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The Human Evasion by Celia Green

Chapter 5 : How to Write Sane Books

It will be convenient to have a name for that part of reality which is not emotionally regarded as 'real' by the sane person. We shall call it the Outside.

The Outside consists of everything that appears inconceivable to the human mind. In fact everything is inconceivable to the human mind (if only because it exists) but not many people notice this.

In religious and philosophical writings it is often difficult to eliminate all reference to the Outside. There are a number of ways of dealing with this problem. One of the most successful is to generate a distinctive kind of ambiguity about the meanings of crucial words.

Consider the following passage in which the words 'being' and 'existence' are used. 'The term 'being' in this context does not designate existence in time and space.... (It) means the whole of human reality, the structure, the meaning and the aim of existence.'[1]

It is tolerably clear that at least when Tillich first uses the word 'existence' he means by it what I also mean when I use the word. It seems that what we both mean by 'existing' is 'being there'.

However, Tillich then explicitly repudiates this sense and goes on to define the word 'being' in a second sense. The term 'being' means the whole of human reality, Tillich says. The meaning of this phrase is not obvious.

Perhaps Tillich means the sum total of the mental content of all humans -illusions and all? What humans think is real? Or that part of reality which is accessible to the human mind?

The last seems to be the best we can do. So let us suppose that 'human reality' does mean that part of the mental content -- actual or potential -- of humans which is actually in accordance with what exists.

'Human reality' is then placed in apposition with 'the structure, the meaning and the aim of existence'. What is to be understood by this? The 'aim of existence' seems at first sight to be clear, unless 'existence' has made an unannounced change of meaning since it was first used. It would seem that this phrase must mean 'the purpose for which everything exists'.

But this is difficult, because 'the aim of existence' is in apposition with 'human reality' which certainly does not include the purpose of existence.

This leads us to a distinct suspicion that when Tillich talks of 'the structure, meaning and aim of existence' he does not mean 'existence' at all, but 'human life' instead. If he does mean this, there seems no reason why he should say so -- except that it would rob what he is saying of a status it does not possess. And if he does mean this, we have arrived at the following definition of the word 'being' -- 'whatever happens to be realistic in the mental content of humans; the structure, the meaning and the aim of human life'.

In fact, we may suggest this paraphrase of what Tillich is saying: 'When we talk of 'being' we do not mean the Outside. We mean the Inside.'

This example illustrates a standard procedure for appearing to take the Outside into consideration without actually doing so. The rules for this kind of writing are very simple and roughly as follows.

There are a number of words and phrases which may mean something about existence or something about humans. For example: 'existence', 'depth', 'ground of being', 'ultimate concern', 'meaning', etc. Whenever what you really mean is 'human relationships' or 'day-to-day living' you should replace it by some existential-sounding combination, such as 'the depth of being'. It is a good idea to use compound phrases ('the depth of historical existence', 'the ultimate ground of meaning') as a considerable degree of obscurity can be created by summating the uncertainty of a number of uncertain terms.

It is usual to define these terms as little as possible. But if you wish to appear to do so, it is best to use a series of phrases in apposition (as in the example just considered: 'the whole of human reality, the structure, the meaning and the aim of existence'). This gives a very good effect of struggling to define something difficult with precision while actually generating ambiguity (on the principle of summation of uncertainty already mentioned). The device of apposition itself introduces an additional modicum of doubt, since if you appose two such phrases as 'the depth of meaning' and 'the inmost structure of reality' no one will be sure whether the two phrases are ways of saying the same thing, or whether they are intended to complement one another.

Other verbal devices may be used for placing together in the closest possible proximity 'human' words and 'Outside' words. Words like 'ultimate' and 'reality' should be used in phrases like 'human reality' and 'ultimate concern', and the word 'meaning' should be softened into 'meaning and coherence'. (The word 'meaning' might be regarded as informationally sufficient; however, the addition of 'coherence' contributes a useful implicit suggestion that 'meaning' must hang together in a way that is recognizable and rather agreeable to humans.)

To illustrate these instructions, consider the typical phrase 'life and existence'. Now the word 'existence' may mean 'human life', but if it does it is adding nothing to the meaning of the phrase. So this phrase would seem to mean 'human living and the fact that things are there' -- which seems a strange combination to discuss in the same breath.

Another example of the way in which abstract words such as 'transcendent', 'meaning', 'existence' should be combined with human words such as 'life' and 'confidence':

High religions are ... distinguished by the extent of the unity and coherence of life which they seek to encompass and the sense of a transcendent source of meaning by which alone confidence in the meaningfulness of life and existence can be maintained.[2]

May I suggest a paraphrase, which I think does not reduce the informational content. 'High religions are distinguished by making the whole of human life feel meaningful to the human being.' As human life already feels meaningful to sane human beings, this would appear to let anything or nothing qualify as a 'high religion'.

It is true that my paraphrase reduces Niebuhr's meaning if he is using the word 'transcendent' in a transcendent sense. If so, what he is saying becomes more complex, but questionable. Assuming 'transcendent' to mean 'possessing a validity which cannot be affected by any consideration whatever', or perhaps 'directly related to the reason for existence', it is difficult to see why a 'transcendent source of meaning' should be expected to maintain anyone's 'confidence in the meaningfulness of life'. For this to be true, we should have to accept the psychological supposition that people can only confidently accept transcendent meanings as meaningful. What is more, we should also have to accept that a transcendent source of meaning would have the characteristic of making a human being confident about the meaning of his life. It is an interesting sidelight on human psychology that it should be so often assumed that a transcendent purpose must be one that 'gives a meaning to life'. In fact, anyone sufficiently unusual to think occasionally about transcendence finds that it makes his life feel intolerably meaningless. (This is why people do not go on doing it.)

If we assume that Niebuhr is using the word 'transcendent' in one of the senses defined above, the most obvious characteristic of a transcendent meaning would seem to be that it invalidates all subordinate meanings. This, after all, is what 'transcendent' means -- that which invalidates, but cannot itself be invalidated. So if Niebuhr is really using the word 'transcendent' to mean that which transcends, what he is saying becomes: 'High religions are distinguished by making the whole of life meaningful by reference to something which makes the whole of life meaningless, which is the only way in which it is possible to maintain confidence that life is meaningful.'

As this is patently absurd, I assume that he is not in fact using the word 'transcendent' in a transcendent sense. It is much more likely that when he talks of a 'transcendent source of meaning' he means 'anything which is capable of making the whole of human life seem meaningful to a large number of people'.

I leave the reader to appreciate the following without further explanation:

God made the world, and is never absent from it. So, within the mind of modern secularism there are feelings after the meaningfulness of human existence, recognition of supreme obligations in human relations, gropings after an undefined 'otherness'.[3]

The name of this infinite and inexhaustible ground of history is God. That is what the word means, and it is that to which the words Kingdom of God and Divine Providence point. And if these words do not have much meaning for you, translate them, and speak of the depth of history, of the ground and aim of our social life, and of what you take seriously without reservation in your moral and political activities. Perhaps you should call this depth hope, simply hope. [4]

[1] Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology, Vol. I, p.17.

[2] R. Niebuhr, An Interpretation of Christian Ethics, Meridian
    Books, 1956, p.17.

[3] Archbishop of Canterbury, Sunday Times, December 20, 1964.

[4] Paul Tillich, The Shaking of the Foundations, Penguin Books,
    1949, p.65.

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