Sunday, April 14, 2019

Degrees of Reality and Dimensions of the Soul

Whew! That was a week -- worst cold of my life. I went to the doctor on Thursday, and she assured me she'd seen six people worse than me that day, so that was nice. Still lingering, but compared to last Wednesday I feel like Superman.

But it did put a crimp in Project X. Then again, sleep deprivation provoked some intriguing new angles on the whole thing. One thought that came to me is that -- as was the case before tackling the first book -- what I'm actually looking to write is what I need to read, and vice versa: I am in desperate need of a book, and the book doesn't exist. That's where I apparently come in.

Then another phrase popped into my head: metaphysical Catholicism. Which would be Catholicism aimed at people like me, of which there may well be as few as one. Nevertheless, if God made me this way, then I say he has an obligation to get me out of this mess I am. There ought to be a form of his Divine Message addressed to our sort, unless our sort is completely illegitimate.

Surprisingly, I both googled and searched Amazon for "Metaphysical Catholicism," and nothing came up; or rather, lots of stuff about Catholic metaphysics, but my interest is more along Schuon's lines -- of seeing Catholicism as in instantiation of universal metaphysics sprinkled with a few mysteries that are of necessity above our paygrade. (My approach would also be somewhat different from an esoteric Catholicism along the lines of Meditations on the Tarot.)

No, I do not intend to subordinate revelation to some manmade system. I'm not that clueless. After all, a God we could totally comprehend would be unworthy of worship. Worse yet, it would elevate man to the level of godhood, and that is always the recipe for hell on earth.

At any rate, my quest is probably totally inappropriate from a purely Catholic perspective, but it still interests me. What can I do? I feel that if I can "metaphysicalize" my way through certain stumbling blocks, I won't have to force myself to believe things I don't really believe. And why fool ourselves? God knows when we're pretending, so we might as well admit it upfront.

As it so happens, some of the material I'm about to repost touches on the above. This one begins in mid-thought:

Ah. Now I remember why I was intrigued by Maritain's The Degrees of Knowledge back in the day, when I was working out the Raccoon metaphysic....

As I have mentioned before, I didn't initially come at this huge mythunderstanding from a Christian perspective. Which was ultimately a good thing, because frankly, I never could have done what I did had I known what I was doing. Because I didn't know any better, I was free to violate disciplinary boundaries, blend irreconcilable thinkers and doctrines, engage in friction-free leaps of logic, and obey revealed hunches as demanded by expediency.

Now comes this Maritain fellow who claims to have accomplished the same thing from a Catholic standpoint! In 1932! Why didn't I know about this? Indeed, the Thing had essentially been accomplished some 700 years ago, and only required some touching up and tinkering at the edges in order to make it fully conversant with the scientific progress that had taken place in the interim. Here was no apologetic Uncle Thomist, but a Thomist apologetic capable of speaking to our age of stupidity.

When we talk about "the degrees of knowledge," we implicitly acknowledge the degrees of being that correspond to them. In my case, I divided these into the convenient categories of matter, life, mind, and spirit, each reflecting a different mode of being and requiring a different manner of knowing.

For example, one cannot know spirit empirically. However, one can know matter spiritually, being that truth emanates from the top down, not the bottom up.

When we speak of these essential distinctions, we're really talking about the vertical. As Maritain says,

"Every attempt at metaphysical synthesis, especially when it deals with the complex riches of knowledge and of the mind, must distinguish in order to unite." What is necessary above all is "to discriminate and discern degrees of knowing, its organization and its internal differentiations."

Looked at in this manner, any form of scientism, for example, is a non-starter, because it reduces the hierarchical complexity of the world to a vulgar monism. In so doing, it reduces reality to our most simple way of knowing it, and in the process denies any reality outside its narrow scope. "Leveling," says Don Colacho, "is the barbarian's substitute for order."

In the past, I have discussed the idea that the measure of soul is depth. To put it bluntly, a developed soul will see much more deeply into the nature of reality, whereas a shallow soul is satisfied by skirting along on the surface of things. The deep soul knows that no merely scientific explanation can ever satisfy man, whereas the shallow soul seems content to play in the little blandbox of efficient causes.

However, Maritain adds to this the dimensions of length, breadth, and height, which I had basically subsumed under depth. In any event, when we refer to these categories, we are referring to hidden or implicit dimensions of reality that are just waiting to be unpacked by man, and man only. No other species has access to these, in fact or principle. Indeed, access to them defines what it means to be a human being.

In a phrase I am very much tempted to steal, Maritain refers to the fundamental fact of a cosmos that is boundlessly intelligible. But it is only boundlessly intelligible to the extent that there exists an unbound soul to witness and testify to it.

To cite an obvious example, for the Marxist, the world is surely intelligible, but not boundlessly so. Rather, Marxism serves the function of placing sharp boundaries around reality. Dialectical Materialism explains everything, with no remainder. Indeed, if you deny it, you are actually an instance of it: "false consciousness," which has latterly morphed into our toxic identity politics.

I came across an unintentionally funny example of this at HotAir this morning, Does college really turn people into liberals? The authors cite some silly studies to deny the obvious, and conclude by stating that if you believe otherwise, then it's only because you are trying to protect "economic power." In other words, they trot out a classic Marxist explanation to deny their own Marxism, reducing great complexity to a simple pseudo-economic explanation!

A lexicon of ten words is sufficient for the Marxist to explain history. --NGD

This dismissal of an argument by projecting bad motivations into it is the cognitive Swiss Army Knife of the left. Any idea that threatens them is instantly attributed to racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, etc.

Back to the hidden dimensions in the soul. For Maritain, "length" bears upon "the manner in which the formal light that characterizes a particular type of knowing falls upon things and defines in them a certain line of intelligibility."

For example, in my case, I attempt to trace things back to (and before) the big bang, or forward, through the realms of matter, life, mind, and spirit. To put it another way, to deny this line of continuous development is to deny and even maim a vital dimension of the soul.

"Breadth" has to do with "the ever-increasing number of objects thus known." As such, a truly all-purpose metaphysic that is worthy of man, will explain the material world as well as the subjective world, without reducing one to the other. But to reduce mind and spirit to matter is the ultimate case of denying the breadth of the soul.

"Height" involves distinguishing the "different sorts of knowing" and "the degrees of intelligibility and immateriality of the object." In other words, it deals with vertical differentiations in the hierarchy of existence and being.

Finally, "depth" speaks to all those "hidden diversities," i.e., those relatively autonomous sub-worlds which are constantly disclosed to the mind that is free -- i.e., the liberal mind, as opposed to one that is servile to ideology.

To be continued...


julie said...

What can I do? I feel that if I can "metaphysicalize" my way through certain stumbling blocks, I won't have to force myself to believe things I don't really believe.

I've noted in the past, but there's an odd irony in the fact that so many of your readers have gone full Catholic or even Orthodox as a result of all the metaphysicalizing, etc. It may be totally inappropriate from a fully Catholic or even Christian perspective, but when somebody is so far gone that they can't even hear the Lord's name without rolling their eyes and feeling revulsion, there still has to be some way to bring them into the light.

Chris said...

Hi Bob,

I was wondering if you would weigh in on subject that I think you might have some insight....

In recent years, there has been some interesting discourse in the philosophy of religion that discusses the distinction between classical theism and theistic personalism. My question is this- do you think this distinction has any relevance or bearing on the Perennialist/Advaitan's understanding/explanation of Ishvara?

That is, do you think the unqualified nondualist would still place the classical theist's "Being Itself" on the lower tier of Saguna, despite how apophatic this conception is?

Carmel said...

With regards to Schuon’s universal metaphysics, I have been there, done that like you... but perhaps the ultimate point when faced by metaphysical quandaries is to do what Aquinas is reported to have done : lean his head against the tabernacle ‘as if to feel the throbbing of Jesus' divine and human heart‘ as Pope Benedict nicely put it.

Chris said...


I've broad up issues related to this subject many times before ad nauseum- sorry Bob.

But I think it is critically important topic because it impacts everything. If the metaphysic is wrong, then naturally all that follows from it will also be wrong. When Thomists speak of Being Itself are they referring to Schuon's "Pure Absolute" or is Actus Purus of Aquinas still in the domain of relativity or maya. If that's the case, then it seems to me that from the perspective of universal metaphysics, the disitinction between classical theism and theistic personalism would be rendered trivial.

ted said...

Bob: I am just coming off that cold. No joke. It might as well been the flu it was so awful. I am taking on one habit going forward: Neti Pots! Have you explored that?

julie said...

There's a good sinus rinse kit you can get that works the same way and comes with a gazillion saline packets.They do help, but sometimes even with that all you can do is ride it out. Ugh.

Carmel, beautifully put.

Chris, perhaps I'm off-base, but sometimes there comes a point where you have to just stop metaphysicalising; it can actually become a barrier to the very truth that you are seeking. Eventually, if you aren't simply reaching out to That which Is and asking That to guide you, you become like one who reads endlessly about different ways of crossing the ocean without ever setting away from the nearer shore. In the presence of Truth, all of the isms become trivial.

God IS. Get to know Him. It is personal. Everything else follows.

Chris said...

Hey Julie,

Thanks for your input. I've increasingly come to agree with you that, indeed, "It is personal". That's precisely why I think "metaphysicalising" is absolutely necessary. True, to endlessly speculate is error. But then again, going on a journey with an inaccurate map could be a major problem.

From the theistic perspective , the Supremely Real, is personal and relational. This runs in direct contradiction to the universal metaphysics of (unqualified) nonduality. To my lights, this has enormous consequences for things like soteriology and spiritual anthropology. The metaphysics matter.

julie said...

I agree, the metaphysics do matter.

It's why I'm not just Christian, but Catholic in particular - this is the expression of faith to which I have been called, the path which chose me, in a way. It's not the only way to be Christian, nor to come to know the Supremely Real, but it does allow for one to develop those characteristics of depth, length, breadth and height. It does provide a means to come face-to-face - more, to become one-in-Communion - with that Reality. There is Truth. It is enough.

Chris said...


"It's not the only way to be a Christian..."

True. But do you believe that all forms of Christianity are equally valid? The fact that you are an adherent of Roman Catholicism specifically suggests that there is something about the Catholic faith that is (for lack of a better expression) "more true". And that's why you would say that the metaphysics matter- is that a fair statement?

Btw, I'm not trying to just be argumentative. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

The primary reason college age kids turn Marxist is that they unconsciously know that many of the same bullies who tormented them in school will be winding up owning and controlling much of secular society. This terrifies them and makes them easy prey for Marxist intellectuals who appear to have forgotten that most important part where Marx had no realistic answers for concentrated power.

Personally, I’ve only known a tiny handful of what might be termed “Marxist”. Obama was routinely called a socialist (after he was routinely called a Muslim), but he wound up becoming wealthy writing books and giving speeches to Wall streeters about libertarian trade policies. It seems smarter to just wait for the guy to actually proclaim that they’re Marxist.

But I’m still stuck on why Americans abandoned systems which worked far better for most Americans, both secularly and spiritually, and domestically and internationally.

ted said...

Chris: Bob has touched upon this subject from time to time. Maybe reconciling non-duality and theism is not the point, but to inhabit the tensions of these distinctions as the Trinity. The Trinity does not seem to resolve any tension but elevates it to an outright contradiction, especially given that hypostasis and ousia, the words for "person" and "essence" in the formula "three persons in one essence" were originally synonymous. Even in Dzogchen, which is non-dual, there is talk of three Buddha bodies (although not seen as theistic, yet distinctions are made).

julie said...

Chris, No worries, I don't find you argumentative at all. Actually, it's good to have this kind of discussion where it's an actual conversation instead of just two people shouting about each others' heresy, which is what I see all too often elsewhere.

I don't know that I would call Catholicism "more true." Rather, it strikes me as more full, in a way.

When we lived in Florida, I was blessed to take part in two different Bible studies. One non-denominational, and one specifically Catholic at my Parish. Both were wonderful and enriching, each in their way. One thing about Protestants in general is they seem to have a real blind spot about the nature of Communion, taking it essentially as a suggestion or memorial, while taking very literally other parts of the Bible. But serious Protestants really do study their Bibles and take them to heart. In a way, it is their Communion. Conversely Catholics, as a community, were for a long time discouraged from reading and studying the Bible on their own (like the Protestants). Which is sad, because the Mass is the Bible, and yet many don't really understand that, nor do they really know much about their faith besides a truncated version of the Gospels.

In short, I am Catholic because of Communion; because they take it seriously (which is not to say that Catholics don't also have massive blind spots). The metaphysics matter. If the blessed bread is truly the body of Christ, of which he has instructed us to partake, that has real meaning and real consequences. To deny that meaning, if it is in fact the truth, also has consequences. And to believe it if it is false, there too are consequences. But all of it is an act of faith, and where our hearts stand on matters of faith, that too matters.

If you'll allow for a bit of a meander, I often think of Saul/ Paul, the zealot who persecuted Christians unto death. Why him? Because even though his actions were horrifying, he did it out of overwhelming zeal for God's word. Strange to say, his heart was in the right place. He truly believed the people he had killed were blasphemers against the truth. When he understood the truth in greater fullness, he acted just as passionately on behalf of that truth. God finds us where we are.

Going back to earlier points, the truth is there for any who seek Him; so too, the depth, the meaning, and the fullness. Like anything, you get out of it what you put into it.

Ted, good points.

Van Harvey said...

"Leveling," says Don Colacho, "is the barbarian's substitute for order."

O Don, that's good.

Chris said...


I resonate with what you said about Catholicism and communion . My own migration back to the Catholic faith has been , in large part , powered by the experience of the Eucharist . Connected to this , I have come to recognize the profound significance of relationship in both doctrine and method, and this is why I have also come to question the truth of nondual metaphysics . That , in turn , has resulted in having deep reservations about the so called " Perennial Philosophy " - a teaching that , ironically , was what made it possible for me to re-consider Christianity in the first place .

The Perennialist school claims that the belief in a personal creator is on a lowerlevel of the degrees of reality (exoteric ) and is providential for those are not disposed to the path of knowledge . In my experience , the reverse has been the case - universal metaphysics of Buddhism , Advaita , Integralism etc. was a stepping stone on the road to what I would call Transcendental Dualism , or as I discovered , the "classical theism" of history's great monotheisms. I think Non-duality is much more palatable/accessible to a mind that has been conditioned in an atheo-materialist milieu because it is monistic and "naturalistic ".

Thoughts ?

julie said...

Yes, I think you're on to something there. After drifting so far away, perennialism was a lifeline for a time; I needed the comfort of understanding that if God is one, then God is one for all - even if understanding of who/ what He is is profoundly different across cultures. It may be that non-duality has a lot of appeal particularly to the atheist/ agnostic mind because it is essentially nonjudgemental. If all is one, without any true differentiation between persons, then it's all good, and everything can be relative, etc. A Trinitarian God who is not merely everything but Is a particular person with definite opinions about things herebelow becomes a little problematic when you just want to "do you" without any divine inconvenience.

I do still believe that any religion with a shred of goodness touches on the reality of God. But I also believe they are incomplete, and the more so the farther they are from Christ.

Gagdad Bob said...

15 comments! I haven't had time to answer or even read them until this morning. In response to Chris, here is how I put it all together:

I am definitely a personalist, but that somewhat begs the question of exactly what a Person is. Here I would agree with Norris Clarke that the ultimate category must be substance-in-relation: to be is to be substance-in-relation, subject to no further reduction. In a way, the Trinity is only common sense, because a Person is always in relation (and a relation is always personal, even science, in which case the world speaks to the scientist).

Having said that, persons also have their mysteries, and this is where I ithink the category of beyond-being comes in. Unlike Shankara or Schuon, I don't see it as being at the vertical "top," so to speak, but complementary to substance-in-relation. It's a horizontal dimension, not vertical. I could say more, but that's the gist: it's like the the apophatic and cataphatic Gods, which (who) are distinct but not separate. I like to think that the Father can delight in the Son, which implies surprise and not-knowing. (As we shall see below, these needn't be thought of as privations, but rather, perfections.)

And finally, I'm a Hartshorne man vis-a-vis divine omniscience. I do believe there is a element of "surprise" within the Godhead due to primordial creativity, which in turn is related to Trinity and Beyond-Being. Eternity would be unending boredom without the surprise and delight of inexhaustible creativity! The category of "change" isn't just a privation; rather, it can also be a perfection, and there is a mode of change that is proper to God. It doesn't mean that God changes in his essence, but that change (creativity) is essentially in God.

I believe everything I've said is entirely compatible with scripture and tradition, and in fact, makes more sense than the alternatives that end in certain absurdities that have to be papered over with Emergency Metaphysics.

Oh, and love is obviously the glue that holds it all together....

Gagdad Bob said...

I suppose love brings with it suffering and sacrifice, which also explains a lot. Buddha, for example, linked suffering to desire, therefore counseling us to eliminate the latter. But what if desire is a necessary prolongation or implication of primordial love? Changes everything. It means we have to transpose desire to a higher key, not stop playing it.

Anonymous said...

Woe unto them that decree unrighteous decrees, and that write grievousness which they have prescribed; To turn aside the needy from judgment, and to take away the right from the poor of my people, that widows may be their prey, and that they may rob the fatherless! And what will ye do in the day of visitation, and in the desolation which shall come from far? to whom will ye flee for help? and where will ye leave your glory? 4Without me they shall bow down under the prisoners, and they shall fall under the slain. For all this his anger is not turned away, but his hand is stretched out still.
-Isaiah 10:1-3 (KJV)

Doom to you who legislate evil, who make laws that make victims— Laws that make misery for the poor, that rob my destitute people of dignity, Exploiting defenseless widows, taking advantage of homeless children. What will you have to say on Judgment Day, when Doomsday arrives out of the blue? Who will you get to help you? What good will your money do you? A sorry sight you’ll be then, huddled with the prisoners, or just some corpses stacked in the street. Even after all this, God is still angry, his fist still raised, ready to hit them again.
-Isaiah 10:1-4-1-4 (MSG)

Apparently, The Message is a socialist version?

Cousin Dupree said...

Truly, few things are more antithetical to Christianity or Judaism than socialism, not only because of the 7th and 10th commandments, but because it obviously brings about all the evils rightly condemned by the prophets above. Google "Venezuela."

Anonymous said...

"Venezuela" is always countered by "Norway" or "Denmark". Heck, even Germany, China or Japan.

America has never been socialist or sharia, never will be, even though the paranoid right claims this will be a precursor to rapture. Or something.

Conservative arguments must evolve to reflect this, or our children will increasingly continue to shun us.

Gagdad Bob said...

The majority of Democrats now hold a more favorable opinion of socialism than of capitalism, and socialism is especially popular among millennials, so what you call "paranoia" is simply reality, whereas what you call "reality" is denial.

Anonymous said...

What they may be unconsciously striving for, is "classical republicanism", and calling it socialism. And your kind can't see the difference.

Is the problem is that most citizens cannot view the entirety of a single aphorism in full context? Consider this quote from Milton Friedman:

"There is one and only one social responsibility of business – to use its resources and engage in activities designed to increase its profits"

That part is oft quoted by right and left in their so called "debates". Unfortunately this is his entire quote:

"There is one and only one social responsibility of business – to use its resources and engage in activities designed to increase its profits so long as it stays within the rules of the game, which is to say, engages in open and free competition without deception or fraud."

Such an thing is easy to do in a healthy Christian culture with minimal government interference. Unfortunately, Uncle Milton was an agnostic. So I assume that in his view, he meant that Rule of Law had to keep order. But it hasn't. It's been bought and sold. Capitalism in America has gone off the rails. So in light of "most citizens can't even view the entirety of a single aphorism, in full context" we wind up with "The majority of Democrats now hold a more favorable opinion of socialism than of capitalism, and socialism is especially popular among millennials"

Assuming I'm a capitalist, are we on the same page yet?