“Le Coeur a ses raisons que la Raison ne connait point. – The Heart has its reasons which Reason does not comprehend.” Blaise Pascal, Pensées
“So religious discourse should not attempt to impart clear information about the divine but should lead to an appreciation of the limits of language and understanding. The ultimate was not alien to human beings, but inseparable from our humanity. It could not be accessed by rational, discursive thought but required a carefully cultivated state of mind and the abnegation of selflessness.” Karen Armstrong, The Case for God (Vintage Canada Edition, 2010), p. 26
The Enlightenment promised material utopia created through the ineluctable processes of evolutionary progress. Driven by the almost limitless fruits of the continuous application of reason and logic via the infallible methodology of science, technologies would lead us once more into Eden, or as near as we are capable of approximating it.
The Enlightenment’s leading lights and main proponents relegated ‘Christendom’, the West’s previous guiding paradigm, based on a stumbling and ad hoc attempt to apply assimilable elements of Christianity to the generality of human life and experience, to the realm of superstition and ignorance. Education, law, and society have long since been recruited and engineered to foster this transformation. Now in the 21st Century the influence of the ‘Old Time Religion’ has been largely effaced across the board.
The West’s imperial, scientific and technological prowess has spawned worldwide envy and resentment, while its culture and worldview has invaded and intruded everywhere, eroding the old paradigms of Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. The “imitation game” is afoot, with former bastions of other ‘Old-Time Religions’ succumbing to the western values of material progress, personal affluence and comfort, and ‘self-actualization’ as the ultimate measuring sticks of ‘success.’
But while the economic, material, and social model of the West has gone global, the shallowness and hollowness of its interior life has met resistance, generating fundamentalisms claiming to represent the traditional values and spiritual heritage of the societies they spring from. This too mirrors the West’s own experience, where resistance to the current ruling paradigm has not wholly died.
What is the West exporting inside its flashy, glitzy, bling-encrusted allure but a worldview without a soul, a two-dimensional, flat-earth, flat-cosmos illusion? The Emperor has no clothes, but no one but ‘fanatics’ are willing to call it out. Even the West’s much vaunted interior critique called Post-modernism has failed, because it cannot or will not see and name the void on the inside for what it is.
In the first half of the 17th Century, scientist, mathematician, and philosopher Blaise Pascal was reflecting on the emerging mentality of his day. Its advocates would later modestly name it ‘The Enlightenment.’ There was no attempt to dissimilate a spirit of humility as that later generation proclaimed themselves the philosophic luminaries rescuing humanity from ‘the Dark Ages’ and the shackles of the spiritual slave-masters of the Church. Pascal said that what he found on the inside of every human being was a God-shaped vacuum rather than a lack of reason and logic searching to be liberated from God and superstitious darkness. The vacuum certainly cried out to be filled, and would inevitably be so, but it could not be filled by anything except what it had been created to receive: the love of and for its Creator.
Pascal agreed with the later philosophes that one of the major problems facing every human being is ignorance—but not the ignorance born of superstition. Superstition is indeed ignorance, but it points like a great sign to hunger and inner need—the vacuum that only God can fill, that only the Creator can completely satisfy. The rationalist solution to this need and hunger was totally irrational—to deny it even exists, or to say that it is not of a spiritual nature because spirit is an illusion.
The Third Way is not a return to a reconstructed Christendom, nor a desperate appeal to breathe new life into materialistic Progressivism. It begins with a fundamental affirmation that we humans did not make ourselves and that we are not mere accidental, freakish extrusions of the chaotic but somehow self-creating and self-organizing genesis-energy of the Big Bang. Beyond all of that, but still immanent within it, is the One, the Person who bestows existence with meaning on all that is and on each one He/She has made, is making, and will yet make. Somehow, as creative agents who reflect His/Her own nature back at Him/Her from the creation, we participate in all that. That is part of what it seems Karen Armstrong is articulating.
At this point it is not a matter of resurrecting old quarrels and disputes such as ‘What is the one true religion?’ and ‘Who has the most accurate picture of God?’ It is first and foremost a matter of recognition of who and what humanity is, where we are, and why we are here. It is a matter of admitting that our old formulations, which I have called the First and Second Ways in regard to the West, have driven us into a bleak, dark, deep canyon.
There are currently many voices diagnosing our situation, like a symphony orchestra tuning up—dissonant and even discordant, but all pointing in the same direction—our need for a rediscovery of our true nature. In The Phenomenon of Man,Teilhard de Chardin spoke of the “numinousness” of the universe and of humanity’s place in it as the fine point of that “divine presence” in the creation.
I agree with this description, although I otherwise find a great deal to disagree with in de Chardin’s theological philosophy, or philosophical theology, depending on which end we want to begin from. The old theology said that “God is omnipresent; God is omniscient; God is omnipotent.” But if the Creator is only an impersonal principle which permeates and pervades, it is no more than the Tao of Physics, the self-organizing and self-propagating principle now being imputed to the original energy particles or strings, or whatever we want to call it, that generated and emerged from the “Once Upon a Time Kaboom!” story.
The sticking point for we poor, ignorant, superstitious humans, who seem to long for spiritual connection with one another and all the rest of the creation (even as a product of the Big Bang it is a creation, just not one attributed to a ‘Being’), is that we exist as persons with a personality and personal identity. (I hesitate to use the term ‘individual’ with all its increasingly negative and self-absorbed connotations.) We may try to subdue and even strive with yogic might and main to erase this ‘illusory self’, but we are still locked into the locus of our particular point of reference within life and the river of time, place, and experience. It is like saying that, because there is so much similarity in so much that is, there are no essential differences to be found. But this denies the eternal paradox that I am not and cannot be you, and you are not and cannot be me, and this mountain is not that one, or Planet Earth Planet Mars, etc., despite the fact that we are all made of atoms.
All of creation cries out that the Creator is not just a general notion, a ‘World-Soul’ which absorbs and erases all the individual variations so that there will be no ‘self’ over which to ponder or through which to experience. It screams aloud that every star, every galaxy, every planet, every plant, every animal, every cell, every tree and rock and river, and, yes, every human being, is made by and stamped with the Creator’s artistic signature, made uniquely, a one-time only production.
Therefore, the issue of value and merit is moot because the Creator valued it so much as to bring it to be. Our basic problem is both individual and collective at the same time—for we all have turned away so that we could usurp the Creator’s prerogatives and proclaim ourselves, individually and collectively, our own makers. We are running in circles saying we are the made and the makers at the same time.
TO BE CONTINUED.