Thursday, March 01, 2007

The Finger

Dear Reader,

Yesterday, I resumed the Ancient Greek Philosophy course I am taking from Kenneth Smith. We are still working our way through Heraclitus, carefully and deeply, attending not just to problems with the translations but also with the greater cultural context for each fragment to illuminate it as fully as possible. Tonight over dinner, Beverly and I discussed a group of fragments that deal with people's paradoxical gullibility toward finite details but cynicism toward the infinite principles and powers of the cosmos. We discussed the use of myths and metaphors and imprecise language to try to stretch beyond the limits of language - with its emphasis on the finite - to indicate the existence and nature of the infinite beyond.

Beverly noted that in Metaphorical Theology: Models of God in Religious Language, Sallie McFague defined metaphor as a finger pointing at the moon. Beverly then noted that most cats cannot comprehend the human act of pointing. When we point behind a cat at birds out the window, the cat instead of turning around to follow the path of our finger simply stares at and perhaps sniffs our finger. The metaphorical act of pointing, in which the finite becomes a symbol for the not-yet-seen, is beyond most cats. Likewise, when Heraclitus, Jesus, Lao Tzu, Mohammed, Hegel, Kierkegaard, Marx, Nietzsche, Buddha, or other great thinkers point with finite words to the infinite cosmic forces that steer all things through all things, we stare and sniff at the words. Maybe human beings are more like cats than we thought.

The Buddha responded to this human limitation with his Flower Sermon, in which instead of preaching to the huge gathering at Spirit Mountain he simply held up a golden lotus and waited. Most people saw only a flower where they were expecting words of wisdom, and so were confused, believing that his "sermon" was gibberish. Yet it was among the most profound, indicating clearly and directly our attachment to words and doctrines, our inability to see through these metaphors to the reality they try to indicate.

Lao Tzu and Heraclitus responded to this human limitation with their extraordinarily concise tomes Tao te ching and Peri physeos, in which they bent and stretched language into paradoxes that point to the infinite. Doing so requires coming into conflict with our petty attachment to linear thinking, our arbitrary distaste for contradictions, and our abhorrence of rethinking the fundamental assumptions of our lives. We respond by lashing out, accusing them of being nonsensical, or perversely obscure, that is, of making no sense on purpose, just to bother us.

We attack them, and well we should. They are committing the ultimate crime. They are giving us the finger.

Yours truly,