Friday, May 03, 2019

Coming Up with a Likely Story for an Unlikely Predicament

This is an extended multi-post review of Brendan Purcell's From Big Bang to Big Mystery: Human Origins in the Light of Creation and Evolution, which, like our One Cosmos, attempts to pack the whole existentialida -- the whole cosmic drama -- into a single combo-plate of about 300 pages. It's the only other recent book of which I am aware that synthesizes everything from physics to anthropology to paleontology to biology to history to mysticism to theology to mind parasites into one convenient narrative.

Who is this Brendan Purcell? According to Professor Backflap, he is an ordained priest who is currently adjunct professor of philosophy at Notre Dame. His previous book was called The Drama of Humanity: Towards a Philosophy of Humanity in History, while he also co-edited Voegelin's classic Hitler and the Germans. In fact, he is hugely influenced by Voegelin, whom he knew personally. In his bibliography there is more Voegelin than anyone else, essentially the complete works.

I see that our bibliographies contain many of the same names. This is not an academic observation, per se; rather, it reveals the "clues" we both regard as significant. In other words, faced with the infinite mass of data before us, we both honed in on particular hints, tips, signs, and knowing winks.

At the same time, we had some mutually exclusive influences, including some who are quite central to my approach, thus accounting for differences in sensibility and emphasis. "Individual" and "universal" interact in peculiar ways, but this goes to the very nature of personhood (which represents our ultimate category).

I think it's safe to say that Purcell's approach is much more mainstream, both scientifically and religiously. Obviously we are burdened -- or liberated, depending upon your EQ (eccentricity quotient) -- by the whole Raccoon sensibility, from which we couldn't escape even if we wanted. Again, persons will be persons, and it takes all kinds of them to make a world.

This post is only a brief intro, since I'm already pressed for time, so let's start with the big picture, and get into details later. This Big Picture is the idea that all human beings -- even the wrongheaded ones we don't like -- are motivated by the same Quest, which is none other than the Cosmic Adventure, the search for the Eternal Ground. Just as there are things we can't not know, it seems that there are things we can't not do, and this is one of them -- no, it must be the only one, to which everything else is necessarily related (just as all truth must be grounded in the Absolute, or no truth is possible).

Although their metaphysic will not allow them to admit it to themselves, even Marxists, leftists, metaphysical Darwinists, doctrinaire atheists, secular fundamentalists, and positivists of various kinds are all seeking the same ultimate Truth, except in a self-defeating way that assures failure. However, this hardly means that we can't benefit from this or that genuine relative truth they discover, since all truth is of the Holy Spirit.


According to Purcell, there is a universal Quest "that summons all true human beings to the heart of the human mystery."

To back up a bit, if you don't recognize that man -- i.e., your existence -- is a mystery, then you are living in a self-imposed Matrix that cuts you off from your essential personhood. In other words, you have performed a mysterectomy on yourself. For example, in a letter, Dostoyevsky wrote that "Man is a mystery.... I occupy myself with this mystery because I want to be a man" (in Purcell).

Now, you might suppose that a standard autobiography is a kind of transparent plunge into the mystery, but that approach usually leads nowhere if it fails to link up with the Source. In other words, the individual self is literally a kind of inexhaustible mystery, but this "inexhaustibility" provides a clue to the Big Mystery, since man is a kind of "finite infinitude" which mirrors the infinite infinitude of O.

Therefore, if you imagine that your bullshit will ever run dry, you're only fooling yourself. You'll never find God that way, because you're already in the ocean searching for water.

Now that it is understood that man is embedded in a cosmic drama extending back no less than 13.85 billion years -- that History is much longer than anyone ever supposed -- it is frankly impossible to write a comprehensive autobiography without taking into consideration, say, the big bang, the evolution of life, and the emergence of human consciousness.

By which I mean that if we are deprived of certain ground-floor experiences during this sensitive period, our quest for the Ground will be compromised later in life. The psychoanalyst Michael Balint wrote of the "basic fault" (as in "fault line"), which can even be seen as one way in which man perpetuates his ancestral Fall from generation to generation. A person haunted by the Basic Fault often spends his life in pursuit of what might be called "dark mysteries," or thrilling perversions and secret compulsions of various kinds.

It is gratifying to see another writer tackle the "discontinuity problem" of human beings. In fact, Purcell makes a useful distinction between the fact of evolution and the ideology of "evolutionism," which is analogous to the critical distinction between science and scientism, of which every educated person should be aware.

The dogma of evolutionism maintains that there is no ontological distinction between man and animal, an absurd metaphysic that immediately runs aground for reasons Darwin himself intuited:

With me, the horrid doubt always arises whether the convictions of man's mind, which has been developed from the mind of the lower animals, are of any value or are at all trustworthy. Would anyone trust the convictions of a monkey's mind, if there are any convictions in such a mind?

The answer is no, of course not. That being the case, where is the line in nature at which point monkey convictions become reliable and trustworthy? Darwinian ideology answers -- and disproves -- itself if one is honest.

Recall that in the Encirclopedia Raccoonica, the individual chapters are so arranged as to be both discontinuous -- i.e., discrete and numbered, just like any other book -- but also continuous and flowing, apparently unlike any other book. This complementarity signifies a number of things, including the ontological discontinuity -- the evolutionary leap, which evolution supposedly cannot do -- of man.

Yes, we are aware of the theory of punctuated equilibrium, but that is merely another attempt at a natural explanation to "save the appearances" of what is clearly a transnatural phenomenon.

One of the themes that runs through From Big Bang to Big Mystery is that human beings "are both continuous with the evolutionary process and discontinuous with it." I for one know exactly what he means when he references Walker Percy's observation that there is "more difference between a human and an animal -- let's say an orangutan -- than between the animal and the planet Saturn."


About that comment yesterday to the effect that there is more difference between a man and a monkey than between a monkey and an inanimate object. I would go even further and say that there is sometimes more difference between men than between men and animals.

One needs to be cautious here, because by no means does it imply that every person isn't of infinite value. But I was thinking of JWN Sullivan's remark to the effect that -- musically speaking, of course -- there is a greater distance between Beethoven and the average man than between the average man and a dog.

There are indeed a handful of men who tower above the rest, whether saints, or scientists, or novelists, poets and painters. Why is this?

I believe it is essentially a necessary consequence of the ontological category of "man," who contains within himself all the hierarchical degrees of being, and spans the entire cosmos in both space and time, vertically and horizontally.

This being the case... Put it this way: it is analogous to the biosphere, in which there are no gaps whatsoever. Everything has a job and a place, even if it means sprouting up through a slab of concrete, or dwelling in darkness at the bottom of the ocean, or eking out a living inside a scalding geyser.

In other words, wherever one goes on the planet, from the north pole, to the hottest desert, to the wastelands of MSNBC, there is some form of primitive life that has found a way to adapt itself to environmental conditions. It has found its niche.

But there is also a vertical space uniquely inhabited by man. This space too is populated wherever one travels within it. Indeed, one can go to hell and back -- Dante proved this -- but one will always find footprints of our predecessors and/or contemporaries (and occasionally descendants from the "future").

The point is that vertical space is densely populated, with some people near the top, others closer to the bottom. This is proven by various aphorisms:

--My brothers? Yes. My equals? No. Because there are younger ones and there are older ones.

--There is something definitively vile about the man who only admits equals, who does not tirelessly seek out his betters.

--Equality is not the fulfillment but the perversion of equity. Only a hierarchical ordering proceeds equitably with “the lion and the ox.”

But man possesses such protean gifts, that almost everyone has something that places him near the top, even if it is only -- only! -- kindness, or mothering, or decency, or sincerity. For example, although Beethoven was in the stratosphere musically, his interpersonal skills were evidently closer to a junkyard dog.

More generally, saints are not usually sages, scientists are not philosophers, celebrities are not political scientists, community organizers are not statesmen, etc.

Interesting, however, that someone like Thomas Aquinas was indeed both saint and sage, and at the highest levels. In his case, this convergence was necessary, because there is a kind of personal purity needed to disclose the highest realities he touches upon. Anyone less than a saint might burst into flames on contact.

I think I've mentioned in the past that the ultimate question motivating my book was: how is it that I am possible? And I don't necessarily mean that in any special way, rather, just the naked fact of the most unexpected thing one could possibly imagine in a cosmos: I AM.

It turns out that in order to answer the question, you can't just say, for example, "my parents just happened to stumble into one another, and you know the rest."

Yes there's that, but there's also cosmology, history, anthropology, religion, linguistics, etc., etc., etc. It turns out that Purcell is motivated by that same question -- the very Question that defines man:

"What led me back to philosophy from psychology was a sense that, as a human being, I myself wasn't really, at least not exclusively, 'an object,' the kind of a thing a science could wholly encompass [read: contain] and explain."

Rather, "I realized I'm something other than a world-immanent thing -- a subject -- and that there's an inexhaustibility to the within-ness that marks me out as a human being as distinct from a galaxy, an ecosystem, or an animal."

Same here. To be continued...

1 comment:

julie said...

A person haunted by the Basic Fault often spends his life in pursuit of what might be called "dark mysteries," or thrilling perversions and secret compulsions of various kinds.

Unfortunately for the restuvus, such people tend not to be contented with the mere pursuit of dark mysteries, but also with the exercise of power over others. And so we have, for instance, "drag queen story hour," in which men dressed not merely in drag, but often in a demonaic parody of femininity, insist on reading stories to small children in order to "groom" the kids into accepting deviance as normal. Of course, that's an example of the blatant; most of the ways they work tend to be more subtle.