Greetings of Peace. This blog contains selections from my correspondence and other sources on a variety of subjects related to religion, philosophy, and spirituality. I hope that they may be of benefit to the interested reader. Concerning the title of the blog, read this entry.

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

About the Title

The title of this weblog is taken from the visionary treatise al-Qissat al-ghurbat al-gharbiyyah ("The Story of the Occidental Exile") written by the great Persian Ishraqi philosopher Shihab al-din Suhrawardi. It presents a development of the universal theme of the alienation of the human being from his spiritual home represented by the Orient as the source of the rising light of dawn. According to Seyyed Hossein Nasr commenting on this work, "the universe becomes a crypt through which the seeker after truth must journey, beginning with this world of matter and darkness into which he has fallen and ending in the Orient of lights, the original home of the soul, which symbolizes illumination and spiritual realization." The themes of exile and imprisonment have long held particular fascination for me due to their reflection of my nostalgia for the luminous realm of paradise in the presence of my Creator prior to entering into this world. They represent the paradoxical nature of the human state wherein God is veiled from us only through the corrugations of the soul and the opacity of the ego. This veil of separateness and illusion causes Him to appear distant when in reality "We are nearer to him than his jugular vein." (50:16)

Evolution: Framing the Debate

Unfortunately, I did not share your sentiments as I read the article (Man vs. God). Instead of experiencing a serious and balanced discussion, I instead bore witness to an otherwise seemingly serious scholar descend into the realm of vulgar journalism and debate. One of the primary problems that I perceived deterring from the establishment of a preliminary balance of positions is the centrality of the theory of evolution. Rather than basing a discussion on such a subject as cosmogenesis or anthropogenesis and then presenting the contrary viewpoints of religion and modern science, the center stage is given to evolution with Dawkins eulogizing it and Armstrong taking a "reactionary" position which as you stated makes too many concessions. Regarding the nature of the reactionary position according to Guenon, ... [see Social Action and Reaction]

In the field of academic religious studies of which Armstrong is a scholar, the reactionary position is represented by the emphasis placed upon what is referred to as "the hermeneutics of suspicion". It consists of placing great value upon the criticisms of religion made by its greatest opponents, people such as Nietzsche, Marx, and Freud. The rationale for such an emphasis is that it serves as a counterpoint to many of the uncritically accepted beliefs of popular religion and for the non-secular scholar that it may serve as a gauge to strengthen weaknesses in apologetics.

From the beginning of her discussion, Armstrong establishes very clearly that she employs the hermeneutics of suspicion eliciting the aid of Darwin and Dawkins to clarify the traditional understanding of God. In doing so, her efforts have proved to be both inadequate and even counterproductive as her perspective degenerates into the position characterized by Karl Marx who described religion as an opiate of the masses. In turns, she portrays various elements of religion as a psychology, a therapy, a kind of art form, an attitude, and ultimately a convenient fiction useful for achieving peace of mind in a tumultuous world removed from direct access to spiritual realities of a transcendent nature.

I hesitate even to mention the performance of Richard Dawkins, but will do so only to take note of the prime example that it affords of the usurpation of religious sentiments. Karen Armstrong began by stating that "Richard Dawkins has been right all along ... Evolution has indeed dealt a death blow to the idea of a benign creator, literally conceived." On the contrary, what it has done is not to deal a death blow, so much as give it a new name. To quote Dawkins, "Evolution is the universe's greatest work. Evolution is the creator of life, and life is arguable the most surprising and most beautiful production that the laws of physics have ever generated ... Never once are the laws of physics violated, yet life emerges into uncharted territory. And how is the trick done? The answer is a process that, although variable in its wondrous detail, is sufficiently uniform to deserve one single name: Darwinian evolution, the non-random survival of randomly varying coded information." Dawkin's seems to be continually singing the same refrain, "there is no god but evolution, and Darwin is his prophet."

Ultimately, I cannot but feel that in entering into a perspective determined by the framework of this debate in her forthcomming book, The Case for God that Armstrong's scholarship is taking a turn for the worst.

Now, this article does raise a few interesting observations and questions ... First, I do not believe that it is possible to effectively enter into a debate on evolution from a reactionary perspective alone. In order to be effective, the entire framework must be changed and the centrality of the evolutionary position must be exchanged for a subject of mutual consideration as for example, cosmology or the emergence of species. Furthermore, it is not sufficient merely to deconstruct the evolutionist hypothesis as a means of discrediting it because it is not only the hypothesis that is in question but its function as a modern worldview accepted to explain the origins of the universe and of life. It is relatively simple to provide the main arguments against it (as summarized by Nasr, Stoddart, and others) but what also must be done is to provide a viable alternative as in the form of a (or the) traditional perspective. As a worldview, however convoluted, the theory of evolution provides a focus for the derivation of a sense of meaning such that it will prove impossible to remove it without first positing a more suitable foundation.

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I would like to share some further considerations from the work of Frithjof Schuon concerning the ideas that were introduced in this discussion. The present article demonstrates the "framing" of the evolution debate, to borrow a term of George Lakoff, within which the opposing critic and representative of religion must take a reactionary stance vis-a-vis the evolutionary propositions rather than expressing in a positive manner the traditional perspective. In his article "In the Wake of the Fall" Schuon describes the negative ramifications of this form of debate as follows:

"One of the effects of modern science has been to give reli­gion a mortal wound, by posing in concrete terms problems which only esoterism can resolve; but these problems remain unresolved, because esoterism is not listened to, and is listened to less now than ever. Faced by these new problems, religion is disarmed, and it borrows clumsily and gropingly the argu­ments of the enemy; it is thus compelled to falsify by im­perceptible degrees its own perspective, and more and more to disavow itself ... The absence of metaphysical or esoteric knowledge on the one hand, and the suggestive force emanating from scientific discoveries as well as from collective psychoses on the other, make religion an almost defenseless victim, a victim that even refuses more often than not to make use of the arguments at its disposal."

According to Schuon, the corresponding perspective of the cosmologia perennis, an appeal to which may explain the phenomena misinterpreted by the evolutionist hypothesis, is based upon the traditional teachings concerning ontological hierarchy. In "The Five Divine Presences", he wrote,

... all the philosophic and scientific errors of the modern world can be said to proceed essentially from the denial of the [traditional concepts relating to the cosmogonic emanations]. In other words, what invalidates modern interpretations of the world and of man at their very root and robs them of every possibility of being valid, is their monotonous and besetting ignorance of the supra-sensible degrees of Reality, or of the ‘five Divine Presences’. This is an observation which cannot escape anyone who is more than a simple logician of sensory experience.

In a discussion of the process of anthropogenesis wherein the ontological hierarchy is taken as the framework of explanation or debate, the traditional perspective may be expressed as in the following words of Titus Burckhardt from "Traditional Cosmology and the Modern World":

"Fundamentally, the evolutionist thesis is an attempt to replace, not simply the ‘miracle of creation’, but the cosmogonic process—largely suprasensory—of which the Biblical narrative is a Scriptural symbol; evolutionism, by absurdly making the greater derive from the lesser, is the opposite of this process, or this ‘emanation’ ... In a word, evolutionism results from an incapacity--peculiar to modern science—to conceive ‘dimensions’ of reality other than purely physical ones; to understand the ‘vertical’ genesis of species, it is worth recalling what GuĂ©non said about the progressive solidification of the corporeal state through the various terrestrial ages. This solidification must obviously not be taken to imply that the stones of the earliest ages were soft, for this would be tantamount to saying that certain physical qualities—and in particu­lar hardness and density—were then wanting; what has hardened and become fixed with time is the corporeal state taken as a whole, with the result that it no longer receives directly the imprint of subtle forms. Assuredly, it cannot become detached from the subtle state, which is its ontological root and which dominates it entirely, but the relationship between the two states of existence no longer has the creative character that it possessed at the origin; it is as when a fruit, having reached maturity, becomes surrounded by an ever harder husk and ceases to absorb the sap of the tree. In a cyclic phase in which corporeal existence had not yet reached this degree of solidification, a new specific form could manifest itself directly from the starting-point of its first ‘condensation’ in the subtle or animic state; this means that the different types of animals pre-existed at the level immediately superior to the corporeal world as non-spatial forms, but nevertheless clothed in a certain ‘matter’, namely that of the subtle world. From there these forms ‘descended’ into the corporeal state each time the latter was ready to receive them; this ‘descent’ had the nature of a sudden coagulation and hence also the nature of a limitation and fragmentation of the original animic form ... the process of materialization, from the supra-sensory to the sensory, had to be reflected within the material or corporeal state itself, so that one can say without risk of error, that the first generations of a new species did not leave a mark in the great book of earthly layers; it is therefore vain to seek in sensible matter the ancestors of a species, and especially that of man ... let it be recalled once more that the bodies of the most ancient men did not necessarily leave solid traces, either because their bodies were not yet at that point materialized or ‘solidified’, or because the spiritual state of these men, along with the cosmic conditions of their time, rendered possible a resorption of the physical body into the subtle ‘body’ at the moment of death."

It is only natural that an explanation as sophisticated as this and relying as it does upon esoteric theses cannot successfully enter into the realm of popular debate wherein effective communication is limited to the least common denominator of understanding and experience, namely, physical matter. Ultimately, it seems best to remember that the position of the simple believer in a literal interpretation of scriptural symbols but who nonetheless retains a sense of the sacred and of dependence upon God is much better than the alternative of the scientific-materialist who denies the reality of the spirit in the pursuit of concrete facts. According to Schuon again,

"From the point of view of total truth— let it be said once more—it is a thousand times better to be­lieve that God created this world in six days and that the world beyond lies beneath the flat surface of the earth or in the spinning heavens, than it is to know the distance from one nebula to another without knowing that phenomena merely serve to manifest a transcendent Reality which determines us in every respect and gives to our human condition its whole meaning and its whole content."

Social Action and Reaction

Your first question presupposes that Rene Guenon desired either to return society to a previous state or otherwise cause a radical change within its present structure but this is incompatible with the traditional teachings concerning cyclic laws. In the context of these laws the decadence of humanity as with their social institutions is an inevitable outcome of the progression of the ages leading from a Golden Age or Satya Yuga to the present Iron Age or Kali Yuga. This process can be represented as that of a winding-down or solidification of the world prior to a renewal.

Although the majority of the writings in these books deal with what may be called synthetic assessment rather than analysis with an accompanying remedy, he does speak about the practical considerations to which these ideas give rise, generally toward the end of the volumes. Although I do not have the time to discuss all of the considerations that I have encountered in these pages, there are a few comments pertinent to your questions that I would like to share.

The first is the subject of “reaction” that he treats in Chapter 31 of The Reign of Quantity. Guenon discusses the tendency of those who become privy to the deficiencies of our present situation to take up a direct “reactive” opposition to them. In addition to posing as a diversion to the pursuit of authentic traditional knowledge, such preoccupations, determined indirectly by the perverted institution in question and limited to its field operation, merely add to the existing disorder and in the end contribute toward the chaos and dissolution which they were intended to neutralize. In the words of Guenon, “their reciprocal enmity [i.e. between the individual and what he is reacting against] is therefore no more than an enmity between the various and apparently opposed productions of one and the same modern deviation; thus the final result can only be a fresh increase in disorder and confusion, and that simply amounts to one more step towards final dissolution.”

The paragraph that follows is explicit on his determination of what is the position for one to take on such matters. He wrote, “As between all the more or less incoherent things that are today in constant agitation and mutual collision, as between all external ‘movements’ of whatever kind they may be, there is no occasion to ‘take sides’, to use the common expression, whether from a traditional or from a merely ‘traditionalist’ point of view, for to do so is to be a dupe. Since the same influences are really operating behind all these things, it is really playing their game to join in the struggles promoted and directed by them; therefore the mere fact of ‘taking sides’ under such conditions is necessarily to adopt, however, unwittingly, a truly anti-traditional attitude. No particular applications need be specified here, but it must at least be made clear in a general way that in all this agitation principles are always and everywhere lacking”.

To address the second part of your question, there is definitely an emphasis on contemplation over action. However, this does not necessarily imply the adoption of a posture of passivity or an attitude of aloofness and indifference. Rather than reacting impulsively to modernism and emphasizing its destruction or reform, Guenon suggests rather the affirmation and preservation of those elements of tradition that remain, wherever they may be found. Just as the majority of the deficiencies of the modern world can be accounted for in the gradual decline and eclipse of essential knowledge and genuine intellectuality, so are these the two things that are most in need of preservation. Both East and West and Crisis of the Modern World emphasize this point as well as the catalyzing force that eastern doctrines may (and have) had on the re-establishment of western intellectuality.

It is inevitable in the context of cyclic conditions that the world established upon the principles of modernism will inevitably decline and collapse, but according to traditional teachings, this is only in anticipation of a return to the Golden Age and a renewal of the cosmic process. The preservation of tradition is accomplished not in the aim of overthrowing the established order, but in preparing the seeds for the new one. Guenon’s message, far from the pessimism that is sometimes associated with it, is actually one of hope. “There is therefore no cause for despair,” he writes in the concluding remarks to Crisis of the Modern World, “and, even were there no hope of achieving any visible result before the modern world collapses under some catastrophe, this would still be no valid reason for not understanding a work whose scope extends far beyond the present time. Those who might be tempted to give away to despair should realize that nothing accomplished in this order can ever be lost, that confusion, error and darkness can win the day only apparently and in a purely ephemeral way, that all partial and transitory disequilibrium must perforce contribute towards the great equilibrium of the whole, and that nothing can ultimately prevail against the power of truth; their device should be that used formerly by certain initiatory organizations of the West: Vincit Omnia Veritas (Truth Conquers All).”