Wednesday, May 28, 2014
[I am interrupting the posting of this paper to share an urgent article from today's Guardian by George Monbiot]
It's simple. If we can't change our economic system, our number's up | George Monbiot | Comment is free | The Guardian
Let us imagine that in 3030BC the total possessions of the people of Egypt filled one cubic metre. Let us propose that these possessions grew by 4.5% a year. How big would that stash have been by the Battle of Actium in 30BC? This is the calculation performed by the investment banker Jeremy Grantham.
Go on, take a guess. Ten times the size of the pyramids? All the sand in the Sahara? The Atlantic ocean? The volume of the planet? A little more? It's 2.5 billion billion solar systems. It does not take you long, pondering this outcome, to reach the paradoxical position that salvation lies in collapse.
To succeed is to destroy ourselves. To fail is to destroy ourselves. That is the bind we have created. Ignore if you must climate change, biodiversity collapse, the depletion of water, soil, minerals, oil; even if all these issues miraculously vanished, the mathematics of compound growth make continuity impossible.
Economic growth is an artefact of the use of fossil fuels. Before large amounts of coal were extracted, every upswing in industrial production would be met with a downswing in agricultural production, as the charcoal or horse power required by industry reduced the land available for growing food. Every prior industrial revolution collapsed, as growth could not be sustained. But coal broke this cycle and enabled – for a few hundred years – the phenomenon we now call sustained growth.
It was neither capitalism nor communism that made possible the progress and pathologies (total war, the unprecedented concentration of global wealth, planetary destruction) of the modern age. It was coal, followed by oil and gas. The meta-trend, the mother narrative, is carbon-fuelled expansion. Our ideologies are mere subplots. Now, with the accessible reserves exhausted, we must ransack the hidden corners of the planet to sustain our impossible proposition.
On Friday, a few days after scientists announced that the collapse of the west Antarctic ice sheet is now inevitable, the Ecuadorean government decided to allow oil drilling in the heart of the Yasuni national park. It had made an offer to other governments: if they gave it half the value of the oil in that part of the park, it would leave the stuff in the ground. You could see this as either blackmail or fair trade. Ecuador is poor, its oil deposits are rich. Why, the government argued, should it leave them untouched without compensation when everyone else is drilling down to the inner circle of hell? It asked for $3.6bn and received $13m. The result is that Petroamazonas, a company with a colourful record of destruction and spills, will now enter one of the most biodiverse places on the planet, in which a hectare of rainforest is said to contain more species than exist in the entire continent of North America.
The UK oil firm Soco is now hoping to penetrate Africa's oldest national park, Virunga, in the Democratic Republic of Congo; one of the last strongholds of the mountain gorilla and the okapi, of chimpanzees and forest elephants. In Britain, where a possible 4.4 billion barrels of shale oil has just been identified in the south-east, the government fantasises about turning the leafy suburbs into a new Niger delta. To this end it's changing the trespass laws to enable drilling without consent and offering lavish bribes to local people. These new reserves solve nothing. They do not end our hunger for resources; they exacerbate it.
The trajectory of compound growth shows that the scouring of the planet has only just begun. As the volume of the global economy expands, everywhere that contains something concentrated, unusual, precious, will be sought out and exploited, its resources extracted and dispersed, the world's diverse and differentiated marvels reduced to the same grey stubble.
Some people try to solve the impossible equation with the myth of dematerialisation: the claim that as processes become more efficient and gadgets are miniaturised, we use, in aggregate, fewer materials. There is no sign that this is happening. Iron ore production has risen 180% in 10 years. The trade body Forest Industries tells us that "global paper consumption is at a record high level and it will continue to grow". If, in the digital age, we won't reduce even our consumption of paper, what hope is there for other commodities?
Look at the lives of the super-rich, who set the pace for global consumption. Are their yachts getting smaller? Their houses? Their artworks? Their purchase of rare woods, rare fish, rare stone? Those with the means buy ever bigger houses to store the growing stash of stuff they will not live long enough to use. By unremarked accretions, ever more of the surface of the planet is used to extract, manufacture and store things we don't need. Perhaps it's unsurprising that fantasies about colonising space – which tell us we can export our problems instead of solving them – have resurfaced.
As the philosopher Michael Rowan points out, the inevitabilities of compound growth mean that if last year'sthe predicted global growth rate for 2014 (3.1%) is sustained, even if we miraculously reduced the consumption of raw materials by 90%, we delay the inevitable by just 75 years. Efficiency solves nothing while growth continues.
The inescapable failure of a society built upon growth and its destruction of the Earth's living systems are the overwhelming facts of our existence. As a result, they are mentioned almost nowhere. They are the 21st century's great taboo, the subjects guaranteed to alienate your friends and neighbours. We live as if trapped inside a Sunday supplement: obsessed with fame, fashion and the three dreary staples of middle-class conversation: recipes, renovations and resorts. Anything but the topic that demands our attention.
Statements of the bleeding obvious, the outcomes of basic arithmetic, are treated as exotic and unpardonable distractions, while the impossible proposition by which we live is regarded as so sane and normal and unremarkable that it isn't worthy of mention. That's how you measure the depth of this problem: by our inability even to discuss it.
Sunday, May 25, 2014
A Paper V
It cannot be emphasized enough that both aspects of knowing must work together. It is most emphatically NOT the case that one is 'good' and the other is 'bad'. Both Walsh and Zinn make their mistakes because they are using a merely linear approach to these texts, that is to say, a post-Cartesian model of the mind; they do not understand that both Richard and the Cloud-author are trying to teach ways to open to deep mind, that they are using a model of two ways of knowing.
Similar problems emerge in Karsten Harries' Infinity and Perspective in his analysis of Bonaventure, Meister Eckhart and Nicholas of Cusa.(17) In taking a merely linear and rigidly controlling approach, he completely misses the point of what all three of these authors are trying to do. He raises the question of why these authors who are so profoundly incarnational, at the apex of their vision seem to denigrate creation by leaving it behind. This of course is a gross misunderstanding of the process that Bonaventure, Eckhart and Cusa (and many others) are trying to teach: Harries has mistaken their descriptions of method, of an intentional shift of attention, for a dualistic transcendence. In fact, all three authors understand that re-centering in deep mind incarnates a person more deeply in his or her body, and in the creation; that a life of contemplation is living the ordinary through transfigured perception.
In fact, the process of re-centering in the deep mind is the way that human beings realize their incarnation: re-centering restores the proper balance and flow between deep mind and self-conscious mind. When a person is centered in self-conscious mind, he or she is living in a fantasy world. Re-centering in the deep mind by doing the work of silence re-integrates and roots the person in his or her body.
For example, Eckhart says, 'So in truth, no creaturely skill, nor your own wisdom, nor all your knowledge, can enable you to know God divinely. For you to know God in God's way, your knowing must be a pure unknowing, and a forgetting of yourself and all creatures'.(18) In this he is not rejecting the material creation but rather indicating a simple shift in attention away from the self–conscious mind and its phantasmagoric constructs and concerns to the direct perception and transfiguring qualities of deep mind.
This shift away from the self–conscious mind to the deep mind is often signposted by paradox, as is evident in Bonaventure. The Itinerarium builds to the end of Book VI, where there appears a sudden string of paradoxes. Book VII then speaks in praise of silence. Again, the thoroughly grounded and incarnational Bonaventure is not denying incarnation, he is simply signalling this change of focus, the eliding of self–consciousness, and the attentive receptivity of beholding beyond unknowing.(19) This engenders the ability to see God in all created things as a function of deification.
(17) Karsten Harries, Infinity and Perspective (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2002).
(18) Meister Eckhart, ' Et cum factus esset Jesus annorum duodecim, etc.', in Karsten Harries, Infinity and Perspective (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2001), 177.
(19) Bonaventure (Classics of Western Spirituality), translated by Ewert Cousins, Mahwah: Paulist Press, 1978.
Sunday, May 18, 2014
A Paper IV
The word experience is a poisoned chalice. It twists interpretations to serve prejudices and reinforce reflexive feedback loops. The ubiquitous contemporary use of the word—banking experience, eating experience, religious experience and, most absurdly, worship experience—contains the insidious message that experience somehow bestows an objective platform from which to judge when, in fact, the opposite is true: it exacerbates tendencies to fabricate and dramatize.
People who study the books scholars write and translate bring with them this idolatry of experience. Many of them know nothing of, or are just learning about contemplation. They cannot imagine a way of being in which experience cannot be claimed; they cannot conceive that experience might be either provisional or inconsequential, much less left behind. Unfortunately, this attitude also seems to have infected scholarship.
We should note here that the self-conscious mind's version of the self is a static construct; whereas in the deep mind the truth of the self is perpetually unfolding. We can never know what our own truth is. We need the self-conscious construct to negotiate the world, but we equally need to realise that it is virtual reality and therefore representation that is dead, and that our truth is unfolding out of our sight. One affects the other: the purification of the construct affects the truth that is unfolding; opening to deep mind also opens us to the grace of our shared nature with God. God's kenosis is overflowing love; our mirroring of God's kenosis, however, is the overflowing of dross, because our fallen life is partially dis-incarnated by the constructs we create, and because we ordinarily live in a virtual as opposed to the real world which deep mind perceives directly. Our truth unfolds where these two kenoses meet and bestow us with wisdom or ken-gnosis.
The English language is deceptive and somewhat crippled in its vocabulary of knowing: many other languages have two words for knowing, which correspond very roughly to the two aspects of knowing I have just sketched out: wissen and kennen; savoir and connaître; saber and conocer; scientia and sapientia. It is possible that this lack of differentiation in English has contributed to the excessively linear and controlling approach to understanding of many important texts, and has led to their misinterpretation.
The Mis-use of 'Experience', 'transform' and 'transcend'
The modern solipsistic notion of 'experience' is a word that comes into the English language only in the late 14th century. It is the opposite of the French, for example: to this day expérience means to experiment, and indeed, this is the way the author of the Cloud of Unknowing and others understand the word. The Cloud-author is suspicious of the dangers of the English neologism. He uses the word prove instead—there is only one occurrence of the word experience, which he uses as part of a grounding strategy, a double affirmative to balance a double negative. The Cloud of Unknowing, as I have shown elsewhere,(13) is not about the 'experience' of unknowing in the modern sense of experience, but rather concerns avoiding mistaking lesser beholdings for the beholding.
It is therefore shocking that the translator of the Cloud for the Classics of Western Spirituality,(14) James Walsh, forges ahead with his self-proclaimed neo-scholastic template and inserts the modern sense of experience 108 times in his paraphrase, thus rendering the Cloud text both incomprehensible and opposite to the meaning in the original. He never uses the word behold, in spite of the fact that it occurs 35 times and contains the essence of the text. Grover Zinn, in his translation of Richard of St Victor's Mystical Ark in the same series,(15) has used the word experience nonsensically, not only contradicting his own analysis in places, but also in phrases such as 'the experience of excessus mentis', which is absurd: if there is excessus, the suspension of self-consciousness, there is no mens to construct an interpretation, an experience. Even noting that an 'experience' has occurred is already interpretation. Richard of St. Victor uses the Latin word for "flow" and contrasts it with 'experience'. Isaac of Nineveh gives an almost clinical description of excessus mentis when he says, 'The mind is snatched.'(16)
All experience is interpretation and therefore confined to the self-conscious mind. Even becoming aware that something has happened is already interpretation. Thus it can be seen that to talk of 'an experience of God' is nonsensical: God may be in an experience—an interpretation—but to say that one has had an experience of God is to cut God down to the limits of our interpretation. When medieval authors speak with confidence about such matters, there is an underlying assumption, which they assume the reader will understand, that all language about God is provisional.
This is not to denigrate experience, but to point to the mis-use of the word in translation and interpretation of these texts. All experience is optimally submitted to deep mind where interpretation is refined and transfigured in the sense of being given a new perspective, the way we 'figure things out', re-submitted to self-conscious mind and so forth so that our perspective on experience is continually being enlarged and deepened. But as long as a person concentrates on experience, which sets up expectation, as T.S. Eliot, among many others, reminds us, contemplation will be closed to them, for contemplation properly speaking is, once again, the relinquishing of all claims to experience. It is easy to see from this definition the absurdity of using the word 'contemplative' as an adjective for texts or other nouns, which are not only experiences themselves, but also are at several removes of interpretation from whatever incident they are attempting to describe. In addition, the word experience is often sloppily used when it would be more appropriate to use words such as 'incident', 'occurrence', 'engagement', or 'occasion.'
(13) 'Behold Not the Cloud of Experience', op. cit.
(14) James Walsh, The Cloud of Unknowing (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1998).
(15) Grover Zinn, Richard of St Victor (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1979)
(16) Isaac the Syrian, Homily 23, tr. Sebastian Brock in The Fountain and the Furnace, 270; this sense is also found in Richard of St Victor's Mystical Ark at III.iv; Grover Zinn's translation also uses the word 'snatched'.
Sunday, May 11, 2014
A Paper III
Bernard McGinn tells this story:
A female visionary told [Gerson] that in the contemplation of God her mind had been annihilated, really annihilated, and then created anew. 'How do you know?' he asked of her. 'I experienced it,' she had answered. The logical absurdity of this reply had sufficed him to prove the reprehensible nature of these fantasies.(6)
What was so obvious to Gerson is sadly not so obvious to present day interpreters.
The vexed word experience can be extremely misleading for contemporary readers when used in reference to ancient, patristic, and medieval religious texts. Here is an example of a misleading translation: 'Mystical theology is an experiential knowledge of God that comes through the embrace of unitive love' (theologia mystica est cognitio experimentalis habita de Deo per amoris unitivi complexum (emphasis mine)).(7) What has been translated as experiential in this sentence should in fact be translated experimental.(8) This misunderstanding, or, at least, mistranslation of Gerson's famous definition is an example of how medieval texts are adversely affected when knowledge of the dynamics of the work of silence—theoretical or otherwise—is lacking. There is a tendency to seize upon and isolate the first half of the definition—when in fact the first part of the definition is the second and consequent phase of the process Gerson is describing.
His definition has three parts. First there is the engagement with divine love, which is apophatic; then there is experimental knowledge, which is interpretation in retrospect of the traces which the apophatic engagement leaves behind. (Richard of St Victor uses the charming phrase "angelic footprints" to gesture towards these traces.) And finally, entailed in Gerson's remark, and as the Cloud-author and others similarly note, is the understanding that contemplation properly speaking requires the relinquishing all claims to experience.(9)
But experience does have a role to play. Martin Buber similarly notes that experience, although opposite to beholding, is necessary to negotiate the presenting world; the deep mind needs to be fed and enlarged.(10) But experience is always interpretation, and as such it must always be provisional. Michael Casey(11) has written that people today consider experience to be automatically self-authenticating, that they locate truth in the subjective, which is, in fact, paradoxically, objectifying and therefore distorting. This modern understanding of experience as self-authenticating is far from either the medieval mind, or the paradoxical way in which the mind in fact works. As Buber remarks, 'The improvement in the ability to experience and use generally involves a decrease in man's power to relate', that is, to behold.(12)
This reifying subjectivity posing as objectivity also eliminates the true subject who would be present in a genuine and self-forgetful I-Thou engagement. Beholding bestows a far more objective—as opposed to objectified—impression than 'how-I-experienced-you' claims would give. A zen archer does not experience his shot, or indulge in watching himself make it. The more he focuses on the experience, the more likely he is to miss. He hits the target by forgetting about experience; he beholds the target and its engagement with the arrow (Cloud, ch. 5; 13/24-14/12). He can hit it blindfolded. The more experience is used as a criterion, the more distorted the interpretation of what appears—and the lower the theological anthropology.
(6) Bernard McGinn, '"Evil-Sounding, Rash, and Suspect of Heresy": Tensions Between Mysticism and Magisterium in the History of the Church', The Catholic Historical Review, Vol. xc, April 2004, No. 2, pp. 193-212, p. 211; Gerson, Epistle 26 in Jean Gerson, Oeuvres complètes, Introduction, texte et notes par Mgr [Palémon] Glorieux, 10 vols. (Paris, 1960), vol. 2, p. 98.
(7) Translation by William Harmless, S.J., Mystics, (New York, 2009), p. 5. Gerson, De Mystica Theologia I.28.4-7, André Combes, Ioannis Carlerii de Gerson: De Mystica Theologia (Lugano, 1958), p. 72. To give him credit, Harmless seems to understand the problem far more deeply than he is willing (or perhaps, able) to admit in his fine book.
(8) This understanding is picked up by Augustine Baker, who, in the seventeenth-century, renewed interest in the medieval contemplative tradition. He speaks of 'the experimentall knowledge' that the Jesuits do not have [in contrast to the Benedictines]. The English Benedictines:, 1540-1688: From Reformation to Revolution by David Lunn (London, 1980) p. 206. Cf., Companion to English Medieval Mysticism, ed. Samuel Fanous and Vincent Gillespie (Cambridge: 2011) p. 260.
(9) This is the 'kynde knowyng' that Langland's Will so greatly desired, and which Holy Church signally failed to teach him. 'Langland's "Kynde Knowyng" and the Quest for Christ', Britton J. Harwood, Modern Philology, Vol. 80, No. 3 (Feb. 1983), pp. 242-255.
(10) Martin Buber, I and Thou, tr. Walter Kaufmann T & T Clark, Edinburgh, 1970, p. 91. Pseudo-Denys makes the same point; for him, salvation comes through interpretation of symbolic action on successively higher/deeper/more silent planes. Biblical and Liturgical Symbols ... but especially p. 75. Compare The Mystical Ark, 5:3.
(11) Michael Casey, "Bernard's Biblical Mysticism," Studies in Spirituality 4, (1994), p. 14.
(12) I and Thou, p. 92.
Tuesday, May 06, 2014
A Paper II
Self-conscious mind would like us to think that deep mind doesn't exist. But when the mind is working optimally, there is free flow between these two aspects of mind with a slight predominance of deep mind. Reading poetry, engaging in one-pointed meditation, and repetitive manual work engage both parts of the mind simultaneously, to cite just three examples.(5) The process of shifting the attention to deep mind so that both aspects of the mind work together is simple but not easy; self-conscious mind must learn to subvert itself in order to open to the gifts of deep mind. For example, in some forms of one-pointed meditation, one uses a word to silence words so that one can listen to the Word.
The self-conscious shift of attention to deep mind is what I have called the en-Christing process or the work of silence. It is described in Phil. 2:5-11, the central text for the Easter liturgy. Many authors, but especially the Gospel of John that refers to Jesus as the way, along with Pseudo-Denys, Eriugena, and the Cloud-author, understand that Jesus was a human being and that Christ is a process, the en-Christing process, which Jesus came to teach. This may be one reason that Pseudo-Denys appears to avoid the static word 'Christ' in his corpus. Another may be that he follows Ephrem in his understanding that it is blasphemous to talk about the nature of God. This reverence, and the notion that the highest praise of God is silence, found in both Ephrem and Denys, may be one of the main motivations behind the rejection of Chalcedon by two-thirds of Christians at that time. This understanding of Christ as process is one factor in the naming of Christianity and particularly monasticism as 'philosophy' until about the 12th century.
The shift of attention this process entails is fundamentally the same across the human race, but attempts to describe it and to communicate the methodology by which the mind's optimal flow is engaged are culturally linked. However, because there is a neuro-psychological foundation to the work of silence, it is the opposite of the so-called perennial philosophy, which is interpretation of interpretation—i.e., interpretation of experience, often written experience. Experience is always interpretation—and writing about experience is many steps removed from the originating event, and always self-referential, in contrast to the work of silence which is progressively self-forgetful.
(5) Jane Hirshfield, Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry (New York: Harper Perennial, 1997), 35-36.