Friday, January 27, 2017

Two Worlds are Better than One

"Facts are fantasies." That sounds like something a postmodernist might say, but Chesterton was no such animal. Nor was he a premodern animist. Rather, like us, he was post-postmodern; or really, just operating outside and above the whole linear scheme of premodern-modern-postmodern.

For the last few days we've heard Democrats ridicule Sean Spicer's use of the phrase "alternative facts," but the situation is far more grave than these naive liberals realize. For not only are there alternative facts -- depending upon one's "narrative" -- but there is simply no such thing as a brute fact. Facts cannot be recognized -- and are certainly not relevant -- outside the framework that both selects and makes sense of them.

For example, we characterize oil as a natural resource. But until the 19th century, it was no such thing. Rather, it was either worthless or a nuisance. So the "fact" that oil is a natural resource presupposes an entire civilizational paradigm that is able to put it to use.

Similarly, it makes no sense to say we "stole" land from native Americans, when these Stone Age peoples were millennia away from any conception of private property. We certainly seized it, but we never stole it.

Likewise global warming. It is a fact that the earth is warming. But that fact looks very different if situated in the last 200 years or the last 12,000, during which time we've been coming out of an ice age.

What is a fetus, in fact? Science says a human being. Ideology says it a worthless part of a woman's body -- or, even more absurdly, that it is whatever the mother feels like it is.

Similarly, biology says it is impossible for homosexuals to have "sex," sex obviously revolving around reproductive capacity. Call it what you want, but it is not sex they are having. That's a fact.

Last night we were discussing the boy's religious education (we are homeschooling him). One thing I would obviously like to do is avoid the sort of religious education I had, which resulted in my rejection of religion on the basis of its apparent absence of factuality and general silliness.

I now realize that religion opens up a whole dimension of existence that cannot be seen and experienced in any other way. It is analogous to, say, music. There are people who have no relationship to music, for example, Sigmund Freud. It did nothing for him.

In reality, music discloses an inconceivably rich world, but it is possible to live one's entire life without knowing anything about it. One could say the same of poetry and painting. The world of aesthetics is real. And one can penetrate it as deeply as one wishes. There is no end to it; it is infinite and inexhaustible.

The dimension disclosed by religion is quintessentially infinite and inexhaustible. It is filled with facts. But obviously they will not be recognized as facts outside the paradigm that recognizes them as such.

"Outside" the Christian paradigm, for example, Jesus was just a rabble-rouser who was executed for his extremist views. That's a fact. It is also a fact that the founding fathers were "terrorists" -- just like the Puerto Rican terrorist Obama pardoned before slinking out of the White House.

I saw a Democrat spokestard defend Obama with that latter claim on FNC. It proved only that he has no idea who the founders were or what they fought for. Same facts. Entirely different meaning.

Anyway, back to Chesterton's mysticism, which is clearly a way to view the same facts as everyone else in a different light, but also a means of bringing facts into view that will otherwise be dismissed or simply invisible.

"If we believed that each color was the choice of a Great Artist, we would see everything with new eyes of wonder, as if we were looking at pictures in an exhibition." I've noticed that just by "thinking photographically," it brings out all sorts of latent beauty just waiting to be witnessed. Indeed, the witnessing completes its passage from virtuality to existence. So much orphaned beauty waiting to be adopted!

One important point is that we always live in no fewer than two worlds. For this reason, any monadic, one-storey metaphysic will result in the denied world reappearing in disguise. Along these lines, Chesterton remarked that when natural selection was discovered, "some feared that it would encourage mere animality. It did worse: it encouraged mere spirituality."

This is because Christianity uniquely situates our animality and spirituality -- word and flesh, man and God -- in the same being. This is the correct view. Pretend one dimension doesn't exist, and it will return in naive and usually uncritical ways.

I'm thinking of evolutionary psychologists who reduce this or that complex human behavior to genetics. If they are going to be intellectually consistent, then they would have to affirm that evolutionary psychologists are genetically programmed to reduce complex human behaviors to genetic programming.

Similarly, metaphysical Darwinists insist their minds are the outcome of random mutations, so they are therefore not to be trusted. If what they say is true, then it is false.

But "the dilemma is how to live in the seen and unseen worlds without despising one or overemphasizing the other." I believe in natural selection. But I also believe in supernatural election. There is no conflict.

And "The truth about Christ that emerges from Chesterton's presentation is that Christ lived effortlessly in the two worlds of the earthly and the heavenly." He does not, like Darwin or Buddha, teach us to leave one for the other. Rather, "Acceptance of the Incarnation brings together the two worlds in which the mystic ought to live."

And two worlds are better than one. That's a fact.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

A Short Post About Nothing

I've always felt that people take elaborate vacations not so much for a change of scenery as a change of self. The novelty proceeds in both directions, outwardly and inwardly.

I'm not saying I'm correct about this -- everyone is different, and to each his own -- only that it seems I'm built this way. Ever since I was in my early 20s, I've worked at the problem from the other end: to paraphrase someone, don't change circumstances, change yourself.

It is axiomatic that if you're bored, it is because you are boring. I am never bored, certainly not bored enough to, say, jump from a plane or go big game hunting in Africa. I'm not even bored enough to go to a movie.

It seems not only that Chesterton was built this same way, but that it was one of his dominant messages: he was a mystic of the every day, such that "even mere existence, reduced to its most primary limits, was extraordinary enough to be exciting. Anything was magnificent as compared with nothing" (emphasis mine).

That things are is of course prior to what they are. You might say Chesterton was sufficiently astonished at the That. The What was just icing on the cake.

Not only is everything interesting, so too is nothing, or at leas nothing in particular. The esteemed Dr. Dalrymple is of the same mind:

"Being a scholar of nothing, I allow my intellectual interest to wander hither and yon. Or perhaps it is because I allow my intellectual interest to wander hither and yon that I am a scholar of nothing." He is thankful, as am I, for single-minded scholars who do the drudge work for us. To paraphrase Bo Diddley, I don't need to do those things 'cause I got them doin' it for me.

Indeed, "Whenever it is imperatively necessary for me to read a book pursuant to something that I am currently writing about, I immediately lose interest in it.... I want to read something else entirely."

That is why it is always a mistake for me to promise to write about this or that. When I do, it becomes an obligation and I get bored and oppositional. Don't tell me what to do, Bob!

As alluded to in paragraph one, I don't want to pretend my attitude is normative. If it were, nothing important would ever get done. Or, if you like, you can turn it around and say: if not for everyone else being productive and doing important stuff, I wouldn't have the time and resources to do the one thing needful!

You could summarize by saying I have Napoleon Dynamite Syndrome. So, what are you going to do today, Bob?

As Dalrymple says, there is only one thing to know: "that there is not only one big thing to know." And that thing, in my opinion, is God (Dalrymple is more or less agnostic).

There is deep orthoparadox at work here, because for practical purposes it means that God is the sum of everything we don't know. He is utter emptiness, even inside his very being. How is that? Because he is self-giving love, truth, and beauty. Which is why graces abound so long as you immediately give them away!

Gosh! I am flat out of time this morning. Busy week.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Unlearning to Crawl

Today's post will consist of Whatever Thoughts Occur To Me as I flip through The Tumbler of God: Chesterton as Mystic. Here is Prof. Backflap's description of the book:

"We need a new kind of mystic," writes Fr. Robert Wild; and in The Tumbler of God, he presents a spiritual portrait of G.K. Chesterton that convincingly shows why he is precisely the new kind of mystic we need. Chesterton's mysticism was grounded in an experiential knowledge that existence is a gift from God, and that the only response is a spirituality of gratitude and praise for the unveiled beauty of creation.

Franz Kafka said of Chesterton, "He is so happy one might almost think he had discovered God." And Fr. Wild adds that "indeed he had, and he was doing his best to live in the light of that discovery. What was his 'secret'? It was to love the splendor of the real, and to live in adulthood the innocence and wonder of the child who sees everything for the first time. The Gospel tells us we must become again like little children in order to enter the kingdom. Chesterton shows us how."

I like Kafka's ironic comment. It's especially pointed in light of his own relentlessly pessimistic oeuvre; indeed, he was so unhappy one might almost think he had been turned into a horrible insect or something.

One could scarcely conceive of two more divergent writers; Prof. Wiki accurately characterizes Kafka's work as typically featuring "isolated protagonists faced by bizarre or surrealistic predicaments and incomprehensible social-bureaucratic powers," and "exploring themes of alienation, existential anxiety, guilt, and absurdity."

I wonder how their paths ever even crossed? Wiki adds that Kafka was "tortured by sexual desire," and "feared that people would find him mentally and physically repulsive."

There's more, but he seems to have been a thoroughly unhappy person, whereas Chesterton was relentlessly cheerful. Is it just a matter of character, or did Chesterton possess the cure for what ailed Kafka? The latter "was at times alienated from Judaism and Jewish life" and in his adolescence "declared himself an atheist." Could it be that he simply drew out the implications of his own godforsakeness in a completely unflinching way?

There's no doubt that outside certain Christian circles, Kafka is considered by far the greater writer. I'm guessing that most literary types would dismiss Chesterton as a kind of lightweight. I've never read any of Chesterton's fiction, but have read most of Kafka's. This was back when I regarded myself as more or less of an existentialist atheist. Thus, I immersed myself in the depressing canon of 20th century existentialist literature -- all these guys, including Sartre, Camus, Rilke, et al.

But I was existentially unfit to be an existentialist. As Leonard Cohen remarked in another context, "cheerfulness kept breaking through."

Transfiguration. Transmogrification. The former is the "place" where "human nature meets God: the meeting place of the temporal and the eternal, with Jesus himself as the connecting point, acting as the bridge between heaven and earth."

As to transmogrification, one could hardly do better than this: "One morning, as Gregor Samsa was waking up from anxious dreams, he found himself transformed in his bed into a monstrous verminous insect." I hate when that happens.

God or insect. Difficult to conceive of a wider abyss. So who's right?

We can't really know, can we? We can live in the faith that we are nothing more than randomly evolved insects crawling around the planet; or we can live with the idea that we are created in the image and likeness of the God who created us. Since we can't know, why not choose the fun path? You have nothing to lose except not being taken seriously by unemployed lit majors and clinically depressed existentialists.

Men who think they are too modern to understand this are in fact too mean to understand it. --GKC

The question is, who is looking at the world right-side up, Chesterton or Kafka? And again, there really is no alternative if you're going to be intellectually consistent: if things are bad, then they are really, really bad. And if they're good, then they're... well they can't be perfect, since that is reserved for paradise. But as good as existence can be and still be an existence distinct from God.

Blessed is he that expecteth nothing, for he shall be gloriously surprised (GKC). The other evening I was trying to explain to a young lady -- the daughter of a friend -- why this was the optimistic attitude, but she seemed to regard it as an existential downer. But that's not the point at all. Rather, if you expect life to be perfect, then you are bound to be disappointed.

I am reminded of something Bailie says, to the effect that fallen man's perpetual hope is of Resurrection without Cross.

"Until we realize that things might not be, we cannot recognize that things are. Until we see the background of darkness we cannot admire the light as a single and created thing" (GKC).

"[T]here are two principal sides to everything, a practical and a mystical..." (McLuhan, ibid.). This thought has been rattling around in my brain for the last several days, but it is really just another way of saying what we always say about the nature of complementarity and orthoparadox. So yes, you are an insect or a god, depending upon how you look at it. But ultimately, our common sense empirico-rationalism must be complemented by the uncommon nonsense of mystico-phenomenology.

"Basically, [Chesterton] was trying to define an attitude of mind which preserves the sense of mystery about life and does not try to reconcile or explain rationally the paradoxical nature of reality."

So we are insect and god; I just googled it to try and find an arresting image, but we already have a perfectly suitable one at hand: the butterfly.

Let's say you're in the chrysalis, living in the ambiguous state between ugly caterpillar and beautiful butterfly. With which will you identify?

Limiting yourself to personal experience, you will no doubt choose the insect. Indeed, you probably couldn't even conceive of, much less hope for, the butterfly. Yes, you've seen butterflies, but they must have just been born that way.

"The whole secret of mysticism is this: that man can understand everything by the help of what he does not understand" (GKC).

I can top the transformation of caterpillar into butterfly. How about the transformation of nothing into everything, "the dynamic power of God constantly creating, drawing the created reality into existence, from nothingness into being"? Chesterton was constantly aware "of the passage from non-being to being, as if every moment was the moment of Creation in the Garden."

Interestingly, both insect and man are created on the 6th day, when God has the earth bring forth creeping things before it occurs to him to create a being "in our image and likeness," who shall -- ironically -- have dominion "over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth."

But this is always happening now: "Creation is not only the beginning, but is always the beginning" (Wild). So, "Most probably we are in Eden still. It is only our eyes that have changed" (GKC, ibid.).

Monday, January 23, 2017

"Open" Thread ("Updated")

I expect normal blogging to resume tomorrow. Meanwhile, an open thread. Feel free to toss out ideas for topics and directions.

As things stand, we still have to finish our review of God's Gamble. Then there are some things in Chesterton as Mystic I'd like to discuss, in particular, some things that remind me of me.

Not that I remind myself of Chesterton, only that I'm always trying to figure out exactly what we're doing here, and the author provides some clues, for example, "I've seen something of Chesterton's personal library. I believe he read books on every conceivable subject.... One gets the impression he was precisely reading everything in order to harmonize everything of human culture into his faith vision."

Chesterton's wife "once asked him why he didn't write more about God." He replied, "I am always writing about God." So, yeah. Me too.

Also, Chesterton once remarked that "two worlds are better than one." Which points to another avenue we'll be exploring, which is to say, irony, which we will be trying to "harmonize" with our "faith vision," such that we might be able to integrate "God" and God.


Change in schedule -- early appointment. Blogging resumes tomorrow. Meanwhile, by overwhelming popular demand, a tableau from Saturday's march of the trite brigade: