Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Reason and Revelation: The Blind Reading the Blinding

Somewhere in the Coonifesto I mentioned that not only can religion sound absurd, but sometimes it is necessary -- or at least expedient -- that it do so.

Here it is, p. 204: "Most any spiritual tradition asks us to believe things that may at first seem implausible. However, some degree of 'belief in the unbelievable' may actually be a necessary component of deconditioning ourselves to the narrow and restricted consensus reality of our particular culture." One reason I believe secular people care so much about movies, fiction, modern art, and other trifles is that they are the only means they have to temporarily escape from the nightmare of their soul-crushing egoic existence.

Wolfgang Smith agrees that what may strike the modern rationalist as "categorically absurd" is just the thing that might "serve as a bridge that leads beyond the phenomenal realm." One way of bypassing -- or shattering -- one's habitual and saturated way of thinking is to properly immerse oneself in the highly resonant, mythopoetic language of religion, which doesn't necessarily rely upon conscious understanding to transmit its truth, but rather, activates perennial truths that are latent within us.

I've noticed that there are certain aspects of Christianity that you simply cannot get your mind around, and this may be the point. Not for nothing are they called "mysteries." However, it is critical to bear in mind that a mystery is not a wall but a window or perhaps bridge. Only at the lowest level of understanding -- e.g., existentialism, scientism -- does mystery shade off into absurdity. In that realm, one will indeed simply go around in circles, with no possible resolution to the world enigma.

Schuon says something similar, writing that in the realm of spirit, "coherence of the literal wording is not a criterion or guarantee of truth or sanctity." In certain respects, sacred language may serve as a "shock therapy," which always "contains infinitely more than ordinary language." Not only is it the opposite of saturated, but it is incapable of saturation. Indeed, this is the very reason why we are still fruitfully talking about events and texts from two or three-thousand years ago.

Schuon goes on to say that it is obviously possible to speak of the highest things in a logically consistent and coherent manner -- Thomas Aquinas alone is proof of this. At the same time, actual contact with the Absolute may cause one's consciousness to "shatter," so to speak, and here again we might point to Thomas' last experiences of infused contemplation.

So it should go without saying that "the spiritual worth of a man" is not "always a guarantee of his dialectical powers." However, this is not to say that the spiritual message must necessarily be expressed in an illogical manner; in other words, it is not a duty of the theologian, only a right.

Indeed, the Raccoon demands logical coherence. But at the same time, he does not demand that religion be expressed in this manner to the Normals, because if it were, it would mean nothing to them. In an interview, Schuon was asked why religion must embody metaphysics, and he responded, "because there are metaphysicians." Simple as.

It is also important to note that there are obviously different modes of cognition aside from mere reason: intuition, inspiration, intellection, etc. Of inspiration, Schuon writes that it is analogous to revelation, in that it is a "divine dictation," except that it is not a "lawgiving and obligatory Message," but rather, "plays an illustrative role within the framework of the fundamental Message."

Here again, this is why the Message of revelation is so fruitful and unsusceptible to saturation, since it provokes endless inspiration to those who contemplate it. This is why we can say that revelation is at once Absolute -- it does not change -- and thus necessarily Infinite, in that it flows ceaselessly like the Sacred River of your choice.

Also, just as we have an empirical ego that is conformed to -- and in many respects a product of -- the external, phenomenal world, we have a deeper subject -- call it what you want, but I just call it (¶) -- which is conformed to, and a product of, the higher, noumenal world. This is the Divine Spark of which you've heard so much. And where there is a spark, there is a central Fire.

Is it possible for the empirical ego, or (•), to approach O? Yes, of course, but it will inevitably generate what appear to be absurdities, in the manner described above. One can certainly try to apply profane reason to the higher world, but Schuon likens this to a blind man groping in the dark. For him, it is accurate to say that touching will be a form of seeing.

However, unlike proper vision, it will not take in the whole panorama. Instead, his knowledge will be fragmentary and linear, as he moves from object to object. Interestingly, the blind man can even feel the heat of the sun, so he can reason about the source but not experience its light directly. This is precisely the situation of the man who employs reason only to approach O.

You might say that faith is a conscious act of will designed to pre-emptively say Yes! to a reality to which the ego says No! By saying Yes!, you are getting on with the journey, and jumping into that mystery which the ego can only see as an absurdity. If you wait around for the ego's assent, you will wait forever.

To paraphrase Polanyi, faith is the tacit foreknowlege of an as yet undiscovered truth. Although he was talking about scientific discovery, one could equally apply this to spiritual discovery. Really, you won't discover anything without that leap of faith, just as a scientific discovery doesn't just "happen" to a closed and unprepared mind.

So the purpose of revelation is not necessarily to "give orders to the intelligence" in some sort of rigid, top-down manner. Rather, it should awaken the intelligence and "remind it what it is" (Schuon). For an intelligence that is proportioned to the divine message is necessarily of the same substance.

17 Comments:

Blogger black hole said...

"Indeed, the Raccoon demands logical coherence. But at the same time, he does not demand that religion be expressed in this manner to the Normals."

An interesting post, Robert.

Questions regarding the section above:

Why does a Raccoon demand logical coherence, when, as you've said, much of Christianity is not rational?

Does a Raccoon want religion to be expressed to Normals? If not, why not?

What is a "Normal?"

If yes, then in what way should religion be expressed to Normals? Why?

Who does the expressing?

Why should Normals not demand logical coherence like Raccoons?

Overall, your statement hints at a much larger project with implicit goals, and this is fascinating.

10/12/2010 09:32:00 AM  
Blogger Rick said...

“I've noticed that there are certain aspects of Christianity that you simply cannot get your mind around”

And others that when you do, your mind is in no condition for much else. There are "take out" orders, but not these.

10/12/2010 09:33:00 AM  
Blogger Rick said...

“this is the very reason why we are still fruitfully talking about events and texts from two or three-thousand years ago.”

And be-cause they’re still “happening”, baby.

10/12/2010 09:34:00 AM  
Blogger Rick said...

"To paraphrase Polanyi, faith is the tacit foreknowlege of an as yet undiscovered truth. Although he was talking about scientific discovery, one could equally apply this to spiritual discovery."

Funny you should mention Polanyi today. Just found this interesting article the other night. some good in-sights inside I thought:

The Biblical Insights of Michael Polanyi

10/12/2010 09:38:00 AM  
Blogger Joseph said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

10/12/2010 11:38:00 AM  
Blogger julie said...

Oh, there you are!

Thanks very much for your last, wonderfully presumptuous recommendation! It was, indeed, most excellent. The brief bits on display at Amazon didn't do it justice.

10/12/2010 11:41:00 AM  
Blogger julie said...

However, it is critical to bear in mind that a mystery is not a wall but a window or perhaps bridge. Only at the lowest level of understanding -- e.g., existentialism, scientism -- does mystery shade off into absurdity. In that realm, one will indeed simply go around in circles, with no possible resolution to the world enigma.


Or in cartoon logic, a black arch with a tiny white dot in the middle painted on a wall becomes a true passage to the innocent roadrunner, while simultaneously remaining a very solid wall to the cynical coyote who would chase his quarry through it if only he could disbelieve in the wall.

10/12/2010 11:46:00 AM  
Blogger Joseph said...

I very much regret having time only for another presumptuous recommendation. Are you aware that faith's rite of passage through "the absurd" was portrayed in a near perfect polyphony of dialectic and poetry by Kierkegaard, in "Fear and Trembling"? If you haven't read him, Kierkegaard is precisely the Mozart of prose, even in translation (the Hongs' preferrably).

Hello Julie - I'm delighted that you found something useful in Sertillanges.

10/12/2010 11:55:00 AM  
Blogger julie said...

I can't take credit for picking it up, though - I wouldn't have read it if Bob hadn't first. Of course, he's a gentleman, whereas I am, at least occasionally, merely a brat. You began that last series of questions for Bob; I responded impertinently, mainly because I often ask myself the same question. I'm sorry for that, and hope that my rudeness won't keep you from coming back more often.

That said, thanks for the Kierkegaard recommendation. I may have to rummage through DH's office, as I'm sure it's in the house somewhere, though I've never read it.

10/12/2010 12:10:00 PM  
Blogger julie said...

Back to cartoon logic, Lileks has a fine example up today.

On display is the thing, the thing signified, and through the Mystery the thing itself present here and now. Perfect nonsense!

10/12/2010 12:24:00 PM  
Blogger julie said...

By saying Yes!, you are getting on with the journey, and jumping into that mystery which the ego can only see as an absurdity.

Incidentally, that's one of the reasons it's important to be "as a child" in matters of faith. There's a certain innocence which can follow the logic of absurdity - whether in cartoons or Mysteries - with a perfect clarity that makes the observer an active participant, and not only an objective bystander. Children come by it naturally, but as adults there is usually much to be unlearned before that innocence can be discovered anew.

10/12/2010 01:12:00 PM  
Blogger Joseph said...

Your apology is gracious and unnecessary. My rush surely left the question itself with an impertinent edge.

10/12/2010 04:52:00 PM  
Blogger ge said...

absurd but rich mythology:
ie
'In order to avoid a prophecy made when that change occurred, that any offspring of his union with Metis would be greater than he, Zeus swallowed Metis to prevent her from having offspring, but she already was pregnant with Athena. Metis gave birth to Athena and nurtured her inside Zeus until Zeus complained of headaches and called for Hephaestus to split open his head with his smithing tools. Athena burst forth from his forehead fully armed with weapons given by her mother. She famously wields the thunderbolt and the Aegis, which she and Zeus share exclusively.'

10/12/2010 06:05:00 PM  
Blogger Van said...

"So the purpose of revelation is not necessarily to "give orders to the intelligence" in some sort of rigid, top-down manner. Rather, it should awaken the intelligence and "remind it what it is" (Schuon). For an intelligence that is proportioned to the divine message is necessarily of the same substance."

Indeed. And stepping just a rung lower, reason bereft of imagination and at least a touch of poetic fire, is no Reason at all... merely a logical lump... something with the gravitational semblance of a star, but giving off no light whatsoever... a black hole, as it were.

10/12/2010 08:11:00 PM  
Blogger black hole said...

Joseph, please reach down and note you have a sack between your legs.

That means you don't apologize for "impertinent edges." That means you slice through all the B.S. with your impertinent edges.

Get started slicing. That's an order, not a request.

10/13/2010 08:29:00 AM  
Blogger Joseph said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

10/13/2010 06:15:00 PM  
Blogger Joseph said...

Black Hole,
I appreciate your point. But this 'edge' cut through courtesy. In person I would introduce myself and at least merge into a discussion before asking someone to explain their religious commitment. The speed and anonymity of the web invites impertinence of the hurried, however, and coarseness, among other vices, but note that it makes no pretense of converting them into virtues.

10/13/2010 06:23:00 PM  

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