Posts Tagged ‘Transcendence’

There’s an excellent opinion piece at the New York Times by Sean Kelly on polytheism’s place in walking the road between Fanaticism and Nihilism.

Drawing heavily on Nietzche, Kelly discusses the waning role of objective, monotheist religious consensus in defining our social norms. We are quickly reaching the point where it is difficult for a rational, educated critically-thinking person to believe that a single, objectively knowable, unified supernatural moral order emanating from a single, all-powerful sovereign creator god is an unquestionably correct foundation to build society and give human existence meaning. Certainly we are past the point where a majority of people in our society can confidently claim that. On the most basic level, we are simply confronted too often with the reality of good people who believe different things to maintain the fantasy that there is only one true way to be good and right.

We are often cautioned by the religious that the alternative to monomorality is nihilism: if there is no sovereign god to set the rules, define meanings, reward the good and punish the evil, then there are no rules and there is no morality and we will have no choice but to descend into chaos and madness and a violent maelstrom of murder, cannibalism, rape and suicide until we are utterly annihilated.

And while the extremes of that scenario are unreasonably alarmist, I think the concern that nihilism is the alternative to monotheism is a legigimate concern. Particularly for a society that has held onto a dichotomy-worldview for centuries. When you have grown up believeing that the only alternative to the God of Israel os meaninglessness and despair, it is easy to slip into meaningless and despair when you lose the God of Israel. While this does not necessarily mean an orgy of destruction, it may mean depression and moral loss. While believeing in nothing may not mean you go on a killing spree, it is sort of easy to start justifying lesser immoral and even evil self-serving deeds.

So what’s the alternative?

Writing 30 years before Nietzsche, in his great novel “Moby Dick,” the canonical American author encourages us to “lower the conceit of attainable felicity”; to find happiness and meaning, in other words, not in some universal religious account of the order of the universe that holds for everyone at all times, but rather in the local and small-scale commitments that animate a life well-lived. The meaning that one finds in a life dedicated to “the wife, the heart, the bed, the table, the saddle, the fire-side, the country,” these are genuine meanings. They are, in other words, completely sufficient to hold off the threat of nihilism, the threat that life will dissolve into a sequence of meaningless events. But they are nothing like the kind of universal meanings for which the monotheistic tradition of Christianity had hoped. Indeed, when taken up in the appropriate way, the commitments that animate the meanings in one person’s life ─ to family, say, or work, or country, or even local religious community ─ become completely consistent with the possibility that someone else with radically different commitments might nevertheless be living in a way that deserves one’s admiration.

Kelly goes on to describe this way of life that finds meaning and fulfillment in “the wife, the heart, the bed, the table, the saddle, the fire-side, the country,” polytheism, and I think he is not wrong. Melville may not have been describing the Olympians, but I think he was only a stone’s throw from them. When we sacralize the fundamental mysteries and values of human experience–which is what Melville was talking about and what I understand to be the essence of real paganism–it honestly does not matter if we name them or not.

I believe that the gods are real personalities that have some kind of existence of their own. But I think that reality is not actually very far removed from the pieces of human existence that those gods are related to. In other words, while I do not believe that Aphrodite is merely a metaphorical anthromorphization of human love, I do think there is a fundamental closeness and a fundamental union between Aphrodite the goddess and the emotional experiential phenomenon of love. There’s a blur at the edges where the real gives way to the super-real, and somewhere within those borders we find the gods.

And while I think that a person can find happiness and meaning in “the wife, the heart, the bed, the table, the saddle, the fire-side, the country” as things in themselves, I think that the desire to engage with those things in a sacred way, to relate to the things that are most important and give our existence meaning in a way that is transcendant, because those very things by their very natures straddle the line between immanent and transcendant. They seem weightier than other things. Human intuition senses enhanced meaning and wants to make contact with it in some kind of fitting way.

Thus, I believe that Melville’s polytheism is a road that eventually leads to some kind of real polytheism. It doesn’t need to have anything to do with the New Age movement. It doesn’t even need to be connected with ancient paganism, although I suspect that at least connecting this new polytheism to the old polytheism, those gods of old that have held such power over our imaginations for so long despite the intellectual monopoly of monotheism, would yield an incredibly rich spiritual harvest, and might be the kind of thing that happens inevitably.

I think that this kind of Melvillian polytheism is probably developing spontaneously anyway. People increasingly identify themselves as “spiritual but not religious,” and I think that identification has nothing to do with belief in a supernatural otherworld that exists in tandem with the physical world and everythign to do with an intuitive recognition that there is profound meaning and spiritual sustenance to be found in the fundamentals of human experience. Whether we worship a pantheon of gods or not, we as human beings experience the transcendent all the time. Life and death are everywhere, and I believe that there is an intuitive need to sacralize it somehow. Believing in the gods, engaging in spiritual practices and theology gives us a way to talk about that and a way to interact with it within a structure, and ultimately to develop a deeper connection to those things we feel that we feel; are important. But even without that structure, the fundamental recognition of meaning and fulfillment in basic human existence is still a thoroughly pagan experience.

As a side-note: Hrafnkell wrote some commentary on Kelly’s piece from a heathen perspective over on A Heathen’s Day. You should check it out.


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Reading most everything readily available by C. S. Lewis has made drastic changes to my outlook and thinking. While I find Lewis challenging, I also find his ideas compelling and persuasive. As an aside, I think it is worth mentioning that while Lewis was certainly a Christian, the Christianity that he articulated and believed was extremely unorthodox. If Evangelicals and Mormons took the time to actually read Lewis and consider his viewpoint, their love affair with his work would come to a tragic and untimely end. Instead, they generally read Lewis through dogmatic blinders, recruiting him as an apologist for their cause even though what he really said was completely heretical by Mormon and Evangelical standards.

But that’s just my soapbox and it does not bear directly on the issue at hand.

Before I proceed, I want to at least try to define the terms I will be using so as to alleviate confusion. I’m going to talk about a dichotomy between two term clusters that represent ideas about truth and value. On the one hand, I am talking about “soft” subjective values, values that are relative to the individual and are thus immanent—necessarily tied to person and context and most importantly to an individual human mind—as opposed to transcendent. This “soft” approach to truth and value will be contrasted with the “hard” approach of the objective, absolute, and transcendent. By “objective” I mean that these truths or values or moral principles exist independent of individual perspective. Context is significant without question: by “absolute” I do not mean that these principles ought to be applied the same way to every circumstance, but that as principles they exist as absolutes and are not subject to revision based on preference or perspective. These truths, etc., are thus transcendent in that if they exist at all they must exist apart from and beyond human minds and human experience, and they remain the same although human understanding of them may change. Thus, if they exist, they exist by virtue of something other than human thought and experience.

C. S. Lewis eloquently articulates the difference between these thought concepts and their ramifications in his book The Abolition of Man. One of Lewis’s most cogent points in the book (which is short, and well worth reading) is a model of moral reasoning which I call the “Is-Ought-Should” model. In this model, moral imperatives can be expressed as a statement of fact (“is”), a statement of principle (“ought”), and a conclusion in the form of a direction to act (“should”). For example, let’s say I see someone experiencing extreme suffering—that’s the “is”—and I take as a moral principle that suffering ought to be alleviated—that’s the “ought”—then I should help the suffering person. The Should follows from the Is and Ought, and thus when you weaken Ought, you likewise weaken should. Furthermore, Ought principles do not simply exist as observable phenomena the way Is statements do. They have to have some source. Therefore, the less authoritative the source of the Ought principle, the less compelling the principle itself, ad thus the less force stands behind the moral directive. This is the most important point: if the source of the Ought statement has no practical claim on me, then ultimately I have no compelling reason to follow a moral directive. Furthermore, this is a mater of degree: the weaker the source of the Ought, the weaker my reason to act morally. The stronger the source of the Ought, the stronger my reason to act morally. An Ought with no source is not an Ought at all: it’s a bare assertion backed by nothing.

Ought statements can have a number of sources, ranging from completely subjective—personal preference is the very weakest, most subjective possible source, excepting perhaps the even more subjective momentary whim—to the category of completely objective sources, i.e. sources that exist independent of human experience, whether we are talking about principles that flow from God as the source of the universe, or principles that are simply coded into reality the way laws of physics—or spiritual laws like karma if such a thing exists—are. Lewis himself does not assert a source for objective moral law in The Abolition of Man, but rather he attempts to show by inference that such laws do exist objectively because of their universal acceptance, and thus Lewis implies that objective moral law exists, and therefore necessarily has an objective transcendent source.

In any case, the conclusion remains that the weaker and more subjective the source of the Ought, the less compelling the Should, and the less claim that morality has on the individual. Alternately, without addressing the issue of source, the more subjective the Ought, the weaker the Should.

The problem with people who reject objective, transcendent moral values, says Lewis, is that all too often they want to hold on to moral statements and moral assertions. The result is that they go from Is to Should without passing through Ought. They want to say that you should help the suffering person without articulating a reason why suffering ought to be alleviated, or at least without articulating a compelling source for the Ought. In other words, they want to tell you to act according to a moral standard without giving you any kind of compelling reason, and then they invariably act all surprised and concerned when you don’t.

Why does any of this matter? Essentially, it is an issue of moral reasoning and moral judgment. If Should is undermined by a weak or nonexistent Ought, then we lose the ability to make moral judgments at all—we can’t criticize ourselves or others for acting immorally when we can’t articulate in a compelling sense why our/their actions are immoral. Likewise we lose the ability to speak of morality in prescriptive terms: we can hardly propose a virtuous course of action for ourselves or others if we can’t give a compelling reason why.

This is a problem with all ethical systems that do not involve an absolute, transcendent source for morality: they fail to give a compelling reason to the most basic human question: “Why?” Most non-absolute ethical systems, like Kant’s categorical imperative taken on its face, are really only descriptive of ethics. Kant can say that we should act only on that maxim which we can, at the same time, will to be a universal law, but without appealing to a transcendent source for that principle, he can’t tell us why we should bother. If that is indeed a description of morality, it is a description only. It may explain how a moral or ethical person acts, but it does not give a good reason why any given person should act that way.

Utilitarianism—the idea that at any given juncture we should take the action that provides the most good to the most people—encounters the same problem. Setting aside the massive problems with determining what course of action actually achieves that good, especially when it leaves the realm of the individual and is applied to public policy situations, and even setting aside fundamental problems with “what is good,” Utilitarianism still reaches a dead end when it comes to the question of why. It tells us how we should act, or it tells us how a moral or ethical person does act, but it does not give us a reason to act that way.

Pragmatism is no different. In fact, I might argue that pragmatism really just means utilitarianism or naked self-interest, which means pragmatism is a troublesome guide in that it can be difficult to identify what course of action is indeed the most pragmatic, especially in complex situations. Even if pragmatism is functional, it still fails to adequately answer the question of why. ‘Because it works” is a kind of answer, but it is not a satisfactory answer. It doesn’t really give a basis for making confident moral judgments, and since it is essentially sourceless, it fails to give truly compelling reasons for any given course of action.

If sourceless morality is all we have, then we may as well admit it, and stop pretending that our moral judgments are weightier than they are. If morality really does have an objective source, then we should be earnestly trying to figure out what it is.

Next: The Problem With Pluralism

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