Tuesday, October 17, 2006

postal scrotum: Dan replies

Dan of Chucklehut writes in reply to my previous remarks:

...I'll try to respond to some of the questions you aptly raised in your comments to my email.

I believe that "religious" philosophies in general (those that self-identify as foundations for righteous living or something like that, rather than mere exposistions on the nature of truth or the universe or some such nonsense) are tools by which good people seek to achieve similar ends all over the world. Any religion can be subverted, but mostly I think they appeal to an inherent preference in most people to get along and improve things generally. Thus, buddhism is inaptly described BY ME as a philosophy of retreat. However, it is a philosophy that seems to encourage a distance from the realities that confront and confound us all. Judiasm differs, perhaps because Jews traditionally were too enmired in their difficulties ever to achieve much distance from them: we are taught to embrace our troubles and thereby to resolve them. It's a very hands-on process. Even in the meditations of the jewish mystics (a tradition that has been substantially supressed but is regaining recognition), the purpose was to achieve clarity of mind so that the world and its challenges can be more clearly understood, addressed, and ultimately resolved.

It's worth mentioning that the "vanity" quote is from Ecclesiastes - a book written by a hermit, in which he denies that anything can change or that anything ultimately matters, because the unending cycle of reality will overwhelm anything we do - but he undercuts his own thesis by writing the damn thing down. His isolationist philosophy that all will fade and the echos will forget their source, has survived for 3000 years and continues to change lives, impacting how we experience reality. His writing, interestingly to me, is one of those books that has been moved around from its place in the hebrew bible to a different place in christian bibles - in our tradition he's quite near the end, next to Esther (the book that doesn't mention god). There is a movement in the hebrew bible from the immediacy of god to the mere implication of god, whereas christian bibles switch the books and show a curve beginning with god's presence, then an attenuation, and then god's impending return - a process that is capped off by the new testament's assertion that god bodily walks the earth among us as a man. In my tradition, the latter books are designed to ease us into assuming the responsibility of taking on god's work, because god ain't gonna do it for us. By moving the latter prophets to a place following what are, for me, the last books of the bible, this message is badly muddied.

Spinoza: I like me some challenging reading, but maybe I wasn't ready for Spinoza. I read about half of his discourse on every goddamn thing or whatever it was called, and it just about killed me. However, the parts I was understanding were pretty damn cool. I'd be interested in your opinions once you've had a chance to form some.

Jews are renowned historically as a "stiff-necked people" and there are many zealots and conservative thinkers who simply will not conscion a "flexible" judisam. Their faith is catholic - liturgical, structural, and ordained. With such people, little discussion is possible. But even so, common ground can be recognized (though sometimes only after exhasuting effort) that the goal of the faith is to uplift the condition of the human spirit everywhere and to fulfill the promise that the universe embodies. Having so said, if someone is hellbent to believe the book of Genesis or to live by Leviticus, there's no point in trying to convice him that it's an analogy. You can only demonstrate that different paths can lead to this goal. However, the goal is still only seen as a specific afterlife or paradisical redemption by a very few literalists. And who has time for such people?

There are clearly as many senses of the holy-in-life as there are people willing to undertake the effort to consider it. However, I would assert that the nature of jewish philosophy, the liturgy itself, encourages questioning, which is one of the reasons that I always found something of value in it. We are challenged, consistently, to be critical of the received knowlege and to test it against our own experience. The very nature of jewish law is dialectical - we adjust for circumstances, rather than vice-versa.

You ask how a non-theistic jew might sense that the universe needs to be repaired: this question is best answered by the history of the jewish people, who look back on 40 years wandering in a wilderness as "the good times." People are cruel, beauty fades, truth is relative and morality is fluid. Any person who sees no way to "heal" the world just isn't looking carefully. It's not a question of redeeming our inherent fault, but of helping to perfect a universe in which our very presence is a terribly disruptive force. Whether by giving charity, doing a good deed, or just refraining from hurtful speech, we all have the power to make a difference, and when we do, we are participating in the essence of godliness. I don't think this is so different from christian theories, except that it's not done for purposes of future salvation but for present perfection. We're not pointed to some downstream destination - we are already there and it's high time we did something about it. Creation was "good," but if it were entirely a godly phenomenon, it would be frozen in perfection. It is said that god literally vacated some space in which the universe could exist so that it could grow and fructify - since god is permanent and perfect, and our universe clearly is neither, we must be in a space that is not 100% godly, though it is filled with "sparks" of the godhead to inspire and guide us. It is our responsibility to revive and nurture those godly sparks that spangle our existence until that "vacated space" has been restored to true holiness.


Great reply. A couple points:

1. In interreligious dialogue, it's often a good idea to check the other religion's self-understanding. How do Buddhists view their own belief system and praxis? I doubt any Buddhist would agree that Buddhism represents a philosophy of retreat: it is, instead, an ethical call to mindfulness and compassion that recognizes the nature of reality just as it is, i.e., having the character of emptiness (viz. the Heart Sutra). When you write with regard to the mystical strand of Judaism: "the purpose was to achieve clarity of mind so that the world and its challenges [could] be more clearly understood, addressed, and ultimately resolved," you're saying something that many Buddhists might actually agree with.

Buddhism is ostensibly about "escape from the wheel," but this is a superficial reading of it. A closer reading shows that what Buddhism actually advocates is full participation in reality, not retreat: the only way around is through. Clarity of mind is, of course, one of the great virtues upheld in Buddhism.

2. With regard to Ecclesiastes-- yes, I tried to cover my ass by using the adjective "Qohelethian" in that other post.

3. I do have to ask: what do you make of Madonna and Kabbalah? Is she for real?

4. Your remarks re: Ecclesiastes called to mind something I had read in Jack Miles's God: A Biography. Miles notes that, for Jews, it's the TaNaKh, whereas for Christians it's more of a "TaKhaN." About the writer of Ecclesiastes, you say: "...he undercuts his own thesis by writing the damn thing down," and this reminded me of the Tao Te Ching, a work whose central irony is that it begins with the claim that the Tao is beyond description... after which the TTC spends a great deal of time describing the Tao. Much the same inconsistency can be seen in how Christians posit a God supposedly beyond all categories, but to whom they ascribe all manner of anthropomorphic attributes.

5. You write: "Any person who sees no way to 'heal' the world just isn't looking carefully."

Just to clarify: when I say "the universe," I'm talking about physical nature along with the living creatures that populate it, but not about humanity. This might place me at odds with certain Jews, but my own feeling is that the world-- in the narrow sense of the physical cosmos without humanity-- simply is what it is and needs no healing. Avalanches, for example, are "bad" only from the perspective of people whose homes have been destroyed. When they occur on other planets, they're assigned no moral value (if for no other reason than that we're unaware of them happening). Animals on our world aren't in need of healing, either: they simply do their critterly thing.

If anything needs healing, then, it's people: the assessment that existence is somehow painful or otherwise unsatisfactory is a conclusion that only a human being can reach. Even our closest primate cousins strike me as having no pressing existential concerns. Nature is red in tooth and claw, but this only implies its naturalness, not its need for redemption.

People, on the other hand, have an acute sense of justice and suffering. The universe's blind motion might contribute to humanity's suffering (what philosophers awkwardly refer to as "natural evil" as opposed to "moral evil"), but the universe isn't hurting people on purpose. To the contrary: the fact that I'm alive seems to indicate that the universe is, at least for the moment, congenial to my existence.

Of course, when I say that the universe's motion is "blind," I'm expressing a bias; a theist with a providentialist bent might well think otherwise. For many religious folks (including atheistic Buddhists), everything occurs for a reason.

6. I very much enjoyed this comment: "I would assert that the nature of jewish philosophy, the liturgy itself, encourages questioning, which is one of the reasons that I always found something of value in it. We are challenged, consistently, to be critical of the received knowlege and to test it against our own experience. The very nature of jewish law is dialectical - we adjust for circumstances, rather than vice-versa." This resonates with me. My knowledge of Judaism is paltry (which is one reason why I appreciate your insights), but one book I own, Fasching and Dechant's Comparative Religious Ethics, asserts something along the lines of what you're saying: the Jewish attitude toward the holy is marked by a certain chutzpah, a sort of Job-like cosmic cheekiness in the face of the awful mystery. I like that.

7. Where do you suggest I start with Spinoza?

Thanks again for your email!


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