Speaking Truth to Pouters & Doubters
The reaction to the pope reminds me of my own detractors, in that they habitually take one small part of my writing that they think they understand and proceed get all emotional about it, meanwhile ignoring the much larger context that they are probably incapable of understanding. They are like the drunk who looks for his missing keys under the street light, except they are looking for an argument under their dim little metaphyical street light.
In any event, the pope’s main thesis was something that is equally incomprehensible to both the Muslim world and to the secular left, that is, “the close relationship between reason and belief. Without the right balance between the two, the pontiff said, mankind is condemned to the ‘pathologies and life-threatening diseases associated with religion and reason’--in short, political and religious fanaticism.” When the Pope said “political fanaticism,” you can be sure he wasn’t talking about the creeping fascism of Bushitler, but about the actual life-threatening spiritual and cognitive pathologies of the secular left.
In his talk, the pope spoke of the truism that in Christianity, God is inseparable from reason: "In the beginning was the Word." He noted that "God acts with logos. Logos means both reason and word," and that "The inner rapprochement between Biblical faith and Greek philosophical inquiry was an event of decisive importance not only from the standpoint of history of religions, but also from that of world history.... This convergence, with the subsequent addition of the Roman heritage, created Europe."
This fortunate convergence of faith and reason occurred at only one time and in only one place: the Christian west. It did not take place in the Muslim world--or at least where it did begin to take place, it was stillborn (or rather, violently aborted). But in the west--particularly in Europe--the covenant between faith and reason has been relentlessly attacked and almost completely vitiated by various secular and materialistic ideologies, with truly grave and deadly results. In the long run, it is doubtful that Europe can even survive its own cognitive and spiritual pathologies, because they are now steeped in a philosophy and a way of life that was never intended for humans. Their “spiritual environment” cannot sustain a truly human community, if only because it cannot passionately defend itself.
As for the pathology of Islam, the pope quoted another Catholic theologian, who said that "for Muslim teaching, God is absolutely transcendent, his will is not bound up with any of our categories." The writer of the WSJ piece linked above asked, “If this is true, can there be dialogue at all between Islam and the West? For the pope, the precondition for any meaningful interfaith discussions is a religion tempered by reason: ‘It is to this great logos, to this breadth of reason, that we invite our partners in the dialogue of cultures.’"
Yesterday a reader expressed bewilderment at our mention of intrinsic heresy. An intrinsic heresy is a religious idea that cannot possibly be true in any objective metaphysics, while an extrinsic heresy is one that only applies to a particular religion. The belief that God is not both radically transcendent and equally immanent is an example of intrinsic heresy.
To cite a fine example of intrinsic heresy, another reader yesterday expressed bewilderment at my pointing out that it is fruitless to affirm the great Upanishadic truth tat tvam asi--thou art that, or atman, the self, is brahman, the ultimate reality--before realizing the extent to which, in our fallen state, thou aren’t much of anything, much less that. This is simply respecting the objective metaphysical truth that, while God may be immanent, he is also radically transcendent. To emphasize only half of this paradoxical equation leads on the one hand to collective pantheism and personal narcissism, on the other hand to the type of spiritual darkness inhabited by the Muslim world, where God is radically transcendent and therefore beyond human understanding.
Orthodox Christian doctrine, like the Vedanta, gets the equation exactly right. Modern people are generally baffled by the intensity of the early Christian debates on the nature of Christ, but the stakes were actually quite high, and if those councils had gotten it wrong, the Christian world may well have gone the way of Islam. Among other things, they determined that in Christ, God was both fully God and fully human (I am not a Christian theologian, so forgive me if I get any details wrong here.) They didn’t say how this paradox could be or how they knew it (it was a divine mystery), but they rejected every possible variation--Nestorianism, Monophysitism, Monothelitism, etc. (look ‘em up yourself). In the end they affirmed that Christ embodied the two natures unconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, and inseparably. And what goes for Christ goes for us, to the extent that we may participate in his life and consciousness. We may become through grace what Christ is by nature.
Now, secularists habitually steal things from religion and then either pretend that they invented them or presume that they can be wrenched from their sacred context without doing grave damage to them. For example, secularists benefit just as much as anyone else from the blessings of Judeo-Christian values, while at the same time doing everything possible to attack or belittle the source of those values. Again, many things we take for granted in the west developed specifically in a Christian context and nowhere else: the infinite worth of the individual, liberty, democracy, science, etc.
This is one of the primary reasons why secular progressives are so ironically named. They can never really be progressive, since their materialistic metaphysic denies meaningful progress at the outset. Scratch a leftist and you will always discern a nostalgic, backward-looking, non-friction metaphysic--the painful recollection of the lost entitlement of infancy and the desire for a romantic merger with the conflict-free eden of childhood--only projected into the future.
As I have mentioned before, in the absence of the supernatural, people will fall back onto more primitive, pre-religious and magical modes of thought, but then imagine that they are progressing beyond religion. But in my view this is impossible, for I believe that religion discloses objective metaphysics. Therefore, anything short of real religion descends into mere mythology: relying upon it to orient yourself in the cosmos, you will move laterally and eventually backwards, as we see in contemporary Europe--a fine example of trying to live off the fumes of Christian values in the absence of the Christianity that gave rise to them. This was definitely one of the main points of the pope’s talk, and one that the left will not understand because they cannot understand--partly because of the intense, mocking superiority they feel toward religion.
The vast majority of our contemporary pagan scholars would undoubtedly agree that intrinsic meaning does not and cannot exist. For a secularist, this is necessarily the case. For example, if history does not refer to something outside itself, it has to be without meaning or purpose, truly the proverbial "tale told by a tenured idiot, full of sound and fury, but signifying a nice paycheck and adoring coeds.” While there can be limited purposes within history, there is no transcendent meaning to any of our endeavors, any more than there can be transcendent meaning to your individual goals and pursuits. It's all ultimately pointless. History is simply history--just a material process, a journey of many roads leading from nowhere to nothing.
But if this were true, mankind would never have found the exit out of its closed circle of material and instinctual existence. In the logoistic understanding of Christianity, history is witness to a literal descent of the logos into the stream of horizontal time, so as to forge a concrete link between the vertical and horizontal--between the One and the many, time and eternity. To say that "God became man" or "Word became flesh" is just another way of saying that the vertical, that is, the ultimate, timeless ground, outside time and anterior to manifestation, poured itself into material form and chronological time--not just in a single human being, but in all of humanity.
Only humans can serve as a bridge between the higher and lower planes that are manifest in the outward flow of history. Indeed, this is our purpose: to nurture and grow the seed of eternity within the womb of time. How do I know this? I don’t. I just water the plant and watch it grow.
*A persistent urban myth has it that Eisenhower warned us of the "military-industrial complex" rather than "mullah terror & nasty-old-leftist complex," when clearly, we require the former to defeat the latter.