Monday, October 31, 2011

God: A Biography - Jack Miles

What makes God god-like? What sort of "person" is God? Examining the Tanakh, Jack Miles sets out to create an analysis of the text's central character as a literary protagonist. For Miles the Tanakh - what most westerners would call the Old Testament - is really a story about how God has created and come to interact with the world. Tracing the "life" of this protagonist Miles compelling illuminates not only the story of the Tanakh, but the evolution of the character of God.

Though it may seem an obvious observation, the central aspect of God is that he - and yes the Tanakh is relatively unambiguous about his gender - is alone. There are no other deities with which God has divine adventures nor anything except his own creation to reflect his personage. That we may feel conflicted about God's unity - is this same character not our heavenly father, the destroyer of Pharaoh's armies and the comforter of the sick and afflicted? - reveals the tensions on display in the God of the Tanakh. He is, of course, all of these things, but that only raises the question of how any character who is seemingly so contradictory is able to sustain any measure of cohesion? By making God a character riven by his own multiplicity the Tanakh, Miles writes, takes the form of a great character drama. In essence the reader is always referring every action back to its relationship to God and wondering at his actions, or lack of actions given any situation. With only mankind to expose this characters life, the biography of God thus becomes a story about people's relationship to him. If God strikes us as of differing personages it is because he has been revealed in his relationship to people to play many roles.

As the Bible is the central literary piece of all western civilization, the God of the Bible is our most central, and perhaps our most difficult, character. For believers and non-believers alike, the western referent known as God remains he who it is written created Adam and Eve, destroyed the world in a flood, spoke to Moses on the mountain, brought King David to great power and was confronted by Job in the whirlwind. That these events may or may not have happened is both the province of history and articles of faith. What is inescapable is that the writers of the Tanakh have cast this character across the western world and whether we "believe" or not, his personality infuses our lives. That this personality is complex, multiple, often frustrating and seemingly obtuse is part of the growth and life of God within the Tanakh. It is because of the central role of this work of literature that God also becomes inescapable. Thus our lives exist in the shadow of one main protagonist  who is divided and wrestling with himself.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

The Dharma Bums - Jack Kerouac

Further adventures of life on the road with Kerouac, The Dharma Bums recounts the narrators - Kerouac thinly veiled as Ray Smith - travels and, minor, travails across the front roads and backcountry of America (with some Mexico thrown in). Throughout Kerouac and his companions - most  notably Japhy Ryder/Gary Snyder - hike the mountains of the Sierra, meditate in the backwoods of North Carolina, and sleep in the desert of Arizona all while contemplating the great undifferentiated aesthetic continuum proposed by the mystics of Buddhism.

Primarily the work speaks to a re-investigation of what we consider to be necessary versus what we deem to be sufficient. Kerouac and his fellow dharma bums are in search of the enlightening potentials of raw experience, in the hopes that they may change themselves, and by extension the world. By casting off the extraneous aspects of existence these young, almost entirely male and white, Americans hope to get at the root of what is important in this life. Certainly a laudable, if not sometimes seemingly self-centered, goal.

It is to the great credit of The Dharma Bums that, ostensibly, not much happens within the story. In this way Kerouac conveys that it is the cultivation of a state of mind over the external circumstance that is his purpose. The clarity with which he conveys his realizations - which appear oftentimes fully-formed - and the manner in which he romanticizes certain strains of the life, makes it small wonder that two-plus generation of young men (and to some extent women) have turned to Keruoac's work as part of the American gospel of the sojourner . This is not to denigrate the feelings that Kerouac gives voice too. In some very disconcerting ways The Dharma Bums reads entirely contemporary, with only the question of whether America is a free enough place to consciously cat off into its own lost places in search of something we think no longer exists.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

The Meeting of East and West: an inquiry concerning world understanding - F.S.C. Northrup

An overview of the major philosophical considerations forming the foundations of Eastern and Western cultures, F.S.C. Northrup's The Meeting of East and West is an erudite, yet concise and approachable synthesis of the ideas that drive our modern world. Written following the close of World War II, though the work's areas of focus may have changed were it to be written today, its analysis has lost none of its punch.

For Northrup, that which drives cultures can largely be found in their intellectual and conceptual roots, whether the populace writ large could give voice to them or not. Contrasting the empiricism of the differentiated West from the more intuitive, aesthetic continuity of the Orient, Northrup provides moving and convincing overviews able to at once encompass the intellectual difficulties of Locke, the antithetical issues of Marx and the seemingly paradoxical, yet wonderfully explanatory aspects of differentiation and continuity of the Tao or Chit - which he identifies as one in the same. It is no mean feat to be able to explain Hegel's work, let-alone the intellectual legacy he created that was transformed by Kant and Fichte. Northrup not only achieves this, but ties it to German aspects of the good and the state.

The scope that Northrup apprehends is, simply put, staggering. At its conclusion The Meeting of East and West offers its own synthesis of Western and Easter thought in the hopes that we may have a world in which we can understand and positively interact with one another. Whether or not we can achieve the task which Northrup puts us to remains, obviously, unanswered. Certainly his work is an important step to understanding where we fit into the world around us. Northrup's work stimulated my interest at every turn and will drive me to further reading. I cannot remember the last time I finished a work and immediately thought that I should start it again.