Monday, July 23, 2012

the second naiveté

The Self cannot be won by speaking,
nor by intelligence or much learning.
It can be won by the one whom it chooses.
To that one the Self reveals its own form.
Katha Upanishad II:23

I keep running into this phrase lately––“the second naiveté.” I’ve heard it mainly applied to scripture and myth. So, perhaps at an early age we read the Bible, for instance, believing every word and fact and detail to be literally true, no matter the discrepancies within accounts or things that just don’t match up. Then comes the stage of exegesis, literary critique and historical critical analysis, and we could fall into a totally cynical approach, figuring out just what words Jesus might have actually said, and deciding that this is all a bunch of silly fairy tales. And then the second naiveté hits, when we just start to enjoy the stories again and appreciate the truths that they convey. I think this happens in very tradition. I’ve heard it referred to Hindu and Buddhist texts as well. I don’t think it’s a return to being uneducated; it’s something beyond our sophisticated rational minds.

Maybe the same thing applies to our understanding of God. So as a little Catholic boy I sincerely thought of God as an old man with a long white beard, and his Son looked just like him except younger and a little thinner with a brown beard, and then there was this dove. Every religion has its version of this too, I suppose. And then I went through my iconoclastic stage, smashing idols and destroying images, my own and those of others! But later can come another phase, in which I don’t think we recapture those images and icons necessarily, but instead we grow to love the mystery, and grow comfortable not knowing the answers, and being comfortable with that. Perhaps that’s the apophatic stage, the via negativa, the way of holy darkness, which could either freak us out or it could initiate us into awe, wonder, worship, joy. I don’t think it’s a return to childhood, really, but it’s a new childhood, a new innocence, in which we don’t “regret the past nor wish to shut the door on it”; where we don’t negate all that we have learned and gained, but we go beyond it, and with the help of all that we have gained we find a new sense of mystery and transcendence. Some people are lucky enough to remain innocent and childlike all their lives. Most of us are not that lucky––but we can hope for this place beyond our slick rational minds, beyond our cleverness. There are many things actually hidden from our cleverness that are revealed to our awe, hidden from our brilliance that are revealed to our trust.

So Jesus says in that beautiful passage from the Gospel of Matthew, Blessed are you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth. What you have hidden from the learned and the clever you have revealed to the merest children. It reminds me of the Tao te Ching, my favorite chapter 20. Taosim is perhaps the quintessential apophatic tradition. I think this passage describes well what St Paul calls the “fool for Christ,” and makes me think at what an absurd figure the monk can strike in this day and age. This my version of it, the one I adapted for the song “The Great Mother”:

Others are joyful and others can feast,
I alone do not know where I am,
a child not taught how to smile.
Others have everything, more than they need,
I alone have nothing at all––
I’m just a fool in confusion.
Others a brilliant and clear––
I alone still grope in the dark,
the insights of scholars escape me.
Others are clever and sharp;
I alone am stupid and dull.
I drift like a wave on the ocean.
Everyone else has got something to do,
I alone and aimless and sad.
I am different, nourished by the Great Mother.

“The Great Mother” there refers to the first manifestation of this Tao that cannot be spoken of, but gives birth to “the 10,000 things.” I am different, it means, I stay close to the source.

Let’s look forward to this passage into the second naiveté today, so that what is hidden from our wisdom and learning may be revealed to us as we are nourished at the table of the Word and Sacrament.