Kissing Icons, Swinging Censers: The Ancient Vibes of Eastern Orthodoxy

by Sam Buntz

The censer swings… and swings. The censer keeps swinging, persistently, throughout nearly the entirety of this Eastern Orthodox Church service in Central Connecticut—indeed, throughout the recorded history of Christendom. The censer emits little puffs of incense, beseeching the altar, partitioned from the congregation by a barrier featuring paintings of saints. (The first official Christian martyr, St. Stephen, adorns one). Altar boys and assistant priests pass in and out of the swinging doors fixed in this barrier; there is constant activity—things are happening. It’s a performance of color and sound and matter-in-motion, with a sense of silence and stillness lying behind it. You might not understand 75% of what’s going on, but the believers believe in its efficaciousness. They stand in hallowed expectation, waiting to be fed God.

The priest sings the Gospel reading; in fact, with the exception of the homily, the entire service is sung in English with bits of Old Church Slavonic thrown in. Parents hold their children up to kiss icons—images of the Virgin Mary (in Eastern Orthodox parlance, “The Theotokos” or “God Bearer”), Christ, and the Saints. Christianity, which we normally find so familiar—such a known quantity—suddenly appears foreign. After all, the faith began in the East, and here, at a Russian Orthodox Church, the East seems strangely close to the West. Much of what the average Catholic or Protestant accepts as Christianity is certainly present, but there is more—the fullness of the service, the amount of activity and imagery, attended by a chorus of crying babies brought by young families (youth is in short supply at most other denominations these days, though not this one), is impressive, and to a passing observer such as myself, a little intimidating. What’s happening? Suddenly, the priest flaps a white cloth about twenty times over the altar. Why?

(I’ll explain later).

This brief dip into Orthodoxy helped me gain some perspective on Christianity—on what it is and what it does for people. G.K. Chesterton lamented the skeptic’s lack of fair-mindedness towards the Christian Faith, stating that we tend to take it for granted as something ordinary, the wearily trod province of church committees and spaghetti dinners. But, he argued, one could see it more clearly if one first de-familiarized it: “It would be better to see the whole thing as a remote Asiatic cult; the mitres of its bishops as the towering head dresses of mysterious bonzes; its pastoral staffs as the sticks twisted like serpents carried in some Asiatic procession; to see the prayer book as fantastic as the prayer-wheel and the Cross as crooked as the Swastika.” (The swastika, at the time Chesterton wrote this sentence, was still a peaceful Hindu and Buddhist symbol, and hadn’t yet been stolen by the Nazis).

Sitting—or, primarily, standing—at this Orthodox service, I saw Christianity as such an Eastern faith. Atmospherically, the experience was oddly closer to being in a Hindu Temple than it was to being in, say, a liberal United Church of Christ service… An Eastern Orthodox Mass has the feeling of an ancient, almost Shamanic rite—of something magical and timeless. (I don’t mean to wallow in exoticism, but it’s hard to deny that it’s part of the appeal.) Here, bread and wine are transformed into the flesh and blood of a God, and dispensed to people who are made mystically one with that Deity by partaking of His very being. While this basic purpose is the same as that of Catholic Mass, the presentation has a distinctly pre-Vatican II feeling. (A congregant told me that the Eastern Orthodox mass is closer to the Tridentine or Latin Mass than to the current Catholic version). It is proudly unreformed, and its antiquity is palpable. This is attractive: Eastern Orthodoxy offers a historical connection to the origins of Christianity, and folds to a millimeter the distance between Christian and Christ—time past is time present and time present is time past, to paraphrase a T.S. Eliot line. Naturally, all true believers want to be as close as possible to the living reality of Jesus and the Apostles, to a way of life instituted not by the ever-conniving human intellect but by the pure breath of God. A Protestant fundamentalist can do this by trying to reconstruct true Christian life from a close reading of the New Testament—but an Eastern Orthodox lay person looks to a tradition of ritual and shared experience that claims to go back to the very beginning. Only Catholicism can make a similar claim on historical continuity (though, again, it seems a bit more reformed these days). In the mists of the past, the Mass eludes the sense of being a merely human innovation.

Many of the members of the congregation I visited were former Catholics or Episcopalians, searching for a connection to a venerable tradition, mixed in with a fair amount of ethnic Eastern Europeans. Since Eastern Orthodoxy has a historical pedigree, and since it is both less reformed than Catholicism and less overtly hierarchical (there is no Pope and no doctrine of infallibility), one can feel the peculiar magnetism of its aura. If you were present at the creation—at the origin—you have a strong claim to be the bearer of Christ into the New World.

But why was I there? I’m interested in all religions, and have attended numerous services—from a Sikh Gurdwara to a Swedenborgian reading group to Buddhist and Sufi meditation sessions to Hindu puja—but hadn’t previously been to an Eastern Orthodox Mass. This seemed like an unfortunate gap, given its strong claim to being the original Church. Also, aspects of its inner life—its spirituality—were highly intriguing: on the whole, Orthodoxy has been more open to the mystical life than Catholicism and Protestantism, despite the great mystics of both those traditions. Books like The Way of a Pilgrim and Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov further contributed to my interest, as did the sayings of an Eastern Orthodox sage, Metropolitan Anthony Bloom, who offered this striking and rather cryptic observation about prayer and Orthodox ritual to the philosopher Jacob Needleman: “In prayer one is vulnerable, not enthusiastic. And then these rituals have such force. They hit you like a locomotive. You must not be enthusiastic, nor rejecting—but only open. This is the whole aim of asceticism: to become open.”

So—why did I go? Anthony Bloom, vulnerability, Dostoevsky, the way of a pilgrim… Is that a coherent explanation? I think it adds up to one. I wanted to see a portion of the past made present—receive a material impression that there’s something eternal underneath this changing flux of dreamlike appearance. I wanted a little evidence that you can’t really bury the human need to make contact with Eternity under diodes and wires: people will proudly revert to the ancient ways.   Also, and perhaps most importantly, I wanted to see if I could enter, if for a second or two, Bloom’s state of vulnerable receptivity to experience. I liked his depiction of prayer: clearing out a space, emptying one’s self of ordinary human thought and emotion, so that a higher influence could enter. It gives a sense of what seekers are likely looking for in Eastern Orthodoxy: an open space in the midst of modern noise, a place where your ear might be able to catch a higher tone.

But, unfortunately, I’m not really a morning person, and my brain was haphazard with irrelevant thoughts throughout the ritual… Additionally, while I’m not what you would call a “skeptic,” I’m not sure I could bring myself to a point where I could feel anything sincere as I kissed an icon or received the Eucharist (I refrained from doing either, out of respect). In order to do it, I would have to shift my stance towards reality in a fairly radical manner… But, nonetheless, I was impressed by the experience.

The form of the Quaker service I went to a week before could be succinctly summarized in one sentence: “The congregation sits in silence, and when someone feels like the Spirit has moved her, she speaks.” (I enjoyed this, and, in many respects, it seemed closer to my own wavelength.) But one could spend multiple volumes detailing the nature of the Eastern Orthodox Mass and Liturgy. There was a long period in which the priest flapped a folded white linen over the altar—there were many flaps (as mentioned earlier). A friendly lay person told me later that the original purpose of this was to ward flies away from the Communion wine.  Yet, even without flies around, the practice remained in place… Mundane gestures take on a mood of sanctity when repeated in a devout manner, I suppose.

To further explore the contrast: Quaker worship intends to connect you to an immediate sense of divine presence—an Eternal Now, in which revelation can still happen.   Eastern Orthodoxy does the same thing through nearly opposite means. It also feels timeless, because it’s been going on forever with its relatively unreformed approach. But it tries to connect you to the Spirit by placing your attention on a heavily symbolic ritual, whereas the Quakers try, mystically, to allow you to open your attention to the Spirit without reliance on any external aid. Both techniques have just claims in their favor, though they lie on opposite ends of the spectrum of Christian practice.

In the midst of the gory mess that we call history, the rituals of Eastern Orthodoxy provide an escape hatch for their devotees, connecting them to Eternity. Many souls in the modern world can’t accept the notion that everything we see and experience is sentenced to the cycle of birth, decay, and death—and neither can I. There must be something that transcends… An ancient tradition like Orthodoxy symbolizes, in my eyes, an ongoing counter-movement beneath the bustle of time—the swift but silent footsteps of Divinity through the ages.

Chuck E. Cheese and the Redeeming Light of Christ

by Sam Buntz

In 2012, Chuck E. Cheese’s restaurant chain fired Duncan Brannan, the long-time voice of the company’s mascot.  Shortly thereafter, Brannan posted a farewell message online, concluding with the words: “…And, if being the voice of Chuck E. Cheese for any length of time has meant anything to me, it was never about a paycheck because God will always provide for His children in one way or another.  No.  What it was about, what my sincere hope is is that you — you fans, you parents, and all you kids who have loved Chuck E. Cheese over the years — have seen, heard, or experienced Jesus Christ in and through my life in some way.  For He is all that matters, now and for all eternity.”

I think this fairly bursts with all the poignancy and tragedy of the human condition— principally, in that human beings want to do great things, but are given absurd and seemingly inadequate materials to accomplish their aims. In this case, a dude wants to save people from suffering an eternity in hellfire.  (He makes that pretty clear in an earlier part of the message I didn’t quote.)  In and of itself, this is a strange conceit, but undoubtedly audacious.  If you are someone who actually believes that the vast majority of humans are all rushing ignorantly and headlong into hell, then saving people from this fate would probably be the best way to occupy your time.  If you didn’t, you’d be somewhat irresponsible, to say the least, letting countless souls tumble into perdition.  But, here’s the kicker, the pinch of unexpected spice: the only tool at your disposal is your ability to voice a fictitious mouse.  Sometimes the mouse appears in cartoon form, sometimes as a live-action mascot, but every day you must struggle to use this mouse’s voice, reciting scripted lines advertising a pizza and video game franchise devoid of any overt religious message or symbolism, in order to help manifest Christ’s love in the world, thus furthering the redemption of the human race.

I find this simultaneously moving and claustrophobically terrifying. It’s like one of Kafka’s fever dreams.  No one really commented on this in a serious way back in 2012, aside from a lot of scurrilous blogger mofos, turning it into some big joke… which it obviously is, of course.  But it’s so much more than that, too.  If I’m still carrying it around with me in 2015, how could it not be? It’s haunted me for nearly three years.

In a way, Brannan’s pizza-loving-mouse-based evangelism encapsulates what people mean when they say that something is “postmodern.”  (Although at this point, intellectuals and pseudo-intellectuals may have fully talked-out postmodernism—like with “hipsters” and “the internet.”  Lines of inquiry feel exhausted.  It’s all like some conversation from 2006.)  Of course, outside of decent universities and their satellite spawning grounds, people don’t walk around saying, “That’s so postmodern.”  But if they did they would definitely say it about Brannan’s unique way of expressing Christ’s love.  It’s postmodern because it exists beyond any humanly conceived notion of an ordered universe.  It is an instance of a man trying to impose a plot, a religious narrative, on a world that refuses to be pinned down by any totalizing narrative (including atheistic and secular narratives as well, I believe.  We live in Kurt Godel’s incompleteness theorem, where our theories can never be fully comprehensive; there’s always a flaw, a gap, some information that just won’t fit into the model… Godel was a religious man, though, by the way).  This is a cosmos without a single narrative that can fully do it justice.  Maybe the only comprehensive narrative would be all the narratives absorbed at once—chaos and a plethora of meaning simultaneously.  This is why Duncan Brannan can only try to secure the salvation of humanity by providing the vocals for a cheese-craving rodent pizza-mascot.  His evangelical narrative can only remain coherent within his own private world, but when he tries to express it in the broader universe, it becomes dyed in the hue of postmodern absurdity.  Yet he quests onwards in spite of this, a latter day Don Quixote. Windmills are giants.  Ads for a pizza chain are a coup for Christ.

I’m not sure if I’ve made it clear at any point in the past few paragraphs, but I’d say that I’m basically pro-Brannan.  It’s impossible not to be.  The pop culture websites that reported this pseudo-story back when it came out mainly just used it as an occasion to mock human weirdness and, potentially, highlight the lameness of contemporary Christianity.  But it’s bigger than that, because it’s a symbol for what anyone who tries to actually live a myth in today’s world has to do.  And I don’t mean that Christianity is a “myth” as in something untrue.  I mean that it is a certain species of story that envisions an underlying narrative, couched beneath the world of appearances.  It proposes a hidden order, just like any other religion, or even, in a counter-intuitive way, like the-order-that-isn’t-really-an-order, the Blind Watchmaker Cosmos of atheists like Richard Dawkins.  All these mythologies attempt to author the text of reality, but reality, I believe, always evades being pinned down by one specific story (as stated moments earlier).  God is either all gods or no god. Brannan’s courage isn’t so much that he clings to a rigid belief system, full of brimstone.  It’s that he continues to let his story manufacture a meaning for his life under circumstances that wouldn’t seem to fit that story.

In a way, I suppose that Jesus’ death on the cross is itself an example of a story that braves its own seeming negation in order to come out okay on the other side. (Which means that Jesus himself was “postmodern”?? Should I have refused to use pseudo-intellectual buzzwords in this article altogether???)  No one would expect God to be humiliated and murdered.  People would probably expect him to use his God powers to strengthen his dominion of the universe; like, he would appoint himself Supreme Emperor of the world in an actual, political manner. In fact, everyone at the time expected the Messiah to institute his rule with an iron fist, which is how the Book of Revelation actually does depict Jesus. But the Gospel story shockingly subverts that expectation. The exact opposite of what you would expect to happen happens, and it turns out to be the one really necessary event, cosmically inevitable and unambiguously good.

I think Brannan might feel the same way about being Chuck E. Cheese. It doesn’t seem like an appropriate platform for introducing the love of Christ, but its very absurdity makes it more Christian, more in line with Jesus’ own triumph through absurdity. (An early Church Father, Tertullian, once said, somewhat paradoxically, “I believe because it is absurd.” In other words, it’s too weird to be fiction.)  So, in a way, I guess I’m saying that Brannan is a great example of a postmodern Christian, or of any postmodern religious believer.  His narrative is his cross: an absurd problem that, nonetheless and against all expectations, manages to redeem him.

“The Deep Truth is Imageless”: Reflections on Studying Religion

by Sam Buntz

“If the abysm
Could vomit forth its secrets… But a voice
Is wanting, the deep truth is imageless.”
-Percy Shelley

In an earlier era, the greatest scholars of comparative religion searched for a unity underlying the world’s faiths. Mircea Eliade, probably the major figure in 20th Century religious study, argued that there were real universals to be found cross-culturally in religion. According to Eliade, religion is the search for an eternal reality that can interact or interpenetrate with our own, causing life in the world of time to become dyed in the colors of eternity—the profane world makes contact with a sacred world, becoming sacred itself, in the process. That’s the shared purpose behind individual, mystical practices, in which one seeks contact with eternity personally, and in social, ritual practices like receiving Holy Communion and Hindu Puja. Put far too shortly, this was Eliade’s big idea. It’s amazing how many scholars have tried to dismiss it—shaky guns that should’ve been trained on beer bottles sitting on backyard fences end up setting their sights on King Kong.

Closely related to Eliade, though not exactly the same, is another approach to religion, the “Perennial Philosophy” or Perennialism. One of its major proponents, Aldous Huxley, defined it as, “the metaphysic that recognizes a divine Reality substantial to the world of things and lives and minds; the psychology that finds in the soul something similar to, or even identical to, divine Reality; the ethic that places man’s final end in the knowledge of the immanent and transcendent Ground of all being.” The difference is that, while Eliade stated that there were universals in religion, he stopped short of claiming in his scholarship that these universals were determined by the “transcendent Ground of all being”—God, Brahman, or what you will (though that seems to be what he actually believed in his personal life).

This view is also widely out of fashion. A great number of scholars today argue that there isn’t really a shared commonality underlying religious thought and practice—religions don’t all say “the same thing” (as opposed to what Gandhi once said: “All religions are true). Stephen Prothero at Boston University is a good example, having authored the guide to world religions, God is Not One—kind of the antithesis of Huston Smith’s popular and famous The World’s Religions. Prothero basically points out the obvious: of course, Christians typically believe that Jesus was an incarnation of God, and Muslims typically deny it; that kind of thing… But that was never the kind of claim that Perennialists or followers of Eliade were interested in disputing. They were looking at religions to find deeper patterns of universality—not shared, specific doctrines. They wanted to find the relations between things, while analyzing the structures of myth and belief and praxis. It’s not that the particulars of Jesus’ and Buddha’s lives are all the same—it’s that the greater shape of those narratives share numerous commonalities (a miraculous conception and birth, a period of withdrawal from the world and temptation, a final apotheosis, etc.). As the literary theorist Northrop Frye put it, while religions often differ drastically in terms of theology, in terms of mythology they’re remarkably similar.

Consider Joseph Campbell, whose classic study of mythology, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, inspired Star Wars (probably one of the reasons certain joyless scholars dislike him so much and disagree with him so vehemently). Essentially, Campbell argues that the great heroic narratives of all mythologies and religions—from Maori and Native American legends to the stories of Buddha and Christ—encapsulate certain universal truths and themes about human experience. What you actually find in Campbell’s writings isn’t some mad attempt to reduce all religions to the exact same story, which is what his critics (who’ve evidently never read him) always seem to imply. Obviously, Jesus has his moment of triumph through the Resurrection, and the Buddha finishes the hero’s journey with enlightenment under the Bo Tree. That’s a blatant difference—and not one that Campbell ever would’ve denied in the slightest. His books explode with variety—yet he traces out shared depth patterns within that miraculous variety. It’s not that the particulars of religious belief are always the same everywhere—it’s that the power within humanity, which creates or projects those religions, is the same everywhere. And since we all have, in a biological sense, the same kind of brain, and since we all have, in a deeper sense, the same kind of imagination, it stands to reason that, beneath what society and biology condition, there’s some kind of commonality. Eliade, Huxley, Huston Smith, Fritjof Schuon, Ananda Coomaraswamy, and many other scholars and writers (though almost all of an earlier age) agree.

In Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces and The Masks of God, you actually find a celebration of diversity, with the persistent acknowledgement of an underlying unity—but this is a unity that is always implied, hinted. It’s never made crassly visible as a whole. (Perhaps that’s the implication of the adage, “No man can see God and live.”) The power that creates and animates all religions can be labeled—whether as God or The Self or the Absolute or the Great Void or even just, from a secular perspective, as Mind—and beguilingly suggested, but ultimately proves impervious to verbal definition or conceptual delineation. The human imagination can provide a battery of symbols for it, can dance around it, but can never really say, in one formulation, what it is. In John Keats’ phrase, it “teases us out of thought.” We have words that stand for the Eternal, and beyond that—a sublime silence. This is the territory of mystics—though scholars can take the intellectual journey up to the edge.

As Campbell recognized, we don’t live in a world of mere fragments—which is how the die-hard opponents of The Perennial Philosophy tend to view the human race’s spiritual and intellectual creations. They think that the random vagaries of socialization and circumstance are really all there is—there’s nothing beyond them. (A comparable counter-strain exists in the study of English, where professors like Stephen Greenblatt deny that there’s such a thing as a universal experience or truth in literature; millions of readers of Shakespeare, from Japan to Nigeria to Kansas would disagree). Although scholars often argue about this as if the Perennial and Eliadean positions have somehow been disproved, it should seem fairly clear to anyone with an ounce of common sense that the stance one takes on this question is ultimately just a matter of taste, or, in a deeper sense, one’s feeling for life—one’s essential attitude regarding the world. Whether one can trace correspondences in the world’s religions and mythologies depends more on whether one wishes to look for them in the first place. You can either dismiss those correspondences as chance coincidences or embrace them as “signs and wonders”—but both paths are, at least as far as academia should be concerned, valid. (Clearly, I only think that the position that insists on questing for unity within diversity is actually right, however. Also, seeing the world as a collection of fragments probably isn’t just wrong, but dangerous and hazardous to one’s own mental health, in a very real way. But there are just too many professors in the humanities who share that perspective to say it’s not legitimate… I’m compromising as tactfully as I can, basically.)

At present, the skeptics probably have the upper hand—but the pendulum of history continues to swing. I wouldn’t be surprised if a revived interest in the human spirit and its universals—in the Soul, to bundle it all into one unpopular term—within the University were to correspond with a broader revival of interest in the same. The human race can only endure being reduced to a mechanical object, can only put up with the trivialization of its motives and aims for so long. More and more people will eventually assert that human beings aren’t just products of socialization, biology, and chance, and hopefully, some Inner Revolution will overthrow this stale philosophy of fragments, which takes humanity piecemeal while always forgetting E.M. Forster’s great motto: “Only connect.”

Pouty Guinness

by Sam Buntz

Does anyone seriously believe that, if the Prophet Muhammad had been born in the present day (say, around 1975), he would be opposed to reproducing his image? Would he constantly be pulling his coat over his head as the paparazzi’s flash bulbs went off—occasionally decking a photographer like an irate Sean Penn? Would someone with the social skills to found a world religion really be so resolutely un-chill? Did Muhammad have no cool? In my personal opinion, I think tens of thousands of kids would be taking selfies with Muhammad and posting them on Instagram, and he’d be fine with it. You’ve got to roll with the times if you’re going to have any success.

In the wake of the recent terrorist attacks in Paris, I realized how important this issue is, because it’s so hard to discern where the limits lie. South Park made an episode where Jesus uses performance enhancing drugs to undergo the Resurrection, before launching a steroid-induced rampage and destroying the factory that was making all those Lance Armstrong Livestrong bracelets… and no one got shot in the head or blown up as a result. But could I draw a stick figure—just a circle with some lines, no facial features, not even a beard or a turban or anything—and caption it, “Muhammad”? What if I try to argue it’s not that specific Muhammad, but some other Muhammad—like this dude I know who sells used Nissans? Would I still be a blasphemer? It’s the most popular name in the world, after all. And what if I turned it into a flipbook, with the stick figure Muhammad doing a happy dance? And not a crazy, excited-to-blow-up-skyscrapers dance—just a merry jig? Would I be Al-Qaeda and ISIS’s number one target?

I’m kind of worried because I didn’t realize that you weren’t allowed to draw images or cartoons of Muhammad (at least, according to many interpretations of Islam). Hence, I thought I was paying tribute to inter-faith tolerance when painting a series of seventy sumptuous, Italianate oil paintings, depicting the Prophet himself. Since I don’t know what Muhammad really looked like, I modeled him on Alec Guinness… Now, my escape plan is to claim that they were really meant to be Alec Guinness all along…

So, anyway, in most of the paintings, Alec Guinness (the dude who played Obi Wan Kenobi, for the younger readers) is reclining in leisurely opulence. He stares at the viewer with a classic male model’s “pouty” look.   He sits with his legs spread across a sofa, dressed in a fine, three-piece Armani, leaning against the end of the couch, one hand lightly supporting his head in a relaxed pose. (There’s a slight Kate-Winslet-in-Titanic feel to some of these). The other hand cradles a glass of Johnny Walker, no ice. In a few other paintings, Alec Guinness—still fully clothed in Armani—reclines in a bathtub, sportively flicking bubbles at the viewer…

Fortunately, by re-titling the paintings Pouty Guinness #1-70, I was able to save myself from a major headache—potential terrorist attacks. But others might not be so fortunate. You can make a basically respectful work, but still have it be misinterpreted… like this animated short I created, recently, featuring a zany soapbox race where religious founders compete against each other for the prize—Julia Roberts. But, surprise! It ends in a tie, showing that they’re all equal paths (except for Scientology and L. Ron Hubbard—he’s the Dick Dastardly of the skit, who crashes off course, and winds up frowning and confused in a giant pile of oranges). What if some terrorists misinterpreted my depiction of Muhammad and his Greased Lightning soapbox as some sort of confusingly ironic diss? Because it’s not—alright?

The Quest for Novelty

by Sam Buntz

The mind thinks that information is the way out. The more details it can gather, it supposes, the closer it will be to amassing an ultimate agglomeration of Truth. The various practical applications arising from this rage for information, seem to justify it—after all, we have iPads, microwaves, and medical care exponentially superior to that of any previous century. It must be adding up to something. But, worthy as these innovations are, the craving for information—for image, for detail, for forbidden knowledge (for videos of beheadings and of naked women crushing hamsters with high heels, to cite two real examples)—only increases, until it results in a final consolidation of Error, as opposed to a consolidation of Truth. It is nothing but sound and fury. Fortunately, this Body of Error can’t help but expose itself—when real attention is turned towards it, it shrivels in the sun. Yet it is exceedingly crafty and strategic in fending off its demise: it simply seeks to keep human attention bouncing around, from one object to the next, without ever settling in concentration and seeing the matter plain. In such a state, human beings can’t even really be said to have any attention—the objects of their awareness are not determined by themselves, but by external powers, by that bundle of Error.

So, the mind marches on, concocting new marinades and seasonings with which to disguise that tasteless and mysterious tofu—the underlying substance of life. As T.S. Eliot puts it, these external distractions seek to “Excite the membrane, when the sense has cooled, / With pungent sauces, multiply variety / In a wilderness of mirrors.” The goal is novelty—mechanically and automatically sought in order to fend off knowledge of the underlying silence, the fundamental emptiness or darkness of experience, which we consider (with almost no justification) to be a threat. We do not suspect that an invisible sun might be buried within that eternal night… Obviously, the pursuit of novelty for its own sake—to keep attention moving to fresh objects, in a state of incessant flux—can only result in madness. (The utter loss of attention might really be the definition of “madness,” as it is commonly understood). As the attention becomes fatigued with familiar objects, it seeks to incite passion through bizarre channels, tripping down obscure alleys. (This weekend, we were just informed that a convention of “Furries”—people who dress up like giant stuffed animals in order to have sex—was disrupted by a chlorine gas leak, likely due to sabotage). It seems to be true that, while, as a whole, the rate of violence has gone down in the world—compared to earlier eras—humanity, thanks to this unhinged quest for novelty, has never looked quite so ridiculous and undignified.

In a way, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The further the quest proceeds and the mind’s affections continue to go haywire, the more this great Body of Error seems obvious. Here, the risk is that, in attempting to expose the Body of Error, the critic fails to see or notice anything that is not the Body of Error, and hence becomes just another unconstructive complainer, howling in the cheap seats. Anyone can see that there’s something ridiculous about Miley Cyrus humping giant teddy bears on stage—but not everyone who notices that this is ridiculous can articulate what the alternatives are. If you bask in ridicule—in giving it or receiving it—you haven’t really separated yourself from the mass of accumulated falsity. Your attention is still subject to that shifting and treacherous sea.

But what is the alternative? In venturing an amateur guess, I would say that the alternative is, as already implied, a practice involving concentrated attention, concentrated will. Kierkegaard wrote, “Purity of heart is to will one thing.” But what one thing? Where should attention be concentrated? And how? It would be somewhat presumptuous to fill in the blanks, on my part, demonstrating a certain pretension to sagedom.  Yet it is impossible to end this essay without offering something more. Simone Weil’s voice might serve to bridge the gap, establishing a living connection with the Body of Truth, existing across the gulf from the Body of Error: “The combination of these two facts — the longing in the depth of the heart for absolute good, and the power, though only latent, of directing attention and love to a reality beyond the world and of receiving good from it — constitutes a link which attaches every man without exception to that other reality.”

Thomas Hardy’s God

by Sam Buntz

If we lack a hope that transcends the vagaries of time and space, the best we can do is not to hope: to never expect much. That was the wisdom of Thomas Hardy, later echoed by poetic descendants, like Philip Larkin. Yet, while Hardy is a poet who advises stoic endurance in the face of the world’s “neutral tinted haps and such,” he goes further than his disciples. While Larkin also advises endurance, he is, compared to Hardy, somewhat spiritless: he has no appetite for a cosmic quest, and disdains poetic mythmaking for that reason. Despite being shorn of orthodox belief by the revelations of Darwin, Hardy actually did have the urge for such metaphysical exploration. Unlike some of his followers, he doesn’t cease to think after receiving an initial impression—he pursues, he speculates, he wonders. As John Irving put it in A Prayer for Owen Meany, Hardy was “almost religious.” He had the temperament and the wonder, but he lacked hope for an eternal world, for final bliss. He knows all about time, but is uncertain regarding eternity.

A great example of Hardy’s philosophical mind in action is the poem, “The Masked Face.” The speaker finds himself in “a great surging space,” with no “firm-fix’d floor” and locked doors at both ends. A mysterious masked face arrives to tell him that this place is “Life.” When the speaker complains about the locked doors and the confusion reigning in this weird locale, the mask-veiled being replies:

“There once complained a goosequill pen
To the scribe of the Infinite
Of the words it had to write
Because they were past its ken.”

And in an untitled poem, labeled a “fragment” (though it seems complete enough), Hardy talks about another metaphysical trip. The speaker visits the Dead—all who have ever lived—where they wait in a hidden gallery. He asks them what they’re waiting for, and they reply that they’re waiting for “God” or “the Will, or Force, or Laws” or “vaguely…the Ultimate Cause” to finally “know it.” To the speaker’s repeated questioning they explain that they’re waiting for God to “know how things have been going on earth and below it: /  It is clear he must know some day…” They continue:

“‘Since he made us humble pioneers
Of himself in consciousness of Life’s tears,
It needs no mighty prophecy
To tell that what he could mindlessly show
His creatures, he himself will know.

“‘By some still close-cowled mystery
We have reached feeling faster than he,
But he will overtake us anon,
If the world goes on.’”

In his work, Hardy took inspiration from Arthur Schopenhauer, the German philosopher who viewed the “Will to Live” as fundamentally pointless, even malign: we are all its helpless puppets, and our glory lies in renunciation and asceticism. But despite Schopenhauer’s profound influence, Hardy, in these particular poems, refuses to see life as a meaningless slog. He doesn’t consider the onward march of the Will as so much sound and fury. Rather, Life is a process that may, in fact, lead to a desirable conclusion, and there may be some greater design behind it—though not one consciously directed by the Biblical God. Rather, God is Life (or the Will) in Hardy’s estimation—a process leading towards some final comprehension. (This is very similar to George Bernard Shaw’s philosophy, as well). We have only to play our part in it, without complaint or accusation. Yet, at the same time, this shred of hope for the future—if it really is hope—is slathered with qualifications. God or the Will or the Ultimate Cause will reach some great reckoning “if the world goes on”, says Hardy (italics added). The sense of existential nausea, of reeling in immensities of time and space with no point of orientation, never really dissipates.

There is a certain tendency in some British artists—writers, playwrights, poets, film-makers—to indulge in misery for its own sake. “British Miserablism” is actually a school and a style. In a warped way, these artists look back to Hardy—but they fail to recognize that a tragedy is not a tragedy if there never was any chance for things to go right. If it’s always been 3 A.M. in the soul, and has never been high noon, where’s the loss? But, by situating his poetry in this greater semi-mythical context—speculating on the ultimate purpose of God or the Will, however vague it may be—Hardy lets us see genuine tragedy in the human condition. Things could be going right—we might’ve been born in the hidden room lying at the further end of that shifting, bewildering space called “Life,” discussed in “The Masked Face”. We might’ve lived to see the unveiling of the Mask, to note whether some more or less benevolent countenance lay behind. But we’re born in the middle of the process, unable to understand the purpose of the Infinite in authoring our sufferings—and our joys, for that matter (Hardy, in “Hap”, imagines higher powers, randomly scattering bliss and pain around his “pilgrimage”). That’s our real tragedy, in Hardy’s view. We can but serve and die, doing a little good in the process, and hoping merely that someone else will finally learn what it was all about.

But Hardy didn’t just influence poets like Larkin—poignantly unhappy, while dedicated to muddling through. He also influenced W.H. Auden, a writer who knew all that Hardy knew about time, but also knew much more about Eternity. Auden called Hardy an ideal mentor for the inspiring poet—since Hardy used so many verse forms and meters, and also provides numerous instructive examples of a great poet’s lesser and awkwardly shaped efforts—and understood the negative lessons Hardy taught about time and death. As Auden writes in “As I Walked Out One Evening,” “The glacier knocks in the cupboard / And the desert sighs in the bed / And a crack in the tea-cup opens / A lane to the land of the dead.” But Auden also affirms a hope transcending time and space—which Hardy never really could, since the vague hope he does have is ultimately bound by time, occurring at the end of a historical process. In “In Praise of Limestone” Auden imagines a higher world where “The blessed will not care what angle they are regarded from / Having nothing to hide.” This is a far more specific hope than Hardy’s desire to see the Will somehow become aware of what’s happening on earth. Auden has absorbed Hardy’s teachings, while daring to leap beyond them—reaching, as a poet, the same kind of final reckoning that Hardy intuited but did not dare to attain.

Closed Off

by Sam Buntz

“You know then that it is not the reason
That makes us happy or unhappy:
The bird sings. Its feathers shine.” –Wallace Stevens, “Of Mere Being”

Psychologically, there are few things more damaging than the belief that one is living in a closed system. The notion that discursive thought can arrive at all possible answers—and that the universe is a system in which all possible questions can be resolved—is not only arrogant but, in a fundamental way, unscientific and irrational. For a specific example of this wrongheadedness in action, we can consider the search for an equation that can explain the entirety of existence—a “Theory of Everything.” Of course, most scientists engaged in the quest for this theory don’t consider why there should be an equation that describes all of reality, in the first place—for some reason, in their understanding, reality isn’t comprised of heterogeneous fragments, but forms an ideal whole: the four fundamental forces of nature need to resolve into one force, and the masses of all particles need to receive their values from one specific particle, and so on. I understand why I believe that reality forms a whole, or why a Roman Catholic believes this to be the case—but I have no idea why theoretical physicists like Stephen Hawking or Lawrence Krauss believe this to be the case. And I have never heard them explain themselves in a coherent way.

The idea that all things must, in some fashion, be unified or have a single purpose behind them comes from the imagination, from an intuitive sense, from faith, from strange inner suggestions about the shape the cosmos should take—it does not come from pure logic or reason. To suggest that it does is, in a way, highly unreasonable: pure logic doesn’t determine what we look for, but is only a method of pursuit. The ground of our first principles remains occult—and I italicize that word in order to suggest all of its meanings.

Within a closed system, completely defined by one equation, expectations never shatter. The world is pictured as clockwork—clockwork we haven’t studied yet, and clockwork we have. Minds reduce to physical patterns, immense chemical billiard games—the experts just need to figure out the angles and trajectories. Meanwhile, we live in rigid structures, rigidly defined. We are like the mouse in Kafka’s parable, complaining that its passage through a maze continues to narrow day-by-day—until a cat tells the mouse that it only needs to change its direction… before gobbling it up.

It is interesting that societies officially predicated on rationalism—societies, which made a dogma out of the belief that we were living within a solved system, determined by a final equation—devolved into madness and the starkest irrationality. They ended up replacing the transcendent mystery of the cosmos—a mystery that beckons humanity to seek for its solution, even as it confounds reason’s attempts to do so—with an image of the mundane human ego, projected and grotesquely enlarged on a million propaganda posters and flickering screens: Stalin, Mao, Kim Jong Il, Kim Jong Un and all the other classic instances of ultra-secular personality cultism.

Somehow, in seeking to magnify the imperatives of the human ego, we narrow the world—and can continue narrowing it indefinitely. By refusing to ground the human spirit in a transcendent reality—one above yet intersecting with space and time—these ostensibly “rational” and scientifically minded regimes managed to constrict that spirit virtually to a point. While attempting to celebrate the human spirit by projecting it into the form of one human leader and the ego of that leader, they denied it and crushed it. They created a gross parody of religion, mirroring the worst forms of fanaticism faultlessly. It’s fair to say that overtly non-secular and theocratic regimes—like that of Iran—actually do the same thing: they substitute the minds of power-hungry, ego-driven clerics for the transcendent or for the God to whom they supposedly appeal. Without imagination, without openness to possibilities yet unrealized, reason becomes a noose: it can only tighten, hanging its most devout votaries.