NYRB Exchange

Well, you’ve probably seen already that the exchange between us and Garry Wills is up now at the NYRB.  Unfortunately, it seems to have the following structure:

Us:  There’s no point in responding to your criticisms, since we don’t hold the views you are attacking.

Wills:  Hey!  They aren’t responding to my criticisms!

So there you have it.  Who says reasoned discourse is dead…

Thanks to Albert Borgmann and also this blog for their analyses of the exchange.

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34 Responses to NYRB Exchange

  1. dmf says:

    ha, well for those who still feel that reading, writing, and lecturing are grounds/means for being response-able/well-equipped to engage in reasoned discourse….

  2. dmf says:

    does raise some interesting questions about what does allow/enable a dialogical conversation (let alone a conversion) to take place.

    http://www2.lse.ac.uk/publicEvents/events/2011/20110504t1830vWT.aspx

    http://pubpages.unh.edu/~jds/Santorini.htm

    • david leech says:

      There is a potentially useful model in Stark & Finke’s Acts of Faith. The subject is sociology of religion but it might be applicable more generally to the sociology of conviction, or perspective. Some time in the last couple of years I asked Stark if the model had been applied to political perspectives (another obvious application) and he said that as far as he knew it had not but that he didn’t keep up with the goings on in other fields.

  3. david leech says:

    Well. I don’t think he’s, strictly speaking, a rational choice guy, cuz one’s “throwness” (Stark & Finke’s “social capital”) plays a big role. (Maybe better to say, “Yes, rational choice, but of an interesting sort that leaves, as I read it, plenty of room for action over thought. According to the authors, once re-affiliation/conversion is primary a matter of social practices and only secondarily a matter of beliefs.) Regarding ‘anti-Darwinian,” again, I don’t know. I’d say that “social mutation” plays a big role in the outcome. Its maybe what the author’s are trying to explain. (What accounts for reaffiliation and conversion?) Its quite an interesting model and best of all, the model (definitions and propositions) are all boiled down in a 10-page appendix so you don’t even have to read the whole book (276 pages) to get the essence.

    Its really quite interesting and quite challenging on the religious dimension (not the dimension I am recommending) because on that dimension it swims against the “mothers milk” (for people of my ilk) of what he calls the secularization thesis. (I read this BEFROE I read Charles Taylor’s Secular Age so I wasn’t anywhere as uncomfortable with Taylor’s “unquiet frontier” (or Borgmann’s Power Failure thesis) as I might otherwise have been.

    I am (was?) quite old school, though struggling to be free, so I found Acts of Faith very very interesting and I have seen more than one place where the underlying model could be usefully applied.

    • dmf says:

      “You’ve just wrote an essay entitled Is the Mental a Myth? I believe Hubert Dreyfus often toys with this turn of phrase during his lecture on Heidegger at UC Berkeley as part of his “quarrels” with John Searle. His position seems to be that we don’t need “minds” (representations, intentional content, etc.) to come in and inform our actions when we are fully absorbed in the ongoing flow of our daily practices. Following Heidegger, he believes that there is a much more primordial form of understanding that is embedded in our skills. What is your position on this issue? Is the mental really a myth?

      That’s the title of the anthology; my contribution is “Never Mind: Thinking of Subjectivity in the Dreyfus-McDowell Debate,” and I actually go further than Dreyfus! Where he sees a great deal of our daily behaviour as coasting along on autopilot, with conscious intentional thought rarely arising, I want to collapse the distinction between mindless coping and explicitly conscious attention. I see all action as reaction to solicitations which permeate the mental and linguistic realms just as much as the bodily and perceptual ones, as described so well by people like Merleau-Ponty, Rodney Brooks, and J.J. Gibson discuss. This extension is one of the signal accomplishments of the later work of Wittgenstein and Heidegger, and Chapter Four of my upcoming book explains the idea at length.

      In a nutshell, the claim is that all the phenomena that characterize our being-in-the-world as absorbed reactions to solicitations apply to the arenas where we are more tempted to believe ourselves freely, consciously, voluntarily make decisions as well. Just as hot apple pies cooling on window sills send out tendrils of aroma to pull us towards it by the nose, as the great phenomenologist Tex Avery has it, so “2+2=__” pulls forth “4.” The same goes for “Socrates is a man; all men are mortal;….” Even when I relieve my auto-pilot and take charge of my decision-making, I rely on the way the various options appeal to or repel me. I have to. Without these claims on us, we would stand paralyzed between the options as Buridan’s ass, with free choice only being an Lucretian swerve. It will be objected that yes, we receive solicitations, but we are free to follow or reject them; as Merleau-Ponty quotes Malebranche, they impinge upon us respectively. But how do we decide whether to resist or give in? Certainly, different solicitations affect us differently so that one has greater impact than another, but we are already in the terrain of compatibilism. As far as I can tell, the train of argument only ends in reacting, indecision, or unmotivated coin-flipping.”

      http://figureground.ca/interviews/lee-braver/

      • david leech says:

        Regarding my position on Myth of the Mental, I am in the sway of Dreyfus. As I understand it, Dreyfus isn’t saying that the mental is a myth. He is “just” saying its not basic; at our best, we aren’t autonomous.

        “All actions as reactions,” is interesting. Then “reacting, indecision, or coin-flipping” need not be alternatives but rather something like the routine one follows until momentarily stable (“balanced” reaching back to an early exchange on this blog!).

        As I read it, one of the things ATS is trying to do is get attuned to being attuned and getting un-comfortable with it. The un-comfortability at once accepts action/reaction, collects it and learns meta-poietic skills along the way.

        By “old school” I meant a recovering positivist. (What do you expect from an economist?) So I like models but I like a plurality of little models more than one big totalizing model. As I have said to students, those little balsa wood planes teach us SOMEthing about flight even if we can’t rely on them to get us from here to there.

        Finally, is dmf outed as Lee Braver? If true, this could be the beginning of more, other-focused communications. Looking forward to it.

      • david leech says:

        I see I misconstrued dmf’s last posting and confused him with Lee Braver.

        Sorry

  4. dmf says:

    dl, I think that the radical nature of existentialism/phenomenology often gets lost in translation into readily available formats and may be part of why even a text like ATS that reaches down with an open hand gets the kind of reaction that it does in that our sense of being subjects (and being-subjected) is at stake.

    http://www.jcrt.org/archives/10.3/metcalf.pdf

  5. David_Boardman says:

    The review exchange with G. Wills is interesting but not surprising as Wills seems to have much invested in making his translation skills relevant even/especially when they are not. Although you mention his Catholic status you might have pressed the underlying point that he is attacking the premise of ATS from an entirely different epistemology, which no doubt informs his Catholicism; it is no surprise he takes exception to the work.

    Wills’ Catholic fans clamber on the bandwagon at the sometimes worth reading religion magazine Commonweal. Do go see the online blog for a bizarre but amusing full-throated attack on Mssrs Dreyfus and Kelly, especially Kelly, who comes in for a mean-spirited personal attack from one poster. The book and its authors receive little defense, at first from what appears to be the only person to have read the book (!) though that is hardly to be expected from this group. This is a taste, from a latter commenter who also claims to have bothered to read the book: “An Atrocious Parody of Postmodernist Pseudo-intellectualism Decomposing into Primitivism.” Do you think a riposte to the thread is warranted? Perhaps wasted, as pearls before swine.

  6. Charlie says:

    Wills asks for answers but remains mired in the exegetical ditch, and most importantly simply avoids the provoking question on free will. It may very well be the last great fiction. Elements of modern philosophy (existentialism and transcendentalism) extend the fetish of agency, but the bias/rub is in more conventional circles. Both in terms of political discourse (e.g. Classical liberalism) and old fashioned piety. Excuse the drama, but suggesting that free choice is not paramount to meaning is deadly serious. All roads for me lead back to Nietzsche, but I see this most in paralleling Wittgenstein on privacy and intentionality. The novelty is the (persuasive) phenomenological taxonomy – and I look forward to further agitation when Pascal and Kierkegaard are folded into the hermeneutics

    • dmf says:

      “On has thereby attained the knowledge that the history of the moral sensations is the history of an error, the error of accountability, which rests on the error of freedom of the will…[the] complete unaccountability of man for his actions and his nature [is] the bitterest draught the man of knowledge has to swallow.”
      FN Hall2H
      “man [be] put back into the essential sway of be-ing and cut off from the fetters of ‘anthropology’ ”
      MH Con2philo

      Ch, this is indeed deadly serious which is why I ultimately leave Wittgenstein and Nietzsche/Heidegger behind (taking their anthropological insights along with me) and head back to the rough ground of attending to our lives together.

      • Charlie says:

        Indeed…and, ultimately, borrowing from Epicurus in 300 BC – ataraxia. The tranquility of virtue, affection and the trust of friends

  7. dmf says:

    just a suggestion but in the heideggerian spirit of avoiding idle chatter I would say that we limit the conversation here to people who have read the book…

    http://www.newappsblog.com/2011/05/all-things-sinning-the-controversy.html

    • Mike Murray says:

      Good idea. I ordered the book from Amazon and had finished it before Wills’ review came out. His review may have prejudiced the argument for later readers

    • david leech says:

      In an interview with the editor of a special issue of the philosophical journal, Inquiry, concerning a current special issue: “The Secular and the Sacred” (Volume 54, Issue 2, 2011), Dreyfus focuses on a theme of ATS that, ultimately, may have been (as has been suggested here, most clearly by Borgmann) the “chip on the shoulder” for Wills: ATS is anti-monotheistic. Borgmann’s position seems more “do unto others” not unlike MB’s Ishmael I suppose!

      Maybe that’s obvious to others but I have been more focused on the possibilities that ATS attempts to open up rather than the ones that it aims to close down. In the interview (and the book) I think the critique of Dante’s rejection of politics and, finally, Beatrice highlights the “anti-” aspect.

      Anyway, if you’re not numb to more ATS-related stuff, here is the interview:

      The special issue of Inquiry looks interesting.

      • dmf says:

        thanks I’ll have to check out that issue, for the contrary see
        Stanley Hauerwas’ With the Grain of the Universe

  8. dmf says:

    Sean, you may want to take a look at Agamben’s The Passion of Facticity, in Rethinking Facticity, where he builds on a footnote in B&T that just quotes Pascal and Augustine.
    Pascal there says:
    “where we are speaking of human things, it is said to be necessary to know them before we love them…but the saints, on the contrary, when they speak of divine things, say that we must love them before we know them, and that we enter into truth only by charity.”
    Agamben then goes on to posit that Heidegger’s facticity comes not through Husserl but Augustine (facticia est anima ,made not natural) “the term must be understood in all its force, for it is the same adjective that Augustine used to designate pagan idols, in a sense that seems to correspond perfectly with our term fetish: genus facticiorum
    deorum, the nature of “factical” gods. “

  9. Jermaine says:

    I refer back to the early Dreyfus essay, “Holism and Hermeneutics” (Review of Metaphysics 34 (September 1980)).:

    “In conflicts of interpretation, the question is not which view corresponds to the way things are in themselves, but rather, which is the better account of our condition, i.e., which allows a deeper appreciation of the cultural commitments we cannot help sharing because they make us what we are.”

  10. Jim von der Heydt says:

    @David Leech: I still have not read the book in its entirety, but I have read the Dante chapter. It is good in several important ways. But I say to you, as I said to Sean, that the idea that Dante rejects politics OR Beatrice at any moment of the Comedy is utterly wrong. Simply put: any prediction that one would make about the construction of the text (and this is ESPECIALLY true of the last few cantos of Paradiso, where the authors claim to see it happening) is entirely confounded by the realities of what Dante actually does in his poem.

    Dante cared about politics more than he cared about poetry itself, and if he had not been exiled from Florence we would almost certainly not have the Comedy at all. Moreover, it is impossible to imagine that he cared about the philosophy of Christianity more than he cared about Beatrice — HE SAYS very clearly throughout the Purgatorio that he was a fool ever to turn away from the real woman in favor of the abstraction Lady Philosophy.

    I think the book is probably terrific, but in the end its reading of Dante just doesn’t bear up in light of the actual text.

    Jim von der Heydt

    • dmf says:

      author of At The Brink of Infinity?
      your specific point is well taken, on a broader front the vital phenomenological insights of the book are sadly being lost in the very thin historical/sociological argument/analysis, if only our good authors had stuck with description and left the causal arguments to others.

    • david leech says:

      Thanks. I’ll go back and look more carefully, but on the face of it, what Dante says in Purgatory is bound to be wrong from the perspective of Paradiso, and quickly re-reading the passages (and surrounding) cited in ATS it seems to me that what the authors claim is supported. It is clear that in Canto XXI Beatrice advises Dante to “let loose thy warm desire.” And in Canto XXII Lines 133-52 Dante certainly does seem to be comparing the “mean semblance” of his earthly (“worldly”) life “of least account.”

      I am not crossing exegetical swords. I don’t have the depth. And I will re-read again the last few Cantos of Paradiso to see if I can discern a strong thread that runs counter to HD/SK’s interpretation. But ’til then, I’m confident that the author’s interpretation is a legitimate one.

  11. Jim von der Heydt says:

    What does Dante say in the Purgatorio that’s supposedly contradicted later? And do you mean Dante the traveler or Dante the poet?

    I can look up those passages if you like, but if we’re going to swap infinitesimal quotations I’m going to win: find “nostre effige” in the text. It means ‘our effigy’ — an image of humanity IN GOD. It’s not hard to find. It’s about six lines from the end of the poem that ATS claims is nihilistic toward earthly life and its images. Paradiso 33:some large number.

    • dmf says:

      either way what sort of evidence would this be? certainly not historical/sociological and so the question is whether or not the text/experience offers one a living option, an option for living, beyond the merely academic. By and large the response here and elsewhere has been overwhelmingly no.
      Perhaps as the book comes to people without a related agenda it will foster new possibilities but until then…

      http://www.scribd.com/doc/54250149/Polytheism-and-Archetypal-Theology-A-Discussion-David-L-Miller

      • david leech says:

        I agree that the evidence in question is not so important to the objective of the book which I take to be to provide a “living option” in a secular age. Of course we want to get the “great works” examples of shifts in the understanding a being right, so the back and forth about textual evidence is significant, but if other examples are better, or the ones given can be tightened up, fine.

        But unlike you, dmf, I think the authors of ATS do accomplish their goal (although I have to admit it was accomplished by them for me before the publication). Still the publication of ATS has been the occasion for me, and I presume like-minded others, to share a perspectives and try to work through how being attuned to poly-sources of meaning can make a difference in how we think and what we do. Its no quick fix of course. It takes re-educationl learning to see the same ole things in a new light and some new things (thinking).

        I have tried to show, by occasional groping feeble examples on this blog, how the cultivation of poietic attunement can make a difference in life, not “merely” in academic life. My examples are, no doubt, in need of validation and course correction but ATS has been the occasion for focusing attention. I assume others are having a similar experience.

  12. Charles Spinosa says:

    Wills, Mikics, and the Saving Power of the ALL THINGS SHINING Project

    In response to Sean’s and others’ thoughts on Wills and Mikics, I would like to try to help readers and advocates of ALL THINGS SHINING put the Wills and Mikics criticisms in the context of ALL THINGS SHINING itself and thereby clarify what seems like an impasse or a thick cloth of massive confusions. I apologize for the length of these remarks, but since I fear that some of the same difficulties will arise in the TIMES LITERARY SUPPLEMENT review, I am submitting this observation without further shortening.
    Wills’ and Mikics’ reviews are important because they speak in the name of the inwardness the book diagnoses as a source of our contemporary despair. We live in or struggle against a culture of pervasive nihilism where there is little to nothing shared worth dying for and where we are drawn to live with a casual relativistic flexibility. Our Enlightened, inner deliberation, which we still prize, drives us to this despair by motivating us to criticize everything, especially anything sacred. In our secular age, we fear both our own and others’ fanaticism and guard ourselves against it by living as though a person with no connection to the sacred might have as good a life as someone with a firm connection.1 For a believer, such a stance is diffident despair. ALL THINGS SHINING is an answer to this despair. The book intends to show us how we can have robust connections with the sacred without worries about fanaticism or feel diffidence about our own experiences. David Foster Wallace lends this pervasive diffidence his powerful voice. Consider his “bloody near religious experience” of Roger Federer: “One would not want to make too much of it. . . . But the truth is that whatever deity, entity, energy, or random genetic flux produces sick children also produced Roger Federer, and just look at him down there. Look at that.” Diffidently, Wallace has us consider what he cannot bring himself to say.
    However, not everyone who loves inner deliberation, examination of the conscience, or reading the text of the world for its meaning lives in this despair. Wills and Mikics speak out of pre-Enlightenment forms of inner deliberation. To preserve their forms of inwardness in today’s culture and refuse despair, they have to disavow at least one of two of the book’s strongest insights: Wills disavows that our history is epochal, and made up of different ways of being human. Mikics disavows that our actual experience of the sacred unfiltered by our current ethical beliefs should determine what we count as sacred.
    I write as an advocate of the ALL THINGS SHINING project, which includes Hubert Dreyfus’s and Sean Kelly’s lectures and other writings on the subject, and as an advocate of the nobility of Wills’ and Mikics’ positions, which ALL THINGS SHINING respects. I write to clarify a number of the details that puzzle Wills and Mikics. Even more importantly, I write to clarify the Ishmaelite solution Dreyfus and Kelly offer to today’s despair and diffidence. (I say “Ishmaelite” instead of Heideggerian because Melville’s Ishmael plays more of a role in the solution than Heidegger.)

    Wills’ and Mikics’ Pre-Enlightenment Positions
    Wills stands for the light side of inwardness, and Mikics for the dark. As a devoted Augustinian Catholic, Wills finds God, like Augustine, by turning inward. Wills writes admiringly, “Augustine says that he was wrong to seek God in the external world. He turned inward to find him.”2 Wills, like Augustine, experiences God’s light in the light of his own inner deliberation. ALL THINGS SHINING intends to honor this experience (though not its cultural consequence) and certainly does not claim that such an experience is meaningless. Yet Wills ends his scathing review with a spiteful and ironic thanks. “Thank God we have been delivered from the meaningless inwardness of Augustine and Dante to worship at the shining caffeine altar.” Mikics experiences the intellectual passions of inwardness as both captivatingly dangerous and in need of an external saving filter. Mikics writes, on his own account, for the dark side. Speaking of Dreyfus and Kelly, he says: “They recommend a strange life of whooshes and lattes. Yet a deeper philosophy of life would want more meaning, not less. We cannot always have the shining, but the darkness may have something more interesting to say.” Mikics’ darkness grows out of the irreconcilable difference between external ethics, particularly the requirements of compassion, and our own inner feelings. He is reminiscent of Luther and Protestantism more generally.
    ALL THINGS SHINING shows the nobility of Wills’ and Mikics’ positions by letting us see the weight of history they bear. To see this history, I’ll race through Dreyfus and Kelly’s account of the changing epochs of the West. Their account is meant to show our history as a resource of the sacred as well as the source of our despair and nihilism.

    Epochal History and Some of Its Puzzling Details
    The greatest resource is Homer’s Odyssey. Dreyfus and Kelly ask, Can we find small traces of Homer’s religious experience in our own lives? Homer’s gods were not creator gods giving us the right way to live but rather attuners who would bring Homeric Greeks into exactly the right mood to cope so brilliantly with a situation that their actions seemed to reach beyond human capacity. (The gods can do just the opposite, as Athena, for instance, guides Hector to make a mistake beyond his capacity.) Helen’s relationship with Aphrodite is the simplest case for Dreyfus and Kelly. Aphrodite increases Helen’s sensitivity to erotic possibilities that others miss because, quite simply, Aphrodite puts Helen and the others around her in the mood.
    Dreyfus and Kelly do not ask if this is the most ethically and intellectually appealing view of the gods. They ask if it is one that we can still find in our own lives. Can we find that suddenly we feel in such complete harmony with a situation that we can speak and act vividly and powerfully beyond our native capacities? Dreyfus and Kelly show that we do experience such moments and experience them in two different ways that go back to two different styles of Greek culture. These moments come especially vividly to highly skilled craftsmen who feel devotion toward their craft. Dreyfus, Kelly, and Heidegger characterize this way of being as poiesis. (One of Dreyfus and Kelly’s craftsman is a coffee maker; hence, the references in the reviews.) Heidegger thinks of poiesis as the predominant Greek style during its great temple-building phase, roughly 6th to 3rd century BC. Those who witness the superhuman achievements of these craftsmen tend to experience them in the style of physis, which Richard Rorty translated as whooshing up, appearing unexpectedly. Heidegger thinks physis dominant in Homeric times (8th century BC). Athletes are the simplest examples of craftsmen who nurture their skills and whose super achievements are easily experienced by fans as whooshing up. Sean Kelly’s past as a NCAA Division I athlete might have made recourse to athletic achievements too easy. But Dreyfus and Kelly are not claiming that we experience the sacred every time a sports writer glamorizes some athlete’s play as superhuman. Rather, the sports writers can glamorize as they do because fans do in fact sometimes feel a sense of the sacred when a sports figure does the impossible.
    Note two things. First, there is nothing in the moments where the person is brought beyond his or her own capabilities to point to one divinity that is the source of all that is sacred. Since we are frequently brought into ways of feeling that are significantly different from each other, say, paternal love, ferocity, or high-spiritedness, and perform feats beyond our native abilities in those attunements, our experience suggests more than one attuner. Second, such moments can easily be extended to include the classic moments from the last century of Christian religious experiences. An alcoholic (or some other form of sinner) who has tried everything and failed repeatedly reaches a moment of despair when she hears a voice and feels the presence of a hopeful personality not her own; it says, “Drink no more. You will be able to resist.” And suddenly she can. A similar moment occurs in Elizabeth Gilbert’s contemporary and popular Eat Pray Love; hence its mention in ALL THINGS SHINING.
    By the time we get to Aeschylus, the Greeks separated reason from emotion, Apollo from the Furies, leaving scant room for gods as attuners who bring us into the right mood for us to act beyond our ordinary compass. Only Athena is left as the attuner for patriotism. Then, in one of the most radical, cultural paradigm shifts ever, Jesus shifts the center of life from outward acts to inner intentions evaluated from the perspective of a single God. We are defiled by what is in our hearts, not our outward actions. We leave the world of glory with shining extra-human acts performed by heroes for a world of purity of spirit with saints and sinners.
    Augustine brings one way of living in this new world to the cultural center when he finds God in his inner reasoning and generates confessional, deliberative human beings tempted by the attractive outer world. People become attuned to an inner life of thought and desire where they control little and much is given. Then Luther takes the other, emotional path and finds in his emotion of gratitude the inner expression of the sacred. The gratitude is the feeling that comes a faith that saves. We are attuned to and mostly try to attune ourselves to constant gratitude.
    Descartes turns the Augustine’s and Luther’s age of saints and sinners on its head by making our inner life our own possession; we own thoughts and own our feelings. We have become autonomous, and we simply do not find God inside guiding our thoughts or our feelings. Instead of experiencing attunement to situations or creation in general, we manage our thoughts and feelings. We have a world wiped clean of any religious experience.

    Keeping Pre-Enlightenment Practices and Beliefs Alive
    Not quite! Garry Wills shows us that the Augustinian life and practices remain. David Mikics speaks for a living Lutheran route in his paean to Ahab: “Ishmael, who fears Ahab, who knows that Ahab’s passion will destroy his men, sides with Ahab nonetheless. And so do we. We cannot resist. So enthusiasm, being filled with the god, is perhaps not so easy to domesticate.” But they each have to distort what we have learned since the Enlightenment. Wills finds himself insisting that inwardness (the gateway to the divine) is important everywhere in our history. “Has there ever been a better presentation of the anxiety of choice?” he asks of Homer’s account of Odysseus stymied, like a baffled animal, rocking back and forth. How could he even ask that? One immediately thinks, in contrast to Odysseus, of Hamlet’s most famous soliloquy, where he cannot decide between opposing actions which he reformulates and reevaluates a number of times. However, following Wills’ reasoning, if Odysseus thinks in God’s light, then so does Descartes, Nietzsche, and David Foster Wallace. We are just more or less sensitive to it. Thus, Wills saves the Augustinian intuition and experience of God always there in the light of our reasoning. And so much for a genuine history of inwardness let alone epochs with different ways of being human! (Are people radically different in different epochs? Consider a people who have regular, even sexual, connections with multiple gods, conduct human sacrifices, use entrails of animals to predict the future, have little or no ethic of compassion or pity, a meager sense of equality, experience anger as a positive emotion, and who keep slaves, die for glory, and believe in an afterlife that is a little worse than life. They are radically different from us.)
    Mikics speaks for divine passion but also writes as though we can select our divinities: “The “involved, historical” God of the Bible, whom Dreyfus and Kelly describe only in passing, may in fact have some advantages over the pagan competition. He was also a violent deity, but alongside His ferocity He taught a love of justice and an ethic of compassion.” Such a judgment of God normally puts reason before God and yields a philosopher’s god. If Mikics did that, he would be firmly on the path to the Enlightenment despair. But he avoids it probably by taking a page from his book on Spenser and Milton where early modern Protestant religious experience depended on both an inner feeling and an external sacred, providential story.3 It is hard to live by a feeling alone. Mikic’s ethic of compassion here plays the role of the providential story which must be lived along with the inner feelings to have a genuine religious experience. Mikics does not underestimate the difficulties of this life. Such a life is not far from Ahab’s inner rage and the quest to have the universe justify his rage. By opening the space for choice of divinities on the basis of external justification, Mikics keeps alive the saving Lutheran feeling. We have, however, to drop our post-Enlightenment turn to the phenomenon of the sacred as it is without demanding that it carry its justifying credentials with it.
    By saving Augustinian and Lutheran Christianity as they do by denying radical change or the genuiness of a sacred passion that comes with no justifications, Wills and Mikics miss the salvation ALL THINGS SHINING offers. In fact, they see its salvation as a threat. Wills writes: “At the end of the book, the authors face the problem that whoosh moments can sweep people along in a Hitler rally. What is to counter that danger?” Mikics says: “They tell us that only after you have succumbed to fanaticism will you know the difference between fascist whooshing up and the harmless enjoyable variety. . . . This is downright chilling. Must one become a fanatic so as not to become one? Is surrender to the authoritarian seduction a kind of public education?”

    Dreyfus’s and Kelly’s Answer to Fanaticism
    What is the genuine Ishmaelite solution that avoids the fanaticism Wills and Mikics point out? Dreyfus and Kelly unhelpfully name it the life of meta-poiesis which roughly means a life based on cultivating all available sacred moments. This Ishmaelite life takes its cue from Ishmael’s itch for multiplicity: “I love to sail forbidden seas, and land on barbarous coasts. Not ignoring what is good, I am quick to perceive a horror, and could still be social with it.”4 The Ishmaelite cultivates multiple experiences of the sacred. In our monotheistic tradition, we tend to think of each one as totally absorbing. They are not. The Ishmaelite lives where one attunement, one experience of the sacred, happens in the nearness or in the felt absence of others. Hence, Ishmaelites resist any experience of the sacred that claims to exclude all others, and most fanaticisms claim our hearts totally and exclusively. But suppose we have a non-totalizing evil, a Nuremberg rally attuned by resentment (blaming the Jews for everything wrong) but without the claim that resentment and the leader are absolute. The Ismaelite will likely experience the passion of the moment as Ishmael himself experienced Ahab’s. But the Ishmaelite will experience the resentment of the rally in the nearness or perhaps absence of family love, neighborly care, or craftsmanly responsibility. As she leaves the rally and enters into her family, neighborhood, or workshop, she will look back at the words and actions of the rally as irredeemably crude and disgusting. (For the Ishmaelite, like many others, most ethical judgments spring from such ethical sentiments, not dry reasoning.) Why does our Ishmaelite reject the horror of resentment so soundly? She cultivates moods that enable her to increase her sensitivity to the multiple sources of the sacred among which there is easy passage. This is the life of meta-poiesis. People living that life recoil from narrowing attunements in which we get stuck: gods of resentment, fear, resignation, and arrogance. Ishmaelites can therefore worship all their sources of the sacred robustly because each implies others, and that saves Ishmaelites from the trap of narrow, mind-closing fanaticism. No fear! No diffidence! That is the gift of ALL THINGS SHINING.
    What about Augustinian and Lutheran Christianity? These are sources of the sacred for the Ishmaelite as well. But the Ishmaelite has to ignore the titanic, exclusivist jealousy of the Christian God of sacrificial love. Since she is not a theologian in the normal sense, the Ishmaelite need not worry over whether the ultimate source of the sacred is one or many. William James, an earlier Ishmaelite, put the point this way:

    [T]he practical needs and experiences of religion seem to me sufficiently met by the belief that beyond each man and in a fashion continuous with him there exists a larger power which is friendly to him and to his ideals . . . [T]he universe might conceivably be a collection of such [powers] . . . with no absolute unity realized in it at all. Thus would a sort of polytheism return upon us. . . . a polytheism which, by the way, has always been the real religion of common people, and still is today.5

    ALL THINGS SHINING’s polytheism includes, as James’s does, the Augustinian inner light and the Lutheran inner feeling as well as the caffeine altar.

    Notes
    1 Charles Taylor sets out this position as a temporary one in A CATHOLIC MODERNITY (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), 35.
    2 Garry Wills, WHY I AM A CATHOLIC (Boston: Mariner, 2002), 305.
    3 David Mikics, THE LIMITS OF MORALIZING (Cranberry, N.J.: Associated University Presses, 1994), 3-4.
    4 Herman Melville, MOBY DICK (New York: W. W. Norton, 1967), 16.
    5 William James, THE VARIETIES OF RELIGIOUS EXPERIENCE (New York: Penguin, 1982), 525-526.

  13. Pingback: ATS Reception | All Things Shining

  14. I have found this site by chance – or perhaps, as I sometimes think, by not-chance. I was realy looking for a desciption of Pascal’s revelation, possibly to use it in the Facebook group I have created called ‘Children for an honest, just, and fair world.’ You all seem far cleverer than me, even to an intimidating degree; but I had an experience a little like Pascal’s forty years ago in a British army psychiatric hospital. Fortunately the doctors disagreed with the government officials who had sent me there, and found me sane. This was helpful later – although, of course, it is actually possible, as I expect you will agree, for deep insights to require a degree of insanity. The hard work comes later! I have only recently been prepared to talk about this to scholars in Oxford: the main reason being that I was warned by ‘Honest to God’ John Robinson, and by others, to keep well away in future from professional theologians ‘who will not like the fact that you know from experience what they mainly know from book.’ I hope this offends none of you. I invite your interest in the Facebook venture. Comment here, by all means, but no questions for the moment, please. I am still writing! Best wishes, Colin.

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