As I think of “retirement,” or more properly “transition” from student oriented life to my own research and projects—and outreach to a broader mass of “students” or at least comrades along the way, from my tiny corner of the human experience and endeavor, I have this sense of stable drifting and open seas. An overwhelming sense of finitude in our complex world of history, religions, cultures, politics, science, and philosophy. What matters most, is what matters most in my mind—and determining that is an ethical challenge. But the lines of the RLS children’s poem: “The world is so full of a number of things, I’m sure we should all be as happy as kings,” came to mind, and of course “The woods are lovely, dark, and deep…” Hoping to shine on!
Watching Ida–remembering Katrina– and also remembering one of the saddest evenings in my life, August 29, 2019 when we took my son David Shannon Tabor into MD Anderson and lost him in the wee hours of August 30th…Here is more about David and the remarkably gentle soul of light that he was. You can see it in his eyes and in his art.
Arthur Koestler, according to his biographer Michael Scammell, was was the only significant writer to stare death in the face in the Spanish Civil war (1936-1939). This includes Hemingway, Dos Passos, Auden, Orwell, and many others who had flocked to Spain. His three months in prison in 1937, that he recounts in Dialogue with Death shook him to the core. For those readers not familiar the international efforts to oppose Franco, the Joris Evens 1937 film, Tierra Española, which Hemingway had been instrumental in bringing to the world, is available on Youtube. Day by day Koestler listened from his cell no. 40, as prisoners were being shot at midnight. He wrote prolifically, beginning to question whether revolutionary violence in the end violated the sanctity of life, and he scratched out Euclid’s theorem on the prison walls to keep his mind focused. During that period he was greatly influenced by reading Schopenhauer and corresponded with Thomas Mann. The prison’s confinement and the imminent possibility of death, plunged him deep into thoughts about the existential meaning of life. He experienced a transformative new consciousness–as he took flights of philosophical contemplation. Scammell describes it this way:
Koestler concluded that his hours spent by the prison window scratching equations had brought mystical insights into another realm of being. He was filled ‘with a direct certainty that a higher order of reality existed, and that it alone invested existence with meaning.’ Koestler likened it to a ‘text written in invisible ink; though one could not read it, the knowledge that it existed was sufficient to alter the textual of one’s existence,’ and elsewhere compared it to Freud’s concept of the ‘oceanic feeling’ an overwhelming intuition about the infinite and the eternal that was the essence of religious faith (p.150).
For Koestler, at that moment, it was deep contemplation of the nature of math, but it could just as well be art or music or love or a thousand other numinous moments of insight in our lives. The metaphor of “invisible writing” gave him the title for volume two of his autobiography, The Invisible Writing (1954)–following Arrow in the Blue which had been published just two years earlier.
I knew little of Koestler until age 32 when I encountered his most mature work titled Janus: A Summing Up, written forty years later. Koestler carried his “invisible writing” insight with him to the end. I will never forget how I read Janus in one sitting through the evening, into the night, finishing it early the early morning as the sun rose. It put me in a kind of trance. I just went and pulled the book from my shelf, reminding myself of that May 19, 1978 morning; I wrote inside the front cover, in my tiny scrawled script, the following, with a flair of youthful enthusiasm:
It had a profound impression on me and my life at that time and that influence on my thinking has endured now for forty-three years, corresponding to the beginning of my teaching career at Notre Dame in 1979. Koestler died on March 1, 1983, a day before my 37th birthday.
Freud, of course, thought that any such flights of fantasy were just that–illusion to shield one from facing the ultimate truth–namely death as the permanent cession of the self.In a 1927 letter to Sigmund Freud, Romain Rolland coined the phrase “oceanic feeling” to refer to the sensation of being one with the universe. According to Rolland, this feeling is the … Continue readingErnest Becker, in his profound work, Denial of Death, published in 1973, expounding Freud and Norman O. Brown–succeeds brilliantly in following that line of thought to its stark conclusion–namely our futile and illusionary attempts to imagine our human existence “matters” to any kind of higher order of reality.
Koestler had no “illusions” about his bold proposal that amounted to a rejection of “materialism” without advocating any kind of conventional “dualism.” He wrote in his opening Author’s Note that he hoped his final proposal might throw some light on the human condition and contain a “shadowy pattern of truth.”
|↑1||In a 1927 letter to Sigmund Freud, Romain Rolland coined the phrase “oceanic feeling” to refer to the sensation of being one with the universe. According to Rolland, this feeling is the source of all the religious energy that permeates in various religious systems, and one may justifiably call oneself religious on the basis of this oceanic feeling alone, even if one renounces every belief and every illusion.|
When I speak of God, that word means to me the unseen force of all forces that drives this universe and cosmos of which we are cognizant and makes you and me the creatures we are with all the mystical existence we know and enjoy upon this earth.
Jack Pyle, Memoir to his Family
In Hebrew “God” is ‘EL which roughly translates as “Force” or “Power,” and the plural, with a singular verb ‘ELOHIM–could be understood as “that Force of all Forces,” akin then to ‘EL ‘ELYON–traditionally translated The Most High, but again, quite literally, “the highest Force.” All of this was well expressed by my friend Jack Pyle, former minister and author of a fine semi-autobiographical book, The End of All Things Is at Hand: A Personal Journey from Apocalyptic Fears to Historical Reality–about how biblical apocalypticism, both ancient and modern, is a flawed and failed enterprise. I highly recommend his book.
I think the main problem in discussions between theists and atheists is the assumption that static categories like “the Divine,” the “supernatural,” the “natural,” and the “material” exist other than as our dualistic semantic projections upon the whole of reality as we can perceive it. Our experiences are never reductionistically “materialistic,” even in the proverbial “hard, cold” lab. Process theism, by whatever name (Whitehead, Hartshorne) seems a better way of thinking about our “reality” even if “God” might not be the word one choses to use, given the connotations from “Classic” theism (omniscience and omnipotence).
Bottom line: the very nature of reality presents us with what appear to be “mechanistic” “time and chance” “atoms and the void” phenomenon (as per Jacques Monod), but also “mind” “thought” and other transcendent “spiritualist” phenomenon as well, that seem to exhibit will, reason, and the aesthetic–hence this very blog, this topic, and the any discussion thereof. It is a simple truism that there is no way to step outside of things and make “meaningful” nihilistic declarations about the non-meaning or hyper-subjectivity of our existence. As the old joke goes: “There are no absolutes?–Are you absolutely sure of that?”
“Mind and Matter”are no opposing realities but of one whole “panentheistic” reality as witnessed by our every thought and word. Most of us agree that “magical” thinking is not a credible casual factor in our universe (angels, demons, fairies, and projected illusions) but who among us can reduce to the “normal” or the purely “material” (i.e., the four forces/fields of gravity, electromagnetic and strong and weak nuclear) our wondrous and marvelous minds and our common as well as not-so-common experiences of reality? In other words, all natural phenonema are by definition supra-natural, if by “natural” one means a truncated mechanistic view of both our inner realities and all that we experience in our world of “nature.”
So in the silence of the soul I listen for the still small voice, which is God’s call to each of us to engage in the work of love and creativity, to bring new life into the world, and to care for it and nurture it during its years of vulnerability. And whenever I see people engaged in that work of love, I sense the divine presence brushing us with a touch so gentle you can miss it, and yet know beyond all possibility of doubt that this is what we are called on to live for, to ease the pain of those who suffer and become an agent of hope in the world. That is a meaningful life. That is what life is when lived in the light of God’s presence, in answer to his call” Rabbi Jonathan Sachs
Our deepest sense of value and meaning in this world are not an anomaly or fluke, projected onto an otherwise uncaring universe. This inner sense of self is not somehow “outside” reality, and thus unreflective of its fundamental nature. Our capacities of self-consciousness, our sense of time, our existential becoming, is emergent from the “ground of being,” that nameless process rooted in the most fundamental reality. Our best clue as to the deeper nature of nature is our inner selves, reflective of the inherent capacities of reality–defined simply as “what is.” Cogito, ergo sum is not a bad beginning, if one can excise the dualism of Western language and assumptions. Whitehead called it panentheism. JDT
When I heard Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, I knew there was joy at the heart of the universe. Paul Claudel
“Satan” (שׂטן) in the Hebrew Bible, is used as a verb or a noun. It means “the one opposing,” in a very generic way , totally unlike in the New Testament and other late 2nd Temple period Jewish literature when a Great Satan was created as a “God of all the earth,” and was appropriated with great relish by both Jews and Christians to explain the so-called “problem of Evil” (aka “blame it on the Devil” theodicy) We all face many satans every day, from people, to circumstances, to our own inner states of mind with our conflicting thoughts. The realities of the “tree of the ‘knowledge’ (opposition/discernment) of good and bad,” which represents our choices up against all “satans,” are still with us, and we have all “bitten into the root of the forbidden fruit, with the juice running down our legs” That’s a quote from Dylan (aka Bobby Z, the Jewish Theologian) in case you missed it. But that is what life is all about, “outside the Gates of Eden.” Given “reality,” (void, matter, chaos, ordering, free choice, good & bad), and what else is there but fantasy and delusion, that is what must be. For more, from the late Prof. Frank Moore Cross and from me, see: “Reflections on the Hebrew Bible and the Greek New Testament.”
So in some metaphorical way I guess you can call me a “Hebrew,” one who wants to leave behind the “Babylonian” ways of our world, and with Abraham, walk before and toward “completion,” toward an unknown land of promise–a dream fulfilled. In that dream the broader household of Abrahamic faith reflects the ways of truth, justice, love, and righteousness, and the “God of all the earth,” in good Whiteheadian fashion, mirrors our own microcosmic sense of justice and truth or is broken and cast aside as another idol (Genesis 18:19-25).
No particular reason, other than lots of reasons.
The only difference between reality and fiction is that fiction has to make sense.
Life brings you to your knees it brings you lower than you think you can go. But if you go just a little further, you will find love.
“Life Itself” (2018), Dan Fogelman
I love Fogelman’s 2018 film “Life Itself.” I watched it for the second time last night. The critics hate it, giving it dismal ratings. They find it trite, simplistic, sobby, vapid. I find it profound and moving to the core–and viewers give it ratings in the 90s. It has a wonderful cast: Olivia Wild, Oscar Isaac, Anette Bening, Antonio Banderas, Mandy Patinkin, Olivia Cooke, to name a few. Wonderfully narrated by Samuel L. Jackson and Lorenzo Izzo. That narration carries much of the punch, it is brilliantly done. Dylan’s “Time out of Mind” soundtrack runs through the whole and frames the story so movingly and profoundly. You can watch it on Amazon Prime, and perhaps other services. I highly recommend. I also love “This is Us” which is Fogelman’s 2018 series. Here is a nice interview with Fogelman and some of the actors. https://youtu.be/2msIDrPi4M8
You have no enemies, you say? Alas, my friend, the boast is poor. He who has mingled in the fray of duty that the brave endure, must have made foes. If you have none, small is the work that you have done. You’ve hit no traitor on the hip. You’ve dashed no cup from perjured lip. You’ve never turned the wrong to right. You’ve been a coward in the fight.