[This is a repost from 2010--with a few changes. I thought I'd throw it out there again since it links to a bunch of themes that have come up in comments recently--second naiveté, Mary, the flat, univocity of the post-Scotus cosmos, and the references to the Meditations, on which this piece leans heavily. This is theological pastiche, so take it for what it's worth, a thought experiment.--jw]
I think that one of the biggest problems with contemporary Westerners--even among people who think of themselves as religious--lies in their inability to feel the sacred. And this lack of feeling makes it almost impossible to frame a plausible cosmology open to the existence of anything outside the materialist box that frames our experience. There are vestiges of an older sensibility. We look at the starry sky above us and we feel something that science simply is inadequate to explain, and yet moderns feel silly if they discuss seriously ideas about the cosmos on terms different from those that Carl Sagan would approve of.
And yet when we read about the cosmogonies of the ancients, we sense they were onto something that we have lost the capacity to appreciate. We want to retrieve it, but we are shy about it; we study these texts and other artifacts of premodern consciousness and talk about them in a kind of scholarly way so as not to let on that we think that maybe they knew something that we don't. But we dare not take seriously their stories--safer to assume they are fanciful fictions, and any attempt to work with them is the stuff of trivial entertainments, like the novels of Dan Brown or the Indiana Jones films.
Modern consciousness has squeezed out the mystery in things that naive premodern consciousness took for granted, and so, echoing Paul Ricoeur, I'd argue that we need to develop a new mindset that embraces a 'second naiveté' that would once again be capable of experiencing what premoderns experienced and then tried to represent in their myths. The gospel tells us that unless we become like children, we cannot enter into the Kingdom of Heaven. It does not mean to regress into childishness, but to open up the parts of the soul that we have closed down, the parts that are open to the enchantment in Being, to be adults but to also the recover something lost. That's what I understand second naiveté to be.
In what I write here I assume that human consciousness as it is currently structured cognizes in its ordinary states only a small fraction of the full spectrum of Being. Second naiveté, therefore, is open to the idea of a supersensible, supra-rational realm that is wrapped around us and interpenetrates what we experience in ordinary sense-centered consciousness. A second naiveté is open to the idea that people in every generation have experiences in which clues, indicators, epiphanies are given concerning the existence of this supersensible, supra-rational realm. The difference between moderns and premoderns lies in that moderns think these people are crazy and premoderns thought they were shamans, initiates, or saints.
I think that the postmodern cultural paradigm that will arise in the coming decades will draw deeply from what the premoderns understood but which was rejected as incompatible with modern Enlightenment rationality. As we move further along into a globalizing world there is going to be enormous pressure for cultural fusion. One effect will be that as traditional societies absorb modern consciousness, modern societies will start once again to absorb elements of premodern consciousness. To take a fairly trivial example--look at how the martial arts of traditional Asia have come to dominate the action-movie genre. Some of this is nostalgia, but it doesn't have to be. Nostalgia is the desire to go native in the past, and that's not what I see going on there. It's rather that things moderns have filtered out are beginning to leak back in. A very interesting book that documents how this is happening all over the place is Erik Davis's Techgnosis: Myth, Magic, and Mysticism in the Age of Information.
In what follows I want to make a provisional attempt to think mythopoetically about cosmology in a way that draws upon different strands in the western tradition--some orthodox, some esoteric--that makes little sense to the modern rational mind, but could make sense in a postmodern supra-rational/rational fusion culture. The ultimate criterion, for me at least, about whether something is ultimately accepted as true lies in that it has to pass a smell test that involves balanced tension between what critical consciousness can accept and the Mythos that still resonates within these deep, ancient traditional understandings of the way things are. A bad smell develops when the tension breaks down, and things get unbalanced one way or the other.
Science tells us about the mechanics of the natural world and precious little about the meaning of the world. But the logos of modern rationality, once it understands its limitations, is open to encounters with the supra-rational that present themselves in the great mythic narratives. And in order for us to work with what is given to us in those narratives, we need to think again analogically, metaphorically, imagistically, symbolically--that is, to think more in the way premoderns think. Myth comes spontaneously out of the premodern dream time; mythopoesis is soul thinking, but in a postmodern key.
Those premodern traditions are preserved for us in a variety of ways, but however we have access to them, they are like melodies that we need to learn how to play again, and once that melody has been woven into the fabric of our souls, we need then to learn how to improvise on those melodic themes--the Jews called their improvisation midrash but it's something we all can do with any sacred text or story. And the quality of our improvisation or midrash depends on how intensely the music lives in the soul.
Such an exercise is not primarily a head thing; it is, though, the mental effort to listen to a cosmic song that is being sung whether anyone hears it or not. The head is secondary; we need it to think, but we also need it to sing. But any future narrative in a global world will have to have fusionist or syncretistic qualities, not fusionist in some ugly mishmash, but fusionist in a way that finds an underlying narrative that is catholic enough to embrace a broad range of experiences and ideas. I believe that a Nicene Christianity is capable of being catholic enough to do that, but in what follows, my project is neither proselytic or apologetic, but synthetic or integrative. I leave it to the reader to judge for himself whether such an effort is a legitimate, fusionist midrash--or just syncretistic mishmash.
In Christian thought, especially in the early medieval Neoplatonic thought that was most influential until the introduction of nominalism and Aristotelian in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, there is a stream called apophatic or negative theology. It stressed that since God is not a thing--a 'No-Thing'--nothing meaningful can be affirmed about him. He is the ground of Being which is not the same as Being because it transcends all Being. Whatever Being is, in whatever sense we experience it, God is not that--and so God can be described as not existing by any idea we have about what it means to exist. Which is not to say that there is no God, just that whatever we might think about him as he is in himself has nothing to do with what he really is.
My assumption has always been that Buddhism, insofar as it is considered atheistic, or non-theistic, shares common ground with this apophatic strand of thinking about God in Western thought. If our ordinary consciousness is too comfortable in samsara (the ordinary illusory nature of what we experience), anything the illusion-soaked samsaric mind affirms about God is necessarily illusory.
So there's this practical aspect to Buddhistic "atheistic" assertions about God. Whatever ideas the samsaric, theistic mind might have about God, they are qualitatively no better than the ideas an atheist might have. Neither knows what he's talking about. And probably one's ideas about God in samsaric consciousness are a spiritual impediment, especially when those ideas reinforce the low-level ego/and false identity states that we see in religious fanaticism. So Buddhism 101: get rid of the idea of God--too many problems.
Fine. I can accept that as a kind of apophatic, practical consideration, but I can't as a metaphysical assertion of truth. But let's leave that aside for a moment.
The central idea that distinguishes Judaeo-Christian thought from eastern thought--and Western pagan thought, too--is the idea of creation from nothing. It is a difficult idea to grasp. If we can imagine a time before creation, then all there is is God. God fills everything. So how can God create out of nothing when there is no nothing? Is it possible to even think of a "before the moment of creation"? If so, how did God occupy himself for the eternity preceding that moment? And why all of a sudden did he want to change things? And how could there be an "all of a sudden" if there was no time?
This is where the apophatic tradition comes in handy because of its practical implication to bracket any consideration of God as he is in himself. But in the West, there is the idea that this God has revealed himself, which means while we humans may not be able to say anything about who God is in himself, we can say something about who he is for us. And Christians believe that this revelation was most fully given in the events that unfolded subsequent to the first Christmas. That's a really hard idea for non-Christians to accept, but if it is approached with an attitude of second naivete, it can make sense, profound sense.
But we're getting ahead of ourselves. The story begins with creation from nothing, and this idea of creation has two basic implications. First, it affirms that God is something radically different from what he created. Whatever creation is, God is not that--pantheism is not an option. Second, it affirms an intentionality and purposefulness that validates space and time, that the basic matrix of creation is good, that it is not some bad dream from which we must awaken, some prison from which we must be liberated.
The idea of the fall does not suggest that the earth and our lives on it is a hell from which we must escape, but rather a condition of alienation, of disconnection from the larger supersensible, supra-rational realm, and that the earth's redemption, and the life of everything on it, depends on overcoming that alienation. We humans are wounded, but not utterly depraved; we are capable of healing. That's the ur-meaning for the Latin root of the English word 'religion'--re-ligere, to re-bind, to reconnect--to suture and heal what was sundered. There is no need to reconnect if there isn't already a disconnect. This fundamental intuition of the disconnect distinguishes both eastern and Western traditions from naturalistic thinking. For the latter there is only what's here and nothing else to which we can connect. The naturalist certainly experiences alienation, but for him the solution is to more deeply embrace his animal, instinctual nature. The re-connection for the naturalist is with nature. But what is nature? Is it only what we can see and touch--or is it a vast multidimensional complex of created worlds? I think of supernatural as simply other-dimensional.
So let's look at the implications of the idea of creation from nothing. First the idea that God is radically different from his creation, and transcends it completely. How to imagine such a thing? As suggested above, the first problem is that before creation there is no nothing to create out of--God is everywhere filling everything. I think that the most useful idea for understanding creation is the Kabbalistic, mythopoetic metaphor Isaac Luria called the tzimtzum, which is that God contracted hollowed a part of himself out or pulled himself back to create an emptiness, a nothing that was 'Not-God'.
In order for God to create out of nothing, first he had to create the Nothing, and so this is the first moment of creation--the bringing into being of the Nothing. And this Nothing is nothing precisely because it is Not God, and yet it is surrounded by, enveloped by God.
So in the beginning, there is the primal polarity--pleromatic plenitude/emptiness, or God/not-God. But emptiness is a relative term, and while it would be our tendency to think of emptiness as we think of outer space with nothing in it, it's better to think of it essentially as not-God. The 'nothing' is from the point of view of us creatures 'everything' that is not God; it's the raw material from which the cosmos was made, and the biblical image for this is the 'Deep'--the primordial waters or Chaos. The Deep is the Not-God that filled the space that after the tzimtsum God created within himself.
And it, too, is a No-Thing, I think it's a mistake to think about it as inert mass, like some primordial clay. I think of it rather as a person, a cosmic spiritual being created in the image and likeness of the God who made her. She is the first born of all creation that differs in its essence from its creator as created differs from un-created. The Deep is the Divine Feminine, as much a personal being as the spirit, the divine breath, which hovers over it in the image given to us in Genesis. She is a cosmic spiritual being who is the primal matrix, the fecund mother/matter out of which all creatures are born and have their being. The story of evolution is the story of the Primordial Chaos, the Divine Feminine, organizing, complexifying, differentiating. The more mystical aspects of naturalism, as for instance that found among contemporary environmentalists, are a kind of retrieval of the ancient Mother religion. That's a legitimate part of the picture, but it's not the whole picture.
I'd argue that the pantheists' experience of cosmic oneness with God is in my view a case of mistaken identity. This experience is one of unity or communion with the Mother, the principle of created, evolving Being, not unity with the uncreated Father. And yet the uncreated Father God reveals himself and his intentions through the Mother in whom and through whom creation came into being. The uncreated Godhead, as active principle, as Yang, works in partnership with the created Cosmic Mother, the Yin principle, who works freely in response to the will of the active Godhead who images or reflects himself in the created reality that is Not God, but with whom he is in intimate communion. This is an idea that leads to the retrieval of the Catholic idea of Mary as the mediatrix of all graces, as Sophia, the eternal feminine, the font of all wisdom. [Did Arianism suffer a similar case of mistaken identity, mistaking the Logos for Sophia?]
Now I realize this probably seems pretty far fetched, but it resonates with the bits and pieces of Marian doctrine Catholics and the Orthodox churches have always held. I'm just putting this out as a kind of thought experiment that, for me at least, pulls together a lot of ideas about Mary that never made much sense. Mary, for Catholics and Orthodox Christians, is more than this sweet, unassuming Jewish girl who did the right thing. She was always more than that, and that made the Protestants very uncomfortable--they called it Mariolatry. But it's not Mariolatry if we understand Mary not as God, but as first among created beings. The essential idea is to hold in mind this distinction between created and uncreated.
Is it idolatrous to believe in angels and their hierarchies? Well, Mary is Queen of All Angels, who incarnated as Jesus incarnated, who was fully human as Jesus was fully human, but a created being, not uncreated as Jesus was. If you can get behind the idea of the uncreated godhead incarnating in Jesus, it isn't that much of a stretch to accept the idea that the firstborn of all creation could also incarnate as a human. Isn't this consistent with the idea and explains the doctrine of Mary's having been herself born without original sin? She pre-existed Adam and Eve.
If the story of evolution is, as I believe it to be, the story of the gradual interpenetration of the the uncreated with the created (see figure below), and if we are to understand that a critical moment in the progressing of that story required the incarnation of the the uncreated within the matrix of creation, what better image is there for that then the Christmas story, the story of the Divine Mother, the principle of created being, choosing humanly to incarnate herself to become the biological channel through which the uncreated godhead humanly incarnates.
Mary is not God--she is a created being--but she was an essential partner with God in the creation of the cosmos and in the incarnation of the Godhead in Jesus Christ. She was Plato's demiurge and the Sophia of the book of Wisdom. She is the apotheosis of the created divine human--and that's what the doctrine of her Assumption into heaven points to. She, born without original sin, she is the principle of unfallen nature, natura naturans. She is not "just" an angelic being; she is the principle of unfallen nature in its fully realized human form, and as such a proleptic image in her "assumption body" of what we shall all become when we become fully, inwardly transformed into the image and likeness of the Godhead, an image and likeness that was never shattered in her as it was in the sons of man after the fall.
These are big, big issues, and they are hard to address with the thoroughness that a book length treatment of them could give. I can refer you to the work of some of the Russian Sophiologists like Soloviev, Bulgakov, Tomberg as sources for these ideas, but my point here is not to argue for their truth, but rather to illustrate what I mean by mythopoetic retrieval and second naivete. Others I'm sure can (or will) do it at a level that is far more satisfying than what I've attempted here. This is the kind of thing we will be seeing, not from theologians and in official church pronouncements, but in movies, fiction, maybe even TV. ("Lost", I would argue was an exercise in retrieval and fusion in this sense. Someone should do a midrash along these on the paradoxical imagery used in Mr. Eko's dope-filled Mary statues.) It will develop in the popular imagination, and after a while we will all take for granted ideas that seem impossible now. In the postmodern imagination, anything goes.
I also want to make the point that the telos or goal of Christian practice is not one of melting into the cosmic pleroma, but of a call to differentiation and freedom--and to love. But there is progressive love, the love of the future, and regressive love, the love of the past. And once this idea is grasped, so many other things fall into place, at least they do for me. The idea of the Trinity for Nicene Christians tells us very little about the nature of God except than in himself he is a communion of persons.
That's the only really important takeaway, that reality as understood by trinitarian Christians is both in its uncreated and created aspects all about a communion between persons, not a merging into either fullness or nothingness. But the goal then for us humans is to become fully realized persons so that we might enjoy that face-to-face communion, a communion of created with uncreated. But it starts with establishing the capacity for communion with the immediate created world given to us by the senses, then with creation in other supersensible dimensions, and then ultimately with the uncreated. We are most of us not good at communion, but all of us have had a taste, some sense of what that communion might be. Now it's our job, our fundamental task as humans, to make that communion real in a world that for whatever complex reasons seems hell bent on resisting it.