I have been reading, and re-reading, a long e-mail that Charles Spinosa sent to me a couple of weeks ago. It followed on a conversation that we had a few weeks before that, when he visited Cambridge with his family. Charles has given me permission to quote from the e-mail and it is so interesting, and also so beautifully written, that I will definitely do that at some point. But today I’d just like to put its main issue on the table.
The issue is the experience of the divine. Or maybe the experience of the sacred – I’m not entirely sure I understand the difference. In the book Bert and I argue that the phenomenology of the sacred can manifest itself in a variety of different moods: for the Homeric Greeks it included a kind of wonder and amazement at everything that is; for Jesus it included an all-encompassing agapic love for everyone and everything; for Dante it involved the transcendent bliss of a beatific vision; for Luther it had at its center an overwhelming joy that one can feel here on earth; for Kierkegaard a passionate sense of defining commitment. And so on. These are not all the same experience by any stretch of the imagination, and that is (one aspect of) the truth of Heidegger’s epochal account of the history of being. The moods that ground the way a life can matter are distinct from epoch to epoch, and so ground distinct modes of existence. But the practices for each of these moods remain somewhere in the margins of our culture, waiting to be re-vivified and re-appropriated, and we feel called to reveal them in whatever (transformed) way is possible in our secular age.
But we also say in the book that there is something that seems to run through each of these moods, that connects them and makes them all aspects of the sacred. That is the gratitude one feels in their presence. One simply cannot feel the Homeric mood of wonder and amazement at everything that is, for example, without also being taken over by a sense of gratitude. Gratitude that the world rises up before you in this wonderful and amazing way. Homer is full of this kind of gratitude, but each of the other epochs has its version as well.
Gratitude is the mood that seems most lacking in the secular age. When something amazing or wonderful or joyful or passionate or otherwise meaningful and mattering happens to us nowadays, we are more likely to think that luck or chance was at work than to feel a sense of gratitude. Gratitude, after all, naturally comes as gratitude towards someone or something, and in a culture that (in general, though not of course in many individual cases) has rejected the idea of a divine being who stands as the ground to everything that is, such a mood seems inappropriate.
This lack of a sense of gratitude, this loss of touch with the overwhelming sense of gratefulness that one feels in the presence of something wonderful or joyful or otherwise deeply meaningful and worth caring about, is the central danger of our age, according to Heidegger. And this danger is related to our cultural rejection of a divine entity that stands as the ground for everything that is. But this danger is a saving possibility as well. A possibility available to us now for the very first time in the history of the West.
The new possibility arises out of our cultural rejection of an entity that stands as the ground of being. For there is a danger in assimilating the ground of being to a being, a danger to which all those epochs before us in the history of the West have succumbed. It is the danger of failing to recognize the ontological difference, of failing to recognize, in other words, that whatever it is in virtue of which things are what they are – wonderful, lovable, blissful, joyful, and so on – whatever it is on the basis of which these aspects of things are available to us is not itself another entity. Failing to recognize this is dangerous because when one fails to appreciate the distinction between entities and the basis upon which they are what they are, one is naturally drawn to ask about the ground of being, or in other words about being itself, the kinds of questions one asks about beings: questions like, “Does it last forever?” “Is it infinitely powerful?” “In what sense is it omniscient?” And so on. But these are simply the wrong kinds of questions to ask about being. For being is just whatever it is on the basis of which things are revealed as wonderful, joyful, amazing, and so forth. And among other things this basis consists in the cultural moods of wonder, joy, amazement, and so on that are focused in the practices of a culture by works of art or focal activities. To think that these cultural moods – and the practices that focus them, articulate them, and reinforce them – are themselves entities is to make a category mistake. But it is a dangerous category mistake. By placing the power of being into an entity entirely distinct from us, it covers up our own responsibility to care for and cultivate the practices in which these cultural moods are manifest.
That brings us back to the mood of gratitude. The issue that Charles and I are discussing is whether one can feel gratitude without feeling it as gratitude towards someone or something. I think you can and that you ought to hold onto this possibility. Charles thinks that one sometimes does, if I understand him correctly, but that this is a weaker and less impressive experience of the divine. We can hope for more.
The disagreement, then, is partly about the phenomenology itself but partly also about what matters in it. In the basic case of the gratitude one feels in the presence of things revealed as wonderful, for example, it is hard for me to see what it adds to say that the gratitude is experienced as directed toward some entity. The phenomenon of gratitude as I experience it in these instances is deep and abiding, and it is gratitude for something that feels as though it was given to me rather than produced by me. But to say that it feels as though it was given to me by someone or something seems to me to be adding something more, and I’m not sure what aspect of the phenomenon this more picks out. But moreover, I think this is a good position to be in, rather than something to be bemoaned.
The phenomenon that is therefore at the center of the book that Bert and I have written is the gratitude one feels in the presence of a gift without a giver. This is what I think Heidegger means when he starts talking about Ereignis as a sending, but steadfastly refuses to talk about it as if it were sent from someone or something. And holding onto this aspect of the phenomenology is possible for the first time now in the history of the West. If we can recover the wonder and joy and amazement and all the other mattering cultural moods while at the same time feeling no inclination to find their source in a divine entity completely outside of us, then we will have the chance for a “new beginning” that has all the advantages of the “first beginning” in Homeric Greece, without the inherent tendency to devolve into nihilism, emptiness, and stomach-level loss. At least that’s the idea.