The Orthodox Mysticism of John Caputo

by Micah Cavaleri

We may be starting with a senseless oxymoron in the minds of a few.  But I can’t help myself.  I recognize the faith of John Caputo (Hoping Against Hope) as a member of the family from which I draw my own faith.  Caputo knows the God, Father and Son and Holy Spirit, I am growing to trust and have fallen in love with over the years, although Caputo would object to the assertion of knowledge.  His radical theology creeps into my preaching, shapes my responses to my daughter’s worries about the truth of our faith, and he would be a most honored guest at my pulpit or confirmation class.

The existence of God has long been exposed as a lost cause to anyone with familiarity with formal logic and a willingness to drink in the explanatory power of the sciences.  People such as Alvin Plantinga are intellectually dishonest in their attempts to place faith at the foundation of our knowledge.  The worries over faith of any child, as well as the most gifted adults, give away the uncertainty of religious beliefs.

Immanuel Kant’s notion of antinomies helps to illustrate what is wrong with the thought of people who want to talk about the existence of God and knowledge of God.  The concept of a divine creator is incoherent and gives rise to wildly divergent claims about any theological matter under the Sun.  Kant held that the incoherence showed an uncertainty in our knowledge, but what it opens up for all to see is that the concept of God is not defined in such a way as to make existential and epistemological claims possible.  Religious history is testimony to the fact that humans do not know God.

Caputo correctly refuses to fit the God of experience, the God of the mystics, into the box of existence.  Institutional orthodoxy wants to force us to choose sides here.  Caputo clearly sees that and chooses to correct the confused existence and knowledge claims of theologians by denying the existence of God, replacing existence with the category of insistence.  In my mind, orthodoxy, not the monster that has been taken over by institutions, does not choose one side.  Rather, orthodoxy chooses all sides: human and divine, one and three, saint and sinner.

The human categories of existence and knowledge are just that… human.  Orthodox theology insists on incomprehensibility.  It affirms a divinity that is uncontained.  We cannot, then, simply deny or affirm God’s existence, as Caputo writes.  What we can do is search for a third alternative.  Caputo chooses insistence.  I choose a description of God as exceeding the boundaries of reality.

I suspect Caputo may agree with me here, but which conception is correct misses the point entirely.  The God of mysticism, the God of the orthodoxy that refuses to be contained by institutions and binaries, lives.  The God who is found in the darkness of faith refuses our intellectual arrogance.  We are continually changed by the Incomprehensible One who is Love.

How can we talk about God then, you may wonder? The world is full of answers, and, with a heart full of thanks I can say, full of mystics.  We cannot reach the Incomprehensible, but the Incomprehensible reaches out to us.  For we who are Christians, Jesus is the Incomprehensible One reaching out to us.  How dangerous that was, when Jesus was rejected by the people of Galilee because they knew his mother and father and sisters and brothers.  God is with us, but we cannot find God because we know God too well.

May we all fall in love with the pregnant emptiness that is underneath all that is.  Amen.

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Plato on the Demise of Democracy

Is it, then, in a sense, in the same way in which democracy arises out of oligarchy that tyranny arises from democracy?

The good that they proposed to themselves and that was the cause of the establishment of oligarchy – it was wealth was it not?

Well, then, the insatiate lust for wealth and the neglect of everything else for the sake of money-making were the cause of its undoing.

And is not the avidity of democracy for that which is its definition and criterion for good the thing which dissolves it too?

[Its criterion is] liberty… for you may hear it said that this is best managed in a democratic city, and for this reason that is the only city in which a man of free spirit will care to live…

But those who obey the rulers, I said, it reviles as willing slaves and men of nought, but it commends and honors in public and private rulers who resemble subjects and subjects who are like rulers.  Is it not inevitable that in such a state the spirit of liberty should go to all lengths?

And this anarchic temper, said I, my friend, must penetrate into private homes…

And do you note that the sum total of all these items when footed up is that they render the souls of the citizens so sensitive that they chafe at the slightest suggestion of servitude and will not endure it? For you are aware that they finally pay no heed even to the laws written or unwritten, so that forsooth they may have no master anywhere over them.

This, then, my friend, said I, is the fine and vigorous root from which tyranny grows, in my opinion…

And is it not always the way of a demos to put forward one man as its special champion and protector and cherish and magnify him?

This, then, is plain, said I, that when a tyrant arises he sprouts from a protectorate root and from nothing else…

And is it not true that in like manner a leader of the people who getting control of a docile mob, does not withhold his hand from the shedding of tribal blood, but by the customary unjust accusations brings a citizen into court and assassinates him, blotting out a human life, and with unhallowed tongue and lips that have tasted kindred blood, banishes and slays and hints at the abolition of debts and the partition of lands – is it not the inevitable consequence and a decree of fate that such a one be either slain by his enemies or become a tyrant and be transformed from a man into a wolf?

He it is, I said, who becomes the leader of faction…

(Republic, VIII:562-566)

Thomas Keating and the Psychology of Centering Prayer

Father Thomas Keating has done wonderful work by making contemplative prayer a form of prayer for the laity.  His books make Centering Prayer simple and clear and systematic.  We do not have to search the often confusing history of mystical Christianity.  With Fr Keating’s work, we are able to enter an ongoing experience of the Incomprehensible One Who is Love immediately… if only we have the desire, which is the presence of the Holy Spirit in our hearts.

There is a great deal to celebrate in Fr Keating’s work.  My attention, though, has been drawn to certain failures of the Centering Prayer movement that threaten access to the contemplative life Fr Keating wants to help us live.  There are two major shortcomings I think we need to note here.  First, Fr Keating tries to modernize Centering Prayer by couching the practice in terms of Freudian psychology.  Secondly, Fr Keating’s work tries to distinguish Christian contemplation from other forms of mysticism such as Buddhist Zen meditation, painting a harmful picture of Christian exclusivism that needs to be grown out of if Christianity is to get beyond its deadly, destructive history.

In principle, there is no problem with using contemporary science to analyze spiritual practice.  Fr Keating, however, seems unaware that Freud’s school of psychology is wholly unscientific, a modern myth rejected by empirically-minded experts and refuted by research and philosophy.  For instance, in his book Open Mind, Open Heart, Fr Keating defines the concept of Unloading the Unconscious as follows: “The spontaneous release of previously unconscious material from early childhood in the form of primitive feelings or a barrage of images or commentaries; it may occur during the time of centering prayer and outside the time of prayer.”  To put it directly, there is no such unconscious material.  The unconscious is a figment of the Freudian imagination.  There are, to be sure, damaging memories and destructive habits, but the unconscious as conceived of by Freud does not exist.  Unconscious energies do not register on any meters.

Going beyond the philosophical and scientific critique of Freud’s model of the mind, experience teaches that Fr Keating’s claim that contemplative exercises risk a flood of “primitive feelings or a barrage of images or commentaries” is pretty clearly false.  The gentle practice of meditation and contemplation is healing and lays down a solid and stable foundation for a psychologically and spiritually healthy life.  Letting go of attachments and assumptions clears the mind and allows it to drink in reality without worry or the distorted values we usually assume in daily life.  There are often enough difficult lessons along the way.  We are fallen, after all.  As the mind clears, we see sometimes painful truths.  But there is no risk to anyone who wants to sit and pray.  There is no need for special retreats, a spiritual director or an analyst to help us sort through our unconscious detritus.  The only thing we need to begin is the desire that is poured into our hearts.

Fr Keating’s Christian exclusivism is much more alarming than his reliance on Freudian psychology.  By way of example, look at this passage from Open Mind, Open Heart: “Noticing one’s breathing can also serve as a sacred symbol of one’s consent to God’s presence and action within.  In this case, one does not follow one’s breathing physically as is done in Eastern techniques of meditation, but simply observes it.  In centering prayer the purpose is not simply to let go of all thoughts but to deepen our contact with the Divine Indwelling.  The intentionality of faith is fundamental.”  It is a truly strange set of remarks, perplexing because Fr Keating is, in fact, familiar with Eastern practices.  Observing and following the breath are identical techniques.  Fr Keating is making a distinction without a difference for the sake of preserving what he sees as the “Christian essence” of Centering Prayer.

The attempt to paint Eastern meditation as simply a matter of letting go of thoughts is equally troubling.  In Zen, for instance, all of the eightfold path and the paramitas flow out of the practice of sitting.  Meditation is not a mere relaxation technique.  It is the source of life, exactly as it is for the Christian.  Furthermore, Fr Keating’s remark that the distinguishing characteristic of Christian contemplation is faith and seeking “to deepen our contact with the Divine Indwelling” blindly ignores the need for the difficult work of careful translation between the religious vocabularies of different holy traditions.  Of course a Buddhist will not describe her practice in terms of the Divine Indwelling or as flowing from the theological virtue of faith.  That is because she uses her own language and her own experience and her own tradition to make sense of the spirit… or emptiness, or whatever concept she finds appropriate and useful.  Attending lovingly to our sisters and brothers is the only way to escape the deep and enduring hate of our long history.

Religion is scarred by narrow-minded theologians and the smallness of politics and the ugliness of self-righteousness.  Yet, I believe, it is too precious to leave to rot in sin.  We must be careful not to lapse into the religious hypocrisy Jesus condemned, for the sake of our own health and the well-being of our friends and neighbors.  Contemplation is a gift.  If the Spirit has given you desire, follow the Spirit.

What Does Thick Description Do?

Clifford Geertz’s research tool of Thick Description gets handed around enough in my areas of study, religion and philosophy, so it deserves a deeper look.  Often it is treated as the Middle Way between the cold and blind operational definitions of a hard-nosed approach to social sciences and the conceptually muddled, overly-emotional, uncritically committed essays of so much work in the humanities.  Thick Description is an intriguing notion and is certainly a fruitful research pursuit, but I am afraid that it is uncritically embraced as a means of answering research questions.  We see Thick Description as analogous to natural experiments and quasi-experiments.  No one seems to want to address the question of what it is that Thick Description can, in fact, do.  We take for granted that a research tool is for answering research questions.  That is not the case.

Thick Description is an observational study placed within an appropriately detailed context so that the meaning of the behaviors or phenomena under consideration become meaningful to third-party observers.  It is indispensable for an understanding of human psychology and society, culture and practice.  We are variables in a physical equation.  That reduction, though, destroys the meaningfulness  of human activity.  Closing our minds to the realm of meaning and intentionality is not the same thing as explaining that realm away.  (Asking meaning and intentionality to account for themselves in terms of physics or biology or chemistry is a conceptual confusion.)  Thick Description is necessary for tapping into that mysterious realm.

So the question of what Thick Description is capable of doing is an important and ignored question.  I have no clear answers to the question at hand right now, but I do have a couple suggestions on where we might head.  There are a number of phases to any research project, and we need tools for each phase along the way.  In practice, it seems to me, Thick Description is not a strong enough or precise enough tool to avoid conceptual confusions and the mistaking of a researcher’s opinions and assumptions for factual findings.  It simply does not have the built-in safety valves of mathematics and operationalization needed to help check bias, however imperfect those mechanisms may be.   Thick Description, therefore, cannot be used to answer a research question in the way that experiments are employed.

Where Thick Description promises to deepen our understanding is in the initial stages of research: grappling with a problem for the sake of building an initial understanding of the context and issues as well as generating testable hypotheses.  Depending on the genius and insight of researchers to formulate the foundations of a research project is, well, unscientific.  Developing Thick Descriptions can become a method for setting the stage for a research project so that the questions asked are relevant and interesting.

These are just some initial thoughts.  Real work needs to be done if we are to understand Thick Description… or any other aspect of the research process, for that matter.  Simply because we cook up a methodology does not mean we understand its purpose or power.  Let us take nothing for granted, even if we have to take one step at a time and rebuild this boat midstream.

A Citizen Soldier Stands Against the President

Is it time to take to the bunker yet? I do not think so.  Though, things are getting quite scary.  As a soldier and a citizen and a Christian, the President of the United States of America is an enemy of the people.  Not the press, not the Democrats, and not the Muslims of the world.  The President daily signs death warrants for soldiers he does not care a scrap for nor gives more than an afterthought over dinner.  The President has chosen his own power and prestige over truth and the good of the American people.  And it is our own President who incites violence (in violation of his own claimed faith) at home and around the world against Muslims, compared to the uncountable hundreds of thousands of Muslims who have taken up arms in our defense in Iraq and Afghanistan and around the world… not to mention here at home in the USA.

As someone who risked his life daily for the American people, I resent the fact that the President has portrayed the US institutions of truth, science and the press, as enemies of the people, institutions without virtually any monetary reward and little notoriety who do their virtuous work in silence.  I deplore the fact that the President has deliberately undermined the Department of Justice and the FBI, organizations which have worked for decades and for over a century to work against the current of politics and protect every American’s rights.  And finally, I despise our President for putting his own politics above the integrity of our electoral system.  There is overwhelming evidence that members of his advisory team and cabinet were beholden to the Russians, and President Trump can do nothing but refuse to talk about the matter or lie.  He would rather repeat a lie than dig up the truth, a play fit only for the Mein Kampf.

Maybe I am exaggerating our situation, but I do not think I am.  There is not anywhere left for the Republican regime left to run except to crime.  This is not an evenly divided system between right and left.  The right has clearly gone off the rails.  They have their own networks of black ops that regularly and consistently distort the truth in a demonstrable and refutable manner.  They have constructed legislation behind closed doors without hearings.  If our Constitutional Republic can survive Trump’s assault intact, it will be a miracle.  We can only match this assault with an army of spirit-warriors.  Satyagraha is our weapon.  Only by peace, mercy and the truth will we find a foundation for a true government of the people, by the people, and for the people.

May our Republic survive by the way of love.  Amen.

 

Beyond the Threat of a Faithful Democracy

The idea that the United States is a nation of faith can at last be given up as a lie.  Trump represents neither faith nor works.  He has disproven any attempts to depict him as faithful to the truth.  There really can be only one non-ironic interpretation of Trump.  A power-monger plain and simple, he is willing to sell the American presidency to Vladimir Putin for pennies on the dollar, so long as Trump receives the position.

Given that it has been scientifically demonstrated that democracy tends toward suboptimal decision making, we have been begging for an end-time reckoning for some time.  American democratic politics have dragged us into a number of wars and military conflicts for which neither sound moral nor economic reasoning can be laid down.  In fact, a vast number of Americans apparently think medieval mercantilism and free market capitalism are interchangeable.  The medieval mercantilist strategy may prove beneficial for a businessman, but is clearly an inefficient, immoral and unscientific means of lifting the economy and distributing goods and services.

So how are we to confront democracy and mercantilist economics? Off the cuff, I would recommend saddling mercantilists with fines and punishments appropriate to the political system they are trying to undermine: where there is capital punishment, let them be executed; where there is leniency, let us be lenient.  (Why adopt such a rule? Because where the politics grow more harsh and conservative, the more dangerous grows the military, economic, and political weight.  The less dangerous the hold on power, the more likely power is to yield beneficial consequences.)  But these things should not be decided off the cuff.

What is clearly needed is deep, intellectual reflection on the structures of power and economics.  (Ann Coulter and Glenn Beck, if they recognized their inadequacy for such a task, would elect to sit out the debate.  Given the Dunning-Kruger effect, we will always have them with us.)  Despite a lot of crying, much of it from the more extreme left wing of literary theory and their ilk, there really is a great deal of factual knowledge on how to organize an economic system so as to benefit a great majority of the people.  And it starts with a good intellectual grounding in free market economics.  Nobel prize winners in economics such as Paul Krugman have shown us the way, to both reveal the obscene and pursue the praiseworthy.

The structures of power are more difficult to discern, as, in large part, political science is not altogether scientific.  (Nor, for that matter, is Business anything more than bad psychology.  The two disciplines go hand-in-hand.)  There is good work being done on optimizing decision making in groups that can show us the way.  And, of course, there is a solid foundation of material from economics.  How to fuse the optimization of group decision making with our economic needs as a people (that is, as a race or a nation rather than a political caste or party) may be murky, but it is not beyond imagining.

To move forward, though, requires breaking the hold of powerbrokers, and that, I am afraid, means breaking some arms.

Throw over the tables of the money changers…

Or remain cowards in your corners.

Holiness and the Real Human

The Pharisees of the gospels are stereotypes made to ease the dirty business of judgment.  The truth is more likely that when Jesus overturned the tables of the temple, Jesus was marked as a crank, seen as crossing the line of propriety if not morality, and taken as more than a little self-righteous.  We do not behave in vacuums.  Acting outside the boundaries is not recognized as an innovation, but, interpreted in light of the boundaries, is recognized as violence.  The hermeneutic by which our behavior is read is the norm of behavior.  Reformation and revolution can never be recognized outright as the need of the time.  The Pharisees will be our natural measure of holiness.

Of course, this is a difficult and dangerous lesson to learn.  It is difficult to learn because we resist change as the psychologically and sociologically conservative species that we are.  The lesson is dangerous because it makes it seem impossible that we will recognize the limits of authentic and beneficial movements for change, thus rejecting self-serving and possibly deadly calls for revolution.  There is a wariness because we cannot formulate a new law to govern behavior in the face of a truly open society.  But the Gospel call is for love, and not for law.  Paul even goes so far as to reject the legitimacy of the law after the resurrection.  (Understand that how you will.)  As Aleister Crowley wrote not so long ago, “Love is the law, love under will.”

And that is really as much guidance as there may be with regard to love, at least as far as I can see.  Reflections on love should not end.  Views may shift and mutate.  But love is the guide in my worldview…  beyond all good and evil.

Humans are relatively predictable, we act in light of pretty clear material interests even if those interests are not clear to us, when we are fortunate enough to have such settled interests.  We act out of fear of the out-group to protect interests, when we have no material interests worth mentioning, and a hundred other heuristic shortcuts lead to mistakes that govern our behavior.  War and politics are just the highest level expressions of those psychological and sociological mistakes, possibly preventable but definitely predictable.  Good and evil is molded by this evolution of moral vision.  Only love escapes the rule that says the Pharisee is the holy man, only a love that sees with the vision of the other and pours itself out.  This all but guarantees that we will see love as a violence to the domain of holiness.  May we have the courage of the vision of love.