the Village Philosopher, the New Ager, and the Rationalist

Recently three different cultural phenomena collided together for me: introduction to a movie called the Secret, a rewatching of the vaguely dissatisfying What the Bleep Do We Know, and a dissatisfying yet intelligent critique of both of those movies by a fellow blogger.

If you don’t know about the Secret, you should check out a run down, and perhaps even a critique or two. It basically repackages the Law of Attraction, the notion that “we create our own realities – what we think about, we call to us”. Julian Walker lucidly puts this idea in its place…especially in its guise as the wish-fulfillment engine for a hungry new age consumer. I have similar complaints for the message of What the Bleep Do We know. The message of both movies seems especially designed for the narcissistic materialism of the middle class american consumer.

As he continued his critique, I became aware of a common yet tiring notion receiving re-packaging as “evolved” thinking. To support his critique of the Secret, Walker refers to buddhist philosopher Ken Wilbur’s idea of the “pre/trans fallacy“. Wilbur basically asks us not to see all non-rational activity as the same…that non-rational activity may differ into two types: the pre-rational, and the trans-rational. The pre-rational includes what I’d consider “explaining something away”, rather than actually investigating and explaining it, and confusing causation with correlation. Trans-rational then refers to states of awareness where the observer receives information that we might call “mystical”: metaphorical, layered, emotionally intense, and too complex for the rational state. The problem enters in when thinkers want to ascribe some evolutionary process from pre-rational, to rational, then to trans-rational, especially mapped out onto the last 10,000 years or so. Walker describes Wilbur’s stages from pre-rational to trans-rational as “archaic, magic, mythic, rational, pluralistic and integral.”

Archaic (Uh-oh…a synonym for ‘primitive’…)? Magic? Mythic? All, according to Wilbur, fall in the pre-rational category, and all provide the foundation to the spiritual traditions of indigenous cultures the world over, traditions that operated in magnificent harmony with human and other-than-human relations and communities. I count it one thing to chalk up assumptions, “explaining away”, and unreflected habits as pre-rational. But to refer to the pre-rational as archaic, magical, and mythic, clearly indicts those who benefit from such fields of inquiry and relationships to the world. It gets worse.

Walker writes: “…pluralistic and integral are trans or after ‘rational’, yes? New Age spirituality is in part predicated on the emergence of a pluralistic, transrational worldview that can appreciate other cultures and is interested in an embrace of multiple perspectives.”

Essentially this sounds to me like an ethic of the cosmopolitan urban environment, or empire. Pluralistic? As if one people’s/tribe’s/extended-family’s spiritual experience didn’t suffice, requiring them to constantly hunt for more and more. Perhaps only the rootless and the lost hunt for pluralism and ‘integral’ philosophy (meaning a weaving together of the countless diversity of traditions that emerged from different environments? Why?).

Walker continues: “Well think of it this way: at the rational level of development we realize that magical ideas about reality (i can make it rain by chanting a special prayer for example ) and mythic ideas about reality (jesus was born of a virgin for example) are not literal truths. They may have some metaphorical value, but they are not accurate reflections of reality. Period. Rational people agree on this fact, it’s part of the definition.”

Well, we’ve found the kernel here I think. I heartily support reason, and critical thinking. When someone starts planting a flag down where they’ve decided they’ve found the center of the universe for all “rational” people, I start to wonder about their need for such a thing. A pluralistic, integrative, all-consuming, one-size-fits-all, grand-unified-theory-for-everyone? Sounds a lot like the evangelical mood of civilization. Where animism stays contextual, observant, relational, respect-based, modern rationalism seeks fixed, reliable models of realties. Much of Martin Prechtel’s writing goes to demonstrate the decidedly non-metaphorical side of indigenous Myth…it has weighty reality. Walker’s ‘literal truths’ can only then refer to the truth of ‘literate’ cultures, the truth of the word on the page. Experiential truth flows in an entirely different direction. I would say that we could describe the statement ‘jesus was born of a virgin’ as exactly a literal truth, since we read about it in the bible. Perhaps some one also had experiential ‘truth’ of this, at the time.

If all ‘rational people’ disagree with animists who have observed phenomena that they find life-creating, powerful, and quite tangible (as in, receiving rain by chanting a special prayer request to the cloud family), then…well…where do we go now? I guess I never worried about my own status as rational or non-rational. I care about: do I ask questions? Do I seek to uncover my biases? Do the results of my inquiry spur me on to new questions…if not, have I reached a false sense of “knowledge”, or have I discovered a blindspot? Does my inquiry create more life for me, my family, my landbase? How does it improve my relationships?

More and more, the simple activity of a village philosopher seems to me far more “rational” than the modern rationalist’s, but what do I know?

I just keep asking questions, and dreaming, and watching the world go by, and smiling at the Sun licking the spring growth into life, like a golden-tongued momma cat…and hear the whole green world purr, and purr…

Written by Willem