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Monday, February 17, 2014

A Noble Modernist

The man I have in mind is Stephen Jay Gould (1941-2002), paleontologist, biologist, and man of letters. He was born five years after I was and died quite young (at 60), thus he is a contemporary but also a person I view as a real genius, a man of heart and extraordinary kindness toward others; a man with a sense of humor and great gifts as a writer.

I call him a modernist here because, reading several of his lesser known books, of which the best-known is undoubtedly The Panda’s Thumb, it occurred to me that my own use of labels, applied almost reflexively and therefore very carelessly, would apply to Gould as well, despite the very high order of his thought and achievements in general (not least his theory of punctuated equilibrium, developed with Niles Eldredge, which see below). Use of labels is dangerous; indeed Gould’s own writings richly illustrate that fact when, in very many of his essays, he points out how unfair the hasty labeling of people, now out of favor with science, turns out to be. He echoes Alexander Pope: “A little learning is a dang’rous thing; Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring…” Not always but far too often, my own learning is little and my drinking shallow. This is never the case with Gould.

As for those essays, Gould wrote 300 of them, on a monthly basis, for Natural History magazine between 1974 and 2001; he never missed a deadline. Many of these essays have been republished as books, of which The Panda’s Thumb is one; that book, I’m guessing, was his introduction to the wider public; it was my first contact with this noble modernist.

Yes. Labels. Classification is handy—especially when big and significant cosmological divides are discernible. Such is the divide between modernism and faith, the first anchored in a materialistic view, which is the evolutionary view, the second based on some kind of intuitive awareness of the transcending. When only shallow thought has been expended on these two contrasting views—and when one’s personal stance is very strong and firmly held, so much so that its truth appears self-evident—it is all too easy to dismiss those who have the opposite conviction. Thus I routinely dismiss the Modernist; and others, with equal carelessness, would dismiss me as a Fundamentalist.

Particularly in his last series of essays, e.g. The Lying Stones of Marrakech and I Have Landed, thus close to his own passing on, Gould’s humanism emerges very strongly and, in that process, what one might call the “higher ranges” of Modernism become visible. And to label that range in the same manner as one might label the works of Richard Dawkins (he of The God Delusion) becomes ridiculous.

No. What illuminates Gould work is the mind-bogglingly hard work of searching for the truth—and the love of the human. He was a truly noble member of the Modernist Fraternity.

Punctuated Equilibrium. Herewith the lead paragraph from Wikipedia’s article on this subject (link): “Punctuated equilibrium … is a theory in evolutionary biology which proposes that most species will exhibit little net evolutionary change for most of their geological history, remaining in an extended state called stasis. When significant evolutionary change occurs, the theory proposes that it is generally restricted to rare and rapid (on a geologic time scale) events of branching speciation called cladogenesis. Cladogenesis is the process by which a species splits into two distinct species, rather than one species gradually transforming into another.”

That word, cladogenesis? Well, klados is the Greek for “branch”; therefore “branch formation.” The word is contrasted with anagenesis, meaning that the entire population or phylum undergoes the change, with ana- meaning “up,” as in “positive,” change. Orthodox Darwinism sees change in “anagenetic” terms.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Becker on Buddhism

Recently I managed to discover another book by Carl B. Becker, this one titled Breaking the Circle: Death and the Afterlife in Buddhism (Southern Illinois University Press, 1993). I’d mentioned earlier here (link), Becker’s Paranormal Experience and Survival of Death (State University of New York Press, 1993). Becker is a professor of comparative philosophy and religion at Kyoto University in Japan.

Both of these books are of the highest excellence. The second is, for me, the best ever summation of its subject, human survival of death. The second, it turns out, turns out to be one of the very few coherent accounts of the evolution of Buddhism over time. That development has to be sketched in order to present the development of Buddhist views on the afterlife. The presentation is brief but—Becker is a very clear thinker and a talented writer—wonderfully clear.

Even approaching this pair of subjects—Buddhism and the afterlife—seems harshly daunting. The seeming object of Buddhism is nirvana, a kind of absolute enlightenment. The Buddha himself (he lived 560-477 BC) maintained that nothing whatever could be asserted of it pro or con. The earliest Buddhist school (the Theravada, later renamed by its opponents as the Hinayana*) asserted that nirvana meant annihilation; the Sanskrit meaning of the word is “blown out.” Buddhism itself came to be powerfully linked to the concept of anātman, meaning “no soul” or “no self”—although the Buddha actually denied that. In practice, however, anātman came to mean that, on death, what remain are packets of karma—read residuals of action—not tied to an “owner” or “a carrier”; therefore rebirth is not the reincarnation of a person but that of karmic packets. So how are we to understand an afterlife? But hold for a moment. With the rise of the now dominant form of Buddhism, the Mahayana, coinciding with the first century of our era, the religion came to be transformed into a faith complete with heavens and hells—and beyond them the Realm of Nirvana, a realm that a Catholic, anyway, might be forgiven for thinking of as union with God.

How we get from no-self to saved-self is a major part of Becker’s story told here. I’d been exposed to the transformations within Buddhism earlier through the writings of D.T. Suzuki. particularly his Essays in Zen Buddhism. These volumes, however, concentrate on the history of Zen, and Zen, hews close to the Hinayana throughout time. And while the surprises of history are there in Suzuki as well, much greater light falls on the subject in Becker’s work. I recommend The Closing Circle highly to other amateur scholars—a work written by a gifted professional.
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*Theravada means the “teaching of the elders.” Hinayana means “the lesser vehicle,” so labeled by those who thought they were riding in the Mahayana, “the greater vehicle.”

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Sparks of Faith

Negativity on culture, especially in times of decay—but I wonder if times are any different when growth prevails—can only be effectively countered by the belief that somehow or other a radically different order exists somewhere—thus, poetically, beyond the borderzone.

What we observe, of that better world, is a striving in at least a portion of humanity touched in some way by one of the faiths. It is worth noting that the only rooting of these faiths is an inner agreement in individual souls; nothing external really supports it. But the external support I have in mind the sort of proof that stands up in court. Many, many things, events, processes can be demonstrated in that way but not the (call it hard) reality of a “kingdom not of this world.” That reality may be experienced, but experience is different in kind from demonstration. Let me look at the differences.

Experience is fundamentally individual, demonstration fundamentally social. Experience may contain something radically new, something no one else has ever seen, heard, or felt before. Demonstration depends on widely shared experience; therefore the unique can only be demonstrated by causing meaningful numbers of people to experience the unique themselves.

Experience also carries with it a certain characteristic. Let’s call that undeniability. When that quality is present (and sometimes it isn’t) the individual simply knows, meaning that no interpretation is necessary. Interpretation may also be problematical. In those cases interpretation is simply a quite secondary aspect, if applied to the experience, and its results cannot be demonstrated. An example. Someone dreams of an event and remembers the dream. A few days later the event actually takes place in the person’s ordinary, waking, daily life. Such an experience is undeniable. Interpreting that experience by saying that the future is already a fact and that dreaming sometimes allows us to see it adds nothing to the experience itself. The explanation may be true, partly true, or altogether false. The real explanation may be something very different. The experience itself, while undeniable, simply shows that the vast majority of people either do not have such experiences or do not remember them. The experience, furthermore, is not a demonstration of anything. But if vast numbers had such experiences, precognition would just be treated as a fact. One or two theories would have developed and would be competing—and no way to choose between them by demonstration.

There are also what might be called incomplete or fuzzy experiences. Dreams and visions fall into this category—seeing or hearing things in the dark, drug-induced states, etc. That they happened is undeniable to the person, but what they mean, being fuzzy, has no value whatsoever.

If we take a large number of people who have had near-death experiences and then we proceed to marshal masses of proof that our lives continue after death, we would be wasting time. That audience already considers that to be a given. We might as well gather football fans to prove to them that football exists. No demonstration is necessary.

This contrast between experience and demonstration indirectly illustrates the nature of faith—which gives people hope in a world that seems fundamentally hopeless. No amount of internal testimony from seers or prophets can demonstrate anything at all about a higher reality. Miracles? C.S. Lewis relied on them, but they cannot be demonstrated in the sense I attach to the word here. But faith arises anyway. It is at minimum a faint inner spark within believers that echoes and responds to the transmission of religious founders’ testimony. Call it the still small voice of intuition. Those sparks may be quite tiny, occurring weakly or rarely. Being weak and rare, the tumultuous noise of physical/social reality may mute them in good times, strengthen them in times of woe. Therefore the religious experience of humanity, viewed historically as a social phenomenon, is something of a mess. The serious cultivation of religious intuition deepens it. But, on average, that sort of cultivation only attracts tiny minorities.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Looking for a New Meta-Theory

I made a note the other day on the need to have a meta-theory of some sort before any thought is expended on the possible meaning of the life phenomenon on earth. Herewith a brief exploration of that notion.

Modern science begins with an inherently monistic assumption that only tangible or at least measurable physical phenomena may be consulted in seeking an answer. Such phenomena, however, only yield limited meanings, thus answers to questions beginning with when, where, and how. The what question is a matter of experience. The why question is never answered although it is unavoidable when comparing living with non-living nature.

It is unavoidable because living nature has a purposive character. Its ultimate purpose is invisible, but its reproductive behavior is clearly teleological. Its undeniable intent is to maintain very complex physical forms despite the fact that all individual instances of it die and return to the inorganic state. We find no parallels to this behavior in the inorganic realm. Yes. Crystals are formed (and deformed) as particular external conditions change—but no crystal ever produces another crystal, and that one yet another, in a continuous chain. Matter at great scales forms spherical aggregates, but these do no reproduce. Nor do such forms actively struggle to “stay alive” by flight or fight behavior. Life therefore displays a discontinuity with the order from which it seemingly arises. The science-based explanation of this discontinuity is that complexity, as such, produces radically new behavior in matter. But why it should be that linking many different structures made of the same fairly limited number of elemental components should suddenly produce purposive behavior has never been explained. These structures, moreover, are unquestionably purposive themselves, providing “tools” for locomotion, oxygenation, nutrition, digestion, etc., etc. To say that something changes magically is also to say that something, matter, has a tropism toward complexity.

The religious view solves the problem of meaning by supplying it in such a potent form that the actual question of what life is becomes trivial. God made it. But God is too high an explanation because God can do anything. This view produces a problem of another kind.

The problem is that while life exhibits a designed—or perhaps better put a quasi-designed—character, thus revealing purposes, the design also clearly arose in answer to stimuli and has an “any which way so long as it works” appearance—as if a half-blind drive, urge, or intention had been present behind it, nothing even close to waking consciousness, much less omniscience. Life is purposive but is also evolving and evolved. It suggests some agency light-years lower in status than divinity. A popular symbol of this quasi-engineered but catch-as-catch-can process is the panda’s thumb, made famous by Stephen Jay Gould. It’s not a thumb but functions as one. The panda has five fingers; the thumb is a wrist-bone promoted to thumb-status by evolutionary pressures.

If living bodies appear to be purposive structures built by some agency operating intelligently (meaning purposefully) but largely in the dark—rather than divine creations, the why of life would seem to require something more than complexity and something less than divine creation as their explanation. Materialism founders on the undeniable teleology of life, creationism on the quasi-engineering of all living bodies.

This in turn demands, even to start looking at life properly, a new meta-theory. It must accept both meaning in the universe and the presence in it of a secondary agency. So far such a theory is notable for its absence—although some elements of forgotten Gnosticism point in the right direction.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Mortal Mind

For the mind of the flesh is death, and the mind of The Spirit is life and peace. Romans 8:6 [Aramaic Bible in Plain English]

The rendition of “mind of flesh” as “mortal mind” is found in the writings of Unity—and probably first appeared in Christian Science; that religion much influenced Unity in its beginnings. It was introduced in H. Emilie Cady’s most influential work, Lessons in Truth. Paul’s use of the phrase is one of the countless indicators of the difference between views of the world founded on intuition and those on philosophy. We learned the phrase during our extensive involvement with Unity in Kansas City and, beyond, in Virginia. It had a fresh flavor for us, Romans renewed, you might say. Renewal is an absolutely vital process if the genuine content of revelation is to survive the inevitable process of socialization and reification that happens over time. The phrase has survived in my memory and rose spontaneously this morning as I noted the state of my mind on waking, didn’t like it, and thought: mortal mind. Only later this morning did I rediscover its Pauline origin; I’d forgotten.

Two minds in us. It is a matter of direct experience. Both are quite real. The intuition ran strongly in Paul—but the verse is not well known in a tradition that later more or less force-fitted the total Christian feeling mode to the Aristotelian framework where the real is substance, something made of matter and form. No. The intuition doesn’t fit the substance doctrine. But it matches what we experience. The flesh will pass, but The Spirit is life.
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Unity is a New Age spiritual movement, founded in 1899, with headquarters in Unity Village, MO.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Poesy v. Theology

My guess is that C.S. Lewis’ Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer, might be among his least read works, viewed perhaps as a mere mole hill next to such vast mountains like The Screwtape Letters and Mere Christianity. But reading that book recently, what with prayer on our minds around here, I was quite amazed by its content. Here, for instance, is a brief quote which quite startled me by its truth and originality. It concerns biblical interpretation:

I suggest two rules for exegetics: 1) Never take the images literally. 2) When the purport of the images—what they say to our fear and hope and will and affections—seems to conflict with the theological abstractions, trust the purport of the images every time. For our abstract thinking is itself a tissue of analogies: a continual modeling of spiritual reality in legal or chemical or mechanical terms. Are these likely to be more adequate than the sensuous, organic, and personal images of Scripture—the light and darkness, river and well, seed and harvest, master and servant, hen and chickens, father and child? The footprints of the Divine are more visible in that rich soil than across rocks or slag-heaps. Hence what they now call “demythologizing” Christianity can easily be “re-mythologising” it—and substituting a poorer mythology for a richer.
  [From Chapter X, p. 52, Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc., edition, 1964]

Ah! the hierarchies of experience, where the poetic rises above the intellectual. But at those heights the general fades and becomes personal—which is where real understanding germinates.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Mosaic of Madness

Some mornings I have to make active efforts to assert a view of the world in stark contrast with the one I see presented in the newspaper of record. The paper’s view is a mosaic made of hundreds of stories, some illustrated. Both are “selected,” each selection itself chosen to highlight a particular editorial impulse. The composite is what I called the ravings of a schizophrenic a while back. The vast contrarian mosaic possible from events across the globe would not by any means suggest that total madness has us in its grip. It would show, rather, humanity at its usual…

The view I must assert is not visible at all. It holds the overwhelming presence in reality of an altogether invisible order. I don’t hold that view to compensate for the “horrors” in the news—although my view does have compensatory effects. It’s not about “feel good” or “ain’t it awful”; those are the filters the paper uses in picking stories to cover and images to show. My view attempts to capture the truth. The compensation arises because the news-mosaic is extremely distorted and, alas, the only image that’s tangibly available. It tends, therefore, to persuade us that that’s the way things are. And that impression must be countered.

To be sure, virtually all of our information reaches us by the senses; not all but virtually all; to hold that reality is divinely ordered therefore relies on a minuscule input from our innermost selves. Not surprisingly, therefore, in secular ages, when faith is not reinforced by masses of other believers, it’s lonely out there.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

The Satori and the NDE

I keep trying to put into words my long-standing view that dramatic experiences like satori (and their equals under other names) stand in sharp contrast to experiences reported by people who’ve experienced death but then were eventually revived.

In the one case the experiencer produces a sort of closure. He feels that all questions have been answered, perfect liberty achieved. At the same time his experience itself lacks content and hence, not surprisingly, is sometimes called the Void. It doesn’t matter what this end result is called—Buddha Mind, union with God, union with Plotinus’ One; these are all functionally equivalent. But we never learn anything at all about the structure or meaning of reality. What we view as the world or cosmos is said to be the consequence of ignorance—or an illusion produced by it. The blood-clotting cycle is an illusion? Produced by ignorance? The hibernating butterfly’s ability to produce a kind of anti-freeze to keep itself alive during months of frost? Whose illusion is that?

In the second case a person experiences separation from his/her dying body, observes events in the hospital, and eventually enters another world where he/she meets other already departed relatives and, often, a luminous person who seems to be in charge of this “reception.” A decision-process takes place. The person then learns that she or he is not yet ready to depart and is sent back—often quite unwillingly. The minimum content of this near-terminal experience is that there is another realm beyond this one; that it has visible and very pleasant aspects; and that some who have died are still there; they are “alive,” capable of communication, capable of being perceived by the discarnate visitor.

In both cases the experiencer, be it of satori or of near-death experience (NDE), is changed for the better in this life. The change usually persists but may fade with time. In both cases, occasionally, the person may have acquired what we call psychic powers; this sort of change is not pronounced or universal; and such abilities may also fade.

The chief differences here are that those seeking enlightenment work very hard and with a will to achieve the end result. Those experiencing NDEs do so passively, often with great surprise. Satori-seekers, you might say, are specialists; near-death experiencers are ordinary people, the usual proportion of men and women, whereas in D.T. Suzuki’s famed essays on Zen no woman ever appears to have been struck by the bold of Enlightenment. The satori is produced by major concentrated labor. The NDE seems to be nature’s way of signaling that there is something beyond the border and, moreover, it has real content.

There is hope, in other words, that humanity’s masses can get there too—and without grinding nonsensical koans for decades counted on two hands.

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Hell is Logical

There is such a thing as feeling-logic alongside the logic based on observation. Feeling-logic assures me that there is such a place as hell—however abhorrent that seems to the modern mind. It is abhorrent because it seems to imply a vengeful God—whereas it only implies that (1) reality is lawful and (2) that agents are free to violate the laws. The first is quite evident merely from the observation of nature; the second is proved by self-observation. If the material order is lawful, and uniformly so, it is an extraordinary claim that a moral order is altogether absent—except as enforced by humanity itself. If it is absent people can “get away with it” unless they are caught. And let’s assume that “it,” in this case, is harvesting organs from poor, healthy, innocent people lured into situations by a corrupt system at the peak of which are doctors doing the harvesting (story in the New York Times this morning). If even one of these people “got away with it,” the entire cosmic whole in which we exist would be hopelessly corrupted and utterly meaningless. Therefore feeling-logic, call it logic based on intuition, powerfully asserts that justice triumphs always; and if it appears to fail in the here and now, be sure that it will not fail in the hereafter.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Deprived of Bodies?

A post on Just Thomism (link) reminded me, again, of the problematical nature of substance as understood by Aristotle and Aquinas (hylomorphism). An earlier post on that subject is here. If we assume that reality is a created structure and, as it were, complete in all important details from the beginning, this translates, in Aquinas’ thought, into the assertion that humans belong to an order in which the human being is a body-soul composite. If you separate soul from the body, the immortal soul, which Aquinas acknowledges, is in a deprived state where it is incapable of thought—which requires both intellect and sensory inputs. Therefore the brain is necessary. James Chastek, in the post referenced above, provides a very subtle argument of how you can escape this dilemma—while still retaining the problematical hylomorphic view.

What strikes me, however, is that we have what might be called empirical evidence—and here I refer to Near Death Experience reports—that disembodied souls continue to see, to sense, to think, and to perceive, even in situations in which they are comatose. And, yes. They do reach the edges of what here I call the Borderzone.

There is, of course, a difference between philosophy and faith. Christian belief does not demand assent to hylomorphism as such; that concept, after all, isn’t really revelation. It is something that must have seemed a happy schematic structure for a super-bright Greek pagan philosopher: matter and form, potential and act. God’s creation of man, taken from Genesis, requires an excessively literal belief to be interpreted as God making man from the dust of the ground. A more poetic interpretation leaves us lots of room for imagining vastly more complex answers. What experience and NDE reports suggest is that the soul is the real agency. The body is something we need in what may very well be a fallen dimension. And Aquinas’ own view that the intellect can only perceive universals, not particulars, and that it needs sensory organs even to see this apple, is more an accommodation to his principal teacher’s, Aristotle’s, scheme. Reality suggests something more simple: souls can perceive just fine, in or out of bodies. But while in these bodies, alas, we’ve got to have brains to think.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Is it “Tender” or is it “Open”?

One of my habits is to re-read an old textbook of mine, Thomism and Modern Thought by Harry R. Klocker, S.J. This tends to be good-weather, outdoor reading. Last summer I left the book outdoors, forgot that it was there, and a downpour damaged it. All of my copious marginal notes, made (foolishly) in ink were obliterated in the process. But then I found another copy on the Internet… Anyway, trying to tease Spring into action, I took the new copy out the other day and came across this interesting classification:

The Tender-Minded
The Tough-Minded


Rationalistic (going by principles)
Empiricist (going by facts)
Intellectualistic
Sensationalistic
Idealistic
Materialistic
Optimistic
Pessimistic
Religious
Irreligious
Free-Willist
Fatalistic
Monistic
Pluralistic
Dogmatical
Skeptical

Those familiar with William James, particularly his The Varieties of Religious Experience, will have heard the phrases used in the title. But this side-by-side characterization of these two psychological types, as viewed by James, appeared in Pragmatism (New York, Longmans, Green & Co., Inc., 1908) in a chapter titled “The Dilemma in Philosophy.”

The scheme is reproduced in Klocker’s segment on Pragmatism on page 127 of his book. Pragmatism, of course, falls decided under the tough-minded category. This time around, I got to thinking about the words James had used to classify these two opposing tendencies. Why “tender”? What really underlies these two classifications? Other words he might have chosen are “sensitive/insensitive,”  “inner-oriented/outer-oriented,” and from that last, echoing Jung, why not “introvert/extrovert”?

Now pragmatism, logical positivism, and other related philosophical positions are absolutely anchored in the assertion that all knowledge reaches us by the senses (hence the tough-minded are sensationalistic). And, furthermore, there is absolutely no way that sensory experience can give us proof of the metaphysical. But there are those tender-minded people who, perversely, assert the opposite. Should the pairing therefore include “stupid/bright” and “deluded/realistic”?

My simple solution here is to borrow from pragmatism its emphasis on “experience”—experience as the crucial and sole source of knowledge—but modifying that by asserting, based on experience itself, that some people do obtain additional knowledge that comes from a source beyond the senses. Call in inspiration. But if that is so (and I certainly think it is), then the tender-minded have greater access to reality than the tough. They are more “open” to ranges of reality than the tough-minded. The tough-minded feel it too—but at so marginal a level that they do not notice these ranges.

The “tender” classification used by James signals awareness of the tougher job the tender-minded have of dealing with reality. There is much more there. The tender are over-stimulated. They turn inward. And the tough, to be sure, have an easier time of coping with the world. Why then are they “pessimistic”? Could it be that, having nothing beyond the sensorium on which to build their world-view, they tend, ultimately, to despair? While the long-suffering tender-minded are “optimistic”?

The classification also shows that we are really mixtures of these two. It is very “tough” to choose but one.  My guess is that most people would rather pick and choose. But a forced choice will produce the actual leaning of the individual; it will mean, however, letting go of quite useful or inspiring products on the shelf of philosophy.

Friday, March 29, 2013

The Painted Porch

The man credited with founding the Stoic philosophy was Zeno of Citium who lived from 334 to approximately 262 BC. Citium is in Syria, but Zeno taught in Athens. Worth noting about this interesting, noble philosophy: it began in a time when late Greek culture, Hellenism, is said to have begun. That birth date was 323 BC, the death of Alexander the Great. Hellenism as a cultural phenomenon is dated from 323 to 146 BC, when the last Greek power was overcome by Rome, or 31 BC, the time when, with the Battle of Actium, the imperial age of Rome began. The Stoic philosophy, however, increased its hold on the Roman elites. In many important ways it matched the ethos of Christianity—which ultimately replaced it. But it was still until 529 AD when Justinian I closed the Academy of Athens and thus silenced the last effective Hellenistic influence.

This philosophy got its name from a place where it was taught, the Stoa Poikile, a columned portico or porch on the north side of Athen’s agora. Zeno used to stand there and teach his philosophy—which in many functional ways resembles the philosophy of Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677) whom many view as being a pantheist. Technically he is not, but it is easy to read him that way. Stoicism certainly was. Stoics saw the universe as two interacting substances, a passive matter and an intelligent, primordial fire or aether ever transforming reality. The fire, this energy, never runs out. God, which is the universe, is absolutely good. All evil derives from human choices, and the power to act freely is God’s gift. Individual personalities disappear at death but the fire that carried them through life is taken up into the swirl of the greater Fire and keeps working on, creating forever. Spinoza would have agreed. If we count the years between 529 and Spinoza’s birth year, we have the return of the Stoa after a lapse of 1100 years.

At present a genuine stoicism, which carries a very strong emphasis on ethics—as a way of aligning with the laws of the cosmos, and incidentally achieving happiness to the extent possible through reason and right action—has not yet fully developed under a materialistic dispensation. And never mind embraced by the dominant cultural elite. Materialism does not recognize a minimal transcendence in matter, thus as having intelligence. And its ethics are relative. A new Stoa might eventually emerge, especially if conditions worsen. Therefore, perhaps, some people might already be mixing new paint for application to the old porch.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Inversions

In our frustrations, we something say that “Things are upside down.” Herewith some words about that from two different traditions. The first quote comes from Seeker After Truth, by Idries Shah (Harper & Row, 1982), p. 38-39:

Mundane things, and this includes emotional stimuli which are often imagined by very devout people to be religious, are pursued by means of this desire, this coveting [mentioned above]. It is evidenced by the fact that the thing desired acquires a great importance in the mind of the victim, rather as one desires possessions, importance, recognition, honours, successes. To distinguish real objectives from secondary ones the Sufis have said: “The importance of something is in inverse proportion to its attractiveness.” This is the parallel of the negligence with which people often fail, in the ordinary world, to recognize important events, inventions or discoveries. That this is appreciated in day-to-day matters is perhaps evidenced by the appearance of this statement in a London daily newspaper recently as “The importance of a subject can be judged by the lack of interest in it.” [The daily is Daily Mail, March 17, 1979, quoting one P. Butler.]

The second quote comes from 1 Cornthians 3:19; it is by the Apostle Paul:

For the wisdom of the world is folly with God.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

“May the Force be with you”

In times like these it’s natural to think about the regions beyond in terms of energetics: “May the Force be with you.” What distinguishes this saying from “May God be with you” is that it uses an energetic word; but most people will feel that Force means some Higher Power. Power, of course, is another energetic word.

In an earlier post I’ve pointed to the widespread use of this kind of reference in many cultures using equivalent words (here): chi, prana, baraka. The western form of this is grace.

Grace is not experienced in the same way by all individuals—or the same individual at all times. If it were we would think of it much as we think of life. We’ve got it while we’re living. Therefore this kind of energy is of a special, subtle kind—and what we do (or don’t do) can increase its experienced presence in us. It may be thought of as everywhere present, and to the same degree, but not always accessible.

The teaching of the cultures agree to this extent. Concentration of a certain kind produces the experience of grace; and when it is felt, it is transformative. The concentration must come from a freely willed decision—which makes it different in kind. Meditation, prayer, attention to some things, detachment from others—and carried on not for pragmatic reasons but in order to be transformed. In the Catholic doctrine, for instance, sanctifying grace attends salutary acts and the state of holiness. The acts are tied to mindfulness; they produce a state—of receptivity.

No word, however subtle its initial reference may have been, is protected from abuse. De Gaulle famously claimed that he had baraka when addressing the Algerians—thus using the word in a political context. Grace is available as a description for pleasing movements in dance or skating. But the human intuition knows full well that something, call it magical, is at work here. Does it matter whether or not we trace it back to a divine source and fit it into an organized religious system? It matters for some. But if we stay with the energetic terminology, it suffices to remember that energy is intimately connected with doing work. The word derives from the Greek ergon, meaning just that. And in that context I recall one of the short sayings of Laura Huxley’s, in You Are Not the Target: It works— if you work.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Never Mind Disorder

Those nostalgic for religious ages—in which Faith tends to dominate the cultural realm—just don’t know their history well. Times are always in upheaval. Wars and rumors of wars? They’re a perennial. Take the eleventh century, close to the peak of Christendom. In that century, just within Christendom itself, twenty-six wars took place. One famine, due to climate change, plagued southern France. And the First Crusade was launched. It’s not as if people practice the prevailing ideology—ever. It’s always a mixed bag. And at the highest level greed and lust for power rule behavior.

Religious times are hard on people who want to follow the lead of their own minds and conscience—unless they are narrowly conformant to approved institutional means of doing so. In irreligious times, people who want to cultivate an inner life are blessedly left alone. The culture does not even recognize that such a life exists.

The Sufis say that seeking the highest values in no way depends on order in society. The search takes place in another dimension than the one “the world” inhabits, no matter labels the world favors currently. Which of course is nothing more than saying that (1) disorder is always present and (2) no socially wide-spread ideology actually captures reality in the full.

I’ve had the good luck to live my youth in regions where the religious ethos was dominant, but stripped of all power to compel—and to live my adult life in an age that denies the soul’s very existence. The best of both worlds, you might say.