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.