Wednesday, April 20, 2005

To be is to do? Or to do is to be?

You can assess any position in philosophy by the relationship it proposes between being and knowing. Some traditions, like the Greek one of Plato and Aristotle, place ontology in the center, while others, like the modern period inaugurated by Descartes, put the emphasis on epistemology. Clearly, however, a complete philosophy will have to do justice to both. Unfortunately, there is a deep and irreducible tension between the two perspectives that makes a reconciliation difficult to achieve. The ontological perspective, "the view from nowhere" (to exploit Thomas Nagel's evocative phrase) seems to leave no room for "the world as I found it" (to borrow an expression from Wittgenstein). If we note further that the world as we experience it, "our world," is essentially temporal, whereas the logical and empirical conditions for experience as such are more spatial, in the most general sense, than temporal, we begin to take a true measure of the problem Godel set for himself. (Palle Yourgrau, A World Without Time. I'm away from my home computer; the page no. will show up this afternoon).

This is the dividing line now between "Continental" philosophers and "analytical" ones. By nationality, the former is primarily French, the latter primarily Anglo-American, which is as convenient a place to draw the line as any other, actually, and in some ways more illuminating. Napoleon is supposed to have dismissed the British as "a nation of shopkeepers," and in some ways he was certainly right, and that is certainly the heritage carried to fullest flower in American culture where the only way to determine the value of anything is by what it will fetch in the marketplace. But that, too, reduces to an issue of ontology, or epistemology; if you care to look at it that way.

Epistemology concerns the questions of what we can know, while ontology concerns the questions of what we are. Obviously the two overlap each other, and it is impossible to consider one apart from the other; the question, as usual, is one of emphasis. But it is also a question of practice, praxis as the seminaries teach us to call it. And that, to me, is the most interesting issue. With the elevation of a new Pope, questions of religious comity and ecumenism are suddenly in the air; hopes and questions about reconciliation abound. But, as Yourgrau says, "there is a deep and irreducible tension between the two perspectives that makes a reconciliation difficult to achieve." That tension is over the issue of belief: is religion a matter of faith? or is it a matter of practice? What we know? Or what we are?

The Western emphasis, going back to Hellenestic Greece, has been on epistemology. What we know, determines who we are. This is the stance of Socrates in the Phaedo, where he elucidates the doctrine of the immortality of the soul, and of reincarnation, and of learning enough to achieve the "good" (the parable of the cave, usually considered the "heart" of Plato's epistemology, seems to me to be a refinement of thought from the Phaedo, although scholarship may prove my conjecture completely wrong). It is our knowledge that perfects us, that makes us more wholly who we are meant to be. "You shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free," says Jesus in John's gospel, the most Hellenistic of the four canonicals. By our age, via Romanticism, this becomes the doctrince of "self-actualization," one paved in part by that most Romantic of religious thinkers and theologians, Søren Kierkegaard. As Romanticism taught us, itself reaching back across the centuries to, like the Enlightenment, to the Greeks, our solitary goal is to become most wholly who we are. The twist Romanticism supplied, in the face of the dehumanizing of humanity because of the rise of the machines, was to separate the individual even from society, to set the Byronic figure even against the gods themselves. The Industrial Revolution shattered the Great Chain of Being, and the Romantics kicked it away defiantly. Kierkegaard, and Bonhoeffer after him, and countless Protestant theologians in between, despised the trappings of Christendom that required no personal commitment on the part of the individual. Christendom that flowered into a world religion because of the conversion of Constantine was now to be seen as the domain only of those faithful enough to struggle with the paradox and the pain of seeing themselves in the hands of the living God. "When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die," Bonhoeffer famously stated (and later reconsidered). Kierkegaard, who had written his aesthetic and religious works and planned to retire to a rural Danish Lutheran church (he was a Lutheran seminary student), instead wrote his brutal assault on Bishop Mynster following the latter's death, and upon the state church itself, in his Attack upon 'Christendom.' "What comes out of a person" became the most important thing; but what good could possibly come out of a person with no faith? Faith without works is dead, but works without faith is surely without justification, too.

Which was not, and has not been, the only understanding of Christianity in the world. It has been, rather, the primary Western understanding. The tension has actually been between practice (though not necessarily praxis), and belief. The "liturgical" Western churches, following more or less on the lines of the Roman Catholic church, have always felt a tension between theology (matters of belief) and liturgy (matters of prayer and practice). Even now, a question already arising from the nascent papacy of Benedict XVI is: will he reinstate the Latin mass? A question of practice, informed by questions of theology. But does the practice inform the theology; or the theology, the practice?

Protestant churches feel the same tension, but prefer to emphasize practice arising from belief. The true believer expresses their belief in the practice of worship, preferably by the spontaneous overflow of powerful emotions, although in vigor, not tranquility. The emphasis is on the practice, which in turn informs the theology.

But the Eastern churches have followed a different course. The Eastern worship, to begin with (and to speak most generally) centers not on the experience of the individual, but on the atmosphere appropriate to the one being worshipped. Western liturgy tries to recreate, anew and again, the vision of the throne room from First Isaiah. Eastern worship assumes the throne room, and proceeds to honor the presence of the cosmic King. Emphasis is not on personal experience so much as presence. What is in the heart, as God tells Jeremiah, is a mystery even to God. But the person who can practice the prayers and discipline of the religious life is never very far from the true presence.

You may ask: but what if the practice is hollow? But that is a very Western question. Even Tariq Ali, a self-described atheist, says that growing up in Pakistan he was a Muslim simply because everyone was a Muslim. This offends our Western sensibilities, because we consider religion a "private" matter but one the individual must accept or reject. In Eastern cultures, however, the question of acceptance, and its obverse coin face, rejection, simply never occur, says Ali. He was an atheist; and he was a Muslim; and he sees no contradiction in those positions.

Which brings us back to Yourgrau: is it a question of being, or a question of knowing? Most criticism of religion in the Western world focusses on the question of knowing. If we don't know God exists, or don't know exactly what God wants, or don't know for sure which rules of God apply, or how to interpret them, how then do we claim as Christians to know anything at all? Likewise, if we do know these things, how do we restrain from imposing them on everyone else, from defining our truth as the truth absolute and even if we are tolerant of other truths, of not measuring them against ours and finding them, inevitably and if we are honest, wanting?

But what if it is a question of being, instead?


  1. Bob Cable7:15 AM

    Thanks much for the dictum of H. McCabe that "If you don't love, you're dead; and if you do, they'll kill you." How encouraging!

    Your learned discussion here surely deserves a comment before the passage of half a decade; but it hardly matters because, if McCabe is right, you're dead now anyway.

    I stumbled across this blog as I Googled to check the correct basis in philosphical thought
    for the attributions of the joke, " 'To do is to be.' - Nietzsche; 'To be is to do.' - Kant; 'Do be do be do....' - Sinatra." Your blog has not helped me in this regard; it has been far more useful than that. Thanks again. And do be!

  2. same!

    and none the wiser...

    any thought?


    some interesting thoughts in the original post.