Santa Claus and Real Presence
It was Alice who suggested we "begin at the beginning."
Like most good ideas, we pay scant attention.
In the beginning....
Logically, there shouldn't be anything.
"Nothing" is more plausible than the alternatives.
However, if "something" did exist, we might reasonably expect undifferentiated proto-substance to take the form of "universal stuff", the sort of non-descript molecular randomness which physicists impute to the end-of-time when entropy winds down and atomic activity becomes absolutely strung out.
So-called "heat death".
Yet, instead of "nothing" (which is exquisitely logical) or "universal stuff" (which is, perhaps, plausible), we actually encounter avocados and emus, black holes and spelling bees, postage stamps and beauty pageants, bridge clubs and wailing walls, tragacanths and vestigial teeth.
My friend James Liguri once wrote a poem in which he mentioned the "robust particularity of pears".
Everywhere we look, we collide with robust particularity.
Nevertheless, even those who admit a broad range of physical and metaphysical possibility, tend - in the end - to subscribe to neat reductionisms, assuming that everything will eventually be simplified. For those who admit the possibility of transmigration, even "heaven" gets reduced to peaceful tranquillity, or sandaled choirs singing smarmy hymns. This denial of robust particularity recalls Camus' comment that "humankind cannot bear much reality".
No one speaks of robust particularity as a feature of "heaven". No one discusses the possible existence of celestial tape worms, or chess matches played in 84 simultaneous dimensions.
It seems we humans have had enough particularity here on earth. Apparently, robustness is "too much" for mere mortals who want their after-life slug-simple.
And, of course, pretty.
How is it that we confront the stunning multiplicity of existence, yet reduce it to intellectualized simplicity? How do transform the robust particularity of existence into tidy schemata prefaced by dismissive phrases like: "It's only...." or, "It's as simple as...."
Jesus of Nazareth was wonderfully metaphorical in describing the kingdom of God. In one parable, "it's like a banquet" where the water is wine, and the entrees - literally - "to die for." Elsewhere, the kingdom is "a house with many mansions", a Biltmore Palace spanning parsecs rather than acres.
However, the Nazarene also cautions: "Unless you become like a child, you shall not enter the kingdom of God".
A child's outlook is based on the faithful supposition that acts of imagination are superior to what customarily passes as "denatured reality."
Nowhere is the imagination of childhood more vigorously engaged than in the "persona" (= Greek, "mask") of Santa Claus.
Santa Claus is a consummate act of co-creation, involving kids, parents, and - for all we know - the trans-corporeal ministrations of Saint Nicolas himself.
I have a brother - a nuclear engineer - who has raised his children to believe "there is no Santa".
My brother is wrong to do this --- perhaps not morally, but factually. My brother's denial is as wrong as declaring that "water isn't wet."
Santa exists, and like God, he exists because the actual grace that exudes from the transcendental mystery en-acting him, brings him into existence, creates him - just as "the ground of being" created the universe - out of nothing.
Furthermore, the inability - or, refusal - to believe in Santa, may prevent one from entering the kingdom of God - or, at least, result in clipped wings when, at last, we learn to fly.
I do not intend any cuteness in my explanation of Santa's existence. Santa Claus is actually real. Furthermore, the reality of Santa Claus participates completely in the depth and breadth of the mysterium magnum.
"Presence" can be fully understood - and perhaps best understood - in terms of absence. The via negativa , which is to say, "determining what a thing is not," sheds inestimable light on what a thing is.
The key question is this: What if there were no sentient life in the universe? What if no sentient beings were "present" anywhere?
What would such a "vacant" universe look like?
To begin, it wouldn't "look" at all, since looking requires eyes to see. If there is no sentient life in the universe, then there would be no life forms to perceive its lineaments.
I am not shadow-boxing here.
I am describing the actual, factual hinge whereby the inter-penetrating fluctuations of objectivity and subjectivity create the very thing our senses call "reality." This interplay between subjects and objects actually makes reality what it is.
Without subjectivity - which is to say, without sentient "subjects," the nature of the universe changes. Whatever it is, and whatever we know it to be, would be absolutely different than it is now if sentience were suddenly sucked out of everything. Devoid of sentient subjects, the universe -- as we know it -- disappears, since "things" can only appear to sentient subjects.
Remove perception, and the universe actually disappears.
Again, I am not shadow-boxing.
How can there be "a known universe" if there are no sentient life forms to know it? And if the universe is not known - indeed if there are no sentient creatures capable of knowing it - what does it become?
What happens, for example, when there is no perception of color? It may be argued, of course, that pigment is inherent in the "stuff" of material reality. But pigment only potentiates sight. It does not -- and cannot -- enact vision. A sentient "vision-ary" must be present to make sight - and therefore color - real.
Otherwise, although pigment exists, there is -- as a practical matter -- no color anywhere in the universe. You may object to this assertion, but your objection is the facile complaint of a subject endowed with sight and sentience. What is difficult to imagine is your own non-existence: more difficult still, the non-existence of all sentient life.
If all sentient life were suddenly extinguished, inestimable repercussions would ripple through the fabric of existence. The nature of the universe would - in effect - be de-natured. Just as a fertile egg's yolk is de-natured by boiling, so too, is reality de-natured by the removal of sentience. Whatever the potential of de-natured reality might be, it's actuality - as a perceived reality (which is the only way we do and can know it) - would no longer exist.
One of the few philosophical questions ever to gain widespread currency is the old chestnut: "If a tree falls in the forest - and no one hears it - does sound occur?"
Technically, the definition of sound posits the existence of a vibration which then strikes an auditory mechanism in a sensible way. No doubt, once set in motion, any vibration perpetuates itself (perhaps indefinitely) so that residual vibratory effects - far removed from a tree falling in the forest - might be captured by a clever technician, amplified, and then heard by a tympanic membrane. Thus, the theoretical possibility of sound - the potential for sound - exists even when a tree falls in an uninhabited forest.
However, this whole line of thought supposes the existence of sentient life, assumes that some"one", somewhere, is endowed with hearing. More accurately put, this line of thought pre-supposes the existence of sentient life since it is extraordinarily difficult to imagine an objective universe without subjective content --- without subjective components. (Subjective "membership" may be a more integral way of characterizing the intimate interaction of subject and object --- a relationship that actually brings definable qualities into existence, a relationship that creates some observable, perceptible, knowable thing where that particular, perceivable, definable "thing" did not previously exist.)
Without sentient subjects, color really disappears from the universe.
Sound disappears too.
Taste no longer exists.
Smell is not even imaginable since there is no longer imagination to posit its existence.
Touch, as a sensory phenomenon no longer exists, even though imperceivable physical contact may endure.
Perhaps it's easiest to understand the workings of an insensate universe if we consider sensory systems different from sight, sound, taste, touch and smell.
Take, for example, the "lateral line system" of scaly fish. The "lateral line system" is a sensory apparatus that runs from gill to tail along a fish's midline. If you examine the body of fish possessing a lateral line system, you will notice that scales radiate from this line in slightly different patterns toward the dorsal and ventral surfaces.
The sensory function of the lateral line enables fish to process minute changes in water pressure, so that even in opaque water, laterally-lined fish can "visualize" the surrounding topography. As a result of this unique sensory system, fish do not crash into piers, reefs, jetties, breakwalls and other constituents of their marine environment --- not even in total darkness.
We humans cannot "visualize" in this manner. Indeed, when we ponder the lateral line system, we default to visual metaphors since we can only make "sense" of reality in the context of our five senses. Without sense perception, every "thing" is total non-sense.
Now, imagine a universe in which no life form is endowed with vision, touch, hearing, smell or taste. Then imagine this same sensorily vacated universe inhabited by life forms that are endowed only with senses whose function we cannot even imagine.
In such a transformed universe, life forms may be incapable of perceiving discreet objects in the way that we do. In such a universe, what humans call a "tree" may no longer be perceivable as an isolated, definable entity. What we humans call a "tree" may - from the vantage of hypothetical life forms - be a "treeearth" continuum. Furthermore, our hypothetical life forms may only perceive "treeearth" through the sensory impressions given off by gamma rays passing through it, or by radio waves interacting with the carbon molecules which compose it.
Although the perception of "treeearth" through gamma ray (or radio wave) impression may be "sight" of a sort, this question remains. Does the "object" - as a practical matter - remain a "tree", or, was the "tree" only a convention by which the human sensorium - creating a particular palette of impressions on the human subject - "chose" to perceive this discrete, definable "thing" only after the human sensorium had wrenched the "tree" from a theoretically infinite continuum of potential sense perception.
From the vantage of other life forms - whether real or hypothetical - what we humans perceive as a "tree" with "green" leaves, smelling of "mimosa", endowed with a "rough" trunk, and whose bark tastes "bitter" may have none of these sensory constituents at all. Even the definable "boundaries" of a "tree" may not be discernible by life forms whose unique sensoria may perceive what we call a "tree" as absolutely continuous with "earth" and "sky" (although even these perceptual categories disappear as well). For other life forms, "form" and "boundary" may be perceived and defined in completely different ways, perhaps even in different dimensions. Therefore, although "form" may continue to exist in a de-natured (or re-natured universe), it is also de-formed beyond human imagination.
What happens when sensory qualities - indeed when the very shape and definable form of a "tree" - either evanesce because their is no sentience in the universe, or, mutate beyond fathomability because the sensoria of hypothetical life forms are far "weirder" than the "lateral line system" of fish?
Sentience really creates the "things" it perceives. Or, at least, co-creates them. Sentience gives things their knowable form. Sentience lends definable epistomology to the inchoate underpinnings of decerebrate ontology. If the universe housed no sentient life forms, the "things" which humans -- and tragacanths and tapeworms -- "perceive" would no longer remain the definable things they "are". In the absence of sentience, all definable "things" would recede into an amorphous field of potential manifestation.
Until these potential "things" manifest to a sentient sensorium, they are not what we humans (and other sentient life forms) currently take them to be. These potential "things" have no color, no taste, no smell, no sound, no touch --- no perceivable lateral line pressure.
These potential things do not even have definable "form" since the definition of form is contingent upon a particular sensorium creating a definition. No sentience, no definition. Or, at least, no fixed definition. No human definition. No tragacanth definition. No tapeworm definition. No dolphin definition.
Centuries ago, Thomas Aquinas dealt with these same issues by emphasizing the relative importance of "potential" and "act".
What we call a "lightning storm" may rage on the horizon, but if no one is present to perceive light, then light -- in every way that an incarnate being can understand light -- is not light.
What we call "light" is mere potential, no different than "the potential" of a serial rapist/child molester/mass murderer with a misguided I.Q. of 600 and the repressed goodness of Mother Teresa. Under such circumstances, intelligence and goodness - like light - have potential existence. But, as a practical matter, their potential existence doesn't really matter. The purported significance of potential reality is as absurd as telling the parents of a dismembered child with skewered eyes and extracted finger-nails that the murderer/rapist is really a bright fellow with a heart of gold.
I acknowledge the inscrutability of the mysterium magnum. It envelopes us all. Still, I would argue that God is not present if there are no sentient life forms to perceive that presence. Or, to be more precise, God - in the absence of sentience - would be no more present to phenomenal "reality" than the potential goodness of Mother Teresa is present to a child molester/mass murderer. If no sentient life "sees the light", the milieu remains - as a practical matter - darker than pitch.
God - like every "thing" in the universe - is only present when potential is evoked. Furthermore, the evocation of that potential - the realization of that potential - the actualization of that potential - is a specifically human task.... at least insofar as human reality is concerned. If we do not become the hands, head, heart and feet of a loving God, then, as a practical matter, the manifestation of God's love will be severely curtailed --- de-natured beyond recognition.
The presence of Santa Claus - like the presence of God in Christian Eucharist - is actualized by believing in that Presence. Belief - predicated on sensory intimation - makes presence real. (See: Footnote 1)
It may be argued that such belief is purely imaginary, to which I respond - with Einstein - that "imagination is more important than knowledge", because imagination brings "things" - including Santa Claus and God - into some measure of realization. Potential is enacted. Manifestation occurs.
A recent three-frame cartoon portrays a father and son exchanging these words: "Son... your mother tells me you don't believe in Santa Claus. Is that true?" "That's right. I'm not going to pretend I believe that junk just because it makes you and mom happy". "Welcome to adulthood, son. Hope you enjoy playing with pants and socks, because that's all you'll be getting as presents from now on."
More than any other motivational force, the religious imagination keeps childhood alive. In the process, both God and Santa are endowed with dimensions of meaning immeasurably more real than an adult world focused on pants and socks.
We may discard Santa as an absurd myth, but since the mythic imagination is more significant than factual history, disbelief in Santa actually makes the universe a less playful place. What remains is unadorned utility, a purely rational choice whose upshot is the diminishment of reality.
It is easier to glimpse this "vision" if one considers what the Christian theologians call "actual grace" - the ability to enact virtuous behavior. By believing in Santa Claus --- the epitomization of gratuitous gift-giving --- people actually give more gifts.
In every sense of the word, the effusive generosity -- based on the generosity of Santa -- is an actual Incarnation of grace. Without belief in Santa Claus, the Incarnation of grace would dwindle. There would be less goodness in the world if the sacred mystery of Santa Claus did not really crystallize the spirit of giving.
Similarly, if a person believes s/he will become more like God by eating God's flesh and drinking God's blood, the likelihood that this putative transformation will be enacted is enhanced. Furthermore, the more certain one is that the Eucharist actually incorporates God's body into one's own body, the more likely that person will - as William Blake said - "become what s/he percieves."
If one becomes more God-like by eating what one perceives is God's flesh, then the Eucharistic meal actually fortifies one's spirit. Furthermore, when a community of kindred spirits shares the unshakable belief that the Eucharistic presence conjoins them to the sacrificial agape embodied by Christ, a trans-personal transformation actually takes place.
Although the Heisenberg uncertainty principal leaves room for doubt (just as the twelve apostles left room for "doubting Thomas" and Judas Iscariot) we may confidently assume that Heisenberg's "electron cloud" - which, in Christian metaphor, is tantamount to the communion of committed believers - will Incarnate what they believe because they believe it and to the extent that they believe it.
In recent years, I have been struck by the diminishment of Life that accompanies so much aimless wandering in cyberspace. "Virtual reality" is just that --- a seductive simulacrum, a glamorous (but insubstantial) re-constitution of reality, a pseudo-presence exercised by people who progressively dis-incarnate themselves through silicon-mediated bursts of electricity. Virtual reality fosters the replacement of community by network. The result is spiritual malnutrition: the production of profuse words and images, but not much flesh. Cyberspace has become very much like Gertrude Stein's Oakland: "There is no there, there".
Lately, I have also been impressed by a bit of Catholic doctrine that formerly struck me as absurd. As a boy, it seemed bizarre that the Catholic Church should deny the efficacy of confession made by telephone.
Why does the Church claim that electronically-mediated confession is -- as a practical matter -- ineffective? Why has the Church always insisted that the sacrament of confession take place between a penitent and a confessor sharing the same physical space?
Although I once roared with laughter at the hair-splitting distinction between physical space and electronic space, I now see
- as I increasingly see - that the Church wisely opposes the supplantation of un-mediated sacred physicality by the incorporeal mediations of electronic pseudo-space. Electronic media tend to result in jejeune realities that prohibit full incarnation.
We can only be fully present to the physical geographical, biological and architectural space in which we find ourselves. Only by being conscious of The (unmediated) Present can we perceive the universe as the miracle it is.
Or, we can sell our birthright as free creatures by sharecropping electronic acreage rented from the absentee landlords of cyber-space.
A couple of years ago, someone mounted a billboard that said: "It is the fate of humankind to outsmart itself".
We Yankees have created an aggressively utilitarian culture. We are famous for our ingenuity. American engineers are the best in the world: Tower-of-Babel smart, clever to a fault. Indeed, our engineers accomplish many admirable - even miraculous - ends. But they also saturate the matrix of culture with the hollow - and hollowing - philosophies of reductionism.
For the engineer, reality is a problem to be solved, not a mystery to be lived. For the engineer, a permanent state of wide-eyed wonder is fruitless navel-gazing. For the engineer - and the engineering mentality - it is all-important to "get on with the job"; not to get on with living Life.
And so, many of us have become meaning-starved wage slaves, surrounded by a riotous profusion of material consolations, hoping - with haggard desperation - that "more stuff" will fill the void gashed in our souls by gutted mythologies and a withered sense of wonder.
For two millennia, Christians have believed in life after death.
Now, as pie-in-the-sky becomes a certifiable subject for ridicule, the question has become, ironically: "Is there life after birth?"
Ho! Ho! Ho!
Footnote 1 What distinguishes creative imagination from the morbid musings of lunacy? It is one thing to observe how our senses - through a broad spectrum of interpretation - "make sense" of the universe. It is another thing altogether to take leave of one's senses.
We are not at liberty to construe any imaginary construct as real. If we do take such liberty and imagine any damned thing, we will probably enslave ourselves to ourselves.
Where is the line drawn?
To imagine - to sense - the existence of God, saints, angels, titans, heavenly powers and infernal principalities without "losing our senses", it is crucial to heed this rubric: Believe what you will, but harmonize your belief with self-sacrifice and disinterested dedication to the welfare of others.
The lunatic believes that the universe rotates around his/her narrowly defined, self-encapsulated, solipsistic existence.
If however, an individual makes imaginary leaps every bit as bounding as a lunatic's, but does so with a sense of personal abandon grounded in dedication to the welfare of others, it is probably irrelevant what form belief takes.
The prophylactic effect of self-sacrifice coupled with dedication to "the other" is attributable to the grounding power of myth, the sacramentality of all existence.
Whereas the "sacred" posits - whether consciously, or unconsciously - the primacy of myth and eternity, the "secular" domain establishes the primacy of history and time.
Myth is more important than history. Although history encodes awesome significance, it nevertheless remains secondary to the suasive might of myth.
History is the describable content of human meaning.
Mythology, on the other hand, is the root level context - the matrix - that engenders, embeds, and extrudes meaning.
Mythology propels history.