Friday, October 31, 2014

A New Birth of Freedom

No, I'm not referring to Election Day. Or maybe I am.

The "Infancy Narratives" are obviously rather scant, but from another perspective, it's rather remarkable that they exist at all. Why?

Because they place God in a rather unflattering, or at least undignified, light, especially considering a historical context in which casual infanticide was still widespread. "Historical documents of the time," writes Pursell, "say next to nothing about the women, children, and men living in destitution," which was the majority.

Even so, the existence of Rome brought about a kind of useable Cosmos, or functioning world order. To jump ahead a bit, if one wants to propagate -- much less incarnate -- a universal message, it won't do to download it into, say, an isolated group of hunter-gatherers, for the message will have no way to get out. Not only is there no writing or common language, there are no roads, no institutions, no way to get the Word out to others.

But the existence of Rome permitted a kind of convergence of Roman know-how, Greek know-what, and Hebrew be-who: technology, philosophy, and religion. So, there is a kind of nested context for the appearance of Jesus: a single family, within the womb of Judaism, situated in the wider context of Rome. As Benedict writes,

"For the first time, 'all the world,' the ecumene in its entirety, is to be enrolled [referring to the census that was taking place at the time of Jesus' birth]. For the first time there is a government and an empire that spans the globe....

"Only now, when there is a commonality of law and property on a wide scale, and when a universal language has made it possible for a cultural community to trade in ideas and goods, only now" can the universal message "enter the world." This goes to what is meant by "the fullness of time." The time must be ripe.

The first thing that will strike the shriveled sensibility of the politically correct will be something like "Universal? Spans the globe? What about China, or Persia, or the Aztec empire?" Well, maybe they weren't universal enough. Just sayin'. Even today, China may eventually conquer us, but they will never evangelize us. Nor will it be the first time that Christianity evangelized its own barbarian conquerers. Funny how God works that way.

Funny? Funny how?

"It is a colossal joke, actually, a characteristic of God's sense of humor.... The idea that God could have let himself be born as a defenseless baby occurred to virtually nobody" (Pursell). For that matter -- again, very much against the grain of the times -- Jesus "reserved his most dire warnings for those who harmed children and led them astray. He told everyone to live and love simply, as do children."

But although Jesus appears within the context of universal power -- or the most powerful civilization that had ever existed -- he is nevertheless born completely outside that worldly power. This is a true inversion (or "transvaluation") of values, another topic to which we will no doubt return.

But why would God incarnate completely outside what the world recognizes as power? I can think of several reasons; for example, to avoid confusing divine power with what the world recognizes as power. At the time, there was literally nothing as powerful as Rome; and to this day, there is literally nothing more powerless than an infant. That's what you call an infinite contrast. (Then again, think of the peculiar power of the infant to draw us into an intimate circle of love; truly, the infant is the hinge of psychohistorical evolution.)

Where does the Word dwell? Or, where does the word choose as a dwelling place? It seems that he has a marked preference for low and humble places -- that he resists the proud and mighty (or vice versa, rather). I would add that evolution always occurs at the edge of things, not the center.

In the animal kingdom, for example, it is said that speciation occurs as a result of a genetically similar population being isolated in a new niche. Benedict writes that Luke "wants to show that humanity starts afresh in Jesus." Thus, he represents a kind of speciation at the margin of empire, isolated in his niche by virtue of culture, religion, and class.

This implies that the cosmic speciation could not have occurred at the center of things -- which sheds new light on the difficulty faced by the rich man endeavoring to enter the kingdom of heaven, and conversely, the notion that the meek shall inherit the earth (among other passages).

So, Jesus is off in the bewilderness, not unlike the Jews wandering in the desert -- "desert" evoking the literal margin of civilization.

Of note, Jesus' purpose, one might say, is to participate in man, so that man might participate in God. But what does it mean to "participate in man?" I would suggest that there are many ways to participate in man, and yet, miss the point entirely.

For example, if one incarnates in, say, a Chinese emperor with 2,000 concubines, is that really going to give one a feel for what it means to be human? Will that provide a well-rounded, typical human experience? And will others be able to relate to the experience?

I would say that unless one directly participates in pain, helplessness, loss, powerlessness, betrayal, death, etc., one has not experienced the full human monty, but rather, eluded it.

Now, despite what we have said about human powerlessness, the whole point of the Incarnation involves, to paraphrase Schuon, absoluteness entering into relativity, and there can be no power that surpasses the Absolute. How is this power recognized, if it has nothing to do with what the world recognizes as power?

For Schuon, it manifests Truth and Presence, or one might say the presence of divine truth and truth of divine presence (Emmanuel, "God-with-us"). How else to explain the peculiar power of the martyrs? Or even the inexplicable persistence of this powerless divine power, 2000 years on?

This powerless power is on such a different plane from worldly power, that the latter can often appear almost demonic by comparison, especially lately. And yet, the divine power has a way of resurrecting, and more generally, reasserting itself in unexpected times and places. Like maybe next Tuesday, for example.

Out of time... to be continued...

Thursday, October 30, 2014

No Vacancy!

Well, yesterday wasn't a total loss. The subject of the seminar was the role of chronic inflammation in every imaginable illness, from heart disease to cancer to diabetes to depression and Alzheimer's. All the biggies -- including aging -- are more or less inflammatory autoimmune responses gone wild. The solution?

Don't get stressed (which triggers the inflammatory response), get lots of stage 4 sleep (which is when your brain manufactures the happy chemicals), and consume a lot of ginger, fish oil and other healthy fats, turmeric, green tea, cocoa, alpha lipoic acid, probiotics, and other medicines of immortality. Also walk 10,000 steps a day and do yoga -- or at least avoid sitting for lengthy periods. And definitely cut back on the carbs.

Back to our subject, which is the life of Jesus, starting with the Infancy Narratives. This is not the sort of subject I could ever tackle on my own, so I will be relying upon vertical inspiration to occasionally hijack the bus as we drive along. If that fails to occur, you'll be the second to know, because it will be just you and I without a third: static and not dynamic.

In these matters, two is company while three's a cloud: "The sacred cloud -- the shekinah -- is the visible sign of God's presence" (Benedict). This is the very same cloud that "overshadows" Mary, a subject to which we will return.

But to the extent that we exclude this mysterious Third, you might say there is No Vacancy, which is precisely the first problem faced by the baby Jesus: the world has no space for him. Luke informs us that there was "no room for them in the inn," for which reason Mary is reduced to giving birth in a manger, of all things, which is "a trough or open box in a stable designed to hold feed or fodder for livestock." It seems that his very first experience in this world involved pearls before swine and other beasts.

Benedict relates this to John's description of how "his own people received him not." You could say that the manger incident is just a preview of more unfortunate things to come, and more generally, that the light shines in a kind of invincibly ignorant darkness. Ultimately, the author of the world is strangely unrecognized by his own world: the creation rejects its own creator for something or someone better. But isn't this just Eden all over again?

"Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of man has nowhere to lay his head." Here again this is very odd, and has no resemblance to those Myths of Old to which middlebrow skeptics try to relate it.

For example, Egyptian pharaohs and Roman emperors were said to be offspring of divinities, but as Benedict points out, this was for transparently political reasons. i.e., "giving theological legitimacy to the cult of the ruler." This is born of the same atavistic impulse that once elevated Obama to a "lightbringer" or "evolutionary agent of change." Such pious legends cannot survive contact with reality.

Forgive me if I jump around, spirit blowing where it will and all that. But I keep coming back to the radical idea of the author of creation becoming a character in his own play. In so doing, he is definitely not -- in my opinion -- reading from a script that has already been written. Rather -- and this is the whole point -- he is submitting to his own creation.

Predestineers will of course disagree with me, and that is fine. But I was quite arrested by a passing comment on page 36, to the effect that "God seeks to enter the world anew. He knocks at Mary's door. He needs human freedom" (emphasis mine). Yes, God needs human freedom in order to pull this off. What a strange and radical -- and liberating -- idea! For it is as if the two freedoms must meet in freedom in order to co-create something radically unprecedented.

"The only way he can redeem man, who was created free, is by means of a free 'yes' to his will." And here is the sentence that really caught my eye; although some will disagree, it follows logically: "In creating freedom, he made himself in a certain sense dependent upon man. His power is tied to the unenforceable 'yes' of a human being."

Will Mary give her consent? Is there or is there not a vacant womb? Either this is a kind of "risk" on God's part (it certainly is from our perspective), or Mary's decision and later role lose all merit. God is taking a big gamble (I guess he plays dice after all) -- like a guy who asks his girlfriend to marry him in front of 50,000 people at Yankee Stadium. Sure, they always say yes, but still, you never know until you ask.

But Mary responds, Let it be to me according to your word, which represents "the moment of free, humble yet magnanimous obedience in which the loftiest choice of human freedom is made." It assures that the narrative to come is truly woven of human and divine freedom. "It makes," writes Balthasar, "the foreign land into a home in both directions: heaven on earth and, therefore, earth in heaven." In its absence, one could say that the world remains a foreign land with no proper space for us: life consists of alienation inside a cramped prison.

This reflects "the secret of the supernatural fruitfulness of the soul: that it is aroused entirely by the seed of God, and yet cannot do without the assent of the natural powers of the mind." This "willing cooperation" is "the sine qua non of its growth" (Balthasar) -- meaning that it is a necessary but not sufficient condition, the latter belonging to the God in whom all things are said to be possible.

Sounding very much like Eckhart, Balthasar goes on to say that "Whoever takes God's word into his soul becomes its mother and can, through grace, help bring it forth. But he can do this only because he is at the same time drawn into the eternal birth of the Son in the Father, in which, through grace, he becomes the brother or sister of the Word."

Thus, we are all coauthoring our own infancy narrative. Assuming we have a vacancy.

This mystery of the Incarnation has two aspects: the Word, on the one hand, and its human receptacle, on the other: Christ and Virgin Mother. To be able to realize in itself this mystery, the soul must be like the Virgin... --Schuon

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Who Do People Say That I Am? And Where Do They Think I'm From?

A reader has challenged me to conduct a complete exegesis of the Gospels, or more particularly, of Jesus. Of course, Jesus cannot be reduced to what is contained in the Gospels, but more importantly, I am no theologian, just a guy and his blog.

Therefore, I hatched the idea of rereading Pope Benedict's wonderful triptych starting with The Infancy Narratives, to Baptism through Transfiguration, and onto Holy Week and Resurrection.

In doing this I would like to preserve a kind of stereoscopic sensibility, in that I want to start from ground zero, or utter cluelessness, without too many assumptions about Who This Guy Is, even while bearing in mind that he is -- irrespective of whether or not one is a believer -- the most consequential person who has ever lived.

Now, "consequential," in the sense I am using it, means "laden with causation," so to speak. Again, irrespective of one's perspective, it is just an empirical fact that Jesus continues to cause an incalculable number of things to happen -- this post, for example. Obviously, I wouldn't be writing it if he hadn't existed (and this is leaving aside the question of whether Jesus is actively causing things in the vertical sense).

Take a contemporaneous historical figure, say, Tiberius, who was emperor of Rome during Jesus' ministry. Clearly, Tiberius was far more consequential at the time, as he had the power to make most anything happen, whereas Jesus had only the power of an anonymous peasant, which would have been a scintilla more than zero. His criminal's death on the cross would only seem to emphasize the point. Ultimately we would say that man himself had the power of life and death over God -- or at least so it would seem.

Fast forward 2000 years, and we see that Tiberius is essentially inconsequential -- whatever causes he initiated have eventually dissipated -- whereas Jesus' consequentiality only grows over the centuries, like some kind of mustard seed or something.

Again I want to remind the reader that I am attempting to begin this analysis from a standpoint of ignorance which may at times resemble blasphemy. But based upon what we have thus far said, it seems to me that even the most intellectually uncurious and even tenured person would find this rather puzzling: how does the most consequential man on earth become so inconsequential (hey, ask Obama!), whereas how does a common criminal -- whom contemporary psychiatry would frankly regard as delusional -- become the most consequential? (Enough about Obama!) You have to admit that this is odd, odder still if a lunatic is the most consequential man in history.

But let's not prejudge the case: it's not as if other lunatics, or knaves, or criminally insane, have not turned out to be quite consequential. I know, for example, of a religious founder who took pleasure in marrying underage girls and decapitating those who resisted his message of peace. And it is arguable that the second most consequential man in all of history has been none other than Karl Marx. He too continues to reach from the grave and cause any number of things to occur, for example, Obama (and everything Obama causes in return).

Where to begin, with theology, or metaphysics, or history? In a way, this goes directly to the infancy narratives, for what are they actually? Are they really just banal "history" as understood by the modern mind? Or are they theology presented in the form of historical narrative? Or are they, like Genesis, more like lessons in metaphysics and ontology, in this case revealed via biography (or word in flesh)?

Not to get ahead of ourselves, but we do have to begin somewhere. For the Jewish mind, one operating assumption was that man is already in the image of God. Boiled down to an abstract principle, it means that man and God are complementary, even if God necessarily takes priority: man illuminates God because God has first illuminated man.

So, one of our assumptions is that there is both horizontal and vertical causation. Frankly, if there were only the former, then man could never know it. Rather, to know of the horizontal is to be in the vertical; and to be in the vertical is to live in this mysterious space between matter and God; or relative and absolute, if you nonbelievers prefer.

Now, even the most thoroughly secular person is still trying to "ascend" (in the vertical). How? Well, science, for example, is, in its very essence, the reduction of multiplicity to unity. Note, however, that there is a kind of unity in both (vertical) directions. We can descend all the way down into a dark monistic materialism; or, we can ascend into an differentiated but integrated synthesis, which is the luminous way of genuine science (or at least philosophy of science).

But the Christian story -- or the infancy narratives -- begins at the other end of the vertical, with "a man on a mission," so to speak. In other words, this is a hypothetical descent from the most-high to the most-low (in human form).

Thus, on the one hand people knew exactly where Jesus was "from": he's that guy from Nazareth. But at the same time, the Gospels record consternation about how this guy from Nazareth could presume to know all that. When Jesus asks, "Who do people say that I am?," he's also posing the question, Where do you think I am from?, and even Why do you think I am here?, or What is my vertical message?

For Benedict, the Gospels, each in their own way, "set out to answer these questions." In short: Who? Where? Why? and, How can we participate? Each of these is inextricably intertwined with the others, and I would say goes to the question of how Jesus can be so consequential and continue to cause things like this post to happen today.

Benedict points out that Matthew and Luke present two very different genealogies, one essentially extending from the origin to the now, the other from the now to the origin. As Abraham's life "points forward" to his multitude of progeny (both horizontal and vertical), Matthew wants to say that this stream reaches a kind of focused intensity in the person of Jesus -- or Mary, rather.

If the genealogical stream suggests horizontal continuity from Abraham to Mary, then the vertical ingression into Mary implies discontinuity: "Mary is a new beginning. Her child does not originate from any man, but is a new creation, conceived [vertically] through the Holy Spirit."

At this point -- if not sooner -- non-believers will have already manifested the Jesus Willies, meaning that something in them recoils from all this sappy Jesus talk. Again, I am attempting to avoid this, to the extent that it is possible. Rather, I am trying to open up a space for understanding, even if one ultimately rejects what one has understood.

You might say I am trying to provide some cognitive "hooks" for the modern mind, which will otherwise reject the whole thing out of head.

In this case, I am simply positing the idea that man self-evidently has access to the vertical; that this vertical is either hierarchical (conditioned from top to bottom) or an unintelligible absurdity; and if the former, then the possibility that the top of the hierarchy may manifest in the bottom. This latter would represent "Incarnation," but let's not get ahead of ourselves. At this point we are simply affirming the possibility. And if it is possible for dead matter to come to life, we should keep an open mind as to other possible secrets matter has in store for us.

So, the gospels imply that "Jesus belongs by law, 'legally,' to the house of David. And yet he comes from elsewhere, 'from above' -- from God himself." The point is that this man has a mysterious "dual origin"; he is both one of us and not like any of us: brother and stranger, friend and superior, Jesus and freak.

To be continued... assuming interest.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Adaptation to the Environment vs. Openness to Being

Not enough time for a new post. So I plunged down seven years into the arkive, and rejected about a dozen before settling on this one as salvageable. When I say "salvageable," I mean it has been both edited and added to. As usual when I revisit a post, I regarded it as if it were written by someone else, and took the liberty of correcting the author and fine-tuning his arguments...

As I've mentioned before, I'm not a bitter person, but I do still mildly resent the fact that it took me half my life to unlearn my left wing brain-washing and soul-dirtying and rearrive at where my philosophical endeavors should have started to begin with. I wasted so much time assimilating things that are not only wrong but harmful to the soul and incompatible with true happiness or fulfillment.

What in the world is the world? Or, to put it another way, what kind of world is the world of man, and is it the same as the world? Ever since Kant, the answer has been No: our world -- the world we perceive -- is just a form of our sensibility, a kind of projection of our neurology. Therefore, it is not the world. Rather, the world -- whatever that is -- is radically inaccessible to man. (Which begs the question of how we can even posit it, but whatever.)

This question is addressed in an enjoyable book I'm currently reading, For Love of Wisdom: Essays on the Nature of Philosophy, by Josef Pieper. One of the themes Pieper develops is the idea that all other animals merely live in a world, whereas human beings are privileged to (potentially, at least) live in the world.

For example, people assume that all animals with eyes, when they look at an object, see the same thing, when this is demonstrably untrue.

Pieper cites the example of a certain bird that preys on grasshoppers but is incapable of seeing the grasshopper if it isn't moving. Only in leaping does the grasshopper become distinct from the background -- which is why many insects (and higher animals) "play dead."

In their resting form, it is not so much that they are dead as literally invisible. It is as if they drop into a hole and no longer exist in the world of the predator. Even if the bird were starving, it could search and search, and yet, never find the unmoving grasshopper right under its beak.

What this means is that the animal cannot transcend its biological boundaries, even with an organ -- the eye -- seemingly equipped for the task.

Pieper quotes the biologist Uexküll, who draws a distinction between the animal's environment and the actual world. As he writes, "The environments of animals are comparable in no way to open nature, but rather to a cramped, ill-furnished apartment."

Animals are confined to the environment to which they are adapted, and from which they can never escape. Most of the world is simply not perceived or even capable of being perceived. In fact, the world did not come into view until human beings happened upon the scene.

But given Darwinian principles -- which, by the way, we can only know about because we have transcended them -- how did mankind escape its cramped environment and enter the wider world?

Or did we? Are we as trapped in a narrow cross-section of reality as our tenured apes? If so, then both science and religion are impossible. Like the bird looking for the immobile grasshopper, we could find neither "the world" nor "God," despite the most diligent searching. Indeed, we wouldn't even know of the existence of the reality for which to search. But if science is possible, then God is necessary. Or, to put it another way, since God exists, science is possible.

Pieper writes that the human spirit is not so much defined by the property of immateriality as it is "by the ability to enter into relations with Being as a totality," in a way that transcends our mere animal-environmental boundaries.

Now, as Schuon always emphasized, the intellect is not restricted to a particular environment. Rather, it is universal -- "relatively absolute" -- and therefore able to know the world. As Pieper writes, "it belongs to the very nature of a spiritual being to rise above the environment and so transcend adaptation and confinement," which in turn explains "the at once liberating and imperiling character with which the nature of spirit is immediately associated."

This is what I was driving at on p. 92 of the book: "Up to the threshold of the third singularity, biology was firmly in control of the hominids, and for most of evolution, mind (such as it was) existed to serve the needs of the primate body. Natural selection did not, and could not have, 'programmed' us to know reality, only to survive in a narrow 'reality tunnel' constructed within the dialectical space between the world and our evolved senses."

But then suddenly Darwin was cast aside and "mind crossed a boundary into a realm wholly its own, a multidimensional landscape unmappable by science and unexplainable by natural selection"; humans ventured out of biological necessity and "into a realm with a vastly greater degree of freedom, well beyond the confining prison walls of the senses."

Thus, natural selection is adequate to explain adaptation to an environment, but it cannot explain our discovery and comprehension of the world. Pieper quotes Aristotle, who wrote that "the soul is in a way all existing things."

What does he mean by this? What he means is that the soul is able to put itself in relation to the totality of Being. While other animals have only their little slice of Being, the human is able to encounter Being as a whole.

Thus -- running out of time here, but thus -- to be in Spirit is "to exist amid reality as a whole, in the face of the totality of Being." Spirit is not a world, but the world. Or, to be precise, "spirit" and "world" are reciprocal concepts, the one being impossible in the absence of the other. Science itself is a spiritual world, or it is no world at all, only an environment. Usually an academic environment.

Bottom line: there is no naturalistic way to get from the restricted intelligence of animals to the open intelligence of humans.

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