The Contemplative Life -- Pt. II

It took me a couple of weeks to finally paint in all the corners I needed to repost John Reilly's review of St. Teresa's The Interior Castle. Sure, I could have just slapped it up here, but I like to preserve the web of links John made within all of his works. It produces something like a wiki-walk. Maybe when I'm done with the reposting project I will do a network analysis of John's HTML files and see how it matches up with my own impressions.

The reason I wanted to return to John's luminous review of St. Teresa's signature work is that I was struck by the similarities in Scott Alexander's book review of Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha. I have fond memories of Theravada Buddhism from my college years. I won a writing award in college for an essay, "Inescapable Beliefs," which dealt with my fascination with Buddhism, and my conviction that it could never replace Christianity in my heart. That particular bit of juvenilia should probably stay right where it is, but I look back on it now as a turning point in my life.

My later college obsession with Japanese culture provided an introduction to Mahayana Buddhism that only reinforced my Chestertonian impression that Christianity speaks best to the universal human longing for God that is expressed in multitudinous ways. Which brings me to the contrast between The Interior Castle and Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha.

The first thing I noticed was not in fact the differences, but the similarities. John says:

There is a science of mystical experience. The Interior Castle is one of the key sources of its data; so are Teresa's earlier works, including the Life and The Way of Perfection.

He goes on to note:

Even a cursory familiarity with the literature of mysticism will find resonances in this work. This reviewer was surprised to discover how much of this book's advice about prayer and the dangers of the advanced spiritual life is echoed in C.S. Lewis's most popular work, The Screwtape Letters. Lewis was familiar with the literature of mysticism, of course, but that is unlikely to be the whole explanation. Serious spirituality is an empirical enterprise; people who have experienced its effects will recognize them in the accounts of others who have experienced them.

The kinds of experiences described by mystics seem to be somewhat independent of their cultural context. This implies a common psychological/neurological framework within which they occur. I can see a plausible argument to be made that this explains religion. I think it to be false, but I can at least see where people are coming from. 

Following Chesterton, and St. Thomas, I see this is evidence that we are are all looking for something that we lack, something that transcends our human particularities, a something best found in Christianity. Part of what makes me think so is the different impressions I get from St. Teresa's book on mystical experiences, and Ingram's. My impressions here are colored by what I learned about Theravada Buddhism in college, so I would be interested to hear otherwise.

So far as I know, the state of nirvana is the ultimate goal of Buddhists. Mystical experiences brought about by meditation, as described by Ingram, are really just part of the path to achieving release from the self. St. Teresa, on the other hand, says nothing of the sort:

We should note that nowhere does Teresa suggest that the contemplative path is necessary for salvation, or even peculiarly helpful for it. 

Ordinary sanctity is something quite different in Christianity from the ultimate goal in Buddhism. It is far easier to achieve, and accessible to humbler people. This perhaps is why Thérèse of Lisieux, sometimes referred to as St. Thérèse the Little Flower, a nun of the same order as her namesake, is so popular. The heroic spirituality of Teresa of Avila is out of the reach of ordinary people. The severe discipline described by Ingram seems similar. The Little Flower shows us another way.

I sometimes describe myself as religious, but not not spiritual. Reading these parallel book reviews reinforces this in me. The way in which "enlightenment" overlaps with ordinary mental illness is particularly intriguing. Both Ingram and St. Teresa describe things that seem very much like common mental problems, and Alexander is particularly good at identifying these things. It isn't at all clear that the enlightenment Ingram describes is actually desirable. St. Teresa at least does a better job of selling it. However, each path is frankly described in terms that make it seem more than a little crazy.

Furthermore, the things Alexander describes as in his book review as things to be overcome via meditation seem more like features than bugs to me. 

Taken seriously, it suggests that some of the most fundamental factors of our experience are not real features of the sensory world, but very strong assumptions to which we fit sense-data in order to make sense of them. And Ingram’s theory of vipassana meditation looks a lot like concentrating really hard on our actual sense-data to try to disentangle them from the assumptions that make them cohere.
In the same way that our priors “snap” phrases like “PARIS IN THE THE SPRINGTIME” to a more coherent picture with only one “the”, or “snap” our saccade-jolted and blind-spot-filled visual world into a reasonable image, maybe they snap all of this vibrating and arising and passing away into something that looks like a permanent stable image of the world.

In particular, I've never understood the obsession with the saccade among rationalists. This is clearly a feature of our brains that enables sense perception to better match reality than the unfiltered optic nerve data would be be. If you break it, you wouldn't be able to function well, which seems to be what happens if you go too far down the meditation rabbit-hole.

The lesson I took from this is that the spiritual life is not for everyone, and can have some strongly negative consequences for the unwary. Religion, on the other hand, is accessible to everyone. I'll stick with religious, but not spiritual.

The Long View 2003-07-17: More on Chesterton & Harry Potter

G. K. Chesterton

G. K. Chesterton

It is a fun thought experiment to imagine what G. K. Chesterton would have said about the Iraq War of 2003. John was right to note that Chesterton was no kind of pacifist. After all, he wrote a poem commemorating the Battle of Lepanto. However, he also had a fierce love of the small and local, and a great distaste for the grandiose and puffed up. Thus, he loved England, and wasn't overly fond of the British Empire.

Chesterton was a supporter of the Great War, even though his younger brother Cecil was among its casualties. At this remote distance, that war seems like it was a really, really bad idea. On the other hand, he was also a fierce critic of the Boer War, which was a nasty little imperial war that richly deserved skewering. Ultimately, I'm not sure I know what Chesterton might have thought.

I do think that Chesterton would have shared John's horror of chaos and anarchy. And like John, I think Mad Max is becoming the future we are more likely to face than 1984.

More on Chesterton & Harry Potter

Continuing in my reading of G.K. Chesterton's Autobiography for insight into the Anti-Terror Wars, I find that it would be misleading to equate his "anti-imperialism" with that of the critics of US policy today. His ideas on the subject would not at all please the folks at Antiwar. He was, in fact, far more belligerent than Samuel Huntington, who merely described the "clash of civilizations" without actually advocating it. Consider this passage:

[H. G. Wells] defends the only sort of war I thoroughly despise, the bullying of small states for their oil or gold; and he despises the only sort of war that I really defend, a war of civilizations and religions, to determine the moral destiny of mankind.

If Chesterton were alive today, he would have opposed the war in Iraq if he thought that it was primarily about oil. That was much the reason he opposed the Boer War, which really was chiefly about gaining complete control of southern Africa's gold and diamonds. If he were convinced that the Iraq campaign were part of a larger war against Islamicism, he would certainly have supported it. He would also have relished the way the war outraged the world's progressives. In his view, there "is only a thin sheet of paper between" internationalists and imperialists.

Does this mean that he could have been a happy contributor to The Weekly Standard, or even The Daily Telegraph? Possibly not. Certainly he was leery of the principle of preemption in foreign policy. He tells a parable about a householder who shoots a burglar, whom the householder discovered in his garden. Chesterton finds this use of force commendable, but he distinguishes the case from preemption:

If [the householder] had gone out to purify the world by shooting all possible burglars, it would not have been a defensive war. And it would not have been a defensible one.

There is no satisfaction in arguing with the dead: the silliest title in my library is A Challenge to C.S. Lewis, written more than a decade after Lewis died. Still, I might say to Chesterton's shade that he was right, but his example is beside the point. For the most part, the burglars in other people's gardens are no concern of the private householder. On the other hand, when you pay taxes to support a police force, you are in effect waging war against all possible burglars. Also, some societies have legal systems that rely on the self-organization of citizens. Ancient Iceland worked like that; so does the international system today. It is possible to be responsible for other people's burglars. The question is: who is the legitimate authority?

Chesterton was not pleased at the prospect of such an authority on a global scale, unless perhaps it were the Vatican. Ever the anti-pacifist, he was a keen supporter of the First World War from the beginning. He never wavered from that position, even after most of his friends had decided the war was a mistake or a crime. However, for him the war was about the defense of small nations, and the need to humble the pride of Prussia. He resisted rationales that were more, well, global:

But I am far from certain that a War to End War would have been just. I am far from certain that, even if anybody could prevent all protest or defiance under arms, offered by anybody anywhere under any provocation, it would not be an exceedingly wicked thing to do.

Anyone who has read H. G. Wells's Things to Come (1933) knows exactly the wickedness that Chesterton had in mind. That book is essentially a retelling of The War of the Worlds, except that the conquerors are armed Fabians, and their victory is complete, permanent, and, in Wells's view, the best possible outcome. The problem with Chesterton's objection is that it is not an objection to world government, but to government.

Possibly because of the period in which I grew up, anarchy has to me to be the greater danger. When I was a small child, too young to read 1984, the H. G. Wells world of totalitarian regimentation no doubt seemed a pressing danger. By the time the year 1984 arrived, however, the real danger seemed to be the world of Mad Max. It still does.

* * *

A final note about Chesterton: For someone who did not purport to be a systematic thinker, GKC actually did a pretty good job of not contradicting himself. Nonetheless, he rarely expressed his basic insights in sustained argument. He would have been outraged at the comparison, no doubt, but his style was really not so different from Nietzsche's: heavy on the aphorisms and paradoxes, short on theory. Nietzsche favored aphorisms because he was skeptical about the thought itself. Chesterton, in contrast, was a sort of Thomist: he was ideologically committed to the principle that abstract formulas can embody reality. His reluctance to make sustained theoretical argument seems to have grown out of his attachment to the particular, the local, the personal. One of the advantages to Thomism is that it provides assurance that the finite can indeed reflect the infinite.

* * *

Perhaps there has already been enough discussion of the deep significance of Harry Potter, but I could not resist following a link to this title: Harry Potter and the Future of Europe. The article, by Jeff Fountain, argues on the basis of personal experience that the Potter books really are a sign of the times:

While using techniques of magic and mythical creatures, Christian fantasy writers like Lewis and Tolkien develop their imaginary worlds within their own personal commitment to orthodox Christian belief in a sovereign God. Rowling does not share that commitment. Although she denies any personal belief in the magic her books portray, she still tells her readers, "It’s important to remember that we all have magic inside of us."

Unlike these Christian fantasies, Harry Potter is a post-Christian creation set within an occult cosmology. And his phenomenal popularity among young and old signals where our western culture seems to be headed.

This is very similar to the point about the the resilience of the "Perennial Philosophy" that I raised some years ago in a review of Robertson Davies' book, The Cunning Man. In fact, back in 1986, Owen Thomas suggested in Christianity Today that the real competitor for Christianity in the West was never Marxism or materialism, but a sort of neoplatonism.

Was Quidditch all it took to get Plotinus to the best-seller slot on Amazon?

Copyright © 2003 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View 2003-07-14: All Uranium, All the Time

One of the things I appreciate John for to this day is explaining exactly why children's literature like J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter series really are pretty harmless, in comparison to actual ritual magic. John also had enough empathy to understand why well-meaning parents might be anxious.

All Uranium, All the Time

If you believe the prestige media in the US, the public has been talking about little else for the last ten days except the line in the president's State of the Union Speech alleging Iraqi attempts to buy uranium from Africa. The media consensus is that this claim has been resoundingly discredited, and to such effect that the Bush Administration's credibility has become the issue for next year's presidential election. The New York Times covered the matter at length inside the paper this morning, but limited itself to a few telling paragrpahs on the frontpage:

Democratic presidential candidates offered a near-unified assault on President Bush's credibility in the Iraq war, aggressively invoking arguments that most had shunned since the fall of Baghdad

In interviews, town-hall meetings and television appearances, several Democrats -- who had been sharply divided over whether to go to war -- declared that Mr. Bush's credibility had been harmed because of his use of unsubstantiated evidence in supporting the invasion of Iraq.

"When the president's own statements are called into question," Senator John Edwards said, "it's a very serious matter."

No doubt that's true, but the question is: serious for whom? It's possible that I misunderstand the situation, but the Democrat's use of the missing-WMDs as a political issue conjures up an image of a June bug about to have a decisive encounter with a car's windshield.

We know there was early intelligence that some of the evidence about African uranium was forged. However, the British secret services are sticking to the substance of the story. They know about the forgeries, too, as well as about the desultory efforts by the State Department to investigate the question. They are audibly unimpressed.

On the general issue of WMDs, reports began to appear two weeks ago, like this comment from Senator Pat Roberts, to the effect that, yes, hard evidence of weapons programs had indeed been discovered. The Administration is just being cautious about verifying it. Even then, could the Administration be cynical enough to sit on the information until publication will have the maximum political effect? Perish the thought.

Perhaps the credibility issue could be revived with the narrow argument that George Bush and Tony Blair gave their publics the impression that Iraq had large, existing stocks of WMDs, not just the ability to produce them. However, this would lead to awkward interviews, in which presidential candidates would have to explain why a secret, illegal weapons-industry is less threatening than the weapons themselves.

We can expect more discussion of a Medicare drug-benefit, I suspect.

* * *

As a great fan of G. K. Chesterton on several counts, I am quite capable of taking what he has written as a reproach. Consider these words about the Boer War from his Autobiography (1936), and contrast them to my own writings about the place of the Iraq War in macrohistory:

What I hated about it was what a good many people liked about it. It was such a very cheerful war. I hated its confidence, its congratulatory anticipations, its optimism of the Stock Exchange. I hated its vile assurance of victory. It was regarded by many as an automatic process like the operation of a natural law; and I have always hated that sort of heathen notion of natural law.

I think I can say that I never assumed that victory in Iraq was inevitable, but I am reasonably sure that the larger historical process is inevitable. In fact, I have spent the last year or two trying to get clear in my mind why that process need not be a tragedy. (Let me thank those who have been buying The Perfection of the West, by the way.) The fact is that the kind of "natural law" which Chesterton hated rather appeals to me. Does that make me a bad guy in the Chestertonian universe?

Perhaps not. Chesterton's aversion to historical determinism seems to have been linked to his intuitive appreciation of the necessity of free will. Later in his Autobiography he put it this way:

It was the secularists who drove me to theological ethics, by themselves destroying any sane or rational possibility of secular ethics. I might have been a secularist, so long as it meant that I could be merely responsible to secular society. It was the Determinist who told me, at the top of his lungs, that I could not be responsible at all.

History is not completely determined; neither are the lives of individuals. However, we must remember that history conditions the choices we have to make. We don't get to choose the crises we are going to have to deal with, much less the options we will have for dealing with them. And when we do choose, even the most fateful choice will have limited effect. As Gandalf put it in the Last Debate:

Other evils there are that may come; for Sauron is himself but a servant or emissary. Yet it is not our part to master all the tides of the world, but to do what is in us for the succour of these years wherein we are set, uprooting evil in the fields we know, so that those who live after may have clean earth to till. What weather they shall have is not ours to rule.

Now that's a foreign policy for you.

* * *

The New York Times Book Review has given better few notices than the long, adulatory piece it ran yesterday for Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. Frankly, the Potter series is not among those I make a point of keeping up with, but that review by John Leonard made me want to rush out and pry this installment from the hands of a small, protesting child; but I restrained myself.

There is a problem: the review simply dismissed the objection that the book promotes witchcraft. A reasoned defense of the Potter books is not hard to make in this regard. Leonard himself notes the essentially literary nature of:

Rowling's specialized, somehow domesticated magic, like the whereabouts clock, or the mail-delivering owls, or subjects who abandon their own painted portraits to visit or hide in other people's picture frames, or wizard wands with unicorn hairs and phoenix feathers and dragon heartstrings, or staircases that decide to go up to somewhere else on different days of the week, or getting around by portkey and Floo Powder, or a ''pensieve'' into which to deposit those thoughts and feelings and memories we'd rather not carry around in our heads right now, or the whole idea of Quidditch.

This isn't magic, though maybe it is magic realism. Real magic, to the extent there is such a thing, looks like this. The Potter books do not promote witchcraft, but that is no reason to characterize anxious parents as "Leviticus-reading fruitcakes."

Copyright © 2003 by John J. Reilly

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Penny Dreadfuls

Now this is the kind of reading I can get behind!

The Essential Man’s Library: 50 Fictional Adventure Books Edition

A lot of these books are probably terrible, and of no redeeming social importance, but I love them anyway.

G. K. Chesterton did too, and he wrote a defense of Penny Dreadfuls, the cheap, trashy books the Victorian era. I especially like the part where Chesterton remarks that the homeless children of London clearly commited petty crimes under the malign influence of things they had read! A massive piece of common sense, that. Penny dreadfuls are good for the soul.