Monday, December 31, 2012

The Meaning of Life

Walter Russell Mead has written an interesting "Yule Blog" on the centrality of meaning to human life.
"Our lives in the world point us towards something beyond the facts of our lives. Eating, drinking, making babies: this is all very well, but our lives do more than revolve around the simple biological necessities. They point us toward meaning. 
"Most people, including the very large majority of those people who say they are atheists, believe that life means something. To those who believe that life means something, the moral feelings we have about justice and duty (for example) aren’t just random biological signals that flash across our neurons in response to evolutionary patterns. We sometimes can’t articulate why this is true, but we feel that it matters that we do the right thing: that we bring up our kids well, that we honor our parents and care for them when they are old, that we remain loyal to our spouses and keep our wedding vows, that we behave fairly in our dealings with other people and that we contribute to the greater good through the way we live our lives. There are people and causes for which many of us are willing (though perhaps not particularly eager) to die. 
"Maybe we feel this way because we are biologically hard-wired to do so, but the fact is that the overwhelming majority of people around the world believe that life counts and that the whole is somehow greater than the sum of the parts.
"This feeling that there is some meaning to our lives is the basis, I think, not only for the Christian religion and for all religions and mystical experiences; it is the basis for the many noble forms of ethical thought and philosophical reflection found among atheists and agnostics. Anyone who feels the pull of a higher path and greater responsibilities than just blindly grabbing what can be seized is moved by a vision of something outside ones own life that compels our allegiance and respect: a vision of what matters and a sense of life’s meaning.
"That sense of life’s meaning is our sense of the transcendent: a sense that our experience points beyond itself to something important."

Monday, December 24, 2012

Where is He?

"We apprehend Him in the alternate voids and fullnesses of a cathedral: in the space that separates the salient features of a picture: in the living geometry of a flower, a seashell, an animal: in the pauses and intervals between the notes of music, in their difference and sonority: and finally on the plane of conduct, in the love and gentleness, the confidence and humility which give beauty to the relationship between human beings."
--Aldous Huxley

Friday, December 21, 2012


This living hand, now warm and capable
Of earnest grasping, would, if it were cold
And in the icy silence of the tomb,
So haunt thy days and chill thy dreaming nights
That thou wouldst wish thine own heart dry of blood
So in my veins red life might stream again,
And thou be conscience-calm'd -- see here it is --
I hold it towards you.
--Keats (1819)

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Life of Pi: the Art of Reconciliation

Seeing the magnificent Life of Pi movie this weekend, I was reminded of Robert A. Johnson's insightful book, Owning Your Own Shadow: Understanding the Dark Side of the Psyche (1991). 
Robert A. Johnson

In it he discusses an image from medieval Christianity that has largely been forgotten: the mandorla.  Though similar in meaning to the holistic circle of the Hindu/Buddhist mandala, the mandorla is actually the almond-shaped intersection of two overlapping circles, symbolizing the overlap of opposites. 
In medieval Christianity it was used to describe the overlap of heaven and earth, and often surrounded images of Christ, the Divine Incarnation.
For Johnson the image gives insight into the healing ways of both religion and art.  It is the duty of true poets, he says, "to take the fragmented world that we find ourselves in and to make a unity of it."  The same holds true for the storyteller:
Yann Martel, author of Life of Pi
"All good stories are mandorlas.  They speak of this and that and gradually, through the miracle of story, demonstrate that the opposites overlap and are finally the same."
Director Ang Lee

Johnson brings up the story of Moses and the burning bush, a metaphor of the impossible situation where two orders of reality have been superimposed.

"Whenever you have a clash of opposites in your being and neither will give way to the other (the bush will not be consumed and the fire will not stop), you can be certain that God is present. We dislike this experience intensely and avoid it at any cost; but if we can endure it, the conflict-without-resolution is a direct experience of God."
Next time you're caught between a rock and hard place (or stuck on a lifeboat with a tiger), in the midst of your suffering try to remember: "The religious experience lies exactly at that point of insolubility where we feel we can proceed no further." The struggle becomes an act of heroic endurance, what Johnson calls highly conscious waiting. "The ego can do no more; it must wait for that which is greater than itself."