Saintly Essays & Discussions

The Story of Cause; The Cause of Story

Cause and story, cause and story, cause and story.  It would seem that at the roots of religion lies a human fascination with these two interacting concepts.  Cause because we perceive creation as a sequential enterprise, story because we are egoists.  Before I go on I should like to take a moment to affirm my belief in the importance of both of these two concepts from the perspective of our position as human beings.  But, simply because we as human beings will continue to be obsessed by these principles, this does not mean that these principles have any true validity.  Cause especially may be an false quality when considered from an absolute position.  For, if causality is not a condition of being simply, but is merely the result of our position in the cosmos that ties us to a linear understanding of time, what is to say that causation itself is an illusion of a position, rather than a quality of being?  Thus the Aristotelean "Uncaused Cause" ends up being, not only a logically illogical stopgap (I think this is more or less how Aristotle conceived of it) but an unnecessary construct.  And yet, to say this doesn't make much difference for us; because from our position, cause is and does occur!  I wonder sometimes if this is where some of the confusion inherent in philosophy comes from; that is, a confusion as to whether we are looking at the phenomena we are trying to understand from the perspective of a human being or from the perspective of some hypothesized "Being Itself".  It seems to me that the answers we get might be very different depending upon how we answer this question.  Furthermore, it seems that the answer concerning the perspective of Being Itself might itself change based upon our conceptualization of the relational interface between Being Itself and the rest of existence, i.e., does such Being take notice of the cosmos or is such Being indifferent to it? 

            For the longest time, it seems that the foundational logical inference that we perceived as underlying the question of religion was tied up with the question of cause.  For surely, we would say, we perceive that in the world each effect must have a cause, each cause is itself an effect of some prior cause, and that in the extreme we must hypothesize some final un-caused cause, and surely that cause must be the same as God (a bit of an unfair leap there, but not entirely untrue).  This, at least, seems to be a predilection underlying many of the theological questions asked within the ambit of Western Christendom.  And such endeavors have born good fruit; for was it not such questions that eventually spurred mankind to consider the causes hidden within the natural world that led eventually to the discovery of the scientific method (at least that appears to be the impetus of Cartesian philosophy)?  Yes, such questions have led us to vistas that mankind had previously never even imagined possible, and a mastery of our environment which seems to lead to ever more mastery.  As the questing after cause has led us again and again and again not to the spiritual as distinct from the physical, but to ever more ephemeral and "unreal" seeming aspects of the physical world, so has our conceptualization of God as the final cause shrunk.  For what need, the skeptics say, have we for the category of final cause when all we see before us is a vast vista of contingent causes?  The churchmen hold fast to their irresistible logic, but it is a logic that appears (if not wrong per se) to at least fly in the face of our experience.  For, if it is "cause" that connects us to creation and creation that connects us to God, this God of creation surely recedes further and further into the distance.  What if, mankind says in his terror, the chain of contingent causes has no end?  What if the expanse separating the God of creation from creation is not just great and vast but infinite?  And so, the longer we hold onto the Deistic God of Cause as our starting place, the further such a God will seem from us.  This is what Nietzsche meant when his mad prophet so famously declared that "God is Dead".  For surely, why should mankind care for such a God as this?  And so, let us agree (for the moment) with Nietzsche.  Let us declare that the God of Cause is dead.  The churches of the West will shudder, and the people (not readily understanding this death) will slowly drift from the doors of Christendom, seeing no point in the worship of this dead God.  Oh, they will try to worship this God for a time, and some will try valiantly, but in the end, this God being dead, He will eventually become just another idol of the self.  And the masses of these who claim with their lips to worship the living God, will grow cold in their hearts, for their mendacity was nothing more than the fevered creation of human will and striving, and was bereft of grace.  Seeing that their worship of the self is, in the end, no different from the world's worship of the self (only more perverse, for it deny's the reality of the soul's need) they will throw down their holy books, and run screaming into the streets, a mad people bent only upon the gratification of the flesh which they had foolishly denied themselves in the name of their dread idol.

            And so, what is left?  The ultimate desire for cause has been ripped from the heavens where it once seemed ineffably to dwell, and brought down squarely to earth to be poked and prodded by the wise men of this age.  Should mankind now invest his whole being into this science?  If it were possible for man to do so, maybe.  But in rending cause from the heavens, mankind did not change the nature of cause (for it was always there for him to see, had he only looked with his eyes) but changed his relationship to cause.  Whereas the contemplation of cause was once an act of worship, worthy of mankind's great philosophers and poets, it has now become a trade worthy of craftsman and clerks.  Do not misunderstand me, I do not mean to imply that the scientific study of cause is unworthy of poets and philosophers (may it never be!).  There is much there to raise the seeking mind outside of itself and fill it with wonder (and this in and of itself should make us skeptical of our earlier claim declaring the death of God) but the apparent need of wonder in the enterprise is lacking in the thing itself, and must bleed in from elsewhere, from some other source.  And bleed in it will, for surely mankind will cease to be human when he fails to imbue this base physicality, which he now knows to be merely an illusive link in a great chain of being, with great meaning and purpose.

            And so we come to the question of story.  For the longest time, story and her ilk were scorned by the philosophers and the wise men.  Socrates would have banished the storyteller and the poet from his republic because they told lies about the gods.  For the Socrates of the dialogues, story had a contingent purpose, for what were the myths but stories illustrative of the beauty of Socratic logic and ethics?  But, it would appear, there would be no need for such illustrators in that Republic where mankind had been trained to recognize the Truth Itself and thus where story and myth could only lie.  Thus, it would seem that Socrates' real issue with poetry and story is not that it necessarily always lies (though, when weighed beside the purity of the Truth Itself it must still be found wanting) but that it has the capacity to lie and to deceive.  And that, to those who do not know the Truth Itself, the story may appear more seductive than that little truth which mankind, in his present state, has access to.  And so, taking their lead from that great sage, story was allowed to slink to the margins of serious human intellectual endeavor.  It was always recognized as a useful tool, for surely the story has always had a powerful way of moving mankind both to good and to evil actions.  The powerful, who believing they understood cause, would spin stories for the masses to illustrate the divine nature of cause, and would seduce the people to their vision of the universe, where the Divine One that Is Being Itself stands as a dread king above and beyond the created universe, active to be sure, but mysterious and distant.  The powerful might truly believe that they are acting for the good of the masses, but they cannot help but laugh at and pity them their incomplete and imperfect knowledge.  But wait.  If cause, as we now see, was not something divine itself but only divine because it appeared divine to us because of our contingent relationship to Being, was it not then true that something other than cause led the wise to perceive cause as divine?  What could have done such a thing?  Why, the answer is quite clear.  The wise had, themselves, been seduced by a "story" that they told themselves concerning cause.  So if it was "story" the entire time that was in the driver's seat of our conceptualization of cause, perhaps it is time that we give it some more serious consideration than did the sneering philosophers.  

            So what of story?  Story has never really gone away but has been submerged.  As long as there have been human beings living together endowed with the gift of speech, they have surely told stories to one another.  Stories about their loves, their hopes, their dreams, their fears.  In our own age, as cause has slowly begun to be submerged into the dull reality of our sense experience, we have rediscovered story and given it a new prominence in our societal life.  Where once nursery rhymes were hidden away, fit only to be heard muttered from the lips of mistrusted old nannies, such are now spoken and told in the open before the most learned of men and women.  Where once novels were thought to be the respite of repressed old maids and silly women, serious schools of study pour over these texts looking for clues to the mood and feeling of a given age.  Poetry is an odd example; where, as story has progressed, the power of spoken verse has sunk into a twilight; but this likely has more to do with media than with power, for poetry is still very much alive in our music and even the beauty of some of our prose.  Yes, we live in a golden age of story, not seen since the great works of the ancient tragedians.  And yet, I cannot help but sense that there is a little sadness underlying our storytelling [as there was great sadness in the stories of the Greeks].  Where once storytelling was a doorway into pure delight, now our stories seem to be the last grasping after an age where story was not merely contained within the story told by the teller, but to days when the whole world seemed to be imbued with story.  For, where now we may only see the gods as CGI creations on a screen, our ancestors once saw and felt their presence in the groves and hallowed places, in the forests and mountains, in the hearth and home.  Perhaps for most of us, who were not clever enough to see into the rare truths tied up with the schoolmen and their causes, this was the real loss felt by the demotion of cause from something found in the heavens to something tied to the earth.  For with the demotion of cause, another (less noticed but perhaps more felt) demotion also began to occur; where story was thrust into the full light of day, and demoted from that hidden place where it tickled our minds with its mysterious lies, to a place where it merely told us pleasant myths to tickle our fancy and to while away the time.  Because, really, what else do we really have left to do but to tell ourselves pleasant myths?  We stand on the edge of powers as yet unknown to mankind, but we have lost our sense of ourselves.  We have lost our Story and are left with stories.

            But my intuition is that this is untrue, or at least, an incomplete picture of this world as it now appears.  If it was the demotion of cause that unknowingly demoted story, perhaps it is the knowing ascendence of story that may yet save our sense of cause.  To a certain extent, what I am saying is nothing new.  Nietzsche (that great prophet of the death of cause) spoke of a mankind unmoored from the old rules, able now to strike out on his own and to tell new stories fired in the cauldron of his own being, that great will to power.  We have been (more or less) doing this for the last hundred years at least, but it has failed to inaugurate a new age of super-men.  More often, the grandest of storytellers have been small men, who merely ended up telling stories of pain and power and triumph, and in our horror, we have turned all the more fully to the game of storytelling rather than to the serious business of story-weaving [see if you can spot the subtle difference between these activities].  Wherein lies the issue with this approach?  The issue, which Nietzsche appears not to have understood, is that even though it may be mankind who tells the stories, the best stories, those which stand the test of time, are not the stories told when man imposes himself upon and dominates nature, but where he opens himself up to that force which goes by different names, but which Socrates would have referred to as his daemon.  That force which, while a part of our inner selves, is yet other from us, and connects us with the Great Story that is being told from the beginning of time to the end of days.  We may have overcome the God of cause, but I wish to suggest that it is inconceivable that we shall ever overcome the God of Story, for it is this God of Story who preexisted this God of Cause, and it was He who first lifted our eyes to the cause itself.  Thus, cause, it turns out, was not the God we took him to be, but merely an illusion leading to understanding revealed to us by the True God, the God of Story.

            But wait, you will answer me.  There is an obvious issue with this "story" that you have constructed.  If there is one thing that we know, it is that stories can lie.  There are thousands of stories, each one of them mutually contradictory to the rest.  We, in our infinite imagination, can make a story about anything.  We can come up with a whole list of things that we did yesterday which sound plausible, but never happened.  We can tell of unicorns and dragons and other strange creatures that never existed and could never exist.  We can imagine a thousand deities in the sky, each more powerful and more ludicrous than the next, and use them as a means of explaining what happens here below, which fit the appearances, but which never were.  Ah, I respond, but your lack of confidence in some stories as against others belies your skepticism concerning story itself.  For, in the way that I am speaking of "story", what is photosynthesis but a story?  What is cellular mitosis but a story?  What is relativity but a story?  These are not stories, you scoff, these are explanations.  The story is an explanation, I respond, and it is the only explanation that we have [that is, it is not a thing self existent, but a relationship formed between the thing that is perceived and the he/she that perceives].  Look, whether or not you believe that there is an I who looks from the high throne of Being Itself, would the state of the world we conceive not look foreign to us if seen from this position?  Would we see photosynthesis, and epigenetic processes, and gravity?  We can't even say for sure whether we would see those things which we perceive as solid objects but which we know are at base complex energy interactions.  Of course the stories which we tell will not be True in this sense [for Being Itself needs not the interpretive intermediary of story, at least not in this sense].  But they can be true in other senses, and there can truly be said to be truer and falser stories based on our best knowledge of ourselves and our existence at any given time.  Then the paradigm will shift, and our stories will shift with it, but that does not change the story that was told.  

            What do you mean the story that was told? you ask.  I mean, I respond, the developmental story of the history of our species [an anthropology], that thing which we cannot escape, that we cannot vanquish and replace with a story of our own creation, no matter how hard we attempt to assert our will and our power.  For that which is written in the book of time cannot be unwritten.  Well, that is patently false, you respond.  For we have often unwritten what was written, and have unseen and forgotten much of what has been.  Have we really, I respond?  The book of time is not a book that we can read.  Perhaps there is no I anywhere to read such a book, but that does not change the fact that there is such a book, and what has been written there defines what comes after.  Or, have you forgotten your old god cause?  Simply because you no longer worship him as a thing divine does not mean that you have power over him.  Yes, perhaps from the perspective of Being Itself there is no such book, and perhaps all that has been is not yet written, but for us, it is.  Perhaps some day this will change, and then the story must change again with it, but for now, this is the story, and the story is one of time.

            So, what are you telling us, you respond?  To be honest, I say, what I tell you is something that I do not yet see clearly, and perhaps never will see clearly.  Perhaps someday I will, or perhaps someday, someone will pick up the thread of my thought and unroll the spool just a little bit more and see a little bit further.  What I am saying truly is that we must not despise our existence, for it is only as existent beings that we may tell one another stories and hear their stories  in return.  We must not despair of the idea that there is a Story overlying all our individual stories, for without such an idea of Story, surely we will turn (in our egoism) to an elevation of our own meagre story, and ultimately despair in our own self-idolatry.  We must believe that, though there is such a Story, that we may not own or make claim on this Story, for it did not originate with us and is not ours to give.  While we must bear witness to the Story insofar as we see it, we must have always before our eyes the humility of our own position, for what little of the Story I may have may be stripped from me at any given moment and made other than what it was a moment before.  We must not despise those who recognize not the Story, for we in our own ignorance, if we see at all, see but through a glass darkly.  We must recognize that all that is, even in its ignorance of the Story, is itself a part of the Story, and while not necessarily good in and of itself, is good insofar as it produces a dissonant chord in the Great Story, thus adding to the beauty of the whole.  We must not, in our will and zealousness, attempt to supplant a version of the Story with that version of things which we believe that we have seen, for such will serve the Story in the end, but not in the way that we foresee.  Someday, perhaps, I shall have more insight into the Story.  But for now, I am empty and must rest.