Charles Spinosa has put together an insightful and thought-provoking diagnosis of the critical reception of ATS, and I am bumping it up to here from an earlier thread to give it the attention it deserves. Charles extends the hope that his essay will extend the discussion of the issues around ATS, and I have no doubt it will. Comments welcome.
Spinosa on “Wills, Mikics, and the Saving Power of the All Things Shining Project”
In response to Sean’s 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 massive confusions. I apologize for the length of these remarks.
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.[i] 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, like Augustine, finds God 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.”[ii] 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 was 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 from a faith that saves. We are attuned to and mostly try to attune ourselves to constant gratitude.
Descartes turns 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. But how could Wills even ask such a question? 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. This is not just a better presentation of the anxiety of choice, but one irreconcilable with what Odysseus could experience. However, following Wills’ reasoning, Odysseus thinks in God’s light, just as Descartes, Nietzsche, and David Foster Wallace must. Some 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. He explains there that early modern Protestant religious experience depended on both an inner feeling and an external sacred, providential story.[iii] 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, through denying either radical change or the genuineness of a sacred passion that comes with no justifications, Wills and Mikics miss the salvation that 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?
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.[iv]
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.[v]
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.
[i] Charles Taylor sets out this position as a temporary one in A Catholic Modernity (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999).
[ii] Garry Wills, Why I am a Catholic (Boston: Mariner, 2002), 305.
[iii] David Mikics, The Limits of Moralizing (Cranberry, N.J.: Associated University Presses, 1994), 3-4.
[iv] Herman Melville, Moby Dick (New York: W. W. Norton, 1967), 16.
[v] William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience (New York: Penguin, 1982), 525-526.