Tuesday, August 13, 2013

"Clearly this is no ordinary question"

Despite my meager results, blogging is difficult work for me, a work of fusion, synthesis, and hopefully, at least from time-to-time, some value-added insight by this intensely curious, but not very bright deacon. In looking again the section from Von Balthasar's Seeing the Form on "The Spirit and the Senses," there is a bit from the tail end of his excursion into Romano Guardini's 1950 book, The Senses and Religious Knowledge, in which Balthasar pulls in the great Protestant theologian Karl Barth, citing his magnum opus, Church Dogmatics, to support his positing of a great reversal that occurred in Western civilization, while not attempting, at least not here, to describe how it came about.

I believe it is necessary to understand this reversal so that we can open the door to some possibility of recovery which, it must be noted, can only come through what has transpired and not in spite of it, let alone ignoring that it ever happened. In short, while a recovery, it cannot mean going back.

While it would be too much to lay the entire burden on the shoulders of Descartes, his cogitio certainly marked the moment when this reversal reached its peak, thus propelling Western culture and thought downhill ever since; reducing being human to a being who thinks. With the so-called Cartesian revolution, the clarion call of which is cogito ergo sum (i.e., "I think, therefore I am"), human consciousness was set on its head by locating all cognition in our heads. One attempt at a philosophical recovery was made by Wittgenstein, who was convinced it was a mistake to locate everything in our heads and who, in his Philosophical Investigations (693), insisted that "nothing is more wrong-headed than calling meaning a mental activity!"

Von Balthasar observed-
Karl Barth had expressly pointed to the primitives' image of the world, in which 'nothing is represented as totally material and nothing as purely spiritual' and which 'maintains or anticipates the vision' which 'was unfortunately lost by the so-called "higher" religious world-views with their various abstractions'. Guardini repeats this allusion to 'primitive peoples, for whom all empirical affirmations are integrated with religious affirmations... [ellipsis in original] Only later is the ominous reversal achieved whereby cultural acts such as knowing, acting, and creating detach themselves from this context and the religious act becomes an act in itself... [ellipsis in original] What formerly had been the first datum now becomes a conclusion (Seeing the Form 390)
I think citing this concludes a coherent thought about humans as spiritual beings, which implies we are religious beings. It is because you are a human being that you cannot be spiritual and non-religious. Any genuine human spirituality needs to be enacted, embodied, which is precisely what religion is. Being spiritual is not, as we now popularly suppose, the opposite, the antithesis of being embodied, that is, material. Such a thought is yet another result of the dramatic reversal not described, but invoked and alluded to by Balthasar here. I am tempted to label this popular bifurcation "Platonic," but it really amounts to rank dualism of the crudest sort.

Since I invoked Heidegger, who, along with Edith Stein, studied under Edmund Husserl, in my last post it seems fitting here to bring up his famous lectures on metaphysics, delivered at the University of Freiburg in the summer of 1935, which began with the question of being, the question Heidegger sought to pull back into the center of the philosophical inquiry (something he believed he had to destroy all metaphysics since the pre-Socratics to achieve, but I digress). In Ralph Manheim's translation, the first lecture begins- "Why are there essents [i.e., existents, things, etc.] rather than nothing? Clearly this is no ordinary question." Somehow I think a term paper that answered this question by concluding, "Just 'cuz," would not have passed muster.

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