Thursday, 12 June 2008

Looking Closer

One of the odd things about Meister Eckhart for a 21st Century reader is the way he uses the Bible. His quotations are , to be polite about it, imprecise and he treats the whole Bible as a sort of allegorical source from which to pluck illustrations. He uses the Church Fathers as often as he does the scriptures, and also makes heavy use of pagan philosophers, and these he seems to treat as reverently as he does the Bible. It is all very medieval, which is, of course, precisely what you might expect for someone living in the late 13th Century. His use of the Bible, his methods of scholarship and exposition, his understandings of people and the world are all limited by the culture and environment in which he grew.

Nowadays we know better.

Well, actually, no we don't. Nowadays we know differently. Somebody reading my sermons in 700 years time will no doubt say, "strange way that bloke uses the Bible. Strange way he thinks." If Meister Eckhart could be allowed to look forward in time and read a contemporary Biblical scholar, he would say "strange way that bloke uses the Bible, strange way he thinks." It's not just 13th Century people whose ways of thinking and preconceptions about the Bible are culturally conditioned: it's all of us. All the careful scholarship methods and ways of exegesis I was taught are as much a product of the 20th Century as Eckhart's metaphorical methods are of the 13th.

Now here's the bit that ties our brains up in knots. It's not just the ideas that are culturally conditioned. The ways of thinking we use to get the ideas are also culturally conditioned. So, my logical exegesis is a product of my culture, but so also is the idea of logic on which it is based. Our mental landscape might look like solid ground, but actually it's all just shifting sand; and if we dig down to the bedrock on which that sand is sitting we find - oops, sorry - just more sand. All things are as temporary and ephemeral as a flower, no matter how solidly they appear to us; and the "invisibles" - the ideas and concepts and presuppositions on which our lives are founded - are as much things as trees and houses and petals.

It's as though the truth we want to get to is obscured by a large body of water. We are handed a bucket with which to remove the water, but the bucket itself is made out of water

The Meister says that the soul, by which I think he means our consciousness, is never able to 'take into itself' any thing.' Instead it takes into itself a picture of the thing. In other words, we are never directly aware of reality. We are instead aware of the picture our minds have constructed of reality out of the bits and pieces bouncing off reality and captured and presented to us by our senses. Our senses are not entirely accurate, they are not very precise sometimes, and the way we put that picture together is determined by things well outside of our control: the way evolution has pieced our brains together, and what we have experienced of life so far on the journey. We see the world, as someone has said, not as the world is but as we are.

This idea is all a bit confusing. Thanks for persevering so far. And for those who buggered off five minutes ago to make a cup of tea and watch tv: possibly a good choice, for this realisation often seems like a philosophical party game used to fill in the time of people who don't have a lot to do right now. In daily life, it's not an awareness that can be easily carried around. When paying the checkout girl, for instance, it's time consuming to be reflecting on the temporal and culturally derived origins of the supermarket, the stuff you've just bought, money, the whole idea of buying and selling and the desires which led you to pick whatever it is off the shelf. Instead, you just swipe your card and think about what you're going to cook for dinner the way you usually do. But says the Meister, this realisation is crucial if you are going to encounter God. And, unfortunately, party game or not, once you start being aware of all this temporariness, it's very hard to stop, even if you are in the supermarket.

We inhabit a realm of shadows which are cast by lamps which are themselves shadows. But says Eckhart, there is a light; or to change metaphors to the one Eckhart is most fond of, there is the ground.

The ground is.... well, blowed if I'd know really. And I've trespassed on you patience for long enough, so I'll leave it for another day.


vmr said...

I don't know much about all this stuff, but I suspect that for most of us in the pews it is far easier to "see" something tangible [even if it is the image of the tangible] as a "thing" rather than ideas and concepts etc. As a visual I can "see" ideas and concepts but I'm still not sure that I see those images as things. Maybe I'm not "seeing" clearly at all, or maybe I'm trying to see through all that water in the bucket made of water!

matt said...

Reading your blog makes for excellent study breaks. It is refreshing to read your philosophic views, ideas and opinions, and escape the intricacies of dividend imputation, portfolio optimization and markowitz frontier construction! Fortunately uni "sebbatical" starts next week! All the best,

Alden Smith said...

Descartes made his famous observation that in philosophy the natural light of reason within each of us is a better guide to the truth than past authority. Although the past authorities might be able to define the problems and provide material and structure for an on going tradition we should not spend too much time paying homage to past genius but use the information as a basis to use our own experience and our own god given reason to bear on the universal and inter generational problems about knowledge, truth and reality, the nature of mind, what constitutes right and moral action and how should we best live. I think that the Buddha would endorse that approach - search things out for yourself, use your reason, look and experience the evidence - make theory and action partners - Faith and WORKS.

VenDr said...

Descartes is right of course, but it's not just the traditions that are dodgy. It's also our God given reason and our experience. You have to watch for the equal and opposite error to the one Descartes warns of: dismissing a voice from the past purely because it is a voice from the past.
One of the problems I was alluding to is precisely about God given reason. The method God uses to give us reason is the same method God uses to give us anything: our reasoning abilities and the reason those abilities produce take form within the universe. In other words, our "God given" reason is as socially conditioned and as dependent on our history and biology as anything else about us. It's our reason that I was referring to in the metaphor of buckets made of water.
All is vanity saith the preacher. Realising that our senses and the interpretations we make of the data provided by those senses -that is, our experience AND the very tools we use to acquire and evaluate that experience - are all relative and subjective and have no ultimate reality is the starting point for the German philosophers of Being, the existentialists, the Buddhists and a very long time ago, Meister Eckhart. I think it's where I am at right now also, and Eckhart is a guide for me at the moment because he worked this realisation out within a Christian framework, and for better or worse, I don't feel inclined to abandon the ship of faith anytime soon.

Anonymous said...

"So, my logical exegesis is a product of my culture, but so also is the idea of logic on which it is based. Our mental landscape might look like solid ground, but actually it's all just shifting sand; and if we dig down to the bedrock on which that sand is sitting we find - oops, sorry - just more sand."

Kelvin, is that actually true? Do we not find that Euclid's geometry and mathematical proofs have stood the test of time for 3300 years as a description of flat space? And can we really say that Aristotle's three laws of logic - to wit, the laws of identity, non-contradiction and excluded middle - are 'cultural constructs' - or the way the world actually is? All our thinking - and computing - actually depends on them being true.
Kant painted western philosophy into a corner. I think it better to start with a pre-modern epistemology of assent which does appeal to our nature as rational beings. Alvin Platinga and the Anglo-American analytical tradition in philosophy show how this can be done constructively. If you're still in the Nelson area, why not go and here William Lane Craig in Wellington? He has a lot to say on this!
every blessing,

Anonymous said...

'go and hear' I mean. Orthographically challenged when tired...
Craig's book 'Reasonable Faith' is being revised and it may deal with questions of contemporary epistemology and reason, as well as the historical reliablity of the Gospels. I think Jesus expects us to use observation and logical deductions in coming to the truth.

VenDr said...

Euclid's geometry is indeed a reliable set of postulates, but the advent of hyperbolic and elliptic geometry tell us that Euclid is not the only valid description of geometric reality as we know it: it is a partial set of truths, which describes most of that part of the universe we are aware of, as that part is experienced by human beings. What has Euclid got to say about the bits of reality we know are there but cannot intellectually conceive, let alone experience - dimensions past the four are brains are hard wired to deal with, for example?

As for Aristotle's three laws, since Scroedinger, Einstein and Heisenberg we know that these too are relative. Matter can be in two places at once. It can move from point A to point B without passing through the space in between. It can exist and not exist simultaneously. Look too closely at the universe or take too big a picture of it and the tidy, ordered little world we inhabit disappears down the rabbit burrow.

Of course there are laws of the universe. Of course there is order, because there is something here, not nothing. But ALL our perceptions of that order are approximations. All our perceptions are metaphors, including those of Euclid and Aristotle. We only need consider Newton: knowing his laws of the universe is what keeps aeroplanes in the air and water flowing through the sewer pipes. But we now know that they are approximate and limited. Well so what? In daily life we accept and deal with the metaphors, and it suits us just fine and dandy. We don't worry about anti-matter or the 8th dimension because in our day to day life we don't need to - if we did we would be able to perceive these things.

But what we claim for ourselves, you and I, is that we have a way to contact ultimate reality; the source of the real order behind the approximations that we are aware of. It's quite a claim. Unfortunately, as the insights of Einstein, Heidegger et al seep into popular consciousness it's a claim that fewer and fewer people are taking seriously. And all too often, our own preoccupations as a church, and our own behaviour as human beings does not help us keep up the credibility of the claim.

The problem with realising the relativity of everything is the temptation to slip into a Camus or Satre like nihilism, which, in a crude form, is one of the stances current in popular culture and is the source of much of the malaise around us.

Isn't it better to dig deeper, to find a way of bridging the gap between the relativistic explanations of God we have made do with up to now, and the mind boggling knowledge that is opening around us on every front?

kathryn said...

Listen with your heart, Kelvin and don't let the shifting sands suck you in and bury you.

Still praying for good health and peace for you.

In His Love, KH, Perth, WA

Anonymous said...

Kelvin, I never knew a great deal of the old physics, let alone the new, but it seems to me that the examples of indeterminacy and paradox you reference describe the sub-atomic and certainly the sub-personal levels of existence. The great discovery of western civilization - and its underlying faith-commitment - is the rationality of the material world that can be described and predicted in mathematically formulated laws. This is what led to the unexcelled flourshing of science and technology in the west. And I say all this while being in no sense a Bultmannian! In terms of practicality (as you note), Nasa still uses Newtonian physics to get its spacecraft to Mars. I don't think it's all that fair to say Newton's laws are 'proximate and limited'; it's better to say they do describe the behavior of relatively large bodies moving relatively slowly. Things are different in the world of the very small (sub-atomic) and very fast (approaching c).
I do come across a lot of people who are not remotely interested in either the Christian religion or Buddhist philosophy of being; they think of themsleves instead as hard headed rationalists and materialists who think Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens are the greatest thing since sliced bread.
So I was interested to come across this video link to a debate in deepest Bible Belt Alabama between Dawkins and Oxford mathematician John Lennox on the nature of science and the question of underlying rationality, order and the reliability of theory and perception:
Geometry and mathematics didn't stop with Euclid and Pythagoras - Gauss, Moebius, Euler, Fermat etc have gone on to deal with other problems, including curved space. But in no sense can we say mathematics is 'culture-specific'.

Anonymous said...


Further to Kelvin's response, confusion also arises from the fact that it is extremely difficult (impossible?) for one to consciously grasp concepts outside our individually conditioned experience.

Euclidean geometry and mathematics work and appear to explain things precisely because we work with such interpretations from within the structure that created them. And it is only from that perspective that they are (self-evident) truths.

Take a native culture such as Australian Aborigines for example. To them their beliefs and concepts of reality based on Dreamtime are absolutely coherent, to the point of there being no separation between them and reality. Now, we as westerners tend to label such beliefs primitive and misguided; because many of the beliefs are incompatible with our predominant mode of rational thought, and are therefore 'impossible'. In reality we have no authority to form such conclusions because we are interpreting from a perspective that implicitly excludes the possibility of understanding the concepts we are critiquing.

To be aware of this, and then to apply it to our own understanding exposes how much of a fabrication our interpretation of reality actually is. In a very real sense, we are limited by the thoughts we think with.


Anonymous said...

Daniel, mathematics 'works' whether I believe and understand it or not. It isn't cultural.
Do any Australian aborigines still really believe in Dreamtime (as opposed to a cultural-political posture), in the way that my Irish ancestors believed in faeries?
Culture isn't static or forever hermetically sealed.

Alden Smith said...

The difficulty is that to encapsulate the experience of transcendence within language is impossible. So we fall back on metaphor and the whisperings of otherness from music and the other arts. I think its called the mythopaeic element. Combined with 'Doors of Perception' type techniques and depth meditation these are the only ways through to experiencing other realities.

The cutting edge discoveries of science are just that, cutting edge discoveries, just as xrays and radio waves once were. They may support the fundamental elements of some religious or philosophical treatise or not as the case may be, they may have implications for some well thought ideas of causality etc but ultimate reality they are not, and they are all within the bounds of our own culturally defined interpretations.

I think the problem is (and I have always thought this) that we are like dogs (ie colour blind) or worms. In the case of the dog their reality is always in black and white. Even if a very intelligent dog was able to describe colour mathematically he isn't going to be able to experience it. With worms, how would they appreciate our concepts and experiences. How can a worm appreciate the optimism of Mozart when it doesn't know what optimism is? Understanding Einsteins special theory of relativity is impossible. This is how we humans are in relation to ultimate reality and to god. If there is a god (whatever that means) that created the universe then this god is beyond language, beyond this universe, beyond our conceptions of love, beyond everything, it is utterly 'other'. When it comes down to it we are worms.

So how then do we live?
Which brings me to sparrows. Now me old mate Chesterton (not to be confused with W H Auden) in his book the 'Ever Lasting Man' said that if we were to go to another planet populated with similiar animals and we came across this scene::: over here is a minister sparrow preaching to his flock, over here a sparrow practising the cello, over here a sparrow on a soapbox expounding his political views about hawks, over her a weeping group burying a baby sparrow at a graveside, yet another group of young sparrows out tramping with little packs on their backs we would be ASTOUNDED. Of course this is a picture of ourselves. Chesterton said that what is needed is a vision of this astounding place we as humans occupy in the scheme of things. A sense of the wonder of it all. We might be dogs, worms or sparrows but we are pretty astounding ones.
Which brings me to generally to photography and specifically to photos of our planet. Others have commented on this. I really believe that within 100 years when space travel and tourism takes off there will be a change in the consciousness of humans and a rebirth of the sense of wonder that Chesterton speaks about as we see our beautiful planet fragile and precious floating in an infinite cosmos.
It is within this sense of wonder and awe that a new forms of relating to ultimate reality (God) will evolve - but we will still be philosophically and theologically in the same boat i.e. unable to encapsulate ultimate things in words or theories.

God has actually told me that we can't see whats through the glass clearly because he knows that if we could someone would franchise it before you can say Jack Robinson ;) Awe, Wonder, Myth, Metaphor and sailing are there for a reason.

Anonymous said...


I wasn't meaning to frame mathematics in terms of it being based on culture. Just that it is only consistent within the framework of ideas that it originates from, and nothing more.

Back to the Aborigines, would they have been able to understand mathematics before we brought along our rational thought? From their perspective at that time I would think the conclusions and activities we draw from the world of mathematics would be incomprehensible, just as our understanding of their Dreamtime is in many was beyond our understanding. As to the present, I honestly have no idea if aboriginal people still believe in Dreamtime, other than attempts to westernise them as a group have failed miserably, so one is left wondering where their culture has ended up. Whether they still believe it is beside the point, the system is was itself consistent before the white man came along.

“I don't think it's all that fair to say Newton's laws are 'proximate and limited'; it's better to say they do describe the behavior of relatively large bodies moving relatively slowly. Things are different in the world of the very small (sub-atomic) and very fast (approaching c).”

The problem lies in the fact that the worlds of very small and very fast are exactly the same reality as that of the relatively large bodies describe by Newtonian physics. If Newton's laws only able to explain certain aspects of existence, then by definition they are proximate and limited to those aspects as Kelvin correctly states.


VenDr said...

Brian, thanks for your usual erudition and gentle but uncompromising stand. About mathematics I can't comment as I am an illiterate in that language, other than to recognise it as a system of abstraction which seems, like music, to deal in principles that are bigger than any of our cultures.

As to Newton and the realisation that the material universe can be described accurately by mathematically formulated laws. Consider the statement, "the sun rises in the east and sets in the west." It is demonstrably true, as you can check for yourself by opening your curtains sufficiently early tomorrow morning.That is, the statement can be used to make verifiable predictions about the material universe. But as we both know, there is not a skerrick of truth in the statement. The sun doesn't rise or set nor does it move across the sky. Neither for that matter is there any such place as the East or the West - they are cultural constructs.
And taslking of east and west, consider the whole science of navigation by which several members of my family earn very good livings. Using latitude and longitude my brothers pilot very large ships around the world and have them arrive at their destination with accuracy calculated to the inch. And yes the whole idea of latitude and longitude are cultural constructs. They are utterly arbitrary, though beneath them are some sound mathematical principles.

Now think of the early Polynesians who had no knowledge of latitude and longitude, nor of mathematics as we understand it; and yet, when my ancestors and yours were bumbling around the coast of Britain in coracles, they were making navigated voyages across vast tracts of ocean, back and forth between miniscule dots of land. They did it by observing stars, the migration patterns of birds, the patterns of clouds and being aware of the patterns of waves. My brothers and the Polynesians used very different culturally constructed world views but both world views could be, by your argument, claimed as being ultimately real by the fact of their applicability to the material world. I say neither is ultimately real. But either can be inhabited, and from the inside will give a perfectly satisfactory way of coping with and living in the universe.

Daniel expressed it beautifully. I agree with him.

Anonymous said...

Newton had no problem describing fairly accurately the motion of the earth around the sun AND devoting about a third of his academic life to Bible study - though I think he was less successful in determining the date of the Parousia from Daniel. (I will pass over his Arianism and interest in alchemy in discreet science.) But I am fairly sure he would have agreed with Galileo in his Letter to the Countess Christina on the 'truthfulness' of phenomenological language in the Bible and would happily accept the picture of the athletic Solar Budd in Psalm 19 - as Calvin did as well. Today we all speak happily of 'the sun rising' though of course all of us (except The Lost Tribe of Arnhem Land - or was it Te Anau?) know this is not strictly happening. Why can't phenomenological language be truthful, in its own way?
As for latitude and longitude: I am not sure if I would call these 'cultural constructs' either. You could have more (or less) than 360 degrees in a circle (we owe that to the Babylonians and their base 6 numbers, aligned with their proximation of the length of the year - a geophysical fact), but there are a 'North' and 'South', defined as the axis points of the globe. Further, the seasonal tilting of the earth does create zones of maximum and minimum exposure to the sun, and latitude defines these limits.
Though you can argue about which way you look at it - & here I (& all right thinking people) sympathise with The Wizard and his Right Way Up map of the world.
Longitude is a trickier matter, & I agree this is arbitrary - & the French have never forgiving the English for becoming the place where time begins. But since they did build the observatory at Greenwich and John Harrison came up with his chronometer, Britannia really did have a strong claim to rule the waves. Still, all praise to Kupe's children who used their unsystematized science and technology to get to the blessed land first.
The underlying question, I think is this. Language, in the sense of 'parole', is arbitrary and cultural(as de Saussure maintained): 'three', 'drei', 'treis' can all be used - but they all point to the underlying reality of '3' (or 'III' if you want to be classical). Is God present in language? Is there a trinitarian ('logos') presence in rationality - and in Scripture?

Anonymous said...

"Why can't phenomenological language be truthful, in its own way?"

It is truthful, but the crux is that it is only relatively so. Once one realises such, it becomes apparent that this holds for all perception. Or as Kelvin stated above, one sees perception as the approximation or metaphor that it is.


VenDr said...

So north is the axis point of the globe? precisely - it is relative to this planet, and is not some universal constant. In terms of the universe it will constantly shift with the daily wobbles of our globe about its point of axis. It has no existence, except that people have needed to name it, and thus call it into being. A society with no need to navigate would not name it and it wouldn't exist for them - any more than we would name, for example, the point 25 degrees to the left of the axis point of the earth. North is a cultural construct.

You raise a telling point when mentioning Newton's Bible study. His theology was, like all of our theologies, defined by who he was and what he had experienced of life. From my perspective it was dangerously near fruit loop territory, and I think, precisely because he could not see it, and indeed his physics, as tentative, limited and relative. His life's aim seems to have been to discover the great principles by which God structured the universe. The tragedy was that he thought he had succeeded. Perhaps if had seen his monumental discoveries, and his whacky ones for what they were he might have been more open to the ultimate reality which lay behind them.

Anonymous said...

Are you guys still up at this time in the deep midwinter? Celebrating the rugby, I hope.
Kelvin, I thought it was the magnetic north that wobbled about - & that at least isn't a 'cultural construct', it's the way planet is constituted & it affects every compass & much else besides. So terrestrial north would still be north even if we all decamped to Mars.
Go easy on Newton - he was (probably) a heretic like lots of biblicistic Christians but he did say 'the great ocean of truth' lay before him while he picked out some shells on the beach.
Enough from me. Good night & God bless you.

VenDr said...

Another metaphor.

A man lives all his life on a street of large,fine houses. They are solid, impressive, reassuring. One day he opens the door of one of the houses and finds that it is not a real house at all. It is just a facade. Behind the impressive brick frontage there is plasterboard and it's only a few inches thick.It's like a movie set. There are no real rooms behind the facade, only framework. On careful examination he sees that all the houses in the street are the same, although some are a little more substantial than others, none is actually a real house.

From this point on, he can never see the houses in the same way, ever again. His friends and neighbours worry for him, and try to reassure him that the houses are the same as ever they were. They advance many convincing arguments to reassure him that the houses are solid and permanent but, even though he has difficulty in explaining it to them, he knows what he has seen.

The puzzle for him is to figure out how he has remained so warm and dry all these years.

Anonymous said...

Kelvin, the puzzle for me is to see how he actually had any friends and neighbors if he lived all his life on a movie set. Was it all an elaborate ploy, like 'The Truman Show'? Were the friends and neighbors actors too? Or are you saying 'most people live lives of quiet desperation'? - something I incline to, tho' many are not very quiet about it, they (I too, sometimes!) need constant distraction and therapy to quell the void within. I find Pascal and Kierkegaard have said it all already, & very finely. Only Christ the Lord is the imperishable and substantial fact, and our lives are pointed to grow toward him and in him.
But this claim about Christ means taking the Bible and history seriously if we are not to be caught up in another 'illusion' (maya!), peddling religious language that Cuppit, Holloway, Spong and other ex-Christians now deem to be false.
Consider another famous 'parable' - Zarathustra running up and down the street proclaiming the death of God while onlookers laugh and reject his words. But Nietzsche's point was real: already in the 1880s Christianity had ceased to be a real fact in the way western Europeans conducted their government and education for many years, as well as their own lives, even though it wouldn't be until probably the 1960s that this fact kicked in, in all kinds of ways.

VenDr said...

I like this statement very much:
"Only Christ the Lord is the imperishable and substantial fact, and our lives are pointed to grow toward him and in him."
Is it yours? If so, congratulations. If not, I wonder if you could share the source?
I also agree that taking the Bible and history seriously is an inescapable consequence of the above. Exactly how that is done is a moot point, but yes, it must be done.
Am I being too cynical in thinking that Western European governments and education are not the only institutions that no longer take Christianity seriously, and that another one is the Western European church? Or at least, substantial bits of it?

Anonymous said...

Kelvin, the phrasing's mine but the thought is St Paul's (1 Cor 15:53; 2 Cor 5:2-5). Fell free to use of coffee mugs etc.
I have an Orthodox friend who did his Durham doctorate on J H Newman, who was fond of quoting to me Newman's words 'Liberalism is a halfway house to Atheism' - defining liberalism as he did in his Biglietto speech in 1879:
"Liberalism in religion is the doctrine that there is no positive truth in religion, but that one creed is as good as another, and this is the teaching which is gaining substance and force daily."
This hasn't made a Roman Catholic (or an Orthodox) out of me, but I can't escape the thought that Newman said some prescient and troubling things about the Anglicanism he once embraced.
As for your question about the 'Western European church', I would say that Kierkegaard spoke prophetically here as well - with your rider that 'latitude and longitude are cultural constructs'! :)
The Lord bless you today,

Anonymous said...

I should have mentioned that Kierkegaard was living in Old Zealand when he raised his trumpet against the Danish Church - but mutatis mutandis his message was he same ...