Monday, March 31, 2014

Torn Between Two Nothings

Let's try to summarize, which we rarely do, since we don't look back as often as we should in order to make sure previously colonized ground hasn't reverted to unsettled bewilderness and repopulated with native parasites.

We started down this cosmic artery -- well, to be honest, I think it all started sometime last fall, with Hartshorne and then Berdyaev, and has ramified into various iterations since then, never quite getting back to the point, which is what now?

Near as I can tell, it all began last October, with the shocking annunciation of my cosmic orientation, and we've been circling that strange attractor ever since: freedom, necessity, process, creativity, contingency, predetermination; in short, the universally necessary truths of existence.

Or, more specifically, I suppose you could say we've been trying to play Tradition in the key of process, or to weave an area rug out of God's facticity and human freedom -- a freedom which is pure nothingness in the absence of God's facticity, but another kind of bupkis if it is totally predetermined and foreknown by God. I say man is torn -- and (re)born -- between two tempting nothings: existentialism and predeterminism.

As I've said all along, in order to make this work, I think we need to tweak what we mean when we refer to divine omniscience. With the usual understanding, we render the term more banal than it actually is, basically turning God into the ultimate human know-it-all. But I think we need to dig beneath the surface of human thought in order to seek a better analogy.

Speaking of thought, I came across a provocative but self-evidently true statement in Topping, to the effect that "No other institution has been thinking about thinking as long as the church has." One of my problems with protestantism is that it doesn't adequately think about thinking, but rather, assumes a lot of thinks that end up predetermining how scripture will be interpreted, so that its conclusions are often metaphysical assumptions in disguise.

To cite one prominent example: if predeterminism is impossible in principle -- if it simply cannot be the case without rendering everything else we know incomprehensible -- then if our theology ends there, we need to rethink our assumptions.

To put it the other way around, if predeterminism is the case, then neither truth nor thinking are human possibilities. They are absolutely foreclosed, for the same reason freedom is nullified. Thus, truth and thinking are entirely bound up with freedom. This is a true ontological trinity: freedom/truth/thinking, or, in a word, creativity.

I have devoted many posts to thinking² (thinking about thinking), and one recurrent theme is that it involves not one but two distinct processes, one more developed than the other. Anyone can think. But thinking about thinking is an open system -- a dissipative structure -- on a higher level.

If we borrow an analogy from biology, you could say that the body as a whole "thinks about cells," so to speak. Each cell is alive, or like an independent thought. The organism is a higher thought that organizes all the subordinate cellular-thoughtlings.

Now let's abruptly shift gears and see how this applies to theology. Topping writes that faith "impart[s] to our freedom a distinct form." Oh? How could that be, if faith is simply assent to closed and settled "truths"? Isn't that the opposite of freedom?

Yes, in the same sense that if one of your cells decides to go rogue and metastasize into cancer, it is finally freeeeeeee! While it lasts. It seems to me that that sort of cancerous freedom is analogous to the absolute nothingness of existential freedom.

Perhaps we need to posit a Thinking³, which is God thinking about us. For there is revelation, and there is our response to it. This is clearly different in principle from thinking about our own thoughts. Revelation is "about God," but it is really more "about man," in that we obviously cannot comprehend God -- again, in principle -- but it is possible for God to provide a way for men to think about him. Thus, we could say that revelation is "God in the mode of man."

I might add that this would be the Whole Point of the Incarnation, wouldn't it? Prior to that there is incargnosis and there are incarnotions, but this is something entirely apart: Word made flesh, and therefore flesh made Word -- a text, a narrative, an intelligible corpus.

For Topping, "faith makes you truly human." It "defines and so limits thought through its dogmas, its institutions, its traditions," but that is hardly the end of it. Rather, only the Beginning, for faith "also liberates": "By imposing limits faith frees thought and action from futility and can render them divine."

I think this is perfectly analogous to Polanyi's distinction between tacit and focal (or from-->to) knowledge. That is, revelation provides God-given boundary conditions that allow thinking to vault to a higher sphere. This is the quintessential expression of human freedom, just as the fixed rules of spelling and grammar allow us with virtually every utterance to say something we've never said before in the same way.

Which is why, if you follow me, postmodernism is a terminal cancer of the mind. Or in other words, it consigns us to mere freedom, and there's not a damn thing we can do about it.


ted said...

By imposing limits faith frees thought and action from futility and can render them divine.

Yes, everyone wants freedom, yet few really know what that means.

Charles Murray giving some good lifestyle advice for us seeking true freedom. May be too late for me :).

NoMo said...

It may come as a surprise to God that He is not Omniscient!

Or not? Yikes.

Gagdad Bob said...

If he is omniscient (in that way), only he could know it.

julie said...

Ted, I've been thinking about buying that one this week. Not for myself so much, but as something to throw at the kids when they're old enough to resent the advice.

NoMo, perhaps the surprise is the point...

ted said...

I know this isn't an original thought, but I like the idea of God not giving us the answer in regards to him, but allowing us to keep asking the questions.

@Julie, yes, it would be a good gift for them. I could have used that advice despite the resentment. I was so against marriage & religion as a young man. But I always liked Groundhog Day!

USS Ben USN (Ret) said...

You hit a Om run today, Bob.
I am thoroughly reasonating with this post. Yer right, summaries are a good idea and can bring revealations that prior posts didn't quite reach (due to my own limitations, of course, because you have been saying this repeatedly).

USS Ben USN (Ret) said...

Thinkin' 'bout thinkin' 2 'n 3 = blown mind!
Whoa nellie! Stop the stage coach and put on yer thinkin' raccoon cap!

USS Ben USN (Ret) said...

I don't always think about thinkin' but when I do I like to Be I am what I Am.

ted said...

And then there no thinking about thinking => mysticism