The following is a reflection on the relationship between the generic metaphysical structure of human spirit and the claims of orthodoxy made in excess of this generic structure.
Generic Metaphysical Structure
We are obliged to begin by articulating the generic metaphysical structure of human spirit in neutral, abstract, philosophical terms, without relying on religious coloring (or doing so as little as possible). This structure can go by many names: transcendental constitution of the human subject, general cosmological framework, operational unity of mind, structure of consciousness, pattern of being, etc. Though each iteration will bring into focus different aspects of the generic structure, there is analogy and compatibility between them as each reflects the same something real. I am greatly aided by the work and friendship of John Allison in my thought here and owe him certain elements of my own articulation, though of course the following is made in my own cast. I would put it this way:
There is a metaphysically actual infinite that is binding upon human behavior, for it provides the ultimate, though mysterious, formal object of human desire and can alone fulfill it. It orders the Why-structure of our activity, giving meaning to every subordinate Why. Implicit in this claim is that there is a metaphysically actual intentionality borne along by and in the very structure of finite reality — the Because that draws us inexorably deeper into the Why.
For the individual human spirit, bringing one’s own intention into accord with this intention – with reality as it really is – increases one’s sense of the value of existence, for it links us with existence’s final cause. This increase in value is unbounded. The more one comes into according contact with the supreme, the more mysterious and supremely-ordered all of reality intimates itself to be. The Why hearkens the human spirit ever more strikingly into its love. Likewise, because this metaphysically actual intention includes in its simple essence the intention to beauty, goodness, truth, and perfection, increased accord and proximity to it increases in us these qualities and their correlates: peace, joy, clarity, boldness, and so on.
We can note here a generic consensus that meditation, contemplation, divine reading, liturgy, worship and prayer are the best ways to achieve or access this accord of person and reality, for these acts winnow us down to the bedrock of things, put us into right relation with the truth of existence itself, and so serve the “task of essence” inscribed into the very nature of human being qua metaphysical.
Increased proximity to the infinite and its fruits, however, will be expressed in idioms that may be as unique as the person itself. As one comes to articulate what is of supreme value, one’s unique encounter with it must come into play and express itself. (There is a history to each of our discoveries of God, and it is only fitting that God make use of this history and, with our cooperation, prove that history ordered to Him and the reception of His heavenly wealth.) This verbal idiom, expressing metaphysical fulfillment, does not however bind one’s speech. Idiom borders but need not steer the path. It does not determine our course; prayer and the reality to which prayer confers our spirit does.
Personal verbal idiom does however establish for reflection and sharing with others the state of one’s metaphysical findings. Idiom allows for greater discoveries of reality as it is by clearing away blockages which had formerly stood in the way of direct contact, and by imagining ways of stating this contact more exactly, sincerely, luminously, in sum: more adequately. At the same time, every advance into greater avidity of idiom shows up an even greater inadequacy of speech before the infinite, reminding us once again that what is at stake here is conferance to Mystery. This is the function of language in the fulfillment of metaphysical desire. The rule of conferance leaves language open to the whole gamut of possible expressions, from traditional to novel, poetic to colloquial, and so on. (However, as we shall see, orthodoxy represents a convergence of idiom and Mystery that exceeds both generic description and personal verbal idiom, though it also makes room for these.)
The truth of any idiom after the infinite can be judged according to the completeness of the conferance it represents. In other words, so far as we can tell, To what extent has the committed Yes to reality has been lived, embodied, spoken, enacted? To what extent has a unity of thought, word and deed bound itself to the metaphysically actual infinite (and not just to words)? It is important to stress this point, lest we get lost in mental moves.
There can be no encounter with the metaphysically actual without subjective participation (hence the emphasis on prayer), but the latter should feed back upon and coincide with an objective transformation of the whole person. Otherwise, the notion of according intentionalities would be a vapid verbal game. The coordinates of our behavior, our choice of activities, the orientation of our desire, the taste of our habits, our ways of dialoguing, listening, and speaking – all of these will be affected through a real proximity to reality. For if our encounter is “essential,” we come upon the Because of Holy Mystery, and this leaves us forever marked and changed. It is a change that can and will come to embrace every Why of creaturely life, just as it frees, illuminates, and empowers every Why of spiritual life.
Put otherwise: by striking an inner accord with what is actually the case, our outer life is gradually reshaped in right relation to actual structure. And so it better reflects the something real, which can go by many names. This is undoubtedly a moral transformation, and as we are morally transformed our hearts are opened to higher levels of participation in the undergirding, all-suffusing reality; and so we are granted to contribute more heartily to its “work,” however that is further defined. So does the right relation to reality shine forth – with all the uniqueness of our spirit, in gesture and in idiom – from the within of its metaphysical ground. There, the source and end of our being makes of us the sign it intends us to be for others and which we, through the Spirit, co-intend. There, we come freely into fullness as persons, surrendered up in service to what is holy, right, and free.
The Claim of Orthodoxy
My next argument is that recognizing this metaphysical structure as generic does not automatically lead to the post-modern pluralist or syncretist position. The latter would have it that all orthodox claims reduce, in principle, to this generic structure, akin to the idea of the “transcendental unity of religions.” On this account, there would be no relevant uniqueness to orthodox claims (pluralism versus exclusivism); or these claims would be treated as relatively equivalent expressions left open to personal choice and hybridization (syncretism, inclusivism, or perennialism). However, we would then risk losing the specific vision of betterment and perfection housed by the orthodox claim.
If we assimilate the orthodox horizon to the generic, we will be left with a proliferation of personal verbal idioms, all of them perhaps well-grounded in the metaphysically actual, yet none of them able to verify any greater or lesser proximity to the infinite, nor any greater or lesser breadth for humankind. Personal verbal idiom leaves us naked of any final criterion of truth.
I do not believe we are forced into these positions. We can recognize generic teleological structure across multiple religions and philosophical systems, indeed as “perennial”, while also affirming particular orthodox truth-claims in excess of the generic structure — and thus as potentially nearer to reality, more adequate before our inadequacy before Mystery, and thus more capable of satisfying the longing of our heart. (This would align, I believe, with Aquinas’ view on natural law, which has a kind of universal jurisdiction and moral applicability across humanity, with divine revelation only adding to what is gained by reason alone. The question is, what does it add? And what is the relevance of what it adds?)
Why is the human spirit attracted to orthodox claims? Why do articulations of generic structures not suffice for the symbolic imagination? Why do people choose to root themselves in a specific tradition, knowing that something common and perhaps easier to communicate underlies it? Can we adjudicate differing orthodox claims from the standpoint of genericity? Or must our judgment involve a wager that exceeds genericity? From here, I move on to share my own intuition and discoveries on these points.
First off, any orthodoxy that lasts through time and expands its reach to new human populations could only do so because it captures and embraces the generic structure while transcending it. To remain viable, orthodoxy must articulate and exercise the generic plausibly, if partially, through its own particular idioms and practices. It must bring its own idiom into conversation with the generic, lest its claim be lost without a chance of being understood.
It is because a given orthodoxy really can satisfy metaphysical desire that it can justify–and verify–its claim to universality. No religion could have any “outreach potential” if it failed in this regard, because then it would have proved to be too limited by its particularities–by whatever in it is tied to region, time, language–without allowing an opening to the generic. Then, it would be no more important than a local myth, a matter for study in the history of religion but not a present factor in the religious advancement of the human race. It would not resonate personally, that is, “apply” to potentially anyone.
In other words, to profess and “prove” its universality, a given system of idioms and contemplative symbols would have to show, in practice, that it is actually capable of satisfying the maximum metaphysical longing of human beings–that it is rich and satisfying enough to take the spiritual aspirant farther than they could have gone on their own, that is, farther than any generic rendering or personal idiom would have taken them. Ideally, the means of orthodoxy should allow and foster everyone to participate in the Why-structure comprehensively–to dwell in the bosom of the supreme Because. That is the limit-wager of orthodoxy: going the way of this particular set of beliefs, symbols, rituals, practices and ideas will take you as far into reality as it is possible for human heart, soul and intellect to go.
When we evaluate phenomena like New Age, we readily predict that they will not last and expand simply because they cannot resonate personally, at the level of real structure, across a range of persons approaching the universal and fulfill the requirement just stated. Anything that cannot do so, ends up not being very real. For humans never actually get away with not satisfying their metaphysical needs. There may be passing quasi-religious phenomena which go part of the way and exert a fascination over the (darkened) human spirit, but the honeymoon with every partial metaphysics (or critique of metaphysics!) comes to an end. Unless an idiom facilitates genuine and full accordance of intention between a person and the metaphysically actual infinite, it will expire. It will dry up, become mechanical, lose its salt. This follows from the factor of objective, moral transformation we stressed above: if progress towards the metaphysically actual is hampered or halted by a given mode, it will have to be abandoned as falling short of our own aspiration for betterment, fulfillment, and perfection. Whatever fails in the light of the Mystery that calls us will be disqualified. (The converse is also true: any idiom that does facilitate an excellence of conferance will never go away, no matter how many times it’s misapplied, no matter how many objections and rejections are thrown at it over time.)
I wish to note the importance of embracing the eschatological situation and view in this regard. We can state the general principle as follows: whatever does not satisfy metaphysical longing ultimately is hardly worth following even partially or for a time. Every system of symbol and thought of enduring relevance to the human spirit confronts the question of death, the end of the world, issues of ultimate truth and concern, lasting beauty, and so on. Much as we are fascinated by the appeal of the short-term, metaphysically speaking it is impossible for us to not care about the “last things.” That is true regardless of whether or not you reject the idiom of soul, afterlife, reincarnation, resurrection, or what have you. An “answer” to the Why will be landed upon either way, even if that answer tries to drown the Because in No’s, war, evil, nothingness, etc. (I say this merely as an observation based in the generic structure of the human spirit as oriented teleologically to the metaphysically actual infinite; that someone has not yet realized or proved this in their own spirit does not speak against it.)
I have said that the generic articulation of metaphysical structure, while helping us to identify key features that transcend any particular quest, can never exhaustively capture an orthodox claim, that is, reduce its particularity to the generic. Meanwhile, the temptation of orthodoxy is to overdose, overcode or encumbrance the generic with inessential particulars and static elements, such that generic applicability is lost and metaphysical fulfillment stymied at that point. This would mean that the orthodox view had stuck too closely to its own idiomatic strictures without “inhabiting them metaphysically,” so to speak. In that case, it disappoints its own universalizing tendency and proves its need for an internal reform–a reform of idiom, not of the core spiritual conferance. Expressions of the orthodox claim must therefore remain open to intersubjective criticism, and for their own good; otherwise they would thwart their own ambition to reach all.
The perfect particular, by contrast, would shuttle between the generic and the universal, the all-applicable and the incarnate-concrete. It would manifest a creativity of spirit that, never losing touch with the metaphysical desire at the heart of every person, nonetheless expresses itself in the particular so fully and satisfyingly in the direction of ultimate and lasting spiritual perfection that it became universally undeniable that this particular particular “says everything” there is to say about us, about moral transformation, about the metaphysically actual infinite, and so on. That by some mysterious confluence, this particular particular adequately symbolizes the “something real” of Holy Mystery in all its beatitude, abundance, and glory. Such a symbol would express already a perfectly perfected humanity, even if humanity’s “witness” to this expression would take time, as it tested it against the openness of the generic and brought it into conversation with other particulars. (For Christians, this perfect particular of course is Jesus Christ.)
The Contest of Religious Particulars
With this in mind, it makes sense why different orthodoxies can both “reflect” each other, leading to inclusivism, perennialism, or syncretism, yet never capture each other, leading to pluralism or exclusivism. Taken on their own, however, orthodoxies do not even want to capture each other, for each has an investment in proving the universality of its own claim. Ironically, this investment forces orthodoxy into its seeming rigidity–but also into that slow transformation through the ages as it seeks an idiom for its discovery that can honor both the generic and the particular. To succeed at this would mean its triumph, that is, the vindication of its claim to profess the one salvation for everyone.
At the generic level, then, there is a functional compatibility among spiritual means, perhaps even an interchangeability. Practically speaking, this means that the human spirit can grow in goodness and holiness and truth through a radically diverse set of idioms, concepts, practices, and gestures, including those which imply no religion or traditionalism whatsoever. In this vein, today especially, the articulation of metaphysical desire in generic fashion is important if this desire is to remain awakened in humanity, since the orthodox idiom has become hard to hear and since comparison and communication between orthodox claims have rapidly expanded humanity’s pool of religious knowledge, possibility, and imagination.
At the ultimate level, however, there does emerge an incompatibility among idioms, as well as an insufficiency of the generic, for the test is whether or not the body of humanity (and not only one isolated human spirit) can actually attain the ultimate by the given spiritual means.
Wherever the spiritual body of humanity pursues its metaphysical desire to the maximum, a severance of idioms will ensue, whereby the generic is superseded and some particular stakes its claim to the universal.* There the commutability of idioms breaks down. It reaches a limit, not in the name of pluralism or exclusivism but of metaphysical plenitude. This is also where concrete intentional objects of devotion begin to diverge, and we must bear witness to the non-exchangeability, incomparability, and irreducibility of religious particulars.
A spirit compelled within a zone of such particularization, its conscience thus symbolically informed, will be animated to testify to this discovery with the maximum orthodox potency it can muster, while also reforming that idiom from the inside to amplify the extension of its universal claim. Thus it hopes to convince the rest of humanity of the generic relevance (and supernatural prevalence!) of this particular truth – or at least, of the unavoidability of confronting it. For the orthodox believer “knows” that a confrontation with this symbol is at stake in every spirit’s quest to discern what is actually metaphysically the case, whether it knows it or not. Moreover, as the whole of humanity collectively tests different claims to universal salvation, it will simply have to meet it, reckon with its truth, and choose.
Ironically, even when we articulate the generic, our spirit seeks a particular that could satisfy our need for a universal that would both maintain a generic outreach and confer itself to Mystery–as if there were a contest for the most potently-universal particular. Were such a particular to win that contest, we can be sure it will have shown forth, in outstanding evidence, its superveiling truth. Abstract as that sounds, it boils down to a simple question: To whom, on our last day, shall we pray?
by Timothy Lavenz
June 26-July 5, 2022
*Note that this particular may be stated so broadly as to mask its particular nature, for example, the statement of Ramakrishna: “infinite paths to infinite reality.” Because such an idiom comes into conflict with other idioms that also profess universality (John 14:6), it is impossible to settle the contest without engaging them metaphysically. This means in concreto that humanity will have to inhabit these claims, testing them to see what is really true.