Friday, April 28, 2017

Bad News About the Good News

Maybe I have nothing to say because I've been dabbling in Kierkegaard, who would say that saying nothing is preferable to saying much of anything about God.

Rather, one must Do; or better, Be. In his view, there were few actual Christians, just a lot of people pretending to be. Which, in a way, is worse than being "anti-Christian."

"My task is to disabuse people of the illusion that they are Christians -- yet I am serving Christianity."

So, he's a kind of inverse apostle: instead of convincing people to convert to Christianity, he's trying to convince them they never did. He spent his life spreading Bad News about the Good News.

Frankly, he's a bit of a pill. An irritant. A provocateur. He likes to stir things up. He would say that any intellectual approach to Christianity is doomed to failure, and that we have to completely bypass the intellect in the act of faith. He has a point there: one can rationalize forever without taking that final leap, which does indeed require commitment.

This is why he is called an existentialist, and even the "founder" of existentialism: "To become a genuine self, an individual in the truest sense, was a central concern to Kierkegaard." He "stands against every form of thinking that bypasses the individual or enables the individual to escape his responsibility before God."

Either. Or. Which is the title of one of his most famous books. The point is, it's on you, and no amount of rationalizing can free you from making the choice rooted in faith. "Each person must choose between God and the world." And "if someone wants to have faith and reason too, well, let the comedy begin."

Who is this meddlesome noodge! I wonder what Schuon would say?

Kierkegaard’s “existence” nullifies itself through lack of sufficient reason; how is it possible to conceive of an “existential” morality, that is to say, a morality which is “lived and not thought” and therefore immune to “abstraction,” at the level of terrestrial man who is a thinking being by definition? This alternative between “existence” and “thought-abstraction” is the fundamental misunderstanding in existentialism; indeed the latter is simply one of the most aberrant manifestations of what may be described as Western alternatives.

Thank you. I knew there was something deviant in his approach, but I couldn't put my finger on it. Here's a guy who writes 35 abstruse books and 20 volumes of journals, but he's not an intellectual!

Yeah, "What is one to say of a philosopher who 'thinks' cheerfully about the insincerity or the mediocrity of 'thought' as such? Inept though that may be, an audience is never lacking for such literary artifices of a mentally compressed city dweller" (Schuon).

A mentally compressed city dweller. I'm going to steal that one. Does it not describe our blue state and bluer city mouth-breathren?

Schuon continues as only Schuon can:

The Western spirit has always lived to a large extent on alternatives.... One of the most typical examples in fact is Kierkegaard’s criticism of the “abstract thinker” who, so it would appear, is guilty of “the contradiction of wishing to demonstrate his existence by means of his thought.” “To the extent that he thinks abstractly he makes an abstraction of the fact that he exists” is the conclusion reached by this philosopher.

Now in the first place, really to think, to think intelligently, and not merely to juxtapose figurative or question-begging propositions implies by definition “thinking abstractly,” since otherwise thought would be reduced to imagination; and in the second place, there is no fundamental opposition between the two poles of existing and “thinking,” since our existence is always a mode of consciousness for us and our thought is a manner of existing.

What's with the hatred of the intellect? Yes, it is obviously misused, but so is everything. Faith is certainly misused. Why not spend one's life ranting about that?

Kierkegaard is not completely wrong. It's just that he inappropriately generalizes from the widespread misuse of intelligence:

An element of truth is contained nonetheless in the existentialist criticisms, in the sense that discursive knowledge is separative by reason of the subject-object polarization; however, the conclusion to be drawn from this is not that such knowledge is devoid of value on its own plane or that it is limited as to its content, but that it does not embrace all possible knowledge, and that in purely intellective and direct knowledge the polarization in question is transcended.

In other words, there is analytical knowledge that separates (and is rooted in separation), and unitive knowledge that synthesizes (and is grounded in unity). It's almost like left-brain/right-brain, or particle/wave, or part/whole. The world is bi-logical. Complementarity, baby. Not Either/Or, but Both/And.

Does man have a right to know? Or is his intellect totally superfluous? If so, why do we have it? What is it for? Can our highest ability really be worth less than nothing?

Meh. I can see his point, but he takes everything too far. Intelligence doesn't save. But nor does it condemn. To put it conversely, can't the whole man be saved, intellect included? Or is everything rotten in Denmark?

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Celestial Living in the Sublunary World

In lieu of a hiatus, maybe I'll just continue with shortish posts for awhile, until the urge to bloviate returns...

If materialism is the case, then all problems -- and their solutions -- come down to matter. So, "if all men were exempt from material cares," asks Schuon, "would the world be saved?"

"Assuredly not," because "evil resides above all in man himself, as experience proves."

I thought of this the other day when reading this article reminding me that you and I are Richer than John D. Rockefeller.

Think about the fact that in 1924, the 16 year-old son of a sitting president died of an infected blister. How much worldly power would you give up just for antibiotics? How much wealth would you exchange for...

The medical list alone is endless: powerful analgesics, MRIs, cancer cures, organ transplants, open heart surgery, hip replacements, psychopharmacology, etc. I mean, insulin didn't become available until 1922, so I'd be a dead billionaire.

The bottom line:

I wouldn’t be remotely tempted to quit the 2016 me so that I could be a one-billion-dollar-richer me in 1916. This fact means that, by 1916 standards, I am today more than a billionaire. It means, at least given my preferences, I am today materially richer than was John D. Rockefeller in 1916. And if, as I think is true, my preferences here are not unusual, then nearly every middle-class American today is richer than was America’s richest man a mere 100 years ago.

That is what you call a miracle: that the free market system has effectively transformed millions of ordinary people into billionaires -- or, into a lifestyle beyond the dreams of a 1917 millionaire.

But has it resulted in an increase in happiness? Do the average victims of a state-sponsored indoctrination even have the historical perspective to think in these terms, or are they utterly Creatures of the Now? Certainly the left doesn't look at it this way, by definition. For, in the words of Schuon,

Progressivism is the wish to eliminate effects without wishing to eliminate their causes; it is the wish to abolish calamities without realizing that the are nothing other than what man himself is; they necessarily result from his metaphysical ignorance, or his lack of love for God.

There are no material solutions to spiritual problems. That is a category error. But every problem looks like a nail if your only tool is a hammer... and sickle.

Envy has always been with us, but the political left has existed in a conscious and organized form for a couple hundred years (think of the left as intellectualized and/or organized envy). The left claims to be "progressive," but imagine if we had enacted their programs at any point along the way -- for example, in 1917.

Envy, of course, homes in on the existence of millionaires such as Rockefeller, and on the disparity between his and our incomes. Envy demands that this gap be closed now.

That could have been done, of course, but at the cost of destroying the Economic Progress Machine that in one hundred years would make us richer than Rockefeller. In other words, leftist policies can be fully enacted, but only once -- as in Venezuela. And good luck merely maintaining the level of prosperity that existed when you enacted them, since you destroy the very incentives that redound to the production of wealth.

Well, at least there are no longer any spiritual problems in Venezuela: spiritual hunger has been displaced by plain old hunger.

Is it even conceivable that an envy-driven leftism could be compatible with Christianity? "[T]radition has never admitted this kind of economic blackmail addressed to God" (Schuon). Nothing enslaves the spirit like liberation theology, and nothing asphyxiates gratitude -- the key to happiness -- like envy unbound.

Instead of having his gaze always fixed on the imperfections of the world and the vicissitudes of life, man should never lose sight of the good fortune of being born in the human state, which is the road leading to Heaven. --Schuon

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

The Inside Story of Religion

Although Schuon and Kierkegaard have little in common in style or approach, they would agree on this: "it can happen that a man is intelligent and competent, or that a minority is; but it cannot happen that the majority is intelligent and competent, or 'more intelligent' or 'more competent'" (Schuon).

Kierkegaard is on the same page: "As soon as truth is defined in terms of what the majority can understand it is ipso facto betrayed." But although "the truth is always in the minority, it does not follow that the minority always has the truth."

Nevertheless, "what most men are ready at once to understand, without further preparation, is unequivocally nonsense." Which is why people and institutions default leftward when deprived of any deeper understanding of the principles that govern human beings and their collective efforts.

These Principles have been known since Before the Beginning, from myths as diverse as Icarus or the Tower of Babel, up to more recent works of fantasy such as Mary Shelley's Frankenstein or Paul Krugman's latest editorial.

"In every profession, and in relation to every subject, it is the minority that knows; the multitude is ignorant." This is how we end up hoodwinked by statists and their mouthpieces in the MSM, since they presume to have the knowledge and expertise we lack. Which is what "makes the press the most profoundly demoralizing of all the forms of sophistry."

People think Trump is hard on the media. Listen to Kierkegaard: "The lowest depth to which people can sink before God is defined by the word 'journalist.'" And "If Christ now came to earth, as sure as I live, He would not attack the high priests and the like; He would focus his attention on the journalists."

Indeed, if we place all forms of literature on a vertical scale, revelation and journalism must be at antipodes. Where Schuon and Kierkegaard would differ is in the former's belief that revelation is an instantiation of metaphysical truths accessible to the intellect.

If I am not mistaken, Kierkegaard would reject that notion on the grounds that it represents an excessively abstract intellectualism. Schuon would respond that the point isn't merely to know these truths on the plane of abstract intellect, but to assimilate them via a legitimate religious practice.

On this they would agree. Sort of. For Kierkegaard, the whole point of religion is to realize its truths, not merely to "know" them with the mind.

This was the basis of his radical critique of Christianity as practiced and understood by his contemporaries: he essentially believed that the original revolutionary message had been domesticated and trivialized by respectable institutions and harmless church functionaries.

Isn't this always the way? I mean the way down, vertically speaking? I remember reading somewhere that virtually every schism, sub-schism, and sub-sub-schism is prompted by some religious minority longing for a more intense spiritual experience, or encounter with God.

Ironically, this is precisely why Catholics leave the church for Protestantism, and why Protestants return to the Church. Both are looking for the same thing, and perhaps it is more easily discovered in an unfamiliar setting -- similar to how life can be more vivid when vacationing, away from the familiar.

One of the appeals of Orthodox Christianity is no doubt its relative strangeness, especially for westerners (the same can obviously be said of Eastern religions such as Buddhism).

What we want is a Strange encounter with the radically Other. Such encounters must be the mother's milk -- or daily bread -- of religiosity, no?

This is what Kierkegaard is referring to with his insistence upon the subjectivity of Truth: not that Truth is subjective, God forbid, which would render it indistinguishable from lunacy. Rather, that it must be experienced subjectively, or inwardly; it is like the difference between seeing the notes printed on a page vs. hearing the musical performance.

So, don't misunderstand Kierkegaard when he claims, for example, that "I must find the truth which is a truth for me," or "Only the Truth which edifies, is Truth for you."

For he is not promulgating the subjectivity of Truth, but rather, the inevitable subjectivity of our response to it. In the face of Truth, "The problem is to potentialize one's own subjectivity to the highest maximum."

Really, he is advocating for a vertical plunge into the depths of Truth, which is never ending. There is no system we can master, which "presupposes a closed finality." Rather, "real life is always something we are in the midst of."

Which once again has political implications, because in the absence of this inward turn, man is just lost in the cosmos. In other words, no political program can accomplish what only individuals can do, one assoul at a time.

Kierkegaard even offered "a reward to any person who can find in the whole array of my books, one single proposal looking toward any outward change, or even the slightest hint of such a proposal" claiming "that the trouble lies in something external..."

No, the trouble is always inside. But it's easier to project the inside out and pretend to cure it with some political program.