living through death

"The only way that you can accept life is if you can accept death.” –Leo Buscaglia

Posts Tagged ‘Mysticism

Sebastian Moore: Christ & Salvation

with one comment

In the previous section we outlined Sebastian Moore’s theory of original sin. There he characterized original sin as a self-limitation of life that is necessary for our emergence into self-aware existence, but that gets stuck in exclusively that self-limited way of being. Growth beyond the relative safety of our socially-bound self-limitation is powerfully resisted, based, as it is, upon a fundamental mistrust of life that goes all the way back to the first experiences of being an autonomous reality separate from our mother. As both Becker and Kegan have helped us see, our fearful reliance on coping strategies formed along this developmental journey has the effect of alienating us from each other and from our own potential as life becomes more complex than the original conditions under which they were formed. We noted how these original conditions gave rise to the persistent human habit of attempting to find our identity by always measuring ourselves against others. Such is our “first focus” that we cling to because it is the world in which we first entered as self-aware beings. That being the case, it is understandable that our first focus easily becomes our only focus. However, our desire is unlimited, and for that reason our efforts to attain unlimited significance by measuring ourselves against limited others leads us to eat each other alive, as is amply reflected in the world’s constant war between the sexes, the social divisions that result from economic inequity, the conflict between racial, cultural, and religious others, and even the alienation between coworkers, family members, and friends.

The problem, therefore, consists of two parts. The first is that our true desire has been repressed. We easily settled for much safer forms of desire, and for that reason, we are easily led by the nose, allowing others to tell us what we should do, what we should love, and who we should fear. The second part of the problem is that for those whose deeper desire has begun to break through the surface of life, nothing in the world can satisfy it. Such people are like the Ebola virus, burning themselves up as well as the people around them with little regard for the impracticality of their actions.[1]

Moore articulates the Christian solution as being not so much the creative repression of a genius, as Becker argued for, or the unrepression of the insane, as Becker felt the evangelists of unrepression must end with. Instead, Moore shows how Jesus leads his followers on a two two-step journey that mirrors the two-fold problem of the human condition. Jesus first awoke his disciples to their true desires, but then, as the one who stretched out his life beyond the limits we set upon it, he revealed to them resurrected life. Or as he puts it in another place, “We are to become, first, honest, then cosmic.” (Let this Mind Be in You, 127.)

DSC_0167

How does Moore work this out? From what we have seen so far, we can view the story of the emergence of original sin as the story of the loss of the child in us, a foreshortened sense of our desirableness. (Let this Mind Be in You, 117.) In view of this, Moore encourages us to see the story of Jesus as the story of one who retains this child and, for that reason, is without original sin. We must also recall what was said earlier on the two general ways the problem of original sin is solved, namely, by way of indirect and direct awakening.

We are now ready to see the specific way that Moore conceives of Jesus as conquering sin. The basic pattern is that Jesus experienced his own desirability directly (union with the Father), and for that reason was able to bring about the indirect awakening of desire in those around him. Nothing too radical is on display at this point since these are the movements that, to varying degrees, occur between people every day. What makes the Christ event incomparable is its intensity and what occurred in the dramatic death of Jesus.

In terms of intensity, the Christian story is of one who’s experience of his own desirability was off the map of normal human experience. As Moore says, “his influence was the maximum possible within the limits of person-to-person contact. The charm, the magic, the allure of Jesus swept the whole range of human interaction, exhausted the possibilities of mutual awakening.” (Let this Mind Be in You, 117.) It was this spiritual mindset that enabled Jesus to utterly cut against the grain of expected social norms, pouring forth a compassion that had no limit. No fragile ego limited his ability to reach out toward the members of society that represent the elements of the (predominately male)[2] psyche that are repressed during its developmental journey: the opposite sex, cultural “others,” moral transgressors; and, perhaps even more significantly, those who are explicit reminders of death; the poor, the sick, and the political oppressors. This intensity produced a new hope for human existence. It created what Jesus called the “Kingdom of God,” and produced, precariously, heaven on earth. (Let this Mind Be in You, 117.)

However, this new hope collapsed in the arrest and crucifixion of Jesus. Since Jesus awoke those around him to the maximum extent possible within the limits of social arousal, there could be no comparable level of social arousal after Jesus. There could be nothing except for the other awakening: “the direct awakening of the sense of being desirable, by the One by whose desire we exist.” (Let this Mind Be in You, 118.) Moore sees the whole validity of the Christian message to hang on the series of encounters after Jesus’ death that gave rise to this awakening. This transition, so famously bungled earlier by Peter and the request of James and John (Matthew 16:13-23, Mark 10:35-45), was the “ah ha” moment that Jesus had been trying to instill in his disciples throughout his ministry, but it took his removal from the scene of creaturely existence and the disciples subsequent reflection on the nature of his removal for the insight to finally click. The cross effected for them the horizontal explosion of social (indirect) arousal into the vertical dimension of mystical (direct) arousal.

What was the nature of Jesus’ removal, and why does it matter to our discussion? Moore stresses, that the nature of Jesus exit from the scene of creaturely existence was that of one who chose their own sacrifice. This is not suicide, or even the passion of one who runs into a burning building to save another. The gospel memory is of one who “set his face towards Jerusalem,” in the full knowledge that his vocation was leading inexorably to his death. Moore sees the essential quality as being found in Jesus’ initiation of a final act of friendship with the ultimate enemy of human life: death.

For the sinful condition that is ours, death is repressed…, banished, ‘queered’, thrown outside the city. At the same time we know that this rejected status of death is the sign of our…lostness, of an incapacity-to-feel that we cannot deal with. To meet the one who connected with, who befriended, who claimed, this our rejected death, would be to encounter an enormous and incomprehensible love. This love of us in our wretched unconnectedness, shown in the embrace of what we reject in horror, is intellectually nearly impossible to understand, but our deepest and simplest knowing moves out to it. At the heart of the Christian experience down the ages, the uncomprehending sufferer stretches out to the free, willing, understanding sufferer. And thus outstretched, the uncomprehending sufferer can at last received the communication of the incomprehensible inflictor as love, and see this in the fact of the victim raised from the grave. (Let this Mind Be in You, 129-9.)

The significance of this cannot be stressed enough. We have seen that crux of Moore’s concept of original sin was the dynamic of self-limitation of our desirability (and therefore desire) that occurs during the process of psychological birth and growth, combined with our resistance to growing beyond that self-limitation. The result is our separation from each other, our potential, and God. More than that, it is not just “separation,” it is the creation of enmity, disgust, even horror at all dimensions of reality in ourselves and others that press beyond the edges of our self-created membrane. (See Richard Beck’s Excellent book “Unclean:%20Meditations on Purity, Hospitality, and MortalityUnclean” for more on the role of disgust as it pertains to our capacity for offering hospitality) And at the root of it all stands the terror of death, for it is ultimately in response to the terror of death that our our fragile ego has been created. As it stands, humanity is largely arrested at its “Oedipal self-understanding.” We “take it for reality itself” and thus “impose on society and on the universe that distrust of life, that self-repression, which was once appropriate when we were engaged on the business of becoming separate and sexually distinguished selves.” (Let this Mind Be in You, 127.)

In other words, we set our own limit on the meaningfulness of our life in our refusal to grow…. We build an invisible wall round our life. Outside that wall, uncharted by us, is death. For what does it mean to be ready for death? Who is? To be ready for death is to be living life to the full, to its limit—which is death. We don’t live this life to anything like its fullness. And what this means is that we don’t believe in the glorious being that each of us is. Massively we repress the sense of our greatness and our desires, in consequence, are weak.…Thus we create a wall round ourselves, within which we live. And far beyond that wall is God’s limit on us, death, the threshold of his loving embrace. (Let this Mind Be in You, 127.)

It is exactly here that Jesus initiated the final breakthrough for his disciples. Though they remained uncomprehending throughout his life, the final intensification of their relationship with him at the last supper, followed by Jesus’ own self-removal as the object of their devotion, led to the ultimate crisis and transformation. Their awareness of the final enemy, death, had to be transformed, and when this occurred new life flooded back down through all levels of their awareness. Religious, cultural, and economic divisions were radically transformed in the new life that poured forth, as well as those of gender and social relations. Salvation was in this way an in-breaking of a hope that outstripped the disciples’ expectations that were possible under their former awareness. At the same time, their salvation consisted in the experience of a reunion with their own basic goodness. They knew themselves for the first time, as they come from the hand of God, “desirable because desired.” (Let this Mind Be in You, 118.)


This post is a continuation of a series in which I make use of the blogosphere to motivate my dissertation free-writing. For context, read the short summary of my work here. There you will also find a table of contents with links to all the posts in this series.

[1] These remarks remind me something Becker said. “…[H]uman heroics is a blind drivenness that burns people up; in passionate people, a screaming for glory as uncritical and reflexive as the howling of a dog. In the more passive masses of mediocre men it is disguised as they humbly and complainingly follow out the roles that society provides for their heroics and try to earn their promotions within the system: wearing the standard uniforms—but allowing themselves to stick out, but ever so little and so safely, with a little ribbon or a red boutonniere, but not with head an shoulders.” (The Denial of Death, 6.)
[2] Given the patriarchal nature of Jesus’ time we might expect that the social norms would mirror the psychological patterns of the male mind.

Advertisements

Radiolab, “In the Dust of this Planet,” and Glenn Beck: Nihilism to Love

leave a comment »

True to style, Radiolab recently produced an especially stellar episode on the obscure topic of nihilism (the view that life has no meaning or purpose). And apparently, they did such a good job with it that Glenn Beck picked it up and did an episode of his own on the matter. Beck thinks that Radiolab is endorsing nihilism (and also that they are a part of a progressive movement to seed the public mind, apparently). In thinking this, Beck entirely misses the real thrust of Radiolab’s episode, which is a shame because he could likely benefit from a bit more “nihilism.” Allow me to explain.

The Paradox of Serious Nihilistic Denial

My own work centers on the classical insight that the fulfillment of life comes only after a certain kind of death (e.g. Mt. 16:25, Mk. 10:42-45). This entire blog, is one long meditation on this single monumental truth. So when I heard this episode by Radiolab, I could hardly stay in my seat. “They’re on to it!”, I shouted to my somewhat startled wife as we were cruising down the interstate. “On to what?”, she asked. “This is what I’m writing my dissertation on!”

Here I must clarify. I’m not writing my dissertation on nihilism. But then again, Radiolab’s episode was not really on nihilism either. Their episode was on the draw of nihilism, and that ends up pointing to something much larger. They noticed a trend in popular culture to valorize nihilism. Specifically, they noticed how the cover of Eugene Thacker’s philosophy text In the Dust of This Planet: Horror of Philosophy vol. 1 had made its way into popular culture (appearing on tee-shirts and even inspiring a character on the program True Detective). The question (because Radiolab is always about the question) was: why?

RadioBeck

In seeking to answer this Simon Critchley suggested that nihilism is as old as human history itself. Jad went on to explain that you’ll see it crop up whenever social structures begin to come undone, either by cultural decay, natural disasters, or war. He points to Ivan Turgenev’s novel “Fathers and Sons” as the moment the term nihilism was coined. In that novel the son turns to the father and says “We base our conduct on what we recognize as useful. In these days, the most useful thing we can do is repudiate. And so we repudiate everything.” The father says, “Everything?” “Everything… with indescribable composure.” In our time, all we need to do is turn on the news and we are bombarded with what seems to be a nameless evil that continues to emerge from both without and from within our own culture. It makes sense, then, that this urge to repudiate should manifest yet again. But when asked if there was something more potent about it in our own time, Critchley said, without hesitation, “yes.”

Recounting a class he taught with Eugene Thacker on mysticism, he tells of how in the fourth century AD, there was a movement in which people began to leave the great city of Alexandria for the desert. Influenced by a Neo-Platonic philosophy (and its suspicion of material reality) and a desire to encounter the pure love of Christ, these people fled the seat of all culture and learning of their day for the desolation of the Egyptian desert where they engaged in ascetic activities of self-renunciation and prayer. They wanted a love that was pure, and so they left what they deemed was evil in the world and sought to purge the evil within themselves in the solitude of the desert. What struck Critchley was that the students were deeply captivated by this image in a way that undergraduates are not typically prone to be captivated. Something in these strange mystics and their practices of solitude and bodily mortification in an attempt to free their capacity for love was hitting them in a very deep place.

Notice this: We are not talking about nihilism anymore. We are talking about forms of denial and about forms of criticism, but this is not nihilistic denial. Nihilistic denial must deny even the seriousness of its own denial, but these mystics denied and criticized the world and themselves out of a yearning for a goodness and truth the surpassed the world’s (or their own) ability to fathom. They recognized that even the very best human goods are ambiguous. As Thomas Merton said, “The best, imposed as a norm, becomes evil.” Thus, even the very best in human culture is open to criticism.

Negative Theology: Denial and the Transcendent Good

Again, this is not nihilism. This is what theology calls apophatic, or “negative” theology. Negative theology speaks of God, the ultimate good (Goodness itself), by way of negating the elements of creaturely goods that fail to rise to the level of the ultimate good. For example, we know that justice is good. But we do not know what perfect justice looks like. We only know what human justice looks like. Thus by way of the apophatic method we would seek to get closer to speaking of perfect justice by negating all the ways human justice fails to rise to the level of perfect justice. This way of thinking is thus critical of all human attempts to say positively what perfect justice is, but it is not nihilism. It is the denial that any human (ourselves included) have a positive and adequate concept for our longings for perfect truth, goodness, and fulfillment. There is a pull within us that we can hear calling our name, but though we have names for it (fulfillment, justice, salvation, etc), we do not know its essence (a classic source for this style of theology is Pseudo Dionysius the Areopagite who influenced almost all Western theology. Check out a marvelous passage of his here).

Rationalized Consciousness Sees the Apophtic as Nihilistic

Now, to the one who is convinced that they do have a positive and adequate concept for this deep goodness, apophatic criticism cannot be distinguished from nihilism. To their minds, their own concept is not open to criticism. They are convinced that they have the answer, thus any criticism is deemed not faithfulness to a transcendent good, but instead a merely corrosive attack. Beck seems rather obviously in this place. At the end of his episode he says “As this world devolves into chaos and depravity, people are searching for meaning. We have to provide them with truth on every platform possible.”

For him the matter is straightforward. “We” (as opposed to “the progressives”) have the truth and what is needed is simply to distribute it.

The Paradox Beyond the Alternatives

The desert mystics would see such truth, in spite of its divine claim, as being all too human. It is too bound up in the city and the world that they had abandoned. It represents the prison bars behind which eternal love lives, longing to be freed. This is why Christ was such a powerful figure for them. Not because, as Beck thinks, he came to impart an adequate concept of goodness, but because Christ, in a single move, exposed the evil of the world and a love beyond understanding by completely giving himself away. In this act, the ultimate nihilism and the ultimate meaning are one.

UPDATE: Since writing this I’ve been pressed on they way (in a previous draft) I affirmed Simon Critchley’s suggestion that nihilism goes all the way back. “Nihilism is a modern problem,” said my critic. I think that’s probably right. The examples the Critchley sites as nihilism prior to the modern era are in fact being conflated with other forms of criticism, including the apophatic criticism that I discussed in this paper. Thanks for the push-back, unnamed interlocutor.