Who needs an indirect communication of religious truth?

In his yesterday post, Kelly Jolley has a really nice quote from Robert Browning  (use my blog roll to track down Quantum Est in Rebus Inane).  Kelly juxtaposes the Browning quote with an equally nice companion quote from Kierkegaard.  Both writers are working on the issue of whether religious truth can be communicated directly, and whether, if one has a religious message, one can successfully convey it directly.  Perhaps we should admit that such truth is best — or exclusively — communicated indirectly or obliquely. After all, religious truth is not mere facts to be conveyed, or an ideology, both of which can be directly formulated and promulgated. Here’s Browning (I had no idea he was so good on this sort of thing!):

Obliquely, do the thing shall breed the thought,
 Nor wrong the thought, missing the mediate word.
  So may you paint your picture, twice show truth, 
Beyond mere imagery on the wall, –
So, note by note, bring music from your mind, 
Deeper than ever e’en Beethoven dived, –
So write a book shall mean beyond the facts,
 Suffice the eye and save the soul beside.

I wonder to whom, and when, something appears, or should be called, “oblique” or “indirect.”  Maybe the perspective that supports the idea of indirect or oblique communication is rather specialized, and to others, at different times, whatever is happening as one’s soul is energized religiously, it shouldn’t be called a happening that is “oblique’ or ‘indirect.’

Browning’s advice is sound coaching, given that we assume whomever he coaches is in a certain position vis a vis the person whose soul needs alteration, whose illusion needs to be removed.  Lets say the would be soul-changer contemplates a direct attack on the illusion.  Then Browning’s advice, his coaching, is, “Don’t go that way!” 

 Now the would-be soul changer might at first resist Browning’s advice.  He’d think,  “Browning is not really aiming where he should – at getting religious truth across to the deluded.”  He might think, “Browning’s trying for a ‘merely’ aesthetic impact.” So for the uninitiated or momentarily dull student, Browning will not have the ultimate aim in focus.  But Browning, the coach, persists.  He says to the would-be soul-changer, “Correct: your direct and non-oblique aim is to alter the soul of your addressee — but look, believe me, you can only do this by a method that will seem to you to be oblique or indirect. But just be patient.  If you want to eliminate the illusion of the person you’re addressing, start with what seems to you to be oblique and indirect.  Once it starts working, it can morph into the most direct and non-oblique route to your goal.  To get there, you have to detour.  The detour is the direct route.  

The indirect communication is the most direct possible; the oblique is the most straightforward possible.

Note that on this account, I could say, that for me, the effect of Beethoven in delivering religious impact is not oblique or indirect, but direct and non-oblique. 

So for some (if I’m right) one needn’t think that the communication of religious truth must be oblique or indirect.  For anyone already ‘dwelling’ in such truth, or undeluded about it, that truth in its delivery is as direct and non-oblique as can be.  So Browning and Kierkegaard are offering a pedagogy of critique and conversion, not a phenomenology of what it is to have religious truth sidle up against or insinuate itself into or massively take over one’s life

From a phenomenological perspective, I can hope to have, and perhaps already enjoy, a non-mediated relation to truth, such that the aesthetic carries the religious directly to me.  But from a pedagogical standpoint, where I see a person needing an illusion dissolved, then tactically, I should approach indirectly, obliquely.  But if I am someone not in need of illusion-removal, no tactics need arise, and I can enjoy a direct communication of religious truth, and can reasonably suppose I’m not the only one in the world who can.  In some ways, this allows me to be more modest and less fixated on ‘attacking’ the illusions of others.

Kierkegaard sometimes seems not to be giving advice so much as saying “Here are two kinds of communication, direct and indirect, and the direct is for conveying facts and ideology and the indirect is for conveying religious truth.” But if you’re already half-way religious, and a subtle religious animation pervades your soul, you’ll enjoy the knowledge that religious truth can be communicated directly.

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7 comments on “Who needs an indirect communication of religious truth?

  1. dmf says:

    leaving aside the hermeneutic reservations (and circles vicious and otherwise) let’s for the sake of the argument grant unmediated-revelations/experiences and such, I think the question remains of whether or not I can give someone else a direct experience through my good works, no?

    • efmooney says:

      Why can’t good works give a direct religious experience? They won’t always, but maybe witnessing a simple act of kindness teaches more than a thousand sermons. And I think we have unmediated experiences all the time — but maybe I’m in the minority there. Hearing the toilet flush or thunder roar is not a complex act of interpretation (unless I’m a city lot away from the toilet, and 30 miles away from the thunder). It’s just unmediated firsthand contact with the world.

      • dmf says:

        hmm, except that you know it’s a toilet with all that this implies no?
        well without waxing derridean not sure what the medium/mode is that would allow for such a direct-transmission, maybe our Buddhist friends can fill in the blank?

  2. dmfant says:

    “When someone there is standing before us, we have been cautioned that he is not speaking with
    his own voice but speaking the language of his gender, his family, his class, his education, his
    culture, his economic and political interests, his unconscious drives, indeed his state of physical
    health and alertness. Are we then doing no more than interpreting what he says and does? Do we
    ever make contact with what he means for himself when he says “I”—with his visions, the story
    he tells himself of his life?
    What an extraordinary power, this power of the voice to put us in
    contact, not with our own mental images but with persons and things
    themselves!
    We catch on to the purring of the kitten, the frantic cries of the bird,
    the snorting of the distrustful horse, the complaint of the caged puma.
    We pick up the tone of the blackbird marsh, the hamlet meditating in the
    Himalayan mountainscape, the shifting dunes under twilight skies. As our
    words form, the tone of these things and events resounds in our voice. The
    pacing and accents of our phrases express the calm or the frenetic movement,
    the rhythm and periodicity or jerks and explosions of the things and events.
    Our words articulate the agitated tone of a column of ants, the syncopation
    of the dockworkers unloading a ship, the purple majesty of the Pacific ocean
    under dawning Madagascar skies. Our words reverberate the tone of a cave,
    a cathedral, a dance, the pacing, the rhythms, the expanse, they return the
    muffled or dead silence.”
    http://www.janushead.org/8-2/lingis.pdf

  3. efmooney says:

    The caution at the start of the Lingis essay is a caution he wants to throw to the wind. We’ve been cautioned (absurdly) that when I hear you speak I don’t hear you speak but only hear the language of [your] gender, family, class, education, culture, economic and political interests, unconscious drives . . .” It’s like saying that when I hear Casals play Bach I don’t hear his voice but only the voice of his gender, family, class, education . . . ” Lingis then lets the human voice give voice to caves, cathedrals, horses, ants, and majestic skies. They speak to us in the kind of unmediated purity I think is not only possible but all over the place.

    • dmfant says:

      yes as the second section fleshes out, that’s why I thought you might enjoy it, tho Lingis is too deep into M-Ponty and others to suggest anything so disembodied as unmediated purity, here is Alva Noe giving the latest on largely non-conceptual but still skill/response-ability enabled knowing/access:

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