Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Walter Brueggemann - The Bible Makes Sense - The Transcendentalist Model

The Transcendentalist Model

This view of reality is for those who believe that life is too complicated to endure and too messy to be the place of meaning.   And so they believe there is another sphere of reality which is simple, clear, unsoiled and uncomplicated.   The real meanings do not emerge from the power struggles found in our lives, even in our love relationships, but must be found in a sphere protected from all of that.   This model appears in the romantic notions of love and marriage in much of the American dream which envisions a “little home in love land,”  where we won't have a telephone, ie, we won't be bothered by reality.   But it also has its religious form, in which pious language and stained-glass windows pretend to screen out the cries of hunger and the groans of injustice.   Enduring meaning is immune from the incongruities and discontinuities of historical experience and may be located beyond historical experience in an abiding and enduring state of eternity. 

Such a history-denying view of life has a variety of manifestations.   It may be expressed as cold reason which regards only logic as providing relevant data.   Conversely,  it may be mystical meditation which seeks to negate historical experience, to be emptied of such sensitivities for the sake of other once-removed meanings.  Such a quest for non-historical reality may be pursued by meditative reflection after the manner of Eastern religions or, more broadly, in religious celebrations which serve to escape the realities of daily life. 

Transcendentalism tends to deny suffering and to seek serenity beyond the reaches of historical hurt.  Implicit in such a view is the conviction that historical experience and indeed historical personality are not essential embodiments of fundamental meaning.  It will be evident that such a view of religion is in conflict with a religion of incarnation,  that is, of historical embodiment of decisive meaning. 

Transcendentalism tends to deny the exigencies of historical risk and hurt.  It imagines that life can be lived without involvement with unattractive persons.  It pretends that life can be uninterrupted tranquility without any abrasions.  It conjures a God who dwells in a quiet heaven to sanction such a settled life.   It is finally in conflict with the religion of Jesus who knew that the power of God is shown precisely where there are hurting, sick, lame people.   And so even among people who are in every way sophisticated and concerned with the mastery of their lives, some are tempted to an unthinking religion in which responsibility dissolves and one can embrace an undifferentiated experience of good felling in which persons can abdicate,  make no decisions or take any responsibility 

None of us, obviously, ever embodies any of these models fully or intentionally.  But they do exercise great influence in the shaping of personality and in defining cultural values and expectations.  It is clear that we never perceive any of them fully and consistently,  but only in hints and tendencies.   Thus the modern-industrial-scientific view probably prevails in our public institutions,  such as schools and hospitals,  and certainly dominates the job market which pays primary attention to competence and performance for the sake of profit.  To be sure,  there are always dimensions of compassion and grace,  but they do not make a decisive difference.

Again, existentialism will not often surface among us in pure form,  but it molds much of the counter-culture life and has an important appeal for some of the young.  It is perhaps the vision of youth that all worlds are possible and any is choosable.  And transcendentalism is often proper religion which is just now surfacing,  especially among respectable drop-outs of the modern-industrial-scientific view of life which has not kept its promises.  The discovery of these unkept promises invites people to withdraw to “religion.” 

Of those things which get the name, "transcendentalism," in the sense that it means dropping out of real hard, painful reality instead of in the Modern-Industrial-Scientific model can become a really horrible thing to observe.  I would say that my disillusionment with Buddhism began to grow when I first read verse 28 of the Dhammapada.  I can't recall which of the translations it was, I've read a number of them.  It talked about the transcended man looking down from on high at the sufferings of those who were untranscendant in terms of pleasure.  Here it is in one of the less unattractive translations.

Just as one upon the summit of a mountain beholds the groundlings, even so when the wise man casts away heedlessness by heedfulness and ascends the high tower of wisdom, this sorrowless sage beholds the sorrowing and foolish multitude.

Wondering why he's just sitting there up on the mountain looking down without doing anything about it was the beginning of my realization that any religion which doesn't hold the Jewish-social and economic justice at its heart has the potential to be solipsistic, self-centered (ironic for Buddhism) and unworthy.  There are Buddhists who have avoided that to one extent or another, engaging in the kind of social action associated with some but far too few Christians.   I've read that such engaged Buddhists are about as controversial with other Buddhists as Christians involved with such activities are with a large number of their supposed fellow Christians.   However, Christianity, being a child of the Hebrew religion, is saturated with the advocacy of it, the requirement to do it and the warning that unless you do do it, you're going to go to hell.  It's there as a strong if latent potential.  If that is, ultimately, more effective in bringing about economic and social justice in Christianity is, I think, obvious.

But Christians are as tempted as anyone else to disengage with the world and to spend your time trying to transcend while the world goes to hell as anyone else is.  Though it is also an historical fact that just such communities in Christianity, convents, monasteries, parishes, etc. have been the foremost places of such justice.*

There is a recurring story among Christian contemplatives of how a young nun or monk will have a transcendent seeming vision only to be told, usually by Mary or some other saint,  that they're neglecting their duty to serve the poor.  That comes first.   Such internal criticism is certainly part of a number of traditions that could be put under the title "Transcendentalism,"  just as those temptations to turn it into selfishness, there are the warnings against that.   I find, in almost every case, certainly among the monotheistic religions, such internal criticism is central to what would be considered "transcendentalism"  in a way that the two previously presented framings of reality lack.   And that is because of the religious context in which much of the would be methods of transcending are practiced.   The totally secular fad of "mindfulness" that was all over the media a while back sold itself on being totally compatible with and an enhancement of capitalist efficiency and the acquisition of a secular, materialist western lifestyle.  Such "mindfulness" is the natural religion of a clean-living internet era billionaire sociopath.  Often peddled by what is, essentially, a spiritual businessman, often in association with western pseudo-scientist-businessmen.    I think if the Buddha knew that was going to be a product of his teaching in the hands of such secularizers, he might have included a bit of economic and social justice in it.

Brueggemann doesn't mean just that in his critique of transcendentalism.  His goes farther than that but I think this example I mentioned is among the most seriously tempting for most people right now.

I may have mentioned the exchange I had online once in which I noted that Buddhism seemed to be lacking in a commandment to do justice to poor people.  The answer of one of the Buddhists was that there was no such thing as justice, that it was a delusion.   My answer was that if she were denied justice she'd notice its absence and probably be immediately and completely convinced of its reality as the experience of injustice harshed her mellow.   Though I put it more politely than that.  And that's not just true of Buddhists,  it's so easy even the most egocentric of  atheists can figure it out when it's them.

*  In his account of the Protestant Reformation in England and what would become Britain, William Cobbett, over and over again, points out how the English means of caring for the destitute, the sick, the poor, the widowed was destroyed by the Tudor and Stuart kings as they murdered and drove out the monks and nuns and stole their properties and lands for distribution among the English monarchs and the gangsters who worked for them.  In fact, under those regimes, poverty was criminalized and the treatment of the poor in Britain was some of the worst in Europe.   Even after the infamous poor laws allegedly ended, a woman I knew who was based in Southern England told me that though she traveled to lots of places in Europe over a number of years, she never saw more abject and cruel poverty than what she saw in Britain.  It was under the "enlightenment" regime, what you might take as the opposite of transcendentalism,  certainly the enemy of such things as religious monasticism, that that poverty reached its most grinding and murderous levels.


Two Comments:

steve simelsNovember 23, 2016 at 12:47 PM
So now you're blaming Ralph Waldo Emerson for the election of Donald Trump?

Seriously Sparky -- seek help.

Seriously, Stupie, I don't write so that the vocabulary and concepts fall inside your most incapacious and limited mind.   Walter Brueggemann, who is, in every way, your intellectual superior obviously doesn't, either.

Hum... Emerson's role in producing Donald Trump.  Well, as I've held all along that if Obama had listened to Elizabeth Warren instead of Timothy Geithner and Larry Summers there would have been Democratic congresses with increasing margins for the past eight years,  there is a case that the guy your hero, racist, antisemite, anti-religious icon of bile,  H.L. Menken called "the codfish Moses" may have played a role.

Seven years ago from Garrison Keillor's now classic Christmas Column:

I've just come from Cambridge, that beehive of brilliance, where nerds don't feel self-conscious: There's always someone nerdier nearby. If you are the World's Leading Authority on the mating habits of the jabberwock beetle of the Lesser Jujube Archipelago, you can take comfort in knowing that the pinch-faced drone next to you at Starbucks may be the W.L.A. on 17th-century Huguenot hymnody or a niche of quantum physics that is understood by nobody but himself.

People in Cambridge learn to be wary of brilliance, having seen geniuses in the throes of deep thought step into potholes and disappear. Such as the brilliant economist Lawrence Summers, whose presidency brought Harvard to the verge of disaster. He, against the advice of his lessers, invested Harvard's operating funds in the stock market and lost the bet. In the cold light of day, this was dumber than dirt, like putting the kids' lunch money on Valiant's Fancy to win in the 5th. And now the genius is in the White House, two short flights of stairs above the Oval Office. This does not make Cantabrigians feel better about our nation's economic future.

You can blame Ralph Waldo Emerson for the brazen foolishness of the elite. He preached here at the First Church of Cambridge, a Unitarian outfit (where I discovered that "Silent Night" has been cleverly rewritten to make it more about silence and night and not so much about God), and Emerson tossed off little bon mots that have been leading people astray ever since. "To be great is to be misunderstood," for example. This tiny gem of self-pity has given license to a million arrogant and unlovable people to imagine that their unpopularity somehow was proof of their greatness.

And all his hoo-ha about listening to the voice within and don't follow the path, make your own path and leave a trail and so forth, encouraged people who might've been excellent janitors to become bold and innovative economists who run a wealthy university into the ditch.


  1. "Even after the infamous poor laws allegedly ended, a woman I knew who was based in Southern England told me that though she traveled to lots of places in Europe over a number of years, she never saw more abject and cruel poverty than what she saw in Britain. "

    This doesn't surprise me one jot. Nor that the southern U.S., the most "English" of the states, has such high rates of poverty, and such a cruel attitude toward the poor. Baptists and others may care for the poor through their churches, but they despise the idea being done through government at any level. Noblesse oblige, after all, should be a personal decision.

    Like religion, actually.....

    1. It's not just in the Southern states. I remember in the 1960s there being a scandal of a poor woman starving to death in a small New Hampshire town because the government wouldn't give her an kind of assistance. There were probably others who didn't get reported. And I'll bet it wasn't church goers. Look at Maine's incumbant governor who is supposed to have grown up in privation. I don't think there is anyone who more obviously hates poor people than Paul LePage Though, these days, there's lots of that everywhere.

  2. So now you're blaming Ralph Waldo Emerson for the election of Donald Trump?

    Seriously Sparky -- seek help.

    1. Is it a compulsion with you, or do enjoy being an asshole in public?

    2. He and his fan base think he has a pretty wit.