Parish the Thought

Parish the Thought

            In his legendary set of Gifford Lectures of 1901, William James placed a strong accent on what he referred to as the ‘sacrifice of the intellect’. More than anything else, it is faith that demands this existential oblation, for faith must ultimately forego the act of questioning. And even if, as I have suggested elsewhere, the ability to question may in fact be the ‘residuum of faith’, it is certain that faith alone drives reason outside of all contemplative life.

            But what is the character of such a sacrifice? How does it play out in our contemporary social scene? And what would possess a being endowed with reason and the language to facilitate its ongoing development, to give up what appears to be the essence of its make-up? Could it be that notoriety within reason is simply a difficult proposition, and thence that unreason should call to us the more strongly? Is it simply an easier thing to become something larger than life by depriving that very life of its unique contribution to the consciousness which otherwise might feel small in the face of the cosmos? Human existence, its ‘nature’, though mutable, is yet based upon the faculty of a reasoning intellect. Faith bereft of reason seems not merely counter to our collective character, our ‘species essence’, to speak with Marx, or the ‘Dasein that we are and which I am’, to speak with Heidegger, but as well appears as a kind of limitation, even an historical regression. This said, is it entirely a fair definition of faith that shaves itself of all capacity for critical thought?

            James seems to think that, while religious belief is itself based upon the not idle curiosity about origins – How is it that I exist? Why is there something rather than nothing? Is there a meaning to existence and more pointedly, to my specific existence? – and thus in its own development and proto-doxa, one finds reason at work, that in the end faith only comes into its own as a visceral veridicity when reason is fully abandoned. Akin to the act of love, perhaps, when two separate beings surrender their individuality for a few moments and unite in the bond of earthly rapture, the attainment of a faith undaunted by doubt and freed from any internal critique and self-reflection, surrenders not so much the body but rather the mind. In love, in regaining our distinct senses and thence our specific sensibilities, we realize that we have given ourselves over to the beloved other; this is the goal of human adoration. But in religion, we give ourselves body and soul not to a human other, but to a non-human Being who we imagine to be Otherness uplifted and made transcendent. From the divan to the divine, so to speak, this willingness to forsake our own paltry beings for a greater sense of existence, whether in love or in faith, also marks us as quite uniquely different from all other known forms of life.

            So if reason is necessary to attain an unreasoned faith, why presume such a faith to be no less of an essence to the human character than should reason itself be? For James, it is because faith is itself a mere vehicle for transcendence. If reason is the motive force behind the dynamic of human existence as reflective consciousness and as historical being, then faith is that which is ‘alongside’ reason, providing it with its ahistorical foil and its idealized selfhood. We would like to think that unreasoned faith is an impossibility, a contradiction in terms, but clearly we are faced, in the day to day, with a diversity of types of ‘blind faith’. Such a catalogue might not be worthy of a Gifford Lecture – ‘the varieties of unreasoned experience’, say – but this in fact is part of the core argument James makes regarding religion in general. The key to understanding the chief difference between a mere critical compendia of such misadventures and a reasoned and profound analysis of them can be found in his subtitle: ‘a study of human nature’.

            Now this claim radically upshifts the content from mere contemporary ethnography – you owe yourself a prayer, you owe yourself a soul – into the ontological sphere. It is part of our very being that we have the ability to experience religion. Faith may be ultimately unreasoning in order to preserve its function over against the world and against the history of that world, but it remains the near side of the coin which is consciousness as we have thus far known it to be. To study ‘human nature’, however diverse and changeable – James never claims, in what is still an all too prevalent shibboleth, that this or that is ‘simply human nature’; this type of response itself unreasoned – is to engage that very essence in the process of self-understanding. How does reason understand itself? What is the reason of reason, why does it itself exist and how is it made manifest? Reason is, in short, a gloss for human divinity.

            Until our modern period, reason was understood as a gift. It was what made us the imago dei under the skin, as it were. It is surely yet our most profound gift, Promethean in its scope and daring, ravenous in its Raven-like acquisitiveness; nothing novel can escape its sharp-eyed vision. But is it not as well the case, given the unreasoned tempi of human history, that we must maintain a kind of faith in reason itself in order to enact it, to return to it, to know of its perennial presence? For can we be apodeictically certain that our reason will always come to our rescue in the face of historical or yet cosmic happenstance? It is too trite a dyad to shrug this off with a ‘faith in reason, reason in faith’ kind of nod. For in reminding ourselves of their uneasy partnership, any balance that is struck within our consciousness which asks of both to remain present in the presence of the other presents to us a kind of intellectual miracle. On the one hand, reason in itself does not admit to faith of any kind. It is thought alone that carries it forward and faith, in its uncritical and even unthinking character, is at best an irresponsible diversion, at worst, a temptation. On the other, faith can neither reason itself nor for itself. It floats above the fray of the conflict of interpretations and it takes knowledge to be within the truth of things only when knowing is no longer associated with reason-inspired devices, such as science, method, criticism, and analysis. If reason sees faith as a half-way house for the febrile minded, faith sees reason as the professional artist sees the amateur. In the latter, reason can only take one so far, while in the former, there is no ‘farther’ place into which consciousness can travel. Hence the idiom, making a ‘leap’ of faith.

            Why not instead take one of reason? For James, such reasoning connects consciousness with cosmos, hence his near post-Broca musings about the architecture of the aspects of the brain about which we yet know little enough. Since reason does not itself require faith, but rather thought, and faith requires of us a reasoned appreciation of chance rather than the contrivance of a fetish surrounding risk – and on both counts, mind you; the shill of the thrill and the faux sage that sells to us ‘security’ – the unthinking chestnut that attempts to unite them is both unreasoned and faithless. Instead, we become aware not through philosophical inquiry but rather by virtue of quotidian experience that human life requires a kind of practical wisdom which includes what I would refer to as Phronetic faith. For James, this is one of the hallmarks of pragmatism, and even his most read work works itself into the service of this sensibility. Phronesis is itself based upon a practicality of ‘faith’ that recognizes the simple limitations of human insight and our dependence upon prior experiences which may, or may not, aid us in the nearest future, that which will be and that which can be known in spite of our ownmost presence as a ‘here’ and not a ‘there’. This is the faith by which we live.

            But this simpler and half-calculated faith addresses life only as we know it. It is, after all, reasoned, though in the moment of action reason must depart, even if only momentarily. And just as thoughtless action should not be carried on as if it were a kind of ‘tarrying alongside’ Dasein’s authenticity, nevertheless action requires of thought that it carries within it an element of faith to be discharged in the act, allowing it to occur and thence humanity to make good on its existential thrownness. Seen in this way, the wider faith that is both bereft of and exempt from reason could only take hold in another realm. The essence of unreasoned faith is that there is an object that itself cannot be reasoned, and this object is God or the Gods. For the theist, then, the ‘death of God’ reduces the entire concept of faith to mere guesswork, more or less confident, based upon a biographic quantity of personal experiences and lacking any wider quality. But I think this aspersion is overdone. While there is no reasoned atheism, in spite of the claim that reason has always been godless – God is, after all, the very metaphor of Reason and remains, even in Its afterlife, Reason’s apical ancestor – there is also no reason to sneer at the everyday existence of Dasein’s closest-by and nearest-to. It is its own uniquely human experience and it presents just as much of a challenge to any potential God on earth as the transcendental realm would present to a mere mortal. Immortal being is brought into unreasoned existence by everyday life, just as we imagine mortality to be uplifted by a faith knowing only in itself.

            All this said, the ‘sacrifice of the intellect’ is today mostly either a convenience or a contrivance. The marketeer assuages the consumer by her own feigned idiocy, the parish pirate invites the listless into his own fraudulent faith. It is exceedingly rare, in my estimation, to discover an authentically latter day saint. But the ignominious fate of faith in our own time is mimicked by the corresponding downfall of reason, which in its turn is mostly used to calculate social control, warfare, or at best, economic trends. Could it be, for the first time in the history of human consciousness, that both reason and faith, in the face of their respective sacrifices, need one another more than ever, the separated siblings and estranged lovers that they are?

            G.V. Loewen is the author of over fifty books in ethics, education, religion, aesthetics, social theory and health, and more recently, fiction. He was professor of the interdisciplinary human sciences for over two decades.

Writing the Last Novel

Writing the Last Novel

            I have written the last novel. Yes, I have. Benjamin, in his famous analysis ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’, tells us that origins and authenticities are mutually imbricating. The very presence of a singular original work is not a necessary variable for, but rather is the essence of, the aesthetic object. He uses the religious term ‘aura’ to describe such a presence, something which any reproduction notoriously lacks. “Even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking in one element: its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place it happens to be. This unique existence of the work of art is determined by the history to which it was subject throughout the time of its existence.” (1955:220). It is of immense interest that Marx borrows the concept of the ‘fetish’, also from religious discourse, to describe in turn the inauthenticity of the commodity relation. Art is understood as part of the expression of the character of humanity as a whole work in itself, self-created after being put together from and by evolutionary materials. The question of an absent Creator as itself a ‘third party’ need not be broached, for evolution is also merely a process and not its own genius. Other objects within capital are at their highest quality as a product when they attempt to mimic an art work or more widely, an art form. But like charisma, the existence of which in modernity is doubted, religion too, the source of both aura and fetish, can be seen only in a faint echo of its original presence. Just so, the work of art supplants religion in our modern age, but only because art and religion were once one thing.

            And just as all prophets and messiahs have come and gone, the cowardly mimesis of religious innovators that is a symptom of mass politics and hardly of massive belief – indeed, more inspired faith can be found in UFO religions than in those sectarian; a pressing and all consuming desire to believe animates these forward-looking marginal cults, their very ‘being-ahead’ carrying them alongside the original Christian cults of the Eastern Mediterranean – carries on within a closed circle. It is not portable, in the eminent manner that is the aura which emanates from a work of art. The work of religion that was the messianic has fulfilled itself long ago. The work of art that is novelistic has done the same, but much more recently. Now a novel has been written that cannot be a novel. Its function exceeds its form, its expectations herald a new art form. It seeks the new because it in itself has no tradition from which to generate the necessary aura that elevates the work into the work of art. “The uniqueness of a work of art is inseparable from its being imbedded in the fabric of tradition. This tradition itself is thoroughly alive and extremely changeable. An ancient statue of Venus, for example, stood in a different traditional context with the Greeks, who made it an object of veneration, than with the clerics of the Middle Ages, who viewed it as an ominous idol.” (ibid:223). What then of the ominous veneration that attaches itself to the new?

            To worship the novel for the sake of its newness is suggestive of youth. The commodity, once again in its turn, plays on this original and essential sense of wonder that a new human being brings into the world, and collapses its aura into a fetish. A novel experience is one that I have not previously had. But ‘having’ an experience is not limited to something I do ‘in’ the world, an action, an adventure, an observation. Beyond this, and yet occurring sometimes prior to, sometimes after, a worldly experience, is the interpretation, the anticipation, the wonder and the bemusement that such an experience will generate on both sides of itself, as it were. And in each of these other experiences I do find myself altered, as if I were my own tradition, ‘alive and changeable’, sometimes indeed to extremes, and this especially so in my youth. The ‘priority’ of the new, its invocation of desire, strikes us as does the premonitory aspect of the work of art. T.S. Eliot once had it that poetry begins to communicate long before it is fully understood, or better, comprehended. This is meant to convey the presence of presence before one is oneself present to it. This is the effect of the aura, and in this, it separates itself quite bodily from the affect of the fetish, which can only begin to alter my sense of reality once the object is itself fully present and I have ‘understood’ it to be present. To tradition, the new is always ominous. Youth venerate such changing presence, while the old in any culture tend to worship the tradition. But tradition was once itself new, and thus also new to me, who thence grows older within it and notes that along the way, ‘the’ tradition was not what it once was, or no longer can be identified with what I originally imagined it to be.

            But since tradition cannot be separated from the work of art while at the same time travelling alongside the commodity, itself bereft of all traditions – which is the chief reason why advertisers attempt to contrive a ‘tradition’ out of a commodity; hence the idea of ‘marque’ or even ‘brand’ and such consumer loyalties that may or may not adhere to it –  the push and pull between tradition and wonder, between the old and the new, between experience and astonishment and so on, suggests to us that whatever the aura which the work of art presents to us as its signature presence, between the aesthetic object and myself there is a splitting of differences. This is not to be taken as glibly as the commonplace phrase implies. At once we must be immersed in the tradition in order to fully appreciate the significance of this or that work of art, while as well we must be able to leap out of said tradition in order to do the same. Art is the only human product in the world wherein ambiguity is the goal. If Eliot is correct, this essential uncanniness, at once familiar and yet strange to me, is an experience that cannot be resolved until much more of my own life has intervened. Akin to returning to a book and reading it once ‘again’ after many years, with the expectation that I will gain a different insight from it, note different themes and moments as being more or less of import, and also, one would hope, noting the same things about myself as a human character in the historical drama, the presence of the work of art cannot be said to be truly ‘present’ in the way all other objects in the world appear to be. In fact, we are led to comprehend the fetish of the commodity along precisely these lines: it cannot exert any suasion over us unless it is there in its wholeness, form and function aligned, the one pleasing to the casual eye, the other vouchsafed in its mechanism, producing our desired outcomes. In no way does art presume to be present in such a cut and dried manner. And just as we do not purchase commodities for their perduring ambiguity, we find ourselves adoring them for their very consistency and ease.

            Art is inconsistent. Art is uneasy. It reminds the modern human being of his own Ungeheuer, my ownmost dis-ease and existential homelessness. At the same time, it brings me back into the essence of what I am as a human being; ambiguous, resolved and completed only in mine ownmost death. “One of the foremost tasks of art has always been the creation of a demand which could be fully satisfied only later. The history of every art form shows critical epochs in which a certain art form aspires to effects which could be fully obtained only with a changed technical standard, that is to say, in a new art form.” (ibid:237). In the case of the last novel, this new form is interactive digital media. The seal which binds text to itself has been broken through. The characters who populate a narrative can no longer tell their own story to themselves, by themselves. No, instead, these non-human humans require a player, just as does the painting require a viewer. And what was once the expression of sacred presence in the secular world, its aura being the lingering atmosphere of an irruptive presence that placed the extramundane inside the mundane, the uncanny into the otiose, carries itself forward without self-explanation into our own time as solely faith and without belief.

            So while one is compelled to believe that belief is itself moribund, to act within a faith that recognizes faithlessness – we now disbelieve in the tradition of the previous art form and we must do so as a prescience, ominous or no, of the immanent next of the new art form – we also do not abandon the more essential tradition of outgrowth, of evolution, of simple change. Indeed, it is this last thing, the only constant, so we are told, that insulates us against the mistaken stasis that commodity as a fetish seeks to contrive. All things novel within commodity relations are a fraud when placed beside the shocking scandal, even evil, of the art form and its ‘representative’, the aesthetic object. The fetish is that which adheres to a produced object through our veneration thereof. An aura is that which detaches itself from a created object to imbue us with its uncanny and yes, ominous, scandal. Was it ever the same in the epochs of religion? We may well imagine the worshipper, prone in oblation but also prone to disillusion. The oracle might fail, the priest misinterpret, the shaman lose his magic, the church empty itself. This is what the history of tradition teaches us: what is customary is genuinely present only to prepare for its own completion in the advent of the new.

            What is novel about ‘the novel’ is of course not as profound a world-historical shift as that which has taken place between religion and art or, for that matter, religion and science, over the previous four centuries, and it can never be so. But what it does suggest, at least to me, having just written the last novel, is that from now on narrative will move along a third axis and no longer be hitched up at merely two poles, the beginning and the end. In this, the story of our species takes a novel turn. It is no longer about origins and destinations, but rather immersions. Only in interactive media does this z-axis come into play. The formula for a novel presents itself as a diagram, with introduction, rising action, climax, and denouement. But interactive narrative thrusts one into an action ongoing, wherein the notion of climax no longer holds, and there is no conclusive conclusion. As such, the new art form of interactive digital media at once supplants the novel and other linear textualities; it transports it into an uncanny space within which living human beings find themselves actors, characters, forces, and all of these in a novel manner.

            On a personal note, my latest novel was a failure, but precisely due to it no longer being able to cleave to the tradition of what makes a novel ‘work’. It showed me that as a writer, I was already thinking immersively and interactively and no longer ‘analogically’. Even so, it exists, an almost 700 page document which, fitting to its plot and major heroine, is also a testament to a now lost form and forgotten formula. It is a book without a binding, it is a story without an ending, it is a desire which overcomes itself in both its own grief and ecstasy. Its epigraphs, from Bataille and Goethe respectively, abjure all judgment, mixing good and evil as one marries light and dark. Bataille speaks of yoga and torture creating an ecstasy not merely aesthetic. Goethe speaks of desire and love creating that which must betray our conceptions of both in order to mature in its own way. And just as Jesus was simultaneously the last Hebrew and the first Christian, ‘St. Kirsten’ rests uneasily and ambiguously along the delicate threshold between analog and digital, between imagination and immersion, between action and interaction. Its characters surpass their own traditions and remake themselves anew, alter the narrative from the inside out, in a way only a digital player could do. In this startling movement, we come to understand the presence of the truly novel in the shift from one art form to another. For within ‘St. Kirsten’, one can no longer distinguish between good and evil, light and dark, and most crucially, beginning and ending. It is as if we have been thrown into a world wherein none of these conceptions apply, and it is only with a sudden scandalized shock that we realize that this is, in fact, our own world after all.

            G.V. Loewen is the author of over fifty books in ethics, aesthetics, education, social theory and health, and more recently fiction. He was professor of the interdisciplinary human sciences for over two decades.

Mississippi Metastasized

Mississippi Metastasized

            This July marks the twentieth anniversary of when I left Mississippi. Reading the odd news item emanating from this ‘southernmost place on earth’, seemingly little has changed during the interim. Indeed, what appears to be occurring is that the sentiments that animate the old world vices of this haunted landscape are spreading, popping up in places distant from their epicenter, behaviors behaving more like a cancer than a culture. Sentiments of race and gender division, sentiments of law and order at any price, sentiments that keep youth as children overlong and bring them to conformity through violence, and sentiments that speak not of a class society, an outcome of contemporary economics, but rather one of caste, a symptom of an ancient and archaic worldview.

            And speaking of which, not just sentiments, but sentimentalities as well. The ‘last myth’ of the apocalypse and ensuing divine judgment provides a ready rationalization for all of the other blights that mark the social fabric and tear at the tapestry of both civility and civilization alike. For the person who shuns the future, his vice must be turned to virtue, and there is no more sure solvent to assuage any conscience of its doubt than a fervent, nay, fervid, loyalty to Barnumesque religiosity.

            I witnessed, and I use the term advisedly, much of this fervor first hand, even intimately. It provided a rationalization for the worst excesses of human behavior. One young woman with whom I became intimate was the child of evangelical parents. She had been whipped regularly growing up, until she had turned eighteen. Any hint of resistance on her part would end yet more badly for her. She related a time when she had simply run and locked her bedroom door. Her father kicked the lock right through and assaulted her with renewed vigor and ‘righteous’ vehemence. Shockingly, upon visiting her parents house, that same door remained in place and in its shattered state, years after the woman had moved out. She even pressed into her parents bedroom and opened one of their dresser drawers. I recall her lips parting and her body quivering as she showed me the belt that yet rusticated in that drawer.

            And this was common practice, and apparently remains so, throughout a wide swath of the United States. Nineteen states still allow physical punishment in the schools, and many school boards ignore the federal law that bans it for those eighteen and older given that many eighteen year olds are still high school students and thus subject to such assaults. All fifty states allow ‘discipline’, an evil euphemism which can placed along the same spectrum as ‘concentration camps’, in the home. Many American children are unsafe wherever they go. My friend’s brother received far worse, she told me, simply because he was a boy. If you were wondering why our cousins to the south live in such a violent society, look no further than how they raise their children.

            And the other side of this costly coin I also witnessed. The beauty pageants and ‘talent shows’ for young girls; and when I say young, think of ‘child marriage’ young and yet younger. My friend, who had also been entered throughout her childhood and teen years in these spectacles, and I sat through performance after performance of highly sexualized dance and burlesque routines accomplished by girls four years old and up. The combination of such lurid displays ensconced within the iron rods of ‘discipline’ and an otherwise Victorian prudery created an explosive tension between men and women who, even in marriage, lived separate lives.

            This four-square social division, black and white, male and female, is threatened by the LGBTQ2 and BLM movements, so it can come as no surprise that these progressive showings are resisted with great force by all whose loyalty is to a past, partly real – slavery, sexual violence against children and youth – and partly fake – this is ‘true Christianity’, Leave it to Beaver is the familial ideal – that neo-conservatism in general hangs its Bolers and Stetsons upon. And it is this ‘past’ that is spreading, given phoenix wings by the anti-abortion politics, the misogyny of Great Awakening sectarians, school curriculum restrictions, book banning parents, the list goes on.

            And Americans are aware of this conflict, though they seem hamstrung by it, transfixed by their own inability to counter it. When I travelled across New England in a job search in 2002 my Mississippi license plates gave the locals an excuse to abuse me wherever I went. Seldom did I get a moment to explain that in fact I was Canadian and that I simply had gone south for a job. When I did, the Yankees responded with ‘well, shame on you then’. I lost count of the number of times I was flipped off, and blacks in the Northeast looked at me with a mixture of fear and loathing. In Mississippi itself, they threw rocks at my car while I was driving past, spat at me from across the street. But as soon as they came to know where I was from, all of that changed in an instant. Black people, students and others both, were fascinated, astonished that someone like me should appear in their world. All were aware of its vices, its evils, and all were ashamed of them, and shamed by them.

            I was never so relieved to leave it behind. And so I had thought, for two decades. But what I see all around me today is a regression, a recidivism that desires to compel all of us to heed a real-time Gilead of epic proportion and yet narrow vision. ‘Even’ in Canada, you ask? In turn, my three years in Mississippi tells me to tell you to resist, at all costs, this regression and all like them; Putin, the Taliban, anti-abortion, child ‘discipline’, fake religions. If not, we may well find ourselves wishing to turn back the clock to a time when such resistance was still relevant.

            G.V. Loewen is the author of over fifty books in ethics, education, health, aesthetics and social theory, and more recently, fiction. He was professor of the interdisciplinary human sciences for over two decades. He is currently writing a memoir of his time in the deep south, entitled, ‘A Canadian Yankee in King Kudzu’s Court: three years in Mississippi’.

Rendering Unto Caesar’s Palace

                                            Rendering Unto Caesar’s Palace

            Exegesis presents the reader with a fundamental problem in adjudicating between Phronesis and authority. At once there is the question of source, which is a modern question, and one that only became an issue in the eighteenth century. It is not surprising that the question revolving around the existence of the divine is said to be an ‘eighteenth century question.’ Only in Monty Python and in certain parochial college campuses would one ever find today a ‘debate’ with such a question at stake. At the same time, God’s death does not immediately or necessarily imply that God is now also non-existent. This is an imputation culled from our own mortal life and thus there is no basis to infer that what apparently happens to us has also befallen a deity. Further, just because one god is dead does not mean that all are, or perhaps the transcendental Being is in fact no more but Its emissaries live on in some manner befitting to their status as successors. For the evangelical, for instance, one might assuage but perhaps also caution, by declaring that though God is dead, it doesn’t mean that Jesus is.

            The interpretation of text used to be understood as wholly a problem concerning scripture, but Ast and Schleiermacher, in the 1820s, generalized both exegetical and thence also eschatological work to include all texts, ancient and modern, sourced in every discourse and thus courageously following through on Kant’s refusal to stop writing about religion, as the Prussian state had demanded he do about a generation earlier. All of us are indebted to these three thinkers specifically upon this issue which is, at its heart, an issue of ethics. ‘Practical wisdom’, Aristotle’s ‘Phronesis’, is a working conception that includes the dialogue between interpretation and sense, both ‘common’ and scientific. What passed for science in the Hellenistic period was longer on empiricism than it was on rationalism, but it was a start. For the eighteenth century, vaulted into a new worldview thanks in part to the new sciences, from Galileo to Vico and onward, the career of interpretation was in some sense predestined to generalize itself, for who in their dignified and modern mind would care to admit, and thence to submit, only scripture to such a crucial process? Even in our own day, wherein print books are on the wane, one has to go a long way to encounter a household wherein only the Bible is present.

            This said, one does not have to travel near as far to encounter a living human being whose sense of eminent and ultimate authority adheres to this or that holy book, whatever the credo involved. This, for me, is more a disconnect at the level of literacy than anything else. As such, it is not as serious a problem as it might at first appear. If the vast majority of interpretation occurs at the level of highly scripted popular culture and that in a very few genres of textuality – in fiction, crime or mystery, romance, fantasy-adventure; in non-fiction, popular economics and commerce, gardening, cooking; and finally, biography or memoir as an uneasy amalgam of the two – scripture takes on a more predominant role than it otherwise would. Given the beauty of its prose and the compelling character of its narratives, from the Gospels to the Upanishads and back again, such texts present to us not only world-systems and choate beliefs which hang together as long as their basic premises are accepted without too much skeptical scrutiny, but as well, a sense that something more noble is possible for human culture, it is easy to understand why they remain of interest to many. If all there were to textual life was a choice between Hollywood and the Gospels, Bollywood and the Bhagavad Gita, I myself would choose the sacred route every time.

            But in fact this is a false dichotomy. And the fault lies not with either the producers of low culture in each social reality, whether America or India or elsewhere or the odd theologian who hopes to keep the ‘higher’ culture relevant, but rather within the systems of education that are supposed to provide a third eye, a third way, that threads the narrow needle between Hexis and Praxis, the other members of the Aristotelian trinity of ‘outlooks’ or ways of encountering the world. Regrettably, even the universities treat their knowledge as a mere extension of the Praxis outlined in the school system, rather than what it actually is: a radically different way of understanding that leads to practical wisdom. These three terms exist in a dialectical relationship with one another. Hexis, or custom, is the thesis. It is what is common to all members hailing from a specific culture and time period. Though this was more true in 1945 than perhaps it is today, Schutz was nevertheless near the mark when he commented that if one was living in a native English speaking country, one would be at a tremendous disadvantage if one was not ‘osmotically’ familiar with both the Bible and Shakespeare, if only through epigrams and ‘sound bites’. Even if the source of custom includes actual texts, these sensibilities have percolated into commonplace consciousness in a serious enough manner to have become one with it. Post-secondary education, especially in the liberal arts, is supposed to provide more than what a mere technical education is responsible for; more than a specialized Praxis, the antithesis. Increasingly, the entirety of the education system is geared into providing for young people only technique, and indeed, it was one of the variables that pushed me to leave the university behind. Concurrent with market pressures and the sense that one must work to live – ironically, a scriptural sentiment – students flock to these technical programs on the promise of a job, any job. The combination of the forces of globalization only make this mood more desperate. To be young today is to face a dangerous series of tests to this regard, without respect to the stressors that face any youth simply because of the life phase they are in. To this end, Phronesis is the ethical sublation of custom and practical theory. It takes from them the knowing of both and translates, uplifts, and transcends their respective limitations. It is the ‘sign’ which has been constructed out of, but also transfigured from, the signified of Hexis and the signifier of Praxis. Without the dialectic, the only signage available to us as interpreters of the world is that of Caesar and his palace on the one hand, and the prophet and his temple on the other. They are antinomous by nature, and cannot be reconciled let alone transfigured and put to creative use without the hermeneutics of generalized exegetical work.

            Increasingly the difference between a school and a storefront is more difficult to discern. Perhaps a circle is closing in upon itself, as at first, the difference between a school and a temple was almost nil. The university is, in its origins, a child of the monastery and not the laboratory, which hardly existed, even though Mantua, Padua, and a little later, Cambridge and Oxford, were early on often centered around medical discourse. Even today, with a view to earning money beyond tuition, certain universities require their first year students to live on campus in dormitories, as if this were akin to a normal school from the Victorian era. The palace and the temple thus reassert themselves at the expense of the lab and the library. Each school maintains ‘codes’ of conduct for its students, which are supposedly only based on the wider legal system and civil behavior, but can be traced back into the murkier sign systems of both religion and capital alike. Our contemporary king is the king of diamonds, even if Phronesis still tells us that the elemental human condition is a dialogue between love and death, hearts and spades, and the wisdom that is at our disposal to adjudicate between them may be found under the rubric of the King of clubs, or knowledge. To abandon this exegetical work – its sacred character too was generalized by modern hermeneutics – in the pursuit of praxis alone is to deny one’s human character. Rendering supplication only to the palace or only to the temple requires of us not only the ‘sacrifice of the intellect’, as James pointed out, but as well the resignation that the world is itself nothing more than a conflict between the material and the supposed immaterial realms.

            If there were Gods of custom, their vision encompassed each question of existence that could be imagined at the time. If there was a universal question regarding the meaningfulness of the human condition, there was a universal source from which could be understood some kind of response, if not necessarily an ultimate certainty. When the character of the conception of certainty was altered by the new sciences and the new philosophies, the new politics and the new mode of production, the authority of a new universal source of meaning did not follow along. We remain perplexed by this lacunae, which is something of an unexpected tear in fabric of the soul of humankind. We stare down at ourselves, noting this deep textile fluttering with each breath. It makes us blink, but raising our heads once again, we begin to understand that it is this very injury that has brought the world into a much more focused light. Though we must resist projecting our own distress into and onto the world at large, we also have an opportunity to empathize, not only with another like myself, oneself as another, but also with a cosmos, oddly familiar to us, that orders itself out of the happenstance of a disheveled deity and a half-knowing wisdom alike.

            Social philosopher G.V. Loewen is the author of forty-five books in ethics, education, aesthetics, health and social theory, as well as more recently, metaphysical adventure fiction. He was professor of the interdisciplinary human sciences for over two decades.

On the Act of Understanding the Other

On the Act of Understanding the Other

            “…we must remember this, that the art of understanding adversaries is an innovation of the present century, characteristic of the historic age. Formerly, a man was exhausted by the effort of making out his own meaning, with the help of his friends. The definition and comparison of systems which occupies so much of our recent literature was unknown, and everybody who was wrong was supposed to be very wrong indeed.” (Dahlberg-Acton 1906:202 [1895]).

                The great challenge of our own age, that which imagines itself as verging upon post-historical, remains an historical challenge. The shock of the other, her very existence, both promotes this challenge into an orbit that appears dauntingly distant, but also demotes the value of taking up this challenge as something unworthy of our collective efforts. For the other is at first no friend. And yet the stakes could not be higher. Even in Lord Acton’s period, which is still very much our own as modulated from imperial colonialism to economic neo-colonialism, from biopower presumed to biopower desired, from sex to gender, from race to ethnicity, from labor-based classes to those status-based and so on, people were well aware of the historical cost, not so much of misunderstanding, but of deliberate disagreement for the sake of political opportunism and messianistic adoration. Like moving to the relative minor from the nineteenth century’s dominant major key, our own time has been modulated by these structural forces so that the otherness of the other is much more apparent to us, and much more troubling. There no longer is a ‘white man’s burden’, and if anything, fashionable discourse says to us the opposite: that the white man has imposed a burden upon the world that reaches out from beyond his own recently dug grave. Yet it was this very personage who invented the concept of understanding, after many painstaking millennia. Almost all of our philosophical ideas which aid us in coming to both the understanding of the other and what is also of the utmost, one’s own self-understanding, emerge from the ethics of the West, authored and thought out loud by the best of what is often considered a bad lot.

            If this sounds apologetic in any way, it is because abandoning this discourse means that we are thrown back over into a pre-modernity that is too sure of itself; its religious beliefs, its sense of social order, its political reason, its morality. The Enlightenment, the penultimate fruit of the tree of reason that was first planted some 2.6K years ago in Greece, is the source of historical understanding and also that ethical, for it goes beyond the sense that tolerance alone is a good enough showing to otherness as a principle, just as it makes larger the compassion that was to be shown, in Christian ethics, to the other as an individual. This is one of the reasons why Acton refers to understanding the other as an ‘art’. Art simultaneously participates in the universal and the individual. It brings the cosmos to the person without presuming to personalize it. It allows the intimate to experience the infinite without aggrandizing what occurs between persons into a universal force. Similarly the art of self-understanding, which too must attain a new intimacy in the face of an overwhelming and anonymous world, let alone the incomparably larger cosmos.

            If this is an ideal, let me suggest that before one can attain art, one must task oneself with the more modest act. The act of understanding the other is a beginning, but in our own day, even this appears to be often absent. We hear popular writers speaking of ‘reaching out’ to one another, of tolerance, compassion, even acceptance, but are any of these, or can any combinations thereof, truly generate an authentic understanding of the other as a vehicle for otherness? Here, I am using the term to connote neither the untoward nor the uncanny as such. Yes, both are present in the encounter with the other insofar as the first may be the case if we fail to understand something of her – she may end up presenting a threat to our own parochialism, which is not necessarily a bad thing in and of itself – and the second occurs simply because of the shock of realizing that another human being can in fact be so different from me that I am stretched to recognize her as human. The untoward is what we seek to avoid, but the uncanny cannot be expunged. We simply have to accept this in ourselves through the other as part of the act of understanding. For otherness also resides within, from the metaphoric rhetoric of the unconscious life, to the role stress and conflict that occupies our waking hours. It is quite enough most of the time and for most of us, to nod again to Acton, to ‘make out our own meanings’, oft enough without any help at all, from either friend and certainly not from foe.

            Just so, just now, we see that friend and foe are becoming all too clear, so much so that if one is not the one, one is the other. This is the very essence of pre-modernity in all of its diverse organizational forms. From hunting and gathering, through horticulture and agrarian means of production, the stranger could not be one of us. It is a long-germinating resonance of the second Great Awakening period (c.1790-1840) in the USA that American politics – ironically heralded as the most ingenious, reasoned and liberating if experimental dynamic in world history by De Tocqueville at the very moment it was about to turn inward and fold back upon itself – has seemingly regressed into a bipolar pre-modernity; one is either friend or foe and there is nothing, and more importantly, no one, in between.

            The art of understanding is the culmination of a series of acts which direct themselves toward a sense of self-recognition, thence further, toward a more risky comprehension that the other really is her own person who is under no obligation to agree with me about anything at all. Coming to terms with the other is at first a mere political exercise, but right now we appear to be lacking even this. Such terms are necessary in order for a society to function in its basic sense. We do seem to be starting at a zero point, or rather, restarting. This is due to the fact that what were originally very small populations west of the Alleghenies – it is important to note that the first railhead through this range was only accomplished in 1857 – grew at a rate similar to their political disenfranchisement. When agriculture and ranching became themselves marginal to the emerging industrial economy, these Americans had already girded themselves with a century of ‘awakened’ ideas. If the Puritans were intolerant and neurotic, those whom they pushed westward were idealistic and victimized. This victimology, present from the moment the new republic recognized itself in a post-colonial core, urban, commercial, capitalist, and seeking its own culture, has come down to us as a wider Western culture as the song of all those who suffer from yet larger forces; chief amongst them, globalization. But while Western economies are downshifted by the intense competition afforded by yet further others – those yet more distant and far more strange than even the neighbor who votes for the other party – the deeper source of marginality is the very history of internal colonization and the sheer geography of a land unlike anything one’s ancestors could have imagined. A big land required a big god, required a big man, required a big stick. But did it require a big State, a big heart, a big purse? Perhaps in contradiction with itself, the USA got all of those aspects of largeness, amongst others. ‘Very well, I contain multitudes’, Whitman famously writes at the moment the Alleghenies were pierced by the new industry. Whitman is known as the first truly modern American artist precisely because he recognizes the other inside of himself. In our own age, and contrary to any idea that emanated from that previous, otherness is not something distant, obscure, inhuman, and necessarily defined by existential threat, of whatever nature the corresponding variables may have been in one historical context to the next. But both the language and the countenance of this Great Awakening promoted the old ideas once again to the fore. With just as great an irony, the nation that was once the radical hope of the enlightened world in two centuries would risk becoming a caricature of itself.

            This is why the act of understanding the other must come before that very other, in reaction to our malicious mocking and vindictive vitriol, makes herself into the very caricature we had all along presumed her to be. The rioters at DC were the self-fulfilling prophecy imagined by all those who had marginalized them over the decades. We tend to make our own enemies, most especially, of ourselves. This is why the act precedes the art, just as an apprenticeship comes before any supposed mastery. We are not asking each other to become such masters overnight. Rather, we are proposing the modest endeavor of authentically trying to comprehend what the other really needs, what they think of the world, who they imagine themselves to be. That this is the essence of any human relationship should not be lost on us. For the others are also married, are also working, are also trying to ‘make their own meaning’ in the face of powerfully anonymous forces which are far beyond any individual’s control. The sense that globalization is alone the wedge that drives the West apart from itself is simply another way of pushing off on a yet stranger other the responsibility for self-understanding. If my neighbor is, after all, not my enemy, then the Chinese person is, the Indian person, the Muslim. These ‘strangers at the gates’, to allude to Kipling once again, have, like the rioters, found their way into our way of life. But they are who they are, and not caricatures, not neighbors in the narrow sense. So we must extend the sense of self-understanding, and the only manner of doing so is by augmenting what was originally a religious ethics with that of post-religious thought.

            In book three of my new trilogy, the newly conjoined Queen Guinevere’s final words to the major narrative heroine, telling her at once of the state of her own lover as well as the state of our contemporary love in general, are as follows: “She is alive but you must not delay. The power she has is munificent, but the power they have is not based on one soul, however great. It is known that Dvorak said of Brahms, ‘such a great man, such a great soul, but he believes in nothing.’ Take heed of this mischance, modernity, and choose carefully your nothing.” Our conception of love, and who is worthy of it, are endangered. It is because we have severe doubts regarding our own worthiness and on both counts; are we deserving of love and our we the ones who can love? ‘Love thy neighbor as thyself’ always carried this deeper caveat: it assumes one can love oneself. This is the ‘as’. Then again, to imagine that only we are worthy of love, our own or that of another, is to conflate the abstract ethic with the practical act. It is to submerge a revolutionary sensibility back into a revelationary discourse. What is appropriately ‘revealed’ by relatively freeing ethics from metaphysics is not religion but rather otherness, both internal to self and external in the other to self. Loving oneself includes the task of understanding that we are not one thing, singular, stable, secure in our knowledge of the world. Our global rivals have shed their own parochiality enough to step onto the world stage. Is it either reasonable or ethical that we shrink back before their example and turn inward, replacing what they were with ourselves?

            Enjoin then the act of understanding, which discloses to one’s own being not merely the presence of the other as if she were a distraction or an annoyance, a threat mortal or otherwise, but in fact the authenticity of humanity in its diversity and in its similarity. For in the end we are both like and unlike the other. We may also like and dislike them, just as we already know that we too are likeable on one day, the other on another. Choosing carefully our unbelief includes the ability to comprehend that belief of some sort remains relevant. Even so, of whatever ethic it may promote, the otherness of the other, the difference within, must become a part thereof. The currently faithless faith in ourselves travels with us only until we reach the limen over which otherness dwells. Today, that threshold is what separates the neighbor that must be, and not the stranger that she has previously been.

            Social philosopher G.V. Loewen is the author of over forty books in ethics, education, aesthetics, health and social theory, as well as more recently, metaphysical adventure fiction. He was professor of the interdisciplinary human sciences for two decades.

The Religion of Criminality

The Religion of Criminality

            With the news that various faith-based organizations across the nation are flouting by-laws regarding mass assembly, the old tension between church and state has resurrected itself, apropos, given the time of year. For me, it was always to be expected that so-called evangelicals would be at the vanguard of this kind of passive-aggressive resistance to both civility and citizenship, but when Wheatley Ontario’s Mennonites began to jump in, my own quasi-ethnic background surfaced to bite on my own conscience. Not in a serious manner, but just enough to both condemn these erstwhile brethren as well as wonder why they might be engaging in what amounts to a public health menace. No true Christian would ever knowingly put his neighbor at risk. And while it is easier to dismiss the neo-fascist fake Christians as being simply that, when it comes to Menno Simons’ followers the issue appears more nuanced. Why so?

            My own father left home at seventeen, lied about his age and joined the RCN to fight in the Battle of the Atlantic. For the pacifist Mennonites this was more than a scandal. Not only was one engaging in violence but also doing so at the behest of the state, the historical victor over the church, all churches. This paradoxical effort at liberation in part allowed me, decades later, to become who I now am, a critical social philosopher, something that in the rearward facing climes of warmed-over old world beliefs would simply not have been imaginable. I owe my father much on that account. Even so, it is an odd paradox that the one who seeks freedom from the state shares much with the thinker, whose loyalty is also to something other than ideology and citizenship. The Greeks replaced myth with science, language transitioned from mythos to logos, and thus the gods were supplanted by thought itself. Sophia, herself the goddess of wisdom, was kind of like a mole in Greek mythology, unraveling the mythic tapestry from within, unlike Prometheus, who suffered endlessly because though he was also humanity’s ally, he pushed the revolution along from without.

            My father was an insider who went outside. I would never return to complete a personal circle, as it were, but at the same time, I understand the confluence that lies between those whose loyalty is to some higher being, however imaginary or no, and someone like myself, whose loyalty is to what I take to be a higher sensibility; ethics, rationality, reason, interpretation, reflection, critique. Philosophy is, after all, the child of religious thought, just as science is the child of religious myth. The Wheatley group have been engaging in the critique of the state even if they have also been engaged in unethical, even criminal, activity. This is no mere ‘civil’ disobedience on their parts. It is manifestly uncivil to place others at a health risk, especially those who do not agree to be so placed. Is it too much to believe that every single person in this or that congregation would only and ever associate with the remainder of said congregation, day in day out, forever and ever, or at least, until all are vaccinated? This kind of leap of faith is actually more of a chasm than even a belief in God, whose being, after all, is not disproven by science, merely rolled back, much in the same manner as is religious explanation curtailed in its territory by that scientific.

            It is not a leap that I am willing to make. The local public authorities must get much more serious about stopping such assemblies. They can even use Christian ethics to support their legal efforts. Why do the vast majority of churches meet on-line, when all of them would ideally meet in person? This alone dispels any far-fetched rationale that only a very few churches – say in the rural Fraser Valley of BC and in similar areas within Ontario and Quebec, for instance – have the ‘true’ message of their God in their hearts. No, these folks are simply using religion to commit a crime, and in doing so, have placed themselves on the same spectrum as the likes of the Taliban. How far will they go in their delusion of being persecuted? Maybe we should ask the average Afghani to predict what the thin edge of the wedge can really mean when people use their fraudulent faith as a cloak for their more naked desire for power.

            Social philosopher G.V. Loewen is the author of over forty books in ethics, health, education ,aesthetics and social theory, as well as more recently, metaphysical adventure fiction. He was professor of the interdisciplinary human sciences for two decades.