Sunday, December 09, 2018


David Brooks tweets how much he admires Andrew Sullivan's essay describing "New Religions" in New York Mag, and I sympathize with what they say, but they're too shallow and too much the product of their educations, which taught them to privilege reason.  I like them and their courtliness but I also relish rude Christopher Hitchens and they do, too.  But I think they are missing recent research and thought.  Recognition of the post-WWII influence is common, but little reflection on what I see as the end of Enlightenment thought dominated by rationality.

Here's a list of problems with the Enlightenment based on ancient Greek and Roman thought:

1.  Thinking is not confined to our brains.  99% or so of what we "know" comes to us through our sensory capacities as they exist unconsciously throughout our bodies and in our relationships with the environment.  The idea of the brain in a jar is a figure of death.  A brain must be in context to work because the context is what it does: sorting and defining incoming information and controlling the response.  Rationality is only part of that. It is not the content. It is a way of managing content.

2.  In fact, the Enlightenment and its values, very much influenced by mathematics and formal historical philosophy, are the foundation of much of our lives: science, technology, AND politics, history, and much of literature.  Our nations and our institutions are the products of Enlightenment approaches and assumptions.  So are books, city traffic, and other products of order.

3.  The next problem with the Enlightenment is that it is anthropocentric.  It does what is best for humans while using human measurements. Recently we have begun to wonder what the world looks like from an animal's point of view.  It was nice when we could wonder what God saw and thought, a curb on our narcissism.

4.  Sullivan's essay focuses on the idea that religions have been previously seen as institutions for a lot of people, maybe whole nations, but recently have become the preoccupation of the individual trying to create their own "religion" which is seen as an OS, an "operating system" in computer terms, a platform for decisions.  It does not supply FELT meaning, especially deeply FELT meaning that marks fulfillment,  This trend is at least partly due to the Enlightenment permission to put the individual ahead of the larger group, a tension that is often explored in literature where individuals pursue justice while the group insists on law. Now reason and morality are stuck together, which can feel very wrong.

5.  Compensations and strategies for searching out meaning include:

     A.  Building community among real individuals through festivals, shared recurrent events like worship or dances or rallies, according to seasons or the calendar.

     B.  Social media interactions can pull people together into affinities but the potential for lies and fakes is high.  The data aspect is an Enlightenment record of FEELINGS, which is dangerous -- two conflicting realms. Numbers reduce humans to graphs.

     C.  Smorgasbord or cafeteria assortment of various systems: a dream catcher here, a crystal there, and, in the congregational setting, services that sequence a quote from a Brit, a Buddhist resonating bowl, a song from Africa. (Kumbahya), a good old Christian hymn but with new words.

     D.  Empathic efforts to eliminate suffering, starvation, oppression, cruelty and the other single issue causes that join people with good hearts and awareness are all good, but people want to pencil them out to count dollars.

     E.  Political merging with religion or sometimes therapy merging, the former defining the group's hope for progression and the latter defining individual happiness.  These were once generally considered secular.  Sullivan finds the useful division between religious and secular troublesome.  After all, it mostly just protects the secular, an Enlightenment value, along with progress.

     F.  The hierarchical and hegemonical values of institutions invade religion and distort values with thoughts of control and wealth.  Enlightenment values cut against this or ought to.

     G.  Systems directly opposed to institutions of control and wealth, particularly when they merge with political and governing systems.  The monk as opposed to the priest.  The Dalai Lama contrasted with the once Emperor in Japan.

Enlightenment aside, other sources of thought and therefore meaning are:

     1.  Deep awareness and love of a place in a sensory way -- the smell, the weather, foliage, sounds, animals.  This is centering for an individual and the basis of the ecology of the community which is in turn based on the economics it supports: farming, mining, making, awareness of horizons.  To go from one place in which one is embedded to another unknown place is deeply dislocating and disabling.  What worked in one place doesn't work in another.  This can be true among levels or sub-communities or generations.

     2. Family in the conventional Western sense or in other ways, a group with shared bonds and commitments.  Their expressed thoughts over the years may be "heard" in one's head in the voice of one's mother or teacher.  Vignettes of moments of realization may replay in the way of PTSD visions, even if they were not traumatic at the time, maybe a source of inspiration.

     3.  I've described a sequence of FELT knowledge that starts before birth with the sensation of rocking in the womb, being embraced with warmth and safety, body function supported through the umbilical cord which sends along the mother's emotions molecularly, and then the stages of learning about other people, how to walk and speak, and so on.  This is the core of identity.

     4.  From the moment of birth a phenomenon appears in the space between infant and caregiver that is discussed by a particular school of thought: Bowlby, Winnicott, Kohut and others.  This definition is from Google, a bit understated.  "The Self, (or subjective sense of self), refers to the person's experience of their own unique subjectivity which may vary in its qualities of cohesion, agency, continuity and vitality. A selfobject experience is one in which the person experiences themselves to become more cohesive and enlivened."  Enlightenment thought has scorned this phenomenon as weakness.  An example in the painful result in the Brit Royal family entirely conscientious but cold until Princess Di taught them to feel.

     5.  Risk, acceptance of the possibility of death, managing stress, detecting the roots of hatred and rage in oneself, or fear and shirking -- all the negatives that Enlightenment tries to eliminate, are accepted in whole body awareness, so that they can be dealt with, often by sharing with someone or the group.  Some call it therapy and some call it friendship.

Sullivan has this right: everyone is "religious".  He says, "Everyone has a religion.  It is, in fact, impossible not to have a religion if you are a human being.  It's in our genes and has expressed itself in every culture, in every age, including our own secularized husk of a society. By religion, I mean something quite specific, a practice not a theory, a way of life that gives meaning, a meaning that cannot really be defended without recourse to some transcendent value, undying "Truth" or God or gods."  (He seems unaware that this can be as negative as positive.)

I would add that today's discovery of the woven DNA universality of life means that the Sacred must include the whole cloth, and since this planet is the substrate of all life, we must include it, and since the planet whirls and careens through the cosmos, we must include it.  All of it is interwoven and what defeats death is our participation in it.

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