Everything that exists participates in a religious essence.
What do I believe? As a philosopher, I would seem especially equipped to give an answer here, and yet my profession may be just the thing that screens me off from the human intent that lies behind the question. A philosopher may be able to reel off his ideas by the yard and yet remain blind to the things that really keep him going in life. What, then, do I live by?—that is the question, and in its grip every one of us stands on the same ground, forced to be truthful about himself and face the day that opens before him. Looking back, what fragments have I saved out of my life to shore up its meaning? What rituals, charms, incantations, or loves help me forward? In the end these may be more real to us than any of our imposing and grandiose ideas.
Time itself forces the question upon you. Whatever your temperament, you reach that stage of life where you are compelled to think of death more insistently. In his novel, A Passage to India, E. M. Forster tells us of an old lady, Mrs. Moore, who has suddenly fallen into the abyss of nihilism:
She had come to that state where the horror of the universe and its smallness are both visible at the same time—the twilight of the double vision in which so many elderly people are involved.
I am yet far from being there; the lusts and rages of the living still dance their attendance upon me. I tell myself I shall never be there, that I shall see more in the universe than smallness and horror, whatever the failure of my body. But this confidence too may be but another illusion that time will strip away like so many others. Meanwhile I note that a few older friends have unexpectedly died, and I begin to be aware of death stalking all of us, to gather us together into our generation. The future that opens before me no longer seems boundless, and the horizons within which I move seem more closed than they were.
Freedom no longer spreads its gorgeous array of alternatives before me. If I assert that freedom now, it is but to affirm the narrow corridors within which my life will henceforth run. The rails have been laid down, the train will move in its appointed direction—more or less. At any rate, the rails cannot be ripped up at this late date, and a new line laid out, for me to strike out toward another quarter of the compass. Yet the idea of freedom becomes more central to me than ever. This freedom embraces the monotony of existence to which I henceforth condemn myself. “The galley slave sticks to his oars,” says Samuel Beckett. It is precisely there where its conditions are minimal that the significance of freedom becomes maximal. Freedom emerges as the zest that transfigures what might look to the external glance like mere monotony. You rise each morning to the gift of life as if this day were a new beginning.
A far cry indeed from Forster’s frightful words about his elderly character. Yet I am forced to keep Mrs. Moore and her condition in mind. What happens to her is something very dreadful, for which as readers we are not quite prepared. She comes upon us as an entirely sympathetic person, enlightened and wise, with a religious sensitivity left as the residue of Christian faith. Yet it is not strong enough to withstand the shock of India, the heat, the weariness of old age, and the tedious troubles of the young over which she is supposed to preside. In his discreet and quiet way Forster is nevertheless a “modern”—he sounds the typically modern note of desperation. Two centuries ago, a century ago, men thought of themselves as the masters of history; today we are more likely to think of ourselves as its victims. The literature of the 20th century is largely a lamentation for ourselves as victims. And in nothing are we more victims than in this: that we have to cope with the same life as humankind in the past but without its most potent means of doing so. We cannot will back a faith that has been lost. We shall have to live back into that way of being in whose ambience the religious once drew breath. We shall have to find ourselves within nature before God is able to find us.
There, in any case, my own Itinerarium mentis in Deum, the journey toward God, has already begun.
“Nature is in tatters,” Merleau-Ponty once remarked to Sartre. The remark occurred during a conversation in the days before their friendship was broken, as happened so often between Sartre and his peers. Sartre himself reports the incident, and he tells us that Merleau-Ponty was quoting Whitehead. The remark sticks in one’s mind, particularly as coming from Sartre. It is strange to hear him mention the name of Whitehead, whose thinking belongs to another region of discourse from his own; strange even to hear him mention nature at all since it plays so little part in his thought. Merleau-Ponty, however, was traveling a different road. He had discovered in the painting of Cezanne the stubborn struggle to stand within the presence of the earth. Seeking his own philosophic footing there, he was curious enough to explore Whitehead and be caught by the latter’s observation of the “tatters”—the fragmentation—to which the philosophy of the last three centuries had reduced nature. Quite characteristically, Sartre merely notes his former friend’s remark in passing, but does not pause to comment or reflect on it. It does not seem to trouble his thinking at all.
To be fair to him, he is not untypical here. The idea of nature has played a small part in contemporary philosophy. Bergson once remarked that most philosophers seem to philosophize as if they were sealed in the privacy of their study and did not live on a planet surrounded by the vast organic world of animals, plants, insects, and protozoa, with whom their own life is linked in a single history. Indeed, only two major philosophers of the century, Bergson and Whitehead, have taken the idea of nature as their central theme; and both are largely unappreciated today. Bergson is almost a forgotten name; Whitehead was never taken up by the English after he had left them to settle in America; and among the younger generation of American philosophers, he remains almost unread.
Bergson and Whitehead provide certain nuclear images of nature against which one’s thinking about freedom must proceed. It is a great mistake to forget the role of imagination in supplying the background against which all thinking, however abstract, must find its place and meaning. Human freedom may be unique in the ways in which it becomes manifest, but it does have its roots in nature, and we have to be able to imagine the cosmos in a fashion that is congruent with that freedom.
Bergson, for example, invites us to see ourselves and our human questions against the background of the evolution of life on this planet. The earth, according to some recent estimates, is five billion years old. Its history, however, is a chapter in the life of our sun, a small star, paying out its energy into space during all that time. According, to the law of thermodynamics, as energy is radiated out into space it spreads itself out more thinly until finally the whole universe reaches the same dead level. This is the famous heat death of the universe that stood like a solemn memento mori inscribed over the intellectual portals of the end of the 19th century. It was a somber perspective to fit the mechanistic and pessimistic mood of the time, and not a few literary imaginations were shaken by it.
Against this picture of cosmic death Bergson raises the complementary image of life. During the five billion years our sun has been dissipating its energy in space, slowly burning itself out, life has appeared and managed to survive on this earth. And not merely survived at some marginal and inertial level, but rushed onward into ever higher and more varied forms. One estimate by biologists that I have seen numbers five billion organic species on this earth. Allowing for those forms of life that may have appeared or vanished, we might have to set the number much higher. No matter. For convenience and symmetry, let us say five billion species in five billion years. A species a year. A stupendous effort of creation, in which we are a part. If the universe exhibits processes of running down, it also contains those of building up. While our sun has been dissipating itself into space, in a contrary process this energy has been collected, stored, and gathered into higher and more complex levels of life, until, with the advent of man, life gives energy back to nature in the manner of its own source. Our nuclear devices create energy out of matter in imitation of the sun itself.
Is this merely an optimistic picture to be set against the 19th century’s prospect of the universal heat death? The obsession with optimism and pessimism is like the bad habit of a reader who skims the book to find out how it comes out in the end. It is the drama from page to page that we have to live. Whether, untold millennia hence, the outcome will be dismal or happy will not get you through your day any better. But the image of life building itself up, stubbornly, lavishly, and recklessly, out of fragments of dissipated energy from the sun can make a difference to us here and now because it conveys the spectacular process of which we are a part and whose dynamism we share. In the light of this image we cease to think of our own life as a mechanical iteration of what has been. Life, any life, no matter how tiny, appears then as a more miraculous event than any mechanism can imagine.
Whitehead does not dwell on the sheer fact of life’s evolution on this planet. Yet his single notion of “organism” is more radical and sweeping in restoring to us a live rather than dead universe. For the last three centuries, since Descartes, we have been in the grip of a metaphysics of death that Whitehead calls “scientific materialism.” We understand the phenomena of life only as an assemblage of the lifeless. The mechanical and routine are taken as the underlying reality of nature. We take the abstractions of our technical calculation to be ultimately concrete. Beneath our preoccupation with technique and apparatus there is the prevalent metaphysical disposition to see things ultimately resolved into bits of brute matter pervading space, “in a flux of configurations, senseless, valueless, purposeless.”
Suppose, however, we were to invert this whole scheme; reverse the order in which it assigns abstract and concrete. What is central to our experience, then, need not be peripheral to nature. This sunset now, for example, caught within the network of bare winter branches, seems like a moment of benediction in which the whole of nature collaborates. Why should not these colors and these charging banners of light be as much a part of the universe as the atoms and molecules that make them up? If they were only “in my mind,” then I and my mind would no longer be a part of nature. Why should the pulse of life toward beauty and value not be a part of things? Following this path, we do not vainly seek to assemble the living out of configurations of dead stuff, but we descend downward from more complex to simpler grades of the organic. From humans to trees to rocks; from “higher-grade” to “lower-grade” organisms. In the universe of energy, any individual thing is a pattern of activity within the flux, and thereby an organism at some level.
Rocks and trees. I have grown to know them particularly this winter; they have accompanied me on my walks, or rather I have learned to enter into their company. Winter trees are more beautiful than under the fat and heavy foliage of summer. Now they lay bare their secret structure, the naked and living line of branch and bough, the supple harshness of their enduring struggle with the elements. Oak, maple, ash, chestnut, beech—these are now without their telltale leaves, and I have had to learn to read them by their barks, each as individual as fingerprints. With some I have come to know the particular curves and twists of their branches like the individual features of friends.
The rocks are no less individuals. Whoever thinks matter is mere inert stuff has not looked long at rocks. They do not lie inert, they thrust forward, or crouch back in quiet self-gathered power. Like a cat sitting so still that his tail has ceased twitching. Only Cézanne, among artists, did rocks properly, painting them into the canvas as alive as the trees against which he sets them. In the gray light of winter they come alive in their color too—smoke-gray or blue-gray, molded and subtle in their shading that shifts as the gray light shifts. The living rock! More than an idle phrase. Out of the living rock the waters of spirit.
For the moment I have passed outside the world of man. Yet I am in no remote wilderness. This is only a strip of woods stretching for several miles along the Hudson; yet at the times I walk there I am able to be alone—at least from other humans. The broad river, glimpsed now and then through the lattice of boughs, and an occasional gull riding high and motionless on the furrows of the air—these are enough for background. For the rest, I am content to be in the company of trees and stones. Usually it takes a mile to begin to be free. The important thing is to find freedom in the movement of your body first, let the mind be what it will. By the second mile I am set free in the body, the havoc of the mind and the idiocy of its ideas recede. I am no longer homeless. I am there. The trees are there too, and the rocks; I have come into this stringent but secretly lavish life of winter.
Even about a fallen and dead tree there is something noble. That great oak over there, which was rooted in too shallow a lip of soil, was blown down last fall, and its dirt-browned roots gouged out a great hole in the earth. It lies now with the nobility of some dead king in the dignity of its death. I touch one of the roots as reverently as if it were a bier. Animal life, by superficial contrast so much more vivid, is more degraded and ignoble in death. Not long ago I stumbled on a dead raccoon in the bushes: this little animal, so pretty and captivating in life, had turned into an ugly carcass that stank disgustingly. Nature’s law of opposites is at work here too: the more nervous and mobile in life, the more squalid and abject in death. A rotting tree reenters the scheme of things more unobtrusively and with greater dignity.
I can understand why earlier mankind could worship trees. Perhaps I already do so myself. My ancestors were Druids, after all, and perhaps I am only rounding out the cycle by returning to their fold. Certainly, the more I learn of the biology of trees the more I am moved to awe and wonder. I am delighted to think of the intricate means by which that tall ash there draws water from the soil and lifts it to its topmost branches more than 70 feet in the air. The tiny cells of the xylem live only a few seconds because they are of no use while alive, but dead they form little hollow tubes to suck the water up by capillary action. They live only to die, and they die for the greater life. Steadfast striving, effortless effort.
Nature worship! Mysticism! The tags are ready that would consign one’s experience to an old banality. We are a culture consumed by verbalism, and the effect of our words is to place a screen between us and things. Nothing exists until we have assigned it its name; and then, once named, its life becomes that of a word that begets more words in endless argument, debate, sophistry. Here among my rocks and trees I have passed beyond the needs of such labels. That does not mean that my mind has become some kind of nameless and inchoate blur. On the contrary, mind and eye are alert to read the texture of bark or the shape of a stone. I told a friend, who wondered why I spent so much time in these woods, that I was no different from a boy scout brushing up on his woodlore. My friend demurred; he would have liked me to use the word “mysticism.” We forget that what we call mysticism was once a natural condition of mankind, and could be again if we let ourselves enter it. The mysticism that matters is one that has no need of the word. The same with Being. Another word. We are most within Being when we do not use the word and have ceased to grapple with its idea. These words are notations at a distance for something that up close does not require them.
What I have just written may be only one more expression of the classic doctrine of “No Mind” in Zen Buddhism. One has to pass beyond the prison of concepts to be directly and fully there, wherever one is. Twenty years ago, in a book in collaboration with the late D.T. Suzuki, I played a small part in introducing Zen to this country, and I have not always been happy with the results. American youth acquired another vocabulary to throw around. The “mindlessness” that Zen recommended was pursued by the young in the haze of marijuana and drugs. They forgot, if they had ever learned, the prosaic and magnificent saying of the sage Hui-Neng: “The Tao [the truth] is your ordinary mind.” In recent years I have let myself forget all about Zen, and probably have been nearer to its spirit. Stick to your ordinary mind, reader, and forget the tags. Find your own rocks and trees.
But is it not mere self-indulgence to prattle on thus about a walk in the woods? How can I draw any philosophical lessons from what, as I myself insist, cannot be put into words?
Still, the question of the will, of avoiding the dreaded collapse into nihilism, involves every resource of the spirit that may help us. If I could not draw my breath in this stretch of woods, could not stand in this open clearing, I feel the balance of my sanity would be less steady for the tasks life imposes. In the end, the question of motivation is the crucial one. If I could not draw sustenance here, the strength of my motives for other things would certainly wither.
For philosophic sanction, though it is not needed, we might turn to Kant. In his old age, in the last of his three great works, The Critique of Judgment, Kant proceeded to develop a view of man in his concrete and sensuous relation to nature. Hegel and Schelling, otherwise sharp critics, hailed this as the greatest of the three great critiques. Their judgment is not to be taken lightly; they were the next generation, and closer to Kant’s questions than the later tight-lipped Neo-Kantians who sought to force him into the strait jacket of epistemology. In this last work, in fact, Kant advances to meet the problem that had been waiting in the wings for him. He had dealt with man as a skeleton—an abstract knower, and an abstract moral agent—but now he must deal with him as a creature of the senses in his immediate perceptions of nature. Here the freedom of man must be encountered, not as an abstract moral postulate, but in his concrete being within nature. In the experience of the Sublime and the Beautiful, Kant tells us, we experience an unknown and unknowable harmony between ourselves and the nature we behold. No particular item within our perception can account for the depth surrounding that perception. What vibrates through it points to something beyond it that we can never grasp as a particular item of fact within it. There is a resonance that is sounded between the unknown depth in the self and the unknowable depth in the nature of things. Deep calls to deep. Here the distress of alienation ends. We are at home in a mystery which suggests some meaning of which we are a part, though we cannot know it in any precise conceptual way. And given any kind of meaning, we are thus given one more motive to sustain us in our solitary journey as mortal beings through this world. Thus, in the end Kant comes back to himself as a moralist. The sublimity and beauty of nature are the sensory symbols of our high moral destiny.
It is as good a statement of the unstatable as any ever made. Yet no better than any of the others. We end, in any case, in the dumb and inarticulate presence from which Kant starts. That is the truth more important than any of the attempts to express it. We would be mistaken if we thought that Kant was merely developing some intellectual inference from the ideas of the sublime and the beautiful. He is merely fumbling, like any other mortal, though in the more elaborate and formal fashion of his philosophy, to give words to that wordless feeling that is ours in the presence of nature.
In fact, the ideas of the sublime and the beautiful are a makeshift that we learn to dispense with. They are our human perspectives; and if we stick too tightly within them, we are likely to stand in an “aesthetic” detachment from nature. That is why no photograph, however impressive, can have the power over us of our actual presence within a natural scene. The closer one comes to nature the less one seeks to dichotomize beauty and ugliness. That great ash over there, with its enormous bole more than fifteen feet around, seemed comely and beautiful under the drapery of summer. When it shed its leaves, I laughed to discover its upper boughs emerge as squat and homely. But if I stand now under it and look up, the great rippling torso soars over me with the muscular grace of a dancer; and I smile apologetically at having judged it ugly. As our perspectives change, beautiful and ugly shift with them. In time one learns not to pick apart beauty from the whole. Everywhere, in my wintry mood, I find beauty mingled with the harsh and painful. I remember the stabbing vision of a swan in the river at Zurich, at night under the cold and falling rain, asleep, rocked in the rippling water, its long neck folded back on its body. I cannot, even now, remember a more beautiful sight; yet it was also an image of anguish, cradled there on the cold swell. One cannot remain within the detachment of the aesthetic even here. These trees and rocks are companions with me in suffering.
Kant, trembling in the presence of the nature that enveloped him, was too quick to find in it the confirmation of his moral sensibilities. The romantics who followed him persisted in this humanistic framework. The landscape they loved gave them back their human image. So Wordsworth sings all too patly:
One impulse from a vernal wood
Can teach us more of moral evil and of good. . . .
Trees and rocks do not indulge in the impertinence of foisting lessons upon us. Their method of instruction is more circuitous and indirect, but perhaps all the more potent for that. Their first lesson is to draw us outside the narrow and presumptuous horizons of our humanism. They help restore the balance of our sanity without which we would be less free for the moral tasks required of us.
And then, suddenly, last week they had put up a fence that shuts off the far part of my walk! Today I’ve found a way to get around the fence, and so for the time being I am at peace again.
But not entirely. It is the next fence after this that I fear—and the fence after that. I dream of that last fence that humans will someday erect to seal themselves effectively from any world beyond man. The triumph of “humanism” at last! It is then that we may have most to fear about the human future. The species might go mad, or slide listlessly into the empty nihilism of science fiction.
One reenters the human world nonetheless. There I have the usual quota of attachments, with its accompanying complement of loves, rages, and disillusions. I do not pursue detachment. Even if it were possible, it would be empty; and it is in fact impossible. The marvelous images from Taoism and Zen Buddhism, which seduce us into the quietude of Being, cannot be a permanent halting place for the Westerner. Between myself and them are interposed the Bible and the Russian novel, from whose grip I can never free myself.
As soon as we are born we are hurled into the question of first and last things. The secret of the Russian writers is that their characters are plunged irremediably into these questions, even in their most trifling actions. The shabby and frivolous characters of Gogol would not loom as monumental as Shakespeare’s without that religious mania that eats away at their author. In the end, that religious obsession destroyed Gogol as an artist, but without it he could not have written as incomparably as he did. That is but another paradox of creation—and, we might add, of freedom.
As soon as we are born we breathe the air of a religion: we are alive, and so we must die. Amid all the definitions proposed for man the most truthful would in fact be that he is the religious animal. He created religions long before the Greeks created reason. And now that he lives at last in the world of science and the computer, new religions sprout all over the map. It would be folly to think that this religious part of him was an accidental excrescence terminated by the French Revolution. The fanaticism of subsequent history has shown that mankind simply displaced its religious passions into the world; and the results have been more terrifying than any religious inquisition.
A secular-minded psychoanalysis now encounters everywhere among its patients a sense of meaninglessness against which it is helpless. Religion may very well be an illusion, as Freud said, but then man himself is that illusion. It is the human animal, no one else, that is displayed in the history of his religions. Their evils and excesses are his, as much as whatever is poignant and sublime in that history. The frenzies of asceticism, which may seem mere aberration and abnormality to our secular minds, are in fact the inevitable means to which the human animal is driven to give meaning to his existence. Rather than be meaningless, we shall find ourselves seeking out devices of our own that are equally extreme. We create by denying ourselves. So long as we drive ourselves in the toils of some discipline we cannot believe that our life is meaningless. In the tensions of the will—the simultaneous striving and surrender—the ghost of nihilism departs.
According to the old platitude, the most important thing a landlady should know about a prospective tenant is his philosophy. The most important—perhaps as a matter of social utility; but hardly the deepest. A philosophy is only that part of ourselves that we can articulate before the public. The deepest part of any of us is our religion—that uncertain center of yearning, acceptance and rebellion, simultaneous despair and aspiration—out of which anything philosophically vital comes. When that center has not been touched, the philosophy rings hollow.
As I enter my garret of a study each day I intone the words: “Ha’ira einai pen ishan ha-mavet.” Do not ask me what they mean. They are in Hebrew, a language which I do not understand. They are from the Psalms. I heard them once, I had forgotten them, but they come back to me now. I am told they ask that we sleep not the sleep of death. I say them because they keep me from thinking. I have become part of an invisible church of one. I am ready to accept whatever rituals or charms that can now sustain and quicken me within this mystery that is given me to live. “Stupefy yourself, take holy water,” Pascal said. His injunction no longer seems outrageous to me. We will do the equivalent in any case so long as we continue to live. And some of our means may not be so harmless. Imagine a Communist—there must be one somewhere—who is afflicted with doubts. I see him at that moment when the thought crosses his mind that the whole idea that governs his life may be a ghastly mistake, that even in the mundane matter of economic efficiency the system shows itself to be bungling and inept. Yet for this single idea the whole of mankind and its future may have to be sacrificed. He sits dumbfounded for a moment, then shakes himself as he rushes for his own stoup of holy water; and the doubts recede as he plunges into party discipline and party demonstrations.
We are all members of an invisible church of one—and everyone. On the stairway, in the half-dark, I encounter the great yearning eyes of my dog. She looks at me as if aggrieved that I no longer take her on my walks. She is too old and the distance tires her too much. She is aging rapidly and will soon be dead, and I shall lose the companionship of those eyes. I should like to tell her that I shall not forget her. We share the fact of mortality—it looks at me now out of her eyes—but we cannot share it in speech. That is the unique gift that humans have above all the other animals: they can share their death with each other. The fundamental cult in all religions is the funeral rite. Gathered together in its observance, we can say “Ha’ira einai pen ishan ha-mavet”—with whatever ritual gesture we wish—not so much over the dead as over ourselves, the living, in compassion for one another. And thereby begin to live.
The psychiatrist Harry Stack Sullivan once had a patient who constantly threatened to commit suicide. One day, after one of these tirades, the analyst asked very softly, “Why don’t you?” The patient, caught short, was suddenly speechless. Thereafter (so the anecdote goes) he ceased the threats against his own life. Once you have been put to the challenge and recoiled you have made the great act of faith. You have made the primary affirmation beyond which any verbal eulogy of life is pallid.
It would be a good spiritual exercise for each of us to enact this situation for ourselves. We are then both patient and analyst, and put Sullivan’s question to ourself. (It is wiser to practice this exercise, though, when we are calm of mind; it will build our strength against the moments of panic that come our way.) We let the mind have a free hand and range as it will. It will show me that my reasons for living are mere pretexts: that my pleasures are mediocre, my talents uncertain, and my virtues negligible. But even as I let the mind range and devour my substance, something stronger than reason takes over. If I project this paltry life of mine against the possibility of not being at all, then this gift of Being floods through me like a tide. To exist at all is to be happy. Dostoevsky, in his startling and unpredictable way, chose to put his supreme truth in the mouth of the half-crazed Kirillov: “We are all happy if we but knew it.” Against the void of nonexistence, any fragment of existence, however paltry, becomes a supreme miracle. My God, I am happy! This freedom as galley slave here in this garret is inexhaustible.
So each day I pass judgment and sentence myself to remain among the living. Condemned to live, I must then ceaselessly create reasons for living. The judgment is not so severe, nor the task so difficult, as we imagine. We have only to be open to the world and it will pour its riches at our feet. Before this winter I had not known that the bark of a tree, caught in yellow sunlight, could be enough to restore a life.
On Returning to Religion
Looking back, what fragments have I saved out of my life to shore up its meaning? What rituals, charms, incantations,…
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