More on Bill Nye’s market-based defense of science

Someone started a reddit thread about my post last week on the Ken Ham v. Bill Nye debate. The user hpyhpyjoyjoy brought to my attention that Nye has promoted Bill Gates’ philanthropic projects, in particular his Foundation’s effort to eradicate disease among poor people. Hpyhpyjoyjoy writes:

“Nye was shilling for Bill Gates in his Gates Foundation newsletter not too long ago. The ‘science’ contained therein intimated that infectious disease was a static slice of a pie chart to be whittled away by triumphal government-corporate agencies. A creationism of static bacterial and viral kinds, ironically.”

Below is another example of Nye in one of the Gates Foundation’s promotional videos attempting to “dispel poverty myths” about disease:

Let me be clear. In criticizing Nye’s form of “science education,” I don’t mean “we” ought to accept Ken Ham’s Biblical literalism, nor do I believe “we” can just ignore the suffering of children in Africa. But who is this “we”?

I can’t help but cringe when Nye defends his white man’s burden to use techno-science to solve all Africa’s problems. Its the old Enlightenment myth about Western science conquering the darkness of nature, rationalizing it, economizing it, making it cleaner and more efficient. Nye’s image of science hasn’t yet shaken off its colonialist presumptions. His scientific materialism functions as an apology for American imperialism and the global capitalist system it supports.

Ham’s creationism is no better. His fundamentalist brand of Christianity can only function in the context of consumer capitalism, where one buys into this or that personal belief system like one wears Nikes, Reeboks, or Adidas. The credal product Ham is selling is extremely attractive in today’s unstable and anxiety provoking marketplace. Unlike so many of the other belief systems or world views operating among various populations of postmodern society, Young Earth Creationism has the benefit of being the one and only such system that offers its adherents complete certainty due to the fact that it is unquestionably true (at least for those who buy into it). “The world was created by a transcendent God several thousand years ago; it was perfect until Man sinned; but as long as I believe in God and His revealed Word (literally interpreted), I will be saved.” All of life’s confusion explained, all its suffering assuaged, just like that.

Scientism is another popular belief system providing its adherents with certainty about the way the world really is. It may not save souls by assuring them safe passage to heaven; but by dissolving the very idea of the soul it allows its adherents to enact different fantasy, that of improved bodily comfort through endless technological progress (a sort of heaven on earth). Scientism should be distinguished from the method(s) of science and the always re-interpretable body of scientific knowledge this method leaves in its wake. Nye does not strike me as an especially dogmatic believer in Scientism (unlike, say, Dawkins or Krauss). He seems to conceive of science as a disciplined process of discovery whereby the more you know the more you know you don’t know. I am not opposed to this description of science, but I do think it is partial: it leaves out the constructive side of its endeavors. The enactive epistemology I’d want to defend implies that all our knowing dwells in the tensionality between discovery and creation. Science doesn’t simply mirror an objective nature more or less accurately. Science is always wed to technology, to certain ways of intervening upon the natural flux, of actively resisting its given resistances. The implications of this marriage include the fact that the scientific project can never be “value free,” and that certain kinds of techno-science, like that deployed in service of the values of global capitalism, can have dire social and ecological consequences. Nye is better than some others, but he falls prey to the myth of the Enlightenment when he characterizes techno-science as a “fight against myth.” Science is not a fight against myth; rather, it brings forth a new kind of myth. Eric Voegelin warns of the “serious consequences for the stability both of personality and society” that emerge with the Enlightenment belief that humans might be made free of myth. Voegelin continues (excerpted from Volume 16 of the Collected Works, Plato and Aristotle):

“The model of positive science destroys the understanding of the myth for the past as well as for the present. With regard to the myth of the past the symbols and dogmas that have grown historically will be misunderstood as concepts and verifiable propositions and will inevitably be found of doubtful value. The symbols of the myth are cut off, through this attitude, from their basis in the unconscious and are required to legitimate themselves as if they were propositions concerning objects. The myth is erroneously supposed to be meant ‘literally’ instead of symbolically, and consequently appears as naïve or superstitious. With regard to the myth of the present the result is equally destructive. The myth has a fundamental function in human existence and myths will be created no matter what anybody thinks about them. We cannot overcome the myth, we can only misunderstand it. With regard to the contemporary myth, of the eighteenth century and after, the positivist misunderstanding has the consequence that the mythical symbols are claimed to be what the symbols of the past are charged not to be, that is, ‘science’ or ‘theory.’ Such symbols as ‘reason,’ ‘mankind,’ ‘proletariat,’ ‘race,’ ‘communist society,’ ‘world-peace,’ and so forth, are supposed to be different in nature from pagan or Christian symbols because their mythical truth is covered and obscured by the superimposition of the additional myth of science. Since the myth does not cease to be myth because somebody believes it to be science, the telescoping of myth and science has a peculiar warping effect on the personality of the believers. As long as the movements of the unconscious are allowed to express themselves in myth in free recognition of their nature, the soul of man preserves its openness toward its cosmic ground. The terror of an infinitely overpowering, as well as the reassurance of an infinitely embracing, beyond as the matrix of separate, individual existence, endow the soul with its more-than-human dimension; and through the acceptance of the truth of this dimension (that is, through faith) the separateness of human existence can, in its turn, be recognized and tolerated in its finiteness and limitations…When the balance of openness and separateness is destroyed through the telescoping of myth and science, the forces of the unconscious will stream into the form, not of the myth, but of theory or science. The symbols of the myth become perverted into intramundane, illusionary objects, ‘given,’ as if they were empirical data, to the cognitive and active functions of man; at the same time the separate, individual existence suffers an illusionary inflation because it absorbs into its form the more-than-human dimension…The powers of man can create a society free from want and fear; the ideas of infinite perfectibility, of the superman, and of self-salvation make their appearance” (241-242).

Nye and Ham would seem to have more in common than the dichotomous framing of their debate suggests. Both misunderstand the mythic dimension of the human unconscious because of over-literalization. Further, the scientific materialism and religious creationism each defends are both complicit in capitalism’s assault on the earth community. Neither world view is sufficient to guide us through the current planetary crisis. Another way is possible. And at least here in America (and in other countries whose cultural unconscious, for better or worse, has been deeply shaped by the Bible), one of the most politically pragmatic ways forward may involve a radicalization of the Christian mythos (see, for example, my essay “Remembering Creation: Towards a Christian Ecosophy”).

Audio from International Whitehead Conference in Krakow

Here is the audio of my presentation at the IWC last week in the philosophy of religion section:

Here is a PDF of the paper I read, titled “Worldly Religion in Whitehead and Deleuze: Steps Toward an Incarnational Philosophy”

Also, thanks to Leon over at afterxnature.blogspot.com for posting my presentation, as well.

[Final Draft] Worldly Religion in Deleuze and Whitehead: On the Possibility of a Secular Divinity

Below I’ve written a paper using the ideas of Gilles Deleuze and Alfred North Whitehead to construct a secular divinity. For Deleuze, this is an especially serious act of buggery on my part. Deleuze of course approved of that method in his own projects, but I wonder if he would approve of the baby jesus child that I’m trying to make him have in this paper. I’m directing Deleuze’s demand that we philosophers think immanently by believing in the world toward an interpretation of the Christian religion and faith. This is exactly what Whitehead does in Adventures of Ideas where he looks to the martyr Jesus for the exemplification of something that the philosopher Plato first divined as an ideal. Plato made a world-historical intellectual discovery, as Whitehead puts it, or as Deleuze would say he created a concept that has continued to reverberate across the ages. Where traditional monotheistic theologists create a concept of divinity as a transcendent and omnipotent imposer of form and order and law upon an entirely separate derivative world, with Plato you have the idea of divine immanence in the world working through persuasion–through desire, eros, beauty, and love–to transform the world “slowly and in quietness,” as Whitehead puts it, rather than by hurling thunderbolts from heaven. Plato invented a new idea of God working within the world as love, which is a kind of power, but not the power of brute force. God is no longer a creator who shapes the whole thing from outside. Rather, God is involved in, caught up with the process of cosmogenesis and spatiotemporal becoming, such that the world is as necessary for the nature of God as God is for the nature of the World… 

PDF version:

Worldly Religion in Deleuze and Whitehead: On the Possibility of a Secular Divinity

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cover of process paper

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“Behold, I am making all things new.”

-Revelation 21:5

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The purpose of this essay is to unpack Deleuze’s and Whitehead’s philosophical contributions to the task of re-thinking religion in an increasingly fenced in, post-everything world no longer certain of its own secularity.1 “The secularization of the concept of God’s functions in the world,” argued Whitehead in 1927, “is at least as urgent a requisite of thought as is the secularization of other elements in experience.”2 With a similar sense of urgency, Deleuze (and Guattari) argued in 1991 that, in an age when “we have so many reasons not to believe in the human world,” philosophy’s most pressing task is to “give birth to new modes of existence, closer to animals and rocks,” modes of existence which renew “[belief] in this world, in this life.”3 Deleuze’s emphasis on immanence as against transcendence, on this world as opposed to the next, should not be read as a blanket dismissal of spiritual practice. On the contrary, for Deleuze, the creative thinking demanded by philosophical inquiry invites infinite cosmic forces into the finite mind, making philosophy akin to an “initiatory…spiritual ordeal.”4 Philosophers are those who dare to welcome such dangerous forces, risking not only their academic reputations,5 but the habit-formed security of their egos. Philosophers do not simply reflect ideas, they allow ideas to enter into and transform them:

This is because one does not think without becoming something else, something that does not think–an animal, a molecule, a particle–and that comes back to thought and revives it.6

Deleuze calls for a radical break with all forms of commonsense–whether it be religious, artistic, philosophical, or scientific–through the intercession of concepts with personalities who are willing to continually confront the absolute horizon of the plane, and so who are able to fold the infinite movements of Nous and Physis back into one another “in such a way that the plane of immanence is ceaselessly being woven, like a gigantic shuttle.”7 Philosophy, unlikes dogmatic religions, does not paint the firmament on an umbrella, rather it “[tears] open the firmament and [plunges] into the chaos.”8 As we will see, however, philosophy’s role is to not only to descend into the underworld, but to return with the good news.

Whitehead, for his part, has Jamesian tendencies that would at first glance seem to ally his philosophical efforts to the pragmatic interests of commonsense. “The philosophy of organism,” he wrote, “is an attempt, with the minimum of critical adjustment, to return to the concepts of ‘the vulgar.’”9 Whitehead made this comment in the context of a skeptical attack on behalf of commonsense experience mounted against the mechanistic abstractions of Newton (who dismissed the mathematically-naïve sense-based opinions of “the vulgar”) and the transcendental abstractions of Kant (who opposed derivative sensory appearances to ultimate substantial reality). Whitehead was well aware of the danger of hyperbole.10 In this case, however, it seems he fell prey to the danger of understatement. The “critical adjustment” his cosmology requires of the opinions of modern people can hardly be described as “minimal.” By the time Whitehead has finished his adventure in cosmologizing, not only will God have become creaturely, but energy vectors will have been transformed into emotional currents and atoms will have been endowed with life. Further, the very substance of the soul, the continuity of personal identity, will have become but a precariously linked “route of presiding occasions…[wandering] from part to part of the brain,” always vulnerable to dislocations and interruptions which “in primitive times [were] interpreted as demoniac possession.”11 Rather than having been made in heaven by God and beginning life fully-formed and eternally the same, the soul comes to matter to us precisely because it is what is always at risk, “what might be captured, reduced to wandering, enslaved.”12 No longer given as one, already whole, the soul becomes a social value to be achieved, a swarming community of larval subjects needing to be repeatedly composed or concresced out of the chaosmic raw materials of life (i.e., intensive percepts and affects). “Being a soul” in Whitehead’s process ontology is deeply problematic, even dangerous, because one never simply is but must become-soul. “Losing one’s hold [going mad],” in the context of Whitehead’s psychology, “becomes…the paradigmatic disaster, or else…the precondition of any initiation or any spiritual transformation.”13 It would seem that neither the traditional theologian nor the classical physicist, much less the average modern business owner, government employee, or homemaker, could feel at home in such a strange Whiteheadian universe! 
 Both Deleuze and Whitehead generated concepts rooted in non-ordinary problematics, which is to say that the solutions distilled by their concepts problematize naïve egoic subjectivity by acting as alchemical catalysts that alter not only the contents of conscious thoughts, but the unconscious imaginative background of thought itself, thereby repositioning thinking on some as yet undetected plane of immanence. They are hermetic thinkers whose philosophizing sought not rational explanation, but the instigation of worldly renewal and the intensification of the depth of aesthetic experience. It is important in this context to forge connections between their efforts to creatively transform commonsense experience and the wider projects of establishing coherent social values and just political institutions. Deleuze’s philosophy has been criticized for being “politically irrelevant” by Peter Hallward due to its perceived “otherworldliness.”14 Isabelle Stengers has also criticized Deleuze’s tendency to celebrate the adventures of solitary, heroic creators who fearlessly dive into chaos while at the same time downplaying the conditions provided by their habitat and their inevitable need for social recuperation upon returning to consensual reality:

…all creators have learned [what] makes them able to “dive” without being swallowed. A dive cannot be improvised, but demands equipment. Unlike those who may happen to “sink” into chaos, creators are those who know what they experience “matters,” and that they will be able to recount something of what has happened to them, that is to come back…even from the land of the dead.15

Stengers’ contrasts Deleuze’s celebration of unhinged creativity with Whitehead’s tremendous respect for history and continual emphasis upon the importance of acquiring new habits in a way that is sensitive to the habitat they depend upon. “Each task of creation,” writes Whitehead, “is a social effort, employing the whole universe.”16 While Hallward’s claim may or may not be justified, Stengers’ modest Whiteheadian corrective to Deleuze’s penchant for skinny dipping in the Acheron allows us to receive much insight and inspiration from the latter without forgetting the perhaps more pertinent imperative of the former regarding the worldly responsibility of the philosopher:

…[to] seek the evidence for that conception of the universe which is the justification for the ideals characterizing the civilized phases of human society.17

When it comes to the influence of the mainline religious traditions of the West upon philosophy, both Whitehead and Deleuze lob devastating rebukes. Whitehead’s ire is almost always directed at the “idolatrous” habit of conceiving of God along the lines of an all-powerful imperial ruler or distant unmoved mover.18 “Religion,” writes Whitehead, “has emerged into human experience mixed with the crudest fancies of barbaric imagination.”19 Deleuze also mocks the idea of a “great despot” or “imperial State in the sky or on earth” typical of monotheistic commonsense.20 While this particular habit of religious thought is deemed dispensable, Whitehead is unwilling to jettison religious values outright, despite calls by the modern-minded to found civilization instead upon the abstractions of mechanistic science:

Unfortunately for this smug endeavor to view the universe as the incarnation of the commonplace, the impact of aesthetic, religious, and moral notions is inescapable. They are the disrupting and the energizing forces of civilization.21

In particular, Whitehead points to the “Galilean origin of Christianity” as an example of a non-despotic religious persona: Christ. Christ “neither rules, nor is unmoved,” but “dwells upon the tender elements in the world, which slowly and in quietness operate by love.”22 Deleuze also singles out Christian philosophy, both for praise and for disparagement. Those pre-modern Christian philosophers (like Cusa, Eckhart, and Bruno) who were bold enough to challenge church authority and risk their lives by injecting at least a dose of immanence into Physis and Nous still refused in the end to “compromise the transcendence of a God to which immanence must be attributed only secondarily.”23 Later modern Christian philosophers (like Pascal and Kierkegaard), though they were still men of faith, created concepts that recharged, rather than diminished, immanence. They were

concerned no longer with the transcendent existence of God but only with the infinite immanent possibilities brought by the one who believes that God exists.24

Deleuze suggests that, in the modern period, belief replaced knowledge as the dominant image of thought.25 The “will to truth” that had guided philosophy for so long lost its viability, as with the new technical power of modernity came also a crippling epistemic skepticism, an inability to grasp truth outright. No longer could the productivity of thought be “guaranteed in advance by the inherent connection between the good and the true”; rather, Deleuze believed that philosophical thought in the modern period required “trespass and violence,” treating the thinker of thought not as a trustworthy friend, but as an enemy.26 Truth is now to be inferred at best, tracked with suspicion but without certainty. The new plane of belief is not simply destructive or crippling, however: it is also the condition for the possibility of new forms of mental and physical experience. As with the Christian thinkers of immanence, Deleuze emphasized the “unforeseeable directions of thought and practice” that belief makes possible, directions to be judged not based on the object of a belief, but on a belief’s effect.27 A related feature of modern philosophy for Deleuze results from thought’s encounter and struggle with the unrepresentable natural forces underlying perceptual and affective experience, forces which paradoxically “must but cannot be thought.”28 Given modern thought’s confrontation with the infinite forces of the universe, its concepts can no longer be understood to represent a stable reality or to mirror a harmonious nature; rather, “what matters…in an idea is…the range of experimental possibility it opens onto.”29

Whitehead shares with Deleuze a sense for the importance of experimental thinking. In the context of religious experimentation, asking whether or not God really exists becomes irrelevant. What becomes important is the sort of thoughts and practices that belief in God makes possible for the believer, and for the society to which the believer belongs. “The power of God,” writes Whitehead, “is the worship He inspires.”30 “The fact of the religious vision,” he continues,

and its history of persistent expansion, is our one ground for optimism. Apart from it, human life is a flash of occasional enjoyments lighting up a mass of pain and misery, a bagatelle of transient experience.31

The “religious vision,” as Whitehead understands it, “gives meaning to all that passes, and yet eludes apprehension,” providing life with “something which is the ultimate ideal, and the hopeless quest.”32 The vision, though aesthetically and emotionally ultimate, cannot be monopolized by the limited doctrines of any religion in particular. It can be said, however, that the rising or falling tide of each religious tradition through the ages depends upon the ability of its concepts, symbols, rituals, myths, architecture, and personae (etc.) to inspire worship in such a way that the intuition of God is called forth naturally from spiritual recesses deeper than can be rationally understood.33 The psychology of modern civilization, from Whitehead’s point of view, has little patience for the traditional image of God as an omnipotent dictator. In this respect, such images are “fatal,” since “religion collapses unless its main positions command immediacy of assent.”34

More often than any religious image per say, Deleuze’s target is the illusion of transcendence as such, which results whenever we “[interpret immanence] as immanent to Something.”35 The illusion of transcendence resonates with 3 other illusions, or “thought mirages”: 1) universality, which results when the immanent planomenon is conceived as immanent “to” a concept, 2) eternity, which results when we forget that concepts must be created and are not waiting in the sky for thinkers to discover, and 3) discursiveness, which results when concepts are reduced to logical propositions.36 These illusions become a thick fog obscuring the plane of immanence, condemning the philosophical and religious thinker alike to continually grasp after immanence as though it might be made immanent “to” something, whether it be “the great Object of contemplation [the neo-Platonic One], the Subject of reflection [the Kantian transcendental subject], or the Other subject of communication [the Husserlian intersubjective transcendental].”37 The plane of immanence cannot itself be thought, since it provides the very condition for thought.38 Whenever a thinker believes he has thought the plane, we can be sure he has only contemplated, reflected, or communicated an idol.

The pure immanence of the philosophical planomenon can be likened to the friend, i.e., Wisdom, She who provides the condition for the possibility of philosophy.39 The friend is the paradigmatic “conceptual persona” of philosophy. Conceptual personae, according to Deleuze, have a “somewhat mysterious…hazy existence halfway between concept and preconceptual plane, passing from one to the other.”40 In the case of the friend, it must be asked what it could mean to become friendly if the friend had not once been, and could not become again, a stranger. On the philosophical planomenon, the friend and the stranger, the thought and its thinker, never engage in discussion with one another. Discussion is useless to philosophy, since all a discussion implies is that concepts have been mistaken for propositions, as if they could be deliberately expressed in sentence form (the illusion of discursiveness).41 Once the discursive mirage has captured a thinker, thought can only circle about itself in dialectical pursuit of a shallow truth extracted from the agonism of opinion.42 The more interesting dialectics end in aporia (Plato’s aporietic dialogues and Kant’s table of antinomies); or even more interestingly, they swallow up opposed opinions into the absolute as necessary moments in the historical unfolding of the eternal concept (Hegel). But there can be no dialectic that resolves itself in absolute identity–this would mean the end of philosophy (which is why Hegel claimed no longer to be a philosopher, but to have become wise). Both the friend and the stranger are necessary illusions for philosophy: philosophy, in other words, “requires this division of thought between [friend and stranger].” The philosophical creator of concepts must remain divided against himself at the same time that he befriends the image of thought projected in the division. The progress of philosophy depends upon a philosopher’s willingness to dwell within (without becoming immanent “to”) continual crises of agonism and reconciliation, meeting therein a proliferation of strange friends and friendly strangers. Deleuze writes:

It is as if the struggle against chaos does not take place without an affinity with the enemy, because another struggle develops and takes on more importance–the struggle against opinion, which claims to protect us from chaos itself.43

To dwell in crisis is no easy task. But this is the task required of a modern thinker, especially a Christian philosopher who has accepted the risks of thinking God’s immanence. To secularize the concept of God, as Whitehead and Deleuze demand, is to uncover “thought’s relationship with the earth,”44 to dig up what has been buried beneath the foggy illusions of transcendence estranging humanity from its home. To think with the earth is still a creative act; but it is also a matter of recovery, or resurrection, and of uncovering, or apocalypse.45

Christian philosophy’s paradigmatic conceptual persona is Christ, “the Word” who “became flesh and dwelt among us.”46 At first blush, He may seem, like other personae, to possess a less than incarnate, hazy existence somewhere between the immanence of the plane (matter/earth) and the transcendence of the concept (spirit/heaven). As John said, “The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it”47:––Traditional theology has all too often emphasized Christ’s transcendence, making Him more spirit than human (and making humanity more sinful than blessed).

Despite His initially ghostly outline, Christ’s ideality cannot be understood to be in any way abstract: He is rather an (the?) intercessor, the seed of a peculiarly Christian mode of thinking. “A particular conceptual persona,” writes Deleuze, “who perhaps did not exist before us, thinks in us.”48 Of Christ it is said that He both was in the beginning before us and will be in the end after us. His omnipresence lays out a uniquely immanent image of thought based on incarnation. The Christian plane of immanence demands a creation of concepts whose central problematic, or spiritual ordeal, is death, and whose solution, should it be realized, is an earthly form of resurrection. The Christian planomenon is unique because it is founded upon the birth, death, and resurrection of God on earth, which is to say it depends upon the possibility of the becoming-immanent of transcendence itself. Only then can the Christian thinker become inhabited by living thinking. “My old self,” writes Paul,

has been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me. So I live in this earthly body by trusting in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.49

Like the philosophical friend, Christ’s teachings can appear strange. “I tell you,” He said, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”50 How can an earthly human being–normatively tied to family, friend, race, and nation–possibly live up to such an impossible, indeed infinite, demand? It is a demand that does violence to opinion and breaks with all commonsense. Nonetheless, this demand provides the peculiarly Christian problematic, an ordeal whose resolution requires becoming-incarnate, and thereby participating in bringing about an as yet unrealized providential plan(e), “on earth, as it is in heaven.”51 This is the strangeness of the “Galilean origin” of Christianity mentioned by Whitehead, where the transcendent power of divine coercion is replaced by the immanent love of divine persuasion. While Whitehead did not believe it possible, or even desirable, to construct a doctrinal unity out of the world’s diversity of religions, he did believe

that it is possible, amid these differences, to reach a general agreement as to those elements, in intimate human experience and general history, which we select to exemplify that ultimate theme of the divine immanence, as a completion required by our cosmological outlook.52

In other words, while humanity will certainly continue to disagree as to the particular qualitative aspects of religious facts and their proper moral interpretations, some coordination of these facts along a single plane of immanence may at least be attempted. Whitehead’s cosmological candidate for the ultimate religious theme is Divine Eros. His philosophical intervention into traditional theology aimed to transform the transcendent God of “coercive forces wielding the thunder” into the creaturely God of persuasion, “which slowly and in quietness [operates] by love.” 53 Given humanity’s recently seized god-like powers of technology, sustaining our planetary civilization would seem to depend upon the realization of such a secular “earth ethos.” Our civilization is in dire need of a world-renewing metaphysical consensus regarding the divine nature. If we are unable to believe in the divinity of the world, our collective behavior runs the risk destroying that world. The spirit of religion, though it is from time to time “explained away, distorted, and buried,” has never once entirely left us, according to Whitehead, “since the travel of mankind towards civilization.”54 Whenever religion takes flight from worldly concerns, it is the sure sign of a world nearing its end.

Whitehead traces the gradual realization of the concept of divine immanence through a “threefold revelation” stretching approximately twelve hundred years: 1) it begins in Athens with a intellectual innovation by Plato, 2) then passes into Jerusalem where the person of Jesus Christ exemplified the apocalyptic (ἀποκάλυψις- to “un-cover”) power of Plato’s concept, 3) and finally it culminates in a metaphysical interpretation of these events generated during the formative period of Christian theology.55

Whitehead regularly praises Plato’s depth of intuition. Just as often, he admits Plato’s failure to achieve a coherent overall statement of his conceptual scheme: “the greatest metaphysician, the poorest systematic thinker.”56 It is for one concept in particular, though, that Whitehead was lead to crown Plato “the wisest of men”: the idea that

the divine persuasion [Eros] is the foundation of the order of the world, but that it could only produce such a measure of harmony as amid brute forces [Chaos] it was possible to accomplish.57

It was this idea, conceived in principle by Plato, that the person of Jesus Christ was to reveal in actual deed. Though the historical records of His life are scattered and inconsistent, “there can be no doubt,” writes Whitehead, “as to what elements…have evoked a response from all that is best in human nature”:

The Mother, the Child, and the bare manger: the lowly man, homeless and self-forgetful, with his message of peace, love, and sympathy: the suffering, the agony, the tender words as life ebbed, the final despair: and the whole with the authority of supreme victory.58

Finally, it was the early Church fathers who made the first sustained effort to grope towards a coherent account of God’s persuasive agency in the world.59 The major fruit of their labor was the doctrine of the trinity (the mutual immanence of the theos-anthropos-cosmos multiplicity); more specifically, their most important contribution was the direct statement of the divine immanence in the world in the third person of the trinity. Unfortunately, despite this theological statement, the Church fathers failed to attain adequate metaphysical generality because they still exempted an infinite God from the categories applicable to the finite actual occasions involved in the becoming of the spatiotemporal world.60 Like Plato in many of his written dialogues, they were unable to disavow the notion of a derivative physical world poorly imitating the Ideas eternally realized in the mind of a disincarnate God.

Deleuze’s work has been read as an attempt to “overturn” Plato.61 In any attempt to “overturn” Plato it should be remembered that little more is required than continuing to “turn over” Plato–as in continuing to turn over the pages of his dialogues to be reminded that, like Whitman, he is large and contains multitudes.62 As Emerson put it:

the acutest searcher, the lovingest disciple could never tell what Platonism was; indeed admirable texts can be quoted on both sides of every great question, from him.63

Plato was equal parts poet and philosopher. He wrote dialogues, always leaving the doctrines for his characters. His meaning is never on the surface, even when it comes from the face of Socrates. Reading him, like reading the metaphysical experiments of Whitehead or Deleuze, is an infinite interpretive activity. For Whitehead, the entire history of European philosophy can be safely characterized as “a series of footnotes to Plato.”64 This despite the fact that Plato himself tells us in a letter to Dion that “no man of intelligence will venture to express his philosophical views in language.” “[Setting] down [one's views] in written characters” is especially denounced.65 Written words lay in their parchment graves, still, silent, and dead. The reader’s questions and disputations receive no reply. 
 On the testimony of Aristotle, Plotinus, and Proclus, we know that Plato’s unwritten secret teaching had something to do with the way that

ideas themselves were composed of matter, hyle, or in other words of an indefinite multiplicity, duas aoristos, which has as its elements the great and the small, and as its form, unity, to hen.66

If this is indeed the secret teaching, then how strangely inverted is the traditional European reading of Plato! 
 Deleuze’s reading destroys the Platonic two-world theory of perfect ideas poorly copied by sensory images, but he is allured by Plato’s alternative conception of the idea of pure Difference. Where Aristotle reduces difference to that derived from the commonsense comparison of similars, understanding Plato requires risking the sanity of one’s mind in pursuit of the dark, difficult, and dangerous idea of Difference in itself. For Plato, individuals are not constituted by their substantial forms, or by their special determinations of a genus, as they are for Aristotle; nor is knowledge of individuals constituted by generalizations from a series. Rather, Plato’s is an ontology of singularity, where knowing an individual (be it ideal or actual) requires directly intuiting its uniquely authentic line of descent, rather than representing, identifying, or abstracting its general form. As Ramey puts it, “Knowledge is not a matter of generalization but of participation.” He continues:

The claim to participation is not simply the claim to be identified as a member of a class or token of a type. It is a claim to have passed a test or to have a basis for one’s claim. The difference between the just and the unjust, pretenders to justice and authentic stewards of justice, is not a difference between any two, but an internal and constitutive difference. It is the difference an ‘immediate fact’ of participation makes…It is the selection of an icon from within a prodigious field of idols, false images.67

The difference is initiatory, “acquired by each person on their own account.”68 That is, it has to do with undertaking the descent into the chaos of the underworld and returning to tell the tale. Philosophy without initiation would quickly turn stale and become abstract. Without stories to perform on infinite plane(s) stretching beyond the relative horizons of commonsense experience, a philosopher’s concepts cannot catch fire, nor acquire the persuasive life of personality. Once the journey into the darkness of pure Difference has been undertaken, in the difficult idea one has partaken are discovered signs of its ingression into the light of physical appearance: like a flower blooming, the idea incarnates out of earthly soil. “What man of sense,” writes Plato of his pedagogy of the concept,

would plant seeds in an artificial garden, to bring forth fruit or flowers in eight days, and not in deeper and more fitting soil?69

After the Christian-Platonic initiation, the world is transfigured into a problematic network of occult icons whose meaning can only be uncovered intuitively by the mental magic of talismanic thinking. Ideas are traced into appearances as signs, moments of discontinuity in extensive physical time-space out of which the intensive oddity of self-reference emerges.70 These recursive oddities unfold themselves into the physical plane, erupting as problematic forces requiring of the flesh-hewn mind not new representations of a supposedly extra-bodily world, but self-immolation through constant death and resurrection. Thinking is an ecstatic, violent act, always killing the neurons which support it, “making the brain a set of little deaths that puts constant death within us.”71

Deleuze’s Plato creates concepts not only iconically, but ironically, in that he never claims to represent an idea as true, but only to participate in an idea as “a way of problematizing, a manner of posing questions.”72 Deleuze pushes his Platonism as far away from any two-world caricature as possible by positing, according to Ramey,

the genesis of mind in direct encounters with imperceptible forces of perception, moments when the subtle and elusive patterns of difference and repetition animating life force the mind to interpret and even to create.73

Whitehead’s and Deleuze’s immanental reading of Christianity, along with their reading of Plato’s participatory doctrines of Persuasion and Difference, provides a world-renewing medicinal brew sorely needed in the contemporary world. Deleuze writes of the “medicinal thought” of a people to come who, according Ramey,

would, at an eschatological limit, have passed beyond the segmentation of knowledge in art, science, and philosophy in some as-yet-unrealized integral life of knowledge, such as that long dreamt of in the esoteric tradition of mathesis universalis.74

For Deleuze, mathesis is “a thinking of incarnation and individuality,”75 a form of symbolic knowing that allows for the discovery (and creation) of life’s (and death’s) deepest secrets. Knowledge of life’s individuating tendency, its power to repeatedly differ from itself, reveals how “the whole [can symbolize] itself in each individual.”76 Initiation into such knowledge would not only empower individual decision and action, but could rejuvenate the social and political life of civilization. We await the people to come who will be capable of completing creation through the incarnation of this Christogenic “body without organs.”77 “If you want to make a new start in religion,” writes Whitehead, “you must be content to wait a thousand years.”78

Footnotes

1 Perhaps even post-apocalyptic. See Sam Mickey’s attempt to “compost” the territorialized “postal discourses” of disintegral thought in his dissertation, Philosophy for a Planetary Civilization: On the Verge of Integral Ecology, (2012), 321cf [http://search.proquest.com/docview/1017705422?accountid=25260 (accessed 12/17/2012)].

2 Whitehead, Process and Reality: An Essay in Cosmology (New York: The Free Press, 1929/1978), 207.

3 Deleuze and Guattari, What is Philosophy? (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994), 74.

4 Joshua Ramey, The Hermetic Deleuze: Philosophy and Spiritual Ordeal (London: Duke University Press, 2012), 2.

5 See Ramey, The Hermetic Deleuze, 6: There exists a “general academic-philosophical prejudice against the threatening proximity of intuitive, mystical, or even simply more emotional modes of mind to the cold calculations of pure reason…”

6 Deleuze and Guattari, What is Philosophy?, 42.

7 Deleuze and Guattari, What is Philosophy?, 38, 89, 177.

8 Deleuze and Guattari, What is Philosophy?, 202.

9 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 72.

10 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 7: “The chief error in philosophy is overstatement.”

11 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 107-109.

12 Isabelle Stengers, Thinking With Whitehead (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2011), 443.

13 Stengers, Thinking With Whitehead, 443.

14 Peter Hallward, Out of this World: Deleuze and the Philosophy of Creation (London: Verso Books, 2006); quoted in Ramey, The Hermetic Deleuze, 226n9.

15 Stengers, Thinking With Whitehead, 272.

16 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 275.

17 Whitehead, Modes of Thought (New York: The Free Press, 1938/1968), 105.

18 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 343.

19 Whitehead, Science and the Modern World (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1925/1960), 192. The contemplative conception of God as unmoved mover is obviously not as crude; what it lacks is the emotional and moral intensity required to engender religious vision.

20 Deleuze and Guattari, What is Philosophy?, 43.

21 Whitehead, Modes of Thought, 19.

22 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 343.

23 Deleuze and Guattari, What is Philosophy?, 45. 

24 Deleuze and Guattari, What is Philosophy?, 74. 

25 Deleuze and Guattari, What is Philosophy?, 53. 

26 Deleuze, Difference and Repetition, transl. Paul Patton(London: Continuum, 1994/2004), 139.

27 Ramey, The Hermetic Deleuze, 13.

28 Ramey, The Hermetic Deleuze, 16.

29 Ramey, The Hermetic Deleuze, 16-17.

30 Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, 192.

31 Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, 193.

32 Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, 191-192.

33 Stengers, Thinking With Whitehead, 133.

34 Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, 191.

35 Deleuze and Guattari, What Is Philosophy?, 45.

36 Deleuze and Guattari, What Is Philosophy?, 49-50.

37 Deleuze and Guattari, What Is Philosophy?, 51.

38 Deleuze and Guattari, What Is Philosophy?, 37.

39 Deleuze and Guattari, What Is Philosophy?, 3.

40 Deleuze and Guattari, What Is Philosophy?, 61.

41 Deleuze and Guattari, What Is Philosophy?, 22, 28.

42 Deleuze and Guattari, What Is Philosophy?, 79.

43 Deleuze and Guattari, What Is Philosophy?, 203. 

44 Deleuze and Guattari, What Is Philosophy?, 69. 

45 These Christological concepts can be read in parallel to Deleuze and Guattari’s geophilosophical concepts of “reterritorialization” and “deterritorialization” (What Is Philosophy?, 69-70).

46 John 1:14.

47 John 1:5.

48 Deleuze and Guattari, What Is Philosophy?, 69. 

49 Galations 2:20.

50 Matthew 5:44.

51 Matthew 6:10.

52 Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas (New York: The Free Press, 1933/1961), 161.

53 Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas, 166; Process and Reality, 343.

54 Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas, 172.

55 Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas, 166.

56 Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas, 166.

57 Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas, 160.

58 Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas, 167.

59 Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas, 167-169.

60 Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas, 169.

61 Ramey, The Hermetic Deleuze, Ch. 4: “The Overturning of Platonism,” 112cf.

62 See Whitman’s “Song of Myself,” section 51.

63 Journal entry, Oct. 1845.

64 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 39.

65 Ironically, of course, as Plato was himself a prolific author.

66 Iain Hamilton Grant, Philosophies of Nature After Schelling (London: Continuum, 2006), 56n8.

67 Ramey, The Hermetic Deleuze, 118.

68 Deleuze, “Mathesis, Science, and Philosophy,” foreword to Johann Malfatti de Montereggio, Mathesis, Or Studies on the Anarchy and Hierarchy of Knowledge (Paris: Editions Du Griffon D’Or, 1946), 147.

69 Phaedrus, 276c-277a.

70 Deleuze and Guattari, What is Philosophy?, 21-22.

71 Deleuze and Guattari, What Is Philosophy?, 216; Curiously, Christian esotericist Rudolf Steiner says almost the same thing: “The chief characteristic of ordinary thinking is that each single act of thinking injures the nervous system, and above all, the brain; it destroys something in the brain. Every thought means that a minute process of destruction takes place in the cells of the brain. For this reason sleep is necessary for us, in order that this process of destruction may be made good; during sleep we restore what during the day was destroyed in our nervous system by thinking. What we are consciously aware of in an ordinary thought is in reality the process of destruction that is taking place in our nervous system” (Lecture: 1st May, 1913; http://wn.rsarchive.org/Lectures/OccSciOccDev/19130501p01.html [accessed 12/16/2012]).

72 Deleuze and Guattari, What Is Philosophy?, 121.

73 Ramey, The Hermetic Deleuze, 125.

74 Ramey, The Hermetic Deleuze, 89.

75 Deleuze, “Mathesis, Science, and Philosophy,” 143.

76 Ramey, The Hermetic Deleuze, 98.

77 Deleuze, The Logic of Sense (London: Continuum, 1990/2004), 102; see also Ramey’s discussion of Cusa’s anthropocosmic Christology (The Hermetic Deleuze, 236n29).

78 Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas, 172.

––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––

Bibliography

Deleuze, Gilles. “Mathesis, Science, and Philosophy,” foreword to Johann Malfatti de Montereggio, Mathesis, Or Studies on the Anarchy and Hierarchy of Knowledge (Paris: Editions Du Griffon D’Or, 1946).

Deleuze, Gilles and Guattari, Félix. What is Philosophy? (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994).

Deleuze, Gilles Difference and Repetition, transl. Paul Patton (London: Continuum, 1994/2004).

Deleuze, Gilles. The Logic of Sense (London: Continuum, 1990/2004).

Grant, Iain Hamilton. Philosophies of Nature After Schelling (London: Continuum, 2006).

Hallward, Peter. Out of this World: Deleuze and the Philosophy of Creation (London: Verso Books, 2006).

Ramey, Joshua. The Hermetic Deleuze: Philosophy and Spiritual Ordeal (London: Duke University Press, 2012).

Stengers, Isabelle. Thinking With Whitehead (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2011). Whitehead, A. N. Science and the Modern World (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1925/1960).

Whitehead, A. N. Process and Reality: An Essay in Cosmology (New York: The Free Press, 1929/1978).

Whitehead, A. N. Adventures of Ideas (New York: The Free Press, 1933/1961).

Whitehead, A. N. Modes of Thought (New York: The Free Press, 1938/1968).

“The Hermetic Deleuze: Philosophy and Spiritual Ordeal” (2012) by Joshua Ramey

I’ve just been made aware of this very new book on Deleuze and the Hermetic tradition. As the commenter who brought it to my attention already guessed, it couldn’t be more relevant to my current project. Hermeticism has long been an interest of mine; I’ve even described myself as a Christian Hermeticist in the past. The combination isn’t a new one but has its roots (aside from possible Christian influences on the original authors of the ~2nd century Corpus Hermeticum) in the Renaissance, beginning perhaps with Marsilio Ficino. Though I’ve tried, I can’t seem to shake the Christ archetype out of my psyche. To be honest, I’m often embarrassed by this, since much of what passes for Christianity these days (and for that matter, much of history) I find detestable. The hermetic side of the combo comes from my need for a worldly or cosmic religion, and a sense of the magic of nature. As for  Deleuze, I’ve never read him directly. Several friends and colleagues have shared their impressions of his thought with me, and he certainly comes up a lot in Iain Hamilton Grant’s work on Schelling and Isabelle Stengers’ work on Whitehead. I will be reading his text Bergsonism in a course on process thought this fall, and most likely, I’ll read Ramey’s hermetic interpretation even sooner. Here is an excerpt from the introduction of The Hermetic Deleuze:

In the face of contemporary ambivalence over the validity and significance of esoteric, let alone “occult,” apprehensions of nature and mind, the political risk of this reading should be immediately apparent. Reading Deleuze as hermetic in any sense may force a departure from received presuppositions—modern, secular, or merely academic—about what rightfully counts as thought. I take that risk in part because I am convinced that the marginalization of hermetic traditions, and the suspicion and contempt in which they are still held by much of contemporary thought, constitutes a symptomatic repression of the complexity of both the history of modern philosophy and the stakes of contemporary culture, which is, from the internet to the cinema, completely obsessed with magic and with the occult. However, I can of course only speak for my own convictions that this spiritual material can and must be addressed, at least here, through the modest step of taking Deleuze’s spiritual debts to the hermetic tradition seriously. I do this by arguing for three interlinked claims: that Deleuze’s systematic thought is not fully comprehensible without situating it within the hermetic tradition; that Deleuze’s writings make a subtle yet distinctive contribution to contemporary hermetic knowledge and practice; and that the experimental stakes of modern and contemporary philosophy, as Deleuze conceived them, call for a revision and extension of the perennial hermetic project: the proliferation, differentiation, and nonidentical repetition of cosmic processes of regeneration and renewal. What is at stake for Deleuze in thought—and at stake in this book—is ultimately a political issue. Indicating the contours of a renewed spirituality of thought and a new vision of the mutual intercalation of material and spiritual forces is part of an attempt to fulfill the task of philosophy in late capitalism, a task Deleuze himself characterized as the renewal of “belief in the world.” My particular extension of this task, by pushing Deleuze further in the direction of his own hermeticism, is motivated by the conviction that to challenge the all-pervasive magic of that confluence of desire and power Isabelle Stengers once described as the great “capitalist sorcery,” requires an exceedingly sober attempt to countenance the aspects of social and natural reality thus far confined to the gnomic dictates of inchoate spiritual gurus on the one hand, and to the black arts of the industrial-entertainment complex on the other. Thinking more stridently through the spiritual dimensions of Deleuze’s work may enable us to forge new alternatives to the sinister perversions of belief in capital times, as well as to usher in a more concrete and complex sense of how to engender new relations between knowledge, power, and the spiritual forces of desire.

Click here for a PDF of the entire introduction.

[Update]: I just read this review on Amazon by someone named Robert Richards (I don’t think it is Robert J. Richards, author of The Romantic Conception of Life, but maybe? Another Update:: I found out who Bobby Richards is):

I read philosophy to shock vasanas. In India, vasanas are conditioned habits of mind, conditioned frames of reference and dispositions. For 20 years Deleuze has been my favorite explosive. To qualify, he’s been my favorite explosive imported from Europe. Tibetan explosives like Dzogchen and Tantra, or South American explosives like shamanic practices have also been effective. I have problematized my life as one of self-experimentation: one in which the spiritual, affective, imaginal, vital, physical and cognitive modes are all explored, re-imagined and re-invented.

Eight years ago I naively approached two of the heavyweights in the Deleuzian academic industry. I asked them what Deleuze thought about radical spiritual, or radical transmutational practices. Their reception to my question could not have been colder. I realized that I had encountered a self-annointed hierarchy of post-hierarchical post-whatevers, ones who had territorialized their Deleuze for their own hyper-chic secularizations. Annoyed, but not deterred, I continued to use Deleuze as private dynamite.

When I first read Joshua Ramey’s brilliant critique of Peter Hallward’s misfire of a book (Out of This World: Deleuze…), I sensed and knew that here was someone on the same track that I was on. Ramey felt like a brilliant shaft of sunlight cutting into the labyrinthian coal mines of Deleuzian secondary scholarship. Googling more about Ramey, I learned that he was working on a book. Hermetic Deleuze is the book.

This book contains the latent Deleuze I’ve been sensing within his philosophy, but did not have the rigor or imagination to incarnate. If you’re one of those rare spirits that feels the call to a new, untried and unprecedented way of becoming a New Man or New Woman, then this is mandatory reading. This is the Deleuze for the esoteric spiritual quest, for realizing Nietzsche’s highest and most brilliant visions, the Deleuze for Sri Aurobindo’s evolutionary futures, for Sloterdijk’s yearnings, Gebser’s Integral, de Chardin’s Omega, Wilber’s Third Tier, and becoming-Kosmos. This book gives me hard evidence that superlative intelligence and spirituality are not only finding each other, but that they deliciously enjoy copulating.

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After Finitude and Fideism comes Speculative Christianity?

Quetin Meillassoux is an important philosopher, according to Graham Harman,

“not from the fact that he is plausibly right about so many things, but because his philosophy offers such a treasury of bold statements ripe for being radicalized or reversed. He is a rich target for many still-unborn intellectual heirs, and this is what gives him the chance to be an important figure.”

Leon Niemoczynski (After Nature) has recently posted about the theistic implications of Meillassoux’s work. He asks why so many Speculative Realist have ignored the religious aspects of his anti-correlationism. Adam at An und fur such pointed out Meillassoux’s ontology of radical contingency, taken to its extreme in The Divine Inexistence, leads to a reformed Christian incarnationalist scheme, where human value is derived, not from a past act of incarnation, but from our hope for future resurrection.

In an earlier post on this issue, I suggest that Meillassoux “dismisses fideism to re-affirm its object through the apotheosis of reason.” Philosophies of the Absolute cannot avoid inquiry into divinity. Whether explicitly atheistic, like Ray Brassier’s eliminativism or or Levi Bryant’s materialism (Larval Subjects), or explicitly theistic like Whitehead’s philosophy of organism, metaphysical systems cannot simply ignore the presence of divinity in the universe. They either have to explain away spiritual experience by reducing it to religious indoctrination, and explain away the persistance of religion by reducing it to biopolitical, psychological, and/or ideological factors, or they have to discover God in cosmogenesis. If a scheme of thought choses the prior reductive route, it would no longer seem to be in pursuit of a comprehensive picture of reality, but merely of a subsection of it. It would no longer be properly metaphysical, in other words, since it has prejudicially disqualified the miraculous in favor of the mundane. Metaphysics is the (perhaps endless) pursuit of a systematic discourse concerning both the limits (immanent, finite aspects) and the freedom (transcendent, infinite aspect) of the Absolute. Immanence and transcendence are not properly thought of as opposites; rather, transcendence is the superlative of immanence. The infinite is not opposed to the finite, but contains and indeed implies it.

Meillassoux’s conceptual recourse to the contingency of facticity in After Finitude leads him eventually into the ethical issues surrounding the contingency of the Act of creation itself in The Inexistent Divine. If everything is absolutely contingent, then this world-creating Act, too, was gratuitous. Creatio ex nihilo: creation for no reason whatsoever. For this very reason, everything remains possible, even for our seemingly irredeemable world. Our world. Despite the anthrodecentric gesture of his’ After Finitude, Meillassoux seems to affirm in Inexistent that man “is born to be [nature's] ultimate end,” as Kant supposed. “Such an end, however” Kant goes on to warn, “must not be thought in nature” (CoJ). Such an end seems to imply the divine’s entrance into the world, or at least its earthly birth within the incarnate human soul.

Rudolf Steiner and the Angelic Hierarchies

In a recently posted essay on Christian Ecosophy, I referred repeatedly to angels. Though they are as prevalent in today’s popular imagination as they ever were in the past, the secular intelligentsia tend to dismiss them as relics of our pre-scientific childhood. I think it is important that lines of communication be opened between secular materialists and esoteric spiritualists (for lack of a better term), and by mentioning angels I don’t mean to alienate those with an otherly enchanted worldview. However, the outright dismissal of the intelligence behind the powers that assist in the creation, maintenance, and renewal of our universe is an unjustified form of chronological snobbery. Modern cosmology prefers to speak the precise language of mathematics, but what is to prevent us from understanding the equations of physics as abstract representations of the otherwise supersensible activity of spiritual beings? What, in other words, is to prevent us from linking that which is intelligible in the universe to that which is itself intelligent?

Modern science, influenced by Cartesian dualism, tends to restrict intelligence to the human soul alone, denying its operation in the surrounding cosmos, which is thought of as merely intelligible (because designed by a transcendent God; or, in secularized form of Cartesianism, because constructed according to transcendent Laws) and not itself intelligent.

Angels are divine instruments of creation, the supersensible organs of God at play in and as the manifest world. Jewish traditions dating back to Philo and later elaborated in Kabbalah, and Neo-Platonic traditions dating back to Pseudo-Dionysius, suggest that angels are organized hierarchically according to a series of emanations. Building on this tradition, the 20th century philosopher and occultist Rudolf Steiner suggested that the angelic hierarchies consist of 3 levels with 3 beings each, and a final, incomplete level consisting of two beings. All of the levels ultimately come forth out of the unifying Trinity. Steiner says that one can begin to understand these beings by analogy to the human I’s relationship to the limbs of the body. When all goes well, the I is able to direct the body to carry out its will by accomplishing activity in the world. The I cannot work without the body, just as God cannot work without the hierarchies.

The first hierarchy consists of the Seraphim/Spirits of Love, the Cherubim/Spirits of Harmony, and the Thrones/Spirits of Will. Steiner describes how space, time, and matter (originally a subtler form of light) are brought forth by these especially powerful beings (see Occult Science). The second hierarchy consists of the Dominions/Spirits of Wisdom, the Mights/Spirits of Movement, and the Powers/Spirits of Form. These beings awaken the material substance generated by the first hierarchy, allowing it to take on living form and organization. Yahweh and the Elohim, the central gods of the Old Testament, are said by Steiner to be Powers. Yahweh’s placement in the second hierarchy reminds me of Joseph Campbell’s remark that “the only thing wrong with Yahweh is that he thinks he’s God.” The third hierarchy consists of Archai/Spirits of Time, Archangels/Spirits of Fire, and Angels/Sons of Life. These are the celestial beings closest to the souls of earthly humanity. The Archai influence the character of whole historical ages (i.e., the Zeitgeist). The Archangels form the various folk-souls/nations that comprise the diverse human species (not the same as race, since people of different races can belong to the same folk-soul). Angels shepherd individual human lives, aiding our conscience in its quest toward things divine. The fourth and final level of the hierarchies is composed of the Spirit of Freedom and the Spirit of Love, both of which await their full realization by human beings on earth.

This way of thinking about the universe and humanity requires stretching the imagination beyond its predominantly materialistic habits of thought. It would be inappropriate to simply take Steiner’s (and others’) declarations as true without having perceived their meaning for oneself. Christianity, for Steiner, is not a path rooted in belief, but in knowledge. His epistemology (see Intuitive Thinking as a Spiritual Path) emerged after a careful study of Goethe’s method of natural science and rests upon the cultivation of normally dormant organs of perception. These higher organs of perception, namely Imagination, Inspiration, and Intuition, allow the knower to participate in realities deeper than ordinary sensory perception of the surfaces of physical objects. No groundbreaking scientific discovery has been made without the assistance of such supersensible faculties. When we engage the world according to Steiner’s spiritual scientific method, we do so in search of divine messengers.

The Difficulty of Christianity (a response to ProfessorAnton)

Professor Anton will probably respond to my response, as is his kind habit. I’ll post it here when he does.

(Be sure to visit the YouTube link so you can read the comment threads beneath my video. The dialogue is getting rather interesting…)

The Mysticism and Cosmology of the American Genius Howard Thurman, a lecture at CIIS

Last night I had the privilage of attending a lecture by Brian Swimme and Bonnie and Kashka Wills on the thought of Howard Thurman. Brian is a mathematical cosmologist who teaches at CIIS here in San Francisco. Bonnie is a Restorative Justice Facilitator in Oakland. Her brother Kashka is a former literature professor turned poet. They focused both on the ethical and cosmological dimensions of Thurman’s work, which I will attempt to summarize below.

Though he was a Christian pastor, Thurman was critical of Christianity because of the extent to which it had strayed from the religion of Jesus. Jesus’ religion might be summed up in one word: Love. Thurman saw Love as the source of cosmic kinship–a stern yet kind intelligence that functions to maintain the Life of the universe. He thought American Christianity in general had become narrowly focused on personalistic, as opposed to cosmic love. Love lacks a cosmological dimension when it fails to deal honestly with the adversaries of hatred, fear, and deception. Rather than resorting to sentimentalism in regard to these matters (“be a good person!”), Thurman plunged right into the deeper nature of hatred. While acknowledging that vengefulness can bring one down to the level of their enemy, Thurman also recognized the great power that sometimes comes from meeting adversity. He thought hatred may sometimes be necessary to overcome the sense of worthlessness instilled in the oppressed by their oppressors. It produces one with the surplus energy needed to speak truth to power despite fears of breaking long established taboos of racism, sexism, etc. In the end, however, if hatred cannot be released, it dries up the creativity of life as we become unable to focus on anything but our enemies.

Bonnie emphasized the importance of a cosmological dimension in Christianity, since without it, we dwell to heavily on the personal and familiar and forget the extent to which we are creatures of the earth, embedded in a much larger, and stranger, community of life. Thurman’s cosmological orientation (“the earth beneath my feet is the great womb out of which my body comes”) places him way ahead of his time (he was born in 1899). He felt quite deeply the increasing rootlessness of industrial life and blamed the increasing prevalence of mental illness on our species’ increasing alienation from nature.

It is his emphasis on the cosmic extent of Love that draws me to Thurman most. His is undoubtedly a cosmopolitical vision. I’m fascinated by the possibility that Love may eventually overtake power as the most prevalent shaping influence of human society.

The New Reformation: Whitehead on Christian Metaphysics

“…if you want to make a new start in religion, you must be content to wait a thousand years.” -Alfred North Whitehead

I’ve been thinking through my recent posts on the philosophical import of religious experience, and in light of some of the concerns brought up by Jason Hills, I wanted to further unpack the nature of the spiritual integration I’m trying to pull off. I think Jason’s worries concerning syncretism and equivocation are well-founded, and I appreciate being given the opportunity to articulate further how an evolutionary panentheism might allow “post-secular” philosophy to converse meaningfully with more traditional forms of religious sense-making. Following thinkers like Jean Gebser and Rudolf Steiner, my approach is not, at least in theory, an attempt to meld the content of different religious visions into some amorphous conception of “God,” but rather to give an account of the history of religious experience in terms of an evolution of consciousness. I’ve written a bit about what such a scheme entails (HERE and HERE), but I’ll admit much work remains ahead of me if I hope to adequately disentangle an integral account of the evolution of consciousness from a syncretic melding of religions.

In this post, I will consult chapter 10 of Whitehead’s Adventures of Ideas, “The New Reformation,” wherein he focuses on the evolving relationship between metaphysics and religion in Western history. He concentrates upon “three culminating phases”: 1) an intellectual discovery by Plato, 2) the exemplification of this discovery in the life of Christ, and 3) the metaphysical interpretation of these events generated in the formative period of Christian theology.

Before discussing the nature of these phases, Whitehead comments on the “steady decay” of Protestant Christianity in the modern age: “its dogmas no longer dominate, its divisions no longer interest, its institutions no longer direct the patterns of life” (p. 160). I think it is important to point out in this context that the forces of secularization that were pushing Christianity out of public life while Whitehead was writing [~1930] simultaneously functioned to further interiorize religious belief. What had been public became increasingly individual, especially in 1960s America, as exported Asian traditions began to influence a spiritually-orphaned youth, leading to wholly novel forms of mostly unaffiliated religious practice. So rather than considering religiosity and secularity to be opposed forms of socialization, I think it makes more sense to recognize the interactive role of each in our still developing “post-secular/post-religious” situation.

While Whitehead recognized the decline of traditional religions in Europe and America during the first half of the 20th century, he also pointed to the non-violent uprisings in India orchestrated by Gandhi as evidence that the religious spirit “still holds its old power, even more than its old power, over the minds and the consciences of men” (p. 161). Had he lived to see the civil rights movements of the 60s inspired by MLK, I think Whitehead would have felt a further assurance of this spirit’s continued effectiveness in America, as well.

Whitehead, here as elsewhere, asks us to be attentive to a contrast: religion is decaying even as it survives in new and more powerful forms. Instead of erecting a false dichotomy, where religion is pegged as a superstitious and regressive force preventing the spread of rationality and science, Whitehead asks us to look again at the history of our civilization.

“Must ‘religion,'” he asks,

“always be a synonym for ‘hatred’? The great social ideal for religion is that it should be the common basis for the unity of civilization… The religious spirit is always in process of being explained away, distorted, buried. Yet, since the travel of mankind towards civilization, it is always there” (p. 172).

Whitehead’s thesis is that a “New Reformation” is underway across every continent, but that its success depends upon the integration of conflicting beliefs into some general spiritual scheme. I quote him at length:

“I do not hold it to be possible, or even desirable, that identity of detailed belief can be attained. But it is possible that amid diversities of belief, arising from differences of stress exhibited in metaphysical insight and from differences of sympathetic intuition respecting historical events,–that it is possible, amid these differences, to reach a general agreement as to those elements, in intimate human experience and general history, which we select to exemplify that ultimate theme of the divine immanence, as a completion required by our cosmological outlook. In other words, we may agree as to the qualitative aspects of religious facts, and as to their general way of coordination in metaphysical theory, while disagreeing in various explanatory formulations” (p. 161).

Absent such a coordination of humanity’s varied spiritual expressions, I am not at all optimistic regarding the future of our civilization. Capitalism and war have already bound the planet together into an ever-tightening knot, yet we still lack the “Earth ethos” that will surely be necessary to sustain a planetary civilization into the 21st century and beyond. Given this increasingly precarious situation, my position is rather straightforward: only a widespread renewal of humanity’s religious spirit, reformed in light of contemporary ecological and cultural conditions, can save us now.

In this context, philosophy’s most urgent role is to midwife the birth of this new planetary spirit. But short of a fragile and superficial syncretic patchwork of different traditions, how is the varied religious experience of humanity to be given metaphysical expression? Whitehead’s approach may be criticized by atheists as inheriting too much from his Christian background, except for the fact that his cosmology, upon his own admission, “seems to approximate more to some strains of Indian, or Chinese, thought, than to Western Asiatic, or European, thought” (Process and Reality, p. 11). From my perspective, Whitehead’s thoroughly historical approach rightly emphasizes the progression, or evolution, of religious consciousness, which, through “the effort of Reason,” has been trained so as to “safeguard against the wild emotions of superstition” (p. 162).

Levi Bryant has argued (also HERE and HERE) that, while individual religious experiences obviously do occur, the content of many of these experiences (e.g., God) is probably illusory in light of the explanatory reductions made possible by the social and natural sciences. In appealing to the history of religious experience, Whitehead does not mean to suggest that we should avoid discrimination of the evidence. He employs two grounds of criticism, aesthetic and logical, which are to be “welded together in the final judgment of reason as to the comparison of historical periods, one with the other” (p. 164). He dismisses the idea that the requisite evidence for the content of religious experience can be derived from “direct introspection conducted in one epoch by a few clear-sighted individuals” (ibid.). Rather, when Whitehead considers the history of religion from a philosophical perspective, he does so as an “appeal to summits of attainment beyond any immediate clarity in our own individual existence” (p. 162). In other words, he sees in the historical development of our civilization an accumulation of spiritual wisdom, based not in the fleeting dreams of isolated individuals, but in the enduring “actions, thoughts, emotions, and institutions, which great persons and great occasions [have] made effective” (p. 165).

“Each age deposits its message as to the secret character of the nature of things. Civilizations can only be understood by those who are civilized. And they have this property, that the appropriation of them in the understanding unveils truths concerning our own natures. It has been said that the great dramatic tragedies in their representations before audiences act as a purification of the passions. In the same way, the great periods of history act as an enlightenment. They reveal ourselves to ourselves” (p. 164).

Returning now to the “threefold revelation” singled out by Whitehead at the outset of this essay, I’d like to spend a moment examining the unique role I believe is still to be played by Christianity–that strange and unsteady amalgam of Hebrew prophecy and Greek philosophy–in our planetizing civilization. Whitehead, like Steiner, Gebser, Teilhard de Chardin, Carl Jung, and Owen Barfield (all 20th century thinkers who have significantly influenced my own thinking), believes, both for reasons of historical honesty and popular effectiveness, that “the leaders of religious thought should today concentrate upon the Christian tradition.” Each of the above mentioned men had no shortage of respect for the profound wisdom generated by other traditions, but nonetheless, saw in the archetypal motifs of Christianity an embodiment of “the greatest advances in the expression of moral and intellectual intuitions [marking] the growth of recent civilization” (p. 166).

The incarnation of Christ is, according to Christianity, the supreme moment in religious history. The Christ event revealed the true nature of God and of God’s agency in the world. Though the historical record is fragmentary and inconsistent, Whitehead argues that “there can be no doubt as to what elements in the record have evoked a response from all that is best in human nature”:

“The Mother, the Child, and the bare manger: the lowly man, homeless and self-forgetful, with his message of peace, love, and sympathy: the suffering, the agony, the tender words as life ebbed, the final despair: and the whole with the authority of supreme victory” (p. 167).

But, while Whitehead admits that the singular beauty and moral example of Christ’s life “forms the driving power of the religion,” he also points to the importance of an intellectual discovery made several centuries prior:

“Can there be any doubt that the power of Christianity lies in its revelation in act, of that which Plato divined in theory?” (p. 167).

Whitehead credits Plato with “one of the greatest intellectual discoveries in the history of religion,” that being the enunciation (in the Sophist and the Timaeus) of the doctrine of Grace: that divine persuasion, rather than coercion, is the foundation of the order of the world. Unfortunately, Plato, more a visionary than a systematic philosopher, failed to coordinate this doctrine with the rest of his cosmology. Aside from a few glimpses of a more participatory possibility, when Plato is asked to schematize the relationship between God and God’s Ideas to the world, he depicts the latter as a derivative and second-rate imitation of the former. Ideas were brought into relation with the physical world only through the supernatural power of divine will. This is unacceptable from a metaphysical perspective, wherein the relationship between God and the world must be grounded in the necessity of their natures, rather than the accidents of will.

Whitehead suggests that the formative phase of Christian theology was principally concerned with the struggle to overcome Platonism. He credits early theologians for partially overcoming the Platonic dualism by “deciding for some sort of direct immanence of God in the World,” however differently it was worked out in detail (p. 169). They failed to fully generalize the metaphysical implications of the doctrine of divine immanence, however, since “the nature of God was exempted from all the categories which applied to individual things in the temporal world” (ibid.). The final verdict of Christian theology was that God is necessary for the world’s existence, but the world itself was deemed entirely contingent, a free creation of divine will. It remains the task of philosophy to correct the arbitrary gap hewn by traditional theology between God and the world. As it stands at present, God’s nature remains largely obscure, since, “it is only by drawing the long bow of mysticism that evidences for his existence can be collected from our temporal world” (ibid.).

“The task of [a properly philosophical] Theology,” writes Whitehead,

“is to show how the world is founded on something beyond mere transient fact, and how it issues in something beyond the perishing of occasions. The temporal world is the stage of finite accomplishment. We ask of Theology to express that element in perishing lives which is undying by reason of its expression of perfections proper to our finite natures. In this way we shall understand how life includes a mode of satisfaction deeper than joy or sorrow” (p. 172).

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For a better sense of how I think Christianity is relevant to Speculative Realism generally, see my essay “Towards a Christolgical Realism: Thinking the Correlation with Teilhard and Barfield.”

Religion and Philosophy: The God Problem

The discussion continues over on Levi Bryant’s blog.

Bryant agrees with me that Whitehead’s conception of God does not fall prey to many of the ethical and epistemological criticisms he levels against traditional theism. But he fails to understand the problem that Whitehead’s God is purported to have solved.

Whitehead’s style of philosophizing has much to do with his understanding of history. From his perspective, the history of religious experience is a fact about the Cosmos that must be taken up and integrated by speculative philosophy. I don’t think Bryant would necessarily disagree with this, but he might add that the way this fact is to be integrated by philosophy is through some sort of sociological or neurological reduction (i.e., the content of religious experiences is entirely culturally or cranially constructed).

Whitehead integrates the fact of humanity’s religious inheritance (which is both experiential and scriptural–and these two sources are inextricably bound up in my opinion) in a different way. He abides by what Bruno Latour has since come to call the principle of irreduction: a phenomenon can sometimes be translated into a related phenomenon, but never explained by reference to anything other than its own internal reasons. Instead of reducing the content of religious experience to something merely cultural or merely neural that must be rejected wholesale as superstition, Whitehead accepts the cultural habits he has inherited as the “imaginative background” constituting the condition for the possibility of his own speculative flights into conceptual novelty. He sees no other choice but to think with the historical milieu in which he is embedded, even if this thinking leads eventually to a creative revisioning of his culture’s fundamental assumptions. As Latour and Stengers later articulated, Whitehead’s cosmology is not separable from his politics. Nor is his ontology separable from his sociology. Human experience is to be understood based upon the same criteria of explanation and existence as the experience of any other organism. If the vast majority of the earth’s human inhabitants currently find the concept of God meaningful in some ultimate sense, this is a cosmic fact Whitehead cannot afford to dismiss.

Bryant and other atheists may not find this at all compelling. That a majority of humanity holds certain beliefs about God is no evidence whatsoever as to the validity of those beliefs. Whitehead, however, is a pragmatist; for him, the truth of an idea is not a matter of correspondence to some pre-given reality; or at least if truth is correspondence, it is not very interesting to him. What matters to Whitehead is how our conceptual propositions create novel contrasts in our interpretation of experience in order to further the Universe’s adventure of ideas. In a Universe that relates to itself sensually (i.e., via prehensions), interesting lies are often more effective–more productive of value–than boring or obvious truths (at least if adventure is our goal).

It all comes down to how we construe the relationship between philosophy and religion. Hegel argued that the content of each was the same. Whitehead agrees. The role of philosophy is always to be the critic of abstractions, whether they be scientific or religious in origin. Scientific abstractions tend to be derived from empirico-mathematical (i.e., theoretical) cognitions, while religious abstractions tend to be derived from ethico-scriptural (i.e., practical) emotions. Philosophy’s role is to bring our thinking and our feeling into constructive harmony: the abstractions employed by science and religion are systematized by philosophy so as to presuppose one another such that in isolation they are meaningless.

It is perhaps a mistake to use the descriptor “Christianity,” since this will only invite the knee-jerk dismissal of what I am about to say; but nonetheless, I think the archetypal meaning of the Christ event is highly relevant in any discussion of the relationship between religion and philosophy. The history of Christian theology represents a sort of unhappy compromise between Hebraic eschatology and Greek cosmology. We should not underestimate the profound transformation that the God of the Old Testament had to go through in order to become the God of the Gospels. I think Christianity, whose central figure is purported to have accomplished the complete synthesis of spirit and matter, eternity and time, myth and history, creator and creation, etc., still has a significant role to play in the unfolding of our civilization. In fact, I think (like Rudolf Steiner and Teilhard de Chardin) that we’ve only just begun to feel the cosmohistorical repercussions of the Christ event.

Feelings Matter because Motion Emotes.

ConferenceReport (or Fred in the meat-world) likes to take his visuoaudiences on a walk through metaphors of mind. In this video, he draws on the work of the cognitive scientists George LakoffThomas NagelAntonio Damasio, Thomas Metzinger, and William James, among others.

I’m most interested in what Fred has to say about the relationship between consciousness and the physical body. He provides helpful summations of the ideas of the neuroscientist Damasio (consciousness is “the feeling of what happens”), the philosopher Nagel (consciousness is “what it is,–or is like,–to be a thing”), and the neuroethicist Metzinger (consciousness is “nothing but a self-model, or phenomenal self”). In the end, it seems that Fred is most in agreement with Metzinger, since his approach best validates the scientific materialism each axiomatically assumes. Consciousness, for Fred, is rooted in and entirely explainable through a “carrier frequency of somatic-physiological operations…produced by the constant ticking away of our bodies.” But, he adds, this physiological being is not just a moving body, it is also an emoting somebody.

He then opens up an inquiry into William James’ phenomenology of emotion, describing it as an embodied approach to self-inquiry and the investigation of our own moods that recognized the goings on of physiology as constitutive of these same moods. I would want to flesh out what a Jamesian approach to consciousness might look like a bit more, since I think his paradoxically spiritual/psychological interests and pragmatic/realist orientation place his philosophy of consciousness in stark contrast to Metzinger’s reductionistic nihilism. In an interview with Susan Blackmore in Conversations on Consciousness (Oxford, 2006), she asks Metzinger what the scientific study of consciousness has done to his everyday life. He begins his response by talking about the fragility of our identities and the dignity they carry, since a clot in our cerebral tissue could dissolve them at any moment). His explanation for consciousness in terms of a neural illusion is self-classified as a “hard theoretical” issue, understood only by affluent secular Western scientists and philosophers; “hard” issues (like facing up to the implications of modern genetics and neuroscience–and, Metzinger adds, to the transformative effect of psychedelic technologies) are contrasted with”soft” issues, which those initiated into the “scientific image of man” only have to continue to bother themselves with because the “undeveloped world,” which makes up the vast majority of Earth’s population, continues to believe in a “metaphysical image of man.” I think there are better ways of thinking about the diversity of social imaginaries among human beings alive today than dividing them into “Scientific materialism” v. “anything else.” James’ A Pluralistic Universe might be a good place to start.

Metzinger goes on to offer us the sobering news of scientific materialism:

There is a new image of man emerging out of genetics and neuroscience, one which will basically contradict all other images of man that we have had in the Western tradition. It is strictly unmetaphysical; it is absolutely incompatible with the Christian image of man; and it may force us to confront our mortality in a much more direct way than we have ever before in our history. It may close the door on certain hopes people have had, not only scientists and philosophers but all of us, such as that maybe somehow consciousness could exist without the brain after death. People will still want to believe something like that. But just as people will actually still think that the sun revolves around the earth — people whom you basically laugh at and don’t take seriously any more. So there’s a reductive anthropology that may come to us, and it may come faster than we are prepared for it; it may come as an emotionally sobering experience to many people particularly in developing countries, who make up 80% of human beings, and still have a metaphysical image of man, haven’t ever heard anything about neuroscience, don’t want to hear anything about neural correlates of consciousness, want to keep on living in their metaphysical world-view as they have for centuries.

I actually don’t think the coming trauma of materialism is in any way incompatible with Christianity, at least not the images at work within the Christian unconscious. As I see it, the confrontation with death–and the challenge to love (or to be ethical) despite having become aware of the mortality of the physical body and the illusory (or sinful) nature of the ego–is the very heart of the Christian imaginary. The crucifixion comes before the resurrection, since, as the story goes, one must first die in the flesh in order to be born again in spirit. Scientific materialism has more in common with the the historical evolution of Christian consciousness than it often lets on (I explored this connection in a section of this essay called the “logic of extinction”).

Getting back to Fred’s video, he ends by suggesting that consciousness, or the feeling of self, is best understood, not as belonging to an immortal soul irreducible to the components of the visible universe, but as a metaphor, or “way of speaking that differentiates our internal state” from the external physical world that is conditioning it. “Consciousness,” he says, is rooted in a more fundamental process of biological differentiation that takes place “on the surface of our skin.” It is the result of a complex network of neuronal sensorimotor loops whose inputs are our bodily senses. This sort of an account of consciousness may be embodied, but it lacks a sense of world-embeddedness. Consciousness is not only physiologically realized, it is sociologically constructed and cosmically extended. It cannot be simply located anywhere, but must, finally, be rooted in the soul of the world. I feel with my skin, but my skin is full of pores! The world itself bleeds into me when I feel it, mixing with my felt sense of being.

Consciousness is no mere metaphorical division in Being, though it may only be articulable by talking animals: consciousness is the principle at work in every self-differentiating being in possession (or possessed by) the Word. A conscious being is a micro-creator, or microcosm, who recapitulates in finite form the Mind and Power of a transcendent Being, incarnating the Infinite in the space and time of living and dying.

Alan Watts can always say it better:

Buddhist and Christian Soul-Making

So far as I know, John Keats coined the phrase “soul-making” in a letter to his brother and sister in May of 1819.
He writes:

“…suppose a rose to have sensation. It blooms on a beautiful morning. It enjoys itself–but there comes a cold wind, a hot sun–it cannot escape it, it cannot destroy its annoyances. They are as native to the world as itself: no more can man be happy in spite, the worldly elements will prey upon his nature.

The common cognomen of this world among the misguided and superstitious is ‘a vale of tears’ from which we are to be redeemed by a certain arbitrary interposition of God and taken to Heaven. What a little circumscribed straightened notion! Call the world if you Please ‘The vale of Soul-making.’ Then you will find out the use of the world. (I am speaking now in the highest terms for human nature admitting it to be immortal which I will here take for granted for the purpose of showing a thought which has struck me concerning it): I say ‘Soul making.’ Soul as distinguished from an Intelligence…There may be intelligences or sparks of the divinity in millions–but they are not Souls till they acquire identities, till each one is personally itself. Intelligences are atoms of perception–they know and they see and they are pure, in short they are God. How then are Souls to be made? How then are these sparks which are God to have identity given them so as forever to possess a bliss peculiar to each one’s individual existence? I–low, but by the medium of a world like this? This point I sincerely wish to consider because I think it a grander system of salvation than the Christian religion–or rather it is a system of Spirit-creation. This is effected by three grand materials acting the one upon the other for a series of years. These three Materials are the Intelligence, the human Heart (as distinguished from intelligence or Mind), and the World or Elemental space suited for the proper action of Mind and Heart on each other for the purpose of forming the Soul or Intelligence destined to possess the sense of Identity.”

Keats offers his scheme of salvation as an alternative to the Christian religion, which he says later in the same letter has disenchanted and depersonalized the world because of its obsessive monotheism. Without an “elemental space suited for the proper action of Mind and Heart on each other,” the Intelligence is unable to mature into Individuality. The Soul remains a potentiality unable, through the schooling of a living universe, to self-actualize.

I’m interested in the spiritual fruits that may mature by bringing Keats’ scheme into conversation with Mahayana Buddhism and Esoteric Christianity. For the Buddha, selfhood was an illusion to be dissolved. Ego is not only a source of suffering, but its cause, since only such a false sense of identity allows one’s inherent Buddha-nature to become deformed by grasping after the fleeting images arising and perishing in the round of samsara. Samsara, for Keats, is the vale of tears. Nirvana is realized when our true identity, dependently co-arising with all that is and is-not, replaces the false identity of the ego.

The teachings of Christ suggest that within each of us dwells an innocence akin to Adam’s prior to the Fall. Through love of our neighbor, the world, and God, each of us may be born again, “not of the water, but of the Spirit.” Then, “not I, but the Christ in me” lives eternally within the heart of the Creator. The world becomes a vale of soul-making when Earth is no longer radically separated, due to our sin (or clouded perception), from Heaven. Instead, an economy is opened between the Above and the Below, such that creative divinity participates even in the shaping of the dust from which our bodies emerge and return. Each becomes, like Christ, a Son or Daughter of God. The Soul gains an identity by making itself particular, learning from the trials of the World aided by the universal Intelligence aflame within it. Soul-making is no less a task for humanity than incarnation is for divinity. To become who we really are: perhaps in this mission both Buddha and Christ are our partners.

I’ll be exploring some of these ideas further in an essay to be posted soon!

The Spirit of Intrahuman Dialogue: A Meditation

The following is a short personal reflection written for a course on inter-faith dialogue with Prof. Jacob Sherman.

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“Any interreligious and interhuman dialogue, any exchange among cultures,” writes Panikkar, “has to be preceded by an intrareligious and intrahuman dialogue, an internal conversation within the person” (p. 310, 1979). My personal interest in religion, broadly construed to include both its theological and practical dimensions, arises out of polarized desires: one the one hand, I long to participate in an enduring community’s celebration and worship of divine reality; on the other hand, I remain unsatisfied by beliefs and practices that do not spring from the unique voice of divinity within me. I call these desires polar not because they are necessarily mutually exclusive, but because a certain tension arises in me whenever I attempt to sync up outward observance with inward contemplation. My desire for integration into a religious community seems to contradict my desire for an inward intimacy with the divine. Whether this tension is a mere appearance, or the result of an ontological rift between self and other, is an issue I hope to explore in the course of the short meditation that follows.

Though I cannot fully identify with any religious culture in particular, the sacred texts and esoteric treatises emerging from several traditions continue to offer me guidance on my individual path. I sometimes use the cliché “spiritual but not religious” to describe myself, but this never feels quite right, since religion in general does not strike me as an essentially dogmatic and so inauthentic response to Spirit. In fact, what calls me to the religious life is precisely the unwavering commitment that it entails. Spirituality absent a religious commitment may leave more room for autonomy and freedom, but what if a genuine relation to Spirit requires submitting to the will of something other than myself?

Of course, there is no religion “in general.” There is a vast array of cultural responses to what for now can be called “Spirit.” But even to say the diversity of religions represent responses to the same “Spirit,” or unified underlying reality, underestimates the extent to which each tradition draws from its own sources in pursuit of its own ends. How am I to decipher which tradition represents an authority worth submitting to if so many different options for belief exist amongst which to choose from? This uncertainty leads me back to my own individual autonomy, but there I find only the dizzying freedom of an “I” unmoored from any established norms or worldviews. Independent of the spiritual desires of other people, I am no longer sure what it is that I myself am after, or even what it might mean to be a self in the first place. No matter which way I turn, toward authority or autonomy, I end up confused. Is there a middle path?

Because I need to call it something, I’ll continue to refer to “Spirit” as the underlying reality drawing me to religious dialogue. Whether it is at work in the space between myself and others, or that between me in relation to myself, Spirit dynamically binds together that which may appear separate. Or at least this presupposition is the ground out of which my faith in a divine reality grows and is nourished. Though I do not know if Christianity is truer than Buddhism, or Mohamed more holy than Moses, I have faith that all human beings ultimately belong to the same universe. This faith implies that failures to communicate across cultures or between religious traditions must not be due to metaphysical discord in the cosmos itself, but rather an epistemic misunderstanding or confusion of practical contexts. In other words, it is not what each tradition is trying to know and to become that differs, but how they come to know and become it. Instead of assuming that each religion has its own unique ends, perhaps it is more fruitful to interpret diversity as the inevitable result of finite creatures attempting to know and love an infinitely creative Spirit.

The tension I experience between the desire to seek refuge in a religious tradition and the desire to intuit the divine mystery afresh within myself is unavoidable if Spirit is the relation between beings, rather than a being among beings. Religious traditions may undoubtedly help to support and sustain this relation, but they can just as easy strangle it. Spirit is grander than can be contained by the categories of any public religion or private spirituality. Its source is deeper than either. What if the very possibility of communication between beings (including that between myself and my own being) rests upon the reality of Spirit? Panikkar writes of “intrahuman” dialogue alongside “intrareligious” dialogue, which is a reflection of his cosmotheandric intuition of the interpenetration of the human, the universe, and the divine. If such interpenetration is taken to be metaphysically basic, then reality itself exists in a state of super-position between the personal, interpersonal, and transpersonal. The diversity of perspectives making interreligious dialogue necessary is then a reflection of the creative instability of Spirit at an ontological level, where as Panikkar says “everything is ultimate mediation, or rather communion” (p. 240, 1996). Each perspective on divinity exists only by virtue of its relation to the others, and it is in this tension of relation that Spirit brings forth the world anew in each moment (paying due respect to the accumulated wisdom of Its past incarnations in the process, of course).

But how is it that I am capable of taking such a perspective on the religious practices of others? Upon what sacred ground do I stand in order to make such metaphysical pronouncements? Is there some post-religious point of view capable of reconciling the teachings of all the traditions of the world? I can only have faith in this possibility, because there is, admittedly, no such point of view available to contemporary humanity (at least not one that all the religions might participate in affirming). The whole effort of interreligious dialogue must, in the end, be guided by a similar faith. The hope is that reality is ultimately communicable: both that Being itself opens intelligibly to beings, and that beings open intelligibly to other beings; and that, though the truth of reality has not yet been and may never be completely conveyed (at least between beings, if not between Being and being[1]), human beings may nevertheless continue to asymptotically approach the universal translatability of their diverse points of view through sincere cross-cultural and interpersonal engagement.

The translatability of one culture’s relation to Spirit into another’s is never without remainder or distortion, just as a spoken sentence is never identical to the vague feeling which precedes its articulation. But in the act of attempting to communicate, and especially after having done so, the original feeling is itself transformed. It moves into an interpretive field of far greater context and dexterity, gathering greater self-understanding along the way. Translations are expressive trials where initially offensive (even if unintentional) renderings of the other meet resistance until, eventually, conversation becomes constructive and mutually revelatory. The participants in the dialogue begin to learn something, not only about each other, but also about themselves. It is not that the interior space of a foreign tradition becomes fully transparent, but that each comes to inhabit a newly enacted common interiority, a “third culture” or novel way of being human in relation to each other and to Spirit. No doubt these interior spaces will be tenuous at first, since they lack the sedimented historical matrix of symbolism and ritual that protects each of the world’s great wisdom traditions from dissolution in the sands of time. But perhaps what is needed for inter- and intrahuman dialogue is more a way of being than an ideological space to inhabit or position oneself within. This way of being would acknowledge the ontological role of mediation: that all beings are always already interbeings. It is only Being itself, or Spirit, that provides for their diversity and individuality. Spirit is infinite, and finitude its way of entering into dialogue with itself. Strictly among themselves, beings are radically open to mutual influence and transformation. But it is only through their relation to divinity that they gather themselves into a unity, be it a unity of self or community.

This is the faith that guides my daily routines and daring adventures among others. It is an open-ended faith, a path, and not a place of refuge. I believe this openness is not vague and ambiguous, but a clear reflection of the transitional nature of our times. We do not know what religious forms will emerge in the coming decades to lead our increasingly interconnected planet forward, but like Diana Eck, I am convinced that “Laying the foundations for one world is the most important task of our time” (p. 30, 1985).

Works Cited

1. Eck, Diana. 1985. Minutes, Sixth Meeting of the Working Group of Dialogue with People of Living Faiths. Geneva: World Council of Churches.

2. Panikkar, Raimon.

—1979. Myth, Faith, and Hermeneutics: Cross-Cultural Studies. New York: Paulist    Press.

—1996. “A Self-Critical Dialogue”. In The Intercultural Challenge of Raimon Panikkar, ed. Joseph Prabhu. New York: Orbis Books.


[1] I do not want to rule out the possibility of revelation, which some traditions claim to be the bearers of.

Teilhard de Chardin and the Christ-Cosmos Correlation

Speculative realism has emerged out of a phenomenological tradition that originally sought to provide a transcendental defense of human existence against any scientific reduction to the merely natural. Phenomenology succeeds in this defense (on some accounts) to the extent that it is able to convincingly reduce the objects of “nature” to their human correlates. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin‘s phenomenology takes the reverse approach, plunging into the uncanny depths of space and time to meet the challenge of scientific realism head on.

“… the most agonizing experience of modern man, when he has the courage or the time to look around himself at the world of his discoveries, is that it is insinuating itself, through the countless tentacles of its determinisms and inherited properties, into the very core of what each one had become accustomed to calling by the familiar name of his soul” (Activation of Energy (1978), p. 187).

In the same essay, he writes of the “de-centering” that humanity has suffered because of Copernicus, Darwin, and Freud. The human has been de-centered in the universe, in the living world, and even “in the innermost core of his own self.” No longer positioned at the stationary center of a perfectly ordered cosmos, we are forced to look elsewhere for ultimate meaning, if it is to be found at all.

Teilhard’s solution is not to naturalize or to transcendentalize the mystery of being human by reducing us to contingent biological machinery or points of unified apperception, respectively. Instead, he pleads with his reader in the opening pages of The Human Phenomenon (1999)  to look again at what science has shown us, and “to see or perish.” Teilhard realized that the survival of our species depends upon discovering a new, scientifically informed cosmological orientation. Civilization is not a given, it is a dangerous adventure that grinds to a halt without the narrational renewal of each generation. The phenomenological reduction of the cosmos to consciousness provides only momentary condolence, if any at all. Teilhard attempted to articulate a way forward that is congruent with the axis of things themselves: he called for conscious participation in the convergent movement made evident in the scientific history of our universe.

Teilhard is still a correlationist. He writes: “…nobody has any serious doubt but that if the world is to be, it must be thinkable” (AoE, p. 191). He believes that the world must be that sort of object graspable in principle by thought. For Teilhard as for Hegel, “the rational alone is real.” This correlation between the real and the rational, or between being and thought, is required by the “homogeneity in the structure of the cosmos” (ibid., p. 195) detected by Teilhard. The emergence of life from matter, and of mind from life, cannot be understood rationally if the universe is “diverging explosively at random” (ibid., p. 192). Ours is a living, thinking universe; to deny this is to become trapped in a Cartesian dualism separating the mechanical extension of the non-human from the spiritual intentionality of the human. Teilhard seeks to overcome this split, a split that provided the common metaphysical foundation for the otherwise divergent paths taken by science and phenomenology since the Copernican Revolution. Despite his desire to re-enchant the universe, he recognizes Copernicus’ world shaking discovery as a “tremendous achievement” that freed human thought from the contemplation of a static cosmos.

“With the mere admission of a revolution of the earth around the sun; simply, that is by introducing a dissociation between a geometric and psychic center to things–the whole magic of the celestial spheres fade away, leaving man confronted with a plastic mass to be re-thought in its entirety. It was like the caterpillar whose substance (apart from a few rare cerebral elements) dissolves, as its metamorphosis draws near, into a more or less amorphous product: the revised protoplasmic stuff from which the butterfly will emerge” (AoE, p. 254).

What makes Teilhard’s correlationism unique is his evolutionary perspective. Both the universe and the human mind are historical processes with a common origin. A transformation in one is always already a transformation in the other. It takes only a bit of speculative imagination to recognize that this history is progressive and convergent. Cosmogenesis is also anthropogenesis.

“The human is not the static center of the world, as was thought for so long; but the axis and the arrow of evolution–which is much more beautiful” (HP, p. 7).

The Copernican, Darwinian, and Freudian discoveries need not be read as disorienting blows to human or cosmic significance. Rather, they are heralds of Omega, of the convergent end toward which all creation grows. By dissolving the ancient division between the fallen terrestrial and divine celestial realms, modern science completed the historical process of spiritual incarnation. Anthropogenesis is now culminating in Christogenesis.

After a million years of reflection, there is a dynamic meeting in the consciousness of man between heaven and earth at last endowed with motion, and from it there emerges not simply a world that manages to survive but a world that kindles into fire” (AoE, p. 280).

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Does speculative realism require atheism? Meillassoux and Ray Brassier seem to think so, as both unequivocally reject the viability of mythopoeic thought and despise the recent religious turn in Continental philosophy. I’d like to leave open the possibility of a speculative realism as Christology, with Teilhard as its primary, if still problematic, exemplar (Rudolf Steiner, especially as carried forward by Owen Barfield and Jonael Schickler, also offers assistance here–See my essay on Steiner and Teilhard). Brassier’s book Nihil Unbound arrives later this week… after reading it, I’ll have more to say about this possibility…

Divine Imagination

I’ve been having a very stimulating discussion with a Christian theologian named Jason Michael McCann. He has held up a mirror to my ideas and allowed me to see them in a new light. His criticisms are fair and I hope we will each benefit from continued exposure to what may turn out to be radically different readings of the Christian tradition, as well as differing ways of expressing the Christ-impulse at our particular moment in history. I think it is already evident that JMM and I share similar perspectives, but for better or worse, my spiritual speculations and interpretations are unmoored from the venerable doctrines of any particular Creed or Council. I am not very systematic, either, and so to call any of what I do here on this blog “theology” is perhaps misleading. There may be some philosophy here, but I know for a fact there are many analytically-trained philosophers who would dismiss the expressions of my love of wisdom as poetic nonsense. I’m less interested in theo-logic, or any attempt to rationalize or justify a transcendent God, than I am in expressing what Raimon Panikkar has called the “cosmotheandric principle.”

In short, the cosmotheandric principle suggests that no account of reality can be complete unless it recognizes the interdependence of the universe, the divine, and the human. Christianity speaks to me not as a theology, but as an anthropology. This is not because, like Feuerbach, I think God is merely a human projection or ideal. Rather, Christianity is the natural culmination of anthropology, a lotus still sprouting from the murky soil of human civilization. And humanity is similarly the product of a cosmic longing for what Teilhard de Chardin called “personalization.” To continue the Teilhardian terminology: Cosmogenesis is anthropogenesis, and anthropogenesis is Christogenesis. (Incidently, Paul writes in Galatians 6:14 that the world itself was crucified upon the cross, implying that Christ’s Resurrection is also the creation of a new cosmos.)

Perhaps the primary difference thus far uncovered between JMM and I concerns the role of imagination, which is not, for me, unrelated to the nature of the divine-human relationship. I dwell on the spiritual significance of imagination in what follows.

“My imagination is a monastery, and I am its monk,” writes John Keats in a letter to Shelly. Blake went so far as to call imagination “the Divine Body of lord Jesus, blessed for ever.” Blake saw clearly that the old quarrel between Plato and Homer was alive and well: the abstract philosophy of “Newton’s single vision” was in his day “warring in enmity against Imagination.”

Why is imagination so important? Because it constantly challenges the intellect’s attempts to systematize experience. A deadened imagination lead the Pharisees to place the letter of the law before the Spirit (Mark 2:3-28). Not even stone tablets can survive the fiery caldron of imagination that lights the hearts of the faithful. “The letter kills, but the Spirit gives life” (2 Corinthians 3:6), which is not to say that scripture should not be read and respected. It is just a reminder that the Spirit’s revelations are ongoing, and that the doctrines codified by learned councils must be balanced by the poetic prayers and visions of mystics.

I believe the incarnation of the Word is an ongoing historical event that is re-making the world from the inside out. Human beings are participants in this divine-cosmic drama, and there is no higher form of worship than divine imitation (humble imitation!). Our task is to imaginatively body-forth an earth whose economy runs on love instead of envy and hate. Not closer adherence to law, but a transformation of the human heart-mind is required.