Cowboys, Puritans, Scary Clowns, Pants-Down Republicans, and the Cosmic Center
From the ridiculous to the sublime. Which, when you think about it, is something I try not only to balance, but to harmonize. For how do we harmonize the sacred and the profane, the celestial and the terrestrial, the senses and the soul, the vertical and the horizontal?
Especially now that I am a father, I think about this problem more and more, because the outcome will determine what sort of world my son inherits. I believe it strikes at the heart of our current historical crisis, whether it is the clash between Islam and the West or the equally monumental clash between classical liberals (i.e., "conservatives") and leftists. It is a crisis which human beings will have to resolve before they can make any further collective progress. The outward struggle between Islam and the West (or liberal and left) is just a symptom of the historical stalemate we are in.
A large part of the problem involves the dichotomy between our individualism, which (conservative) liberal Americans cherish, and traditionalism, which embodies so much timeless wisdom about what it means to be a human qua human. Both Islam and the left value the collective over the individual, and impose coercive "solutions" that fundamentally erode our individuality. However, one important caveat is in order; there is also a large segment of the left that is "pro-individual," but it is a decidedly infrahuman individuality that essentially reduces man to his animal impulses.
You could say that there is a fundamental dichotomy in the left between the controlling, sanctimonious, and self-righteous moral scolds, or "puritans" (e.g., Al Gore, Ralph Nader, Noam Chomsky), and the pseudo-libertarian champions of personal expression (e.g., Hollywood). In fact, in A Conservative History of the American Left, Flynn attributes this to the age-old distinction in the American soul between "cowboys" and "puritans."
Thus, for example, in the 1960s there was a very uneasy alliance between the flaked-out hippie left (i.e., sex, drugs, and rock & roll, Timothy Leary, Ken Kesey) and the stern and/or violent ideological left (e.g., the SDS, Bill Ayers, Tom Hayden, Black Panthers, etc.). Or, you could say that there is a goofy left and a scary left. In the interim, it seems that the goofy left has all but vanished, so that there are no "lighthearted" ones left. I'm guessing that this is a large part of the appeal of Obama, who appears to be such a "cool guy" on the surface. But look at the scary church of which he is a member!
Over the past 40 years, the left has only been able to come up with humorless, puritanical, "white and up-tight" candidates, e.g., Carter, Dukakis, Gore (Clinton, for all his faults, was no ideologue). And their clowns are all the scary kind, e.g., Sean Penn, Keith Olbermann, Dailykos, etc. So it's no wonder they are flocking to someone who seems to be able to put a happy face on such a dreary ideology. Obama looks less stern and controlling than Hillary, but in reality he is to the left of her.
For what it's worth, I was never really a member of the stern and scary left. Well, maybe briefly. But it's really an issue of character or temperament, and in the end, I really couldn't be anything other than what I am, which is a conservative hippie, or guerilla mystic, or political inactivist. (I remember about 30 years ago, P.J. O'Rourke wrote a seminal essay on this in National Lampoon, proposing a new movement of Pants-Down Republicans. I should look that up...)
I'm a psychologist. I carry a badge. I diagnose individuals. But it is said that a prophet diagnoses mankind. Thus, if you look at the DSM, there are, I don’t know, a couple of hundred different diagnoses. But if you look at the Bible, or the Upanishads, or the Tao Te Ching, there is only one diagnosis, which is that human beings live in falsehood, alienated from the Real. They habitually confuse what is ephemeral and valueless with what is transcendent and of eternal value. With his consciousness either compacted and "frozen" or exteriorized and dissipated, the spiritually untutored man is hypnotized by appearances and wanders from sensation to sensation until falling into the abyss at the end of his daze, wishes to ashes, lust to dust.
Religion, properly understood, is the corrective for certain inevitable metaphysical delusions to which humans are heir. These blunders are inevitable precisely because of our evolved nervous system. Although we are “of” eternity we are “in” time, otherwise we could not be. As a result, we look upon the world through the distorted lens of our own limited subjectivity. With the emergence of science some 350 years ago, we have managed to eliminate much of this subjectivity and stop confusing the external world with our prepersonal wishes and dreams about it (but obviously not completely, e.g. "climate science" and reductionistic Darwinism).
The more primitive the culture, the more it lives not in the world but in its subreal dream of the world. Obviously this is the problem we face in the Islamists. They live in a dream, which wouldn’t concern us in the least if we weren’t being asked to play such a vital role in it.
But just because western science tries to eliminate subjectivity, this doesn’t mean that it is objective. Nor can it ever be objective, for in order to do its work it must reduce reality to its lowest level, which is to say matter and quantity.
This is as it should be. In order to function at all, science must deal with a highly abstract and artificial world stripped of its essential qualities. For example, the redness of the apple is not in the apple. It is merely the illusion produced by photons vibrating at a certain frequency. Once you go down that route, then all qualities are reduced to quantities and we necessarily inhabit a bleached out, meaningless cosmos deprived of its most astonishing qualities, qualities which ironically make the scientist possible.
For it is not merely the redness of the apple that is at stake. Rather, it is every quality that is metaphysically real but not quantifiable. Religion deals with this higher level of immutable principles and truths. As I cracked in the Coonifesto, science is the religion of the ultimate object, while religion is the science of the ultimate Subject. Somehow we must harmonize these two “religions,” or face a life violently detached from the most vital parts of ourselves. Or, you could say that we suffer from the serious cardiovascular disease that severs head from heart.
As Perry writes, "Traditional learning is basically qualitative and synthetic, concerned with essences, principles, and realities behind phenomena; its fruits are integration, composition, and unity. Profane academic learning -- whether in the arts or sciences -- is quantitative and analytical by tendency, concerned with appearances, forces, and material properties; its nature is to criticize and decompose; it works by fragmentation." As Schuon points out, "not only does the inferior [man] lack the mentality of the superior, but [he] cannot even conceive of it exactly," due to the smallness, opacity, and fragmentation of the troll soul.
I certainly wouldn't want to live in a traditional society innocent of scientific knowledge. But I also don't want to live in -- or abandon my son to -- a sterile scientismic society estranged from its rich metaphysical foundation. In fact, science must be embedded in a much wider, deeper, and more integral Truth for it to avoid poisoning itself at its own roots. Alfred North Whitehead (c.f., Science and the Modern World) was one of the first philosophers to recognize this problem of forgetting the religious roots of science.
To be a proper human being means to have a cosmic center. Put it this way: "There is in man something which must become conscious of itself; which must become itself, which must be purified and liberated from all that is foreign to itself; which must awaken and expand, and become all because it is all..." (Schuon).
Although this is an objectively true statement, it is not something that could ever be measured or verified by science. Frankly, from a scientific standpoint it is a meaningless statement. Science cannot deal with the problem of consciousness, let alone the problem of how consciousness may find its “center.” But the essence of spiritual work involves locating, “dilating,” and living out of this radiant interior center, instead of living a dispersed, fragmented, endarkened, and exteriorized existence.
If you do not find this center within, then you have wasted the opportunity of a lifetime. That is another statement that is meaningless from a scientific standpoint. But make no mistake: if you do not find this center within, you will blindly search for it without. You will look outside yourself for your center, and if you succeed, then you will have failed, for you will have missed the point of life. You will think you stand upright like a proper vertical man, when you really crawl the earth on your belly, you rebellious snakes, you brood of rebtiles!
With no center, you will also have no organismic continuity, for the center is precisely that which metabolizes experience and synthesizes time and eternity, where the vertical bisects the horizontal (or rather, vice versa). Without a center, we merely wander vainly from experience to experience with nothing to make nonsense of it.