Trump World Grab-Bag--A Collection

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Summer Reading: A Pair of Books on Paradox

You may have noticed light posting of late around here, but this is just a thing I do--it seems like there's usually some handful of weeks in the summer when I just want to lay about and read. A lot of it just pure fantasy fun reading (I finally got around to reading some of Hamilton's Anita Blake series--so, that's a thing I did) and some of it is better than others (yay--there was another Laundry novel! and I think I have become a new Tim Powers fan).

But sometimes I try to chew over something with a little more weight, and this summer, I picked up two books that had pretty intriguing titles to me and which also seemed to fit my current state of mind: Brad Warner's There is No God and He is Always With You and Frank Schaeffer's Why I am an Atheist Who Believes in God. Both titles have an internal paradox about the nature of the divine and the relation of the individual to it: How is a non-existent being always with one? Isn't believing in God kind of not the point of atheism?

Well, in keeping with the spirit of my reading--yes and no, to both.

This is the first book I've read from Warner--I will probably pick up a couple of his other titles based on this one. He tackles the question of God from the point of view of a Zen practitioner, in a tradition that really isn't concerned with God, as such. It's a book in part about the looking for transcendence (he describes books that describe transcendent experiences as "enlightenment porn", which I think is kind of spot-on) but also admitting the limitations of our ability to grasp or articulate what that exactly is. He explains that from an eastern perspective, the Hindu or Yogic tradition describes Brahman or the ultimate reality as "neti neti" or "not that, not that"--in other words, to drop one's preconceptions about what reality or the divine is.

At the same time, he's aware that some believers and nonbelievers alike approach the concept of God with definite preconceptions in mind. This is the sort of thing Western people often come to Buddhism to try and shed themselves of--but he doesn't see the point of ditching a whole useful concept because other people might be awfully tetchy about what the concept represents. Buddhism itself doesn't explicitly reject gods--deities and hells abound in different traditions. The point though, seems to be to approach the idea of God also without preconceptions.

I think I get this from coming around the other way at the problem--I am not a traditional practitioner of anything, and a more of a general student of anything having to do with spirituality. For me, rejecting symbols, traditions, systems of spiritual thought, in some ways was about not having words put in my mouth about what it is. You know--it. The ineffable. The thing atheists try to boil down in a philosophical retort until it fits on a bumpersticker. The quality that tells you that "Whatever you have done to the least of these, my children..." is a more moral statement than "Blessed is he who takes the babies' heads and...", and that either of them are more impactful beginnings than "It was a dark and stormy night." Which is like a baby refusing to talk unless it gets to make up its own language, in a way. Even if imperfect, I need a way to talk about it, because even if I don't like the idea of calling it "God"--it's something. It's not to say that godlessness is without wonder or the appreciation of the mystery of all that's yet to be discovered and the aspiration that lifts us from the caves to the stars; I just feel like maybe this part of the human experience, even the mistaken parts, are a deep education in what we are as people.

I've never quite met God myself, but I'm not sure I'm through with him/her yet.

Anyway, Warner is funny, self-effacing, a deeply down-to-earth author whose thoughts ramble as if in conversation with the reader. I enjoyed that feeling of rapport.

Now, Frank Schaeffer on the other hand, is like an old friend. I don't know him, but I have reviewed him before (a book critical of the New Atheists back when I was at my, um, atheistest) and damn it--he is entertaining, engaging, and autobiographical almost to a fault. But he engages a very provocative thought--being a believer and a nonbeliever at once.  And I think I get that, too. Not directly. But for those schooled to religious thought, trained up in it, for whom it is a habit and refuge, even the idea that it isn't literally true never takes away from the quality of it.  And maybe it shouldn't, as the idea of religion--religio --to bind. To fasten oneself, strengthen oneself, relate to the moment.

I liked this book as a Dharma of Grandfather Spirituality. He finds the ties that bind in the everyday with a fierce love. He is religious out of habit, but spiritual because of feeling. And his impressions aren't dismissible.

But you know me--I'm a flippant wench. So I'll leave you with a thought that hit the spot for me in my present frame of mind, even if it seems a little odd--I found a really relatable way to think about religion for someone like me, via the guy who does Dilbert.

Religion is similar to software, and it doesn't matter which religion you pick. What matters is that the user interface of religious practice "works" in some sense. The same is true if you are a non-believer and your filter on life is science alone. What matters to you is that your worldview works in some consistent fashion.

If you're deciding how to fight a disease, science is probably the interface that works best. But if you're trying to feel fulfilled, connected, and important as you navigate life, religion seems to be a perfectly practical interface. But neither science nor religion require an understanding of reality at the detail level. As long as the user interface gives us what we need, all is good.

I've often thought of religion as an add-on to my basic package that runs imperfectly on my wetware.  I've installed simulation models, but sometimes, I still get error messages ("Stack overflow exception") that advise me I probably need to update my GUI to handle the current apps.

I really hope they have patches now for the known errors, though.


Formerly Amherst said...

Hi Vixen, I appreciate your interesting reviews.

There are so many ways I could comment that I'm hard pressed to figure what direction to go in.

I think I'll stick with the Qaballah, as we both have some familiarity with it.

The sense of transcendence and expanded awareness would place the direction squarely on the Middle Pillar which as you know is said to be the direction of the mystic. Those with a mystical predisposition ignore the other factors in order to concentrate their attention entirely on the attainment of the One. And, of course, at a certain point another paradox asserts itself inasmuch as there are levels of accomplishment that can be experienced in awareness, but cannot be cognized or put into rational predispositions. Fortunately, the Qaballah is comfortable with paradoxes, and in fact regularly incorporates them as a fact of metaphysical existence.

On the other hand, the Qaballists rate intellect (8. Hod) lower in their scale of values than creative imagination (7. Netzach). So from the Qaballistic perspective, taking in territory other than pure awareness alone brings us to a consideration of the idea that theology and cognition comprise a "lower" way of fathoming the universe than creative imagination: that one can come closer to grasping a higher understanding through imagination than through rational thought. This would be much in the spirit of William Blake and Coleridge and Yeats, as well as the Romantics generally.

My favorite philosopher was a little-known individual named Douglas Fawcett. (He had a brother who was a famous explorer who disappeared in South America.) His philosophy was called Imaginism. Imaginism postulates the primary source as being divine imagination (the ultimate creative impellent preceding all original and innovative thought), the engine of all creativity. He placed the imagination where Schopenhauer would put Will and where Hegel would put Reason.

An interesting sideline that I will not attempt to prove is that when some highly advanced parapsychologists moved to the other side, they reported back that Imaginism as Fawcett conceived it was really a lot closer to what they discovered than other philosophies. Because of this report from the other side, Raynor C. Johnson, a physicist and Master of Queens College, Melbourne, wrote the only popular work on this philosophy, called Nurslings of Immortality. (It is profitable to try and appreciate that the Society of Psychical Research started by eminent Cambridge dons has been in operation for over 100 years... William James was the head of the New York branch.)

So as you can see, it's possible to have a philosophy and theology in every Sephirah. And naturally, above Netzach you return to the Middle Pillar when referencing Tipareth. In Tipareth, we have beautiful illumination and awareness that help illuminate the Sephiroth below it. My supervisor, a Jungian psychiatrist in Great Britain, referred to Tipareth as all the lower Sephiroth synthesized and transcended into perfect harmony.

In the mind we have the capacity for reason and imagination, and Tipareth illuminates all these faculties, including the unconscious in Yesod.

So what happens to people who have yet to unfold Tipareth or the Self? Well, naturally they are still confined to conceivably very effective, but uninspired use of these lower faculties. And one of the problems that we have today is that this is only recognized among transpersonal psychiatrists and psychologists plus a few other disciplines. And so many of our attempts at solutions are completely without inspiration or a higher source of intelligence. When this happens, higher sources of intelligence remain unrecognized, and there is an attempt to substitute and compensate by iconizing lower faculties with the pretense (sincerely held) that nothing else exists. This amounts to creating a sort of "counterfeit wisdom" to fill the gap left by an absence of wisdom.

Vixen Strangely said...

In quantum physics, which has the weird tendency to seem to independently come up with and make plausible concepts that have been batted about in mystical/spiritual circles for, well, ever, there is an idea that not only do many worlds exist after the Everett Wheeler Graham model (which was interestingly enough evolved coevally with Robert Heinlein's Church of Many Worlds--I don't know what intersections may have existed between them) but that some of these worlds exist really as mere "brains in a box"--they are purely simulated universes running on whatever information processor the sole sentient life-form in that particular universe has created in its own imagination. There is also a notion, beyond our "brains"--of "branes", objects with some conformity to our physical universe as we know it, but exist in higher dimensions.

I wouldn't doubt that some of these physicists are operating from Hod for the most part, and don't think about spirituality often, but are nonetheless intuiting structures of space-time that are of Beriyah, and from there, deduce Kether must also be a function of our universe. They are just employing an entirely different language.

As a poet (sort of) myself, I understand qaballah and quantum physics a lot more as a "gut" thing than as semitic soduku or math formulae--but viewing either as just language--the human way of interfacing with really big complex things, feels "at home" to me. I'm a little thing in a big universe--when I understand that there's a lot of things I don't understand, I'm probably right--as right as I'll ever be.

But I also see my life as the only measurement I have for this period of consciousness to understand whatever this is. I've tried to find coordinates to my experiences in lots of venues--so sometimes, "true to me" is as true as I can get to experience of the universe as a whole.

I am beginning to see this as a feature, not a bug. If the universe has more than I fathom--good for the universe--or the multiplicity of them. Nothing should be constrained to the little bit of space time I've very selectively witnessed.

Vixen Strangely said...

(Actually--as an aside--the Church of All Worlds is more of a Stranger in A Strange Land thing-- the World as Myth came a little bit later for Heinlein as that and Future History as a whole is more interesting to me, since his mythos incorporates multiple universes, imagined universes as real, and fixes the whole structure on a plausible cosmology.

However, I would be deeply remiss if I did not admit that the many pools of the Narnian cosmology in The Magician's Nephew, all of which lead to different created worlds, predated these concepts. So maybe CS Lewis was on to something.