Friday, November 22, 2013

Where I am

This blog has turned into an occasional journal and it is interesting to read backwards and discover things about myself a few years ago.
I have been writing, for an assignment in one of my classes at Rice, blog posts about my own thoughts on consumption, especially my own modes of consumption. The professor is one of the foremost theorists of a new strain of thought called Object-Oriented Ontology, or OOO. It is one of the new theories of Speculative Realism, an attempt to re-orient our study of literature to get through post-modernism and post-structuralism. It is incredibly rich and complicated, but it is doing several things that I love: allowing objects to exist, destroying anthropocentrism (while keeping necessary awareness of anthropomorphism!), and allowing objects to interact and impress themselves upon us (using, it seems, Alfonso Lingis's ideas of the Imperative). It is, oddly enough, re-opening a manner of discussing the agency of objects that is reminiscent of the medieval. Although OOO is happening completely within the possibility space of the post-modern, it seems to me to be an excellent language with which to express pre-modern ideas to post-modern people. I am, however, wary, because there are some conclusions and premises that it has buried within it that do not share a basis with Christian Orthodoxy. In the past, we have seen, attempts to express the Faith through the language of the modern or postmodern has led to sever misunderstandings about what the Church teaches. But then again, theology has its own language inherited from scholasticism that makes little sense to modern or postmodern people, even though it is rich in meaning and implication. The problem of translation insists itself upon thought. When you translate something, the original is lost a bit, but some of it remains, I believe. But it remains not because of an ability inbuilt in the human mind but by Grace. Christ grants us the ability to make human language and structures meaningful, although they can never express the essence of an object. The Myth of Christ (and by that I mean Myth in the Tolkienian sense, not modern parlance of 'untrue') is the perfect structure that makes the human, shaky structures solid and true. On Christ the solid rock I stand, all other ground is sinking sand. He that builds his house upon stone... The paradox that untangles all other paradoxes, says Chesterton. The knot that undoes all other knots. The sacrifice which renders all other sacrifices unnecessary. The Eucharist is the center of this, the body, soul, and divinity of Christ made present and mysterious for us so that we may constantly renew our covenant and awareness of the incompleteness of our existence. God's means of Grace made possible through the Church. The sword that cuts through the Gordian knot.
But this is not Speculative Realism--it is the Faith. And although OOO allows for beauty back into the world, it is difficult to judge the ethical status of such beauty. The temptation is to say there is no ethics.
OOO is a mystical ontology. As such, it cannot be reconciled with traditional ethical statements and judgments. This was explored by another professor of mine, Jeffrey Kripal, whose conclusion--which I find absolutely convincing--in Crossing Boundaries: Essays on the Ethical Status of Mysticism was that there is no necessary relationship between the mystical and the ethical, and to the degree which that mystical view expresses itself as monism, it becomes increasingly problematic for societies, cultures, and ethical judgment. This helps explain the constant tension within the medieval Church between the mystics and the ethics of the cultural Church. Now, I believe that both mysticism and society are necessary for the human to live a fulfilled life appropriately qualified by life's incompleteness, but we cannot ignore the fact that a society built on a mystical ontology is inherently unstable.
Then how can we build a Christian society, as Christ and Orthodox belief demand that we view the world through the eyes of Christ, an inherently mystical assertion? We must be mystics to some extent; in constant contemplation and prayer, with an unending love for those around us, a respect for all other beings (including, I would assert, bacteria and wheat and hammers and ideas). We must recognize that Original Sin means that we live a life fundamentally subtended by violence towards the Levinasian Other. Our very existence is based in Sin. How terrible it seems, and how we should just then fade away into God! Except that to do that would be futile and sinful in itself, just as incomplete. No, we must rely on Grace to make us sinless, though we consume the flesh of animals and exhale toxins and misuse resources and dissipate energy uselessly. We must remember that God does not want us to be right, but humble. An appropriate remembrance of our Original Sin makes us constantly aware that though we make ethical judgments all of the time, we also war and consume and poison. We are always in the wrong in the sight of God, says Kierkegaard.
But this is a mystical view of the world, a mystical conclusion of the Christian existence, that we are constantly beating Christ and nailing him to the cross. Monks are made to be aware of this, and we should always be aware of this as well.
But ethically this is a dangerous assertion. Ethically, if we are always in the wrong, we become paralyzed, feel that all of our judgments are wrong, do things that are manifestly idiotic and terrifying, break down the walls of society, dissolve our subjectivity into nothingness, and get everything immensely wrong. A life lived in a mystical state would not be an ethical one. You would constantly be failing and also bringing about even more distress by your insistence of reversing society's "norms." So we must also assert that war is Just sometimes, that to kill your family is worse than killing the stranger invading your household, that to chop the head off a poisonous snake is Better than letting it bite a woman. That, by extension, there is good art and bad art, moral and immoral architecture, and moral and immoral sexual behavior. All this we must assert even though, at the bottom of it all is the awareness that this ethics is somehow wrong, that this social ethics is not intellectually or religiously supportable to its core but is rather based on illusions. We must assert this--why?
Because the Grace given to us by God through Holy Mother Church allows us to make human structures, these incomplete and seemingly illusory structures, Real and Meaningful.
But we must be careful, for we are called to not only support communities and cultures but also support and endorse the dignity of all human persons, and by extension, the dignity of all objects, and must recognize our fundamental violence towards them as well as the incredibly insistent radical love of them that blossoms within our encounter with them, the empathy that results when you see a complete stranger crying, the preciousness of a flower, the outpouring of shattering adoration for every bee.
And so we stand, as Christians, at this crossroads, able to express the two fundamental forces of human life: judgment and the awareness of our mind's inadequacy to judge, preferential love and unconditional love, specific desire and general desire, the particular and the abstract. Both are needed, both are always present, and the elimination of one leads to great wrong being done. For if we merely assert the judgment, the particular, the preferential treatment, then we are on the chain of being and will be heartless in our selfishness, like Ayn Rand or the SS, or like the child that smashes sandcastles and delights in killing squirrels. And if we are merely abstracted and general, unconditional and mystical, we will do great harm to the particular, like those who watch their wives raped standing idly by, wishing not to judge, or those who create art that disgusts and torments and adds no beauty to the world merely because they do not believe that beauty exists, or those that allow their children to be sexually and socially immoral in an attempt to love them unconditionally. Both sides of the spectrum are equally disgusting and incomplete. Both sides of the spectrum are inhumane and ungodly. The Church insists that both be held in tandem, and the sun-like heat of the Eucharist melts them into one substance, an alchemical fire that unites and purifies them, the light that shines on both. We fail but God still is present in our bodies through the Eucharist. We retreat to the monastery but God still insists that we live in community, with hierarchy. We cannot escape the need to live in both worlds, in the Presence of God and the presence of man, in the life of the soul and the life of the body, which turn out not to be two separate things but one impossible fusion made possible by the fact that the eternal God manifested in a temporal body through Christ our Lord.


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