Sunday, December 23, 2007

In Search of Meaning




Certainty Versus Uncertainty

As I grow older I get progressively less certain about things. The certitudes I once embraced as a young man have receded far into the background of my consciousness. The ground underneath my feet seems not to be as solid as I once thought. When I look out into the horizon across the waters that bathe this small island it’s hard to see the whole vista with one hundred per cent clarity. Not everything is crystal clear. Wherever 100% clarity exists, it certainly does not exist in my mind or even in my own perceptions. I’m not even sure as to whether the world of things is as I perceive it. Then, when it comes to the world of the mind itself, the solid ground I once presumed I walked upon is now no longer that secure or solid at all. Certainties are vanishing for me like smoke in the wind.

Honesty is refreshing and freeing. In intellectual honesty we are no longer slaves to set ideas, dogmas of any kind or indeed our own presumptions and biases. Intellectual honesty, as well as emotional honesty, is a hard virtue to practise. Those who are both emotionally and intellectually honest have done a lot of deep soul searching, and that often at a cost to either their personal or professional lives. These thoughts are occasioned both by the reflectivity that descends upon me at this particular season of the year – Christmastide – and also by other constraining realities like the deaths of acquaintances, my mother’s dementia, the fact that her younger brother, Ted, 75 is dying of cancer and also by the fact that I’m at that juncture in my life where I need a change of job for my own sanity and well-being. This latter fact has led me to take the risk of pursuing a career break at my own expense. Deep down I feel good, but I am also concerned about how I shall eventually earn some money should I choose not to go back to teaching. So many certainties have died for me. I am at a crossroads physically (50 years old just with high B.P., endogenous depression and high cholesterol); professionally I’m feeling burnt-out and know it and so I’m searching deep inside for meaning. That’s what Jung said after all - his sixth task of ageing, “determining the meaning of one’s life,” is about gaining conscious awareness of one’s purpose for being. It is a profound dimension of human behaviour, and the second half of human life is where it finds its most essential expression.

I have been dipping into a wonderful book today called The Irish Soul in Dialogue (The Liffey Press, 2002) edited by Stephen J. Costello, a philosopher in UCD. I began to re-read certain of his interviews with “great” or at least ”well-known” contemporary Irish figures. Two interviews I re-read provide a marvellous contrast and a wonderful background for my personal ruminations. I refer to the conversations Stephen had with the erstwhile Professor of Psychiatry, UCD, Dr. Ivor Browne and the one with Cardinal Desmond Connell, emeritus Professor of Metaphysics at the same educational establishment..

Cardinal Connell comes across as a genial person who is conservative and Thomistic to a fault. He simply loves traditional metaphysics and talks with animation and conviction about angels, archangels and guardian angels. Without a doubt he is an intellectual and knows his “stuff” inside out. However, it is ivory tower “stuff,” totally unrelated to real lived life. One wonders how the Pope appointed a total “airy-fairy” academic to a pastoral role in the Church when the man was reaching retirement age as Professor of Metaphysics in UCD. One gets the feeling that one is in the presence of a dinosaur when reading this rather strange and arcane interview.

Connell is a proud man who is rather easily offended, e.g., here is an account of one such offence taken in his own words: “When Trinity celebrated the third centenary of Berkeley, and Berkeley was heavily influenced by Malebranche (Connell’s doctoral area), I was informed that I was not invited to give a talk there, though I was invited to give a few quid, but I got great satisfaction from one of the lecturers referring to my work.” (op. cit., p. 53) Of the famous mediaeval German mystic Eckhart, this is what the Cardinal says: “Needless to say, Eckhart has led to all kinds of nonsense, including that man who left the Dominicans – what’s his name?” He brushes aside psychology – such as the transpersonal psychology of Jung as “psychologizing” and that “the trouble is that they are trying to appreciate all that at a purely phenomenological level, and the phenomenological level is insufficient. The phenomenological level is the level of experience. But you have to reflect on the deeper conditions of experience at the metaphysical level.” (ibid. p58) Then he talks with complete certainty, and undoubtedly deep conviction, about the nature of angels as pure spirit. Everything he says reads like the catechism, but as he is a deep believer and a Cardinal of the Church we can at least expect as much.

Dr. Connell has not much time for theology qua theology, that is for pure theology or what he terms as “pure theological positivism.” The following makes interesting partisan and doctrinaire reading: “A theology that is not nurtured by philosophy becomes a pure theological positivism. All you can do is keep repeating what has been said, but there’s no penetration, no deeper understanding. The truths of the faith call for reflection… Protestants very often go in for a very positivistic theology. Since Vatican II we have been tending in that direction. What’s interesting about the Second Vatican Council is that all the great figures of the Council were brought up on the Thomistic revival and they had metaphysics. It was said that the bishops sang “Should auld Aquinas be forgot!” Ratzinger, of course, is a poacher turned gamekeeper! He was one of the liberals of the Second Vatican Council. Ratzinger was always an excellent theologian. I am not for any moment suggesting that he was heterodox.” (ibid. p.64.) This says a lot about doctrinaire, dogmatic and almost fascist positions as regards the certainty of one’s own beliefs. However, to be fair to the man, he is a sincere believer and a cardinal after all – the whole thing is part of the scheme of things to which he signed up as a priest and later as a cardinal. Not to defend it could be construed as the height of dishonesty and hypocrisy.

Then to read Professor Ivor Browne one one finds oneself on different ground altogether. Browne is not an orthodox believer at all. He is a sincere searcher for the truth and follows wherever both his head (intellect) and heart (intuitions, beliefs etc) lead him. His is refreshingly undogmatic stuff. “I refuse,” he says, “to sign up to certainties.” (op.cit., p. 22) The sheer level of intellectual honesty is at times breathtaking. His exchanges and questions are direct, sincere and humble at all times, e.g., “What does he mean by that?”…“I’ve never read him in detail.”… “I don’t like to use the word ‘belief.’ ” … “I would say that I would have a very eclectic view.” When asked about Lacan he says simply and disarmingly “I’ve never understood him.” (ibid., pp 11-29, passim)

About the Celtic Tiger he says rather insightfully: “This Celtic Tiger is quite frightening because the old religion has died and nothing is replacing it. There are no signs of any idealism.” (ibid., p. 26)

And finally, in response to the question as to whether he is happy or not, he replies again disarmingly, “No. I don’t think so… I don’t think it’s particularly important. That’s where we have gone wrong now, that we are searching for it. The need to be happy is an absurd notion.” (ibid., p. 29)

All of this I find riveting and interesting. Of course, Browne is no “atheist”. He’s probably a spiritual agnostic and Christian-Buddhist of sorts like me. In fact I cannot describe my beliefs as I grow older at all, save to say that I am refashioning and re-shaping them continually as I age. I am loathe to discard anything that gives meaning to my life. In like manner, Ivor Browne does, as a Psychiatrist and Psychotherapist, would subscribe to the fact that the meaning in life lies in the very quest for that meaning. Perhaps this is all we need to know. Perhaps also, all we need is the help of our fellow pilgrims on the way.



The above picture is one I took in the town of my birth - Roscrea - where the old is gradually accepting the new. The old ways are changing. A new world has begun for Ireland come of age as a multinational country.

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