Sunday, February 04, 2007

Trivial Enrichment

When I was younger, lived in the San Francisco Bay Area, cared more about professional sports than I do now, and the Oakland Raiders and San Francisco 49ers were in the Super Bowl, Super Bowl Sunday meant a lot more to me than it does now, and I made sure that I saw every second of the games and of the commercials that punctuated them.

Today, I plan to watch most of the game (after I pick up my wife when she gets off work), but with no real interest in who wins or even in the sport being played, and I'll probably be dividing my attention between the game and my laptop computer. In fact, my most pressing reason for watching the game at all will be that my Thai wife wants to see it and familiarize herself more with an American culture that is still largely alien to her, and I want to share this with her. Oh, and, yes, it's nice once a year or so to settle in and watch a big game like a Super Bowl on a big screen TV in the stunning detail of high definition where faces in the stands are actually clear and distinct faces instead of an anonymous blur of humanity, and blades of grass on the field are actually individual blades of grass instead of an undifferentiated sea of green.

A week or month at most after the game, I probably won't even remember who won it or even which teams played and which players played well or poorly. Nor will I be likely to remember much about the ballyhooed commercials. Some might ask why I would waste my time on something from which I expect to derive so little when I could spend that time doing something much more enduringly meaningful and productive like, well, blogging or reading Thomas Aquinas so that I could see just how simplistic the Christian straw men are that I'm accused of compulsively attacking in cyberspace.

Part of me would agree that life is so short, time is so precious, and there are so many things of importance that I want to do with the indefinite but surely relatively small amount of life I have left that I should leave the TV off this afternoon or my wife to watch it alone in the living room while I retire to the inner-sanctum of this room where I now sit alone with my desktop computer, my books, and my "profound" thoughts to do something worthwhile.

But even if my wife would stand for this (which she most assuredly would not), I would want to be in the living room enjoying that magnificently over-hyped event with her and, indirectly, with countless millions of other people, and feel deeply and warmly grateful that we can all spend a priceless portion of eternity together in spirit sharing the Super Bowl experience rather than going our habitually separate ways engaged in separate pursuits that are ultimately, in the cosmic scheme of things, just as trivial and a whole lot less enjoyable than watching the Bears and the Colts and the commercials.

Come to think of it, I doubt that I'll be using my laptop this afternoon. I'll be too busy watching the Super Bowl with my beloved and the rest of America.


cousin dupree said...

Mmmm, I'd skip Aquinas for the moment. He will be well beyond your philosophical gifts. Alan Watts he isn't.

Assuming you are more interested in mysticism than rationalism and apologetics, start with Origen, then Denys the Areopagite, maybe John Scot Erigenus, but especially Meister Eckhart. This will at least give you a rudimentary grounding to understand how very wrong you are about Christianity. It is intellectually and spiritually dishonest to create your own silly little Christian straw man in order to reject and feel superior to something you don't understand to begin with. What's the point of the exercise?

Nagarjuna said...

Thanks for your reading suggestions. But what "silly little Christian straw man" am I "rejecting"? When I express my skepticism about such things as Jesus' unique divinity and literal resurrection or a posthumous condition of eternal suffering or bliss stemming from one's earthly life, am I rejecting a "silly little Christian straw man," or am I expressing legitimate doubt about essential Christian beliefs?

Actually, I think I'm probably better suited to understanding Aquinas, if I really set my mind to it, than I am to understanding Eckhart or any of the other mystics. But why should I devote untold hours and effort to either if my alleged "Christian straw men" are not really straw men?

copithorne said...

The people Dupree cites were all rejected as heretics by the Church. Origen, Psuedo Dionysus and Eckhart were all unorthodox heretics. Origen was not a Church Father because he believed in reincarnation. Psuedo Dionysus was not fully accepted because he was a Neo-Platonist. Meister Eckhardt was tried as a heretic and died in jail.

I think they are all fascinating theologians and Eckhardt is a sage, but they can be taken to support Nagarjuna's point about the narrowness of "Christianity."

I've never heard of John Scot Erigenus and neither has google.

Nagarjuna said...

I didn't know Eckhart died in prison, but I knew that he and the others Dupree cited were hardly "orthodox." In fact, it seems that many of the great mystics had to go to tortuous lengths (Watts called it "putting legs on a snake") to reconcile their mystical insights (as in Eckart's famous maxim, "The eye with which I see God is the same eye with which God sees me.") with anything even faintly resembling orthodox, good old Apostle's Creed Christianity.

I know you disagree, Copithorne, but it seems to me that when one embraces the mystical "vision" without all the theological pussyfooting, one ceases to be, in any meaningful sense, Christian, and that applying the "Christian" label to oneself can serve as more of a spiritual straight-jacket than a springboard to eternity.

Perhaps this is not so much the case in a monastery for truly gifted and dedicated people, and it may not always be the case for extraordinary individuals even within the regular Church. There are generally exceptions to every rule, but the rule nevertheless obtains.

Nagarjuna said...

In keeping with my previous comment about mystics in general and Eckhart in particular, Schopenhauer said:

"If we turn from the forms, produced by external circumstances, and go to the root of things, we shall find that Sakyamuni and Meister Eckhart teach the same thing; only that the former dared to express his ideas plainly and positively, whereas Eckhart is obliged to clothe them in the garment of the Christian myth, and to adapt his expressions thereto."

Was Eckhart a Christian, or did he transcend Christianity?

copithorne said...

And about the skepticism of the four points.

Unique divinity? You can make a case that this is woven into the fabric of Christianity, ("Only begotten Son of God") but it is only wrong in certain cases. If I say "my wife is the best woman in the whole world" I am not making a mistake until I add "for example, she's much better than your wife."

Literal Resurrection? Yes, this is Christianity. Though, when you say "literal" you're still talking about a big mystery.

Eternal heaven and hell? Not central. Doesn't appear in the Bible. Most of this tradition is from Dante rather than from theology. Dupree's three theologians would have not agreed. I understand Catholic teachings on the matter to be equivocal and non-commital.

copithorne said...

There are exceptions to every rule, but the rule still obtains? Well... no. No, it doesn't. An exception to a rule disproves a rule.

There's a meaningful difference between saying "many Christians are confused" and saying "Christianity is confused." One is true and easy to prove. One is, I believe, false and could not be proven. It can be disproven by finding examples of non-confused Christianity.

I would think it would be more conversational and productive to apply yourself more to the first principle and less to the second. Basically you would find yourself more allied with your Christian interlocutors when you can have a vision of a wholesome and constructive Christianity and move people on the path towards it. When you take the posture that people have to give up Christianity you'll get some unproductive resistance. I will want to uphold, and believe I can, that it is possible to be a Roman Catholic in good standing and have a theology that is coherent, rational, liberating.

At the same time, to quote brother Bob Marley, I never forget no way they crucified Jesus Christ. It doesn't harm any religion to be criticized and Christians in particular should know that criticism is part of the path. And if I am talking with another crowd, I can be the first to point out the pervasive, destructive institutional anti-humanism of the Catholic Church.

In Buddhism you have the dialectic that

1. Once you reach the other shore you leave the raft
2. You vow to continue your practice within the tradition even after enlightenment.

I would say that dialectic applies to Eckhardt who transcended Christianity and transcended the transcendence. Yes, Eckhardt was a Christian in self-understanding, though a dissident one by the Church's choice.

cousin dupree said...

This is foolishness!

True, at the end of his life, authorities did question Eckhart about certain passages that they were too stupid to understand, but Eckhart did not die in prison and was never convicted of heresy. JPII himself was a big fan.

Origen is widely considered the greatest exegete of the early church, despite the 6th century condemnation of certain aspects of his teaching. Hans Baltahsar, perhaps the greatest Catholic theologian of the 20th century, said "No figure is more invisibly omnipresent in the history of Christian theology."

Denys an unorthodix heretic? Please. His works are partcularly cherished among the Orthodox and other original Christans such as myself, where he has had a huge impact.

And John the Scot is only the greatest Christian Mystic between Denys and Eckhart.


copithorne said...

I remember when I was starting my study of religion. There were some insights I had that were the result of careful thinking and study. And I could be disdainful or contemptuous of people I thought "didn't get it."

But when you digest the teachings you don't have that reaction any more. It's a long process of having the intellectual insight become integrated in the heart and the body.

Nagarjuna said...

Copithorne, if more Christians had your attitude, I think more people would consider becoming Christian or, at least, have more respect for those who already are. As it is, many who call themselves Christian act very un-Christian, which leads the rest of us to think that if hypocrisy is so widespread among Christians, Christianity is probably not a religion worth embracing.

copithorne said...

Thank you for your kindness, Nagarjuna.

I'll add that the problem of contempt would be a particular difficulty for people immersed in Neo-Platonic theology. In Neo-Platonic theology thoughts and concepts and abstractions are the realm of The Truth. Human experience as it is actually lived is a subordinate, sublunar realm.

So Neo-Platonic theology supports people in climbing up into their heads and regarding their own thoughts as The Essential Truth. It does little to challenge the spiritual bypass whereby people skip over their difficulties with embodied relationships by retreating into a realm of Olympian abstraction.

For this reason, I think it was inspired for the Western Church to not fully accept Neo-Platonic theology of Plotinus and Psuedo Dionysus as beautiful as some of it is. The Western Church insisted that Christ is fully God and fully Human. Thus, human experience is in itself the domain of God, not a subordinate and corrupted shadow of the domain of abstraction.

And Alan Watts, from his study of Zen, would provide good support for the obverse of Neo-Platonism --human experience as it is lived is the domain of truth. Abstraction, thought and concepts are mere ephemera.

CC said...

Hi Cousin "Mal" is it, nice to meet you.

I don't think Aquinas' "intelligence" was "beyond" that of most monkeys if you ask. For example, his "Ways" seemed very contradictory and assuming to me.

Are you a "Catholic" authority?

Funny, in my Yahoo Group there is someone who claims he is one yet is just as illogical, condescending, and insulting as you seem to be. :-)

He wouldn't be you, would he? ;-)

Thanks, CC