Thursday, January 31, 2008

The notion of secularity itself is near bankruptcy

With the prevalence of voices casting doubts and aspersions on the so-called secularization thesis, we might imagine that the familiar story of the progress of Western modernity qua secularity is on its last legs, and that the notion of secularity itself is near bankruptcy. Upon closer inspection, however—and Charles Taylor’s latest tome provides an excellent occasion for such inspection—it appears that what is in jeopardy is the valence of “the secular,” and not the story of the long march of Western modernity itself. [...]

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Worship of glory arising from power is not only dangerous; it arises from a barbaric conception of God

God is the most perplexing figure in Whitehead’s metaphysics. Who is he, what does he want, and what is he doing in Process and Reality? Whitehead’s thought is entirely about process and transformation; it values becoming over being, relation over substance, and continual novelty over the perpetuation of the same. It rejects the "bifurcation of nature" (1920/2004, 30-31), or the separation of reality from appearance (1929/1978, 72). It holds that there is nothing besides "the experiences of subjects" (167); and it grants to all subjects – including inhuman and nonsentient ones – and to all their experiences – conscious or not – the same ontological status. Such a thought has no room for a specially "eminent" entity: one that would be absolute, unchanging, transcendent, and supersensible, as God is usually taken to be. Given Whitehead’s rejection of traditional metaphysics and theology, why does God remain such a "stubborn fact" throughout Process and Reality? What role does this God play in Whitehead’s cosmological system?1
Evidently, the God described by Whitehead bears little resemblance to the God of Christianity, or any other organized religion. Indeed, Whitehead is repulsed by the "Greek, Hebrew, and Christian" picture of "a static God condescending to the world" from transcendent heights (347). He deplores the way that "the vicious separation of the flux from the permanence leads to the concept of an entirely static God, with eminent reality, in relation to an entirely fluent world, with de- ficient reality" (346). He rejects what he wryly calls the "unfortunate habit. . . of paying [God] metaphysical compliments" (1925/1967, 179). He protests against the traditional adulation of God as a figure of might: the "worship of glory arising from power is not only dangerous; it arises from a barbaric conception of God" (1926/1996, 55). And he denounces "the doctrine of an aboriginal, eminently real, transcendent creator, at whose fiat the world came into being, and whose imposed will it obeys," as a pernicious "fallacy which has infused tragedy" into the history of the world (1929/1978, 342). For he judges that, despite the ethical content of Jesus’ own teachings, through most of European history "the Gospel of love was turned into a Gospel of fear. The Christian world was composed of terrified populations" (1926/1996, 75).2
Whitehead rejects the more refined philosophical notions of God as much as he does the "barbaric," popular or traditional ones. For instance, despite his own affinity with Leibniz, Whitehead dismisses "the Leibnizian theory of the ‘best of possible worlds’ " as "an audacious fudge produced in order to save the face of a Creator constructed by contemporary, and antecedent, theologians" (1929/1978, 47). Leibniz’s God selects among "an infinite number of possible universes," choosing the one that is the best. He bases his choice upon these worlds’ different degrees of perfection: "each possible world [has] the right to claim existence in proportion to the perfection which it involves" (Leibniz 1973, 187). Perfection, however, has already been defined by Leibniz as "magnitude of positive reality" (185). So God chooses the world that is already, in itself, the most real. But Whitehead does not accept the Leibnizian notion of different degrees of reality.
There is no ontological preeminence. The world, as "merely ‘given’. . . does not disclose any peculiar character of ‘perfection’ " (Whitehead 1929/1978, 47). For "no reason, internal to history, can be assigned why that flux of forms, rather than another flux, should have been illustrated" (46). The world is not predetermined, but radically contingent, because it is open to the immanent "decision" of each actual entity. God cannot have the power to decide for all these entities. Hence no "possible universe" can be judged a priori to be more perfect, or more intrinsically real, than any other. If God is held to be omnipotent, and given the credit for everything good that happens, "then the evil in the world is in conformity with the nature of God" as well (1926/1996, 95).
Whitehead’s rejection of the Leibnizian God is entirely in accord with Kant’s demonstration, in the "Transcendental Dialectic" of the First Critique, of the fallacies of speculative theology. Kant distinguishes three philosophical endeavors to prove the existence of God: the ontological, cosmological, and physiotheological proofs (1996, 577). But Kant rejects all of these alleged proofs, because in all of them, "a regulative principle is transformed into a constitutive one" (599). That is to say, these ostensible proofs take relations and determinations that are valid for entities within the world, and illegitimately apply them in order to explain the "thoroughgoing determination" of the world itself as a whole and in the first place (563). They then go on to hypostasize this principle of determination in the form of a supreme "being of all beings" (569). All such attempts to prove the existence of God thus make the mistake of applying empirical principles to establish something that is supersensible and non-empirical. This can never work, because "if the empirically valid law of causality is to lead to the original being, then this being would likewise have to belong to the chain of objects of experience; but in that case this being would itself, like all appearances, be conditioned in turn" (613).
Whitehead’s own discussions of theology largely follow Kant’s logic. Thus Whitehead dismisses the "ontological proof" of God’s existence, because "any proof which commences with the consideration of the character of the actual world cannot rise above the actuality of this world. . . In other words, it may discover an immanent God, but not a God wholly transcendent" (1926/1996, 71). And he rejects the "cosmological argument," on the grounds that "our notion of causation concerns the relations of states of things within the actual world, and can only be illegitimately extended to a transcendent derivation" (1929/1978, 93).3
Any attempt to ground immanence in transcendence, or explain "stubborn fact" (the empirically given) by reference to an Absolute, would violate Whitehead’s "ontological principle," which states that "there is nothing which floats into the world from nowhere" (244), that "every explanatory fact refers to the decision and to the efficacy of an actual thing" (46), and that, therefore, "the reasons for things are always to be found in the composite nature of definite actual entities" (19)... 8:40 AM 8:13 AM 8:02 AM 9:57 AM

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Thinking about transcendence in more multidimensional way

One of the main arguments of Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age is that people, at least modern secular Westerners, have come routinely to think that the world as it is must be all there is. The contrast between immanence and transcendence is thus one of Taylor’s main organizing themes. Immanence locates both our sense of reality and our sense of the good within the world around us; transcendence gives us a sense of something beyond. Taylor develops this in conjunction with a notion of “fullness” to try to evoke what it means to live in more constant engagement with that which is beyond the immediately given, the spiritual which might infuse nature, for example, or the Divine which might lift morality above a notion of ethics as mere fairness.
But in trying to make clear the distinctively religious senses of transcendence, I think Taylor narrows the notion a bit. I think this actually obscures important aspects of religious experience as well as the possibilities for transcendence outside religion. Moreover, I think Taylor himself offers us tools for thinking about transcendence in this more multidimensional way.
In A Secular Age, and in much of his other work of recent decades, Taylor runs in effect three parallel and mutually informing arguments. One is about the narrowing of the self to a being of mere self-interest – or rather a narrowing of thinking about the self, since Taylor is at pains to point out that even while utilitarian theories have grown so have richer ideas of the person and human potential. A second is about the flattening of the notion of good, so that instead of having a strong idea of “the good” that gives order to our moral lives and aspirations – what Taylor calls a moral horizon or a higher good – we often think in terms simply of many goods, all in principle quantitatively comparable. And the third is about the importance of transcendence vs. immanence, of the difference between seeing “this world” as all there is, and of having a sense of something more.
By setting the three arguments alongside each other, and trying to integrate them more, we can enrich the idea of transcendence. Specifically, we can see that each evokes an idea of transcendence: transcending mere self-interest and more limited notions of the self is among other things an occasion for self-transformation. In other words, this is not simply thinking differently about a self that remains unchanged. We are actually able to change who we are – albeit not often radically – to make more of ourselves than what we find on initial self-examination. Similarly, commitment to a higher good necessarily includes a transcendence of mere goods.
Taylor himself articulates three senses of transcendence, three dimensions in which we go “beyond”: a good higher than human flourishing (such as love in the sense of agape), a higher power (such as God), and extension of life (or even “our lives”) beyond the “natural” scope between birth and death (summarized on p. 20). He is clearly concerned to bring out what is distinctive to a religious rather than a secular orientation. But let me suggest the value of seeing the transcendent as including what Taylor lists but not limiting our notion of “going beyond” to these senses.
The easiest to grasp, partly because Taylor has so wonderfully articulated it, is the notion of transcendence built into the idea of self-transformation. We can, as he put it in Sources of the Self, want to have better wants. In this phrase he captures both remaking the self and the importance of a notion of higher good. The higher good may or may not be backed by a higher power (and as discussions of Durkheim by Taylor and Bellah in this blog suggest, the higher power may or may not be Divine). It may not even transcend our selves in all senses – as the Aristotelian pursuit of excellence calls for transcending an initial state of the self in pursuit of a better one. The higher good may transcend human flourishing without transcending all senses of “nature” (as Taylor’s references to Gaia suggest). But – and this is crucial – many kinds of commitment to human flourishing already transcend the narrower sense of self which Taylor thinks has become more common in a secular age. To really order our lives by an ideal of improving the human condition is already to be oriented to transcending that condition as we found it.
This approaches a second sense of transcendence, the transcendence of the self embodied in commitment and connection to others. This may be love (which is already more than simply valuing fairness or most other notions of a merely ethical universalism). The Christian notion of agape situates this as participation in God’s love for humanity, but we need not understand love this way for it to be transcendent. Moreover, the transcendent aspect of social relations is not grasped simply by altruism. It is not necessarily an orientation to others rather than self, but includes the transformation of self that comes through opening ourselves to noninstrumental social relationships. We transcend the sense of ourselves as individually complete and necessarily who we already are not only in personal relationships but in larger groups, including movements which work for larger social transformation. To say that there is transcendence of self in relationships with and commitment to others, thus, may point to a more differentiated notion of society than the Durkheimian whole.
And this points us to the third sense of still-earthly transcendence, active participation in history. “The world as it is” is an ahistorical phrase. The world as we find it is inevitably subject to change, and we may shape that change in various smaller or larger ways. The sense of possibility this can open up invites a certain “fullness,” an orientation to a higher good, a sense of participation in something that will live beyond our natural lives. The history in which we participate is potentially, as Hannah Arendt stressed, world-making. It may involve revolutionary transformations and enduring institutions. But this orientation to history need not be either revolutionary or utopian to be transcendent. What is crucial is the capacity to envision history as more than mere change, as transformation in which we may participate.
So, there is transcendence in self-transformation, in relationships with others, and in the effort to make history. None of this negates the religious senses of transcendence Taylor describes – nor the extension of a “spiritual”, quasi-religious attitude in understanding nature itself as sacred. Indeed, these may coincide and reinforce each other. Faith in God may make faith in other people easier, may make the struggle for a better future more sustainable. Conversely, though, the transcendence of self in relationships with others may also help to sustain faith in God.
More generally, it seems important to be attentive to several dimensions in which it is possible to transcend resignation to ourselves and to the world as we find them. This entry was posted on Monday, January 28th, 2008 at 6:00 am and is filed under A Secular Age.

Religious citizens who participate in political advocacy in the informal public sphere can offer exclusively religious reasons

In his essay “Religion in the Public Sphere,” Habermas joins the debate between liberals and critics of liberalism on the proper role of religion in the public sphere. His proposal focuses on what each side of the debate gets right:
  • the liberal emphasis on the obligation to provide nonreligious reasons in support of coercive policies with which all citizens must comply, on one side, and
  • the critic’s insistence on the right of religious citizens to adopt their religious stance in public deliberation about such policies, on the other.

Habermas agrees with the liberal position in defending the separation of church and state, and thus the institutional priority of nonreligious reasons in politics. Consequently, he accepts the Rawlsian view that nonreligious reasons must be offered to justify coercive policies in political deliberation at the institutional level of parliaments, courts, ministries and administrations, that is, in the formal public sphere. But he proposes to eliminate this requirement in the informal public sphere. Religious citizens who participate in political advocacy in the informal public sphere can offer exclusively religious reasons in support of the policies they favor in the hope that they may be translated into nonreligious reasons. But the obligation of translation should not fall exclusively on the shoulders of religious citizens, as the Rawlsian approach suggests. According to Habermas, secular citizens must share the burden of translating religious into nonreligious reasons. In order to do so, they have to take religious reasons seriously and should not deny their possible truth from the outset.
At first sight, this proposal may seem less restrictive than the Rawlsian and thus better equipped to enable the political inclusion of religious citizens. However, unlike Rawls, Habermas imposes additional constraints on the epistemic attitudes appropriate to democratic citizenship. According to him, the normative expectations of democratic citizenship can only be met after some crucial “learning processes” have taken place among both religious and secular citizens. On the one hand, religious citizens must develop a self-reflective attitude towards Modernity. This involves accepting the possible truth of other religions, the authority of science, and the institutional priority of nonreligious reasons in politics. On the other hand, secular citizens must develop a self-reflective attitude towards the post-secular society in which they live. This involves transcending a secularist understanding of Modernity, according to which religions have no cognitive substance. As a consequence, severe restrictions are imposed on the types of reasons that may legitimately be used in political discussions in the public sphere. For example, religious citizens cannot appeal to religious reasons that deny the authority of science or the possible truth of other religions, and secular citizens cannot appeal to secularist reasons that deny the possible truth of religious beliefs.

I find Habermas’s diagnosis of the changes in mentality required of religious and secular citizens in a post-secular society highly problematic. Being a secular citizen myself, I certainly would welcome the acceptance of the authority of science by everyone, religious citizens included. From an epistemic point of view, I do not see any rational alternative. But, even so, I fail to see how this could suffice to justify the quite different claim that accepting the authority of science is a moral duty of democratic citizenship. That claim demands substantive justification, something that Habermas does not provide. This omission seems particularly problematic in the context of an approach that aims to enable the political integration of religious citizens (i.e., of religious citizens as they actually are, one would assume) in liberal democracies. An even more problematic suggestion is that democratic citizens are required to transcend a secularist understanding of Modernity, according to which religious beliefs have no cognitive substance. Here it is not only unclear what could justify the claim that citizens should open their minds to the possible truth of religious beliefs in order to be democratic, but it is even unclear what could justify the claim that they should do so in order to be rational. As long as the proper understanding of Modernity is a contested issue, it is hard to find anything irrational in citizens who believe “that, in the long run, religious views will inevitably melt under the sun of scientific criticism and that religious communities will not be able to withstand the pressures of some unstoppable cultural and social modernization.” Since we do not know yet whether the secularist hypothesis is true or false, as Habermas himself recognizes, it cannot be rationally required of any citizen to believe one way or the other. In the absence of conclusive evidence, universal acceptance of the post-secular diagnosis of Modernity does not seem particularly desirable from an epistemic point of view.
Now, for all that, Habermas could still be right in claiming that the political inclusion of all democratic citizens will only be possible if their respective cognitive stances undergo these transformations. Certainly, if citizen’s cognitive stances were to become similar enough the problem of political integration would eventually disappear. But it seems to me that if an ethics of democratic citizenship is needed at all, it is needed precisely to answer the question of what citizens should do in cases of conflict before such an ideal endpoint is reached. Under conditions of pluralism, a solution to the problem of political integration can hardly consist in the hope that the problem will evaporate if and when some views at both extremes of the spectrum disappear (e.g. the views of religious citizens who believe in creationism and secularist citizens who believe that religions are irrational). What is at issue here is whether democratic citizens can be politically integrated as they actually are, i.e., given their actual religious or secularist cognitive stances.
This is indeed a major concern of critics of the liberal proposal. A central objection to the Rawlsian proviso that requires citizens to offer nonreligious reasons in support of coercive policies is that it may force religious citizens to be disingenuous. Given that we cannot take an instrumental attitude towards our own beliefs or cognitive stances in order to choose what reasons we find convincing and what reasons we do not, the obligation to provide nonreligious reasons may force religious citizens to argue for something other than what they actually believe. This difficulty is addressed by Habermas’s proposal to let citizens provide religious reasons in public deliberation. But, as a consequence, the difficulty reappears for secular citizens. According to Habermas, allowing religious reasons in public deliberation only makes sense if all citizens take those reasons seriously and do not deny their possible truth from the outset. It follows that secular citizens should not make public use of their sincere beliefs if they happen to be of a secularist type that contradicts the possible truth of religious claims. However, if disallowing democratic citizens to publicly adopt their own cognitive stance is unacceptable, it seems that this would be so whether those citizens happen to take a religious or secularist stance. This problem is aggravated by what is likely to strike secular citizens as a disquieting additional obligation, namely, the obligation to open their minds to the possible truth of religious reasons as a precondition for finding out whether they can be translated into secular ones. Beyond its doubtful feasibility, this obligation seems to deprive secular citizens of the very same right to publicly adopt their own cognitive stance that the proposal aims to grant to religious citizens.
But is it possible to organize public deliberation in such a way that the right of democratic citizens to adopt their own cognitive stances is recognized without giving up on the democratic obligation to secure that only public reasons count in support of coercive policies with which all citizens must comply?
[Stay tuned for the next installment] This entry was posted on Tuesday, January 29th, 2008 at 7:04 am and is filed under Religion in the public sphere.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

There really are aspects of Buddhism which are mythical, irrational, metaphysical, and just plain weird

I was surfing the web this afternoon when I serendipitously found this old article by John Horgan, Why I Ditched Buddhism. Below are some relevant quotes and my corresponding commentaries.
"Four years ago, I joined a Buddhist meditation class and began talking to (and reading books by) intellectuals sympathetic to Buddhism. Eventually, and regretfully, I concluded that Buddhism is not much more rational than the Catholicism I lapsed from in my youth; Buddhism's moral and metaphysical worldview cannot easily be reconciled with science—or, more generally, with modern humanistic values."
This makes me wonder what kind of meditation class Horgan went to. How long did he practice Buddhism? What school of Buddhism did he get his experience from? In any case, I could relate with Horgan. One of the reasons I chose not to convert to Buddhism or label my faith as exclusively Buddhist (although agnostic Buddhist comes close) is that there really are aspects of Buddhism which are mythical, irrational, metaphysical, and just plain weird. From that perspective, Buddhism is no different than Catholicism (or any mythic religion and their metaphysics).
"Buddhism espouses reincarnation, which holds that after death our souls are re-instantiated in new bodies, and karma, the law of moral cause and effect. Together, these tenets imply the existence of some cosmic judge who, like Santa Claus, tallies up our naughtiness and niceness before rewarding us with rebirth as a cockroach or as a saintly lama."
I admit. Reincarnation is a touchy subject with lots of metaphysical baggage. Though some adherents of Buddhism appear to worship and pray to countless buddhas, there is no "cosmic judge" in Buddhism. The notion of karma (the law of cause and effect) dispatches the need for a "cosmic judge", or even God. There is no cosmic judge in Buddhism the same way as there is no cosmic judge when it comes to natural selection in evolution. I find Horgan's view of reincarnation and karma as hogwash. Horgan's view of reincarnation and karma sounds New Agey to me.
"Much more dubious is Buddhism's clam that perceiving yourself as in some sense unreal will make you happier and more compassionate. Ideally, as the British psychologist and Zen practitioner Susan Blackmore writes in The Meme Machine, when you embrace your essential selflessness, "guilt, shame, embarrassment, self-doubt, and fear of failure ebb away and you become, contrary to expectation, a better neighbor." But most people are distressed by sensations of unreality, which are quite common and can be induced by drugs, fatigue, trauma, and mental illness as well as by meditation."
I'm no Buddhist scholar, but I think Horgan misses the point of Buddhism's nuanced views of reality. There are different schools of Buddhism and Horgan didn't make a distinction which school of Buddhism he is critiquing. Since he mentioned Zen, Robert Thurman and Chogyam Trungpa, I'll assume that Horgan is thinking about Zen and Tibetan Buddhism. However, in Tibetan Buddhism alone, there are four major schools each with its own interpretation of Buddhist teachings and sets of practices. Granted, Horgan was generalizing to make a point. But equating the Buddhist teaching of illusion (or maya) with mental delusion (i.e. sensations of unreality, trauma, mental illness) seems very irresponsible to me. The underlying assumption of Horgan is that, our waking state is what is acceptable as a normal experience.
"What's worse, Buddhism holds that enlightenment makes you morally infallible—like the pope, but more so. Even the otherwise sensible James Austin perpetuates this insidious notion. " 'Wrong' actions won't arise," he writes, "when a brain continues truly to express the self-nature intrinsic to its [transcendent] experiences." Buddhists infected with this belief can easily excuse their teachers' abusive acts as hallmarks of a "crazy wisdom" that the unenlightened cannot fathom."
There is some element of truth to this for some gurus who are deluded with their spiritual accomplishments. But this issue holds true for all religious traditions. But I didn't get the idea that "enlightenment makes you morally infallible" from the Dalai Lama or from some of the Buddhist teachers I know. I wonder what kind of Buddhist teachers Horgan hung out with.
"But what troubles me most about Buddhism is its implication that detachment from ordinary life is the surest route to salvation. Buddha's first step toward enlightenment was his abandonment of his wife and child, and Buddhism (like Catholicism) still exalts male monasticism as the epitome of spirituality. It seems legitimate to ask whether a path that turns away from aspects of life as essential as sexuality and parenthood is truly spiritual. From this perspective, the very concept of enlightenment begins to look anti-spiritual: It suggests that life is a problem that can be solved, a cul-de-sac that can be, and should be, escaped."
While it is true (based on the folklore about the Buddha) that the path the Buddha took towards his own "enlightenment" was radical, upon "awakening" the Buddha preached about The Four Noble Truths and with it, The Eightfold Path. Buddhism is also known for its Middle Way approach.
"All religions, including Buddhism, stem from our narcissistic wish to believe that the universe was created for our benefit, as a stage for our spiritual quests. In contrast, science tells us that we are incidental, accidental. Far from being the raison d'être of the universe, we appeared through sheer happenstance, and we could vanish in the same way. This is not a comforting viewpoint, but science, unlike religion, seeks truth regardless of how it makes us feel. Buddhism raises radical questions about our inner and outer reality, but it is finally not radical enough to accommodate science's disturbing perspective. The remaining question is whether any form of spirituality can."
I think Horgan is correct when Buddhism is viewed from its popular and mythical perspective (e.g. concepts of karma and reincarnation). However, what I think Horgan misses is that, from a developmental point of view, religion has its levels. This has been eloquently articulated by Wilber in his Beliefnet essay, Which Level of God Do You Believe In? So there is a magic Buddhism, mythic Buddhism, a mental Buddhism, etc. Same as with other religions. A mental Buddhism (or Catholicism) has no problem being reconciled with science -- science of well-being to be exact. It looks like Horgan got caught up with magic and mythic Buddhism. I'm not sure if he's even familiar with the Buddhist school of thought known as Madhyamaka, as popularized by Nagarjuna. Here's the description of Madhyamaka:
"The immediate implication of the essenceless of self is one of universal interdependence -- for even causes and conditions are empty of inherent existence or essence, as stated by Nagarjuna in the very first chapter of the Mulmadhyamakakarika. This means there is no first or ultimate cause for anything that occurs, essentially, all things are causally indeterminate, dependent on innumerable causes and conditions which are themselves dependent on innumerable causes and conditions."
Now which is more radical, science's view (as per Horgan) that "we are incidental, accidental" or the Buddhist notion of interdependence?
But Horgan is the author of the book Rational Mysticism so I give him the benefit of the doubt. Maybe he does know what he's talking about. Horgan's critique of Buddhism apply to all other religions at the magic and mythical level. But I think Horgan is coming from a very partial point of view.
On the other hand, like I said, I'm no Buddhist scholar so my views on Buddhism is very partial. So to all my Buddhist readers out there, I'd like to hear your response to Horgan's interpretation of Buddhism. What are the things he got right? What are the things he got wrong?
Finally, here's a Buddhist response to Horgan's critique. See the ABC WEB LOG: A Critique of Buddhism.
May all sentient beings experience peace, love, happiness, serendipity, serenity, and Divine discontent. January 23, 2008 at 09:26 AM in Religion Permalink Comments (5) TrackBack (0)

The Next Buddha is 'WE'
The next Buddha will not be a He, nor will be a She, but We. That is according to this fascinating essay by Michel Bauwens. Next Buddha Will be a Collective
"Religious and spiritual expression is always embedded in societal structures. If social structures are moving towards the form of distributed networks, what kind of evolution of spiritual expression can we expect? In this essay, we will first describe the general societal changes that we see emerging, and expect to become more prevalent in the future, then examine to what degree these changes will have an impact on individual and collective spiritual expression."Read more.
Very, very, very fluffy. January 25, 2008 at 05:15 AM in Spirituality, Web/Tech Permalink Comments (0) TrackBack (0)

Thursday, January 24, 2008

The monograph on German thought is immensely stimulating and suggestive

Mark Lilla’s The Stillborn God feels like two books, oddly yoked together. One is a fascinating study, which traces a post-Enlightenment tradition of theorizing about religion starting from an anthropocentric focus. Religion is to be understood from the human desire or craving or need for religion. The originator of this way of thinking is Rousseau, but he rapidly acquires followers in Germany: Kant, the German Romantics, Schleiermacher. Lilla traces this line of thought in German culture, up through Liberal theology, Kulturprotestantismus, and the triumphant sense of liberal religion as at the heart of modernity. And then he tells how this complacent view was rudely discredited by the killing fields of 1914-18, and how this crisis gave rise to supposed returns to orthodoxy, in the form of Barth and Rosenzweig.
This is a fascinating story, and well worth the telling, particularly as Lilla weaves together both a Christian and a Jewish variant, which grew symbiotically in Germany. Of course, one might cavil at some of the interpretations; I feel that Lilla pulls his major figures perhaps a bit too far in the anthropocentric direction. In particular I feel that his Hegel interpretation is a bit too human-centred, but there is much room for disagreement here and no writer can please everyone. This is a fascinating account, from which one can’t but learn, whether in agreement or not.
But then this monograph is woven into a much broader narrative of modernity, about the coming, and then later the threatened undoing of what he calls the Great Separation. Otherwise expressed, this involved a determined sidelining of “political theology.” This meant that people were ready to understand political society in purely human terms. This, for Lilla is something achieved in the early modern West, and now perhaps under threat even here. It is foreign, even unthinkable, in other cultures. The motive for the Great Separation was the religiously inspired violence of the confessional wars of the early modern period. Its great architect for Lilla was Hobbes. The threatened return of political theology today may also weaken our defenses against the eruption of violence, hence the importance of our understanding what is at stake.
So the form of the narration is, first an important gain, and then later a threatened back-sliding. This latter threatens as a result of the tradition of liberal theology and the self-declared return to revelation that its discrediting provoked. This is a narrative rather like the secularization one, which often ends in today’s variants with a threatened “return of religion” – except that Lilla sets his face against an idea of secularization as an inevitable historical force.
Now this narrative seems to me wide of the mark. The strong metaphors, like Great Separation, and the image of our having crossed a river, distort and exaggerate the differences. On one bank, political theology supposedly reigns supreme; on the other, it has vanished.
What is political theology? Perhaps that in answering basic political-normative questions (justice, legitimate authority, war and peace, rights and obligations) one appeals to divine authority. Or perhaps that one appeals to revelation. But this is not a category for many religions, so Lilla adds “cosmological speculation.” In any case, for the modern West, “We no longer recognize revelation as politically authoritative.”
But, if you look at what shaped the West “for over a millennium,” you get a much more complex picture. These issues of justice, war and peace, and so on: these were not settled by revelation according to what was long a dominant view. Take Aquinas. The sources here were natural law theory, Aristotle, sometimes Plato (admittedly, Plato comes close to leaning on “cosmological speculation,” if you think of his Idea of the Good). When it comes to legitimate rule, one important source was traditional law. Who was the legitimate successor to the previous King lately deceased?
True, there were demands on the political system made by revealed religion. The King should defend the true faith for example; this was a key notion of post-Constantinian Christendom. And there was indeed a crisis generated by different interpretations of this demand in the early modern period: the Wars of Religion, which we modern Westerners are dimly aware of as the crucible out of which certain features of modern liberal society emerged painfully and over time, most notably the principles of toleration, separation of church and state, and eventually pluralism. This was a tough and sometimes long transition. But we didn’t make it by shifting utterly our modes of political thinking, from one based on divine revelation to one based on purely human considerations.
Take the French Wars of Religion. The normative background in which these were fought out included French Law, including the Salic law of succession; the generally accepted considerations of Natural Law, and the above-mentioned demand that rulers should defend the true church against heresy. In fact the vicissitudes of the 16th Century were partly determined by the ways in which different kings weighted the different demands on them. And the crucial drama turned on the way within each side, and particularly the Catholic side, these demands were differently weighted. In the end the crucial struggle was between the Ligue under the duc de Guise, on one side, Catholic extremists who were willing to over-ride all other considerations in order to defend the Catholic faith, going even to the lengths of assassination of Kings they considered not sufficiently hostile to heresy (but to be fair, the royal party also resorted to assassination, of which Guise was a victim); and on the other side, les Politiques, the party that weighed peace, order, and legality over doctrinal purity. They won, and the compromise was the accession of Henri IV, legal according to Salic rules, along with his conversion and an Edict of toleration (l’Édit de Nantes). Paris vaut bien une messe.
Europe emerged from its wars of religion by moves of this kind. The analogues of the Politiques cobbled together various kinds of deals in which the demands for doctrinal purity were tempered by legality and the requirement of peace and order. The Holy Roman Empire became a patchwork quilt of confessional states in which each local ruler enforced his orthodoxy, while co-existing with neighbours who embraced different confessions. In other states, “heretical” faiths were tolerated within limits.
The great political philosophy which emerges out of this transition is that of modern Natural Law, whose major figures in the 17th Century were Grotius, Hobbes, Locke, Pufendorf. This was the school which invented modern human rights; that is, they made central individual “subjective” rights, rights as the property of individual agents. And they all developed powerful reasons why legitimate order should trump any theological claims about the evils of heresy (that is, not render these null and void, but trump them whenever they conflicted with the demands of order).
Where in all this do we find something like a “crossing” to another shore? This seems altogether too dramatic an image. The more so, in that many of these thinkers continued to invoke the will of God as the basis of Natural Law. This is clearly the case with Pufendorf and Locke. For Locke, the kernel of Natural Law is the right to life. And the basic justification of this right is as follows: “For Men being all the Workmanship of one Omnipotent, and infinitely wise Maker; All the Servants of one Sovereign Master, sent into the World by his order and about his business, they are his Property, whose Workmanship they are, made to last during his, not one anothers Pleasure.” True, this is arguably not derived from Revelation, but the product of Natural theology. Nevertheless, God remains very much part of the picture. It would not be possible to describe Locke as “thinking and talking about politics exclusively in human terms.”
So what is political theology, and when did we abandon it? One answer is to define this mode of thinking as one deriving basic premises from Revelation, and then note that it was first neutralized, subordinated to the other kinds of consideration which were always in the field, and then later, dropped altogether, in the sense that most political thinkers today do not feel the necessity of evoking revelation. Which of these steps corresponds to “crossing the river”? Hardly the first, because the notion of Nature and particularly human nature as providentially designed persists for a long time. Indeed, it is not even fully clear when the second move occurred, because since the reigning notion of the Age of Enlightenment was that a Supreme and Benevolent Being had designed the world, appeals to God and appeals to Nature were in this domain extensionally equivalent. It wasn’t really until the post-Darwin era that the notion of a normative design in nature, whether based on a theistic account or not, comes under challenge.
Later the discussion in the book seems to introduce a third conception of political theology. In the above discussion we gleaned two senses: (1) political theology exists where our normative political theory depends directly on premises from Revelation, (2) this theory depends on premises which are theological, even though not drawn (only) from Revelation (e.g. Locke and Pufendorf). To these, the discussion of Chapter 2 seems to add a third. Our whole thought about politics can be enframed by a view of God and his purposes, and their relation to human action in history, even though our normative thought doesn’t derive directly from any theological premises, revealed or rationally arrived at. Otherwise put, if we reconstruct political deliberations in the form of practical syllogisms, we are not forced to articulate any specifically theological premises.
Lilla elaborates three such enframings in pre-modern Christianity: one a hyper-Augustinian view which saw the political scene as dominated by what were in effect super-robbers, who can at least quell the petty criminals and keep them in order; a second which did try to draw some conclusions for political order in Church and State from God’s ambiguous relation to human history; and a third, that of millennial rebels, which called on people to reject all established orders in favour of the new eschatological age. “Withdrawal into monasticism, ruling the earthly city with the two swords of church and state, building the messianic New Jerusalem – which is the true model of Christian politics?” He wants to claim that the tension between these three frames helped to bring an end to political theology in Christendom.
This third sense of “political theology,” the enframing of our thought about politics and human affairs in some doctrines about God and the world, Lilla speaks of as maintaining a “divine nexus”. This sense (3) is clearly different from (1) and (2), since it is possible to practice political theory in this sense without engaging in (1) or (2). In our age, Reinhold Niebuhr provided an example. Plainly his Augustinian faith combined with his observations helped him develop a philosophical anthropology of humans as fallen creatures, which made him very skeptical of claims that human life could be radically improved by political engineering, whether communist or liberal.
So what would it mean to end political theology? Perhaps to drop it in all three forms, and to think out the great questions in entirely intra-worldly terms. This seems to be what Lilla is suggesting in Chapter 2, the “great separation.” And this impression is strengthened by his choice of Hobbes as the paradigm figure. He reads Hobbes’ “Epicureanism” i.e., mechanistic atomism, as leveling “nothing less than the Christian conception of man.” Of course, this is highly controversial, if one means that Hobbes meant to level the Christian conception. This would render the whole second half of Leviathan with its elaborate interpretation a tongue in cheek exercise meant to fool his contemporaries. Another interpretation is not ruled out. There were Christian Epicureans in the 17th Century (Gassendi, for instance).
But we can by-pass this and simply say that we consider mechanistic materialism incompatible with Christian faith and that therefore Hobbes was in fact refuting it, even if he didn’t grasp this. But this reading of the Great Separation raises questions for the issue when it was supposed to occur. Hobbes was much less influential in his time than he is in ours, and this was largely because of his reductive theory. Lots of contemporaries judged of him what Lilla seems to have judged, that he was a covert atheist. If it walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, it’s a duck. So is the great separation consummated when we’ve all been converted to mechanistic materialism? In which case, it would have to be a moment of liberation yet to come. Or is it just when we stop talking altogether about God? But that doesn’t seem to have happened either, except in some reaches of the academy, and even there you wonder how many crypto-Niebuhrs are hiding.
So how are we to conceive the Great Separation, the abandonment of political theology? In senses (1) and (2), it was never the only game in town, except perhaps for millenarist sectarians. But it was part of the range of essential considerations for most people. There were those who in virtue of their theology in sense (3) wanted to retreat from the political world, like Anabaptists. Whatever theology they had in sense (1) could be called “negative”; have nothing to do with the powers of this world. Obey the Prince when he doesn’t demand something directly contrary to the Gospel (like joining the army), and even when he does issue such commands your disobedience should be utterly passive. Somehow we’ve got to an age in the West where there is very little direct intrusion of normative premises from theology into our political lives; but this can arise for many believers because their enframing sense of the relation to God is much more complex, and doesn’t admit of such direct transfers, or because lots of people are now atheists or agnostics, or more realistically for both reasons: because we are split about the issue of potential theological enframings, the only way we can discuss together about political issues is in terms which remain common.
I think Lilla exaggerates the importance of Hobbes, but he is right to see him as one thinker in the chain of those who developed what I have called the modern moral conception of social order. A more apt founding figure for this outlook is Grotius. It sees human beings as both each pursuing their own goals, of life and prosperity, in potential conflict with others, while at the same time they are sociable, meant to live with others. Our social morality can be derived from this predicament. Those social rules are correct which can enable humans to live together; which can in other terms harmonize their projects, so that they become mutually strengthening, instead of causes of conflict and hence destruction. This is if you like a derivation of social rules from purely human considerations, and Grotius even makes the (in)famous claim that these rules would be valid, even if God didn’t exist. But in the way these ideas were worked out, in say, Locke, or Pufendorf, or the framers of the American Declaration of Independence, they were not disconnected from theology. The assumption was that God had made human beings so that they could achieve harmony by these rules, whether this was established by reason, often in a Deistic mode, or shown by Revelation (and for many people, of course, the fact that these truths were doubly guaranteed made them all the more credible). “We hold these truths to be self-evident….”
Where I agree with Lilla is that this new ethic of order could be detached from a theistic anchoring. It could be seen as inscribed in Nature (Jacobins), and then later as what our instincts and intuitions as they have developed in civilization suggest to us. What I cannot see is a moment of Great Separation, as it were, a crossing of a stream. Even today, our sense of this liberal order of equality, rights and democracy is sustained by what Rawls called an “overlapping consensus,” in which people support the same principles for a host of different reasons, Kantian, utilitarian, but also theological. Now in fact, it is hard to think across these gaps; for a believer to understand an atheist, and vice versa. So people always fall into imagining that their grounds for upholding the consensus are the only valid ones. Certain people on the US right think that Christianity is the only possible basis; certain members of the liberal academy think that if you aren’t some kind of Kantian you have no good reason to believe in Liberalism. These beliefs help to generate the kind of Kulturkampf from which the US suffers. But the fact is that our civilization is anchored in widely incompatible “comprehensive views,” to use Rawls’ term. Only if you forget this can you believe that “we” have crossed a deep divide, and that we are now threatened with regression. It seems to me that the reality is more mixed and less dramatic than that.
So on “our” (modern liberal) side of the river, “political theology” has never been wholly absent, and has often been very prominent. Unless we choose to forget abolitionists in Britain and America, the Civil Right movement, all the Second World War rhetoric about “defending Christian civilization,” etc. It is more or less prominent at different times and in different milieu, but it is always there.
And symmetrically, the kinds of philosophical considerations which we rely on today were very present on the “other” shore. One has the impression at times that Lilla sees the pre-modern age as dominated by the Guises and the Münzers. There were far too many then, but then we’ve seen quite a few in our day, not just those with a “theological” outlook, but also Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot. Lilla never undertakes to describe the “other shore”, but the odd hints he does offer make me wonder. He speaks of contemporary recurrences to political theology as being unlike those of earlier days; they don’t “appeal to miracles, or biblical inerrancy, or divine providence, or sacred tradition.” Later he mentions “fanciful cosmologies.” But Biblical inerrancy is an invention of modern evangelical Protestantism; miracles were not standardly appealed to in political theory, even with a “divine nexus” (it’s true that they became very important in apologetics in the 18th Century, hence the punch in Hume’s deflationary arguments on this score); providence played a big role for thinkers of “British and American Liberalism,” of which Lilla says that for two centuries they “stayed well within the philosophical orbit that Hobbes had circumscribed.” This would certainly have surprised many of them.
One is led to wonder whether for Lilla pre-modern normative thinking was simply dictated out of Revelation. Speaking of our present enlightened age, Lilla says: “No one in modern Britain or the United States argued for a bicameral legislature on the basis of divine revelation.” But did the Norman Kings of England when they summoned the first Parliaments which provided the template for today’s British and American institutions consult the Bible or the doctrine of the Catholic Church?
Of course, one finds the tendency to derive goals directly from Revelation among sectarians and millenarists. These groups are often violent, which is one reason why many secular moderns link religion and violence. The last century has shown that this kind of murderous sectarianism is not confined to religious believers. It’s not clear to me what Lilla’s views are on this question.
In sum, the monograph on German thought is immensely stimulating and suggestive, but the broader narrative is hard to grasp, and seems to verge at times on the fantastic. This entry was posted on Thursday, January 24th, 2008 at 6:00 am and is filed under The Stillborn God.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Refinement of manners, or self-restraint, courtesy, psychological boundaries, and recognition of the other as a separate being

I was particularly struck by Taylor's discussion of the "civilizing process" that commenced in Europe in the 16th century. I touched on this in my book, on pp. 162-166, but there again, that section could easily be expanded into a whole book. (In fact, it has, for example, Norbert Elias's classic The Civilizing Process.) It turns out that you can learn a lot about people by looking at the etiquette books of the time, to see what was required to be a polished gentleman and stand out from the uncivilized rabble -- by the things that were and weren't taken for granted.
For example, when dining with others, don't blow your nose with the tablecloth. When walking with a companion down the street, it is not a "very fine habit," "when one comes across excrement... to point it out to another, and hold it up for him to smell." Do not defecate in public places, either in the middle of the street or down the hallway. Don't just walk around naked.
Neil Postman also discusses this in his excellent The Disappearance of Childhood. People "were not shamed by exposing their bodily functions to the gaze of others.... The idea of concealing sexual drives was alien to adults, and the idea of sheltering children from sexual secrets, unknown.... Indeed, it was common enough in the Middle Ages for adults to take liberties with the sexual organs of children.... In the Middle Ages there were no children because there existed no means for adults to know exclusive information..." Manners, literacy, disenchantment, individualism, boundaries, and the interior self all arise simultaneously.
In his book, Elias devotes an an entire analysis to "the rise of the fork," which symbolized a more general trend toward refinement of manners, or self-restraint, courtesy, psychological boundaries, and recognition of the other as a separate being. Prior to the 16th century, everyone just ate with their hands from a common bowl, and this persisted in the lower classes into the 19th century. In a way, the civilizing process tracks along with the development of shame, or at least putting it to an entirely new purpose.
As Taylor writes, the civilizing process is a matter of learning to feel shame "in the proper places." Thus, what may appear to be a trivial change in manners on the surface signifies a much deeper psychological change, in that people are beginning to be aware of their own psychological interior, and how they appear to others. Prior to this time, people are much more like children, with no shame whatsoever about bodily functions, about expressing emotion with no restraint, or about acting on violent or sexual impulses without reflection. Ironically, it is only with the development of the individual that intimacy can begin to develop, which you might say is the unashamed sharing of two people, interior to interior, or "psychological undressing." 11:42 AM

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Perhaps you suffer because how else will you recognize delight?

Manderson’s Bubble My Inner Life Transcribed To The Sky
Evil as Good January 14, 2008 by bubbler
In my brief encounter with San Pedro in Cuzco 2 years ago, one of the insights I gained from that little glimpse into the hallucinogenic beyond was that there is nothing to fear in all of the vast, seemingly demonic forces arrayed beyond our understanding in the cosmos. That all is of the light, a part of the entire.
I’ve been kind of sleeping on that window of intuition, but I re-remembered it the other day as I was reading a section in The Life Divine, wherein Aurobindo is grappling with the question of the existence of evil and suffering in the world. And I then realized that this little insight I had was perhaps deeper in significance than I had originally thought. For me, personally, the recognition that everything in existence is a part of a greater whole, including the “bad” and evil things, was a stepping beyond my upbringing. I was raised as a Protestant Christian, and as everyone knows, the Christian theology, in a nutshell, is arranged around the concepts of good and evil as represented by God and Satan. The presence of evil and suffering is explained as the meddlings of the fallen angel in our material world, allowed by a distant God to challenge and torture us in our den of sin. But there is, of course, a strange paradox in such an explanation of evil, for it renders a supposedly omnipotent, omnipresent, and omniscient God as suddenly reticent and detached from humanity and their suffering. This means either that this God is cruel, or that he is not in fact all-powerful, or both.
I’m quite certain that Christian scholars and mystics have grappled with this question throughout the ages, and have more than likely come up with some insightful answers based within the Christian dogma. As I no longer adhere to any religion myself, I am not all that interested in theological answers, but rather in a unitary spiritual, metaphysical vision. The deeper mystic, in any religion, recognizes the unity of all existences as an extension of God. For if God is omni-everything, if it is Brahman, if it is all-powerful, all-seeing, all-knowing, then it must necessarily include all of what we perceive as bad, in addition to all of the good.
This has led me to the idea that the very concept of “evil” is a necessarily human construct. After all, animals and plants do not create religions, laws, and codes of ethics for their behavior. If you agree with the principle of evolution, then you necessarily regard human life as an evolved form of life with a level of consciousness which goes beyond that which it has evolved from. As such, we have evolved into this perception of suffering and evil, and it is thus a mental construct, a product of our evolved mentality. And therefore, our conceptions of evil, though formed from fear and ignorance, are in fact an essential recognition of that which we must defend ourselves against, and ultimately transcend, in the effort to evolve. What we perceive and regard as evil are in fact powers beyond ourselves that threaten to overwhelm or lead us astray in our aspiration towards divinity. But in the bigger picture, these forces, so seemingly arrayed against us, are in fact a form of cosmic devil’s advocates that push us and nudge us and batter us towards perfection, honing us, challenging us. And when we recognize this greater truth, when we overcome our fear and ignorance, we get that much closer to transcending the existence and persistence of evil in our lives.
In the light of this greater awareness, what was once perceived as evil and in opposition to ourselves transmutes into something with broader implication and potential, even a deeper good. All of this suffering, all of this evil, could be seen as teachers, bearers of painful lessons that we must learn. We must answer and overcome their challenges, and realize them as a part of the whole of existence. Both negative and positive, united, represent the entire picture. There is, therefore, nothing to fear. All is of the light, for all comes from the light and returns to the light, and has always been and will always be the light within itself, and of itself, and beyond itself. This is not to explain away your suffering. This is to say that perhaps you suffer because how else will you recognize delight? And this is not to explain away evil, and give it reason to perpetuate, but instead to say, for what other cause and purpose will we battle for what is right, and thus find our eventual, stumbling way into higher modes of existence, where evil is no longer what it was to our fractured, self-embattled minds?
Posted in God, Spirituality, Sri Aurobindo, Suffering, Thought Flows 2 Comments 2 Responses to “Evil as Good”
on January 14, 2008 at 8:35 am 1 guignole
It may not be that evil is like good. They are both two side of the same coin, but most people seem to disregard the coin for the ons side or the other, when in the end their only the coin, that’s what is real.
I think good and evil has more to do with our personal choices and intentions. In some parts of samurai culture, when it was heavily influenced by Zen, some believed that killing should not be done in anger or with hatred because it tainted the work of the samurai. And part of the work of the samurai was killing.
Is killing evil or wrong? It happens in nature all of the time. Except in nature, we do not see murder or killing with bad intentions. We mostly see killing for defense and for survival.
This post will make me think a lot. I’ll have to read it again.
on January 14, 2008 at 10:50 am 2 bubbler
I agree with what you’re saying, that evil and good are two sides of what are essentially just one and the same whole coin, and that is in fact exactly the point that I wished to make, but I don’t think I did it very clearly.That’s an interesting point about the Zen approach to warfare. I think that perspective is also echoed in the Bhagavad Gita, where Krishna gives a lengthy poetic, philosophical-metaphysical treatise on why Arjuna should go to war and kill people that he harbors no ill-will towards.Thanks for your comment, and keep commenting!

Monday, January 14, 2008

Charles Taylor, Eli Sagan, Weston LaBarre, Lawrence Stone, Sri Aurobindo, Jean Gebser, and Norbert Elias

"There is a wide range of scholars, including Charles Taylor, Eli Sagan, Weston LaBarre, Lawrence Stone, Sri Aurobindo, Jean Gebser, and Norbert Elias, who have recognized that human nature is not a universal 'essence' that has remained unchanged throughout the course of history, and that it has only been quite recently -- mostly in the past three-hundred years (with notable exceptions, of course) -- that our notion of the modern self has become the norm."
That was a somewhat careless way to express it, since I actually do believe there is an archetpyal human essence, a point I flesh out in the next chapter. The coonologically correct way to have said it would be that "more humans than ever before now have the freedom and opportunity to realize their true nature, i.e., to individuate and become who they actually are." For most of human history this was an impossibility, just as it is in many cultures today. In fact, the point is clarified in the last sentence from that section on page 180:"
[T]he extent to which a culture is able to do this [i.e., allow self-actualization] is its only moral claim to power [I should have said something like 'measure of intrinsic value']; but since each person is unique, it is not possible for a culture to define the exact endpoint of development, as this would impede the free discovery of one's own essence -- both words must be emphasized, for one's essence must be freely (without compulsion) discovered, and freely discovered (not 'given' by some external model or teaching)."
There again, I'd clarify that to say that we must realize our particular archetype, but then assimilate it into the universal, a point which I believe becomes clearer in the subsequent chapter. That is what I mean by the next sentence, but then it must be surrendered to something higher. Therefore, it is wrong to imply that external models are to be discarded. To the contrary, most Christians would consider, say, Jesus, to be the universal "omega man" toward which our individual self is oriented. But it must be an individual self, not just a caricature, an instrumental ego, or a collective self. At least in today's world. Circumstances were obviously different in the past, when people were much more anonymous, and partook of a sort of "group self." Indeed, this is one of Taylor's main points, which he supports with abundant documentation.
The implications for theology and metaphysics are of tremendous importance to our world, and need to be explicated. Unless we do so, it will be difficult for secularized people to comprehend how religion relates to their psychohistorically hard-won particular self, especially since religion has in the past been clearly at odds with individual development as a result of its faulty or limited understanding of Man's true role in the cosmic spiritual economy -- which is a full employment economy, by the way. Which is sort of the point, since everyone's got their own unique job to do and mission to accomplish within the context of the Whole.
Which brings us to a comment left yesterday, to the effect that Truth has been revealed in the person and divinity of Christ, and that it is only a matter of the person surrendering to it. Yes, perhaps, but much depends upon what is meant by "person," because, as Taylor shows, it had a very different meaning 500 years ago than it does today. His argument is way too subtle, rich, and detailed for me to get into at the moment. But I will. Right now I need to get to my unReal work.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Sri Aurobindo can give you a whole new box of tools - and different people will use them in different ways

BlackBillBlake Senior Member January 11th, 2008, 05:27 PM Join Date: May 2004 Location: England Age: 50 robot Posts: 5,627 Hi HH - Nice to hear from you and to see you are still interested in Sri Aurobindo!
I would disregard xexon's comments about following a 'dead master' - Sri Aurobindo's philosophy is, so far as I can determine, quite unique, (the only philosopher I've encountered in 30 years with anything like a similar set of views is Teilhard DeChardin) and perhaps he's not actually as dead as all that!
You certainly won't get the same thing from any other source, despite what others may tell you. How many of them have studied Sri A or have any understanding of what he was saying? It seems that as far as this forum goes, only myself and GD Kumar have any actual knowledge of what he said.
From the fact that your were checking out the left, I'd intuit that you are a person who wants to see change in this world for the better. I don't think you'd be satisfied with a philosophy which is more about how to get out of this world than how it can be transformed.
The work is complex, and I think a structured approach is probably quite a good idea for anyone not used to studying philosophy or some related area. I wish you all the best in this enterprise, and I'm sure you will learn a lot and it will help you to grow.
On the personal level - I myself am ok - I have a lot going on at present, and I've had a busy and quite tumultuous year. I've had a period of doubts etc, which I'm glad to say is now behind me. Presently, I am feeling hopeful about the future. Altough I still have the greatest respect for Hindu philosophy in gen, and Sri A especially, I have been returning to my own roots in western culture, and to an extent in Christianity (of the mystical not the populist type), which I see as totally compatible with Sri A's ideas - perhaps more so than traditional vedanta etc. in some ways.
In a way, Sri Aurobindo can give you a whole new box of tools - experience shows, and necessity dictates that different people will use them in different ways. Perhaps this is part of the process by which the new energy is being infused into everything everywhere and fixed...Love & peace, BBB. PS - Did you know that Satprem has passed on last year?

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Shall we place a gold scale on the table and weigh a man to find if he is worthy of life?

382. January 7th, 2008 8:14 pm As an anthropologist
who routinely works between the humanities and sciences I agree whole-heartedly with Jeffrey Sachs and so many others in noting the reductionist, tautological essay by Fish. If disciplines could be so narrowly circumscribed by functionalist decree the world would have far fewer lawyers. Fish seems blissfully unaware of humanistic sciences such as archaeology. To suggest the pursuit of knowledge does not impart wisdom seems uninformed, anti-intellectual, even slightly senile coming from such a well-educated man. We can all breathe a sigh of relief Fish does not oversee our university’s budget. The question should be raised as to WHY his absurdist ‘think again’ columns continue to be carried here; what ‘use’ is it? The answer may lie in the large number of critical reponses he elicits - the ‘business’ of provocation and controversy. — Posted by M. Rees
383. January 7th, 2008 8:19 pm Regarding the January 6 column by Stanley Fish:
What is the measure of the human condition today? Shall we place a gold scale on the table and weigh a man to find if he is worthy of life?
If a man has only the barest necessities; is his life less valuable than the rich man’s? What part of the body can be weighed on the scale to prove our value within society? The stomach? The brain? The heart? The hand?
Are the things in life really more important than the people?
Is Man the measure of all things? And if so; do we find the measure of Men by comparing how many things they have?
What is the value of a child? A tree? A stream of clean water?
Is war a means of freedom or the promise of more gain? What is the value of war?
Do you measure the sky in gulps of air per hour of your life?
How useful is the color green; or blue; or black?
Have we always believed as the post-modernists do? What mottos and bon mots have they written? Do their writings “justify” the poor?
Should we continue to rifle through the pantry of nature? Are we fulfilled? Are we “justified”?
Which of our human drives have been overturned by knowledge? By technology? By science?
Must we weigh the starry sky? What purpose must it fulfill to justify its existence? It seems a little large for our human scale. How can we diminish the night lights and make the universe more equitable? — Posted by Ted Kmiecik
385. January 7th, 2008 8:29 pm I take it that
Mr. Fish is arguing against the “affirmative action program” that parades under names such as “distribution requirements” and “core curriculum”. Without a mandate from the university - and presumably the university will not mandate mere pleasures - there will be far less enrollment in myth, history, literature and philosophy classes! And this will mean far fewer people like Mr. Fish and his unimprovable colleagues around - they all do seem to be rather in the nature of dead weights after all (with all their - what a horrid phrase! - “disciplinary knowledge”.
As for myself, I like the argument Basil Gildersleeve, the famous professor of Classics at Johns Hopkins made in Hellas and Hesperia. Why should there be students and professors of Classics in the modern university? For the same reason there should be schools of business or departments of physics: because, in this democratic land, anything anyone wants is just dandy, and just as there are people who want to study management, or physics, there are people who want to study languages or music.
A free market system in education might mean far fewer philosophers and literati, and, I believe, far fewer good men and women, but those few would be much better. The certainly wouldn’t be caught dead enlarging “disciplinary knowledge”!
I wonder if the current university system’s affirmative action program for the humanities has afforded Mr. Fish the leisure to read Plato’s Philebus? Might it do so? — Posted by Don
386. January 7th, 2008 8:36 pm Professor Fish,
I read your literary criticism as an undergraduate English lit major years ago and enjoy your columns now. Are some of your NYTimes readers misunderstanding that you’ve spent your life in the humanities? A few keep making reference to your title in “law” as if you’re somehow apart from the humanities?
On a more substantive note: Any chance you’ve seen Camille Paglia’s “Religion and the Arts in America” in _Arion_ 15.1, 2007? She is taking up questions similar to those you frame here about the tendency to discount the humanities.
Paglia seems persuasive to me as she traces Cultural Wars and, particularly, when she writes in her conclusion:
“For the fine arts to revive, they must recover their spiritual center. Profaning the iconography of other people’s faith is boring and adolescent.”
She goes on to identify a Culture Wars source for assumptions and foundations which I believe continue to be relevant to the plight of the humanities (not simply the fine arts) today: polarized camps of those who espouse a “parched and narrow view of culture” on the one hand

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Obama Integral

The Teal Integral Revolution Begins With OBAMA
Today January 3 2008 a two year U.S. Senator wins the first vote for the job of the presidency of the United States defeating a hard working charasmatic southerner and the one and only "Clinton Machine" who had all they needed except one thing, an INTEGRAL VISION. Mark my word whether Obama wins or loses today Integral has shown it's face.
Edwards had everything a great story good looks great speaker humble beginnings and amazing talent. At a time when Democrats should go with the safe bet he amongst other very experienced senators and governors could not catch an unknown former state senator and two year US Senator with a controversial muslim sounding name in what the Republicans call the "age of terrorism".
That name is Barack Hussein Obama and it could not stop the effectiveness of the Integral Worldview in getting the job done. When I figured Obama to actually be Integral (which i was cautious about ) I told my friend that he would be around 10xs more efficient than the typical seeker of the presidency and I have been right.
Like Sri Aurobindo said a radical idea will manifest but then get beatin out by the conservative mind for it does not matter because that idea has now arrived in the manifest world and will at one day evolve to be a common belief.
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Friday, January 4, 2008

One in narrative mode, the other in mock-lyrical mode

My thanks to all those who have taken the time to respond to The Stillborn God, with sharper comments than I’ve received so far in published reviews, and to The Immanent Frame for organizing the discussion. I’ve already posted a separate comment on José Casanova’s thorough remarks, to clear up some misunderstandings. Here I’ll first try to respond first to the overlapping concerns raised by Winnifred Sullivan, James Smith, and Elizabeth Hurd in their generous contributions. (Nancy Levene’s arrived too late to be included for now.) My Columbia colleague Gil Anidjar’s “review in three parts” is different in tone, and needs special treatment. So I have two responses: one in narrative mode, the other in mock-lyrical mode.

Thursday, January 3, 2008

Economics is seen as the realm of the natural, not the social, whereas politics is the sphere of intentional social choice

Religion in the public sphere:
Religions and the postnational constellation posted by Robert Bellah
Granted that there is a global economy, global culture, global law, global civil society, even global festivals, why are global institutions both so promising and so weak? I want to turn to Jürgen Habermas, Europe’s leading social philosopher, for help, looking particularly at his remarkable essay of 1998, “The Postnational Constellation and the Future of Democracy.”
What Habermas is describing is a double disparity between economics and politics: economics is seen as the realm of the natural, not the social, whereas politics is the sphere of intentional social choice. But when nations are the sole locations of effective politics and the economy has become global, then the disparity in power between the global economy and even the strongest state means that it is the economy that will in the end determine outcomes. In this situation Habermas asks whether “we can have a politics that can catch up with global markets” in order to avert the “natural” disaster that an uninhibited market economy seems to entail. That idea is opposed by those who view the economy not as a human creation but as a force of nature, as something that can only be accommodated, never controlled, ideas that make global market culture into a god that can only be worshiped. Habermas sees this as an enormous challenge to citizens of all countries to form a global civil society: “Only the transformed consciousness of citizens, as it imposes itself in areas of domestic policy, can pressure global actors to change their own self-understanding sufficiently to begin to see themselves as members of an international community who are compelled to cooperate with one another, and hence to take one another’s interests into account.” What we need, he argues, is “an obligatory cosmopolitan solidarity.” He stresses the need for a “world domestic policy,” because we are now living in a world, not in nation states alone, and the world market requires such a policy.
The most fundamental question that Habermas is raising is whether a global civil society and some forms of global governance are possible, a civil society and governance that would not replace nation states but would place some limits on their autonomy, as the global economy already does. And here there is a question of what kind of people we are. Could we as Americans accept the notion of common global membership such that we would be willing to give up something of ours for the sake of Somalians or Vietnamese? It is at this point that I think we have to ask what are the cultural resources for thinking of global citizenship that would go along with global economics and moderate its excesses? Is abstract constitutional patriotism enough? It is here that we have to consider philosophical and religious resources for thinking about membership in global civil society, membership that would entail at least short-term sacrifice, though as we look at global warming and the growing numbers of failed states, the Tocquevillian idea of self-interest rightly understood is not to be ignored.
Since we actually have since the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights and its subsequent elaborations something that can be called a global ethic, sometimes referred to as a human rights regime, we can ask how much help we can derive from this consensus, one that is not simply an ideal but that has significant legal weight, though by far not enforceable everywhere, not even in the original home of legal human rights, the USA. And we can ask whether the questions raised by non-Western and non-Christian thinkers about the adequacy of an exclusive emphasis on human rights can be answered, as well as the question whether an exclusive focus on human rights may not be part of our problem, however much in the end it must surely be part of a solution.
To the extent that human rights as we understand them have significant Christian historical roots (something many supporters of human rights may not be aware of or care to be aware of), it is also worth remembering that Christianity is now a global phenomenon. Webb Keane in his powerful book Christian Moderns has pointed out that at the beginning of the twenty-first century one-third of the world is now Christian and that one-third of those Christians live in former colonies. He further points out that many of the leaders of non-Western countries (often formerly leaders of independence movements) were educated in missionary schools even though they were not converts. One could add that reform movements in Buddhism, Hinduism and Islam have been to more than a small degree a response to Christian, especially Protestant, examples. So if there is a relation between Christianity, modernity, and human rights, it has for some time been global and can no longer be dismissed as Western...
Religious fervor is always problematic because it has so often been used for evil as well as good purposes, but it may be that only such powerful motivation could make human rights genuinely practical. And though Christianity has a big contribution to make, it surely is not alone. Confucians hold on the basis of the Analects of Confucius that “all within the four seas are brothers.” Buddhists identify not only with all human beings but with all beings in the universe, natural as well as human—all have the Buddha nature. For millennia these deep commitments have been held but never effectively institutionalized. Can the world’s religions now mobilize their commitments so that they can at last have genuine institutional force?
[This is the third of three posts drawing on material from a paper presented at From Silver to Gold: The Next Twenty-Five Years of Law and Religion, a conference at Emory University. A version of the full paper will be published in a forthcoming conference volume.—ed.] This entry was posted on Thursday, January 3rd, 2008 at 6:00 am and is filed under Religion in the public sphere. SSRC Home SSRC Blogs Blog Home