Mind and Body:
From René Descartes to William James

"A Shimmering Web of Associations":
Religious Ways of Knowing

Story Evolution

A trialogue triggered by Grobstein's Writing Descartes ...

Michael McGrath, All God's Critters Got a Place in the Choir

Dear Anne,
Ok, here's what I've been musing: as a Unitarian Universalist, I have a different take on the situation that seems to call Sam to inner reflection... while UUs do emphasize the need to know oneself and reflect on one's actions, there are two or three of our seven principles we hold near and dear that speak directly to the Descartes process and the idea of story sharing. One is our first principle, which recognizes

So all these stories, told by all these people, are each in and of themselves of worth, told by people of worth, and there is a respectful, active listening that is imbued by this principle which also I think connects to the Quaker practice of active listening? And the fourth principle, which allows everyone seems to connect both to the first principle, and also to the idea that each person of worth and dignity is going to go about their search their own way.... and the seventh principle, which promotes I am not saying that Sam is not all about respect for others, which I can see he is, I guess I just come at it from the idea that you must respect each individual AND the inextricable way that we are already depending upon each other and the world. So while inner reflection is valuable, one cannot escape the fact that we are so associated as to make even inner reflection a "thinking out loud process." This is what I think the Descartes dialogue has done... placed inner reflection in conversation with other inner reflection, resulting in a shimmering web (or perhaps hole-y web) of associations, conflicts, and revelations. I think I share some of Sam's reticence about putting ourselves out there/ taking everything in, but as you have noticed, both he and I have consented to being "posted" and "archived" and "linked to," so it must not have bothered us much.

Thanks, Em, for writing again...your meditations have nudged me to notice the thread of religious ways of thinking that have appeared, briefly but insistently, throughout these dialogues. I want to try and pick up some of them here, see if we can figure out the degree to which they are compatible, or not, with "getting it less wrong."

First: Descartes. My understanding is that he was applying his technique of "hyperbolic doubt" not to get rid of religous belief, but actually to ground it on firmer foundation: By dedicating his Meditations to the divinity school of the University of Paris, Descartes was announcing that his philosophy was consistent, so far as he was concerned, with traditional Catholic theology....Descartes announces at the opening that there are two driving issues behind the Meditations: proving the existence of God and the immortality of the soul through natural reason.

Now whatever Descartes intended (I doubt we can trust his explanation here), what he unleashed, of course, was a procedural method that has made quite a contribution to shaking the foundations of received belief. What I'm wondering now is just how compatible (any?) religious ways of knowing are with the profound skepticism being explored in what you call this "shimmering web...of revelations."

Religion has frequently been invoked in these pages: As you note, Sam Dalke speaks of Quakerism. Lucy Darlington's dialogue evokes both "zenishness" and "shamanism." Jody Cohen's makes mention of the Buddhist wisdom that we are seeking futilely for a "solid foundation." Wil Franklin says that he is left "with only one option...to not be skeptical, to have FAITH." Elizabeth Catanese has spoken about the meditative slowness, the "beautiful loneliness" she can enter into, when she's not being drawn by the " intellectual stimulant drug" that is Serendip. Paul Grobstein, who initiated these dialogues, said in a 1995 interview for The Scientist that if "you broaden science and reduce the strictures of some religions, they are essentially the same thing"--that is (as I understand it), each is a process of intutions, testing against experience, offered up, re-tested....infinitely. I myself have never experienced any sort of disjunction between my religious and intellectual lives; as I said at the Science and Spirit site,

The exploratory seeking that Quakers call "continuing revelation," the process of constantly "testing" in a social context, against what others know, what one knows oneself, against new experience and new information...are activities that, ideally, can be practiced in both the religious and the intellectual realms.

And yet, I find myself still worrying the hunch that these two processes are not entirely compatible. One reason I'm wondering about this has to do with a letter I just received from Diane Gibfried, in response to our conversation, elsewhere, about The Accessibility and Assailability of Art .

One of the reasons I have been "wandering" around in Ayacucho and Peruvian history all summer... is that the indigenous people of Ayacucho were abused on two sides, by their government and by the Shining Path. Words cannot adequately express the violent crimes of rape and murder that both sides committed because they held these people in a trap of suspicion, disrespect and mistrust with a tremendous disregard for their value as a people and their lives. I talked to a woman who has worked in Peru for years with artists and artesans (I found out later she just happens to be a Dominican nun). She sent me some literature and some words that held me were: "there was a clandestine meeting of artists". Because they had NO VOICE, the artists got together and made art about what was happening. This is one place where art continues the conversation, IS the conversation and maybe is the only adequate conversation. And where I believe art has a tremendous capacity to heal.

It fascinates me that art can heal a culture or an individual.

I don't think art stops the conversation, but I believe it takes it deeper to a place where you stay longer and to a place where you have a lot less control over how you respond. Maybe it stops the words, but it does not stop the conversation.

I am still thinking ....

...but now I am thinking that in a conversation someone listens and then someone responds and then someone listens

so I am wondering about the listening of art

and also when I read a good poem or just that line in the pamphlet about Ayacucho "there was a clandestine meeting of artists"... I can spend a year or two with that, or even something someone says

it has a similar kind of effect of staying long and listening and not having control over responses as art so words can do it

but when people respond to art with words-- it's often way to heavy footed-- or awkward - (I don't like when people go around talking about art in museums because that is talking ABOUT art and not listening) but poetry could do it or music and some words could do it.

I recently spent a week in a Trappist monastery, where for the most part, everyone is silent. Of course, there is reading going on and there is art on the walls.. but there is very little conversation like "How do you do" type stuff. I know it sounds crazy, but you are on your own there and can do whatever you like. The monks have their strict observance of prayer, which is cool too in an ancient way, a sort of spiritual clock of life, which I enjoy. But I usually wander around through corn fields and wheat fields and watch the pond. Watching the pond is the best. I saw a frog circle dance with Baryshnokov leaping frogs at the pond that made me laugh. And there are amazing birds. Meals are eaten in silence. Anyway, my point is that there is a bond of intimacy that develops with the people you are with, even though you are not talking, even though you don't even know their names. And there is a reverence for experience that is allowed to happen because there is not so much noise. And maybe that has something to do with art conversation as well.

Oh God, Anne, you have got me going again...


I'm not quite sure what God has to do with it. More pointedly, I'm (slowly, slowly) learning that reverence is not the guide, healing not the goal of the Descartes dialogues. Certainly there are no presumptions, amid all this exploration of "getting it less wrong," that there is something fundamentally wrong that needs to be righted. Certainly there is no presumption of arriving at a place of sure and steady stillness, where all will be right....

I'd be very glad to hear more from both of you about how you understand this intersection (or its absence....?)

In the meantime, inbetween time, Anne and Sam took a trip to the Promised Land....

For continuing conversation and to leave your own thoughts, go to the on-line forum.

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