As I have been recently insisting, Christianity, although in many ways the world’s most sophisticated religion, the root of the modernity now spread with unequal success throughout the world, is at the same time, and for the same reason, the most deliberately paradoxical: scandal to the Jews, folly to the pagans (Cor 1:23). Christianity is the one major religion that centrally depends on worldly events completely impossible in worldly terms. Around its central dogma of the Resurrection, it adds virgin birth, Immaculate Conception, and countless lesser miracles, if only to ensure that the scandal will not be for a moment forgotten.
I sometimes wonder how most ordinary Christians handle this burden, which scarcely exists for Jews or Muslims, for whom the founding miracles of their belief are little more than a worldly dressing for a purely spiritual faith. A Jew can “believe” in the Torah without trying to justify the worldly reality of the seven-day creation of the world and that of Eve from Adam’s rib. These texts can be read as of purely spiritual import without disturbing the essence of Judaism, and the same is true of the Koran—and of Buddhist Sutras. But it is not true of the Gospels. Jesus was a historical person who really died on the Cross, and a Christian must believe in his Resurrection in medias res, not in illo tempore. Protestants may not believe in the Immaculate Conception, nor perhaps even in virgin birth, but not to accept the Resurrection is to deny the core of Christian belief.
The very attractiveness of Christianity for prospective converts, no doubt still today, is its dependence on an “absurd” act of faith. This is not the same as the profession of fidelity that Jews and Muslims make to their respective religions. Christianity insists that its faithful recognize that for it to be true—and as an anthropological corollary, for religion to be true—the believer must agree that an event impossible in worldly terms has occurred within what was at the time, and still is contextually, the historical human world.
Which is to say that, from an epistemological standpoint, Christianity asks that we reappraise not our sense of reality, but our sense of transcendence. The effect of the sacred on the real world is punctual, particular; it does not disturb the “laws” that govern its quotidian reality. The “miracle” required of every Christian saint is a punctual sign that he has been chosen as an instrument of the sacred in anticipation of his soul’s residence in Heaven; it must not be treated as anything but an exception.
This suggests that this frank paradoxicality in itself has something to tell us, neither “religious” nor “secular,” but anthropological. Let us recall that the originary function of the sacred was to persuade us to act in contradiction to our “instincts,” but in such a way that would ultimately benefit ourselves as well as the community. This may have worked at first in a crisis situation dominated by fear of violence, but such situations are not typical, and a sacred limited to them would not resolve the further problems occasioned by mimetic desire, particularly as human intelligence increased.
For the sacred concerns the specific, not the general. The human community, unlike the society of animals, cannot be understood statistically; each of its members is sacred, potentially worthy of a miracle of his own as a demonstration of God’s concern—and its miraculousness is meaningful only in strict contrast to the laws of nature, which we must therefore do our best to discover.
Although the ancient Greeks are rightly considered the originators of logic, with its notion of truth as opposed to opinion, they were far less interested than one might have expected in discovering these natural laws. They were certainly interested in classifying animals and plants and observing the heavenly bodies, and constructed machines of a certain complexity, but despite their mathematical sophistication they made no effort to deduce general laws of motion, gravitation, etc., from empirical data. With practical exceptions, they were satisfied to find superficial patterns that obeyed an economy of thought. Thus they considered planetary orbits to be circular because this was “easier to think,” rather than seeking empirically to discover the specific logic of their components.
Whereas the Greeks, like the Chinese, Hindus, and Arabs, were only incidentally concerned to investigate the workings of reality, it was rather the Christian West’s believers in transcendental miracles who did so systematically, and by applying the results of these investigations to practical ends, created the world of modern science and technology. In How the West Won: The Neglected Story of the Triumph of Modernity (Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2014), Rodney Stark insisted that although the example of Galileo’s trial is often cited as a demonstration of the Church’s hostility to modern science, the latter’s emergence was on the contrary inextricably tied to researches carried on in medieval monasteries and universities. The Christian faith in miracles as exceptions to the world order must be seen as providing a special incentive to its believers to seek out and codify, if necessary through the invention of new mathematical techniques, the regularities of this order, which the more spiritualistic faiths of the East dismissed as of limited interest.
This allows us to add a nuance to the comparison in Chronicles 515–16 between Zeno’s
“Western” paradoxes of motion and Nagarjuna’s semantic paradoxes, which by denying the ability of language to convey information about reality are intended to turn our minds as far away as possible from the search to model nature through sophisticated mathematics. The Buddhist wants us to reject the attraction of worldly trivia to focus our attention on the locus of attention itself, the scene of representation, inhabited, so to speak, by the sacred alone. Thus rather than concerning itself with objects of common desire, Buddhist techniques of meditation focus on objects deliberately chosen for their lack of capacity to distract our attention from the sacred itself.
In contrast to this otherworldliness, Zeno’s paradoxes of motion should be understood as signs of Western fascination with the real world and its mysteries—yet not to the point of attempting to modify the self-evidence of common sense to the point of being able to account for them. It was well over a millennium before Newton and Leibniz, good Christians both, would take reality seriously enough to adapt “reason” to it. This is something that even Archimedes, whose famous eureka—Bernard Lonergan’s exemplary Insight (Philosophical Library, 1957)—came to him via his bodily immersion in bathwater, was not prepared to do. The scientific advances that Rodney Stark pointedly insists were in no way in contradiction with the foundations of Christian thinking—a truth that has eventually reconciled the Church even with Darwin—required distrust, not at all of reason, but of common sense as its ultimate criterion, along with a drive to understand God’s creation by making use of the tools of culture that God made available to us.
Thus the most paradox-friendly world-view is, paradoxically enough, the most accepting of the anti-intuitive aspects of reality, which intuition can grasp only through the laborious exercise of observation and reason—the “scientific method.” This is taken to the point today that in most scientific fields, only a few experts can be trusted to understand specific results, not because, like Chinese mandarins or Sumerian cuneiform scribes, they have been obliged to learn an arcane writing system, but simply because they have worked through the difficulties of the reasoning necessary to understand them.
This notion of a rational esotericism, which we today take for granted, is superficially counter-intuitive. Yet Western culture is built on the certitude that transcendental faith in God’s occasional miraculous intentions does not contradict but, on the contrary, guarantees an equally transcendental faith that none of the apparent mysteries of God’s creation are ontologically beyond althe powers of our “Godlike” reason.
As Stark points out, this latter faith is grounded in the Judeo-Christian confidence that the world was given to us to explore and fructify and that it hides no “chthonic” secrets, such as we find in the Dionysian side of Classical culture—which in the post-Classical world remained, until Nietzsche, all but wholly subordinated to the Apollonian. The “Faustian” aim of Christianity, to use Spengler’s term, is to understand everything worldly, to reserve mystery for the sacred alone. We are in no way falsifying Christianity to say that Galileo and Einstein and even Darwin are in no fundamental sense in tension with the Scriptures.
To take this line of reasoning farther, the conclusions of generative anthropology that the evolution of humans follows from that of life and that our discovery/invention of the sacred can be understood in wholly material/behavioral terms may equally well be understood as fully compatible with Christianity, whose explicitly supernatural manifestations are limited to the miracles that establish it. Whence the validity of the intuition of Girard and others that Christianity can be seen as a liminal religion, an almost-exit from religion, whose anthropological understanding has reached the boundary point where the attribution of the sacred to the human or the human to the sacred are about to become indistinguishable.
This does not, as might appear at first glance, suggest that we can jettison the miraculous, sacred element and remain with Spinoza’s Deus sive Natura. On the contrary, without the sacred, we would never have been able to, even thought to, penetrate beneath the surface of nature to describe its structures in increasingly fine detail. If, as GA hypothesizes, human language and all it implies about our mental processes is a product, at the very least, of our intuition of the sacred, then we cannot imagine our ever-increasing understanding of nature in the absence of the sacred.
As a non-expert in this domain, I respect the intuition of mycolleague in the UCLA Physics Department who views the ongoing discovery of new particles and phenomena ever farther along what Pascal called the “two infinities” of great and small as a process with no foreseeable end. The lure of discovering Nature’s ultimate secret, the “theory of everything,” which drives scientists to create ever more powerful atom smashers, is most likely forever beyond our grasp. But unlike Zeno contemplating his paradoxes, we remain confident that infinite reality is at the same time infinitely knowable. We can always learn more about it, however much farther we find ourselves from grasping it as a whole than we imagined a century ago, when Niels Bohr conceived his first models of subatomic structures.
The apparently unlimited depth of reality is, after all, a promise of potential eternity for our species, whose capacity for multiplying its intelligence has no obvious limit, and who will never have to weep for a lack of worlds to conquer. We cannot know whether this “Faustian” limitlessness is ultimately a good thing or a promise of self-destruction, but it strongly suggests that philosophies/religions of limitation such as Buddhism cannot impose these limits on the human race—while hinting that it may well be unfortunate, even fatal, for our species that they cannot do so.
In conclusion, were it not for the current threats of nuclear war whose possibility of realization we have no reliable means of estimating, we would be justified in viewing the current low point of Western self-consciousness as a reaction to the overconfidence that followed victory first in WWII and then in the Cold War, one that should ultimately be of little consequence to the socio-economic superiority of the Western-originated system of liberal democracy. The extraordinary incompetence of our present political leadership is itself a product of this overconfidence, and were it not for these threats, all signs indicate that it too would likely be corrected before this system suffers serious consequences.