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.”