02 June 2009

Creative Emptiness

Thought for the day from the introduction to Alan Watts’ classic The Wisdom of Insecurity (p. 10):

    In [my former books] I was concerned to vindicate certain principles of religion, philosophy, and metaphysic by reinterpreting them. This was, I think, like putting legs on a snake—unnecessary and confusing, because only doubtful truths need defense. This book, however, is in the spirit of the Chinese sage Lao-tzu, that master of the law of reversed effect, who declared that those who justify themselves do not convince, and that to know the truth one must get rid of knowledge, and that nothing is more powerful and creative than emptiness—from which men shrink.
Lao-tzu was the author of the Tao Te Ching, the foundational "scripture" of Taoism. Taoism is the most compelling of eastern philosophies to me. Contemporary therapies like CBT draw on its principles, as does Watts in this book, both of which basically argue that anxiety and insecurity are, paradoxically, "the result of trying to be secure, and that, contrariwise, salvation and sanity consist in the most radical recognition that we have no way of saving ourselves" from suffering and death (p. 9). In other words, embrace change as the only certainty in life. Live life mindfully and openly, but with no fixed expectations. Despair is nothing more than a fear of and resistance to change.

There, now you don't need to read the book. (A terrible summary, actually.)

But in fact, I liked this quote for other reasons, which I will not entirely explain. But it echoes my own experience of the conflict between theology and spirituality, religious discourse versus religious experience. Religious apologetics and sermonizing fill me with boredom or even mild melancholy, and theology may be intellectually engaging, but rarely anything more. To invoke an old saw, discoursing on religion is like dancing about architecture. To reduce it to words empties it of meaning, since it is irreducibly experiential. It can be evoked by the arts, including words-as-art, but words-as-description aspire to fixed definitions, which are limiting and grossly inadequate.

So, how exactly did I become a scholar of religion by vocation? Scholars can be mystics, too.

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