Letting Go of God

Dreyfus said that a lot of students in his class on Heidegger (which is standing room only and students waiting outside the door to get in) would fail because Heidegger is incredibly difficult to understand.  Dreyfus warned students that if they don’t have the appropriate philosophical background, they need to consider dropping the class. My philosophical background is limited so chances are, I’d fail his class.  But if I was in school at Berkeley and if there were no Berkeley Webcasts and I had the opportunity to take his class, I’d willingly take the risk.

My interest in philosophy is far more spiritual than it is academic. In specific, I am interested in philosophical ideas that merge with mysticism. Since the Enlightenment, academia has lumped mysticism in with magic, sorcery, the supernatural and all things irrational. This is tragic because authentic mysticism is intensely rational. Yes, it is also considered to be transrational, but the stepping stone to transrational thought is rational thought, not irrational thought.  (For the sake of clarification, let’s use A.R. Lacey’s definition of rationalism – any view appealing to reason as a source of knowledge or justification.)

Mysticism flirts with atheism because transrational thought makes the question of the existence of God irrelevant.  Mysticism is NOT an atheism, however, because it does not make the claim that God does not exist.  However you answer the question, “Does God eixst?” (“yes, there is a God” or “there is no God”) – merely points back to the question itself. Both atheists and theists have made the question important by insisting they hold the “right” answer, but mystics consider the question irrelevant because mysticism is rational. “God” (by any other name) cannot be known rationally, therefore any rational question about God does not apply. It makes no sense, whatsoever, to insist upon the existence or non-existence of God. If you insist upon God’s existence, then you are likely more into supernaturalism and magic than authentic mysticism. If you insist upon the non-existence of God, then chances are you worship rationalism in the same way theists worship a supernatural God. True, a lot of mystics use the term “God” to point to what is transrational.  But this does not mean they “believe” in the term.

In The Gay Science, Nietzsche presents the parable of the madman. This madman runs out into the crowds exclaiming “God is dead”, and realizes he is at least 300 years too early for people to understand what he is saying.  Nietzsche isn’t telling theists that God is dead.  He’s telling secularists that God is dead.  Atheists may claim there is no God, but they don’t yet understand that God is dead.  Human beings created an ideology based on a concept that served humanity relatively well for centuries. The concept is no longer viable because we killed it. As Dreyfus said in his Existentialism in Film and Literature class, we abstracted it out of existence.  And as long as we believe in objective truth, we are forced to maintain a belief in a God’s eye view that has the ability to see this truth. Secularists haven’t eliminated God.  On the contrary. The role of God has been reassigned to science and reason. God is dead, but we don’t yet know it.

Many years ago, I was having great difficulty maintaining a belief in God and went through a frantic journey trying to find out everything I could about the history of the Bible, the history of the Jews, the history of Rome, Greece, and whatever else I thought might help. Through a series of connections with various bloggers (mostly on the now defunct Vox), I ended up at Hubert Dreyfus’ “Existentialism in Literature and Film” class I just mentioned. This sent me on an entirely new trajectory.

These days, I can say with confidence that I do not believe in God.  That is not to say I don’t think God exists. I simply think the question is irrelevant. I can’t even begin to tell you how long or how scary it has been for me to admit this to myself. There have been years of darkness associated with this admission because I simply have not wanted to acknowledge God’s death.

I think what was most difficult was letting go of the belief that there is an objective truth waiting to be discovered. I really thought I’d figure it out one day – that it all would make sense…

I still have so much to unlearn!

I Heart Huckabees (2004)

We had a lovely Thanksgiving meal, yesterday. There were lots of leftovers so we all stayed home and watched “I Heart Huckabees”, tonight. (My daughter wanted to see it.) I don’t remember the last time I saw this movie, but it has been on my list of all-time favorites since it first came out. I am quite certain I understood it far better this viewing than I have previously, however.

SPOILER WARNING!!!

Albert goes to the Existentialist detectives to make sense of a series of coincidences.  It can’t just be a coincidence that he’s bumped into the same man three times in three different places, can it?  The Existentialist detectives (played by Lily Tomlin and Dustin Hoffman) keep telling him that everything is connected. I took this too literally on my previous viewings.  What I now think they mean by this is that Albert has made all of these connections in his mind.  So what the detectives do is help him work through his constructed meanings.  It is not as though coincidences are necessarily meaningful in themselves (as if God or the universe or whatever is trying to send him a special message).  Their meaning is dependent upon the meaning that has been constructed by the person experiencing the coincidence.

You have to be honest about your thoughts and actions if you are going to deconstruct the meaning you have created.  Albert continually lies to the detectives about various circumstances.  He even lies to them about what he claims to be coincidence.  They claim he is betraying himself.  That’s pretty much how it goes, isn’t it?  We deny certain aspects of our being because we are too ashamed to reveal them, and then that denial gets projected outward onto others. In Albert’s case, he projects it on to Brad.

The French nihilist claims nothing means anything.  The world is chaotic, full of anger and suffering, and ultimately meaningless.  The Jaffe’s are constantly countering this view, but in the end it is clear that they are actually in cahoots with the nihilist.  And this makes sense!  Yes, everything is meaningless.  But that doesn’t mean everything is meaningless!!

For centuries, we’ve been under the assumption that meaning exists outside of ourselves.  So when we discover that there is no meaning being imposed by God or the universe, the automatic assumption is that the world is meaningless.  But the only reason this idea would make someone nihilistic is if they were still wishing that an external source provided meaning for them. They would rather have meaning imposed upon them than take responsibility for it.  So when they discover it isn’t imposed upon them, they default to “nothing means anything, it’s all meaningless”.

I think you sort of have to go to that dark space of meaninglessness in order to discover that just because there is no externally imposed meaning, that doesn’t mean everything is meaningless.  You have created that meaninglessness.  It hasn’t been imposed upon you by some external source.

It made sense for Albert and Tommy to “defect” to the “other side” and work with the nihilist who says the world is nothing more than a chaotic mess of anger and suffering.  I think in my own development, that’s kind of how it has worked for me.  I started with a sort of superstitious belief in God that I finally had to let go.  I turned to A Course in Miracles, but I didn’t really understand it because I had managed to take my belief in a personal God with me into my studies of ACIM.  Lots of ACIM students do this.  You see it all the time.  It becomes nothing more than a shallow New Age religion that you use to keep suffering at bay.  But despite my efforts, life happened and there were many difficult things that put me into a seriously dark place for a while.  That’s when I started reading the existentialists (Nietzsche, Sartre, Camus, Dostoevsky, Kierkegaard, Kafka, Hesse, Conrad..)

The main thing I got out of reading the existentialists was the idea that we need to stop denying the darker sides of our natures – that it is the attempt to rid ourselves of what we see as our more animalistic side (the Karamazov side in The Brothers Karamazov, the wolf in Steppenwolfe, the “savages” in Heart of Darkness, etc.) that has created the horrors of the current age.  For centuries we have been assigning “sinful” to our animal nature thanks to Augustine’s fallen man theory (or more likely, a misinterpretation of Augustine’s fallen man theory), but this assignment has not served us.  It has hurt us.  And now that the Enlightenment has killed off the traditional worldview of God, we are destined for nihilism if we don’t also finally let go of the idea that meaning is somehow externally begotten.  The rationalists and empiricists may adamantly claim they don’t believe in God, but they still hold on to the idea that there is some sort of external meaning giver.  There is an external absolute Truth just waiting to be discovered by science.

As Nietzsche said, faith is constantly placed in a future world, not in this world.  This is why he said nihilism was unavoidable.  The Christians put their faith in getting to a perfect future place called Heaven.  In order to get there, they have to deny this world and their animalistic urges.  Empiricists place their faith in a future world made perfect by science and technology.  Perfect nature, perfect the human being, and the world will be better in the future.  Either way, the faith is in something otherworldly and external and promises a world free of suffering.  This world must be denied in order to “achieve” this otherworldly, pain-free futuristic place.  The denial of this world is what concerned Nietzsche and why he said we were headed toward nihilism.  These days, there are Christians who have reason to destroy the environment because they see it as bringing on Armageddon which will get them to Heaven faster.   Others (like Brad) distract themselves with the material pleasures provided by science and technology and turn a blind eye to what is happening to themselves and their environment in the pursuit of this material success.

Buddhists talk about the middle way and I think that is what Tommy and Albert discover and what the Existential Detectives and the Nihilist want them to discover.  The Existential detectives gloss over human suffering, but the Nihilist goes straight to the heart of it, even creates suffering in order to help Tommy and Albert understand.  Yes, everything is ultimately meaningless and the world is full of senseless suffering, but that doesn’t mean life is not meaningful.  Brad and Albert are very different people, but they are the same in their suffering.  Albert and Tommy describe this interconnection as absolutely fantastic, but also nothing special because “it grows from the manure of human trouble… No manure, no magic.”

There is also the existential issue of authenticity.  Brad’s dismantling finally starts to occur when the existential detectives point out repetitive behavior Brad uses as propaganda to promote himself.  He repeatedly tells a story about Shania Twain and tricking her into eating a chicken salad sandwich with mayo.  The story helps to project a certain image he likes to portray.  But when he does this, is he being himself?  The question is repeated over and over again – “How am I not myself?”

How can you be anything other than yourself?  You are who you are, there is no one else you can be.  And yet, we all engage in behavior attempting to be someone we are not.

Nietzsche’s Parable of the Madman

From Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science…

Have you not heard of that madman who lit a lantern in the bright morning hours, ran to the market place, and cried incessantly: “I seek God! I seek God!”—As many of those who did not believe in God were standing around just then, he provoked much laughter. Has he got lost? asked one. Did he lose his way like a child? asked another. Or is he hiding? Is he afraid of us? Has he gone on a voyage? emigrated?—Thus they yelled and laughed.

The madman jumped into their midst and pierced them with his eyes. “Whither is God?” he cried; “I will tell you. We have killed him—you and I. All of us are his murderers. But how did we do this? How could we drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon? What were we doing when we unchained this earth from its sun? Whither is it moving now? Whither are we moving? Away from all suns? Are we not plunging continually? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there still any up or down? Are we not straying, as through an infinite nothing? Do we not feel the breath of empty space? Has it not become colder? Is not night continually closing in on us? Do we not need to light lanterns in the morning? Do we hear nothing as yet of the noise of the gravediggers who are burying God? Do we smell nothing as yet of the divine decomposition? Gods, too, decompose. God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him.

“How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it? There has never been a greater deed; and whoever is born after us—for the sake of this deed he will belong to a higher history than all history hitherto.”

Here the madman fell silent and looked again at his listeners; and they, too, were silent and stared at him in astonishment. At last he threw his lantern on the ground, and it broke into pieces and went out. “I have come too early,” he said then; “my time is not yet. This tremendous event is still on its way, still wandering; it has not yet reached the ears of men. Lightning and thunder require time; the light of the stars requires time; deeds, though done, still require time to be seen and heard. This deed is still more distant from them than most distant stars—and yet they have done it themselves.

It has been related further that on the same day the madman forced his way into several churches and there struck up his requiem aeternam deo. Led out and called to account, he is said always to have replied nothing but: “What after all are these churches now if they are not the tombs and sepulchers of God?”

The Schizophrenic Split

I commented to Carl that I am more suspicious of Western Orthodoxy than traditional Eastern Orthodoxy because Western Orthodoxy has attempted to merge the abstract values of Greek rationalism with the Hebrew God. I’m with the Existentialists as far as this goes – the absolute values associated with Greek rationalism are completely incompatible with the individuality inherent in the ancient Hebrew notion of “God”.

Carl asked:

Do you think the eastern church does not attempt to integrate Greek philosophy with the Christian revelation? Do you think Christians should have nothing to do with the thought of Plotinus and the other Neoplatonists? I’m not trying to bait you, I’m genuinely curious as to where you’re coming from. Brian McLaren, in his most recent book, A New Kind of Christianity, makes a similar argument that we need to deconstruct the unwieldy integration of Greco-Roman philosophy and New Testament spirituality that accrued over the early years of Christianity. Are you familiar with his argument, and is that pretty much where you’re coming from?

My response:

Karen Armstrong said that when the Eastern Orthodox Church split off from the Roman Catholic Church early on, it opted not to attempt to merge Greek rationalism with Christian theology. Armstrong said that the Eastern Church (which was a large part Greek) had “been there, done that” for centuries already and was fully aware of the flaws. The Roman Catholic Church, on the other hand was just coming into contact with Greek rationalist thought and couldn’t get enough of it. Almost all of the theology of the Middle Ages was an attempt to merge Greek philosophy into Christian thought. Of course, there were elements of this already with Paul since he was a Helenized Jew. But essentially, the Eastern Orthodox church developed very differently than the Roman Catholic Church over the years because it didn’t have the same enthusiasm for Greek rationalism that the Roman Catholic Church had.

Dostoevsky, (whom I consider to be a Christian mystic), was one of the first to recognize the unresolvable nature of the merger. By his lifetime, it wasn’t just affecting the Western world, it was affecting the entire world and making its way into Russian Orthodoxy, too. Dostoevsky was very concerned about this. He felt the way out of the problem was through the traditional Russian/Eastern Orthodox Church. (This conflict and the potential way out of it is the theme of The Brothers Karamazov. Existentialism is largely about the unresolvable nature of this conflict, too.)

I’m not a philosopher, so I’m not sure if Neoplatinism is the primary target of concern or not. The specific problem, as I understand it, is this: the Hebrew faith was focused on maintaining Hebrew individuality in the face of diversity. Therefore, the God of the Hebrews stressed a value system based on individuality. The Greek rationalists created an abstract value system that was supposedly attainable by all human beings. The two exist independently just fine. But when you assign this abstract value system to the individual value system of the Hebrew God, you’ve got an incompatibility. The Western world has been trying to solve this incompatibility for centuries, but there is essentially no way out of it. It doesn’t just affect Christianity, it affects all of Western society and pretty much the entire world because western thought has had such a heavy influence globally.

What you end up with is lots of religious hubris (and anti-religious hubris), holier than thou problems, my way is right for me and is right for you, a lack of concern for the environment, and existential malaise (doomsday Christians looking forward to the rapture and doomsday environmentalists, for instance.) We have trouble fully living in the world because we’ve been trying to reconcile a “schizophrenic split” that cannot be reconciled.

I’m not familiar with Brian McLaren, so am not familiar with his argument. It is my feeling that this is something we can transcend, but it is not something we can go back and undo.

Nietzsche and the Trinity

Carl said I challenged the idea that Christian mysticism regards the unitive experience as communion rather than identification with God.  I think he misunderstood my “challenge”.   I agree that Christian mysticism is about communion with God.  I’m just not convinced that this is unique to Christianity.  Every world religion I can think of is ultimately about communion with “the One”, not identification with “God”.

But that’s not what this post is about.  I had a really cool idea thanks to Carl making me think through my ideas on the Trinity.  Here it is:  Nietzsche’s three stages of becoming (Camel, Lion, Child) are comparable to the Christian Trinity and the Hindu/Wiccan trinity.  This gives me goosepimples!

Start with the “Child Stage” which perhaps could be compared to Brahman/Maiden/Father-God.  Take into consideration that the absolute, unqualified Deity for Christian mystic Meister Eckhart was outside of the Trinity.  He considered it to be unnatured nature and said that it manifested itself as natured nature in the form of the Trinity. The “Father” part of the trinity is for Eckhart, a genesis.  (The “Father” procreates. The “Son” does not.)  And as I mentioned yesterday, Dostoevsky (whom was definitely a Christian mystic) considered God to be a field of infinite potential.  Nietzsche’s “Child” Stage” is the stage of innocence where there is an openness to infinite possibility.  This is where true creativity exists. This stage naturally creates rules and regulations that initially help foster creativity.  But eventually, the rules cease to serve creativity and become a burden.  They become a sort of prison because we are no longer dutiful to the rules for the sake of growth and creativity but simply for duty’s sake.  This is the Camel Stage.

We have to go through the Camel Stage and be dutiful to the rules of our culture and society in order to transcend them.  We have to be able to fully live in the world if we are to transcend the world.  Being focused on an otherworldly heaven that provides an escape from this world does not provide us with this ability.  We have to be willing to live with whatever it is the world hands us and to be grateful for the world as it is rather than focusing on how we want it to be.  Not only grateful, Nietzsche says that if we are unwilling to live our lives over and over and over again, exactly as they are, for an eternity, then we are seeking an escape and have failed to show our gratitude.  (Meister Eckhart said that if the only prayer we said in our entire life was thank you, it would suffice.)  I think this could potentially be comparable to Vishnu in Hinduism and the Mother in Wicca (the Preservers).  I also think this could be compared to “the Son” in the Christian Trinity.  (Remember, according to Meister Eckhart, the Son does not procreate.  The Son for Eckhart is not about creation. It is about preservation.)  It is through “the Son” that Christians are given the courage to live in the world.  It is also what finally gives us the courage to question the norms of the world against God’s world.  Which leads us to the Lion Stage.  (Just remember, when Nietzsche said God was dead, what he meant was that the metaphor we had created for God was no longer serving us.  We killed the Metaphor.  He felt this applied to atheistic rationalists as much as it applied to Christian theists.  We had become slaves to a dead metaphor.)

The Lion Stage fits perfectly with the Destroyer Stage within Hinduism and Wicca (Shiva/Crone).  This is where we slay the dragon.  Not only do we slay the dragon, we undo every single scale that exists on that dragon.  What is the dragon?  The cultural norms that demand our compliance even though they no longer are of service to us. The scales are every single rule and regulation that demands our compliance for the mere sake of duty rather than for the sake of growth and creativity.  In Christianity, it is the Holy Spirit that allows us to transcend our old, worn out patterns.  It’s what allows us to see that we have the ability to transcend our old way of being.  In so doing, it “destroys” our old way of being. (The Holy Spirit is represented as fire in Methodism.)

Nietzsche claims we are engaged in a constant journey of becoming.  We don’t finally arrive at some end destination with the journey coming to an end, we are forever journeying which requires that we constantly cycle through these stages.  So the Lion Stage gives way to the Child Stage where everything is new again.  Eventually, what was once new begins to fetter us and we begin to become imprisoned by the dragon of duty which requires we be dutiful out of fear (the sake of duty based on the boundaries of past experiences) rather than out of love (an infinite field of potential) and so we enter the Camel Stage again so that we can recognize the well-worn path has finally come to an end and that it is time we create our own.

But in order to create our own path, we must slay the dragon.  And so it goes.  It’s a never-ending process.

Being There

SPOILER WARNING…

I watched Being There, tonight.  I had seen it several years ago and all I remembered was the scene where Chance walks on water.

I’ve been reading (somewhat guiltily) Kitty Kelley’s biography of Oprah Winfrey.  I’ve also been reading Chris Hedges’ Empire of Illusion.  So perhaps I viewed the film in light of both of those books which claim we Americans are ultra-obsessed celebrity worshipers. What is Chance if not a celebrity by the end of the film?  He’s achieved mythological status like Jesus.  The guy can walk on water.  It sometimes seems like people think Oprah walks on water, too.

Difference between Oprah and Chance?  Oprah (according to Kelly) truly desired to walk on water while Chance had no such ambition.  He just happened to “be there”.  Actually, he was put there by the people who create the myths, like Oprah (both myth and myth maker).

Even Chance seems somewhat surprised at his water walking ability, although he only questions it enough to measure how deep the water actually is and then takes his water-walking ability at face value.  Chance  places no judgment upon his circumstances.  He’s simply “there”, taking on what he learns from television and reflecting what people want him to be.  But what about being “here”, in reality??  Does that even matter anymore?

A Serious Man

I have now watched A Serious Man three times and could probably go on watching it. Certain films draw me in and keep me, and this is one of them.  I’m not Jewish, but I have definitely ventured down several routes in search of certainty and have found all wanting.  And I think that is why this film resonates with me.  I love the Coen Brothers and I love this movie!!

I also love what Liel Liebovitz said in his review of the film in Tablet:

…once upon a time, there was a people, the Jews, whose faithful sons and daughters lived in small shtetls and spoke Yiddish and realized that certain phenomena lay past the realms of their understanding and accepted that God moved about in the world in ways they couldn’t possibly know. When members of this nation immigrated to the New World, however, and shaved off their beards and shook off their mamaloshen, their mother tongue, they quickly became besotted with the promises of modernity. They were urged to replace the yearnings for Olam Ha-ba, the messianic and redemptive world to come, with lust for the trappings of Olam Ha-ze, the earthly realm in which we live. They exchanged the Talmud for the law book, the medical text, the tax code. Even when they pursued theological studies, they did so with deference to the principles of the Enlightenment that had emancipated them. And, like other sons and daughters of the Enlightenment, they embarked on the pursuit of the precise, devoting their lives to erecting strict systems of thought that sought to explain life in all of its infinitesimal detail. This transformation came with its rich rewards, but it also exacted a devastating price, chief among which was the loss of the ability—to paraphrase a quote by Rashi the Coens use as an epigraph—to receive with simplicity everything that happens.

Simplicity is the enemy of modernity, doubt, and a middle class that strives toward certainty.  According to Liebovitz, salvation lies with the stoner son who isn’t as traditional as his ancestors.  But unlike his father’s generation, is equally capable of transcendence.

I also like what Jessie Tisch has to say in Interfaithfamily.com: Quoting (or maybe paraphrasing) the rabbi who quotes Jefferson Airplane, “When the truth is found to be lies, and all the joy within you dies, then vat?”  Don’t you want somebody to love? Tisch says the movie is about “vat to do when the world has fallen apart, not vhy it has fallen apart”.

There is a huge debate on whether A Serious Man is based on Job or not.  Those who take a more Christian approach to Job – as a battle between Satan and God – understandably don’t see the similarity.  But is Job about a battle between Satan and God?  I don’t think so.  God instructs Satan to try Job.  There’s no battle.  Satan simply does exactly what God tells him to do.  And Job lashes out in anger.  He blames God, not Satan.  And it is God who should be blamed.  If Cain had blamed God for his misfortunes rather than Abel, then maybe humanity wouldn’t be in this horrible fix it’s in today. 

Who wants to deal with reality?  We’d much rather blame our brothers and sisters for what happens to us than to simply accept reality.   But Job very rightly blames God (not Satan) and this seriously upsets his friends who tell him that he must have done something wrong to deserve what is happening to him. Job knows he’s done nothing wrong and continues to blame God/Reality for all of the horrible things that are happening.  He demands an answer which he doesn’t get.  Finally, he simply accepts that things are the way they are.  And when he comes to this acceptance, his suffering ends.  The battle isn’t between God and Satan.  The battle is internal.  Denial of what is brings suffering.  Acceptance of what is brings peace.  It’s not about following rules.

Remember the Rashi quote at the beginning of A Serious Man?  “Receive with simplicity everything that happens to you.”  Also, remember the Korean student who bribes Gopnik for a better grade?  He’s received a failing grade because he didn’t do the math that explains the physics behind Schroedinger’s cat and the uncertainty principal.  Yet the student understands it far better than does Gopnik.  The father of the Korean students tells Gopnik to “accept the mystery”.  The Koreans have set up an entanglement for Gopnik that he can’t get out of. They understand the paradox and are using it to entangle Gopnik who is far too rule based to understand, even if he can do the math that explains the physics behind the uncertainty principal.

Gopnik has followed the rules.  He’s done what he’s supposed to do. There should be some sort of meaning behind what is happening to him.  “Why is he going to make us feel the questions if he isn’t going to give us any answers?”   What is it Rilke says? “Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.”

When the truth is found, to be lies.  And all the joy within you dies.  Don’t you want somebody to love?