Monday, February 04, 2013

Demands of the universe?!

We have liftoff!

The opening "saints" sequence of "Exploring Religious Ethics" isn't just a tour of different approaches - secular moral philosophy (Susan Wolf), religious studies (William James), Catholic theology (Cardinal Saraiva Martins), folklore (Jataka tales), existentialism (Fear and Trembling) - to our topic. It's also a steady torpedoeing of the idea that ethics is clearly and stably only about how we human beings should treat each other in the here and now. There's more involved, more at stake.

Today's reading was the section "The Value of Saintliness" from William James' Varieties of Religious Experience. Here he assesses the "fruits" of the four characteristics of saints he has derived from his lectures on saints: devoutness, purity, charity and ascetism. The conclusions he draws about each are challenges to his Scots Presbyterian audience. Devoutness is the main source of fanaticism, which gives religion a deservedly bad name, and purity is an unconvincing and unconvinced otherworldliness. The other two, however, which he expects his listeners to dismiss, he finds ways to commend.

It may be true that charity, unconcerned as it is with the qualities of the people it gives to, has negative social consequences, creating dependence, maintaining the unfit, and allowing itself to be coopted by "crocodiles and boa constrictors." Nevertheless, its very unworldliness makes it a precious gift. I'm sure I've quoted this before, but I'm happy to do it again:

The saints, with their extravagance of human tenderness, are the great torch-bearers of this belief [in the essential sacredness of every one], the tip of the wedge, the clearers of the darkness. Like the single drops which sparkle in the sun as they are flung far ahead of the advancing edge of a wave-crest or of a flood, they show the way and are forerunners. The world is not yet with them, so they often seem in the midst of the world’s affairs to be preposterous. Yet they are impregnators of the world, vivifiers and animaters of potentialities of goodness which but for them would lie forever dormant. It is not possible to be quite as mean as we naturally are, when they have passed before us. One fire kindles another; and without that over-trust in human worth which they show, the rest of us would lie in spiritual stagnancy.

I took the name of one of my first Lang courses from this passage: "Preposterous Saints." The saints are fitted not to this world but to the better world which is the human future they open up in their unworldliness.

As for asceticism, it resonates with the mature manly (yes, sigh) view of the converted "sick soul" who recognizes the grim realities of existence but is not crippled by that awareness.

For in its spiritual meaning asceticism stands for nothing less than for the essence of the twice-born philosophy. It symbolizes, lamely enough no doubt, but sincerely, the belief that there is an element of real wrongness in this world, which is neither to be ignored nor evaded, but which must be squarely met and overcome by an appeal to the soul’s heroic resources, and neutralized and cleansed away by suffering.

The saints also show that the heroic virtues of bravery, self-sacrifice, etc., thought by some to be achievable only in war, can be achieved in more pacific ways. Voluntary poverty is a moral equivalent of war. It all comes down to what James rather grandly calls mankind’s common instinct for reality, which in point of fact has always held the world to be essentially a theatre for heroism. In heroism, we feel, life’s supreme mystery is hidden. ... The metaphysical mystery, thus recognized by common sense, that he who feeds on death that feeds on men possesses life supereminently and excellently, and meets best the secret demands of the universe, is the truth of which asceticism has been the faithful champion.

Secret demands of the universe? Weren't we just talking about unusual, perhaps extraordinary human beings? I told the class: We've made our first step beyond the easy pieties of secular ethics. Maybe all people aren't the same, and maybe the universe has higher hopes for us as a species than we know how to have for ourselves... I don't think they were buying it. Besides, trying to present this view compellingly (maybe the universe needs us in order to be conscious of its mystery...) I was sounding a bit like Deepak Chopra. Perhaps they'll fall back on it Wednesday, when confronted with the claim that the saints are, in fact, superhuman and point to a superhuman destination for all of us - conduits of the Holy Spirit in their lives and even more active in death than in life.

What, you mean the meaning of human existence might not be up to us?


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