Friday, February 28, 2014

No Brain, No Problem

Some fascinating material in this book on How Judaism Became a Religion.

Interestingly, it seems that all of the main strands of Judaism -- Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform -- emerged in the 18th and 19th centuries, and each can be seen as a reaction to modernity (somewhat similar to how Christian fundamentalism is a thoroughly modern ideology).

Reconstructionist Judaism is more of a 20th century North American phenomenon. I haven't yet gotten up to that chapter, but my limited understanding is that it is like a Jewish version of Unitarianism, i.e., they believe in no more than one God.

I found the discussion of the differences between Orthodoxy and Hasidism to be especially interesting. I trust that Gandalin will let us know if this is a simplistic caricature, but you could say that the Orthodox are analogous to scholastic philosophers poring over scripture and creatively engaging God's living law. Hasidism emerged as a kind of reaction to this, and is throughly mystical, experiential, ecstatic, and individualistic (i.e., not so much focused on the community).

The reason I find this interesting is that one finds this same complementarity in eastern and western forms of Christianity, i.e., Catholicism and Orthodoxy. And indeed, Hasidism emerged in eastern Europe whereas Orthodox Judaism reflects its highly intellectual and more "civilized" German culture.

Many German Jews apparently looked down on their eastern brethren as more than a little uncouth, uneducated, and superstitious; ironically -- considering what happened later -- many of them would have related more to their fellow non-Jewish Germans than to Polish or Russian Jews.

Anyway, the parallel to eastern and western forms of Christianity is intriguing. Eastern Christianity, unlike Catholicism, has never, to my knowledge, developed any systematic theology a la Thomas Aquinas. You might say they missed that boat entirely, and never made any attempt to reconcile revelation with modernity or science or rational philosophy.

Rather, like the Hasidim, they focus on the mystical and experiential. In fact, I would simply define mysticism as the experiential -- as opposed to intellectual or behavioral or (merely) emotional -- aspect of religion. It can never really be absent -- for example, the most intellectualized truth nevertheless must be experienced.

It's somewhat analogous to the distinction between light and heat. Intellectual light generates its own warmth, just as mystical heat radiates its own light. Or, just say mind and heart. Every human is equipped with each. At the start.

Imagine a giant global brain with western/left and eastern/right brain cerebral hemispheres.

Wait -- before you go any further -- can I buy some pot from you?

Anyway, come for the light, stay for the warmth. Or vice versa. A full service religion will feature both.

Back to The Tao of Christ. Speaking of experience, the author cautions us that mere knowledge (k) of revelation is useless; for it "cannot be separated from life," but rather, calls "for a radical transformation of our whole being."

In order to cover all the bases, we need to superimpose a cross over the brain. Thus, in addition to the left and right hemispheres, there is literally a higher and lower brain(s) -- there is the neocortex, under and behind which are the mammalian and reptilian brains, so to speak. And at the top of the spine there is the primitive brainstem of the simple Democrat. It assures respiration, a beating heart, and the ability to apply for food stamps, but little else.

Now, where is the source of our problems? Yes, life is problems. If you are dead, you have no problems. But where in the brain are our problems coming from? Well, I suppose it depends.

They say -- they being developmental neurologists steeped in attachment theory -- that they are stored away in the preverbal right cerebral hemisphere, which is why they are so difficult to detect and eradicate. They are beneath the reach of language, so to... not speak.

But there is a more general, universal, unavoidable problem associated with the human condition, and it is this upper and lower storey business. Freud supposedly thought he had discovered something new with his distinction between the primitive id and the civilized ego, but really, how could one fail to notice?

I remember, for example, when I was a bachelor living in Hermosa Beach. I would torture myself by riding my bike on the path along the beach. Suffice it to say, I did not have to think about scantily clad bodies in the sand. Rather, the thoughts bombarded me, entirely outside my will.

Phone rings. Unexpectedly called into work. On this perfect day for staying indoors, the first rainy day in over a year. Oh well. Life is problems.

9 Comments:

Blogger mushroom said...

It's like a King of the Rocketmen cliffhanger.

Glad you all are getting some rain. Ours arrives fresh-frozen later today. I was inside painting all the nice days when I could have been riding. March roars; we freeze.

I appreciate systematic theology, but I'm with The Tao of Christ because that's where I started. I might have gone off the deepak if it hadn't been for the scholarly side, though.

2/28/2014 10:45:00 AM  
Blogger julie said...

In order to cover all the bases, we need to superimpose a cross over the brain. Thus, in addition to the left and right hemispheres, there is literally a higher and lower brain(s) -- there is the neocortex, under and behind which are the mammalian and reptilian brains, so to speak.

Put it all together, and after a while it starts to look not so much like (⇵), and more like a meandering dance in all directions that eventually takes on a shape more like a churning sphere. Or perhaps like the flow of blood through a body, I suppose...

2/28/2014 11:26:00 AM  
Blogger julie said...

Re. the rain, be careful out there. People have a way of forgetting they know how to drive, even when it's only been a couple of months between rain showers. After a year, it must seem like the sky is falling...

Re. mysticism and the West, it occurs to me that it made a resurgence, at least in America, when you consider many of the charismatic protestant sects. Snake handling and glossolalia certainly don't rely on reason and logic, anyway. But still such a different expression from Orthodoxy.

In fact, I would simply define mysticism as the experiential -- as opposed to intellectual or behavioral or (merely) emotional -- aspect of religion. It can never really be absent -- for example, the most intellectualized truth nevertheless must be experienced.

Perhaps one of the reasons secularism has become so dominant in the modern world is that the majority of people - those who didn't grow up with the charismatic experience - never reach the point of intellectualizing truth. Those who grow up with church start not with mysticism, but a logic-centered approach that they never bother to comprehend, only cynically question, thus missing out on the experiential element entirely. Then they end up looking for it from the likes of a Chopra or Robbins...

2/28/2014 12:24:00 PM  
Blogger mushroom said...

Yes, snake-handling and glossolalia is akin to initiation.

Copperheads and rattlers would make me wonder if I was really serious about joining up.

I might want to start the frog-handling church, for those too jumpy for snake-handling.

2/28/2014 01:08:00 PM  
Blogger julie said...

lol - just don't lick your hands afterward...

2/28/2014 01:10:00 PM  
Blogger julie said...

The husband and I were just talking. It occurs to me, if I were on the west coast right now, that maybe it would be wise to have a plan in place to head inland on short notice.

We're not going to do a thing about Russia, but China is watching, and it's just been announced that a significant portion of our naval force is being put under wraps. We have two more years of president poofta, and after that, who knows? Maybe Americans will elect a stronger horse again. If I were China, this would be a prime opportunity for mayhem...

3/01/2014 10:00:00 AM  
Blogger Jack said...

We have two more years of president poofta, and after that, who knows?

Agreed. It's likely to be a bumpy ride.

3/01/2014 05:06:00 PM  
Blogger julie said...

Going back to Eastern and American mysticism, it occurs to me that one of the challenges to American mysticism is that it is considered (from the outside) not merely non-intellectual, but the purview of, well, yokels. Talking with some friends last night, and thinking about my younger self and the Jesus-willies, what turned me off about so much of my experience of Christianity in general was that so much of it seemed so stupid.

Partly, I know, that was due to the general cultural leftist snobbery I was still steeped in, but partly that was also just experience.

I don't know that I would have said that, even then, about Orthodoxy. It's mysticism, true, and maybe it's just that we don't see average Americans living it the way that the average Eastern European villager lives it, but there's such a long history and so much intelligent wisdom to be found that I can't imagine rolling my eyes at it the way I used to do about glossolalia, or those people who refuse all medical assistance and just rub some olive oil on whatever ails them. Actually, I still think they are kind of nuts, but I have a much deeper respect now for what they are trying to do.

3/02/2014 07:55:00 AM  
Blogger Gagdad Bob said...

In this interesting book on How Judaism Became a Religion, there is a chapter devoted to the ultra-Orthodox Satmar Hasidism in New York, who simply refuse to accommodate to modernity. They take isolationism to an extreme, creating their own version of a medieval village and keeping all influences out.

In fact, it seems that the essence of the dispute between the various strands of Judaism is how much history to allow in -- or how much change is permitted to the Law. Ultra-Orthodox say none whatsoever. Conservative Judaism seems more analogous to Catholicism, in which tradition is more of a creative dialectic between history and the Law. Reform tosses out most of the Law in favor of a watered-down ethics that is more acceptable to modern sensibilities.



3/02/2014 08:25:00 AM  

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