I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know . . . and repent in dust and ashes

Job's despair by William Blake (1757-1827)
READINGS:

Job 42:1-6

Then Job answered the Lord:
‘I know that you can do all things,
   and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted.
“Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge?”
Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand,
   things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.
“Hear, and I will speak;
   I will question you, and you declare to me.”
I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear,
   but now my eye sees you;
therefore I despise myself,
   and repent in dust and ashes.

From Michael McGhee's "Transformations of Mind: Philosophy as Spiritual Practice" (CUP, 2000, p. 8)

I had thought to say that philosophers need to remember that they are also human, but how does that make them different from anyone else? And yet, thinkers, philosophers, stand in a particular relation to their own humanity because they offer representations of our human relation to reality, and their vocation rides upon an interior acknowledgment of human weakness. If humankind cannot bear very much reality, then what philosophers cannot bear cannot be disclosed or represented by them either, our experience will be too narrow, our discernment too weak, and so our philosophy fail through the failure of our humanity.  So we fail if we are too weak, but one of the conditions of success is a due recognition of weakness . . .
. . . It depends on our response to our limitations and the manner in which we discover them. But it has been an abiding fear of mine, that the state of my own humanity, the way I think and feel, the way I act, or fail to act (soured by my deeds) may also affect, adversely, my philosophy, my capacity to see, to see error, to see ordinary truths. (And is the nature of that fear that I shall be found out? There are surely other reasons, of a more pressing kind, to take care of the self — for the sake of others, for instance, who are harmed in proportion to our not taking that care.)
      But one thing at a time. It is frightening, that the way I am, the way we are, may distort perception, perhaps deeply distort it, and we not know it, be quite blind. And there is nothing more chilling than to hear the deluded speak, with complete confidence in themselves.

—o0o—

ADDRESS
I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know . . . and repent in dust and ashes

In last week’s address, with the help of a song by Steely Dan, I introduced you to the romantic poet John Keats’ important and influential idea of “negative capability: “that is when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.”

Before going on I’d like to reiterate that I also said that in using this phrase Keats was not wanting to dismiss or preclude all attempts to reach after fact and reason because there clearly exist many facts and reasons in this world which could and, in my opinion, should strenuously and tenaciously be reached after. This is particularly true in the domains covered by the natural sciences and the humanities. 

However, having said this, last week my concern was — and is again today — that there is something structural about the human condition which means we cannot come to know all the reasons and facts about most things — and especially not those things we have called philosophical, religious, spiritual, ethical, moral, divine or sacred — and that, therefore, we must learn the wisdom to acknowledge this deep, structural limitation and, when appropriate, to learn how we might be in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason and, again to follow Keats, how we can learn to remain content in certain areas of our lives with what can only ever be felt as being some kind of half-knowledge. 

Using his inherited monotheistic language, the author of the Book of Job seems to have realised the need to adopt a similar stance to Keats and we see this most powerfully at the end of the book where he has Job admit he had uttered what he did not understand, things too wonderful for him, which he did not know. Having foolishly and hubristically done this many times in the past Job was forced to despise himself and feel the consequent and overwhelming need to “repent in dust and ashes.”

Now, I realise that within well-educated, intellectual, liberal, progressive rational religious circles such as our own, although a frank acknowledgement of human weaknesses and limitations can now and then be seen to be acceptable, the further thought that accompanying this there should be some kind of repentance in dust and ashes seems, well, unnecessary and excessive. However, today I want to suggest that it’s not only vital but may well be absolutely necessary if any meaningful, effective liberal religion is going to be revived in the near future.

I’ll return to why I think this is the case later on but, first of all, I want to note that in unsettled times — as ours surely are — people have always been tempted to turn or return to religion and philosophy (and to ministers of religion and philosophers) in the hope that there they will find there accessible and secure answers, facts and reasons about life, the universe and everything. In turn, alas, many religions and philosophies (as well as ministers of religion and philosophers) have proved to be only too willing to claim that they can provide those secure answers, facts and reasons. In connection with this two words spring immediately to my mind: “snake-oil”.  

As a philosophically inclined minister of religion the pressure (both internal and external) to come up with one’s own brand of snake-oil is, I assure you, considerable. I mean who is going to come to listen to an address or lecture by a person who, Job-like, is prepared frankly to admit to continually being tempted into uttering things he did not understand, things too wonderful for him, which he did not know and that the only way to move on is to repent in dust and ashes. It’s not a great sales-pitch is it?

But speaking personally, as I always try to do — and not on your behalf — for a long time now I find I simply cannot trust any philosophy or religion, any minister of religion or philosopher who even vaguely suggest to me that can offer me strong, full and complete answers, facts and reasons about life, the universe and everything. It should be obvious that, given my feeling on this matter, I need publicly to remind you (or perhaps confess if you didn’t already know it) that I simply haven’t got — and therefore cannot pass on to you — any strong, full and complete answers, facts and reasons. The truth is that my personal religion and philosophy becomes more minimalist by the day.

Yet, despite this, what I feel I can pass on to you are just a few religious/spiritual and philosophical strategies by which you may fruitfully and creatively begin to immerse yourself in the world in certain ways such that meaningful resources and orientations are allowed to emerge and which, without giving you any final, strong, full and complete answers, facts and reasons, can still open to you the possibility of living a genuinely good and fulfilled religious life. One of these strategies is (to my own surprise) repentance and yes, I’m sorry to say, a repentance in dust and ashes, by which I mean meant the repentance of one’s whole being — a visceral embodied repentance rather than one couched only in abstract ideas held at a distance from one’s deepest self.

Before we move on it’s important to take a look at what this oh-so-scary word “repentance” means, or at least what I mean by it today. In the New Testament the Greek word translated as “repentance” is μετάνοια (metanoia), it literally means “after” or “behind one’s mind” but it is better thought of as meaning something like “to think differently after.” Consequently metanoia is a kind of “after-thought”, a new thought different in some way from a former thought. In connection with this we may say it is, therefore, also a change of one’s perception or consciousness.

Repentance can, therefore, be something not dreadfully moralistic, negative, self-destructive, breast-beating and ultimately emasculating — as most of us inherited the idea if we came from tradition Christian backgrounds — but, instead, a practice or a way to open us up to heretofore unknown, deep sources of wisdom, joy, strength and energy.

But we can’t develop to this practice if we are in any way tempted to continue to think about the matter in terms of an irritable reaching after fact and reason. If we are going to get to the new after-thought then we need to be absolutely clear about why the former thought won’t do the job and why we must repent of it in dust and ashes, i.e. completely. This is what Michael McGhee is trying to do in the opening paragraphs of the first chapter of his book.

Firstly, as McGhee notes, there is the daunting problem that one of the conditions of any genuine success in religion, philosophy and ethics is a due recognition of our human weaknesses and limitations but that these weaknesses and limitations may be precisely the things that cause the failure of our philosophy, religion or ethics. Like McGhee, I have an abiding fear,

“that the state of my own humanity, the way I think and feel, the way I act, or fail to act (soured by my deeds) may also affect, adversely, my philosophy, my capacity to see, to see error, to see ordinary truths” ((Michael McGhee, Transformations of Mind: Philosophy as Spiritual Practice, CUP, 2000, p. 8)

Secondly, again like McGhee, I sometimes viscerally feel that perhaps the nature of my fear is that I shall be found out, if not by you all on Sunday morning then certainly later on by a careful reader of my blog and so, along with McGhee, I cannot but help wonder whether the way I am may distort perception, perhaps deeply distort it and so, unknowingly, I am, in truth, quite blind.

Being a public speaker and having glimpsed the truth that I may, in fact, often be quite blind is, of course, why I also find “nothing more chilling than to hear the deluded speak, with complete confidence in themselves.”

Perhaps not surprisingly this realization has made me acutely aware that I must keep constantly alert to the possibility that I have said (or might be about to say) x or y with too much confidence. But, of course, because of my human, all too human weaknesses and limitations, I often fail to achieve the required watchfulness and so I find myself back where McGhee begins, namely, with a recognition that my weakness and limitations cause me to fail, again and again, but that one of the conditions of any success I might have as a philosophically inclined minister of religion can only come about thanks to a due recognition of my weakness and limitations.

I have to say that, at times, this recognition has been utterly debilitating but, on most occasions — and I’m thinking here particularly of the Sunday address — I have managed to get by repeating to myself a line found in Samuel Beckett’s novella Worstwood Ho!: “All of old. Nothing else ever. Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” But I hope you can see that the problem with this approach — trying again, failing again, failing better etc. — is that ultimately it remains a method which reeks of an irritable reaching after fact and reason.

But then, in 2009, I accidentally stumbled on McGhee’s book in which he reflects, in part, upon the work of the important Japanese philosopher Tanabe Hajime (1885-1962).

In 1946 Tanabe wrote a book called “Philosophy as Metanoetics” where he says, quite startlingly, that if you want to be a philosopher then you must confess your sins and repent. The title of his book refers, of course, to the Greek word “metanoia” traditionally translated as “repentance” but which, as you now know, really means “to think differently after”, a change of one’s mind and associated conduct or even a change of one’s perception or consciousness.

Tanabe felt he had to repent because his philosophizing, his constant and hubristically irritable reaching after fact and reason if you like, had not helped him critique and resist the brutal ideology that came to dominate Japan during the period of the Second World War and this failure forced Tanabe to acknowledge “he was not fit to engage in the sublime task of philosophy”. In other words he repents in dust and ashes. Tanabe then notes that

“At that moment something astonishing happened. In the midst of my distress I let go and surrendered myself humbly to my own inability. I was suddenly brought to new insight! My penitent confession — metanoiesis (zange) — unexpectedly threw me back on my own interiority and away from things external. There was no longer any question of my teaching and correcting others under the circumstances — I who could not deliver myself to do the correct thing” (Michael McGhee, Transformations of Mind: Philosophy as Spiritual Practice, CUP, 2000, p. 11)

The crucial, and actually very simple point to grasp here is that, for Tanabe, insight came about, not because of his “self-power” (jiriki) but because of an “other-power” (tariki). Again Hajime notes:

“This Other-power brings about a conversion in me that heads along a path hitherto unknown to me . . . This is what I am calling metanoetics, the philosophy of Other-power” (ibid. p. 11).

In letting go of his own irritable reaching after fact and reason, completely — which to repeat is another way of saying “in dust and ashes” — giving up his obsession with his “self-power” he finally left the space for this creative “Other-power” to come into play. To reiterate, this repentance is not intellectual and abstract — based only in reason and fact — but embodied, visceral and in real dust and ashes.

Now, in a traditional church this point would be a precursor to the minister saying something like that now “God” can enter back into the frame. You may call it “God” if you like, but I generally I don’t like — as I noted earlier on, these days I prefer a much more minimalist and weak approach and to call this “Other-power” God would be, once again, to utter something I did not understand, something too wonderful for him, which I do not know. But what I can say today — and do know and understand — is that this creative, joyous, life, insight and meaning enhancing “Other-power”, whatever it is, has only begun to come fully into play in my religious/spiritual life when I have had the courage to admit how little I know and, repenting in dust and ashes for my oh so irritable reaching after fact and reason, have been willing “return to the things themselves” (Husserl) and immerse myself again fully in the flow of the world.
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