A Secular Age:

Love and reason

posted by Patrick Lee Miller

Anyone who has entered the labyrinth of A Secular Age should welcome this volume as a guide. Its contributors unwind many threads—some leading deeper inside, others promising a way out—but this series of posts can follow only one. Taking up Taylor’s distinction between traditions of transcendence and those of immanence, while remaining sensitive to its subtleties, William Connolly divides these traditions still further, observing that they are constituted not only by the beliefs they affirm about the world but also by the emotions they cultivate toward the world thus affirmed. Not content to delineate merely abstract possibilities, though, he adds that “each tradition is equipped to honor Jesus by offering a distinctive interpretation of his calling and mode of inspiration.” Accepting his invitation, this post (and those to follow) will attempt to offer such an interpretation—from the perspective of the Heraclitean tradition.

The result of Connolly’s division of traditions according to both belief and emotion is a four-point grid that neatly categorizes both traditions and the individuals who inhabit them. A horizontal axis stretches from immanence in the world on the left to transcendence of it on the right. The vertical axis descends from love of the world at the top to resentment of it at the bottom. In the top-right corner, therefore, are those who affirm a god that transcends a world they nonetheless love, whereas in the top-left are those who believe nothing transcends the world they love no less. In the bottom-right corner are those who resent the world transcended by their god, whereas in the bottom-left corner are those who resent the merely immanent world they profess.

Connolly recognizes that between these abstract cases are the infinite varieties of lived philosophy and religion. Few are pure, either cognitively or affectively. Yet the extreme corners of his grid reveal two insights. First of all, clashes of worldview—say, between fundamentalist preachers and the new atheists—become bitter less because their beliefs are in conflict than because their proponents share an affect: resentment. Secondly, diverse philosophical traditions—say Platonism and Freudianism, one teaching transcendence, the other immanence, but both aiming to promote love—begin to appear more as allies than as rivals in the history of ideas, so long as they seek to cultivate the same affect. With the varieties of lived philosophy and religion in between the extremes, Connolly’s grid helps us to see more clearly their unique combinations of cognition and emotion.

But can emotions and beliefs be mixed and matched so easily, or is there a tighter relationship between them? Are some beliefs more likely to produce love; others, resentment? To be sure, there are individuals who manage to love the world no matter what they believe, just as there are others who would climb any mountain to punch a shadow. Through chance and willpower, individuals seem to manage every possible combination of belief and emotion. Rather than focus on individuals, we should investigate whether divergent traditions constituted by rival beliefs about the nature of the world are more or less likely to foster love of it. Correlatively, are traditions of one sort more inclined than traditions of the other to foster resentment?

Augustine and Nietzsche thought so, although they disagreed about which was which. Augustine’s restless heart could not love constantly until he believed in a god transcending the limits of temporal goods. Only such a god, he argued, could satisfy the human longings for joy and peace, forgiveness and redemption. No longer frustrated by the imperfection of this world, Augustine’s love could at last see the world for what it truly was: the creation of a perfect god. Without God, however, he declared that this “life is a misery.” For his part, Nietzsche found devotion to this same god fraught with sadism and masochism, not true love. To love this world, according to his Zarathustra, we must forswear the hinterworldly fantasies that prompt us to despise it and everything in it, including ourselves. “No longer bury your head in the sand of heavenly things,” he preached, “but bear it freely instead, an earthly head that creates a meaning for the earth.” Despite their disagreements, then, both Augustine and Nietzsche agreed that the way we think about the world affects, for better or worse, the way we feel about it.

In their agreement, they were correct: the way we think about the world does affect how we feel about it. Or, at the very least, it should. On one hand, if you think this vale of tears is but a prelude to paradise, should you not resent the delay? Purely transcendent religions may prescribe practices of patience, especially prayer, but the longings for secure beauty, goodness, and communion cannot be postponed. Prayer may temper frustration, but it cannot eradicate it. Resentment becomes likely. (One of my earlier posts made this argument in more detail.) On the other hand, if you think this same world of brutality, ugliness, and death is all there is, should you not resent it for perpetually disappointing the same inexorable longings? Purely immanent worldviews may seek to silence these longings with spiritual practices, especially meditation, but their success (if possible) comes at too high a cost: dissolution of self. (The Buddhist teaching of anatta, or not-self, is a paradigm of this strategy.) Here, too, resentment becomes likely. (Another of my earlier posts was more hopeful.)

In an odd way, Augustine and Nietzsche were collectively correct in the midst of their critical disagreement: love is fostered neither by purely immanent worldviews (Augustine) nor by purely transcendent ones (Nietzsche). The common quest for purity produces instead resentment. Thus, for example, if Plotinus and Epicurus were in fact lovers of the world, they were so not because of their beliefs but despite them. In other words, if any worldview successfully promotes love, rather than resentment, it must be impure: it must be as transcendent as it is immanent. Whatever can this mean? To make this demand more clear, let us recall Taylor’s distinction between transcendence and immanence, helped by the editors of this volume. Speaking of transcendence, they outline its three dimensions as follows: “a good higher than human flourishing (such as love in the sense of agape), a higher power (such as God), and extension of life (or even ‘our lives’) beyond the ‘natural’ scope between birth and death.” Immanence is naturally the contrary of all three: a good of merely human flourishing, no power beyond the cosmos, and the finality of bodily death.

A philosophy that is as transcendent as it is immanent, therefore, must present the following, paradoxical profile: (i) it must teach that the highest good is human flourishing, but also something transcending the human; (ii) it must teach that the natural and temporal world is all there is, but also that it is transcended by the eternal divine; (iii) it must teach that we humans are mortal, but also somehow immortal. Mere mention of such contradictions should exasperate anyone who must render a philosophy consistent in order to find it intelligible. This will include most philosophers nowadays, and indeed most Western philosophers since Greek antiquity. But their persistent demand for consistency above all has not been universally shared; revealing the early history of this demand—as I have tried to do in my forthcoming book, Becoming God—helps expose its weaknesses.

To codify consistent thought, Aristotle famously proposed a principle of non-contradiction, calling it “the firmest principle of all things,” and argued that anyone who tried to deny it would in fact assert it (implicitly), or become “like a plant.” Not entirely joking, he believed that anyone who failed to respect the supremacy of this principle would surrender reason and mimic the life of a non-rational organism. Although Aristotle gets the credit for this principle, it is already explicit in Plato; more primitively, it is present in the extant fragments of Parmenides. “Equally deaf and blind,” he called those who refused to think consistently, adding that they are “hordes without judgment, for whom both to be and not to be are judged the same and not the same, and the path of all is crosswise (palintropos).”

Exercising this ancient principle, we cannot accept the philosophy whose paradoxical combination of tenets—immanent and transcendent—is required to promote love of the world. Not without risking planthood. The supreme demand of this principle upon our minds opposes the satisfying promises of this philosophy to our heart. Were we forced to choose between them, then, our choice would be between thinking well and feeling well, between consistent cognition about the world and loving affection toward it. Must we choose? If we wish both to think well and to feel well, should we not consider another way of reasoning, even if it be crosswise? That will be the goal of my next two posts. The fourth and final post will use this Heraclitean way of reasoning “to honor Jesus by offering a distinctive interpretation of his calling and mode of inspiration.”

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2 Responses to “Love and reason”

  1. avatar M Savakinas says:

    I do not understand why transcendence and immanence are necessarily contradictions, especially if they can “co-exist” within a philosophy. In particular, they co-exist within the Christian philosophy, as you point out throughout these first two posts and which I think is the point of these posts. I think that your use of the word paradox helps to explain this, though; because a paradox, while it may seem contradictory, can be unraveled and can be understood (at least from a traditional definition of the word). Perhaps you could elaborate on your meaning of the word in this context, and if you see the differences between “paradox” and “contradiction.” For example, science helps to explain why we have to actually break down muscle in order to make our muscle stronger. While it may seem contradictory to someone who does not understand basic anatomy, it is actually perfectly logical. Similarly, someone who understands Christian philosophy (and theology) knows why and how a philosophy can claim both transcendence and immanence without being a true contradiction; although it could be argued that Christianity is a contradiction. Back to my original point then, it seems as if the fact that a paradox actually does have a logical coherency then that it would only reinforce the principle of non-contradiction, not humble it as you propose. I would like to note though, that I am writing this without having read the final two posts in this series.

  2. avatar David U. B. Liu says:

    It is felicitous of Patrick Miller to address the current philosophical debate over transcendence and immanence through the device of paradox. Despite the nuance given to the relation of this dyad by subtler minds, transcendence and immanence still suffer from the obtuseness of a hard dichotomy in their public profile. This is in part attributable to crass materialists like the New Atheists, on the one hand, and their enemies among the Religious Right, on the other. The former might invoke the authority of ancient Atomists and their modern Laplassian followers (whose “Atomism” is more accurately an exercise of Ockham’s razor), and the latter an unreflected Calvinist doctrine of invincible divine sovereignty, itself a development out of the Medieval debate on the Two Powers of God (absolute and ordained) and therefore also a deliberation on the authority of the Catholic hierarchy. Be that as it may, the very discussion of transcendence and immanence as such is a symptom of secularity (as underwritten by the modern scientific notion of the natural versus the supernatural), and their reevaluation a sure sign of postsecular travails. Thus the “problem” of transcendence and immanence cannot be adjudicated or even formulated at the point of their origination, that is, as a secular discourse. To do so would simply be to restate the question without reflecting on its assumptions.

    Now it must be kept in mind that Miller’s intervention, following Connolly’s and Taylor’s, is not just about the abstraction of transcendence and immanence (T/I), but about their effect on ethics. Here Miller, again following his interlocutors, seems to use the language of PERSONAL ethics. Thus one’s thoughts about the basic nature of reality affect one’s feelings about the world and therefore one’s conduct in it. In principle I concur with it, though I also think the converse is true. But let me point out here a paradox Miller does not discuss. The disputes of the T/I question in the current academic debate assume (whether aggressively or defensively) something very striking. That is, it is immanence that will pave the way to the COLLECTIVE transcending of the sociopolitical order (with all its dispositifs and ecological implications) as it stands, while transcendence will merely retain everyone in it. Hence another kind of chiasmus than Miller will propose: Transcendence ends in a bad immanence, while immanence promises a good transcendence. Milbank and his camp will certainly contest this claim, but whether they can demonstrate the opposite or merely fall back to the Plotinian acceptance of Empire through a philosophy of transcendence (continued with formal variations by post-Constantinian Christians, including Augustine), remains to be seen.

    What most of us ignore in this ongoing debate is that the language of T/I generally skirts the narrative of Christianity, or for that matter, of the other Abrahamic traditions. “Transcendence” does not mean the hatred of the world, as Miller himself avers. On the contrary, the Evangelist John said, “for God so loved the world that he sent his only son…” Likewise the God of Israel never forsakes the world (remember the promise to Noah), and Allah never ceases in his compassion for creatures. In Christianity this divine commitment to the world is fleshed out in the incarnation of the divine Word. In fact, it is this incarnate God, I contend, in whom Augustine finds his heart’s rest, not the Platonic transcendence that he found before encountering Christian doctrine: “But the Word became flesh, this I did not find in the Platonic books…” Indeed, one can say that it was not in Christianity that transcendence made any significant imprint but in Plato himself (but even in the Laws – as in the Biblical Deuteronomy – the transcendence was a divine foil and charm – nomos being both norm and a raga of sorts – for immanent constructions). Where Platonic influence met its Christian transformation, it was in Pseudo-Dionysius and Cusanus (with a Sufic interlude in Islam), where transcendence was not indifference to the world but the dissolution of apparent difference and opposition (with all its rivalrous violence) in the world.

    To use Indian vocabulary, the Christian transformation – and correction – to Platonic transcendence was the overcoming of duality (the advaita), with strong elaboration in various Vedic, Buddhist, Jain and Sikh traditions. In these traditions, it almost makes no sense to talk about the T/I gap or opposition, and in the Jaina, it is even the thoroughgoing immanence of the world that allows one to transcend it. This brings me back to a point of appreciation (along with Savakinas) for what Patrick Miller is aiming at with his three-point paradox. His transgression of the old principle of non-contradiction (nicely historicized) is reminiscent of Luther’s dialectic (as in the Freedom of a Christian) as an immanentized appropriation of Cusanian coincidentia oppositorum. That is, if opposites dissolve in God, that nonduality is also practicable as a robust – if not necessary – ethics. This pre-Hegelian dialectic is also applicable to the distinction between thinking and feeling, reason and love. After all, as Miller well knows, the logos of Empedocles was love – and hatred, which is in the end love in a different direction. Plato tried to obscure this by proposing the transcendence of the nous over affect. It is time we, like Nussbaum, freed ourselves from this unproductive dichotomy.

    Miller’s crosswise (I might prefer “retorted” as a translation of palintropos) path is a wise pedagogy out of old bondages. His language and argumentation follow an irenic middle way between analytic and Continental habits, and will surely gain traction in both quarters. Ironically, his choice of the word “crosswise” alludes not only to the incarnate birth and death of the Christ, but also to Plato’s Timaeus, where the demiurge fashions the cosmos by bending its stuff into a retorted cross-sphere. So here we are left with the question of how cosmic mastery (more properly than transcendence) might be brought to bear on a vigorous (human) becoming. If this is a problematic traced by the ghosts of Augustine and Nietzsche, it is also the subject of more recent strivings of Michel Henry, for whom the Incarnation (even without a hard Kierkegaardian paradox) is the very crux of a self-transcending empowerment, and therefore the enfolding of T/I into a yin-yang dynamic. I look forward now to seeing how Miller makes his own proposal.

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