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A belated Transfiguration post

August 8, 2010

August 6 in the Orthodox Church is the Feast of the Transfiguration, on which we commemorate Christ’s Transfiguration on Mount Tabor. The Transfiguration–Christ’s appearing as glorified to his disciples– is not some miracle impinging upon mundane reality; rather, it is a revelation of what is true all the time had we the eyes to see. One of the hymns of the feast states that Christ “reveal[s] [his] glory to [his] disciples as far as they could bear it.” The glory is present in Christ all the time, and through Christ suffuses the new creation, which is to say the created world in the state God intended for it from all eternity. Hence what follows is that if we purify our vision, we see God’s presence in all things; we see Christ’s glory in our neighbor.

In the same way, in the Orthodox Church, the transformation of the elements in the Eucharist is not some kind of miracle confected on the altar; it is instead simultaneously the revelation and the restoration of what was and is always there; of the transcendent presence in all creation. Christ’s Incarnation is not a violent eruption–0r any eruption at all– into the “normal” world; it is instead simultaneously what the world is meant to be from all eternity, and a restoration of this truth, this goal. Hence also in some translations of the Liturgy of Saint Basil the Great, used on Sundays in Lent, the epiclesis (the calling down of the Holy Spirit upon the gifts on the altar) says “and reveal these to be the body of thy Christ, Amen.”

It is in these details of incarnational theology that I think we find the strongest disagreement between modern science and the premodern. There is no world of mere or inert matter; “mere” matter is instead an epiphenomenon of mystery, or of the divine. The same set of truths is behind the Hopi dancing for rain and blessings, and the small cornmeal bags that the pueblo Indian tribes carry, and sprinkle in front of those Catholic statues and put in pottery dishes by Catholic altars in churches across northern New Mexico.

For anyone interested in pursuing this line of thought in its Orthodox Christian form (which reveals what is truly intrinsic to Christianity; for so much has been lost to formalism, legalism, moralism), Metropolitan Anthony Bloom’s essay titled “Body and Matter in Spiritual Life,” to which here’s a link. As Bloom says,

this capacity of the world to be in God and to have God within itself, this capacity of the matter of this world, leaving aside our soul and our spirit, is the very condition of the Incarnation on the one hand, and of our belief in the sacraments on the other hand. In the Incarnation, God who is without any common measure with what he has created, becomes intrinsic to his creation, puts on human flesh, which is a summing up of all those things which are, which exist in this created world. He assumes all the substance of the world, and this substance, not only in his own personal historical body, but in the whole world, is mysteriously, unfathomably connected with him, the personal God; connected personally, in a new relationship. And when, after the Resurrection, Christ ascends into heaven, he takes, in this mysterious divine act, the whole substance of our world into the very depth of the divine reality. God present in the world, part not only of its history but of its substance, and the world present in God.

In this spirit, fruit–apples in Russia and figs in the Middle East are blessed at the Feast in churches.

Happy belated feast day.

August 6, 2010

A poem by Zbigniew Herbert, a Polish poet who oddly enough is a distant relative of George Herbert, Anglican divine and poet.

“Report from Paradise”

In paradise the work week is fixed at thirty hours
salaries are higher prices steadily go down
manual labour is not tiring (because of reduced gravity)
chopping wood is no harder than typing
the social system is stable and the rulers are wise
really in paradise one is better off than in whatever country

At first it was to have been different
luminous circles choirs and degrees of abstraction
but they were not able to separate exactly
the soul from the flesh and so it would come here
with a drop of fat a thread of muscle
it was necessary to face the consequences
to mix a grain of the absolute with a grain of clay
one more departure from doctrine the last departure
only John foresaw it: you will be resurrected in the flesh

not many behold God
he is only for those of 100 per cent pneuma
the rest listen to communiqués about miracles and floods
some day God will be seen by all
when it will happen nobody knows

As it is now every Saturday at noon
sirens sweetly bellow
and from the factories go the heavenly proletarians
awkwardly under their arms they carry their wings like violins

Christian Arguments for God’s Existence and Modernity

August 3, 2010

In an August 2, 2010  commentary article in the NYT, Gary Gutting, Notre Dame professor of philosophy describes teaching philosophy at a Catholic college, and writes that “philosophers have never been able to find arguments that settle the question of God’s existence or any  of the other “big questions” we’ve been discussing for 2500 years.” Yet in the Catholic Christian tradition Thomas Aquinas thought that one could prove God’s existence, as did Anselm; and among the Greek philosophers Aristotle thought that one could prove the existence of an “unmoved mover” who was first cause. In the modern world, though, these arguments generally are not considered convincing. Why? What has changed? Here are a few thoughts.

The modern point of view (perhaps starting with Francis Bacon‘s dissection of a certain strand of premodern thought in The Advancement of Learning) is that all such forms of knowledge “hunt more after words than matter.” Basically, for a modern person, the reading of the classical proofs of Aristotle or their Christianized form in Thomas Aquinas can only be of historical interest. Instead, the mental energy of modernity went into (echoing Bacon) hunting the matter, especially as this matter can be described mathematically. The same tool, reason, gets used in both the premodern arguments over a supreme being and in empirical science, but this tool is productive in concrete ways when applied externally, to things rather than to words. Modern humans have no interest in applying reason to concepts that do not have some form of empirical correlative.

But even for many who are premodern hybrids, there remains a sense that these proofs lack the power they had in either Aristotle’s or Thomas’ days. The use of instrumental reason to dominate the material world seems to have poisoned our ability to use it in more metaphysically informed ways. Perhaps premodern hybrids simply react to this historically changed character of reason.

Furthermore, I believe that premodern thought is not monolithic. While Aristotle and Thomas represent one strain, which ultimately helps give birth to the hyperrationalistic modern West (and for a one-sided view see Philip Sherrard’s later writings), another strain in Eastern Christianity looks at knowledge inhering in the heart, not the head. The Christian East believed in knowledge of the heart, which some identify with the intellect, while the West, once Thomas Aquinas became normative in Catholic theology (quite early on, and long before the Council of Trent)  in metaphysically informed reason.

While reason is capable of knowledge, it is ultimately more instrumental than intellect. Early modernity took the rationalism of a certain branch of the medieval schools and secularized it, hyperdeveloping its instrumental qualities and ignoring its metaphysical roots. Because of this history, the medieval and classical proofs for a supreme being, an unmoved mover, fail to move most modern human beings, including at least some of us premodern hybrids.

Perhaps the antidote for modern instrumental rationalism lies not in reverting to an earlier strain of thought that helped make modern rationalism possible; perhaps it instead lies in what the authors in the Greek and Russian Philokalia term the knowledge of the heart, but equally available in the thought of, say, Saint Bonaventure.This knowledge, so neglected in the modern West, bears witness to the truth through the heart’s opening on transcendent beauty and love. So when Marcuse talks about philosophy reaching a dead end in the 19th century, he’s not just engaging in proto critical theory claptrap; he is instead pointing to a real cooptation of the rational by the forces of control rather than of understanding.

Bearing witness to this same idea but from below is the modern silliness of New Age beliefs, which in reaction to modernity’s rationalism takes refuge in a sentimental, syncretic simulacrum of the knowledge of the heart. Both Herbert Marcuse and New Age thought witness to the wringing dry of the rational in modernity–though from different perspectives– through which Aristotle’s and Thomas’ proofs no longer speak to the heart. Rationality, unless metaphysically informed, is arid; and some of us feel it so even when it is fully developed with its earlier roots still anchored, as it is in Aristotle and Thomas.

One caveat: even if the the proofs for God’s existence do not speak to either modern humans, or even to some premodern hybrids, there are real exceptions. These lie in those who view these texts not as philosophical treatises, but as meditative supports, verbal scaffolding upon which a lifetime of intellectual–spiritual discipline can be built. The difference here is analogous to the way monastics in the West read scripture in the 12th century–lectio divina— compared to, say, those taught to read it in a scientific way in the 20th or 21st century: the texts may be the same; the experience of reading and indeed the goals in reading are completely different.

Philosophy, modernity, certainty

August 1, 2010

A striking epistemological difference between modernity and premodern philosophical beliefs lies in to what degree we can know anything qualitative about the world we live in, and ultimately, whether qualities exist as something separable from the one imputing them. According to Aristotle, we can know formal causes and final causes, which are crudely the whatness and the whyness of natural phenomena. Likewise, for Plato, true knowledge means an awareness of the incorporeal forms that are “behind” three dimensional reality, that are more real than it, and that are the basis of this mundane reality. Despite their differences, Aristotle and Plato share this sense that there are realities below the surface of empirical sensation, and these realities define true knowledge.

For its part, though, modernity is utterly certain that we can know some aspects of reality, but very limited ones constrained to the empirically verifiable and the quantifiable. This form of knowledge excludes accounts of what something truly is, or what something is for. Instead, it is concerned only with what is is on the surface as there’s no immanent form “under” the visible. This empirical knowledge, combined with various forms of mathematics, leads to modern technology, the practical handmaiden of post Cartesian philosophy: what we can see, we can then mathematically model; what we can model we can predict; what we can predict we can then manipulate.

These differences mean that modernity sees reality in terms of purposeless surfaces, whereas premodernity sees it in terms of knowable and purposeful depths. To clarify: to be sure, modern science will tell us what the hairs on a housefly’s leg are for; but that there might be some overall purpose to the natural world of which the housefly is a part, some transcendent telos, is not something that science can answer. These unanswerable questions at very least go beyond the constraints of science; but to many if not most comfortably modern people, they are simply meaningless. And it is precisely in this degree of comfort where the term “premodern hybrid” comes in.

In general, modernity by its epistemological assumptions deals only with the “is” world, and premodernity deals with primarily the “ought” world, and only secondarily with the “is” one. But by simultaneously being utterly certain of a limited epistemology not just in its positive content (such and such is true) but in its negative –its limitations– as well, much of modernity stigmatizes the search for the oughts that define human beings as human agents. Taking the place of these oughts are self-defined human wishes of a contractual nature: what we can, as citizens of the contractual state, agree upon, with the only limitation that we cannot cause others obvious harm. This negative epistemology is in fact essential to scientism, that bastard-but-necessary offspring of science itself. And in this scientism comes the place of the premodern hybrid, who accepts some of the positive epistemological formulations of modern science, but refuses to believe that they exhaust the nature of reality.

In contrast to moderns, premoderns take a series of oughts as givens. These can be based upon religious beliefs such as the ten commandments or upon philosophical considerations, such as “to be human involves the end of using one’s intellect and will in fully informed ways,” or on some mixture of these. But both of these sources of moral compulsion, religion and ancient philosophy, are often in virtue of the modern world’s view of knowledge relegated to the trivial, the subjective, and ultimately the meaningless. Such knowledge–such wisdom even– that healthy cultures, healthy religious traditions and integral philosophical traditions give us are, to moderns as moderns pathologies, fit only for the ignorant and weak who cannot thrust themselves forward in the world of material and now digital manipulation that modernity and its technological handmaiden have made possible.

Furthermore, this disjunction between the “is” and the “ought” worldviews and the background behind this chasm is at the root of the fault lines in modern American society. Paradoxically, America, that most Enlightenment nation, is at the same time more old fashioned than its European predecessors in that religion maintains a degree of its hold on individuals. In accepting my identity as a premodern hybrid I accept both the formulations of modern science correctly understood and those more ancient forms of knowledge that have less to do with rational manipulation, and more to do with a holistic sense of reality.

December 26: The day after the Nativity

December 26, 2009

In the Orthodox church, this is the second day of the Nativity, and the Synaxis of the Theotokos, who made the Nativity feast possible. In the Catholic church, this is the feast of Saint Stephen, First Martyr. Perhaps there’s something significant about the different commemorations the west and east have on this day; I’m not sure. But both participate in the mystery of the incarnation itself, and in honor–and perhaps in apophatic definition– of this mystery, I’d like to present a poem by Czeslaw Milosz, the winner of the 1980 Nobel Prize for Literature.


Human reason is beautiful and invincible.

No bars, no barbed wire, no pulping of books,

No sentence of banishment can prevail against it.

It establishes the universal ideas in language,

And guides our hand so we write Truth and Justice

With capital letters, lie and oppression with small.

It puts what should be above things as they are,

Is an enemy of despair and a friend of hope.

It does not know Jew from Greek or slave from master,

Giving us the estate of the world to manage.

It saves austere and transparent phrases

From the filthy discord of tortured words.

It says that everything is new under the sun,

Opens the congealed fist of the past.

Beautiful and very young are Philo-Sophia

And poetry, her ally in the service of the good.

As late as yesterday Nature celebrated their birth,

The news was brought to the mountains by a unicorn and an echo.

Their friendship will be glorious, their time has no limit.

Their enemies have delivered themselves to destruction.

Berkeley, 1968

Jacob Neusner’s return to Reform Judaism

December 15, 2009

In a recent article in Forward, Jacob Neusner, the famous Conservative Jewish scholar, described his return to the Reform Judaism of his youth. I am not Jewish, but his article interests me because of its arguments involve switching paradigms: from one model of Judaism-confronting (encountering?) -modernity versus another. He writes

Today, however, I have returned to the convictions (if not to the cuisine) of my youth — not because they are expedient but because they are compelling. After a half-century of apostasy, I affirm Reform Judaism as the American Judaism both of my personal choice and of our communal necessity. Indeed, I have come to believe that if Reform Judaism did not exist today, American Jews would have to invent it.

His attempt to present reasons seems to me to be incoherent, of which more later. He defines 2 basic kinds of Judaism: “self-segregationist” and “integrationist.” The integrationist Jews are looking for Jewish identity with a hypen. For this latter form has as “its urgent question the issue of how to be Jewish and something else.” He identifies Reform, Conservative, and Modern Orthodox as sharing this latter form, while the former are composed of various Orthodox “groupings.” Basically, he believes the only viable form of integrationist Judaism lies in the Reform movement, seemingly because both the Modern Orthodox and Conservative movements lose too many members to the segregationist Judaic forms, plus, in the case of conservative Judaism, to the Reform movement itself, or to non-affiliation.

In contrast, Reform Judaism, claims Neusner, is “the Judaism defined by the American condition.” There are, he says, three commitments that define Reform Judaism as the appropriate form. He goes on:

These three commitments of Reform Judaism — reason and criticism, the secular dimension of the culture and the autonomy of the individual — secure the freedom of modern Jews. And they amount to a Judaism that has profound support in our tradition.

The problem with what Neusner writes is its utter circularity. Hasidic Judaism has “profound support” in the tradition, as do other forms of Orthodoxy. But the three commitments he describes above are either fully present in segregationist Judaism (such as the place of reason and criticism, which seems to be a strong feature of much of the commentary tradition that predates the 19th century), or else are so typical of modern Euro-American post-Enlightenment culture that one does not need any form of Judaism to feel entitled to them. If anything, any cultural or religious identity, any joining, is antithetical to individualism as the telos of modern life.

My own very limited understanding (and please do correct me if I’m wrong) is that the Conservative movement is in its ideals orthorpractical, meaning that as an institution, it believes that the rules (halacha) of the 613 laws (mitzvot) are in force; but practically, individual members vary widely in whether they carry them out. In other words, to put it in language slightly foreign to Judaism, Conservative Jewish belief about halacha is orthodox, while lay practice is heterodox. I’ve had Jewish people tell me that “Conservatives expect their rabbi to be kosher for them.” In contrast, Reform Judaism is explicitly non-halachic, and does not consider the 613 mitzvot in any way essential to Judaism.

There is a real tension between being a fully comfortable individual in the  world, and being a fully-identified member of any group with transcendent claims. This tension is theoretically much greater for Conservative affiliated Jews than it is for Reform ones. But in his article, Neusner has not identified any coherent course by which Jews can navigate between modernity and the inherited demands of either orthopraxy or orthodoxy. Surely the various forms of Orthodox Jews also believe they ha balanced their Jewish identity and practice with their status as modern Americans; but their answer is very different from Neusner’s. I see Orthodox Jews driving cars and using credit cards, both of which suggest a degree of accomodation with contemporary American norms; I also see them walking (not driving) to temple on the Sabbath.

I’m tempted to say that Neusner’s essay comes down to “I changed my mind.” Well, that’s something we all do; it’s perfectly legitimate as a personal statement of how one finds oneself in a new spot. But as an intelligent, coherent defense of Reform Judaism as the Jewish identity for America, it’s a weak brew. And for anyone like myself interested in how we balance or negotiate between the conflicting demands of an inherited or chosen tradition with transcendent claims and the facts of modernity, his article provides little to chew on.

Finally, one further critique, perhaps related to the overall lack of content I see in his article: his use of straw men to show that those who are more traditional in their orientation than is he are simplistic is itself simplistic. He seems to think that Orthodox Jews need to be told that

Scripture was not dictated word for word by a supernatural being from outer space. Its theology does not promise pie in the sky when you die.

But surely Judaism’s generally apophatic character–or its desire to see the divine as wholly other–precludes having to say this? It seems vaguely insulting, as if Neusner briefly channeled Richard Dawkins, who himself seems to have almost no understanding of any form of theology, Jewish or other, cataphatic or apophatic. Surely Neusner can find more substantive grounds for choosing the Reform path than such straw men? It seems like a gratuitious comment, at least to me.

Postscript: For those who want to follow up, some of the comments to Neusner’s article are interesting. I’d recommend skimming them.

An attempt at definition

December 15, 2009

I intend the Premodern Hybrid blog to address issues suggested by the blog name: the experience of living in a modern, that is post-enlightenment, world, while holding views that are premodern. These views may be philosophical or religious, or some combination of the two; but in any case, they involve a balancing act  between what one might call inner disposition, or intellectual disposition, and outer reality.

Why should this matter? Basically, because this tension between modernity and tradition is central to any number of ongoing political and social issues; and more importantly, because the question of how tradition can in any basic sense remain true to itself while accomodating to its changed circumstances is a crucial one for any premodern viewpoint–again, whether philosophical or religious–that tries to live with a degree of intellectual rigor and honesty.

I come at this from a specific point of view: trained in Aristotelianism and Thomism, but moving to the Eastern half of Christianity as a better form of expression for my own inner workings, while also having grown up exposed to Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam in very concrete ways, plus Judaism in my earlier adulthood. Likewise, in the recent past, it will be informed by watching and discussing with my Native American friends, who are trying to hold on to their religious and societal cultures while living in a world of satellite dishes and media saturation, just how one can live “in” this world, while not being “of” it.

What I hope to avoid on this blog: issue-based polemics pertaining to either current social, political, or religous faultlines. It’s not that I think that people should not have views on such issues; it’s that I am more interested in the underlying balancing of a concrete reality with its oft-implicit philosophical and epistemological claims, and both individual and social forms of premodern thought and belief, with their both implicit and explicit claims.