THE QUESTING OR SPIRITED SELF

question mark with speech bubles, vector on the abstract background

In his book, “Hymns to an Unknown God,” Sam Keen explores the idea of “the Questing or Spirited Life” through listing a variety of “perennial human experiences” and asks some “perennial mythic questions.”

The Perennial Human Experiences include wonder and awe, joy and gratitude, longing, creativity, loneliness, compassion, boredom, despair, disillusionment, compulsion and addiction, resentment, personal guilt, ecological guilt, disease and alienation, fear of death, and horror.

The correlating Mythic Human Questions include: Why is there something rather than nothing? How do we celebrate and give thanks for the gift of life? What would satisfy me? What do I desire? What are my gifts? What is my vocation? What can I create? Am I loved? Can I love? How close should I be to Father, Mother, other men and women? Who are my people? Who is included and excluded from the community? What is my passion? What will renew me? Is there any meaning in my life? Can I know the truth? Am I free? Can I change? How do I punish or forgive those who have wronged me? What is taboo? What ought I to do? How do I make amends? How can we heal and tend the earth and animal spirits? What is wrong? Can I be healed? How? For what may I hope? Do I survive death? Why is there evil?

These are profound mythic questions, and they do indeed correlate with a variety of perennial human experiences. Sam Keen makes the point that different individuals who have been marked for life by different formative experiences will be preoccupied (if not obsessed) with different mythic questions. For example, it is important to realize that such historical icons and cultural exemplars as Siddhartha, Confucius, Lao Tzu, Moses, Jesus, Mohammed, Lucretius, Plato, Dante, Shakespeare, Virginia Woolf, Jane Austen, Bach, Beethoven, Marx, Freud, Rembrandt, Picasso, Albert Einstein, Max Planck, among others, were preoccupied with addressing kinds of questions within the diverse contexts of their experiential and constructed worlds. There is an “incommensurability” between their answers to life great questions because they are asking different questions and they are asking them in different historical and cultural, economic and political context.

In other words, it simply will not do to say that they were saying the same thing in different languages and traditions. Nor will it do to say that they were saying opposite and opposing things that must conflict and clash with each other. Each one experienced and viewed the world through a different personal and cultural lens, and was asking questions that emerged from primal human experiences and felt needs.

But there’s something else happening here as well. The various liberal domains of intellectual and cultural inquiry each constitutes its own “symbol system,” “language game” and methods of inquiry. The inquiring domains of Philosophy, Religion, History, Mythology, Linguistics, Literature, Music, Visual Arts, Science, technology, Mathematics and Logic each becomes a complete and self-referencing and self-validating language game and hermeneutical circle. “Scholars” and “Experts” within each field tend to talk to and read each other, and to ignore or subordinate the theories and ideas that come from outside their preferred field, regarding “outsiders” as having marginal credibility and limited relevance to the questions at hand. What we’re talking about here is “the sociology of knowledge,” or in layman’s terms, “Birds of a feather flock together.”

I recently read a New York Times article on Steven Pinker‘s latest book on The Angels of Our Better Nature with the provocative thesis that human nature has been slowing improving through evolutionary processes and that violence has been on the decline throughout history. Responses to his thesis are all over the map. Much of the response has come from other “cognitive and social scientists.” Some “optimistic idealists” want to believe he is essentially right. Many “pessimistic realists” think he’s wildly out of touch with the horrors and atrocities of the chaotic and violent world of modern warfare, that he has a myopic view despite his scholarly credentials. Is this a debate that any one can win? I don’t think so. “We see what we choose to see” and ignore the rest. We can’t separate the “facts” from the “values”, much as we think we can.

But here’s the thing: It’s not only cognitive and social scientists who have weighed on in the perennial mythic question of human nature. Philosophers, theologians, novelists and artists, historians and mythologists have been debating this question for centuries. It is a particular conceit of the modern age that “science” finally has the empirically factual and rationally true “answer” to the age-old mythic human questions. In the past we merely had superstition and speculation, stories and conjectures, but now we know the TRUTH because SCIENCE, god of the modern age has shown us the way. I’m not dismissing the considerable value of science, only pointing out that it can over-reach the boundaries of what it’s discipline and method legitimately allows. And of course we can distinguish between the physical, natural, cognitive and social sciences which each has its internal claims to relative hegemony.

There are some kinds of questions where empirical science is the best discipline for finding reliable answers. These are questions of measurement, calculation, data and facts. But when “science” becomes “scientism” it attempts to subordinate or even replace the other liberal domains of human inquiry with its own assumptions and methods, assuming that there must be one objectively and rationally true answer for every kind of question that human beings are capable of asking. Is human nature good or evil, or a mixed bag? Are human being evolving morally and ethically; or are we devolving into technologically skilled but intellectually stunted and morally bankrupt Barbarians and Philistines; or are things pretty much the same as they’ve always been – a muddle of contradictions? Are science and technology the solution to our biggest problems and our hope for the future; or are science and technology themselves at the root of the problem of alienation and dehumanization in a mechanistic, impersonal, algorithmic and robotic world that is replacing human beings ; or are they both part of the problem and part of the solution? These are not really the kinds of questions that can be “settled” by scientific studies, and it is folly to think they can. There can be no consensus within the general public, the academic world, or the scientific community where scientific and technical questions of facts and information are really hidden philosophical and moral questions of meaning and interpretation, and where the “applications” of selective information and different interpretations are subject to wildly divergent consequential choices for good or ill in the everyday world. One can be committed to the scientific enterprise but remain wary of it whenever it over-reaches its boundaries to became a self-inflated pathological scientism.

The Questing and Spirited Self will appreciate the variety of perennial human experiences, the perennial mythic questions, and the variety of intellectual and cultural domains that have sought to explore and understand these experiences and questions in many different ways. There is no need to make an idol or god of any of our intellectual and cultural domains of liberal knowledge and creative experience. Each has a valuable but limited contribution to make in serving the human project.

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The Enemies of Self-Creation & Human Solidarity

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I agree with Richard Rorty in his book, Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity that “Self-Creation” and “Human Solidarity” are different enterprises and that some theoretical thinkers have concentrated exclusively on one but not the other. Rorty is not saying that they are mutually exclusive but only “incommensurable” in the sense that they have nothing to do with each other. I’m not convinced that this is entirely true. I view Self-Creation and Human Solidarity focusing on the life of the individual and the life of the community. They appear as microcosm is related to macrocosm. It is only our society’s “specialization syndrome” that has divided the primary concerns of life in this matter.

What interests me is the question, “Who are the enemies of Self-Creation and Human Solidarity.” Let’s begin with definitions:

Self-Creation designates the capacity to develop one’s creative human potential, to exercise a degree of freedom and autonomy in creating one’s life rather than living in unconscious conformity to the dictates of the collective mass-consumer culture.

Human Solidarity designates the courage to speak out and act courageously on behalf of the “inalienable human rights” of others, especially the most vulnerable and least fortunate, against domination, oppression, cruelty and exploitation of those in power.

Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World is a dystopia that champions the importance of “Self-Creation” rather than becoming the willing slave of empty pleasure and escapist addictions.

Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 is also a dystopia that explores some similar themes. Self-Creation involves turning off the wall-to-wall TV with its shallow sit-coms and game-shows, and finding others who have chosen to cultivate their minds through critical thinking and the reading of the great books.

George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four portrays a ruthless and cruel totalitarian society that terrifies and dehumanizes its citizens through the methods of propaganda, lies, interrogation and torture.

Today we are all too familiar with both kinds of oppression and exploitation.  Militant oligarchies and dictatorships like Syria simply crush and destroy their own people, keeping them subjected by ruthless military strikes on cities that indiscriminately torture and murder men, women and children. It is a reign of terror.

Some democratic societies (guess which ones) have been seduced  into  becoming crony capitalistic plutocracies that keep up the appearance of human solidarity while perpetuating a widening gap between the rich (who get richer) and the poor (who get poorer.) As the shrinking educated middle-class declines in influence and it is neutralized by becoming narrow technological specialists, the super-rich power-elites can have their way with a populace that has become more discount consumers than informed citizens. Reforms come, but it is often one step forward and two steps backwards.

One of the best ways to subject the populace of a “liberal democracy” to the authority of concentrated corporate, economic, military and political power is to medicate, distract, entertain and amuse them to death through”bread and circuses,” spectacles and games. In such a society the populace know more about the latest gossip surrounding their favorite celebrities than they know about what is going on that matters in their society and world.

Those who are committed to Self-Creation rather than passive consumerism may or may not make the connection with the need for Human Solidarity, but one hopes that they would. In the best scenario the cultivation of the whole person and the cause of progressive democracy would find each other to be kindred spirits. One cannot help but admire such remarkable journalists as Bill Moyers who has been a champion of both Self-Creation and Human Solidarity for many years, combining a love of poetic sensibility and a passion for social justice. May his tribe increase!

Who Are Your People?

people_of_the_world_2_by_kirsty_mercer88-d32dago“People of the World”

In his book, “Hymns to an Unknown God,” Sam Keen poses a variety of “Perennial Mythic Questions.” Keen asks the great questions pertaining to reality and existence, life and death, meaning and purpose, identity and belonging, knowledge, ignorance, suffering and evil, wonder and joy, love and hate, hope and despair. One of his questions is “Who Are Your People?” I have asked myself that question countless times throughout my life and often find the question itself problematic. What if I don’t have a single group of people with whom I identity but rather find myself among multiple groups that live in entirely different worlds? Has this been your experience too?

Like many people I have associated and affiliated with many different organizations and groups throughout my life.  Frequently these different organizations and groups seemed to co-exist with little or no knowledge of each other, and even less interest in getting to know each other. The same is true of various individuals I’ve known along the way. While there have been natural attractions and elective affinities between some of them, many have lived in incommensurable worlds. I find the word “incommensurable” to be a word I’m using a lot these days. And I’ve learned that “the post-modern condition” is one of living in many incommensurable worlds with their different meanings, beliefs, values, loyalties and commitments. There is jangle, perplexity, complexity and dissonance in such an experience, but also perhaps great beauty and opportunity. Beyond the post-modern world of “incommensurability” may lie the “trans-modern” possibility of a complexly hyphenated identity — the fusion of multiple and divergent horizons, the first step toward pluralistic integration. No doubt this hope of pluralistic integration or at least of creative dialectic has something to do with why I’ve been drawn to facilitating conversational salons for so many years.

In the Modern Age of the Rational-Scientific Enlightenment Project, a key assumption has been that there is one right answer to every question, and that one can know that answer to be objectively factual and true. In the “Postmodern turn” in our culture a new paradigm has emerged, a paradigm that says that there may be many “right answers” to some kinds of questions, and that what we actually do is to “try out” those various answers to see if they are relationally “fit” for different kinds of useful purposes. This has led to a “pluralistic,” “hyphenated”  and even “oxymoronic” sense of identity and belonging. We are “many selves” and we belong to many different communities of discourse, or hermeneutical circles.

So who are my people? My people are the inhabitants of multiple cultures, traditions, thought-worlds and life-styles. My people are not ideological purists living in one exclusive world but are eclectic pragmatists, having joined the horizons of divergent intellectual and cultural traditions in creative dialogue. We have decided that “both-and” is sometimes more profound and fruitful than “either-or.” But neither are we ideologically attached to “both-and” in every circumstance, for sometimes a choice must be made between “either-or.” Sometimes there are multiple human and social ends that cannot all be fulfilled at the same time.

Many of us have decided that words alone cannot fully capture the mystery of reality in a net, that there is always more to life than we can say, a “surplus of meaning.” We are inclined to think that there are times when Silence, Music, Art and Poetry, along with Symbols, Rituals, Stories and Dance may do a better job than discursive prose of evoking and honoring if not naming and capturing the Ineffable Mystery in which we live and move and have our being. We respect the rational and empirical ways of knowing, but we also reverence the visionary and ecstatic, the sacred and the sublime.

So who are my people?

Metaphysically, my people include religious, spiritual, humanistic and secular folks of all types, and those who make no such claims at all. But more to the point, they include hyphenated  “sacred-secularists” and “secular-sacramentalists.” They include a “dialogical dialogue” between the archetypal ways of the Existentialist, Sage, Shaman, Prophet, Evangelist and Mystic, and between their respective ideals of Beauty, Goodness, Healing, Justice, Reconciliation and Unity. My people nonor an eclectic and integral combination of principles and ideals as diverse as Beauty, Goodness, and Truth;  Justice, Mercy, and Peace; Faith, Hope, and Love; Gentleness, Strength, and Harmony; Life, Liberty and Happiness. Today in the global age one’s core principles and ideals may include Hellenistic, Hebrew, Christian, Taoist, Pagan and Democratic influences, among others. The world’s living wisdom traditions are not oppositional to each other. Their relationship is mutual and symbiotic. That is a lesson that many are still learning, and others have yet to learn.

Of course there are negating and destructive ideologies and value systems that are implicitly or explicitly committed to perpetuating fear, hatred, envy, jealousy, arrogance, greed, conflict, violence, alienation, war, conquest and cruelty as a perpetual way of life. A liberal democratic  society that is committed to such progressive ideals of freedom, dignity, justice and peace is not compatible with any fascist plutocracy, whether in socialist or capitalist, anarchist or totalitarian guises.

Philosophically, my people include Platonists and Aristotelians, Stoics and Epicureans, Rationalists and Empiricists, Existentialists and Pragmatists. But more to the point, they include those who hold to a provisional view that multiple philosophical movements may each be “partly right,” useful cultural constructs that seek to solve different theoretical problems and serve different purposes.

Educationally, my people include Literati and Philosophers, Mythologists and Historians, Psychologists and Sociologists, Artists and Scientists. But more to the point, they include those who have “transgressed the boundaries” between these liberal academic disciplines in order to appreciate their diverse domains, questions, problems, methodologies, exemplars, schools and styles of inquiry.

My people do not insist that any one academic discipline is “king of the mountain.” They do not need to subordinate one discipline and method of discourse to another — as if it alone where the true and final “vocabulary” that all men must speak or be deemed ignorant fools.

In the Philosophy of Language there is a continuing debate between those who insist on the primacy of: (1) Objective Correspondence and Coherence, (2) Subjective Imagination and Expressiveness, (3) Relational Symbols and Metaphors, and (4) Pragmatic Uses and Consequences, as if every use of language ought to employ the same theoretical tools.  My people suspect that each linguistic theory may be “partly right” and so we will attempt to negotiate between all four of these epistemological language games rather than choose only one theory to serve our needs on all occasions.

Culturally, my people enjoy “the epicurean life” of good books, music, art, theatre, cinema, nature, health, beauty, gardening, food, drink, stories, travel, conversations and friends. They value the life of their minds as much as the pleasure of their senses. They combine the functions of introspection and observation, sensibility and practicality, affection and reflection, perception and judgment into a heightened awareness and creative way of life.

Politically, my people include liberals, conservatives, communitarians and libertarians. But more to the point, they include Principled Pragmatists and Radical Centrists who seek to negotiate reconciliation and peace between opposing parochial ideologies and entrenched narrow interests that wish to play the barbaric game of “winner takes all.” Politically, my people are looking for common ground and the middle way. But at the same time they know that there will always be a struggle between those who seek a world that advances the greater good of all, and a world that rewards only the lucky and ambitious few while abandoning and exploiting the many. My people are “radical centrists” and “passionate moderates” who seek to balance and reconcile the complementary principles of the individual and community, tradition and progress, rights and responsibilities, enterprise and ecology.

Well, these are my people, but obviously not in any possessive sense. These are people who seek to broaden and deepen their complex humanity, to live in harmony and respect for nature, and to seek a transcendent horizon of meaning, purpose, serenity and hope through a constructive dialogue with the world’s living wisdom traditions.

What Are You Seeking?

OldCezanne3 Paul Cezanne, “The Seeker”

I suppose I have been a “seeker” my entire life. This is not to say that I could tell you exactly I have been seeking. It’s a moving target. Nor is it clear to me even today that the object of my search has been for any one distinct thing among other things. The best I can come up with is this: It has been a search for Wholeness, Unity, Totality, the Comprehensive. But as will be apparent in the course of this essay, even that is not the whole answer. The other half is Diversity, Plurality, Individuality and Freedom.

Even though it has now more than forty years ago, I can still remember Dr. George Vick, a philosophy professor at California State University at L.A. telling his class that if we students were looking for “Salvation” or “Enlightenment” that we had come to the wrong academic department. For these we would have to take courses in the religion department. He explained that philosophy was about something else. At first I was not sure whether he was being satiric or sincere. As it turned out, he was being quite sincere, for I later discovered that Dr. Vick was both a philosophical scholar and a spiritual seeker.

Philosophically Dr. Vick was fluent in the ideas of Plato,  Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas, Plotinus, Maimonides, Al Ghazzali, Pascal, Montaigne, David Hume, Kant, Schopenhauer, Descartes, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Merleau-Ponty, Martin Heidegger, Ludwig Wittgenstein, William James, John Dewey, and a host of others. Dr. Vick was a master teacher with a passion for ideas and a love of teaching. He knew how to make the great thinkers and their ideas come alive in the classroom.

Spiritually Dr. Vick was a complex hybrid of multiple religious traditions. He had roots in the Roman Catholic Augustinian and Thomistic traditions, as well as the Christian mystics across the ages. But his “spirituality” also included an eclectic blend of Jewish, Islamic, Hindu, Buddhist and Taoist teachings. For Dr. Vick there was no contradiction between Catholic Faith, deep ecumenism, Vedanta, phenomenology and existentialism. He became a kind of spiritual advisor to me while I was in college and introduced me to Thomas Merton among many other authors. I was into reading all things Bonhoeffer at the time, including the provocative idea of “Religionless Christianity.” I was also into Theodore Roszak’s The Making of a Counter-Culture and Alvin Toffler’s Future Shock. Moreover, my academic major/minor was a combination of literature and philosophy, and I was perplexed by the complex intersection between these two disciplines with their divergent methods and styles for engaging the great human questions.

Allow me to digress for a moment. While I was back in high school I had been converted to evangelical Christianity through Youth for Christ and a local Evangelical Covenant Church. That’s a long story, best saved for another time. So it was natural that I got involved with Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship on my college campus. At the same time I found my way to the Hollywood Presbyterian Church because it had developed a counter-culture ministry to hippies called “The Salt Company,” a Christian coffee-house. All of this was worlds apart from my university studies in philosophy and literature, though I did make some attempts at integration.

I remember discovering Mere Christianity  by C.S. Lewis in the college bookstore. I read nearly every book that C.S. Lewis had written – including his Christian apologetics, literary criticism, children’s stories, allegories, poetry, and his novel Til We Have Faces. Then it was on to G.K. Chesterton, George MacDonald, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Dorothy Sayers. I was becoming a lover of all things British. I loved T.S. Eliot’s collection of literary and cultural essays, even when I disagreed with him.

During that period I also remember being introduced to Inter-Varsity Press and to the books of Francis Schaeffer such as Escape from Reason and The God Who Is There. I also remember reading books by Paul Little, Clark Pinnock, John Carnell, Elton Trueblood, Bernard Ramm, James Sire, and many other protestant Christian Apologists.

When I graduated from college I enrolled at Fuller Theological Seminar and received a further education in the evangelical-reformed theological tradition. Because I was now an eclectic general reader who regularly read outside of the assigned curriculum, my studies carried me well beyond the Reformed Tradition. This included the mystical-contemplative, Eastern orthodox, radical-reformed, anglo-catholic, modernist- liberal, neo-orthodox, neo-liberal, existential, deconstructive, and radical revisionist theological traditions. Christianity was splintering into a dozen disparate movements, each claiming to have found the true historical Jesus and to be the authentic apostolic tradition. Any serious study of the world religions would have to wait until I graduated from seminary. But eventually I would get there.

In any case my college education experience, my involvement in the Christian youth counter-culture in Hollywood, and my graduate theological studies in the Reformed Tradition were all worlds apart from the middle-class “religiously allergic” family in which I had been raised. All this was even more culturally distant from the experiences of my childhood, which included the working-class Country Music Hell-Fire-and-Brimstone Pentecostalism on the one hand and New-Thought Mind-Cure Religious Science on the other.

So it is not surprising that by the time I was a young adult I was  religiously and philosophically perplexed by the many options before me, and desperately seeking “a place to stand. “Added to the perplexity was the social turbulence of the late ’60s and the 70’s, including the Civil Rights Movement, the New Left and Counter-Cultural Movement, the Anti-War Movement, the Feminist Movement, the Black supremest Movement, and much more, all of which were being dramatically acted out across the college campuses of America. Given all this cultural confusion and social turbulence, perhaps it was inevitable that I become a “seeker.”

As I moved out of the academic world and into a ministry vocation the big questions of life that perplexed me never went away, nor did I ever feel satisfied that anyone truly saw the whole picture, least of all myself. I went on to spend years quietly explore the world religions, even while my “day job” was within the “main-line” Presbyterian Church, and eventually in ecumenical campus ministry. This later career move gave my greater intellectual freedom to continue my search.

Once I left parish ministry and I re-located myself on the college campus as an ecumenical (and eventually interfaith) campus minister, I was free to devote all of my energy to “the search.” What interested me now was not so much the intra-faith ecumenical conversation that was happening within Christianity, or even the interfaith dialogue between the world religions, though I have great admiration for Hans Kung and the other ecumenical theologians who have taught us so much about the art of dialogue. Increasingly I became interested in several other dimensions of  dialogue: (1)  the dialogue between the Humanities, Arts and Sciences, (2) the dialogue between the Major Worldview Perspectives, and (3) the dialogue between the Great Historical Epochs. Accordingly, I became fascinated by three questions:

(1) How can the realms we designate as spirituality and religion, literature and philosophy, psychology and sociology, mythology nd history, arts and sciences learn from and dialogue with each other in a mutually informed and respectful manner? In William James’ language, how can the “tender-minded” and “tough-minded” temperaments get along with and learn from each other? Behind this question is reflection concerning the Jungian dialectic of introspection and observation, intuition and sensation, feeling and thinking, perception and judgment. To what extent are we capable of transcending (or rising above) our biological endowment,  psychological temperament, cultural context and social conditioning?

(2) How can the various worldview perspectives make room for each other in a pluralist society and global age? How can religious and philosophical dualists, idealists, positivists, panpsychists, pragmatists and others agree to disagree without being disagreeable? How can liberals, conservatives, communitarians, libertarians, and radical centrists foster a constructive dialogue in a democratic civil society?

(3) How can Pre-Modern, Modern, and Post-Modern sensibilities learn from and respect each other? How can the epistemologies of revelation and illumination, reason and science, rhetoric and narrative grant each other some quarter without selling out their own first principles?

The more I spent time exploring the liberal arts, the worldview perspectives and the historical epochs, the more I came to realize that I was experiencing the post-modern condition. Kenneth Gergen calls it “.” In his book entitled “The Truth About the Truth: De-confusing and Re-Constructing the Postmodern World,” Walter Truett Anderson described my experience perfectly: The Post-Modern experience is “how it feels to live amid such a rich, often contradictory barrage of cultural stimuli: what it does to us and what kind of people we become. They say the postmodern individual is a member of many communities and networks, a participant in many discourses, an audience to messages from everybody and everywhere–messages that present conflicting ideas and norms and images of the world.” Gergen believes that this condition is a major problem of our time, but also perhaps the birth-pangs of a new kind of human being.

What am I seeking? In the postmodern age in which one belongs to many communities and networks, participates in many discourses, and is an audience to often conflicting ideals, norms and images of the world that come from everybody and everywhere, the question itself becomes problematic. What has become self-evident is that there is an irreducible and incommensurable plurality of human ideals and desired ends. Even the ideas of “Salvation” and “Enlightenment” with which I began this article have their historic roots in different existential questions and visions of human fulfillment. There can be no “universal common search” that fits the needs and temperaments of all people. We search after different things, and even what we seek may change at different times in our lives. Moreover, we often have no idea that we are seeking anything at all. We just muddle through. Sometimes only in hindsight do we realize that we have been on a great search, even perhaps on an archetypal “Hero’s Journey.”  This journey involves leaving home for the Quest, entering the Mysteries, and returning home to celebrate, mourn, laugh and remember, content to savor the quiet and picturesque life while stepping aside to let the next generation take up the Hero’s Journey as they are ready and able. We learn to practice contentment and gratitude. Our search for the Holy Grail has brought us full circle.

What do I seek? I began by saying that I seek Wholeness, Unity, Totality, the Comprehensive. But that’s not all. One of my literary mentors, Lionel Trilling, reveled in “Variability, Possibility, Complexity, and Difficulty.” I say, “Well yes, me too.” Richard Rorty, the post-modern neo-pragmatist celebrated Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity. He convinced me that Self-Creation and Human Solidarity are both worthy ends, even though they are probably incommensurable pursuits, neither reducible to the other.  What I often experience is life, whether I seek it or not, is Mystery, Ambiguity, Multiplicity and Paradox. I don’t seek these so much as they seek me. As much as I would love to have a “Grand Narrative,” these primal experiences provide a counter-balance of “Learned Ignorance” that calls me to simply “Live the Questions.”

What do I seek? Life is a moving target, not a fixed point. That which I seek may have a “still center” like a hurricane but be swirling with incredible force and speed around its expansive circumference. The center is “moving” and “still”, changing and permanent at the same time. Maybe Heraclitus and Parmenides were both partly right.  I am seeking to live serenely and gracefully in the eye of the storm, to be an aware and observant “witness” to the perennial yet ever-changing dynamics of nature, life, consciousness and civilization, but not to be swept away by the fads, obsessions, manias and spectacles of the fragmented, distracted, chaotic and confusing age in which we live.

Recovering “The Divine Center” After “The Death of God” — Healing Nature, Humanity, Self and Society

Divinity_by_Grogee

“Announcing the Death of God is like shattering the atom. The fragments fly in all directions.”

In his book, Also Spake Zarathustra, Nietzsche has his protagonist proclaim, “God is dead and we have killed him.” Are these words spoken in cosmic horror and excruciating dismay or in intoxicating glee and liberating relief? Perhaps an ambivalent combination of both.

It is tempting to draw an analogy between the “death of God” in the modern secular moral imagination and Kubler Ross’s five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. There are several problems with this analogy. First, there may well be more than five stages of grief. Second, they may not follow any single sequence of stages in all people. Third, they may not be linear at all, but rather elliptical, circling back repeatedly and for different durations. And fourth, any attempt to draw an analogy between the death of a single finite mortal human being, or even many human beings, and the very Ground of Being Itself in all its  protean, polymorphic, numinous and ineffable essence is problematic.

Nevertheless, it fair to say individuals have different kinds of reactions and responses to “the death of God” in the modern secular moral imagination and in their own personal existential lives. These reactions and responses span a wide range of attitudes and emotions that include intoxication and relief, absurdity and despair, irony and reversal, acceptance and indifference.

These emotional reactions and responses may remain constant throughout a person’s life, or they may shift and change along the way. In some cases there may even be a “return to God” who is no longer “dead” for them but suddenly and surprising “alive and well,” resurrected, so to speak, on the other side of atheism, skepticism, secularism and indifference. Sometimes “the Divine Center,” re-imagined and re-membered, emerges in a trans-modern integral vision as the organizing principle of the Totality of Being after a long hiatus of fragmentation.

After the Death of God in the modern secular moral imagination we witness the fracturing and fragmentation of the meaning of Nature, Humanity, Self and Society into atomized and competing forces and  ideologies.

Within the Natural Center as the Organizing Principle of Reality those forces and ideologies are expressed in the divergent philosophies of dualism, positivism (or materialism), phenomenology, panpsychism, and pragmatism. Likewise, within the scientific community there is a contest between the methodological approaches, privileged domains and final vocabularies of the mathematicians, physicists, geologists, botanists and biologists.

Within the Humanistic Center as the Organizing Principle of Reality those forces and ideologies are expressed in the competing branches of the humanities, including literature and philosophy, mythology and history, each with its own methodological approaches and final vocabulary.

Within the Psychological Center as the Organizing Principle of Reality those forces and ideologies are expressed in the various schools of psychology, psychiatry and psychotherapy that fixate on different aspects of the psychological self, including the functions of introspection and observation, intuition and sensation, feeling and thinking, perception and judgment. Further, there is a contest between the schools of psychology that include behaviorism, psychoanalysis, humanistic psychology, existential psychology, family systems psychology and social systems psychology.

Within the Sociological Center as the Organizing Principle of Reality those forces and ideologies are expressed in the various social, economic and political traditions, including socialism and capitalism, liberalism and conservatism, communitarianism and libertarianism, and all manner of hybrid combinations as well the principled pragmatism of radical centrists.

When the Divine Center is re-imagined and re-membered as the Organizing Principle of Reality, here, too, we find a variety of spiritual and cultural traditions that have sometimes cooperated and sometimes competed with each other. These include the archetypal ways of the Shaman, Sage, Prophet and Mystic. Today these four great traditions are coming together in global dialogue in the respectful and cooperative spirit of the Parliament of the World Religions.

With the re-emergence of “The Divine Center” in the trans-modern age, something transformative appears beyond the ancient idols of superstitious religiosity, the medieval institutional idol of authoritarian religion, the modern secular idols of hyper-rationalism, reductive scientism and sentimental romanticism,  and the post-modern idols of irony, absurdity, parody and satire. The “trans-modern turn” is toward an Integral Vision of Reality in which the Divine Center respects the diversity yet unites the Natural, Humanistic, Psychological and Sociological Centers of Consciousness, Cognition, Creativity and Culture. Each of these four vital centers contributes to the Total Ecology of Being.

The various reactions and responses to the announcement of the Death of God in the modern secular age are understandable. So is the corrective-movement that seeks to look beyond the death of God in the modern secular post-ontological imagination. Some of us are experiencing a re-awakening of “The Divine Center” that organizes the integrates the Natural, Human, Psychological and Sociological spheres of life that comprise the Totality of Being into a Unified and Diversified Whole. For some of us there emerges an “anatheism” beyond the old categories of theism and theism, polytheism and pantheism. For some of us the re-emergent Divine Center speaks through a “sacred secularity” that recognizes “epiphanies” in many subtle and unexpected guises – including literature, philosophy, art and science along with traditional and syncretic  religious forms. The Divine Center  speak to us in a hidden and silent language of the Spirit beyond words.  It speaks to us through the elliptical and evocative forms of symbols, archetypes, metaphors, analogies, stories, music, drama and the arts. The Divine Center evokes a transcendent vision of the ultimate, the infinite, the mysterious, the ineffable, the unnamable. the unseizable. It awakens in us a “tacit knowledge” of the Comprehensive, the Universal, the Luminous, the Holy, the Beloved, the Merciful, the Supreme Good.

The God-Question: What It’s Really All About

questions-god

Today especially among “the new atheists” it has become fashionable to bash all faith and belief in God, whatever is meant by the word and symbol of “God.” It is usually the Judeo-Christian theistic God that is being attacked. We are told that faith and belief in God is silly, superstitious, antiquated, bad for society and harmful to your health.

It may be worthwhile to point out that the so-called “God Question” actually translates into several existential questions: “Does life have a meaning and purpose that death will not utterly destroy?” “Is there any hope of a new dimension of life beyond the grave?” “Do we live and die in vain?” The question of God is really the question of whether there is any realistic basis for existential meaning, purpose, values and hope in the face of the apparent meaninglessness and randomness of our births, lives and deaths in a strictly naturalistic and indifferent universe. It is to ask whether there is a viable alternative to the nihilism, absurdity, futility and despair that are the offspring of reductive, mechanistic, deterministic and materialistic naturalism. It is to ask whether there might be more to reality than that which is disclosed through the naturalistic method and implicit naturalistic worldview of scientific empiricism.

In literary terms, the “God Question” is asking whether there might be a transcendent alternative to the nihilistic view that is lyrically expressed in such words as: “Life is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing;” “Life is just one damn thing after another;” “Life’s a bitch and then you die;” “God is dead and we have killed him;” “Hollow men, chestless men;” “The horror, the horror!” “The only sure foundation for the future of philosophy is one of unyielding despair.”

The God Question for most people translates into the existential and ethical questions as to whether life is supremely meaningful and grounded in enduring values, or whether it is finally pointless and meaningless in the face of death? Is there nothing that grounds our human quest for enduring meaning, values, purpose and hope that death will not utterly annihilate? Is life, after all, a foolish charade, a cruel joke, an insane asylum, a senseless farce? Does the human search for the recognition and realization of beauty, truth, justice, love, freedom, dignity, nobility and hope turn to dust and ashes in the oblivion of our personal death and species extinction? In such a pointless world what is the point of living? Is it only to know that Nature rides us like a machine and is indifferent to our existence?

Those who ironically find the supreme meaning in their lives by telling others that there is no enduring meaning to life ought to at least own up to what they are doing, which is crushing the life out of those who require some eternal meaning and transcendent hope as the necessary “oxygen for their souls” in order breathe freely and live boldly amidst the daunting challenges of our global age.

They ought to at least admit that they are fueling the fires of nihilism, absurdity, meaninglessness and despair among those who can only hear their words as the death not only of God but also of Man and of Meaning, Purpose, Values and Hope in a vast, indifferent universe that has no pre-vision, purpose and destiny for us except futile struggle and final extinction. They ought to admit that they are “liberating” humanity from the old god of religious transcendence in order to recruit “true believers”  of the new god of scientific reductionism.

But “scientism” cannot provide us with answers to the great religious, philosophical, existential and ethical questions, except to reduce the phenomena of Life, Sentience, Intelligence, Consciousness, Creativity, Compassion, Courage, Civility and Culture to the reductive vocabularies of mathematics, chemistry, physics and biology. Scientism fails as a new religion. It will never satisfy the human quest for meaning, purpose, transcendence and hope. It can only offer us a “philosophy of unyielding despair,” or else change the subject to the reductive explanations and quantitative measurements of math, physics, chemistry and biology, treating them at totalizing explanations of Reality while pretending that the profound ontological and existential questions no longer matter. The God question is really not about the word “God” at all. It is about “intimations” of “the ultimate, the infinite, the mysterious, the unknown, and the unseizable.” And it is about the perennial search for transcendent meaning, purpose, values and hope that death will not totally destroy. The word/symbol of “God” may come in and go out of fashion from time to time, but the real questions behind it will never die.

What Is the Meaning of Life?

earth in space

Yesterday a friend sent me an email suggesting that an interesting topic for a future conversational salon would be the age-old question, “What is the Meaning of Life?” To this question there have been many suggested answers.

Among the religiously and metaphysically inclined there have been different responses: For theists it is “to love God and enjoy him forever.”  For polytheists it is to live in reverence and respect for the Spirit-World, including Nature-Spirit, Ancestor-Spirits. For pantheists it is to realize that God is all there is. For pan-en-theists it is to realize that God is in all, and all is in God, yet God is distinct but inseparable from both Nature and Man, and that our purpose is to cooperate with the unfolding creative energy of the finite and mutable God in the realization of new and higher values in the universe.

Among humanists, naturalists, nihilists, existentialists, absurdists and secularists the answers include: To realize your full human potential. To seek life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. To live in harmony and balance with nature. To create your own meaning in a secular world without metaphysical entities, agents or gods. To realize that life has no intrinsic meaning at all and that this is “the truth that sets you existentially free” to become anything you want to be during the contingent accident of your objectively absurd but subjectively meaningful life.

Sometimes a picture is worth a thousand words, and so I’ve included some pictures and cartoons from the Web that express the variety of ways in which persons have attempted to answer this age-old question. I have posted them in no particular order. What is the meaning of life…for you?

meaning-of-life

birth - inbetween stuff - death

meaning of life - faith, hope, love meaning of life - kisses, adventures, swims meaning of life - paper in teeth  meaning of life - scientists discover  meaning-of-life - whatever you want it to be

the meaning of life - creating yourself the meaning of life - emptiness the meaning of life - food and sleep the meaning of life - it stops the meaning of life - it's all an illusion the meaning of life - live, laugh, love the meaning of life - people the meaning of life - six answers the meaning of life - to be happy and useful the meaning of life, the computers are downthe meaning of life - to love and be lovedspiritual homecoming220px-JacobsLaddertoHeaventranscendental awakening  the mystery of life - soon you will understandHeaven_Paradise