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 Plato is right. However, I would ask him, "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, 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, 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.