Challenges to Comprehension Implied by the Logo
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6 February 2005 | Draft

Thinking in Terror

Refocusing the interreligious challenge from "Thinking after Terror"

- / -

Nature of terror
Complicity with terrorism
Elusive way forward
Fish-scale model of religious complicity
Mysterious practice of tolerance
Identification of clues to the mystery
A Wholly Trinity?
Petrifying abomination: personal complicity?
Thinking within a terrifying reality
Withdrawing into the stones
Prepared for publication in Journal of the Interdisciplinary Crossroads (2, 1, April 2005) as a reflection on Thinking after Terror: an interreligious challenge by Richard Kearney (in the same issue)

Richard Kearney's valuable exercise explores some possibilities for interreligious dialogue as a response to the terror of 9/11. The paper is valuable in shifting the level and subtlety of reflection. What follows is an effort to work with some of the arguments put forward, but to suggest that there may be some vital dimensions that might be usefully added to Kearney's insights as Professor of Philosophy at University College Dublin and Boston College -- and as a poet and Irish cultural critic.

Nature of terror

A first concern would be with the identification of the nature of terror and who is exposed to it in the light of the range of its forms as explored elsewhere (Varieties of Terrorism: extended to the experience of the terrorized, 2005). The purpose there was to demonstrate that "terror" is not just what lends itself to extensive representation according to media criteria. The media cannot show the terror experienced daily by inarticulate "unimportant" people subject to every form of deprivation and suffering -- or even the bullying, intimidation and violence to which many are exposed in schools, housing estates or on the street -- whether or not these result in obviously violent death. Like the Holocaust, 9/11 dramatizes the challenge of terror but it does not help understand its ubiquitous nature that many (if not all) are complicit in sustaining to some degree. Avoidance of this challenge suggests that the "terror of thinking" about these dimensions is as important as a particular stimulus to "thinking after terror".

Kearney provides an excellent description of how religious imagery has been appropriated to reinforce portrayal of the cause of some as an "evil" infliction on the condition of others as innocent victims -- thereby framed through binary logic as the "good". It is clear that this form of argument lends itself to appropriation in support of particular political perspectives. But he does not consider how the imagery of the standard fare of crime and espionage movies has been similarly appropriated -- perhaps deliberately so, given the documented relationships between the Pentagon and Hollywood.

Kearney also recognizes that those perpetrating "terror" have their own way of framing themselves as the "good" and those they attack as "evil" -- or complicit with it. Both sides feel justified in excusing themselves a degree of "collateral damage" in the event of any violence. Kearney however warns against the trap of moral relativism or equivalency in envisaging the need for some other way of articulating the challenge. But in doing so there is nevertheless a need to recognize that there may be dimensions to the understanding and position of those righteously perceiving themselves as representing the innocent or "good" that are as questionable as the refusal to accept a degree of "good" in those framed as inherently "evil". This radical polarization, the "dualist thesis" identified by Kearney, excludes any possibility of dialogue. No doubt; no dialogue? It even suggests that attempts at such dialogue would be tantamount to "supping with the devil".

Complicity with terrorism

In his extensive exploration of this polarization, Kearney appears not to be prepared to address explicitly the dimension of "I have seen the enemy and he is us". The "invisibility" he acknowledges as characteristic of the terrorist enemy is in no way related to any appreciation that it may be a consequence of the implication of the failure of the perceptual/conceptual process in responding to an Other. Kearney does not introduce the Jungian insight into the Shadow, at a time when "terrorism" can to some degree be usefully understood in terms of the shadow of humanity (cf Ray Harris, 2002). He also avoids the issue of terrorism arising from the misappropriation of symbolization of order of which gnosticism is strongly accused by Eric Voegelin (1968).

The dimension he does not therefore fully address is argued by others, notably with respect to the natural environment, in terms of the participatory or embodied mind (Francisco Varela, et al. The Embodied Mind: Cognitive Science and Human Experience, 1991; Henryk Skolimowski. Participatory Mind: a new theory of knowledge and of the universe, 1994). Here it might be argued in terms of cognitive participation in a psycho-social environment widely characterized by terror. This appreciation might be contrasted with that of Eric Voegelin (On Gnosticism: The Lust for Massively Possessive Experience, 1968). But Kearney does take this up with regard to the dynamics of "the construction of a demonic enemy as a projection of our minds". The question is whether this is to be as focused on a singular Other, as he argues, rather than a general characteristic of the relation to the psycho-social construction of a reality imbued with terror.

Kearney makes the point that "one can never repeat enough how the slaughter of 9/11 -- not to mention subsequent heinous acts of beheading hostages and systematic suicide bombing -- is irrefutable evidence of just how far the 'terrorists' themselves are prepared to go in the game of apocalyptic demonisation." But to what extent does this focused emphasis on a particular period in time obscure the existence of forms of terror that are distributed across societies over extensive periods of time? Jacques Chirac warned the World Economic Forum (Davos, 2005) of the world's chronic suffering from what he strikingly called the silent tsunamis of despair and unemployment: "Famine. Infectious diseases that decimate the life force of entire continents. Violence and revolt. Regions given over to anarchy. Uncontrolled migratory movements. Rises in extremism, breeding grounds for terrorism." [more]

Does this not raise the question of the distinction between blatant terrorism and the insidious terrorism of structural violence -- possibly to the point of demonizing the former and excusing the latter as somehow characteristically "human"? Will the future see parallels between the definition of homicide (as deliberately undertaken by the "evil"), and "involuntary manslaughter" (namely that effected inadvertently by the innocent)? How "evil" will the future judge the systematic negligence of the condition of the deprived -- and the withholding of timely assistance to those in need? Should that not also be associated with the "evil scourge of terrorism"? Is the lifelong suffering caused by such negligence not worthy of Kearney's citation of Mark Dooley: "Neither neutrality nor pacifism are luxuries we can afford in our dealings with this particular monster, given its odious ambition to destroy everything, even our children"? Again, to what extent are we ourselves that monster?

Elusive way forward

It is in this context that Kearney turns for insight, using a form of religious hermeneutics, to the "wisdom traditions" associated with the world's religions. His purpose is to seek a way "out of war towards peace and justice" -- "to a more peaceful, compassionate and just life beyond the rivalry of power politics". This articulation appears to point to a condition whose nature and dynamics are understandable and understood. Given the difficulties over centuries in reaching or achieving this condition, it is useful to consider the possibility that it is less understandable than is assumed and that it may not even be possible to articulate its nature within the languages that we habitually use. Such elusiveness is of course a characteristic of wisdom and the wisdom traditions.

Kearney makes good points in referring to the middle way and to the insights of yoga, or other integrated perspectives, in embodying values appreciated by many religions. With regard to non-violence, he argues persuasively to the point that: "And this is not some naive piety. It actually works. The most useful and practical way of protecting oneself and one's loved ones from violence is... 'to practice exchanging self for other, the great mystery.'" And further that this quality of non-violence is not just an attitude "possessed by 'beautiful souls', but also a matter of efficacity."

The challenge seems to lie in the extent to which the successful application is indeed "a great mystery". Kearney does not address the gap between the widespread shared appreciation of the wisdom of such perspectives and the practice through which religious perspectives themselves have long been at the very heart of the process through which demonisation is cultivated and violence is engendered. Somehow religions, with the greatest complacency, fail appallingly to address this matter with any "efficacity" -- however often their "beautiful souls" engage in inter-faith dialogue. It is not sufficient to frame certain co-religionists as lacking in the necessary wisdom or understanding of the requisite practice -- and therefore less "pure" in their understanding.

Fish-scale model of religious complicity

The fish-scale model of interdisciplinarity (D T Campbell. Ethnocentrism of disciplines and the fish-scale model of omniscience, 1969) can be understood to demonstrate the overlapping complicity of the disciplines in encompassing reality as a whole. Given this model, it might be argued that religions overlap in a similar way, both in encompassing the whole but also in their complicity with co-religionists framed as "less pure" -- due to their more active engendering of violence. It is after all extraordinary that "extremists" of various religions should so actively favour violence against "evil" whilst their less extreme co-religionists should consider themselves sufficiently distant from that perspective to share in no responsibility for it and be in no way tainted by it.

The challenge appears otherwise if extremists merely represent scales at extreme positions on the anatomy of the same fish! And, in terms of cultural memory regarding demons and dragons, there is a certain irony to comprehending the complete set of religions as the scales together protecting such a reptile -- thereby suggesting the potential for evolution into other models of the whole. In this light, there is also some irony to a fish being an early symbol of the Christian faith -- and, paradoxically, to representations of the anti-Christ as scaled.

Mysterious practice of tolerance

Kearney usefully contrasts the relevant wisdom with the abstract propositions of scientific and mathematical knowledge (theoria), arguing instead for "a special exercise of practical wisdom" (Aristotle's phronesis) "capable of negotiating a medial position between the claims of universality and particularity". He calls for the recognition of a "God, in short, of radical non-violence". It is a wisdom of "embodied action which subsequently called out for an endless hermeneutics of attentive interpretation and translation." He then asks whether if "something analogous to this hermeneutic tolerance...were to be applied to the opposition between Palestinians and Israelis... might it not be possible to imagine such intractable hostilities coming to an end"?

The problematic key operator here is associated with the term "applied". The challenge is more readily seen in more familiar conflictual psycho-social contexts. The politics of who acquires or assumes the power to "apply" is fundamental to the ability of any human relations consultant / therapist to bring their particular skills and wisdom to bear -- even in family therapy. In large corporations this requires the sanction of the CEO. In the emerging context of faith-based governance, one can indeed imagine efforts to "apply" religiously inspired insights -- and one can imagine the nature of the resistance to such efforts. In the case of the Parliament of the World's Religions (Chicago, 1993), the organizers were obliged to deprive the multitude of consultants, offering distinct group dynamic insights and wisdom, of the key roles they sought in ensuring the emergence of harmony between the religions represented. It might even be argued that many religions are in fact waiting for God to "apply" hermeneutic tolerance to humanity.

Kearney appeals elegantly in support of interreligious attention to the practices in support of the requisite hermeneutic tolerance. He points usefully to five "moments":

But such appeals have been made in other terms for decades, if not centuries. This should suggest that some dimension, or ingredient, is missing in the way the challenge is framed. The mystery of how indeed remains "a great mystery".

Identification of clues to the mystery

The challenge is to locate clues to what has not been effectively addressed:

A Wholly Trinity?

The relation between religion and terror suggests three complementary totalizing approaches to achievement of coherence and order -- perhaps fundamental to any future faith-based governance that may together bring the terrifying existential challenge of humanity to a focus:

  1. through religion, in the search for spiritual order, and holiness -- notably through the accumulation of merit guided by understandings of "God's law":
    1. as a preemptive response to the terror of the afterlife and the judgement of God
    2. in fulfillment of any "Great Commission" to proselytize the world, irrespective of the terror that this may engender in other cultures
  2. through totalitarian politics, in the efforts towards imperial hegemony -- notably through the accumulation of power guided by understanding of (Machiavelian) Realpolitik:
    1. as a preemptive response to terror of possible failure of protective (national) security measures
    2. in fulfillment of any sense of Manifest Destiny, irrespective of the terror engendered in subordinated populations
  3. through economic globalization, in efforts towards global integration -- notably in order to achieve accumulation of wealth and control, guided by understanding of the law of the market:
    1. as a preemptive response to terror of poverty and dependency and the need to safeguard resources essential to a lifestyle through which cultural identity is defined
    2. in fulfillment of convictions concerning the most appropriate economic model of benefit to others, irrespective of whether they are terrorized (or left in terror) in the process

The interaction between pairs of these three complements may each be understood as imbued with a degree of terror:

Petrifying abomination: personal complicity?

This comment has been entitled "Thinking in Terror" to suggest that there may be an abomination more terrifying than the terrors of the Holocaust and 9/11. How might this feature in the "great mystery"? There is the possibility that the terror is unconsciously recognized as so great that thinking about it is set behind the most rigid forms of denial -- petrifying those that consider its implications (as suggested by the Gorgon Medusa and other myths) [more]. This may effectively give rise to a "terror of thinking". What might cause such terror?

One possibility is that it is intimately associated with our degree of personal complicity as active causative agents in events such as the Holocaust and 9/11 -- and in Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib. Our personal and group identity, in reality, may be both as terrorist and as victim. We may evoke such abuse -- "thinking in" terror as a form of invocation -- as is suggested by the nightly proclivity of our civilization for the most extreme forms of media dramatizations of violence and horror. We may indeed be the "monster" to which Kearney refers. This monster not only manifests through such mediatised events. It also manifests in the many insidious forms of terror inflicted on others -- for which media violence may effectively programme us with the greatest efficacity. We may well be rightly perceived as demonic by others -- however angelic we would like to assume we are.

How do such dimensions relate to Kearney's interreligious challenge? Is the form taken by the Other effectively a "petrification" of some understanding of ourselves? For many religions it is therefore intriguing that some form of stone is used to signify their most holy dimensions. In the case of the Abrahamaic religions, this focus was preceded by the central role of the omphalos in the Mediterranean basis (akin to the lingam in Asia) [more | more]. Islam has the Ka'aba as its focal point in Mecca, Judaism has the Temple Wall, and for Christianity Peter is the rock on which the Church is built (Matthew 16:18).

The three religions at the heart of so much violence are intimately associated through the rock of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem -- and dissociated by their divergent understandings of its significance. Is it that such stones hold, locked in stasis, the fundamentally terrifying dynamic of spiritual experience -- safely celebrated by rituals around them? But to what extent are the existential questions raised by interreligious dialogue themselves experienced as petrifying -- with each encounter involving a humbling (if not humiliating) loss of identity and self-esteem?

Another special kind of "stone", potentially a keystone to transforming the relationship between religions in dialogue, is the "philosopher's stone". Described variously, it was sometimes said to be a common substance, found everywhere but unrecognized and unappreciated. It has been claimed to signify the force behind the evolution of life and the universal binding power which unites minds and souls in a human oneness. Finally, it represented the purity and sanctity of the highest realm of pure thought and altruistic existence.

Thinking within a terrifying reality

Kearney positions his reflection in time as "thinking after terror". This temporal displacement has unfortunate cognitive consequences, effectively favouring a preoccupation with a terror-focused variant of Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome -- focusing on the terror as trauma after the event. There is nevertheless a strong case for "thinking in terror" -- within the actuality of the moment when terror is experienced. This may be the continuing lived reality for many. Religions may even be said to emerge as a response to terror of the unknown and inexplicable -- to be nourished by it, especially in nourishing terror of the afterlife (cf Charles K. Bellinger. Religion and Violence: A Bibliography, 2004). As such they might be said to thrive in terror. What apostate has failed to remember a prayer in a moment of direst need?

On the other hand, it has been presented as an axiom of spiritual experience that no one can know the true grace of God who has not first known the fear of God [more | more]. This knowledge might in some way be understood as internalizing the terror that is otherwise projected into an engendered superficial world of petrified relationships with the Other. This then accords with the irony of the similarity of pronunciation of "terror" and "terra".

Such participatory internalization (explored through enactivism) suggests the possibility for "thinking in terror" as a means of relating to a "God of radical violence" -- the neglected pole of the duality set up by Kearney's valuable call for recognition of a "God of radical non-violence". It is through this aspect that the interreligious theological challenges of the terrifying horrors of the Asian tsunami of 2004 might be better addressed after the fact [more | more | more]. Recognition of both would also help to reframe the sterility inherent in contemporary thinking about the duality of war and peace -- and the vain effort to promote the latter without being able to express through it the terrifying dynamics that are therefore better articulated through the former, and perhaps through gnostic insights [more]. The tsunami has already evoked the comment in Asia that links it to the destructive Hindu female goddess Kali. Muslims and Baptists, amongst others, have claimed the tsunami to be an Act of God against Asian sex tourism [more].

The dynamics between aspects of a deity may well be better understood through the pantheons of non-Abrahamaic religions. As a design challenge, how could the complementary insights of different religions then best be embodied in the structure of a single "interreligious temple" -- whether of real or virtual stone? What is the most facilitative design of an interreligious dialogue space?

This raises the issue of how the non-Abrahamaic religions celebrate insights beyond the "mechanical" duality of violence vs. non-violence. They tend to achieve this by a more natural acceptance and honouring of the significance of the feminine and the symbolism of the relationships between the sexes. These are exemplified in the process of making love -- which is treated so simplistically in Abrahamaic theology. The challenge, as notably celebrated in Celtic nature religions, lies in the complex dynamic through which potential spiritual violation is transformed into fruitful mutuality and consummation to enable reproduction and sustain community.

Both radical feminism and anti-cult movements are vigilant regarding "spiritual rape", despite the challenge of reactive, sterile "celibacy" [more]. However it is the feminist theologian Sally McFague (Metaphorical Theology: Models of God in Religious Language, 1982) that has offered widely cited organic models of greater acceptability to Abrahamaic theology: God as mother, as lover, as friend, and finally, God as embodied by the universe itself.(see also Imaging a Theology of Nature: The World as God's Body, 1990). Sex, however, whether in practice or through its spiritual connotations, may remain a truly terrifying reminder for some of the fine and complex balance between violence and non-violence.

In discussing religious dialogue, Arthur Leichnitz calls for attention to the contrast between "rock logic" and "water logic" made by Edward de Bono (I Am Right -- You Are Wrong: From Rock Logic to Water Logic. 1990; Water Logic, 1993). Rock logic is based on concepts effectively "cast in stone" -- rigid categories, absolutes, argument and adversarial point scoring -- characteristic of much interfaith dialogue. He contends that such traditional logic is static, based on the solid foundations of "is" and identity. He proposes "water logic", based on "to" and the flow of the mind: "What does this lead to?" as opposed to "What is...?". This accords with the inner spiritual discipline of the Taoist exercise of T'ai Chi Chuan that is specifically inspired by the flow of water. Is it possible that the significance of "holy water", held in chalices in temples of stone, derives in part from this phase transition?

Withdrawing into the stones

As an Irish cultural critic, the mytho-poetic status of configurations of standing stones should also be of significance to Kearney, given the traces they offer of the religious worldview and deities of earlier cultures in Ireland. As noted elsewhere (The Isdom of the Wisdom Society: Embodying time as the heartland of humanity, 2003), mytho-poetic folk legends, and modern fictional explorations, serve to sustain and echo the archetypal insights in many cultures relating to elder "ancestral" races who "withdrew into the stones" -- or to those that may have been "trapped" therein, like Merlin and the proverbial geni in the bottle. Most curiously, one of the most popular and best known Christian hymns has as its opening lines: Rock of Ages, cleft for me, let me hide myself in Thee [more | more].

To what extent is this process evident in the profound psycho-cultural association of both Jews and Palestinians with "their land" -- as with the many indigenous peoples, like the Australian Aborigenes, for whom it is the very essence of their identity? (see Darrell A. Posey (Ed). Cultural and Spiritual Values of Biodiversity, 1999). How real is the terrifying perception of spiritual rape when one religion invades, with a new construction of stone, the sacred stone-demarked place of another?

It is curious how widespread are the tendencies to invest cultural memories in commemorative stones. And, ironically, how should any "withdrawal" of an ancient civilization into stones (composed primarily of silicates) be compared with the progressive embodiment of all that is significant in modern civilization into computer silicate memory (characterized by its phase transition properties) -- with some already set on "uploading" their own personalities? [more | more | more]. The elites of some countries have made provision to withdraw into secret underground bunkers in the event of national crisis [more | more | more]. Some Christian fundamentalists see this as appropriate preparation for the final battle of Armageddon. Curiously there is also the widespread drive to "get stoned" -- in part to numb the existential experience of terror.

Perhaps there are clues to more appropriate dialogue in the interplay in nature between "rock" and "water", rather than in favouring one over the other as suggested by de Bono. An intriguing lead is that offered by the use of sound in sustaining the sacred -- from temple chants to "singing the land" (notably by Australian Aborigenes). The role of vibration in that interplay has been given force by investigations into "vibratory revitalization" of the "memory of water" (Masuro Emoto, The Hidden Messages in Water, 2004), especially following interaction with stone silicates in watercourses [more | more | more]. The dynamic forms suggest the possibility of new, and necessarily "more fluid", patterns of dialogue. There is however the tragic possibility that the "songs" of many species in process of extinction by human activity may well have an as yet unrecognized function in revitalizing both stone and water in ways vital to human well-being. Whales may in some way be "singing the sea".

There may well be learnings for the interreligious challenge of terror and dialogue from earlier understandings of stones and their fruitful configuration. Can one thrive in a terrifying dialogue? As the most precious stone, the light-refracting facets of a cut diamond point to the possible relationship between the contrasting insights of the religions -- perhaps implicitly celebrated by the Diamond Way school of Buddhism. For example, elsewhere (Patterning Archetypal Templates of Emergent Order: implications of diamond faceting for enlightening dialogue, 2002) it was argued that:

Previously widely held amongst Celtic peoples, the belief survives of an invisible realm to which an other-worldly ancestral race, the Daoine Sidhe, has withdrawn -- after living ... as the highly cultured Tuatha Dé Danaan "in the age before this one" [see extensive web references]. Originally an aristocratic, warrior race of heroic proportion, they dwindled in size after retreating underground, to become the Daoine Sidhe or diminutive faeries of Irish folklore. The description of them as "gods and not gods" and "something in between" is consistent with a form of transcendence of duality reinforced by attribution to them of magical powers -- akin to those associated by Buddhists with achievements on the Diamond Way. Their withdrawal "below the surface", or "underground", into an "invisible realm", "beyond the veil", could well be understood as an effort to describe their unusual relationship to space-time and to the conventional objective world whose surface they live "behind" -- "fading into the hills" and into the fabric of reality. This same "in-betweeness" is evident in their creation myth describing them as born of the union between the great Creatrix (Dana) and the stars themselves -- again reminiscent of the Vajrayana goal of identification with the bonding of "light and void".

There is a challenge offered by terrorism from a spiritual perspective -- and by the scientific innovations offering ever more horrific means of causing terror. The challenge lies in whether the theoretical advances in the fundamental sciences regarding the nature of reality offer cognitive guidelines and templates through which dialogue can transcend the dualism separating religions. Pointers are, for example, offered by physicist David Bohm (Wholeness and the Implicate Order, 1980) and his subsequent deep involvement in dialogue processes [more], or by mathematician Ron Atkin (Multidimensional Man; can man live in 3-dimensional space?, 1981) [more]. People might thereby be carried into the "fabric of reality" -- into "the stones" -- through a process that may hold a key to the "invisible" character of the ubiquitous "unspeakable, inexplicable, unlocateable terror" to which Kearney refers.


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