Wednesday, 11 January 2012

Kristor on spiritual maps

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From the comments to yesterday's posting, a mini-essay from Kristor:

The way I have parsed this is to distinguish between map and territory. Scholasticism, and more generally philosophy and theology – including even Eastern mystical theology – are maps. You get into trouble when you begin to be more attached to your map than to the territory.

When it comes to theology, this error arises when the thinking is dissociated in the thinker’s life from his direct devotional/mystical/revelatory experience. My reading of Aquinas indicates to me that his thought life was definitely not dissociated from his devotional life, or, for that matter, from concrete experience in general. On the contrary, Aquinas is one of the most concrete, common-sense philosophers I have read. Many of his refutations – perhaps even most of them – are of doctrines that are radically incompatible with life as we actually experience it, but that have nevertheless grown popular enough to call for their refutation.

If you hike along treating your map as more authoritative than the territory, you are going to get lost, because maps can be properly interpreted only in terms of and by reference to the territory. So, Scholastic philosophy can be terribly useful and enlightening, but it should not ever become the main thing.

Similar caveats apply to scientific life, to politics, to legalism (ecclesial and secular) – to life in general. Scholars are particularly prone to this danger of idolizing the map, but anyone who has tasted the allure of that delicious feeling of systemic intellectual mastery is vulnerable. Orthodoxy, Catholicism, and Protestantism are all equally susceptible to this error (this is why, despite the overwhelming force and integrity of the mystical experience common to all 3 traditions, the schisms perdure). 

And, these days, the set of people who have been seduced by the temptation to intellectual mastery includes most of the population. Much of your work is about how our culture has got itself all tied up in great messy knots – in falsehood, error, sin, and wickedness – through an over-emphasis on rules, procedures, committees, etc. Viz., any of your stuff on pc, bureaucracy, etc. Much of our current problem as a culture derives from the fact that most of our people are wholly employed in dealing with these map issues; almost all “knowledge workers” are spending their lives on interpreting and reconciling maps, and never ever raise their heads to look out the window. I have referred to this portion of the economy as the “fake” economy.

On the other hand, if you try to get through the wilderness without a map, you are going to have a much, much harder time of it – and the chance of getting lost in such a situation is far, far greater than it would be if you had even the most sketchy and inaccurate map. I know this from experience! Having a lousy map is infinitely better than having no map at all, especially when lives are at stake (NB: lives are always at stake). It can be done – that’s how maps get charted in the first place – but it’s a lot harder, and more error-prone.

One may of course hire a guide, who knows the territory directly. One may apprentice oneself to a master; sooner or later, advancement in the spiritual life depends upon this step. There aren’t many masters, these days, or ever, I suppose. So, most people must fall back on maps.


As to where we go from here, I think you are right that simply substituting the old maps for the current maps is not going to work. Because they interpret things in such radically whacked categories, that would seem to our modernist interlocutors as if we were speaking Latin at them. From the modern perspective, the Traditionalist maps are simply incomprehensible; indeed, they seem like wicked deluded nonsense. 

No; we need to confront the territory directly. One must first experience the truth in order to know it, or to know that one has known it, or then – last of all – to try to formalize it in a statement or map that others can use, can follow, back to that experience of truth. Experience of truth is the main thing, the first thing, always.

Where we must start then is to keep pointing out to moderns that their map is deeply whacked; that it is leading us directly over the precipice. We must point to the precipices that now surround us on every side but one (the one that leads back over the way we traversed in order to get to this tiny point of cornice, high above the abyss); as in, “Hallo! Look at the demographic death that is already upon us!” Once they see themselves teetering at the very lip of that great maw, they will throw their wicked old maps away as fast as they can, and scamper on tip-toes back over the narrow road that leads back to the highway. Then and only then might we be able to rummage about in our rucksacks for the old maps that we once used, with some interest in actually using them again.

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