Four juxtapositions

Minimalism and simplicity are often and erroneously made to be synonymous. Minimalism is a style of art and aesthetics, while simplicity refers to a style of life or of being, although it can refer to a style of doing things. It may seem that our life-style should be a form of art, and that therefore one can conflate the two terms. However, minimalism attempts to identify what can be quantitatively removed with the increasingly better results, as in a work of art or music. Colors, objects or musical notes are removed in order to achieve an effect constructing the work with fewer parts or pieces, with fewer notes or shades, but creating a new and different effect. In painting, a canvas with one color is presented. But the intent is not simple. The intent is to absorb the multiplicity of reality into a particular mood of sudden expectation, of sudden realization. In music, minimalism often repeats a series in order to achieve an effect that, as with art, is absorbing the whole of reality at the moment, and brings the listener to a poignant mood. This achievement of mood is the whole purpose of any piece of music, but in minimalism the effect is specific: emotional, poignant, evanscent.

In simplicity, life is streamlined of complexity as to convey plainness, normalcy, and regularity, an approachability based on clarity. Simplicity can be material clarity, reduction without loss of function, plainness in its deliberate elimination of color, nuance, hue, or time lapse. But simpllicity does not evoke emotion, rather drains it, neutralizes it, eliminates it as subjective. Simplicity is not the minimalizing of complexity but the return to original state, to what was sufficient at one time and can be restored to that state, appreciated as it was. Simplicity calls for a lack of judgment, opinion, or subjective imposition. Minimalism still wants you to go somewhere, while simplicity is self-sufficient and exists without you.

No better reference to a clarifying tradition in regard to minimalism and simplicity is to be found as in wabi-sabi. Here the emotional content of solitude and impermanence penetrate the assumption of control, artistic or otherwise, and the notion of imperfection (in nature and in the human product) undermine any goal of self-sufficiency. Thus, our minimalism must be precise in conveying emotion, yet it will be contrived if removed too far from nature itself and from the patterns we observe in nature, which include simplicity.

Religion and spirituality are seen as synonymous in belonging to a pool of thinking about social and historical events and phenomena. But spirituality has never been a necessary component of religion, and is often at odds with the anthropological and cultural function of religion.

Nowadays, people who are religious belong to particular sects, while those who still miss an other-worldliness derived from religion, construct an idealized, somewhat sanitized, version of religion that is called “spirituality.” As Western religious sects declined in influence during the twentieth century, spirituality as an alternative emerged. Usually spirituality was pursued by those encountering Eastern thought and realizing the primitive lack of depth in their own Western tradition. Theosophists and New Thought adherents had begun this process long ago, with a curiosity about India and Tibet, and twentieth-century successors rediscovered China and Japan. Spirituality assigned to Eastern thought allowed a new perspective for Westerners that their old religions had never pursued, with their anthropological emphasis on ritual and rote belief. Eastern thought promised a spiritual dimension accessible without ritual or weekly tithes. Undoubtedly, Western religions stopped growing (qualitatively) when their secular counterparts, the nation-states of the West, collapsed into internecine civil wars (dating from turbulent late medieval times) on to the international wars (the destructive World Wars). But more fundamentally, Western religions exhausted their theology, after which spiritualized forms of mysticism emerged. Mysticism blurred the hard definitions, dogmas, and categories so favored by ecclesiastical authorities, so that the reaction to mysticism further desiccated the religions. No wonder that today’s expression “I’m not religious but I’m spiritual” or a version of it rings inevitable but also a bit vacuous. One wants to be more specific about truth.

Meditation and relaxation are not dictionary synonyms, but given the restless mood of modern society, the desire for tranquility equates methods of relaxation with the credentials of meditation. But relaxation is the temporary suspension of the effects of traumatically ruthless society and culture, and bound to expire as soon as the individual is plunged back into the modern world. Relaxtion is sold by business interests specifically as the remedy for coping, but it was never the remedy for coping with harsh materialism, but rather for dropping out of it to discover and pursue the temporary pleasures. In this process, popular media legitimizes a particular socio-economic status and its conditions, endorses an existing relationship to money, labor in a modern technological world, and the acceptance of the materialization of culture.

Hermit and recluse are old favorite terms of juxtaposition often made synonymous by dictionaries. Strictly speaking, with a few technical exceptions, a recluse has a psychological fear of people, whereas the hermit does not. The so-called “North Pond” hermit of Maine is a classic recluse who dared not encounter people, though his fear of them was because he stole from them. What hermit would steal from anyone! Perhaps his reclusion was strategic, but it certainly made for mental stagnation and dependence, certainly not eremitism. Yet the popular media continues to call him a “hermit.” Juxtapose Po Chu-i or Ryokan, true hermits, who expressed the sentiment: “It’s not that I don’t like people, it’s just that I am so very tired of them.”

Imago Dei

The previous entry noted that Western Christian theologians conclude that the image and likeness of God refers ultimately to immortality, the only factor that the resurrection of Christ assures for humanity. While the image of God in humans may seem to refer to virtue and morality, theologians from Augustine to Aquinas cling to definitions, logic, and the overarching divine economy as a system not permitting them to make far-reaching conclusions.

But why cannot the divine image “trickle down” a moral image in humans? Instead, humans must be assigned morality through commandments, systems of punishment for sin, for, indeed, they cannot share foreknowledge, the power of creation, or other characteristics of God. The Jewish scriptural writers never assumed that this image and likeness, derived from Genesis, is more than consciousness and will, and never assumed immortality. The ecclesiastical Christian writers, however, go so far as to embrace the primacy of immortality because the economy of salvation passes through the passion and resurrection of the second person of the Trinity, himself divine enough to merit what no human being could.

Thus the historical Jesus of morality and virtue is necessarily displaced by the needs of Western theology, for the teachings of Jesus are not sufficient to guarantee an other-worldly preoccupation that would transcend the Jewish social and spiritual communitarianism of its culture. Christianity could not become a world or universal culture with a mere moral code or set of rituals. The ecclesiastical apologists must necessarily construct a divine counterpart of empire. Ancient history showed that every empire from Babylon to Rome inevitably divinized its project in order to sustain itself. No less did the Christianized empire after Constantine.

A favorite crystallization of these two competing visions of Christianity (and, therefore, of the image of God) is presented by Fyodor Dostoyevsky in his masterful novel The Brothers Karamazov. Here are presented two world views in Ivan, the atheist intellectual, and in Zosima, the simple and affective monk.

Ivan presents the idea of the Grand Inquisitor of the Spanish Inquisition, satisfied with a recent auto de fe, where heretics have been burned at the stake under his supervision. The inquisitor happens to walk past a church where a stranger to the city has gathered a crowd witnessing a miracle, the revival of a dead girl returned to her joyful parents, to the awe of bystanders. But the inquisitor is furious and has the stranger arrested and thrown into a dungeon, where he is visited that night by the inquisitor. The old man rails against the stranger, who remains silent the whole time. The old man suspects who the stranger is, wants to know why he has returned to challenge the church. For 1500 years, he avers, the church has been working to subordinate the people’s will to obedience, to dogma, to rules and restrictions and an economy of other-worldliness, fed by teachings and punishments. Clearly the inquisitor has no faith or beliefs — he only relishes the power that the ecclesiastical authorities have crafted these many years. And now he is furious that the true nature of Jesus’ teachings may get about, as what he will have to label heresy, through the mouth of the returned one himself. He vows to burn the stranger at the stake tomorrow morning.

In contrast, the monk Zosima, presented by Karamazov brother Aloysa, adheres completely to the love that is the core of Jesus’ teaching and through which all belief or ideas are engendered and held (rather than the other way around). To Zosima, prayer restores simplicity and identifies with God, the image of which is greatly mollified from the Yahweh of the Old Testament but also from the Yahweh of the New Testament taught in the West. Prayer is in the orthodox formula of seeking mercy for all, empathy for all, identification with all. This identification engenders love for all. As the character relates to his fellow-monks:

Brothers, do not be afraid of men’s sin, love man also in his sin, for this likeness of God’s love is the height of love on earth. Love all of God’s creation, both the whole of it and every grain of sand. Love every leaf, every ray of God’s light. Love animals, love plants, love each thing. If you love each thing, you will perceive the mystery of God in things. Once you have perceived it, you will begin tirelessly to perceive more and more of it every day. And you will come at last to love the whole world with an entire, universal love. Love the animals: God gave them the rudiments of thought and an untroubled joy. Do not trouble it, do not torment them, do not take their joy from them, do not go against God’s purpose. …

One may stand perplexed before some thought, especially men’s sin, asking oneself: “Shall I take it by force, or by humble love?” Always resolve to take it by humble love. If you so resolve once and for all, you will be able to overcome the world. A loving humility is a terrible power, the most powerful of all, nothing compares with it. Keep company with yourself and look to yourself every day and hour, every minute, that your image ever be gracious. …

My young brother asked forgiveness of the birds: it seems senseless, yet it is right, for all is like an ocean, all flows and connects; touch it in one place and it echoes at the other end of the world. Let it be madness to ask forgiveness of the birds, still it would be easier for the birds, and for a child, and for any animal near you, if you yourself were more gracious tha you are now, if only by a drop, still it would be easier. All is like an ocean, I say to you. Tormented by universal love, you, too, would then start praying to the birds, as if in a sort of ecstasy, and entreat them to forgive you your sin. Cherish this ecstasy, however senseless it may seem to people.

Zosima continues, but one can perceive here the direction of the higher religion, of the historical Jesus, reminiscent of Eastern thought, and referring to the mystical theology of both the earlier orthodox fathers and of Westerners like Meister Eckhart. For the mass of humanity not inclined to mysticism, Zosima has nevertheless outlined the correct religion: the religion of love, mutual empathy, and the development of a new culture based on the primacy of this teaching. All this is quite the opposite of the Inquisitor’s religion and view of culture. A successful pursuit of the image of God must surely reside in the intimations of Zosima.

Image and likeness

In his Book of Disquiet, the eccentric Portuguese writer Fernando Pessoa notes the horror that must have come upon the 19th century to realize the full meaning of the phrase “made in the image and likeness of God,” referring to human beings.

Why horror? The original Christian sense of the phrase referred to the existence of the soul and the essential concomitant characteristic of the soul: immortality. The literal interpretation of image and likeness suggesting consciousness, will, forethought, and agency, the sharing of the virtues of God, were concepts for theological specialists, and quickly yielded to popular sentiment as mere immortality.

Immortality came to dominate morality as a religious criterion because a divine economy must have a perpetual or inviolable integrity over the centuries and millennia, to assure that the principles of morality (if not belief) must be perpetuated, must parallel the immortality that theologians made absolute. Morality was subject to interpretation, but immortality was absolute and fixed, presumably in the mind of God.

The Hebrews and Jews of the Old Testament did not develop the concept of the soul or immortality, and saw the human likeness to God as the infusion of a pneuma or breath, a personality or expression, distinct from other beings, itself setting up the problematic image of Yahweh, often arbitrary, authoritarian, and vindictive, as the previous entries on Jung and Kierkegaard have shown.

Thus Jonathan Edwards, the American Calvinist preacher, in the middle of the 18th century:

O Sinner! Consider the fearful Danger you are in: ‘Tis a great Furnace of Wrath, a wide and bottomless Pit, full of the Fire of Wrath, that you are held over in the Hand of that God, whose Wrath is provoked and incensed as much against you as against many of the Damned in Hell: You hang by a slender Thread, with the Flames of divine Wrath flashing about it, and ready every Moment to singe it, and burn it asunder; and you have no Interest in any Mediator, and nothing to lay hold of to save yourself, nothing to keep off the Flames of Wrath, nothing of your own, nothing that you ever have done, nothing that you can do, to induce God to spare you one Moment.

What matter the other likenesses to the divine when immortality alone remains after death? Who in not, in Edwards estimation, not a sinner? What trifling device of confession and rebirth does he propose outside of authority, God’s or his? What is left to the individual soul except the consciousness of a thread, a hairline’s distance between God’s arbitrariness and the self, forever unannihilated?

With enlightenment, science, and (in the popular culture) secularism throughout the 19th century, the notion of immortality necessarily took on a more social context. The afterlife had been understood to be an abstract state, but how could it be understood as but an extension of present existence in its social and cultural context — not simply religious context as preachers like Edwards maintained, but even revolutionary or utopian thinking. The previous idyllic state of similar-minded villagers or aristocrats inhabiting heaven must give way as the masses, however pious, fell deeper into the evils of daily industrial life and therefore conceived of the blessings of heaven as more a contrast to the evils of quotidian life. Immortality as analgesic would have less attraction in popular circles, with the effect that defining afterlife would become more difficult and challenging, leading to silence on the subject outside of narrow religious circles. By the early 20th century, Pessoa could see that issue as more horrible to contemplate and work out than to ignore.

Many observers have seen image and likeness, and presumably immortality, as misleading paths for popular religion, bypassing a socially engaged alternative for a traditional one that safely conforms to silence about the morality of authorities and powers. Consequently, too, the issue of describing the afterlife distracts from the spiritual, numinous and mystical that transcends the universality of immortality, with the potential for redefining consciousness and afterlife. But the mingling and distilling that can be pursued now is difficult, time-consuming, and complex.

The desire for immortality is a vague human inkling but the burden of consciousness, an intimation but also a great arrogance. The desire for immortality may arise not from individuals but from societies and groups with specific goals or devices realized by the promotion of immortality to masses of popular and humble people. The solitary looking within sees what is available to self, what is capable in self-knowledge, what can be demanded by the self. The solitary leaves to the elements what may be the answer, or the framework of a speculation. The Buddha was right to refuse metaphysical speculation, and we can find the same sentiment not so difficult to appreciate, as expressed in the same 18th century of Jonathan Edwards, by the 18th-century English poet Alexander Pope’s “Ode to Solitude”:

Happy the man, whose wish and care
A few paternal acres bound,
Content to breathe his native air,
In his own ground.

Whose herds with milk, whose fields with bread,
Whose flocks supply him with attire,
Whose trees in summer yield him shade,
In winter fire.

Blest! who can unconcern’dly find
Hours, days, and years slide soft away,
In health of body, peace of mind,
Quiet by day,

Sound sleep by night; study and ease
Together mix’d; sweet recreation,
And innocence, which most does please,
With meditation.

Thus let me live, unseen, unknown;
Thus unlamented let me die;
Steal from the world, and not a stone
Tell where I lie.

Jung on Job

The previous post presented Kierkegaard’s discovery (1844) of the ethical contradictions in the biblical Abraham — and, by extension, Yahweh, though Kierkegaard does not develop this latter dimension. Just a little over a century later (1952), Jung pursued the similar issue in the biblical Job, a story or myth composed to ostensibly show, like the story of Abraham, the resilient faith of a suffering servant of Yahweh and an assertion of the ethics and faith to be exercised by that servant. But Jung’s brilliant tour de force psychoanalyzes Yahweh and reveals the nature of the god and faith that Kierkegaard had already struggled with in fear and trembling.

The chief dilemma Jung’s Answer to Job addresses is the psychology of Yahweh; the second part deals with the psychological significance of Christ and the New Testament up to the Book of Revelation or Apocalypse.

Biblical texts, notes Jung, have consistently presented “a contradictory picture of Yahweh —

the picture of a God who knew no moderation in his emotions and suffered precisely from this lack of moderation. He himself admitted that he was eaten with rage and jealousy and that this knowledge was painful to him. Insight existed along with obtuseness, loving-kindness along with cruelty, creative power along with destructiveness. Everything was there, and none of these qualities was an obstacle to the other.

Concludes Jung:

Such a condition is only conceivable either when no reflecting consciousness is present at all, or when the capacity for reflection is very feeble and a more or less adventitious phenomenon. A condition of this sort can only be described as amoral. [emphasis Jung]

The story of Job is not unfamiliar. He loses his livelihood, his property, animals, servants, his family, his physical health. He is reduced to disease and dust, scratching horrible sores and wasting away. His trust in Yahweh is expected to be unshaken, as his friends insist, saying that Job must suffer due to bad faith or a secret sin, which Job denies, holding fast to his righteousness and guiltlessness. Job argues his case, telling Yahweh that his innocence is surely known by the Omniscient, that Job holds firm to a trust in divine justice.

But the situation is worsened by two factors: first, that Yahweh lacks self-reflection and is apparently unconscious of his own past acts, that having lied to David Yahweh may well now persist in his tormenting, as Job surely knows, and secondly, that Job (or the story’s author) realizes the scandalous fact that God consults and wagers with Satan.

Jung identifies Yahweh’s unconscious resentment against Job: that Job may well know what Yahweh is all about, that Job has seen the fickleness and arbitrariness, and that he deliberately mollifies God with contrite and self-abasing words. But Yahweh is not finished. He accuses Job of justifying himself, he who has no arm like God, no voice like God, that the proud and the wicked will be brought low. Only then, says Yahweh, will he acknowledge Job.

“Job is challenged as though he himself were a god,” notes Jung. But Job’s soothing speech finally has its affect: “The therapeutic measure of unresisting acceptance had proved its value yet again.”

Hereafter, Jewish authors recalled Sophia, the forgotten feminine aspect of God. The apocryphal Wisdom of Solomon reestablishes her influence, introduces new vocabulary, and shifts Yahweh to repentance and the notion of making up for past behavior anticipating its reversal through a divine son made human. The prophets, such as Ezekiel and Daniel, begin to suggest such a messianic balance, especially the Book of Enoch. One may note the messianic allusions in Isaiah and Jeremiah. Jung offers a review of gnostic and psychological explanations merged with orthodox logic to culminate in the clearly deified vessel into which Yahweh’s son will be poured. The difficult doctrine of God as Summum Bonum, especially in light of centuries of history dealing with Yahweh, means that Christ will have the burden of reconciling many contradictions.

The historical Jesus is a reticent personality, teaching an inward spiritual practice out of the limelight of doctrine, ritual, institutions, and pubic expression, closer to an Eastern tradition. In Enoch, the “son of man” is always associated with a justice and righteousness wholly uncompromising with the past behavior of Yahweh, a steadfast ethics that will reassert the divine in humans, with the gradual withdrawal of Yahweh. The promise of a Paraclete, a Holy Spirit, to succeed Christ is intended to allay the fear of Yahweh, and to strengthen the trust that love, not fear, has triumphed.

But the work of Jesus as Christ is overturned and undone with the Book of Revelation, or Apocalypse, which usurps the Christ of the Gospels for a surrogate of Yahweh. A clue may have been in the fact that Jesus never eliminated Satan, shown in the Gospels in temptations, possessions, and betrayals. But the more telling clue is when Jesus cries out on the cross to the Father, to Yahweh, who has forsaken him. To be forsaken is taken by some dogmatic observers as a human response to a necessary mission of redemption. But the cry shatters the notion of a hypostatic union of human and divine. Instead the presumed divine nature of Christ sympathizes with suffering, not cosmic theological economy, and experiences the insight of cruelty and suffering in bloody sacrifice, as primitive as anything in the Old Testament. The cry on the cross is a fundamental statement that the omniscient and all-powerful must still resort to this willful device as appeasement.

From the cross the logical path goes directly to the Book of Revelation or Apocalypse, where the Christ of the Gospels is transformed into a violent son of Yahweh, merging with the Ancient of Days. “We no longer recognize the meek Lamb who lets himself be led unresistingly to the slaughter; there is only the aggressive and irascible ram whose rage can at last be vented,” notes Jung.

A veritable orgy of hatred, wrath, vindictiveness, and bland destructive fury that revels in fantastic images of terror breaks out and with blood and fire overwhelms a world which Christ had just endeavored to restore to the original state of innocence and loving communion with God.

Christ now weilds a sickle to wage holy war, and presses the wine press containing enemies, not grapes, yielding blood not wine. The final war only temporarily locks up Satan, and “that woman Jezebel,” the Whore of Babylon, psychological counterpart of feminine Sophia, is slaughtered. The book foresees the reign of Christ until Satan is released and the Antichrist consumes the world.

Christianity has largely ignored the Book of Revelation, not explaining how such a return to the Shadow of Yahweh could be countenanced after the Gospels. Early Christianity labor under its psychology, constructing a religion of psychological beseigement. Clearly a psychological response that retains the shadow, this dark side, continued throughout Christian history and still holds sway regardless of the canonical status of the book.

Jung concludes his essay remarking that the logic of the Christian myth demands that God yet become human, or indeed that the human yet become the divine, an active responsibility for contemporaries given the state of the world today. Jung adds remarks on the timely Catholic dogma of Mary’s assumption (addenda notes from 1956), seen in the context of restlessness and fear engendered by the threat of nuclear annihilation, a threat resulting from cultures and institutions ignoring the essential archetypal role of the feminine in psychology and culture, and rejecting the universal message of the historical Jesus.

Kierkegaard, culture, and ethics

The fate of Western culture is anticipated in the 19th century not by Nietzsche but by his predecessor Kierkegaard, who, like Nietzsche, places this fate squarely upon the perception of religious belief and behavior.

In “Attack upon Christendom” (1854-55), Kierkegaard wonders how an entire country like Denmark, indeed, the entire Western world, can profess itself to be guided by the message of the Gospel and New Testament, how it can claim to be a Christian culture. He refers to the dictum that the way is through the narrow gate and that the way to destruction is wide.

Now, on the contrary, to speak only of Denmark, we are all Christians, the way is as broad as it possibly can be, the broadest in Denmark … Ergo, the New Testament is no longer truth.

The whole culture is so “Christian” that no one within the culture needs to believe anything anymore, that the truth of Christianity need no longer be questioned (or affirmed) because the culture is thoroughly “Christian.” Even the Jews are Christian, Jierkegaard’s pseudonymous author remarks sarcastically. Of course, Kierkegaard is anticipating that this veil of hypocrisy (or unbelief) will inevitably be realized and exposed. What then? Kierkegaard aptly titles this section of the larger essay “A Eulogy upon the Human Race.”

Honest believers — he counts himself among them — will realize this contradiction, first as an individual crisis, but inevitably anticipating a larger social and cultural crisis. The center of this challenge is not only in the patterns of cultural change but within belief itself, so thinly dependent on narrative and interpretation.

This sense of acceptance on faith is challenged by the core of the Old Testament and its presentations. For example, Machiavelli took the Old Testament narrative of Moses slaying his own peoples (versus foreigners the slayings of whom were justified) as historically true and divinely sanctioned by ethics, written, thus incorporating this possible necessity for slaying one’s people in the options available to a Christian head of state. The critical reaction of modern politicians against this allowance by Machiavelli in The Prince is highly hypocritical. Does not every state, including the “Christian” one, tallow its princes who do not adhere to scriptural literalism anyway, to carry out murder against its citizens? Does it not at the same time profess that its violence is ethical? Though not mentioned by Kierkegaard, Machiavelli aptly if unintentionally fits the dilemma of Christian cultural identity.

But Kierkegaard focuses on a deeper ethical issue based not on scriptural interpretation but on an ethical dilemma presented by a core belief in the nature of God. In Fear and Trembling (1841), Kierkegaard recounts the biblical narrative of Abraham ordered by God to slay Isaac, Abraham’s only son and the only receptacle of the continuity of the faith which has been vouchsafed to Abraham. If ethics is universal, Kierkegaard argues, then the particular strives to conform to the universal. If ethics is particular it nevertheless has its telos, its end and fulfillment, in the universal. To say that the individual can suspend ethics, the universal, is a temptation, and to execute the temptation is a sin. Kierkegaard notes that the tragic hero of pagan culture who sacrificed a child to angry gods did so as a moral virtue but also as compliant obedience, an obeisance to fate. In the case of Abraham, however, he is expected by a personal God to accept his deed as the cost of maintaining faith and hope, though clearly contradicting the intrinsic ethics of the act, regardless of what hope Abraham may have of some subsequent miraculous turn, which is not a legitimate summoning of the individual versus the universal.

Given his beliefs, the tragic hero of paganism remains within the ethical, the telos, but in the same at Abraham does not. Abraham accepts the universal to be suspended for the particular, specifically for himself, transcending temptation and transforming it into ethical necessity,contradicting God’s will by either resisting temptation or by pursuing it. Abraham’s dilemma cannot be sustained.

“Therefore,” writes Kierkegaard, “though Abraham arouses my admiration, he at the same time appalls me.” Such is the painful paradox of faith, Kierkegaard admits. A tragic hero can still be consoled and counseled, but a “knight of faith” finds himself alone: “no one can give him counsel, him no one can understand.” Perhaps, he says, Hegel is “wrong in not protesting loudly and clearly against the fact that Abraham enjoys honor and glory as the father of faith, whereas he ought to be prosecuted and convicted of murder.”