Response to Jack Miles’ God: A Biography

To summarize Jack Miles’ God: A Biography in a few paragraphs is to do disservice to a richly nuanced argument. Miles’ thesis—that God’s sense of self, previously unknown even to him, develops through the events of the Tanakh[1]—is developed through a finely woven analysis of familiar biblical texts. Relevant to our discussion of Theories of Self, Miles contends that the primary mechanism for God’s self-discovery is through relationship with his creation. This paper focuses solely on this particular claim, limiting, unfortunately, the broader appreciation of the breadth of Miles’ analysis.

Through the exegetical analysis of particular accounts described in the Tanakh, Miles draws a striking picture of monotheism’s problematic nature. If God were many instead of one, the conflicted and often inconsistent elements in God’s character could be nicely resolved in a pluralist pantheon. “Israelite monotheism seems to have come into existence…as a fusion of features that polytheism had attributed to several divine personalities” (63). Accordingly, the reader of the Tanakh is forced to reconcile seemingly divergent and conflicted elements of God’s character. For some readers, the difficulty of such a task has served to support faith in the impossibility of God’s existence.

A clear illustration of what Miles’ is talking about is found in the Biblical story of the flood. Polytheistic accounts of the same event describe a classic battle between gods, humanity a hapless victim caught in the crossfire. The monotheistic version of the story, however, must necessarily explain the behaviour of a single deity who creates man in his own image, and then destroys him.  The resultant explanation is unsettling; this “monotheistic appropriation of an originally polytheistic story” (46) implies a deity both unpredictable and vindictive. The image of a monotheistic deity who annihilates humanity is difficult to reconcile with the image of a creator God who brings it into being. Miles, however, suggests an alternative interpretation: as a result of the flood event, God learns something new about himself and modifies accordingly his self-view.   Miles does not present a God with a permanent, fixed, unchanging identity, operating from a position of absolute knowledge. Instead, God’s encounter with an Other (for the first time in his existence) forces self-awareness and self-knowledge.[2]  At the end of the Genesis account of the flood, God’s offering up of the rainbow signals a radical change in God’s character, a change which will continue to consolidate throughout the events of the Tanakh. According to Miles, “God relies on man even for the working out of his own intentions” (89).

Miles’ non-traditional reading of the Tanakh offers an important insight into the concept of self as often understood by the West.  God does not start out all knowing and “tidy,” choosing which elements of himself he will reveal to his creation. Instead, Miles describes a God whose sense of self is created and sustained in the interstitial spaces of his relationship with man.  Further, since man is created Imago Dei, this relationship is essentially a relationship between the different aspects of God himself.  We see in the Tanakh, then, the development of God as a “character with an interior conversation” (33).  Extending this insight to the Genesis account of God’s anger towards the serpent, Miles suggests that,

what polytheism would allow to be externally directed anger against a rival deity, monotheism—even a monotheism speaking occasionally in the first person plural—must turn into the Lord God’s inwardly directed regret. The appearance of divine regret, the first of its many appearances, is the first appearance of the deity as a true literary character as distinct from a mythic force or a mere meaning endowed with an allegorical voice. The peculiar, culturally determined interior life of Western man begins, in a way, with the divided interior life of the deity, and the deity’s interior life begins with a creator’s regret. (33)

This notion, that the “divided interior life” of God reflects (and is reflected by) the “peculiar, culturally determined interior life of Western man” is significant.  Western man is a direct descendent of monotheistic thought; our particular desire to understand and reconcile disparate elements of character into a unified self is very much rooted in our ancient heritage.  When Miles suggests that “[God’s] quest for a self-image is not an idle and optional indulgence but the solid and indispensable tool of his self-understanding” (89), we could easily say the same thing about the modern Western consciousness. The Bible is undoubtedly a significant template for the Western mind, regardless of one’s religious belief, and the Tanakh’s complex representation of God as conflicted deity reflects our own conflicted and divided nature.   Of course, this ancient (and modern) insistence on a unified self is not without problems.

James Hillman’s archetypal, polytheistic psychology suggests that the drive to create a unified, coherent self is both misguided and a source of psychic dis-ease. “Psychic complexity requires all the Gods; our totality can only be adequately contained by a Pantheon” (Hillman 222). Hillman advocates a return to a polytheistic understanding of our psychic landscape, challenging a monotheistic directive that tries to gather and reconcile all aspects of the psyche into a single, unified self.  When Hillman suggests the need to “expand the scope of the psyche so that it can reflect the immense mythical universe of the polytheistic imagination” (197), we are reminded that the exclusive use of a monotheistic framework to understand the self is a limiting one, and not without potential to create damage.

Miles concludes that “God is the divided original whose divided image we remain” (408).  Is it possible that a monotheistic structure can neither contain adequately the richness of this divided image, nor its reflection in the human psyche?

[1] The books in the Hebrew Bible (Tanakh) are ordered differently than those of the Old Testament. In Miles’ words, “The distinctive, broad movement of the Hebrew Bible from action to speech to silence is not matched in the Old Testament, whose movement is from action to silence to speech” (16).

[2] This notion of God “working out” his identity through his relationship with humanity is explored in much greater detail in Chapter 10 when Miles turns his attention to the Book of Job.

Works Cited

Hillman, James. Revisioning Psychology. New York: Harper Perennial, 1992. Print.

Miles, Jack. God: A Biography. New York: Random House, 1995. Print.

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Response to Bennett Ramsey’s, Submitting to Freedom

Hello Ben,

First, your book broadened considerably my understanding of James’ thought, and more specifically, the context in which he wrote. Like many, my appreciation of James has been limited to a few, selective quotes which have appeared in the epigraphs of other books. Submitting to Freedom has helped me begin to understand the depth of James’ insights, as well as the manner in which the contemporary portrayal of these insights has sometimes been distorted in such a way so as to support the positions that James was criticising.

Submitting to Freedom suggests that much of James’ thought was a response to both the broader, cultural questions/crises of his time and James’ own spiritual crisis of a perceived lack of agency and meaning in human life. “The heart of the crisis was a perception of the contingency of the human person,” (6[1]) along with the disappearance of “a certain ground of correspondence” (11).

The cultural collapse of the post-Civil War era was a collapse fundamentally in definitions of the self: the separate, autonomous, and independent self of the Enlightenment, which had needed correspondences to an absolute realm in order to construct its transcendent life, lost those correspondences and any sense that they could be re-attained.  (6)

While Submitting to Freedom suggests a number of factors that contributed to these “lost correspondences”, as least part of the explanation was due to the  fact that as “technical rationality [gained] ascendancy in the culture, the consent of the human, the will to do or not, seemed beside the point” (23). While this is an observation which could certainly be extended to our own time, it’s important to note that in the context of James’ time, such ascendency represented a significant shift from the way that humans had previously viewed themselves and their position as actors in the world.  Whatever the specific causes of lost correspondences, though, the result was a loss of the Enlightenment confidence regarding human agency. In the context of this “melancholic crisis,” both societal and personal, James thought and wrote.    

The insight that partly resolved the crisis of agency for James was his “sketch of consciousness as a stream of thought always flowing” (44). While popular culture has re-appropriated this image to suggest things that James did not intend, James’ use of the metaphor emphasized the fact that while we can draw water from the stream in some sort of bounded container, it is impossible to collect the entire stream at one time.

The definite images of traditional psychology form but the very smallest part of our minds as they actually live. The traditional psychology talks like one who should say a river consists of nothing but pailsfuls, spoonsful, quartpotsful, barrelsful, and other moulded forms of water. Even were the pails and the pots all actually standing in the stream, still between them the free water would continue to flow.  (152 Ramsey quoting James)

Because it’s impossible to collect the entire stream of consciousness at once, an individual must choose to attend to specific thoughts within the stream.  This requirement that we choose resolves James’s crisis, as we experience both our agency and our selfhood in the process of so doing.

The question of who, exactly, does this choosing and attending is, of course, the essential question of the nature of self. For James, however, there is no “who” hiding behind the process. Instead, the experienced sense of self both creates and is created by its own agency. “Our self-feeling is in our power” (47 Ramsey, quoting James).  The “self” of James is semiautonomous, “gaining possession of its inner world, steering its course through a river of almost limitless possibilities” (45).  This perspective of the self as both subject and object provides an important counterbalance to our phenomenological sense of the self as a little homunculus sitting behind our eyes, directing our actions.  In contrast to a view where we see a self existent before action, we see the dynamic co-creation of the self and action.  I choose to act based on the myriad possibilities before me and in so doing, I create a self that continues to make other choices. Ironically, such a refutation of a self that exists, independent of action, has the potential to awaken us to our true agency.

Lest James’ position be misconstrued as nihilistic, it’s important to note that James also understood an “owner-self” of the elements we select from our stream of experience.

Each of us chooses, by his ways of attending to things, what sort of a universe he shall appear to himself to inhabit. So the seeker of his truest, strongest, deepest self must review the list carefully, and pick out the one on which to stake his salvation. (47 Ramsey, quoting James)

However, “there is [also] a fluidity of the image that [provides] an adequate representation of the self as a ‘loosely construed thing.’” (46). At least initially, “the image of the self that James provided was like a collage: the various chapters hung together more like pictures at an exhibition than as parts of a single, simple description” (37).[2]  James concluded that the “craving for a unified image…of an ideally ordered self” (38) was essentially misdirected and that such craving was a source of profound melancholia. As other commentators have noted, James’ insights bear striking resemblance to the Noble Truths of Buddhism which note the suffering that results from the unachievable craving for a permanent, unchanging, essential self.  As James would have had only a passing acquaintance with Buddhist thought, I find this to be a remarkable alignment.  More remarkable, however, is the manner in which James extended his metaphors of self to encompass religious experience.

James saw religious experience as the “direct apprehension” of the “nonrational and subconscious stream in the self” (90). It was a “turning to and with a larger framework of meaning,” (95) comprehending “the self… bound by the contingency and tragedy of life.”  James saw religious experience in general and mysticism in particular as a wider experience of reality than normally drawn upon. In James’ thinking, religious genius (sainthood) is merely at one of end of a continuum in terms of the ability to attend to elements in the inner stream that the majority of humanity is unable or unwilling to see.

Our normal waking consciousness, rational consciousness as we call it, is but one special type of consciousness, whilst all about it, parted from it by the flimsiest of screens, there lie potential forms of consciousness entirely different…No account of the universe in its totality can be final which leaves these other forms of consciousness quite disregarded. (James 388)

One is reminded of Bateson’s view of religion as “an extended metaphor which [makes] it possible for ordinary people to think at levels of integrated complexity otherwise impossible” (196).

As you suggest in your book, James offers a relevant—and perhaps essential—perspective to our time. In the midst of our planetary crisis, such a unique understanding of the interplay between self-creation and agency is likely critical to our survival.

Works Cited

Bateson, Gregory, and Catherine Bateson. Angels Fear. New York: MacMillan Publishing Company, 1987. Print.

James, William. The Varieties of Religious Experience. New York: Penguin Classics. Print.

Ramsey, Bennett. Submitting to Freedom. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993. Print.

[1] All cited works from B. Ramsey’s Submitting to Freedom unless otherwise noted.

[2] I understand that James’ image of pictures on the wall developed in later writings to include the interplay of these pictures in a social context (113).

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Buddhist thoughts on the self

Blockbuster movies tend to reveal what’s going on in the zeitgeist. The fact, then, that we’ve seen a lot of Buddhism creeping into  Hollywood films in past years no doubt says something about the times in which we live. Buddhism has become increasingly trendy, and while there are probably a number of reasons for this, one likely explanation is the alignment between what people are thinking, and what people think that Buddhism is thinking.  It’s really the enigmatic nature of Buddhist references, though, that make them compelling for movie viewers—references that seem to communicate a truth that we don’t really “get.” In the recent movie, Tron: Legacy, for instance, Quorra tells Flynn’s son that his Zen-practicing father has been teaching her “how to remove the self from the equation.” The implication that Buddhism is all about “removing the self” is pretty common in media culture, though I doubt we really understand what we’d be removing, or how we’d function once “it” was removed. One of the many interesting things that Sue Hamilton’s Early Buddhism: A New Approach: The I of the Beholder reveals is that this notion of removing the self has a long—and  misunderstood—legacy  within Buddhism itself.

The strength of Hamilton’s book, written for both Buddhists and non-Buddhists , is the clarity with which it reveals a view of self described by many Buddhist traditions.  Buddhism has a reputation for being provocatively incoherent; it’s likely that this perceived incoherence contributes to its exotic appeal in post-modern culture. Hamilton, however, recalls that the early adherents of Buddhism insisted on a high level of coherence to confirm for the listener the authenticity and authority of early teachings.  Similarly, Hamilton suggests that contemporary Buddhist teachings that don’t make sense should be subjected to analysis to ensure that their intended meanings have not been obscured.  To support this claim, she turns to the traditional texts.

The self (or more specifically, its absence) has always been a significant preoccupation in Buddhism. The central teachings center on the concepts of anicca, dukkha and anatta.  While the Pali words are usually translated in English as impermanence, unsatisfactoriness, and not-self, Hamilton questions the narrow frame of these English translations, pointing out “the deep problem of transposing expressions across millennia and cultural worldviews” (12).  Hamilton suggests that a focus on the relationship between these three terms provides better insight into the early Buddhist position on the self, a position she believes is misunderstood in contemporary understandings.

Conventional readings of Buddhism imply that the self, along with everything else, has no independent existence (anatta) because all things are conditional on other causes and conditions and are therefore constantly in flux as result of changing conditions. According to this view, all things, including the self, are also anicca (impermanent).  Although dukkha is traditionally interpreted as “suffering” or “unsatisfactoriness”, Hamilton takes a broader view, reading it as the totality of human experience that operates in a context where no-thing can be considered permanent in any sort of lasting way.  Further, in a less traditional analysis, Hamilton also suggests that the one possible exception to anicca, dukkha and anatta may be the self itself, as it is the one “thing” which can never be objectively viewed to determine its true nature. Consequently, while we can experience anicca, dukkha and anatta, we cannot experience the self because,

What is known by the knower cannot be his self; thus the dependently originated self of the experiential world cannot be known. And the knower cannot get outside that cognitive framework of experience so see whether or not there is a transcendentally existent self; thus whether or not there is such a self cannot be known either. (139)

Throughout history, our desire to know the unknowable nature of the self has led many to the elusive promise of religious revelation. Lacking access to knowledge beyond the boundaries of our own limits, many seek an unbounded perspective of “one who knows.”  However, despite the classical texts labeling the Buddha as “one-who-knows-things-as-they-are,” esoteric revelation is absent in the traditional teachings. The texts, however, do spend a great deal of time referring to anatta; Hamilton attributes this to the frequency with which the Buddha was asked to take a position as to whether or not an eternal self exists, a frequency related to the historical period in which the Buddha lived. Teaching in the time of the Upanishads in the context of a culture preoccupied with the existence and location of an eternal, unchanging self, it would have been difficult for the Buddha to ignore the absorptions of his time. Despite this, however, the Buddha himself consistently refused to take any sort of ontological position regarding the self. This refusal, as Hamilton notes, is inconsistent with the manner in which anatta is often understood in contemporary Buddhism. Hamilton suggests that a more helpful approach understands the teachings around anatta as epistemic claims, revealing not what the self is, but instead, how it knows. Although this is perhaps less satisfying from an ontological point of view, Hamilton believes that this epistemic perspective more accurately reflects the Buddhist project of seeking insight into the nature of reality. We’re reminded of the Buddhist parable of a man being shot by a poisoned arrow, refusing treatment until he knew the source of the arrow. Ontological knowledge, compelling though it may be, was considered by the Buddha to be irrelevant to the project at hand.

Because I’ve been interested for some time in the use of  Buddhist tools, and because I’ve struggled for some time with the notion of anatta, I’ve found Hamilton’s distinction between ontology and epistemology to be hugely clarifying. While media depictions of Buddhism will likely continue to centre on the exotic attractiveness of incoherency and confusion, I appreciate Hamilton’s contribution to making the teachings a bit more straightforward.

Hamilton, Sue. Early Buddhism: A New Approach: The I of the Beholder. London: Rouledge, 2000. Print.

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Where angels fear to tread

I’ve been exploring some ideas from Angels Fear, co-authored by Gregory Bateson and his daughter, Catherine Bateson (also the daughter of Margaret Mead). Catherine Bateson published this book a number of years after her father’s death, collating it from unfinished manuscripts, public talks, conversations with her father in his final years, and her own thoughts. The result is a dense, rich work that eludes easy interpretation. This is partly because Bateson’s project is to convince us that some “things” can never be known because the epistemology required to know these “things” distorts them to such an extent that knowledge gained of the thing reifies, and no longer re-presents that thing.  We’re in shadowy territory here, because it’s hard to imagine a “thing” that cannot be represented in thought, without first representing it in thought so as to consider what is not being represented. It’s a bit of a Catch-22, but I think that the seeming futility of all this recursiveness is exactly what Bateson is trying to cultivate. We’re reminded of Zen koans whose resolutions emerge from the comprehension of their essential insolvability.

An apocryphal quote from one of Bateson’s student appears in several reviews of Angels Fear: “Bateson is someone who knows, but won’t tell you.” Bateson, however, would likely have refuted this, and his investigation of the boundaries surrounding that which cannot be known formed the centre of the project with which he occupied himself in the final years of his life. Ultimately, Bateson suggests a radical restructuring of the ways in which we view the seemingly diverse topics of epistemology, the sacred, the concept of self, and religion.

In a culture where freely flowing information is seen as the essential tenet of liberal, democratic society, it’s difficult not to squirm when faced with: “Openness is one of those things that can be overdone. Remember, in biology everything becomes toxic beyond some optimal point” (Bateson 85). Most of Bateson’s career was concerned with human communication and the impact of this communication on the construction of self-understanding; it’s puzzling why a man who privileged communication would believe that a culture can have too much of it. His rationale, however, is directly related to his understanding of “the sacred,” defined by Bateson as, “the integrated fabric of mental process that envelops all our lives” (200).  “Noncommunication of certain sorts is needed,” says Bateson, “if we are to maintain the ‘sacred.’ Communication [can be] undesirable, not because of fear, but because communication would somehow alter the nature of the ideas” (80). In Bateson’s view, “the sacred” serves as a marker for that which cannot be named, “a way of coping with certain epistemological problems” (86). For post-Enlightenment culture, rooted in the scientific worldview that everything eventually will be known, this is a challenging notion. Bateson is not only suggesting that we acknowledge that everything isn’t known; he’s also suggesting that we give up on the belief that everything can be known. We’re reminded that “our fabric of description and reports and injunctions [structure]…is conspicuously full of holes” (162). We can know “structure,” but it will “always be a somewhat flattened, abstracted version of truth” (161).

An example of what Bateson is talking about is found in classical Buddhist mediation, the process of which creates bounded areas of “not knowing.” In the practice, one directs one’s attention on an object like the breath, if one is sitting, or the soles of one’s feet, if one is walking. One then attempts to maintain this focus. When attention wanders off to a thought, as it inevitably does, the practice demands that one return one’s attention to the object of mediation without further pursuing the thought. In this, the process of mediation is, to use Bateson’s terminology, an intentional “noncommunication” with thought. Every time that the meditator starts to “know,” he or she lets go of this knowing. In so doing, one begins to discern the space of not-knowing.  Meditation, then, is a good illustration of Bateson’s injunction to develop an “approach to epistemology [that] requires us to study our descriptions and our own nature as information-processing creatures” (186).

However, as any meditator knows, meditation can be a threatening process, as our ownership of thoughts and emotions—these elements that we believe constitute our essential, core self—becomes less certain. Meditation can make it disconcertingly difficult to, in Bateson’s words, “maintain the truth of certain propositions about [ourselves]” (16). Elsewhere, Bateson discusses the error of confusing the “map with the territory” (21). In this, I believe that Bateson is correct, though it’s important to remember that when early European map makers sketched hideous monsters on the uncharted areas of maps, they were reflecting the very real—and longstanding—terror of the unknown. In contemporary culture, religion is often seen as a consolatory strategy, attempting to “paint over” over unknown, unimagined terrors. In contrast, Bateson sees religion as “an extended metaphor which [makes] it possible for ordinary people to think at levels of integrated complexity otherwise impossible” (196).

Bateson’s view of religion challenges much current thinking. In a world where conflict seems to contour the fault-lines of religion, it’s become relatively easy in contemporary discourse to view religion as a dominant influence frustrating the realization of Enlightenment dreams. The view that “the unity of nature…might only be comprehensible through the kind of metaphors familiar from religion” (2) contests this perspective.

Religion…necessarily has contradictions embedded in it—paradoxes—and these contradictions are protected from certain kinds of rationalizing knowledge to preserve them in tension, because that tension is what makes religious systems able to function as models of the [entire biological and social realm].    (146)

If the Bateson analysis is correct, the current effort to purge religious discourse from contemporary public space is likely counterproductive in terms of better understanding the nature of the world.

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Bateson, Gregory , and Catherine Bateson. Angels Fear. New York: MacMillan Publishing Company, 1987. Print.

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