by Brian C. Moore, Ph.D.
Heidegger was appalled by the modern world. After he became an accepted sage, it was necessary to obscure his previous attachment to Nazi ideology. Of course, the monstrous is not always fully evident before the entire hideous nature of an historical event is played out. I rather doubt that Nietzsche would have endorsed genocide of the Jews. Certainly, what Heidegger discerned early on was a kind of romantic resistance of blood and nature to an inhuman industrial demon. I am not trying to exonerate Heidegger so much as to indicate that the tacit hope his sybilline pronouncements supposedly contained was never really viable. This is because Heidegger, for all his warnings about Western philosophy and the forgetting of being was himself caught within an immanence that carried the sickness of late modernity. Unable to imagine the transcendence that founds the gifting of intimate being, Heidegger was left ever listening for a god incapable of healing or translating the dead into life. And so I want to ask, what is it we hear when we listen? Or perhaps better, what is it we are listening for? Much of it has to do with what one makes of silence. Here is how Josef Pieper describes it in his short monograph, The Silence of Goethe: “This listening silence is much deeper than the mere refraining from words and speech in human intercourse. It means a stillness, which, like a breath, has penetrated into the inmost chamber of one’s own soul” (p. 26). Many people can go a whole lifetime without listening like that. Silence is itself an almost unbearable condition for some. They are afraid of it. The fear is sometimes disguised as boredom. Moreover, everything in the world of commerce and action, everything that is lauded and rewarded with money, prestige, and power tends towards making such silence impossible. For starters, it will be repudiated as indolence, the thrifty will be offended, as will all those responsible souls earnestly following prescribed paths. Desmond reminds us that the gift of being is a primary ethos that is never encountered apart from cultural interpretation. The primary ethos is communicated, but also distorted and masked by the historical manifestations of secondary ethos. In this context, attend to Pieper’s extended reflection on listening:
When such talk, which one encounters absolutely everywhere in workshops and in the marketplace – and as a constant temptation – when such deafening talk, literally out to thwart listening, is linked to hopelessness, we have to ask is there not in silence – listening silence – necessarily a shred of hope? For who could listen in silence to the language of things if he did not expect something to come of such awareness of the truth? (pp. 28–29)
The deafening chatter is greatly exacerbated by the virtual world of the internet, but it was already discernible as the antagonistic forces in Blake’s poetry or the cause of reserve in Goethe. Note, the noise and bustle are “linked to hopelessness.” There is the despair of being trapped. S. L. Frank later identified this as being enclosed in our empirical lives, in a temporality unable to answer the yearning of the human heart. Against this, Goethe discerns something that recurs to Christ’s words about the lilies of the field: “The older I become the more confidence I have in the law that governs the way roses and lilies bloom.” This law, if it is truly to bespeak hope, cannot simply be a reverence for nature, the nature that is bound to death. It must be attached to that cardiognosis Jesus begins to instruct us upon when he prophecies beatitude.
With regards to our particular secondary ethos, I would draw attention to something Pavel Florensky noted about diabolic activity. There is a corrosive scorn, a leveling laughter, the comedy of Homer’s Thersites that is likely to be applauded by those of egalitarian sympathies. Yet beyond its insensibility to a certain magnanimity and daring scope proper to a truly humane life, there is a lowering that constitutes a “making stupid” of creation. A diabolic ethos is vulgar, vicious, often efficient, and certain to equate value with what can be quantified. Just as beauty is the signature of the divine, shameful stupidity marks the devil. A passage in a letter from Thomas Merton to the Polish poet, Czeslaw Milosz, exemplifies what I am talking about:
The poison is exactly the alienation you speak of, and it is not the individual, not society, but what comes of being an individual helpless to liberate himself from the images that society fills him with. It is a very fine picture of hell sometimes. When I see advertisements I want to curse they make me so sick, and I do curse them. I have never seen TV, that is never watched it. Once when I did happen to pass in front of a set I saw the commercial that was on: two little figures were dancing around worshipping a roll of toilet paper, chanting a hymn in its honor. I think this is symbolic enough, isn’t it? (28 March 1961, in Striving Towards Being)
Probably most people just filter out the constant assault on their souls in the name of commerce. They are used to being reduced to a nihilist cipher with potential value according to consumer power. How many folks willingly make an ass of themselves in order to sell the confections of big pharmaceuticals or fried chicken? I think the diabolic powers are made gleeful by such images; those called to unimaginable bliss and holy nobility rendering themselves slaves to want, buffoons to the god of mammon. Philip Sherrard warns us, “each step we make into the world of illusion – which is also the world of self-deception – leads us ever further from self-knowledge and our true identity, and plunges us ever more deeply into the world of ignorance and self-forgetfulness.” This is the world broadcast so portentously by television networks, a world so increasingly shrill, petty, extravagantly neurotic that ordinary decency and common sense are disgusted by histrionic tantrums treated not as signs of perpetual spiritual immaturity but as serious social protest. The mob rages and Thirsites eggs them on. Sherrard concludes that “unless we become conscious of our inherent nobility, as well as that of every other existing thing (emphasis mine), we are not likely to be stirred to make even the slightest gesture capable of initiating a movement of thought and action towards the recovery of our lost spiritual vision of being.”
Now, in one sense, no amount of development or ascesis can prepare one for what is pure gift. And yet, as Pierre Hadot emphasized with regards to ancient philosophy, the love of wisdom is inseparable from the performance of spiritual exercises. A sacramental ecclesia involves rites of initiation and the wise nurturing of life towards an infinite flourishing. Though more often than not, the gift of life is reduced to a tale tepid and boring, scripture made sleepy sawdust. Of course, there are probably saints at the jumble sale. God winks in strange places, but the terrible beauty of the holy is not manifest by vague altruism that lacks the shock of divine ardor. Nor is the mystery of love, the odd justice of the king who harrows hell, proclaimed with wonder by those busy earnestly burying the dead, the riffraff too easily dismissed as a collection of fools and monsters. How often does one receive the idea from churchmen or everyday Christians that they are tasked with announcing to the world a fundamental ontological change? If you took out the philosophical verbiage as much as possible and explained it to them, would they recognize the gospel? Or would they, like Nietzsche’s last men, blink before the light? To be fair, one must still abide in fallen time. It is difficult and often seemingly unrewarded to follow Christ. Vision requires an accompanying transformation of imagination – and even then, one is apt to be regarded as an incompetent, one of life’s losers. Dostoevsky insists with regards to Alyosha in The Brothers Karamazov that the eccentric man may reveal what is essential. In a dark age given over to lies, a kali yuga, the prophet will be a man who “goes off the rails.” Well, probably this has always been true. The golden age is prelapsarian, a thing of dreams and the silent presence of the Holy Spirit enacting the kingdom with deft surprise.
I’d like to get back to that argument about God and creation that I alluded to early on. In his fine collection of essays, Faith and Freedom, David Burrell provides important links between our basic metaphysics, notions of freedom, and imagination. The latter, particularly, interests me. Some folks of a particular sort tend to dismiss imagination or treat it as an element of weakness in human, discursive knowledge. We can imagine unicorns, but they have no metaphysical standing. The human imagination is thus thought of as somehow spurious, lacking the metaphysical heft of the truly real. One of the consequences is that implicitly, perhaps unconsciously, the imagined is ceded to the opposition. I think this is a fairly serious mistake. It allows for the dominant modern motif in which the poet is fundamentally understood as allied with the possible over against the actual. Michel Henry’s intriguing phenomenology (I will briefly address it late in this essay) evinces a polemic that forces one to wrestle with the question of the value of human attempts to limn reality. The vates was a convergence of offices: poet, sage, prophet. How be vates? How speak the truth? My argument is that the gospel founds poetics and that the actual understood as ultimately an eschatological reality is the source of imagination. This does not mean that there is no such thing as a “vain imagination.” The imagination is a power that may be distorted and abused, that is obvious and common enough. However, the gospel kerygma is not a function of the indicative voice, a dry, catechetical statement of facts proposed by faith. Yet when the church spouts the gas of sentimental pious claptrap, a sort of sacred patina thrown over the world and benevolence as everyone else understands it, it acts in bad faith and is trapped in a false imaginary. The response of any sane person of even slight sensibility is to yawn and ask “so what?” What the gospel intends is a sacred thaumaturgy whereby Ecclesia as the fullness of the Body of Christ employs holy imagination to call forth realities.
An almost passing remark of Burrell’s is worth highlighting: “one’s theology is frequently a function of one’s anthropology, whether consciously or unconsciously so” (p. 107). Burrell’s contention is that much contemporary discussion regarding God and creation is dependent on anthropology in the wake of nominalist and voluntarist assumptions and ideals of autonomy that prescind from Christian wisdom. “There are no ‘possible worlds’ from which the creator selects this one, as though God’s action in creating were primarily a matter of will and indeed of choice,” declares Burrell (p. 78). In contrast, “Scotus’ views on freedom are … firmly ‘libertarian,’ presuming freedom to imply a radical ‘indifference’ before a set of options, so that it is always possible to do otherwise” and “It is will, for Scotus, which determines what one does … It marks him as a ‘modern man’ … ” (p.106). The priority of will has epistemological implications. “When natural necessity is contrasted with freedom understood as the capacity to do otherwise, the very realism of Scotus’ theory of knowledge makes him elevate will above intellect as one would extol what determines itself over what must conform to things as they are” (p. 181). The story as told by Scotus is one in which what is daring and interesting is focused on the will. The blockhead who simply takes things as they are is a dolt incapable of even conceiving the possibility of adventure. Again, not to put too fine a point on it, the seeming infinitude of possibilities dwarves the limited “set” of the actual. It’s why Kierkegaard’s aesthete quails before the prospect of decision, for any path taken necessarily closes off contingencies that would have allowed a different destiny. The person desires an infinite expansion into plenitude, but choice determines an inevitable diminution. The nihilist who operates in a vacuum defers existential realization of the dilemma by forgetting death and always projecting into the future a vague apotheosis where aspiration is magically transformed into happiness. This deferral is the modern way which explicitly prefers “will as freedom (libertas), or auto-determination” to “will as appetite for the good” (p. 181). Indeed, if the good is the actual and the actual is small before the infinite imagination of the will, then the good is cast in the role of antagonist. What does it do but oppose the heroic will in its search for freedom? Many contested ethical issues and contemporary ideological stances can be rather easily placed within this thematic. The passions stirred are not merely individual, but evidence of the perdurance of theological devotions that masquerade as secular and political.
The Eastern distinction between gnomic and natural will assumes a plenitude “beyond choice.” The highest freedom does not entail “indifference” between options, much less the eternity of evil so that good may remain a “genuine choice.” Indeed, attainment of flourishing excellence involves an attunement to the Good, a “musical” virtue that results in the negation of “options” when such are understood to include defatigation into sin or torpor. “To will evil is neither freedom nor a part of freedom,” says Aquinas. The person always aims at the good. The will is useless apart from the intellectual grasp of it. Our knowledge is “practical,” i.e., the good is always encountered in specific circumstances, chosen in terms of the particular existential details of our daily lives. Since in this life, we experience tension between the gnomic and the natural, our imperfect freedom derives from an occluded vision of the Good. (Some Christians resist this basic metaphysical truth of creaturely being, claiming it is a Socratic distortion that confuses ignorance with sin. Just as the spirit of anti-Christ arises with the revelation of Christ, sin is defined as the willful rejection of the authentically perceived good. Yet the word from the Cross, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” belies such an equation.) As David Bentley Hart acutely recognized “the soul comes to know God only insofar as it looks to Christ and thereby becomes what he is, adorned with his beauty. Revelation is sanctification” (The Hidden and the Manifest, p. 155). We stumble along, for the Father is ever the midnight sun, the overwhelming light that comes to us finite creatures hidden in the guise of darkness. Nonetheless, the Father is known by His Image; revelation is intimately a work of imagination.
Ah, and here’s the further point: if the fullness of human freedom is beyond choice, then why should one think that divine freedom is in any way determined by libertarian choice? “For Aquinas, freedom consists in response to the orientation of our nature in a concrete practical judgment; and God’s practical knowing of what it is God wills to bring forth, in response to the divine nature, is accounted creation” (Burrell, p. 109). I want to tie this in with the gift of being and the obscurity of the primal ethos. Part of the reason mankind consistently forgets what ought to be the font of gratitude is that the very richness of the Origin overwhelms determinate knowing. Then what is “greater than” can appear “as nothing;” and evil, of course. Evil brings fear, and sorrow, and bitterness. Life is a burden then, the gift lived out as curse. One grapples with the angel in the night, refusing pat answers to agony. When the sun rises the wrestler limps, seemingly alone, still parched, yet with a promise that “amen” shall one day crown his lips. It is by no means easy to attain vision in this life; although, yes, it is as simple as a child’s laugh. “Wonder is the reverent yes,” says Desmond. Only in the eschaton will we be done with antinomies and contradictions.
The key, I think, is to focus on how one understands existence. And here, I more or less follow Thomists like Gilson and Maritain who articulate the distinction between God and creatures as the difference between divinity for whom existence is essence and creatures whose essence is a finite participation in existence. The transcendence of existence from merely worldly “life” is crucial. As Burrell points out “the conceptual obscurity of the key notion of existing” results from the identification of existence with God as unique and absent “real relation” to the cosmos. “Were the ‘relation to the creator’ in which created existing consists to be accessible in terms proper to the created universe itself, that is, if it were identifiable as a feature of the world, then its transcendence would be lost and the ‘distinction’ elided” (p. 88). In my view, a great deal of analytic efforts are built on the mistaken notion that this “conceptual obscurity” can be made to yield to a logic that can only be sustained if one is dealing with purely cosmic entities (although, to be candid, I don’t believe there are such things). The divide between Aquinas and Scotus anticipates the division between those who defend the analogy of being, plurivocity, and a complex, imperfect articulation of the real in language and art and those who promote a logic comprehending both God and man, univocity, and language equally precise and indifferent.