pointless memories, useless worries, and negative thoughts of all sorts. In the beginning meditation is mostly hard work. So you can expect to work hard at first for meager results.
At a deeper level, expectation and striving to accomplish something are out of place. Meditation is an interior listening that can occur only when the discursive mind with its thoughts, judgements, intentions, expectations, and the like has been silenced. Meditation is not an inner discourse but an inner listening.
Of course, there is a bit of a paradox here: at first one must intend resolutely to take up this practice, one must work at it every morning with no exceptions, one must strive to quiet the mind -- but all in quest of an effortless abiding in mental quiet wherein there is no intending, working, or striving.
Logic greatly aids, though is not necessary for, disciplined thinking. Meditation greatly aids, though is not necessary for, disciplined non-thinking.
Meditation is a battle against the mind's centrifugal tendency. In virtue of its intentionality, mind is ever in flight from its center, so much so that some have denied that there is a center or a self. The aim of meditation is centering. To switch metaphors, the aim is to swim upstream to the thought-free source of thoughts. Compare Emerson: "Man is a stream whose source is hidden." Arrival at that hidden source is the ultimate goal of meditation.
Swimming upstream against a powerful current is not easy and for some impossible. So this is a good metaphor of the difficulty of meditation. The more extroverted you are, the more difficult it will be. Why engage in this hard work? Either you sense that your surface self has a depth dimension that calls to you or you don't. If you do, then this is the way to explore it.
Meditation reduced to three steps:
First, drive out all useless thoughts. Then get rid of all useful but worldly thoughts. Finally, achieve the cessation of all thoughts, including spiritual ones. Now you are at the threshhold of meditation proper. Unfortunately, a lifetime of work may not suffice to complete even these baby steps. You may not even make it to the threshhold. But if you can achieve even the first step, you will have done yourself a world of good.
The idea behind Step One is to cultivate the ability to suppress, at will, every useless, negative, weakening thought as soon as it arises. Not easy!
Meditation won't bear fruits unless one lives in a way that is compatible with it and its goals. So a certain amount of withdrawal from the world is needed. One needs to 'unplug.'
The attainment of mental quiet is a very high and choice-worthy goal of human striving. Anything that scatters or dis-tracts (literally: pulls apart) the mind makes it impossible to attain mental quiet as well as such lower attainments as ordinary concentration. Now the mass media have the tendency to scatter and distract. Therefore, if you value the attainment of mental quiet and such cognate states as tranquillitas animi, ataraxia, peace of mind, samadhi, concentration, 'personal presence,' etc., then you are well-advised to limit consumption of media dreck and cultivate the disciplines that lead to these states.
Since the past is no longer, to let go of the past is to let go of thoughts of the past. But these thoughts, like all thoughts, are in the present. So we are brought back again to the importance of cultivating the ability to let go of thoughts here and now. Mind control in the present automatically takes care of the two nonpresent temporal modes.
Ego is at the root of sin, but also at the root of obsessive preoccupation with one's sinfulness. If the goal is to weaken the ego, then too much fretting over one's sins in the manner of a Wittgenstein is contraindicated.
There is such a thing as excessive moral scrupulosity.
Though Wittgenstein's ego drove him to scruple inordinately, he was a better man than Russell. Russell worried about logic. Wittgenstein worried about logic and his sins.
Meditation is a battle against the mind's centrifugal tendency. In virtue of its intentionality, mind is ever in flight from its center, so much so that many have denied that there is a center or a self. The aim of meditation is centering. To switch metaphors, the aim is to swim upstream to the thought-free source of thoughts. Compare Emerson: "Man is a stream whose source is hidden." Could there be a stream without a source? A wind blowing towards objects (Sartre) that blew from no direction and for no cause?
Changing metaphors once again: you say you like riding the wild horse of the mind into dispersal and diremption? Then do so, and see where it gets you. If self-loss in the manifold proves to be unsatisfactory, you may be a candidate for re-collection.
We need spiritual exercises just as we need physical, mental, and moral exercises. A good spiritual exercise, and easy to boot, is daily recollection of just how good one has it, just how rich and full one's life is, just how much is going right despite annoyances and setbacks which for the most part are so petty as not to merit consideration.
Start with the physical side of your life. You slept well, and a beautiful new day is dawning. Your breath comes easy, your intestines are in order. Your mind is clear, and so are your eyes. Move every moving part of your body and note how wonderfully it works, without any pain to speak of.
Brew up some java and enjoy its rich taste, all the while rejoicing over the regularity of nature that allows the water to boil one more time, at the same temperature, and the caffeine to be absorbed once more by those greedy intercranial receptors that activate the adrenalin that makes you eager to grab a notebook and jot down all the new ideas that are beginning to percolate up from who knows where.
Finished with your body, move to your mind and its wonderful workings. Then to the house and its appliances including your trusty old computer that reliably, day after day, connects you to the sphere of Nous, the noosphere, to hijack a term of Teilhard de Chardin. And don't forget the country that allows you to live your own kind of life in your own kind of way and say and write whatever you think in peace and safety.
A quotidian enactment of something like the foregoing meditation should do wonders for you.
I am a philosopher and a conservative (in many ways) and I enjoy your blog very much. One thing I find rather puzzling (and interesting), though, is your extreme asceticism. Recently, you said:
"Well, we know that drinking and dancing won't get us anywhere. But it is at least possible that thinking and trancing will."
I guess I wonder just _where_ it is that you are trying to get and what is so great about being there such that it is better than enjoying some drinking and dancing (in moderation, of course).
Well, if I am an extreme ascetic, then what was Simeon Stylites? I am not now, and never have been, a pillar-dweller exposed to the elements.
'Asceticism' is from the Greek askesis meaning 'self-denial.' On a spectrum from extreme self-indulgence on the left to extreme self-denial on the right, I would place myself somewhere in the middle, moving on my better days right-ward and on the others left-ward. So you could say that I am a mild-to-moderate ascetic. I believe in the value of self-denial and self-control in thought, word, and deed. That self-control with respect to words and deeds are essential to human flourishing I take to be well-nigh self-evident. Control of thought, however, is also essential to happiness which is why one ought so spend some time each day in formal meditation. (More on this in Meditation and Spiritual Exercises categories.)
Moderate asceticism is good and is enjoined by all the major religions and wisdom traditions. It is perfectly obvious that many of the problems we face today result from the lack of self-control. Obesity, for example. Debt, both at the personal level and at the level of government, is fundamentally a moral problem with at least one of its roots sunk deep in lack of self-control.
If you are running credit card debt, you are doing something very foolish. Why do you buy what you can't afford with money you don't have? You must know that you are wasting huge amounts of money on interest. Why doesn't this knowledge cause you to be prudent in your expenditures? Because you never learned how to control yourself. Perhaps you were brought up by liberals who think the summum bonum is self-indulgence and 'getting in touch with your feelings.' By the way, this in another powerful argument against liberalism. There is no wisdom on the Left. The last thing you will learn from liberals are the virtues and the vices and the seven deadly sins. For liberals, these are topics to joke about.
No one preaches self-denial anymore. We have become a nation of moral wimps. We need a taste of the strenuosity of yesteryear, and who better to serve it up than our very own William James, he of the Golden Age of American philosophy:
Keep the faculty of effort alive in you by a little gratuitous exercise every day. That is, be systematically heroic in little unnecessary points, do every day or two something for no other reason than its difficulty, so that, when the hour of dire need draws nigh, it may find you not unnerved and untrained to stand the test. Asceticism of this sort is like the insurance which a man pays on his house and goods. The tax does him no good at the time, and possibly may never bring him a return. But, if the fire does come, his having paid it will be his salvation from ruin. So with the man who has daily inured himself to habits of concentrated attention, energetic volition, and self-denial in unnecessary things. He will stand like a tower when everything rocks around him, and his softer fellow-mortals are winnowed like chaff in the blast.
We are spinning our own fates, good or evil, and never to be undone. Every smallest stroke of virtue or of vice leaves its never-so-little scar. The drunken Rip Van Winkle, in Jefferson's play, excuses himself for every fresh dereliction by saying, "I won't count this time!" Well, he may not count it, and a kind Heaven may not count it; but it is being counted none the less. Down among his nerve-cells and fibres the molecules are counting it, registering and storing it up to be used against him when the next temptation.
Back to drinking and dancing and the reader's question. Everything depends on what one considers to be the purpose of life. To me it is clear that we are not here to have a 'good time.' For me philosophy is not an academic game but a spiritual quest for the ultimate truth. The quest involves rigorous, technical philosophy, but it also involves non-discursive spiritual exercises. These are impossible without a certain amount of moral purification and ascesis. They are also best pursued in the early hours before dawn. So right here is an excellent reason not to waste the evening hours in idle talk, drinking and dancing. These activities are not conducive to spiritual progress. That is why some of us avoid them.
One aspect of contemporary scientism is the notion that great insights are to be gleaned from neuroscience about the mind and its operations. If you want my opinion, the pickin's are slim indeed and confusions are rife. This is your brain on prayer:
A test subject is injected with a dye that allows the researcher to study brain activity while the subject is deep in prayer/meditation. The red in the language center and frontal lobe areas indicates greater brain activity when the subject is praying or meditating as compared to the baseline when he is not. But when atheists "contemplate God" -- which presumably means when they think about the concept of God, a concept that they, as atheists, consider to be uninstantiated -- "Dr. Newberg did not observe any of the brain activity in the frontal lobe that he observed in religious people."
Dr. Newberg concludes that all religions create neurological experiences, and while God is unimaginable for atheists, for religious people, God is as real as the physical world. "So it helps us to understand that at least when they [religious people] are describing it to us, they are really having this kind of experience... This experience is at least neurologically real."
First of all, why do we need a complicated and expensive study to learn this? It is well-known that serious and sincere practioners of religions will typically have various experiences as a result of prayer and meditation. (Of course most prayer and meditation time is 'dry' -- but experiences eventually come.) The reality of these experiences as experiences cannot be doubted from the first-person point of view of the person who has them. There is no need to find a neural correlate in the brain to establish the reality of the experience qua experience. The experiences are real whether or not neural correlates can be isolated, and indeed whether or not there are any.
Suppose no difference in brain activity is found as between the religionists and the atheists when the former do their thing and the latter merely think about the God concept. (To call the latter "contemplating God" is an absurd misuse of terminology.) What would that show? Would it show that there is no difference between the religionists' experiences and the atheists'? Of course not. The difference is phenomenologically manifest, and, as I said, there is no need to establish the "neurological reality" of the experiences to show that they really occur.
Now I list some possible confusions into which one might fall when discussing a topic like this.
Confusion #1: Conflating the phenomenological reality of a religious experience as experienced with its so-called "neurological reality." They are obviously different as I've already explained.
Confusion #2: Conflating the religious experience with its neural correlate, the process in the brain or CNS on which the experience causally depends. Epistemically, they cannot be the same since they are known in different ways. The experience qua experience is known with certainty from the first-person point of view. The neural correlate is not. One cannot experience, from the first-person point of view, one's own brain states as brain states. Ontically, they cannot be the same either, and this for two sorts of reasons. First, the qualitative features of the experiences cannot be denied, but they also cannot be identified with anything physical. This is the qualia problem. Second, religious/mystical experiences typically exhibit that of-ness or aboutness, that directedness-to-an-object, that philosophers call intentionality. No physical states have this property.
Confusion #3: Conflating a religious entity with its concept, e.g., confusing God with the concept of God. This is why it is slovenly and confused to speak of "contemplating God" when one is merely thinking about the concept of God. The journalist and/or the neuroscientist seem to be succumbing to this confusion.
Confusion #4: Conflating an experience (an episode or act of experiencing) with its intentional object. Suppose one feels the presence of God. Then the object is God. But God is not identical to the experience. For one thing, numerically different experiences can be of the same object. The object is distinct from the act, and the act from the object. The holds even if the intentional object does not exist. Suppose St Theresa has an experience of the third person of the Trinity, but there is no such person. That doesn't affect the act-object structure of the experience. After all, the act does not lose its intentional directedness because the object does not exist.
Confusion #5: Conflating the question whether an experience 'takes an object' with the question whether the object exists.
Confusion #6: Conflating reality with reality-for. There is no harm is saying that God is real for theists, but not real for atheists if all one means is that theists believe that God is real while atheists do not. Now if one believes that p, it does not follow that p is true. Likewise, if God is real for a person it doesn't follow that God is real, period. One falls into confusion if one thinks that the reality of God for a person shows that God is real, period.
We find this confusion at the end of the video clip. "And if God only exists in our brains, that does not mean that God is not real. Our brains are where reality crystallizes for us."
This is confused nonsense. First of all God cannot exist in our brains. Could the creator of the universe be inside my skull? Second, it would also be nonsense to say that the experience of God is in our brains for the reasons give in #2 above. Third, if "God exists only in our brains" means that the experience of God is phenomenologically real for those who have it, but that the intentional object of this experience does not exist, then it DOES mean that God is not real.
Confusion #7: Conflating the real with the imaginable. We are told that "God is unimaginable for atheists." But that is true of theists as well: God, as a purely spiritual being, can be conceived but not imagined. To say that God is not real is not to say that God is unimaginable, and to say that something (a flying horse, e.g.) is imaginable is not to say that it is real.
What I am objecting to is not neuroscience, which is a wonderful subject worth pursuing to the hilt. What I am objecting is scientism, in the present case neuroscientism, the silly notion that learning more and more about a hunk of meat is going to give us real insight into the mind and is operations and is going to solve the philosophical problems in the vicinity.
What did we learn from the article cited? Nothing. We don't need complicated empirical studies to know that religious experiences are real. What the article does is sow seeds of confusion. One of the confusions the article sows is that the question of the veridicality of religious experiences can be settled by showing their "neurological reality." Neither the phenomenological nor the neurological reality of the experience qua experience entails the reality of the object of the experience.
Genuine science cannot rest on conceptual foundations that are thoroughly confused.
I was reading your post on Religious Belief and What Inclines Me to It and was struck by a statement you made at the end regarding "mystical glimpses, religious vouchsafings, paranormal experiences." By this you seem to confirm a developing series of thoughts I have had for a few years. As a benefit of my modernist education my categories of thought roughly corresponded to natural and supernatural. It seems to me that this type of thinking is wrong and there have been a lot of things crammed into the "supernatural" category by moderns just because they are not "natural." It would be interesting to see how you break these things out and why they are different. Specifically as someone who has the religious inclination.
The reader is right: a lot of rather different things have been lumped together under the rubric 'supernatural' just because they are beyond the natural. But distinctions need to be made. Now this is a huge topic, and I am not up to doing it justice.
Corresponding to the phrase the reader quoted, "mystical glimpses, religious vouchsafings, paranormal experiences," I will say a little about mysticism, religion, and occultism. Some of this is excerpted from a much longer post that discusses the relations among philosophy, mysticism, religion, and wisdom.
Turning now to mysticism, we may define it as the activity whereby a questing individual, driven by a need for direct contact with the Absolute, disgusted with verbiage and abstraction as well as with mere belief and empty rites and rituals, seeks to know the Absolute immediately, which is to say, neither philosophically through the mediation of concepts, judgments and arguments, nor religiously through the mediation of faith, trust, devotion, and adherence to tradition. The mystic does not want to know about the Absolute, that it exists, what its properties are, how it is related to the relative plane, etc.; nor does he want merely to believe or trust in it. He does not want knowledge by description, but knowledge by acquaintance. Nor is he willing, like the religionist, to postpone his enjoyment of it. He wants it, he wants it whole, and he wants it now. He wants to verify its existence for himself here and now in the most direct way possible: by intuiting it. ‘Intuition’ is a terminus technicus: it refers to direct cognitive access to an object or state of affairs. The intuition in question is of course not sensible but intellectual. Thus the mystical ‘faculty’ is that of intellectual intuition.
Religion (from L. religere, to bind) is not fundamentally a collection of rites, rituals, and dogmas, but an activity whereby a questing individual, driven by a need to live in the truth, as opposed to know it objectively in propositional guise, seeks to establish a personal bond with the Absolute. Whereas philosophy operates with concepts, judgments, arguments and theories, religion proceeds by way of faith, trust, devotion, and love. It is bhaktic rather than jnanic, devotional rather than discriminative.The philosophical project, predicated on the autonomy of reason, is one of relentless and thus endless inquiry in which nothing is immune from examination before reason’s bench. But the engine of inquiry is doubt, which sets philosophy at odds with religion with its appeal to revealed truth. If the occupational hazard of the philospher is a life-inhibiting scepticism, the corresponding hazard for the religionist is a dogmatic certainty that can easily turn murderous. For a relatively recent example, consider the Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa against Salman Rushdie. (This is why such zealots of the New Atheism as Dennett, Dawkins, Hitchens, Grayling, et al. are not completely mistaken.)
The philosopher objects to the religionist: "You believe things for which you have no proof!" The religionist replies to the philosopher: "You sew without a knot in your thread!" I am not engaging in Zen mondo, but alluding to Kierkegaard’s point that to philosophize without dogma is like sewing without a knot in one’s thread. The philosopher will of course reply that to philosophize with dogma is not to philosophize at all. Here we glimpse one form of the conflict beween philosophy and religion as routes to the Absolute. If the philosopher fails to attain the Absolute because discursive reason dissolves in scepticism, the religionist often attains what can only be called a pseudo-Absolute, an idol.
The Difference Between Mysticism and Religion
Roughly, mysticism is monistic while religion is dualistic, presupposing the ineliminability of what Martin Buber calls the 'I-Thou relation.' Here is a passage from his I and Thou:
Nor does he [Buddha] lead the unified being further to that supreme You-saying that is open to it. His inmost decision seems to aim at the annulment of the ability to say You . . . . All doctrines of immersion are based on the gigantic delusion of human spirit bent back into itself -- the delusion that spirit occurs in man. In truth it occurs from man - between man and what he is not. As the spirit bent back into itself renounces this sense, this sense of relation, he must draw into man that which is not man, he must psychologize world and God. This is the psychical delusion of the spirit. ( pp.140-141 / part 3 : Tr.Kaufmann, Ed: T&T Clark Edinburgh 1970)
The context of the above quotations is a section of I and Thou that runs from pp. 131 to 143. Here are some quickly composed thoughts on this stretch of text.
In this section Buber offers a critique of Buddhism, Hinduism and other forms of mysticism (including Christian forms such as the one we find in Meister Eckhart) which relativize the I-Thou relation between man and God by re-ducing it (leading it back) to a primordial unity logically and ontologically prior to the terms of the relation. According to these traditions, this primordial unity can be experienced directly in Versenkung, which Kaufmann translates, not incorrectly, as 'immersion,' but which I think is better rendered as 'meditation.' As the German word suggests, one sinks down into the depths of the self and comes to the realization that, at bottom, there is no self or ego (Buddhism with its doctrine of anatta or anatman) or else that there is a Self, but that it is the eternal Atman ( = Brahman) of Hinduism, "the One that thinks and is." (131)
Either way duality is overcome and seen to be not ultimately real. Buber rejects this because the I-Thou relation presupposes the ultimate ineliminability of duality, not only the man-God duality but also the duality of world and God. Mysticism "annuls relationship" (132) psychologizing both world and God. (141). Verseelen is the word Kaufmann translates as 'psychologize.' A more suggestive translation might be 'soulifies.' Mysticism drags both God and the world into the soul where they are supposedly to be found in their ultimate reality by meditation. But spirit is not in man, Buber thinks, but between man and what is not man. Spirit is thus actualized in the relation of man to man, man to world, man to God.
At this point I would put a question to Buber. If spirit subsists only in relation, ought we conclude that God needs man to be a spiritual being in the same way that finite persons need each other to be spiritual beings? Is God dependent on man to be who he is? If yes, then the aseity of God is compromised. A Christian could say that the divine personhood subsists in intradivine relations, relations among and between the persons of the Trinity. But as far as I know Trinitarian thought is foreign to Judaism. Anyway, that is a question that occurs to me.
The "primal actuality of dialogue" (133) requires Two irreducible one to the other. It is not a relation internal to the self.
Buber is not opposed to Versenkung as a preliminary and indeed a prerequisite for encounter with the transcendent Other. Meditative Versenkung leads to inner concentration, interior unification, recollectedness. But this samadhi (which I think is etymologically related to the German sammeln) is not to be enjoyed for its own sake, but is properly preparatory for the encounter with the transcendent Other. "Concentrated into a unity, a human being can proceed to his encounter -- wholly successful only now -- with mystery and perfection. But he can also savor the bliss of his unity and, without incurring the supreme duty, return into distraction." (134)
Buber's point is that the mystic who, treading the inward path, arrives at the unitary ground of his soul and experiences sat-chit-ananda (being-consciousness-bliss) shirks his supreme duty if he merely enjoys this state and then returns to the world of multiplicity and diremption. The soulic unity must be used for the sake of the encounter with God.
Buber seems to be maintaining that Buddhist and other mysticism is an escape into illusion, an escape into a mere annihilation of dual awareness for the sake of an illusory nondual awareness: "insofar as this doctrine contains directions for immersion in true being, it does not lead into lived actuality but into 'annihilation' in which there is no consciousness, from which no memory survives -- and the man who has emerged from it may profess the experience by using the limit-word of non-duality, but without any right to proclaim this as unity." (136)
Buber continues, "We, however, are resolved to tend with holy care the holy treasure of our actuality that has been given us for this life and perhaps for no other life that might be closer to the truth." (136-7, emphasis added)
This prompts me to put a second question to Buber. If there is no other life, no higher life, whether accessible in this life via Versenkung or after the death of the body, and we are stuck with this miserable crapstorm of a life, then what good is God? What work does he do if he doesn't secure our redemption and our continuance beyond death? This is what puzzles me about Judaism. It is a worldly religion, a religion for this life -- which is almost a contradiction in terms. It offers no final solution as do the admittedly life-denying religions of Buddhism and Christianity. Some will praise it for that very reason: it is not life-denying but life -affirming. Jews love life, this life here and now, and they don't seem too concerned about any afterlife. But then they don't have the sort of soteriological interest that is definitive of religion. "On whose definition?" you will object. And you will have a point.
Stay away from this stuff! Everything reputable that I have read warns against it. The occult region is a sort of borderland between the natural and the properly supernatural which is the sphere of religion and mysticism. One who meditates deeply and long enough will probably encounter 'items' from this region such as photisms and unearthly voices. Certain paranormal powers may be released, the siddhis of the Hindus, such as pre-cognition. Don't get hung up on this and maintain a skeptical attitude. What's real will be able to withstand skepsis & scrutiny. If you are trying to plumb the depths of the self, these are just more objects of consciousness, not consciousness itself in its innermost essence. Hearing a sound, or seeing a light, inquire: who hears this sound, who sees this light? Who is the subject for whom these strange appearances are objects? That being said, photisms and such are signs that you are attaining meditative depth. There may also be, for all you know, Horatio, angels and demons and disembodied souls hanging around in this border region, and some of these 'entities' you don't want to mess with. Some of them are stronger than you are. So you might begin your session on the black mat by asking for the assistance of any guardians you think there might be.
In any case, meditation is not a hunt for weird experiences or for paranormal powers. The pursuit of the latter is a corruption of meditation just as crass petitionary prayer is a corruption of genuine prayer. Grades of Prayer fills this out a bit.
Reading Christopher Hitchens' Mortality I was struck once again by how people like him have no understanding of religion at all. Lacking as they do any religious sense, they can only (mis)understand it from the outside as if it were just a set of strange doctrines. They don't seem to understand that the doctrines are "necessary makeshifts," to borrow a fine phrase from F. H. Bradley, whereby we undertake to understand the Transcendent. Failing to appreciate the provisional character of doctrines and dogmatic formulations, people like Hitchens seize upon them as if they were the reality represented and then look for contradictions and absurdities. And of course they find them. For example, Hitchens sees an absurdity in prayer:
The man who prays is the one who thinks that god has arranged matters all wrong, but also thinks that he can instruct god how to put them right. Half-buried in the contradiction is the distressing idea that nobody is in charge, or nobody with any moral authority. The call to prayer is self-cancelling. (Mortality, pp. 21-22)
The context makes this this little 'chemo-brain' outburst even less clear, if that is possible. Prayer, we are told, is the attempt to instruct God on how to set right what he has has got "all wrong." Now that has nothing to do with what anyone who actually prays means by 'prayer.' Take Plotinus (205-270):
The only way truly to pray is to approach alone the One who is Alone [All-One]. To contemplate that One, we must withdraw into the inner soul, as into a temple, and be still. (Enneads)
Did chatterbox Hitchens ever withdraw into his inner soul and be still? No? Then what right does he have to speak of these matters? This from the Talmud:
He who rises from prayer a better man, his prayer is answered.
The point here, I take it, is that we don't pray to change God so much as to change and improve ourselves. If we succeed in this, if we succeed in stilling our thoughts, mastering our desires, strengthening our resolutions, and re-directing our aspirations from the base to the noble, then we have succeeded in improving ourselves and our prayer has been answered. Here, in a similar vein, is Ralph Waldo Emerson from his great essay "Self-Reliance":
Prayer that craves a particular commodity, — any thing less than all good, — is vicious. Prayer is the contemplation of the facts of life from the highest point of view.
Hitchens has no understanding of religion or of prayer. The two are closely linked as William James observed:
Prayer is religion in act; that is, prayer is real religion. (Varieties of Religious Experience, 464)
In his profound incomprehension, Hitchens takes prayer in its crassest petitionary sense, oblivious of the iceberg submerged beneath that paltry tip.
Lacking as he does the religious sensibility, Hitchens is devoid of all sympathy for it, and can't see anything good in it. His understanding of it is the misundertanding of the outsider. To understand religion from the outside is like trying to understand music from the outside as a peculiar sort of acoustic disturbance. But religion, like music, chess, love, poetry, mathematics, running, science . . . can only be understood from the inside by those who engage in these activities and have the inner predisposition and talent to engage in them.
Escapism is a form of reality-denial. One seeks to escape from the only reality there is into a haven of illusion. One who flees a burning building we do not call an escapist. Why not? Because his escape from the fire is not an escape into unreality, but into a different reality. The prisoner in Plato's Cave who ascended to the outer world escaped, but was not an escapist. He was not escaping from, but to, reality.
Is religion escapist? It is an escape from the 'reality' of time and change, sin and death. But that does not suffice to make it escapist. It is escapist only if this life of time and change, sin and death, is all there is. And that is precisely the question, one not to be begged.
You tell me what reality is, and I'll tell you whether religion is an escape from it.
There is a nuance I ought to mention. In both Platonism and Buddhism, one who has made "the ascent to what is" (Republic 521 b) and sees aright, is enjoined to return so as to help those who remain below. This is the return to the Cave mentioned at Republic 519 d. In Buddhism, the boddhisattva ideal enjoins a return of the enlightened individual to the samsaric realm to assist in the enlightenment of the sentient beings remaining there.
To return to the image of the burning building. He who flees a burning building is no escapist: he flees an unsatisfactory predicament (one dripping with dukkha as it were) to a more satisfactory condition. Once there, he reconnoitres the situation, dons fire-protective gear, and returns to save his cats. A little cute, a little crude, but it makes the point.
Both the Cave and the samsaric realm are not wholly unreal, else there would be no point to a return to them. But they are, shall we say, ontologically and axiologically deficient.
It might be the regularity of nature. Without it, how would you make coffee? And then there is coffee itself and its wonderful taste. What a marvellous, yet harmless, drug! And then there are the thoughts that percolate up under its agency. There are so many of them swarming and demanding attention. Some are even worth writing down. Your notebooks lay ready: they weren't destroyed during the night. And the pens too. Your fingers are supple and free of arthritis. And there is your library of books, thousands of them, to supply you with thought- and blog-fodder . . . .
But if you want to be miserable you should be able to find something to kvetch about.
True detachment requires a certain indifference to, and thus a certain detachment from, one's success or failure at achieving detachment. There is a paradox here inasmuch as one cannot be detached entirely from the project of attaining detachment. Otherwise there would be no difference between the seeker of wisdom and the worldling who is quite satisfied with his current moral condition and does not seek to better himself. The trick is to pursue detachment detachedly. I try to succeed, but if I fail it's no big deal and if I succeed it's also no big deal and certainly nothing to crow about or feed my ego on. One has to be aware of one's various moral failings and work to overcome them, all the while not worrying too much about the outcome. One has to avoid the mistake of thinking that one can rely entirely upon oneself while also avoiding the equal but opposite mistake of just letting oneself go.