Monday, January 30, 2006

Cornel West on Kolakowski and "Combative Spirituality."

The Cornel West Reader (New York: Perseus Books, 1999), $20.95.

"When you talk about hope, you have to be a long distance runner. This is again so very difficult in our culture, because the quick fix, the overnight solution, mitigates against being a long distance runner in the moral sense, the sense of fighting because it's right, because it's moral, because it's just. That kind of hope linked to combative spirituality is what I have in mind."

Cornel West, in a much more accomplished and successful way than I can hope to achieve, has sought to bring together his life-experiences as an African-American intellectual with his theoretical concerns as an important philosopher:

"My work is a feeble attempt to understand and respond to the guttural cry that erupts from the depths of the soul of each of us. The existential quest for meaning and the political struggle for freedom sit at the center of my thought. My writings focus on the specific and contemporaneous ways in which we grapple with concrete and universal issues of life and death, oppression and resistance, joy and sorrow."

The Cornel West Reader (New York: Basic Books, 1999), p. xv.

In a provocative essay examining the philosophy of religion of Leszek Kolakowski, West writes from the heart:

"... human beings must learn how to be failures and how to cry for help while acknowledging that this very capacity to learn and wisdom to cry out is a form of empowerment from a Reality greater than human beings that keeps people struggling and living. The major foes are self-deception, for example, forms of happiness that are really types of bad faith, and self-deification, for example, the refusal to acknowledge the need for divine help or aid."

The Cornel West Reader, p. 388.

And he concludes:

"Kolalowski links the religious conception of learning how to be a failure yet avoiding insanity to God’s inability to commit suicide. This crucial divine inability (even Nietzsche has God killed by humans!) confines evil to a separation from God -- that is, Sin -- that is moral, not ontological. The world is viewed as essentially good, yet existentially evil. On this Christian view, a deep sense of the tragic is required, yet the world is not inherently tragic."

The Cornel West Reader, pp. 388-389.

A friend has guided my steps towards the rediscovery and study of some key passages from Augustine’s Confessions and other works, as well as interpretations of them -- all of which, I am ashamed to admit, I knew hardly at all (despite having survived examinations dealing with the material since my Catholic high school days). I have now returned to Augustine’s ideas in an effort to make up for lost time:

"As the mind, then, itself gathers the knowledge of corporeal things through the senses of the body, so of incorporeal things through itself. Therefore it knows itself also through itself, since it is incorporeal, for if it does not know itself, it does not love itself."

Augustine, "On the Trinity," Book IX, Chap. III, from Basic Writings of St. Augustine, quoted in The Age of Belief (New York: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1954), p. 34.

Through participation in the memory of ideas transmitted by our civilization -- that is, through philosophical effort -- we come to know ourselves, and to know ourselves, for the Christian philosopher and especially in the gnostic tradition, is also to know God. It is to know love as a healing force in our lives. We must discover, Augustine suggests, what we have always known. "We must remember to remember." ("The Allegory of the Cave" then "The Wanderer and His Shadow.")

This neo-Platonic effort of recollection, which begins with our shared language, need not involve the acceptance of a particular dogma, religious or otherwise, but rather, it has to do with the acceptance of a tradition and of the choice to embrace a particular attitude and disposition in life -- the choice to remain an individual, a person -- seeking to abide by the moral law, yet finding one’s own way to “love” and be of service to others. See Irving Singer, The Pursuit of Love (Baltimore: John Hopkins, 1994), p. 144 (“Love and Do as You Will”).

The point at which we touch bottom in the self, at which we strike the essence of the self, is the point at which we find not only the source of memory, but also (for the religious person) the divine. "Knowledge of ourselves," say the mystics, "is knowledge of God."

For the non-religious person, the point of contact is with that structure in which we participate and which contains all of us, call it our shared culture, and which is nonetheless much larger than we are or ever will be. Perhaps both are speaking of the same entity. (See "Pieta.")

Think of each person as occupying a tiny point in an infinitely complex and fine web or network of relations that stretches back to the origins of the universe and forward until -- and I know that this is a paradox -- the end of time, so that even the tiniest gestures and effects have a purpose and meaning, they are the proverbial flutterings of a butterfly, a meaning that may not be seen by any one of us from any single perspective or at any one time. We experience ourselves as fragments, yet we must believe ourselves to be parts of a vast whole.

Do we believe that everything somehow makes sense in the grand scheme of things? Not necessarily, not anymore. To speak of an "implicate order" (David Bohm) or of a larger coherence is not -- not at all -- to speak from a rational and secular standpoint, such as the one that I defend, necessarily to accept any kind of theodicy that says "everything is for the best" or that "we live in the best of all possible worlds." Much less is it to claim that those of us who suffer should not bother ourselves with thinking about the social injustices that cause us to suffer, nor trouble ourselves to replace political leaders or forces exploiting us because we should trust in a superior intelligence that watches over us or in a coherence that we only dimly apprehend. This is the sort of attitude that makes religion, as Marx claimed, the "opium of the people."

The kind of religion that I respect inspires a form of resistance to unjust power -- Professor West calls it a "combative spirituality" -- on behalf of very worldy forms of social meliorism, even as the metaphysical optimism that I have discussed also suggests that things may never be as bleak or as meaningless as they seem.

This gamble provides some hope for those of us who want to believe, despite the odds against it, that there are non-religious grounds for insisting that we are each implicated in the lives of all others, that their pain is ours too, and that we must never give in to hatred or vengeance, rage and frustration -- as tempting as these emotions become on occasion -- because those persons who hurt us are more deluded and self-destructive than anything else.

In the end, hatred becomes a form of self-destruction for those who hate. Hate is a kind of cancer that always ends by devouring the host organism. Hatred can perform a distracting function. By hating we numb our own pain, we feel less, directing our energies towards those who hurt us. I refuse to take a step towards becoming what they are. I refuse to diminish my capacity to feel because it is to water down my humanity. I refuse to hate, even as I call for justice. This means that I have no alternative but to accept my pain, to live with suffering, without palliatives: no anesthetic, no hate, no denial of the pain. I also have no alternative but to struggle in order to come to terms with the monsters who have hurt me and so many others. In my struggle against hatred, sometimes I win; sometimes the hatred and disgust I feel at my torturers wins. However, I always keep struggling against those destructive emotions.

Can I believe this? I would like to. There are days when I know that I am in danger of succumbing to rage. And I need all the help that I can get to avoid giving in to despair and fury right now. Norman Mailer says: "the shits are killing us." Maybe some day this will change. For now, we must not be deterred or prevented from struggling on behalf of the causes and values in which we believe, whatever obstacles must be faced and overcome. We will not give up our faith in the healing power of love nor abandon the effort to find love in our lives. We must insist on justice. "Combative spirituality" sounds about right.

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