Friday, July 30, 2010

Going Beyond

What's a materialist to do?  After denying the reality, even the very possibility, of the supernatural and the metaphysical, there is still the human condition.  Living is messy, mostly out of control, and often painful.  Of course there's more to life than atoms in motion.  Unlike the less-evolved biological species, we can remember, make predictions that occasionally come true, and form intentions that lead to actions which sometimes achieve the result we wanted.  Is this enough?

Well, no, not if you're still tempted by the religious impulse (or is it an instinct?).  For a couple of weeks I've been grappling with the thoughts of Karen Armstrong, reading and heavily underlining her latest book, The Case For God (my copy published in America lacks the British subtitle, "What Religion Really Means").  For this ex-nun who has written over 20 books on the topic, religion has been since the cave painters of Lascaux a practical discipline that leads to compassion for others which results in an "apprehension of transcendence."  Somewhere around the beginning of the modern era in the 16th century, religion took a wrong turn and now we have fearful fundamentalists of every stripe and superficial atheists who each interpret scripture literally, consider "belief" to mean assent to dogma, and imagine God as a being like us, only Supreme.  Armstrong, who calls herself a "freelance monotheist" and says her prayer is scholarship, wants to reinstate compassion and transcendence at the center of every religion.

"Transcendence," however, sounds metaphysical and mystical, and seems to imply a dualistic separation between body and spirit.  And yet it also seems to offer a non-theological alternative to ground the hunger and yearning for something absolute that appears to be universal.  What if, for example, we use the word poetically and mythically?  In the glossary to her book, a rare treat, she defines the transcendent as "that which 'climbs beyond' known reality and cannot be categorized."  Transcendence can be apprehended but cannot be known as a piece of information (the modern hubris).  One of Armstrong's major arguments in The Case for God is that until the triumph of science and reason in the 16th century, the only way ultimate reality could be approached was through the "cloud of unknowing."  Only apophatic statements -- "not this, not that" -- and silence, together with the practice of rituals and morality, could produce a transcendent awakening such as that experienced by the Buddha.
Religion's task, closely allied to that of art, was to help us to live creatively, peacefully, and even joyously with realities for which there were no easy explanations and problems that we could not solve: morality, pain, grief, despair, and outrage at the injustice and cruelty of life.  Over the centuries people in all cultures discovered that by pushing their reasoning powers to the limit, stretching language to the end of its tether, and living as selflessly and compassionately as possible, they experienced a transcendence that enabled them to affirm their suffering with serenity and courage.
That's her core claim in a nutshell.  Whether the "God" pointed to by various religious symbols was true, real, or exists, only became a preoccupation of theologians and nonbelievers after the Reformation and Enlightenment.  Armstrong wants to recapture what has been lost, what she calls the "knack" of religion, a learned skill that could lead to "an ekstasis, that enabled you to 'step outside' the prism of ego and experience the sacred."  In the glossary, she defines this Greek term as "going beyond the self; transcending normal experience."  For Armstrong, the desire "to cultivate a sense of the transcendent may be the defining human characteristic."

The trouble with these practical disciplines of the sacred (and they no doubt took many different forms) is that in time they suffer from hardening of the spiritual arteries.  Rituals are legislated, the transcendent becomes first a being and then an idol, and priestly castes presume to understand what the common people are too stupid to know.  Politics and economics take over, palaces of worship are built under the patronage of rulers whom the gods support, and morality is replaced by laws.  And then intolerance, the dark twin of compassion, rears its ugly head and believers are ready to slaughter those they consider unbelievers in one of humanity's frequent "Crusades."  For the "new atheists" -- Dawkins, Hitchens and Harris -- the worst of religion's abuses are attributed to all.  Armstrong accuses them of reductionism, of assuming "that fundamentalist belief either represents or is even typical of either Christianity or religion as a whole."  They treat present religion at its absolute worst and engage in remarks "as biased and untrue as some of the religious rhetoric" they condemn.  Besides being theologically illiterate, their "rejection of the Enlightenment principle of toleration is new."  Armstrong believes the danger of a secularization of reason "which denies the possibility of transcendence is that reason can become an idol that seeks to destroy all rival claimants."

Transcendence seems to mean going beyond ordinary reality and the language we use to describe it.  Armstrong uses art and music as examples of transcendence, and explains that "one of the peculiar characteristics of the human mind is its ability to have ideas and experiences that exceed our conceptual grasp.  We constantly push our thoughts to an extreme, so that our minds seem to elide naturally into an apprehension of transcendence."  Music, she says, "goes beyond the reach of words: it is not about anything."  Transcendence could be used to speak of the enhanced feeling of being or joy we feel in nature, or at peak moments of experience, say, at a wedding or the birth of a child.  Armstrong speaks of the Catholic philosopher Karl Rahner who taught that when we struggle to make sense of the world, we constantly go beyond ourselves in our search for understanding.  "Thus every act of cognition and every act of love is a transcendent experience because it compels us to reach beyond the prism of selfhood."  This results in a spontaneous feeling of compassion toward another which takes form in action rather than thought.

The critics ask: why do we need to transcend anything?  Isn't this life enough?  The answer, I believe, is because it makes us more fully human.  We are not transcending the body or reality, but the ordinary everyday experience of being ourselves, blinded by our petty, self-centered concerns.  I can remember the peak moments of my life, the joy I felt among friends and lovers, the awe I experienced listening to and playing music, while really seeing a painting for the first time, hiking in a redwood forest or looking down upon the magnificence of Yosemite, or even San Francisco Bay on a gorgeous day.  There is a particularly poignant joy that is felt in the midst of disaster, after news of a friend's death or a diagnosis of cancer, that makes no sense whatever but is nonetheless real and enobling.  Shared tragedy can result in a kindness more intensely felt than a simple pat on the back.  We act out the Golden Rule without thinking about it or calculating the advantages whenever we see another not just as in need but as part of our very own self.  In her many books, Karen Armstrong looks past the sectarian divisions and dogmatic differences to the heart of every religion where she finds compassion and the Golden Rule (traced back to Confucius as well).
Above all, the habitual practice of compassion and the Golden Rule "all day and every day" demands perpetual kenosis [self emptying]. The constant "stepping outside" of our own preferences, convictions, and prejudices is an ekstasis that is not a glamorous rapture but, as Confucius's pupil Yan Hui explained, is itself the transcendence we seek.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

nice post. you are a deep thinker.