Category Archives: Judaism

The roots of givenness

My family uses a haggadah from the Jewish Labor Committee. It gets overbearingly, even comically, socialist at many points, but we love it. Before blessing the wine, we read:

Consider the cup of wine which we are about to drink. Countless sets of hands played a role in bringing this wine to our seder: the entrepreneurs and farm-owners who decided to direct their energies and capital into the wine business, the workers who planted and pruned the vines, those who picked the grapes, the vintners who directed the fermentation of freshly-harvested fruits into wine, the janitors who kept the winery clean and sanitary, the truck drivers and loading dock workers who transported the finished product, the clerks at the wine shops, and the servers who bring the wine to our tables tonight.

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Our world is a miracle of coordinated effort. If we don’t pay attention as consumers we can forget this and casually stop remembering that food doesn’t just grow on grocery shelves.

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What you consume comes from somewhere, and you might be surprised how much effort and pain is invested in bringing you your pleasures.

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This principle is true, also, for philosophical consumption.

The conceptions that inspire and delight you were brought forth from the chaos somehow, and this process is strenuous and often extremely painful.

By the time ideas arrive to you as a book or paper or article, it has been processed and ready for convenient consumption.

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What a delightful, playful object a smartphone is!

How delightful it is to shop at Whole Foods and buy ingredients for our dinner party!

How delightful it is to read ideas, play with them, and to feel inspired to invent one’s own original ideas!

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We steal gifts when we refuse gratitude — when we just help ourselves to things as if they are just there for the taking.

Our givens have roots.

We should notice when we start taking new givens — new technologies, new services, new inspiration — even new problems…

Those givens aren’t just anonymously deposited upon the earth by reality to be mindlessly consumed.

Look for sources for these good things, and rather than feeling the ache of guilt, try feeling gratitude for the pain someone bore so you didn’t have to.

Ignoring the pain, denying the pain, squinting at the pain, or worst of all, claiming that it all could have come to you without the pain — that is just stealing gifts.

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I’ve heard that is is better to thank people for their forbearance instead of apologizing for your mistakes. The former produces entangling indebtedness — relationship. The latter, release from responsibility.

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Then the Jewish Labor Committee Haggadah instructs us to say:

Just as we are dependent upon so many of God’s children, many of whom we will never know, all of God’s children deserve basic dignity, respect and sustenance. With this cup, we recognize and honor our interconnectedness with all people.

Baruch atah Adonai Eloheinu Melech ha-olam borei p’ree hagafen

Blessed are you, Source of all Life, who creates fruit of the vine.

Amen.

Thank you.

Who goes first?

My Jewish friend sent me this text:

I’m fascinated with reconciliation. I still think the left cannot reconcile with the right… it has to come from the right. Or it won’t go anywhere, and the left’s best move is scorched earth.

My reply:

As you know, I often say “Jews go first,” When I say this, I say it with the profoundest respect: In a conflict of irreconcilable visions, it is the deeper and more mature soul who will summon the will and wisdom to initiate reconciliation. This is what made me want to be Jewish.

When thinking and envisioning ways our nation might come out of our crisis of contempt, until recently I assumed that it would be up to the Left to make the first move. This belief was founded on a sincere and chauvinistic prejudice that the Left was most qualified and capable of initiation, and that the Right was, in all innocence, unqualified and incapable.

But after repeated attempts to appeal to those I believed to be better Leftists, I have come to the dreadful realization that the Left is genuinely incapable of reflecting on and accepting its own role in this conflict.

The Left is so trapped inside its own sense of intellectual and moral superiority — and so terrified of moral responsibility — that it can no longer find the humility, faith and philosophical freedom to pursue the reestablishment of mutual respect. It thinks the worst wrong-doer is the one who must go first, accept blame, give an apology, and ask for forgiveness — and this attitude is a symptom of moral impoverishment that shows going first is out of the question.

So, sadly, yes — I agree with you: the Right must go first.

Or, at least, someone other than the Left.


Here is something I know:

Nobody will ever consent to be led by any person or group who seems to despise them, who sees them as contemptible. People seek leaders who demonstrate respect and signal good-will.

Putting ourselves under the rule of others who despise us feels existentially dangerous. And it is dangerous. At best a contemptuous ruler will administer with benevolent disrespect, imposing their own personal standards of benevolence on those who do not accept it; at worst they will tyrannize and control for their own self-gratification. But regardless of their benevolence or malevolence, they cannot be counted on to listen respectfully and respond responsibly. They will rule according to their own constricted omniscience, which to them, and them alone, seems self-evidently true and just.

Here is something else I know:

Any person or group who tolerates contempt in themselves — who is unwilling to do what it takes to overcome it — lacks the qualifications for leadership — or at least leadership in a liberal democracy. And anyone who prefers contempt — or, God forbid, cultivates contempt — must not only be barred from leadership, but must be gently constrained and prevented from harming others, however much they see themselves as heroes of history.

Any person fit to lead will do whatever it takes to overcome contempt. They will surrender their own treasured sense of intellectual and moral superiority to accomplish it. They will accept their own responsibility for whatever damage has been done — which does not mean assuming blame, but rather setting blame aside and responding where response is possible. They will willingly suffer dark nights of the soul traversing the shadowy underworld of perplexity, refusing to look back, in search of the exit at the other side, which is an entrance: an entrance into a new accommodating faith and enworldment great enough for all to share.

And this is what I know most of all:

In the pursuit of conciliation and community, metanoia is the supreme means. It promises resolutions currently inconceivable and incomprehensible, because reality is inexhaustibly surprising. We can come to conceive the inconceivable, comprehend the incomprehensible and resolve insoluble problems — if we are willing to open our hands, let our white-knuckled conceits of all-knowingness and self-righteousness slip through the fingers of our minds — so that something else, something better, something grander, can be given.

Metanoia is no end in itself. Anyone who knows its ways assumes an obligation to use it properly — and not to hedonistically abuse metanoia like a drug.

Knowing metanoia, but getting off on it, while refusing its conciliatory powers, is not only wrongheaded but wronghearted.

This wronghearted and wrongheaded wrongdoing can be overcome — but this overcoming must be desired, and that desire is hard to accept.

Since you asked…

A friend of mine has a habit of sending me emails consisting of simple, beautiful questions.

Years ago he introduced me to Christopher Alexander. When Alexander died I sent him an email, and that started a discussion of Alexander’s later work. This was the context (at least for me) of his latest question-poem:

What is value? Can it be objective?

Does it exist in everything, regardless of whether it is understood or appreciated?

Of course, I had to ruin the glorious simplicity by writing an encyclopedia of a response. The content is mostly the same stuff I am always going on and on about, but these questions inspired a different angle of expression.

But there is one new-ish move here, which might even be an insight: extending the complexity of Bergsonian time to both space (conceived in designerly contextual terms) and — best of all — to self. Just as Bergson conceived now, not as an instant-point, but as a flowing interaction of memories and anticipations, we can see the I, not as an ego-point, but as a subject-complex with flexibly mobile contours subsisting within any number of We’s. This polycentric-self idea may present an alternative to the individualist-collectivist continuum that for many seems the only conceivable possibility.

It all seemed worth posting, so here it is, in mildly edited form.


What is value? Can it be objective?

Christopher Alexander seems committed to objective value, if by objective you mean “inherent to objects” and not relative to a subject. My inclination is to see value as relational — a relation between valuer and valued. I know this is exactly the relativist conventional wisdom what Alexander is attempting to overcome — and I respect that — but I think the real goal here is aesthetic truthfulness (a species of intellectual conscience).

The trusty old Enlightenment method of logical coercion, though, is no match for the might of aesthetic bad faith. Someone who needs to lie about subjective values will become a true believer.

I think this is a religious matter, honestly. Subjective honesty is a virtue we have to cultivate in ourselves, and then we can recognize others who seem to respond to what we experience in similar ways. If discrepancies in response happen, it is more or less impossible to know if someone is subjectively dishonest, or having a strong, sincere idiosyncratic response — or has developed sensibilities beyond our own and are seeing beauty (or other subjective conceptions/perceptions) we haven’t learned to see, yet.

But if we want subjective truth, we’ll stay responsive to our own value-sense, while also looking for ways to transcend our current subjective limits (that is, we will entertain new ways of conceiving and perceiving and see what “takes”).

I think the best reason for this subjective self-transcendence is seeking more accommodating truth, supportive of community of subjective experience with others. Bigger, deeper, richer common sense.

Our We can be more than a mere aggregation of me’s and it’s (in orbit around one’s own I, even — no, especially — when we attempt to efface, factor out, or counter-balance that central I) but this requires a different good faith than the Enlightenment’s objective good faith.

The I won’t disappear. It can’t disappear because it doesn’t appear — any more than our own eyes appear in our vision. The I makes everything else appear. I manifests as a particular everything — what I’m calling enworldment.

We cannot decenter our own I no matter how we try, and when we attempt it, we only conceal its workings for ourselves and delude ourselves into universalizing our own current enworldment as the world per se. Decentering creates more monstrously self-idolizing self-centerings: misapotheosis.

What is needed now is polycentering. Let’s stop scolding our children and saying “you are not the center of the universe.” (When heard phenomenologically, this is manifest bullshit, because of fucking course every child is situated precisely at the center of the universe, and nowhere else, as every child knows!) What we should say is: “you are not the only center of the universe.”

The best alternative to egoist self-centeredness is not the self-decenteredness of altruism, but the self-polycenteredness of participation in community.

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For some reason Bergson is in the air right now. Many of us are realizing or re-realizing that every instant of time is not an infinitesimal blip on a timeline, but a complex of recollections, concurrences and anticipations. And if we look around us into our environment, as designers, objects are not aggregates of infinitesimal particles, but are environed complexes of contexts, parts, wholes, ensembles. We need to grasp the fact that the I is exactly analogous, in this way, to space and time. An I subsists within a We of present people, memories of people, who I am to others, who they are to me, what I fear from them and for them, what I desire from them, and they from me — an I is a complex of freedom and response-ability. An I is not an ego-point, it is a subject-complex.

That asterisk-shaped continuum with I-Here-Now at the center does not meet at a point but, rather at a bright nebular heart streaming out into things, times, relationships — streaming out, and sometimes withdrawing back into itself to conserve itself, or to gather energy for more streaming-out, or to die as an insular speck.

Does it exist in everything, regardless of whether it is understood or appreciated?

Again, I think value can exist in everything and ideally does exist in everything, but I’m a believer in value inhering not in the subjectivity of the valuer’s valuations or in the objectivity of the valued’s value, but rather in the relationship — in the consummation of valuing. It isn’t subjective or objective — it is “interjective”.

The value is there for us, as a self-evident universal given, if we enworld ourselves in a way that invites valuing relationships. Christians call this “entering the Kingdom of Heaven.”

Argyle

Today, I am recollecting and reflecting on the insights that originally inspired me to draw a diagram that I’ve called “the argyle”.

It was originally meant to show how conceptual wholes and synthesized parts can intersect to produce meaningful systems. In a meaningful system the conception of the system makes the synthesized parts feel necessary and given, because their relationships are pre-determined by the logic of the concept –“Of course it works this way! — but, also, the synthesis is rationally constructed, so even if the concept were missed, the system would make sense — “This is perfectly clear and logical!”.

A meaningful system is comprehended with intuition and reason, or with both together in concert. (I’ve also considered the idea of treating comprehension as being simultaneous inter-illuminating conception and synthesis — instead of as an umbrella term for either conception or synthesis.)


The reason I needed to create this framework was that I’ve found that certain very types of designers (and people doing the work of designers) tend to prioritize concept over synthesis or synthesis over concept to such a degree that they stop reinforcing one another. One one extreme we have the wild genius who conceives a vision of the whole and regards all logic as stultifying formalism that undermines the inspired spontaneity of creation. It does not have to make clear sense if hearts are stirred and wallets open wide. On the other extreme we have the logical organizer of elements who views with suspicion and impatience any delaying attempt to seek an overarching concept to guide the design. After all, logic can get down to work immediately and start making demonstrable progress toward the final goal. If the final output is uninspired and dry — so what? Can the system be figured out with minimal effort? Good enough.

Years later, out of exasperation and a weakness for potty-mouthed ridicule, I developed a second model to describe the failure of merging concept and synthesis — though somehow, until today, I managed to miss the opportunity to explicitly link this failure to synthesis and concept. Instead I linked it to inspired meaning versus practical details.

I called this “the bullshit-chickenshit model”.

Bullshit – Meaningful, inspiring ideas that seem to promise something, but that something can never be fulfilled through any practical action.

Chickenshit – Practical activity that seems like it ought to serve some meaningful purpose, but in reality is pointless busyness.

Bullshit is meaning without practice. Chickenshit is practice without meaning.

But, really, bullshit can be understood as unsynthesizable concept. The meaning is a feeling of vast promise that cannot be applied to any particular.

Chickenshit can be understood as inconceivable synthesis. It is a giant mechanism of logically conjoined pieces that never resolves into a meaningful whole.

Most of what we encounter in the world is pure bullshit and pure chickenshit, and this produces that one-two KO nihilistic punch in the face that sometimes makes us want to burn this whole madhouse down.

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Finally, I will accept the risk of being accused of bullshit by suggesting that the  Star of David can be viewed as a transcendent argyle, and the ultimate overcoming of bullshit and chickenshit . Even before I was Jewish I conceived it this way, and this insight contributed to my need to be Jewish.

Here, the overlap of concept and synthesis is maximized, and both the depth of concept and extent of the synthesis is felt to exceed the overlap. The meaning of the religious vision resonates in every practical detail of life, but also the doing of every day mundane life is sacralized in Tikkun Olam.

Sacred practicality is practical sacrality.

Practical sacrality is sacred practicality.

This is my own Jewish ideal, and I don’t think it is only mine.

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Postscript

The “skeleton” of the star — formed by connecting the opposing points of each of the overlapping triangles — eventually became the asterisk “star” in Geometric Meditations.

Nietzsche vs liberal theology

Thinking about religion in an appreciatively or tolerant way from a standpoint that sees itself as having overcome the need for religious belief is the furthest thing from understanding religion.

This religion-appreciating standpoint — which sees intense awe or the excitement of discovery as a genuine substitute for religious feeling and the gestalt shifts resulting from extraordinary science or abnormal discourse as metanoia — believes it pays religion a compliment when it maps isolated bits to scripture to its discoveries.

It is the furthest thing because, at bottom, it is a benevolent nullification of religion as even requiring strong disagreement. Religion need not be attacked or suppressed, when it can be analyzed, disassembled and reintegrated into less fanatical, less absolutist, less violence-inclined worldviews.

Why shouldn’t these worldviews be seen as just as religious as any of the older religious faiths? Who gets to define what is and is not a religion?

I grew up with this antifaith.

My whole life I’ve tried to overcome this religion-tolerant religiosity.

I really may have failed to overcome it.

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And if my thought-dreams
Could be seen
They’d probably put my head
In a guillotine.
But it’s alright, Ma,
It’s life,
And life
Only.

— Bob Dylan

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Early in his career, Nietzsche published a series of essays collected under the title Untimely Meditations. In one of these essays he attacked the liberal theologian David Strauss as a founder of a Christianoid religion safe for — even useful to — “cultural philistines”.

It’s a painful read, because young Nietzsche hadn’t found his voice yet, and this voice is one of unsubtle, unconstrained romantic fury. But the overtness of the anger is also revealing, and it renders visible much of what older Nietzsche learned to hint at from a higher and cooler altitude, resulting in vastly better style.

In this book, he lashes out at a type who resists, as if on principle — but what Nietzsche claims is the instinct of a temperament — what I would call a fully successful enworldment — that is a way of life animated (in the most literal sense of the word) by a unifying conception.

I use the word conception in a sense defined against another term, synthesis. Conception is a mode of comprehension that spontaneously and transparently takes-together experience as givens that, for all the world, seem given by reality itself, even though it is an artifact of relationship between self and reality. Synthesis is a mode of comprehension that consciously puts-together ideas into truth assertions.

My take on Nietzsche’s rage toward Strauss (who is only a stand-in for the cultural philistine type), is that Nietzsche expects far more from culture than cultural philistines will allow. The cultural philistine, according to my interpretation of Nietzsche, is a person occupied with culture (religion, art, philosophy) but from a perspective that forbids authentic participation in culture. Instead culture is taken as collections of artifacts which are somehow valuable and edifying apart from the naivety of the conditions that engendered them. The philistine enworldment that takes them up trusts only syntheses — an external putting-together of these meaningful artifacts, so they are objective possessions of the intellect, not dismemberments of potentially possessing enworldments.

To put it in Kahnemanese, a philistine trusts exclusively in System 2, and treats all System 1 as something to debunk and neutralize. But cultures (if you believe Nietzsche, and my own odd Nietzscheanism) are System 1 enworldments: passionate, committal, participatory, intuitively-immediate enworldments.

At a young age, Nietzsche, I believe, in his philological work took some of these cultural dismemberments and managed to re-membered them in a fuller and more possessing context. In other words, he re-enworlded himself with some ancient faith. This is what forced him out of the university. Because the modern university is itself an enworldment — a sort of oversubject that places academic subjects in mutual relation with one another — and in Nietzsche’s day, that oversubject was Germany’s philistine anticulture, and it needed the services of cultural philistines, not professors whose allegiance in their subject exceeded their allegiance to the universality of the university.

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Today, in the United States of America we are tolerant of religions, as long as the members of the religion keep their priorities straight. Their allegiance to their nation must be higher than their allegiance to their religious faith. If they take their religious faith to be higher, and they allow what (they think) God commands to have priority over what the government commands, they are dangerous fanatics.

And I agree!

But I agree as a religious person who thinks liberalism is not a condition to be imposed by religion — but as a condition religion itself imposes… or at least ought to.

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Many believers would dispute that I am religious.

Cultural philistines would probably find my religion unacceptable, because I sincerely, helplessly, actually believe the things I have come to believe. I can no longer place them against a 3rd-person impersonality, nor can I temper my faith with irony, however much I try.

Some Jews have told me I am a Jew. I’ll go with that.

Random thoughts about theology, symbol and design

Imagine a religion where the congregation convenes and worships by expounding theology in explicit language — instead of worshiping in the beautiful but ambiguous symbolic language of ritual and prayer — with the intention of developing the clarity, depth and inspirational intensity of the theology to the furthest possible extent.

Imagine that, through this practice, the congregation does succeed in its collective goal. Imagine also, that this theological worship enables every member of the congregation to make personal progress, each at their own maximum pace, in their own theological understanding.

What happens?

I will tell you exactly what happens: With each personal epiphany, the congregation shatters and reshatters in protest and counter-protest.

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A clear theology is univocal. It conveys one specific belief.

But, ultimately, every one of us, being unique, has a unique relationship to the infinite. There are as many theologies as there are persons. The better the theology, the less it accommodates more than one theologian — and the less comprehensible it is to all others — and the more intensely it induces apprehension in the uncomprehending.

A religious symbology is polyvocal. The more radically polyvocal it is, the more universal its community. A symbology can be an expression of any number of beliefs of varying depth and clarity.

Even beliefs that clash and conflict when stated explicitly, when expressed in symbol, affirm a harmonious commonality of faith beneath the beliefs.

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Each religious symbol is a miracle of polysemy, a part of an even more miraculous polysemous symbol-system, the symbology of the religion. A change in any one symbol can crystallize a change throughout the system.

But these symbols are not external tokens that can be known through external manipulation.

One cannot understand a symbol as an object, grasped in the hand of the comprehending mind. Assembling and disassembling symbols like Lego blocks and combining them with pieces from other sets might give you some kind of knowledge about the pieces, and you might enjoy the experience of playing with them, but this comes at the cost of understanding their meaning of the symbol within the symbology that engendered it.

A symbology is not an object. A symbology is a subject.

To know a subject, we immerse in that subject, participating in its praxis until we have an epiphany — an epiphany that renders the subject clear — clear, invisible, imperceptible, transparent (trans- “through” + -parere “show oneself”) — so transparent that we experience the world itself through the subject, as made apparent by the subject, as given by the subject.

A subject is an enworldment.

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If we conceive religions in terms of belief content, this produces a different understanding than if we see religions more like languages that put communities in relation with each other, and with ultimate reality.

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Is a dictionary an inventory of every entity English-speakers believe exist? Isn’t that a notion we kicked to the curb when we rejected correspondence theories of truth? I’m curious: When we naively believed in correspondence theories of truth, and adhered to them, does that mean that this restricted our actual thinking and speech? Or did it mean we actually thought and spoke one way, but spoke about and thought about our speech and thought another?

Isn’t it possible that religious people participate in religion one way, but think about and speak about religion another? Likely, even?

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In usability testing, we watch people use an artifact. We don’t thrust the artifact before them, invite them to look at it and ask them for their opinion of it. We give them a task, and they try to use the artifact to accomplish it.

When we ask them about what they did, or why they did it, it doesn’t add up. They say it was easy, when the struggled. Or they make up reasons to explain things they were clearly doing instinctively, unconsciously. They are clearly confabulating.

Looking at a thing and looking through a thing is radically different.

But we keep on thinking: “No, I get the gist of it.”

No, you do not get the gist of it.

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The craft of research-informed design teaches us this over and over and over and over again not to trust our ability to see other perspectives from our own perspective.

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The strangest thing about being human is that we are free. We can spiral our finitude out into infinitude, or we can withdraw our finitude and close it into an impenetrable circle. Anything we prefer to regard as nonsense we can leave nonsensical. Nobody can compel us to pursue its sense, unless we want to. We are free to understand or refrain from understanding. We can, if we wish, even obliterate understanding through willful misunderstanding. Nobody can stop us, or even know for certain what we are doing.

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To say “the author is dead” is not a statement of fact, but a speech act that kills authors. And every day that we celebrate the author’s wake is a day that we, alone, are free to author our own life as we wish. Postmodernism was a disobligating liberation movement, and it succeeded. Nobody is the boss of me.

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To say “God is dead” is also a speech act that kills God.

But, to that I say: Happy Easter.

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There is wisdom in keeping our beliefs private and expressing what matters most symbolically.

Synesis and intellectual conscience

The Greek word synesis – literally, “togethering” – means understanding.

In synesis many forms of bringing together are brought together: bringing together one’s own various intuitions, which bring together various perceptions and ideas into understandings, which are then brought together with the rest of one’s understandings in a general understanding of everything. And once something is understood by one person, it can then be taught to other persons, in a fourth bringing together: shared understanding.

So synesis brings together many diverse kinds of bringing together: intuitive, phenomenal, philosophical, social.

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Many of us are spiritual individualists, whether we think of ourselves as religious worshipers or secular connoisseurs of awe. We work out our own respective salvations, hammer out our own views, in disregard of public chatter.

We undervalue synesis — or even defiantly devalue it on principle. “My relationship with the Universe/Cosmos/Divine is between me and the Universe/Cosmos/Divine, and is not the business of other people.”

This approach works only if we exclude other people from the infinite domain of Universe/Cosmos/Divine. And we can do it, if we choose to — but we do pay a price we might not notice, or at least not recognize as symptoms of our spiritual individualism.

However, when we conceive other people as fellow participants in the Universe/Cosmos/Divine — intrinsic to it and inseparable from it — we understand clearly that this principled spiritual exclusion of other people from our spirituality falsifies the very being of the Universe/Cosmos/Divine. With infinity, every exclusion is a disqualifying impurity.

And further, if we decide to be unsparingly honest with ourselves — if we allow the quiet voice of our intellectual conscience to be heard through the noise of our “narratives”, our explanations, our theorizing, our justifications, and all our other sundry various whistlings- in-the dark — if our standard becomes “do I really believe this?” instead of “can I defend this position?” or “can anyone really prove that I don’t really think or feel this way?” — in other words if we pursue truth, not proof — we must acknowledge the importance of other people and our need to share our world with them.

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We do not want to be alone.

Dishonesty isolates.

The dishonesty that isolates us most of all is that undisprovable inner dishonesty we cower in if we have been damaged by betrayal and spiritual coercion.

Then we are tempted to say, with Milton’s protagonist:

The mind is its own place, and in it self
Can make a Heav’n of Hell, a Hell of Heav’n.
What matter where, if I be still the same,
And what I should be, all but less then hee
Whom Thunder hath made greater? Here at least
We shall be free; th’ Almighty hath not built
Here for his envy, will not drive us hence…

We do not have to stay here.

We can reconceive things — re-conceive ourselves — and walk away from our self-isolating dishonesty. It is not exactly safe, but certainly not lethal, to care.

Duende

Around 2005 Susan get into flamenco, and learned the word duende. She talked about duende as a real thing, and she got me thinking about it and writing about it, too. A few excerpts from that time — I time when I’d forgotten decency and hadn’t yet remembered it:

“Duende”
8/18/2005

Susan’s main measure of things: How much duende?

warpspasm sent me a link to Federico Garcia Lorca’s “The Duende: Theory and Divertissement”.

Another:

“Bands, ranked by duende”
8/20/2005

My ranking of bands based on how much duende was in them at their peak:

1) The Pixies, from Come On, Pilgrim, to Surfer Rosa (the most duende-possessed album of all time), to Doolittle. To my knowledge no recordings have ever managed to combine torment and manic pleasure at this intensity, in such perfect balance.

2) The Rolling Stones, on Beggars Banquet. The darkness slightly outweighs the exuberant innocence, so the balance tilts toward evil, which, of course, was intentional, but the tension in the contrast is enormous, and ambiguity still rules.

3) Bob Dylan, on Bringin’ it All Back Home and Highway 61 Revisited. It’s one long jeering indictment of all that has no reason to exist. It’s not nice at all, in fact it’s outright malicious, but it’s all for the best. Dylan isn’t afraid of anyone’s hurt feelings.

4) Johnny Cash.

5) The Beatles’ middle period, from Revolver, where the balance between the darkness and lightness is nearly perfect and at its most intense, but oscillates from moment to moment, and progresses toward greater simultaneity without ever quite reaching it (Paul vs John, oil vs water) and at the expense of intensity, through Sgt. Pepper’s, to the under-rated, happy-ominous masterpiece Magical Mystery Tour. Yellow Submarine has a few perfect moments, too. (Everything past that was infected by the denim sound of the wrong drugs in the wrong quantities for too long, which foreshadowed the pus-weeping of the laxest 70s, epitomized by Carly Simon, James Taylor and Cat Stevens, all of whom have zero duende and are loved for that reason.)

6) The entire 60’s Garage Punk phenomenon. Every one of these bands was possessed by duende, raped by it, knocked up, and forced to have its baby in the form of exactly one perfect song. The used-up victims were then discarded– dumped into the suburbs to wonder for the rest of their lives what the fuck happened to them.

7) Susan swears both the Chemical Brothers and Daft Punk have it, and that seems plausible to me. They’re energetic and not altogether benevolent. They want you to have a good time but they can’t resist their compulsion to beat the shit out of your brain with intolerable noise when you get too relaxed.

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Now, I’m reading Jan Zwicky’s reflections on duende, and I am seeing duende in a clearer, more Judeochristian light.

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Duende is the moving simultaneity of love and dread.

List of disbeliefs

If an atheist were to make an exhaustive list of all their disbeliefs, they would likely match the items on my own disbelief list.

Yet, I am not an atheist.

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I share the disbeliefs of atheists, but I share the faith of the religious.

I respect the former, but the latter is more important.

If atheists were able to focus less on the objects of religious belief, and more on the religious subject, they might make progress toward understanding religion. But this is where objective thought hits its limits, and that limit is the uncrossable horizon where there be dragons — irrationality.

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Arthur C. Clarke is famous for saying “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Religion is such a technology.

Accommodations

We casually imagine our souls to be human-shaped. They are not. They vary in shape, scope and density. They are universe-shaped. Our souls are what we mean when we say “everything” and that is why they vary in size.

This is what we mean when we speak of great souls and small souls.

What can your soul accommodate?

Try to conceive an infinitely accommodating soul.

Apprehension toward transcendence

To have a positive relationship with transcendence means approaching reality as something that essentially exceeds understanding. Whatever understanding we do have is unavoidably partial, and closer to zero than infinity.

Around the inside edge of our understanding, in the liminal region between comprehension and total mystery, we can touch, but not grasp truth. Toward whatever we encounter in this liminal region we feel apprehension.

For those with a positive relationship with transcendence, apprehension is conceived as part of one’s relationship with transcendence, unavoidable, meaningful and good, despite being painful.

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People out of relationship with transcendence — that is, those who are alienated from what is beyond their understanding — approach reality as essentially understandable. Whatever defies understanding as not real. While gaps in knowledge are acknowledged, gaps in understanding are not understood.

The liminal region on the inside edge of understanding has no positive value, and is experienced as mere anxiety with no positive value, something to be avoided or eliminated. This anxiety can be attributed to many things, but often it is interpreted as threat or malevolence detected in objects of apprehension.

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A person is a strange being, a third-person object among objects, a first-person subject to oneself, and a second-person fellow-subject to other persons.

Our subjectivity is, to an extent rarely appreciated, our relationship to all of reality, first-, second-, and third-person, and to that of reality which transcends us.

This relationship-to-everything constitutes who we are to ourselves and who we are to other subjects.

If our relationship to transcendence differs greatly from others who try (successfully or unsuccessfully) to relate to us, we ourselves can become, vis a vis the other person, part of transcendent reality, and we can become partially incomprehensible and a source of apprehension.

If the other has a positive relationship with transcendence, they are more likely to recognize this transcendence for what it is and respond accordingly, with the hope of reaching understanding, or with uncomprehending respect.

But if the other is averse to transcendence, and cannot conceive of the existence of anything beyond understanding, the response may be contemptuous or hostile.

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It can be incredibly hard to discern apprehension from malevolence, and often it is a practical impossibility. This is part of the human condition. It is also difficult to communicate when one is only misunderstood, not malevolent.

Nonlinear Golden Rule

If we imagine the Golden Rule not as a flat, linear formula, but a generative iterative process which produces multiple depths or meta-layers of itself — GR1, GR2, GR3, etc. — I find that it trends toward an asymptotic point, GRx, but a point of generality and universality, so general it is practically void, so universal it is boundless. It is nothing more than “Treat real beings as real”. Real, as opposed to what? As opposed to mere extensions of one’s own being.

The formula of the Golden Rule is do to others as you would have done to you. (I think everything that follows also applies to the Silver Rule variant, “do not do to others what you do not want done to you,” but I can’t/won’t math, and that extends to formal logic.)

The first iteration, GR1, has us concretely treat others as we concretely wish to be treated, in accordance with our own personal preferences. But it is immediately obvious that this amounts to an imposition of one person’s taste upon another, and we would not want that done to us, so we must iterate again, this time more responsively to the other, as we would wish if the other were us, as GR requires.

The second iteration, GR2, has us do to the other according to their own preference.

But, now, perhaps the context is not fitting for the action at all, however much it would be preferred were the context right. Or perhaps another action is needed at this time, in this context.

So, GR3 indicates asking what this person prefers at this time in this context.

But does the person even want our involvement in this situation…? How should we even find out? Some might appreciate being noticed and want to be asked, others might want to be noticed but resent needing to be asked, others might hate even being noticed. We must respond the best we can.

Notice, in this GR series, the trajectory moves away from us treating the other as a duplicate of our own self, and involves more and more understanding and responding to them as real and different from ourselves. But what precisely, does this entail? What is the output of the application?

I would argue that here we apply one of my favorite insights from Richard Rorty, that sometimes progress is best viewed as movement away from something undesirable, rather than movement toward some known, desirable, pre-defined destination. The Golden Rule cannot give us any pat readout of an answer regarding what to do, but it can direct us away from what not to do (GR0 or GR1) and set us on a trajectory that to me seems unattainably, but absolutely good, non-relativistically in principle, but thoroughly relativistically in practice.

Good means trying with all our heart, soul and strength to approach GRx in our dealings with all beings in our complex, entangled lives — a universal, boundless, empty — but all-consuming, endless task.

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I’ll also point out that if the Golden Rule is a nonlinear process, it should be expected to share characteristics of other nonlinear processes, most importantly, sensitivity to initial conditions (aka “the butterfly effect”), which entail radical unpredictability of outcome by means of linear formulae. The peculiar thing about the Mandelbrot Set is that each infinitely divisible point in the complex plane produces unique but similar and orderly behaviors, even points separated by an infinitely infinitesimal degree.

Dadvice to Helen

Helen sent Susan and me a page from her Mussar book, and asked “What does this mean?”

For some reason (probably because I was reading Fishbane) I found this question inspiring, and gave a reply that I want to capture here:

First, understand, there won’t be a factual answer. It will be more a tilt of understanding.

The best thing is to struggle. Ask yourself some questions: “The vengeance was toward Egypt via the waters, not toward the waters per se. Gratitude prevented Moses from using waters as an instrument of vengeance. Where have I seen situations where gratitude impedes vengeance?”

Or “Is there always collateral damage in seeking vengeance? Where have I seen it? How can I link gratitude to choosing not to be violent?”

Or “If we have a deep feeling of all-encompassing gratitude, is vengeance even possible at all? Is violence? Is hatred? What happens to our moral and emotional disposition if gratitude dominates our moral disposition?”

That is how to wrangle with sacred texts and commentaries.

Does that help at all? You should spend around 10 minutes meditating in self-dialogue of this kind for every minute you spend reading. Maybe even start by writing yourself questions. The tilt in understanding actually happens in the thrust of questions you discover to ask yourself.

Every factual statement we hear gets its meaning from an implied question. Most misunderstandings can be reduced to hearing a statement as answering a question the statement was not meant to answer. In philosophy we are trying to acquire conceptions capable of posing unasked questions and producing novel answers.

 

Theology opposed to mundane life and art

By Fishbane’s conception, what I do is not philosophy, but theology:

As with our lives in the natural world, theology is grounded in everyday reality — which includes both our normal experiences in time and space, and those caesural moments when something elemental breaks into consciousness. Moreover, as with the aesthetic imagination, theology is a symbolic form which takes our experiences in the natural world and reshapes them, so that their special qualities and depths may be brought to mind. We have noted that poetry in particular is a deliberate attempt to refocus our attention on daily happenings and their extraordinary dimensions or character. Theology tries to do this as well, but in an altogether unique and intensified manner.

I would put it this way. If in our ordinary experience caesural moments seem to happen against our will or expectation, and artwork tries, both willfully and expectantly, to create experiences of an elemental character, intentionally disrupting our normal habitude and common perceptions, theology tries to transform this perception of elementariness into a sustained way of life and thought. This does not mean living at some abnormal edge of experience, out of touch with our regular sense of things. It rather means taking a particular stand where the elemental and the everyday intersect. In ordinary life, the everyday is generally habitual, and when the elemental breaks through it overwhelms one totally; thus their crossing point is not so much an element of consciousness as the place of a radical opening of awareness. By contrast, the artwork tries to create a fabrication of the crossing point so that one may experience the sights and sounds of existence in a more primary way, and thus allow the elemental to cleanse our rudimentary perceptions for the sake of life. The artist therefore tries to jolt one into perceptions of the elemental so that it will challenge casual consciousness. Artwork is a response to ordinariness, and to the sealing of the abysses through routine mindlessness.

The ideal of theology is different. It tries to stand in the natural world where we live our everyday lives, and to experience all its happenings as points of crossing, where the elemental depths come to some phenomenal perception. Theology thus seeks to orient the self to a twofold dimension: to the numinous qualities of unsayable origin inhering in every moment of existence. So understood, all our worldly experiences are prismatic revelations of a deeper elementariness, the worldly shapes of primal forces received as sensations on our bodies and stimulations in our minds. It is thus through a wholly natural attitude toward the world that a deeper phenomenality is disclosed. A task of theology is therefore to attune the self to the unfolding occurrence of things in all their particularities and conjunctions, and help one remain steadfast at each new crossing point where raw elementariness, radically given, becomes human experience.

Theology is thus situated at the border of the known and unknown, of the manifest and the concealed. It is at this nexus that the self seeks God. For just here there is both a sense of happening and the excess of all happening, extending to the utmost depths of Being and beyond. Theology gathers the import of this awareness and attunes the heart to it, directing one’s attention beyond the perceived appearance of things to the intuited and imagined vastness of all existence, ever generated from the ultimate Source of all things (and actuality). This most primal Depth (beyond the Beyond of all conception), so infinitely disposing, is what we haltingly bring to mind by the word God. We thus gesture the thought-image of a supernal Font of Being; and with it also this more paradoxical, corollary notion: that if all existence is not God as such, it is also not other than God, Life of all life.

It was with such matters in mind that I spoke earlier of theology as a spiritual practice, whose principal task is to guide human thought and sensibility toward God. As the exercise of theological thinking unfolds, it directs the human spirit toward an increasingly focused awareness of God as the heart and breath of all existence, and tries to sustain that focus throughout the course of life. Put differently, theology seeks to cultivate an abiding consciousness of God’s informing presence in all the realities of existence, the infinite modalities of divine effectivity. Hence the world is both what we “take” it to be, in all the moments of ordinary experience, and what we must “untake” it to be, when we relate all things back to their ontological and primordial ground in God.

I have been trying for decades now to convince religious and mystical friends and acquaintances that my primary form of religious practice is thinking. This is inconceivable to many spiritual temperaments whose relationship to thought is different from mine. They conceive thought as something that stands apart from reality, and thinks about things, over and against. For such people, thinking as participation within reality is itself a remote idea that is hard to think about, and with such things we are often tempted to dismiss them as nonexistent. For someone whose existence is oriented to this mode of thinking, this kind of dismissal can feel personal, and when I was younger I did take spiritual anti-intellectualism, however benevolently intended, very personally, as the deepest inhospitality: “there is no room in my world for you, except as a deluded and arrogant fool.”

I’ve long since stopped trying to argue with inhospitality. The thoughts I love are ones who must be invited in and entertained as possible. They are not equipped with argumentative battering rams. They cannot debate their way into consideration. But when someone does invite these ideas into their souls, even as a guest whose stay is temporary, I feel grateful.

Fishbane also gives me a feeling of home. By giving voice to how I exist, proclaiming that this is a way to be — a good way — I feel enworlded with my own kind. I have a place here. I do not have to wander, homeless, seeking hospitality.

With a place of our own, a home, hospitality is something that we can give as well as receive.

Fishbane on metanoia

Michael Fishbane describes metanoia beautifully and precisely:

…But then it may happen that the thoughtless ordinariness of daily life is jolted and gives way to a more elemental specificity. Suddenly something occurs that claims us with an overwhelming intensity, and floods our sensibilities without any accompanying thoughts of its human meaning. Rather, the sense of rupture is all, and it seems as if primordial energies have burst from the depths and ripped the veil normally stretched over things, concealing them in blandness. Such moments may occur within the bounds of nature, as with the uprush of some overwhelming vista or sound; they may happen in the human world, as with the unsettling impact of sudden death or love; or they may happen through the creations of culture, as with the capacity of certain compositions to propel us to the edge of sensibility. We then shudder before what is given to us from the fullness of phenomenal existence, manifesting mysteries of the surge of things at the core of world-being. Just here is an absolute “somethingness,” pulsing in elemental specificity—for we suddenly sense the raw plenitude of existence; but here too, simultaneously, it seems, is a revelation of primordial “nothingness,” yawning like an “inconceivable chasm of invulnerable silence in which cataclysms of galaxies rave mute as amber”—for we also sense that the event is in excess of human meaning. In time we come back to our normal selves, and when we do we more knowingly confirm this happening and ourselves as well, answering the ever-present question “Where are you?” with the confession “Here I am—just here.” On such occasions, consequent to the restabilization of consciousness, a renewed subjectivity is aroused in us (the “here I am”), together with an awakened sense of the great immensity in which we are suffused, now experienced at a particular time and place (the “just here”).

These experiences may fundamentally change our lives; for though the primal depths may close over, and we return to more regular experiences of the world, the “sense of depth” may remain in mind. And if so, one is infused by an awareness of a twofold dimension to reality—the pervasive superflux of existence that underlies our lives, and its more delimited nature on the existential surface of things. Along with this dual sensibility may come an awareness of our role in circumscribing the boundless and naming what exceeds all terms. This hyperconsciousness need not put us at odds with things, for we are also natural beings, and adapting ourselves to the world of nature is part of our acculturated naturalness. But by becoming aware of this matter, we realize that the world is not just there as “a world,” fixed and final (like some substantial datum waiting to be disclosed), but is rather a happening, ever coming into actuality through human inventiveness; and that the self, for its part, is not just “a self,” fixed in nature and proclivity, but a self-consciousness, ever attuned to itself and its worldly involvements. In this way the eruptive, caesural event is kept in mind by a new attentiveness to the contingency of experience, and an attunement to the deeper nature of worldly existence. As this double dimension of existence is infixed in consciousness (as a bimodal mentalité ), our subjectivity and life-world are transformed.

It is the particular poignancy of the caesural moment that changes us and may induce a new mindfulness. For though the initial experiences silenced human expression, the sense of being overwhelmed by the event may give way to a sense of being claimed by it in a fundamental way. It is just that more conceptual (or self-conscious) sensibility which marks the moment with axial significance and calls the person to change their life. This is therefore not only a cognitive insight, through the perception of primordial forces underlying experience; it also carries a value component, through an awakening to the contingency of existence and the command to respond. When the precipitating moment is an elemental event of nature, such as an earthquake or flood, or the cycles of birth and death, and even when the occasion is a historical fact, such as some monstrous evil of deed or neglect, the charged moment palpably calls to our elemental nature and conscience, directing us to: Remember, Do Something, or Have Sympathy; and to the extent that one can fix these revelations in one’s mind through rituals of action and recollection, their moral charge remains, and the claim is continuous and does not fade. How we collect such events in our personal lives, and how we keep them alive, determines the nature of our character; and how a culture does this through education and the selection of events for public recollection affects the moral shape of society.

Sacred Attunement

I’m still hopping around in my reading. I’m now intentionally trying to resolve this painful perplexity around the pre-verbal subject that’s been dogging me for the last several years. When we read or listen or learn and then suddenly, spontaneously see everything differently, detect different patterns and connections, think differently, speak and behave differently, what is going on there? How should we understand what happened? Can we intentionally change this way? How much and how?

Today and yesterday I read Michael Fishbane’s Sacred Attunement, and a few dozens of pages in, it seems to offer some promising possibilities. Plus it reinforces why I came to Judaism in the first place.

The path to theology undertaken here is grounded in the forms of experience found in the natural world. In the course of time, these forms and their linguistic expressions weave a web of habitude; the raw and the real are stifled by routine. There is much to do, one thinks, and it is good to work in a settled sphere with established patterns. But the fissures happen in any case, and in unexpected ways; and then the human being is awakened, if only for the time being, to vaster dimensions of experience and the con­ tingencies of existence. These breakthroughs of consciousness may even transform one’s life; but they are not inherently theological. Their power is to remind the self that the “merely other” of everydayness is grounded in an Other of more exceeding depths and heights. But forgetting is the norm. And thus it is one of the chief virtues of artistic creativity to reformulate the sounds and sights of existence, and thereby create new openings in one’s or­ dinary perceptions. Hereby, the daily routine of life is more intentionally ruptured, and the shapes of perception are experienced as subtended by infinite possibilities—such that our everyday consciousness is experienced as shot through with traces of transcendence. Aesthetic experience gives us these moments of reborn mindfulness on occasion; whereas artists may live more continu­ously in these spaces of awareness, often disconnected from ordinary perceptions.

Theology does something more: it receives these perceptions of transcendence and tries to sustain (and even revive) them in the normal course of life. It does so not solely in terms of the experiences per se, but especially in terms of the duties these perceptions impose. The special sense of le transcendance immanente (in Jean Wahl’s phrase) thus sets the standards of spiritual truth and value, as distinct from l’immanence transcendente of ordinary perception. The result is a bimodal consciousness, whose reality and imperatives are variously formulated by different theological traditions. The lines of these perceptions of transcendence, shin­ing through the forms of worldly immanence, which so variously impress themselves on the human spirit, run outward infinitely. They gather nowhere and everywhere. Theology calls this unsay­able ground God. It is a word that focuses the mind and heart. But it is only a cipher for something more radically Other. This is the transcendence of transcendence. For if the first saves the phenomena, grounding them in something “More” (than mere human perceptions), the second saves God (both the word and the reality) from being delimited by human language and con­sciousness. These matters are central to this work.

…the study of scripture is a venerable spiritual discipline in Judaism that has produced (during more than two millennia) a multifaceted system of Bible interpretation. The results are now not simply received as so many solutions to the plain sense of the text, or to its legal, allegorical, or even mystical character. Rather, these types of interpretation are understood to foster diverse modes of attention to textual details, which in turn cultivate correlative forms of attention to the world and to divine reality. In this way, a network of correlations is proposed between forms of reading texts, by attunement to their nuances and meanings, and forms of reading external reality, by attunement to its manifold details and their significance; and between (both) these various forms and modalities of divine perception, by cultivating types of theological consciousness and attunement. Textual study thus becomes a discipline of ethical and spiritual self-­cultivation; and scripture is transformed thereby from an authoritative corpus of received laws, beliefs, and memories into an authorizing matrix for ongoing meditative reflection and reflective action.”

Faith and belief

Belief is the content of comprehension, those ideas our mind can grasp.

Faith is an attitude toward pure apprehension, encounters with that which our mind can touch, barely touch, fleetingly, but not grasp.

These incomprehensible apprehensions, which fill us with apprehension that something beyond our minds exists — something within which we subsist in our own existence — challenges the mundane world of our comprehension.

If our faith is one that condemns, ignores or demphasizes apprehension, we will have a faith in and of belief, and are at risk of succumbing to ideo-idolatry.