Friday, March 27, 2015

Looking for God Between the Syntactical Trees and the Semantic Forest

Or, between words and meaning; or more generally, symbols and symbolized. Consider: "It is possible to know every word in the dictionary," "and yet be unable to write a living sentence, or even respond to the life in the writing of other men" (Sheed).

The trouble is, every word has a particular meaning, but this meaning must be subordinated to the meaning of the sentence -- and then sentence to paragraph, paragraph to chapter, chapter to narrative, etc.

I remember once reading in a Scientology pamphlet of L. Ron Hubbard's advice to his clones on how to approach a difficult text. To the extent that you don't understand it, just look up each unknown word in the dictionary, then put it all together. Voila! Meaning.

I've never tried the method, but it would probably be impossible even for simple sentences, because you'd just end up with more autonomous parts without getting any closer to the integral meaning.

I'm tempted to try....

Okay: "I live in a house."

To streamline this, I'll just use the first definitions.

"Someone possessing and aware of possessing a distinct personal individuality am alive -- i.e., have the life of an animal or plant -- in a location or in space or in some materially bounded object, in this case a structure intended or used for human habituation."

But then you'd have to look up possessing, distinct, individuality, materially, structure, etc. Thus, the Hubbard Method just makes things more convoluted, not easier. Plus -- like the dictionary itself -- it is ultimately tautologous. That is, words just refer to other words, in a closed logoverse. For example, my Oxford dictionary couldn't even define "in" without using the word. Ultimately you probably couldn't say a thing without literally involving the whole dictionary.

More generally, knowing the meaning of words is an entirely different function from using them well in a sentence. In fact, using them well often involves using them incorrectly. I recently read a biography of Wodehouse, in which the author wrote the following very Wodehousian sentence: "To this day, even as a peacetime museum, it broods menacingly over the tower of Huy..." If you were to deploy the Hubbard Method to deconstruct the sentence, you'd be left with the impression that inanimate buildings are subject to moods and intimidating gestures.

Wodehouse habitually tossed in bizarre personifications, e.g., As I sat in the bath tub, soaping a meditative foot and singing..., or He uncovered the fragrant eggs and b., and I pronged a moody forkful..., or Unseen, in the background, Fate was quietly slipping the lead into the boxing gloves, etc. There are hundreds if not thousands of these.

This is a long way of asking the question: how would it even be possible to understand scripture if we didn't already understand it?

A more basic problem, it seems to me, is how words -- and language more generally -- get outside themselves? Again, if words just refer to other words, then they cannot refer to God, except in the form of another word.

The short answer is of course provided by the pneumanaut with the umlaut, Gödel. He proved once and for all that any logical system contains assumptions that cannot be justified by the system. Rather, we need the assumptions to get off the semantic goround.

As we've discussed before, postmodernists completely misunderstand this to mean that there is no possibility of real meaning, but Gödel's whole point -- at least according to Goldstein -- is that there are truths that cannot be proved logically. He didn't intend to abolish truth but preserve it.

It also means that, whatever our minds are, they cannot be digital computers, because they always transcend the digits. His theorems "don't demonstrate the limits of the human mind, but rather the limits of computational models of the human mind (basically, models that reduce all thinking to rule-following)" (Goldstein).

Otherwise, Gödel's theorems would disprove Gödel's theorems. As we mentioned a couple of posts back, man breaks out of his animal form and opens out to the infinite, "beyond the circumscriptions of personal experience to gain access to aspects of reality that it is impossible to otherwise know" (ibid.).

So language, in order to get beyond itself, must be a vertically open system in which something from beyond the system is able to infuse the words with a meaning and a Life which they alone cannot convey.

Gödel -- unlike positivists at one end and deconstructionists at the other -- "is committed to the possibility of reaching out... beyond our experiences to describe the world 'out yonder.'" This yonder world is a reality "of universal and necessary truths" to which we are mysteriously -- and sometimes mythteriously -- able to gain access. As a result, we may gain "at least partial glimpses of what might be called... 'extreme reality.'"

Yesterday, out of the blue, my son surprised me by reeling off pi to eight or ten decimals. What does it mean that the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter is a deeply irrational number that goes on forever? The circle has always been considered the "perfect" form, so it was troubling to the ancients that pi brooded so menacingly over them.

Schuon often deployed the geometrical circle as a point of reverence to make theometrical statements about God. For example, if God is the center of the circle, we are at the periphery. Looked at this way, the center is surrounded by concentric circles corresponding to this or that worldspace, e.g., life, mind, matter, angels, archetypes, etc. Some worlds are necessarily closer to or more distant from God. Evil is way out there.

But it can also be used the other way around, such that the world is within the circle and the infinite God surrounds it (like the mysterious "man in the donut" in the sidebar).

To put an impatient kibosh on this scatterish post, "The man who does not believe in God must read Scripture differently from the man who does.... a discussion between them as to the meaning of the New Testament is as though one were discussing marriage with a eunuch" (Sheed).

Thursday, March 26, 2015

One Out of Two Universes Ends in Divorce

Last week we spoke of those convenient points of reverence that sound "a note from the external senses and [resonate] throughout the interior faculties..." This receptive act "effortlessly assembles impressions and spontaneously gives a spiritual knowledge of being, a kind of song of reality" (Taylor).

So, the senses are not merely sensory but always... sensible as well: although we can distinguish sense from intellect, we cannot radically isolate the two from each other. You might say that there is always a bit of intellect in the senses, and a bit of sensation in the intellect, as in the image of the Tao. Or a kind of marriage, if you like.

Now, why is this important? Well, when we think about ultimate reality, it seems to me that "sensation" is precisely what separates outside from inside. However, it is also what unites inside and outside. Therefore, sense is like the semipermeable membrane that faces both ways, between the interior and exterior of the cosmos. You know, Janus-faced.

This is what I was attempting to convey way back in the portentously titled Book Two, via the strange phenomenon of biogenesis. For example, if it were possible to insert an observer into our cosmos prior to the emergence of life -- a logical impossibility, but go ahead anyway -- there would have been no outside nor any inside.

You might be tempted to think that it was all outside -- i.e., exterior and objective -- but outside co-arises with inside. Analogously, not only is there is no husband without a wife, but husband-and-wife instantaneously co-arise with the incantation of I Do. It's the same way with objects. There can be no objects without a subject, no one to draw any boundaries between them.

So anyway, go back to any time prior to the emergence of life, and "no amount of knowledge of physics or chemistry could have discerned the fantastic potential that only time could reveal; or have foretold the luminous fissure that was about to break open in this heretofore dark, impenetrable circle" (me).

But THE most dramatic thing about the emergence of life is that we now have a division, a boundary, a membrane, and therefore an inside and an outside. There is even the trace of a subject, as in a ME and a NOT ME. The simplest cell has some means of distinguishing ME from NOT ME, if only a physical boundary. And all senses are ultimately touch, only of more subtle things such as air vibrations or photons.

A modest thing, no doubt, but all subsequent development is rooted in this distinction. For example, where would we be without our immune system? It is our most primitive means of profiling any NOT MEs with dubious intentions, but we'd be dead without it.

Back to the emergence of this most primitive membrane that brings about a new, two-faced world: "Here, the dawning of an internal horizon in a universe now divided against itself, the unimaginable opening of a window on the world, a wondrous strange mutation as unique, mysterious, and altogether strange as our first bang into material space-time..." (me again).

So yes, Life is an explosion, as was matter before and mind after. And a few posts back we shared that line about how "[I]nfinite love has exploded into our universe; theology is an effort to diagram the explosion. The diagram is indispensable, but it is not the reality and it must not obsess us. What matters is the love, and that cannot be diagrammed" (Sheed).

But nothing can happen until we have the membrane: without it we remerge with matter, ashes to ashes and dust to dust. With it there is the ingression of freedom, truth, love, and beauty into this world. You might say that Life is the first step of transcendence, since any living organism transcends the material of which it is composed. The organism is a kind of space-time pattern through which constituent elements flow in and out.

Transcendence, as Schuon correctly observes, is "separative." You might even say that it is the source of our alienation, our awareness that this cannot be our home. Because we always transcend the world, we can never fully be in it or give ourselves to it. There is always a remainder (and a reminder). Hence Schuon's orthoparadoxical crack about how man is "condemned to transcendence."

Now, like inside and outside, there can be no transcendence without immanence: they are complementary, not opposites. But if we focus on transcendence to the exclusion of immanence, we end up -- ironically -- either an atheist or a primitive believer, i.e., like the Muslim who invests all power in the transcendent Allah and none outside him, or the atheist who lives in his scientistic abstractions.

Immanence, in contrast to transcendence, is "unitive." Without it, we have a radical duality, with all reality above and nothing below. If transcendence "fixes, immobilizes, and crystalizes us" in reverence and awe, then immanence "attracts, vivifies, and, in the final analysis, reintegrates us in keeping with 'love'" (Schuon). Thus, it is almost like Father-Transcendence and Mother-Immanence, or law and mercy, standards and compassion, toil and slack.

Again, there must be a harmonious marriage between the two. It may sound abstract, but we see the fruit of bad marriages every day. It is why liberals have abandoned fatherly standards for maternal compassion, and why they so desperately want a female president just to have one, i.e., not for any logical or defensible reason.

In another essay, Schuon observes that To have doubts about what is ontologically certain is not to want to be. In other words, it is suicide. Now, what is the left but an aggressive project in denying ontological certainties, truths that cannot not be? Which is why, when the mullahs chant "Death to America," Obama just rolls his eyes and says amateurs.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Random Inspiration and Haphazard Creativity

Lately, for some reason -- maybe you've noticed -- I've had even less of an agenda than usual. No plan whatsoever. Yes, it's come to this. I pretty much just pick up a book on the desk, open it, and see what it inspires and provokes. That's why we've been jumping around from topic to topic. I guess it doesn't bother me if it doesn't bother you.

Speaking of inspiration, here's something: "Creation and inspiration" have "a great deal in common."

How's that? Before we get to Sheed's answer, let's take a guess: if God is primordial Creativity, he is also Inspiration, and all genuine creativity is infused with inspiration. Something inspires us to create, right? Alternatively, imagine creativity with absolutely no inspiration.

Yes, Hollywood.

What actually "inspires" such vapid creativity? (And "vapid creativity" should actually be an oxymoron.) Let us count the ways: Money. Power. Status. Narcissism. Sexual access.

So it seems that there is vertical inspiration and horizontal inspiration, the latter producing only caricatures of true creativity.

Back to Sheed. He writes that "God, operating in nothingness, produced the human race." Then, "operating in human minds and wills, produced scripture."

This implies that the human mind, absent God's inspiration, is a kind of nothing. Which it surely is, and for reasons we touched on a couple of posts back: God or nihilism, O or Ø, with no logically defensible ground in between.

More generally, we can all experience this truth in a most intimate way, for inspiration is one of the things that distinguishes us from the beasts. Animals are not inspired. Rather, they live in the closed circularity of their own genetic programing, or within the boundaries of their form, if you prefer.

But human beings are subject to a ceaseless flow of inspiration that might as well be infinite; or we open out to what infinitely transcends us. I remember Terence McKenna -- not that this is the best illustration, but it will do -- musing on what it could mean that in ten minutes (or whatever) of a psilocybin adventure, one could see more art flash before one's inner eye than the human race has produced in 10,000 years. Where is it coming from, and what could it mean?

One could say the same of dreaming, which is like a endless flow of creativity, only untethered by real world constraints and constants. Looked at this way, we can see how the laws of nature are complementary to creativity, because without them there is no reliable foundation to build upon. Dreaming undisciplined by reality, thy name is liberalism.

Could this be how the snake sneaks into the garden? "[I]nto God's Creation nothingness introduced elements quite notably un-divine; so did all these finite minds and wills into scripture."

This latter implies that, just because scripture contains all we need to know vis-a-vis our own salvation, it doesn't follow that it is entirely free of extra-salvation error. One could say that it contains but does not teach error. There is no doubt this is true, which is why anyone can take his five or ten favorite passages and form his own sect -- even one as un-divine as, say, {insert favorite malevolent charlatan}.

There is the inspiration that assisted in the writing of the individual books of the Bible, but what accounts for their totality, their unity, their organic wholeness? That must be an inspiration of a different order.

Remember, when Paul, for example, was writing his occasional letters to this or that community about this or that theological point, he had no way of knowing that these letters would form part of a higher unity with gospels and other works that hadn't even been written yet.

What individual has sufficient inspiration to truly unify scripture on his own? I don't see how it can be done. Rather, it is the work of centuries and the work of communities; or, one might say that it is ultimately both cause and effect of a unitary and inspired, nonlocal "body of Christ," regardless of whether one identifies this body with the Church as such.

"[W]e do not really know how any writer's mind works or any artist's; we hardly know how our own minds work, still less how God's grace works in them" (Sheed, emphasis mine).

Interestingly, I would suggest, somewhat orthoparadoxically, that we know even less of how our own minds work than we do of how God's grace works in our minds. Again, take a mind completely detached and isolated from God. It is unavoidably a kind of nothing, just an absurd and meaningless space that has opened up in a primate brain.

But a grace-infused mind has a direction, an order, a source, a meaning, a creativity, a vector, a destiny, a "north star."

I can only say that when I was an atheist existentialist, I had none of these, and was a total mystery to myself. True, I'm still a mystery, but at least I participate in a bigger one, so I got that going for me. You would think that abandoning my mind would lead to a kind of chaos, but the opposite has occurred: a higher order. And I'm sure this is a common experience: losing oneself is finding oneself, or dying to the world is living in another, etc.

"If Mark had lived long enough to find his own Gospel listed with the inspired books of the Old Testament, he might well have been startled." Indeed, perhaps he is startled still! And he is startled because only now can he see the extent of the inspiration under which he was creating. The veil is lifted, or he can see the underside of the cosmic area rug, with all its zigzagging connections that create the pattern on top.

I'll just leave off with the following quote:

God abides in the inspired books and can still make new contact with the mind and will of the reader, with the depth of his self. When we read, there is possible communication between the Holy Spirit in us and the Holy Spirit in the writer. And that is the point. --F.J. Sheed

In other words, we find and deepen ourselves in the point between in-spirations that ultimately come from elsewhO.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Scripture: IT'S ALIVE!!!

In-spiration means God-breathed, or theopneumatic. It would appear that man qua man is theopneumatic, in that what distinguishes us from the animals is this question of God breathing into us the breath of life.

That last word is another clue, suggesting that inspiration has something to do with the intensity of life -- as in IT'S ALIVE! If something is more inspired and more inspirational, it is more alive, and actually conveys -- or SHOUTS -- its life to us.

As in the "inspired word of God," i.e., scripture. Sheed points out that Paul uses a newish Greek word, theopneustos, for scripture (of course, he would have been referring to the Jewish scriptures), pneustos being related to pneuma, and all of this relating to the Holy Spirit, so we're back to God's breath.

This is bound to sound a bit dodgy to modern ears, at least for those who have never experienced God's breath, or his expiration fueling our inspiration.

Sheed claims that there is no official explanation of exactly what Inspiration is until the First Vatican Council in the 19th century. As usual, the Church tries to steer a middle course between two extremes.

On one side is the idea of Scripture "composed by men without the special aid of God and then approved by the Church's authority." At the other extreme is the notion that scripture conveys "revelation without error," as if God were simply dictating to human stenographers, as Allah to Muhammad.

The official explanation is that the books of scripture "were written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit," such that "God so stimulated and moved the authors to write and assisted them in their writing." Thus, scripture is God-breathed, but again, the purpose is to furnish points of reference for human beings to navigate about in the vertical world.

This is quite tricky, as the actual audience for scripture is unimaginably diverse in terms of culture, language, education, intelligence, imagination, historical time period, and more. I don't see how a vertically exiled man could create something that would be so universal as to provide nonlocal points of reference for all comers.

I suppose the closest comparison would be to certain works of art that attain universality and timelessness -- that speak to all men at all times, so long as they should remain men. Note that this is a kind of intensified "life" (as alluded to above), which is why truly inspired art "lives forever," so to speak (i.e., in an analogous way), because it inspires us forever.

Thus, in inspiring men to compose scripture, "God takes the readers into account" and makes "provision for very different readers who were not yet, but would one day be!" You try doing that. It's not easy. It's hard enough to make sense to one person.

Just as in the Incarnation -- in which God submits himself to all of our existential infirmities such as time, space, history, loss, death, etc. -- so too must scripture be "submitted to human limitation." Naturally God could "have eliminated all limitation," but only at the cost of "treating the men as un-men."

Rather, just as "in the Incarnation, he was not pretending to be a man" but became one, with Inspiration "he was not pretending to use men, they were men..." It was a genuine partnership -- which perhaps goes to why even the synoptic gospels have significant divergences. God could have presumably had each writer transcribe the identical verbatim account.

Now, "How God influences a mind while leaving it free is his secret." Is that entirely true? Analogously we could ask how it is that we can be influenced by truth, and yet, preserve our free will. We preserve it because truth loses all merit if it is not freely embraced.

In my experience, God doesn't so much compel as attract. "Compulsion" is analogous to efficient causation, as in past-to-future. But it seems to me that God mostly influences the humansphere via final causation, or in a future-to-present manner. God prefers a certain future which exists via nonlocal attractors which provide those points of reverence we've been discussing of late.

As a matter of fact, Schuon has an essay that goes to this subject. He suggests that there are two spiritual paths, one that is very much rule-based, another which he calls "the path of attraction." To the extent that Christ transcends the Law, it seems to me that he is offering a new way of attraction vs. the existing way of compulsion.

Schuon doesn't explain too much about the way of attraction, but notes that it revolves around "the spiritual intuition of the mystic and the divine aid or Grace that answers it and at the same time provokes it."

This very much corresponds with what I symbolize (⇅), with the caveat that this is actually a continuous spiral, and that the ultimate source -- the alpha and omega of the spiral -- is naturally from above, not from our end. We cannot create it, but we can participate in it.

Elsewhere Schuon says that this path is guided by following what "draws one closer to God," while avoiding that which "takes one away from Him." Thus, "everything in this second path is more independent and spontaneous than in the first; the sense of the nature of things takes precedence over concern for rules or conventions."

Yeah, you could call it an elaborate pretext to be who I am and do what I do.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Open Your Door to the Love Explosion!

Ever since I referred to that point about points of reference, I've been seeing it everywhere. Sheed, for example, asks "how can the finite [shed] any light upon the infinite?" For "whatever concept we use is drawn from finite experience: it is obvious that it must be inadequate: it cannot tell us everything: but can it tell us anything?"

Yes, since these finite concepts are points of reference to the infinite. Two important points about these points: 1) they are -- somewhat surprisingly -- perfectly adequate to get the job done, and 2) without them we would be utterly lost, with no hope of finding ourselves or of being found. You and I would be adrift in the cosmic sea, with no compass, no bearings, and no direction home, just like the roiling foam.

Without God, there is not even a universe to be known, just a random assortment of experiences with no possibility of a metaphysical area rug to pull them together.

In the absence of God "There is no shaped totality, but only myriads upon myriads of individual things, meaningless because no mind presided at their origin, purposeless because no mind intended them, a drift of things drifting where they happen to be drifting, and ourselves elements in the drift; nothing can be known in its context, for a multifold shapelessness is not a context; no integration is possible because there is no integer" (Sheed), i.e., no One OM.

You want nominalism? This is nominalism on stilts, meaning that we are condemned to a horizontal world of pure concrete, with no universals, no abstractions, no transcendentals. It is a world of unremitting appearances, with no reality underneath or overhead. The world, instead of being filled with vertical murmurandoms, consists only of a kind of fragmented speech -- or rather, any coherent message we may discern is just a jumble of cosmic phonemes that we pretend to have meaning, like seeing a Big Dipper in a random assortment of stars.

I don't see any room for wiggle room in this scenario; it's very much an either/or, as in either God or nihilism; or, if nihilism is not the case, then God.

Even for evolutionists, man must be the current last word in evolution. There will presumably be newer and better words in the future, but then again, there can be no "better" in a horizontal universe, only different. In this latter view, there is matter and there is animated matter, but there can be no better or worse animated matter. The liberal idea that a fetus has no more value than a decayed tooth has deep metaphysical roots.

What if man is the "end" of evolution? In other words, what if there can be no possible evolution beyond man?

Man, according to Schuon, "marks not only the summit of earthly creatures, but also, and for this very reason, the exit from their condition" (emphasis mine). Thus, "to see man is to see not only the image of God" but also an open door, a vertical inscape hatch. Man always "opens out" to reality, I believe for the same reason God does. In the Trinitarian view, it is as if, say, the Father cannot help but open out to the Son, and vice versa; it is what they do.

If the Trinity provides us with a point of reference, then it should come as no surprise that we open out to reality, just as reality offers itself to us. There is this mutual indwelling that results in that familiar metacosmic spiral that carries us aloft. How can we be "adrift" when we are quite obviously aloft?

So, man is both summit and exit; or, summit because exit. All other animals are what they are, or in other words, trapped in their forms. But man's form is proportioned to something that transcends it. As such, we are back to the first paragraph above, in that man-as-such is a finite thing that sheds light on the infinite.

You could say that man cannot transcend his own transcendence; or, more to the point, he cannot.... he cannot do whatever the antonym of transcend is. Man is condemned to transcendence, and there's not a damn thing we can do about it short of suicide, whether literal, intellectual, or spiritual.

"The human form cannot be transcended," writes Schuon, being that "its sufficient reason" is "precisely to express the Absolute." Now, the Absolute can have no absolute form, for reasons alluded to above: because the finite cannot contain the infinite. But to say that man is the image and likeness of God is to say that man is a point of reference to God.

That's the good news. But what if man has sunken beneath this proper form? You know, fallen? Then we will be in need of a vertical intervention: call it an Incarnation. Given this principle, then we can say that Jesus (the man) becomes an unsurpassable icon of God; and that our relationship to this icon is likewise another icon, or rather, a participation in the same icon.

This gives new meaning to Jesus' comparison of himself with a door. That's not just the parochial shoptalk of a carpenter.

[I]nfinite love has exploded into our universe; theology is an effort to diagram the explosion. The diagram is indispensable, but it is not the reality and it must not obsess us. What matters is the love, and that cannot be diagrammed. --F.J. Sheed

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