Aquinas, Zhaozhou, and Derrida Walk Into a Bar…

Aquinas, Zhaozhou, and Derrida Walk Into a Bar… July 30, 2016


Twice in my life I have had what I would call mystical experiences of truth. The first was shortly before my conversion, and it was prompted by a Zen koan. The second was several years ago, when I was doing the research for a book that I intended to write as a refutation of postmodernism. I was reading an essay on religion by Jacques Derrida in which he skillfully and eloquently deconstructed God.

In both of these cases what I experienced first was the absolute exhaustion of the intellect and of all of its logical and linguistic categories. In the first case, I was confronted with a paradox. The koan was an unbelievably simple story – so simple that it seemed idiotic. It was rather like modern art, in that if my five year old had told this tale I would have quickly dismissed it as silly babbling. It goes like this:

The disciple came to the master seeking enlightenment. The master asked him, “What colour is the grass?” The disciple replied, “It’s green.” The master struck him with his staff and cried, “No stupid, it’s green.”

That’s it. For some reason, I couldn’t get this thing out of my head because I was sure that it had to have a kind of meaning. After all, you were supposed to have to go to your cave and meditate on it before it would yield any kind of enlightenment. So I went over it, and over it, and over it, and over it…until eventually, my brain completely exhausted itself. At that point, I got it.

I’ll call this approach, where the mind is given a very simple hook and just enough rope to hang itself, the Eastern approach to mystical truth.

Derrida presented an altogether different, opposite approach. He revealed a Western way where instead of seeking mystical truth through the deceptively simple paradox, we approach it through the laborious building up of endlessly intricate systems. The moment of truth does not occur, however, when the shining pinnacle of intellectual achievement finally pierces through the dark cloud of unknowing. The moment of truth occurs when the brilliant, resplendent, perfectly ordered system suddenly suffers a fatal instability, totters, and comes crashing to pieces on the ground.

All systematic philosophy and theology leads, ultimately, towards this iconoclastic moment – the instant at which St. Thomas Aquinas’ eyes are opened, and he sees that his entire sophisticated structure of thought is straw.

It has to be this way. The reason for it is fairly straightforward. We are, as human beings, doomed to a kind of representational thinking in which our models of reality slowly, but inevitably, devolve away from reality. At the first stage, we come up with words, images and ideals that represent the real. So, for example, if I’m thinking about apples I’m thinking of a category in my mind called “apple,” not about an actual real red fruit hanging on a tree. At this first stage, we basically create an icon that renders truth accessible to minds, and allows us to manipulate it.

Now, from our stock of phantasms we begin to abstract, seeking patterns within the data so that we can ascend towards a higher kind of truth. Slowly, over time, the abstractions become more and more distant from the original object. And this is the crucial point: as this process takes place, there comes a moment when the fruits of our abstraction start to be projected back onto reality itself. At some point we come to believe in an ideal apple and start judging actual apples by this standard. Before you know it, you have breeders trying to create hybrids that will produce perfectly shiny, round red fruits, and workers spraying a thin layer of wax onto apples before setting them out in the store, because we will no longer accept the lopsided red-green objects that tend to grow on wild apple trees.

The ideal supplants the reality.

If you’re talking about apples, this is pretty much as far as it goes. The material fact that we have to actually digest apples, and that we have not figured out how to replicate them using entirely inorganic processes, prevents us from getting any further. Reality stubbornly persists.

But if we’re talking about spiritual goods, we can go a whole step further. We can get to the point were the icon fully replaces the reality and completes its transformation into an idol. We can arrive at the point where our complex models for describing God, or morality, come to replace God, and His love.

When this happens, the soul is in tremendous danger. I think on some level a person knows this. On the one hand, there’s a feeling of tremendous comfort: you have the answers, you’ve found the truth, you know what the good is and attaining it is just a matter of effort. Even when someone in this state denies that they have any such pretensions, the denial itself is a kind of performance: we all know that one of the features of the good is humility, so you have to demonstrate that you are humble.

Yet there’s a kind of deep-seated insecurity that plagues a person at this stage. We often become defensive, supercilious and dismissive towards those who disagree with us, overconfident in our assertions, and obstinately blind to the faults in the system. The thing that must be fought and rejected the most violently is the incursion of reality – especially those realities which disclose the weak points in our intellectual superstructure. Anyone who voices or represents these realities must be silenced, driven out, erased, or defeated. They seem like dangerous heretics because they threaten the graven images that we have come to worship in our own minds.

This crisis can continue for some time before the iconoclasm finally comes – and the truth is that there is nothing that you or I can do, individually, to bring such a crisis about. The incursion of reality into idolatry must take the form of a cataclysm and it has to come from without (otherwise you only really end up with a simulated crisis, which actually functions as yet another buttress in the overall structure of self-made holiness.) For obvious reasons, when this terrible grace finally falls it’s usually incredibly painful, even though at the same time it’s at these moments, when our minds and our bodies break under the weight of our ideals, that we finally find ourselves truly in the presence of Christ.

Image courtesy of Pixabay
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