donderdag 29 november 2012

Secular Varieties

What to do when it does not happen automatically any longer?

I mean: if believing in a God is no longer just automatically there. Indeed, isn’t this the situation of many of us? If we do not ourselves come from families where the Eternal One was still a living presence, then we're all at least heirs of traditions in which His presence obviously used to be self-evident and is not so anymore.

His absence may be experienced as a loss, even if  it was never your personal part. And also a society as a whole can miss it, even if that society is largely secularized. What do people do with that loss?

Some find a substituting idea or ideal. Perhaps physicist Robbert Burggraaf is such a person. In any case, he believes in something bordering to timeless purity, namely the existence of the unity of all human knowledge, in which everything is in a meaningful way connected. That inspires him to continuously explore the world in in his scientific studies and that earns him the meaningfulness he’s looking for.

In Jewish, even synagogual circles the loss is often quite obvious: a personal God is no longer there for everyone, and for some already so for a very long time. But a kind of compensation has been found: just continue with the rituals. Make Kiddush on Friday night and Havdalah on Saturday night. Build a booth with Sukkot, tell stories with Passover and eat diary food with Shavuot. That way you stay close to tradition and a living reality remains palpable.

In Christian circles the struggle with the loss is more intense, probably because the disappearance of theistic belief with most people took place relatively recently. Indeed, until the sixties the dogmas and proofs of God’s existence were still alive in those circles. The emptiness of modernism that has come in its place still feels raw and menacing.

To serve as a counterbalance against this threatening chill the declared atheist Ger Groot recommends post-Christian seekers to resume the ancient rituals, without the theological ideas that originally went with them. Because rituals have their own strengths and create their own reality which cannot just modernistically be effaced. And that feels warm and beneficial.

To master the art of ‘ritual without faith’ Christians look at the way many Jews practise  that already much longer. Thierry Baudet says in this respect: “It may be a good idea to reappreciate Christianity in a secular way. Many Jews do so with regard to Judaism, they often don’t believe a word of the Torah, but nevertheless discover a lot of wisdom in the religious tradition. They are proud to see themselves as Jewish, and realize that the rituals and usages in some strange way complete our existence”.

Exciting. But I do not know whether Christianity is equally well suited for this approach as Judaism is.

Also see Mission Completed

zaterdag 17 november 2012

Kant avant la lettre

Only when someone knows what is happening inside – that is to say: what is going on within himself – he appears to be able to convey that to others. Only then he can use that for communication.

This thought occurs to me after my visit to the exhibition The Road to Van Eyck in the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen. The reason for this thought is the way in which Jan van Eyck in his paintings works with light and light reflection and through illusionary effects comes closer to reality than his predecessors did.

“As one of the first he succeeded in evoking tangible reality in a convincing way” the accompanying text tells us. And he succeeded, paradoxically, precisely because he abandons the tangible real stuff.

Take for example the way he renders gold. Until Jan van Eyck real gold was used for its rendering. What more do you want, you might say, to be able to convincingly display gold. Well, that real gold appears to be much less convincing than the light dots, patches, and smudges of paint that the artist puts on the canvas, for example to show gold brocade.

Apparently Van Eyck observed in himself what was going on within him. His brain made gold out of dots and patches and smudges in a way that he found more persuasive than leaf-gold. His brain judged the unreal to be more real than the real. So Van Eyck chose for the effect that his brain produced instead of for real gold.

The thought that arises is: this is Immanuel Kant, but four hundred years avant la lettre. Indeed, Kant thought the real world to be unknowable, so to be less relevant than the world we construct using the categories of our minds. That constructed world according to Kant is our reality.

The parallel between Van Eyck and Kant shows more than just the fact that we construct a great deal of our reality ourselves. The way in which the painter, primarily in himself, must have observed what the paint did to him indicates a form of introspection that in the West brought us revolutionary cultural and philosophical changes.

The most private subject appears to be a find-spot for insights that, once they are brought out, turn out to hold for more people. Once Jan realized what was happening to him he was able to evoke the same effect in other people. This is the kind of generalization I like: that’s universality that appears from what happens, not universality which a priori is postulated by abstract reason.

This remains the eternal truth of the focus on the subject, the human individual. Only if someone knows how things come to him he appears to be able to communicate them to others. And only then a beginning of shared experience is possible, starting from a rather solitary position.

Also see Dismantling