Responses to Archive Fire and Immanent Transcendence: Egos, Ideas, and Eternal Events

Jason/Immanent Transcendence and Michael/Archive Fire have been continuing the discussion that began almost two weeks ago HERE and HERE. In his latest response to me, Michael writes:

Matt wants to think the Absolute (unity), with an eye towards cultivating the existential implications which flow from an acquaintance therein, while I want to think the Possible (multiplicity), with a wonky fish eye towards negation and the positive mutations that come from reigning in our animal speculations.

Michael goes on to defend “speculative pragmatism” and “creaturely thinking.” He wants us to remain attentive to the raw contingencies unraveling the seams of the seemingly unified perceptual horizon of conscious awareness. This all sounds right-minded to me. I am all for relativizing the rational ego’s claims to mastery of an “external” world. [See, for example, my recent essay on the metaphysical implications of psychedelics.] Whatever “mind” we may be said to possess–or perhaps to be possessed by–it must be fundamentally continuous with its physical, biological, cultural, and cosmological habitats. “Inner” experience, soul, is not something given to us at birth, not a spiritual substance, but something we are tasked with making. Soul-making means not only learning to share flesh with others, but learning to share a language.

Whitehead, somewhere in Adventures of Ideas, writes:

“The mentality of mankind and the language of mankind created each other. If we like to assume the rise of language as a given fact, then it is not going too far to say that the souls of men are the gift from language to mankind. The account of the sixth day should be written: He gave them speech, and they became souls.”

The ego is not as free as it tends to think, nor “external” nature as determined. Both “ego” and “external nature” are artifacts of a particular species of Cartesian-Kantian language game. But I would distinguish all particular languages from Logos. Logos is the language of the universe.

If we are haunted by a spirit, it is the spirit of the universe itself. Logos is the potency of energy that thinks in me, the pregnancy of matter that makes my world. Whatever else the human imagination is, it is also fully animal, fully incarnated. Ideas arise and travel with the warm, damp breath of speaking animals and not apart from it.

In his latest contribution to the conversation, Jason writes:

Matt is using most of that “eternal form” talk.  He takes a religious-spiritual perspective on the ontological, whereas I’m willing to be a quietist.  I also accept a Jamesian “will to believe” on this point, and Matt could argue from that as well.

Jason is right, I could and in fact have argued from a Jamesian perspective before. He goes on to say that, while forms do not exist in their own right, they effect reality as tendencies and future possibilities for actualization. To ask “where” forms are is to falsely spatialize time, as though the future threw itself ahead and is now waiting “out there” for us “in here” to catch up with it. The definite possibilities of the future do not ex-ist, and yet they have perfectly real effects on present actualities. That this is so may be testable by experimentation at the quantum level, and is even easier to prove at the level of conscious animality (“It will be spring soon, I better sow these seeds”). The future doesn’t exist yet. This not yet should not, Jason reminds us, be reified into a divine designer’s giant mould that descends from the sky to shape earthly occasions from beyond. Forms cannot be so simply located “outside” or “inside” actual occasions. They happen only where they are not, since they are eternal events and not finite occasions.

The Beginning and the End of Positive Philosophy

In the Theaeteus, Plato has Socrates say that “wonder is the feeling of a philosopher, and philosophy begins in wonder.” In his Metaphysics, Aristotle echoes this by writing that “it was their wonder, astonishment, that first led men to philosophize and still leads them.”

In the Phaedo, Plato has Socrates say that “those who really apply themselves in the right way to philosophy are directly and of their own accord preparing themselves for dying and death.”

Philosophy, then,–at least if we take Socrates’s, Plato’s, and Aristotle’s words for it–begins in wonder and ends with death.

To become a philosopher, you must first be astonished by your own self-consciousness of the world, by the feeling of knowing your own ignorance of the whole. There is more to this ignorance than meets the eye. Socrates would never deny the truths grasped by geometry or logic. These are true enough. His is a learned ignorance: a gnosis that consists primarily in knowing that he does not know all the things he at first seems to.

Learned ignorance is not simple knowing, since the occult knowledge it provides cannot be stated clearly and distinctly in some logical formula. The Truth it approaches is no good for building marble archways or winning arguments in court. But nor is it simple ignorance, since underlying the philosopher’s knowledge of ignorance is an intuition of the whole. The philosopher is ignorant of this or that particular thing, but of the cosmos, he can be sure it exists-as-one, that it is a unity, a universe.

To wonder is to feel the infinite Whole–and in feeling it to know that it exists (existence), even if you cannot as of yet know what it is (essence). Wonder is not the feeling of everything together, but the intuition of All at once. This is the beginning of philosophy. Emerson describes it in Nature:

Standing on the bare ground,–my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space,–all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eye-ball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God…

The goal is not to rest in this feeling, in an immediate intuition of the One, but through it to overcome the fear of death. Such a fear is natural for self-conscious animals like us, but by learning to think and to know lovingly–that is, by philosophizing–we can come to meet death willingly, thereby relating to the body not as soul prison by as soul portal.

The soul is individual only so long as it lives with a body. To the extent that philosophy is preparation for death, for the soul’s passage beyond the body, it is the desire to think objectively, without the limitation of subjectivity. The philosopher seeks to think beyond the body. The world, then, is the arena of philosophy. Though of course it remains all the while centered on the soul–that is, the soul of the world.

Between a philosopher’s initial astonishment of the fact of the world and his passage through shadow into source, there is much to think and write about.

Kant thought quite a bit about wonder, even attempting to think methodically so as to make a science of philosophy. In the end, he could only contradict himself. He thought knowledge must begin with sensory experience, with the givens of outer spatiality and inner temporality; on the other hand, he argued that the given world of experience would make no sense in the absence of a priori concepts like substance/accident, cause/effect, and quantity/quality. Kant formulates this contradiction–which is simultaneously the generative paradox underlying the power of his entire philosophical program–with the statement: “thoughts without content are empty, and intuitions without concepts are blind.”

Kant brought forth what Schelling would later call negative philosophy. He forgoes knowledge of the Whole for knowledge of the conditions of the possibility of knowing the Whole. Having then established these conditions (e.g., space-time, the categories), he denies theoretical knowledge of anything but the parts, since it is only parts that we experience with our physical bodies. Schelling describes this negative, critical moment in the movement of philosophy as a necessary step along the way toward a new dogmatism, or a positive philosophy. Positive philosophy is unlike the dogmatisms of old, since it does not assume that the divine’s status as “the most supreme being” leads of itself to this divinity’s “necessary existence.” To think the infinity of the Whole upon feeling it is one thing, actually knowing and expressing its reality is another.

“Schelling characterizes the execution and fulfillment of this task as the never-ending process of demonstrating God’s divinity that, as the interpretation of a process freely initiated, posits an open future incapable of being reduced to the necessary unfolding of any predetermined plan.” (-Bruce Matthews, p. 69, from the introduction of The Grounding of Positive Philosophy by F.W.J Schelling [2007]).

Theologians have long looked to philosophy to prove the existence of God. Not only does this imply that philosophy might come to glimpse God’s essence as though it were a static blueprint it could copy down on paper, it also implies that God is a mere belief in need of abstract justification. Schelling admits that no such a priori proof of God is possible–since God is not merely an idea, but a fact. Philosophy begins in wonder, which is to say it begins in an experience of the divinity of the world. To attempt to logically prove God’s existence would be pointlessly tautological, since the proof itself would always depend upon God as its own condition of possibility. For positive philosophy, the point is to communicate the divine meaning of the actual world as we experience it, to remind the actual soul of its immortality and universality while alive here and now.

“The experience toward which positive philosophy proceeds is not just of a particular kind, but is the entirety of all experience from beginning to end. What contributes to the proof is not a part of experience, but all of experience. For precisely this reason, though, this proof itself is not just the beginning or a part of a science (least of all some type of syllogistic proof posited at the apex of philosophy), it is the entire science, that is, the entire positive philosophy–and this is nothing other than the progressive, strengthening with every step, and continually growing proof of the actually existing God. Because the realm of reality in which this proof moves is not finished and complete–for even if nature is now at its end and stands still, there is, nonetheless, still the unrelenting advance and movement of history–because insofar as the realm of reality is not complete, but is a realm perpetually nearing its consummation, the proof is therefore also never finished, and for this very reason this science is only a philo-sophie” (-Schelling, p. 181, The Grounding of Positive Philosophy).

More Reflections on James Hillman’s Archetypal Psychology

Building on what was said here last week:

 

View of Mont Ventoux from Mirabel-aux-Baronnies.

Mont Ventoux

James Hillman’s psychology, above all else, aims to remind the modern Western psyche of its roots in the Renaissance. To illustrate his methods, he dwells upon the lives of Renaissance figures like Petrarch, “the first modern man…perhaps…the first psychological man.”1 Most cultural historians focus on Petrarch’s ascent of Mt. Ventoux in 1336 as the symbolic beginning of the Renaissance resulting from his discovery of the spirit of “Man.” Jean Gebser, for example, marks the moment as the dawning of humanity’s conscious mastery of extended, perspectival space as over and against an increasingly interiorized soul life.2 Hillman, who has little patience for often inflated “peak experiences” championed by the humanistic psychologist Abe Maslow, draws attention instead to the significance of Petrarch’s descent. It is not a result of “highs,” but rather the survival of depressive “lows” that determines the true worth of a person.3

Upon reaching the summit, Petrarch opens Augustine’s Confessions randomly and reads the lines:

“And men go abroad to admire the heights of mountains…the compass of the ocean, and the circuits of the stars, and pass themselves by…”4

Stunned by the synchronicity, Petrarch realizes his calling in life is to look inward so as to “know thyself,” as Thales put it many centuries before Augustine. Most historians here refer to the decisive shift to the study of “Man,” to the beginning of the humanities as a distinct discipline separate from theology or natural philosophy. Hillman’s psychological project, on the other hand, is founded upon the dehumanization of the Renaissance. Despite the fact that Petrarch uses the Latin animus when recounting his experience on Mt. Ventoux,5 Hillman insists that it was essentially a deepening into soul. He points to an earlier sentence in the same section of the Confessions which discusses the infinite depths of memory, “the soul’s imaginative faculty,” and argues that

“The revelation on Mont Ventoux opened Petrarch’s eyes to the complexity and mystery of the man-psyche relationship and moved him to write of the marvel of the soul, not the marvel of man.”6

In light of the diverse array of scholarly interpretations of Petrarch’s transformative experience atop Mt. Ventoux, it seems all that can be said for certain is that it generated within him an irresolvable, yet creative, tension between spiritual transcendence and soulful immanence. He felt, perhaps more powerfully than anyone alive around him or before him, the smallness of his ego in relation to the depths of psyche and of cosmos.

English: Illustration of Petrarch's Triumph of...

Petrarch's triumph of death

There is a certain tragedy in Petrarch’s discovery, a certain dis-ease, since after the mutation in consciousness he initiated, the soul became vulnerable to a whole new set of pathologies. No longer swallowed whole by the earth and sky, the human soul began to feel utterly unlike the world around it. More than anything else, Renaissance philosophers like Petrarch, and later, Ficino, contemplated death.

“Yet the more occupied with death, the more these humanists thought, built, wrote, painted, sang.”7

Death became their muse, and in this way Renaissance philosophers hearkened back to Socrates and Plato, who rather than empiricizing or biologizing the soul like Aristotle, sought to dwell upon the shadows cast by the living body, to descend into the underworld in search of metempsychotic transformation. The soul was identified with the death principle instead of the life principle, and in that way “the first metaphor of human existence” was seen through: “that we are not real.”8 The “skin encapsulated ego” (as Alan Watts put it) is a fantasy of soul.

“No longer is it a question of whether I believe in soul, but whether soul believes in me, grants me the capacity to have faith in it, in psychic reality.”9

If Hillman were a metaphysician, he’d have to say that the final real things are images, fantasies of soul. Not facts, but fictions are the stuff out of which reality is woven. Or at least, if facts be our focus, they must be psychologized into acts, the poetic creations of soul. Like Teilhard de Chardin in the preface to The Human Phenomenon (itself a profound metaphysical work), Hillman dubiously claims early in Re-Visioning Psychology that he is not a metaphysician. In fairness, perhaps it would be truer to his intentions to call him a “meta-psychologist” always in search of an ensouled cosmology. After all, his skepticism regarding metaphysics as it has been articulated in the modern West is well-founded. The Cartesian ego’s paranoid search for absolute certainty and formulaic Truth leads to the repression of the ambiguities and paradoxes of soul-making in the valleys of the world.

His emphases upon death and depth are not simply a matter of coming down to earth from the heights of the sky, however, since for Hillman the planets are gods “by means of which every element of our experience can be interpreted.”10 His turn away from the methods of the modern metaphysician to the therapy of the ancient “Doctors of Soul” is not a retreat from the cosmos, but the longing for the renewal of “relations with archetypal principles personified by the planets of the pagan pantheon.”11 Like Plato, Hillman longed to relate to the universe as a living creature, a being ensouled. His dwelling upon individual death is meant to remind the living soul of its embeddedness in and dependence upon the anima mundi, the soul of the world.

“If we could reoriginate psychology at its Western source in Florence, a way might open again toward a meta-psychology that is a cosmology, a poetic vision of the cosmos which fulfills the soul’s need for placing itself in the vast scheme of things.”12

The problem for the disenchanted metaphysician is not that Truth is “merely” fiction–that the real is forever beyond the mind’s conceptual grasp–but that the world’s meaning is immense, immeasurable. There is too much meaning! The literalistic mind’s attempt to explain the real can never be completed. It is for this reason that the metaphysician has so often failed the polyphonic psyche by repressing its desire for soul-making. The philosopher’s search for system, for some Grand Synthesis or Theory of Everything, is all too easily psychologized:

“Western metaphysics, with its inherently world-denying, abstractive tendencies has been thought mostly by men…who did not wed, who did not spawn, who touched the world with mind in such a way that its existence became a ‘problem.’”13

Hillman, then, seeks to return metaphysics to the world, to think the real in service of soul-making. He is after a “metaphysical praxis,” a “psychological metaphysics” closely bound up with the practice of therapeia.14 Existence then becomes, not a problem to be solved, but a pathos to be deepened into in search of insight.

Hillman demands that we stay close to the practical effects of our abstractions by paying attention to the power of archetypes to recursively shape both the creation of theories and the discovery of facts: an archetype is both a way of seeing and a thing seen. True to the etymological meaning of “fact” (from the Latin facere: “to do”), Hillman implores us to ask: What do ideas do to soul, to world? Sticking close to the effects of metaphysical pronouncements means asking of their Truths, “True for who?”

The metaphysician must situate himself in the mythic context of psychic life, where everything is personified and speaks through the masks of image and symbol. Truth is not “mere” fiction if the deeper structure of the universe is semiotic: The Truth is story; theory is a special kind of myth. Where literalisms (whether of the metaphysically scientific or religious sort) would replace–or paste over–the given with their favored abstractions, a psychological metaphysics (or meta-psychology) drops the bottom out of the given by forestalling the paranoid rush to formulaic certainty. Metaphysical knowledge is here checked by–not the limits of–but the infinity of metaphor.

“We practice an alchemical metaphysics: ‘account for the unknown in terms of the more unknown.'”15

Hillman has always defended the poetic basis of mind. In making his imaginative psychology cosmological, he is forced to posit as well a poetic basis of the universe.16 He affirms the inherent intelligibility of things: “The cosmos has a logos.”17 He then asks why this intelligibility has become obscured to the modern mode of intelligence, concluding that we have lost the perceptual capacity to connect soul to world and world to soul. We lack the requisite organ of perception: the “imaginational heart.”18

“A living sense of world requires a corresponding living organ of soul by means of which a living world can be perceived.”19

The heart is no mere pump. Neither is the heart the organ of personal sentiment or subjective feeling. For Hillman, the heart is the seat of the imagination, the microcosmic Sun around which all the world’s meaning revolves.20 It is through the heart that the individual finds their point of entry into the anima mundi. To perceive with the heart is to “[hear] the confession of the anima mundi in the speaking of things.”21 This is a form of aesthesis, of “breathing in” the world, that un-Lockes perception from the chains of prosaic empiricism and places the soul’s horses22 before Descartes’ rationalistic reductionism.

1 Re-Visioning Psychology, 195

2 The Ever-Present Origin, 12-15

3 Re-Visioning Psychology, 66

4 X,8

5 Richard Tarnas, personal correspondence, 12/29/2011

6 Re-Visioning Psychology, 196

7 Re-Visioning Psychology, 206

8 Re-Visioning Psychology, 209

9 Re-Visioning Psychology, 50

10 Archetypal Process, 220

11 Re-Visioning Psychology, 202

12 Anima Mundi, 110

13 Archetypal Process, 218

14 (ibid.)

15 Archetypal Process, 220

16 Archetypal Process, 221

17 Archetypal Process, 225

18 The Thought of the Heart, 7

19 Archetypal Process, 225

20 The Thought of the Heart, 28

21 The Thought of the Heart, 48

22 See Plato’s Chariot Allegory in Phaedrus

Thinking While Naked

Here is an intriguing article in Wired magazine by Jonah Lehrer. He reflects upon the implications of an experiment attempting to gauge the cognitive significance of nakedness. It looked at how our attribution of agency to others is effected by what they wear and how attractive they are. The results: Pictures of the faces of men were more likely than those of women to be thought of by others (male or female) as rational agents, while those pictures which included bodies of attractive men, and especially of attractive women, were usually judged less capable of agency, but more capable of feeling.

Lehrer introduces the concept of the “redistribution of mind,” the leakage of our theory of cognition out of the head and into the feelings of the whole body. This is especially interesting to me. It suggests that mind is not a disembodied rational agency located at some vanishing point behind or before the material world, or pulsing around in a bundle of very special neurons in the pre-frontal cortex somewhere, but rather it is that which emerges between erotically charged bodies in living/experiential spaces and times. Mind is erotic, a relationship, a process of co-determination and mutual transformation of one with another.

Such an embodiment account of mind still makes agency a bit of a mystery in a world of creatures otherwise swimming in and so conditioned by their experience of other creatures and the outside world. We have to reach into the realm of the spiritual if we hope to find a way out of the dilemma of agency.

Lehrer closes the article by referencing Plato:

“the psychologists propose that humans are actually Platonic dualists, following Plato’s belief that there are two distinct types of mind: a mind for thinking and reasoning and a mind for emotions and passions.”

In the Republic, Plato actually offers a trinitarian and not a dualistic anatomy of the soul. There were the rational and the erotic organs, and a spiritual organ to harmonize the two. In other words, there was a rational soul to tell our bodies “no,” making us skeptical of appearances we don’t trust; there was an erotic or appetitive soul to tell our bodies “yes!” to appearances (other sexy bodies); and there was a spiritual soul to judge between the two in any given case. The spiritual soul is the agent, the one who decides, if all goes according to plan, whether to step back and think (rational soul) or step forward and act (appetitive soul).

Rudolf Steiner spoke often of the relationship of thinking, feeling, and willing to the physiology of the body. It is helpful, I think, to read Steiner’s esoteric perspective right alongside the secular materialism of Wired magazine. It makes the shock of disbelief in the one over the other even more intense, though I can’t say for sure which approach makes more sense to you.

Esotericism and the Academy at the American Academy of Religion in San Francisco

Phoenix Rising at the AAR Meeting Saturday Nov. 19th!.

Some of these papers look great. The problem of how to traverse the disciplinary boundary between esoterica and academia is one I will face in my own dissertation. Is it possible to integrate imaginal and rational modes of consciousness, to harmonize sacral and critical attitudes of inquiry? Can one study the arts of magic and alchemy, the sciences of astrology and theology, and remain at an academic distance? Is it possible to feign objectivity when one’s object of inquiry is that out of which inquiry itself emerges?

It is precisely the Imagination, the Muse, the indwelling spirit that brings the subject of objects into focus for us. Subject and Object are both creations of Imagination, or Psyche. Inner and Outer are both modes of Imagination. What some call an Outer Object is really a Mage, that is, a Moving Image in the Eternal Mind’s I. Psyche is All.

Like the Inner and Outer, Time and Space are both productions of the Cosmos. The ensouled Cosmos.

Cosmos Is Psyche. Which is to say that Psyche is not just eternal objects in an abstract Mind, but actual occasions of concrete experience and embodied existence. Archetypes, strictly speaking, do not exist without appetites and enjoyments, without living and playing fully intermixed with the created world.

Taste the Sky, Swallow the Horizon

I screamed so loud,

I could taste the sky.

The stars became buds of light on my tongue,

And the clusters of galaxies

Poured into the tangled sinews of my brain.

I became one of billions of sons,

All circling the heavens

In praise of our life.

And yet,

I was alone;

My father and my mother

Were absent,

And though brother and sister spun beside me,

Our wandering was without course;

Our wishes were without wisdom.

We were blind;

We had not been raised

By the stories of ages.

We had come of age

In a time of tragedy

And of sober revelation.

I screamed so loud,

I could taste the sky,

And I cried so long

That a sea of sadness

Nearly washed away the world

From the valley of my soul.

I saw, as I swallowed the horizon

And unspun the earth from the sun,

That the future cannot be held

But by a bleeding heart.

For the survival of our species,

I prophecy our death:

And when we rise again,

Reborn,

The earth will smile like Zeus

And heaven will shine its light

Upon each and all of us

Forever.

The Ethics and Esotericism of Eating

Bourdain says the analogy between animal and human flesh (PETA: “you eat cow, eh? so would you eat human meat, too?”) is the last irrational wail of the animal rights activist. His response: “If I were two weeks out on the life boat, hell yeah I would!” Gill then makes an especially poignant response about how we are all already eating other people (their labor, their emotional well-being, their air and water, etc.). He then says, if he is honest, he really doesn’t give a fuck about animal suffering.

I am left wondering if these popular chefs/food critics are not consciously parodying themselves. I can only hope that they are at least aware of the way that their big media personas reflect the decadence and ethical decay of consumer capitalist society, with its autistic ‘relationship’ with the rest of the community of life on earth.

I ate a turkey sandwich for dinner. I can’t justify it ethically. Not only my eating the turkey flesh, but my eating a “product” (a living creature) produced in an unsustainable industrial factory. Plants receive their energy directly from the Sun, and when we eat them, we are eating the light of our local star at only one remove. Animals receive their energy from plants and other animals, two or three levels removed from the Sun’s physical energy. In an esoteric sense (which for me has a lot to do with Rudolf Steiner), the situation might be construed this way: Eating other animals, as some humans and non-humans do, is eating a being who was ensouled. This behavior seems to me to represent the confusion of a spiritual with a physical reality. Christians might call this the Fall. In some ways, however, I think “the Fall” was evolutionarily inevitable, at least if you take a Teilhardian perspective on evolution. Life has always been hell bent on complexification, a process wherein matter continually transcends itself by adding new organismic rungs to its thermodynamic ladder to heaven. Bacteria began by eating the solar-and earth-heated chemicals around them, then quickly graduated to eating other bacteria, which then hitched a ride in the guts of larger protists who ate them, who in turn supported larger and more neurologically complex creatures who ate them, and so on… Matter “cried out and raised itself to spirit” (as Hegel put it, echoing Luke 19:40) by learning to more effectively (i.e., symbiotically) eat itself.

Nonetheless, the industrial diet cannot be justified. It has taken the necessary carnage of the evolutionary process and exploited it to produce an unsustainable amount of surplus gustatory pleasure. It misses the mark that evolution is aiming at (i.e., it is sinful). Unlike plants, which do not have an astral body (as Steiner calls the soul) and feed only on the locally supplied light of our planet’s star, animals feed (spiritually) also on the light of distant (in space and time) extraterrestrial stars. When we eat animals, we are killing not only the work of our local parents (the Sun and the Earth), but also the work of our great, great grandparents, our eternal ancestors in heaven. The non-chalant eating of animals (raised and killed industrially) is not only physically unsustainable and biologically unethical, but also spiritually blasphemous.

Follow me to the desert, my soul.

Follow me to the desert,

My soul.

 

Sing with me

Until I lose my mind;

Dance with me,

Until my body unwinds,

And my feet no longer touch the ground,

And all that’s left of time

Is the sound of wind shaping sand.

 

Build with me a temple,

My soul.

 

Share with me your sacred,

Shuddering secrets,

And conceive within me

The meaning of the stars above.

 

I can taste the sky

In your smile,

My soul.

 

Will you hold me?

Will you make me whole?

 

Who are you,

My soul?

 

From how high have you come down

To this earth,

And to what heights will we go

when I die?

 

Help me to remember the smell of grace,

The incense of eternity

That guides the faithful home from their fallenness.

 

I have forgotten your name,

My soul.

 

I cannot see the color of your eyes

In the darkness of this sightless night.

Show me your glory

In the warmth of other faces.

Reveal to me the angel of God

In every voice I live to hear.

 

Let me be burnt to dust,

My soul.

 

Let my embers rain down

To rejoin the earth,

And release my spirit

To the heavens.

Death as Trickster

A reflection after participating in Steven Goodman‘s “Tibetan Trickster” workshop at CIIS several weekends ago. See my follow up comments to this essay here.

———————————————————————

I should begin. I don’t know how much time I have… I’d like to tell you a secret, even though I’m not sure if I can repeat it exactly as I hear it whispered to me inwardly even at this very moment. It is my secret, you see, and by verbalizing it in order to share it with someone else, it will undoubtedly lose some of its existential force. However, despite its being my secret, and so difficult to communicate to others, I know intuitively that it is of ultimate concern to everyone. I must risk telling you, even if it sounds at first like something obvious, something you’ve known since you were seven years old. It is a Big Secret, but it won’t dispel The Mystery or explain Life’s Meaning; knowing it can only deepen the mystery of your life’s meaning.

Are you ready? You may never be. It takes a whole life to prepare for. Here goes: it is absolutely certain that you and everyone you love will die.

Did you hear me? Now listen for an echo of what I’ve said within you. If you hear it, know that it is not an echo, but your own soul sharing the essence of her earthly mission with you. Ask your soul: “Why have you wed yourself to this mortal body?” I imagine she will answer as mine has: “Because love means nothing without death; there is no other way for Spirit to truly matter, no other way for your soul to find its way back to heaven but to die with love in your heart.”

  Behind death hides the Immortal Soul. It is not your’s that lives forever, mind you, but the World’s Soul. The World-Soul is love itself, the center of all creation, the gravity that “moves the sun and other stars.”

The Soul is a universal embrace holding all things together in the radiant space of Wisdom. But Wisdom’s light is not always bright enough to make the meaning of matter transparent, and so the Soul is also a battlefield upon which the chaos of shadow confrontation unfolds. Human history, which provides the background and container of your own personal life, is a “tangled web of fate” spun by the sustained encounter of Soul with shadow, Spirit with matter, Self with other. Death is denied by most human cultures, becoming a great evil to be fought against at every turn. Our fear of death’s ego-dissolving depths leads to all kinds of violence against other mortals, since the only power over death we are capable of securing comes by taking the life of others.

Perhaps it is not ignorant power that truly defeats death, but clear insight into the mystery hiding in its depths. Do not forget to hear death’s secret. Turn inward and face death squarely: Wisdom can be heard, in the still, dark center of our souls, beneath the crowded places and tormented faces of earthly time, silently speaking the Truth of freedom and love. History cannot escape the gravity of the World-Soul, and so inevitably there germinates within her the seed of enantiodromia: the shadow, confronted and integrated, becomes its opposite. When the horror of the shadow is swallowed, the Soul becomes pregnant with the Savior. Light shines through matter from the far side of death, escaping its dark lie to emerge within our soul as Wisdom, becoming our spirit-guide or daemon.

What had been a fearsome phenomenon observed only second hand through the death of others becomes what it always really was: the numinous source of all meaning and spiritual substance of all love. No longer something abstractly held at a distance from life, death becomes itself the point of the emergence of the mind’s present perspective, the Seer behind all that is seen. The Soul is not living as opposed to being dead, she is the Life that conquers death, the portal through which eternity flows into and transforms history, one generation at a time.

Death is a trickster. At once the most sacred and the most desecrated of rites, it shapes your life long before it ends it. If Socrates was right and the Soul is immortal, then death does not end our need of her love.

“…The soul demands our care not only for that part of time we call life, but for all time… If death were a release from everything, it would be a gift-of-Hermes (hermaion) for the wicked, because by dying they would be released not only from the body but also from their own wickedness together with the soul” (Phaedo).

But death, despite the Soul’s everlastingness, may still be Hermes’ gift to saint and sinner alike, since it carries with it a secret message to each individual human being from the gods. The secret is one I have tried to tell, but in the end it can only be heard in one’s own heart, there whispered by the Soul. In truth, it is a secret that cannot be shared between mortals, since its meaning cannot be limited by any language, nor pointed at by any finger. It is an open secret whose signature is nowhere in particular precisely because it can be found everywhere in the universe: in the passing clouds of the daytime sky, in the folds of our aging palm, in the names of those we love. There is no great significance in anything but for its being a sign of transience and death. All earthly things point away from their origin and toward their own demise, and it is precisely by indicating that which is before and beyond them that they are illuminated and made alluring to the Soul. A beautiful thing is never just what it is. It also is not, and in the space of this not, the whole of eternity is opened to our loving contemplation.

Humans are unique in our ability to sense what is not there, in our capacity to think and to feel not just actuality, but possibility. This power to recognize what is not is as much our gift as our curse, since it all but erases the instinctual “species knowledge” that so perfectly situates other creatures in the world according to their natures (Trickster Makes this World, by Lewis Hyde, p. 42). For this reason, despite the apparent harmony of the cosmos in which we live, we are generally riddled by anxiety and shame, imitating others since we are never sure how to behave ourselves. We lack our own way, and sense also in the life of the world that a certain arbitrariness is responsible for its beauty. There seems to be no universal principle to determine what is aesthetically pleasing from what is not. Beauty is unruly; its concreteness cannot be made to conform to formal notions of symmetry or measure. Tragedy is as touching as comedy, the absurd as provocative as the ordered. Beauty is seen or felt in a thing not because of what it is, but because of what it makes possible within the Soul who sees or feels it.

Perhaps our anxiety is due not only to our sense of the possible, and to the lack of a natural way that results, but also to our aborted knowledge of death. We know only that we will die, that a threshold will be met that surely will transform the ego and the arbitrarily ordered world it has come to think of as real. We do not know, however, what this transformation will produce in us, nor how we ought to conceive of the eternal nowhere and nowhen that it takes us. Knowing that, while not knowing what–this is the recipe for a lifetime’s worth of anxiety.

Typically, human cultures construct “cosmetologies” to cover up their ontological insecurity. These stories provide us with masks to hide our deep wounds and to avoid our having to face the forms of cosmic order and chaos at work outside our feeble comfort zones. What is needed is a more compassionate and developmentally open ontology, a cardiontology or mettaphysics, that provides a way of encountering the demons associated with death as our teachers. Demons can be invited into the Soul in order to help us heal, since it is they who carry to us an awareness of that which we are least aware and least compassionate. Only when demons are rejected do they seem to be motivated by evil intentions; faced with loving kindness, they lose agency altogether and are revealed to consist only of our own unclaimed traumatic material.

Has the secret been adequately told? Perhaps not. Though its meaning can only be postponed by being summarized (since its essence is either heard at once or forgotten), the limits of my medium require that I do so.

In Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Illich, Ivan says, “At the moment of death I hope to be surprised,” and doubtless death will be quite a surprise for most of us. Why so? Because, according to our common sense, death is the end, something we have never experienced before and can never experience until we die.  Sure, plenty of us give ourselves various religious labels, belong to such and such a church, temple, mosque, or monastery, believing in this or that kind of afterlife… but how much of it is genuine? How much of our own spiritual opinions do we take seriously? It has become hard in today’s skeptically-minded times to truly believe anything but the standard company line that our entire existence on Earth consists of nothing but this one fleeting breath of life between birth and death. It is commonly thought that to demand more is to regress into fantasy, to ignore the hard fact of life that is death. But surely even the skeptical rationalists, beneath their veneer of intellectual pride, still feel the chilling air of uncertainty bubbling up from the darkness of their own impending death.

Death unites us all in a common mystery, though most of us mistake it for misery. If death is really the end of our personality, and by all biological accounts it seems to be, then what is it all for? Why live? What more could life be, in this case, but a hesitation, a rejection of the inevitable, a denial of our fate? To consider ourselves alive, we must deny ourselves death. But our denial cannot prevent its inevitable arrival. It’s coming to swallow us up into a timeless void for all eternity and there is absolutely nothing we can do about it. In such a situation, there is only one reasonable option for those seeking freedom. In the teachings of the Buddha, we find a path toward the realization of this freedom. But the path, rather than leading away from death, leads directly into it. The Buddha suggests, in other words, that we learn to “die” while still alive, so that the eventual death of our bodies won’t be such a shock to us. This death while still alive is enlightenment, realization of the Dharma, and it consists in seeing deeply enough into the Soul in order to discover that which is neither dead nor alive but eternal.

If the struggle against death gives rise to the ego—in a sense, is the ego—then the dissolution of the ego should be one and the same as the acceptance of death. The Buddha’s doctrine of anatman here becomes relevant in that it reveals the selfless nature of reality, thereby giving one the sense that death need not be feared because there never was anyone to die to begin with. Similarly, the Buddha’s doctrine of sunyata, or emptiness, shows us that life has meaning only within the context of death, and vice versa. Life itself has no self-nature. Its appearance in the relative realm of maya depends on its contextual relationship with death. In such a realm, life means whatever death does not, just as death means whatever life does not. The Buddha saw the trap inherent to all discursive methods of thought that attempt to understand the life-death polarity intellectually. The coincidence of these opposites can be known only experientially, and even then, their reconciliation inevitably slips away and is forgotten.

Contemporary humanity finds itself in just such a strange epistemological paradox. We are convinced out of sheer habit of thought that the meaning of life is knowable and rational—that it obeys a reliable and symbolically describable order, and that it has some demonstrable purpose; but all the while, whenever we happen to stop and look into the mystery of our own being, we become aware of the terrifying fact that all of our supposed knowledge rests on blind assumptions about the completely unknowable experience of death that will one day befall us.

We, as civilized humans, are raised to act and think as though we are isolated individuals, as if our skin was an ultimate boundary completely cutting us off from the world around us. We are brought up in a way that distorts our initial childhood perception of reality, which is the simple truth of our growth out of this world, and therefore of our inseparable connection to it. This intuition is denied and repressed in favor of the more intellectually useful idea of having been thrown into this world.  From this outside, third-person perspective, scientific map-making becomes possible. Such maps are directly responsible for the great technological successes of our society. But the rewards of this perspective come at a cost. By pretending to be an outsider on our own planet, we have alienated ourselves from nature. This “outsider’s view” of the universe is a major source of our anxiety about death, as any human who was in touch with his nature would be as accepting of his death as he was of any other naturally occurring event. Were we to remain in touch with our childhood intuitions about reality, we would not fear death but instead spend our lives preparing for it with great excitement and expectation.

“To fear death, my friends, is only to think ourselves wise, without being wise,” says Socrates,

“for it is to think that we know what we do not know. For anything that men can tell, death may be the greatest good that can happen to them: but they fear it as if they knew quite well that it was the greatest of evils. And what is this but that shameful ignorance of thinking that we know what we do not know?”

I am Time

I am Time

Time is unwinding

through its eternal hour

and life is heading always

toward the grave.

The sun is being born

and dying

every day

as the earth

rolls across the sky.

Toward the Origin

all creation flows,

though once upon a time,

the destiny of this world

was written with words.

History:

the dreadful deeds

of speaking animals

become fallen angels,

the confession of earthly prisoners,

their struggle

to be set free

from certainty,

from Fate.

The human being will fly

when with wings of light

it takes the leap into darkness,

dying into its depths.

There, at the still center of a eye-less world,

the soul catches wind of heaven

and begins to rise.

Through the wisdom of love

death is unmasked

as the bleeding heart of God.

In paradise, now twice,

the sun sets into night

revealing astral signs

of years far greater

than its height.

Here, I find my destiny,

who takes me for a fool.

She does not test me,

but trusts in my simplicity.

I judge not evil

the world that birthed me,

but good,

for my soul returns

to her same

secret womb

when my last breath

unbinds me

and in my body

only room remains.

The course of my earthly life

is guided ahead of time

by eyes divine and wiser

shouting silent words

from eternity

at my deaf reveries.

I live life

chasing the scents

of muses;

possessed by the songs

of sirens;

enamored with the endless tales

of Time.

These are the moods

of my soul’s relation

to the world’s.

Together, the world-soul,

you and I,

imagine eternity.

Time is a temple,

enter,

pray,

let its spirit

undo you.

Die.

Where have you gone?

Where had you come from?

Time tells its secrets to no one.

Time is one,

and though without a name,

time still speaks in me.

I am time.

You are time.

We are the world-soul,

a moving image

made eternally.

Meister Eckhart, Philosophy, and Soul-Making

The following is an essay written for a weekend course taught by philosopher Jacob Needleman on Meister Eckhart the 26th and 27th of February 2011.

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Meister Eckhart, Philosophy, and the Soul

By Matthew Segall

And there shall be for thee all soft delight

That shadowy thought can win,

A bright torch, and a casement ope at night,

To let the warm Love in!

-Ode to Psyche by John Keats

When Love said that word, my soul mellted and flowed away. Where he comes in, I must go out!

-Meister Eckhart summarizing the Song of Solomon (5:2-7)

“When thought races ahead of Being,” writes philosopher Jacob Needleman, “a civilization is racing toward destruction” (WIG, p. 19). It takes a genuine philosopher to voice such a prescient insight, a being rare among mortals who for better or worse has awakened to his or her participation in the ancient current of world-historical becoming. Practicing philosophy requires more than contemplation, and more than learning. It is also an art: that of thinking (noiesis) and speaking (poeisis) the truth of Being.

To philosophize, one must first have tasted the stillness of eternity abiding within the soul, a treasure hidden deep beneath the ephemeral garments of space and time. The philosopher has felt the breath of God upon her ears and, upon hearing its wisdom, is overcome with love and possessed by the duty to convey its meaning to others. Nevertheless, despite all brushes with divinity, the philosopher remains adrift in an inherited stream of collective unconsciousness, a mortal destined to die like any other.

Philosophers are responsible for shaping the further course of earth evolution by informing and reminding Human Being of Divine and Cosmic Being. The life of the philosopher, at least traditionally, has been guided by the love of wisdom, even unto death. Unfortunately, these days universities employ more scholars of philosophy than philosophers. But no matter: wisdom always finds a way to be heard.

The short essay to follow will record my philosophical participation in what John Keats called “soul-making.” This, according to Keats, is the lost-sight-of purpose of the world, the reason for the body’s trials in time and sufferings in space. Spirit needs a home, but cannot dwell in matter alone. It is the poetic soul who prepares its abode. Both a sincere love for the True, the Beautiful, and the Good, and the sermons of the medieval sage Meister Eckhart, will guide me along the textual path to follow.

The crisis of our civilization is bigger than politics or ecology, more deep-seated than a new policy initiative or technological invention could hope to overcome. Any sufficiently sensitive soul must already have confronted the existential void at the heart of our techno-industrial civilization’s demented cosmology. As a sensitive soul and an aspiring philosopher, I’m compelled to pursue solutions to our collective situation not by offering new ideas or forms of thought, but by provoking new modes of consciousness.

Before I can begin to think and feel with Eckhart, a few distinctions must be drawn: 1) that between ideas about reality and real wisdom, and 2) that between the mind and the soul.

1) The mind is interested in the active manipulation and production of worldly things and ideas, while 2) the soul is called to the timeless task of becoming inwardly silent—without thinking or acting or entertaining any idea (ME, p. 96).  This silence, according to Eckhart, is not an end in itself, but is done in preparation for the birth of the Word of God within us, which is but another name for wisdom. In short, the mind thinks about reality, employing a multitude of ideas to mediate its encounter, while the soul patiently labors to beget the Real within itself.

The philosopher Owen Barfield once echoed Needleman’s warning for our civilization: “We are no longer capable of thinking deeply, because we think too quickly” (WA, p. 67). What is needed is a participatory and heart-centered, rather than an alienated and skeptical way of engaging the unknown depths of Being. The philosopher cannot hold the mystery of life at theoretical distance, but must approach questions concerning the essence of existence with the quality of gentle intimacy that Keats called “Negative Capability”: dwelling in uncertainty without rushing to cover over its ambiguities. Contemplation of God is the soul’s source of meaning, and while definite answers about the Ultimate may remain forever elusive, it is the act of asking—of opening oneself to the procreativity of Godthat may produce the desired transformation.

“Since the soul itself does not know, it wonders” says Eckhart, “and, wondering, it seeks, for the soul knows very well that something is afoot, even though it does not know how or what” (ME, p. 100).

Though it cannot see what it seeks, since vision always reaches out beyond it to external things, the soul retains “the power to hear the eternal word within” (ME, p. 108). The eye is the organ of the searching mind, while the ear is the agent of the loving heart.

Perhaps Eckhart’s most important teaching concerns the difference between the passivity of the ear and the activity of the eye. Though the soul is largely ignorant of what it nonetheless is intrinsically compelled to seek, such “divine unconsciousness” pacifies the soul of its pretensions, quieting all its faculties so that I may “discover the birth of God’s Son” within myself (ME, p. 107-108). The human soul’s passivity “is the chief of [its] actions,” while God “should both be active and passive in order that he may know and love himself in the soul, and the soul may know as he knows and love as he loves” (.ibid). Though “no one has ever seen God” (John 1:18), the ears of an open-hearted soul make room for God’s Word to transform all the agents of the soul, so that “the eye with which God sees me” becomes “the same with which I see God” (Sermon IV). Creature and creator here unite in “one sight, one knowledge, and one life.”

Eckhart was deemed a heretic by a Franciscan-led inquisition, mostly because of the near identity he believed could come to exist between the human soul and God. As we have seen, he taught a path of inner stillness, so that, with the restless activity of the desiring soul quieted, God might speak his silent Word to a receptive heart. The utterance of this Word within our soul is a divine and eternal birth, “which occurred at one point in time, and which occurs everyday in the innermost recess of the soul—a recess to which there is no avenue of approach” (ME, p. 109).

There is no avenue of approach–no point of access, in other words—even to our own innermost nature. Eckhart’s doctrine of the soul is difficult—nay, impossible!to grasp. We cannot gain access to the Word who is perpetually being born within us, because we are Him already in eternity. The difference between will and grace, between works and salvation, is here resolved. There is nothing to be done about Christ, because there is no time to do it. The Spirit is present when I am it, and absent when I’m not. Heaven requires no work, but nor is it bestowed by grace from beyond. Every human being already takes part in the immortal life as a being existing by virtue of Being, if only he might remember.

Socrates once said that philosophy is learning to die. Eckhart’s way of soul-making is to overcome death with love: “Death separates the soul from the body but love separates everything from the soul. It cannot endure anything anywhere that is not God or God’s” (ME, p. 124). Eckhart points us to the core of our soul, where God takes on the burdens and beauties of human nature so long as we are able to die to our personal selves for the love of others, whether foreign or familiar (ME, p. 126). Death is crucifixion upon the axes of space and time, but heaven is touched by neither: “The course of heaven is outside time—and yet time comes from its movements” (ME, p. 131).

What sort of teaching is it that demands we “be dead to everything” (ME, p. 132) to participate in divinity? Eckhart is not interested in knowledge about God generated by ideas in the mind; he seeks the wisdom of God granted only through transformation of soul. Curiosity concerning the creaturely things of time and space leads in many interesting directions, but it cannot lead to the Love and Wisdom of God, since to these there is no approach or access. An inward rebirth is necessary before the “secret spring” of the soul can give birth to Christ, the Word of God (ME, p. 127). This change is produced by the death of the ego to all things of this world, so as to love them each with disinterested equality. God is in all things, but the body-bound mind does not see the Spirit dwelling in the world because it cannot hear the voice of the Son amidst the noise of its many desires (ME, p. 131).

This teaching is harder than hell, but God sends messengers to aid us along the impossible path. Angels are the ideas of God, and born in our mind they bear the message of his coming. Part of their divine message is the identity of being and knowing, which for thousands of years has been the founding principle of the philosophical pursuit. But, as Eckhart reminds us, God’s being is transcendent, and so cannot be known by any mental faculty. The soul that, with the help of angelic persuasion, has discovered a likeness to God in the primal purity of its core, “where everything that can be named is sloughed off,” comes to the only knowledge of the divine that is possible: that by way of identification (ME, p. 142).

Eckhart reminds us of the teaching of the Scriptures, which points to three factors preventing a person from knowing anything about God: time, materiality, and multiplicity (ME, p. 151). Of course, learning to remember our likeness to God may still take time, as when fire tries to burn wood, the wood must be progressively warmed to the point of smoking and crackling before giving up entirely to the fire, since the two are at first so dissimilar (ME, p. 152). The materiality of language, both spoken and written, may also be an aid along the way to inner transformation. Just as the Word took on flesh to commune with humanity more intimately, thoughts must be uttered and recorded in the idiom of the day so as to convey the way of God to a soul whose agents are initially turned toward the world. The Word must first meet humankind in the world if it wishes to lead us toward heaven.

The soul is more a potential than a given perfection. Its magic must be made, its sacred soil cultivated by good will and faith in the beauty of truth before its divine destiny can flower. “Soul-making” is nothing less than the task of birthing God on earth, one individual at a time. Eckhart’s insights are an invaluable source of guidance for those on the path of transformation. He is a true metaphysician, offering healing prescriptions for those seeking that which lies beyond. And yet, he also points us to what is already at hand: “God is nearer to me than I am to myself” (ME, p. 129).

Bibliography

1) Meister Eckhart: A Modern Translation translated by Raymond B. Blakney (1941)

2) What Is God by Jacob Needleman (2009)

3) Worlds Apart by Owen Barfield (2010)

Meister Eckhart and the Core of the Soul

For a little more than a week now, I’ve been engaging with Graham Harman‘s object-oriented approach to philosophy. I’m intrigued, but not yet convinced by his tactics. I still have questions about access, about epistemology. How do I know anything about mind-independent objects if their essence remains infinitely hidden? I’m forced to rely upon analogy, the most important tool in the Hermeticist‘s repertoire. All knowledge comes through analogy, as all things are connected, not directly, but analogically. It is metaphor that carries the mind beyond itself to the inner life of things. Harman recognizes this, as well, going so far as to suggest that not just the human mind, but things themselves come into contact with others by way of analogical relationship.

The medieval mystic, Meister Eckhart, was deemed a heretic by a Franciscan-led inquisition, mostly because of the near identity he believed could come to exist between the human soul and God. He taught a path of inner stillness, so that, with the ideation and imagination of the desirous soul quieted, God might speak his silent Word. The utterance of this Word within our soul is a divine and eternal birth, “which occurred at one point in time, and which occurs everyday in the innermost recess of the soul–a recess to which there is no avenue of approach.”

There is no avenue of approach–no point of access, in other words–even to our own innermost nature. And yet, there is a state of transformed consciousness which grants us participation in that of which and by which we are always being made. Like Harman’s objects, whose molten core recedes forever from view, Eckhart’s doctrine of the soul is difficult–nay, impossible!–to grasp. We cannot gain access to the Son of God who is perpetually being born within us, because we are Him already. We cannot grasp the inner life of things, because it lives already within us. Knowledge of things themselves, then, depends upon knowledge of ourselves (which is also knowledge, or love, of God).

Perhaps there is still a trace of occationalism in Harman… or at least, perhaps I cannot understand his tactics without God’s help.

“The saints see in God an idea, and in that idea all things are comprehended–and the same is true of God, who sees everything in himself.”

Eckhart continues:

“There is Truth at the core of the soul but it is covered up and hidden from the mind, and as long as that is so there is nothing the mind can do to come to rest, as it might if it had an unchanging point of reference. The mind never rests but must go on expecting and preparing for what is yet to be known and what is still concealed. Meanwhile, man cannot know what God is, even though he be ever so well aware of what God is not…As long as it has no reference point, the mind can only wait as matter waits for form. And matter can never find rests except in form; so, too, the mind can never rest except in the essential truth which is locked up in it–the truth about everything. Essence alone satisfies and God keeps on withdrawing, farther and farther away, to arouse the mind’s zeal and lure it on to follow and finally grasp the true good that has no cause.”

Excerpts from Meister Eckhart: A Modern Translation by Raymond B. Blakney

James Hillman on the folly of reducing mind to brain.

From The Soul’s Code by James Hillman, p. 150-154:

The upshot of genetic studies leads in two (!) directions: a narrow path and a broad one. The narrow road heads toward simplistic, monogenic causes. It wants to pinpoint bits of tissue and correlate them with the vast complexity of psychic meanings. The folly of reducing mind to brain never seems to leave the Western scene. We can never give it up because it is so basic to our Western rationalist and positivist mind-set. The rationalist in the psyche wants to locate causes you can put your hands on and fix.

Machines provide the best models for meeting this desire. Take them apart, find their inner mechanisms, and then adjust their functioning by modifying their ratchets, enriching their fuel, greasing their connections. Henry Ford as father of American mental health. Result: Ritalin, Prozac, Zoloft, and dozens of other effective products for internal adjustments that we consume in abundance, millions of us, daily or twice daily. The simplistics of monogenic causes eventually leads to the control of behavior by drugs–that is, to drugged behavior.

Robert Plomin, on whose passionate, prolific, and perceptive writings this chapter has frequently relied, urgently warns against using genetics in a simplistic manner. He states: “Genetic effects on behavior are polygenic and probabilistic, not single gene and deterministic.” I gather from him a warning to psychiatry: Do not capsize your noble vessel under the weight of pharmaceutical, insurance company, and government gold, and do not set your compass toward Fantasy Island, where genetics will define “disease entities in psychiatry.” “We have learned little about the genetics of development [how genes act and interact over time] except to appreciate its complexity.” Therefore we can never arrive at that equation where one defective gene equals one clinical picture (except for true anomalies like Huntington’s chorea).

These warnings have little effect; simplistic thinking fulfills too many wishes. The heads of Henry Ford and Thomas Edison are carved into the Mount Rushmore of the mind. The monster of mechanism appears in every century of modern Western history and must be watched for by each generation–especially ours, when to hold out for “something else” besides nature or nurture means believing in ghosts or magic.

Ever since French rationalism of the seventeenth (Marin Mersenne, Nicolas de Malebranche) and eighteenth (Etienne de Condillac, Julien Offroy de La Mettrie) centuries and right through to the positivism of the nineteenth (Antoine Destutt de Tracy, Auguste Comte) in which all mental events were reduced to biology, a piece of the collective Western mind had been yolked like a dumb ox to the heavy tumbrel of French mechanistic materialism. It is astounding how people with such subtle taste as the French and with such erotic sensibility can go on and on contributing so much rationalist rigor mortis to psychology. Every import that arrives from France must be inspected for this French disease, even though it carries the fashionable label of Lacanism, Structuralism, Deconstruction, or whatever.

Today rationalism is global, computer-compatible every-where. It is the international style of the mind’s architecture. We cannot pin it to a particular flag, unless to the banners of the multinational corporation that can spend big bucks turning psychiatry, and eventually psychological thinking, and therefore soul control, toward monogenetic monotheism. One gene for one disorder: Splice the gene, teach it tricks, combine it, and the disorder is gone, or at least you don’t know you have it. The narrow path leads back to the thirties and forties of psychiatric history, though in a more refined manner and with better press releases. From 1930 into the 1950s, correlating specific brain areas with large emotional and functional concepts provided the rationale for the violence of psychosurgery and the lobotomizing of many a troubled soul at odds with circumstance.

The narrow path is yet more retro, going back to the skill analysis of Franz Josef Gall (M.D., Vienna, 1795), who settled in Paris and was much appreciated by the French. From him came the “evidence” that skull bumps and declivities could be correlated with psychological faculties (a system later called phrenology). Much as they are today, the faculties were given big names, such as memory, judgment, emotionalism, musical and mathematical talent, criminality, and so on. Refinement in methods over the years does not necessarily lead to progress in theorizing: 1795 or 1995–material location, and then reduction of psyche to location, prompts the enterprise.

The contrary direction to narrowing nature to brain simplistics is expanding nurture to a far more embracing notion of environment. If environment means literally what’s around, it must also mean whatever is around. This because the unconscious psyche selects quite arbitrarily among the stuff encountered every day in the environment. Tiny and trivial bits of information may have huge subliminal psychic effects, as the days’ residues in dreams show. We do dream of the damnedest things! Much of each day is never noticed or recalled, but the psyche picks up the environmental flotsam and delivers it to the dream. The dream–a processing plant recycling the environment, finding soul values in junk. The dream–an artist, appropriating images from the environment for recollection in tranquility.

Because we walk about in fields of psychic realities that influences our lives, we have to broaden the notion of environment in terms of “deep ecology,” the hypothesis that the planet is a living, breathing, and self-regulating organism. Since anything around can nourish our souls by feeding imagination, there is soul stuff out there. So why not admit, as does deep ecology, that the environment itself is ensouled, animated, inextricably meshed with us and not fundamentally separate from us?

The ecological vision restores to environment also the classical idea of providentia–that the world provides for us, looks out for us, even looks after us. It wants us around, too. Predators, tornadoes, and blackflies in June are only pieces of the picture. Just think of all that’s delicious and sweet-smelling. Do birds sing but for each other? This breathable, edible, and pleasant planet, invisibly serviced and maintained, keeps us all by means of its life-support system. Such would be an idea of nurture that is truly nurturing.

“Environment,” then, would be imagined well beyond social and economic conditions, beyond the entire cultural setting, to include every item that takes care of us every day: our tires and coffee cups and door handles and the book you are holding in your hands. It becomes impossible to exclude this bit of environment as irrelevant in favor of that bit as significant, as if we could rank world phenomena in order of importance. Important for whom? Our understanding of importance itself has to change; instead of “important to me,” think of “important to other aspects of the environment.” Does this item nurture what else is around, not merely us who are around? Does it contribute to the intentions of the field of which we are only one short-lived part?

As notions of environment shift, we notice environment differently. It becomes more and more difficult to make a cut between psyche and world, subject and object, in here and out there. I can no longer be sure whether the psyche is in me or whether I am in the psyche as I am in my dreams, as I am in the moods of the landscapes and the city streets, as I am in “music heard so deeply/That it is not heard at all, but you are the music/While the music lasts” (T.S. Eliot). Where does the environment stop and I begin, and can I begin at all without being in some place, deeply involved in, nurtured by the nature of the world?

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.