“Scattered Attention”

by Sam Buntz

A friend of mine keeps telling me to get a Twitter account.  He says that the sort of reflections I’m prone to post as Facebook status updates would better be addressed to the more public audience that Twitter supposedly provides.  Based on the way Twitter seems to work for some people, this makes sense.  But, as it happens, I tried to take him up on this advice—and failed.

For, one thing, I have a bunch of friends and acquaintances on my Facebook page, but hardly any Twitter followers—since I’ve only written “tweets” (as I’m told the hip young people call them) about four times.  Hence, the process of beginning to tweet “in earnest” seemed like a wholly absurd farce as soon as I started it.  I tweeted to my ten or so Twitter followers—eight of whom are probably false identities constructed by online software to better research various marketing strategies—the sentence, “I think I would secretly make a pretty good Canadian.”  I watched it beat its wings ineffectually in the Void a few times, before promptly dropping out of sight.  Like a child’s letter to Santa, it was…gone.  (I later put the same sentence on Facebook, where it premiered to what I would describe as “breathless applause”—also, I sincerely do think I would probably thrive in Vancouver.) That was a few months ago.  I haven’t tweeted since.

I cite this anecdote—skirting the borders of both extreme triviality and too-cute, cultural timeliness as it perhaps does—to make a broader point: I have absolutely no idea how people manage to deal with more than two or three internet-based things like this.  I can basically do Facebook, write blog-posts, and check my email—yet there’s an almost obscene profusion of “apps” (or whatever) now that I have no interest in using, in addition to Vine, Instagram, Snapchat, Tumblr, LinkedIn, online dating sites, regular commenting on favored message-boards, and so on (oh, and Twitter).  Surrounded by such a blossoming array of digital possibilities and social media that I’m not going to use, I feel a little like I did when I went to see Scott Pilgrim vs. The World—namely, like a gigantic, crotchety one-hundred-and-five year old, surrounded by a crowd of gibbering twelve-year-old Lilliputians, all of whom were enjoying themselves immensely.  (Don’t worry—if you’re a Scott Pilgrim fan, it’s not you, it’s me.  Also, I like all the other Edgar Wright movies.)

On the one hand, I’m grateful for the Internet.  I’ve poured countless hours into reading articles on it that I’ve found genuinely illuminating—like, I was just reading some by this writer, William Dalrymple, who has plenty of valuable insights to offer on religion and history in India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and the Middle East.  That’s an example of me trying to strengthen an interest I already have—rather than diffusing my attention throughout the online world.  So, I consider that a good thing.

However, there are plenty of other times when I use the Internet to scatter my attention to a fairly mad degree.  Rather like Clint Eastwood yelling at an empty chair, I begin to feel unsure of my identity, constantly at the risk of fragmentation in a too-rapidly shifting world.  It’s as though, caught between Beyonce’s “Single Ladies” video on one window and an article about a Messianic Cult in Siberia on another, I suddenly don’t exist as a unity—instead I am now living, in Shakespearean terms, “on many a thousand grains / That issue out of dust.”  That might be dramatic hyperbole to make a greater point—yet, to my (presently re-integrated) mind, the degree to which one’s attention can be scattered in the modern world is fairly shocking.  I don’t intend this to be yet another reflection on how technology has outpaced our ability to cope with it (though technology has sort of outpaced our ability to cope with it), but more of a meditation on attention and inattention.  The preceding five paragraphs were just prelude.  (That’s right—all that “Twitter” jazz was but meant to lure you savvy twentysomethings into the Game!  Now you can either read the rest, or settle for wasting your time).

I’ve heard it said that attention is “the outward expression of the soul”—or, to say the same thing twice, it’s what consciousness does when it goes out on the town.  I personally find this to be a helpful definition. Without attention, you’re either entirely at the whim of your environment, or in a state of actual unconsciousness, in limbo.  So, it seems fair to say that attention is really the fundament underlying all that we’re going to think or say or do in this world.  Hence—following this train of thought to its inevitable conclusion—scattered attention must be a pretty bad thing to have, since it strikes at the root of literally everything.  Obvious, right?  Nothing new here.

To offer further consideration: being the offspring of roughly ten generations of Scotch Calvinist ministers, I turn—as I often do in these trying times—to my Bible.  (Yes, it may be an unpopular move—but I’m willing to undergo the derision of the secular Twitter-sphere, if need be.)  In reality, I’m neither Scotch nor Calvinist, but I did run into this Bible verse—while reading a book about Hinduism, oddly enough—a few weeks or so ago, and found it pretty thought-provoking and relevant: “And the Lord said, Simon, Simon, behold, Satan hath desired to have you, that he may sift you as wheat.” (Luke 22:31).

Satan, in this quote, wants to reduce Simon Peter to a state of fragmentation, running him through his fingers like so much cereal—which actually does happen when Peter denies Jesus during the Crucifixion.  The Devil’s goal is to create minions who will do his bidding, simply because their attention is too diffuse and disorganized to wise up.  In any case, you’re free to take “Satan” as an allegory for all of the world’s numerous engines of decay and dispersion—whatever breaks up the internal integrity of people and reduces them to a state of mental or physical indignity.

On a related note, the word “diabolic” is apparently related to the Latin word for throwing or scattering.  Hence, it’s not—linguistically, anyway—too insane of a leap to suggest that scattering one’s attention is a pretty diabolic move, or indeed, the original diabolic move.  It seems to be what the Gospels were getting at in the above quote, and you see it reflected again when Jesus visits the tomb-dwelling madman, whose demon tells Jesus that his name is Legion: “Many”.  In other words, he has no internal oneness—his is an utterly un-integrated psyche. The suffering madman is horribly scattered, having access only to T.S. Eliot’s “heap of broken images, where the sun beats, and the dead tree gives no shelter,” before Jesus heals him and restores him to unity.

I think the Internet can serve as a tool for aiding one’s efforts to attain some sort of unity—some spiritual or psychological coherence—or, conversely, for participating in the universe’s general trend towards being all the more scattered and shattered.  Chances are, Vine and Instagram and the rest are going to play a greater role in the latter process, but that was always going to be the case.  When the Spinner of the Years first unfolded the World Wide Web, this was all foreordained.  The best that people can probably do is to identify the images of this more unified state-of-being when they find them—be it on the Internet, or in any of the arts, literature, music, wherever—and help them to endure, promote them a bit.  These seemingly meager acts of resistance ultimately add up to a trumpet-blast against the encroachment of Chaos—something that really does matter.

I’m currently reading the book Darkness at Noon by Arthur Koestler.  The main character, Nicholas Rubashov, is imprisoned in the Stalinist-era Soviet Union for crimes he didn’t commit.  Yet, alone in his cell, he has plenty of time to think—to seek to strengthen his attention, to figure out what’s really going on.  He suddenly experiences moments where—from beyond the realm of his usual, logical attempts at thinking—his more genuine self breaks through and expresses itself.  It doesn’t use the language of reason, but it presents Rubashov with images of a higher aesthetic and spiritual order, images that seem fragmented, but which actually come from that greater unity, that formerly unexplored region of his self (which the Soviets had denied and repressed).  It is this kind of solitary concentration—in its most extreme form, that of a prisoner in isolation—which the vast plethora of online options threatens to stamp out and endanger.  Instead of feeling one’s attention sharpened and gaining in inner coherence, one is—again and again—sifted like wheat.

So—in the final analysis—that’s why I don’t particularly feel like tweeting.

“Awful Loan-some”

by Sam Buntz

[Yeah—the title’s a bad pun.  But this is the Internet.  We’re not about quality here.] 

 I have mixed feelings about going to school (though, I’m out of school, now).  The external, socialized part of me supposedly likes school—after all, he (or is it more of an “it”?) opted to sign on for another two years of grad school after finishing college.  But a deeper part of me—the Freudian Id, the primal bundle of impulses that make up my perennially un-socialized, un-tutored core—totally hates school. 

This is basically because the deeper part of my psyche is an Eternal Five Year Old, and furthermore, school, in the final deduction, is… school.  Like, screw that, right?  Who wants to go sit in school all day and listen to some goateed scrub babble on about Dickens’ minor works, when you could be throwing snowballs at other five-year-olds and attempting to tackle them and wash their faces with snow, before having that attempt brutally reversed due to your own physical softness?  

The Id naturally wants a Snow Day everyday—whereas the conventional ego pretty much is a goateed (or, rather, bearded) scrub, who would probably really “enjoy” investigating Dickens’ minor works for a substantial amount of time, and would actually agree to pay someone else for the privilege of writing a twenty-five page paper on Our Mutual Friend that no one is going to ever read after the Professor skims it and gives it an A-.  Sometimes I can’t help the feeling that the part of me that actually wants to do all this is already showing cracks, its fragile, genteel egg-shell of an existence about to shatter—as the Beast re-asserts himself. 

But, with an ageless sigh, I know that’s not going to happen.  The conventional ego is titanium—very light, but invincible.   

Nevertheless, given the claims of my more primal being, it feels sort of weird to have to pay off college loans.  (If any loan providers happen to be reading this—yes, I’m going to continue paying up.  So, calm down.)  Yet, on this more instinctive level, paying off college loans feels like a bullshit scam. 

It feels like someone—some charismatically malignant vampire—convinced me to take out loans in order to purchase several dump-trucks full of brussel sprouts, so that I could eat a dish of brussel sprouts every day for six years (meanwhile, with this mystery villain substantially increasing those loans in the last two years of that period), and then, when the whole process has concluded, the charismatic villain says, “Pay me”— to which the Core of my Being, the Eternal Five Year Old, proudly wishes to respond, “Pay you for brussel sprouts???  Sure, I’ll pay you for sprouts—with FIRE.  And then I’ll become a pirate, kidnap Beyonce (respectfully—since I’m five years old and have very indefinite ideas about sexuality anyway), and live happily ever after on my own private island, called ‘Sam Island’ (because, again, I’m a five-year-old).” 

Yet, nonetheless, civilization rears its ugly head, and a hushed silence reigns.  The government extorts its supposed “credit” from another humble and cowed customer, and the sadistic forced march of Time continues.  “We beat on, boats against the current…” You fill in the rest.      

Got Soul?

by Sam Buntz

“And we have been on many thousand lines,
And we have shown, on each, spirit and power;
But hardly have we, for one little hour,
Been on our own line…”
-Matthew Arnold, “The Buried Life”

“You don’t have a soul.  You are a soul.  You have a body.”
-C.S. Lewis

In Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, most adherents tend to think of the soul as a permanent version of one’s present personality: you’ll still retain your name, your basic earthly identity, and (quite possibly) your hair and skin color, throughout all eternity, after the Judgment Day recalls you from your dusty entombment—resurrecting you to endless future duration in a heavenly paradise or in an intemperate and otherwise rather uncomfortable hell.  The soul for most Christians is, as St. Thomas Aquinas said, “the form of the body”: the mental order behind our corporeal being.  It’s the silvery, ethereal glue that makes our physical being and our personality hang together.

However, surprising as it may seem to some, not everyone views the soul this way.  In many Hindu schools of Yogic thought, the Soul or Self has almost nothing (or—to cut out the “almost”—precisely nothing) to do with the personalities we inhabit on a daily and yearly basis.  It is something radically other.  Again, Abrahamic religions tend to think of the Soul as being essentially the same thing as the mind or personality—but, according to the Hindu Sage Patanjali’s famed Yoga Sutras, the “Purusha” (the Soul or “True Person”) is utterly distinct from the mind and personality.  It is, itself, an unknown island, a virgin continent spread out somewhere beyond the ocean of our interior darkness, perpetually awaiting discovery.  The purpose of Yoga—understood, in this case, to be a program of meditation and moral conduct rather than a method of physical exercise—is to unite this hidden, essential Self with…itself.  The Soul is both the knower and the known—knowing, to steal St. Paul’s phrase, as it is known.

The Yogi seeks to realize that our normal, everyday modes of being are essentially disguises—products of “Maya” or cosmic illusion.  The great Swami Vivekananda told audiences in the United States, “You are not your body”, and also—more shockingly—“You are not your mind.”   The true “you” is something beyond either, impossible to define, just as God Himself would be impossible to define.  You could only be it, realizing your existence as it—since any information gained about the Soul or any attempt at formulating a scholarly definition would still be occurring at the level of the mind—which is the part of our being responsible for looking up and creating those definitions in the first place.  At most, the purified mind can act as a sort of mirror or reflector for the soul—as the moon does for the sun—shining with a little of the soul’s light while simultaneously dimming it (the metaphorical association of the moon with the mind is pretty persistent throughout many Hindu texts.)  If the mind “shifts to strange effects / After the moon” (to steal a line from Shakespeare), the soul is like the sun since it is always at full strength, a limitless source of life and energy—because it is life and energy.

In Yogic thought, the Soul is like a person watching a movie—the play of the body and mind—and becoming so enveloped in it that it identifies itself with the characters in the film.  However, it stands a chance of remembering its true identity—indeed, in the fullness of time, it will eventually step back from the mirage entirely. (I can’t claim this is a particularly original analogy—in fact, it’s sort of a stock analogy in describing this concept, I’m afraid, though hopefully a potent one).  Before this happens, the Soul remains trapped in time—in the cycle of births and deaths, reincarnating as one life-form and then another—lost in the pantomime.

Interestingly, this notion of the Soul radically up-ends the typical Western and Near Eastern ideas of sin and wickedness (some Sufis, Kabbalists, and Christian mystics excused).  If the soul isn’t really the same as the body and the mind, it can’t ultimately be guilty of their sins—it may continue to identify with the false self that does these wicked deeds, but it can’t, in the final analysis, be held hostage to the sins of the body and mind for all eternity.  Hence, in Yogic philosophy and in Hindu Thought more generally, no one burns in hell forever—sins are finite, mere dirt that will be washed off when one eventually incarnates as a successful Yogi.  It is nothing permanent or essential—hence, nothing you can burn in hell for.  This is obviously not to deny the vast amount of evil and suffering present in the universe—but it does state that evil is nothing that can infect the deepest part of our being: the Soul remains pure and good (or, more accurately, “beyond good and evil.”)  It is only the body and the mind, subject to the effects of cosmic illusion, that continue under the sway of sin—though one needs to break away from sin and live a moral life if one is going to gain the peace of mind necessary for encountering the Soul.

Although this might seem quite alien to Christian, Jewish, and Muslim ways of approaching the soul, it is strikingly akin to the distinction the early Christian Gnostics (or “Knowers”—since their goal was to know the deep Self) drew between the different parts of the self: there was the body, and then the mind or psyche, and, finally, the true self, the spirit or pneuma.  Although contemporary Christianity generally avoids such spiritualized notions of, um, the spirit—preferring to imagine The Kingdom of Heaven as a kind of All-U-Can-Eat Buffet, presided over by none other than Jesus Christ, in the flesh—hints of a deeper understanding are evident as far back as…well, the teachings of Jesus.

The Gospel of Thomas—recognized as potentially being an authentic representation of at least some of Jesus’ actual words by Professors Helmut Koester of Harvard and Elaine Pagels of Princeton—records such sayings of Jesus as, “When you know yourselves, then you will be known, and you will understand that you are children of the living Father. But if you do not know yourselves, then you live in poverty, and you are that poverty,” and “Those who have found themselves, of them the world is not worthy.” Also, it is important and instructive to remember that, on page one of the Bible, God breathes His own breath into Adam, granting His Spirit to His newly formed child…  Might that not have some deeper significance to it, as well—hinting that the origin of the deepest part of our being has a source alien to our physical and mental uniform?

Discussing the need for Self-Knowledge can easily rankle Christian sentiments (and those of non-Sufi Muslims, and—to a far lesser extent, because of the impact of Jewish mysticism—Jews).  Inquiry into the nature of the Soul or the Self seems to be beside the point for many of the more socially-conscious believers—the point of religion, for them, is to do good in the world.  However, this is to set up a false division between Christian and Hindu thought (as evidenced by Jesus’ own likely authentic sayings on Self-Knowledge), where the Eastern person turns inwards and does nothing socially constructive, and the Western person expands ever outward in his or her un-reflective zeal to improve.  Obviously, this isn’t a correct depiction of reality, and the lives of Hindu saints like Kabir and Mirabai, help demonstrate how a commitment to knowing the Soul can go hand in hand with selfless ideals of service (since the ego, which hampers such service, isn’t the true Self or Soul in the first place)—as do the lives of Christian saints like St. John of the Cross and St. Teresa of Avila.

But where does God fit into the Yogic system?  A Western believer might rightly desire an answer to this question.  The early texts on Yoga definitely acknowledge the existence of a Supreme God, Ishvara, and many schools of Yoga make God-Knowledge their end-goal, attempting to rejoin the now-free Soul to its original home in God—a droplet falling back into the primordial Ocean of Mercy.  For these Yogis, Self-Knowledge is but a necessary step on the way to God-Knowledge.

This is doubtless a strong dose of medicine for the Western World, where our attempts to adjust the world around us frequently become deformed, primarily due to our inability to know ourselves (numerous failed revolutions and social movements, from the French Revolution to the Russian Revolution to the rise of Fascism, all testify to this fact).  On the other hand, to give a more positive example, the Jesuits are known for being “Contemplatives in Action”—and isn’t that what, in a sense, we are all required to be?  A more thorough acquaintance with the Yogic idea of the Soul could help at least some Westerners regain a better sense of proportion—refreshing their persistent efforts at external reform with at least the occasional cup of contemplative water, drawn from the deep well of the Soul.

“The Theory of Cool”

by Sam Buntz

“Cool” is about leaving things out.  It’s about what you don’t need—and, more purely, about not even having needs in the first place.  The metaphorical kernel of the term obviously relates to temperature.  Something is literally “cool” when its particles have slowed down—when it attains a state of stillness and calm, as opposed to a state of frenetic energy.  Cool is (to use mystical Catholic terminology) an example of the via negativa or “negative way”—a method of arriving at the truth by pleasantly saying “No” to as many things as possible.  When you finally reach the Still Center, where there’s nothing left to say “No” to, you have successfully attained the Apotheosis of Cool.

In American culture, Cool is inextricably tied up with music.  The Jazz Cat and the Rock Star continually play at Cool, and try to define it within their body of work.  True—they might be addicted to heroin, addicted to groupies, addicted to any number of vices.  But they try to act as though they aren’t phased by these things—although they might be partaking in outrageous excess, they need to affect an attitude of being able to do without it.  The excess is incidental—it doesn’t stick around to poison the stillness at the core of the musician’s being.  This attitude is, of course, ultimately a total lie and a fake (the vast majority of the time)—but it’s a legitimate and necessary part of the image.  The artist needs to strike us as being “in this world, but not of it”, with a personal body temperature much lower than that of this infernal climate.  Authentic art—even if it is expressing emotions that are heated or frenzied or un-cool—often comes from a place of contemplative Cool.  A heated person can’t focus, can’t put it all together.

There are numerous false claimants to Cool.  They think Cool is a matter of style—but Cool style needs to emanate from the Coolness of the actual person.  It can’t simply be used to coat over the exterior of someone who continually projects glowering hostility (there are many examples of this in the world of celebrity).  Nonetheless, it’s useful to analyze the superficial trappings of Cool.

For instance, everyone knows that sunglasses are Cool, but people don’t usually speculate on why they strike us that way.  I believe it’s more than a mere cultural construction that doesn’t have any greater metaphorical meaning.  Shades are another way of fending off the excessive brightness and heat of the world—whilst peering through sunglasses you seem to see a world that is, in point of fact, much cooler (in the literal temperature sense).  They help create the illusion of being a toned-down person, living in a personal world that is equally toned-down.

Interestingly, people want to be around someone who possesses Cool and detachment.  Rather than being a turn-off—striking others as being passionless and something of a dry stick—Cool has the power to refresh.  To appropriate a Biblical phrase, it is like “the shadow of a great rock in a weary land.”  Cool isn’t like being dead or indifferent—it just isn’t capable of being upset or knocked off kilter.  It’s centered—and that’s something people, often unconsciously, desire for themselves, as well.

As for genuine icons of Cool, the Buddha is perhaps the archetypal image—even people who aren’t actually Buddhists will put his statue in their Brooklyn lofts or San Diego love-shacks just so it’ll manifest waves of placid cool.  To the contrary, if you were to put an image of, say, my namesake, the Prophet Samuel, in your apartment, it’s going to have a far different effect.  Samuel was assuredly a bad ass—but he didn’t have Cool.  He was too interested in making burnt offerings and hacking Amalekites to pieces to ever fully enter into Cool.  (As for Jesus—I think we can easily grant that Jesus possesses Cool, and the same goes for the Virgin Mary.  We don’t really know what Jesus was like when he overturned the moneychangers’ tables in the temple, but presumably he wouldn’t have seemed overly worked-up.)  But the Buddha was “an ocean of mercy without motive”—someone who demonstrated compassion, with no ulterior agenda: hence, his overwhelming Coolness.

Buddhism and Stoicism are probably the two philosophies that draw closest to the Cool (not that there aren’t equally good religions and philosophies—there are paths distinct from the Cool, such as the “Exuberant,” which I want to talk about another time).   Zen Buddhism’s whole aesthetic is related to the “less is more” aspect of the Theory of Cool—being able to say “No”.  No one realized how cool, say, a single rock could be, until some Zen practitioners managed to situate that rock in a garden comprised of other rocks.  But in order to bring out that epiphany of Cool, someone need to place the rock into such an aesthetically emptied-out landscape—when stripping things down to their basic state, a kind of luminosity emerges.

Even if Steve Jobs didn’t act all that Cool in his day-to-day life, he famously managed to incorporate Cool into Apple’s product design: leaving out a simple “on-off” switch on the iPod.  It was a pure way of saying “No” to something that everyone had said “Yes” to for years and years.  And the hip spare-ness—the ultra-Cool emptiness—evident in the design of Apple’s other products is pretty evident as well.  You see this in any number of Taoist and Zen-influenced paintings: the empty spaces are as important as the drawn-on spaces.

The Cool is a big part of art and music, but it’s also central to American mythology. We routinely see the myth of the cowboy or gangster or renegade cop who is able to do what needs to be done, even if its morally dubious, and still somehow retain his integrity, thanks to his detachment and his acquaintance with Cool.  Elmore Leonard frequently wrote this kind of character—and he (or she) exists in Tarantino films and many more places besides.  This takes us back to the Bhagavad Gita, where the warrior Arjuna is forced to participate in something that would normally be wrong—a war against his own family members—with the promise from Krishna (an incarnation of God) that if he can make war while retaining inner detachment, he won’t recur any negative karmas, being freed from any possibly bad consequences of his actions.

The best example of Cool I might be able to think of comes from a story about the Zen Master Hakuin.  Hakuin was a monk, known around town for his purity and virtue—but, one day, a young woman in the town got pregnant.  Her parents pressured her to tell them who the father was, and, eventually, she claimed that it was Hakuin.  So, once the baby was born, the parents brought it to Hakuin and forced him to raise the child.  After they finished accusing him of seducing their daughter, all he would say in response was “Is that so?”  Thus, Hakuin treated the baby as his own—providing the kid with food, diapers, and all the rest.  Yet, some months later, the baby’s mother broke down and admitted that the father was actually a young man who worked in the local fish-market.  The parents went to Hakuin apologizing profusely as they explained the situation, before taking back the baby. Throughout this whole concluding discussion, the only comment Hakuin offered was, “Is that so?”

And that, dear reader, is Primordial Cool.

(Note: to read more stories like the one about Hakuin, check out Zen Flesh, Zen Bones edited by Paul Reps–which is where I got the tale from, in the first place.)

Maoist Minds

by Sam Buntz

[I’ve decided to write some slightly shorter blog posts—instead of the longer essay-format I typically use, these are going to shoot for concision.]

It’s strange that politics has become the main lens for looking at virtually everything.  David Brooks was talking about this a few months ago in The New York Times, and I feel like I keep running into particularly egregious examples of it—usually on Slate.com (and similar sites), but also on Facebook, where rather Marxist acquaintances keep posting articles that—for example—dissect the various species of feminism, exposing instances of “white privilege” within other rival cadres of feminists, distinct from one’s own.   Naturally, I feel pretty distant from all of this.

It’s sort of like the way Communists kept fracturing into different squabbling factions—Marxist-Leninists, Trotskyites, Stalinists, Maoists, and the rest—except, in this case, it’s more hilariously ineffectual and divorced from the broader concerns of global and American Liberalism.   You know what I mean—articles that discuss how offensive it was for Katy Perry to “culturally appropriate” a kimono by wearing it.  These bizarre and absurd articles and blog posts expend vast reservoirs energy on trivia, that could better be applied to discussing real issues—income inequality, religious persecution in places like Tibet and Nigeria, U.S. foreign policy, and the other thousand pressing concerns that really affect things.   But instead, you mostly see postings about Alec Baldwin’s homophobic tweets or how Miley Cyrus’ twerk-fest was yet another grievous instance of cultural appropriation. (How much more culturally illuminating would it be to just put on some Charles Mingus or Marvin Gaye or Gladys Knight, and let their sonic masterpieces clean out all the dross?)

For example, I just read an article on Slate, today, about the Golden Globes—placed front and center on Slate’s homepage.  It could’ve just talked about the event in normal, cultural terms: whether the right movies won or lost, discussing the performances of the victorious actors and actresses, and so on.  Instead, the Slate article delved mighty for the nugget of political controversy, and managed to conjure up two non-existent instances of homophobia during the ceremony: one during Michael Douglas’s speech, where he stated that he worried he was “mincing” too much as he portrayed Liberace in Behind the Candelabra (which meant that he was worried he might be making Liberace into a gay caricature—clearly a valid concern, and not an instance of homophobia), and the other during Jared Leto’s, where he speculated that many of the women and a few of the men in the audience probably knew how painful it was to get a full Brazilian wax job  (which he had to do for the role he was playing).   Again—this is not homophobic, and, if anything, a jab at extreme metrosexuality, which is and should be fair game.  I mean—I give a pretty limited damn about the Golden Globes in the first place.  But I think it’s a pretty good example of how something apparently innocuous or even forthrightly well-intentioned can somehow provoke a gush of self-righteousness from the internet’s commentariat.

It’s a kind of Maoist mentality that generates these critiques.  These commentators feel the way Mao did—there’s always a Left, Center, and Right position on every subject, and its one’s duty as a good steward of the Revolution to pick out and pick on the Right and Center positions in everything.  But, if you happen to be sane, there actually isn’t always a Left, Center, and Right to everything—sometimes gardening is just gardening, and eating Chinese food is just eating Chinese food, and playing billiards is just playing billiards. For the record, I consider myself a moderate and fairly timid and disengaged Liberal—but I find it difficult to put up with too much of this nattering nonsense masquerading as critique.  It poisons every avenue of discourse.

I remember when I was at Divinity School, there were people who were so Leftist in political orientation, that they criticized people (like myself) who supported same-sex marriage and who were celebrating the Supreme Court’s ruling against the Defense of Marriage Act…because, according to them, marriage is itself an inherently patriarchal and oppressive institution!  I don’t agree with the idea that marriage is inherently patriarchal and oppressive in the first place (and it doesn’t even remotely fit my own family experience)—but can you imagine a more inappropriate time to bring up that critique? There’s no way to win with this squirrelly element on the Super Far Left.

I suppose what I’m saying just boils down to the age old summons to, “Take a chill-pill.”  But, furthermore, I want to suggest that—like in Wallace Steven’s famous poem about blackbirds—there are other, more interesting ways of looking at things than the political.  G.K. Chesterton once said that when the virtuous Common Man sees a person playfully brushing the grass near the sidewalk with his foot as he or she walks by, he sees someone who is absent-mindedly enjoying himself or herself.   On the other hand, the paranoid ideologue sees a conspiracy against private property (or public property if it’s a municipal lawn).  That’s what these critiques suffer from—an intense preoccupation with judgment and analysis, when what’s really usually required in life is imagination and synthesis.  Any written work that puts something together is worth more than a piece that tears something apart (though the two activities aren’t mutually exclusive).

I’m not sure this article falls into the first category—but I would prefer it if it did!

“Unbelievers, Old and New”

by Sam Buntz

“And all must love the Human Form / In heathen, Turk, or Jew / Where Mercy, Love, and Pity dwell / There God is dwelling too.”  – William Blake

I’m continually amazed by the vast decline in the quality of atheist literature from the 19th Century to our present era.  (I’m not an atheist, but as a student of religious debate in the modern world, I keep up on the general trends of atheist literature, anyway.)  To begin with, in authoring this near-polemic, I’ll look at the controversial, contemporary end of atheism first—hopefully reeling in the prospective non-believing reader by sparking his or her indignation, and stringing him or her along with the promise of yet more indignation, until I start to speak admiringly of a 19th Century atheist, Ludwig Feuerbach, and things suddenly get very calm and contemplative… These are my plans, to be perfectly straight about them.  Of course, I require only the aid of the Deity to make them succeed…

First off, throughout the past eight years or so—up until his death—I’ve read a ton of Christopher Hitchens’ essays in Slate and the Atlantic, not to mention significant chunks of his books. While I admired Hitchens’ rhetorical zeal, and found him to be generally a very entertaining writer (in fact, he had a pretty big influence on my college opinion columns) I think it’s fair to say that, to the bitter end, he retained an essentially parochial intellect—as far as his anti-religious polemics are concerned, at least.  His atheism was that of a mischievous British boarding-school kid, eager to hock a few good loogies at the Established Truths of the local Church of England Chapel.  However, after class was dismissed, he was left to roam around the mansions of the world’s other religions.  Yet he had never been properly housebroken.

To get more specific, the chapter on Eastern Religions from God is not Great provides a representative instance of his typical tactics at their absolute worst: it proclaims itself to be a refutation of Hinduism and Buddhism (two religions so enormously diverse as to almost automatically withstand any non-believing pamphleteer’s twenty page assault), and proceeds mostly by way of lambasting two contemporary figures: Rajneesh—the “Sex Guru”, whose disciples launched a biological terror attack by spreading salmonella at an Oregon salad bar—and the Dalai Lama, who donated money to the Japanese cult leader, Shoko Asahara, who later launched a terrorist attack on the Tokyo Subway (the donation occurred before most people were aware of what Asahara was up to—for the record).   Given that the Dalai Lama said this was a big mistake and an accident, I think we can cut him some slack—considering the number of financial transactions his offices must handle in a given year.  As for Rajneesh (who changed his name to “Osho”, once he was deported from the U.S. after the salmonella debacle), I can say with confidence that he has almost nothing to do with authentic Hinduism or Vedanta—his brand of spirituality was a pure product of the hippie era, calculated to stoke the strange cravings of Westerners.  Aside from rightly criticizing certain Japanese Buddhists for supporting the Imperial aspirations of their nation in the first half of the 20th Century and then wrongly using that fact to discredit Buddhism as a whole, this basically constitutes Hitchens’ polemic against Eastern Religions: two ad hominem attacks.

At no point does Hitchens prove himself capable of wrestling with these religions’ ideas; he is capable of reciting unsavory anecdotes, but he is never able to make the cognitive leap and engage with the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism or the Vedantic insights of philosophical titans like Shankara and Ramanuja.  Moreover, while I comprehend what the Hindu and Buddhist luminaries were driving at—what they thought the end goal of a human being is or could be and what leads to the supreme joy—I could never quite put my finger on what Hitchens really wanted, what kind of happiness or final joy he was trying to get.  His non-belief was a purely combative and destructive project—he never much explained what vision of human happiness he would substitute for those he attempted to depose.

Richard Dawkins’ own schoolboy variety of atheism differs from Hitchens’ only insofar as Dawkins is an inferior writer.  I remember he once rebuked religious critics, who claimed that he didn’t know enough theology to be a worthy combatant, by saying that you didn’t need to become an expert on “leprechaunology” to argue against the existence of leprechauns.  But once the cheaply earned chuckles have died down, we begin to realize that this is yet another rhetorical flourish, without an actual idea at its kernel.  Most people have a pretty clear picture of what a leprechaun is—a little Irish guy who hides gold at the ends of rainbows.  But there are numerous pictures of who and what God is—or what, in Hindu terms, Brahman or Ishvara is, or, in Buddhist terms, what the Dharmakaya is—and Dawkins refuses to familiarize himself with pretty much any of them, asserting that a child’s-eye-view of the Old Testament Deity provides the world’s default notion of God.  He may have a clear idea of what a leprechaun is (though I’m even a little doubtful about that), but his idea of God constantly wavers, melting into the shifting, insidious element that constitutes the substance of his prose.

So, if I’ve succeeded in raising any unbelievers’ hackles thus far, they can start to relax, since I’m going to say some fairly nice things about Ludwig Feuerbach—the German atheist and materialist who wrote a classic work of philosophy, The Essence of Christianity (translated by George Eliot—who was Chris Hitchens’ favorite writer, incidentally).  The difference between Feuerbach and the “New Atheists” is simply that Feuerbach gives a damn about his subject—he doesn’t reject the mythology and theology of religions but, instead, tries to find psychological truths about humans hidden within them.  Whereas Dawkins and Hitchens tend to dismiss whatever religion they may, at present, be holding under the gun, calling them fairy stories and deluded fantasies and chunks of contemptible fudge and what-not, Feuerbach—like the late Bruno Bettelheim—looks for the deep psychological truths hidden in these “fairy tales.”

For Feuerbach, Christian theology is not wrong, so much as it is an awkward way of analyzing the character of human beings.  God, says Feuerbach, is really a projection of humanity: he is human nature writ large.  Of course, most atheists would dismiss God on just these grounds—he’s an anthropomorphic projection, a scam!  But Feuerbach takes the extra leap of trying to learn about human beings from this projection—the very leap that Hitchens and Dawkins are never willing to make, primarily because they aren’t respectful of the human beings who create and maintain these projections, and are hence unwilling to accord them that mild degree of dignity.  But Feuerbach wants to understand.  Additionally, he has an idea of what the ultimate aim of human existence is—it might not be a particularly exalted one, but unlike in Hitchens’ and Dawkins’ writings, it’s actually present.

When Feuerbach looks at the God of Christianity—the Holy Trinity comprised of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—he sees a vision of humanity’s own implicit beliefs and powers.  Whereas for the Christian and Jew, God makes humanity in His image, Feuerbach sees God as being made in humanity’s image, and since God is supposed to have supreme power and supreme knowledge, Feuerbach posits that these attributes are really our own physical strength and intellect stretched to the furthest limit we can imagine them attaining.  However, such a supremely powerful and all-knowing God becomes terrifying—since humans lack this kind of unlimited strength and intellect, they’re unable to live up to this God’s inflexible moral order, thus leading to the endless cycle of retribution and punishment we see in the Old Testament.

But human beings have more than intellect and strength—they have feelings. Love and sympathy play a greater role in the human cosmos than in the world of divine law, since the O.T. God seems preoccupied with using “an eye for an eye” as his principle of action.  In the Hebrew Bible the only human being who seems capable of retaining God’s love is King David—which doesn’t bode particularly well for the rest of the supporting cast.  Hence, says Feuerbach, the New Testament remedies this: it creates a God who actually is a human, who suffers all that a human suffers, and hence attains a supreme emotional intimacy with humankind.  He is a God who is perfect not just in strength and intellect, but in feeling and sympathy, as well.  He is now—in the form of the completed Christian Trinity—a full representation of the human being, a maximized version of our own brains, bodies, and (most importantly) hearts.

For Feuerbach, cultivating the heart and developing loving-kindness becomes the most important feature of religion—and of the secular culture he wants to succeed it.  It is the lynchpin that keeps everything together, that sets the human being completely at accord with himself or herself and with the idea of a greater human reality—the species itself.  If human beings can just flip their God-projection inside out, says Feuerbach, they can realize that they are the Deity they’ve been worshipping, and can live in sympathy and fellow-feeling, eating and drinking with a merry heart… But, at what point in their writings do Hitchens and Dawkins ever manage to spell out a similar conception of human destiny?  They probably would agree with Feuerbach—but they never had the strength or will to articulate their agreement, placing it front and center.  Their constructive project, their idea of what they wanted to replace religion, is vague—part of the background scenery.

As someone who does believe in God, in Brahman—though believing for me is a matter of seeing, as well (which is the point of meditation and prayer in Vedantic Hindu thought: the great Swami Vivekananda said, “See Christ first, and then you are a Christian.  All else is just talk.”)—I find Feuerbach helpful.  If I simply disagree with him on one crucial point—the idea that the ground of existence is material—and instead assert that the ground of existence is spiritual (thus bringing me back to the position of Feuerbach’s immediate forebear, Hegel), I can accept most of what Feuerbach is saying without losing any part of my religion.  There’s still a God—a living, creative Reality behind the scenes, Who, using the human mind as a tool, creates helpful projections and images of Deity—names and forms—which gradually guide humanity towards a transcendent apprehension of God’s undifferentiated and absolute reality, beyond the world of names and forms.  So—that’s my personal aside.

Feuerbach was an atheist who accorded enough respect to human beings to admit that anything they create—be it a painting or a comprehensive mythology—can teach us something about our own inner nature.  The “New Atheists” today lack this respect—it’s all jeers, without any qualified cheers…  Perhaps this is why they seem less relevant now than they were a couple of years ago: they mainly provide high-schoolers and college students with yet another opportunity to write obnoxious tweets.  That, on the whole, is the extent of their service to humanity.

But a more sensitive atheist like Feuerbach or Freud gives intellectual riches to believers and unbelievers equally.  Towards the end of The Essence of Christianity, Feuerbach writes, “The [human] species is not an abstraction; it exists in feeling, in the moral sentiment, in the energy of love. It is the species which infuses love into me. A loving heart is the heart of the species throbbing in the individual. Thus Christ, as the consciousness of love, is the consciousness of the species. We are all one in Christ. Christ is the consciousness of our identity. He therefore who loves man for the sake of man, who rises to the love of the species, to universal love, adequate to the nature of the species, he is a Christian, is Christ himself. He does what Christ did, what made Christ Christ.”

Even if you disagree with this, I hope you’ll agree that—considering the excessively and pointlessly combative tenor of our times (which I may have joined in a bit, penning the earlier part of this article)—it’s certainly got some soul to it… which is ironic enough, since Feuerbach didn’t believe in the literal existence of the soul.  Funny, right?