Sunday, November 14, 2004

Philosophers, Artists, Saints.

The growing rush and the disappearance of contemplation and simplicity from modern life [are] the symptoms of a complete uprooting of culture. The waters of religion retreat and leave behind pools and bogs. The sciences . . . atomize old beliefs. The civilized classes and nations are swept away by the grand rush for contemptible wealth. Never was the world worldlier, never was it emptier of love and goodness. . . . Everything, modern art and science included, prepares us for the coming barbarism. . . .Everything on earth will be decided by the crudest and most evil powers, by the selfishness of grasping men and military dictators.

Nietzsche, Thoughts out of Season, 1873-76

Nietzsche lamented the loss of the philosopher, artist, and saint as bourgeois modernity replaced the older aristocratic culture of the premodern west. And I lament it , too. Not the loss of the aristocratic social order, but the loss of the culture-wide aspiration toward the More that the philosopher, artist, and saint used to symbolize. N's antidote to the leveling forces of modern culture was his promotion of the idea of the uebermensch or superman, but that creates as many problems as it solves.

But he recognized the problem--which was the loss of the aspiration toward transcendence as a universal cultural ideal. I have always taken his famous statement that "God is dead . . . We have killed him" to be simply a description of the culture's loss of what has been an intuitive certainty in every culture until the 19th century in the modern west. The sky darkened and all there was left was man alone. And it was not a pretty sight. So the uebermensch was his attempt to reinvent the philosopher, artist, saint on this now bleak, godless planet where otherwise human culture devolves into eat or be eaten barbarism of the Social Darwinists.

The word "transcendence" is not a word often used in our day-to-day lives, and so let's be clear about its meaning. As suggested above I mean by it the "More" to which human beings aspire. By "More" I mean that dimension of our humanity that goes beyond our instinctual life. It's most often thought of as spiritual. Barbarism, on the other hand, is life lived completely circumscribed by instinctuality. An effective religious practice is the soul work people do to transform their instinctual lives by a form of training or discipline, a work which is inspired by this fundamental transcendent aspiration.

"Transcending" is is the human project by which the lower is transformed into the higher. It can't be done if there is no higher and that humans are nothing more than animals with a highly developed cerebral cortex. Higher just means more complex. More efficient at getting needs met. It's a vision of the human as machine rthr than soul, and it leads to the kind of cyborgian future that is already being talked about as the next evolutionary step. For Nietzsche, the prospect of a cyborgian future would have been appalling. Deep down he knew, as all of us know, that we are more than that no matter how "modern" our sensibility. Transcendence calls us to become that More. It's a call to become completed, a call to realize that which we were created to become.

A healthy culture provides a trellis upon which the souls of the people born into it can grow upward toward the More that calls us to be More. Unhealthy or decadent cultures like ours have only the memory of a trellis, or if there is one, it is at best rickety, neglected, and unused. Unused mainly because most people have ceased to believe that it leads anywhere. And so without a trellis upon which to give shape to one's growth, humans develop aimlessly in whatever direction along the ground, living their lives driven primarily by the three basic instinctual drivers symbolized by sex, power, and money. To the degree that these three shape our cultural life uninfluenced by the aspiration to transcend their limitations, to that degree a society is barbaric.

Look at our youth culture--its monotonous music, its obsession with violent video games, sex and drugs. It's a swamp. And what you have there is Nietzsche's nightmare of the barbarism of the Last Man. So I could imagine that many people think that the kind of "redneck" culture or the subcultures that are built around rightwing Christianity are more preferable--at least they give lipservice to traditional virtues out of which the trellis was constructed. But I would say that they are two sides of the same Last-Man coin. There are left-wing and right-wing Last Men. Both are equal as attitudinal social systems in promoting a blindness to transcendence. The former is the condition of the younger brother in the gospel story of the prodigal son, the latter the condition of the older brother. More on that later.

How can I say that any Christian group is blind to transcendence? Isn't that the whole point of faith--it's openness to the transcendent, the absolute, superabundant More of God? Yes, but I think it's fair to ask whether that's what these Christian groups are about, and whether, despite their purported commitment to truth that speaks through the Bible, they have in fact developed an attitude that closes them off more than it opens them up to it. By their fruits you will know them.

The archetypal form of such blindness is Phariseeism--Jesus described the Pharisees of his day as whited sepulchers, pristine clean on the outside, enclosing what what was dead and rotten on the inside. But as they were a type of religious personality then, so have they been through history in all religions.

The Pharisee is the man of faith who has no faith--and doesn't know it. He's someone who is going through the motions because in his doing so he thinks that he is a better than others who don't. The whole goal of the Pharisee is to create a false identity that makes him appear good rather than being truly good. Pharisees can be but are not necessarily hypocrites. They can be very sincere and intense in their project to appear morally blameless. St. Paul was such a one before his conversion.

But this kind of project is really a compulsive disorder, and has very little to do with real faith, even though this type of person is attracted to religion and often plays an important role in its institutions. One of the major themes of the Gospels is is to warn about the dangers of becoming such a person. These are the wolves in sheep's clothing.

The gospel repeatedly contrasts the blindness of these self-righteous prigs with the supple-hearted people who often enough are scandalous sinners. The point that the gospel makes is that the most important trait that a human being can have is not to be morally perfect but to have the cognitive capacity to see with one's heart. The Samaritans, tax collectors, prostitutes, and other sinners recognized in Jesus what the Pharisees simply could not see. Why? Their minds and hearts had not rigidified in the way that the Pharisees' had.

I don't think that the point is to validate moral libertinism, but to say something important about religious psychology. Usually the people who recognize God in their lives are the ones who one way or another have come to realize their need of Him. There are all kinds of people who think they have no need of God in their lives, but the toughest cases are those who think they have no need of God because they already possess Him. This is the condition of the Pharisee, and it's a form of mental illness and cold heartedness parading as normalcy that is so severe that when the very incarnation of truth and goodness appears in their midst, the Pharisee has no capacity for recognizing Him.

And his cluelessness is the same as that of the older brother in the story of the Prodigal Son. Remember how it goes? The younger son asks his father for his inheritance and goes to a far off country where he squanders it. Impoverished and abandoned, he figures he would do better if he returns to his father, tells him that he was a fool, and asks for a job as a servant. The father, overjoyed at his son's return instead throws a big party and returns him to his place of honor. The older son, however, who was the boy scout who followed all the rules, seethes with resentment. Are there no consequences? How can this be fair? This resentment is one of the chief symptoms of 'whited sepulcher syndrome.' It's a picture of the soul rotting inside.

For those suffering from it are blinded by their inability to understand what is really going on. He misses the point, because the story is about the discovery of the need for the More. Nothing else matters. The Father is overjoyed not because his younger son lived a life of depravity, but because he survived the shipwreck that was necessary to awaken him to a deeper understanding of the way things really are.

The older son hadn't awakened yet. If the older son had, he would have been as overjoyed as his father to learn that his younger brother had found it too. The younger son has made a discovery that the older has not yet made, and no matter how it's done, making this discovery is the only thing that matters. The gospels are full of stories about something being lost and then found. The only important thing is the finding. Everything else is secondary.

Now the finding does not mean that things become safe and secure for the finder. Certainty, safety, and security are the obsessions of the Pharisees. The goal is not peace and serenity as it is in the Eastern religions. The finding means that one becomes a disciple and that means being called to go places where one would rather not go. It means having an awakened conscience which requires in a very real sense dying to the normal understanding world, and not living as normal people do. I think this plays out for different people in different ways. But one of the fruits is a growth in freedom and individuality and an increased capacity for love. This is what we mean by a saint, which brings us back to where we started.

As the philosopher is a prodigy of thinking about what's true, and the artist a prodigy of the feeling for beauty and the making of what is beautiful, the saint is the prodigy in the use his or her will for the doing of what is good and of becoming someone who is truly, deeply good. Not just nice. Not just decent--but someone who is terribly good. The whole idea of truth, beauty, and goodness as transcendent ideals that call us to be More has become something of a joke, something to which we refer only with irony. And so one of the great signs of the decadence of our culture is that genuine prodigies of truth, beauty, and goodness are no longer recognized or honored. They have always been rare, but now they have become invisible.

The rest of us suffer for it because we rarely meet such prodigies who can inspire us by what they have become to realize the unrealized possibilities in our own lives. We need that inspiration, because without it it's so easy to give up, and to believe that nothing More is a real possibility for us or for anyone.

If there were a living tradition, it would produce the kind of people who would realize those possibilities and show those of us who follow how to become what they have become. Instead our philosophers and artists have no feeling for the transcendent. And our religious leaders are for the most part Pharisees or lightweights. And the rest of us are mired in mediocrity as a result. The only prodigies these days are the prodigies of barbarism.

There is no trellis there anymore for us to climb up out of the swamps of barbarism, so the job, I suppose, is for us to build one. For the religious right, for the most part, offers us not a trellis, but a whited sepulcher.

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