This is a call to all people who are held in the unique space of our age, a space that is held in the balance of knowing and not-knowing. We don’t have an answer for everything – we don’t need to know, to be certain, nor to be right. This space of humility and wisdom is an ever-present end-point to which we are drawn. It is ever-present, but not yet realized nor fulfilled. We seem to occupy and build this space sometimes within ourselves, within certain small communities, and in certain worldviews. But we lose it and become disoriented to it. We are now in a period of disorientation, but there are readers of this sentence who don’t run in fear at the disorientation. Are you there? Are you here?
While many mystics from various traditions have seen this space… let’s hear this call from the presence of religious symbols in our midst, i.e. from the Christian tradition most of my readers will be familiar with. Let us consider the Ten Commandments and the Eight Beatitudes.
The Ten Commandments and the Eight Beatitudes are night and day. The commandments are a set of laws, the Beatitudes are a set of blessings. I don’t disregard the Ten Commandments, but I don’t meditate on them very often. They are part of my childhood upbringing having been instilled in me by my parents. They were part of the childhood of most of my friends. However, despite the happy consciousness that such a common background nourishes, this assured commonality breaks down when one lives in a society that is not so homogenous. A problem we face in our multicultural societies is that many people did not receive such training. Many of the people I teach and work with are not exposed to the commandment, “Thou shall not take the Lord’s name in vain.” If you live in a society where the homogeneity of the culture breaks down, where the Ten Commandments are no longer deliberately constitutive of the common world, then it seems that the common happy consciousness also breaks down.
To illustrate this, if you go to just about any courthouse in the United States you will see a monument with the inscription of the Ten Commandments with its Thou shalts and Thou shalt-nots:
(On the State Capitol grounds in Little Rock Arkansas: https://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2018/04/26/606029241/arkansas-installs-a-new-ten-commandments-monument-at-its-capitol)
You will never see the Beatitudes displayed the same way. Blessed are the poor in spirit… Blessed are the meek… Blessed are the peacemakers…Blessed are the merciful! The blessings of the Beatitudes are, etymologically speaking, a state of supreme happiness, or in other words, experienced joys. Experienced joys are so very different than a framework of commandments. To move from regulations on life to the experience of joy is a whole different way of thinking. The Beatitudes are a huge leap of consciousness. The maturation one has to go through to assent to the beatitudes at a level of truth is astounding!
Up until the middle of the last century, the modernist message was that by following the rules and getting educated, we would save the world. The developed world believed it, and we poured our money into religion, schools, and knowledge. I came after the generation that saw that it was these developed nations who were the ones who produced so much violence, including wars in Vietnam, and two world wars, the Holocaust, and the Korean War. That generation threw out the order that came from schools, religion, and ordered knowledge. Let’s just live with the disorder. For those, like me, who were raised after the upheaval of the late 1960s, there was a context where we couldn’t assert anything as always (or even usually) true. There is nothing worse to assert on a college campus than the absolute truth. In part, these post-modernists were right.
The Old Testament prophets were inhabited by a similar spirit. The prophets attacked the priests and the law-givers, who were the ones that killed Jesus, and in so doing, showed us how forever wrong power can be. Secular society has finally come to it too! They developed what might be called critical consciousness. Critical consciousness is the awareness that there are no absolutes, no normals that constitute life.
The tempting problem is that what remains is just what the ego wants to do, moment by moment. I believe we are in such a moment, and the story that isn’t told is that the forces of mass society have unencumbered access to the ego, so that our egos are not locales of monumental choices, but are rather pushed and pulled on the platforms that mass society presents us with, whether they be particular apps on our phones or particular stores in the shopping mall. We are just coming to an awareness that this temptation is indeed a problem.
If we look historically, the relationship between democracy and imperialism did not happen in a straight line. In 1789, the French Revolution was resisted only eleven years later with Napolean, an imperial force. Affirmation… Denial… and then what?
For those that are familiar with Hegel, we will immediately recognize the operation of a historical dialectic where the thesis (affirmation) generates antithesis (denial), and then finally, synthesis (reconciling). (The Encyclopedia Logic: Part 1 of the Encyclopaedia of Philosophical Sciences [Enzyklopädie der philosophischen Wissenschaften I], translated by T.F. Geraets, W.A. Suchting, and H.S. Harris, Indianapolis: Hackett, 1991.) But what lay between denial and reconciliation? Grace. We do not yet have the synthesis of reconciliation. What we often fail to realize about the Hegelian logic is that the antithesis must push back against the thesis. We are now living in the necessary pushback, and what we need most is grace. Grace is not manufactured or created by us. It is a new person, a new idea, a new consensus – which feels like it falls from heaven.
In this time of darkness, it feels like there is not a lot of hope. The only people who will be able to have hope are people who are held by grace in this unique space where an answer for everything is not required, where knowing is balanced by unknowing, where people have let go of the needs for certainty, knowledge, and being right. Once one loses that, then it is possible to attain a higher level of consciousness, and recognizing all the arrogant and violent people becomes much easier.
As you apply the logic further, the affirmation of uncertainty and not knowing will be the new affirmation that will generate its own antithesis. And our consciousness will develop in a spiral, not a straight line. 3 steps forward, 2 steps back. A little awareness of history shows this to be a good working understanding of the development of consciousness. And it always moves toward inclusivity and non-violence. We don’t have to be right to be in a state of experienced joy. But this is a minority position, as the Gospel always will be.
I am now writing to readers who will not panic and run out of the room, so to speak. I am writing to people who can hold two contraries, with two opposing forces. You can live with contradictions. It is a definition of maturity. It is very realistic, and not to be dismissed as idealism. And you will recognize that we are living with many addicts who embrace all or nothing thinking. The addiction is to absolutist thinking, and the addicts are incredibly hard to live with. I have been an absolutist thinker, and I was miserable. There is always something to be upset about. Someone is always wrong. In its extreme forms, someone has to be killed.
And why do we need grace? Perhaps Thomas Merton said it best in “When in the Soul of the Seren Disciple” when he wrote:
When in the soul of the serene disciple
With no more Fathers to imitate
Poverty is a success,
It is a small thing to say the roof is gone:
He has not even a house.
Stars, as well as friends,
Are angry with the noble ruin.
Saints depart in several directions.
There is no longer any need of comment.
It was a lucky wind
That blew away his halo with his cares,
A lucky sea that drowned his reputation.
Here you will find
Neither a proverb nor a memorandum.
There are no ways,
No methods to admire
Where poverty is no achievement.
His God lives in his emptiness like an affliction.
What choice remains?
Well, to be ordinary is not a choice:
It is the usual freedom
Of men without visions.