Saturday, 25 June 2016
When I first read Søren Kierkegaard's Either/Or, in which he presents a choice between an aesthetic, inward-focused and an ethical life, lived for others, I was filled with joy both by the beauty of his writing and the goodness of the choices he proposed. In some sense, I had already then rejected his either/or perspective by my very reaction to his work. Nonetheless, I could clearly see the importance of the distinctions he presented and the value of making informed decisions about which option to select from among a set of alternatives. In another sense, therefore, I also fully identified with Either/Or. My reaction was a Both+And. I both recognized the importance of what Either/Or was proposing, and I saw the good in the two choices that it pitted against each other.
That was around twenty years ago and what followed has been a gradual emergence of what was initially only an implicit leaning towards Both+And, a Both+And that, I now see, also encompasses the Either/Or and that, with it, forms an infinitely nested structure, where Both+And = Both Both+And And Either/Or, which in turn makes Both+And both finite and infinite.
Forgive me if this is too abstract and, if you like, bear with me as I try to spell out some examples of what this means in more practical terms.
First, choices are both profoundly important and entirely inconsequential. Given that all that is open to me at any one moment is to choose from among the alternatives in front of me here and now (do I continue to write this piece, or do I get distracted, or do I go and unload the washing machine, or ...), every single choice attains paramount importance. At the same time, and not negating the first interpretation, my choice is one among a myriad as far as I am concerned and infinitesimal as far as humanity, history and statistics go, not to mention God in his infinity.
Second, knowledge is both the greatest good and its pursuit futile. The more I know, the better I understand what is, how things work, what consequences follow from events, the more closely I understand myself, others and the universe, the more fully I am part of existence and the better I can make choices, which - as we have already established - are both profoundly important and entirely inconsequential. At the same time, and not negating the first interpretation, my capacity for knowledge is virtually nil and my attempts at attaining anything that may properly be called knowledge are crippled by how I engage with the universe. All I see is tinted with myself and is merely the view through a filthy window (to use Panikkar's metaphor) or through a mirror, darkly (with a nod to St. Paul).
Third, loving others is both the greatest source of joy and a guarantee of suffering. Putting others before myself brings us closer together, triggers joy in the other, triggering joy in me and, challenges, fatigue, self-denial notwithstanding, leads to days lived in fullness and to relationships whose strength and depth exist and persist outside time and space. At the same time, and not negating the first interpretation, loving others makes their suffering my own and makes a lack of reciprocity even more keenly felt as a wound, a wound that indifference might have even been able to prevent with its padding.
Fourth, beauty is both the highest perfection and the first chip to trade. The greater my communion with beauty, and regardless of whether she displays herself unmediated or whether she hides behind what, at first sight, is wrongly categorized as ugliness, the more fully truth and goodness can breathe in me, unobstructed by the dust that otherwise accumulates on the soul (as Picasso saw so clearly). Beauty, who is both beautiful and beautifully ugly, also builds bonds that transcend language, understanding, context, prejudices and gives rest to all those who labor and are burdened (as Jesus - the Beautiful Shepherd - put it). At the same time, and not negating the first interpretation, I would give up all the beauty in the world in exchange for the life of a starving child, an abandoned pensioner, a freezing homeless man.
Fifth, faith is both my lifeblood and wholly unnecessary. Having received it as a gift that permeates my every fibre, a life without feeling loved by God is as unimaginable to me as what it is like to be a bat (and here I find Nagel's view to be overly optimistic), and I wish it for every single person in this world. At the same time, and not negating the first interpretation, I see no lack in those who do not have faith, either because doubt takes its place (doubt that is a "both+and" part of faith) or because its place is taken by a sincere conviction that there is nothing beyond this world. Their capacity for love is in no way diminished and I can learn as much from them as from any other fellow human.
Sixth, God is both one and three, both human and divine, both finite and infinite, both interior intimo meo and superior summo meo (in St. Augustine's beautiful words), both all-powerful, all-knowing, omnipresent and scandalously suffering in abandoned failure.