April 2, 2009

Voyage into Flatland?

Synchronicity, maybe.

The writings of Gregory Schopen, an iconoclastic Buddhist academician/researcher have become a topic in the Buddhoblogosphere at the same time that a very curious article about the evolution of Christianity came out in the new April issue of Atlantic magazine.

There are things similar about Schopen's focus in his writing and the thrust of the Atlantic piece, "...One World, Under God." Both have me wondering if Flatland Thinking plays a part, restricting the understanding of both Schopen and Robert Wright, the author of the Atlantic article.

As concisely as I can, here is a description of what is meant by flatland, borrowing loosely from Ken Wilber's book Integral Psychology:
Modernity, as compared to premodernity, managed to differentiate the Big Three of art, morals and science, on a large scale, so that each began to make phenomenal discoveries. But as the Big Three dissociated, and scientific imperialism began its aggressive career, all ‘Is’ and all ‘we’s’ were reduced to patterns of objective ‘its’, and thus all the interior stages of consciousness – reaching from body to mind to soul to spirit – were summarily dismissed as so much superstitious nonsense. The Great Nest collapsed into scientific materialism – into what Wilber calls “flatland” – and here the modern world, by and large, still remains.
In his Atlantic article, Robert Wright tells us that new "clues" that "come from the modern world, and they’re all around us" tell us that "[f]or Paul, the doctrines that now form the most-inspiring parts of the Christian message are, in a sense, business tools. They are tools that let him use the information technology of his day, the epistle, to extend his brand, the Jesus brand, across the vast, open, multinational platform offered by the Roman Empire.

"To conventional Christians, this may sound doubly dispiriting. First, Jesus wasn’t really Jesus; he didn’t really preach the deep moral truths that have given weight to the claim that he was the son of an infinitely good God. And, ... those truths, when they finally did enter the Christian tradition, emerged not so much from philosophical reflection as from pragmatic calculation and other disappointingly mundane forces."

Schopen, for his part, seems to regale in discoveries that associate early Buddhism with sometimes seemingly-shockingly mundane activities for the modern era, instead of those high-minded things we associate with canonical texts.

In his review of a collection of Schopen essays called Bones, Stones, and Buddhist Monks: Collected Papers on the Archaeology, Epigraphy, and Texts of Monastic Buddhism in India Arnold Dan writes [emphases, mine],
... when reading these essays all at once, one is struck by the recurrent statement of a specious dichotomy between what religious people "actually did," and what canonical texts say they should have done. Overcorrecting the biases of his philological predecessors, Schopen insists on this dichotomy in a way, it seems to me, that reflects a problematic view of how canonical texts must have been used -- a view according to which, if attested behavior contradicts such texts, they must simply not have been used.

If Schopen's predecessors have taken it as [quoting Schopen] "axiomatic" that Buddhist texts unproblematically reflect Buddhist practice (and too often, no doubt, they have), Schopen almost seems to take it as axiomatic that, where texts and practice seem to disagree, there must simply have been no knowledge of the textual tradition. It seems to me that the more interesting possibility (and the one we are more entitled to entertain) is that both practices and texts coexisted, but that despite our sense of frequent contradiction between these, no cognitive dissonance was involved for Indian Buddhists. Perhaps, that is, it is only modern Buddhologists who have made the mistake of taking canonical texts as straightforwardly descriptive, with Indian Buddhist "doctrinal specialists" having recognized all along that that is not how such texts are used. And in fact, as Steven Collins has richly shown in his works, the canonical texts themselves frequently reflect something very much like such an awareness.

It seems to me that what is called for in light of Schopen's cogent and erudite work is not so much the conclusion that there is a sharp distinction between "what religious people actually did" and the texts favored by traditional philological scholars, but rather that being religious is a sufficiently complex affair that the same people who write (and use) scholastic texts might in fact be involved (and without experiencing any conflict) in practices that might seem to us to contradict such texts. What is called for, that is, is a richer theorization of the phenomena of "real religious people" and what they "actually did."
Robert Wright, in his article on Christianity, gives utterly no credence to the possiblity that Christ or Paul were anything other than ambitious entrepreneurs of a religious franchise. Wright sees nothing in the way of soul or spirit in either.

Wright writes of Paul,
[T]he origins of Paul’s doctrine of interethnic love lie not in his own loving-kindness, though for all we know he mustered much of that in the course of his life. The doctrine emerges from the interplay between Paul’s driving ambitions and his social environment.
And further,

It may sound implausible that a doctrine of true, pure, boundless love could emerge from the strategic imperatives of entrepreneurship, even when the enterprise is a religion. And, actually, it is implausible. What emerged with early Christianity isn’t really what many Christians like to believe: a God of “universal” love. The core appeal of the early church, remember, was that “brotherly love” was a form of familial love. And familial love is discerning—it is directed inwardly, not outwardly; toward kin, not toward everyone.

This is the kind of love Paul usually preaches—love directed first and foremost toward other Christians. “Love one another with mutual affection,” he tells the Romans. “Through love become slaves to one another,” he instructs members of the Galatian congregation.

This isn’t to say that his preachings offer no foundation for a more truly universal love. He often exhorts Christians to extend hospitality to the unconverted, and sometimes he goes further. He tells the Thessalonians, “May the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all.” Still, he isn’t in the habit of putting Christians and non-Christians on quite the same plane. He tells the
: “Let us work for the good of all, and especially for those of the
family of faith.”

Paul is treading a fine line—occasionally urging a kind of “love” for non-Christians, yet suggesting that it be a less powerful motivator for generosity than the “brotherly love” he champions among Christians. Treading this line was a key to Christianity’s early success.
At the end of his piece, Wright reveals his thesis: "people are capable of expanding tolerance and understanding in response to facts on the ground; and even mandates from heaven can change in response." The science of self-interest leads morality around by its nose-ring. Flatland thinking, eh?

I don't know nearly enough about Schopen to pin Flatland Thinking to him, but I have to wonder if his insistant contrarianism is flavored by a failure to see by the Morning Star of higher consciousness.


Mumon said...

I get this far:

But as the Big Three dissociated, and scientific
imperialism began its aggressive career, all ‘Is’ and all ‘we’s’ were reduced to
patterns of objective ‘its’, and thus all the interior stages of consciousness –
reaching from body to mind to soul to spirit – were summarily dismissed as so
much superstitious nonsense. The Great Nest collapsed into scientific
materialism – into what Wilber calls “flatland” – and here the modern world, by
and large, still remains.

In order for Wilber's narrative to be convincing, to me at any rate, one would have to downplay the advances in linguistics, automata, theory of computation and related areas that have shed light on the limits of language itself.

Moreover, the philosophic of science has evolved so that science talks about and deals with things that are observable.

That it says nothing about "interior stages of consciousness," whatever that is, is because it's not observable, in the sense that an outside observer can do anything with it.

Science doesn't talk about the metaphysical, and "higher consciousness" or not, because we know better what language is, what measurements are, and how they can be usefully applied to learn more about where we are. The idea that this therefore defines a metaphysic - that anything outside the observable is "superstition" while not even wrong, as they say,it is also, I would think, not exactly a pressing issue, especially given the plethora of moral imperatives needed to get by in this world.

On the other hand, that Atlantic article in discussing Paul is bizarre in the extreme, and no less revisionist than the atheist views of Paul, except for the fact that the latter make a better moral case against Paul, if by his fruits he'd be judged.

Tom said...


I was really only meaning to get to the idea of "flatland," not to denegrade science.

Wilber [and I] laud the dignity of modernity and the advances of science! Hooray, science. It is just that scientific imperialism denegrades or denies interiority, and the mysterious [to any objectivist robot] contribution of emotion, feeling, insight or conscious experience.

"Green" is not just the measure of a wave length.

I am no Christian, but the writer of the Atlantic piece needs to, at least, recognize that Paul might have been motivated by something other than self-interest.

Truly, the article is ridiculous. Before he was in prison, Paul spent most of his time making tents, instead of accepting payment to be a preacher full time. [see I Cointh 9, I think it is.]

Were he really attending to an ambition of making himself The Big Cheese of something or other, he'd surely have re-scheduled his tentmaking time wholly to writing and rallying people to join Jesus Incorporated.

I'm no great fan of Paul. I think he was duplicitous, but only for reason of broadening the pathway to salvation, as he saw it.

Mumon said...


Apologies for the delay in responding, but the idea of "scientific imperialism," is no more or no less than, say, "number-theoretic materialism," because both disciplines contain within themselves the notions, nah, the rather well developed ideas of their respective disciplines limitations.

"Interiority" is simply not within the language of science to describe, let alone denigrate, just as the notions using sets of subsets of the continuum aren't within the province of number theory, except insofar as they're used to show that they're not, uh, in the province of number theory.

That's my main beef with Wilber - he should and probably does know better.

And, as a straw-man, often folks like Dawkins are invoked, but Dawkins will be among the first to note that even if it is granted that we are no more than electro-chemical-physical processes, we still have an enormous value on experience (and hence "interiority.")

Of course, I don't really have a dog in these fights except insofar as that Shinto guy at sumo matches might act, metaphorically speaking.

Or to put it another way, I'd prefer the contestants to play fairly, even though it's not likely that a result or agreement will be reached.

Let me toss a bit of salt into the ring.

Tom said...

But, Mumon, the issues I'm address have everything to do with interiority.

The Atlantic article is blantant at reading Paul as being wholly out to increase the market share of Christianity in the gentile world. Wright sees that as Paul's sole motivation. And, no doubt, letters and a better understanding of the world Paul was in contribe to this exterior assessment.

But surely it is at least also true that Paul was motivated by his religious belief [interiority] to get out the Good News.

Wright damns Paul for writing, “Let us work for the good of all, and especially for those of the family of faith.” He says this shows Paul to be, effectively, still tribalist in his approach. But those words are about WORK regarding a religion that was both spreading and threatened. One can direct ones WORK or EFFORT; there's nothing damning about a commitment to universalizing love in that.

The problem with respect to imperial scientism is that Wright's approach reads what happens wholly from the outside, without consideration to what Paul was like on the inside.

Mumon said...

Thanks for the reply/clarificaiton.

Once upon a time there were people like Saul of Tarsus that thought they had good medicine.

Sure they believed in it.

I get your point; though your response triggered something in my mind: another hypothesis.

Paul likely had no friggin' clue ultimately why he was doing what he was doing.

Calling it "interior" as opposed to "exterior" doesn't do it justice (but I'd not be surprised if such phenomena were labeled as such).

Perhaps "karma convolved with the unconscious" is more apt a descriptor of where I'm trying to point.

It's evidently easy to put a meat machine on autopilot. It's hard to get said person to become aware he's on autopilot.