Sete Ilhas VI – Sri Lanka e o budismo

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Budismo – a cola da Ásia

“É tão fácil achar que você o entendeu, quando não entendeu, embora isso já o tenha entendido antes mesmo de você perguntar…”

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“Evite o mal, faça o bem e purifique a mente.” Esta é uma versão da última lição de Buda, antes dele passar para um estado que seus seguidores levarão séculos tentando descrever, nomear, ou até remotamente entender – a ‘despiração’ (sic), chamada nirvana. Seus ensinamentos foram igualmente retomados na fórmula enganosamente simples das ‘Quatro Nobres Verdades’, mas estas também germinaram em intermináveis fileiras com folhas e mais folhas escritas de sutras e shastras, termas e tantras, ágamas e coleções canônicas em páli, chinês, tibetano, e mais. A extrema simplicidade e o caráter imediato daquilo que Gautama Siddharta alegou ter descoberto sob a Árvore de Bodhi, ao norte da Índia, paradoxalmente alimentou bibliotecas de textos – começando com o conjunto considerável de seus próprios ditos (algumas coleções chegam a mais de 20 volumes) –, que foram depois multiplicados por comentários e mais comentários posteriores, e até por comentários sobre comentários. Não menos do que as tradições alegadamente mais ‘verbosas’ dos hindus e das religiões abraâmicas, o budismo também encheu o mundo com palavras.

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Foi com esse paradoxo em mente que cheguei a Colombo, vindo de Singapura em 2007 – dessa outra ilha de uma complexidade ar-condicionada e high-tech (que, compreensivelmente, não está incluída na minha lista), para o que imaginava seria uma ilha de meditação recolhida. E, em boa medida, não me desapontei. No ano anterior, eu havia passado duas semanas no que então era o mundo budista intocado de Burma (Myanmar) – que, em anos recentes (escrevo isto em 2017) abriu-se para as distrações ocidentais – e visitei vários templos e mosteiros teravada entre Yangon e Mandalay. Dado que Sri Lanka também aderiu a esse braço do budismo, que se orgulha de ser a mais original e historicamente enraizada dentre as várias tradições – livre de sucessivas camadas de interpretações e elaborações –, o fato que mesmo aqui se encontra uma panóplia de textos, símbolos, rosários e santuários – todos emergindo dos simples ensinamentos de Buda – apenas reforça o paradoxo.

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Ao visitar os vários locais budistas dessa ilha que cai do subcontinente indiano como uma lágrima – incluindo Kelaniya, Kandy, o templo de rocha de Aluvihara (onde pela primeira vez aqueles ditos de Buda assumiram a forma escrita), Dambulla, Sigiriya, Polonnaruwa, Anarhudapura –, essa única lágrima pareceu-me brilhar como símbolo de uma única ideia que – arrisco-me a dizer –, domina todas as formas da prática budista (e há muitas). A ideia é a seguinte: se nós pudermos apenas ajustar adequadamente a nossa subjetividade – não muito diferente de ajustar os dispositivos e lentes de uma câmera – poderemos, com efeito, saltar por sobre ensinamentos e templos, bibliotecas e lamaserias, palavrórios e vícios, e subitamente (um advérbio muito usado, e muito disputado, no budismo) atingir aquele ponto de vista correto e definitivo, aquela perspectiva terminantemente suprema e reveladora, de onde nossa mente poderia encarar a realidade – e olhar de volta para si própria – com completa transparência e verdade beatificante.main-qimg-05ab2278729aeb8b342c0f325859a1ec-cQue a simplicidade inovadora desse projeto se tenha transformado rápida e facilmente em ramificações complexas, dificilmente será uma surpresa, uma vez que nossa subjetividade – nossa consciência reflexiva e mais ainda nossa aparente liberdade de vontade – é presumivelmente a realidade mais densa no universo (assim como o cérebro é a matéria mais complexa), de modo que colocar ordem nesse universo de pensamentos, memórias, desejos, esperanças, antecipações, intencionalidades, dúvidas, medos e todo o resto, demandará muito mais do que alguns entusiastas superficiais do budismo pensam ser uma questão de ‘reparo rápido’. Portanto, considerando todo o arco-íris de versões do grande dharma de Buda – do teravada: a abordagem ‘de volta ao básico’ de Sri Lanka e do Sudeste Asiático; formas que as vezes parecem ‘re-bramanizantes’ do mahayana, as quais começaram na Índia mas acabaram achando um terreno mais fértil no Leste Asiático; até as versões atualmente na moda de vajrayana (particularmente a tibetana), que faz certa reconexão com os xamanismos antigos, o tantra bramânico da Índia, e o quase-védico panteão de semi-deidades –, fica-se com a impressão de que a outrora espessa linha que separava o hinduísmo do budismo tem se tornado quase invisível.

O budismo sempre me lembrou do projeto moderno da filosofia europeia, ou seja, a tentativa de tornar a mente sintonizada consigo mesma antes de voltar-se para a realidade para encará-la. A cosmologia e a metafísica – e muitas vezes até a lógica – são rapidamente marginalizadas por um uso preventivo da psicologia e epistemologia, e o sujeito se submete a perquirições sem fim sobre o que são, de fato, conhecimento e consciência, seus limites e causas, suas fontes e métodos, até finalmente jogar todo o resto do mundo, e até a natureza humana, no campo das modernas ciências; e com isso a própria filosofia, com frequência, termina irrevogavelmente atolada num lodaçal de ceticismo.images

Contudo, assim como a filosofia moderna, reconhecidamente, não conseguiu realizar seu sonho de um projeto abrangente – levando muitos a posarem de ‘relativistas pós-modernos’, e outros (como eu) a dar uma nova olhada à filosofia clássica – mesmo assim acabou gerando incontáveis insights acerca de como nossa mente funciona, a natureza da intencionalidade, o enigma da liberdade, e uma variedade de métodos para verificar e medir a certeza. O budismo também – independentemente do que achemos de sua visão totalizante da realidade – forneceu o exame mais profundo e penetrante sobre as variedades da consciência humana à disposição nas tradições religiosas mundiais. Métodos práticos para acalmar a ‘mente macaco’, para fazer convergir uma consciência que se transformou em um tipo de multi-tarefa enlouquecida, e uma série de meditações desafiadoras sobre a natureza fugidia da experiência – tudo isso compõe um legado sólido, o qual ignoramos por nossa conta e risco.

Ninguém negará que o budismo nasceu de uma matriz hindu, mas muitos disputarão sobre a natureza e o grau da alegada quebra com essa tradição. O desacordo dependerá, em boa parte, de como aquela proto-matriz seja definida como ponto de partida. Entretanto, dado que o budismo praticamente desapareceu da Índia, mas espalhou-se a ponto de se tornar o denominador comum religioso mais difundido no resto da Ásia, a Índia surge como praticamente a mãe das religiões e filosofias asiáticas, mesmo que às vezes apenas uma madrasta. O problema de mais difícil tratamento da filosofia budista – qual seja, como reconciliar sua negação radical de qualquer substancialidade com a afirmação igualmente enfatizada da permanência dos efeitos do carma e do renascimento – está longe de ser resolvido de modo consensual entre os estudiosos, tanto dentro quanto fora dessa tradição; isso certamente convida a um alargamento da conversação, incluindo perspectivas do pensamento ocidental. O mundo globalizado, para o bem ou para o mal, é agora um cenário onde as progenituras da Índia e de Israel – não sem ajuda da Pérsia e Grécia – podem desembarcar na mais promissora empreitada intelectual da história. Como predisse Hans Urs von Balthasar, o engajamento da tradição cristã (já em si uma fusão da fé abraâmica com a ciência grega e o direito romano) com o Oriente significará um desafio ainda maior, e portará uma promessa mais poderosa, do que foi o caso nos portentosos esforços intelectuais dos dois primeiros milênios.

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SEVEN ISLANDS (complete, in English)

Introduction

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 Kansas, an island in the prairie

When thinking of islands, the U.S. state of Kansas does not readily come to mind. Still, there is something insular about the interior of continents, and the Midwest of the U.S., for all its folksiness and charm, can become a place of isolation, especially for those who grew up – as I did – in the 50s and 60s. I do not doubt for a moment that someone from California or New York City can also be insular, and this despite the vast offering of cosmopolitan contact. Maybe even because of it. Sometimes the very density of that access can drive persons into provincial corners of their minds, where they end up being just as insular as a bumpkin from Nebraska or Missouri. The conspicuous global doors on display on the coasts can remain as unopened as the more furtive ones of the hinterlands. Still, my own years of being reared in the Sunflower State made any truly international adventure an unlikely wrinkle in my fate.

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Seven islands, nonetheless, apparently beckoned to me already in the mid-70s, and turned my deep Midwestern roots into missile launch facilities, with a final distant target in the unlikely South American wilds of Brazil. These seven islands (or groups of islands) serve as a kind of shorthand to my more lengthy stays and travels over the past 40 some years, and significantly and symbolically string like a garland around the globe, starting in the east Pacific and travelling west all the way round to the East Indies. They are: the Galápagos Islands, Easter Island, Tierra del Fuego, Iona (in Scotland), Zanzibar (off the coast of Tanzania), Sri Lanka (in South Asia) and Bali (in Indonesia). These isles are all small, but they remind us that in fact all the landmass of the earth is small when compared with the oceans. Over 70% of the face of our orb is aquatic, so strictly speaking, even Eurasia and Africa are just oversized islands. Indeed, the United States’ controversial claim of ‘manifest destiny’ – interpreting its fated real-estate to go from ‘sea to shining sea’ – in a sense involves a vision of its own privileged spot on earth to be that of one grand triumphant island.

I’ve travelled an unconscionable amount for a 64-year-old, and seen as much of the world as most of the great adventurers ever saw, and more than some. Of course, I cheated as I sped over oceans and continents 35,000 feet above the earth – there where most explorers plied the dangerous waves of our oceans, or braved mountains and desert terrain. I take my hat off to all of those travelers of earlier centuries. And I especially admire those who risked it all on those grand ships of old that are a beauty to the eyes, but certainly a torture to their passengers.

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I also salute the grandparents of my grandparents, who, on both sides of our family, rode wagon trains from points east all the way to Kansas.

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Like ships, those caravans processed like a pageant, but also like ships, bruised the bodies they carried. Kansans may be easily insular in attitude, but their European ancestors were wayfarers every one. I take pride in that. But I never dreamt, as a boy, that circumstances would carry me from Kansas to just about every major corner of the world, but so it has happened. I can claim little credit for this, for propitious circumstances simply came my way and surrounded me from about the age of 20, and the most I can pride myself on is that I was always swift in grabbing an opportunity when it presented itself. But I can take no credit for the opportunities themselves. And a braver and nobler man might have made better use of them than I have.

Although I did not visit these seven islands in any sort of chronological order – having set foot on them during quite different trips of the last 20 years – they have risen in my memory as landmarks of not only geographical significance, but also philosophical and religious import. Each island pulled a distinctly different mix of messages from my mind, and seeded a discrete meditation in my heart. It occurred to me that it would be of interest – both for myself and for others – to revisit these seven islands, reminisce about the days in which my feet walked upon them, and reflect on what insights the seven meditations have sired.

The seven islands are:  1. the Galápagos Islands, visited by Charles Darwin in the 1830s and by a Brazilian-American priest-professor in the year 2009. What does it really mean to be a living, conscious creature? There is much to the answer to which Darwin’s contribution plays only a subordinate role.  2. Easter Island, ‘discovered’ by Europeans in 1722, but uncovering for all of us a realization that those who didn’t (‘yet’) read or write may have known more about reality than we can even dream of.  3. Tierra del Fuego, an island on the southernmost tip of the Americas, braving waves from the two greatest oceans of the Earth, and reminding us of the miracle of the seas that both surround and sustain us, giving a blue face to the Earth that is so much more than a ‘planet’.  4. Iona, in the Hebrides, unlikely diving board of early Christian missionaries, intent on turning that entire group of islands we call the British Isles into a future vehicle of the Gospel and all its crazy challenges, and cradle of an idiom that would become the lingua franca enabling East to speak with West.  5. Zanzibar, a Muslim island in the Indian Ocean, but off the coast of sprawling and promising Africa, and which serves as a symbol of the commercial and monotheistic wave that Islam generated over the medieval world; it would later continue (in warfare and in peace) to move world history on both flanks of the Middle East.  6. Sri Lanka, the only truly Buddhist island in the world, where the simplified dharma of Shakyamuni would grow in South Asia, and then penetrate first into Southeast Asia, Tibet and East Asia, and finally fill the world with the surprisingly simple method – one finally bearing a fecundity perhaps unforeseen by the Buddha himself – for obtaining something called nirvana.  7. Bali, where the oldest religious tradition of India – and perhaps of the world: Hinduism – would leave an almost counter-intuitive trace of its link with primordial humanity, and the beauty of a wisdom not yet wholly forgotten, and all this on a small island in Muslim Indonesia. My concluding reflection – by way of an epilogue – is on the Jews, and on their catalytic role in the whole improbable story.

(The text will be revised, added to, corrected and elaborated during the months to come, but I decided to throw it out as soon as the texts reach a certain degree of coherence, for those who might be interested in medium-rare reflections.)

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Seven Islands I – the Galápagos Islands: evolution and imagination

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Galápagos Islands

In the year 2009, bicentennial anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin, I decided to follow in the footsteps of the young man who – like me of somewhat delicate constitution – ventured forth to circumnavigate South America (here I cheated; I flew to Quito), and visit one of the most geologically and biologically significant clusters of isles in the world. I wanted to breathe the air, view the scenery, touch the turtles and watch the finches that had seeded the great idea of evolution in the mind of the gifted young scientist. He made his voyage as ship naturalist on an uncomfortable mapping mission, with minimal amenities for this upper-class Englishman, and multiple bouts with sea-sickness and other maladies during the five-year-long voyage. I take my hat off to his gumption, and to his meticulous work as geologist and zoologist. As great minds are usually followed by generations of lesser minds distorting and blurring the work of a pioneer thinker (whether in science, philosophy or religion), I’ll give Darwin a pass on many of the sillier ways in which his modest theory of natural selection turned into a gargantuan ideology threatening all manner of intellectual custom. It is about these latter twists in concept and causation that made me consider the whole matter of evolution in the very matrix of its gestation. My ponderings, for what they’re worth, were as follows:

I have never felt in the slightest challenged, worried, upset or troubled by Darwinian suggestions that our species may have developed over millions of years. Whether dozens of years or quadrillions has never seemed to me any reason to get into a fuss. Theologically, I can take it either way. But where Darwinians seem to be totally off the map of sanity is when it comes to using that most basic and common-sensical faculty with which our human nature is endowed – the imagination. When I hear them blithely commenting on how all the diverse species of our world came about by minute genetic shifts through a series of aleatory mutations —  and that this pretty much explains the menagerie — I feel like not a one of them has ever stood in the presence of an Indian elephant, or a Brazilian toucan, or a Mexican butterfly, or even an annoying tropical mosquito. I wonder if they have even read Aesop. No disjunction in the modern scientistic mind is as gaping and as fatal to any access to true wisdom as that which lies between the question: ‘how?’ and the questions: ‘what?’ and ‘why?’.

By bracketing (or stigmatizing as irrelevant) the latter two questions – which traditionally were embraced within the notions of formal and final causality – the ‘how’ question could be isolated and all forms of manipulation, technique, power generation and Promethean mastery over nature set free (in a word: efficient causality); the natures of things and their ultimate purposes in a providential plan would henceforth be seen as obstacles to our development of muscle and control – lyrical pastimes for poets and religious mystics, perhaps, but hardly serious considerations for the business of science. Now, when minds that had been habituated to this way of looking at reality in the 19th century, trained in the habits of two hundred years of mechanistic technique and mastery, finally turned their little lights on the world of life, they noticed that there was also a ‘how’ here. Involved in the phenomena of our world’s species of plants and animals, and, of course, also the species to which we belong, lie processes and step-by-step causalities we can also isolate and describe. And, as was the case with physics and chemistry, biology too learned bucketloads of facts about how life functions and how it comes to do what it does. But as had been done with chemical substances and with physical forces, when it came to living organisms, one continued the habit of looking past natures and purposes, and focusing instead  on the mechanics of howness.

As I negotiated the unwelcoming volcanic rock on one of the Galapagos islands, I was probably as startled as the great English naturalist himself was, back in the 1830s, as pieces of that rock began to move. Of course, all that had happened was that I had noticed a few of the thousands of sinfully ugly iguana that populate the island.

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However, these mini-Godzillas instantly offered their services as symbols of what can often confound the imagination of a scientistic reductionist. What appears to be the tiny interval between non-living and living matter – between rock and iguana – seems negligible indeed when you witness these sluggish, lithic reptiles shifting their living cells atop lifeless mineral molecules. However, we are chastened by our Darwinian, as he shyly lifts a finger and admits that, after all, natural selection has actually not been of much help in explaining the gulf between the inorganic and organic worlds. Not that there are no efforts underway, but whatever triumphs the scheme can already claim in linking living species within a continuum of genetic causality, an explanation of the all-important quantum leap from lifeless molecule to living cell is not one of them. Darwinian explanations of the most stunning gaps between the species have not fared much better. When one grasps just how dogmatic the proponents of evolutionism have become, one cannot escape the impression that some belief-system (physicalism or naturalism, for instance) is in the balance, and no longer disinterested science. It seems to no longer be championed simply as something that happens to be true, but instead as something that has to be true. As a result, scientistic politics can easily trump scientific truth, and ideology ideas.

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One tenet of such a system would ordain the following:  if you can offer a plausible account of how something came to be, you can deem yourself emancipated from the pesky question of what (that is, what nature or essence) something is or has, and why it is (that is, what its purpose is in the larger scheme of things). My point is that when – if only as a thought experiment – you put the how question to one side, and just look, with wide eyes and disinterested wonder, at giraffes, aardvarks, butterflies, hippos, puppy dogs, eagles, vultures, rattlesnakes, etc., and then take a long further look at a Chinese man, a Yoruba tribesman, a Scotsman, a Peruvian Inca, a Nepalese woman, an Aleut girl, etc., etc, and etc. again – and follow them through all the myriads of cultures, languages, artefacts, beliefs and gestures of human history – you will see a world of ‘whats’ and ‘whys’ dancing before your eyes. And those natures and purposes will be situated miles above the pedestrian curiosity contained in the question ‘how’. Not that this last question is unimportant, but it is obviously subordinate and instrumental. When beholding a great painting, or hearing a great string quartet, or walking through a grand edifice (let’s imagine Michelangelo’s ‘Creation of Adam’, Schubert’s ‘Death and the Maiden’, and Chartres cathedral), one might show passing interest in a small exhibit of the ‘making of’ that artefact, but such curiosities about ‘how’ it got here and ‘how’ it was made are dwarfed by the here-and-now experience of the thing itself.

The whole Noah’s ark of teeming life – throw in the fish and the plants for good measure – roars with barks and howls and screeches and toots, as if they were trying to tell us something. And anyone who has looked deeply into an elephant’s tiny eye, or into the wide orb of the nearest owl, will know that they are. They are urging us, with their faltering phonemes, to use our words to name them, as did Adam in Genesis, who “gave names to all cattle, and to the birds of the air, and to every beast of the field” (2,20).

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I am not convinced that the Darwinian explanation of life is necessarily wrong, but I am convinced that they are trying to explain the wrong thing. Or in other words, by focusing on the mechanics of selection which, by their own admission, only achieves significant change in a context of millions of years (which makes it fairly irrelevant for our day-to-day understanding of people, cats and birds), they are missing the big picture. They are like someone contemplating a painting of Rembrandt and thinking only of where he got the paint, and who cut the canvas; or someone listening to Vivaldi’s Four Seasons and only wondering how the mathematical intervals between the notes could be plotted on a computer read-out. Or – more disturbingly – they are like someone sitting down in front of you and seeing you only as trillions of cells, or gazillions of molecules, or a whirlpool of countless atoms and subatomic particles, and not seeing your face, hearing your voice or uttering the name that your parents once gave to the little miracle that emerged from their loins.

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Seven Islands II – Easter Island and Orality

Echos of Eden (Primal Religion)

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….about our non-literate progenitors and the wisdom that never got into print…..

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In 2010 I island-hopped to my next two South American isles, the two which have come to represent in my mind the world of pre-literary (but not ‘illiterate’!) cultures, Easter Island; and the vast encompassing world of water, on either side of the Argentine island of Tierra del Fuego. First we will look at that mystical spot of land in the Pacific, first happened upon by Europeans on Easter Day in 1722.

When we think of the 6,000 some languages spoken on earth today, and countless extinct tongues no longer audible, it should give pause when we are told by the linguists that the vast majority of these languages have never been written or read. When we automatically parrot the progressivist mantra that presumes – other things being equal – that later is always better, more evolved and more sophisticated, we cannot help seeing the invention of writing (usually dated to around 3,000 B.C.) as a great stride forward in civilization. And to a large extent we are right. McLuhan, Ong, Havelock, Goody and others have documented how profound an effect written language has had on human thought, memory, imagination and culture in general. And much of that effect has been beneficient. But early on the great Plato – who by the way, wrote well and much – dropped the paradoxical suggestion that maybe the gods taught us writing in order not to advance our culture, but rather to destroy our memories. Could it have been a bane rather than a boon? As so much in Plato, it is in the first instance a thought experiment, but like the others so abundant in his dialogues, it ought to provoke a genuine experiment in our thinking that is both fruitful and eye-opening.

I once met an octogenarian Christian in India who had allegedly memorized the entire New Testament in Malayalam (language of the state of Kerala). I was told that each time they brought out a new edition of the text, they came to him to check the written drafts against his oral memory, instinctively trusting the latter more than the former. And we read of anthropologists discovering mountain folks in the Caucasus where bards recite from memory epics as long as Homer’s, or Yoruba priests memorizing hundreds of stanzas of poetry as part of their consecration. I once eavesdropped on a simple, semi-illiterate Portuguese nun, singing in the kitchen, and discovered afterwards that she had sung upward of 30 verses of a song, and could do the same with dozens of others. I doubt I could get through the second stanza of the Battle Hymn of the Republic, or even all of ‘Yesterday’ without help. But of course, I’m literate! Or am I missing something?

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Easter Island lies about a thousand miles distance from the nearest inhabited land. It was the home of one of myriads of tribes and clans that have populated the earth during probably at least tens or hundreds of thousands of years, and that either had no writing at all, or – as in the case of Easter Island – may have had some form of basic script limited to a small circle of leaders and priests. There are still countless such tribes around the globe, including hundreds of descendants of the Easter Island native population (now largely Christianized). Archaeologists and anthropologists – sometimes supplemented by sociologists, psychologists, linguists and historians – all study these populations and provide us with mountains of data and further mountains of theory as to how these fellow humans live and think. Since they have left us with no written documents to speak of, we must infer most of what can be known about them through their artifacts and, for those still with us, their living oral culture (to the extent that we can faithfully translate it). And among the many questions that can be answered this way or that, there is one to which all will respond in unison:  Are they religious?  Most definitely.

All these cultures – whatever the color of their skin, the style of their garb, the phonetic singularity of their tongue or their location on the globe – harbored no doubts at all that there exist forces and realities (usually personal ones) above and beyond mankind, and accordingly practiced rites inherited from a distant past which negotiated their relationship with those realities. The first expressly atheist or sceptical tribe has yet to be found, either in history or around the globe. Today’s atheists and sceptics, however – seldom at a loss for words of scorn about benighted believers – are quick to identify this pan-religiosity in primal man as evidence of primitive, almost pre-human thought, and a consequence of backwardness and lack of scientific enlightenment.

When I was growing up, cartoon culture taught me to believe that ‘primitive man’ was a crude, thick-browed cave man, grunting orders to his wife and whacking her over the head with a club before dragging her into the cave for God only knows what domestic engagements. In contrast, the Flintstones were presented as a flight of high fantasy, funny precisely because impossible.

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Now this was in the 50s and 60s, and modern archeology and anthropology had already long since debunked the myth of the brainless cave man; and even more significantly, when the caves of our distant ancestors were actually examined in earnest, what was found were not R-rated remains of unspeakable savagery, but rather paintings and sketches displaying a level of artistic skill, and mysterious insight, that Fred Flintstone would have found challenging to say the least. Even Picasso was impressed.

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The original Rapa Nui (as the Easter Islanders have come to be named) invested huge amounts of effort and time quarrying their island’s volcanic rock in order to construct huge moai (monumental statues). They were apparently lined up at strategic points of the island with the massive, stylized faces all turned landwards. Since some sort of environmental catastrophe, along with another layer of culture subsequent to the moai period, lie between us and the original population of a thousand years ago (again, with no written documents), we can do little more than stare at their huge faces and wonder what they were staring at.

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The 900 some moai we can now identify invite an array of interpretations – from simple icons of bygone ancestors looking over their descendants to extraterrestrial invaders – but their simultaneously inward and upward gazes mesh perfectly with traditional understanding of the spiritual world as being both within us and above us. The Rapa Nui may well have not been the clueless, superstitious primitives who hadn’t evolved enough to write (as our modern narrative suggests), and instead have been one of thousands of pre-literate peoples so full of an ancient wisdom that nothing short of prodigious sculpted gesture could remotely hint at the height and breadth of all they knew.looking up together

Of course, the preliterate come – as we do too – in all varieties, from highly cultured to more regressive and brutal. I do not mean to romanticize them en masse. But there are too many marks of a primordial, unwritten sapience in their art and language for us to dismiss them as illiterate simpletons. And even our social scientists are perhaps suggesting more than they realize when they create categories with which to describe them. They call them ‘animists’; and they did indeed see above and through the world of matter to its transcendent archetypes, and thought that everything was – as Thales put it – ‘full  of gods’. They call their clergy ‘shamans’; and these mediators did indeed serve to lead others to the transcendent dimension that lies within the hearts of all, but needs the ministrations of the few to be kept alive. And they remark on the nearly universal practice of ancestor veneration; but the dead are indeed only dead to the world we see with eyes of flesh, but continue to live above and within the times that follow their bodily demise.

As is often the case with the remote tribes of the world, it was Christian missionaries that not only first contacted them, but that studied and documented their history and culture. It was no different on Easter Island. The Capuchin Sebastian Englert lived for 30 years on the island, learned and then taught the traditional language and preserved their culture and heritage all the while he brought them the Gospel. As any good missionary should do, he endeavored to show them that Christianity fulfilled and crowned their native beliefs, and even when it corrected and reoriented, it did not suppress. There are indeed gods in all things (we call them angels); we do indeed need mediators to strengthen our trembling link with heaven; and, finally, our ancestors are indeed still with us, looking up and looking within. And we too will soon be ancestors ourselves, as we join those who died before us, and look not only inward and upward, but also back at our time on earth as a confused and approximate rehearsal of what awaits us in the Land of the Living.

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Seven Islands III : Tierra del Fuego and the Oceans

Our Place is Not a Planet

…..the oceans, what they mean but can never say….

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Tierra del Fuego

Sometime in the 20th century we were taught by astronomers to stop calling the Earth our special home, our unique place in space, our central spot in the vastness of the cosmos, and to start calling it a planet – the indefinite article is mandatory. In order to scientifically know what it is that we live on, that which provides us with oxygen, oceans, mountains, continents and all the rest, we were instructed henceforth to place the very idea of our ‘world’ nicely into its proximate genus, and thus plop the whole blue orb into the new category of ‘planet’ – of which it is, of course, just one among eight (or so) others. The problem, however, is this: the glaringly obvious difference between Earth and any of the other sun-circling bodies is a difference we are being seduced into seeing as a mere gradation, looking especially to Mars as a comparable orb touted as being not all that different from our own. Likewise we were instructed by Carl Sagan, decades ago, to turn radio ears to the black semi-void of outer space in the certitude that we would soon – he thought in just a matter of years – hear howdy-do’s from other comparable planet-dwellers who, after all, just have to be out there, waiting to hear from us.

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Of course, as of 2017? – not even a whistle. But there seems to be something a bit suspicious about all this: Earth just one planet among others; man just one animal among others; Christ just one sage among others….  I see a pattern here, and one designed more by ideology than actually seen by science.

As I took my tourist tour down the Strait of Magellan, just south of Tierra del Fuego – with the cold, agitated Atlantic to the east and the relatively calm Pacific to the west – I felt strangely staggered by the oceans of our world; they impressed me even more than they had during my multiple flights over their seemingly endless expanses as I traveled so many times between the continents. They are obviously stupendous and unparalleled. And yet, we feverishly scrutinize samples from Mars, hoping to detect droplets of water or crystals of ice, so that we can proudly humiliate the five-star status of Earth and point to other comparable life-support systems in space. The difference – we seem always to be hoping to prove – is just a matter of degree, and not of kind. Of course we are interminably lectured to by Darwinians on how small is the difference between man and the animals, and by comparative religion experts about how illusory is the difference between Christianity and other faiths. In our haste to quantify everything, differences that used to be momentous have become mathematical; things that used to be wholly other have become more or less the same thing, differing only in degree; gauges of quantity have slowly replaced perceptions of quality, and we’ve become the blinder for it. William Blake warned us early on in the 19th century: “Our life’s dim windows of the soul / distort the heavens, pole to pole / and lead us to believe a lie / when we see with, not through the eye.”

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Curiously, since first Galileo detected relativity in mechanical, local motion, and then Einstein in electromagnetic terms, we have been told until our ears hurt that an absolute point of view simply does not exist (especially not any of the traditional ones), but in the same breath, and without batting an eye, the same scientists will urge upon us their own new brand of an absolute point of view. We are told we must teach our minds to disassociate our Earth from any notion of centrality, and assume the supposedly disinterested, abstract vantage point of some remote spot in space from which we can look down upon our world, the solar system and even our galaxy. That is supposed to be seeing things as they are, whereas looking up from my front yard into the sky and watching sun, moon, planets and stars all follow their courses across the celestial vault is erroneous, misleading, illusory or – to really pour acid into the wound – medieval.

Yokels like me might point out that even if we could manage to live our lives without an absolute point of view (a bit of a stretch), still a point of view we must have, at least if we harbor the hope of viewing anything at all. And Earth does not just seem as good a vantage point as any other, but presents an avalanche of obvious advantages, beginning with the mundane fact that we happen to live here. But another mega-fact is the existence of the oceans.

For the past few years I have had the privilege of owning a small oceanfront apartment in the northeast of Brazil, and now repair to my 18th-storey perch overlooking the Atlantic whenever I can. I spend next to no time on the beach, but hours on end sitting on my balcony and gazing at the water. Edmund Burke and Immanuel Kant taught us to reach for an even more potent word than beauty when in the presence of such over-sized and over-powering grandeur. To say the ocean is beautiful is not false, but somehow flaccid, for what it is – these modern sages assure us – is invincibly, defiantly and expansively sublime.

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However, there is a minor chord to add to my maritime symphony. I once chatted on the beach with a young man who had spent his life living close to the Atlantic shore, and I (from Kansas, remember?) exuded to him all my enthusiasm about the glories and beauties of the sea. He – who knew those waters far better than I – looked briefly over the waves and into the high horizon of cold salty H20, and, clearly unmoved by my rhapsodies, protested: “You know, the sea scares me.”

Not too long after that I happened upon the bodies of two teenage boys who had just drowned (they were covered with a cloth and surrounded by onlookers); they had been playing soccer on the sand, as so many thousands of boys do every day, and the ball had shot off into the waves. One of the boys jumped in to retrieve it, got pulled under by a heavy surge, followed by another boy who sprinted into the waves to rescue his friend, and was also pulled under – and the game was over. The sea is scary indeed, and as I looked out at the Strait of Magellan, admiring again its aesthetic charm and trying to remember a poem that might give voice to my romantic spirits, our guide dourly reported that some 3,000 maritime vessels, with their crews and cargo, lie at the bottom of that strait – so intense are the waters where the Atlantic and the Pacific passionately (and violently) embrace.

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It is sublime and it is wonderful; it is incomprehensible and bears a mystery deeper even than its most plunging trenches. The world ocean surrounds our proud continents, humiliating them into the status of islands, moistens our air, feeds us with its creatures, carries us around the globe and is a single massive symbol of the Creator who put it there. Still less than 5% of its seabed has been explored or mapped, and marine biologists assure us that species of life yet to be spotted have been swimming there for millennia. And it is dangerous too, with hurricanes and tsunamis on its agenda just as much as breathtaking seascapes and tranquil beaches. And all that water is the big secret, and the big mystery, of our home, the Earth.

But to call it a ‘planet’ is to do it a great injustice. Sure, it is interesting and astrophysically revealing to know that our world revolves around the sun along with all the planets, and that we can learn much from that extra-terrestrial perspective. But to interpret that new viewpoint (which we’ve had at least since Copernicus, and actually – as a possible theory – since the Greeks), as meaning that our eyes are lying to us when we look up and marvel at the starry vault of heaven; that we are duped by a sinking horizon into thinking that the sun actually rises, or conversely, that it ever sets. No, our common-sensical perspective is accurate, and just as true – I would argue, far more true! – than cerebral calculations on how things might look when an imagined interstellar sightseer views our home from outer space.

The Earth is a massive and irreducible singularity, and those trying to prove otherwise are only revealing the poverty of their poetic imagination and the ideological character of their supposed science. They are like people calling a diamond just another stone, Dante a guy who wrote some poems, gold one more substance on the periodic table, their mothers mammals, Mount Everest a promontory, Bach an organ player – all true, and all irrelevant. The Earth is a miracle, its oceans a stunning and jaw-dropping marvel, its mountains fearful, its rivers furious. We reach for poetry not because we are too stupid for science, but because science is too pedantic for the immensity of the prodigy that greets our eyes every living day.

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Seven Islands IV: Iona and Christ

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From Bethlehem to Ultima Thule : the Permanent Christian Headline

Christianity, the least-known religion in the world…..

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I had to take buses, boats and ferries to get to the small island of Iona, east of mainland Scotland in the Inner Hebrides. It may not seem the obvious vantage from which to consider Christianity, but when you reflect on its role in evangelizing the British Isles and what they would finally mean to history – both in bringing the Gospel to the world at large (together with other European adventurers and missionaries), and in linking East and West (especially through the British Raj in India) – there is probably no other small island that can boast a bigger impact on the growing catholicity of Christianity. Whether it is true or it is false, Christianity talks globally, and Iona – despite (maybe because of) its tininess – is a capital witness to this. The claims of Christ are either globally right or globally wrong. To begin our reflections – bearing in mind what we have learned from the earlier islands – let us listen to the most resonant African voice revered by both Protestant and Catholic ears, and hear what he had to say about the universality of this ‘breaking news’ from the Middle East. I am speaking, of course, of St. Augustine of Hippo:

“What is now called the Christian religion existed even among the ancients and was not lacking from the beginning of the human race until ‘Christ came in the flesh.’ From that time, true religion, which already existed, began to be called Christian.” This surprising proclamation (in the 12th book of his very last work, his Retractationes) simply highlights the patent Biblical fact that the Logos, the Word, through which the world was made (Genesis 1) is the selfsame Word Christians believe became man in Christ; and since seekers of wisdom – and of its twin sister: holiness – from time immemorial have wondered about the cause and meaning of the world and our place in it, they were already addressing, and deeply reflecting upon, the pre-incarnate Word. The iguana of the Galápagos, the Rapa Nui of Easter Island, and both the great oceans that meet at Tierra del Fuego, came into being through that Word.

The first chapter of Genesis is only deepened and prolonged, and neither replaced nor demoted, by the first chapter of John. Creation and re-creation emerge from the selfsame Beginning, which is at once the everlasting Word forever spoken by the Father in the Spirit, and – philosophically – the locus idearum of the great Plato. It is the source of the Intelligence both above and within the physical cosmos around us – the intelligibility of which is its most ‘miraculous’ feature, according to Einstein –  and quite simply, to put a final touch to the matter, the ultimate Meaning of Everything.

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The first documented conversion of a recognized philosopher was with the 2nd century saint, Justin Martyr. After his baptism, he chose to wear the distinctive philosopher’s toga – as recognizable back then, as today a policeman’s uniform or a judge’s robes – and proclaimed the Gospel as the fulfillment, the realization, the coveted consummation of philosophy. In his Dialogue he relates how he had run the gamut of philosophical accounts of reality. After dismissing the Epicureans, he passed from the Stoics to the Peripatetics to the Pythagoreans and finally to the Platonists; only with them did he discern a plausible approach to the transcendent echos of the Logos within all philosophical wonder. From the Stoics, however, he borrowed the key notion of logoi spermatikoi (‘seminal reasons’) and used it to characterize how the truth of the Logos, through which all things were made, is present like a seed within human reason. It constitutes our nature’s ascending appeal to a non-incarnate Transcendence – the source of all human quest of wisdom and liberation. But then follows its seismic surprise at the later discovery (in the ‘fullness of time’) of a descending and incarnate Transcendence; for this time, instead of us, it is the Transcendence itself that is making the appeal.

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For St. Justin, Plato’s philosophy never quite dotted the i’s and crossed the t’s as a truly convincing path to realizing the truth. It seemed forever stuck in minor dialectical ascents without any perceptible help from above. And then one day he met an old man by the seashore who told him of another source of truth, called prophecy, and narrated to him both the story of the Old Testament prophets and the New Testament Gospel as their fulfillment. Here was a Truth that was looking for us, rather than one being clumsily hunted by us. Instead of hearing this above all as a ‘religious’ message associated with temples and oracles, Justin perceives instead the unmistakable sound of the lessons of the logos he already studied as a philosopher. “What is now called the Christian religion” was for him, as it would later be for St. Augustine, not just a religion, but also true philosophy.

So much was this the case that earlier philosophers should henceforth be seen as Christians avant la lettre (for instance, both Heraclitus and Socrates he named as Christians). Conversely, those in possession of the full revelation in Christ – and this, in effect, is the more revolutionary suggestion – should accordingly be seen as philosophers par excellence. This will prove a bitter pill to swallow both for ‘crisis’ theologians, eager to promote the wholly unprecedented originality of the Gospel message, and for more conservative theologians, intent on tracing a solitary arrow to Christ from the Old Testament, grudging only vague, confused gestures within alien traditions. As always, the truth lies in a rich and multifaceted middle, and never in the loud and simplistic solutions that typically come either from the impatient gallops of the so-called left, or the fearful clutchings of a conservative right.

Now, it was on the island of Iona that early Celtic monks not only preached the Good News; they also brought the visual transparency to the Word, so evident in the marvels of the physical cosmos, into the very words of the written message of the Word, by way of the illuminated page. Thus they created one of the most sublime books ever confected. It was later called the Book of Kells, after the Irish monastery to which the treasure was taken after the Vikings raided Scotland in the late 8th century.

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All this suggests the traditional two-volume expression of the Logos. I refer here not to the two Testaments – which, although a veritable library of texts and literary genres, finally make up one grand story from Genesis to the Apocalypse – but rather to the two books that, according to the early Fathers, were written by the Divine Author: yes, the Bible itself, written in words, but also the vast material creation, written in things. Theology may read the former book, and philosophy the latter, but both belong together, just as the Word’s presence in time and space (as its origin and meaning) complements and commentates the Word’s descent into that same time and space in the Biblical narrative. That is the essence of Christianity (no apologies to Feuerbach).

The more one appreciates the singularity of Christ, the less one is tempted – paradoxically – to brand all other religions as falsehoods or confusions, precisely because they too pursue the logos – the yet unincarnate logos – but approach it in very different, even incommensurate, ways. The difference is this: Christianity does not offer so much a leader to be followed, an example to be emulated or a doctrine to be learnt (although it does all these things too), but above all an event to be acknowledged. We are not being asked to appropriate a perennial wisdom coming to us from the dawn of history, nor to learn to pacify our minds in the face of the inevitable flux of samsara, nor to align our thinking and doing according to a great tao that embraces all things, nor even to simply obey God’s law in the Torah or to submit to his peace in the Koran. Each of those religious acts are laudable and a good Christian would do well to appropriate them all. But none of them make him a Christian.

You become one only by receiving the witness of the most astonished men and women in history. They have passed down to us the story of God’s invasion of our world, within the very fibers of the humanity we carry and under which we suffer. They told us that the most horrific things that haunt us – violence, despair, disease and death – have been taken into God’s very heart and transformed. They still hurt and they still haunt, but there is meaning now where there was only resignation before. Christ is not just another messenger, another sage, another example we are summoned to follow or hear. He is the place in our humanity where the Transcendent God has gone all the way into our lives and our pain, and has shown us, in return, the way to go all the way into God’s mystery.

The missionaries also went all the way – all the way to Ultima Thule (the end of the earth, as the British Isles were sometimes known to the ancient Romans), and in Iona  – as in countless other stations around the globe – told the story, brought the sacraments and changed the world. For a Christian, something happened to all of created reality when Christ happened to the world. This island is in the middle of my Seven Islands, but the miracle that was preached there is at the center of my life.

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Seven Islands V – Zanzibar and Islam

The B.C. within the A.D.

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My ears clogged with dust after visiting Tanzania’s Serengeti, the Ngorongoro Crater and pursuing a wild goose-chase in search of a remote site of nearby primitive cave paintings (a passion of mine), the small plane landed in Zanzibar’s airport as my head thumped with pain. When we had taxied our way to the miniature terminal, the headache subsided and I peered out the window for my first view of the fabled island of Zanzibar.

I had visited several Muslim regions before. Once I had traveled by train from Tangier to Fez in Morocco, and was surprised when a boy who shared my compartment had drunk from my water bottle while I was sleeping. I was off-put at first, but later learned that this is nothing to get ruffled about in the world of the desert. I also made extended visits to Egypt, Lebanon, Syria and Jordan – and a year later Bosnia-Herzegovina and Indonesia – and began to feel the full impact of a culture where calls to prayer, inspired by passages from the Quran (Arabic for ‘recitation’), are publicly chanted from prayer-towers every day. No one who has heard that chant will ever forget it, and those who understand the language will say that its mesmerizing poetic beauty is at least as important as its message (perhaps because, in part, it is its message). When you proceed to enjoy the famous Arabian hospitality, to absorb the uncanny peace within the omnipresent mosque, and to study – as my profession required – half a millennium or so of medieval Muslim philosophy and science (and that is just a part of the heritage), it is difficult to view recent terrorism as the prominent face of the religion of the Prophet.

Every great religion bears a claim to a certain ultimacy, some version of singularity and election that makes it incoherent for it to look at other faiths and simply say: “we’re all the same”. Hindus may point to their unmatched antiquity and gift for virtually unlimited assimilation; Buddhists to their conviction that the Enlightened One has discovered the ultimate method for attuning human consciousness to the truth; Taoists to what appears definitively obvious in their methods for aligning our many human ways to the one Way of Heaven; Jews to the irrevocable and exclusive calling of their people to a divine plan still unfolding; Muslims to a finality linked inseparably to the last and consummate of the accepted Prophets; and Christians, finally, to an Event that finds no true parallel elsewhere in time or space, making Christ, for them, the very hinge of history. Common denominators of mythical, metaphysical, moral and mystical nature run through all the great traditions, and these clearly invite comparisons through shifting emphases of perennial truths and values. But although they may encourage inter-religious and ecumenical understanding, the differences mentioned above, though few, are undeniably crucial, and challenging to say the least.

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Each of these six symbols could easily drift to the sun-center of a system of planets, with the other five in subservient and dependent orbit. What is challenging in inter-religious understanding is not identifying and rejoicing in the abundant shared truths and values mentioned before. It lies rather in placing the deep differences in a context that allows them to maintain their emphasis, but without entailing a look down one’s nose at the other claims, or – worse yet – military jihad, armed crusade, or even genocide as required implementations of one’s own claim to uniqueness. Since the majority of the world’s religious adherents participate in their usually inherited traditions more by custom and culture than by pondered conviction, the unrelenting confrontation of traditions in a globalized world demands that each show forth their greatest saints, most clinching arguments and most other-worldly beauties – if just to get everyone’s attention. The only truly convincing witness to any claim to uniqueness is to give witness to a behavior, and to a splendor, that is uniquely convincing. Anything short of this lines up too suspiciously with a self-centered obsession we all share: that of always wanting to be ‘right’.

Contrary to popular assumption that fundamentalism is a simple return to ‘fundamentals’, a conservative reversion to one’s roots, it is in fact a conspicuous and vocal movement of very recent times, emphasizing literalism in Scriptural exegesis, exclusivism in doctrine and often militancy in practice, on a scale only sporadically present in the past; it is a very modern version of living one’s religion, including a neurotic modern obsession with being rightabout everything. We find Hindu and Christian versions of this, as well as Islamic – and even the occasional Buddhist specimen – but all of them are, in truth, the result of very old religions coming to terms with very modern threats (hindutva, for instance, confronting modern colonial incursions in India, or Christians in the face of a secularizing scientism beginning in the 19th century). Islam certainly has no monopoly in this deviation, but what it does have is more aggressive and constraining circumstances: the political and cultural fallout of the breaking up of the Ottoman Empire after the Great War and the random patch-work division of its area into Western-conceived ‘nation-states’ (cutting across many a tribal land, and throwing together tribal foes), meddling Western intrigue in the fortunes of the ancient world of Persia (Iran) and its links with Russia, and the West’s (and then the world’s) addiction to high-speed transport and the thirst for oil to fuel it (with sprawling subterranean oceans of it discovered under Muslim feet).

All this has provoked decontextualized readings of the Quran’s more militant verses, fatally fused with an appropriation of the West’s most lethal and sinister portable technologies of death. Thus Muslim extremists try to sting the Western Goliath with enough stones from their furtive slings to bring him crashing down. While the West demonizes as ‘terrorism’ these sporadic forays that kill scores, or hundreds or (rarely) thousands, the Muslim Orient glares in indignation at a 20th century in which myriads of their own innocents have been slaughtered by the West’s airborne bombs. When the West protests that it never targets the innocent, whereas the terrorists do, the latter continue to point to the high numbers of their own collateral innocents, and adjudge all who are fed by a culture generating such carnage to have lost their neutrality and to be fair targets. This disproportion in weaponry has led us to shift our moral yardstick from virtue and vice to power and price – how people are killed becomes more pivotal than that they are killed, and those who can afford sophisticated and expensive weaponry seem absolved from their acts, since there is no visible blood on their hands. The suicide bomber may be a murderer, but unlike the bomber who drops death on thousands by pushing a button thousands of feet in the air, these self-immolating warriors are in the midst of the fray and can hardly be called aloof killers. A ‘nuclear’ Iran, we are told, is unacceptable, but a ‘nuclear’ West can be tolerated (but the Iranians know too well that only one of them has ever dropped an atom bomb on a city). All this gets terribly complicated, and no resolution will appear until the religious backgrounds on both sides have been honestly explored.

Islam has perhaps the simplest of creeds (two articles to the typical Christian twelve), and the most insistent monotheism of them all, but behind that first-blush severity of focus lies a complexity that has created one of the world’s most influential civilizations, and a religion currently tending to overtake Christianity in sheer numbers – by mid-century some predict. Only some 15% of today’s Muslims are Arabs, and most of the rest live in Turkey, Iran, South Asia and Indonesia. The resultant symbiosis resulting from their march east – a march more commercial than military – was no longer with tribal desert nomads, but with the ancient and established cultures of Persia and India, and thus brought new diversity into the simple ‘recitation’ of the Prophet.

As I looked over the Indian Ocean from a warm-water beach on the coast of Zanzibar, I wondered where the complexities of our religious legacies would lead us in the 21st century. At least this much is clear: both Islam and Christianity are growing still, especially in the global south, and between them embrace over half of humanity. If we add Hindus and Buddhists to the mix, in statistics alone, we have encompassed the majority of human beings living in this world. If the peace that the name ‘Islam’ allegedly purports has anything at all to do with the New Testament’s “peace of God that passeth all understanding” (Phil. 4,7), we will have to first redress our misunderstandings and replace them with that measure of understanding that God’s peace can indeed transcend.

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Seven Islands VI – Sri Lanka and Buddhism

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So easy to think you understand it, when you haven’t, but it has understood you before you even asked…..

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Sri Lanka with boy monks

“Avoid evil, do good and purify the mind.” That is one version of the Buddha’s parting lesson as he passed over into a state his followers will spend centuries trying to describe, or name, or even remotely understand – the ‘despiration’ (sic), called nirvana. His teachings are similarly resumed in the deceptively simple formula of ‘four noble truths’, but they too have germinated into interminable rows of loose-leaf collections of sutras and shastras, termas and tantras, agamas and canonical collections in Pali, Chinese, Tibetan and more. The extreme simplicity and immediacy of what Gautama Siddharta claimed to have discovered beneath the bodhi tree in northern India has paradoxically bred libraries of texts – beginning with the considerable ensemble of his own sayings (some collections run to over 20 volumes) – , then multiplied many times over by later commentary upon commentary, and then commentary oncommentary. No less than the allegedly more ‘wordy’ traditions of the Hindus and the Abrahamic faiths, Buddhism too has filled the world with words.

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It was with this paradox in mind that I arrived in Colombo from Singapore in 2007 — from that other island of high-tech, air-conditioned complexity (that understandably did not make my list) to what I imagined would be an isle of meditative one-pointedness. And to a large extent I was not disappointed. I had spent two weeks the year before in the then still-untouched Buddhist world of Burma (Myanmar) – which, in recent years (I am writing this in 2017) has opened itself up to the distractions of the West – and visited multiple Theravada temples and monasteries in and between the two cities of Yangon and Mandalay. Since Sri Lanka also adhered to this branch of Buddhism, which prides itself on being the most original, historically rooted of the various traditions – free of latter overlays of interpretation and elaboration – the fact that already here one encounters a panoply of texts, symbols, chaplets and sanctuaries unfolding from the Buddha’s simple teaching, only highlighted the paradox.

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As I visited the various Buddhist sites of this isle which drops off the Indian subcontinent like a tear – including Kelaniya, Kandy, the Aluvihara Rock Temple (where those sayings of the Buddha were first committed to writing), Dambulla, Sigiriya, Polonnaruwa, Anarhudapura – that single tear seemed to shine like a symbol of the single idea which, I venture to suggest, dominates all forms of Buddhist practice (and there are many). That idea is this: if we could only get our subjectivity properly adjusted – not unlike adjusting the settings and lenses of a camera – we could in effect leap-frog over teachings and temples, libraries and lamaseries, verbiage and vice, and suddenly (an adverb that will be much used, and much disputed, in Buddhism) find that ultimately correct vantage point, that consummately supreme and revealing perspective, from which our mind could look out on reality – and look back on itself – with complete transparency and beatifying truth.main-qimg-05ab2278729aeb8b342c0f325859a1ec-c

That the refreshing simplicity of this project morphed rapidly and easily into complex ramifications is hardly a surprise, as our subjectivity – our reflexive consciousness and even more our apparent freedom of will – is arguably the densest reality in the universe (just as the brain is the most complex matter), and putting order in this universe of thoughts, memories, desires, hopes, anticipations, intentionalities, doubts, fears and all the rest, is going to demand more than what some superficial enthusiasts for Buddhism regard as a quick fix. Hence the rainbow of versions of the great Buddha’s dharma – from the Theravada, ‘back-to-basics’ approach of Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia, to the at times seemingly re-brahmanized Mahayana which first budded in India but ended up finding the best soil for further growth north and east of the subcontinent in East Asia, to the currently fashionable versions of Vajrayana (particularly the Tibetan), that reconnect so much with prior shamanisms, and the originally brahmanical Tantra, and an almost Vedic pantheon of semi-deities, one wonders if the initially thick line between Hinduism and Buddhism has grown almost invisible.

Buddhism has always reminded me of the project of much of modern European philosophy, that is, the attempt to get the mind attuned to itself before letting it look out at reality. Cosmology and metaphysics – and often even logic – are quickly pre-empted by psychology and epistemology, and one submits oneself to endless inquiries over what knowledge and consciousness actually are, their limits and causes, their sources and methods, until one finally turns over the rest of the world and even human nature to the new modern sciences; philosophy itself, often enough, ends up stranded in a cul-de-sac of incurable skepticism.images

But just as modern philosophy has famously failed as an encompassing project – leading many into poses of post-modern relativism, and others (I raise my hand here) to a reconsideration of classical philosophy – it has also sired countless insights into how our mind works, the nature of intentionality, the enigma of freedom, and a variety of methods for gauging and measuring certitude. Buddhism, too, whatever one may hold of its overarching view of reality, has provided the most profound and searching examination of the varieties of human consciousness on offer in the world’s traditions. Practical methods of calming the ‘monkey mind’, of bringing to convergence a consciousness that has turned into a kind of multi-tasking gone mad, and an array of challenging meditations on the fleeting nature of experience – all this is a solid legacy, and the West ignores it at its peril.

No one will dispute that Buddhism grew out a Hindu matrix, but many will argue over how radical the Buddhist tradition’s break with the latter ultimately was, much of the disagreement having to do with how that protean matrix is to be defined to begin with. Still, that Buddhism practically disappeared from India, but spread to become the most universal common religious denominator in the rest of Asia, makes India a true mother of Asian religion and philosophy, even if at times only a step-mother. The single most intractable problem of Buddhist philosophy – how, namely, to reconcile a radical denial of any true substantiality with the equally affirmed perduring effects of karma and rebirth – is far from being resolved in any consensual way among scholars both within and outside of the tradition; it certainly invites a widening of the conversation to include insights from Western thought. The globalized world, for better or worse, is now an ambience in which the progeny of India and the progeny of Israel – not without help from Persia and Greece – can embark upon the most promising intellectual engagement of history. As Hans Urs von Balthasar predicted, the conversation between the Christian tradition (already a fusion of Abrahamic faith with Greek science and Roman law) and the East will occasion an even greater challenge, and holds even greater ultimate promise, than those portentous engagements of the first two millenia.

Dali-Lama-and-Pope-John-Paul-II

  *    *    *

Seven Islands VII – Bali and Hinduism

map Bali

Bali: Hinduism Out on a Limb

The Hindu universe, located overwhelmingly in India, has invaded the world, courtesy of the British Empire.  But long before Englishmen colonized South Asia, Hindus colonized Southeast Asia, and a rare relic thereof lies on the enchanted isle of Bali….

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Bali, Indonesia 2007

The words ‘India’ and ‘Hindu’ both come from the same root, which in Sanskrit simply designates the Indus River. But not just in etymology, also in reality, the two things are largely coincident. Quite distinct religious traditions – whether home-grown or immigrant – will gain a foothold in South Asia solely when Mother India finds a way to take them into her Hindu arms. Even Islam, perhaps the most unlikely newcomer, was only able to make inroads of a non-military nature by allowing its own mystical missionaries, the sufis, to acknowledge the Hindu sadhus as a league of arguably monotheistic brothers. And Christians may wince when they see Jesus – already preached to them in the 1st century by St. Thomas the Apostle – ranked among the avatars of Vishnu, but it is one way for a Hindu to regard them as family. The Jains, and what Buddhists are left, are looked upon in the way mainline Christians might look at Quakers or Mennonites: just some brethren who’ve gone a bit extreme. And the Sikhs follow a 16th century guru who claims to have found a way to a kind of marriage of convenience between Hinduism and Islam. So from a Hindu perspective, they all are choreographed into a broad space under the Vedic umbrella, although some are far closer to its dark and welcoming center than others.

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Bali is thousands of miles from India, and although it did hold on to its Hinduism while the surrounding islands of Indonesia were won to Islam, the ensuing centuries of isolation from the Indian homeland, and from neighboring co-religionists, created an idiosyncratic version of India’s oldest religion. One might compare it to what happened to Ethiopian Christianity after its surrounding countries similarly went Muslim. Religions require their communities – the Jews are by definition a people; the Muslims, an ummah; the Christian church, an assembly (ecclesia); the stratified Hindu population, an interconnection of castes; the Buddhists, a sangha – for all see their beliefs and rites borne collectively as well as individually. But the underlying primal religious dimensions (called by social scientists shamanism, animism and ancestor worship), are almost always present under the surface and of influence in the formulation of more organized religion’s beliefs and practices (they typically precede the founding of the great religions anyway). They tend, however, to assert themselves more aggressively when a given area is cut off from intercourse with the larger population of the faith in question. Thus we see local shamanic and animistic traits in Balinese Hinduism that are less on display in India, and – since Buddhist missionaries had also penetrated the area – the adoption of boddhisatvas into their devotions as well. Add to all this the human beauty and sweetness of the Balinese, you have a religion of uncommon fascination and charm. Unlike the palpable antiquity of much of India’s Hindu display, Bali’s religion seems somehow fresh and recent. But it still is fed by what modern Hindus call their sanatana dharma, that is, the perennial teaching.

suka

All this invites us to ask what is indeed this primeval tradition that seems to have left its most visible traces in the multiple and polymorphic manifestations of Hinduism. With roots in an oral tradition that goes back further than will ever be documented, still today it customarily mocks our attempts to put a name on it. ‘Hinduism’ is more of a forfeiture of nomenclature than anything close to an informative label, for it points to a host of doctrines, rites and artifacts that finally defy conventional conceptual limits. Unlike the other great religions, there is no single, normative founder, and no one book, but rather a diffuse library of texts called the Vedas. Still, if we persist in wanting to ‘talk’ about India’s most native traditions, we will have to use names, however inadequate. And scholars, in their majority, suggest we make our peace with the word and get on to more substantive questions.

We are on firmer ground when we ask, simply, the following question: is there – back in the mists of prehistoric time, in a context of at least hundreds of thousands of years, probably even more – evidence of a tradition of wisdom and holiness that antedates – by those kinds of chronological yardsticks – the first documented appearance of writing, estimated at some 3,000 years before Christ? When we think back even to more recent pre-literate witness, such as the moai of Easter Island, and then to the multiple, sophisticated cave drawings found throughout the world, which date back tens of thousands of years, does it really make sense to give wholesale credence to the standard modern narrative of our race as having evolved up from primitive beginnings to our (supposed) present sophistication? Does it not make incomparably more sense to accept the unanimous witness of the millennia? Virtually all traditions embrace some idea of a primeval ‘golden age’, one or the other version of a ‘lost paradise’, and carry persistent memories, and often enough explicit doctrines, of a primordial, and deeply intuitive past – borne more orally than scripturally – from which, for whichever reasons the various traditions might propose, we have receded. And this, by the way, need not belie the fact that human populations have, at times, descended to barbaric lows, such that we do find evidence of occasional ‘ascents from savagery’ in our long story.

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I am not suggesting a simplistic recipe of ‘the older the better’. But in the face of the overwhelming presence of beliefs in a glorious past of untold antiquity – evident also in both Plato’s and Confucius’s presentation of their work as a retrieval and recuperation of ancient wisdom, and not something entirely new – it would seem to be the upward, progressive, evolutionary story of our cultural development that is the simplistic version. Perhaps the most convincing fact in support of cultural devolution over evolution is that we have yet to find a single human language that is not a complete system of meaning and expression (whether extinct, or among the 6,000 some tongues still spoken); nowhere do we find a half-intelligent scheme of sounds, ‘on the way’ to becoming a full language. If a language is there, it is always fully there, and we can witness this even on an individual scale, when language first bursts forth from the mouth of a child. Language, together with reflexive consciousness (perhaps even coincident with it?), continues to defy all attempted evolutionary explanations. To even venture to give an account of the origin of something so sublime as language and consciousness through something so low as a biological survival mechanism, seems not just misguided, but suspiciously ideological.

The Hindu tradition is arguably the most primordially rooted of all religions. Unconcerned with pinpointing an historical date of inauguration, it leans its multi-millennial weight on an undefinable, utterly radical font of being and truth, sovereignly secure in a time that was before all time. We are told its amaranthine truths were seen by antediluvian rishis (‘seers’ in Sanskrit), recited in resultant hymns (the source texts of the Vedas: a word meaning vision and knowledge), and then heard by a subsequent tradition forever intent on taking its mantras into its collective ear through the brahmins (a tradition which itself came to be called shruti, meaning ‘heard’). Forever morphing like a kaleidoscope of immeasurable diameter, the tradition maintained its unity precisely by proliferating, with every twist of the tube, the possible views of that unity. It is still turning today.

HistoryAs Israel pioneered a path through history, India paved a route out of history; and both traditions view those it intends to liberate, although for different reasons, as somehow trapped in history. Incommensurate means to distinct ends, but sharing the universal religious imperative that man needs to be freed. The Jewish prophets and then the Christian apostles will show the way through and beyond time (and of course Christ will present himself as that very transcendence incarnate); the Indian sages will essay a centrified dynamic away from time to an ever-present source. Whether through work (karman), devotion (bhakti),  insight (jnana) or meditation (raja yoga), India has filled its heritage with a variety of ‘points of philosophical view’ (darsanas), and a range of ‘lord gods’ (isvaras) to focus our rampant human plurality and get our consciousness on topic; and all this is buttressed by an articulated system of sacrifices (pujas) to draw our body’s awkward movements into one, unending gesture toward the Absolute. Bali has taken this last to perfection, and all over the island, fresh offerings of fruits, grains and flowers can be found on street, wall and market. Processions of the oblations can be observed throughout the day.

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If one has heard nothing else about Hinduism, one has probably heard the buzzword ‘pantheism’ applied to it. A stroll through any Hindu temple, or the green walkways of Bali, strewn with colorful offerings, should be enough to prove how superficial such Western labels can be. If Hinduism is pantheistic, then so is Islam and Christianity.

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All three endeavor, in three distinct ways, to insist on God’s uniqueness, and dethrone every aspiring usurper. For Muslims, the absolute, peerless oneness (wahid) of God is highlighted by removing every even remotely conceivable competitor from our visual field and imagination (on evidence in the ‘aniconic’ tendency of especially Arabic Muslim art), and to allow the uniqueness to reside only in The One. For Hindus, that same oneness is profiled in a converse effort to show how every single grain of sand, flower, star, person and community can be shown to point, as if in a synchronized dance, to Brahman. And there is more: ultimately they will claim to find in their own contingent being a direct, pre-existent relationship with the Absolute, in the form of their own deepest metaphysical root, called atman. At that depth, and at that depth only, the tiny drop of the relative is engulfed by the infinite sea of the Absolute.

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For a Christian, the Muslim drum-beat of oneness may seem to portend a descent into monotony, and the Hindu modulation of voices and sounds a veritable cacophony, but still the Gospel embraces the uncompromising doctrine of God’s absolute oneness, as does the Muslim; and it affirms the reality – dependent but solid – of creation as a manifestation of the One, like the Hindu. However, for the follower of Christ that oneness refracts necessarily in Life, Truth and Love, and thus in Father, Son and Spirit. The Christian ‘newness’ of the New Covenant is the new focus on personhood, both in God and in man, and how that notion reclaims both the oneness of God out of the multiplicity of creation, and the reality of the multiple as participations precisely in that oneness. Insofar as every created person is unique and irreplaceable – self-possessing, self-conscious, self-determining and self-transcendent – it is a created participation in fullness of life, ultimate truth and consummate love; or, in Vedantic inflection: being, consciousness and bliss.

All this went through my head as I trekked through the rice paddies of Bali, trying to avoid the drunken party-goers from Australia, the surfers from all over the globe, and the New Agers keen on tapping into Bali’s secrets. For myself, I just tried to learn the lessons of this, India’s most unlikely child, and its implications for any approach to wisdom that tries “to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that we may be filled with all the fullness of God.  (Eph. 3:18-19)

bali-guide.jpg

 *     *     *

Epilogue – On being a wandering Jew

If you don’t have an approximate understanding of who the Jews were and are, you’ll never make sense of our world, of any religion, or of any pain.

Tetragrammaton
The Tetragrammaton

Israel is hardly an island, or if so, only in a more metaphorical sense, as the one I attributed to my native American state of Kansas at the beginning of these reflections. But in another sense, the Jews have been like a moving island throughout most of their history, passing only a fraction of it in the land of Canaan. Almost half of them now live again in that land, a fact that is hugely significant – both for Zionists and anti-Zionists, though for obviously opposite reasons. But whether in Canaan or elsewhere, since the days of Abraham (4,000 years ago), the Jews have always been there, an inevitable and unmistakable counterpoint to everything else that happens in the world. Countless peoples of greater population and superior power have risen and fallen in the pages of history, finally absorbed and blurred (like the Etruscans or the Aztecs), but the Jews always survive. Love them or loathe them (and an in-between is hard to find), even since the coming of Christ, they continue to be the often unwilling foil of a gemstone the world can never quite identify, but must presume is there. Christians do claim to understand their role in the time before Christ, but are less sure what they have been up to thereafter.

The paradox of their survival is matched by companion paradoxes. To begin with, no other people has ever composed and assiduously defended a text (the Tanakh, our Old Testament) in which they are depicted in the most uncomplimentary terms. This, more than anything else, gives us little excuse for not taking the text seriously, for if we want evidence that no one has tinkered with the content, we need look no further than to note that all those damning details – reluctant prophets, randy psalmists, and above all a repeated infidelity to the One who called them – have not been edited out.

transferir

It is probably the densest and most diverse collection of texts ever produced on Earth; the stories are unforgettable, the songs irresistible, the prophecies haunting and the wisdom almost too bright to peer into. After the destruction of the Temple and the cessation of the sacrifices, the synagogues popped up like a forest of flowers, and the great book was given the same meticulous attention and its recitation the same studied performance as were the Levitical rites. You know a book is great when it invites, even demands, commentary, and exhibits a fecundity usually only on display in plants and animals; for here letters and paragraphs spawn a host of literary offspring. The Jews become master readers, literate by profession and vocation, and also master commentators, as the Tanakh became surrounded by layer after layer of interpretation and application. Since the Hebrew characters double as both phonetic signs and numerical symbols, the centuries-long study of their Bible has transformed the Hebrew scholars into ‘clerics’ par excellence, equally skilled in construal of texts and balancing of accounts.

Unlike the Vedas, the Quran, the Tao te Ching, or the Buddhist sutras, the Bible is a story – a raucous, bigger-than-life tale with enough pretzel-like twists and turns to make us dizzy, but not for a moment letting us doubt that the whole thing is going somewhere. With New Testament annexed, it is still the best-selling book in history. The world seems unable to understand or steady itself without periodically consulting this supernatural screenplay inherited from the Jews.

But even the Scriptures make us repeat the question: who exactly are the Jews? Are they a race, or are they a religion, or just a culture? …or all three, or some fourth thing? To this day, there is no simple answer to any of these questions, but everybody agrees that whatever they are, they are unmistakably there, and of an influence and significance in staggering disproportion to their numbers. The most infamous attempted genocide of the last century has Germans going after Jews. But who can explain that before that massacre, easily the five most influential figures in forming contemporary world culture – in social science, physics, psychology, philosophy and music (Marx, Einstein, Freud, Husserl and Schoenberg) – were all German-speaking Jews?

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That list could easily be lengthened. What indeed is going on here? And there is more. As for geopolitical convulsions, even typically unstable regions in Latin America, Africa, the Caucasus, the Balkans and the Koreas look comparatively serene when placed next to the Jewish-Arab conflict in the Middle East. And Jewish presence in the powerhouse of America is unmistakable. About a half of the world’s Jews live in the USA, and are represented in finance, academia, medicine, law – and also in cinema, music, literature and comedy – in a profile that vastly outsizes their percentage of the population. They are clearly carriers of something they are unable to drop, but also something we all – of whatever conviction – are unable to ignore.

Trying to explain all this while dismissing the hypothesis of a transcendent God who chose them, instructed them and established a covenant with them is futile at best. Most commentators will at least point to the great and new idea that Jewish experience and history bear witness to. Even those who think it is all a huge fantasy will admit it is a stupendous fantasy. That idea is ‘ethical monotheism’, the first real fusion – in the history of religions – of the idea of absolute being with the idea of absolute goodness: no arbitrary force, no being with a good side and a bad side, but rather an Absolute that is wholly, eternally and inscrutably good. To the predictable protests of all victims of sin and horror, the Jews refuse to sing ‘zip-a-dee-doo-dah’ or play Polyanna; instead, they point to the perplexing trial of Abraham, and finally, to the august book of Job. God’s goodness refuses to collapse into ‘niceness’, and his mystery evades every formula. Like Abraham and Job – and the entire cast of the Scriptural drama – the Jews serve as God’s meticulous mirror of all that is best in us, and all that is worst, but above all, of the suffering and immanent death that lie in each of our destinies, together with the meaning of it all that lies ahead of us, just out of sight.

92825875theodicy-ot

If my inner pilgrimage – beginning in the Galápagos Islands, and passing through Easter Island, Tierra del Fuego, Iona, Zanzibar, Sri Lanka and Bali – has taught me anything at all, it is that I, together with any seeker of the Good, the True and the Beautiful, must look deeply into that mirror. There we will see ourselves as we are: wandering Jews every one of us. And we travel best if we accept our trajectory – with wonder, humility and courage – until it has disclosed its last lesson.

Seven Islands: Epilogue – On being a wandering Jew

If you don’t have an approximate understanding of who the Jews were and are, you’ll never make sense of our world, of any religion, or of any pain.

Tetragrammaton
The Tetragrammaton

Israel is hardly an island, or if so, only in a more metaphorical sense, as the one I attributed to my native American state of Kansas at the beginning of these reflections. But in another sense, the Jews have been like a moving island throughout most of their history, passing only a fraction of it in the land of Canaan. Almost half of them now live again in that land, a fact that is hugely significant – both for Zionists and anti-Zionists, though for obviously opposite reasons. But whether in Canaan or elsewhere, since the days of Abraham (4,000 years ago), the Jews have always been there, an inevitable and unmistakable counterpoint to everything else that happens in the world. Countless peoples of greater population and superior power have risen and fallen in the pages of history, finally absorbed and blurred (like the Etruscans or the Aztecs), but the Jews always survive. Love them or loathe them (and an in-between is hard to find), even since the coming of Christ, they continue to be the often unwilling foil of a gemstone the world can never quite identify, but must presume is there. Christians do claim to understand their role in the time before Christ, but are less sure what they have been up to thereafter.

The paradox of their survival is matched by companion paradoxes. To begin with, no other people has ever composed and assiduously defended a text (the Tanakh, our Old Testament) in which they are depicted in the most uncomplimentary terms. This, more than anything else, gives us little excuse for not taking the text seriously, for if we want evidence that no one has tinkered with the content, we need look no further than to note that all those damning details – reluctant prophets, randy psalmists, and above all a repeated infidelity to the One who called them – have not been edited out.

transferir

It is probably the densest and most diverse collection of texts ever produced on Earth; the stories are unforgettable, the songs irresistible, the prophecies haunting and the wisdom almost too bright to peer into. After the destruction of the Temple and the cessation of the sacrifices, the synagogues popped up like a forest of flowers, and the great book was given the same meticulous attention and its recitation the same studied performance as were the Levitical rites. You know a book is great when it invites, even demands, commentary, and exhibits a fecundity usually only on display in plants and animals; for here letters and paragraphs spawn a host of literary offspring. The Jews become master readers, literate by profession and vocation, and also master commentators, as the Tanakh became surrounded by layer after layer of interpretation and application. Since the Hebrew characters double as both phonetic signs and numerical symbols, the centuries-long study of their Bible has transformed the Hebrew scholars into ‘clerics’ par excellence, equally skilled in construal of texts and balancing of accounts.

Unlike the Vedas, the Quran, the Tao te Ching, or the Buddhist sutras, the Bible is a story – a raucous, bigger-than-life tale with enough pretzel-like twists and turns to make us dizzy, but not for a moment letting us doubt that the whole thing is going somewhere. With New Testament annexed, it is still the best-selling book in history. The world seems unable to understand or steady itself without periodically consulting this supernatural screenplay inherited from the Jews.

But even the Scriptures make us repeat the question: who exactly are the Jews? Are they a race, or are they a religion, or just a culture? …or all three, or some fourth thing? To this day, there is no simple answer to any of these questions, but everybody agrees that whatever they are, they are unmistakably there, and of an influence and significance in staggering disproportion to their numbers. The most infamous attempted genocide of the last century has Germans going after Jews. But who can explain that before that massacre, easily the five most influential figures in forming contemporary world culture – in social science, physics, psychology, philosophy and music (Marx, Einstein, Freud, Husserl and Schoenberg) – were all German-speaking Jews?

transferir (1)images (1)images (2)transferir (2)transferir (3)

That list could easily be lengthened. What indeed is going on here? And there is more. As for geopolitical convulsions, even typically unstable regions in Latin America, Africa, the Caucasus, the Balkans and the Koreas look comparatively serene when placed next to the Jewish-Arab conflict in the Middle East. And Jewish presence in the powerhouse of America is unmistakable. About a half of the world’s Jews live in the USA, and are represented in finance, academia, medicine, law – and also in cinema, music, literature and comedy – in a profile that vastly outsizes their percentage of the population. They are clearly carriers of something they are unable to drop, but also something we all – of whatever conviction – are unable to ignore.

Trying to explain all this while dismissing the hypothesis of a transcendent God who chose them, instructed them and established a covenant with them is futile at best. Most commentators will at least point to the great and new idea that Jewish experience and history bear witness to. Even those who think it is all a huge fantasy will admit it is a stupendous fantasy. That idea is ‘ethical monotheism’, the first real fusion – in the history of religions – of the idea of absolute being with the idea of absolute goodness: no arbitrary force, no being with a good side and a bad side, but rather an Absolute that is wholly, eternally and inscrutably good. To the predictable protests of all victims of sin and horror, the Jews refuse to sing ‘zip-a-dee-doo-dah’ or play Polyanna; instead, they point to the perplexing trial of Abraham, and finally, to the august book of Job. God’s goodness refuses to collapse into ‘niceness’, and his mystery evades every formula. Like Abraham and Job – and the entire cast of the Scriptural drama – the Jews serve as God’s meticulous mirror of all that is best in us, and all that is worst, but above all, of the suffering and immanent death that lie in each of our destinies, together with the meaning of it all that lies ahead of us, just out of sight.

92825875theodicy-ot

If my inner pilgrimage – beginning in the Galápagos Islands, and passing through Easter Island, Tierra del Fuego, Iona, Zanzibar, Sri Lanka and Bali – has taught me anything at all, it is that I, together with any seeker of the Good, the True and the Beautiful, must look deeply into that mirror. There we will see ourselves as we are: wandering Jews every one of us. And we travel best if we accept our trajectory – with wonder, humility and courage – until it has disclosed its last lesson.

Sete Ilhas V : Zanzibar e o Islã

BlankMap-World-Zanzibar

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Meus ouvidos se entupiram de poeira após a visita, em Tanzânia, ao Serengueti, a cratera de Ngorongoro, e depois uma perseguição selvagem em busca de um remoto lugar com primitivas pinturas rupestres (uma de minhas paixões), o pequeno avião aterrissou no aeroporto de Zanzibar, com minha cabeça estourando de dor. Ao taxiarmos em direção ao minúsculo terminal, a dor de cabeça diminuiu e eu espiei pela janela a fim de dar uma primeira olhada na fabulosa ilha de Zanzibar.

Eu já havia visitado várias regiões muçulmanas antes. Certa vez, viajei do Tânger a Fez, no Marrocos, e me surpreendi quando o garoto que dividia o compartimento comigo bebeu de minha garrafa d’água enquanto eu dormia. A princípio, fiquei irritado, mas depois aprendi que não há motivo para se irritar com isso no mundo do deserto. Eu também fiz longas visitas ao Egito, Líbano, Síria e Jordânia – e, um ano depois, Bósnia-Herzegovina e Indonésia – e comecei a sentir todo o impacto de uma cultura em que chamadas à oração, inspiradas por passagens do Corão (em Árabe, ‘recitação’), são publicamente entoadas de minaretes cinco vezes por dia. Alguém que já tenha ouvido esse som jamais o esquecerá, e aqueles que entendem a língua dirão que a sua beleza poética mesmerizante é pelo menos tão importante quanto a sua mensagem (em parte, talvez porque ela é a sua própria mensagem). Quando desfrutamos da famosa hospitalidade árabe, deixamo-nos absorver pela profunda paz em alguma das onipresentes mesquitas, e estudamos – o que para mim é um requisito profissional – mais ou menos meio milênio de filosofia e ciência muçulmanas (sendo estas apenas uma parte da herança islâmica), é difícil ver o terrorismo recente como a face principal da religião do Profeta.

Cada uma das grandes religiões sustenta uma certa alegação de ser a definitiva, com uma ou outra versão de singularidade e eleição que deixaria incoerente a ideia de uma pur e simples igualdade entre as tradições. Os hindus podem apontar à sua inédita antiguidade e seu dom de assimilação virtualmente ilimitado; os budistas apelariam à sua convicção de que O Iluminado tenha descoberto o método definitivo para sintonizar a consciência humana à verdade; os taoistas, àquilo que lhes pareceria óbvio em seu método para alinhar os múltiplos caminhos humanos a um único Caminho do Céu; os judeus, ao irrevogável e exclusivo chamado de seu povo ao plano divino ainda em execução; os muçulmanos, a uma finalidade inseparavelmente ligada ao último e consumado dos Profetas reconhecidos; e, finalmente, os cristãos, a um Evento sem qualquer paralelo real no tempo ou no espaço, sendo Cristo, para eles, o verdadeiro dobradiço da história. Denominadores comuns de natureza mítica, metafísica, moral e mística encontram-se em todas as grandes tradições, e sem dúvida nos convidam a comparar as diversas ênfases nos valores e verdades perenes. Contudo, ainda que nos encorajem a um entendimento ecumênico e inter-religioso, as diferenças supramencionadas, conquanto poucas, são inegavelmente cruciais e, para dizer o mínimo, desafiadoras.

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Cada um desses seis símbolos poderia facilmente desviar-se para o centro de um sistema solar, com os outros cinco o orbitando de modo dependente e subserviente. O mais desafiador num entendimento inter-religioso não é identificar e regozijar-se com as abundantes verdades e valores compartilhados. Antes, trata-se de colocar as profundas diferenças num contexto que lhes permita manter suas ênfases, sem acarretar um desprezo pelas outras reivindicações, ou então – pior ainda – uma jihad militar, uma cruzada armada, ou genocídio como implementações decorrentes de sua alegação de exclusividade. Dado que a maioria dos adeptos das religiões mundiais participa de suas tradições herdadas mais por costume e cultura do que por uma convicção ponderada, a incessante confrontação entre as tradições no mundo globalizado exigirá que cada uma ostente os seus maiores santos, seus argumentos mais poderosos e suas belezas mais transcendentes – mesmo se seja só para ganhar a atenção de todos. A única testemunha verdadeiramente convincente de unicidade ou primazia seria dar evidência de um modo de ser, e de um esplendor, unicamente convincentes. Qualquer coisa fora disso se encaixará apenas dentro daquela obsessão ego-cêntrica de que todos nós padecemos: a de sempre querermos estar ‘certos’.

Contrariamente à crença popular de que o fundamentalismo seja um simples retorno aos ‘fundamentos’, uma reversão conservadora às raízes, ele é na verdade um movimento conspícuo e vocal de tempos bem recentes que enfatiza o literalismo na exegese das Escrituras, o exclusivismo doutrinal e, com frequência, a militância na prática; como tal, trata-se de uma maneira bem moderna de se viver uma religião. Encontramos versões hindus e cristãs disso, assim como islâmicas – e até um espécime budista de vez em quando – mas todas são, na verdade, o resultado de religiões muito velhas lidando com ameaças muito modernas (O hindutva, por exemplo, confrontando-se com as modernas incursões coloniais na Índia, ou os cristãos reagindo a um cientismo secularizante, que começou só no século XIX). Certamente, o Islamismo não tem o monopólio desse desvio, mas tem sim circunstâncias mais agressivas e opressoras: a decadência política e cultural decorrente do esfacelamento do Império Otomano após a Grande Guerra e a divisão arbitrária de seu território em ‘Estados-Nações’ concebidos à maneira ocidental (cortando ao meio muitas terras tribais, e juntando à força tribos inimigas), espalhando intriga nas fortunas do mundo antigo da Pérsia (Irã) e suas ligações com a Rússia, e o vício do Ocidente (que se espalhou pelo mundo) pelo transporte de alta velocidade e pelo petróleo que o alimenta (com largos oceanos desse produto descobertos sob os pés muçulmanos).

Tudo isso provocou leituras descontextualizadas dos versos mais militantes do Corão, fatalmente casadas com uma apropriação das mais letais e sinistras tecnologias da morte do Ocidente. Assim, os extremistas muçulmanos procuram atingir o Golias do Ocidente com suas pedras furtivas, esperando derrubá-lo. Enquanto o Ocidente taxa de ‘terrorismo’ a esses ataques esporádicos que matam dúzias, centenas ou (raramente) milhares de pessoas, o Oriente muçulmano se inflama de indignação num século XX, no qual uma miríade de seus inocentes foi massacrada pelas bombas aéreas atiradas pelo Ocidente. Quando o Ocidente protesta dizendo que seus ataques jamais visam inocentes, ao passo que assim fazem os terroristas, estes continuam a apontar para o grande número de vítimas inocentes (colaterais) do seu lado, e a declarar que todos aqueles alimentados pela cultura ocidental perderam a sua neutralidade e que, por isso, é justo que sejam alvos de ataques. Essa desproporção de poder bélico levou-nos a mudar nossos padrões morais da virtude e do vício, e um lado, para o poder e o dinheiro no outro, e  a técnica da morte das pessoas assuma mais importância do que o fato de elas morrerem. Aqueles que sejam em condições de comprar armas sofisticadas e dispendiosas parecem até absolvidos dos seus atos, uma vez que não há sangue visível em suas mãos. O homem-bomba é um assassino sim, mas em contraste ao bombardeiro aéreo que lança morte sobre milhares no ar pressionando um botão, estes guerreiros auto-imolantes no meio do combate dificilmente poderiam ser chamados de matadores distantes. E quando muçulmanos consigam armas mais sofisticadas, a dupla moral continua. Assim, um Irã ‘nuclear’ é inaceitável, dizem-nos, ao passo que um Ocidente ‘nuclear’ pode ser abraçado (e os iranianos sabem, claro, que apenas um deles já jogou bombas atômicas sobre uma cidade). Tudo isso fica altamente complicado, e jamais chegaremos a uma solução até que os fundamentos religiosos de ambos os lados sejam honestamente explorados.

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O Islamismo talvez tenha o mais simples dos credos (dois artigos, frente aos doze do Cristianismo), e o monoteísmo mais insistente de todos, mas, por detrás dessa severidade de fachada quanto ao foco, existe uma complexidade criadora de uma das civilizações mais proeminentes, e uma religião que ameaça superar o Cristianismo em números absolutos – em meados deste século, segundo algumas previsões. Apenas uns 15% dos muçulmanos atuais são árabes, e a maioria dos outros vive na Turquia, no Irã, no Sul Asiático e na Indonésia. A simbiose que resultou dessa marcha para o Leste – uma marcha mais comercial do que militar – não traz mais a marca das tribos nômades do deserto, mas sim das antigas e estabelecidas culturas da Pérsia e Índia, trazendo assim uma nova diversidade à mera ‘recitação’ do Profeta. Não menos do que a migração do cristianismo para oeste, o avanço do Islã para leste trouxe novos elementos no seu crescimento, e poderemos entender a religião apenas se entendermos sua história.

Ao contemplar o Oceano Índico de uma praia de águas mornas na costa de Zanzibar, especulei sobre onde as complexidades de nossos legados religiosos nos levariam no século XXI. Bem claro é pelo menos o seguinte: tanto o Islamismo quanto o Cristianismo ainda crescem, e muito, especialmente no hemisfério sul, já englobando cerca de metade da humanidade. Se acrescentarmos os hindus e budistas à mistura, só segundo as estatísticas teríamos a maioria esmagadora da humanidade. Se a paz que o nome ‘Islã’ sugere tiver algo a ver com a “paz de Deus, que excede toda inteligência” (Fil. 4,7), teremos primeiro de corrigir nossos mal-entendidos e substituí-los por aquela medida de entendimento que, então, a paz de Deus pode realmente transcender.

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Seven Islands VII – Bali and Hinduism

Bali: Hinduism Out on a Limb

The Hindu universe, located overwhelmingly in India, has invaded the world, courtesy of the British Empire.  But long before Englishmen colonized South Asia, Hindus colonized Southeast Asia, and a rare relic thereof lies on the enchanted isle of Bali….

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Bali, Indonesia 2007

The words ‘India’ and ‘Hindu’ both come from the same root, which in Sanskrit simply designates the Indus River. But not just in etymology, also in reality, the two things are largely coincident. Quite distinct religious traditions – whether home-grown or immigrant – will gain a foothold in South Asia solely when Mother India finds a way to take them into her Hindu arms. Even Islam, perhaps the most unlikely newcomer, was only able to make inroads of a non-military nature by allowing its own mystical missionaries, the sufis, to acknowledge the Hindu sadhus as a league of arguably monotheistic brothers. And Christians may wince when they see Jesus – already preached to them in the 1st century by St. Thomas the Apostle – ranked among the avatars of Vishnu, but it is one way for a Hindu to regard them as family. The Jains, and what Buddhists are left, are looked upon in the way mainline Christians might look at Quakers or Mennonites: just some brethren who’ve gone a bit extreme. And the Sikhs follow a 16th century guru who claims to have found a way to a kind of marriage of convenience between Hinduism and Islam. So from a Hindu perspective, they all are choreographed into a broad space under the Vedic umbrella, although some are far closer to its dark and welcoming center than others.

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Bali is thousands of miles from India, and although it did hold on to its Hinduism while the surrounding islands of Indonesia were won to Islam, the ensuing centuries of isolation from the Indian homeland, and from neighboring co-religionists, created an idiosyncratic version of India’s oldest religion. One might compare it to what happened to Ethiopian Christianity after its surrounding countries similarly went Muslim. Religions require their communities – the Jews are by definition a people; the Muslims, an ummah; the Christian church, an assembly (ecclesia); the stratified Hindu population, an interconnection of castes; the Buddhists, a sangha – for all see their beliefs and rites borne collectively as well as individually. But the underlying primal religious dimensions (called by social scientists shamanism, animism and ancestor worship), are almost always present under the surface and of influence in the formulation of more organized religion’s beliefs and practices (they typically precede the founding of the great religions anyway). They tend, however, to assert themselves more aggressively when a given area is cut off from intercourse with the larger population of the faith in question. Thus we see local shamanic and animistic traits in Balinese Hinduism that are less on display in India, and – since Buddhist missionaries had also penetrated the area – the adoption of boddhisatvas into their devotions as well. Add to all this the human beauty and sweetness of the Balinese, you have a religion of uncommon fascination and charm. Unlike the palpable antiquity of much of India’s Hindu display, Bali’s religion seems somehow fresh and recent. But it still is fed by what modern Hindus call their sanatana dharma, that is, the perennial teaching.

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All this invites us to ask what is indeed this primeval tradition that seems to have left its most visible traces in the multiple and polymorphic manifestations of Hinduism. With roots in an oral tradition that goes back further than will ever be documented, still today it customarily mocks our attempts to put a name on it. ‘Hinduism’ is more of a forfeiture of nomenclature than anything close to an informative label, for it points to a host of doctrines, rites and artifacts that finally defy conventional conceptual limits. Unlike the other great religions, there is no single, normative founder, and no one book, but rather a diffuse library of texts called the Vedas. Still, if we persist in wanting to ‘talk’ about India’s most native traditions, we will have to use names, however inadequate. And scholars, in their majority, suggest we make our peace with the word and get on to more substantive questions.

We are on firmer ground when we ask, simply, the following question: is there – back in the mists of prehistoric time, in a context of at least hundreds of thousands of years, probably even more – evidence of a tradition of wisdom and holiness that antedates – by those kinds of chronological yardsticks – the first documented appearance of writing, estimated at some 3,000 years before Christ? When we think back even to more recent pre-literate witness, such as the moai of Easter Island, and then to the multiple, sophisticated cave drawings found throughout the world, which date back tens of thousands of years, does it really make sense to give wholesale credence to the standard modern narrative of our race as having evolved up from primitive beginnings to our (supposed) present sophistication? Does it not make incomparably more sense to accept the unanimous witness of the millennia? Virtually all traditions embrace some idea of a primeval ‘golden age’, one or the other version of a ‘lost paradise’, and carry persistent memories, and often enough explicit doctrines, of a primordial, and deeply intuitive past – borne more orally than scripturally – from which, for whichever reasons the various traditions might propose, we have receded. And this, by the way, need not belie the fact that human populations have, at times, descended to barbaric lows, such that we do find evidence of occasional ‘ascents from savagery’ in our long story.

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I am not suggesting a simplistic recipe of ‘the older the better’. But in the face of the overwhelming presence of beliefs in a glorious past of untold antiquity – evident also in Plato’s presentation of his work as a retrieval and recuperation of ancient wisdom, and not something entirely new – it would seem to be the upward, progressive, evolutionary story of our cultural development that is the simplistic version. Perhaps the most convincing fact in support of cultural devolution over evolution is that we have yet to find a single human language that is not a complete system of meaning and expression (whether extinct, or among the 6,000 some tongues still spoken); nowhere do we find a half-intelligent scheme of sounds, ‘on the way’ to becoming a full language. If a language is there, it is always fully there, and we can witness this even on an individual scale, when language first bursts forth from the mouth of a child. Language, together with reflexive consciousness (perhaps even coincident with it?), continues to defy all attempted evolutionary explanations. To even venture to give an account of the origin of something so sublime as language and consciousness through something so low as a biological survival mechanism, seems not just misguided, but suspiciously ideological.

The Hindu tradition is arguably the most primordially rooted of all religions. Unconcerned with pinpointing an historical date of inauguration, it leans its multi-millennial weight on an undefinable, utterly radical font of being and truth, sovereignly secure in a time that was before all time. We are told its amaranthine truths were seen by antediluvian rishis (‘seers’ in Sanskrit), recited in resultant hymns (the source texts of the Vedas: a word meaning vision and knowledge), and then heard by a subsequent tradition forever intent on taking its mantras into its collective ear through the brahmins (a tradition which itself came to be called shruti, meaning ‘heard’). Forever morphing like a kaleidoscope of immeasurable diameter, the tradition maintained its unity precisely by proliferating, with every twist of the tube, the possible views of that unity. It is still turning today.

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As Israel created a path through history, India paved a route out of history; and both traditions view those it intends to liberate, although for different reasons, as somehow trapped in history. Incommensurate means to distinct ends, but sharing the universal religious imperative that man needs to be freed. The Jewish prophets and then the Christian apostles will show the way through and beyond time (and of course Christ will present himself as that very transcendence incarnate); the Indian sages will essay a centrified dynamic away from time to an ever-present source. Whether through work (karman), devotion (bhakti),  insight (jnana) or meditation (raja yoga), India has filled its heritage with a variety of ‘points of philosophical view’ (darsanas), and a range of ‘lord gods’ (Isvaras) to focus our rampant human plurality and get our consciousness on topic; and all this is buttressed by an articulated system of sacrifices (pujas) to draw our body’s awkward movements into one, unending gesture toward the Absolute. Bali has taken this last to perfection, and all over the island, fresh offerings of fruits, grains and flowers can be found on street, wall and market. Processions of the oblations can be observed throughout the day.

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If one has heard nothing else about Hinduism, one has probably heard the buzzword ‘pantheism’ applied to it. A stroll through any Hindu temple, or the green walkways of Bali, strewn with colorful offerings, should be enough to prove how superficial such Western labels can be. If Hinduism is pantheistic, then so is Islam and Christianity.

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All three endeavor, in three distinct ways, to insist on God’s uniqueness, and dethrone every aspiring usurper. For Muslims, the absolute, peerless oneness (wahid) of God is highlighted by removing every even remotely conceivable competitor from our visual field and imagination (on evidence in the ‘aniconic’ tendency of especially Arabic Muslim art), and to allow the uniqueness to reside only in The One. For Hindus, that same oneness is profiled in a converse effort to show how every single grain of sand, flower, star, person and community can be shown to point, as if in a synchronized dance, to Brahman, ultimately finding in their own contingent core a direct, pre-existant relationship thereto in their deepest metaphysical root, called atman. At that depth, and at that depth only, the tiny drop of the relative is engulfed by the infinite sea of the Absolute.

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For a Christian, the Muslim drum-beat of oneness may seem to portend a descent into monotony, and the Hindu modulation of voices and sounds a veritable cacophony, but still the Gospel embraces the uncompromising doctrine of God’s absolute oneness, as does the Muslim; and it affirms the reality – dependent but solid – of creation as a manifestation of the One, like the Hindu. However, for the follower of Christ that oneness refracts necessarily in Life, Truth and Love, and thus in Father, Son and Spirit. The Christian ‘newness’ of the New Covenant is the new focus on personhood, both in God and in man, and how that notion reclaims both the oneness of God out of the multiplicity of creation, and the reality of the multiple as participations precisely in that oneness. Insofar as every created person is unique and irreplaceable – self-possessing, self-conscious, self-determining and self-transcendent – it is a created participation in life (being), truth (word) and love; or, in Vedantic inflection: being, consciousness and bliss.

All this went through my head as I trekked through the rice paddies of Bali, trying to avoid the drunken party-goers from Australia, the surfers from all over the globe, and the New Agers keen on tapping into Bali’s secrets. For myself, I just tried to learn the lessons of this, India’s most unlikely child, and its implications for any approach to wisdom that tries “to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that we may be filled with all the fullness of God.  (Eph. 3:18-19)

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Seven Islands VI – Sri Lanka and Buddhism

Buddhism – the Glue of Asia

So easy to think you understand it, when you haven’t, but it has understood you before you even asked…..

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Sri Lanka with boy monks

“Avoid evil, do good and purify the mind.” That is one version of the Buddha’s parting lesson as he passed over into a state his followers will spend centuries trying to describe, or name, or even remotely understand – the ‘despiration’ (sic), called nirvana. His teachings are similarly resumed in the deceptively simple formula of ‘four noble truths’, but they too have germinated into interminable rows of loose-leaf collections of sutras and shastras, termas and tantras, agamas and canonical collections in Pali, Chinese, Tibetan and more. The extreme simplicity and immediacy of what Gautama Siddharta claimed to have discovered beneath the bodhi tree in northern India has paradoxically bred libraries of texts – beginning with the considerable ensemble of his own sayings (some collections run to over 20 volumes) – , then multiplied many times over by later commentary upon commentary, and then commentary on commentary. No less than the allegedly more ‘wordy’ traditions of the Hindus and the Abrahamic faiths, Buddhism too has filled the world with words.

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It was with this paradox in mind that I arrived in Colombo from Singapore in 2007 — from that other island of high-tech, air-conditioned complexity (that understandably did not make my list) to what I imagined would be an isle of meditative one-pointedness. And to a large extent I was not disappointed. I had spent two weeks the year before in the then still-untouched Buddhist world of Burma (Myanmar) – which, in recent years (I am writing this in 2017) has opened itself up to the distractions of the West – and visited multiple Theravada temples and monasteries in and between the two cities of Yangon and Mandalay. Since Sri Lanka also adhered to this branch of Buddhism, which prides itself on being the most original, historically rooted of the various traditions – free of latter overlays of interpretation and elaboration – the fact that already here one encounters a panoply of texts, symbols, chaplets and sanctuaries unfolding from the Buddha’s simple teaching, only highlighted the paradox.

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As I visited the various Buddhist sites of this isle which drops off the Indian subcontinent like a tear – including Kelaniya, Kandy, the Aluvihara Rock Temple (where those sayings of the Buddha were first committed to writing), Dambulla, Sigiriya, Polonnaruwa, Anarhudapura – that single tear seemed to shine like a symbol of the single idea which, I venture to suggest, dominates all forms of Buddhist practice (and there are many). That idea is this: if we could only get our subjectivity properly adjusted – not unlike adjusting the settings and lenses of a camera – we could in effect leap-frog over teachings and temples, libraries and lamaseries, verbiage and vice, and suddenly (an adverb that will be much used, and much disputed, in Buddhism) find that ultimately correct vantage point, that consummately supreme and revealing perspective, from which our mind could look out on reality – and look back on itself – with complete transparency and beatifying truth.

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That the refreshing simplicity of this project morphed rapidly and easily into complex ramifications is hardly a surprise, as our subjectivity – our reflexive consciousness and even more our apparent freedom of will – is arguably the densest reality in the universe (just as the brain is the most complex matter), and putting order in this universe of thoughts, memories, desires, hopes, anticipations, intentionalities, doubts, fears and all the rest, is going to demand more than what some superficial enthusiasts for Buddhism regard as a quick fix. Hence the rainbow of versions of the great Buddha’s dharma – from the Theravada, ‘back-to-basics’ approach of Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia, to the at times seemingly re-brahmanized Mahayana which first budded in India but ended up finding the best soil for further growth north and east of the subcontinent in East Asia, to the currently fashionable versions of Vajrayana (particularly the Tibetan), that reconnect so much with prior shamanisms, and the originally brahmanical Tantra, and an almost Vedic pantheon of semi-deities, one wonders if the initially thick line between Hinduism and Buddhism has grown almost invisible.

Buddhism has always reminded me of the project of much of modern European philosophy, that is, the attempt to get the mind attuned to itself before letting it look out at reality. Cosmology and metaphysics – and often even logic – are quickly pre-empted by psychology and epistemology, and one submits oneself to endless inquiries over what knowledge and consciousness actually are, their limits and causes, their sources and methods, until one finally turns over the rest of the world and even human nature to the new modern sciences; philosophy itself, often enough, ends up stranded in a cul-de-sac of incurable skepticism.images

But just as modern philosophy has famously failed as an encompassing project – leading many into poses of post-modern relativism, and others (I raise my hand here) to a reconsideration of classical philosophy – it has also sired countless insights into how our mind works, the nature of intentionality, the enigma of freedom, and a variety of methods for gauging and measuring certitude. Buddhism, too, whatever one may hold of its overarching view of reality, has provided the most profound and searching examination of the varieties of human consciousness on offer in the world’s traditions. Practical methods of calming the ‘monkey mind’, of bringing to convergence a consciousness that has turned into a kind of multi-tasking gone mad, and an array of challenging meditations on the fleeting nature of experience – all this is a solid legacy, and the West ignores it at its peril.

No one will dispute that Buddhism grew out a Hindu matrix, but many will argue over how radical the Buddhist tradition’s break with the latter ultimately was, much of the disagreement having to do with how that protean matrix is to be defined to begin with. Still, that Buddhism practically disappeared from India, but spread to become the most universal common religious denominator in the rest of Asia, makes India a true mother of Asian religion and philosophy, even if at times only a step-mother. The single most intractable problem of Buddhist philosophy – how, namely, to reconcile a radical denial of any true substantiality with the equally affirmed perduring effects of karma and rebirth – is far from being resolved in any consensual way among scholars both within and outside of the tradition; it certainly invites a widening of the conversation to include insights from Western thought. The globalized world, for better or worse, is now an ambience in which the progeny of India and the progeny of Israel – not without help from Persia and Greece – can embark upon the most promising intellectual engagement of history. As Hans Urs von Balthasar predicted, the conversation between the Christian tradition (already a fusion of Abrahamic faith with Greek science and Roman law) and the East will occasion an even greater challenge, and holds even greater ultimate promise, than those portentous engagements of the first two millenia.

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Sete Ilhas : Introdução

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SETE ILHAS 

Scott Randall Paine

Kansas, uma ilha na pradaria

Ao se pensar em ilhas, o estado americano do Kansas não nos vem logo à mente. Contudo, há algo de insular no interior dos continentes, e o meio-oeste dos Estados Unidos, com todo a sua cordialidade e encanto, pode tornar-se um local de isolamento, especialmente para aqueles que cresceram lá – como eu – nos anos cinquenta e sessenta. Não duvido, sequer por um momento, que pessoas provenientes da Califórnia ou de Nova York também possam ser insulares, a despeito da ampla oferta de contato cosmopolita naqueles lugares. Talvez, até por causa disso. Às vezes, a própria densidade daquele contato pode levar as pessoas aos recantos provinciais de suas mentes, tanto quanto aconteceria com um caipira de Nebraska ou do Missouri. Os imponentes pórticos globais que se erguem nos litorais continentais podem permanecer tão fechados quanto as porteiras mais acanhadas do interior. Desse modo, os anos que passei sendo criado no Estado dos Girassóis fariam qualquer aventura internacional parecer uma improvável onda no meu destino.

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Sete ilhas, contudo, aparentemente acenaram-me já em meados dos anos setenta, e transformaram o meu solo natal em um trampolim que iria me lançar – após longas estadias na Europa e Ásia – para as regiões sul-americanas do Brasil. Essas sete ilhas (ou grupos de ilhas) servem como destaques entre minhas viagens mais longas e, de forma significativa e simbólica, conectam-se como uma guirlanda em volta do globo, começando no Pacífico-leste e seguindo rumo oeste até as Índias Orientais. São elas: as Ilhas Galápagos, Ilha de Páscoa, Terra do Fogo, Iona (na Escócia), Zanzibar (próxima à costa da Tanzânia), Sri Lanka (no Sul Asiático) e Bali (na Indonésia). Todas são pequenas, mas elas nos lembram que, de fato, toda extensão de terra em nosso planeta é pequena quando comparada aos oceanos. Mais de 70% da face da Terra cobre-se de águas; portanto, na verdade, até a Eurásia e África não passam de ilhas gigantes. Até mesmo o controverso ‘destino manifesto’ norte-americano – interpretando que seu território estaria destinado a ir ‘do Mar (Atlântico) ao Mar (Pacífico)’ –, em certo sentido envolve uma visão de sua privilegiada localização na terra como sendo uma grande e triunfante ilha.

Eu viajei quase demasiado para uma pessoa que de fato é muito caseira, e vi tanto do mundo quanto a maioria dos grandes aventureiros, e mais até do que alguns. É claro, eu ‘trapaceei’ ao voar sobre oceanos e continentes a 11.000 metros de altura – bem acima de onde a maioria dos exploradores enfrentou regularmente as perigosas ondas dos oceanos, ou desbravou montanhas e terras desertas. Tiro o meu chapéu a todos os viajantes dos séculos anteriores. Admiro especialmente aqueles que arriscaram tudo naqueles grandes navios de antigamente, que são uma beleza para os olhos, mas certamente uma tortura para os passageiros.

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Eu também saúdo os avós dos meus avós, que, nos dois lados de nossa família, viajaram em caravanas de carroças das regiões do Leste americano até o Kansas.

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Semelhante aos navios antigos, aquelas caravanas procediam como num desfile, mas também como os navios, afligiram os corpos das pessoas que conduziam. O povoe de Kansas pode ser encarado facilmente como insular em sua atitude, porém os seus ancestrais eram todos peregrinos pelo simples fato de terem chegado lá. Eu me orgulho disso. Contudo, jamais sonhei, quando garoto, que as circunstâncias me levariam do Kansas até quase todos os cantos do mundo, o que de fato aconteceu. Reivindico pouco crédito por isso, pois as circunstâncias propícias simplesmente apareceram e me cercaram desde aproximadamente os meus vinte anos. Se há alguma coisa de que posso me orgulhar, é que eu era sempre rápido em aproveitar oportunidades quando elas se me apresentavam. Todavia, não posso atribuir-me o mérito das próprias oportunidades. Até porque um homem mais corajoso e nobre poderia ter feito delas um uso melhor do que eu.

Apesar de não ter visitado aquelas sete ilhas em qualquer tipo de ordem cronológica – tendo nelas pisado durante diferentes viagens nos últimos vinte e tantos anos – elas surgem agora em minha memória como marcos não apenas de importância geográfica, mas também de significância religiosa e filosófica. Cada ilha extraiu de minha mente um distinto leque de mensagens, e semeou uma discreta – porém, duradoura – meditação em meu coração. Ocorreu-me então que seria interessante – tanto para mim quanto para os outros – revisitar essas sete ilhas, rememorar os dias em que meus pés caminharam sobre elas, e refletir sobre as sete meditações geradas.

As sete ilhas são: 1. As Ilhas Galápagos, visitadas por Charles Darwin nos anos 1830s e por um padre-professor brasileiro-americano no ano de 2009. O que significa ser uma criatura viva e consciente? Para boa parte da resposta a esta pergunta, a contribuição de Darwin é apenas secundária. 2. Ilha de Páscoa, ‘descoberta’ por europeus em 1722, mas que encobre para todos nós o fato de que aqueles que (‘ainda’) não leram nem escreveram podiam ter sabido mais sobre a realidade do que jamais podemos imaginar. 3. Terra do Fogo, uma ilha na ponta sul das Américas, encarando as ondas dos dois maiores oceanos da Terra, e nos lembrando do milagre dos mares que nos circundam e sustentam, dando uma face azul à Terra, e fazendo dela incomparavelmente mais do que um ‘planeta’. 4. Iona, nas Hébridas, uma improvável rampa de lançamento para os primeiros missionários cristãos, intento de transformar todo aquele grupo que chamamos de Ilhas Britânicas num veículo futuro para o Evangelho e todos os seus loucos desafios, e berço de um idioma que se tornaria a lingua franca, permitindo que o Oriente, um belo dia, falasse com o Ocidente. 5. Zanzibar, uma ilha muçulmana no Oceano Índico, ao largo da costa da vasta e promissora África, e que serve de símbolo da onda comercial e monoteísta gerada pelo Islamismo no mundo medieval; isso continuaria mais tarde (na guerra e na paz) a mover a história mundial em ambos os lados do Oriente Médio. 6. Sri Lanka, a única ilha realmente budista no mundo, onde o dharma simplificado de Shakyamuni cresceria no Sul Asiático, Tibete e Ásia oriental, e finalmente encheria o mundo com um método surpreendentemente simples – mas com uma fecundidade talvez nem prevista pelo próprio Buda – para se obter algo chamado, obliqua e misteriosamente, de nirvana. 7. Bali, onde a tradição mais antiga da Índia – e talvez do mundo –, o Hinduísmo, deixaria um traço quase contra-intuitivo de seu vínculo com a humanidade primordial, e a beleza de uma sabedoria ainda não totalmente esquecida, e tudo isso em uma pequena ilha na Indonésia muçulmana. Minha reflexão conclusiva – à guisa de epílogo – é sobre os judeus e o seu papel catalítico em toda essa estória improvável.

(O texto será revisado, amplificado, corrigido e elaborado durante os meses seguintes, mas eu decidi liberar o material tão logo os textos adquiram algum grau de coerência, para aqueles que se interessem em reflexões ‘ao-ponto-para-mal-passadas’).

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Um outro sentido da diversidade cristã

Chinese Cardinal John Tong Hon of Hong Kong joins prayer service

Estamos acostumados a ouvir que a prodigiosa multiplicação de denominações cristãs, sobretudo protestantes – algumas estimativas falam de algo perto de 30.000 – é uma evidência de que os cristãos estão irremediavelmente divididos, confusos e fragmentados. Mas, paradoxalmente, cada uma dessas várias comunidades saúda a volta – em uma ou outra forma – de uma imaginada ‘única Igreja verdadeira’: pode ser um catolicismo pré-Cisma ou pré-Reforma, ou uma Ortodoxia Oriental concebida à moda antiga, ou uma igreja primitiva pura idealizada pelos protestantes. Cada uma delas tipicamente alega que é a igreja verdadeira, mesmo quando se fragmenta ainda mais numa miríade de cismas ou reformas sectárias. Seria ingênuo subestimar o dano que essas divisões têm ocasionado à alegação de que o Cristianismo sustenta um único Evangelho. Contudo, eu sugiro que estejamos deixando de ver uma causa mais profunda dessa proliferação, e que se nos esteja escapando o fato de que, apesar de criar mais e mais ramos em cima, isso revela na verdade uma mais profunda fecundidade nas raízes.fecundity

O Cristianismo, em virtualmente todas as suas formas, se baseia sobre a crença de que um Deus livre e pessoal criou o mundo e o povoou, entre outras coisas, com criaturas livres; e então, quando as liberdades que ele concedeu foram abusadas, interveio – novamente, com um ato livre – num Evento que chamamos de Encarnação (com seus correlatos: Redenção, Crucificação, Ressurreição e todo o resto). Contudo – e isto é importante –, nenhuma teologia cristã tradicional jamais sustentou que Deus tenha coreografado ou programado todas as reações e respostas de suas criaturas a essa intervenção. Ele respeita sua liberdade, mesmo depois desta ter sido abusada, permitindo que suas múltiplas reações e respostas imprevisíveis sejam geradas – com abundante variedade e às vezes até algum caos – nos longos e complexos séculos da história cristã.

Se uma dessas múltiplas igrejas cristãs algum dia conseguir alcançar primazia aos olhos das outras – obviamente, tenho minhas convicções sobre isto, mas não vem ao caso aqui – isto se tornará evidente apenas na santidade dos seres humanos que dela saírem. Não prestemos atenção prioritariamente aos argumentos (com toda a sua importância), nem aos trapalhões e pecadores que surgem em cada tradição, mas olhemos para os santos que esta ou aquela comunidade cristã tem produzido. Pois, qualquer que seja o significado da vasta proliferação de confissões dos seguidores de Cristo, ela pelo menos significa isto: o Evento da Vida, Morte e Ressurreição de Cristo teve um impacto sem igual, fez uma alegação de uma audácia sem-par, e produziu um efeito indelével sobre a imaginação humana. Até mesmo os não crentes parecem incapazes de se manterem livres de sua tenaz influência, como o testemunham a arte secular, a literatura e o cinema. A grande variedade de respostas àquele Evento não chega nem perto de contar como provas da sua ficção; se tanto, é uma demonstração vigorosa de seu caráter gigantesco na história humana e de sua bizarra fecundidade. Pulula com uma vida que não é deste mundo, e continua germinando novos brotos, não porque seja eivado de confusão, mas porque injetou na Criação um Fato tão fecundo, tão indomável, que nós jamais seremos capazes de domesticá-lo .

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Sete Ilhas IV: Iona – a Última Thule – e Cristo

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Cristianismo, a religião menos conhecida no mundo…

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Eu tinha de pegar ônibus, barcos e barcaças para chegar à pequena ilha de Iona, a leste das terras da Escócia, nas Hébridas Interiores. Pode não parecer o ponto de vista mais óbvia para se considerar o Cristianismo, mas, quando se reflete sobre o seu papel na evangelização das Ilhas Britânicas e no que estas enfim significariam para a história – tanto levando o Evangelho para o mundo como um todo (junto com outros aventureiros e missionários europeus), quanto ligando o Oriente ao Ocidente (especialmente por meio do Raj Britânico na Índia) – talvez não haja qualquer outra pequena ilha que se possa vangloriar de um impacto tão grande na crescente catolicidade do Cristianismo. Seja verdadeiro ou falso, o Cristianismo fala ao mundo todo, e Iona – a despeito de sua pequenez (ou talvez por causa dela)– é uma testemunha capital disso. As reivindicações de Cristo estão globalmente certas ou globalmente erradas. Não há meio termo. Para começar nossas reflexões – tendo em mente o que aprendemos das outras ilhas – ouçamos a voz africana mais ressonante, reverenciada tanto por protestantes quanto por católicos, naquilo que ela tem a dizer sobre a universalidade dessa ‘notícia bomba’ que chegou do Oriente Médio. Estou falando, é claro, de Santo Agostinho de Hipona.

“O que hoje se chama religião cristã existiu até mesmo entre os antigos e não estava ausente desde o começo da raça humana até ‘Cristo ter-se feito carne’. Desde aquele tempo, a verdadeira religião, que já existia, começou a se chamar cristã”. Esta surpreendente proclamação (no décimo-segundo livro de seu último trabalho, Retractationes) simplesmente salienta o patente fato bíblico de que o Logos, o Verbo, por meio do qual o mundo foi feito (Gênesis 1) é o mesmíssimo Verbo que os cristãos creem ter se tornado homem em Cristo; e dado que os buscadores da sabedoria – e de sua irmã gêmea, a santidade –, desde tempos imemoriais, buscaram a causa e o significado do mundo e de nosso lugar nele, eles já estavam lidando e refletindo profundamente sobre o Verbo pre-encarnado. Os iguana dos Galápagos, o Rapa Nui da Ilha de Páscoa, e os dois grandes oceanos que se encontram na Terra do Fogo vieram a ser por meio do Verbo.

O primeiro capítulo do Gênesis é aprofundado e desenvolvido, não substituído nem rebaixado, pelo primeiro capítulo de João. Criação e re-criação emergem do mesmo Princípio, que é ao mesmo tempo o Verbo eterno para sempre falado pelo Pai no Espírito, e – filosoficamente – o locus idearum do grande Platão. É a fonte da Inteligência que está além e dentro do cosmos físico à nossa volta – cuja inteligibilidade é sua característica mais ‘miraculosa’, segundo Einstein – e simplesmente, para colocar um ponto final nessa história, é o Último Sentido de Tudo.

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A primeira conversão documentada de um filósofo reconhecido foi a do santo do século II, Justino, o Mártir. Após seu batismo, ele optou por usar a toga distintiva dos filósofos – tão reconhecida naquela época quanto hoje em dia é a toga de um juiz ou a farda de um policial – e proclamou o Evangelho como o cumprimento, a realização e a almejada consumação da Filosofia. Em seu Diálogo, ele conta como percorreu toda a gama de explicações filosóficas da realidade. Após descartar os epicuristas, ele passou dos estoicos aos peripatéticos, destes aos pitagóricos e finalmente aos platônicos; apenas com estes, ele pôde discernir uma abordagem plausível aos ecos transcendentes do Logos em todo espanto filosófico. Dos estoicos, contudo, ele toma emprestada a noção-chave de logoi spermatikoi (‘razões seminais’) e costumava a caracteriza-la como a verdade do Logos, por meio do qual todas as coisas foram feitas, que está presente como uma semente na razão humana. O Logos constitui um apelo ascendente de nossa natureza para uma Transcendência não-encarnada – a fonte de toda busca humana por sabedoria e libertação. Mas, então acontece a surpresa abaladora da última descoberta (na ‘plenitude dos tempos’) de uma Transcendência descendente e encarnada; nesse tempo, não somos nós, mas é a própria Transcendência quem faz o apelo.

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Para São Justino, a filosofia de Platão jamais foi para valer um meio convincente de se atingir a verdade. Parecia-lhe para sempre limitada a ascensões dialéticas menores, sem qualquer ajuda perceptível do alto. Então, certo dia, ele encontrou um velho na praia que lhe falou de outra fonte de verdade, chamada de profecia, e lhe narrou a estória dos profetas do Antigo Testamento e a dos Evangelhos do Novo Testamento, como cumprimento das profecias. Aqui estava uma Verdade que nos buscava a nós, ao invés de uma verdade que, aos trancos e barrancos, era perseguida por nós. Ao invés de ouvi-la antes de tudo como uma mensagem ‘religiosa’ associada a templos e oráculos, Justino percebe o tom inconfundível das lições do Logos que já havia estudado como filósofo. “O que hoje se chama a Religião Cristã” era para ele, como seria mais tarde para Santo Agostinho, não apenas uma religião, mas também a filosofia verdadeira.

Tanto foi assim, que os filósofos antigos deveriam a partir de então ser chamados de cristãos avant la lettre (como exemplos, ele chamou tanto Heráclito quanto Sócrates, sem rodeios, de cristãos). Por outro lado, aqueles que estavam de posse de toda a revelação em Cristo – e esta, com efeito, é a sugestão mais revolucionária – deveriam, por isso, ser vistos como filósofos por excelência. Essa ideia seria difícil de engolir tanto para os teólogos da ‘crise’ – ansiosos para defender a originalidade totalmente inédita da mensagem evangélica – quanto para os teólogos mais conservadores, preocupados em traçar uma única linha diretamente do Velho Testamento até Cristo, reconhecendo nas outras tradições apenas vagas e confusas aproximações. Como sempre, a verdade situa-se numa rica e multifacetada região intermediária, jamais nas soluções barulhentas e simplistas que tipicamente vêm dos galopes impacientes dos progressistas, tampouco nas posições engessadas dos ‘tradicionalistas’.

Ora, foi na ilha de Iona que os primeiros monges celtas não apenas pregaram as Boas-Novas; eles também deram transparência visual ao Verbo – tão evidente nas maravilhas do cosmos físico – nas palavras mesmas da mensagem escrita do Verbo, por intermédio da página iluminada. Assim, eles criaram um dos livros mais sublimes jamais confeccionados. Mais tarde, recebeu o nome de ‘Livro de Kells’, após o monastério irlandês para onde o tesouro foi retirado, após os Vikings terem saqueado a Escócia em fins do século VIII.

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Tudo isso sugere uma expressão tradicional ’em dois volumes’ do Logos. Refiro-me aqui não aos dois Testamentos – que, apesar de serem uma verdadeira biblioteca de textos e gêneros literários, perfazem uma única grande estória do Gênesis ao Apocalipse –, mas aos dois livros que, de acordo com os primeiros Padres, foram escritos pelo Autor Divino: sim, a própria Bíblia, escrita em palavras, mas também a vasta criação material, escrita em coisas. A Teologia pode ler o primeiro livro, e a Filosofia o outro, mas ambos se juntam, assim como a presença do Verbo no tempo e no espaço (em sua origem e significado) complementa e comenta a descida do Verbo aos mesmos tempo e espaço da narrativa bíblica. Esta é a ‘essência’ do Cristianismo (sem qualquer apologia a Feuerbach).

Quanto mais se aprecia a singularidade de Cristo, menos se é tentado – paradoxalmente – a taxar as outras religiões de falsidades ou confusões, precisamente porque elas também buscam o Logos – ainda não encarnado – mas o abordam de modos diferentes, até incomensuráveis. A diferença é esta: o Cristianismo não oferece apenas um líder a ser seguido, um exemplo a ser emulado ou uma doutrina a ser aprendida (ainda que faça tudo isso também), mas acima de tudo um evento a ser reconhecido. Pede-nos não a apropriação de uma sabedoria perene que vem do alvorecer da história, nem para aprendermos a pacificar nossas mentes em face ao inevitável fluxo do samsara, nem para alinhar nossos pensamentos e ações de acordo com o grande tao que abarca todas as coisas, nem mesmo para obedecer a lei de Deus na Torá, tampouco para submetermo-nos à sua paz no Corão. Todos esses atos religiosos são louváveis e um bom cristão faria bem em se apropriar deles todos. Mas, nenhum deles faz de você um cristão.

Você se torna cristão apenas ao receber o testemunho daqueles homens e mulheres que viveram o maior deslumbramento em toda a história. Foi transmitido por essas pessoas a estória da invasão de Deus em nosso mundo, nas próprias fibras da humanidade que carregamos e por meio das quais sofremos. Contaram-nos que as coisas mais horríveis que nos assombram – violência, desespero, doença e morte – foram recolhidas e transformadas no coração do próprio Deus. Essas coisas ainda nos machucam e assombram, porém, agora há sentido onde antes só havia resignação. Cristo não é apenas mais um mensageiro, um sábio, um exemplo ao qual somos convocados a seguir ou ouvir. Ele é o lugar em nossa humanidade onde o Deus Transcendente mergulhou totalmente em nossas vidas e em nossa dor, mostrando-nos, em troca, o caminho para penetrarmos totalmente no mistério de Deus.

Os missionários também foram até o fim – até a Ultima Thule (o fim do mundo, como as Ilhas Britânicas às vezes eram chamadas pelos antigos romanos) –, e em Iona, assim como em incontáveis outros lugares pelo mundo afora, contaram a estória, levaram os sacramentos e mudaram o mundo. Para um cristão, algo aconteceu a toda a realidade criada quando Cristo aconteceu ao mundo. Essa ilha está na metade das minhas Sete Ilhas, mas o milagre que foi anunciado lá está no centro de minha vida.

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Sete Ilhas III : Terra do Fogo

Nosso lar não é um planeta

…. os oceanos, o que significam, mas jamais podem dizer…

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Tierra del Fuego

Em algum momento do século XX os astrônomos nos disseram para parar de chamar a Terra de nosso lar especial, nosso único lugar no espaço, nosso paradeiro central na vastidão do cosmos, e de começar a chama-la de um planeta – o artigo indefinido é obrigatório. Para conhecer cientificamente aquilo em que vivemos, aquilo que nos provê de oxigênio, oceanos, montanhas, continentes e tudo o mais, fomos instruídos desde então a colocar a própria ideia de nosso ‘mundo’ em um novo gênero próximo, jogando assim todo esse globo azul na nova categoria científica de ‘planeta’ – da qual ele é, claro, apenas um entre (mais ou menos) oito. O problema, contudo, é este: a diferença mais do que óbvia entre a Terra e qualquer dos outros corpos que circundam o sol é uma diferença a qual estamos sendo induzidos a entender como uma mera gradação. Referência especial é feita ao Marte, um globo comparável – dizem – ao nosso. De modo semelhante, fomos instruídos por Carl Sagan, décadas atrás, a voltar nossos ouvidos para o vazio escuro do espaço sideral, na certeza de que logo – ele achava que em questão de alguns anos – ouviríamos saudações de habitantes de outros planetas comparáveis – habitantes que, afinal de contas, simplesmente têm de estar lá, esperando ansiosamente por um ‘oi’ nosso.

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É claro, porém, que até hoje (2017), não ouvimos nem um pio! Mas, algo que eu estou ouvindo em tudo isso é o refrão de uma música tipicamente moderna, com os seguintes versículos:  a Terra é apenas um planeta como tantos outros; o ser humano é apenas um animal entre tantos outros; Cristo, apenas um sábio dentre tantos outros; e – mais recentemente –  o homem é apenas uma mulher com testículos, e uma mulher só um homem com útero; etc…. Eu vejo um padrão aqui, um padrão mais forjado pela ideologia do que descoberto pela ciência.

Quando eu fazia meu tour turístico pelo Estreito de Magalhães, no extremo sul da Terra do Fogo – com o frio e agitado Atlântico a Leste e o relativamente calmo Pacífico a Oeste –, senti-me estranhamente atordoado pelos oceanos de nosso mundo; eles me impressionaram ainda mais do que quando voei tantas vezes sobre suas vastidões aparentemente sem fim quando viajei entre os continentes. Oceanos são obviamente estupendos e sem-par. E, apesar disso, analisamos febrilmente amostras de Marte, esperando encontrar gotículas de água ou cristais de gelo, para orgulhosamente humilhar o status cinco-estrelas da Terra e apontar para outros comparáveis sistemas portadores de vida no espaço. Queremos que a diferença seja apenas uma questão de grau, e não de espécie. E claro, somos interminavelmente doutrinados pelos darwinianos sobre o quão pequena é a diferença entre o homem e os animais, e pelos estudiosos das religiões comparadas a respeito do quão ilusória é a diferença entre o Cristianismo e outros sistemas de crenças religiosas. Em nossa ânsia de quantificar tudo, diferenças que costumam a ser qualitativamente momentosas tornaram-se quantitativamente matemáticas; coisas que costumavam a ser bem diferentes tornaram-se mais ou menos a mesma coisa, diferindo apenas em grau. Medidas de quantidade aos poucos substituíram percepções de qualidade, e com o tempo, perdemos a percepção mesmo. William Blake nos advertiu, ainda no século XIX: “Our life’s dim windows of the soul / distort the heavens, pole to pole / and lead us to believe a lie / when we see with, not through the eye.” [As esmorecentes janelas de nossa alma / embaçam o céu de pólo ao pólo / levando-nos a crer numa mentira / quando olhamos com, e não através dos olhos].

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Curiosamente, desde que Galileu detectou a relatividade no movimento local e mecânico, e depois disso, Einstein o fez em termos eletromagnéticos, temos ouvido, quase ao ponto de machucar nossos ouvidos, que um ponto de vista absoluto simplesmente não existe (especialmente nenhum dos tradicionais); mas, na mesma toada, e sem pestanejar, os mesmos cientistas nos empurram uma nova versão de um ponto de vista absoluto. Dizem-nos para treinar nossas mentes para dissociar nossa Terra de qualquer noção de centralidade, e assumir o supostamente desinteressado e abstrato ponto de vista de algum remoto lugar no espaço, de onde podemos enxergar nosso mundo, de cima para baixo, e com ele o sistema solar e até mesmo a nossa galáxia. Isso seria, supostamente, ver as coisas como elas são, ao passo que olhar do meu quintal para o céu e observar o sol, a lua, os planetas e as estrelas seguindo seus cursos pela abóbada celeste seria errôneo, enganoso, ilusório ou – para despejar ácido na ferida – medieval.

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Caipiras como eu poderiam objetar que, mesmo que pudéssemos levar nossas vidas sem um ponto de vista absoluto (algo de antemão problemático), ainda assim teríamos de ter um ponto de vista, ao menos se esperássemos avistar alguma coisa. E a Terra não se apresenta simplesmente como qualquer outra perspectiva na lista das possibilidades, mas vem com uma avalanche de óbvias vantagens, começando com o fato óbvio de que calhamos de viver aqui. E além disso, outro mega-fato é a existência dos oceanos.

Nos últimos anos, tenho tido o privilégio de possuir um pequeno apartamento de frente para o mar no Nordeste brasileiro, e agora frequento o meu mirante no 18º andar do prédio sempre que eu puder. Passo quase nenhum tempo na praia, mas passo horas por fim sentado em minha sacada contemplando a água. Edmund Burke e Immanuel Kant ensinaram-nos a buscar por uma palavra mais potente do que ‘beleza’ quando em presença de tal magnitude imensa e ultra-poderosa. Dizer que o oceano é belo não é falso, mas é um pouco flácido, pois ele é – os modernos sábios no-lo asseguram – invencivelmente, desafiadoramente e imensuravelmente sublime.

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Contudo, ainda há um acorde menor a juntar à minha sinfonia marítima. Certa vez, conversei na praia com um jovem nordestino que havia passado sua vida perto da costa do Atlântico, e eu (do Kansas, lembra-se?) expressei-lhe todo o meu entusiasmo sobre as glórias e belezas do mar. Ele – que conhecia aquelas águas muito melhor do que eu – olhou brevemente por sobre as ondas para o amplo horizonte daquela massa fria e salgada de H2O e, nada comovido com as minhas rapsódias, protestou: “Sabe, o mar me dá medo.”

Não muito depois disso, topei por acaso com os corpos de dois adolescentes que haviam acabado de se afogar (estavam cobertos com panos e cercados de curiosos); eles estavam jogando futebol na areia, como fazem milhares de garotos todos os dias, e a bola foi lançada para as ondas do mar. Um dos rapazes mergulhou para recuperá-la, foi tragado por um forte redemoinho, no que foi seguido por outro garoto que pulou n’água para salvar o seu amigo – e assim o jogo terminou. Realmente, o mar é assustador. Mas voltemos para a Terra do Fogo. Quando olhei o Estreito de Magalhães, admirando novamente seu charme estético e tentando lembrar um poema que desse voz ao meu arroubo romântico, nosso guia secamente contou que mais ou menos 3.000 embarcações, com suas tripulações e cargas, jazem no fundo daquele estreito – tão intensas que são as águas onde o Atlântico e o Pacífico se abraçam apaixonada e violentamente.

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É sublime e maravilhoso; é incompreensível e abriga um mistério mais profundo do que seus abismos lá embaixo. O mundo oceano circunda nossos orgulhosos continentes, humilhando-os e os reduzindo ao status de ilhas, umedece nosso ar, alimenta-nos com suas criaturas, carrega-nos por todo o globo e é um formidável e singular símbolo do Criador que o pôs lá onde está. Ainda assim, até hoje menos de 5% do leito oceânico foi explorado ou mapeado, e os biólogos marinhos nos asseguram que, desde milhões de anos, nadam por lá formas de vida ainda por serem identificadas. E é também perigoso, com seus tufões e tsunamis aparecendo tanto quanto as paisagens marinhas de tirar o fôlego e as praias tranquilas. E toda essa água – sem a qual nem existiríamos – é o grande segredo, o grande mistério de nossa casa, a Terra.

Porém, chama-la de ‘planeta’ é fazer-lhe uma grande injustiça. Claro, é interessante e astrofisicamente revelador saber que nosso mundo circunda o sol junto com todos os planetas, e que podemos aprender um bocado a partir dessa perspectiva extra-terrestre. Mas, será que é razoável interpretar esse novo ponto de vista (o qual temos pelo menos desde Copérnico, e de fato – como uma possível teoria – aventado já pelos antigos gregos), como significando que nossos olhos nos mentem quando olhamos a maravilha de uma abóbada celeste estrelada, ou que somos enganados pelo horizonte quando pensamos que o sol realmente se levanta ou, na direção contrária, que ele se põe? Não, nossa perspectiva de senso comum é acurada, e tão verdadeira – e eu diria até, mais verdadeira! – do que os cálculos cerebrais sobre como as coisas pareceriam a um imaginado observador interestelar.

A Terra é uma singularidade enorme e irredutível, e aqueles que tentam provar o contrário não fazem mais do que revelar a pobreza de sua imaginação poética e o caráter ideológico de sua suposta ciência. São como aqueles que chamam o diamante de uma pedra qualquer; Dante, um cara que escreveu poemas; o ouro, uma substância a mais na tabela periódica; suas mães, mamíferos; o Monte Everest, um simples promontório; Bach, um tocador de órgão – tudo verdadeiro, e tudo irrelevante. Assim é com a Terra. Ela é um milagre; seus oceanos, uma maravilha estupenda e deslumbrante; suas montanhas, espantosas: seus rios, furiosos. Recorremos aqui à poesia não porque somos muito estúpidos para entender a ciência, mas porque a ciência é muito pedante para a imensidão do prodígio que nos confronta todo santo dia.

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Seven Islands – Introduction

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 SEVEN  ISLANDS

Scott Randall Paine

 

 Introduction:  Kansas, an island in the prairie

When thinking of islands, the U.S. state of Kansas does not readily come to mind. Still, there is something insular about the interior of continents, and the Midwest of the U.S., for all its folksiness and charm, can become a place of isolation, especially for those who grew up – as I did – in the 50s and 60s. I do not doubt for a moment that someone from California or New York City can also be insular, and this despite the vast offering of cosmopolitan contact. Maybe even because of it. Sometimes the very density of that access can drive persons into provincial corners of their minds, where they end up being just as insular as a bumpkin from Nebraska or Missouri. The conspicuous global doors on display on the coasts can remain as unopened as the more furtive ones of the hinterlands. Still, my own years of being reared in the Sunflower State made any truly international adventure an unlikely wrinkle in my fate.

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Seven islands, nonetheless, apparently beckoned to me already in the mid-70s, and turned my deep Midwestern roots into missile launch facilities, with a final distant target in the unlikely South American wilds of Brazil. These seven islands (or groups of islands) serve as a kind of shorthand to my more lengthy stays and travels over the past 40 some years, and significantly and symbolically string like a garland around the globe, starting in the east Pacific and travelling west all the way round to the East Indies. They are: the Galápagos Islands, Easter Island, Tierra del Fuego, Iona (in Scotland), Zanzibar (off the coast of Tanzania), Sri Lanka (in South Asia) and Bali (in Indonesia). These isles are all small, but they remind us that in fact all the landmass of the earth is small when compared with the oceans. Over 70% of the face of our orb is aquatic, so strictly speaking, even Eurasia and Africa are just oversized islands. Indeed, the United States’ controversial claim of ‘manifest destiny’ – interpreting its fated real-estate to go from ‘sea to shining sea’ – in a sense involves a vision of its own privileged spot on earth to be that of one grand triumphant island.

I’ve travelled an unconscionable amount for a 64-year-old, and seen as much of the world as most of the great adventurers ever saw, and more than some. Of course, I cheated as I sped over oceans and continents 35,000 feet above the earth – there where most explorers plied the dangerous waves of our oceans, or braved mountains and desert terrain. I take my hat off to all of those travelers of earlier centuries. And I especially admire those who risked it all on those grand ships of old that are a beauty to the eyes, but certainly a torture to their passengers.

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I also salute the grandparents of my grandparents, who, on both sides of our family, rode wagon trains from points east all the way to Kansas.

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Like ships, those caravans processed like a pageant, but also like ships, bruised the bodies they carried. Kansans may be easily insular in attitude, but their European ancestors were wayfarers every one. I take pride in that. But I never dreamt, as a boy, that circumstances would carry me from Kansas to just about every major corner of the world, but so it has happened. I can claim little credit for this, for propitious circumstances simply came my way and surrounded me from about the age of 20, and the most I can pride myself on is that I was always swift in grabbing an opportunity when it presented itself. But I can take no credit for the opportunities themselves. And a braver and nobler man might have made better use of them than I have.

Although I did not visit these seven islands in any sort of chronological order – having set foot on them during quite different trips of the last 20 years – they have risen in my memory as landmarks of not only geographical significance, but also philosophical and religious import. Each island pulled a distinctly different mix of messages from my mind, and seeded a discrete meditation in my heart. It occurred to me that it would be of interest – both for myself and for others – to revisit these seven islands, reminisce about the days in which my feet walked upon them, and reflect on what insights the seven meditations have sired.

The seven islands are:  1. the Galápagos Islands, visited by Charles Darwin in the 1830s and by a Brazilian-American priest-professor in the year 2009. What does it really mean to be a living, conscious creature? There is much to the answer to which Darwin’s contribution plays only a subordinate role.  2. Easter Island, ‘discovered’ by Europeans in 1722, but uncovering for all of us a realization that those who didn’t (‘yet’) read or write may have known more about reality than we can even dream of.  3. Tierra del Fuego, an island on the southernmost tip of the Americas, braving waves from the two greatest oceans of the Earth, and reminding us of the miracle of the seas that both surround and sustain us, giving a blue face to the Earth that is so much more than a ‘planet’.  4. Iona, in the Hebrides, unlikely diving board of early Christian missionaries, intent on turning that entire group of islands we call the British Isles into a future vehicle of the Gospel and all its crazy challenges, and cradle of an idiom that would become the lingua franca enabling East to speak with West.  5. Zanzibar, a Muslim island in the Indian Ocean, but off the coast of sprawling and promising Africa, and which serves as a symbol of the commercial and monotheistic wave that Islam generated over the medieval world; it would later continue (in warfare and in peace) to move world history on both flanks of the Middle East.  6. Sri Lanka, the only truly Buddhist island in the world, where the simplified dharma of Shakyamuni would grow in South Asia, and then penetrate first into Southeast Asia, Tibet and East Asia, and finally fill the world with the surprisingly simple method – one finally bearing a fecundity perhaps unforeseen by the Buddha himself – for obtaining something called nirvana.  7. Bali, where the oldest religious tradition of India – and perhaps of the world: Hinduism – would leave an almost counter-intuitive trace of its link with primordial humanity, and the beauty of a wisdom not yet wholly forgotten, and all this on a small island in Muslim Indonesia. My concluding reflection – by way of an epilogue – is on the Jews, and on their catalytic role in the whole improbable story.

(The text will be revised, added to, corrected and elaborated during the months to come, but I decided to throw it out as soon as the texts reach a certain degree of coherence, for those who might be interested in medium-rare reflections.)

Seven Islands V – Zanzibar and Islam

The B.C. within the A.D.

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My ears clogged with dust after visiting Tanzania’s Serengeti, the Ngorongoro Crater and pursuing a wild goose-chase in search of a remote site of nearby primitive cave paintings (a passion of mine), the small plane landed in Zanzibar’s airport as my head thumped with pain. When we had taxied our way to the miniature terminal, the headache subsided and I peered out the window for my first view of the fabled island of Zanzibar.

I had visited several Muslim regions before. Once I had traveled by train from Tangier to Fez in Morocco, and was surprised when a boy who shared my compartment had drunk from my water bottle while I was sleeping. I was off-put at first, but later learned that this is nothing to get ruffled about in the world of the desert. I also made extended visits to Egypt, Lebanon, Syria and Jordan – and a year later Bosnia-Herzegovina and Indonesia – and began to feel the full impact of a culture where calls to prayer, inspired by passages from the Quran (Arabic for ‘recitation’), are publicly chanted from prayer-towers every day. No one who has heard that chant will ever forget it, and those who understand the language will say that its mesmerizing poetic beauty is at least as important as its message (perhaps because, in part, it is its message). When you proceed to enjoy the famous Arabian hospitality, to absorb the uncanny peace within the omnipresent mosque, and to study – as my profession required – half a millennium or so of medieval Muslim philosophy and science (and that is just a part of the heritage), it is difficult to view recent terrorism as the prominent face of the religion of the Prophet.

Every great religion bears a claim to a certain ultimacy, some version of singularity and election that makes it incoherent for it to look at other faiths and simply say: “we’re all the same”. Hindus may point to their unmatched antiquity and gift for virtually unlimited assimilation; Buddhists to their conviction that the Enlightened One has discovered the ultimate method for attuning human consciousness to the truth; Taoists to what appears definitively obvious in their methods for aligning our many human ways to the one Way of Heaven; Jews to the irrevocable and exclusive calling of their people to a divine plan still unfolding; Muslims to a finality linked inseparably to the last and consummate of the accepted Prophets; and Christians, finally, to an Event that finds no true parallel elsewhere in time or space, making Christ, for them, the very hinge of history. Common denominators of mythical, metaphysical, moral and mystical nature run through all the great traditions, and these clearly invite comparisons through shifting emphases of perennial truths and values. But although they may encourage inter-religious and ecumenical understanding, the differences mentioned above, though few, are undeniably crucial, and challenging to say the least.

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Each of these six symbols could easily drift to the sun-center of a system of planets, with the other five in subservient and dependent orbit. What is challenging in inter-religious understanding is not identifying and rejoicing in the abundant shared truths and values mentioned before. It lies rather in placing the deep differences in a context that allows them to maintain their emphasis, but without entailing a look down one’s nose at the other claims, or – worse yet – military jihad, armed crusade, or even genocide as required implementations of one’s own claim to uniqueness. Since the majority of the world’s religious adherents participate in their usually inherited traditions more by custom and culture than by pondered conviction, the unrelenting confrontation of traditions in a globalized world demands that each show forth their greatest saints, most clinching arguments and most other-worldly beauties – if just to get everyone’s attention. The only truly convincing witness to any claim to uniqueness is to give witness to a behavior, and to a splendor, that is uniquely convincing. Anything short of this lines up too suspiciously with a self-centered obsession we all share: that of always wanting to be ‘right’.

Contrary to popular assumption that fundamentalism is a simple return to ‘fundamentals’, a conservative reversion to one’s roots, it is in fact a conspicuous and vocal movement of very recent times, emphasizing literalism in Scriptural exegesis, exclusivism in doctrine and often militancy in practice, on a scale only sporadically present in the past; it is a very modern version of living one’s religion, including a neurotic modern obsession with being right about everything. We find Hindu and Christian versions of this, as well as Islamic – and even the occasional Buddhist specimen – but all of them are, in truth, the result of very old religions coming to terms with very modern threats (hindutva, for instance, confronting modern colonial incursions in India, or Christians in the face of a secularizing scientism beginning in the 19th century). Islam certainly has no monopoly in this deviation, but what it does have is more aggressive and constraining circumstances: the political and cultural fallout of the breaking up of the Ottoman Empire after the Great War and the random patch-work division of its area into Western-conceived ‘nation-states’ (cutting across many a tribal land, and throwing together tribal foes), meddling Western intrigue in the fortunes of the ancient world of Persia (Iran) and its links with Russia, and the West’s (and then the world’s) addiction to high-speed transport and the thirst for oil to fuel it (with sprawling subterranean oceans of it discovered under Muslim feet).

All this has provoked decontextualized readings of the Quran’s more militant verses, fatally fused with an appropriation of the West’s most lethal and sinister portable technologies of death. Thus Muslim extremists try to sting the Western Goliath with enough stones from their furtive slings to bring him crashing down. While the West demonizes as ‘terrorism’ these sporadic forays that kill scores, or hundreds or (rarely) thousands, the Muslim Orient glares in indignation at a 20th century in which myriads of their own innocents have been slaughtered by the West’s airborne bombs. When the West protests that it never targets the innocent, whereas the terrorists do, the latter continue to point to the high numbers of their own collateral innocents, and adjudge all who are fed by a culture generating such carnage to have lost their neutrality and to be fair targets. This disproportion in weaponry has led us to shift our moral yardstick from virtue and vice to power and price – how people are killed becomes more pivotal than that they are killed, and those who can afford sophisticated and expensive weaponry seem absolved from their acts, since there is no visible blood on their hands. The suicide bomber may be a murderer, but unlike the bomber who drops death on thousands by pushing a button thousands of feet in the air, these self-immolating warriors are in the midst of the fray and can hardly be called aloof killers. A ‘nuclear’ Iran, we are told, is unacceptable, but a ‘nuclear’ West can be tolerated (but the Iranians know too well that only one of them has ever dropped an atom bomb on a city). All this gets terribly complicated, and no resolution will appear until the religious backgrounds on both sides have been honestly explored.

 

 

Islam has perhaps the simplest of creeds (two articles to the typical Christian twelve), and the most insistent monotheism of them all, but behind that first-blush severity of focus lies a complexity that has created one of the world’s most influential civilizations, and a religion currently tending to overtake Christianity in sheer numbers – by mid-century some predict. Only some 15% of today’s Muslims are Arabs, and most of the rest live in Turkey, Iran, South Asia and Indonesia. The resultant symbiosis resulting from their march east – a march more commercial than military – was no longer with tribal desert nomads, but with the ancient and established cultures of Persia and India, and thus brought new diversity into the simple ‘recitation’ of the Prophet.

As I looked over the Indian Ocean from a warm-water beach on the coast of Zanzibar, I wondered where the complexities of our religious legacies would lead us in the 21st century. At least this much is clear: both Islam and Christianity are growing still, especially in the global south, and between them embrace over half of humanity. If we add Hindus and Buddhists to the mix, in statistics alone, we have encompassed the majority of human beings living in this world. If the peace that the name ‘Islam’ allegedly purports has anything at all to do with the New Testament’s “peace of God that passeth all understanding” (Phil. 4,7), we will have to first redress our misunderstandings and replace them with that measure of understanding that God’s peace can indeed transcend.

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Christian Diversity – what does it really mean?

Chinese Cardinal John Tong Hon of Hong Kong joins prayer service

We are accustomed to hearing that the prodigious multiplication of Christian, especially Protestant, denominations – some estimates bring the number close to 30,000 – is evidence that Christians are hopelessly divided, confused and fragmented. But paradoxically, each of these various communities hails back – in one form or another – to an imagined ‘one, true Church’: it may be to a pre-Schismatic and pre-Reformation Catholicism, or to an anciently conceived Eastern Orthodoxy, or to a pristine primitive church idealized by Protestants. Each of them typically claims to be the one, even when they break off into yet more of the myriads of sectarian schisms or reforms. It would be naive to underplay the harm such divisions have done to Christianity’s claim to bear witness to the one Gospel. Still, I wish to suggest that we are overlooking a deeper cause of this proliferation, and are missing the fact that, although it creates more branches on the top, it actually reveals a deeper fecundity in the roots.

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Christianity, in virtually all of its forms, is predicated on the belief that a free and personal God both created a world and populated it with free creatures, and then, when the liberties he had bestowed were abused, intervened – again, as a free act – in an Event we call the Incarnation (with its correlates: the Redemption, the Crucifixion, the Resurrection, and all the rest). However – and this is important – no sustainable, mainstream Christian theology has ever taught that God choreographed, or scripted, all of his creatures’ reactions and responses to this intervention. He respected their freedom even after it had been abused, and allowed their multiple reactions and unpredictable responses to be generated – in all varieties and with occasional chaos – in the long and complex centuries of Christian history.

If one of these multiple Christian churches is ever to successfully maintain its primacy in the eyes of the others – I obviously have my convictions about this, but that’s not the point here – it will only become visible in the sanctity of the human beings it has produced. Don’t look first at the arguments (important as they are), nor at the bunglers and sinners on display in each tradition, but instead look at the holy ones that this or that assembly of Christians has bred. For whatever else the vast multiplication of confessions of those who follow Christ may mean, at the very least it means this: the Event of Christ’s Life, Death and Resurrection was one of unparalleled impact, unequaled audacity of claim and indelible effect on the human imagination. Even non-believers seem unable to shake free of its tenacious hold, as we witness in secular art, literature and cinema. The huge variety of responses to it is not even close to a proof of its fiction; if anything, it is an overwhelming demonstration of its towering profile in human history, and of its uncanny fecundity. It teems with a life that is not of this world, and keeps germinating shoots not because it is afflicted with confusion, but because it has injected into creation a fruitful Fact we will never be able to tame.

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Seven Islands IV: Iona and Christ

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From Bethlehem to Ultima Thule : the Permanent Christian Headline

Christianity, the least-known religion in the world…..

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I had to take buses, boats and ferries to get to the small island of Iona, east of mainland Scotland in the Inner Hebrides. It may not seem the obvious vantage from which to consider Christianity, but when you reflect on its role in evangelizing the British Isles and what they would finally mean to history – both in bringing the Gospel to the world at large (together with other European adventurers and missionaries), and in linking East and West (especially through the British Raj in India) – there is probably no other small island that can boast a bigger impact on the growing catholicity of Christianity. Whether it is true or it is false, Christianity talks globally, and Iona – despite (maybe because of) its tininess – is a capital witness to this. The claims of Christ are either globally right or globally wrong. To begin our reflections – bearing in mind what we have learned from the earlier islands – let us listen to the most resonant African voice revered by both Protestant and Catholic ears, and hear what he had to say about the universality of this ‘breaking news’ from the Middle East. I am speaking, of course, of St. Augustine of Hippo:

“What is now called the Christian religion existed even among the ancients and was not lacking from the beginning of the human race until ‘Christ came in the flesh.’ From that time, true religion, which already existed, began to be called Christian.” This surprising proclamation (in the 12th book of his very last work, his Retractationes) simply highlights the patent Biblical fact that the Logos, the Word, through which the world was made (Genesis 1) is the selfsame Word Christians believe became man in Christ; and since seekers of wisdom – and of its twin sister: holiness – from time immemorial have wondered about the cause and meaning of the world and our place in it, they were already addressing, and deeply reflecting upon, the pre-incarnate Word. The iguana of the Galápagos, the Rapa Nui of Easter Island, and both the great oceans that meet at Tierra del Fuego, came into being through that Word.

The first chapter of Genesis is only deepened and prolonged, and neither replaced nor demoted, by the first chapter of John. Creation and re-creation emerge from the selfsame Beginning, which is at once the everlasting Word forever spoken by the Father in the Spirit, and – philosophically – the locus idearum of the great Plato. It is the source of the Intelligence both above and within the physical cosmos around us – the intelligibility of which is its most ‘miraculous’ feature, according to Einstein –  and quite simply, to put a final touch to the matter, the ultimate Meaning of Everything.

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The first documented conversion of a recognized philosopher was with the 2nd century saint, Justin Martyr. After his baptism, he chose to wear the distinctive philosopher’s toga – as recognizable back then, as today a policeman’s uniform or a judge’s robes – and proclaimed the Gospel as the fulfillment, the realization, the coveted consummation of philosophy. In his Dialogue he relates how he had run the gamut of philosophical accounts of reality. After dismissing the Epicureans, he passed from the Stoics to the Peripatetics to the Pythagoreans and finally to the Platonists; only with them did he discern a plausible approach to the transcendent echos of the Logos within all philosophical wonder. From the Stoics, however, he borrowed the key notion of logoi spermatikoi (‘seminal reasons’) and used it to characterize how the truth of the Logos, through which all things were made, is present like a seed within human reason. It constitutes our nature’s ascending appeal to a non-incarnate Transcendence – the source of all human quest of wisdom and liberation. But then follows its seismic surprise at the later discovery (in the ‘fullness of time’) of a descending and incarnate Transcendence; for this time, instead of us, it is the Transcendence itself that is making the appeal.

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For St. Justin, Plato’s philosophy never quite dotted the i’s and crossed the t’s as a truly convincing path to realizing the truth. It seemed forever stuck in minor dialectical ascents without any perceptible help from above. And then one day he met an old man by the seashore who told him of another source of truth, called prophecy, and narrated to him both the story of the Old Testament prophets and the New Testament Gospel as their fulfillment. Here was a Truth that was looking for us, rather than one being clumsily hunted by us. Instead of hearing this above all as a ‘religious’ message associated with temples and oracles, Justin perceives instead the unmistakable sound of the lessons of the logos he already studied as a philosopher. “What is now called the Christian religion” was for him, as it would later be for St. Augustine, not just a religion, but also true philosophy.

So much was this the case that earlier philosophers should henceforth be seen as Christians avant la lettre (for instance, both Heraclitus and Socrates he named as Christians). Conversely, those in possession of the full revelation in Christ – and this, in effect, is the more revolutionary suggestion – should accordingly be seen as philosophers par excellence. This will prove a bitter pill to swallow both for ‘crisis’ theologians, eager to promote the wholly unprecedented originality of the Gospel message, and for more conservative theologians, intent on tracing a solitary arrow to Christ from the Old Testament, grudging only vague, confused gestures within alien traditions. As always, the truth lies in a rich and multifaceted middle, and never in the loud and simplistic solutions that typically come either from the impatient gallops of the so-called left, or the fearful clutchings of a conservative right.

Now, it was on the island of Iona that early Celtic monks not only preached the Good News; they also brought the visual transparency to the Word, so evident in the marvels of the physical cosmos, into the very words of the written message of the Word, by way of the illuminated page. Thus they created one of the most sublime books ever confected. It was later called the Book of Kells, after the Irish monastery to which the treasure was taken after the Vikings raided Scotland in the late 8th century.

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All this suggests the traditional two-volume expression of the Logos. I refer here not to the two Testaments – which, although a veritable library of texts and literary genres, finally make up one grand story from Genesis to the Apocalypse – but rather to the two books that, according to the early Fathers, were written by the Divine Author: yes, the Bible itself, written in words, but also the vast material creation, written in things. Theology may read the former book, and philosophy the latter, but both belong together, just as the Word’s presence in time and space (as its origin and meaning) complements and commentates the Word’s descent into that same time and space in the Biblical narrative. That is the essence of Christianity (no apologies to Feuerbach).

The more one appreciates the singularity of Christ, the less one is tempted – paradoxically – to brand all other religions as falsehoods or confusions, precisely because they too pursue the logos – the yet unincarnate logos – but approach it in very different, even incommensurate, ways. The difference is this: Christianity does not offer so much a leader to be followed, an example to be emulated or a doctrine to be learnt (although it does all these things too), but above all an event to be acknowledged. We are not being asked to appropriate a perennial wisdom coming to us from the dawn of history, nor to learn to pacify our minds in the face of the inevitable flux of samsara, nor to align our thinking and doing according to a great tao that embraces all things, nor even to simply obey God’s law in the Torah or to submit to his peace in the Koran. Each of those religious acts are laudable and a good Christian would do well to appropriate them all. But none of them make him a Christian.

You become one only by receiving the witness of the most astonished men and women in history. They have passed down to us the story of God’s invasion of our world, within the very fibers of the humanity we carry and under which we suffer. They told us that the most horrific things that haunt us – violence, despair, disease and death – have been taken into God’s very heart and transformed. They still hurt and they still haunt, but there is meaning now where there was only resignation before. Christ is not just another messenger, another sage, another example we are summoned to follow or hear. He is the place in our humanity where the Transcendent God has gone all the way into our lives and our pain, and has shown us, in return, the way to go all the way into God’s mystery.

The missionaries also went all the way – all the way to Ultima Thule (the end of the earth, as the British Isles were sometimes known to the ancient Romans), and in Iona  – as in countless other stations around the globe – told the story, brought the sacraments and changed the world. For a Christian, something happened to all of created reality when Christ happened to the world. This island is in the middle of my Seven Islands, but the miracle that was preached there is at the center of my life.

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Sete Ilhas I – As Ilhas Galápagos: evolução e imaginação

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Galápagos Islands

No ano de 2009, bicentenário do nascimento de Charles Darwin, decidi seguir os passos do rapaz que – assim como eu, com uma constituição meio fraquinha – aventurou-se a circunavegar a América do Sul (aqui eu trapaceei; voei direto para Quito), e visitar um dos conjuntos de ilhas mais importantes do mundo, tanto do ponto de vista geológico quanto biológico. Eu queria respirar o ar, ver a paisagem, tocar as tartarugas e observar os tentilhões que semearam a grande ideia da evolução na mente daquele jovem e talentoso cientista. Ele fez sua viagem como naturalista de bordo em uma desconfortável missão de mapeamento, com amenidades mínimas para um inglês de classe privilegiada, provocando enjoos e outros males durante os cinco anos de jornada. Tiro o meu chapéu para a sua determinação, e para seu trabalho meticuloso como geólogo e zoólogo. Como grandes mentes são, com frequência, seguidas por gerações de mentes menos brilhantes, as quais distorcem e borram o trabalho do pensador pioneiro (seja na ciência, filosofia ou religião), vou inocentar Darwin das muitas idiotices que sua modesta teoria da seleção natural provocou, virando uma ideologia gigantesca, mexendo-se indevidamente em tantos aspectos do nosso patrimônio intelectual. É por conta dessas interpretações ideológicas que eu decidi considerar o tema da evolução em seu conjunto, no lugar mesmo em que ele foi gestado. Minhas considerações, para bem ou para mal, são as seguintes.

Jamais me senti, por pouco que seja, desafiado, preocupado, perturbado ou em apuros pelas sugestões darwinianas de que nossa espécie pode ter se desenvolvido ao longo de milhões de anos. Se dezenas de anos ou quatrilhões, nunca me deram razão para ficar nervoso. Teologicamente, tanto faz para mim. Mas, onde os darwinistas me parecem estar totalmente fora do mapa da sanidade é no uso daquela faculdade tão básica e comum, da qual a natureza humana é dotada – a imaginação. Quando os escuto comentando despreocupadamente sobre como todas as diversas espécies de nosso mundo surgiram a partir de pequenas mudanças genéticas por meio de uma série de mutações aleatórias – e que isso é tudo o que precisamos para dar conta do fantástico zoológico terrestre –, tenho impressão que nenhum deles jamais esteve face a face com um elefante indiano, ou um tucano brasileiro, ou uma borboleta mexicana, nem mesmo com um aborrecido mosquito tropical. Gostaria até de saber se eles já leram Esopo. Nenhuma disjunção na moderna mente cientificista a separa mais profunda e fatalmente da verdadeira sabedoria do que a que existe entre, por um lado, a questão ‘como?’, e as questões ‘o quê?’ e ‘por quê?’, por outro.

Isolando (ou estigmatizando como irrelevantes) as duas últimas questões – que tradicionalmente foram abarcadas pelas noções de causalidade formal e final –, a questão ‘como’ pôde ser destacada e, desse modo, emancipar todas as formas de manipulação, soberania técnica e domínio prometéico sobre a natureza (numa palavra, as causas eficientes); a natureza das coisas e seus fins últimos num plano providencial seriam doravante vistos como obstáculos ao nosso desenvolvimento de poder e controle – talvez passatempos líricos para poetas e místicos religiosos, mas dificilmente passíveis de consideração séria pela ciência. Agora, quando mentes habituadas a esse jeito oitocentista de ver a realidade, treinadas já em hábitos bicentenários de técnicas e perícias mecânicas, finalmente voltam suas luzinhas para o mundo da vida, descobrem que ali também há um ‘como’. Envolvidas com os fenômenos das espécies de plantas e animais de nosso mundo, e, claro, também com a nossa própria espécie, jazem processos e cadeias de causalidade que podemos também isolar e descrever. E, como na Física e na Química, a Biologia também apreendeu um monte de fatos sobre como a vida funciona e como ela consegue fazer o que faz. Mas, como também no caso das substâncias químicas e forças físicas, no que se refere aos organismos vivos, persiste-se no hábito de ignorar as naturezas e as finalidades, e de se prestar atenção apenas à mecânica do ‘como’.

Enquanto pisava de leve na rocha vulcânica em uma das Ilhas Galápagos, fiquei provavelmente tão impressionado como aquele grande naturalista inglês – lá pelos idos de 1830 – quando as pedras começaram a se mover. Claro, o que tinha acontecido foi apenas que eu notei a presença de alguns dos milhares de iguanas tão feios que povoam a ilha.

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Contudo, aqueles mini-Godzillas prontamente ofereceram seus serviços como símbolos daquilo que, com frequência, confunde a imaginação do adepto de um cientificismo reducionista. O que parece ser o minúsculo intervalo entre a matéria vivente e não vivente – entre a pedra e o iguana – torna-se realmente desprezível quando testemunhamos esses répteis preguiçosos e líticos baloiçando suas células vivas sobre inertes moléculas minerais. Contudo, somos contidos por nosso darwinista, quando ele timidamente levanta seu dedo e admite que, afinal de contas, a seleção natural não serve muito para explicar o abismo entre os mundos orgânico e inorgânico. Não que não haja esforços sendo feitos, mas quaisquer que sejam as conquistas atribuídas ao esquema evolucionista por estabelecer uma cadeia de espécies vivas num continuum de causalidade genética, uma explicação do salto quântico de uma molécula inorgânica para uma célula viva não está entre essas conquistas. Tampouco se saem melhor as explicações darwinianas acerca das diferenças mais impressionantes entre as espécies. Quando nos damos conta do quão dogmáticos se tornaram os defensores do evolucionismo, não se pode escapar à impressão de que algum sistema de crenças (fisicalismo ou naturalismo, por exemplo) está pesando aí, no lugar de uma ciência desinteressada. Parece que não mais se defende o evolucionismo como algo que simplesmente calhou de ser verdadeiro, mas com algo que tem de ser verdadeiro. Portanto, política do cientificismo pode acabar superando verdade científica, e ideologia ideias.

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Um dogma desse sistema é o seguinte: se podemos dar uma explicação plausível de como algo veio a existir, podemos então desvencilhar nossas mentes da incômoda questão sobre o que essa coisa é (ou seja, qual a sua natureza ou essência) e o seu porquê (ou seja, qual o seu propósito, sua finalidade, dentro de uma perspectiva mais abrangente). Estou sugerindo que, se, por um momento, pusermos de lado a questão sobre o ‘como’– ainda que apenas como um experimento de pensamento – e apenas observarmos, com um olhar aberto e desinteressado, girafas, orictéropos, borboletas, hipopótamos, cachorrinhos, águias, abutres, cascavéis etc., e dermos uma olhada em um homem chinês, um membro da tribo Iorubá, um escocês, um inca peruano, uma mulher nepalesa, uma menina aleuta etc. etc. – e ainda observarmos estes últimos por toda a miríade de culturas, línguas, artefatos, crenças e gestos da história humana –, então veremos um mundo de ‘o quês’ e ‘porquês’ dançando diante de nossos olhos. E aquelas naturezas e finalidades estarão incomensuravelmente mais elevadas e significativas do que a curiosidade pedestre contida na pergunta ‘como’. Não que esta questão seja desimportante, mas é obviamente subordinada e instrumental. Quando contemplamos uma grande pintura, ou ouvimos um primoroso quarteto de cordas, ou andamos por dentro de um grandioso edifício (imaginemos ‘A Criação de Adão’, de Michelangelo; ‘A Morte e a Donzela’, de Schubert,; e a Catedral de Chartres), podemos demonstrar um interesse passageiro no processo de feitura daquele artefato, porém, essa curiosidade sobre o ‘como isso veio parar aqui’ ou ‘como isso foi feito’ é totalmente eclipsada pelo aqui-e-agora da experiência da coisa.

Toda a arca de Noé, repleta de vida (à qual podemos acrescentar os peixes e as plantas), ruge, late, uiva, grita e assobia, como se quisesse nos dizer alguma coisa. E qualquer um que tenha olhado profundamente no pequeno olho de um elefante, ou na órbita larga da coruja mais próxima, saberá o que significam. Esses bichos estão nos exortando, com seus fonemas inquietantes, a usar nossas palavras para os nomear, assim como Adão fez no Gênesis, que “deu nomes a todos os rebanhos domésticos, às aves do céu e a todos os animais selvagens” (2,20).

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Não estou convencido de que a explicação darwiniana da vida é necessariamente errada, mas estou convencido de que ela tenta explicar a coisa errada, ou, pelos menos, de relevância secundária. Em outras palavras, enfocando a mecânica da seleção que, por seus próprios pressupostos, apenas atinge mudanças significativas num contexto de milhões de anos (o que a torna em larga medida irrelevante para o entendimento cotidiano das pessoas, dos gatos e dos pássaros), ela nos leva a perder de vista o grande contexto e uma mensagem tão óbvia que somente as crianças a vê; os adultos esqueceram. Aquela explicação é como alguém que contempla uma pintura de Rembrandt e pensa apenas em onde ele comprou a tinta, ou quem cortou a tela; ou alguém que escuta as ‘Quatro Estações’ de Vivaldi e se preocupa apenas em saber como os intervalos matemáticos entre as notas poderiam ser calculados no computador. Ou então – e mais inquietantemente – é como alguém que se senta diante de você e só o vê como um conjunto de bilhões de células, ou trilhões de moléculas, ou um turbilhão de incontáveis átomos e partículas subatômicas, sem ver a sua face, ouvir sua voz ou pronunciar o nome que seus pais certa vez deram ao pequeno milagre que emergiu das entranhas deles.

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Seven Islands I – the Galápagos Islands: evolution and imagination

 

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Galápagos Islands

In the year 2009, bicentennial anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin, I decided to follow in the footsteps of the young man who – like me of somewhat delicate constitution – ventured forth to circumnavigate South America (here I cheated; I flew to Quito), and visit one of the most geologically and biologically significant clusters of isles in the world. I wanted to breathe the air, view the scenery, touch the turtles and watch the finches that had seeded the great idea of evolution in the mind of the gifted young scientist. He made his voyage as ship naturalist on an uncomfortable mapping mission, with minimal amenities for this upper-class Englishman, and multiple bouts with sea-sickness and other maladies during the five-year-long voyage. I take my hat off to his gumption, and to his meticulous work as geologist and zoologist. As great minds are usually followed by generations of lesser minds distorting and blurring the work of a pioneer thinker (whether in science, philosophy or religion), I’ll give Darwin a pass on many of the sillier ways in which his modest theory of natural selection turned into a gargantuan ideology threatening all manner of intellectual custom. It is about these latter twists in concept and causation that made me consider the whole matter of evolution in the very matrix of its gestation. My ponderings, for what they’re worth, were as follows:

I have never felt in the slightest challenged, worried, upset or troubled by Darwinian suggestions that our species may have developed over millions of years. Whether dozens of years or quadrillions has never seemed to me any reason to get into a fuss. Theologically, I can take it either way. But where Darwinians seem to be totally off the map of sanity is when it comes to using that most basic and common-sensical faculty with which our human nature is endowed – the imagination. When I hear them blithely commenting on how all the diverse species of our world came about by minute genetic shifts through a series of aleatory mutations —  and that this pretty much explains the menagerie — I feel like not a one of them has ever stood in the presence of an Indian elephant, or a Brazilian tucan, or a Mexican butterfly, or even an annoying tropical mosquito. I wonder if they have even read Aesop. No disjunction in the modern scientistic mind is as gaping and as fatal to any access to true wisdom as that which lies between the question: ‘how?’ and the questions: ‘what?’ and ‘why?’.

By bracketing (or stigmatizing as irrelevant) the latter two questions – which traditionally were embraced within the notions of formal and final causality – the ‘how’ question could be isolated and all forms of manipulation, technique, power generation and Promethean mastery over nature set free (in a word: efficient causality); the natures of things and their ultimate purposes in a providential plan would henceforth be seen as obstacles to our development of muscle and control – lyrical pastimes for poets and religious mystics, perhaps, but hardly serious considerations for the business of science. Now, when minds that had been habituated to this way of looking at reality in the 19th century, trained in the habits of two hundred years of mechanistic technique and mastery, finally turned their little lights on the world of life, they noticed that there was also a ‘how’ here. Involved in the phenomena of our world’s species of plants and animals, and, of course, also the species to which we belong, lie processes and step-by-step causalities we can also isolate and describe. And, as was the case with physics and chemistry, biology too learned bucketloads of facts about how life functions and how it comes to do what it does. But as had been done with chemical substances and with physical forces, when it came to living organisms, one continued the habit of looking past natures and purposes, and focusing instead  on the mechanics of howness.

As I negotiated the unwelcoming volcanic rock on one of the Galapagos islands, I was probably as startled as the great English naturalist himself was, back in the 1830s, as pieces of that rock began to move. Of course, all that had happened was that I had noticed a few of the thousands of sinfully ugly iguana that populate the island.

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However, these mini-Godzillas instantly offered their services as symbols of what can often confound the imagination of a scientistic reductionist. What appears to be the tiny interval between non-living and living matter – between rock and iguana – seems negligible indeed when you witness these sluggish, lithic reptiles shifting their living cells atop lifeless mineral molecules. However, we are chastened by our Darwinian, as he shyly lifts a finger and admits that, after all, natural selection has actually not been of much help in explaining the gulf between the inorganic and organic worlds. Not that there are no efforts underway, but whatever triumphs the scheme can already claim in linking living species within a continuum of genetic causality, an explanation of the all-important quantum leap from lifeless molecule to living cell is not one of them. Darwinian explanations of the most stunning gaps between the species have not fared much better. When one grasps just how dogmatic the proponents of evolutionism have become, one cannot escape the impression that some belief-system (physicalism or naturalism, for instance) is in the balance, and no longer disinterested science. It seems to no longer be championed simply as something that happens to be true, but instead as something that has to be true. As a result, scientistic politics can easily trump scientific truth, and ideology ideas.

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One tenet of such a system would ordain the following:  if you can offer a plausible account of how something came to be, you can deem yourself emancipated from the pesky question of what (that is, what nature or essence) something is or has, and why it is (that is, what its purpose is in the larger scheme of things). My point is that when – if only as a thought experiment – you put the how question to one side, and just look, with wide eyes and disinterested wonder, at giraffes, aardvarks, butterflies, hippos, puppy dogs, eagles, vultures, rattlesnakes, etc., and then take a long further look at a Chinese man, a Yoruba tribesman, a Scotsman, a Peruvian Inca, a Nepalese woman, an Aleut girl, etc., etc, and etc. again – and follow them through all the myriads of cultures, languages, artefacts, beliefs and gestures of human history – you will see a world of ‘whats’ and ‘whys’ dancing before your eyes. And those natures and purposes will be situated miles above the pedestrian curiosity contained in the question ‘how’. Not that this last question is unimportant, but it is obviously subordinate and instrumental. When beholding a great painting, or hearing a great string quartet, or walking through a grand edifice (let’s imagine Michelangelo’s ‘Creation of Adam’, Schubert’s ‘Death and the Maiden’, and Chartres cathedral), one might show passing interest in a small exhibit of the ‘making of’ that artefact, but such curiosities about ‘how’ it got here and ‘how’ it was made are dwarfed by the here-and-now experience of the thing itself.

The whole Noah’s ark of teeming life – throw in the fish and the plants for good measure – roars with barks and howls and screeches and toots, as if they were trying to tell us something. And anyone who has looked deeply into an elephant’s tiny eye, or into the wide orb of the nearest owl, will know that they are. They are urging us, with their faltering phonemes, to use our words to name them, as did Adam in Genesis, who “gave names to all cattle, and to the birds of the air, and to every beast of the field” (2,20).

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I am not convinced that the Darwinian explanation of life is necessarily wrong, but I am convinced that they are trying to explain the wrong thing. Or in other words, by focusing on the mechanics of selection which, by their own admission, only achieves significant change in a context of millions of years (which makes it fairly irrelevant for our day-to-day understanding of people, cats and birds), they are missing the big picture. They are like someone contemplating a painting of Rembrandt and thinking only of where he got the paint, and who cut the canvas; or someone listening to Vivaldi’s Four Seasons and only wondering how the mathematical intervals between the notes could be plotted on a computer read-out. Or – more disturbingly – they are like someone sitting down in front of you and seeing you only as trillions of cells, or gazillions of molecules, or a whirlpool of countless atoms and subatomic particles, and not seeing your face, hearing your voice or uttering the name that your parents once gave to the little miracle that emerged from their loins.

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Seven Islands II – Easter Island

Echos of Eden (Primal Religion)

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….about our non-literate progenitors and the wisdom that never got into print…..

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Easter Island

In 2010 I island-hopped to my next two South American isles, the two which have come to represent in my mind the world of pre-literary (but not ‘illiterate’!) cultures, Easter Island; and the vast encompassing world of water, on either side of the Argentine island of Tierra del Fuego. First we will look at that mystical spot of land in the Pacific, first happened upon by Europeans on Easter Day in 1722.

When we think of the 6,000 some languages spoken on earth today, and countless extinct tongues no longer audible, it should give pause when we are told by the linguists that the vast majority of these languages have never been written or read. When we automatically parrot the progressivist mantra that presumes – other things being equal – that later is always better, more evolved and more sophisticated, we cannot help seeing the invention of writing (usually dated to around 3,000 B.C.) as a great stride forward in civilization. And to a large extent we are right. McLuhan, Ong, Havelock, Goody and others have documented how profound an effect written language has had on human thought, memory, imagination and culture in general. And much of that effect has been beneficient. But early on the great Plato – who by the way, wrote well and much – dropped the paradoxical suggestion that maybe the gods taught us writing in order not to advance our culture, but rather to destroy our memories. Could it have been a bane rather than a boon? As so much in Plato, it is in the first instance a thought experiment, but like the others so abundant in his dialogues, it ought to provoke a genuine experiment in our thinking that is both fruitful and eye-opening.

I once met an octogenarian Christian in India who had allegedly memorized the entire New Testament in Malayalam (language of the state of Kerala). I was told that each time they brought out a new edition of the text, they came to him to check the written drafts against his oral memory, instinctively trusting the latter more than the former. And we read of anthropologists discovering mountain folks in the Caucasus where bards recite from memory epics as long as Homer’s, or Yoruba priests memorizing hundreds of stanzas of poetry as part of their consecration. I once eavesdropped on a simple, semi-illiterate Portuguese nun, singing in the kitchen, and discovered afterwards that she had sung upward of 30 verses of a song, and could do the same with dozens of others. I doubt I could get through the second stanza of the Battle Hymn of the Republic, or even all of ‘Yesterday’ without help. But of course, I’m literate! Or am I missing something?

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Easter Island lies about a thousand miles distance from the nearest inhabited land. It was the home of one of myriads of tribes and clans that have populated the earth during probably at least tens or hundreds of thousands of years, and that either had no writing at all, or – as in the case of Easter Island – may have had some form of basic script limited to a small circle of leaders and priests. There are still countless such tribes around the globe, including hundreds of descendants of the Easter Island native population (now largely Christianized). Archaeologists and anthropologists – sometimes supplemented by sociologists, psychologists, linguists and historians – all study these populations and provide us with mountains of data and further mountains of theory as to how these fellow humans live and think. Since they have left us with no written documents to speak of, we must infer most of what can be known about them through their artifacts and, for those still with us, their living oral culture (to the extent that we can faithfully translate it). And among the many questions that can be answered this way or that, there is one to which all will respond in unison:  Are they religious?  Most definitely.

All these cultures – whatever the color of their skin, the style of their garb, the phonetic singularity of their tongue or their location on the globe – harbored no doubts at all that there exist forces and realities (usually personal ones) above and beyond mankind, and accordingly practiced rites inherited from a distant past which negotiated their relationship with those realities. The first expressly atheist or sceptical tribe has yet to be found, either in history or around the globe. Today’s atheists and sceptics, however – seldom at a loss for words of scorn about benighted believers – are quick to identify this pan-religiosity in primal man as evidence of primitive, almost pre-human thought, and a consequence of backwardness and lack of scientific enlightenment.

When I was growing up, cartoon culture taught me to believe that ‘primitive man’ was a crude, thick-browed cave man, grunting orders to his wife and whacking her over the head with a club before dragging her into the cave for God only knows what domestic engagements. In contrast, the Flintstones were presented as a flight of high fantasy, funny precisely because impossible.

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Now this was in the 50s and 60s, and modern archeology and anthropology had already long since debunked the myth of the brainless cave man; and even more significantly, when the caves of our distant ancestors were actually examined in earnest, what was found were not R-rated remains of unspeakable savagery, but rather paintings and sketches displaying a level of artistic skill, and mysterious insight, that Fred Flintstone would have found challenging to say the least. Even Picasso was impressed.

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The original Rapa Nui (as the Easter Islanders have come to be named) invested huge amounts of effort and time quarrying their island’s volcanic rock in order to construct huge moai (monumental statues). They were apparently lined up at strategic points of the island with the massive, stylized faces all turned landwards. Since some sort of environmental catastrophe, along with another layer of culture subsequent to the moai period, lie between us and the original population of a thousand years ago (again, with no written documents), we can do little more than stare at their huge faces and wonder what they were staring at.

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The 900 some moai we can now identify invite an array of interpretations – from simple icons of bygone ancestors looking over their descendants to extraterrestrial invaders – but their simultaneous inward and upward gazes mesh perfectly with traditional understanding of the spiritual world as being both within us and above us. The Rapa Nui may well have not been the clueless, superstitious primitives who hadn’t evolved enough to write (as our modern narrative suggests), and instead have been one of thousands of pre-literate peoples so full of an ancient wisdom that nothing short of prodigious sculpted gesture could remotely hint at the height and breadth of all they knew.

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Of course, the preliterate come – as we do too – in all varieties, from highly cultured to more regressive and brutal. I do not mean to romanticize them en masse. But there are too many marks of a primordial, unwritten sapience in their art and language for us to dismiss them as illiterate simpletons. And even our social scientists are perhaps suggesting more than they realize when they create categories with which to describe them. They call them ‘animists’; and they did indeed see above and through the world of matter to its transcendent archetypes, and thought that everything was – as Thales put it – ‘full  of gods’. They call their clergy ‘shamans’; and these mediators did indeed serve to lead others to the transcendent dimension that lies within the hearts of all, but needs the ministrations of the few to be kept alive. And they remark on the nearly universal practice of ancestor veneration; but the dead are indeed only dead to the world we see with eyes of flesh, but continue to live above and within the times that follow their bodily demise.

As is often the case with the remote tribes of the world, it was Christian missionaries that not only first contacted them, but that studied and documented their history and culture. It was no different on Easter Island. The Capuchin Sebastian Englert lived for 30 years on the island, learned and then taught the traditional language and preserved their culture and heritage all the while he brought them the Gospel. As any good missionary should do, he endeavored to show them that Christianity fulfilled and crowned their native beliefs, and even when it corrected and reoriented, it did not suppress. There are indeed gods in all things (we call them angels); we do indeed need mediators to strengthen our trembling link with heaven; and, finally, our ancestors are indeed still with us, looking up and looking within. And we too will soon be ancestors ourselves, as we join those who died before us, and look not only inward and upward, but also back at our time on earth as a confused and approximate rehearsal of what awaits us in the Land of the Living.

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Seven Islands III : Tierra del Fuego

Our Place is Not a Planet

…..the oceans, what they mean but can never say….

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Tierra del Fuego

Sometime in the 20th century we were taught by astronomers to stop calling the Earth our special home, our unique place in space, our central spot in the vastness of the cosmos, and to start calling it a planet – the indefinite article is mandatory. In order to scientifically know what it is that we live on, that which provides us with oxygen, oceans, mountains, continents and all the rest, we were instructed henceforth to place the very idea of our ‘world’ nicely into its proximate genus, and thus plop the whole blue orb into the new category of ‘planet’ – of which it is, of course, just one among eight (or so) others. The problem, however, is this: the glaringly obvious difference between Earth and any of the other sun-circling bodies is a difference we are being seduced into seeing as a mere gradation, looking especially to Mars as a comparable orb touted as being not all that different from our own. Likewise we were instructed by Carl Sagan, decades ago, to turn radio ears to the black semi-void of outer space in the certitude that we would soon – he thought in just a matter of years – hear howdy-do’s from other comparable planet-dwellers who, after all, just have to be out there, waiting to hear from us.

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Of course, as of 2017? – not even a whistle. But there seems to be something a bit suspicious about all this: Earth just one planet among others; man just one animal among others; Christ just one sage among others….  I see a pattern here, and one designed more by ideology than actually seen by science.

As I took my tourist tour down the Strait of Magellan, just south of Tierra del Fuego – with the cold, agitated Atlantic to the east and the relatively calm Pacific to the west – I felt strangely staggered by the oceans of our world; they impressed me even more than they had during my multiple flights over their seemingly endless expanses as I traveled so many times between the continents. They are obviously stupendous and unparalleled. And yet, we feverishly scrutinize samples from Mars, hoping to detect droplets of water or crystals of ice, so that we can proudly humiliate the five-star status of Earth and point to other comparable life-support systems in space. The difference – we seem always to be hoping to prove – is just a matter of degree, and not of kind. Of course we are interminably lectured to by Darwinians on how small is the difference between man and the animals, and by comparative religion experts about how illusory is the difference between Christianity and other faiths. In our haste to quantify everything, differences that used to be momentous have become mathematical; things that used to be wholly other have become more or less the same thing, differing only in degree; gauges of quantity have slowly replaced perceptions of quality, and we’ve become the blinder for it. William Blake warned us early on in the 19th century: “Our life’s dim windows of the soul / distort the heavens, pole to pole / and lead us to believe a lie / when we see with, not through the eye.”

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Curiously, since first Galileo detected relativity in mechanical, local motion, and then Einstein in electromagnetic terms, we have been told until our ears hurt that an absolute point of view simply does not exist (especially not any of the traditional ones), but in the same breath, and without batting an eye, the same scientists will urge upon us their own new brand of an absolute point of view. We are told we must teach our minds to disassociate our Earth from any notion of centrality, and assume the supposedly disinterested, abstract vantage point of some remote spot in space from which we can look down upon our world, the solar system and even our galaxy. That is supposed to be seeing things as they are, whereas looking up from my front yard into the sky and watching sun, moon, planets and stars all follow their courses across the celestial vault is erroneous, misleading, illusory or – to really pour acid into the wound – medieval.

Yokels like me might point out that even if we could manage to live our lives without an absolute point of view (a bit of a stretch), still a point of view we must have, at least if we harbor the hope of viewing anything at all. And Earth does not just seem as good a vantage point as any other, but presents an avalanche of obvious advantages, beginning with the mundane fact that we happen to live here. But another mega-fact is the existence of the oceans.

For the past few years I have had the privilege of owning a small oceanfront apartment in the northeast of Brazil, and now repair to my 18th-storey perch overlooking the Atlantic whenever I can. I spend next to no time on the beach, but hours on end sitting on my balcony and gazing at the water. Edmund Burke and Immanuel Kant taught us to reach for an even more potent word than beauty when in the presence of such over-sized and over-powering grandeur. To say the ocean is beautiful is not false, but somehow flaccid, for what it is – these modern sages assure us – is invincibly, defiantly and expansively sublime.

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However, there is a minor chord to add to my maritime symphony. I once chatted on the beach with a young man who had spent his life living close to the Atlantic shore, and I (from Kansas, remember?) exuded to him all my enthusiasm about the glories and beauties of the sea. He – who knew those waters far better than I – looked briefly over the waves and into the high horizon of cold salty H20, and, clearly unmoved by my rhapsodies, protested: “You know, the sea scares me.”

Not too long after that I happened upon the bodies of two teenage boys who had just drowned (they were covered with a cloth and surrounded by onlookers); they had been playing soccer on the sand, as so many thousands of boys do every day, and the ball had shot off into the waves. One of the boys jumped in to retrieve it, got pulled under by a heavy surge, followed by another boy who sprinted into the waves to rescue his friend, and was also pulled under – and the game was over. The sea is scary indeed, and as I looked out at the Strait of Magellan, admiring again its aesthetic charm and trying to remember a poem that might give voice to my romantic spirits, our guide dourly reported that some 3,000 maritime vessels, with their crews and cargo, lie at the bottom of that strait – so intense are the waters where the Atlantic and the Pacific passionately (and violently) embrace.

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It is sublime and it is wonderful; it is incomprehensible and bears a mystery deeper even than its most plunging trenches. The world ocean surrounds our proud continents, humiliating them into the status of islands, moistens our air, feeds us with its creatures, carries us around the globe and is a single massive symbol of the Creator who put it there. Still less than 5% of its seabed has been explored or mapped, and marine biologists assure us that species of life yet to be spotted have been swimming there for millennia. And it is dangerous too, with hurricanes and tsunamis on its agenda just as much as breathtaking seascapes and tranquil beaches. And all that water is the big secret, and the big mystery, of our home, the Earth.

But to call it a ‘planet’ is to do it a great injustice. Sure, it is interesting and astrophysically revealing to know that our world revolves around the sun along with all the planets, and that we can learn much from that extra-terrestrial perspective. But to interpret that new viewpoint (which we’ve had at least since Copernicus, and actually – as a possible theory – since the Greeks), as meaning that our eyes are lying to us when we look up and marvel at the starry vault of heaven; that we are duped by a sinking horizon into thinking that the sun actually rises, or conversely, that it ever sets. No, our common-sensical perspective is accurate, and just as true – I would argue, far more true! – than cerebral calculations on how things might look when an imagined interstellar sightseer views our home from outer space.

The Earth is a massive and irreducible singularity, and those trying to prove otherwise are only revealing the poverty of their poetic imagination and the ideological character of their supposed science. They are like people calling a diamond just another stone, Dante a guy who wrote some poems, gold one more substance on the periodic table, their mothers mammals, Mount Everest a promontory, Bach an organ player – all true, and all irrelevant. The Earth is a miracle, its oceans a stunning and jaw-dropping marvel, its mountains fearful, its rivers furious. We reach for poetry not because we are too stupid for science, but because science is too pedantic for the immensity of the prodigy that greets our eyes every living day.

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A escolha que prende

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Na figura, vê-se meu pai, querendo saber o porquê de seu filho mais velho estar tirando uma foto da ala de cereais matinais do supermercado. Já vi alas mais longas do que essa, mas esta serve para documentar um dos casos mais comuns em nossa cultura de exagerada ‘liberdade de escolha’. Eu poderia ter escolhido sabores de refrigerantes, modelos de automóveis, estilos de camisetas, ou até temas de website. Sobre este último: se a WordPress tivesse me permitido escolher entre três ou quatro temas para construir a minha página na Internet, eu teria prontamente escolhido o mais simples para usá-lo em meu blog. Na realidade, tive de navegar por quase 200 temas diferentes, ponderar seus méritos comparativos, e passar quase uma hora afunilando-os até finalmente escolher um deles (mesmo assim, o gostinho da vitória me foi tirado – e continua sendo –, ao pensar que talvez fosse melhor, no final das contas, um tema diferente do que escolhi). Mas pelo menos eu era livre para escolher! Ou será que não?

Muitos terão ouvido da famosa conferência dos anos 1950 do filósofo Isaiah Berlin sobre os ‘dois conceitos de liberdade’, na qual ele enfatiza as duas maneiras de se falar sobre a liberdade, que se tornaram bem conhecidas desde então: uma, a liberdade de; a outra, a liberdade para. Ainda vale a pena lê-la e a distinção é importante. Mas, muito mais importante é outra distinção que logo perdemos de vista quando estamos preocupados em escolher entre Mini-Wheats e Froot-Loops. Trata-se da distinção entre o entendimento clássico e medieval de liberdade – o progressivo desdobrar de nossas faculdades naturais sob a orientação da razão, e a optimização dada pela virtude –, por um lado, e a noção moderna, atualmente vigente, da liberdade como a capacidade de escolher, escolher, e escolher de novo – a ideia de um indivíduo autônomo, indeterminado, monádico, capaz de apreender um espectro potencialmente infinito de opções e selecionar a mais desejada. O ideal tradicional foi mais bem figurado por Dante. Ele o vê como um homem subindo para cima e para longe da falsa ‘liberdade’ representada por Satan no coração comprimido do inferno, imobilizado na frieza de sua escolha de si mesmo ao invés da realidade. A verdadeira liberdade move-se para cima, através das provações da purificação, e se abre como uma flor para um céu sempre crescente de ar e luz. O poder das virtudes abre, expande e flexibiliza as faculdades aperfeiçoadas, impelindo-as a um estado de pleno desdobramento.

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Em contraste, o ícone moderno da liberdade individualista é o maníaco por controle cognitivo: o Fausto, que está dolorosa e obsessivamente focado em escolher o domínio do conhecimento sobre todo o resto. O mantra aqui é o seguinte: conhecimento é poder, poder sobre a natureza, sobre o tempo, e finalmente sobre a própria realidade. Isso ele comprou ao preço da mesma alma que Dante queria levar rumo à beatitude celeste. Ao invés disso, a mente e o coração de Fausto estão espremidos em um solitário e doloroso ponto, ao mirar – com olhar cobiçoso – os segredos esotéricos que prometem luz, mas que somente oferecem o negrume gélido de um vazio.

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A emancipação da versão moderna miniaturizada da liberdade (com seus espasmos infrenes de escolha, em uma convulsão viciante de arbitrariedade), e para a liberdade que provém de uma reconquista da noção incomparavelmente mais profunda e ampla da tradição pré-moderna, trazer-nos-á a liberdade para sermos (em ato) tudo o que somos (em potência). Essa verdadeira liberdade só pode ocorrer quando crescermos nas virtudes da prudência, temperança, fortaleza e justiça (e para os sobrenaturalmente valentes: fé, esperança e caridade) –, ao invés de surfarmos desajeitadamente por menus intermináveis de opções e sub-opções, à procura de um fugidio cereal para o desjejum, ou do último I-Phone, que promete, à maneira de um charlatão, levar-nos à “paz que ultrapassa todo o entendimento”.

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Choice as Bondage

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In the picture you see my father, wondering why his oldest son is taking a snapshot of a supermarket row of breakfast cereals. I’ve seen longer rows than this, but this one serves to document one of contemporary culture’s most familiar cases of overblown ‘freedom of choice’. I might have used flavors of soft drink, models of automobile, styles of T-shirt, or even themes of website to make my point. About this last: if WordPress had offered me a choice of three or four themes to frame my site in, I would have promptly chosen the simplest one and gotten on with my blogging. As it was, I had to surf through nearly 200 different themes, weigh their comparative merits, and spend almost an hour narrowing it down to the one I finally chose (even then, the sap was sucked out of my victory as I continued – and continue – to wonder if I should have chosen another theme that might have been even better). But at least I was free to choose!  Or was I?

Many will have heard of a famous 1950s lecture by the philosopher Isaiah Berlin on ‘two concepts of liberty’ in which he highlights two ways of speaking of freedom which have become well-known ever since: one, freedom from; the other, freedom for. It is still worth reading and the distinction is important. But far more important is another distinction which is promptly lost from view as we fret over choosing between Mini-Wheats and Froot-Loops. It is the distinction between the classical, medieval understanding of freedom as the progressive unfolding of our natural faculties under the guidance of reason and the optimization provided by virtue, and the reigning modern notion of freedom as the ability to choose, and then to choose again, and then again — the idea of an autonomous, undetermined, monadic individual entitled to survey a potentially infinite spectrum of options and select the one most coveted. The traditional ideal is best imaged by Dante. He sees it as a man ascending aloft and away from the thick suffocation of the bogus ‘freedom’ represented as Satan at the compressed heart of hell, immobilized in the ice of his own choice of self over reality. True freedom moves upwards through the ordeals of purification, and opens like a flower to an ever-expanding sky of air and light. The power of the virtues opens, expands and flexes the faculties they perfect, carrying them to a state of full deployment.

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In contrast, the modern icon of individualistic liberty is the cognitive control-freak Faust, focused painfully, and obsessively, on choosing the mastery of knowledge over all else. The mantra here is:  knowledge is power, power over nature, over time, and finally over reality. This he purchased at the price of that very soul which Dante would lead heavenwards to bliss. Faust’s mind and heart instead are squeezed to one lone and painful point as he squints at the esoteric secrets that promised light, but only delivered the cold black of the void.

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Emancipation from this miniaturized modern version of freedom (with its endless spasms of choice in an addictive fit of arbitrariness), and freedom for a reconquest of the incomparably deeper and broader traditional notion, brings freedom to be (in actuality) all that we are (in potency). Such true freedom can only come to pass when we grow in the powerful virtues of prudence, temperance, fortitude and justice (and for the supernaturally valiant: faith, hope and charity). Otherwise, we will continue surfing cumbersomely up and down endless menus of options and sub-options, in pursuit of some elusive breakfast cereal, or the latest I-Phone, that promises – like a con-man – to transport us to the peace which passeth all understanding.

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