Sunday, January 13, 2013

Faith and Modernity

As far as the symbolisms I use, when imaginatively interpreting Islam as Satanic in occasional essays here, drawn from the Judaeo-Christian mythologoumena and their relation to belief, I'm thankful to the philosopher Eric Voegelin (whom quite a few Christians considered to be "not a Christian") for helping me, years ago, see that the general issue of religious symbolisms is not so neatly cut-and-dried; and that Heraclitus, Socrates, Plato and Aristotle (just to pick a few of the more known from among hundreds one could adduce) shared the same belief about the mysterious (yet luminous) meaning of life and humanity as do Jews and Christians. 

This includes a sensibility more insouciantly forgiving of religious symbolisms, and consequently less phobic about their needless hypostatization into literalism (Voegelin coined the term hypostatization to denote what Alfred Whitehead, in a somewhat different context, referred to with his phrase "misplaced concreteness"). One doesn't want to push this too far, however, in the sense of a glibly promiscuous Joseph-Campbellesque cafeteria of religions sort of way; but on the other hand, the lines drawn by the dogmatists of the end of Christendom, anxiously erected in order to stave off tremors and premonitions of precisely that type of promiscuity which leads further to nihilistic skepticism (or its worse cousin, the legless skeptic who claims he's "not nihilistic") while understandable, given what they were up against, are no more tenable than relativism. 

The modern era seems mostly dominated by two mirror-image camps: the Dogmatists, who are afraid of agnosticism because they think that only Certitude can save them from the mystery of life; and the Modernists, who are afraid of faith because they think it commits them too much to certitude. Both are champions and defenders of flawed half-truths.


Traeh said...

Excellent post, Hesperado.

I used to use the word "hypostatize" in college now and then in philosophy papers. I had no idea it came from Voegelin. In fact I suspect it had an earlier coinage.

And some googling verifies that indeed it does:

I wonder if one must be dead center between the Dogmatists and the Modernists. I suspect the sanest, most energetic life, while it would not allow one to escape the mystery of life, would bring one closer to the pole of certitude, without of course ever fully arriving. Within one's "certitude", agnosticism would remain mysteriously admixed, at every level of human development.

That said, certitude is not just an intellectual or doctrinal state. Certitude is so closely related to self-confidence that I suspect the former is the shadow of the latter.

"Certitude," in what I'll call its "Ur-form" of self-confidence, has degrees, and can be enhanced, in principle perhaps without limit. It has to do with the extent of the harmony of one's being, thought, feeling, and will, the extent to which that harmony is progressively and repeatedly tested and deepened in relation to the ongoing facing of death in the experience of life.

By death I don't mean merely physical death, but the many forms of the unknown that one meets in life. To human beings, the unknown, if sufficiently powerful, often signifies "death", even where there is little or no physical danger. There are spiritual unknowns, of course.

True confidence is related to how much one confides in oneself, trusts oneself with one's own secrets, in other words, to self-knowledge. How much is one willing and able to see of oneself as one truly is in the depths? But this concerns not only oneself; one's willingness to see oneself is inseparable from one's willingness to see the world as it is, in all its endless depths. One's own depths and the world's depths are one.

The more of the world's depths and powers we successfully integrate, the greater the power of our self-confidence and the degree of our certitude -- though the mystery is never banished -- in some respects is heightened in certitude itself.

Without the requisite virtues and disciplines, however, we can suffer breakdowns and stillbirths (rather than rebirths) in trying to integrate the unknown waves of the future as they come toward us.

Anonymous said...

From my personal experience: If you live a moral life, you are MUCH more likely to experience God in various ways which give you both certitude and self-confidence.

Of course, certitude about the existence and goodness of God does NOT eliminate the myriad of mysteries associated with God.

You can 100% KNOW that a good God exists without understanding God.


Hesperado said...

traeh, lots of interesting stuff I will want to follow up on when I find the time, soon.


Your view as you described it here sounds a lot like Greek Orthodox faith, from what I understand of it -- that they stress morality as the center of experience, and experience (grace/love) as the center of theology.

Hesperado said...


I don't know if you've read much Heraclitus, but your comment reminded me of him, particularly this:

"...self-knowledge. How much is one willing and able to see of oneself as one truly is in the depths? But this concerns not only oneself; one's willingness to see oneself is inseparable from one's willingness to see the world as it is, in all its endless depths. One's own depths and the world's depths are one."

I can't show a one-to-one correspondence, but some of Heraclitus's fragments seem to resonate with what I think you're getting at.

Perhaps his third most famous fragment (after the "can't step into the same river twice" and "all is flux") is:

"I searched into myself." (fragment 101).

This is further complemented and illuminated by another:

"You could not find the limits of the soul, even if you travelled every path -- so deep is its logos." (fragment 45)

Others to further flesh this out are:

"To those who are awake, there is one ordered universe common (to all), whereas in sleep each man turns away (from this world) to one of his own." (forgot the #)


"If we speak with intelligence, 1 we must base our strength on that which is common to all, 1 as the city on the Law (Nomos), and even more strongly. For all human laws are nourished by one, which is divine. For it governs as far as it will, and is sufficient for all, and more than enough."

Hesperado said...

traeh -- ignore those number 1s in that last quote, don't know why they're there

Traeh said...

Interesting. I seem to recall you on another occasion finding something else I said to be reminiscent of Heraclitus. I wish I could say I know much of him, beyond his famous phrase about not being able to step into the same river twice. I've always recalled a certain rejoinder to that, but I'm not sure who it was who said it, perhaps Rudolf Steiner: we can't step into the same river even once.

No, what I wrote in the comment to which you kindly responded is not based on any one author, and I suppose is rooted in my own experience, as understood on its own terms -- though of course one's interpretation of one's experience does not arise in a void and is influenced by the thoughts of others, including various writers.

Anonymous said...

Hi Hesp, I liked to read your quotations of Heraclitus. I agree that a person can never step in the same river twice. :)

I am Catholic rather than Greek Orthodox although I visited one of their churches once in college and it was beautiful.

My Catholic mother steeped me in theology and I went to a Catholic college. But, I suppose that it took me a while to realize that very few people are either moral or even trying to be truly moral.

God really needs for people to try to be moral, and God rewards those people who do try to be moral with a greater sense of personal peace, happiness and understanding of God than immoral people are able to achieve.

The irony for me is that because I am moral, God has revealed himself to me in various miraculous ways so that I need less faith because I have more proof of the existence and goodness of God. I think back to God's proof when my faith is in doubt - after all, the world is a big bad place when you see the world as it is - which is why so many people point blank refuse to see Islam for the evil that it is and Muslims for the evil that they willingly perpetrate.

Hi Traeh, I will be thinking about that rejoinder to Heraclitus. :)


Hesperado said...

Thanks Egghead. It does seem that the moral dimension has been confused and obscured by Protestantism and its effects on modern culture. There seems to be a tendency in the Protestant orbit (and the great sociologist Max Weber almost said that secular Western modernity itself is just an outgrowth of the Protestant Reformation) to be phobic about morality, as though it's all irredeemably "Pharisaic"; but I suspect the Catholic and Orthodox traditions preserve a deeper understanding of what it is.

Hesperado said...


Thanks for that 1913 Webster's link. I had never bothered to look it up all these years. I guess Voegelin's contribution with that word is to induct it into the study of the philosophy of history as a useful technical term. That was one of many things I liked about Voegelin; he'd find a different term for what people had tended to turn into a cliche: thus hypostatization, rather than the over-used (and thus potentially misleading) reification.

Anonymous said...

So, I googled Heraclitus and Steiner, and it turns out that Cratylus first produced that rejoinder to Heraclitus which Steiner wrote about. Oh, and Steiner thought that he was reincarnated from Cratylus!


Hesperado said...

Thanks Egghead, I was going to mention that I dimly recalled the source of that corrective to Heraclitus was in fact some ancient philosopher (though considerably after Heraclitus).

I recall being deeply disappointed in Rudolf Steiner after thinking he was interesting from one quote I had read. When I delved more deeply and saw that he fancied himself an "anthroposophist", I smelled something fishy. He was basically a loon like Swedenborg (and like so many others in the 19th century -- though he straddled the fin du siècle and lived to 1925, as far as I'm concerned, 1925 was still in many ways in the 19th century).

For some reason, that Cratylus corrective reminds me of an early 1st century Christian theologian who objected to the idea that the Son and Father are one by saying that if that were so, Jesus would have said:

"I and the Father IS one."

Anonymous said...

Hi Hesp: Yes, per Wiki, Cratylus was a disciple of Heraclitus.

Before I started reading tonight, my understanding was that time is the reason that we cannot step into the same river twice because time is a measurement point of each experience along with the other three dimensions of length, width, and depth.

So, what is the reason that we cannot step into the same river once? Well, per Wiki, Cratylus believed that "the world was in such constant flux that streams could change instantaneously."

But tonight I found another better interpretation of one of his three river fragments that I quite like.

B12. potamoisi toisin autoisin embainousin hetera kai hetera hudata epirrei.

"On those stepping into rivers staying the same other and other waters flow." (Cleanthes from Arius Didymus from Eusebius)

"If this interpretation is right, the message of the one river fragment, B12, is not that all things are changing so that we cannot encounter them twice, but something much more subtle and profound. It is that some things stay the same only by changing. One kind of long-lasting material reality exists by virtue of constant turnover in its constituent matter. Here constancy and change are not opposed but inextricably connected. A human body could be understood in precisely the same way, as living and continuing by virtue of constant metabolism–as Aristotle for instance later understood it. On this reading, Heraclitus believes in flux, but not as destructive of constancy; rather it is, paradoxically, a necessary condition of constancy, at least in some cases (and arguably in all). In general, at least in some exemplary cases, high-level structures supervene on low-level material flux. The Platonic reading still has advocates (e.g. Tarán 1999), but it is no longer the only reading of Heraclitus advocated by scholars."


Hesperado said...

Interesting. It seems quite possible Cratylus didn't mean to contradict his mentor, but just clarify.

My Greek is rather rusty, though I did study it in college and I have read the four gospels and Acts in Greek, so if I took a stab at that quote --

potamoisi toisin autoisin embainousin hetera kai hetera hudata epirrei

-- I think the first four words are a construction typical in classical Greek, they all form one block, all in the ablative declension I believe, as objects of the verb epirrei ("to flow over" or "inundate"). Though all 4 words are in the ablative, there are two objects referred to -- the "rivers" and the implied people "going into the rivers". Since "going into" implies a verb that would turn its object into the ablative also, the "rivers" is the secondary object, and the "people going into the rivers" is the main object -- of the verb

Meanwhile, the hetera kai hetera hudata literally means "other and other waters" but I think it would be better to say "newer and newer waters".

So with that said, I'd render it:

potamoisi toisin autoisin embainousin hetera kai hetera hudata epirrei

"For those who go into rivers, newer and newer waters swirl around them."

To paraphrase Bill Clinton (with apologies to all decent people), Cratylus is kind of saying that "There is no "is" there" whenever we talk about a river, or about anything, for that matter. So as your quote was implying, Cratylus was unpacking Heraclitus's aphorism of Panta rhei ("Everything flows" or "All is flux").

Of course, this idea is complex, and much more unpacking can be done. There's a definite Hindu and/or Buddhist twang to it.

Anonymous said...

Great discussion, Hesp! :)

GoV is down again! :(