Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Navelgazing Your Way Between a Crock and a Hardhead

In trawling through the knowa's arkive for live specimens, I noticed that there are some earlier posts on Bomford's Symmetry of God that may provide some missing background. In what follows, I will attempt to edit and weave these posts together.

Even if this will be a review for some -- including me -- that's not necessarily a bad thing. Because of the way we're built, it is possible -- perhaps even likely -- to "overrun" the truth once we've stumbled upon it. That is, our epistemophilic instinct causes us to so frantically search after truth, that we can just keep right on going once we've found it. But truth -- especially spiritual truth -- must be chewed, swallowed and assimilated into our substance in order to have a transformative effect. If it is merely on the level of profane knowledge (k), it can essentially convert a profound truth into something shallow and superficial. We will contain it rather than vice versa. And that's how you kill a spiritual truth.

Bomford is an Anglican priest who is a student of the psychoanalyst Ignacio Matte Blanco, who himself is not well known but had some brilliant ideas about the logic of the unconscious mind. Bomford has applied Matte Blanco's ideas to the relationship between God and consciousness, and how we may meaningfully communicate about something that vastly exceeds the limits of language. (Here is an intro to Matte Blanco that is cheaper more accessible than his own books, but still, it may not be appropriate for the non-specialist; you can always search a few pages and judge for yourself.)

One of the purposes of the book is to resolve the issue of literalism vs. reductionism, or to navigate between the rockheads fundamentalism and the softheads of liberalism. It is aimed at the reader who "neither clings rigidly to the literal truth of every word of the Bible, nor on the other hand reduces the faith by rejecting most of what the past has believed to be central."

With regard to the potential dangers of mixing psychoanalytic metapsychology and religion, Bomford makes the important point that "from the beginning the church has borrowed philosophies from the world as handmaids to faith, and has expressed its faith through them. This has not only been to communicate with those outside, but also so that faith may understand itself."

This interdisciplinary and playgiarizing spirit allows one to be a believer and still engage with the same world as those outside the faith. In fact, without this engagement, one will inevitably create a sort of intellectual ghetto. But there is no reason whatsoever that one cannot build sturdy and robust bridges between religion and any other discipline, which was obviously the whole point of my own book. There should be no barrier between religion and the most up-to-date science. Indeed, the people who have the most difficulty reconciling religion and science are those who either cling to an outmoded scientism or to an overly literal view of scripture. But if we know how to float our boat, we should be able to steer a course between the crock and the hardheads, respectively.

As mankind has evolved, we have become increasingly aware of the internal world of consciousness itself. Religion has followed this trend, which is why the further back in history you travel, the more religion is dominated by an externalizing tendency, ultimately ending (or beginning) in the inside-out and upside-down orientation of pantheism and nature worship.

Today, if you ask the average person where God is encountered, they will likely respond "within myself." In other words, they do not believe that they are literally going to visit God in the church or temple -- although our consciousness of God is surely "focussed," so to speak, in certain proscribed areas and rituals. But when we attend a service, engage in a ritual, meditate, pray, or purchase an indulgence from Petey, we are obviously attempting to heighten our consciousness of God.

But what do we know about consciousness? What is it? Or, to put it another way, what can consciousness know of itself?

Bomford begins with what amounts to a truism, that our conscious self -- or ego -- is situated in a much larger area of consciousness as such, much of which goes by the name "unconscious." This is a misleading term, since the unconscious is not unconscious, just not available to the conscious ego. The unconscious is obviously quite active and aware, only "below," "behind," or "above" the ego.

Traditionally, psychoanlaysts have imagined a sort of horizontal line, with the ego above and the unconscious below. But I believe a more accurate mental image would be an island surrounded by water on all sides, like a point within a sphere (which is itself multidimensional).

I would also argue that consciousness is not linear but holographically structured, so that the unconscious is not spatially above or below, but within consciousness (somewhat analogous to God, who is both immanent and transcendent, the deepest within and the furthest beyond of any "thing" that partakes of Being).

Furthermore, we must abandon the idea that the unconscious is merely an uncivilized repository of repressed mind parasites and other mischievous devils. That is surely part of the picture, but only part. Grotstein writes of the unconscious as a sort of alter-ego with whom we go through life -- the “stranger within” that shadows our existence in a most intimate, creative, and mysterious way. Far from being “primitive and impersonal” (although it surely includes primitive, lower vertical elements as well), it is “subjective and ultra-personal,” a “mystical, preternatural, numinous second self” characterized by “a loftiness, sophistication, versatility, profundity, virtuosity, and brilliance that utterly dwarf the conscious aspects of the ego.”

The production of a dream, for example, "is a unique and mysterious event, an undertaking that requires an ability to think and to create that is beyond the capacity of conscious human beings.... [D]reams are, at the very least, complex cinematographic productions requiring consummate artistry, technology, and aesthetic decision making.... [D]reams are dramatic plays that are written, cast, plotted, directed, and produced and require the help of scenic designers and location scouts, along with other experts.... I am really proposing the existence of a profound preturnatural presence whose other name is the Ineffable Subject of Being, which itself is a part of a larger holographic entity, the Supraordinate Subject of Being and Agency."

So in what follows, I will be using the term "unconscious" in this larger and more expansive sense. In fact, let's dispense with that saturated word altogether, since it deceives us into believing we know what it is, merely because we have a name for it. Instead, let's stick with O, the ultimate unKnowable reality within which the ego operates.

Again, most postpostmodern people -- you know, regular folks -- believe that God is in some sense found "within." The mystic -- the extreme seeker and off-road spiritual aspirant -- is simply someone who follows the inner path all the way down.... or up... or in... or over... and out.

In fact, as we shall see, this ambiguous use of language -- spirit is somehow simultaneously "down," "up", and "in" -- provides a key insight into its very nature, which is to say, its symmetry. With everyday aristotelian logic, if something is in it can't be out; or if it is up, it can't be down. But if God is up, he must be down, and if he is out, he must be in. And verce visa. For God, it is not a problem to be two "places" at once, since there are no places to begin with.

Is this way of talking merely nonsense? Undoubtedly. But it is perfect nonsense, or what I would call patterned transrationality. It describes something that is surely real, but not in the same limited sense as material reality and its interior cousin, the empirical ego.

The difficulty arises in attempting to express the infinite through the finite, or the transcendent through the immanent, which can only be accomplished with paradox, myth, symbolism, and a number of other literary deivoices we will discuss in more detail below, when we get above. Religious language -- whatever else it is -- is without question a way to memorialize, extend, deepen, and meditate upon that which transcends ordinary language experience.

How do we describe this unusual "relationship" between these two necessary aspects of the Real? You might say that, just as the ego floats "atop" or within an essentially infinite sea of (un)Consciousness, or O, the explicate world disclosed to our senses represents the "condensation," or visible waves, of an implicate reservoir of roiling energy.

We may extend this to say that God too has an outer aspect, which we call being, and an interior aspect that is beyond being. In Orthodox Christianity, the difference is conceptualized in terms of God's energies (which may be known by us) and his essence, which I would argue -- perhaps heretically -- is not even fully com-prehended by him. If this were not true, than God could not truly create, or surprise and delight himself with his productions.

This is why I think jazz discloses something about God, in the way that it parallels the relationship between the implicate and explicate orders of the cosmos. If you think of the rhythm and chords as the explicate structure, the improvisation -- which is to say, spontaneous composition -- of the soloist represents the ceaseless flow of implicate to explicate. A great soloist plays with a seemingly endless inventiveness that parallels the birth of a new world each moment. Also, if you unlisten to the manner in which the individual players spontaneously react to each other in an organismic way, you are hearing nothing less than the implicit structure of Life Itself. For it is the Sound of Surprise.

Anyway, Bomford noticed that the unconscious, as described by Freud, shares many fundamental characteristics attributed to God. The unconscious mind does not operate by the same logical categories as the conscious mind. Rather, it is characterized by 1) eternity (or timelessness), 2) spacelessness, 3) symbolism, 4) non-contradiction, and 5) non-distinction between imagination and reality.

Let's take an example that comes readily to mind. Last night my Dreamer presented me with a dream in which my wife and father were simultaneously present, even though they never actually met. In addition, I was wearing a pair of glasses that I ordered by mail, and won't be receiving until next week. The dream shows how the past (my father), present (my wife), and future (my glasses) are all co-present and interpenetrating, defying any Newtonian idea of linear time.

Now, it is not actually possible for us to experience or know the eternal. Or, to be precise, we can only experience it if we no longer exist, because to identify with it would be to disappear from time, and thought and existence require time ("no one sees my face and lives"). As Boethius wrote, "An unchanging thing displays no before and after, nor does it begin or end" (which is one reason why my book neither begins nor ends). Rather, eternity is "the instantaneously whole and complete possession of endless life."

But there are a number of ways we can conceptualize the eternal and think the otherwise unthinkable in the herebelow. As Bomford explains, "among temporal things, the everlasting most nearly expresses the eternal. It provides the closest image of the timeless within time." This is why our souls are stirred in the presence of the very old and ancient -- the Pyramids, Yosemite Valley, a European cathedral, Barbara Walters, etc.

But interestingly, another penultimate form of eternity -- the symmetrical opposite of the everlasting, so to speak -- is the momentary, for such a thing is also "instantaneously whole and unchanging -- it has no time in which to change. It is not there -- it is there in its fullness -- and it is gone again" -- like a shooting star, or giving your daughter's hand in marriage, or one of Obama's campaign promises.

In contrast to the everlasting and the momentary, what least expresses eternity is -- unfortunately -- that which comes into existence, lasts for a while, and then passes away. That would be, oh, I don't know, like a Dodger lead in a playoff game, or maybe even YOUR WHOLE FREAKING LIFE!, unless you do something about that unfortunate state of unfairs. Seven games or life stages may be a short series, but you're vying for the ultimate prize.

To be continued....

15 Comments:

Blogger Warren said...

Excellent post today.

>> a way between the rockheads fundamentalism and the softheads of liberalism

It's called "orthodoxy".

>> There should be no barrier between religion and the most up-to-date science.

Not only is there no contradiction between true religion and science, it's not even conceptually possible for there to be one.

10/20/2009 08:25:00 AM  
Blogger julie said...

But interestingly, another penultimate form of eternity -- the symmetrical opposite of the everlasting, so to speak -- is the momentary, for such a thing is also "instantaneously whole and unchanging...

I think that's why I like taking pictures. Those little ephemeral moments of timelessness are happening, well, all the time. O-ksionally, they can be shared. Yesterday, I went out to the local botanical gardens. Hardly anyone was there, but because it was so empty it was filled to bursting with those moments.

10/20/2009 09:36:00 AM  
Blogger mushroom said...

Wow. Good stuff.

The unconscious is vastly under-appreciated as you say -- probably thanks to psychoanalysis. It's viewed as large pathological. But most of my problems are solved by my unconscious -- no need to show my work -- which is one reason I hate design and documentation.

If I can't remember someone's name, I don't spend too much time on it, consciously. I just let the unconscious deal with it. It may take a few minutes, a few hours, or even a day, but "suddenly" the answer will pop "out of nowhere" into my consciousness. All that time the unconscious has been running "in the background", doing checks and thumbing through possibilities in all those holographic files.

10/20/2009 01:25:00 PM  
Anonymous Bulletproof Monk said...

In thinking about interior vs. exterior, the post-moderns are correct in looking to the heart as where we encounter God. However, they are wrong in rejecting the exterior encounter, as it creates a spiritual imbalance.

In the Orthodox faith, this exterior encounter occurs primarily in two ways: first, in the Eucharist (which crosses to exterior/interior divide and transforms it); second, in community with fellow man, each of whom is an icon of Christ (however marred). The great commandment to love God and love neighbor reflects this interior and exterior aspect.

Somewhat of a digression, I ran across this nice video of a blessed exterior encounter between man and animal (this is a video from Serbia, I don't understand the language but it isn't necessary to).

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PALX_Nn-M94

In Christ

10/20/2009 02:09:00 PM  
Blogger Retriever said...

Very good post. I loved the part about the unconscious as something other than the pathological almost demonic thing it is popularly thought to be. I imagine the redeemed unconscious soul as being filled with the living waters Jesus broke the rock to release. But they are illogical, hard to channel, can churn over and upset a lot. He said to count the cost before following Him. I know people who are more afraid of roller coasters than of following the One. Dumb. One reason I tend in middle age to value the structures and traditions of church, religious practice, and keeping company with fairly conventional religious folk. We are all adrift on the sea to the Promised Land, but need lifeboats and maps and someone to help us row when we tire.

I agree with Bulletproof Monk's comment about the danger of imbalance if one focusses only on the interior manifestations of God. Not that that was what you were advocating, but it is the Achilles Heel of our age and most of us aging Boomers. We are so freaking obsessed with ourselves and it can be just one more way to mirror gaze when we profess to be looking for God within ourselves. I know Jesus said "the kingdom of Heaven is within" but...

As a former Anglican, I still get wistful when I hear of the Anglican clergy who are students of psychoanalysis, and who are better pastorally as a result (the Cowley fathers near my college were pretty amazing).

10/20/2009 02:36:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

A good read apropos to today's thoughts: "Psychology as Religion" by Paul Vitz.

10/20/2009 03:25:00 PM  
Blogger julie said...

Retriever,
One reason I tend in middle age to value the structures and traditions of church, religious practice, and keeping company with fairly conventional religious folk. We are all adrift on the sea to the Promised Land, but need lifeboats and maps and someone to help us row when we tire.

Very wise advice. Also, I liked your post today. It's a great example of (⇵), the fact that no matter how much we might want to, we cannot pull ourselves up to O by our own bootstraps. Without grace and humility, it simply doesn't happen, no matter how hard we pull.

10/20/2009 03:48:00 PM  
Blogger Retriever said...

Thanks, Julie. "At Rest" is a beauty!

10/20/2009 06:00:00 PM  
Blogger Ricky Raccoon said...

Could it be that we can't explain consciousness because it has no equal substitute and because of it's position?
For example, if you removed the center of a sphere could you explain what it was with any other remaining part of the sphere?
Give me an analogy for "a brain trying to understand itself" without using the word consciousness.

10/20/2009 06:44:00 PM  
Anonymous Petey said...

That's a succinct explanation of why a cosmos is inconceivable without consciousness.

10/20/2009 06:51:00 PM  
Blogger Ricky Raccoon said...

Thanks, Petey.
At best it is an attempt at a "why it is so" by way of "what it is not". Safe but not sufficient.

10/20/2009 07:09:00 PM  
Blogger Van said...

"But interestingly, another penultimate form of eternity -- the symmetrical opposite of the everlasting, so to speak -- is the momentary, for such a thing is also "instantaneously whole and unchanging -- it has no time in which to change. It is not there -- it is there in its fullness -- and it is gone again" -- like a shooting star, or giving your daughter's hand in marriage, or one of Obama's campaign promises."

Hmmm.... nothing to add, just... hmmm....

10/21/2009 06:43:00 AM  
Blogger Van said...

Retriever said "I imagine the redeemed unconscious soul as being filled with the living waters Jesus broke the rock to release. But they are illogical, hard to channel, can churn over and upset a lot."

Good reading there... might help crack a few rocks open itself.

10/21/2009 06:46:00 AM  
Blogger julie said...

Retriever - sorry I didn't respond sooner, it was a busy night last night, but thanks!

10/21/2009 09:59:00 AM  
Blogger Retriever said...

Thanks, Van.

10/22/2009 05:29:00 AM  

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