Miracle and Sense

[minor revisions, 2/20/2016]

This meditation, a complement to my recent “Saving Selving,” developed from a little verse that I wrote more than fifteen years ago. Back then, I titled the verse “Dōgen’s Miracle” because it had been inspired by a reading of Zen master Dōgen (13th century C.E.).

walk on water
second water
carry water

The verse refers to a classification used in the gem business. A diamond of the highest quality, one that is as clear as pure water, is said to be of the first water. A diamond of lesser purity would be rated as of the second or even third water. So the verse asserts that to walk on water, as Jesus is said to have done, is a miracle of the second water, of lesser quality. The finest, purest miracle is that we carry water, that we exist and that we can and do care for ourselves and others. The verse also carries the implication that one who would walk on water must first perform the taken-for-granted activities that sustain and express our existence—the unnoticed quotidian miracles of human life. Those, after all, are the truly important things.

Of course, many of us no longer carry water. We have accomplished the miracle of having water come to us, even into our dwelling places, at our demand. In one sense, that’s surely a tremendous gain. But does it make us even more likely to forget about the mundanely miraculous, more likely to require walkings on water for the meaning, the sense, of our lives?

Reading Jean-Luc Nancy last night, I was struck by his reference to “sense beyond sense.”1 Tradi­tion­ally, what some call “ontotheology” has posited, believed in, a sense beyond the world: the world makes sense because God exists and transcends it. The world makes sense because, as it were, Jesus walked on water: sense does not inhere in the world but is derived from the world’s subservience to the divine. To go beyond such wishful thinking is often to move into nihilism, or “non-sense.” But Nancy offers a different perspective. For Nancy, the world no longer has sense; it is sense.

[Neither do] we have to orient ourselves in a state of complete blindness, nor [is it] a matter of indifference that we are disoriented, and that there is no difference between the best and the worst. On the contrary … there is no sense given anywhere that could make us tolerate the intolerable, no more than there is non-sense in virtue of which we could disqualify or annul existence. In other words, this means that ‘nihilism’ dissolves every bit as much as any ‘idealism’ (or ‘metaphysics’ in this sense) because it, too, remains in the final analysis submitted to the regime of supposition. It dissolves at the touch of the absolute point of existence.2

“The absolute point of existence”: reading that, I think not so much of Eliot’s “the still point of the turning world” as of the immediate encounter with life—the life of community in which alone we exist—that is signified in Zen’s simple image of drawing and carrying water for self and others. This is radically different from the totalizing idea of community that we find incarnate in party, state, church—the kind of herd mentality or “Church patriotism” that Simone Weil feared would infect her if she joined the church:

I am afraid of the Church patriotism existing in Catholic circles. By patriotism I mean the feeling one has for a terrestrial country. I am afraid of it because I fear to catch it. It is not that the Church appears to me to be unworthy of inspiring such a feeling. It is because I do not want any feeling of such a kind in myself. The word want is not accurate. I know, I feel quite certain, that any feeling of this kind, whatever its object, would be fatal for me.

There were some saints who approved of the Crusades or the Inquisition. I cannot help thinking that they were in the wrong. I cannot go against the light of conscience. If I think that on this point I see more clearly than they did, I who am so far below them, I must admit that in this matter they were blinded by something very powerful. This something was the Church seen as a social structure. If this social structure did them harm, what harm would it not do me, who am particularly susceptible to social influences and who am almost infinitely more feeble than they were?3

Those saints had succumbed to the totalizing claims of the walking-on-water lie, the myth of the miraculous. Community for them was imposed, artificial; it was far from, even a denial of, the simple, natural community of those who need water. Their community was bound together by the “making sense” that their belief gave them, a sense by which they sought to “tolerate the intolerable” rather than allow the raw experience of the intolerable to awaken the transforming compassion of being-with. Their world made sense only in light of the closure of their belief in God and his ecclesial system, and, warned by the story of Peter who sank when his belief faltered, they fought tooth and nail to preserve that sense. They wanted to close the world within their system and to feel safe—saved—there. But some of us want to open the world, or, better, to recognize and enter into the openness of the world, opening ourselves to the sense of the world itself.

As soon as the appearance of a beyond of the world has dissipated, the out-of-place instance of sense opens itself up within the world (to the extent that it would still make sense to talk of a ‘within’).4

That is not, of course, to move the “out there” to the “in here,” but to recognize that the world itself is sense. It is to stop imagining that one could walk on water—or that someone has done it for us—and to pick up the pail. Then we may find that to carry water is much more useful and meaningful than to walk on it. And we may find ourselves in a first-water community that is not bound and tyrannized by the frantic effort to force life to “make sense,” a community in which we can acknowledge and support each other in what we actually are, terribly temporary beings who not only are radically contingent but who also know that we are.

A community is the presentation to its members of their mortal truth (…). It is the presentation of the finitude and the irredeemable excess that make up finite being: its death, but also its birth, and only the community can present me my birth, and along with it the impossibility of my reliving it, as well as the impossibility of my crossing over into my death.5

It is said that when confronted by a rival who claimed that his teacher could perform miracles, including walking on water, Zen master Bankei replied, “My miracle is this: when I’m hungry, I eat; when I’m tired, I sleep.” Commentators sometimes seek to add to the master’s statement, opining, for example, that he was actually boasting of his single-mindedness in every activity. I don’t think so; I think that he was pointing directly to life, to nothing more or less than eating and sleeping, carrying water and chopping wood. I think that he was pointing to the sense that the world is (rather than makes or has)—to the unspeakable, breaking-open sense that we sense at the “absolute point of existence.”

I can’t speak for Nancy, and I can’t claim to have read much of his work with understanding. Nor can I speak for long-dead Bankei. I hope I will be forgiven if I have misinterpreted either or both of them. For myself, though, long past belief in divine beings, and lately shaped by an ever-deepening intuition of the non­existence that is death (“the impossibility of my crossing over into my death”), I can trust no one who walks on water, nor any whose master does. I hope for no miracles, now or after death, beyond the present miracle of our shared existence. I simply want to carry water for as long as I can, and then as now to accept graciously that which other, stronger people carry to me, we all the while resisting together the victory of the intolerable, until I am no more.

1. Jean-Luc Nancy, Dis-Enclosure: The Deconstruction of Christianity, trans. Bergo, Malenfant, and Smith (New York, Forham University Press. 2008), page 126.
2. Nancy, The Sense of the World, trans. Librett (Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press. 1997), p. 79; quoted in “The Sense of Being(-)With Jean-Luc Nancy” by Ignaas Devisch in Culture Machine 8, 2006.
3. Simone Weil, Waiting for God (G. P. Putnam’s Sons, Capricorn Books Edition. 1959), p. 53.
4. Nancy, The Sense of the World (quoted in Devisch; see note 2, above), p. 55.
5. Nancy, The Inoperative Community (Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press. 1991), p. 15. Quoted in “The Community according to Jean-Luc Nancy and Claire Denis” by Anja Streiter, Film-Philosophy 12.1, April 2008.

12 thoughts on “Miracle and Sense

  1. I’ve been thinking of similar things. For instance, while petting my kitten and feeling the hard line of its skull under its soft fur, I realized the absolute amazing reality of Life itself. As the kitten purred and stretched under my hand, it felt far more impossible than any miracle I could conceive. It terrifies me a little.

  2. George, to me this “patriotism” (which does infect the Catholic Church, and other institutions; I hope not Friends, but maybe that is because we are not big enough) is what some people call “tribalism”. We divide ourselves into rival tribes.

    I don’t understand what Nancy means here (and I’ve always found it hard to understand what ontotheology means; though your remarks help me). But I’ve been thinking recently about how supernatural beliefs reflect hatred of the world (not “the world”, the social lie, but the world that God made). God loves the world, and if we made in the image of God, we should love it also.

    An atheist friend opened my eyes a few years ago to the wonder in the natural world, and I’ve tried to be aware of my own tendency to wander in abstraction and to actually look around at the world around me. Hystery, I don’t have any kittens available 😦 but I know what you mean.

  3. Rudy,

    I find both wonder and horror in the natural world: perhaps something close to the old meaning of “awe.” I find myself in the paradoxical/contradictory moral situation of needing to both respect “nature” and, at the same time, resist its inherent mechanism of natural selection. But to reject the natural world (or that contradiction) in favor of an imaginary/supernatural/ideal world seems to me to be indefensible moral nihilism.

    Following writers like Derrida, I use “ontotheology” as pretty much equivalent to “metaphysics.” Mary Jane Rubenstein offers a helpful discussion of the term in her “Unknow Thyself: Apophaticism, Deconstruction, and Theology after Ontotheology” — see page 3 of the pdf (page 389 of the original issue of Modern Theology 19:3), which is available at http://mrubenstein.faculty.wesleyan.edu/files//web2apps/webapps/wordpress/html/wp-content/blogs.dir/286/files//2008/11/unknown-thyself.pdf

  4. Thanks George, for the reference. I didn’t check the box below, so I didn’t see your followup until today.

    What do you make of the attempts to ground morality in the evolution of cooperation or game playing among lower primates (our ancestors)? Part of me wants to say that it’s no more relevant to our moral thinking than the evolution of language is to novel writing. At the same time it seems intellectually promising to me in a way that say, rational choice theory never did.

  5. It seems to me that if we are evolved beings – and we are – then everything about us is evolved. We don’t need gods for morality, and indeed the history of monotheistic religion, with its multitude of conflicting and evolving truth-claims and moral absolutes, would be sufficient evidence for the failure of the supernatural hypothesis even without the light of evolutionary theory.

    So yes, I do see that morality, like every other aspect of human existence, is grounded in our biological and social evolutionary development. And I see no reason to assume – on the contrary, I see ample reasons to deny – that the fact of our evolution means that we all think, feel, and decide in the same way. As a result, I am able to understand Quaker morality as an aberration that seems immoral to many sincere people – and certainly stupid to people who believe that moral decisions are made on the basis of reason.

  6. George,

    I can see the “grounding” in our biological evolution, but it seems to me that the phrase “social evolution” gets its power from a metaphor.

    I see a long history of religious and philosophical ethical argument that doesn’t at first glance look like evolution, except in the somewhat trivial sense that some ideas survived and some didn’t (but if they are rediscovered, are they the same ideas that disappeared? Is ancient Indian materialism the same notion as modern materialism? Why do we still read the stoics?)

    You mention reason at the end; isn’t that a metaphysical notion? If we just have ethical evolution with its winners and losers, where does reason come into it? Wouldn’t it be meaningless, just a move in a rhetorical game?

  7. George,

    Maybe I am misusing the word “metaphysical” here. I was trying to get at the idea that reason, or reasoning about a topic, somehow is beyond the particular, parochial perspectives produced by “social evolution”, in analogy to mathematics.

    So, it is transcendent, the way that metaphysics is transcendent.

    My bigger worry, though, is with the idea that morality is an evolutionary product (first a product of our evolution as cooperative, social primates, and then perhaps elaborated in cultural evolution). Since evolution is neutral, not aiming at any goal, this seems to end in Nietzsche’s perspectivism, or something like it.

    Does this make Quaker morality just another perspective? and what happens to the people who believe moral decisions are made on the basis of reason, that you mention. Are they wrong, or limited anyway, because they don’t appreciate the existence of other perspectives, or are they wrong because their appeal to reason is a mistake?

    I hope I haven’t misunderstood you too badly.

    Thank you for the link to Dr. Rubenstein’s paper. It is was too hard going for me, but looking at her website I found her Sam Harris article which I enjoyed – but which doesn’t discuss ontotheology 😦

  8. Rudy, I don’t see how moral reasoning can be as pure as mathematical reasoning. Further, if reason is the basis for morality, why do reasonable people disagree about moral decisions? In my clinical practice, for example, I see that much reasoning, and particularly moral reasoning, is colored (as Nietzsche and Freud would predict) by unconscious motivation and the individual brain’s development and structure — and yet it seems purely rational to the reasoner. I also wonder if the moral reasoning process is not in practice post-moral, in that the premise/s of rational decision-making, prior to the reasoning process, is/are where the actual moral principle subsists — reasoning being the application of the implications of the premise.

    More important for me in this conversation between us, though, are the following questions. First, do you feel that the recognition of the evolutionary origin of morality necessarily leads to a perspectivist understanding? And second, why is, well, a perspectival perspective a big worry for you? Do you feel that morality must be absolute? Do you feel that a valid ethic must have some sort of metaphysical guarantee? I am not an ethicist, and I can’t promise to offer a useful or even interesting dialogue on these issues, but I am interested in how you feel and what your concerns are.

  9. George, I’m sorry it’s taken me weeks to get back to your post. Every time I started, I realized I couldn’t really articulate what was worrisome to me about the “evolutionary origin of morality”. Maybe because “origin” wasn’t really the problem, but destination: the randomness of evolution seems to point nowhere in particular. So I guess yes, I need some kind of guarantee that says that (at the extreme, say) slavery is wrong, not just that our society has somehow gotten a social idea that it’s wrong, or that we’ve discarded the idea for economic reasons; “economics” standing in for “social evolution” here I guess.

    Looking around your web site I found your post on the dark side of liberal Quakerism, and your remark that evolution represents the fall. What do you think of Girard’s anthropology? Somehow thinking of all of evolution as the fall seems a much more radical move than his!

    Is all this a big worry for me? Well, I was attracted to Quakerism originally by wanting to find a place where the pragmatic argument against pacifism didn’t matter, or was transcended, or at least that fit my intuition (perspective? prejudice?) That was a long time ago, though, it took me quite a long time to actually become a regular Quaker.

  10. Rudy, slavery is an interesting example. Until relatively recent times, it was widely thought in the West to be moral and even to be ordained of God, the supposed source of absolute morality. The question of pacifism is relevant here, too; from the “normal” absolutist perspective, pacifists are immoral people—probably cowards hiding behind a shield of self-righteousness, but at the least grievously mistaken about morality.

    On the Fall: from the perspective of primitive Quakerism, which did not know about evolution as we understand it, human, or Adamic, nature is thoroughly corrupted; we are saved, therefore, by taking on the divine nature in Christ, in which we are perfected. From our contemporary perspective, however, evolved human nature includes both the Adamic and the Christic elements, so the question for us is not “which are you?” but “which orients you?”

    I’m intrigued by Girard’s thought, but I can’t help but feel that he oversimplifies. Maybe I’ll have time to study him more thoroughly some day.

  11. Sometimes walking on water is carrying water. When Jesus walked on water he was carrying water. Those who can neither walk on water nor carry water need One who is able to do both. And it is by this walking and carrying that the lame shall enter first.

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