A temperance of words

From Karen Armstrong’s A History of God:

In 529 the emperor Justinian closed the ancient school of philosophy in Athens, the last bastion of intellectual paganism: its last great master had been Proclus (412-485), an ardent disople of Plotinus. Pagan philosophy went underground and seemed defeated by the new religion of Christianity. Four years later, however, four mystical treatises appeared which were purportedly written by Denys the Areopagite, St. Paul’s first Athenian convert. They were, in fact, written by a sixth-century Greek Christian, who has preserved his anonymity. The pseudonym had a symbolic power, however, which was more important than the identity of the author Pseudo-Denys managed to baptize the insights of Neoplatonism and wed the God of the Greeks to the Semitic God of the Bible.

Denys was also the heir of the Cappadocian Fathers. Like Basil, he took the distinction between kerygma and dogma very seriously. In one of a his letters, he affirmed that there were two theological traditions, both of which derived from the apostles. The kerygmatic gospel was clear and knowable; the dogmatic gospel was silent and mystical. Both were mutually interdependent, however, and essential to the Christian faith. One was “symbolic and presupposing initiation,” the other “philosophical and capable of proof—and the ineffable is woven with what can be uttered.” The kerygma persuades and exhorts by its clear, manifest truth, but the silent or hidden tradition of dogma was a mystery that required initiation: “It effects and establishes the soul with God by initiations that do not teach anything,” Denys insisted, in words that recalled Aristotle. There was a religious truth which could not adequately be conveyed by words, logic or rational discourse. It was expressed symbolically, through the language and gestures of the liturgy or by doctrines which were “sacred veils” that hid the ineffable meaning from view but which also adapted the utterly mysterious God to the limitations of human nature and expressed the Reality in terms that could he grasped imaginatively if not conceptually.

The hidden or esoteric meaning was not for a privileged elite but for all Christians. Denys was not advocating an abstruse discipline that was suitable for monks and ascetics only. The liturgy, attended by all the faithful, was the chief path to God and dominated his theology. The reason that these thruths were hidden behind a protective veil was not to occlude men and women of goodwill but to lift all Christians above sense perceptions and concepts to the inexpressible reality of God himself. The humility which had inspired the Cappodocians to claim that all theology should be apophatic became for Denys a bold method of ascending to the inexpressible God.

In fact, Denys did not like to use the word “God” at all—probably because it had acquired such inadequate and anthropomorphic connotations. He preferred to use Proclus’s term theurgy, which was primarily liturgical: theurgy in the pagan world had been a tapping of the divine mana by means of sacrifice and divination. Denys applied this to God-talk, which, properly understood, could also release the divine energeiai inherent in the revealed symbols. He agreed with the Cappedociens that all our words and concepts for God were inadequate and must not be taken as an accurate description of a reality which lies beyond our ken.

Even the word “God” itself was faulty, since God was “above God,” a “mystery beyond being.” Christians must realize that God is not the Supreme Being, the highest being of all heading a hierarchy of lesser beings. Things and people do not stand over against God as a separate reality or an alternative being, which can be the object of knowledge. God is not one of the things that exist and is quite unlike anything else in our experience. In fact, it is more accurate to call God “Nothing”: we should not even call him a Trinity since he is “neither a unity nor a trinity in the sense in which we know them.” He is above all names just as he is above all being. Yet we can use our incapacity to speak about God as a method of achieving a union with him, which is nothing less than a “deification” (theosis) of our own nature. God had revealed some of his Names to us in scripture, such as “Father,” “Son” and “Spirit,” yet the purpose of this had not been to import information about him but to draw men and women toward himself and enable them to share his divine, nature.

In each chapter of his treatise The Divine Names, Denys begins with a kerygmatic truth, revealed by God: his goodness, wisdom, paternity and so forth. He then proceeds to show that although God has revealed something of himself in these titles, what he means is not himself. If we really want to understand God, we must go on to deny those attributes and names. Thus we must say that he is both “God” and “not-God,” “good” and then go on to say that he is “not-good” The shock of this paradox, a process that includes both knowing and unknowing, will lift us above the world of mundane ideas to the inexpressible reality itself. Thus, we begin by saying that:

of him there is understanding, reason, knowledge, touch, perception, imagination, name and many other things. But he is not understood, nothing can be said of him, he cannot be named. He is not one of the things that are [nor is he known in any of the things that are: he is all things in everything and nothing in anything].”

Reading the Scriptures is not a process of discovering facts about God, therefore, but should be a paradoxical discipline that turns the kerygma into dogma. This method is a theurgy, a tapping of the divine power that enables us to ascend to God himself and, as Platonists had always taught, become ourselves divine. It is a method to stop is thinking! “We have to leave behind us all our conceptions of the divine. We call a halt to the activities of our minds!’” We even have to have our denials of God’s attributes behind. Then and only than shall we achieve an ecstatic union with God.

When Denys talks about ecstasy, he is not referring to a peculiar state of mind or an alternative form of consciousness achieved by an obscure yogic discipline. This is something that every Christian can manage in this paradoxical method of prayer and theoria. It will stop us talking and bring us to the place of silence: “As we plunge into that darkness which is beyond intellect, we shall find ourselves not simply running short of words but actually speechless and unknowing” Like Gregory of Nyssa, he found the story of Moses’ ascent of Mount Sinai instructive. Moses had climbed the mountain, he did not see God himself on the summit but had only been brought to the place where God was. He had been enveloped by a thick cloud of obscurity and could see nothing: thus everything that we cm see or understand is only a symbol (the word Denys uses is “paradigm”) which reveals the presence of a reality beyond all thought. Moses had passed into the darkness of ignorance and thus achieved union with that which surpasses all understanding: we will achieve a similar ecstasy that will “take us out of ourselves” and unite us to God.

The preceding’s length can be compared to the first 14 lines of Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching (translation by S. Mitchell):

The tao that can be told

is not the eternal Tao

The name that can be named

is not the eternal Name.

The unnamable is the eternally real.

Naming is the origin

of all particular things.

Free from desire, you realize the mystery.

Caught in desire, you see only the manifestations.

Yet mystery and manifestations

arise from the same source.

This source is called darkness.

Darkness within darkness.

The gateway to all understanding.

So where does that leave us (emphasis mine):

Dessys’s method became normative in Greek theology. In the West, however, theologians would continue to talk and explain. Some imagined that when they said “God,” the divine reality actually coincided with the idea in their minds. Some would attribute their own thoughts and ideas to God—saying that God wanted this, forbade that and had planned the other—in a way that was dangerously idolatrous. The God of Greek Othodoxy, however, would remain mysterious, and the Trinity would continue to remind Eastern Christians of the provisional nature of their doctrines. Eventually, the Greeks decided that an authentic theology must meet Denys’s two criteria: it must be silent and paradoxical.

Washing of dishes requires great peace of mind

From Thicht Nhat Hanh’s The Miracle of Mindfulness:

In the United States, I have a close friend name Jim Forest. When I first met him eight years ago, he was working with the Catholic Peace Fellowship. Last winter, Jim came to visit. I usually wash the dishes after we’ve finished the evening meal, before sitting down an d drinking tea with everyone also. One night, Jim asked if he might do the dishes. I said, “Go ahead, but if you wash the dishes you must know the way to wash them.” Jim replied, “Come on, you think I don’t know how to wash the dishes?” I answered, “There are two ways to wash the dishes. The first is to wash the dishes in order to have clean dishes and the second is to wash the dishes in order to wash the dishes.” Jim was delighted and said, “I choose the second way – to wash the dishes to wash the dishes.From then on, Jim knew how to wash the dishes. I transferred the “responsibility” to him for an entire week.

If while washing dishes, we think only of the cup of tea that awaits us, thus hurrying to get the dishes out of the way as they were a nuisance, then we are not “washing the dishes to wash the dishes.” What’s more, we are not alive during the time we are washing the dishes. In fact we are completely incapable of realizing the miracle of life while standing at the sink. If we can’t wash the dishes, the chances are we won’t be able to drink our tea either…. Thus, we are sucked away into the future – and we are incapable of actually living one minute of life.”

Directly preceding this:

While washing the dishes one should only be washing the dishes, which means that while washing the dishes one should be completely aware of the fact that one is washing the dishes. At first glance, that might seem a little silly: why put so much stress on a simple thing? But that’s precisely the point. The fact that I am standing there and washing these bowls is a wondrous reality. I’m being completely myself, following my breath, conscious of my presence, and conscious of my thoughts and actions. There’s no way I can be tossed around mindlessly like a bottle slapped here and there on the waves.

Criticism for everyone

From Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance:

At present we’re snowed under with an irrational expansion of blind data-gathering in the sciences because there’s no rational format for an understanding of scientific creativity. At present we are also snowed under with a lot of stylishness in the arts—thin art—because there’s very little assimilation or extension into underlying form. We have artists with no scientific knowledge and scientists with no artistic knowledge and both with no spiritual sense of gravity at all, and the result is not just bad, it is ghastly.

The following precedes the former, but if I put it in order the people who care about technology will stop reading when they hit romance (you know who you are!) and vice versa (same!) and the people who can grok both won’t care either way (yeah!):

In the past our common universe of reason has been in the process of escaping, rejecting the romantic, irrational world of prehistoric man. It’s been necessary since before the time of Socrates to reject the passions, the emotions, in order to free the rational mind for an understanding of nature’s order which was as yet unknown. Now it’s time to further an understanding of nature’s order by reassimilating those passions which were originally fled from. The passions, the emotions, the affective domain of man’s consciousness are a part of nature’s order too. The central part.

The time for a real unification of art and technology is really long overdue.

So go make something lovely (that’s for the people who can grok both; the rest of you are grousing).

Ethical flexibility for export

I greatly enjoy this leap of ethics in my spam folder over the weekend:


My name is David Smith, I am a Project Coordinator with UNICEF’s Office of Emergency Programs (EMOPS) we are the focal point for emergency Assistance, humanitarian policies, staff security and support to UNICEF Offices in the field, as well as strategic coordination with external Humanitarian partners both within and outside the United Nations system. It is indeed with great optimism that I am writing you because I had to ensure that whoever I would contact in regards to this transaction must be someone I can trust.

Last year, series of donations amounting to US$5.8M (Five Million Eight Hundred Thousand Dollars) were made to our organization. These donations were later earmarked for developmental projects in two West African countries. The problem is when funds are released for these sort of projects especially In Africa, they are most often misused or in some cases believe it or not, embezzled by corrupt government officials there.

This practice has gone on for so long and not very much has been done about it and I have always been made to understand that my work is based on humanitarian grounds and I have done this work to the best of my ability but there is very little to show for it for somebody in my position.

As a result, I have painstakingly decided to divert some of these funds as a retirement benefit because even if this money is released, it will still be stolen by officials in Africa anyway.

This is why I am contacting you, because I need your acceptance and co-operation in allowing these funds to be transferred to you as the Sub-contractor of these projects in Africa.

At least he goes on to offer a 50/50 split.

He thinks I’m working on parts. I’m working on concepts.

The following quote is from Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig. (The John mentioned is the protagonist’s buddy who wants to escape modern technological life via a motorcycle he deigns to tune-up):

Precision instruments are designed to achieve an idea, dimensional precision, whose perfection is impossible. There is no perfectly shaped part of the motorcycle and never will be, but when you come as close as these instruments take you, remarkable things happen, and you go flying across the countryside under a power that would be called magic if it were not so completely rational in every way. It’s the understanding of this rational intellectual idea that’s fundamental. John looks at the motorcycle and he sees steel in various shapesand has negative feelings about these steel shapes and turns off the whole thing. I look at the shapes of the steel now and I see ideas. He thinks I’m working on parts. I’m working on concepts.

I was talking about these concepts yesterday when I said that a motorcycle can be divided according to its components and according to its functions. When I said that suddenly I created a set of boxes with the following arrangement:

And when I said the components may be subdivided into a power assembly and a running assembly, suddenly appear some more little boxes:

And you see that every time I made a further division, up came more boxes based on these divisions until I had a huge pyramid of boxes. Finally you see that while I was splitting the cycle up into finer and finer pieces, I was also building a structure.

This structure of concepts is formally called a hierarchy and since ancient times has been a basic structure for all Western knowledge. Kingdoms, empires, churches, armies have all been structured into hierarchies. Modern businesses are so structured. Tables of contents of reference material are so structured, mechanical assemblies, computer software, all scientific and technical knowledge is so structured—so much so that in some fields such as biology, the hierarchy of kingdom-phylum-class-order-family-genus-species is almost an icon.

The box “motorcycle” contains the boxes “components” and “functions.” The box “components” contains the boxes “power assembly” and “running assembly,” and so on. There are many other kinds of structures produced by other operators such as “causes” which produce long chain structures of the form, “A causes B which causes C which causes D,” and so on. A functional description of the motorcycle uses this structure. The operator’s “exists,” “equals,” and “implies” produce still other structures. These structures are normally interrelated in patterns and paths so complex and so enormous no one person can understand more than a small part of them in his lifetime. The overall name of these interrelated structures, the genus of which the hierarchy of containment and structure of causation are just species, is system. The motorcycle is a system. A real system.

To speak of certain government and establishment institutions as “the system” is to speak correctly, since these organizations are founded upon the same structural conceptual relationships as a motorcycle. They are sustained by structural relationships even when they have lost all other meaning and purpose. People arrive at a factory and perform a totally meaningless task from eight to five without question because the structure demands that it be that way. There’s no villain, no “mean guys’ who wants them to live meaningless lives, it’s just that the structure, the system demands it and no one is willing to take on the formidable task of changing the structure just because it is meaningless.

But to tear down a factory or to revolt against a government or to avoid repair of a motorcycle because it is a system is to attack effects rather than causes; and as long as the attack is upon effects only, no change is possible. The true system, the real system, is our present construction of systematic thought itself, rationality itself, and if a factory is torn down but the rationality which produced it is left standing, then that rationality will simply produce another factory. If a revolution destroys a systematic government, but the systematic patterns of thought that produced that government are left intact, then those patterns will repeat themselves in the succeeding government. There’s so much talk about the system. And so little understanding.

Still Ferrari-less

After all, there’s nothing quite like driving your Ferrari home to your 6,000 square foot mansion after a long, hard day of fighting for the cause. This is how Amy Bell ended a polemic (even by my standards) against exorbitant nonprofit executive compensation, published in Forbes in December as “ Nonprofit Millionaires”. That was rebutted today in Forbes, by Betsy Brill (President of Strategic Philanthropy) in “ Nonprofit CEOs Are Worth Every Dime”: > The _Chronicle _survey only reflects data from the 325 highest funded nonprofit organizations, and thus represents only .02% of the 1.5 million registered nonprofits operating in the U.S. To suggest that the 30 some nonprofit executives (among them hospital CEOs, NCAA coaches and university presidents) who were paid more than $1 million in 2008 represent the irresponsible management and greed of an entire sector might be laughable if it weren’t also potentially detrimental. By taking the survey data out of context, critics may cause donors to question–or even to pull back–their charitable giving at a time when nonprofits are struggling to meet an increased demand for services in the face of government cutbacks and dwindling private support. Bell’s criticism was published under “Philanthropy”, Brill’s response under “Intelligent Investing”.

Insufficient funds

Don’t be distracted by the vision; focus on the problem statement:

When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the “unalienable Rights” of “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note, insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked “insufficient funds.”

From I have a Dream. Have a just Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

Social media is women’s work

Some new commentary on the evolving nature of women’s work, as a follow-up to comments on gender-driven compensation in social work:

….as the social media world becomes more and more female-driven (after all, social media power  users tend to be female) will it become “demoted” in the tech industry, seen as a “soft” profession with lower comparative salaries and less room for professional advancement/leadership? Has that already happened?

via Rebecca