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Monday, 24 February 2014

Praising Bad Saints? (Commenting on Myers)

I only follow a few blogs. Today I performed my routine check and was delighted to find a new post on one of the most learned and entertaining of these, Faith and Theology. I read on right then and there, expecting to be intrigued and surprised, but always in agreement. To my surprise I found I was not surprised but unaccountably jaded.

Soon I became quite concerned at my own strange weariness. Was this not Ben Myers at his finest, coming at life with his charmingly provocative Trinitarian lens? Recently he has posted some thoughts on the communion of saints and his own participation in that communion (e.g. through how he structures his daily calendar around death dates [birthdays] of personally special saints). In these thoughts he seems to have rarified a ‘participatory’ Christianity, a vision of life interpreted through a heavily involved pneumatology/Christology/what-have-you, and as such it embodies a kind of articulate forwardness by which we can see his spirituality – and all like it – “for what it is.”

I do not want to be needlessly presumptuous in treating Myer’s blog post. This is not an attack. I thank him for his reflections and enjoy them immensely. But I am hesitant about where they are going and what they imply. I suppose this is another reason to give him thanks, for it is through him I am encountering a form of spirituality that may help me come to grips with my own – with who I am and the nature or style of the spiritual “way” I have found myself in and choose through (sometimes neglected) active practice. Before reading further, here is the article: In Praise of Bad Art

Now, for starters, I can only access the whole paradigm that makes such a reflection available and intelligible in the first place through a hyperbolized version constructed out of materials I am familiar with. That is an important preface, because Myer’s worldview is inherently more complicated than I can fathom, and besides, I have only been exposed to 0.00014% of it.

But of that 0.00014%, 0.000032% seems to me worrisome in its implications, for a few reasons. Myers writes and thinks with a grand view of history – of its successes and failures and their interdependence – at the background and the foreground. When he is done lauding great writers (Shakespeare, Johnson, etc.) or actors (Geoffrey Rush, Cate Blanchett, etc.), he moves on and lauds the conditions of their being. He has what I might call, with my limited grasp of Hegel, a Hegelian appreciation for the play of history. All things have a place in his praise, because all things have a place in a grander scheme which yields things worthy of praise.

The person who does not share this appreciation, who indeed despises the, on average, mediocrity of history and prefers to spend his time on the pinnacles of that incomprehensible flux (which, if charted, might look like a zestful depiction of quantum foam), therefore “hates the seedbed from which the things he loves will grow,” writes Myers. Now, are we to infer that we ought then to praise the seedbed? Clearly. But here’s the thing: if we do, where will the praising end – at the harsh conditions and natural forces that, through erosion and distribution, made the minerals in the soil available? – at the composted beings that once lived and by unknown means met their end and now provide nutrients to the soil? This might not sound like a bad idea, but you might see where it is going. We will become exhausted, and at that point the hypertrophy of praise will betray itself as limited, having only so much substance, only so much energy. Where does this substance come from? That which sparked the praise in the first place, of course! The flower is why we praise the seedbed, not the seedbed itself. No flower, no praise. Anything associated with the flower, therefore, deserves some derivative appreciation, again not because of what it inherently is but because we happen, first, to think the flower praiseworthy. The further something’s association from the original source of grandeur, the less meritorious it is of our thanks. In such a way of seeing things, we will quite likely to be unable to think of any other reason to appreciate the seedbed other than that given to us by the flower…

Here is how Myers carries this over into the realm of human beings and the Church:

We religious believers are, as a rule, pretty unexceptional. Only with the greatest difficulty and inconsistency do we ever manage to align some bits of our lives with what we profess to believe. What can we say? We are sorry! We have been to all the rehearsals! We wish we could do it better! But the great mass of unexceptional believers should be judged ultimately not by its weakest cases but by its strongest: St Francis, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Mother Teresa.

In this passage Myers is clearly working from the thoroughly-Christian, complex presupposition that our life as Christians is directly bound up in the life of these exceptional believers, the saints we venerate, because we are all part of the body of Christ. But what is the nature of this shared life? Do the deeds of great saints “suffice” for the rest of us, that is, are their deeds our deeds? That cannot be it, since Christ’s faithfulness alone “suffices,” and it is only him that works in us, making what good deeds we do his good deeds, what goodness we have in us his goodness. We continue to be distinguishable individuals, accountable to a, yes, forgiving and eternally loving God – but as individuals nonetheless.

So how does this interdependence among Christians, this mutual identification, work? Certainly it must be as a living organism works and not as some “holy celebrity culture” in which the only personalities that count are the saints. Taking the analogy of the body introduced by Paul: do the defects of a naughty hand get covered up by the perfection of the eye? That cannot be, because the defect in one is a defect that by its nature is unique to that one, which in turn is a defect of the entire organism that cannot be repeated or covered up by any other part. Is it really possible that I am so misunderstanding Myers that I believe him to be saying we as Christians are judged as a homogenous mass whose countenance is only the lump sum of the prettiest (saintliest) faces, some massive equation rounded to the highest common denominator?

Whether or not that is what Myers is getting at, it is a possibility that I cannot stomach for reasons too complex and shadowed for even myself to understand. Honestly, the meaning of my own attitude is ambiguous to me. When Myers writes, “What can we say? We are sorry!” part of me wants to say, of myself and of others: “Sorry is not good enough! Let us acknowledge our inadequacy without being so hasty to move on from it – perhaps then something might happen!” I do know that this is not realistic and that the speculated consequence would likely not result. Moreover, it is not me who gets to the do the talking but the God who reveals himself to us and the forgiving, loving nature therein. Yet something feels funny to me. Am I running up here against the offensive nature of the gospel, or are my instincts in fact appropriately piqued by some dangerous or problematic theology?

Taking a look at another passage, I find that though I cannot reach a resolution to the above question, I can at least reach a different sort of resolution: a tentative opposition to Myer’s worldview (as presented in his blog post), for reasons that will become apparent. He writes:  “God and all the holy angels shower us with applause – not because of ourselves, but because of what we represent and what we help to make possible. We do it poorly so that somewhere, some day, some virtuoso will step on to the stage and do it well.” If you went and did all it took to understand this statement – which perhaps does not at first strike one as counterintuitive but nonetheless contains a great mystery – where would you be? Where you started, I dare say, with perhaps a better appreciation of the familiar spot.

Now, it is true that to change one’s perception – the way one sees oneself, others and events, and how one is caught up in it all – is in fact to change oneself and even the actions and relationships that are available to one. To phrase it philosophically, ontology is bound up with and mutually related to phenomenology. Blake, for one, makes a big deal of this (“Men are admitted into Heaven not because they have curbed & govern’d their Passion or have No Passions, but because they have Cultivated their Understandings” - by which he means a certain way of perceiving reality). Blake phrases this truth provocatively, but it is a truth all the same: working to change one’s perception is morally and existentially significant. However, there is no going “prior to” or “behind” the ethical – it still operates on the level of perception-founding paradigms. Therefore, even though spiritual frameworks such as Myers' contain the elements to make ethical evaluations (as in the statement that we are valuable “not because of ourselves, but because of what we represent”), they too can be ethically evaluated in toto. In other words, the practical implications and consequences outside of the theoretical vision are in truth bound up in that vision and may either weigh it down our buoy it up. Entire spiritual systems can and should be viewed with whatever level of detachment we can gain to assess them in their fullest manifestation – for their roots are pervasive and suck water from places we may not even suspect.

So, struggling as I am to operate on this level of distance, I want to ask a practical question of Myers: Why not redirect the energy that it takes to understand and live into this way of looking at things and its whole scheme of valuation – which at most seems to provide a peace of mind from which one might, without anxiety, attempt again and again a higher goodness, and at worse provides one with the perceptual means to a complacency no less an opiate than a less sophisticated faith – towards changing the life that was discontented enough to be intrigued by that vision in the first place?

I don’t have the answer, and because I am questioning some of the deepest mysteries of the Church, I want to cease my impudent tone the only way I know how – by ceasing to write.

Those in possession of answers, please forward them to me via the comment section below. 

Monday, 17 February 2014

What if God...

Perhaps the deepest question we can ask is the one closest to nonsense: “Why this, and not another?” It has many versions: Why something and not nothing? Why this goodness and not that goodness? Why me and not you? Why this way and not that? Why God, life, love, truth, being – and not something else?

Rummaging around in some of my old notes I found a bizarre tidbit of tongue-in-cheek philosophizing (at least I hope it was tongue-in-cheek – when I was younger I ventured way further out into the absurd than I do now...) which has some relation to the topic soon to be introduced. Unfortunately, it is uncomfortably close to Leibniz’s idea that we must necessarily be living in “the best of all possible worlds,” given God’s good nature. But I spoil my own thoughts by introducing a foreign body into them.

“I find it flattering that God, in His infinite wisdom and omnipotence, should –out of the infinite possibilities He undoubtedly could have conceived of and was conceiving of in time immemorial in His Perfect Mind – pick us, human beings, you and me, out from among all these potentials and choose to actualize that idea. God, being supremely perfect, seeing the numberless paths He could choose to tread as he “floated” in the void, seeing that which is utterly inconceivable to the human mind, not being limited by any physical laws, mental laws, or any laws for that matter (time and space existing at that point only in his mind, undistinguished along with the never-ending flow of ideas which must have been coming to Him, pure Creator that He was and is), chose us. I can't get over it. I’m simply flattered – the fact that I, we, exist is in fact the greatest compliment ever paid to us!”

It is obviously impossible for a human being to conjecture so abstractly as to have any inking whatsoever of that state of pure creative potentiality before creation. Nevertheless, it is in a dog’s nature to tug at his leash, fixed though it may be to the fence, and so too my mind tends toward impossible abstraction.

Here is an interesting nonsense question that came to it in a time of vain speculation. I present it only because someone clever enough might ask it without the ironist’s of it being a nonsense question. It might also help us tighten our grip on the appropriate conceptualization of goodness within its (only sensible) context: God.

What if God had constituted the created order according to a different Good? This would involve not switching “specific goods” (the wonder of sunlight, friendship, a moving melody, laughter, etc.) for other “specific goods” within the universe, nor would it involve a reverse-valuation of specific goods (e.g. pain is now pleasure!) – rather, the question presses us to a more comprehensive consideration: a whole re-making of the universe from the ground up in order to found it upon “a new Goodness.”

Another way of asking this is: What if everything we understand as Good was, in this hypothetical universe, simply different? That is, what if goodness there had nothing to do with what we think of as goodness here? We can only ask this if we presuppose that while there is nothing arbitrary about good things themselves – about what are good things and what are not (for example, on the level of corporeal goodness [as opposed to moral]:  there is a reason we like chocolate and consider it good,  but not boogers, and that reason is inscribed into our very bodies in the form of taste buds with particular receptors that apprehend chocolate thusly) – there is something arbitrary about the whole System of the Good and goodness in its totality. Thus we can ask: What if God inverted the universe in this (absolute, total) way? What would really change?
The answer: nothing. That is to say: nothing in our experience of the Good. Here is an imperfect analogy: it would be as though all the colors in the world were replaced all at once by other colors, a switch so complete that the interconnectedness and balance of the world of color was preserved. The experience in its entirety would not be at all different. And (returning to the question), because this foundational alteration of the Good is in truth still the Good, whatever it may be (it may be killing babies for all we know), the change is not morally significant in the slightest. We may say that in this hypothetical universe, pain and cruelty are now the good, but it is nonsense to judge that as an “abomination”: by saying that they are now the Good you have changed not just those things but everything. To judge them on our ground is to ignore the premise, that this universe exists with an entirely different Good which must be judged on its own terms.

Phenomenologically this question and its answer are intriguing. Basically we have seen that the created order could not apprehend or experience this inversion; moreover, from the divine perspective could it hardly be seen as an inversion. God is himself the Good: it is nonsense to suggest that just God could be different or just the Good could be different, since if you change one you necessarily change the other along with it and end up back where you started (like inverting a bracelet)! God made all things for himself – it is in this sense that God is the Good. To have a Good is to have a final telos of ultimate fruition, and to have this the universe must have a divine structure in which (small “g”) good things and (small “g”) goodness are caught up in like logs in a river. This final telos, by virtue of being a final telos, makes the particular content irrelevant since the pattern of experience which is structured on goodness is the same, perhaps the only unchanged element in this hypothetical.  Phenomenologically the experience of the Good is the experience of things working towards their final telos, their ultimate fruition for which they were designed for. However the universe is structured (and we are assuming that it is in fact possible for God to structure it differently), it could not be experienced differently by creatures insofar as experience works within a framework of good and bad. Thus we can hardly imagine the universe as any other way (that is, in reference to a Good) without tangling ourselves with faulty logic.

Tuesday, 11 February 2014

The Impulse to Certainty

René Descartes, wearing his favorite shirt
Let’s say I have, in the past, done some things which one might describe as “not the best things.” What is more curious is when I do such things (things that are destructive somehow) with consciousness awareness that (1) I am doing the thing, and (2) it is a destructive thing which I should not be doing. In combining the two, I believe the implicit hope is that the self-awareness, contemporaneous with the act, will actually perform not an aggravating but a mitigating role: in being self-aware I am hedging my bets, so to speak, against feeling guilty after the fact (after performing the destructive act). For, once the act is done, I am able to think back and say, “Indeed, I knew what I was doing even then.” Thus I have planted in the memory of the event a get-out-of-jail-free card. More precisely: the acknowledgment of consciousness (redundant complicity) becomes a way of actually (oddly) buffering the responsibility for the crime; it paradoxically provides the comfort or assurance that one cannot be reprimanded because one ALREADY KNOWS (and even during or even before the act has reprimanded oneself). 

Here is a connected but different, and more subtle, phenomenon, a phenomenon which exhibits a startling thing about our (at least my) impulse to certainty. It goes: “I did this self-destructive thing knowingly, in full consciousness of its self-destructiveness; I did it simply because I wanted to do something self-destructive while conscious of its self-destructiveness, and I did it in full consciousness so that I would be free of the guilt.” In this phenomenon, the individual has tied their motivations in a loop. Their mind and its predicament becomes self-referential, tautological, and therefore fully in their control. There is nothing outside it, which they might refer to as an explanation, and therefore there is no risk of an eternal deferral of a complete explanation (in reality, of course, “motivation” is a deep mystery that goes all the way down one’s personal history and indeed also all the way down metaphysical reality, but this is precisely the reality such an agent is seeking to avoid). It has the character of a therapeutic repetition of trauma, but in this case the impulse to contain and control one’s own psychology spawns from a traumatic encounter with the enigma – ungraspability – of the self. What we have here is the self-quarantine of the psyche within a self-constructed self-referentiality. I experience this occasionally, and I believe this is the deeper meaning of this psychological phenomenon.

To interpret this phenomenon theologically: The impulse to create this loop is the impulse for dis-ambiguation that exists in the individual incapable of faith – i.e. the despairing individual. Kierkegaard writes of the most disturbing way in which such individuals make a mad grasp at certainty: self-damnation.

“‘Some good went down with me.’ … In that remark the last hope of salvation expired. In that remark he gave himself up. Was there still concealed in this thought a hope of salvation? Hidden in the soul, was there still this thought a possible link with salvation? When a remark is pronounced in confidence to another man (oh, terrible misuse of confidence, even if the desperate one only misused it against himself!), when this word is heard, then he sinks forever… This clarity about himself and about his own destruction is even more horrible. It is horrible to see a man seek comfort by hurling himself into the whirlpool of despair” (Purity of Heart 64-65).

Thomas Merton makes the same observation about self-damnation: “Despair… is reached when a man deliberately turns his back on all help from anyone else in order to taste the rotten luxury of knowing himself to be lost” (New Seeds 183).

In Crime and Punishment we find the same principle at work: Raskalnikov is so desperate for closure that he is tempted to turn himself in just to escape of the torment of uncertainty. The investigator knows this and provokes him. Is this not startling, and a little terrifying? We have such a strong impulse to certitude that we are willing even to destroy ourselves, just to attain it!

In sum: certainty drive > aversion to “damnation.”