And Jesus said unto him, Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of man hath no where to lay his head. Luke 9:58
I've recently seen two films--"Into the Wild" and "Beowulf"--that both in their different ways are stories of human folly and human heroism, but each in a different key. "Into the Wild" (and Jon Krakauer's book on which it was based) wants to argue that Chris McCandless, its main character, was a public fool and a private hero. Beowulf, on the other hand, it is clear, was a public hero, but a private fool.
McCandless is a holy fool. He's like the early Christian Desert Fathers who fled into the Egyptian wilderness, or the Irish monks who cast themselves into the sea in their coracles in a search to find God. Beowulf is the case study of the strong man who calculates what is in his best interest, does what it takes to obtain it, and loses his soul in the process.
Beowulf's story is a morality play, but morality understood in the embedded, enchanted world of premodern consciousness. In that world, there's nothing wrong with the getting of as much sex, wealth, power, and glory as you can--that's what every hero wants and deserves--but he has to earn them the old-fashioned way, by risking his life in battle. He broke the hero code in his getting his hero rewards by cutting a deal with the demoness he was commissioned to kill. He gets what he bargained for, but lives the rest of his life knowing he's a fraud. The moral balance could only be restored by losing his life in combat with the evil produce of his misdeed, the dragon he sired with Grendel's demon mother.
You could describe Beowulf as a story of redressing a karmic imbalance, and while that's interesting in its own way, I'm more interested in what drives the holy fool toward "disembeddedness", the renunciation of everything that's important to the well-embedded pagan hero. The term 'disembedded' comes from Chapter 3--"The Great Disembedding"-- in Charles Taylor's important new book, A Secular Age. Taylor sets himself the task of trying to go beyond a simple description of the unprecedented shift in consciousness and culture from the premodern to the modern. He wants to understand the conditions for such a shift's possibility, the different layers of influence leading to it, and why the West was the locus for its emergence. And one of his principal explanatory concepts is the embeddedness/disembeddedness of the unbuffered/buffered Self.
I refer you to the text for a fuller explanation, but in a nutshell, 'disembedded consciousness' in its extreme form is a completely disenchanted consciousness that imagines the world around it as pure material extension. The buffered self is the effect of the mechanical consciousness of modern rationality and that Blake decried. The buffered Self is disembedded because it experiences itself as walled off or disconnected from an objective world rather than submerged in it as is typical of the unbuffered Self of embedded consciousness.
There are different levels of buffering or of disembedded consciousness, but modernity is the story of a culture-wide movement into a kind of first-level of it. The Beowulf story assumes the readers or listeners live in a world of embedded consciousness, which is a world full of spirits, angels, demons. The embedded/unbuffered consciousness feels the connection with nature and other human beings to a point where it's hard for such a self to know where the boundaries between it and other are defined. This is the consciousness of shamanic and animist societies, and it is a consciousness that lingered in the West in the rural areas--the heath--where the unbuffered people there had not completely disembedded themselves from "heathen" consciousness.
In the developed countries, this embedded, heathen consciousness has almost completely disappeared, but we encounter it still in those societies that have not yet developed in the westernized sense. Disembedded peoples think of embedded peoples as primitive and superstitious. Embedded people look at modern disembeds and see cold, lonely people cut off from nature and one another. Both are partially right, and both need what the other offers.
But why was the West so precocious in developing these buffered selves? Taylor's argument is more complex than what I present here (and what I write is not intended to represent his thinking), but I would argue that the two primary cultural forces in the West that promoted disembedded consciousness are Greek rationality and Jewish monotheism. Both these forces had a profoundly disembedding effect in their respective societies. Socrates was condemned to death, essentially for the crime of "disembedding" the youth of Athens from an unconscious pious belief in the gods. The Jews were unique in their insistence on disembedding themselves as a people from the deeply embedded fertility cults and pagan consciousness that surrounded them. Both societies created a small minority of buffered selves--philosophers and prophets.
So along these lines I find compelling Barfield's argument in Saving the Appearances that the emergence of modern (buffered) consciousness in the West is derived by the cross-fertilization of Athens and Jerusalem in the medieval Christian synthesis, which in turn gave birth to modernity in the era subsequent to the Renaissance. The medieval period in Europe is essentially a transition phase from pagan embedded consciousness to modern disembedded consciousness, and the role of Christianity in this movement has to be recognized.
And ultimately, the argument that I want to make is that modernity, even in its materialistic refusal of the spiritual, is nevertheless a spiritual phenomenon, not unlike the Dark Night about which St. John of the Cross speaks, but on a culture-wide scale. As such it is a difficult passage toward spiritual maturation. I think that it's interesting that both John and Teresa, although we tend to think of them as medievals are really early modern figures, and I think of them as transitional figures pointing the way toward a modern spirituality.
The Beowulf story is a twilight-of-the-gods epic, by which I mean it occurs on the cusp or transition point from the old embedded paganism to Christianity. The movie contrasts the heroic qualities of the old paganism with the weak, womanish, Christianity as represented in slimy Malkovichian character, Unferth. This is a somewhat Nietzschean reading of the Beowulf story, and Hollywood excels in pop Nietzscheanism. It celebrates the brutal, rules-are-for-the-weak action hero or, as in this case, indulges in a nostalgia for the heroes of old--when men were men and women were women before Christian civilization de-sexed everyone. In this pop-Nietzschean imagination of the world, Christian religious figures are always authoritarian control freaks or repressed, alienated wraiths.
Nietzscheanism is an argument in the final analysis that seeks to overcome modern/postmodern disembedded alienation by a return to pagan embeddedness. (Isn't this essentially what Nazism was?) 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 a while 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 its 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 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; it's 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 the current. 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 communion, but not just with the divine, but communion with everything--with the earth, with people, with the entire cosmos, and this communion 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.
McCandless, the holy fool in Into the Wild, you might say stayed away from and out of the river too long. He realized he had to return, but it was too late for him. And so in the end his was the foolishness of Icarus. He went into the wilderness seeking the fire of heaven and spiritual transformation; he wound up getting burnt to a crisp. It's a tragedy, maybe not so much for him, but for the people who loved him and for whom I'm sure he would have been a light had he made it back. If first it is necessary to disembed, it is only to create the possibility for our re-embedding, and in doing so to gradually slow-cook the world with the unconsuming fire of love.