Thursday, November 21, 2013

Nevertheless, God is a Jazzman

Christian Existentialism unscrambles excerpts from Berdyaev's thirty odd books and helpfully reassembles them under various headings, such as What Can We Know?, The Eternal Being, and God's Latest Image (that would be us). As I said, Berdyaev himself is not systematic or organized, so this approach makes him much more accessible, not to mention aphoristic and blogworthy.

For example, just what can we know? Are we really stuck inside of Kantville with the transcendental blues, or can we know stuff?

Well, first of all, Berdyaev -- proto-Raccoon that he is -- doesn't begin with being. Rather, he insists that Personality is prior to being. This follows from our understanding that God is above all else an irreducible "I."

In God's famous wisecrack -- some variant of I Am That I Am -- the accent is on the I rather than the AM. Or in other words, AM is a consequence of I, because the converse could never be true, for the same reason you can't get blood from a turnip. In a way, trying to derive persons from being is more than a little like trying to turn stones into bread.

Now, if there is something prior (meaning ontologically, not chronologically, prior) to person, it is freedom. You might say Berdyaev posits a third stance alongside existentialism and essentialism. Pardon the pedantry, but the former makes essence a function of existence, while the latter posits essence as prior to existence.

In practical terms, this means that, for the left, for example, who you are is a function of existential considerations such as race, or class, or sexual orientation. Or in other words, you're nobody 'til somebody hates you.

But for the essentialist-conservative, all the categories the leftist holds sacred are just accidents and contingencies. For the conservative liberal, the real purpose of life is to actualize our essence, not reduce ourselves to some fixed victim class of the left. The left's approach effaces identity and personhood as a necessary consequence.

But again, interestingly, Berdyaev posits freedom as even prior to essence. This makes perfect sense to me, in that it seems that real personal essence would be inconceivable in the absence of freedom.

Or other words, either we are free or we are not. If we are not free, then personal identity is just an illusion. We may imagine we are "choosing," but the choices are determined by our essence (or worse, existence).

Therefore, it seems to this Raccoon that personhood is really a dialectic -- or play, if you like -- of essence and freedom, or of I and Slack. Our essence is a mere abstraction until it encounters being in freedom, which results in our concrete I at any moment.

I mean, isn't this how it works? I think I'm being quite literal here, not at all distant from how it feels to be being someOne.

To make it even more concrete, it is exactly like jazz. Jazz, you might say, is America's gift to the world. But before that, it is God's gift to America. It is a kind of objective correlative to American-style freedom, or to the ordered liberty of the founders. Old white men indeed. Rather, the founders were funky old jazzers.

I realize this will sound offensive in the context of slavery, but the black experience in America is really a microcosm of the whole process, elevated to a plane of transcendental beauty. When we think of quintessential American music, what is it? Mostly jazz, blues, soul, rhythm & blues, gospel. Each of these, in its own way, is "the sound of freedom."

Now, why would a formerly enslaved people create such a beautiful sound? Perhaps for this very reason. Since physical -- i.e., horizontal -- freedom was restricted, blacks poured forth this longing on the vertical plane, via musical expression.

Furthermore, music was very much a way to express identity and personhood that were otherwise denied by cultural oppression. Take anyone, for example Louis Armstrong, or Duke Ellington, or Thelonious Monk. To a racist-existentialist, they are simply boy, or n-----, an anonymous designation determined by race, by existence. But the existential yoke is really on the racist, for each of these men not only expressed their unique identity via music, but created whole musical worlds that will endure and be explored forever, whereas the racist is buried in an anonymous grave that no decent person wants to visit.

So in his own way, the racist makes himself as unfree as his projected existential dunce partner. In other words, the racist needs the "inferior" race in order to imagine he is superior. The same dynamic exists in contemporary liberalism, since the white liberal's identity is thoroughly entangled in his sanctimonious and condescending attitude toward the blacks he presumes to pity.

Why more blacks aren't offended by liberal condescension is something of a mystery, but no more mysterious than the liberals who do the condescending. It takes two to engage in this freedom-denying dialectic of existence and accident, just as it takes three to engage in the trialectical spiral of freedom, person, and essence.

Returning the Berdyaev, "Personalism must recognize the primacy of freedom over being," for "the philosophy of primacy of being is a person-less philosophy." And the latter is also a deterministic philosophy, because it tries to make freedom a function of being, "which in the final analysis means that freedom is the child of necessity."

This leads to a rather controversial conclusion, radical in its implications, but no less radical than the Coonifesto. I can understand if one recoils from this conclusion, but I accept it wholeheadedly, for it makes sense of a great deal of nonsense (and vice versa):

"[F]reedom cannot be derived from being." Rather, it "is rooted in nothingness, in bottomlessness, in non-being, if we use ontological terminology. Freedom is without foundations; it is not determined, it is not born of being....

"The primacy of freedom over being is also the primacy of spirit over being. Being is static: spirit is dynamic.... spirit is subject and subjectivity: it is freedom and creative act."

And finally, "man faces, not abstract truth, but Truth as the way and the life. 'I am the truth, the way and the life.' This means that truth is concrete personality, its way and its life'.... Truth is dynamic in the highest degree.... It is given only in creative act" (Berdyaev).

Bottom line: I can imagine this on God's eternitable. At any rate, it's on mine:

10 Comments:

Blogger ted said...

Fascinating post today.

"[F]reedom cannot be derived from being." Rather, it "is rooted in nothingness, in bottomlessness, in non-being, if we use ontological terminology. Freedom is without foundations; it is not determined, it is not born of being....
"The primacy of freedom over being is also the primacy of spirit over being. Being is static: spirit is dynamic.... spirit is subject and subjectivity: it is freedom and creative act."


Interesting distinction between being and non-being or beyond being (this also fits with Schuon's system). In some schools, the ground of being and being are seen as the same (non-dual), but then that creates an ontological orientation of repose to life. And I know you have brought this out from time to time, comparing western and eastern metaphysics (as above, so below). The West succeeded in emanating more truth, beauty, and goodness because we saw the distinction of freedom as prior and primary to being.

11/21/2013 08:48:00 AM  
Blogger Gagdad Bob said...

I agree: the only difference is that the relation between the two is not an emanation (from beyond-being to being) but a dialectic: the dialectic of eternal becoming.

11/21/2013 08:55:00 AM  
Blogger julie said...

"[F]reedom cannot be derived from being." Rather, it "is rooted in nothingness, in bottomlessness, in non-being, if we use ontological terminology. Freedom is without foundations; it is not determined, it is not born of being...."


Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters....

***

This post reminds me of a long ago conversation regarding the movie Hollow Man, and how he behaved outside of the constraints of being seen. The fellow I was talking with maintained that anyone invisible would use the opportunity to essentially become a stalker. I disagreed; rather, I thought that the added freedom would simply allow people to become even more what they already are.

11/21/2013 08:57:00 AM  
Blogger son of a preacher man said...

"In other words, the racist needs the "inferior" race in order to imagine he is superior."

Every time I have ever heard a white racist opine about his supposed superiority, my 1st thought is always, "You obviously are not a musician."

Even the advent of Country and Bluegrass were influenced by black musicians.

11/21/2013 10:03:00 AM  
Blogger Van Harvey said...

"But again, interestingly, Berdyaev posits freedom as even prior to essence. This makes perfect sense to me, in that it seems that real personal essence would be inconceivable in the absence of freedom."

As would truth.

11/21/2013 10:33:00 AM  
Blogger mushroom said...

Our essence is a mere abstraction until it encounters being in freedom, which results in our concrete I at any moment.

That dovetails with what I've been studying lately. As you say further down, the end of it makes a lot of us uncomfortable. Great post.

11/21/2013 10:53:00 AM  
Blogger Gagdad Bob said...

Again, so much of traditional theology is from Aristotle, not the Bible. If we take the passage cited by Julie as a cue, perhaps it implies that in the vertical, ontological beginning -- which is always now -- God is perpetually transforming nonbeing into being. Which is really what creativity is all about: using freedom to bring into being something that cannot be reduced to its antecedents. Creation is the great Something For Nothing, which, according to the highest authority -- i.e., the Book of the Subgenius -- is none other than Slack.

11/21/2013 02:55:00 PM  
Blogger Magister said...

Awesome post.

11/22/2013 08:11:00 AM  
Blogger Magister said...

the dialectic of eternal becoming

Very interesting and attractive idea. But if Person (the Trinitarian dialectic) is prior to Being, how can we talk about the Trinitarian Persons apart from their existence? What *is* there to talk about?

One answer presumably is "whatever God reveals to us."

I love the jazz analogy. You should write a book about the spirit of music, Bob. I'd buy it.

11/22/2013 08:19:00 AM  
Blogger Gagdad Bob said...

I think Hartshorne provides the solution, in that we can distinguish between the abstract possibility of the Trinity and its concrete expression. Similar to the Orthodox distinction between God's essence and energies. We can know only the energies, not the essence.

11/22/2013 08:24:00 AM  

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