Friday, April 01, 2016

By Your Sickbed



The place by the sickbed is sometimes like hanging on the edge of a ledge, trying to get up for a better view. Now that sounds strange, and slightly voyeuristic, but let me explain. When another person, someone you love, is there, on the bed, it is as if you cannot be there, really; there is a kind of gulf between you: I am not sick, I am not in pain, and you are. I will leave this room at the end of my visit and enter back into the color stream of life, equipped to row where I'd like; you will remain in your pain staring at the credits rolling. I am sitting up, offering you drinks or a foot rub to ease the pain; you must receive this from me. I have control; you feel helpless.

So I lean over and hold your hand and beg God to give me some of the pain, and yet I am scared crapless because I know enough to know that I won't deal with it well--and in truth, I don't want it. I don't want to be away from the color stream. What I am truly doing is trying to be with you, because I sense that you feel so deeply alone. And I want the pain to be gone: perhaps 'many hands makes light pain.' A feeble hope. It is one of the central strands of the human being, that drive to make sure that another is not abandoned, alone. And so I try all kinds of gymnastics to make sure I can step in, somehow, to offer advice, to encourage, to exhort, to hold out hope. 

How do we truly be with another? There are many ways: sharing bread and butter; in vino veritatis; doing something together, Martin Buber's we looking out together at the world outside; the I-Thou of intimacy both spiritual and physical. 

But what happens when someone is within an experience so profound, one which rakes up the debris at the bottom of the soul, one which challenges everything we hold onto, pain and suffering building a nine-foot wall between one and the rest of the world? What happens when I cannot connect to your experience, like trying to connect with someone who has been to war when all I know is peace?

I am cut off from you as you are cut off from me, because the normal means of human connection become mute in the face of this howling sickness that you must bear alone. Are you giving up? Should I do more? We cannot communicate across this abyss of human weakness and helplessness.

I think of Aristotle's Poetics. An odd thing, but there is something in it for the watcher by the sickbed. For Aristotle, tragedy was a part of poetry, and one of the highest forms of the art, having five basic elements: imitates a human action; arouses pity and fear; displays human being as such; ends in wonder; is inherently beautiful (J. Sachs).

You, my friend, my fellow human being, are not an imitation; you are not a drama--but your sickness and suffering do certainly arouse pity and fear in me. Pity? We may think of this as either a pedantic, condescending attitude, or an over-rush of sentimental slop. For the Greeks, the defect or excess of pity is described by these two extremes: but the real pity is a power, a faculty, through which we can see who we truly are; through the witness of another's suffering we see the 'life abundant' lost, the joy and vitality and power that we finally begin to recognize, in wonder, as beautiful. It is like an artist who paints a figure by using shadows; the shape of a human being comes into focus through the clever use of dark colors. Suffering in another, especially that not a direct consequence of one's own sin, is like the shadowing that allows us to see again how beautiful life is, your life, my friend, your particular, irreplaceable life. I see the true beauty of your soul when all else has been washed, burned away by this suffering.

What about fear? Who has not felt fear by the bedside of the very sick? Aristotle says in his Rhetoric that what we pity in another arouses fear in ourselves: the suffering of another can show us ourselves, perhaps for the first time, as in a mirror. It provokes questions in us about what we truly value, what we are truly unwilling to give up: and gives us, as it does for the sufferer, a chance to re-visit those priorities. Do I care too much about what I look like, or how much money I have, or the worldly things of life?

There is another level, though, past Aristotle, past tragedy. The author Peter Leithart (who oddly enough, when one takes into account his last name, writes brilliantly about comedy) wrote that in the Kingdom of Christ, tragedy is not truly possible, that there is ultimate joy, always, beyond the curtain closing on what we, in this life, often see as tragic: the death of young Philomena in early Christian Rome becoming a fountain of life for others; the doctor-mother who gave her life for her unborn child, who became a great saint for our times...so within the Kingdom of Christ, our end-sight for tragedy is not, finally just the human being and the beauty therein.

It is the human being united with Christ. In one sense, the crucifixion does what any great tragedy does: arouses pity and fear; calls us to question ourselves, to look within ourselves to delineate again what we truly value. It also calls us to wonder at the love of God-made-man, to see for the first time the joining of humanity with God in an action that is at once tragic and also incredibly beautiful: the free giving up of infinite power, the infinite condescension and humility of the Creator for His creatures.

The Resurrection is what changes it all, makes all tragedy tremble and bow and give up its olive crown. The meaning of suffering itself holds now within it the possibility of redemption, offering oneself for others, a healing and return to this life as an enfleshed soul glowing more brightly like gold, of a greater life, a participation in glory, giving glory to God and a witness that this world is not the only world, that this life is not the only life. 

So how do I connect with you on your sickbed?  I have Christ in me; you have Christ in you. I must keep in mind that Deeper Life, that ultimate purpose that runs like a surveyor's sight line beyond the confines of this world.

Can I finally climb up that ledge; can I be a we with you, in your pain, through Him?

I must dig deep inside myself to find Christ, who waits in a dim corner, an often poor, neglected corner with His hands ready to break the bread and heal my blindness to Him. I must peel the ego-layers down, and believe against all worldly belief that He is there, in me. And you must do the same--in your suffering, not the least which is expressed in every sigh, Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani. 

The Christ in me points out that you are a living icon of Him in your bed and that He allows you that immeasurable privilege despite your weakness and sinfulness and unworthiness; that I must light a candle in front of you, I must meet the flame of His spirit with the flame of Him in you, and then I am with you, because He is in both of us, despite my helpless, sinful, weakness. And then I realize how much I am actually suffering with you--that the angst of those around the cross must have truly meant something to Christ; the love that drove them to hang on the edge, and feel helpless, was part of the redemptive suffering that made them all one with each other, with Him, the oneness He asked His Father to create: who knew it would begin that soon? Who knew that the crucifixion was the source, the beginning, of real community, that opened a chasm wide for the Father to assuage and be with us in our helplessness, allowing us to be with Him, through this unity, in the deepest perfection?

So I am with you, in Christ. In Christ. 

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Russian Republic



In Plato's Republic, we find that there is one 'natural' or 'healthy' state based on justice, one kind of healthy, just soul, but there are many degenerate forms of state and soul (Rep.,445c). Because justice is the state of balance and virtue in which a soul, or a state, lives according to the Good, according to Truth, according to reality, it is necessarily of one kind, as the Good is of one kind. It is Good.

This does not preclude a good kind of variety; however, if one contrasts it to degenerate forms of state and soul, one understands that there are many images, or appearances, or imitations, of the Good, but there is only one Good. The nature of evil is to be a supplementation, in a sense, a falling away from on some account, from perfection, thus it is legion. Perfection, like Euclid's circle, has a unity and a simplicity, a one-ness that is not boring, but rather infinite.

Oddly enough, Tolstoy's novel Anna Karenina begins with a pithy, arresting, and eerily similar line to that found in The Republic: "All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way."

Did Tolstoy write a novel-version of The Republic? 

Tolstoy's novel about a woman falling into degeneration and finally, madness and suicide, intertwines a number of families and individuals in the Russian aristocracy of the 1800s. Anna Karenina is the wife of a high-ranking political man, Karenin; her brother, Stiva, is a philanderer married to a good woman; Levin is somewhat a philosopher, loner, but marries the good Princess Kitty; and Count Vronsky is the seducer, whose life is also destroyed along with his lover, Anna Karenina.

The major characters in the novel fit more or less into the parts of Plato's soul and state. The Republic first of all, is a proportional analogy of the soul; the explication of the ideal state is in a similar ratio to the nature of the soul; the ideal state, on the other hand, the True outcome of the nature of the human soul. In this state, the philosopher rules; in the soul, the reason. The next part of the state, a little lower, is the guardspeople who defend; in the soul, this is the spirited, or will; the third and lowest part is the tradespeople who are those who are drawn to things and produce the lower yet necessities of life; in the soul, these are the desires, the appetites. The appetites are insatiable and so must be guided by the philosophers, the reason, which is supported by the guards, or the will, to control the appetites. If the appetite is allowed to become satiated, it will become too powerful and destroy the state, or the soul. Justice, the highest virtue, is the complete picture of a healthy state or soul: the parts are doing their parts well and in concert, in a unity of reciprocation and harmony that allows the state and the soul to be, simply, Good: To live in accordance with order and reality. Thus happy states and happy souls, are, in their justice and accordance with the Good, alike. The degenerate ones are degenerate for a legion of reasons. Just like families, which one could call mini-states, proportional to both the larger state, the human community, and the soul.

Human beings need to live in community, in an ethos that teaches us; yet these same communities, or families, can also turn and become destructive, like the swine that turn and tear one to pieces. Plato knew this and seems to have agonized over the practical impossibility of the philosopher king: he or she will be either corrupted or crucified, because all to often the mob, the desires, the appetites, revolt.

Anna Karenina revolts. Married to a man whom Tolstoy carefully creates as inexorable, logical, cold reason, her appetites get the better of her after she encounters the handsome and equally passionate Count Vronsky. The novel, of course, could be read as a pulp-fiction crossed with a Harlequin romance, but the two lovers are intermixed with other characters which both color them and contrast with them. And Anna herself is not simplistic. She knows her duty to her husband and son, and makes a very reasonable, philosophical case to her cuckolded sister-in-law about forgiveness and the permanence of marriage. Yet her own family has much to be desired: cold reason, removed from the particulars of another human being, living alongside youth and passion with tremendous wealth and little real education, is already a degeneration of Plato's ideal state. His philosopher was not simply isolated reason, but a person with charm, social charisma, warmth, wisdom in daily life, courage, and spirit. Karenin has none of these things: he is a moral and logical machine, which makes him such a good bureaucrat. The appetites and the reason are in separate spheres, and there is no guard, no 'spirited will' between them. Anna's satiation of appetite with Vronsky creates a flabby, gorged false-family which has no place in the 'image' of the ethos needed, the degenerate aristocratic society of 1800s Russia, in which largely only a copy of true moral culture remains and which cannot, at any rate, provide proper justice for Anna. She cannot survive, and self-destructs.

The other main character is Levin, a young man who tends to isolate himself from high society, does not enter into the false mores of the time, and learns from his peasants on his estate away from Petersburg and Moscow. He listens to the simple people, and dreams, and agonizes over what is the Good, what is his destiny. He loves--but in a measured and thoughtful way; he leads his estate, but receptively, and as a servant (akin to Plato's philosopher-king), not as a selfish, power-hungry, unjust man. He is the image of the just man, the true philosopher. His bride, Kitty, is supportive of him and excels in areas where he does not: taking care of the sick, and living in the moment. Between them, though they struggle at points, there is a spirited will for the good, and so they complement each other and Levin learns, finally, happiness. Their family has justice, because it follows the order of truth; it is, in the end, virtuous.

The Karenin family, and Stiva's family, are those unhappy families which are their own versions of unhappiness, because they have failed the Good, degenerated from it, in one of the legion of ways it can happen. These families are also images of the state: The disjunct in Russia at this time between the ruling classes and the working classes, down to the very difference in language (French versus Russian) foreshadowed the Revolution, the self-destruction of Russia.

And Levin's family? Was there no philosopher to save Russia? "The Owl flies at dusk" means that too often, philosophy is only turned to when night is falling, when it is too late. And Plato, after the death of his teacher Socrates, had no illusion that his Athenians would suddenly turn to him or any other true philosopher and ask for the Truth. We know what usually happens to prophets, true philosophers, to anyone who brings the Truth to those who are called into question by it: and that is, unfortunately, all of us.

Plato's metaphor of the ship is apt here: The ship's captain, the will, must depend on the navigator, who looks beyond this world to the stars for direction. Unfortunately, the appetites, the masses, the sailors, deride the captain for looking to the navigator for he is, they say, "a star-gazing booby who is useless in practical matters." The captain is overrun by them, and the navigator is isolated and ignored.

Levin, symbolically perhaps, chooses to live out in the Russian countryside, and avoids society. Knowing, as we do, that his Russia was heading inexorably for rupture, we hope and wonder if Levin's family, the just and good family, survives. More often, though, in revolution, nothing survives. The philosopher must stay in a kind of isolation--it is perhaps because of his isolation, like Levin, that he has been able to become a philosopher, far away from the corruption. He can, and must, set his sights higher on a just death, a judgment and an influence that is not of this world.

It is only a tragedy is one is focused on the appetites that are more bound to this world; it is a heroic epic of the highest kind if one is focused on the mountains beyond the sea. I speak here both of Plato's Republic as well as Tolstoy's Anna Karenina. 

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Fight or Feast?




Callicles says, "'Too late for a share in the fight,' so the saying goes..."

Socrates replies, "Really? Don't you rather mean too late for the feast?"

The dialogues of Socrates, including this one referenced above, Gorgias, are always anchored in a real, particular situation, lived within a polis, a culture, a political and social body: Gorgias takes place just after Pericles' death, in the midst of the Peloponnesian War, in the simultaneous glory and twilight that is Athens of around 405 B.C..

As he spoke to Callicles--a young and ambitious man who probably shared the fate of Alcibiades in Sicily during the last hubristic gasps of Athens as she crumbled, a young man in the throes of that kind of ego-idealism recognizable by an easy willingness to say what others only think--Socrates may have been standing outside a taverna, a veranda roofed elegantly by grape vines and wisteria, late at night or in the long, sultry evening of an Athenian summer, in the Plaka nestled below the dramatic rise of stone and cypress groves that culminated in the Acropolis: a fitting, visual, beautiful analogy of profane and sacred.

Laughter of men, scattered like the used plates and half-emptied goblets, the sounds of a disintegrated unity that was the feast, may have drifted out to the young man and the wise man who knew that he knew nothing; Callicles promises Socrates that Gorgias, a rhetorician who has just spoken at the feast, will give him a private 'exhibition'; Socrates, instead, asks for a dialectical discussion. And so begins the Gorgias, a discussion of rhetoric, and ultimately, deeply, a continued search for what we all already recognize, deep, almost lost, in our nature, as justice.

Socrates is in the awkward position of standing outside the breaking feast in the street, because he is late. Too late? Is he too late to teach the Many, who always seem to mistake what seems good from what actually is wished for, what is actually truly good for both the individual and the polis? Should  the rhetoric exercise have been a fight? Is the fact that the young man Callicles thinks of rhetoric as an exhibition of prowess, an indication that the war is already lost? Socrates, the good physician that he is, tries to correct him by changing the term: "Don't you rather mean 'feast'?" Isn't rhetoric for the sake of something higher, a techne, an art, meaning that the rhetor understands the sake for which he speaks? Does Callicles understand that if an art, rhetoric should point to justice, and justice itself, an action and a virtue, is done for the sake of the Good, because human beings are meant by nature for this Good, this Beauty, this proton philon, this ultimate for the sake of which everything else is?

Or, is rhetoric simply an eidon, an image, a kind of flattery, a not-real, a 'seeming'? Is it just an empeiria, a 'knack' that gets results but is not based on understanding, or the order of the cosmos, or that chain of 'that for the sake of which' that leads men back to the Proton Philon for which they--and all other things--were made?

Is rhetoric simply a cock-fight, or is it part of the feast that is both for the good of the individual and for the polis, as a feast is both for sustenance of ourselves, but more importantly, for communion of a Body, of a community?

Athens, as a more direct democracy than has since been tried, was by this 'directness' (one man, one vote), and by its size (city state of perhaps 150,000, but only about 30.000 citizens voting) more susceptible, vulnerable to, and dependent upon, rhetoric. Rhetoric was, as Socrates practiced it, a means to discover justice, to develop laws, to uncover reality, and this was also beautiful. It was to express the boulesis, or the desire of right reason; the Athens of Socrates had a 'bouleuterion' which was a council-hall, connected beautifully, analogously, even poetically, with the idea that the city council should be discovering through speech the practical application of the 'true desire of man according to right reason.' The Greeks were not, as Edith Hamilton argues, 'idealists' or wispy, cloud-like poets; they were poets and realists at the same time. Thus, rhetoric was both essential to the daily workings of the city, and also a kind of 'beauty' or what we would call an 'art-form.' But to be beautiful, rhetoric must be done for the sake of something higher: justice.

Justice, as we've seen, led in Socrates' mind, inevitably to the Good, and to Beauty, for the just and the Good were proportional, and proportion and balance are part of the essence of beauty. Justice to be justice, to be a balanced, ordered virtue, must be a part of the Whole that is Good because it is Beautiful, and Beautiful because it is Good; yes, it is circular: the circle is perfection. Justice, as understood in The Republic is the ordered city and soul, in which each part plays its part perfectly, like the dancers around Demodocus, the mystical song-maker at the court of Alcinous (high mind), in Homer's Odyssey.

 The value system of Socrates was founded upon the ultimate purpose of any action, the sake for which something is done. One must act, one must be, within oneself and simultaneously within the Body that is a community, such that the souls of all individuals in that community are turned towards happiness, like the dancers attuned to the poet's song. This happiness is not a prolongation of good feeling, as we moderns tend to think of it, but rather it is a life of virtue and wisdom, "a human life realized in terms of ultimate meaning" (R.E. Allen).

And when we say 'human life', we must remember that for Socrates, we do not mean a hard distinction, or separation between a life and the life of the polis. They are inextricably combined: the life of the person is also the life of the community.

This Socratic value system demands a radically different conception of justice, and therefore a radically different rhetoric, with an aim not for unhinged, ambiguous 'effectiveness' but for effectiveness in leading both the soul of the individual and of the community towards a life of virtue and wisdom in accordance with the Good, ultimately the Proton Philon.

How is this different from our modern political communities? As different as a summer night in Athens is from a winter night in St. Petersburg. Heirs to Descartes, Kant, Locke, Hobbes, and now utilitarians like Richard Rorty, our justice is not founded on primary, telological ends, but rather on consequences, on what works based on our scientific observations, our phenomena, what gives the most people what seems best to them. Socrates knew there could be a night/day difference between what seems good to us, and what is actually good, but he also believed, based on the beautiful, good, order of proportion and analogy that is the cosmos of which we are a part, a cosmos in which geometrical proportion and poetic analogy meet and kiss in their coordinated revelation of relationships between diversities, that each human soul also can recollect and "desire with reason according to nature" the Good. Therefore, good rhetoric, and the justice for the sake of which we practice it, can lead souls to a life of virtue and wisdom again, and also the community. However, we have lost in part the road to what is truly good for us because our conception of a human community has been changed.

 A la Hobbes and Locke, our contractual societies tend to pit the individual against the State, or the modern mechanistic conception of what was once organic community. Thus, our justice tends to follow along the lines of retributive (keeping vengeance under control), distributive (re-equalizing), or deterrence (punishing to create fear for the safety of the many). Our justice is the ticking of wheels within an enormous, impersonal machine, and our rhetoric is centered around "what I will do will give great results." It is certainly not feast, and is perhaps now even a fight not with other individuals, but with a machine.

Socrates' justice? Remedial. Again, we must be wary of the modern understanding of this term. Wipe it. Remedial justice, Socrates' kind, can only function in a Body, a community that is organic and unified, growing towards the Good. Socrates' justice is founded upon the paradox that it is worse for the soul to commit injustice than to suffer it, and that the ultimate evil for both an individual soul and a political community is to commit injustice, for it thwarts the soul from happiness, from a life according to the Good. Thus, remedial justice is more a medical model than anything else. The statesman, like a doctor, practices law-giving as the doctor prescribes the gym, to keep the body in shape; the statesman practices judicial justice as the doctor prescribes medicine: the whole point of all of it is to heal. This does not preclude actual suffering or punishment. It means that getting our due is what is best for us, for it helps direct us towards balance, virtue, and can become a passage for wisdom.

Was Athens this kind of Soul-Polis, a veritable Body? Based on the Gorgias, Athens was a sick society, in which young men like Polus believed the powerful were most happy, regardless of their injustice, in which Callicles, a gifted young man believed 'might made right' (a precursor to Nietzsche). Socrates' use of the medical model is no frivolity: he came, as Christ said in another time and place, as a physician for the sick. Socrates was indeed outside the feast, and too late to heal Athens, which killed him with the very false, unjust, mob-rhetoric he criticized for the sake of the city. Yet this Ordered-Soul-Polis was Socrates' ideal, and we know based on the farcical trial and his death that it was never realized completely: yet Socrates could see this ideal, so much more than he could see the goblet of hemlock-juice in his own hands, that he died to uphold it, to uphold even the possibility of it, or remnants of it, that existed in Athens.

Does this Polis built on a value system that leads towards the Proton Philon, the ultimate Good, and thus the only community that can be truly just, exist? Is it just an eidon, an image that lives only in the hearts of good people, who have the boulesis,  the right desire, for it?

There is a Body, but it is not of this world. It has a place in the world, but ultimately, it joins the immanent and the transcendent; it turns the members of its Body towards a life of virtue and wisdom, to the realized meaning of human life, to be united with the Good, with God. Its justice, because of its transcendent power and reality, based on Love, flows from the loving self-sacrifice of its Statesman, its Head. It has a justice that is beyond the shallow deterrent, distributive, retributive, arithmatic-justice: it is geometrical, proportional and beautiful, poetic, like Socrates' healing justice, but it is even beyond that: it is the justice that is based on laying one's life down for the other, in overflowing mercy, a justice that makes love grow from the stalks of weeds. Socrates could not quite see it as it really is, because it is based on a Proton Philon he did not know through revelation, but who knows him and loves him, and you, and me. It a Polis is where universals can meet and embrace the particulars in a fecund tension, where individuals are truly joined with the Whole. In the end, it is the Feast he was looking for, the one he was actually too early for, the one waiting for him beyond the hemlock. It is beyond anything Socrates hoped for, and is yet exactly his true boulesis, or right desire.




Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Slouching Towards Tyranny



In the 5th century B.C., Athens and her allies were at war with Sparta and her allies, in the Peloponnesian War made famous by the great historian Thucydides. In the first part of the war, Pericles son of Xanthippus was the leader of Athens: by all accounts, he was an able leader, not the least because of his apparent selflessness in the face of Athen's need, and  because of his honesty. He seems to have been a thinking man, and though humility was not a widely held virtue in the ancient world, Pericles seemed to have that essential nature of humility, which is to stand on the ground: to be in reality about oneself, and one's relative importance in the face of the danger that one's very values and way of life was near extinction.

For Pericles, and Thucydides, who was a general in the war, and the young and old Athenians who died, and those who kept the city going after war-death and plague-death, held out hope not based on chimeras and oracles, but based on the glory that was Athens, as described in Pericles' (Thucydides') words spoken in the famous Funeral Oration:

     "[Our constitution] favors administration for the many instead of the few; this is why it is called a democracy. If we look to the laws, they afford equal justice to all in their private differences; if to social standing, advancement in public life fall to reputation for capacity, class considerations not being allowed to interfere with merit; nor again does poverty bar the way, if a man is able to serve the state, he is not hindered by the obscurity of his condition. The freedom...also extends to our ordinary life. There, far from exercising a jealous surveillance over each other, we do not feel called upon to be angry with our neighbor for doing what he likes...but all this ease in our private relations does not make us lawless as citizens. Against this fear is our chief safeguard, teaching us to obey the magistrates and the laws, particularly such as regard the protection of the injured, whether they are actually on the statute book, or belong to that code which, although unwritten, yet cannot be broken without acknowledged disgrace...we throw open our city to the world, and never by alien acts exclude foreigners from learning or observing..." (Book II, 37).

Thus Pericles, as written by Thucydides, bases the glory of the war dead on that unique government springing from the Greek faith in human reason and a reasonable universe, a polis which built an administration to serve the many rather than the few, and built on the knowledge that human reason and spirit, if guided properly, and not crushed but allowed 'a life affording scope for the excellence of virtue" (Aristotle, Ethics) will guide the state to true greatness. Pericles exhorts the Athenians to fight not only for themselves but for human posterity in order that such a grand idea may be saved. He knows, as does any good leader intent upon true liberty, as many centuries later de Toqueville knew, that a democracy can only flourish as long as it is moral, and as long as it does not act upon fear but rather on the idea that right knowledge leads to right action, that humans have a nature and so history, and politics, can be guided based on right order and right principles. Every truth has a dark side, and the darkness of this truth is that if political life is not guided by right knowledge of right order, and becomes instead fear-based or too individualistic, terrible histories will repeat themselves: communism can come again, fascism can rear it's head once more, revitalized in the safety-seeking of fearful citizens who tend towards authoritarianism. Disordered thinking and the fear that results is a kind of vacuum which invites the unscrupulous or the fanatical to take advantage.

Thucydides' Pericles addresses this danger after the great plague during the war, to a people who have started bowing to the enemy, a people which have turned on him in their depression, fear, and despair:

"...to recede is no longer possible, if indeed any of you in the alarm of the moment has become enamored of the honesty of such an unambitious part. For what you hold is, to speak somewhat plainly, a tyranny; to take it perhaps was wrong, but to let it go is unsafe. And men of these retiring views, making converts of others, would quickly ruin a state; indeed the result would be the same if they could live independent by themselves; for the retiring and unambitious are never secure without vigorous protectors at their side; indeed, such qualities are useless to an imperial city though they may help a dependency to an unmolested servitude."

In our current American situation, these words could have been spoken to both Left and Right, indeed, to a majority of our citizens, for our main enemy has become ourselves. On the one hand, we have severed the relationship of political law and natural law, of natural law and eternal law, all of which should form a kind of difference in unity. This has resulted in a fractious, individualistic culture made up of people who can no longer see the reason for laying their individualism down for the good of others, including the weakest among us. The virus of fractiousness, blooming inexorably over two hundred years into extreme individualism seems to have got into the American founding at the beginning, whilst at the same time, the opposite extreme, Federalism, also wormed its way in not long after the nation began. Thus, the new attempt at the Grand Idea of the Athenians, in America, was infected from the beginning and we are truly seeing the fruits of it now, two hundred years on.

Yet, there is something at the core of the American experiment that was akin to Athens. The insight that people should be valued not for what they can bring the few, but what they can bring to their communities around them, that a responsible, moral people hold a benevolent power that conquers the world through inspiration and virtue, is also American. However, the similarity unfortunately does not end there: Like Athens, we have become an empire, and like Athens, this push to empire has become a death-knell to us--like post-Periclean, imperialist and hubris-tic Athens, we are feared and despised by our known world--and yet, at the same time, we are envied and copied. Pericles also said that human judgement is relentless against the weakness that falls short of the true calling, or true ability of another. In our Left-ist rush to re-define reality for ourselves, our materialistic continuance of our hegemony and imperialism for the purpose of maintaining an outlandish standard of living for the few, our moral weakness is contemptible. And in our new-found Right-ist xenophobia, in response to the dangers we ourselves have helped create by our insane foreign policies, we also draw contempt for the weakness which falls short of what we are truly capable of as a once free people.

Are we free now? The fact that we would be even remotely close to electing a xenophobic materialist like Trump, or a manipulative, corrupt like Clinton, that we have no candidates available not tainted by empire-ism or fascism or rabid, amoral individualism, or plain inability, or the deeper fact that the presidential election eclipses the election of subsidiary authorities who should, by their closer connection to us, have more power to inform, serve, and guide their constituency, points to a fatal sickness growing.

Will the sickness be a new form of fascism? Or materialistic, utilitarian Rorty-style socialism? Or a slow slide into decay?

Regardless of the end, we are certainly slouching towards some sort of tyranny, not the least being the tyranny of our own unbridled passions or forays farther into interstellar silo-realities.

The answer? God.

This is simple and complex at the same time. It is simply that God is the eternal law, and the natural law, and thus the model, the true source, for individuals as well as political societies. In Him is the unity, and the relief and beauty of order and simplicity. Yet the truth, Reality, in a fallen world is overwhelmingly complex and even tragic. Pericles knew this as he exhorted his people to give their lives for something greater, even whilst standing in the midst of hundreds of bodies ravaged by the plague, by war, to live in the face of ultimate mystery. For most people, maybe almost all of us, we build chimera-walls, our own private realities, in order to escape the real one: we think we will live forever; we think science has the last word; we live almost purely in the realm of ideas, away from messy particulars; we make little gods we believe we can control; we create narratives, sometimes even taking the shreds we like from the fabric of the True Narrative.

Perhaps, truly, the human race is divided into two camps: those who live more or less in reality, but never truly in reality, on a spectrum nearer or farther from Reality, and those who are simply, saints. St. Francis comes to mind: He stands in the Assisi church surrounded by his family, his community, and his bishop, having divested himself of his clothes and anything that tied him to his old, woven life; he leaps into the unknown, into the hidden arms of God. Deemed crazy by everyone else, he was in the end, the only one in Reality among them. He said later that suddenly, everything shifted, and he saw himself as a fly upside down on a window; he knew that everything he'd known before was tainted, warped, by human narrative, and it was therefore not Truth. He saw the God who holds all things in a unified Whole, and yet counts the hairs on each person's head. In St. Francis' extremity of love from and for God, because he was a beacon from the rock, more profound and true than Athens, into the darkness of human culture, he was able to join a revolution that has influenced the world in a much deeper way than even Athens, or Rome, or any other political system, no matter the gifts each possesses.

In the end, we need God, who is Reality, to have healthy political societies; and because most of us are too afraid, sinful, selfish, or weak in love, we need saints to point the way. Otherwise, we will continue slouching towards tyranny and what is left of Athens will die once again. Open yourself to reality, become a saint, and you will be the best also for the nation you love: you may die, but as Pericles said, your legacy will be greater than if you'd lived submissive to tyranny, because by your sainthood, your being in Reality, you will remain for all time a light, a true light, born of Light, for all people.

This is leadership, the kind that serves, lays down life, does not tyrannize, the kind that points the way to happiness, the kind that matters--the kind to vote for.


Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Mystically at the Crib



Tomorrow night, God will again, for us, be born. We remember it in the ancient Jewish understanding of 'remembrance': it is a real, true re-happening, mystically, in our hearts and minds. As Fulton Sheen said about the crucifixion, through its re-presentation, we are able truly to be invited there, to the cave outside Bethlehem.

What do we see there? What we see, or don't see, reveals us, just as the sight of the scapegoat reveals us: do we see the poetry of truth, the true myth, or are we too ensconced in the poetry of the world, the narrative of the inner circles, the drama written by the powerful?

There was a great cartoon posted on Facebook recently: It was a couple, the woman pregnant, dressed in the clothes of today's poor: hoodies and shabby jeans. The man was on the payphone, and the woman was seated on one of those kiddie rides you see sometimes outside grocery stores--a donkey that rocks back and forth when you put quarters in it.

It is an exercise in seeing: what would you see if transported, as you are mystically, to the cave outside Bethlehem? An insignificant, poor couple who were not important enough to have a place to stay; a tiny baby that in all probability would either die before adulthood or become another insignificant, poor person struggling to survive; a scrap of human flesh hidden in the arms of a woman, another kind of insignificant in that culture and time.

Would you be a wise man? "The beginning of wisdom is the fear of the Lord." Wisdom is the ability to see the real significance of things, even those which seem insignificant to the world: perhaps especially those things. Wisdom is to recognize truth, to know enough of God to know that He is capable of becoming a baby, to follow His star no matter where it leads, and beyond human expectations for the signs of power, to follow that light to Weakness Incarnate.

Would you bring him gold nonetheless, though it may appear to everyone else to be throwing it down a charity hole?

Would you know enough to bring him myrrh; would you know that the sweetness of the nativity scene was also a vision of a more profound form of suffering and emptying than anything you could imagine on your own? Would you, as Caryll Houselander said, see the wood of the cross embedded in the wood of the cradle? Would you see that He was already on the road of suffering, taking the form of a poor flesh-scrap, intentionally risking the suffering of being profoundly misunderstood?

Would you know enough to bring him frankincense, the precious granules that were only burned before a god? Would you know that the telos of frankincense was now finally realized as the smoke gently rose before the poor, the laid aside, the refuse?

Would you be a shepherd? Like the poor child in your poverty, unsurprised by the animal stench and the rawness of the scene, but drawn in because in your familiarity with contemplation in the wilderness and the long night watches, could you see what was different here? Could you look past the suffering and see unusual beauty in the face of the Mother, in the aura of angels surrounding the Child?

Would you be, instead, an innkeeper, with so much else before your eyes, so many pressing concerns, that you only saw the insignificant poor couple who could not pay hiked rates for rooms? Would you be one of those crafty people who, as Jane Austen said, have "a presence of mind [which] never varies, whose tongue never slips"?

Would you be a Herod, a mover and shaker who, though pretending to be pious, are instead in love with power, with influence, with your own abilities, your own intellect--who sees only two categories for the Christ child: either someone to be used, or someone to compete with? Are you daunted, scandalized, fearful of God's choice to totally empty Himself and to suffer? Are you doubtful?

Let the Christ child reveal you to yourself. Perhaps you will find all these characters inside. The suffering of the child, of the mother, of the foster father is meant to assuage justice, to test you, to educate you, and to save you. He cannot save you if you do not know yourself, know that you need to be saved from selfishness, fear--and above all, as Fr. Zossima in The Brothers Karamozov says, from "the lie to yourself." He cannot love you if you do not know you need His love.

The scapegoat, for the first time in history, will, in the power of love, turn the scapegoating into a feast of love, and healing. He will become the Feast.

The baby in the cave is a paradox that reveals you and demands your potential for dignity, sacrificial love, demands in love that you become what you were made to be---and does this with the sweet, absolutely helpless cry of a newborn child. His very helplessness, like the poor of the world, the helpless, the humble, calls you out. What will you see when tomorrow night, you stand outside the cave among the shepherds and wise men?




Saturday, December 05, 2015

Whom Job Reveals



Job. Just the name can stab the heart; reading his story makes the knife turn. It is like reading news accounts of young and old people, innocent in many senses, trying to live their lives and create order as best they can, who have been gunned down: for what? The question, that question that is itself another form of suffering, perhaps the most concentrated form of all suffering, rises immediately: why?

The "why" must be answered in particular lives, and also by human beings together, but most importantly, it must be answered by God. And He does. As John Paul II shows us in Salvifici Dolores, the story of Job reveals new dimensions, new meanings of suffering beyond all expectation:

Job is at an intersection between Moses' record of a story of a God emerging from the mists surrounding human consciousness and something much more profound. In Job, the loss of every good, to the point of the disintegration of Job's own body, mirroring the writhing of his soul is a poetic, biting, visceral image of suffering. The intersection is that of two different definitions, meanings, purposes of suffering that come together in the events of Job, which coalesces with other Old Testament writings, but somehow, mysteriously, reveals something latent, deeper, more profound about suffering.

In the Pentatuch, especially in Genesis, we see that there is a Creator of a natural, supernatural, and moral order; Genesis itself is a pageant not only of virility and variety, but primarily of order. There is an Order-er, and thus He is also the Lawgiver, the laws of creation reflecting the order, the laws, of Himself. When that order is dis-ordered in some way, justice becomes necessary in a new way: now it is not only a giving of what is due, it also suddenly becomes a demand to re-order. This demand is fulfilled in punishment. Adam must wrestle with the elements to survive, instead of everything falling over itself to give him abundance; Eve must be relegated to a politically lower order and suffer pain.

Suffering related to order and justice, is, I think, easily understood by the human mind. Thus Job's friends, from this humanly understood, more simplistic order, look diligently for the causes of his suffering. "It must be rational," they say; "It must be something you've done," they murmur. Most of the ancient religions and many philosophies build their edifice on this, and this alone. The Greeks had natural forces personified, each force conflicting but ultimately bowing to a cosmic order. Reward and punishment is the paradigm for all of us at a purely childhood and very human level; indeed, it is a reflection of the natural law in us, in all of us. There is order; thus, a dis-ordering force must be dealt with.

Nowhere in the Greek tragedies do we find an absence of fault as related to suffering. All must have a rational, just, ordered source. Nowhere in Hinduism do we find an absence of fault as a part of suffering.

And nowhere in Islam do we find this absence of fault. God is Supreme Order, and also Supreme Will. Punishment and reward are, as is normal for human beings, paramount in this worldview. If one understands God's will, and sets out to right any warpings of it, to spread that will, then one can understand how to mete out reward and punishment to most fully effect that will. Sharia law is the day-to-day expression, in minute form at times, of this will, interpreted by, depending on the form of Islam, the imans, or the caliphs (when there has been one reigning), or the mystics. It is so important because it is the daily expression of the will of God, which is all-important, that ordering force upon which all civilization, all meaning, all goodness, rests.

When thinking about the current political situation and indeed the whole of Islam's history from its first origins as a Judeo-Christian-Arabic amalgamation, we find ironically that Islam has much in common with Judaism: the focus on following the laws and will of God in all parts of daily life, that the whole of a person's life is dedicated to this 're-ordering' of the self towards the ordering of God, and that there is definite reward and punishment obvious not only in the direct suffering from subjective cause to effect (excessive drinking producing bad health, or a parent's sin affecting the children through the generations), but also on an entire people. Do they follow God as a human community or not? Are they 'holy' or 'set apart' for God, in His will, or not?

Thus, the truth that suffering is punitive, a re-ordering of that which has been dis-ordered, a 'guarantee of the truth and power of the moral order' could be argued to be almost a universal human concept, at least in the ancient faiths, the ancient world. The rub happens when we have to figure out who is qualified to articulate both the order as it applies to human communities and persons. Is it Moses? Mohammed? Buddha? Brahma? Zeus?

As we move on in Genesis, and meet the sufferings of Israel as he goes into exile, slaves for years for his chosen wife, wrestles with the angel of God, and loses his favored son to the greed of his other sons, we find a new kind of suffering. Suddenly suffering, as in the wandering homelessness of the desert, becomes not only punitive but also educational: it is revealed as a discipline, and even a means by which God brings about a higher good. In a highly poetic and mysterious way, we see those whose sufferings have made them more worthy to know, little by little, the Creator in a personal way. We see suffering, as John Paul II says, as a certain 'doing good to the subject' a re-ordering not only necessary for the guarantee of the Cosmic Order, but for the re-ordering of the person or the group.

We can see this also in other worldviews: Oedipus moves from an irascible, immature, prideful person into a luminescent, sacred entity who seems, at Colonnus, to enter the world of the gods through his uber-human, Job-like suffering; Odysseus becomes a truly political, moral person, more than the Cretan, cunning, liar-warrior of the Iliad as he finds new sources of suffering in disordered land spots among the sometimes writhing, sometimes wine-dark, sea; from wreckages to the super-ships of discourse, he becomes a man of profound language instead of a clever barbarian.

We see this also in Islam. The Sufi mystics, the Koran, all point to a kind of education out of punitive suffering. The system, so far, is quite logical and understandable if one understands the 'rules.'

Enter Job.

It is as if the old worldviews show up in the persons of his 'friends.' Zeus says, "You did something wrong"; Buddha says, "You must endure it and hope for something better"; Moses says, "It is so you can see the laws of God."

And Job refuses them all, because he is the definitively innocent man. He is more than a particular person, he is a poetic archetype, he is a Sign of the innocent, good man--we know this because we know that every particular, historical person has some fault within him, inherited or taken on through his own actions of disordering. But Job is innocent, good, so much so that he incites the envy of the Evil One. His sufferings do not come from a fault.

Again, and let it sink in: Job's sufferings do not come from a fault. In a sense, this is unprecedented. The order of the Cosmos is revealed by, is guaranteed by, suffering connected to faults, disorder. Does the order of the Cosmos lie in a heap, is it cheapened by the Sign of Contradiction that Job has suddenly become, as he sits in his filth, despised above all men?

Here, though it has echoes in other Old Testament writings, a deeper meaning of suffering is revealed in a raw, intense way: it is a test. Job's true loyalty to God, to Order, to Goodness, is tested, and through all forms of suffering, the most intense form perhaps being falsely seen by other human beings, an outcast in the purest form, that of being blamed when one is innocent, being profoundly misunderstood so that any physical suffering is made ten-fold, in loneliness and abandonment: even more profound, living in the temptation that to all human and rational account, God has disappeared, abandoned him who had served Him well.

Job's deepest complaint is the cry "Why have you forsaken me?" It is what is truly under the universal human question, "Why?" in the face of suffering.

In Job's refusal to bow to human wisdom, in his courageous assent that "I know my Redeemer lives," his dignity and profound depth as a human being, an image of God is manifested. The test reveals Job to himself, helps him "to regain the soul he thought he had lost."

And Job reveals more, much more. He becomes, himself, a questioner. He is searching in the dark, that profound darkness that suddenly is shown to be profound light. He questions God because he knows, beyond all else, that God is Good. What he finds, when God speaks to him in the whirlwind, is something beyond all reckoning: he finds, of course, power; of course He finds immutable will; but Job, when he lays down in dust and ashes, repents. Why does he 'repent'? The whole point of the book was that he had done nothing wrong. "Repent" means a "turning direction into the right way again"--Job, though he had done nothing wrong, did not really know God. When suddenly, because of his suffering, that great test, he comes into direct dialogue with God, he sees something--perhaps not with the eyes of the body--yet seeing nonetheless. His whole life, his understanding is turned, because he sees a great mystery of love when he sees God; he is known and he knows. Perhaps, though we don't know, Job sees the God who will reveal the most profound meaning, the true meaning, of suffering.

Beyond justice, beyond education, there is the suffering of love. There is God who is not only Omniscience and Omnipotence, Lawgiver--the God of the Pentatuch, the God of Sinai, the God Mohammed used as a model for Allah--there is He who "opened His suffering to man, because he became a sharer in human suffering." Through this 'com-passion' (co-suffering) God suddenly could live within each person in a new and profound way. The Cross was and is a point of union, a crossing, with each person beyond every other union. Because of the greatest descent into weakness, being pinned to a criminal's punishment, an absolute openness to the Power and Will of God was effected: by God Become Man.

Absolute emptying of what was the Highest is the most emptying possible: and this openness, because like Job, who partially reveals this greater Sign, was not based on a fault, was not based on a punitive order. It was love. And this great openness of weakness and love made a great space, an infinite space, for God to fill up again with power and love, to manifest Himself through the opened intersection between Himself and man, to pour living water out into the desert , among the wreckages of the world, over those suffering because of faults and sin, and when received, to make the latent seeds of human dignity, love, and greatness flower again. This was the also the co-gift of God and the great Christian martyrs, and as John Paul II says, all those who suffer for love, for others, for what is right.

Suddenly, suffering is also love. And it not only saves, but it creates, and regenerates, as Job was created anew, brought to a higher level, "happier than before." Jesus is Job, because He was human without fault, but He is also God in the whirlwind. Finally, the union, the thing for which we are hoping against all human hope when we read Job's story, is accomplished in Christ. He makes possible what Job saw but could not accomplish because his emptiness was, still, only human emptiness.

Christ asks us, each one, to live His dream with Him, His descent into profound emptiness in the light of the Resurrection. He gives us each a chance to make our suffering salvific, creative, to add our own paint to his great canvas, to again rediscover the soul, the greatness, the profound love, 'the awareness of life,' of hope, the dignity we are because--because He first loved us. With Him, our suffering can change the world, and we may not know the true value and joy of it until we can see God face-to-face.

We live in a world that still, in its exhausted punitive maliciousness, runs on reward and punishment: each worldview desperately trying to get back at the others because everything else but 'my way, our way' is 'disordered' or 'less than.' We live in a giant king on the mountain game that spews out reams on 'order' and 'justice.' Terrorism is punitive revenge, no matter who is doing it, and often it is a cover for groups attempting the most effective domination of all: the hidden kind, the kind that uses others' passions and beliefs for absolutely selfish aggrandizement. It is a hurricane-world, but it is only a blustering and barbaric imitation of Job's whirlwind which is the whirlwind that most truly reveals God, as Isaiah knew, in the gentle wind at the center, the weak and soft wind that is the power of salvific love.



Friday, November 27, 2015

The Good Cult and the Bad Cults: Losing Your Life Vs. Systemists and Conspiracy Mystics



Today I felt like the horse who has just had its bridle taken off. I'm shaking my mane and trotting off, finding a nice place to roll. I feel free, because a truth took off that bridle. But the bridle was part of being able to know it. I've been under a discipline given by God. A discipline of humility, a discipline that in its own way, rattled my cage and also gave me something to begin to know well enough to reject; in this crucible we find our identity, we find what we really believe because one has had to die for it, in a sense. In the last weeks, the bridle was tightened again and again, to unbearable levels, but I bore it. I didn't lose it, the luxury I usually resort to; the golden-ness of age is the growing ability to bear it, and to know you've grown past the pain, in a sense, that accepting pain and death really is part of life, of really living, that the most alive thing you can do is die to yourself and take it in the face, and then turn the cheek in love. This is being alive. 

It is being rattled, buffeted by Reality, which in the end, is the real contact of the human spirit to a Reality so immense, a Reality of apparent paradoxes, apparent because to the limited, unaided human mind, it looks like cold, un-pitying gusts of wind working mindlessly on a leaf--when in truth, it is a beauty and order so beyond us as to be endless mystery. And yet, the concomitant mystery of Achilles lies within each of us, Achilles the half-human who had been destined to be the King of the Cosmos, Zeus' usurper; by machinations, he is left instead a demi-god, a creature strung between two worlds, between the descent to strengthless shadowhood and the ascent to knowing, participating in, the meaning of, the Whole, a god. He is left with the unbearable tension of an unknowable cosmos and the destiny to have that knowledge. 

He is Everyman: Achilles is, in a sense, us. 

The situation we are in, as animals made also with the image of God, feels dangerous, beyond us, unsafe, and if we are honest, we have no hope of navigating the ascent successfully in virtue of our nature alone: if we add in original sin, we know we are doomed. Ascent to something beyond us that we are nevertheless made to achieve with a being wounded from the start? 

No wonder we find in epistomology, especially, attempts to circumvent this dilemma, or at least make it do-able, safer. No wonder we find in religion and politics attempts to make systems that are simply, human-sized. Large groups of us rush into paradigms that promise to take us from as much Reality as possible, because Reality is dangerous. It is dangerous; we are flies on the back of a running cheetah, hanging on with our little legs, tucking in our wings. Of course we'd want to build an alternate cosmos, an understandable one, deep in the hair, away from the wind and uncertainty.

The first Bad Cult, then, is not really a cult. It is, in a sense, the opposite extreme to the Oracle of Apollo, the revenge of Aphrodite, the worship of mystery in deep caves. It is Systemism, the attempt to make rationality the end, and it begins--where? As the writer of Ecclesiasticus says, "Nothing new exists under the sun." Buddhism and perhaps Confucianism are examples in the East; in the West, it shows up in the Greeks in some ways with Aristotle's focus on systemization of Reality, and one sees it in the paradigm of 'saving the appearances', which means that in every milieu of speculative human thought, from astronomy to the soul, as Plato said, "We must assume that there is a rational explanation."

But is believing in a rational explanation, in a fundamentally ordered Reality rather than random chance, a bad thing?

No. I believe in many ways Aristotle is right, Plato is right. However, I would ask them, "Whose rationality can explain what is behind everything? Yours?" That sounds snarky. But I don't mean it that way. If a rational system admits, knows, its own truncated ability though it reveals certain truths, if it allows itself to live open to being corrected, even shattered if need be when the Truth enters, if it longs for the Beyond like a deer thirsting for the stream; as long as it does not attempt to co-opt everything else that challenges it into its own need for air-tightness, as long as it admits its own radical poverty in the face of God, it can become a sign for a much greater Object, a limited sign, but carrying truth nonetheless, a sign like marriage between sinful, limited human beings is a sign of the love within the Godhead. Plato, and Augustine, Catherine of Siena, St. Therese, even St. Thomas who knew his works were no better than straw compared to Reality, knew this. 

The bad cult, or rather 'Systemization' I am talking about is not humble; you shall know it by its foundation of fear, uncovered by the question: Is unaided human reason able to encompass, explain, systematize, Reality? 

If so, then Communism or Roman Republicanism or Shintoism ought to have worked at some point. Any system, any inner circle that promises to explain everything and make us, finally, safe, is a lie. It is not even at the level of a mistaken Cult; it is a facade, a ride at Disneyland that's supposed to let you experience Space Travel; it is the chimera of Caesar's appeals to Pax Romana and becomes instead potentially a cover for genocide, over a million Gauls. It becomes a system that must have its bogeys in order to hide it's own failures to make its own adherents safe. 

It is Occam's nominalism, Kant's moral philosophy and epistomology that effectively makes our own ideas Reality (and if we can't control our own ideas, then we're really not safe--in other words, should be the safest system of all), ditto for Hume and Descartes, the Fathers of the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment was a veritable factory of systems that make us feel in control, that buffer us from Reality. We felt finally 'enlightened' when we lifted the burden of living by cutting ourselves off from the terrible angst that is living as an angel-beast in Reality. The Terrible Twentieth Century was the logical culmination of this; mind-buffering systems that effectively cut us off from reality provide a false sense of the human being, ostensibly enlightened  by a bare bulb in a tiny outhouse on the edge of Truth. A human being, called to something much more grand and dangerous, called to know, in a sense, the Whole, will become warped, insane, if left in a tiny outhouse for centuries. There will be backlash, there will be ever-more horrifying systems, there will be war because everyone knows in his heart of hearts that there can be only one Reality, and if we're going to believe it is ours (a necessary component of it being reality), then we have to beat back anything or anyone that threatens it. Finally, we become the incarnation of our own lies.

A rational system that reduces everything to hierarchy and propositions will cramp the human soul into a tiny space that isn't Real. The resurgence of Eastern mysticism in the New Age, and our other Bad Cult, David Lynchian facade-busting, conspiracy mysticism, is really perhaps a reactionism to Rationalism, Systemization. 

From the almost too-smart, edgy, often wrong, sometimes grotesque, but non-cultist, non-ideologist, unhinged, interesting Sam Kriss:

"Conspiracy theory isn't a type of proposition that can be taxonomically isolated by its propositional content; it's a relation between propositions, between knowledge and unknowledge, the seen and the unseen, the incomparably ancient and the buzzing urgency of the present."

Is Kriss articulating fundamentally an attempt to re-mystify born of an un-real Kantian tension with things that are claimed to be fundamentally unknowable, and that the content is not important, really?  Is he revealing an attempt to have a relationship with a world outside strict rational categories, a very un-Thomistic (with all the good and bad categories) attempt? That is why perhaps people fear it...it can lead, for sure, to all kinds of paranoia and can be filling emotional/psychological needs. Kriss makes the point too that to begin to believe that there never have been objective conspiracy theories is to throw out all of history, to believe that Caesar was killed by random acts of insanity. It is when a person begins to live as if there is a hidden-ness to all 'surface' events, and simplifies things to this or that cause  that Kriss says you'll find the 'conspiracy mystic'. I can kind of see the line. The conspiracy mystic desires a relationship to reality, acts on a warped religious instinct as a kind of backlash to what we've been told by Descartes, Hume, Kant, Montaigne, et al--that being, real essence is something we have no communication with. 

If we do have communication with Reality, we are made to have this communication, then the project of the Enlightenment, to divorce us from it into our own minds, will produce psychological and spiritual dissonance, and at such a depth that there will be a backlash, an attempt to re-connect to the drama of Reality, which we all understand in the depths of our souls to be incredibly varied and fundamentally beyond us. The beyond-ness is ordered, but ordered like in chaos theory, beyond our human comprehension---but not God's. And we are made to connect with this kaleidescope of Reality because it is beyond us and beyond the rationalist and the existentialist, and the unknowability-of-reality systems are attempts to get out of this tension, a tension unbearable without truly loving God with your whole being, because it is that essential part of us that is like Achilles. We are meant to have union with God, but it is beyond our capability; it requires grace.  But if you do it whilst trying to maintain the world of 'my own individuality' then it will be a warped backlash, much like feminism was a warped backlash to the very real oppression of women, and at the deepest levels (indoctrinating them in every way to believe that they are fundamentally less human). 

So 'conspiracy mysticism' can be a warped backlash, much like the rise of truly crazy 'cults' like Scientology, Satanism, New Ageism, ad nauseam. And the backlash to this, and to all the leftist response to no contact with Reality by creating 'my own mysterious universe' is perhaps yet another return to a kind of rationalistic fundamentalism, the Rational-Fortress-Cult. There is nothing new under the sun...

What's the way to Reality?

I think you do find it in the Faith--the real Catholicism that I fell in love with at first sight of the Eucharist. I did not love it because of St. Thomas alone, or Augustine alone. Catholicism, as often as people try to co-opt it into their Systemism or into their New Ageism or conspiracy mysticism, cannot be reduced to those categories, because it holds in its poor stable someone Bigger than the whole Universe. At times, "Catholic" this or that, even most of the hierarchy living, has been co-opted. But that someone Bigger tends to shatter what tries to contain Him, and returns to the stables, the Eucharist, the simple, the poor, the paltry churches and reveals the wisdom of the world, the powerful, the unaided rational as mere leaves in the wind. As a more simple example, I didn't love the Greek miracle because of Aristotle alone, or Plato alone.I loved both these mileus, similar in their Pieperian openness to Reality, because they carried within them polarities--polarities that spoke, in their polarity, to both the order and the mysterious creativity that is reality: the truth that Reality is something we must continue to search for, always--and that this is a love affair--knowing that the whole is always greater than the sum of the parts. The Catholic trump of the Greeks is the fact that the Whole is a Person, and yet a Person who is beyond the Whole.

The healthy cult is the one of charity, of death to life, of opening oneself to the whirlwind that is God. It is, as 'cult' is about mystery, about the only True Mystery. Here rationality finds its true place, and shattered and re-built in love, with God, in the ultimate rationality of knowing how truly small we are, and also how truly grand, that we have within ourselves the polarity, the paradox that is the fundamental essence of both fecundity and beauty. 

It is the Cult of "if you lose your life you will save it." If you lay your heart open to Reality, if you are willing to die for a truth that is so big it is beyond your capability of knowing it all except through the eyes of a love that will die rather than settle for anything but the Truth, a truth so simple it encompasses everything, a truth one cannot know except through knowing the Whole, a Whole so huge that it is simply, everything, a Whole of which I am a part, and so I cannot rationally stand outside it, a Whole I can stand outside through union with God, a union with God accomplished through ecstatic Love, a Love that is fundamentally sacrificial of the self, of the ego, a Love that will set my rationality, my heart, my whole being, free to know what cannot be known by rationality unaided. It is a dangerous cult because it will shatter me; it is a good cult because it is the Way to being myself, finally, only when I have allowed myself to die for it. It is a Cult of a Person, not a system that keeps me safe.

I've been under a discipline given by God. A discipline of humility, a discipline that in its own way, rattled my cage and also gave me something to begin to know well enough to reject; in this crucible we find our identity, we find what we really believe because one has had to die for it, in a sense. You find yourself in what you will lose yourself for; you are what you will die for. I feel more free, because I know now that my Third-culture-ness, my lifetime exile, my discomfort with Systems that claim hegemony, my being most comfortable in an airport, were always signs for me to search for the Un-Tame God, the Reality that cannot be encompassed by any culture, any human rational system. I am most myself, and most uncomfortable, in the whirlwind with Job, in St. John of the Cross' Darkness which is truly Light too profound for us to experience with sight at all, with Homer's blind poet, singing the incomprehensibly beautiful dance of God.