Category Archives: philosophy

Zen dragons and false pictures of reality…


Let’s start with a little Japanese Zen parable that I stumbled upon, and that I like a lot for some reason:

In China there wKunisada_II_The_Dragonas a man named Seiko; he loved dragons. All his scrolls were of dragons. He designed his house like a dragon-house and he had many figures of dragons. So a real dragon thought, “If I appear in his house he will be very pleased.” So one day the dragon appeared in his room, and he was very scared of him, and almost drew his sword to cut him. The real dragon said, “Oh, my!” and he hurriedly escaped from the room.
“Don’t be like Seiko!” – Dogen Zenji (1200-1253)       (source)

Why do I like this little parable so much?
Because it is a very good description of a human tendency to avoid Reality and run away in our own selfmade pictures, systems of thought and descriptions of reality of it, as if they are the real thing. And then live as if this is the real thing. This applies to all kinds of stuff: God, the natural world, human relationships, and so on…
We make our interpretation the real thing, until it leads its own life, and in the end our own version will be more important than the actual thing, the ‘dragon’ in our parable, and we might get rather disturbed if a real dragon would show up, like our friend Seiko did.

This doesn’t mean that we as humans live without our ‘scrolls of dragons’. We humans interpret and describe the world in language and systems of thought, and without this mediation we cannot see the world. That is a natural and necessary thing, but the danger is always there that our mental interpretations run away from us and from reality, and form a world on their own, unhindered by reality itself.

One version of this is scientism, where our modern scientific observations and interpretations of reality (and the consensus about them that we have at this present moment) become all there is, with nothing else. We squeeze all of reality into one interpretation of what can be observed with our 5 senses and our instruments, and then equate that with Reality. I’ve never understood how people could ever fall for such a thing, but it remains a popular outlook on the world, probably because it makes our world seem more controllable, and the uncontrollable forces like gods and devils are eradicated by just ignoring them…

It can gen more serious than that though: when the ‘dragon’ in question is God, the Creator of Reality and Ground of being ‘him’self, this becomes conceptual idolatry. Instead of believing in God and putting our trust in the Creator, we end up following a construct of our own making. Instead of making connection to the God behind all constructs, we end up worshipping a selfmade deity only existing in our head, since we think we can completely describe God, and that God is nothing but what we describe with our theological language.
None of our descriptions will even describe a natural thing for 100% though, let alone God.

The religious side of making our own dragons can get dark. When I posted this parable on facebook one of my friends noted that this is what Americans do with Christ. And I can see her point in these days of Trump I am afraid, any religion that could go along with Trumpism is opposite to what I read in the gospels and all of the New Testament, about humbleness, enemy-love, rejection of Mammon and power, and so on…

(There also might be the danger that a picture of God living in an enormous thoughtfield becomes a more potent entity and behaves like an egregore or ‘godform’, and this might be the case for Murikan Jeebus, the tribal war god that is completely unlike Jesus Christ of Nazareth, the Incarnated Son of God in almost every important detail except some cosmetic ones, but that is another story. It is the same with the supposed Allah of IS who wants most people dead by the way; who is a blasphemy compared to how the Muslim tradition and scriptures envision the God of Abraham and Creator.)

It’s also quite important in more mundane relationships by the way. If instead of letting people be who they are we make our own set of expectations for them, we will only have a friendship or even marriage with an illusion, not with a person. See also my post Do you love your wife or a picture in your head? for more about that idea. The weird thing is that even Christians seem to fall for this habit of making ideals and then trying to conform people to them.

(Which is the opposite of Platonism btw. Platonic ideals are a priori and can only be discovered, while these constructs are a posteriori and completely made up by us humans.)

So what is my point here?

I do think that it’s very important to learn to see what really is there. To not just follow the finger pointing to the moon, but look at the actual moon. And to let it be the moon without expecting it to be cheese or an alien base from the time before time.
It is very important to let reality be, and to interact with what is really there, not with illusions. To cultivate ‘first sight’, as it is called in Terry Pratchett’s Tiffany Aching books. In the words of the kelda of the Mac Nac feegle clan, who speaks almost normal English here:

‘First sight is when you can see what’s really there, not what you heid tells you ought to be there. […] Second sight is dull sight, it’s seeing only what you expect to see.’
(The Wee Free Men, P. 132)

Think also of the words of Jesus in the sermon on the Mount:

“The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eyes are healthy, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eyes are unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light within you is darkness, how great is that darkness! (Matthew 6:22-23)

How we do that depends on the subject or object, but a radical honesty with ourselves is always the beginning, and an openness to being wrong. But I don’t have all the answers here, and am only learning myself while stumbling along the way. I just know that this is extremely important, if we want to get anywhere at all.

What do you people think?

peace

Bram

 

 

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Don’t say postmodernism to Trumpian post-truth neosophism…


BCprofHi readers,

I haven’t been very active here in 2016, especially not in the second part of the year. (I did publish 10 episodes of the scifi post-dystionian fiction story “Ghostified City’ though this fall on my fiction blog Oranderra). It might be different in 2017 in that I am going to break the hegemony of FB in my own online presence more, and am going to move discussions from FB more to this blog, and probably thus post more shorter posts here to conserve my thoughts outside of the facebook bubble.

Today’s thought from your resident couch philosopher: Trumpian post-truth epistemology in an age of ‘false news’ isn’t just post-modernism or post-postmodernism. It’s more a popularist form of neo-sophism. (original FB-status here)

I’ve seen people regularly use the straw man of ‘postmodernism’ for there being no truth at all, but can we please stop it now? Denying truth and facts is much older than postmodernism, which is much more sophisticated than ‘absolute relativism’ (a self-defeating parody of a philosophy that not much people hold) or post-truth non-epistemologies. To get something more in line with current situation look for example at the ‘pre-socratic’ sophists with whom Socrates clashed because they sold truth on demand for money. Our current post-truth pragmatism about facts is much closer to Protagoras and the likes, than to the actual European postmodernists.

The sophists, at least in the way represented by Socrates through Plato, were ‘teachers of wisdom’ who were able to use rhetorica to defend everything, including the absurd, especially when paid. (They would be great advocates of the devil…) So the straw man some like to fulminate against isn’t really postmodernism nor something new, but more a not so subtle form of neo-sophism.

Which is -just as it happened in the time of the original sophists- a logical step after real scepticism when foundations of truth erode, but not the supposed modern ‘scepticism’ that leads to a very strong enlightenment foundationalism (for example Dawkinsian ‘New atheism’) that’s in the end only fossilising into its own rigid tradition with its own conservative old farts.

I seems like the neo-sophism is only growing stronger in our era of unprecented (unpresidented?) mass media. So while I have seen American conservatives rage against relativism and postmodernism in the past, American conservatism might have become one of its own strongholds in these Trumpian days. See this interesting Morgan Guyton post too, called How did defenders of absolute truth become post-truth ideologues?

I think it’s a question of how we define absolute truth. Being committed to absolute truth can mean two very different things. On the one hand, absolute truth can signify that the universe has a single reality despite the fact that we perceive it from billions of vantage points. In this sense, absolute truth means the universe around me is not a dream that’s all in my head. The objective facts that surround me in the world matter. I don’t get to make up my own facts. There are universal laws and principles that exist independent of my subjective, culturally conditioned position.

When I was indoctrinated with absolute truth as a young evangelical, this first definition was how I was taught to understand the concept. However, I came to learn that, for evangelicals, absolute truth was not as much about the existence of universal truth as it was about obedience to an infallible authority. For conservative evangelicals, the authority to obey is of course the Bible, or more truthfully, their particular doctrinal superstructure within which they encase their interpretation of the biblical text. When you’ve made the decision to define truth as obedience to doctrine, then you’re not actually committed to the notion of a single, universal reality, because reality is whatever makes your doctrine work.

This is the Christian side of the story, which gives me a lot of cognitive dissonance btw. Nothing of the things described has any overlap with Christianity, the bible, Christ or Truth…

Note also that the sophists were strong rhetorics, who made very complicated thought constructions to persuade people of even the absurd when needed. Todays neo-sophists are not that, eh sophisticated at all, but they still sway whole groups of people over to dangerous nonsense. The power of media doesn’t seem to lessen the need for complicated intelectualism, and we might indeed be headed for an idiocracy… So much for the chronological snobbery of those who think we know everything now and who will not even care for the ideas of people from older ages…  Plain BS is already enough to convince people. No need for reason or logic or whatever… (Oh don’t you love this brave new world?)

I’m probably a very sloppy postmodernist after all, but I’m -unlike original American fundies for example- an even  worse modernist and more a Socratic-Platonist-Aritotelean here.
My postmodern side lies more in my humble epistemology, which falls in line with a lot of older and venerable traditions anyway, from Paul’s ‘we know in part’ (1 Cor 13) to Lao-Tzus ‘The Tao/Way that can be walked isn’t the real way, ‘he name that can be named is not the real name’ (Tao The Ching 1).

I think 2017 might be a good year to read some more about the Sophists though (and about any tradition that puts rhetorica before truth) , the few things I’ve read from them seemed very relevant to describe certain streams of though from this age, and yet no-one seems to speak of neo-sophism in our deceited era of being drowned in information but starved for a grain of sense…

What do you people think?

peace

Bram

On ‘social constructs’ and other layers of the onion of Reality.


Hi readers,

ajuinYes, a new blogpost that isn’t advertising my super-obscure music but that actually goes back to my counter-cultural philosophising that goes in territory that escapes both the current left and right. (My music might be addressing similar subjects as certain future or recent blogposts -including this one-though, I didn’t call the new album ‘Beware of Plato’s cavemen’ for no reason…)

So where do I begin? Let’s start with my first experience with the term ‘social construct’. I can more or less remember my surprise the first time when I ran into the term in an internet discussion years ago, I suppose with a young American feminist. When it was asserted by my conversation partner that gender was a social construct, which seemed to mean, nothing but a social construct, I made the mistake of taking that term on face value. My first reaction was that, since I did not at all recognise the definitions of male and female she was pushing unto me, social constructs by definition are contextual and bound to cultures, subcultures or even smaller groups, and thus we had to both give our definitions to proceed the conversation with more understanding. But no, for some reason the contextual specifics of ‘social constructs’ were not to be discussed about, I had to accept her rather scary views of male and female that probably where derived from a certain American conservative milieu, but that were utterly alien to me as normative.

Side note: As a father a 2 little girls, lifelong friend of women and girls, and being married to a woman I know feminism is very important. A lot of sexism exists in this world that should not exist, and it destroys people. And I’m a natural egalitarian too,but even that doesn’t mean that I agree with everything that goes under the label ‘feminism’, and some things under that name make it only worse. Let’s also say here up front that I’m no adherent of ‘critical theory’ and that I consider it an insult to postmodernism (especially when it pushes very contextual US definition of race that even have hardly anything to do with race a univeral, but that’s another story), at least phenomenologically in the versions of it that have trickled down to me through internet discussions. But feminism itself is not my subject here, a philosophical exploration of the nature of Reality is.

So to pick up on my story again, apart from the cross-cultural disconnect there firstly is the observation that I still can’t escape the notion that any social construct will always be contextual, and might thus differ from context to context, and that the internet is full of people from very different context who will have very different versions of certain ‘social constructs’. I will consider that as a given here and won’t even argue for it, because it’s too obvious for me, and I can’t imagine a possible world where this isn’t true. But there’s more…

But to get to the point, there also is the fact that I as an oldfashioned philoophical Realist do not at all agree that there that are many things at all that are purely social constructs. And I’m not even going into the problem that it seems that some ‘social constructs’ become personal constructs in our hyperindividualist postmodernist society, which in the end will make communication completely impossible, which in turn just erodes the purpose of language if driven too far when people refuse to give their own definitions and listen to those of the other side in a discussion. So we will remain on the collective level of constructs today, let’s go just with the idea that the social construct is only the last layer of the onion of the Reality of that certain subject.

What do I mean with that? There are at least 2 other layers that I am able to identify that might play a role. The most important one is the plain material-reality layer, which I will call Aristotelean for now.  And then there’s the even deeper Platonist layer behind it. (see this post for more on these ideas) We’ll stick with the example of gender here to keep it a bit practical, but the principle is more or less applicable to all kinds of realities.

(Yes, this model might be a 3-way dialectic synthesis of 2 ancient and a modern epistemology, but it’s the only way for me to make sense of Reality. I’m not saying it’s the last word on everything, it’s just the basic framework for a view on Reality that still can be refined a lot.)

Note also that we’re firstly talking about descriptions of reality, but that some take it much further, and see their own constructs or translations of deeper layer as not merely descriptive but also prescriptive. This can get very problematic, also because it often is a layer confusion, but more about that later.

So the 3 layers that I will talk about now are:
1.) the Platonist layer, the a priori part, the Deeper Idea behind something, residing somewhere in a Metaphysical dimension or the mind of God or something like that, or the Tao or Buddha nature layer if we speak from other paradigms, the one which includes the teleological dimension too, and is usually completely denied by materialists and physicalists. The God/Goddess archetypes in certain forms of Wicca are also based in this.

The problem with this layer, as with all absolutes, is that we have no direct access to it, and that we only have translations of it in human modes of interpretation. So while I do think that it is important to acknowledge that there is a Deeper Reality behind male and female, I will hesitate to say anything definitive about it. I almost always disagree with people who think they have something to say about it anyway. Which is why I disagree with C.S. Lewis on gender roles for example… His assertions about gender roles are based in his claims about the Platonic layer of the reality of gender, with which I disagree.

It’s not because something exists that we can say definitive things about it, and these layers of Reality are beyond us, even though they are the source of our Reality as much as the observed regularities we do call the ‘laws of nature’.

(Let’ also for completeness notice here that there is a variation of prescriptive notions of reality that is purely based on the Divine Will, which is very important in certain traditions. Which is where philosophical Nominalism becomes dangerous, but that’s yet again another story)

I know some people will dismiss this layer altogether,because it doesn’t fit into their worldview, but even they have to consider that this layer is heavily assumed by a lot of people, and cannot be translated to ‘social constructs’ in their worldview. We can disagree about whether something is just a social construct or not or even how much of it is, but if we don’t realise that for the other things are a much deeper reality than that we will not even be able to communicate. And even dismissing this layer as an illusion doesn’t mean that the 2 other less otherworldly layers that follow are not at least equally important…

2.) The ‘mundane world’ reality, which I’ve called Aristotelean by lack of a better term. The thingness of the thing that is residing in the physical reality of the thing itself, and not in some world of ideas. There is the reality of people being male and female (or non-binary) that is rooted in the material reality of our bodies, in their differences, in hormones, etc… No matter how much we say ‘mind over matter’, in the end this layer is much more accessible and clearer than the a priori first layer, and while partly under influence of the a posteriori third layer it still is the only actual substantial one. An important part of reality resides in our material dimension.

3.) The outer layer of the ‘social constructs’ of a given society or other human context here. These are a posteriori constructions residing in our common thoughtfield. It is a way to make the reality more concrete in societal norms and pictures, sometimes in not so healthy ways if we take our example of gender and the roles associated with it. It is a layer of interpretation and application, and one that can differ very much from context to context. Let’s also note again that the second and third layer are intertwined and do influence each other. This still doesn’t mean that there’s only one layer. It would be very naive to put everything in either the ‘biological reality’ or “social construct’ category while dismissing the validity of the other category altogether, yet it seems very tempting to do so for some people…

If we keep thee different layer in mind we see several problem that can arise.

Like I said the third layer is a translation and application of the second layer into our human cultures. But most translations that we make of the Aristotelean layer (not to mention the Platonic one) into social constructs are incomplete and unbalanced. They might for example stem from a very narrow sample of the described reality that is seen as normative by a chosen group. In certain milieus extraverted men are highly favoured over male introverts for example, even though those personality traits have nothing to do with sex or gender at all. There is nothing unmasculine about an introvert and deep thinking or even deep feeling man at all. There is a variety of personality types among men and a similar spectrum among women. So linking preferred personality types to some kind of gender essentialism is always bad for those who don’t fit in, for reasons that have nothing with non-gender-binary identity at all. This can be hard for people finding their identity when the roles are mere descriptions, and much worse when they are meant to be prescriptive…

Actually whenever we turn from descriptive to prescriptive there always is a danger already… But I suppose that’s too obvious to go deeper into now.

A last big problem that I will address is the confusion of layers, which is a problem especially in combination with being too prescriptive, and it also makes communication impossible when people assume a certain thing to be in a completely different layer. (Which very often happens in discussions about gender between a certain kind of ‘conservatives’ and a certain kind of ‘progressives’ for example)

A lot of people in more ‘conservative’ mindsets have claimed insights into what I called the Platonic layer throughout the ages to justify mere social constructs as absolutes. Some modernist on the other hand have tried to exaggerate dubious cultural differences (also social construct layer) on biological differences (Aritotelean layer) while that was only half of the story. On the other hand, there are certainly actual differences between men and women (and a minority people who fall outside of the duality) that are located in deeper layers of Reality than just social constructs too. And then there’ the whole ‘gender is only a social construct that ha nothing to do with biological sex’, that’s only confusing stuff even more. Especially because there is nothing left at all to turn to if the constructs one grew up with turned out to be more than problematic and have to be discarded because they did both not correspond enough with reality on the one hand while they did  also create a reality that was very destructive on the other hand. If there’s no deeper reality to which interpretations can be adjusted, not much is left than constructing something by oneself.

Another example of this layer confusion within Christianity can be found in how we read the line from Paul in the bible about ‘doesn’t nature tell us it’s a shame for a man to have long hair’. Any post-enlightenment thinker who has read enough blahblah from the people in recent centuries about ‘natural this’ and ‘natural that’ will interpret ‘nature’ as a deeper layer of at least Aristotelean nature, but from the context it’s clear Paul is talking about what we’d call culture rather than nature, and thus just referring to social constructs of his time and culture. As a man with long hair I have met some weird Christians who told me that my long hair was unnatural and against Gods created order though. (Luckily not often)

I think this was enough for a rant about what I think of when I see the word ‘social construct’.

What do you people think?

peace

Bram

 

Loose thoughts: should justice be focussed on punishment?


I was thinking about what the idea ‘justice’ means lately, and more and more I’m really wondering why for our culture punishing the perpetrator is looked upon as much more important than compensating the victim as much as possible, which imho should be the main focus of justice. (along with making sure the evil guy will not repeat being evil, which isn’t the same thing as revenge.) But in some cases compensation isn’t even on the radar. This is just weird and rather counter-intuitive to me.

Revenge nor punishment will ever set anything right for the victim, and while it might  be psychologically good for the victim to have the perpetrator punished, it will not really help any of the wrong to be undone at all.

Yes, I also understand that the threat of punishment can be good to keep people from doing wrong, but that still doesn’t mean that the actual punishment is really the best of what justice has to offer…

But frankly, if we don’t focus on setting the wrongs right and undoing the evil, there will never be any progress.  We will only satisfy our low desires for revenge.

I was browsing the code of Hammurabi, (the oldest human book of law that we still have) and between all the death sentences (prison as a punishment is a rather rare modernist idea) I also see a lot of compensations for crihammurabimes.
Take for example this law (not completely preserved):

“23. If the robber is not caught, then shall he who was robbed claim under oath the amount of his loss; then shall the community, and . . . on whose ground and territory and in whose domain it was compensate him for the goods stolen. “

While good old Hammy surely has a lot of attention for punishment, he doesn’t neglect the compensation even when there is no identified criminal (of his family) that can compensate.  And isn’t it logical indeed to let the community do this instead of insurance companies out for money for shareholders, and to bring this aspect back to the focus of justice? Justice as setting right the wrongs, not punishing the evil ones?

I’m not sure where I’m going here with my thoughts on restorative justice, but it makes me wonder about atonement theories and why I don’t feel anything for certain popular versions of  them in our modernist and post-reformation Christianity. God setting things right and undoing wrong seems more foundational to me than the rather base thinking of ‘evil needs to be punished no matter what’…

so what do you think?

peace

Bram

Christianity: first a question of allegiance, not worldview!


It seems that I’ve -mworldviewore or less by accident- outlined most of my worldview in my recent few posts. I’m a ‘small o orthodox’ Christian’ as I said in my last post. Which means that I’m certainly and strongly a monotheist. And yet I am epistemologically an Animist too, for biblical and traditional reasons, and possibly even a polytheist.  And oh, I’m probably a Christian Neoplatonist and in some details even Aristotelean, anything but a philosophical nominalist… And I’ve noted earlier my postmodernism is probably more in line with theoretical chaos magick when it comes to paradigm shifting than with contemporary academic postmodernism.

But actually any of these doesn’t mean much apart from the theoretical level. Christianity isn’t a worldview but it is in the first place an allegiance. One can be a modernist liberal Christian and have a solid relationship with Christ (as Bonhoeffer did 201401071407-1_opgepast-voor-dinosauriersfor example), or a tribal animist (like some of my African pentecostal brethren are in practice), or a medieval European premodernist (get a book on church history and have your pick), or an existential postmodernist (ah, Kierkegaard anyone?), or even a messianic Jew. Surely, worldview IS important, but it’s nothing without relationship.

What I mean is that what we believe in terms of ‘accepting information’ does not at all equal our actual religion. I tend use the example of the letter of James, who says that the demons believe that ‘God is one’ too, and tremble. Yes they probably have very accurate worldview technically, much more accurate than any Christian worldview that has ever existed (though probably inverted when it comes to certain things like good and evil, in some kind of non-human Luciderian fashion) but this example should make it quite clear that even if ticking all the boxes of orthodoxy makes one technically a ‘believer’ of sorts, it doesn’t make one a follower of Christ.

Believing in spirits without ever engaging with them doesn’t make anyone a Japanese_Black_Pine,_1936-2007convincing spiritist. Saying ‘I believe in the historical Buddha’ or even in the more abstract Amida Buddha and the pure land, or the precepts of Zen philosophy, or even believing in the reality of the dharma itself does not make one a Buddhist unless one commits to following the dharma as a way of life. Or to take an example that’s a bit more extreme and closer to home: believing in the existence of Satan does not make one a Satanist. Well, actually Anton Szandor LaVey -probably because needed to make sure that his occult system got enough attention – naming his cult  ‘Satanism’ without even having Satan and God in the worldview is the reason that most modern ‘Satanists’ don’t even believe in Satan, while a lot of Christians and other Abrahamic monotheists do as they have always done. So here goes the whole ‘X-ism is believing that X exists’ completely out of the windows. It’s useless anyway…

So it’s quite clear that merely believing in an entity or even in the creeds of a religion  doesn’t make one an adherent of said religion. Thaindext is a modernist reduction that is actually quite meaningless. The first Christians were called the followers of the Way (just as a lot of people in other religions and spiritualities speak of their ‘path’. Even the word ‘Tao’ can be translated as such btw.) The ‘Way’ in that expression can be seen as the way of Christ, or as Christ Himself, who is called the Way, the Truth and the light in Johns gospel.

So Christianity is following Christ as the Way to the Father, leading a life that is in accordance with His teachings, and having a faith in God who will save us. Evidently this faith means to trust God, not accept information about God. It’s a life oriented towards God, where we orient ourselves on the Person of Christ and the body of Christian believers. Getting saved by believing in the right information about how we get saved is a weird mistranslation of the protestant idea of ‘sola fide’ and a very strange variety of the old gnostic idea that it is the right knowledge that saves us. It is God that we believe in (relationally and that we trust.

And this actually can happen in a different lot of differing worldviews and paradigms. Modern Christianity, Premodern Christianity, Postmodern Christianity, Jewish Christianity, inculturated tribal Christianity, etc can all be environments in which this Way can be followed… Actually we shouldn’t be naive to think that one of our man-made worldviews could ever be a one to one representation of the world. It’s always coloured by cultural tendencies and the Zeitgeist and what more. There is no pure ‘Christian worldview’, no matter what some people say (and those who claim to have one are often thoroughly modernist in a lot of regards.)

Sure there are problems where your worldview makes it impossible to see certain truths. The number of paradigms in which Christianity can be incarnated is transfinite, and not infine. And there will be a degree of incompatibility in which your Christianity might be hindered in certain aspects that comes with certain worldviews. If you do away with the whole supernatural dimension as a lot of moderns do you’re not likely to experience much to that aspect of the Kingdom of God. If you give it too much place (especially evil spirits controlling everything with no space for natural causality) you’ll fall in opposite traps… And getting to know God through a walk with Christ will expand our worldview. None of our categories is safe if we let Christ be Christ and try to learn from Him, if we let the Spirit be the spirit and learn from it, if we let God be God and learn from Him. Actually, if we get acquainted enough with the natural world we will already see our precious held worldviews splinter in certain areas from time to time…

We should stick to Christ even if our worldview falls apart. And lay our confidence in God and Reality rather than in any paradigm, be it a modern or a postmodern one… Christ should be more real to us than all of our man-made worldviews, which are just on ‘social construct’ layer, an interpretation of reality, but never reality itself.We have to remember that Reality is always more real than our interpretations of it. That Jesus is more than Christians can put into words, and more real than our dogmas and theology…

Even if we’d not only lose our worldview but end up in anokingdom4ther world, Christ will be there. Be it an alien planet or shamanist spirit world, if we’d ever come in such a situation (yeah, I am aware chances are slim for us mere mortals with our boring earthly lives, but still) it can come in handy to realise that Jesus transcends worlds and worldviews… So do Truth and Love by the way.

(But as you can see from the possible Christian neoplatonist undertones in my last paragraph, we should not expect to ever be fully free from our woldview while in this world. Or maybe the old professor was right and it can all be found in Plato (what do they teach kids in school these days…)
One day we’ll see face to Face though…)

What do you think?

Shalom

Bram

The Animist side of Christianity


“In our world,” said Eustace, “a star is a huge ball of flaming gas.”
“Even in your world, my son, that is not what a star is but only what it is made of.” – C.S. Lewis -the voyage of the Dawn Treader

dawn treaderRecently I encountered an article on Facebook from ‘the week’, a to me unknown publication, which argued that Paganism might be making a comeback in the US. Now while a compelling case could be made for this idea, I must say that with this specific article even my Pagan FB friends didn’t seem to take the article very seriously. I could also remark that the word ‘come-back’ is a bit weird since ancient European or Mid-Eastern Paganism has never been present on North-American soil as a majority religion. Not even in the pre-Columbian  Viking settlement, since Leif Erikson was  actually an Orthodox Christian, but that’s besides the point

Although no-one seemed to have been particularly impressed by the article in the the interesting and quite respectful Facebook conversation it created on my wall, and I’m not going into all the issues here (write your own blogpost about Paganism and scapegoating if you feel inclined to do so, I will surely read it and probably even share it!), there was one thing that caught my eyes because I’ve been meaning to write about for a while now. And that ‘thing’ is the first difference given in the text between a ‘Christian’ worldview and a Pagan one: in Paganism, according to the text, we have a ‘world full of agencies’, as they call it:

“As seen in the ancient Greek, Celtic, and Norse traditions, the pagan idea most alien to the modern worldview is probably the belief that the entire cosmos is animated by agencies.”

I must confess that the word ‘agencies’ sounded for a second like they were talking about dull bureaucratic entities, but since those are never very animating in any sense of the world that can’t be what they meant. What they do mean something like a world animated with spirits, or a world full of persons, some of which are humans. In other words, basically they’re talking about an Animist worldview.

And here comes my main point: while some people might not like the idea of an Animist worldview (some of which are connected to Modernism, others probably to fear of the unknown), this is not at all something that needs to be opposed to Christianity. But indeed i’s rather something antithetical to modernism and its philosophical forefathers, and thus also partly to the forms of Christianity that either helped forming modernity or in a secondary move also those that have been shaped by it.
It probably starErasmus 2ted with Erasmus or even Scotus and was very prevalent in the Renaissance tendency to get rid of everything viewed as ‘superstition’. And so in Christian modernism (which includes a lot of protestant traditions) we find a fear and adversity to any even remotely animist idea. A commenter on the first post of the series on ‘faerie’ on Dr. Richard Becks  experimental theology blog gives us a nice example of this resistance to ascribing any animist dimension to this Reality we live in:

When we re-enchant the World, what are we doing? Part of the Reformation’s emphasis was to strip the world of fantasy, not of spiritual. Peasants no longer had to fear that an irate saint of the local bridge would drown them if they did not drop a florin in the toll-box. Of course, the agents of the so-called Enlightenment took the critique without their source. There were no such things as spirits, devils, angels, gods etc. nothing that man’s “ever-watchful eye” could not prove.

(Note that the guy is going way too far for a pure reformation or actually any small ‘o orthodox Christian’ worldview. Luther himself would be quite shocked to hear that there are no devils for example…)

The main fear here, apart from a modernist control issue and a humanist ‘man conquers nature’ ideology, is probably that of idolatry: that the ‘agencies’ if we acknowledge them will become too important, and that they might take the place God only deserves. This is a valid concern, and people who do acknowledge those realities do sometimes fall into this trap indeed. But an argument out of fear of consequences is never a good way to accept the reality of something.
I will also add here that strangely enough the same concerns are never uttered towards human power, systems, and Winkian Powers like Mammon, while those are recognised and their claims to legitimacy are sometimes uncontested. No matter if they are seen as personal or not, their influence stays the same, and keeps us from God and from seeking first the kingdom and Hid righteousness all the same…

So it might go completely against the grain of a lot of modernist Christianity, buDyingDryadt it certainly is my intuition that recognising this ‘Animist dimension’ of the created world is not really a heterodox oddity of some ‘progressive’ green modern thinker, lost in basckwards synchretism and making up stuff that has no basis in either the bible or Christian tradition or something else fringe and new. I’d rather say that it is just a part of Christianity, even though it might be hidden for eyes that cannot see it. It is very clearly present in the bible, and moreover has been often voiced by the Christian tradition.

And I’m not only thinking about angels in heavely realms here… (I do believe that Charismatic Christianity and Pentecostalism were among other things part of a movement of the Spirit to bring this and other spiritual dimensions back into modernist Christianity, lest it be rendered completely impotent as a dead muggle religion, that often has been moved only in the private space altogether.)

As one of my Facebook-commenters said: “I might be simple-minded, but, how could you read the Psalms and not be basically OK with animism?”. There are lots of verses in the psalms that seem to ascribe agency and the capacity of worshipping God to animals, trees and the elements of nature. When I was a kid one of my favourite songs was about trees that clap their hands for God.

We do take this as pure metaphor as moderns. I don’t know if that’s the best way of viewing it though. There is a rather animist worldview in the background of most of the bible that we just dismiss as moderns. The problem for Christianity is not that the world isn’t full of living beings, but that the are not to be seen or treated as divine in themselves. This is the danger of animism.

zone50But I would say that it’s quite clear most moderns outside of the New Age and Neo-Pagan niche are not at all in danger of divinizing nature, thus and giving so much respect to creation that it diminishes our respect for the Creator. Au contraire mes amis, most of us can need a healthy dose of realisation that Nature is Alive. That we humans are not everything. And also that God Himself is Present and Neo-Paganism (as well as New Age, but also the rise of Charismatic Christianity on the other side) is indeed an answer to this reductionist modernist desacralisation and disenchantment. Smashing the mystery out of Christianity (something that goes back at least to the reformation), is a good way to sterilise religion and in the end kill it from within. Too much Bultmann-manouvres and Christianity dissolves completely…

I’m not saying anything new here. The pre-modern church has always believed in intelligent non-human agents in the cosmos and in nature. Even the Pope seems to agree with that, which can be read through the lines in his ecological encyclical Laudaro Si (read it here Did you ever think of a time when we would read Papal encyclicals on the internet?). The title alone is a strong reference to the Animist dimension, as it is a quote from Saint Francis’ canticle of the sun.

The canticle (just as psalm 148 for example) is a perfect place to see how the Animist dimension is fitted into a Christian worldview. The elements and the creatures (yes, even death) are seen as persons, fellow creatures that all are made by the same Creator, and that all worship the same Creator. And while it starts very certainly with an affirmation of a very Monotheist God-centered Christianity, all the other things are fitted neatly in there too. So let’s meditate on this text and psalm 148 for a while to close our thinking about the Animist dimension of Christianity… (This translation comes from wikipedia. )zonnelied

Most high, all powerful, all good Lord!
All praise is Yours, all glory, all honor, and all blessing.
To You, alone, Most High, do they belong.
No mortal lips are worthy to pronounce Your name.

Be praised, my Lord, through all Your creatures,
especially through my lord Brother Sun,
who brings the day; and You give light through him.
And he is beautiful and radiant in all his splendor!
Of You, Most High, he bears the likeness.

Be praised, my Lord, through Sister Moon and the stars;
in the heavens You have made them bright, precious and beautiful.
Be praised, my Lord, through Brothers Wind and Air,
and clouds and storms, and all the weather,
through which You give Your creatures sustenance.

Be praised, my Lord, through Sister Water;
she is very useful, and humble, and precious, and pure.
Be praised, my Lord, through Brother Fire,
through whom You brighten the night.
He is beautiful and cheerful, and powerful and strong.

Be praised, my Lord, through our sister Mother Earth, who feeds us and rules us,
and produces various fruits with colored flowers and herbs.

Be praised, my Lord, through those who forgive for love of You;
through those who endure sickness and trial.
Happy those who endure in peace,
for by You, Most High, they will be crowned.

Be praised, my Lord, through our sister Bodily Death,
from whose embrace no living person can escape.
Woe to those who die in mortal sin!
Happy those she finds doing Your most holy will.
The second death can do no harm to them.
Praise and bless my Lord, and give thanks,
and serve Him with great humility.
Amen

So what do you think?

peace

Bram

Monotheism or monopolytheism?


Today we’ll talk about the funny word in the title. ‘Mono-polytDBH experienceheism’ is a word used by David Bentley Hart in his rather heavy philosophical tome ‘the experience of God’, a book that tries to explain what the word ‘God’ God means in the monotheistic traditions . The word mono-polytheosm describes the idea that God is a being more like the gods of polytheism, but still the only one in his species. That’s the way in which I will use it anyway.  (Hart also uses it more or less as a synonym for ‘theistic personalism’, but that’s a term and discussion that I feel no connection with at all and will leave for others. Philosophy, theoretical theology and a multitude of deep words can be very important one one hand to really say something meaningful about Reality, but on the other hand one can easily drift off to get lost in conceptual words too that have not much relevance, or even reality behind them in any way at all…)

To start I offer a quote from Hart for a definition of the term:

“a view of God not conspicuously different from the polytheistic picture of the gods as merely very powerful discrete entities who possess a variety of distinct attributes that lesser entities also possess, if in smaller measure; it differs from polytheism, as far as I can tell, solely in that it posits the existence of only one such being. It is a way of thinking that suggest that God, since he is only a particular instantiation of various concepts and properties, is logically dependent on some more comprehensive reality embracing both him and other beings.” (DBH, the experience of God, p 127-128):

To be honest, Hart might always require slow reading and re-reading. One of my FB friends recently assured me that she needs a dictionary too when reading him, and unlike me she has English as her first language and is quite intelligent.

Back to Mono/polytheism. The main question is what I am talking about when I as a Christian and Monotheist use the word ‘God’. In a classical monotheist definition as used in Abrahamic faiths, and according to Hart also in other tradition like certain forms of philosophical Hinduism, this is something completely different from what is meant with the ‘gods’ in a polytheist fashion. Really ‘God’ has no plural and can’t have one either. God is the Creator, the Source and Ground of Being. The One, both transcendent an immanent in all of the multiverse. If the creation story is true in any way, as well as the rest of the bible, God is Universal (quite probably multiversal even, I’d add). Surely while I believe that Christians have special revelation of God in the person of Christ, other people have concepts of Him too. Not only the Abrahamic names of Yahweh, Allah but also the Manitou or Great Spirit of the original Americans, or the Hinduist Brahman or Ọlọ́run in Yoruba are ways to describe this Multiversal Creator. Yes, some things will differ, some pictures will be better than others, but there is One God behind all of existence. And all our talk of this Ultimate Reality is just primitive babytalk anyway, even in the most refined theological schools.

Some philosophers or theologians, for example in Christian Orthodoxy,  go as far as saying that God does not ‘exist’ because His mode of being is completely different, as he is the Source of Being, and maybe even Existence and Being itself. But all of these words are just mere fingerscratches on the surface of something bigger than the sun…

The problem is that not all people define God in this way. In certain views, which are those I would see as ‘monopolytheism’ we do have a “God” that is not completely the source of all Being, and depending on other things, and subject to certain natural laws (or ‘higher magic’?) that maybe even preceded it and that it can’t go against. Which means that our “God” still has a Higher Reality to depend on and answer too somehow…

This certainly seems to be an existing picture of God that I sometimes encounter in several schools of theology, especially in certain schools of modernist ‘liberal’ theology, probably including process theology, but similar sentiments can be uttered by ‘conservative’ Christians too sometimes. It also seems related to -though probably incompatible with- a form of deism in which God made the laws of nature and afterwards isn’t able to break them even if He wanted. (The lengths some people go to combine abstract philosophic notions of God with cramped modernist assertions against miracles can be quite amusing…) demiurgeThe problem is that we end up with something that is more like a demiurge than the Creator. (And if there’s a demiurge, maybe there’s a Higher God in the background that’s more important…)

It’s also often the picture atheists paint of the “God” they reject. Well, no disagreement with them, since I reject it too, but that seems very hard to explain sometimes… It is this “God” too that is rejected in the simplistic ‘only atheists of one god more’ argument that sound not very logical if you really think about what God is and what Gods are.
(Sorry Brian McLaren,I once again go with David Bentley Hart here )

Let me also be clear here that I do not per se have to reject polytheism here, even if being a more than convinced monotheist. I actually happen to have no problem at all with the existence of the gods, but just want the clear that whatever they are, they are not God and not in the same league at all. If they exist they are powers of nature or higher beings inside the word, or maybe entities on (fallen) archangel-level, or in some cases even thoughtform-entities (Hey Fotamecus, did you beat old Chronos already?) or just anthropomorphic personifications of actually rather impersonal forces inside this world. (WATCH OUT WITH WHAT YOU SAY HERE, I KEEP MY EYES ON YOU!)

It might even be that in a soft polytheistic vein what is called ‘gods’ are only personifications of the One, the Divine, which is thus just a way to describe aspects of God. Certain schools of Hinduism and some African religions seem to think that way. If I understand Yoruba well the orishas might function in such a way for example.

Still I as a Christian believe that I have access to a much clearer view on and path to the Multiversal Creator, wich is found in Christ as the most fully revelation of God. Yes, the most scandalous claim of Christianity is not the trinity which mostly leads to more philosophical discussions, long words and misunderstanding of these words, but rather the Incarnation, the idea that in the person of a human Jesus the Creator stepped into His Creation and even shared in our suffering -well, got tortured to death eventually even-, and in partaking in death conquered death, sin and evil, But that’s another thing. Let’s note also that the Living Word (Logos) is something completely different from all our human formulations.

So like the title says, I don’t care for thing mono-polytheism (and even less for any form of monopoly-theism, in that matter). If God is not the Absolute, the One, the Creator it makes no sense being a monotheist at all. We end up with a conceptual demiurge at best, and a self-created illusion or even God-replacing egregore at worst… Conceptual idolatry is always a danger for those who want to define God instead of just letting God be God while acknowledging that no theology will hqdefaultever fully describe the One. (Except for the Living Word, Christ, but here we have the same problem that we need Christ to just be Christ, and not try to trap him in our formulations and description like a dried butterfly in a museum collection.)

So for anyone who wants to discuss God and theology with me, please accept that the classical monotheist definition of God as the Creator of the universe (from which everything originates, including the regularities that we call ‘laws of nature’), not some being inside the universe bound by the ‘laws of nature’ is crucial for me. You can deny the existence of this God, but arguing about the existence of merely a one-of-its-kind god in this world is not something I want to defend and something I’m completely not interested in at all.

What do you think?

Peace

Bram