The Birds and the Balls: On Getting to First Base and Flying Back Home
Some folks, like yesterday’s amiable troll, just give up looking for the forest. He expresses the necessarily vacuous cynicism of the untutored materialist or naive atheist in affirming that one may “substitute the word ‘efficiency’ whenever you want to use ‘truth’ and you'll get a more accurate picture of why things are the way they are.” Since there is no truth, there is only force, so that culture is nothing but “a combat over who will control the police and what police will act against.” He concludes by claiming that all people just want the same things and that “Whatever it takes to get there is whatever it takes, truth be damned.”
This proves two axiomatic points, 1), that if you eliminate truth, then foolishness will rush in to fill the void, and 2), that the resultant foolishness will indeed be enforced by raw power, since one can make no appeal to truth. It also shows that anything a troll can say has already been said. Perhaps not as poorly, but since the fall is ongoing, in that respect he has an advantage over his predecessors.
Naturally, the first thing one wants to ask the troll is whether his harebrained statements are true, or merely harebrained, or both. In any event, they do not rise to the level of philosophy, which is to say wisdom, certainly not a philosophy worthy of man or which answers to the needs of his soul, needs which prove the existence of their object no less than eyes are proof of light.
As I have mentioned a number of times in the past (borrowing a metaphor from the philosopher of science Stanley Jaki), philosophy can be compared to baseball, in the sense that one must first get to first base. All bad philosophies -- which is to say nearly all philosophies, certainly secular ones -- start at second or third, and conveniently “assume” first base. But everyone knows you can't steal first base.
The plain fact of the matter is that there is no way around John 1:1, which tells us, “In the beginning was the Word.” If your philosophy does not begin with the Word, then we have nothing to talk about, do we? I suppose we could convey our ideas through interpretive dancing -- which I am not above doing when the mood strikes -- but the broader meaning of “word” is any object that can stand for another and convey meaning between subjects, so no matter how silly the dance, it will still be steeped in the Word and addressed to a subject.
The upside-down, postmodern person begins with the absurd idea that we are real but that the truth is not. In reality, the reverse is true: the truth is real -- meaning eternal -- while the ego is false (or even nonexistent, ontologically speaking) to the extent that it denies truth. Intelligence as such means “conformity with truth,” or else there is no such thing as intelligence. In other words, intelligence cannot be “conformity with error” or "knowledge of falsehood" and retain any right to call itself intelligence.
The cosmos is permeated with intelligence, and therefore, truth. It is the pre-phenomenal or noumenal intelligence spoken of by John -- that by which everything was made and without which nothing was made.
I have a very precise recollection of when I first realized this fact, even if I was unable to draw out its implications at the time. It was the spring of 1985. I was sitting on the balcony of my apartment with a beer -- listening to Fables of the Reconstruction, by REM, now that I think about it -- after having completed my written doctoral exams. Just beyond the ledge, two birds were circling about, one chasing the other in an obvious mating ritual of some kind. Suddenly it was as if the cosmos turned inside out, and in one of those moments of metaphysical transparency, I “saw” the wisdom of nature merely using these delighted birds as “props” for its divine play, or lila. I could see the implicit intelligence underlying the explicit phenomena, the same abstract intelligence that causes a flower to turn toward the sun, or a caterpillar to turn into a butterfly, or a lowly retail clerk to pass his doctoral exams.
I saw the primordial intelligence of which the human mind was able to partake when it became human. I saw the sufficient reason for man’s intelligence, an intelligence which is anterior to his having “entered” it. I saw that all intelligence is ultimately the intelligence of God refracted through a medium of greater or lesser capacity. I saw that this intelligence was clearly present in matter, which is simply frozen math of great transcendental beauty, and in living things, which are exquisitely complex architecture in motion. And I saw that this intelligence was obviously present in the human mind which, in its uncorrupted state, is a mirror of the divine intellect, truth returning to Truth, the Word finally hearing its wisdom after 13.7 billion years of speaking it into the Void. I saw the impossibility of flesh gaining wisdom in the absence of wisdom become flesh.
About a week later the Lakers finally beat the Celtics for the world championship, and I knew that God existed.
Of course, the conditions of relative existence -- which is to say existence -- necessitate that we have an evolved self, an “ego,” and an “uncreated” spark of divinity that lights up our center. This is our “pilot light,” in both senses of the term. First, it provides the “direction” or “orientation” for our human journey. Second, it is like the pilot light of a furnace, a small, permanent light that stands vigilant, waiting for the conditions that will allow it to provide both warmth and light.
This light is the “light of the world,” and although it can be buried under layers of ice or mud, it can never be extinguished. This tiny spark is an echo (if you will pardon the mixed metaphor) of the divine center at the cosmic periphery. It is the reason why existence is a circle whose circumference is nowhere but whose center is everywho. It is that which allows any human subject to truthfully say I AM, even I am that, if he is very lucky -- or very good, or very beautiful (in the interior sense), or very intelligent (in the original sense of the term, not in its trivial contemporary usage).
To say “error” is to say “truth,” irrespective of whether or not one is aware of the truth. However, realizing the existence of error means that you are halfway to first base. You might say that the count is 3 and 0. You could still strike out, but with a disciplined eye, you will probably be awarded first base.
Now, a disciplined I is able to distinguish between reality and illusion, which is what spiritual practice is all about. Reality is constantly throwing itself at us, but, just as in baseball, we must be able to know when something is in the strike zone. The pitcher is a snake who, like all pitchers, will use deception -- curve balls, change ups, sliders that look hittable but dart away at the last moment. The skilled pitcher is able to make bad pitches look enticing and good pitches difficult to hit.
It is for us to distinguish balls from strikes, truth from error. Ultimately, our task is “to distinguish between terrestrial thought, induced by the environment, and celestial thought, induced by what constitutes our eternal substance...” (Schuon). Fortunately there is an umpire, an objective source of metaphysical certainty, who enforces the strike zone. To know this strike zone is to know the cause of human happiness. To align oneself with it, body, mind and spirit -- or heart, intellect and will -- is to achieve it. To paraphrase Schuon, it is a matter of knowing what is and then being what one knows.
The lost and “centerless” horizontal man is a very undisciplined hitter. Not only does he not know the strike zone, he makes up his own. Therefore, he swings wildly at most any pitch that comes his way, not even aware of the pitcher’s deception. He will generally start and end his life at the plate. He will strike out, shrug his shoulders, and shuffle back to the dugout, which is conveniently located a few feet below the earth.
To say error is to say enslavement or hypnosis, while to say truth is to say awakening or liberation. The hypnotized or enslaved person, just like the rest of us, is on fire. However, he doesn’t realize it, so he does nothing to try to put it out. Or, he reaches for shadows instead of water, as if the mere absence of light is enough to extinguish the blaze. Where is the water? It is where it has always been and ever will be. Just a bit north, falling down like rain.
The uncreated Word shatters created speech while at the same time directing it toward concrete and saving truth. --F. Schuon