Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Sorrow and Frustration


       It still comes as a shock—though I should know better—when someone who purports to be a scholar insists on personal bias or adopts a scholarly bias from the past, in the face of a reality, even when demonstrated by science, incomplete and limited as that demonstration may be. In spite of all the neuropsychological work from a cellular to a theoretical level that shows the very different 'cultures' of the two hemispheres, or, in terms of mind, between the superficial and the deep mind, there are still people who insist 'Whatever you say, there is only one way of knowing.' And they equally insist that paradoxes are failures of logic to be destroyed (even when it has been demonstrated that they are descriptors), analysed and taken apart, and that phenomenology can cover all the bases.

       Such people wave aside all the research (Louth's Origins of Christian Mysticism, for example) that shows that until around the twelfth century it was inconceivable that  philosophy might be separated from praxis. They equally ignore the sayings in First Corinthians about the Christian message being foolishness to philosophers, and never seem to question why that might be. In the end it always seems to come down to the need to control—the word 'grasp' was very much in evidence on the particular occasion I am thinking of, a word that was insisted on even when the process under discussion was un-grasping.
       I find myself wondering if this intransigence is due to fear, to arrogance, or perhaps (since theology is such a refuge for misogynists) the fact that this news is coming from a woman in a seminar usually attended by three women and twenty men (the rest of the women keep their mouths shut for the most part); what is more, a woman who does not have a degree from Oxbridge. As a friend of mine pointed out, you either 'get it' (the two epistemologies and implications thereof) or you don't. You either find it liberating or find it threatening to the idolatry of stasis.     
       Sometimes I even get the feeling, though I hope this is not true, that the particular student in question does not want to be challenged out of his—and it's most often a male who has these problems—topic that has set in stone in his mind even before he has begun his research, because it would be too much trouble to change in the face of facts and to develop a new argument—in other words, he might actually have to do some work. Once again, power seems to be at work to override the concerns of truth.
       Fortunately there are several people in this group who do get it and who are open to the weaving of new cloth from old, but formerly misinterpreted, sources. One is a Ukrainian hieromonk whose English leaves a lot to be desired but who, of course, understands very clearly what I am trying to present.
       The recent topic was von Balthasar's book on prayer, which I first read thirty years ago. This was a time when people, dissatisfied with the manichean tendencies of institutional Christianity, were starting to go East; when the Roman Catholic Church, denying a tradition that was considered orthodox—though under increasing suspicion—until the fifteenth century, was terrified of imageless prayer. It quite rightly suspected that such prayer would be subversive. Von B is anxious to affirm the magisterium's prejudice, even saying that only Christians can really pray, which, of course, is absurd. (James Walsh said something similar about The Cloud of Unknowing). In addition, for all of von B's preoccupation with von Speyer, he was continually lumping women with the poor, the sick, and so forth, and his vision of the worth of persons was intensely hierarchical.
       On the first reading many years ago of von B's book, I was very taken by some of his passion and imagery, but all the same, I felt strangled. Now, of course, I realise what the problem is: he goes right up to the threshold of prayer and then he ties it onto a procrustean bed and imposes a structure on it that is in line with the magisterium's teaching, whether those formulae written in stone have anything to do with the praxis or not: in other words, his text is little more than an extended tautology, and is confined to the self-conscious mind, even though he occasionally hints that he is struggling to get beyond it. Once again, there is the refusal to acknowledge that what is out of sight and control is a thinking mind, and the most important part of the thinking mind at that. He goes right up to the border and then panics. For example, 'Mystical prayer is only an awareness, at the level of experience, of the same mysteries of faith which the ordinary person lives out under the veil of faith.' The elitism of this sentence is just as offensive as the comment about 'mystical prayer' is absurd. Then there is this sentence, which needs no comment, but might have come out of the Council of Constance: '...it is quite wrong to subordinate oratio to contemplation.'
       During the particular meeting I have in mind, the refusal to understand that contemplation is about relinquishing all claims to experience was too much for most people: so addicted is our culture, even our scholarly culture, to having experiences and giving experience the status of objectivity, that it is inconceivable that letting it go might lead to something greater. And of course this is exactly what the magisterium fears: that people who practice silence will be given a new perspective and understand that the promise of 'more than we can ask or imagine' goes far beyond the magisterium's pinched images and narrow-minded dicta. 
       The irony and the absurdity is that in the effort to 'standardize belief and put up barriers against speculation' (MacCulloch, A History of Christianity, p. 129) the people defining the creeds, teaching, and authority are themselves engaging in speculation, insisting that their speculations are better than everyone else's and need to be set in stone. The objections to such formalism, and to Chalcedon in particular, stem in part from the fact that making creeds is antithetical to the life of beholding; that the 'how' question is the wrong question, in part because it shifts attention to navel-gazing in those doing the questioning; creeds become, as Cassian and others put it, occasions for fornication, a word they understood as distraction from beholding.
       Von B reminds me a little of the author of the Ancrene Wisse who creates a textual space for the anchorite but then so fills it up with devotional kitsch that she hardly has room to breathe, much less pray. Or, he reminds me of those giant soap bubbles that you sometime see at parties, bubbles so big that a person can stand inside them. These bubbles are limited to artificial reflected light, and the only reason they hold together at all is due to their own surface tension. They are so fragile that they collapse at the touch of a fingertip.
       In all this, there also seems to be a kind of tunnel vision: very few of the students in the seminar seem aware of how critical are the choices between interpretive strategies in the present time; in fact, what theologians need to be about in this day and age is not theological game-playing of the past, but rather the survival of the species—never mind Christianity. If we do not break out of the prison of self-consciousness, from the left-brain dominance which excels at denial even when the truth (such as climate change and the exhaustion of resources) is blatant, then we are doomed.
Another friend sent me the rather frightening image from the web which I have attached below: he sees it as an image of a person being trapped inside their own self-consciousness.
       In the end, I realise that I can only do what I can do: people will either 'get it' or they won't, and they have to have the freedom to choose. But I am comforted that there are other scholars working in the same area—even if all of them—at least the ones I know about—are men. It's the old, old story that people seem to be able to pay attention only when a male with status says what people with lesser status have been saying for a long, long time; they are deaf to the truth that has been calling to them on every side until some self-certifying demi-god prounounces. It's bad enough to find these attitudes in the world at large, but at a place like Oxford, it is tragic, if, sadly, unsurprising.




3 Comments:

Blogger Old and Grey-headed said...

Maggie,
1. I had much the same reaction to "Prayer" when I read it 30 years ago, though without the sharp articulation that you give it.
2. Perhaps one of, if not the best, ways that such imprisoned persons can be released is through encounter with poetry. Here are some lines from Mary Oliver which cut tothe chase:

And now you'll be telling stories

of my coming back

and they won't be false, and they won't be true,

but they'll be real."

Frazer

2:12 pm, February 19, 2013  
Blogger Maggie Ross said...

Saskia van Uylenburgh has left a new comment on your post "Sorrow and Frustration":

I am reminded of a very simple example of the prejudice you describe. I used to work in a Christian bookstore. I'd be at the counter while my manager was in the back, and a customer would ask me if we had a certain title. No, I would say; I usually knew off-hand what we had, but I could also check the shelves or whatever.

Then my manager would rejoin me, a man wearing a white shirt, khaki pants, and a tie. The customer would at once ask him the same question they had asked me--and get the same answer. But from a twenty-something female, it was obviously the wrong answer.

3:01 pm, February 19, 2013  
Anonymous sgl said...

i'm reminded of a couple points from an excellent essay
"The Disadvantages of an Elite Education" By William Deresiewicz

"The existence of multiple forms of intelligence has become a commonplace, but however much elite universities like to sprinkle their incoming classes with a few actors or violinists, they select for and develop one form of intelligence: the analytic. While this is broadly true of all universities, elite schools, precisely because their students (and faculty, and administrators) possess this one form of intelligence to such a high degree, are more apt to ignore the value of others. [....] The “best” are the brightest only in one narrow sense. One needs to wander away from the educational elite to begin to discover this."

"It’s been said that what those tests really measure is your ability to take tests, but even if they measure something real, it is only a small slice of the real. The problem begins when students are encouraged to forget this truth, when academic excellence becomes excellence in some absolute sense, when “better at X” becomes simply “better.”"


so it's not so much a surprise that people at the pinnacle of that particular form of analytic ability aren't open to consider other ways.

I'm also reminded of a few concepts I've heard from book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions by Thomas S. Kuhn. I haven't read the book, but one of the points it makes is that scientific revolutions are messy, and that in essence any new paradigm has to wait for the "old guard" to die off before the new paradigm fully takes hold. I'd suggest the same is likely true in the humanities as well.

lastly, i think the success of the transformations that occurred in the participants in "the big silence" documentary shows that ordinary people can extraordinary progress in a short amount of time, even in the absence of robust academic theory. so despite everything, the 'establishment' can't completely smother the concepts, as they'll bubble up again, and various books tucked away in libraries will resurface.

in short, i think you'll ultimately win, but it doesn't sound like it's a fun process along the way.

12:10 am, February 20, 2013  

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