Thursday, April 28, 2005
Spiritual Freedom. If there is one thing I have become sick of hearing is the now-tired argument that people who are religious our spiritually inclined are weak and needy, that they are afraid to be free.
Now I'm a Catholic, and I'll be the first to acknowledge that much of the criticism directed toward Catholics over the last five hundred years by Protestants and secularists is valid. The Church has taken its role as shepherd of souls a little too seriously in its insistence that its members act like sheep. And there are an awful lot of Catholics both now and in the past who have been happy to conform to those expectations.
Now from what I've written in the past couple of weeks, it should be clear that I am by no means a theological liberal and that I acknowledge that in order to develop a high level of spiritual maturity, it is necessary to submit to those who have spiritual authority, just as it is necessary for someone who has musical talent to submit to a teacher who through nurture and discipline can help him to realize fully his potential. But the goal of submitting one's freedom to the master in the short run is to be trained to become oneself a master in the long run. The ultimate goal is higher level of freedom--not endless submission.
Now the problem facing any spiritual aspirant in our western consumer culture is that most of the religion that seems to be flourishing today has very little to do with developing spiritual freedom. There are people everywhere who are spiritually starving and all they can find is spiritual junk food which has an unwholesome addictive effect. And when the junk food offered identifies itself as Christian, it gives Christianity a bad name. Where is there a religion where its leaders are promoting the idea that what they are about is helping people to become more deeply spiritually free?
I don't know for sure what Joseph Ratzinger would say about the goal of Christian practice being a deeper level of freedom. I suspect he would agree in theory--his early writings show he understands and has embraced the concept--but he would probably argue now that the goal is rarely realized, and that too many people who think they are exercising real freedom are in fact deluded and more than likely really in the grip of compulsion, aka, sin. The road is narrow and the path steep toward the attainment of genuine freedom, he would say, and I would agree with him on that.
And maybe the reason that it so rarely realized is because it's not promoted. And maybe the reason for that is that the Church is more interested in control than it is in the promotion of real freedom. So the question I would put to him then would be this: Is it really desirable that people should just be well-behaved and that they intellectually consent to the Church's teachings? Or is that as much a form of unfreedom as the compulsiveness of, say, the sexual libertine? Is it significantly better to be a prig than it is to be a debauchee. Is it better to be a Pharisee than a tax collector? Is it better to be the older son or the prodigal, younger son? It's not good to be either, but if you had to be one or the other, which would it be?
I'm pretty sure he'd say it's better to be the former in these pairs--the prig. It's safer, less messy. And as a parent I understand where he's coming from. Much less to worry about if your kid (or your priests and nuns) is well-behaved and repressed, if he's a member of the party of the Superego rather than of the party of the Id. But I would argue without hesitation that it's worse to be the prig because it's in most cases a deeper and more rigid form of unfreedom--it's harder to break out of.
I think there are times in everyone's life when he or she must make a sacrifice of his or her freedom, but such a sacrifice should be always freely chosen and should be for a clearly understood higher purpose--not just to be well behaved. And while certainly we have a duty in the parenting of our children to challenge their natural narcissism--they must learn self-restraint and to master their impulsivity--our more important duty to them is to nourish their freedom, and the development of their conscience. Because in the long run having a well-developed conscience is the only thing that matters. It is the cognitive capacity we must all develop if we are to discern spirits or distinguish truth from illusion.
There's a reason why Jesus got a much warmer reception among those in the party of the Id who had morally scandalous reputations than the morally righteous who were the party of the Superego--the former were less smugly sure of themselves, more vulnerable, more open to the surprising and the new possibility. They were, for sure, in a state of unfreedom, but they were not locked up tight the way the Pharisees were in their whited sepulchers. They were disposed toward freedom and recognized true liberation when it came to them. They had a capacity for discernment that the Pharisees did not. The Pharisees had highly developed superegos, but profoundly underdeveloped consciences. Conscience is one of those use-it-or-lose it kind of things. Better to use it and be occasionally wrong than not to use it at all.
We are all of us in our different ways in states of unfreedom. It's a given. It's what Christians mean when they talk about original sin. But in the final analysis it doesn't matter what the particular form of our unfreedom takes. The more important issue is how well disposed we are to be free. Will we greet the liberator if he should come to us, or shall we turn away in fear?
Wednesday, April 27, 2005
Power Freaks. I haven't had much to say about what's been going on politically because I don't have much to add from my perspective that isn't obvious. It's interesting, though, that the Democrats are once again thrust into the role of conservatives defending the tradition and the GOP radicals dismantling it. I'm talking about the White House's campaign to get rid of the centuries old, pesky filibuster rule, and once again it shows that politics in the Beltway has nothing to do with principle, but only the raw exercise of power.
The GOP seems so reasonable. All we want, they say, is an up or down vote. What's the matter with that? Well there's a little thing called checks and balances, and the filibuster is one of those little traditions that helps to preserve the minority's rights to object when something really seriously offends them. In this case the nominations of 10 out of 215 judges really offends them, as they should offend us all. As Charles Schumer said on the Senate floor yesterday, it's not about agreeing with each nomination according to some litmus test for ideological correctness. The minority in Congress has no right to expect that. It's about weeding out the extremist nominations and about compromise. That's all the minority can expect for its filibustering.
But the control freaks White House is in a position of strength, and it sees no need to compromise. So they'll push extremist judicial nominations and nut cases like John Bolton, because it's all about the assertion of power.
Now after writing this, I read an op ed in today's NYT by Robert Dole in which he takes on a defense of the Republican position:
But let's be honest: By creating a new threshold for the confirmation of judicial nominees, the Democratic minority has abandoned the tradition of mutual self-restraint that has long allowed the Senate to function as an institution.
This tradition has a bipartisan pedigree. When I was the Senate Republican leader, President Bill Clinton nominated two judges to the federal bench - H. Lee Sarokin and Rosemary Barkett - whose records, especially in criminal law, were particularly troubling to me and my Republican colleagues. Despite my misgivings, both received an up-or-down vote on the Senate floor and were confirmed. In fact, joined by 32 other Republicans, I voted to end debate on the nomination of Judge Sarokin. Then, in the very next roll call, I exercised my constitutional duty to offer "advice and consent" by voting against his nomination.
When I was a leader in the Senate, a judicial filibuster was not part of my procedural playbook. Asking a senator to filibuster a judicial nomination was considered an abrogation of some 200 years of Senate tradition.
So Dole wants to argue that it's the Democrats who lack restraint. Talk about up is downism. He wants to argue that the Democrats are the ones breaking with tradition by their obstructionistic tactics with regard to Bush's judicial nominees. But I came across this report on another blog:
On CNN's Crossfire (which I thought had been cancelled by the way), Ralph Neas displayed a chart of 30 judicial nominees who had been filibustered (this number would not include an unknown but larger number whose nominations had been stalled through the Hold process) and said 80% of those were GOP filibusters.
The GOP lies with impunity.
It's like term limits. The GOP likes them when they apply to entrenched Democrat incumbents, but not when it applies to GOP incumbents.
Listen, all I want is one party to cancel out the other, and the filibuster is a hallowed tradition that preserves the minority's ability to moderate the extremism of the the majority. It's a good rule, and getting rid of it would be a terrible precedent. We shouldn't allow the power freaks in the White House to dictate what's going on in the Senate. Anyone who is a real conservative and who really fears abuse of power would oppose the nuclear option. Polling in the country seems to support that. But we'll see if the White House backs off. I doubt it. They still persist with the Social Security embarrassment. They can't stand to lose, and they overreach. The country seems finally to be catching onto their act.
Thursday, April 21, 2005
Papal Irrelevancy. I was going to write an essay on how Rome, in envisioning its main opponent as modernity, was tilting at windmills because modernity no longer exists as robust ideology. I was going to write about my frustration with a Roman mentality that because it is so caught up with these obsolete intellectual battles, it is missing the real opportunity. The real challenge that Christianity faces is in playing its role to frame a postmodern narrative, and it cannot do so as long as it sees its task as defending what remains essentially an a-historical medievalist narrative. The victory goes to whoever develops the most compelling narrative, and to be compelling it has to engage the world as people live in it.
But I really don't have that much to say about it more than I wrote in my two or three posts last week. I will have more to say about it, and I will continue to write about it, but nobody in Rome cares what I think, and quite frankly I don't care what Rome thinks until it begins to engage the world as it really is and rises to the historical challenge that confronts it.
I came across this post today by a guy who works for Catholic Relief Services in the Balkans. He develops some themes that run parallel to my thinking about what's going on.
The cardinals are divided and don't know where to lead the church. So they've decided to wait.
Unfortunately, the tremendous problems facing the world will not bend to their timeline. Energy shortages, debt, climate change and ecosystem depletion will present the world—especially the Catholic world—significant crises before Benedict's successor will be chosen. John Paul II was well prepared to deal with the major challenge of his day: communism. But Ratzinger must confront not secularism, syncretism or relativism—for which he is disturbingly well suited—but consumerism. The global economy is consuming the planet and the resource wars have already begun.
And yet the problem is not that Ratzinger's background may be irrelevant. It's worse. If Ratzinger simply maintains his conservative positions on papal authority, social policy, Islam and terrorism instead of focusing on the larger issues underlying events, Ratzinger will be colluding with the greatest threat to human dignity during his pontificate.
By the time he dies, it may be too late. The time to pull a John Paul II and liberate the world from the evil of consumerism is now.
Ratzinger could offer surprises. Let's pray he does.
From where I stand Ratzinger looks to have been fighting a battle that is for the most part a waste of time. He has no credibility outside of the reactionary circles who see it as a victory for goodness and truth that he was elected. His pontificate, unless he does surprise us, has all the signs of becoming just another wasted opportunity and a monument to irrelevancy.
Take his legitimate concerns about abortion, for instance. If he were to attack the consumerist mentality that is really the driving force behind abortion-on-demand ideology, he would be attacking the problem at the root rather than just hacking away at a branch that will just sprout somewhere else if it is cut away. And he would be doing it in a language that most progressives, Catholic or non-Catholic, would take seriously, even if not all would agree. As it stands now, this pope in the wake of the sexual molestation scandals here in the U.S. has as much credibility and moral authority to speak about issues that pertain to human sexuality as Rush Limbaugh has credibility to pontificate about the evils of substance abuse.
So once all the hoopla dies down, this pope will begin what has all the marks of being a reign of irrelevancy. He might make life miserable for some of the so-called progressive Catholics, priests, nuns, and others who play institutional roles within the Church. And some Catholic politicians might feel more heat than they have. And more of the kind of lively, imaginative, thinking people I am most attracted to will leave the Church, and the priggish, doctrinaire types I find insufferable will be attracted to it. So it goes. But for the most part I won't be paying that much attention to what's going on in Rome. It's much less important than what's going on elsewhere. For elsewhere is where hope lies.
Tuesday, April 19, 2005
Just found out that Ratzinger's the man. I'm going to wait a few days before commenting on it, but I am not surprised. He's 78. He's utterly predictable. He was the safe choice. The more interesting pope will be the one who follows him.
Politics of the Psyche. Sigmund Freud famously divided the human psyche into the trinity of Superego, Ego, and Id. The first is the part of us that learns rules of the tribe—what’s taboo and what’s our duty. The second is the rational projects-oriented part, the part that develops strategies to make things better, the one that commands armies, plans careers or the family vacation. And the third is the pleasure-loving, wild and crazy part that has a hard time with rules and just wants to have fun. On an individual level the Ego part is caught in the middle between the other two. The cartoon version is of Mickey Mouse with a Goofy devil whispering in his left ear—the Id, and a Minnie Mouse angel whispering in his right ear--the Superego.
Christopher Lasch wrote an interesting essay entitled “The Politics of the Psyche.” He suggests in it that we can get a pretty good insight into our political/cultural landscape if we think of conservative Traditionalists as the Party of the Superego, Liberals as the Party of the Ego, and the cultural Left as the Party of the Id. Everyone’s obviously a mix of all three, but our political affiliations are determined by which one of the three on a personal level has the biggest influence in our psychology.
The Superego-centered conservative Traditionalists are the what-did-I-learn-was-right-and wrong-when-I-was-a-child party. Moral categories are pretty much set in stone, and they are rooted in age-old religious traditions, and people in this party instinctively reject the sexual politics promoted by feminists and gays in the last thirty years.
The Ego-centered Liberals are rationalists impatient with traditional restrictions; they are the party of ambitious social engineering projects from the New Deal to the Vietnam and Iraq Wars. They are the people who tend to rise in huge corporate and governmental organizations. They are the party of the “best and the brightest,” the smart people who know better than everybody else because they went to Harvard, Yale, or University of Chicago. Think Robert McNamara or Paul Wolfowitz.
The cultural left are the people you find in Hollywood and in the arts. They were the yippies and hippies and the New Left in the sixties and seventies and they are for liberation of anything—gays, women, whales—which is oppressed by the repressive attitudes of the traditionalist or the ambitious political and economic projects of the Liberals. They are the anti-taboo party, and they love to push the envelope by breaking as many as they can to prove that the world won't come to an end if they do.
Both Traditionalist conservatives and Liberals, in turn, are uncomfortable with the Party of the Id. This is an important point because in recent years Liberals have become mistakenly identified with the Party of the Id, and while this may be correct with regard to the Democratic Party, real Liberals are not Id-ists; they are Ego-ists. If traditionalist Superego-ists are opposed to the irrationality of the Id because they think of it as immoral, Liberals are opposed to it, or are at least uncomfortable with it, because it’s irrational. Liberalism is first and foremost a rationalist impulse.
And by the same logic, it’s important to remember that the Kennedy Democrats who brought us into the Vietnam War were Liberals in this sense. And the Neoconservatives who are the drivers behind the Iraq War are former Liberals who defected from the Democratic Party when it was taken over by the Party of the Id, aka, the New Left. The old left comprised suit-and-tie-wearing rationalists, often big-government socialists, many of whom became neoconservatives in the in the 1970s. The Republican Party today is essentially a coalition of traditionalist conservatives and rationalist Liberals whose common ground lies in their loathing of what they perceive to be the mushy, irrational, sex-drugs-and rock ‘n-roll, peace-and-love, neo-hippy politics of the Id.
The Democratic Party used to be the party of working class Traditionalists with very strong roots in the south and in the ethnic communities of the north, who formed a coalition with Liberal elites. This is when the Democratic Mickey was listening to Minnie Mouse angel in his right ear. In the seventies Mickey started listening to Goofy Devil in his left ear, and the Republicans saw their opportunity and started their campaign to brand the Democrats as the Party of the Id.
The Republicans before the 1970s comprised a coalition of middle class and wealthy Traditionalists who were comfortable with big business, but not with big government—think Barry Goldwater. The huge sea change that has occurred since the 1980s lay in that Traditionalists in the southern and northern ethnic rank and file of the Democratic Party defected to the Republican Party because, like the neconconservative intellectuals before them, they couldn’t stand the politics of the Id either.
The Democrats still see themselves as the advocates for what is in the best economic interests of working and middle class Americans—and they may be—but it’s also clear that the Democrats have lost the unthinking loyalty of their former rank and file, and it’s questionable whether they will ever be able to regain it so long as the Republicans are so effective in branding the Democrats as the Party of the Id and themselves as the party of the Superego.
The Republicans are betting that when people enter the voting booth they fill in their ballots the way they fill in market research questionnaires. Their answers reflect the way they think they should behave, not necessarily the way they behave in fact. Most smokers if surveyed would tell the questioner that smoking is bad for their health, but that doesn’t deter them from smoking. And so similarly the difference between the politics of the Id and the politics of the Superego is one of attitude, not of behavior. Lucky for Republicans that all they have to worry about is the answers given on the voting booth questionnaire and not on how people actually behave.
Listen to the lyrics of red-state country-western songs. On the one hand they’re celebrating the greatness of America and its moral values and on the other they’re all about cheatin’ hearts and about the rampant libido of rednecks in pickups. Red State Traditionalists are as randy, or more so, than the Monica Lewinsky types on the cultural left. It’s just that unlike Monica, they feel guilty about it, and sing songs about how badly they feel, but like smokers that can’t quit, they continue in their cheatin’ ways.
To rationalist Liberals and the irrationalist Cultural Left, such an attitude makes no sense. But Calvinist theology starts with the idea human beings are utterly depraved and need to be saved. So American Traditionalists know they’re bad and something has to be done about it. They can’t stand the Liberals who in their rationalist Enlightenment understanding of human nature think that all humans are born good and are made bad by negative social influences. And they can’t stand the Id-ists on the cultural left who think it’s ok to be depraved because, well, it’s natural.
And that’s why the people on the cultural right so adamantly oppose the people on the cultural left, and vice versa. The advocates of the politics of the Superego, although, their behavior hardly differs from those on the left, cannot stand the fact that those on the left think their Id behavior should be thought of as normal. And the advocates of the politics of the Id look at the Traditionalists and wonder why they are so hung up. And the Liberals in the middle are watching this firefight between the parties of the Superego and the Id, and they don’t quite know what to think, but for the most part are wondering how come they’re not getting any action.
So they focus their attention on making money instead. They understand that whatever our politics might be, our economics in a consumer culture will always be dominated by the economics of the Id. Consumers vote with their pocketbooks, and if in politics attitudes matter, not behavior, in economics it’s behavior that matters, not attitudes. And nobody understands this better than Hollywood and Madison Ave. Classical Liberals are people who develop rational strategies to maximize their self-interest, and executives in the advertising and entertainment industries are Liberals in this sense. And they have come to realize that the strategy that works best to maximize their self-interest is to promote an economics of the Id. They understand that politics doesn’t matter; the Id wants what the Id wants.
Is there a Superego marketing strategy? Sure, think Walmart. Is there an Ego-centered market strategy? Sure, any of the strategies that focus on utility and convenience. But Id is what moves product, and as long as we live in an economy where increased consumption is what drives sales, it doesn’t matter whether the Party of the Id or the Party of the Superego is in power in Washington, the economics of the Id will be the main driver of culture and commerce.
Freud, Nietzsche, Darwin, and any number of other thinkers give us a fairly accurate picture of how the world works without grace. And for the most part our politics these days show little sign of its presence, so those guys give us a fairly compelling explanation about how things work. The religious posturing of the cultural right is more about poltics of the Superego than it is about any poltics of grace. The Superego has its role to play in our socialization process as children, but it has little to do with grace, true freedom, and what it means to be a grown up. Neither is the liberation-longing central to the poltics of the Id really about beccoming truly free. The Id too has its place, but God knows it has little to do with being a grownup.
In any event, for Freud the unconscious comprised only the sub-conscioius, and there was no place on his map of the psyche for the supra-conscious. But that little omission makes all the difference in understanding what it means to be human.
Thursday, April 14, 2005
The Catholic Sensibility II. History works in dialectical swings. And so when I think about the future of Christianity, I see it as a synthesis of the Catholic and Protestant sensibilities. Catholic Medievalism was the thesis; Protestant modernism the antithesis, and now we are in this awkward stage awaiting the postmodern synthesis which will involve the retention of Protestant conscience, individualism, and critical historical consciousness with a retrieval of aspects of Catholicism that the modern mind rejected as superstitious and irrational. In other words, a postmodern, postliterate Christian synthesis will succeed to the degree that it integrates the earlier sacramental consciousness native to preliterate cultures with the critical consciousness native to literate moderns.
So what interests me is how the Catholic Church as the preserver of this older sacramental consciousness during the Modern era might serve as an alembic for the mixing together and synthesis of the premodern with the modern in the emerging global culture. The Catholic Church, with its global reach and its premodern/modern sensibility, could play a significant role in helping to prevent the developing global culture from losing its soul to the technocratic elite who are otherwise directing things. It can do this by helping it to preserve or to retrieve, as the case may be, dimensions of its premodern human experience that are essential for the survival of the "human."
I say the Church could play this role, but it's not at all clear that there is the leadership or the imagination in its leadership to put itself in a position to do so. In order for the church to succeed, it will have to develop a spiritual authority or credibility it does not have at this moment. It's going to have to give up its premodern authoritarian style which is rigidified in the curial system in Rome. It will have to loosen up its need to control from the center and trust that the Holy Spirit works from the periphery as well. The center has its role to play, but there's plenty of evidence to suggest that it is not necessarily a privileged position, spiritually speaking.
Peter is the head of the Church, not its heart, and Rome's historical mistake has been to think of itself as heart and soul of the church as well as its head. The head is the seat of judgment and discernment, but it is not where spiritual initiatives originate. A model for a more decentralized Church was worked out in the fifteenth century by Nicholas of Cusa and other conciliarists since then which had a tremendous impact of the changes that were effected during the Second Vatican Council, but from which the church has temporarily, let us hope, retreated.
A postmodern, post-Protestant sacramental Christian sensibility is a catholic, universalistic sensibility. It seeks to embrace the world, and it would seek to absorb everything in the world that is a testimony to the vertical dimension of reality, which is the reality of grace. It will have, for instance, to open up to learn from Eastern Spiritual traditions which have enormous treasures that complement those of the West. But the development of intellectual flexibility doesn't mean that it would lose its core beliefs. It's about the absorbing the world into itself, not allowing itself to be absorbed into the world.
Those core beliefs are its Trinitarian understanding of the Godhead; the belief in the creation or the world from nothing and of the radical otherness and transcendence of God; the belief in the incarnation of the Logos, the second hypostasis of the Trinity, and of the radical immanence of God in the world; the belief in the resurrection of the Christ and the real presence in the Eucharist; the belief in the special status of Mary, the mother of God; the belief in the Petrine ministry and of the apostolic succession; the belief that the Holy Spirit is active in history as an ever present source of spiritual regeneration; and the belief that metaphysical Evil is real, that we are each of us complicit in it, and that the human task is to work and pray for the world's deliverance from it.
In my view these beliefs are fundamental and inviolable, but what they mean is profound, and an exploration of their depths ought to be embraced as an open-ended spiritual/intellectual endeavor. By open-ended, I don't mean "anything goes." I mean that our understanding of the depths of what these core beliefs point to is something we have barely penetrated in our understanding of them. So it is not open-ended in the sense of rationalizing them or making them fit into categories that make rational sense, but open-ended in the sense of plunging into their depths without losing our wits--our ability to think, judge, discern.
The really real world is not a rational, technological construct, but our experience in the world is becoming increasingly dominated by mechanical forces that are dehumanizing us. We are slowly and for the most part unconsciously being absorbed into this world machine. The counterbalance for it in the long run must take a political form, but in the short run there is no political opposition to it. Democrats and Republicans in the U.S., which is at the cutting edge of this dehumanizing trend, are both in thrall to the world machine. So opposition must come from people who have the ability to think outside of the system. What we are seeing all around us is the contemporary version of the building of the Tower of Babel--Babylon.
"By the water of Babylon there sat we down; yea we wept, when we remembered Zion," sings the Psalmist. And so also is out lament in this contemporary Babylonian Captivity for those who are aware of it. Resistance begins in the refusal to forget our humanity despite all the forces around us that push us to become less human. If there is any institution on the earth that might have the power to counterbalance the dehumanizing forces that are growing stronger with each passing decade, I can think of no other with more potential than the Catholic Church. It's a potential that may or may not be realized, but the problem is global, and so the counterbalance to confront it must also be global. Where else does hope lie? It lies at the periphery, and right now the Church is at the perphery of the world machine. It's from its position as outsider that it can be most effective, not when it tries to play like an insider on terms set by the machine.
Sunday, April 10, 2005
The Catholic Sensibility I. I might as well put my two cents in since the Church is going to be in the spotlight for the next couple of weeks. A lot of what we'll see on display is the remnants of the Church's medievalism, and the world will have a certain fascination with the pageantry, the costumes, the rituals, and the fine points and arcana of traditional practice. Most of that personally leaves me cold, for most of it are encumbrances that have outlived their usefulness. It's dead wood in the living tradition that needs to be pruned.
It's an atavistic exercise in nostalgia that has little to distinguish itself from the fascination that people still have with European royalty. They are props that prop up nothing except an empty formalism that has as much reality as a Disney theme park depiction of a life in a medieval castle. So sure, there is an element of historical interest, but it all deflects from the real importance about what is going on. Catholic identity and the Catholic sensibility lie elsewhere.
This in no way contradicts what I wrote in my last post in which I said I am against the modernizing of the faith--against its rationalizing and demythologizing. I am for symbol and mythopoesis. I am for the Petrine ministry, and I am for the preservation and development of the living tradition of faith that has been the Church's special responsibility since Pentecost. And I think that it is important that the Catholic and Orthodox traditions have not succumbed to the stripping away of religious practice down to an almost exclusive focus on the Word as has been the case with Protestantism.
Protestantism, I would agree, was the more authentic expression of Christianity in the modern era, but its time is ended. The fruits of Protestantism must be preserved, but it is now time to retrieve a more "Catholic" sensibility--one shorn of medievalism, but which recovers much of what has been lost in the transition from premodern to modern. We are no longer moderns; and I would argue that Catholicism has resources, or unrealized potentials, that Protestantism does not have, and which will be essential for the regeneration of a living faith tradition in the coming century.
Protestantism is the expression of faith that resulted from changes in consciousness effected by the spread of literacy after Gutenberg. Catholicism is the expression of a faith shaped by a consciousness formed in traditions and customs that have its roots in oral culture. A literate consciousness is one that hears the Word while reading alone. An oral culture hears the Word when it is read aloud and heard in the assembly in the context of a sacramental ritual--the mass--which became meaningless hocus pocus for the modern Protestant sensibility. I'm not talking here about the difference in doctrine between Catholics and Protestants, but about a very fundamental difference in the way each experiences and encounters the Word.
A spoken-word culture shapes minds that easily swim in the world of symbol and mythopoesis. The premodern ear-centered imagination is a far richer than the literal literate mind of moderns. Things change very dramatically when a culture tips toward literacy from orality. It's the difference between whether the ear or the eye is the main organ for processing information that comes to us from the world outside our minds. And this shift from orality to literate consciousness is central in understanding what caused the shift from medieval to modern consciousness. This is Marshall McLuhan's basic thesis, and it's an important one to understand if we're to grasp the significance of what is happening to us at this moment as once again consciousness is being changed by our continuous exposure to electronic media.
There are so many things that can be said about this, but the most important for my purposes here is the way these processes require the hypertrophied eye. Did you ever think that what we mean by doing science is essentially thinking only about what we can see and that the scientific revolution was founded on the development of instruments like the telescope and later the microscope that helped us to see more, and that knowing eventually became equated with seeing. In contrast, knowing in a textless world came from what people heard, from the poets and storytellers, which meant that human knowing by people not less intelligent than us was more metaphorical and analogical. The experience of knowing was different because it was done in very different mode of consciousness than the one we now take for granted as universal.
In the scientific age, the age of seeing, everything that was invisible was thought to be unreal—or merely a matter of subjective opinion. But the effect of this new habit of thought was to render a whole dimension of reality as unreal subjective fantasy even though for preliterates this dimension of reality was as objective as the chair upon which I’m sitting. In other words the invisible dimension of reality was pushed into unconsciousness, and as the mind individuated during the modern era, we came to understand the “unconscious” as a personal, subjective realm rather than as a transpersonal collective one. The "unconscious" means for almost everyone today our individualized personal reservoir from which arise personal thoughts, feelings, and fantasies, and we project back our own experience into the minds of the primitive preliterates as having thoughts, feelings, and fantasies the way we have them. Therefore, moderns think, the mythologies they created are the same thing as moderns writing science fiction--a species of imaginative speculation.
But what has become unconscious for us was conscious, or semi-conscious, for them. They lived in a world that was permeated by the gods. The gods were not in here locked in our individual unconscious minds, but out there animating a world shimmering with their presence. We have just come to think that the poor benighted fools were projecting intrapsychic unconscious content onto the blank screen that was the world around them. They weren't. This is simply the prejudice of a shriveled kind of mind that knows only with its eyes and brain.
Nature, for moderns, became the realm of "common sense,” but it has never been other than a cognitive consensus based on sharing in the heritage of alphabetic literacy. The world became “Newtonized” as mystics like William Blake lamented. The scientific process cast aside traditional lore and authority as steeped in superstition and the irrational, and substituted a new understanding of objectivity which required the freezing of reality by making most of it irrational, i.e., opaque to reason, except its physical husk. The world literate moderns came to live in is more like one of those awkward looking exhibits at local Natural History Museum than the living, buzzing, spiritually animated and soulful world of preliterates. And it is this experience of the world that is at the heart of our allienation and of our longing for something more.
Our cognitive capacities to understand more deeply come from listening and speaking. “Out of the depths I cry out unto you, O Lord.” What depths is the Psalmist speaking of? Music and the spoken word correctly heard engender feeling states that are the precondition for deeper modes of cognition. Music is very important here, and the trivialization of music is linked to our loss of a sense of the sacred and of the "moods" or "modes" of consciousness needed for extraordinary cognitive states. And so insofar as our acoustic sense has atrophied, so has our capacity for cognitive depth. What passes for deep thinking is just complex thinking, which comes from complex seeing, analytical seeing, decontextualized seeing, abstract seeing.
So I would argue, then, that Marshall McLuhan was one of the most important Catholic thinkers of the 20th Century. For him understanding the shift from orality to literacy was central to his understanding about how the modern mind is programmed, and his ideas about how the mind is being even now reprogrammed by electronic media is a major driver that is bringing us into a post-modern, post-literate world.
This is really the meaning behind McLuhan's idea of how society is becoming tribal. He didn't mean by this Balkanized or fragmented; 'tribal' was a positive word for him, and he didn't mean it as a regressive movement. He meant it as a way of describing a social connectedness that was lost during the modern era. The point bears repeating: post-literate doesn't mean a regression to preliterate, as it is commonly supposed. But reading and the eye will no longer remain virtually the exclusive means through which we obtain and process information. The goal is to return to a broader, more balanced cognitive capacity that will allow for a more ready acceptance of objective realities that are “unseen.”
McLuhan's point is that the human being in becoming literate paid a price by throwing off what had been a more balanced ratio among the senses. The hypertrophied visual man lives in a kind of estrangement from the world around him in a way that was not the experience of the preliterate, acoustic man. Modernity and its eye centeredness created the conditions for the possibility of individualism and critical reflection, but it also led to the gradual disenchantment of the world which became reified, Hamlet's sterile promontory, a thing over against which we become aware of our own subjectivity, but which in itself lost its numinous character. Yes, we developed a capacity to see with our physical eyes more accurately—but we see only the surfaces of things, and as a result our ability to cognize a richer kind of multidimensional reality has severely atrophied.
Electronic media is changing us profoundly, but these changes are gradual just as the shift from oral to literate did not change humans very quickly. Literates until recently lived in a world in which most people were still illiterate, and the oral world still flourished in the rural areas, and the oral culture preserved there was an endless source of material and inspiration for the literate artists of the last two or three centuries. But as literacy has become almost universal and along with that the rural world withers as it technologizes, another way has to be found to break out of the literate straitjacket so many have come to assume is the sole basis for our civilized life.
I feel very ambivalently about technolgoical civilization, and in coming months I want to talk about Jacques Ellul's warnings about the "technological society" as an important counterweight to McLuhan. So the question here, as elsewhere, is who's in the driver's seat--the serpent or the dove? (Matt 10.16) If it's the serpent, we're likely to evolve into a race of cyborgs. But if the dove is driving or at least influences the direction evolution will be taking in the future, something else is possible.
And so if there is one point I hope I’ve made so far it's that being literate is not the goal of the evolution of consciousness; it’s just a stage. And whatever anxiety we may understandably feel about the unknown terrain to be navigated ahead, we need to trust that we will have the resources to find our way. These technologies cannot be feared, they must be mastered and used for transformative purposes. And the one rudimentary resource we have to achieve that now at this point is conscience--Protestantism's bequeathal to the future, which is the way the serpent part of us searches out and listens for the prompting of the dove part.
In the next installment, which will probably have to wait until later in the week, I'll go into what I hope the retrieval of the Catholic Sensibility might achieve.
Sunday, April 3, 2005
The Passing of the Pope. I was born a Catholic, and I remain practicing as one for complex reasons. But at the bottom of them all it's because I believe everything--from the trinity to the doctrines about Mary and to the sacraments and liturgy, most particularly the Eucharist. It all makes perfect sense to me. And, if anything, my left-leaning politics are a direct consequence of my right-leaning theology.
I was and still am a supporter of Vatican II in its goal to break out of what had been its pre-conciliar siege mentality vis a vis the modern world. But I share the dismay of many conservatives who think that in opening the door to the world, the logic of the world came to define church things more than the logic of faith came to define world things.
I have always been against the trend in modern religious thought that tries to make the faith more "relevant," by modernizing, demythologizing, and rationalizing it. If anything, we need more mythopoesis. We need more of a sacramental mentality and to understand how reality is multidimensional and how one can only begin to be grasp what 's really important by the use of symbolic and mythopoetic language. We need to understand how diminished, how impoverished we have become as moderns in our rigid restriction of what is knowable to only that which is cognized by the senses.
I know a lot of people who are spiritually oriented but for whom the Catholic Church is the last place they would look for any kind of spiritual wisdom. I understand where they're coming from, because while there are some significant exceptions, the "incarnate" church at this time in its history is about as run down and ramshackle as it could be, at least in Europe and the United States. I don't know if we're at a historical low--maybe the 14th century was worse--but we're probably pretty close.
The church has always cast a dark shadow, and there are some people who have only been able to see its shadow side. But the light side, the side that in yesterday's post Tomberg describes as having to do with the vertical dimension of the miraculous, for which it is the mission of the church to be an infusion point into the horizontal world of history and evolution, is pretty dim at this time. But I do not believe that this dimness is a permanent condition. Regeneration will come.
I think that this pope understood how dim things had become, and tried heroically to fan the smoldering sparks, and I'm certainly not in a position to judge his effectiveness in that. I think that he just didn't have much to work with outside of his own charism. And I think toward the end he was captured by the Pharisees who in every religious organization seem to rise to positions of power. My conservative theology also inclines me to reject the right-leaning politics that have always been the shadow side of the "Vatican" mentality. The church has always, always been in the wrong when it plays the power game on the terms set by "the world."
This has been the Church's shadow at least since the time of Constantine, And I think it's a legitimate question to ask whether this pope, who was otherwise in my opinion a great, great soul, was not on occasion seduced and maybe even defeated by the power game. I'm not saying that it was wrong for him to play the role that he played in inspiring Poles to revolt against their political oppression. It's clear to me that this personality, Karol Wojtyla, had a world historical role to play in inspiring that confrontation. Insofar as the Church played its prophetic and sacramental role as a conduit for the "vertical" in Eastern Europe in the 1980s, it was faithful to its mission. It's when it gets too involved in the intrigues of the horizontal that it loses its way.
But while it benefited the peoples of Eastern Europe, I'm not sure it benefited the Church. I could be wrong about that, but it reinforced in the eyes of the world that the Catholic Church if it is to be taken seriously at all is because it's still a player when it comes to the power game in world politics, and I'm not sure its being perceived that way is in the best interests of promoting the deeper mission the Church. I recognize that this is very, very complicated, but I wonder if Wojtyla's success there shaped his attitudes toward the rest of his papacy in a way that diminished his ability to be something more significant than he turned out to be.
I'm not sure. I just raise it as a question. I believe deeply that in the long run if the church is to regain any kind of genuine spiritual authority, it will have to repent of its historical political intrigues and re-present itself in terms completely divorced from its Vatican mentality. I don't think that this pope, despite his being a non-Italian, made much of an advance on that front. Popes come and go, but an entrenched Italianate Vatican bureaucracy remains unchanged. What that will take to dismatle it, I'm not sure, but in my opinion there is no greater impediment to the Church's being the Church than the Vatican mentality.
Those of you who have been reading this blog for awhile know that I moved to a "fixer" house last fall. The impression it made on people I know who visited it was that it was going to be a lot of work to get it into condition in which it would feel like home, but that it was house that had "good bones." It's a metaphor for the way I feel about the Church. It has good bones. Despite its "Vatican" problem, I still think its basic "spiritual bones" and structure are sound, even if that structure is rather out of sight. The institutional issues are not insignificant, but they are remediable if the right kind of leadership emerges, a leadership that is both guileless as the dove and clever as the serpent, but where the dove is in the driver's seat. Too often in the Church's history it has let the serpent do the driving.
Saturday, April 2, 2005
Salvation History. I'm going to get somewhat theological here. So if that's not your thing, click on out of here. I came across the passages excerpted below from Valentin Tomberg's Covenant of the Heart recently, and thought they might make an interesting Eastertide meditation.
The key to the meaning of history that I want to promote is to understand the present as the continuous intersection of a vertical and horizontal dimension, the horizontal being the history of earth and human evolution and the vertical the intrusion into the horizontal of the sacred, the dimension of grace or of miracles. As Tomberg points out, the miracle is not something extraordinary; it's an everyday occurrence. But like anything miracles vary in intensity. The mistake is to think of miracles as only manifesting in the extraordinary. Every free act of the human spirit is a miracle in the sense I want to propose, because for it to be free there has to be some element of it that is not conditioned by the horizontal chain of causality.
If we regard human history as a phase in the evolution of the world, there expands before our eyes a range of events leading beyond the region of natural evolution (including its extension in the human realm as technological evolution), and beyond that of divine-archetypal virgin nature (including its human extension through idealism and pure humanism). This further realm is that of the interventions of the supra-natural and supra-human in the affairs of the kingdom of Nature and the kingdom of Man. Taken together, these supra-natural and supra-human interventions, representing a working in from the kingdom of God on the course of evolution and the history of mankind, constitute the history of revelation and the work of salvation.
[These] considerations concerning the nature of the spiritual-cultural history of mankind, viewed as a continuation of biblical history, challenge us to think simultaneously in two dimension; in the horizontal dimension of the chain of cause and effect, and in the vertical dimension of interventions from outside the causal chain (this being the dimension of miracles). Spiritual-cultural history thus appears as a cross formed out of causality and miracles. In other words, the spiritual cultural history of mankind is the result on the one hand of the causes which are to be found in space and time, and on the other hand of the causes which are not to be found there, which are of a timeless and spaceless nature. The miracle, too, is a cause initiating effects in the domain of the chain of cause and effect [i.e., evolution], but it is a cause which is not itself an effect of another cause within the chain. It is a new cause, which appears in the chain of causality from outside this chain. It strikes like lightning from above into causally conditioned events. The lightning, after having struck, also becomes a cause having its effects within earthly events.
The miracle is a vertically appearing cause within the horizontal sequence of causal events. The miracle, therefore, is in its nature not to be regarded just as an "unexplainable" and astounding" thing, but as something belonging to another dimension of causality. For many things seem to us inexplicable, incomprehensible, and astonishing, without being for that reason miracles; they have simply not yet been investigated in the right way, and are reserved for a future method of research. . . . The miracle appears in the causal sphere--coming from the realm of pure morality transcending causally conditioned things--appearing, that is to say, out of the realm of freedom.
The miracle is the vertical cause within the horizontally proceeding sequence of causality does not cancel the latter out; it simply adds an "uncaused cause" to the causal chain which then continues on according to its own laws. . . . Obviously miracles differ in their extent and effects, just as, say, a stroke of lighting differs from a spark--but both lightning and the spark are of the same nature. The archetypal miracle of the Creation, and the the lighting up of a spark of faith in a human soul who had been captivated by the spell of the mechanical, causal world order, differ indeed in extent and range, but are essentially the same. For the fiat lux of the first day of creation and fiat lux of the awakening faith in the soul are of the same essence. . . . Thus, many miracles take place constantly in an intimate and private manner in the shadow and half-shadow of the lives of human beings and the life of mankind--large and small miracles. Once could say: life is interwoven and impulsated by miracles, which for the most part go entirely unnoticed--let alone become evaluated and recognized.
Friday, April 1, 2005
Civilization and Culture. Civilization is the head and culture is the heart or the soul of a society, and the soul of a society is framed by how its culture prioritizes what is worth caring about. And so if the culture defines what's most important to care about, the society's head develops a civilization to provide for the culture what it wants by developing the tools, laws, economic practices, and any else it does to organizes itself to get more of what the culture defines as desirable.
And so using this measuring stick, we can talk about primitive or highly developed civilizations, usually based on the level and sophistication of the technologies it has developed to provide for the needs of its citizens. And we tend to associate the idea of "progress" with the increasing sophistication of these technologies. But it should also be clear that progress in this sense has little if anything to do with moral development or the development of virtue. Some primitive civilizations have far more highly developed moral cultures. And the reason for this is that much of the impetus driving higher levels of civilization in this sense has been rooted in the morally corrupting will to power.
As I've been pointing out, Liberalism in its pure form makes no judgments about what is or is not worth caring about. It simply creates an empty framework which allows people to decide for themselves. And what American culture has decided it wants more than anything else is freedom, and freedom in American culture means having choices. Anything that promotes choice is good; anything that restricts choice is bad. And so if Liberals ever go on a "moral" crusade, it's about promoting the freedom to choose.
And so American civilization has developed in such a way as to accommodate this pluralistic understanding that everyone should be free to choose on an individual basis what is important for him, and it's nobody else's business how he prioritizes or determines what is important or unimportant, valuable or not valuable. And it could be argued, as I have myself done in the past, that the great thing about American society is that while it is true that its citizens are free to be as morally depraved as they wish to be (so long as they don't infringe on the rights of others), they are also free to be as good and virtuous as they want to be. But I have since come to think that this is a psychological and spiritually naive position. It should be abundantly clear that it is very, very difficult for a choice-driven culture to develop within it prodigies of virtue. Our lack of them is proof. We produce at best mediocrities of virtue, and here's my take on why:
In order for anybody to grow to some level of greatness in any field, he has to build on what has been achieved before him in that field and learn from those who have achieved the most in it. If you want to be an excellent violinist, your talent will not develop very far if you have to figure it out on your own. You have to be introduced to a tradition and to the body of achievement of those who have gone before you. You need to find a teacher who is himself someone who has mastered the instrument and the violin repertoire and who can mentor your development until you yourself become a master. In other words, in order to become a fully realized talent, you need a trellis on which that talent can grow, and you need help from someone, a gardener so to speak, who can nourish you by his own example and weed out any bad habits you might develop. And when you become a master, you are free in a deeper sense to use your skill in freedom.
In other words there is no true freedom without true mastery. And mastery comes first by submitting to learn from the great ones who have preceded us. I play the violin badly. I can pick it up and doodle around with it as the whim takes me, but that's not real freedom. I don't have the capability to play what really good players can play, and so I am not free to play in the way that masters are free to play. I can choose to play "twinkle" or "row, row your boat", but I am not free to play any piece that requires real mastery. Freedom is in that sense only a potentiality that is in each of us to be actualized--we have to earn it.
And the same is true in the realm of morality and virtue. Our moral freedom is a function of our moral mastery, and that mastery is only achieved by submitting to the discipline that the moral tradition prescribes. Each soul shouldn't have to figure things out on his own from scratch; he needs mentors, and these mentors have value only insofar as they themselves have become morally mature, because they have learned to become that from those who mentored them. But there are hardly any, and the church is the last place I'd look for one these days. I'm not saying that there aren't a lot of good, decent people who struggle as best they can to lead lives of integrity. But they are rather like a person with musical talent who finds an instrument and starts doodling with it. It would be very difficult for such a person to go far in the development of his talent.
Maybe some would disagree with me on this, but I think it's pretty obvious that American society does not produce prodigies of virtue--or as they used to be called, saints. I'm not saying there are no good people; I am saying there are very few people who are great in their goodness. There are few heroes of goodness. And I would argue that the reason for it is that a prosperous, choice-driven culture makes it as difficult to achieve greatness in this realm as it is for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle.
When you live in a society that is organized around consumption, it's like trying to run a race on a track that has four feet of chocolate mousse piled on it. Why fight through it; it's so much easier to just sit down and eat it. It's hard enough to run this race even under the best of conditions, but we live in a society that makes it about as tough as it could possibly be. Our prosperity works against us. If we are prodigies of anything, we are prodigies of complacency.
For me these days it always comes back to the way I think about what my teenage son has to go through for the next ten years. He's a great kid, and I want him to become the best man it is in him to become. But to whom do I point as a model? Who is there who might inspire him to be more than the complacent consumer the world around him repeatedly tells him he needs to become? It's so, so seductive. And it isn't enough that I should train him to say No to all of that. At some point, if not already, he's just going to decide I'm an old crank. I want there to be something for him to which he can say an enthusiastic Yes. It's just not there right now in the world we're living in.