Toward a New Transcendentalism
- ISBN: 9781498529693
- Published By: Lexington Books
- Published: December 2015
Robert S. Corrington takes up two ambitious and potentially quite valuable tasks in Deep Pantheism: the articulation of both a pantheist theology and a pantheist psychology. Corrington’s work should be considered in the company of the “emergence” theologies of Paul Davies and Philip Clayton (The Re-Emergence of Emergence: the Emergentist Hypothesis From Science to Religion, Oxford University Press, 2006) and Gordon Kaufman (“A Religious Interpretation of Emergence: Creativity As God” Zygon, vol. 42, December 2007) and others, whose key insight is that the spirit emerges from nature as a property of complex physical systems of engagement, experience, and consciousness, a dimension overlooked by purely objective accounts of the world. Corrington fails to convince me that his work is useful.
He begins with becoming and being (“nature naturing” and “nature natured”), assigns will but not consciousness to the fertile creative becomingness of nature (pace Schopenhauer). He asserts that nature is one but that multiple centers and complexes are acting to express various wills without necessarily being connected to or even influenced by one another. His sharp focus on the individual as a balance point of nature naturing and nature natured combined with his complete disregard of the community of persons within which we come to exist as selves and through which we are capable of articulating and realizing our goals, produces a partial and inadequate theory of pantheist psychology. There are undoubtedly ways to find culture as an expression of “nature naturing” and “nature natured”—Corrington’s two key ideas—but he does not.
The “god in the gap” between these two aspects of what he asserts is a unitary nature whom he then asserts is absolutely intimate with humanity (9) seems a purely passive relationship, as passive as the humans. This passivity contradicts the great artistic geniuses he praises as exemplars of the Selfing process (after Heidegger and Otto Rank), striving toward excellence.
Corrington makes numerous affirmations which never cohere into an argument. This is even more of a problem when Corrington valorizes the aesthetic and the “genius artist.” Given the fascist sympathies of his key intellectual mentors—Heidegger and Jung particularly—Corrington should have directly addressed the ethical, rather than simply asserting the dubious proposition that beauty and the sublime are ethical values.
There is a historical affinity between Romantic ideas of the person in nature and the instinctive natural person on the one hand, which values the emotional and experiential and the body, and fascist and racist notions of the racial unconscious and nature over and against ethics and culture on the other. While reading Corrington, I was reminded of Jung’s Wotan essay in 1936, centered on the idea of Ergriffenheit (primal ontic seizure—the eruption of primal spiritual forces which grip one, the experience of the sublime) and on the German “racial unconsciousness.” This idea shaped the German Zeitgeist in the 1930s as both Heidegger and Jung were swept up into the Fuhrerprinzip, and later was central to Jung’s Eranos circle, which continues to be influential through the work of Mircea Eliade and his disciple Joseph Campbell.
Emotional and aesthetic impulses are amoral. Corrington identifies himself as a later-day transcendentalist, but he is saturated with Romanticism. He makes no effort to address these problematic affiliations.
The notion of the heroic artist above and outside of society, like the hero-quest of Campbell and other similar themes, are highly problematic. The sublime does not give us access to ideas about how to live our lives but merely breaks us open to awe, overwhelms and dominates our experience. The mystical is not ethical: it is uncompromisingly elitist and readily supports anti-democratic ideas and movements. It has little of value to say about practical matters, about law and justice, government, marriage and family, and the texture of most of our lives.
Ethics rests on human persons in a community of persons. Mysticism is corrosive and antinomian. It may be that I, as a person coming from a tradition where mystical experiences of trance and possession trance are central (Wicca), am too strongly informed by direct mystical experience to be as idealistic as Corrington.
A life lived with reason in balance with emotion, with the mystical experience (never, by the way, the pure raw experience the Romantic valorizes, but always a person in a context, always in a “complex” of other experiences and of reflection on them, always socially shaped) informing but not determining our lives, is a better and more human life. Crucially, such a life avoids descent into the racial unconscious and the dragging forth of the archetypes which can lead to genocide.
Corrington’s understanding of artistic creators in the mode of the Romantic hero outside of society, as moral exemplars and geniuses laboring for the elevation of humanity, also ignores the cultural capital bound up in both the creation of art and, much more significantly, in the cultivation of the aesthetic appreciation of it. Art arises from a culture and has meaning and power in the context of its creation and not in some abstract essential way. And, of course, the appreciation of art is not inborn, as Corrington acknowledges, but is the result of time and energy, capital, invested into the development of aesthetic sensibilities—sensibilities that are class linked and culturally determined and which change over time.
The current wave of attention to sexual misconduct by highly creative powerful men should shine a clear light onto the lack of connection between ethics and artistic genius. Indeed, this kind of exploitative behavior is normalized because artist-geniuses behave in any way they see fit. If the work is good, they will be forgiven anything.
Corrington’s lack of attention to a sociological and historical context, to ethics, and his Romantic individualism renders much of his argument incoherent.
Samuel Wagar is the Wiccan chaplain to the University of Alberta and a doctoral candidate in Ministry at St. Stephen's College.Samuel WagarDate Of Review:February 28, 2018