Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Who's Afraid of the Wolf?

At a Quaker meeting house a few years back, I picked up a little pamphlet-- it gave a frank defense of Quaker practices. Amidst a list of reasons for their movement away from mainstream Protestant traditions, the pamphlet said this:

"Most Protestant groups attributed to [the Bible's] words a finality & infallibility that more thoughtful examination would have rejected. The common desire for an external authoritative standard was too strong."

And so, the pamphlet argued, the Religious Society of Friends has developed a set of practices more suited to the humble state which creatures without an infallible guide find themselves in.

Having striven for a few years to walk away from various umbrellas of authority, I'm wondering now about living in "ignorance." Wendell Berry, who serves as one of my interim authority figures, said this to me (in a book of his):

"The question of how to act in ignorance is paramount."

Indeed. If you are alive, and don't claim to suck from the teet of infallibility, then you are left with the mess of words that the world buries you in, and with your own presence-in-the-world. When one begins to despair of being able to pull the pin-sized "true-way" out of the haystack, one begins to recognize that truth doesn't reside in words. One turns exclusively to one's presence-in-the-world. But it doesn't speak-- it just is.

And one begins to wonder how to act in this state of being-- one in which the designation of "truth" has been given to that which is disclosed to us in moments outside of everyday distraction, when we are aware of our own presence-in-the-world. I don't mean to say that people in this state find truth in experience-- when people claim to be empiricists, I think, they are connecting themselves to a certain authoritative standard, a certain way of talking about being. "Truth" for them is akin to scientific law. They don't think of themselves as ignorant, unless they recognize the fallibility of that way-of-speaking too.

The Specter of Ignorance then begins to rise. We are left with the realization that knowing is a way of operating in the world, and truth is what comes from being-in-the-world. Certainty is just foolishness.

I suppose that this is what they call enlightenment. But what do you do once you've been enlightened? They say that Buddha, upon achieving "enlightenment," ate some rice pudding. No special significance in that--he was just hungry.

Edward Albee wrote the play "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?," and meant by the title (and through the conversation of the play's characters) to ask: Who is afraid of recognizing our ignorance? Except, I suppose he would put it this way: Who is afraid of letting go of illusions? After letting go of knowing, fear of the unknown has more space to fill.

Regardless of the fallibility of any authority, we do have presence-in-the-world. And it's something-- more than something. I think presence-as-a-worldview is a way to live. It seems to me it would be something like this: 1. One recognizes one's fallibility, 2. One recognizes that one exists, 3. One recognizes that one will cease to exist, 4. One recognizes that other Beings are existing-in-the-world too, and that co-existence is what we have, 5. One recognizes that co-existence implies a meaning, a place (in the loose sense of the word) of being, and finally 6. One acts in ways that with perpetuate this co-existence-with-awareness.

That idea is enough to live on, albeit in a very humble fashion. I think a meeting of people who live in this knowledge would look something like the way the Friend's meetings go: a lot of silence, a lot of sitting there absorbing the light of meaningful presence.

1 comment:

Ryan Hofer said...

Whatever we're made of, won't that continue to exist after our individual selves disintegrate?