Tuesday, December 18, 2007
This is one of the sanest and most inspirational pieces of writing I have ever read. I think it might be the cue for me to stop all this web-surfing and reading 15 books at a time and try to start really putting my shoulder to the wheel.
Here's and excerpt:
...Nietzscheanism is an argument in the final analysis that seeks to overcome modern/postmodern disembedded alienation by a return to pagan embeddedness. Christianity, insofar as it is a higher religion that calls humans to a life of at least partial disembeddedness, has to justify itself in terms that make sense in the face of this natural contemporary attraction to neo-paganism. Rationalist or disembedded paganism is duking it out in the contemporary culture wars with religious fundamentalism, and neither for me offers a way forward. So I want to provide a preliminary outline about how how a deeper kind of Christianity has the resources to offer another possibility.
But before doing that, let me reiterate a point I've made in posts this summer. I'm not anti-pagan. I think that embedded pagan consciousness embraced dimensions of reality that are not currently available to buffered moderns. While there have been at least since the axial era individuals who have been precocious in their disembeddedness, modernity is the process by which cultures and peoples become disembedded. But while I think that modern disembeddedness is an advancement, I don't think it is the goal--"re-embeddedness" is. Disembeddedness is a necessary but temporary moment in cultural maturation, but once achieved, the goal is to retrieve what has been left behind.
That's my gloss on the gospel's injunction that we become as little children, and the process by which we do it is "second naivete", which is to use Blake's language, to re-open the doors of perception. We need to find ways to open up to what that older consciousness experienced, but with the maturity of critical consciousness and the dignity of an adult level of freedom. And so this opening up, if it is not to be regressive, if it's not to be some form of "going native", has to follow some rules. And those rules require the integration of a disembedded consciousness with an embedded one.
Now back to a Christian imagination of the way forward. I think that anybody who is serious about the spiritual life has to have some level of discipline about it. I think this discipline has many aspects to it, but one that is central is the development of a prayer or meditative practice. Such a discipline is an exercise in disembeddedness, but it's important to be clear what its goal is. I think there has been a tendency both in the Western and Eastern spirituality to see the goal as a kind of permanent disembeddedness. I don't.
People who see it this way imagine life on earth as exile in a Platonic cave ruled by the logic of original sin or maya or samsara. And whether east or west, they think of redemption as an escape from from the Cave into the true, the good, the real, which is a transcendent realm outside time and space. And so for them the purpose of prayer and meditation is to enter into that transcendent world, and that the goal is to stay there as long as possible.
That's not how I think about it. I think that being in touch with or vulnerable to the influence of that transcendent dimension is essential for our health and sanity, but I'm not an advocate of escaping life in the Cave, but of gently, gradually lighting it up with the unconsuming fire of heaven.
As I mentioned before there are many levels of disembeddeness, and even we moderns are disembedded in comparison with the embedded, unbuffered consciousness of premoderns, we remain embedded in our ordinary daily "cave" consciousness. So we benefit from the rhythmic daily exercise of trying to stand outside of it for a while. That's what a meditative practice seeks to do. Or as an alternative to the cave metaphor, I think it's useful to think of our ordinary consciousness as our being carried along mostly submerged in a slowly moving river, and the attempt at prayer or meditation is the effort to climb up onto the bank for awhile to let our souls dry out. Some days it's just not possible to pull ourselves out, but even on good days, when we are able to get ourselves entirely onto the river bank, it takes a while for all the water to drain away, and often we find ourselves still covered with ooze and seaweed and suckers.
Now the goal is to let the concerns and bric-a-brac of ordinary daily consciousness drain away and to dislodge the persistent thoughts and concerns that cling to us even as we sit there on the river bank. It's not easy, and I don't have to rehearse here all the problems the so-called monkey mind presents to us to complicate the effort. But the goal is to create an emptiness, or perhaps better to say a dryness, which is the precondition for being filled by or kindled by the aforementioned unconsuming flame and it's warming light that to be sure shines on the river, but is not of the river.
This emptiness and dryness are not pleasant, and it is very difficult to sustain--one longs to return to the familiar comfort of the river, and we need to do that. But in all the literature about the spiritual life that has any credibility, this discomfort is seen as a necessary, purgative first step. The dryness leads to the kindling of illumination, and the illuminations, if allowed to reshape one's soul, lead one on a path to union, which is the goal of "theosis". Meditative practice, insofar as it is the sustained effort to be radically open to grace, comprises all three stages--purgation, illumination, union. We are none of us, believer or unbeliever, ever cut off completely from the ubiquity of grace, but it is possible to become more radically open to its superabundant and transforming power.
And to the degree that a soul becomes interiorly transformed, when it goes back into the river of its ordinary cares and responsibilities, it does so in a way that has a kind of filtering or transforming effect on her immediate psychic environment. The river is beautiful, but it is polluted, and the question needs to be asked: By what means can it be cleaned up? I believe that nothing lasting or true happens except by the agency of this transforming power. I see it as a gradual, gentle process achieved by people over time who, with varying degrees of intensity carry this fire within them, and over the centuries their activity has a regenerative effect. Meditative practice is one way to increase the intensity.
People who have advanced in this respect radiate something positive and regenerative that other river dwellers pick up on. Certainly the Jesus of the gospels had this effect. One of the most interesting things about the gospel accounts was the way some people picked up on what Jesus radiated and how others didn't. Typically "sinners" were more responsive than the religious professionals, whom Jesus describes as whited sepulchers--all clean outside, but rotten inside. I have written before about Whited Sepulcher Syndrome (see here and here), but it strikes me as I think about this business of embeddedness and disembeddedness, that Whited Sepulcher Syndrome is a case of "arrested disembeddedness", a taking of the first step (purgation) without getting to the second, illumination. It's mechanical morality without grace. Emptiness without illumination. Dryness without fire.
And it suggests a way to better understand the difference between moral and moralistic. The moral person, whatever the condition of his exterior is alive in his interior. And the gospels are clear that inner aliveness is far more important than an exterior correctness, especially when exterior correctness leads to an inner death. And it is the insistence on exterior correctness by the moralistic, whether they be Torquemada or James Dobson, that is profoundly immoral because it is so profoundly deadly--pure repression with no goal other than to repress. A withered deadness with no goal other than to be dry and dead. Any lively paganism is more spiritually alive than that kind of moralistic Christianity. And that kind of paganism is also, when it encounters real Christianity, more receptive to it. Nothing could be clearer from a reading of the gospels. The "sinners" time and time again had an easier time recognizing who Jesus was; the religious professionals were the ones who seemed to be too blind or too dead to do so.
For the ascesis of the purgative stage can lead to the deadliest form of alienation if the necessary "dryness" isn't at some point kindled. (Father Ferapont in the Brothers Karamazov is the counter to Father Zossima in this respect.) And these moralistic Christians suffering from Whited Sepulcher Syndrome, because they are mostly interested in control and security, do everything they can to snuff out any spiritual flame that might kindle in themselves or in their congregations. For when there is a kindling, the flame will die if it is not given oxygen, and that oxygen is provided by "vertical breathing", one form of which is prayer/meditation.
I think there are lots of people who have been kindled but have had the flame snuffed out of them by the moralism of the churches they've sought out to help them find ways to sustain and grow it. But the whole logic of any kind of morality is not simply about correct behavior, but about creating the optimal conditions for the kindling and growth of this flame. And the goal of prayer and meditation is not to leave the world of ordinary consciousness to live forever on the river bank (or outside the cave), but to bring the flame and its transforming, purifying power back into ordinary conscious in such a way that it will not be drowned by it.
And that requires keeping one's head above the waters as the body is carried along by their currents. For the head needs to be vigilant as to what lies ahead, and exposed to the source of light which illuminates it and inspires the action in the world that leads eventually to its redemption. This vigilance, this refusal to be pulled under, this daily effort to pull oneself out for a short time are keys to understanding what it means to be chaste. Chasitity is the capability to live in a polluted environment and yet to radiate this interior fire. It's the capability to swim freely in the river without being dragged under or coopted by it. It's not about staying out of the river altogether.
The goal is union, but not just with the divine, but union with everything--with the earth, with people, with the entire cosmos, and this union can be effected only by the slow transformation of our souls from the soggy things they are now into a roaring unconsuming flame of love. That is our telos. That will be our theosis. That is our deepest identity--our "I am", that part of us that was created in the image and likeness. It is the likeness of the flame that Moses encountered on the mountain in the wilderness, after which the great Jewish disembedding began. And we Christians believe that the flame that Moses encountered on Sinai is the same flame the people of Jesus' day encountered when they met him, and which it is still possible to encounter now in different ways. And that unconsuming flame of love that burned in him was a flame that he kindled in all those around him, and so it has happened down through the centuries wherever true Christianity has survived and flourished...