Sunday, October 16, 2011


I continue to share thoughts here about Terry Eagleton’s 2009 book “Reason, Faith, and Revolution”.*

He points out (p.13) that if God is “pointless” then morality is too. At least any solidly-Grounded morality whose basis and authority resides in something (or Someone) Higher than mere human ‘choice of values’ (such a ‘choice’ relies on nothing but the individual’s continued preference for the ‘value’, which can change over time or at whim). Imagine trying to navigate a ship at sea not by reference to the fixed points of the stars but rather by whatever you ‘choose’ to consider the best course across the trackless sea. You won’t be getting anywhere very often.

Still, Eagleton continues on the same page to assert – and justify his Correct creds – that “it is a question of how to live most richly and enjoyable, relishing one’s powers and abilities for their own sake”.  

This sounds nice – very nice – but it won’t work; it won’t stand up under the pressure of a life that is a Vale of Tears and turmoil, in a human existence that, in the Buddhist vision, not ever going to be ‘happy’ but rather is always going to be characterized by the dukkha of dissatisfaction.

This is a layered problem.

First, human beings are ‘incomplete’ in the sense that they are – and in this dimension or on this Plane of Existence (PoE) always will be – separated from their genuine highest capabilities and self; the German for it might be Echtheit, translating into the clanky English ‘genuineness’. Thus, in the Christian and Catholic view especially, humans are always ‘workin’ my way back to You’ (as the Songster saith); we are always working upwards through the clutter of inferior desires and urges to get closer to our Echt self (which, of course, is made in the image of that God to Whom we are also working our way back toward; working toward an ever more congruent relationship with both our Echt Self and with the God in Whose image that Echt Self of ours has been created).

But it’s a journey that is never going to be completely fulfilled in this dimension and on this PoE, so ‘fulfilllment’ is not going to work as a source of happiness for us humans: if you’ve based all your ‘happiness’ on something that you can never achieve, then you are always going to feel – rightly so – incomplete and unfulfilled and not-totally-happy.

Second, to the extent, then, that humans try to find fulfillment and happiness through their inferior or less genuine or less Echt urges and desires, they are not only not-going to feel fulfilled, but are actually going to sail way off their primary course and get lost in the trackless welter of the inferior interior world of those desires, passions, urges and all that.

And once you’re in those shark-filled waters, the more you kick the deeper you’re going to get yourself into trouble. Physiological addiction to drugs is simply the most obvious example of this dynamic: you get badly off course and away from your higher and Echt Self and from the image of God – and maybe from God too – and then you can only muster enough energy to keep going forward (on the wrong course) even more intensely … and the band will play on until the unhappy end.

The great Axial religions – and especially in the core Christian variant – therefore insist that ‘autonomy’ or freedom is not enough; if you don’t know where you’re heading, or how to handle the ship, then simply having all the sails up and getting out of the harbor isn’t going to do you much good at all. Indeed, in that condition of existential incompetence you are safer staying in the harbor, tied to the pier of brute custom and tradition that imposes some Shape on you from outside yourself – which is ‘oppressive’ but at least keeps you from cutting loose, heading out into the deep when you don’t know where you’re going or how to sail the ship, and winding up lost or wrecked.

Modern American society has the idea that there’s nothing very grace-ful or ‘free’ about staying tied to a pier or just puttering around the harbor where your ship was launched. But that will at least keep you safe enough, compared to heading out into life’s deep ocean with no knowledge of course or vessel, where your chances of making progress or even staying afloat are hugely reduced.

Eagleton rhapsodizes in classic Romantic and Boomer fashion about “this self-delighting energy” that is “entirely without point or function” and “stands in no need of justification by some grim-faced tribunal of History, Duty, Geist  [German for ‘spirit’], Production, Utility, or Teleology [the study (and reality) of deep human Purpose]”.

In other words, ‘just do it!’; just take this hog out onto the highway and open it up and let the good times roll and the chips fall where they may. BUT this presumes that you know how to handle a motorcycle, especially at speed on the open road. Otherwise the simple glee and excitement of going reely reely fast and feeling the wind in your face and so on isn’t going to last long.

He reflects the Romantic/Boomer presumption that you can just take the human ‘bike’, hop on and turn the key, and head for the highway and total ‘freedom’ and ‘exhilaration’. Not if you don’t know what you’re doing. Because A) the bike is a lot more complex and dangerously powerful than you seem to think, and B) the ‘highway’ will thus provide ultimately only the opportunity for you to wrap yourself around a tree or go off a cliff; and C) you will be sharing the road – especially these days – with a whole bunch of other wannabe-bikers who also don’t know what the frak they’re doing but are equally giddy with ‘freedom’ and ‘exhilaration’.

The possibilities of you wrecking yourself or somebody else, or somebody else colliding with you or wrecking you, are huge.

This simplistic short-cut to ‘freedom’ approach – just do it – tries to anchor humans in God by claiming that you can be like God (ummmm – remember the Serpent in the Garden of Eden?) just by enjoying the exhilarating freedom that God has.

But it can’t work like that. God knows how to be His Echt Self; God knows what He’s doing. Humans, alas, don’t. We are made in the image of God but we are not gods. Recall the kid Icarus whose father Daedalus made wings for him, stuck them on his back with wax, and figured he could escape the surly bonds of earth and fly like the gods – the ancient Greeks knew what would happen, and they didn’t even read the Bible. (The kid Icarus got so exhilarated he flew too near the sun, the wax melted, and the kid was history.)

Humans are born into ‘the surly bonds of earth’, of this incomplete PoE. It’s what we do. Or were created to do: to develop our Echt Self in the midst of this still-developing world that, like a new planet, is a dangerous and complicated place as each human and all humans are enmeshed in their inferior selves, some trying harder to climb and others not so much.

God and Grace help; but as any father knows, each kid has to actually master his bicycle on his own or he’ll never learn to do it right; dad can teach and encourage and stay close, but Junior has to get on the bike and learn the balancing bit and steering and pedaling and all that.

Or imagine a cargo-cult native suddenly given, with no introduction, an automobile there on his remote island. He has no idea whatsoever about what it is for, what is capable of. He has no instruction booklet or owner’s manual and there are no cues from the world around him. But he has a brand new car with the keys on the front seat. How ‘free’ is he, really? As the owner of a new car, I mean. He could wind up using it as a house, or a planter, or a status-symbol or even an awesome burial container (or at least plan to, when the time comes) – but that’s all. Maybe he’ll discover the gas in the tank and even siphon it out for fuel, or to mix with war-paint.

Elements of modern Pomo culture would call that marvelous and creative and – feh, this overused word – ‘rich’. But really, how ‘free’ is he in terms of having this auto? If you get my drift.

Reviewing the recent (and intriguing) German film “The White Ribbon”, Roger Ebert says that when the prevention of evil becomes more important than the preservation of freedom, totalitarianism results. This is true but too simple. The key – as always and as always must be – is in how you conceive of ‘freedom’. A Freedom without Shape or Grounding Image or Template is no freedom at all, but merely the Shapeless discharge of energy. To make this profound mistake is to imagine that because your oil well is spouting the stuff high into the air 24/7 you are therefore successfully conducting an oil business.
There is a reason why the “tribunals” of History and Culture and Tradition are “grim-faced”: being human and being an individual human is serious business, and dangerous if you don’t get it right. With more experience, you can let yourself feel a little exhilaration because you’ve earned it by going through the long and hard discipline of mastering your energies.

But the Romantic/Boomer/Youthy idea that the young are more god-like because they aren’t ‘inhibited’ is grossly and profoundly deceptive and mistaken: the young are much more susceptible to thinking (or feeling) that they can just skip the reading and get straight to the exhilaration. And thus, if they are of a spiritual bent, be closer to ‘God’ or be ‘like God’ or experience the god-ness within them. It doesn’t work that way.

The Boomer approach – and lots of folks with gray hair now still think the way they did when they were young – doesn’t work because it presumes there’s no hard work involved, and no danger.

Being a Boomer myself, I think it had something to do with the fact that we were born into an America that just ‘was’ rich and powerful and very clever and oh-so-modern and cutting-edge. We didn’t experience the Great Depression or World War 2 and we hadn’t really been in the life-business very long and just figured that everything was Groovy and all you had to do was lose the ‘grim-faced’ approach and Go For It because life, obviously (it seemed) was really great and you only had to enjoy it and enjoy yourself. Anything less was to fail as a human: if you didn’t enjoy your human-ness to the easily-available max then you must be ‘sick’ or ‘old’ or ‘repressed’.

Well, that was then and none of it worked.

But the Boomers created a revolution in culture that actually tossed out History, Tradition, and even nowadays Culture itself, in the name of total freedom and autonomy in this way or that way or any way at all. No ‘grim face’; remember the 1970s happy-face icon? We passed it on to subsequent age-cohorts. Remember the 1980s “Don’t worry – Be happy!”?

Eagleton tries to salvage a palpable Sense of God by locking onto ‘exhilaration’ and the old ‘happy face’. It’s a quick-burning fuel (which deludes the incompetent into thinking that the bright pretty flame and ‘rush’ means that it works). But quick-burning fuels don’t last long. And then you’re wayyy up there in your jet plane after an exhilarating steep vertical climb and a couple of good zooms high up above those ‘surly bonds of earth’ and suddenly you’re out of fuel and the jet – who knew? – doesn’t just fly because it likes to but instead, because you’ve burned up the fuel, it starts heading back toward those ‘surly bonds of earth’ at continually increasing speed. By that point, the Lesson can only end unhappily.

But achieving Mastery is so grim-faced (and, some would say, so ‘macho’ and ‘patriarchal’ and ‘control-oriented’) that no kids in their right mind would want to accept that such a hard Road is the only way to start toward fulfillment; to the Boomers it seemed more like just one more way to be a drone and to a later generation just one more way to prove ‘you just don’t get it’.

Kant, grim-faced but earnestly trying to help humanity get a grip on itself, went as far as to proclaim that if it’s pleasurable, it’s not virtuous. Virtue, to Kant, had to reflect the qualities in the human being necessary to marshal the self’s abilities to face the frak of living in so incomplete and confused and dangerous a dimension as this world of human history has always proven itself to be.

Eagleton will take the opposite route, the quick-burny Boomer route: pleasure and the high of exhilaration are the virtue, and Duty and all that are just proof that you’re unimaginative and not ‘with it’.

I would say this: there is indeed a pleasure and exhilaration that comes to a Master and Commander, after working hard to achieve competence in handling the ship and navigating and in getting the necessary things done, when standing on the quarterdeck, with the ship well-put before a good wind … there is a sense of legitimate exhilaration there, well-earned and indeed reflecting the image of God as God intended humans to ‘operate’ on this challenging PoE.

But there’s no short-cut to it. And to get that much mastery, you won’t be ‘young’ (chronologically speaking, anyway) by the time you’ve achieved it. (But really, is there anything less ‘young’ than a chronologically older person still trying to pass-for being ‘young’?) The amazing thing about the way God has set things up, the older you get – but if you’re working toward the Echt – then the younger you become.

And kids aren’t closer to God because they’re more ‘genuine’ or Echt. They’re closer to God because they don’t know what they’re up against and so they need all the help they can get; they are ‘innocent’ not in the legal sense but in the sense that they don’t-have something. And what they don’t have is the maturity that only comes with clear-eyed courageous Mastery, and it takes time to achieve that.

And it really does take courage. William Gass, riffing on Nietzsche, recalls that crazed thinker’s image: some people treat genuine consciousness like a knapsack that frightened soldiers rip off and throw aside in order to speed their escape from the field. That is a frightening, vivid characterization of the existential challenge that faces all human beings: to be human you have to be faithful to your (God-given) potential ability to see things clearly. And on this PoE that is bound to be frightening because this PoE is so full of incompleteness and people who are operating out of their ‘inferior’ passions, desires, and urges and organizations large and small that do the same thing.

It’s frightening to be a human and to truly inhabit human consciousness. You see and feel the weaknesses and dangers all around you – and within you.

And some people, like frightened soldiers, toss the knapsack of consciousness aside in order to escape that awful real-ness.

A real Master and Commander is up on deck and can see the huge waves of storms and lives always with the awareness that even on its best days, and with the best ship, captain, and crew – things can go wrong. You can’t just remain ‘optimistic’ in a situation like that; ‘optimism’ and the happy-face won’t get you very far. You have to have achieved a Mastery of your Echt Self, and that includes a steady source of fuel in the relationship with the God in Whose image you are made. Nothing less will sustain you.

Or you can hide down below-decks and get drunk or pretend you’re somewhere else or go to your happy-place or see if the ship’s doctor hasn’t got a handy bottle of some pills.

But you’re still on the ocean with all its possibilities.

The Existentialist writers like Camus said that you must keep the knapsack on, stay on deck and look the ocean and the elements straight-on; but that you had no help except what strength you could find in yourself. There was no other help (or Help) available to you.

This is where the Christian vision of how God works with humans demonstrates what Help is always available in the multi-Planar vision of human existence: the God in Whose image we are made also sustains humans as we try to work through this PoE’s complexity and work through our own frikkery and frakkery of inferior qualities, working to achieve more Mastery of our higher and superior qualities (catalogued handily as the Theological and Cardinal virtues).

No happy-faced Boomery ‘religion’ or god of Wheeeee is going to suffice if you want to be fully human. The world and the human self are too wonky, lethally so, for such saccharine stuff – no matter how much of a ‘high’ you might get for a brief period (before your fuel burns away).

So too, Eagleton is then forced (p. 14) to characterize the morality Jesus preached (as Eagleton sees it) as “reckless, extravagant, improvident, over-the-top, a scandal to actuaries and a stumbling-block to real-estate agents”.

This is the cutesy Boomer short-cut: you are either crazy like a kid, or else you are stodgy, repressed and sleazy like the worst this-dimensional older people who represent the ‘grown-up’ world. Remember "The Graduate" from 1968?

Now I would say this: Jesus was against non-Genuine or anti-Genuine living; but Jesus wasn’t against maturity (which in the Christian vision requires growing toward God as you grow toward your own Echt and Genuine-ness).

Yes, many adults – having been around a longer time – have succumbed to the temptation to throw away the knapsack of Genuine consciousness and relationship to God and just try to cobble together whatever satisfactions and pleasures and successes they can manage on their own, and some of them really really don’t care what they have to do to get that done.

But although ‘older’ they are not at all Mature (capitalized to indicate the Christian sense of the word I’m going for in all this).

NOR does not-being ‘old’ mean that you are any more Mature or any closer to being Genuine in the Christian sense. You simply haven’t had the time to make the mistakes, to run away once you’ve seen the terribilita (as the Renaissance Italians would put it) of life.

Babies – the exact opposite of ‘old’ – aren’t closer to God (if they were, would they dump their poop all over you at every opportunity?). They simply haven’t gotten out onto the field yet. Ditto, to a lesser extent, youth (who before very many years pass from being a baby and are already threatened by the existential challenge of facing their own and the world’s incompleteness, and the darknesses that can result).

And of course those humans who have never Matured will demonstrate the fact by indeed dropping their poop on you in their witless and terrified flight from Genuineness, trying to make life ‘happy’ as best they can on their own (having cut loose from God as well as their own Echt Self).

These great tectonic existential challenges and how humans respond to them are what make ‘life’ and ‘history’ take the rough bounces they take. This whole PoE is knocked out of whack, like a planet off its axis, and that it comes from human beings thrown off their Genuine axis, not achieving their true and Genuine Shape.

But the Boomers tossed out any idea of ‘boundaries’ and ‘limits’, and yet while boundaries do limit you, they also give you a Shape (depending on what boundaries you accept, which is where the Church’s essential Rules of Navigation and Ship-Handling come in). Some folks accept a much inferior Shape, based on their ‘inferior’ and less-Genuinely human (made in the image and likeness of God) choices. Other folks just settle for being Shapeless.

And it is precisely here that the Boomers (and Eagleton) went off the rails: they ‘valorized’ Shapelessness (they didn’t even admit that there could be a wrong, less-Genuine Shape) as ‘freedom’ and ‘liberation’ and as being Genuine, and in Eagleton’s example even consider the fake ‘exhilaration’ of boundaryless-ness to be a participation in God’s very Life.

Nope. Not hardly.

And nowadays the Pomo’s have erected this terrific, catastrophic  mistake into a Plan and call it Good. Oy, feh, and oy-gevalt!

It’s like the Naval Academy graduating officers who don’t know the first thing about how ships work, or the Air Force Academy graduating officers who don’t think they need to know the first thing about the laws of aerodynamics and how planes fly. This is not a good thing.

And it will not – cannot – end well.

Eagleton acknowledges that Jesus was so reckless because he thought that the end of the world was coming and people didn’t have to worry about what I would call Maturity over the long haul.

But he misses something vital here.

Jesus may have been, in His human awareness, a tad off in when the End of the World would arrive.

But then again, in His awareness that all human beings are faced with the end of the inferior-Shaped world every minute of their lives, then the really important End of the World faces human beings right now, all the time, 24/7.

And in the Christian and Catholic vision, then the Church has been continuously keeping that awareness alive, trying to function as the officers’ Academy to continuously train folks and give them the knowledge of how to operate their human craft, their human vessels, so that they have a decent shot at getting closer to their own Genuine-ness and simultaneously a closer relationship with God (in whose image and Shape they are, you recall, created).

God’s Grace (capitalized to remind you how vitally and urgently important it is) is always among humans and within them, seeking to Help prompt the life-long faithfulness of the trek toward Genuine human Shape and the true fullness of human life that such a trek brings.

Eagleton thus comes a bit back on track when he decries the Modern and Pomo replacing “of a transcendent God with an omnipotent humanity”. Humans are not omnipotent; and anybody who has ever been out at sea in a storm or up in the air when a plane goes wonky or put his/her entire well-being in the hands of raising crops at the mercy of the weather and the locusts can ever delude themselves into thinking that humans are omnipotent.

As Lord Elrond said to Gandalf in “The Fellowship of the Ring”: this evil cannot be contained by the power of the Elves – we have not the power …”. So if even the Elves realize it …

The Boomers were big – reely reely big – into Henry David Thoreau back in the day. That little fraud spent a few years out in the woods on the border of downtown Concord, Massachusetts, living in a wooden hutch. Of course nobody bothered to recall that he frequently went back into town for handouts and supplies.

But what was even more lethally ignored was that a few years after that romp, he went up to the forests of the Maine wilderness. Not ‘woods’, but genuine, God-awful, dark, lonely, primeval wilderness forests. It terrified him. He came back wayyyy sobered-up and decided that the Concord woods weren’t really the total-challenge of life that he had so easily ‘conquered’ … all on his own.

The animals weren’t cuddly like woodchucks and squirrels and cutesy groundhogs and chipmunks. They were these remote, powerful, majestic beings of a darker and larger – huge – world that made him feel like a pipsqueak. (Which was probably one of the most accurate insights into himself that he ever managed to get.)

Perhaps now that Americans are finding themselves in the primeval forest of economic Scarcity and uncertainty, they might have that type of ‘Damascus Moment’ that St. Paul had when he was just plain old Saul and got knocked off his horse on the road by a God Who was wayyyy bigger and more real than he had previously given the old boy credit for. Perhaps some Americans can admit with Mark Twain that "when I was seventeen I was amazed by how stupid my father was; when I was twenty-one I was amazed by how much the old man had learned in a few years".

But Americans – like the Boomers and, alas, courtesy of the Boomers – are now going to face the sea of life in all its lethal uncertainty and perhaps agitated dangerousness. Abundance has gone and Scarcity is upon us.

No happy-face godling or do-it-yourself god is going to Help. All the illusions of the Boomer years (which to some extent are quintessentially American illusions from the long centuries of some sort of Abundance) are going to be burned away.

It will be terrifying and it will bring Americans face to face with that terribilita that is part of the incompleteness and brokenness of this PoE.

This could be a Damascus Moment for a whole of folks. And that could turn out as well for a lot of folks as it did for St. Paul.

Stay tuned.


*New London: Yale University Press. ISBN: 978-0-300-15179-4

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