Richard Rohr Meditation: Knowledge of Good and Evil

The first step toward healing is truthfully acknowledging evil, while trusting the inherent goodness of reality. 

Knowing and naming brokenness is essential in the journey toward wholeness. We will not be well by denying the wrongs that we carry within us as nations and religions and communities. Nor will we be well by downplaying them or projecting them onto others. The path to wholeness will take us not around such awareness but through it, confronting the depths of our brokenness. . . . As Hildegard of Bingen [1098–1179] says, we need two wings with which to fly. One is the “knowledge of good,” and the other is the “knowledge of evil.” [1] If we lack one or the other, we will be like an eagle with only one wing. We will fall to the ground instead of rising to the heights of unitary vision. . . .

.. In July 1942, the same month that the Nazis began their first big street roundups of Jews in Amsterdam, Etty Hillesum wrote in her diary, “I am with the hungry, with the ill-treated and the dying, every day, but I am also with the jasmine and with that piece of sky beyond my window; . . . It is a question of living life from minute to minute and taking suffering into the bargain. And it is certainly no small bargain these days.” [3] Etty was looking at suffering straight in the face. Her friends, her family, and she herself were under the sentence of extermination. It was now beginning to be carried out. And yet Etty held within herself the “handsome mixture” of pain at the plight of her people, and of what one people can do to another people, along with a continued delight in the gift of life and its ineffable wonder. “I have looked our destruction, our miserable end, which has already begun in so many small ways in our daily life, straight in the eye . . .” she writes, “and my love of life has not been diminished.” [4] To look life straight in the eye, to see its pain and to see its beauty—this is an essential part of glimpsing the way forward.

Why Is the World So Beautiful?

Nobel physicist Frank Wilczek sees beauty as a compass for truth, discovery, and meaning. His book A Beautiful Question: Finding Nature’s Deep Design is a long meditation on the question: “Does the world embody beautiful ideas?” He’s the unusual scientist willing to analogize his discoveries about the deep structure of reality with deep meaning in the human everyday.

.. “Each of us is born to become an accomplished, if unconscious, practitioner of projective geometry.”

.. That’s right. That’s one of our most impressive abilities that humans, children, do routinely without thinking about it — although they have to learn it, or parts of it — and yet, we have not been able to teach sophisticated computers to do it. That is, humans do an astonishing feat, routinely and very quickly. That is, they interpret the messages coming through little, little openings in their eyes and project it on a two-dimensional screen, the retina at the back, which then, the light gets turned into electrical signals. And from that crazy, scrambled encoding, we reconstruct an external world of three-dimensional objects in space. We recognize that if we move our head, they’re still the same objects, and we determine these effortlessly. We do a job which is — it literally is impossible. We use all kinds of tricks and rules of thumb to guess what the external world is, and sometimes it’s wrong, with optical illusions, but basically, in most circumstances, we do this remarkable feat of reconstructing a three-dimensional world from two-dimensional information that’s all scrambled up with things on top of each other

MR. WILCZEK: We take it for granted, but nature has equipped us with extraordinary abilities in geometry. I knew this abstractly, but in preparing the book I decided I should actually learn something about [laughs] perspective and projective geometry. And it was a real revelation. I’m terrible at drawing, just terrible — the worst person I’ve ever met. But I [laughs] learned some of the rules of perspective that artists use, and they are just so beautiful. They’re so elegant. And using them, I was empowered to create accurate buildings and town squares and so forth. I just astonish myself. And I wasn’t able to reproduce it consciously, but now, with knowledge, I was able to do it. And it was just magic to suddenly see these things emerging from geometric constructions, and it looks like the external world. And it had a tremendous effect, historically and psychologically, when these rules were discovered in the Italian Renaissance. It’s one of the things that really powered the Renaissance — the artists took enormous joy in their sudden ability to render the world the way it actually looked.

..  Yes. And people who started to work on artificial intelligence thought at the beginning that would all be trivial, because it’s so easy, [laughs] we don’t have to work very hard. They thought that would be very easy, whereas, say, teaching a computer to play chess would be very difficult. But it’s turned out to be just the opposite. The things that we do unconsciously and are part of our daily lives and are important for survival are things we’re really, really good at.

..  But in science, we need to have a more precise concept. And the concept that we use that’s more precise, that has something in common with the common usage but is a special case of it and gets amplified in different directions, is that symmetry in physics and mathematics means change without change.

Now, that seems kind of mysterious and mystical, but it means something very concrete. Einstein’s theory of relativity, it says that if you ride by the world at a constant velocity, any constant velocity, although things will look different — so some things will be coming at you, other things will be moving away, faster — that the same physical laws will apply to this new configuration of the world. So, you can make a change in the way everything looks, [laughs] but you don’t change the laws.

A simpler example might be helpful here. We’re used to the idea that a circle is a very symmetrical object. What does that have to do with change without change? Well, a circle is an object that you can rotate around its center by any angle, and although it might have changed, and every point, in fact, moves, the circle as a whole does not move, and that’s what makes it symmetric. If you take a more lopsided shape and you rotate it, there’s no way — it won’t come back to itself until you go all the way around. So if you take an equilateral triangle, it’ll come around after you turn it one-third of the way. So it has some symmetry, but much less than a circle. So that’s a concept, change without change — things that might have changed, but don’t — that picks out special kinds of objects, like circles.

.. It turns out that very symmetric laws seem to be the laws that nature likes. Nature likes laws and likes equations that support enormous possibilities for transformation, where things look different, get different names, and different situations are described, but the same equations apply.

..  “Deep propositions have a meaning that goes beyond their surface.” This is so interesting. “You can recognize a deep truth by the feature that its opposite is also a deep truth.”

.. MS. TIPPETT: So one of the conflicts was, is light a particle or wave? And, in fact, it is both.

MR. WILCZEK: It’s both, and…

MS. TIPPETT: It’s both, right.

MR. WILCZEK: …sometimes it’s useful to think of it one way, sometimes it’s useful to think of it another way. Both can be informative in different circumstances, but it’s very difficult — in fact, impossible — to apply them both at once.

MS. TIPPETT: To apply them both at the same time.

MR. WILCZEK: And I think that’s the essence of complementarity, that you have to view the world in different ways to do it justice, and the different ways can each be very rich, can each be internally consistent, can each have its own language and rules, but they may be mutually incompatible. And to do full justice to reality, you have to take both of them into account.

MS. TIPPETT: Somewhere you say, “Complementarity is both a feature of physical reality and a lesson in wisdom.” And I think just what you just said about reality is equally true of — and I know you have to be careful to do too much of this stretching these things, but it’s equally true of the human condition.

MR. WILCZEK: Oh, very much so. [laughs] Oh, I think so. When people ask me what my religion is, I say I’m a complementarian.

MS. TIPPETT: [laughs] That’s right.

MR. WILCZEK: I believe that it’s really interesting and really fun and really informative, and the right thing to do, to be able to look at things in different ways and appreciate their different ways of looking at things that each have their own validity. And they may conflict if you try to apply them both at once, but OK, that’s fine. You apply one at a time [laughs] and try to appreciate both.

MS. TIPPETT: And in terms of this — I have spoken with physicists who will say: Of course, they take their daily perceptions seriously on some level; they understand that, essentially, what we perceive to be reality is full of illusion, and including the perception that we have freedom and choice. But you also present this as another piece of complementarity — two things that, in fact, are true, but hard to speak about in the same moment — that you, as a human being, are nothing but a collection of particles and light; and you are a thinking, feeling human being. [laughs]

MR. WILCZEK: Yes. I think those are both true. [laughs] And they are different ways of organizing our experience of the world, and each one tells us important things. Each one can be very useful in certain applications. But they’re very difficult to apply simultaneously, because they’re just from different worlds.

..  “All colors are one thing.” This is what we learned: “All colors are one thing, seen in different states of motion. And that is science’s brilliantly poetic answer to Keats’ complaint that science unweaves a rainbow.”

.. I’m saying that by understanding the world better that you gain a new perspective on what you are and a different feeling about your place in reality that’s more realistic; also, richer. And there’s good news, and there’s bad news, but in any case… [laughs]

MS. TIPPETT: Right, it’s challenging.

MR. WILCZEK: …it’s something you can — by understanding it deeply, you can certainly enrich your experience of the life you’re given.

MS. TIPPETT: You also cite somewhere what you say is, for you, one of the most beautiful passages in literature, from the 20th-century physicist, Hermann…

MR. WILCZEK: Hermann Weyl, yes.

MS. TIPPETT: …Weyl on spacetime. He’s talking about spacetime from a “God’s-eye view”: “The objective world simply is, it does not happen. Only to the gaze of my consciousness, crawling along the lifeline of my body does a section of this world come to life as a fleeting image in space which continually changes in time.” That’s a very — it’s almost a mystical image. That the world is, it does not happen, is quite a remarkable thing to try to take in.

MR. WILCZEK: Yes, but it’s really, I think, very much what the theory of relativity suggests. It’s really basic, to think of spacetime as a whole, because there are relationships between things that happen in different parts of space and at different times that are significant in forming the laws and the regularities of the world that are very, very difficult and awkward to express if you carve the world into time slices, as we experience…

MS. TIPPETT: Right — past, present, future.

MR. WILCZEK: …and regard them as separate and unrelated, or as snapshots, each a thing in itself.

Relativity teaches us to think of spacetime as a whole and that it’s very unnatural to divide them. So it leads, I think, very much to the worldview that Hermann Weyl was alluding to there, that the world — that is, spacetime — it simply is. It does not happen. It already encompasses all times.

..  “I know not how I appear to the world, but to myself I appear like a boy on a beach who came upon some particularly beautiful pebbles, while the great ocean of the unknown lay before me.”

So he realized that he understood some things very well, and he understood what it meant to really understand something, but part of that is realizing that you don’t understand a lot of things. And there’s a profound humility that comes from really understanding something, because then you understand what it means to really understand something. [laughs] And you realize how much is missing that is different.

MS. TIPPETT: [laughs] And you feel that way as a physicist at this juncture in physics, which is so far from what Newton could have imagined, also.

MR. WILCZEK: Yes. We’ve done very, very well. Physics is pretty good. [laughs] Physics, we’ve attained a high level, although there are certainly big holes in our understanding. But when it comes to the mind, when it comes to understanding society, our understanding is much, much less satisfactory and, I’m fully aware of that.

Trump Is ‘Losing a Limb’ With the Departure of Hope Hicks

The departure of Ms. Hicks, arguably the least experienced person to ever hold the job of White House communications director, capped an astounding rise for a political neophyte whose seemingly implausible career hinged on a deep understanding of, and bottomless patience for, her mercurial charge.

.. Ms. Hicks had stopped monitoring news coverage of herself, restricting her television intake to Fox News, which she often watched on mute,

.. Jia Tolentino tweeted: “Goodbye to Hope Hicks, an object lesson in the quickest way a woman can advance under misogyny: silence, beauty, and unconditional deference to men.”

..  Ms. Hicks’s success was viewed as a product of other qualities, including her nuanced understanding of Mr. Trump’s moods, her ability to subtly nudge him away from his coarser impulses and her skill as a liaison for some of the most prominent journalists in the country.

.. “When she tells you something, you know she is speaking to the president, because she is with him all the time,” said Steve Scull an administration riven by infighting, Ms. Hicks’s privileged position with the president meant that, for journalists, she was among the few officials whose information was deemed reliable, or at least not often compromised by personal squabbles.

.. Those confident in Ms. Hicks’s future prospects sounded more concerned about Mr. Trump and his ability to work without an aide he has relied on nearly every day for three years.

“This is not losing a staffer,” Mr. Feldman said. “This is like losing a limb.”

The Anti-Christian Alt-Right

The Perverse Thought of Right-Wing Identity Politics

.. “The Church has become the number one enemy of Western Civilization. Soon the only people left in Christianity will be third-world immigrants and a handful of self-hating whites.”

..Hillary Clinton devoted a speech in Nevada to deploring its influence on the election. “These are race-baiting ideas. Anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant ideas, anti-woman—all key tenets making up an emerging racist ideology known as the ‘alt-right,’” she charged.

.. Clinton could not name a single member of a movement that, she warned, imperiled American democracy

.. The movement exists almost entirely among anonymous users of the Internet. It has no institutions, no money, no political representation, and no traditional media.

.. It enjoys the close attention of the liberal establishment it seeks to discredit and the conservative movement it intends to displace.

.. “Everything we have seen over the past year suggests that the alt-right will be around for the foreseeable future.”

.. The alt-right purports to defend the identity and interests of white people, who it believes are the compliant victims of a century-long swindle by liberal morality. Its goals are not conventionally conservative.

It does not so much question as mock standard conservative positions on free trade, abortion, and foreign policy, regarding them as principles that currently abet white dispossession.

.. Its creed, in the words of Richard Spencer, is “Race is real. Race matters. Race is the foundation of identity.”

.. the alt-right represents something more nefarious, and frankly more interesting, than white identity politics.

.. The alt-right is anti-Christian.

.. Its leading thinkers flaunt their rejection of Christianity and their desire to convert believers away from it.

.. Greg Johnson, an influential theorist with a doctorate in philosophy from Catholic University of America, argues that “Christianity is one of the main causes of white decline” and a “necessary condition of white racial suicide.”

.. it argues that Christian teachings have become socially and morally poisonous to the West.

.. Its intellectual birth is marked by the 1918 publication of the first volume of Oswald Spengler’s The Decline of the West.

.. While the movement is often accused of advocating racial supremacy, its appeal is more often to cultural difference. A generation tired of multicultural pieties

.. A cultural relativist, Spengler rejects as a “ridiculous distortion” any view that privileges European thought or history.

.. “Each culture possesses its own standards, the validity of which begins and ends with it.

.. Spengler therefore sees the world as divided into fundamentally different cultures, whose identities he interprets in morphological terms. Cultures are like plants

.. They live through a determined cycle of birth, growth, maturity, and death. During its lifespan, a culture gives expression to the animating “form”

.. Spengler had no scholarly expertise in non-Western cultures (his advanced studies were in mathematics), and Decline of the West is frequently nonsense as both history and sociology. But its interpretations of cultural artifacts and their hidden symbolic meanings are often brilliant and have enchanted readers for a century.

.. All cultures are unique, but some are more unique than others. “We men of the Western culture are an exception,” Spengler claims. At the heart of his book is an interpretation of the culture he namedFaustian,” a term widely used in the intellectual circles of the alt-right.

.. a single idea permeates the arts and sciences of the West. Its distinctive mark is an intense striving for “infinity.”

.. our culture has uniquely sought to see all things in relation to the highest or most distant horizons, which, in turn, it seeks to surpass and extend.

  • The vaults of medieval cathedrals, the
  • discovery of perspective in painting, the
  • exploration of the New World, the
  • development of orchestral music, the
  • invention of the telescope and
  • calculus

—in Spengler’s story, all express the Faustian drive toward transcendence.

.. He argues that there is no Christianity without Western civilization. He arrives at this conclusion by claiming the West begins not with ancient Greece or Rome, but with the high Middle Ages and the birth of scholasticism, Gothic architecture, and polyphony.

.. Its cultural achievements are not testimonies to faith in God. They are the monuments of Faustian man’s attempt—in speculation, stone, glass, and sound—to propel himself into infinity. Of this aspiration, Spengler maintains, “the Gospels know nothing.”

..  In the minds and hands of Europeans, Christianity became a religion that affirmed the unceasing expansion of human freedom, power, and knowledge.

.. There is no biblical god for Faustian man, but there is high Christian culture, which is a tribute to his identity.

.. To a young man lacking a strong identity he says, “This heroic culture is your inheritance, and yours alone. You stand in a line of men who have attained the highest excellences and freely endured the hardest challenges.

.. Albert the Great, Cortés, Newton, Goethe, the Wright brothers all carry this daring spirit, and so do you.”

.. in his 1933 book Hour of Decision, he foresaw the rise of democratic “Caesars” and growing racial animosity. Who will give birth to the next great culture? Not Europeans

.. Spengler predicted the future would belong to the race that had preserved its “strength” in face of the rising “colored menace.”

  • If Spengler is the alt-right’s cultural critic,
  • Julius Evola is its political mystic.
    • Umberto Eco mockingly called him “the magician,” and the
    • future Pope Paul VI condemned his writings in a Vatican newspaper
    • Evola is the most right-wing thinker possible in the modern world. There is nobody to his right, nor can there be. His influence on the alt-right is detectable in one of its most controversial features: its rejection of human equality.
    • “We don’t belong to the liberal family,” writes popular blogger Hunter Wallace. “Nothing is less self-evident to us than the notion that all men are created equal.” Here is the movement’s clearest dispute with conventional conservatism
    • The alt-right denies that constitutional democracy is worthy of principled veneration. For Evola, its popular acceptance is a sign we are living in a spiritual dark age.

The basic problem with modernity is “desacralization,” the collapse of spiritual meaning in daily life. Work, family, and citizenship are no longer saturated with spiritual importance, but are understood in functionally secular terms.

.. materialism “kills every possibility

.. Spengler’s fundamental flaw was that he “lacked any understanding of metaphysics and transcendence,” which led him to conclude that human cultures are irreducibly different.

.. Evola believed more or less the exact opposite, arguing that there are timeless and universal principles that have provided the foundation for every true civilization. He referred to these perennial truths as “Tradition,” and he traced the disorders of modernity to our loss of contact with it.

.. No, the world had been slouching into spiritual poverty ever since the eighth century b.c., when the world of Tradition began to disappear.

.. Revolt Against the Modern Worldclaimed that these primordial societies—whose existence can be accessed only by way of myth and legend, not critical scholarship—all operated on the same principles.

.. In a traditional culture, every aspect of human life, every social activity, role, and caste, was dedicated to the service of an otherworldly order; indeed, they were ritual pathways into it. “According to Tradition,” Evola imagines, “every authority is fraudulent, every law unjust and barbarous, every institution is vain and ephemeral unless . . . they are derived from above.”

.. His key claim is that traditional societies were hierarchically ordered under an absolute ruler, who embodied the sacral order itself.

..  Men Among the Ruins, he argued that political conservatism is intrinsically impossible in a democratic age. True political order can never come from below; it must always be imposed from above.

.. only a transformative leader could elevate humanity out of its degraded state. Such a leader could not appeal to the masses—this was the mistake of the vulgar fascisms of Mussolini and Hitler—but must inspire submission through lofty contempt for democratic norms and popular tastes.

“The presence of superior individuals bestows on a multitude . . . a meaning and a justification they previously lacked,” Evola wrote. “It is the inferior who needs the superior, and not the other way around.”

Evola was less clear about what this sacred authority looked like than what stood in the way of its realization.

.. The problem is that Catholicism forbids the sacred state. And a state without absolute spiritual unity is no state at all.

.. Benoist is the leading theorist of the European New Right, an intellectual movement that began in France in the late 1960s

.. however, no return is necessary if we simply move beyond Christianity altogether. Evola did not believe in a personal deity, but his criticisms of Christianity were political rather than theological. With Benoist, the alt-right becomes explicitly and confessionally anti-Christian.

.. took its inspiration from the failed “conservative revolution” of Weimar Germany.

Carl Schmitt, Ernst Jünger, Arthur Moeller van den Bruck, and Spengler were its chief figures

.. Most of its members, including Spengler, took sides against the Nazi regime, but they also sought a path for the West beyond the twin evils of American democracy and Soviet communism. Benoist comes from this anti-liberal tradition

.. Benoist is the leading theorist of the European New Right, an intellectual movement that began in France in the late 1960s

.. attempt to envision a post-Christian future for people of European descent.

.. his 1981 work On Being a Pagan

.. Paganism’s central claim is simple: that the world is holy and eternal. “Far from desacralizing the world,” Benoist tells us, paganism “sacralizes it in the literal sense of the word, since it regards the world as sacred.”

Paganism is also a humanism. It recognizes man, the highest expression of nature, as the sole measure of the divine.

.. God does not therefore create men; men make gods, which “exist” as ideal models that their creators strive to equal.

.. Benoist’s case against Christianity is that it forbids the expression of this “Faustian” vitality.

.. It does so by placing the ultimate source of truth outside of humanity, in an otherworldly realm to which we must be subservient.

.. He accuses Christianity of crippling our most noble impulses. Christianity makes us strangers in our own skin, conning us into distrusting our strongest intuitions. We naturally respect beauty, health, and power, Benoist observes, but Christianity teaches us to revere the deformed, sick, and weak instead.

.. Benoist’s theology is in the service of a political warning, and it is this, more than his Nietzschean posturing, that attracts the alt-right.

.. Christianity is unable to protect European peoples and their cultures.

.. Christianity is not our religion.

..  Benoist means that Christianity renders Western culture morally lethargic and culturally defenseless.

.. its universalism poisons our attachments to particular loyalties and ties.

.. “If all men are brothers,” Benoist claims, “then no one can truly be a brother.”

.. Politics depends on the recognition of both outsiders and enemies, yet the Christian Church sees all people as potential members, indeed potential saints.

.. Christianity imparted to our culture an ethics that has mutated into what the alt-right calls “pathological altruism.”

.. Its self-distrust, concern for victims, and fear of excluding outsiders—such values swindle Western peoples out of a preferential love for their own.

.. Christianity today is the enemy of the West and the race that created it

.. we ought to see ourselves through the eyes of our pagan critics

.. They distort many truths, through both malice and ignorance, and lead young men into espousing views and defending authors they scarcely understand.

.. “Christianity provides an identity that is above or before racial and ethnic identity,” Richard Spencer complains.

.. invoking race as an emergency replacement for our fraying civic bonds.

.. identity politics on the left is a response to the same erosion of belonging.

.. we lack a compelling civic theology for the twenty-first century—a theology of the nation

.. In its absence the alt-right will continue to grow.

.. A nation will become an idol, however, if its cultural inheritance is not oriented toward, and inwardly transformed by, a divine inheritance.

.. “The inheritance we receive from Christ,” the late pope argued, “orients the patrimony of human native lands and cultures toward an eternal home land.”

.. It speaks of tradition, while transmitting no traditions. It guards a false patrimony, while destroying real ones

..  Race offers no inheritance, and its mere preservation reflects no human achievement.

.. Our stories, art, music, institutions, and religious traditions—unlike race—are transmitted only through special efforts of human intelligence and love. They are a bequest of the spirit, not blood.

.. The alt-right speaks a seductive language. Where liberalism offers security and comfort, the alt-right promises sacrifice and conflict.

.. . For Christians, the problem with Faustian man is not the vaunting heroism of his aims. It is the pitiable smallness of his goals.

We are not meant to merely aspire to the infinite. We are called to participate in it—to be, in a word, deified.

Faust could not overcome death. Through Christ, Christians already have.