Shock Treatment and Mystical Obliturature
In writing it, I was undoubtedly thinking of Meister Eckhart -- or he of me -- whose sermons I have been reading, for this would clearly be one of his takeaway points. Eckhart wasn't saying anything new, nothing that wasn't previously said by such luminaries as Maximus Confessor or Denys the Areopagite.
He was, however, saying it in a new and more pun-loving way, and saying it to a new audience consisting of regular churchgoers instead of concealing it behind the formal latin and linear logic of scholasticism. Eckhart is always aware of the fact that lived experience is infinitely richer than our ability to articulate it.
What Eckhart is really doing is playing with apophaticism, the latter of which is at the heart of any orthoparadoxical approach to, and formulation of, God, and which prevents us from confusing the divine form with its content (or its energies with its essence). It has a venerable tradition, beginning with the unpronounceable name of JHVH, which comes down to the impossibility of reducing the clearobscuro I AM to any cutandry HE IS.
Regarding Eckhart's freevangelical pundamentalism, McGinn writes that he "deliberately adopted a strategy designed to shock the reader" or listener, and "consciously adapted [a] fluid hermeneutic of multiplication [of meanings] and mischievousness for the good of his students and his lay audience."
In so doing, his linguistic jive-alarmamentarium included paradox, oxymoron, chiasmus, parallelism, antithesis, hyperbole, negation, and the negation of negation (McGinn). These modalities contribute to "the 'shock treatment' of a mystical discourse designed to awaken by challenging traditional modes of speaking and understanding" (ibid).
Shock treatment. Reminds me of a swimming pool. As you pool owners know, in addition to regular chlorination, every once in awhile you have to shock the pool with an extra strong dose of chlorine, in order to neutralize all of the little beastlings that survive the regular dose.
The same applies to theology, only more so. You might say that the usual pneumababble and sanctified blah blah is analogous to regular chlorination. You can get so used to it, that you don't really hear it anymore, or it no longer penetrates to the core. Perhaps it keeps most of the mind parasites at bay and algae off your north face, but everyone recognizes the need for the occasional shock treatment, whether it involves going on retreat, intensifying one's prayer life, or exposing the parasites to a deadly dose of One Cosmos nonsense.
Prior to Joyce, I can't think of anyone who played with the possibilities of language -- the word! -- more than Eckhart. Obviously referring to himself, Joyce writes in Finnegans Wake,
"Shem is as short for Shemus as Jem is joky for Jacob. A few toughnecks are still getatable who pretend that aboriginally he was of respectable stemming [but] every honest to goodness man in the land of the space of today knows that his back life will not stand being written about in black and white. Putting truth and untruth together a shot may be made at what this hybrid actually was like to look at." (I think Joyce is speaking of what happens if we shine too bright -- and too unplayful! -- a rationalizing light on scripture, in this case, the Torah.)
Nevertheless, despite his flaws and failings, the author, the conveyor of the Word, "lifts the lifewand and the dumb speak," meaning that his words have the power of life. (For Eckhart, knowledge is life, and vice versa.)
So, as with Joyce, it's difficult to know when Eckhart is just pulling your leg. And even when he does, he's usually just trying to make the wrong one right, so it goes all the way to the ground.
For Eckhart, the ground -- or perhaps groundless ground -- is the Godhead, which is (vertically) anterior to God. That is, "The Godhead becomes 'God' in the flowing of creation."
This is just the kind of statement that can get a man in trouble if his inquisitors lack a sense of humor. And proportion.
Eckhart explains: "Though it may be called a nescience, an unknowing, yet there is in it more than in all knowing and understanding without it, for this unknowing lures and attracts you from all understood things, and from yourself as well."
This results in a kind of soul-flooding -- since we cannot possibly contain the divine essence -- which "runs over and floods into the powers and into the outward man."
It is not just a "turning around" (metanoia, repentance), but a kind of cosmic inversion whereby the world-current is reversed and we live in the state of what we call O --> (n).
In fact, "no man ever went astray for any other reason than that he first departed from this, and then sought too much to cling to outward things.... [T]here are many who sought light and truth, but only outside where it was not to be found. Finally they go out so far that they never get back home or find their way in again" (M.E.).
This is what we have in the past referred to as the "terminal moraine of the senses." But one could just as well call it a desert or dump or OWS encampment.
Reader Gabe expresses concern that "I cannot help but think that when you try to integrate different ways of knowing, after you have found one you trust, you run a risk of picking and choosing what you like," and "when you admit other sources besides the one that brung ya' where you're at, it messes with your frame of reference."
True enough, but there is another side to that coin. It wasn't too long ago -- just a blink of the world-hisorical eye -- that the religions were separated from each other by geographical, linguistic, and cultural barriers. As Schuon notes, each of them speaks of the "absolute," and designates itself as its guardian. But how can there be more than one absolute?
This question generally leads either to a kind of adamantine literalness or a corrosive cynicism, neither of which is conducive to growth. In the words of Schuon, "Confronted with a relativism that is growing ever more intrusive, it is necessary to restore to the intelligence a sense of the absolute, even to the point of having to underline for this purpose the relativity in which immutable things are clothed."
In other words, in order to preserve the absolute from the ravages of relativism, we must not absolutize that in which it is "clothed."
To put it another way, relativism has its rights. To deny relativism is to foster a totalitarian system, a la Iran or Saudi Arabia, where the absolute absolutely bars relativism, including such first degree relativities as liberty, private property, individualism, democracy, rule of law, meritocracy, and science.
What we need is a balance, or better yet, complementarity, between absolute and relative, not one or the other, each of which results in its own particular hell.
In fact, this book I'm working on, The Great Lie: Classic and Recent Appraisals of Ideology and Totalitarianism, fits right in with today's theme, in that the various political religions of the left "utterly deny the legitimacy of the liberal idea of separate spheres in social life and they replace the liberal distrust of politics with an absolutization of the latter."
This is the loony logic behind the intellectual children's crusade of the OWSers, who tell us that "government is corrupt and not to be trusted, and we need lots more of it!"