Wednesday, November 21, 2007

III Nonne: Are Feminists Asking the Wrong Questions?

Language changes, the continuity remains. What is so difficult, especially for us today, is that these laws are utterly simple, even if practicing them is not easy. What is difficult is that, being apophatic, the process is essentially non-verbal, because language and syntax are linear and subject to time, and the apophatic begins at the intersection of time and eternity. Language is needed to point in the right direction, and every generation has attempted to apply its own language.

What makes talking about the progression from self-consciousness to the apophatic yet more difficult still, is that the simpler it gets, the less verbal it becomes, even by analogy. Religious language and models of God have limited usefulness, and they are useful only as they point beyond themselves, not at themselves, and this must always be kept in mind as we read, write, interpret and use religious and theological texts.

To summarize briefly: we noted above that discursive consciousness is but a small fragment of what we commonly refer to as ‘the mind’. In order to become present to the apophatic vision of God, this discursive mind must somehow be stilled, side-stepped, got out of the way, and this is arguably the primary purpose of religious language. It is only from this stillness that a theology can arise which is relational and organic, and not merely some sort of mind-game. Silence is the initiator of language and its goal.

The silencing of the discursive, the relinquishing of self-consciousness, can be done only indirectly, as Marvin Shaw has shown in his seminal book, The Paradox of Intention. One must somehow find a way to be neither acting nor reacting, but in a place of utter stillness. Or, to illustrate from complexity theory as Chris Langton has shown in his work on artificial life, between the extremes of stasis and the chaos of noise there is a ‘phase transition’ as it is known in dynamical systems, a narrow band of silence where intelligent life and creativity can emerge.

The suspension of self-consciousness is part of and distinct from ordinary consciousness and occurs many times a day without our being aware of it. But there are ways to trip the mind into silence, and for our purposes, one of the most important of these is through paradox. In other words, paradox is the gateway to silence.

Zen koans function in this way and towards a similar end, albeit with different linguistic tropes, and from a different base and context. Koans are not necessarily descriptors; the language works indirectly, which is appropriate for Buddhism, which is more a philosophical psychology than a religion.


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