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Spirituality

“How ‘to talk religion’? Of religion? Singularly of religion today? How dare we speak of it in the singular without fear and trembling, this very day?”

Derrida 2002. Acts of Religion, p. 42.

This Derrida quote was above the abstract I sent in for the 23rd ISAPS conference, recently held in Vienna. My paper was titled “Bantu Philosophy” and the problem of religion in intercultural philosophy today. Going by the comments and questions after presenting my paper, I think I succeeded to bring some fresh questions to the debates on Bantu Philosophy, the 1945 publication by Placide Tempels, a Franciscan missionary in what then was called the Belgian Congo. Tempels’ book, which first appeared in Dutch and was later translated to French and English, kicked off the many debates on the existence and nature of African philosophy. Is philosophy localized, or universal? Was his presentation of a culturalized ontology a well-meant first attempt at intercultural dialogue, or can it not be taken outside of the colonial context in which Tempels worked? Or could both be true? In my presentation I wanted to go into another matter: Tempels’ attempt to sketch a solution to the loss of religiosity in what he called the age of industrialization – in the colonialized part of Africa where he lived as well as in Europe.

Although he culturalized ontology, Tempels still spoke of religion in the singular – a thing which we nowadays find hard to do, according to Derrida. Now there is much talk of religions, in the plural: we speak of the dialogue of religions, or their confrontation. To talk of religion, in the singular – to ask whether there is any meaning in religion as such, seems an obsolete question. Especially in philosophy. This would imply, namely, to discuss religious anthropology in a transcultural manner: to ask what human beings share in terms of religious desire. Tempels now, did exactly that. For him, ‘Christian doctrine’ was about receiving as a reality ‘the strengthening of life’. For him religion was all about

‘the aspiration towards the strengthening of life, the raising of it, the taking of it into the supernatural, its participation in the constant intensification and internal growth of our life through union, living union, with God.’ (80)

This rather unusual wording of what he saw as the essence of Christian religiosity he derived from his construction of what he saw as ‘Bantu ontology’ – which would be an ontology of ‘vital force’. In his view the people he had come to live amongst in the Congo had understood life, human life, and life in general, as a continuous possibility of intensification or decrease in vital force. Cursing another is meant to decrease his vitality, blessing her or him does the oppositie. Tempels’ initial motive to investigate and describe what he saw as original Bantu culture had sprung from his observation that all missionary work in Africa had actually failed, as European culture was brought over to African peoples in its new, materialistic and spiritually empty version, while religious teachers had never tried to understand the soul of those they aimed to convert, and therefore had not really conversed with them.

In the end however Tempels made an unusual double hermeneutical move – to first interpret what his African interlocutors taught him in terms of a metaphysics of life force, and to secondly reinterpret in its terms the languishing catholic metaphysics of salvation. This made him take Christ as the enhancer of life force per se, and as the counterforce in an age which, he feared, was about to empty the human person (African and European alike) of its soul, seeing progress solely in terms of industrialization and economic expansion. This was not just a hermeneutical circular movement avant Gadamer, as it simultaneously upheld the neo-scholastic claim to metaphysical knowledge of ultimate divine reality. Thus Tempels culturalized and contextualized what was supposed to sustain and transcend the contingent phenomenal world.

In my presentation I asked whether we should see this in the light of his confused non-professional philosophy (Tempels just took the two years of philosophy required in the study for the priesthood), or whether in the end his work contains elements for an answer to Derrida’s question: how to speak of religion without fear and trembling. If it does, perhaps some light can be shed in the discourse which only speaks of religious difference, without seeing how religion should be analyzed in a contextualized manner – as intrinsically related to the political and economic struggles that disturb our present times.

If we follow that road we could see that any philosophical search for truth (post – cultural relativism) has to move through analyses of the political and the economical. In Tempels work we see the beginnings of such a move – where he relates religion (in the singular: be it Christianity or traditional African religiosity) to the historical situation of industrialization and colonization – a situation that advertizes itself as civilization, but Tempels doubts this. He tries the idea whether it might not be better in a sense for Europeans to let themselves be taught by those they allegedly came to civilize.

‘We get the impression that these masses want to rise from their alleged lowliness, clothing themselves in the knowledge of their own lore and in their conception of the world; and thus standing before and looking down upon the small group of Westerners […]” (73).

To state, as Mutombo Nkulu-N’Sengha does in his article in the Encyclopedia Brittanica , that Tempels remained bound to a colonial outlook because he saw Christianity as superior to traditonal African religion is too fast a conclusion to my view. His Christianity did not speak (as traditionally was done in European religious discourse) of salvation of the eternal soul, but of a continuous intensification and internal growth of life through union with God – which to my view is a Christianity which had been transformed through its contact and dialogue with ‘Bantu philosophy’ – with his observation that ‘there is to be found in the depths of the Bantu soul an aspiration, an irresistable allurement towards an infinite strengthening of life.’ (81) This is not just a reformulation of traditional Christian ‘talk of religion’ – it is quite another talk. Of religion, across cultural and theological difference, positioned over against what Tempels saw as the false progress of industrialization and the only materialistic ‘development’ through colonialism.

 

 

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I have been silent for too long. The reason was not, surely not, being tired of blogging. As usual once a week an idea for a post sprang into my mind. But over the past months, I could never sit with some rest to write it. There were more papers to write, or finish for publication than I was used to, as a result of the many conferences I was lucky to go to over the past one and a half year. A common book project which I initiated about two years ago was suddenly asking for the work to be done, as a publisher came on board. There was a sudden increase in invitations to speak at book presentations and events for a wider public. And teaching just had to go on as usual. It seemed longtime investments in what matters to me in philosophy were now coming together – with movements in the world around me. Such a time is called momentum – a window for action after long preparations which one didn’t know if they would lead anywhere, and where, if so.

Reflecting on the change in myself that accompanies this momentum, I often had to think of a story, told by a friend I met in my first year of philosophy, in 1980. This friend was deeply involved in yoga, meditation and what we now call spirituality. Back then it was called mysticism. Like a Jehova’s witness, she was always pulling me into conversations on spiritual matters, and said she was convinced that althangela-81-4-2ough I was burying myself in the classical curriculum of my philosophy studies, she knew that I was really oriented toward the mystical. I protested the word, as ‘becoming one with the One’ did not attract me – a fan of negative dialectics and critical thinking. In the end, of course, we had more in common than we both would admit, and we entered into a fundamental conversation that lasted for 16 years. Then my friend (who had changed to religious studies in 1981, out of protest against what we now call the white canon in philosophy) at the moment she was about to start her PhD project on sufi mysticism in the middle ages, and already was making headway with learning Arabic and Persian, died.

The story she told me, in an attempt to convince me to turn to the spiritual, was from Carlos Castaneda’s famous books on his journey into native American shamanism. She tried to convince me to read Castaneda by recounting he had embarked on his surprising journey, full of personal challenges and spiritual visions, from the moment he had decided to simply say ‘yes’ to anything that came upon his path. So he said yes when he was asked to become the pupil of a native American shaman.

To me saying yes like that was almost like blasphemy. Negative dialectics, you see. Keeping distance, making detours, looking at what divides and taking its painful realizations in, were what I lived by. Distance over against nearness. And this was not just a matter of psychology, I knew it was necessary to get where I needed to be to understand something in this life. Long before I started this blog I wrote what I called my ‘log’ – a personal handwritten diary of events and experiences in my philosophical life. In that log, I once wrote that my life was about continuous detours. Moving somewhere, but returning every time to find that I could not enter, not say ‘yes’.

Now I find myself saying yes all the time – to the many unexpected invitations that come towards me, like the exciting one that came just this week – to come over to the university of Essex to share my experience with introducing intercultural and African philosophy in teaching. Entering, saying yes, is a great change to me, and the interesting thing is that I didn’t give up my critical approach in (and to) philosophy to get there. The world around me has changed. The world has taken many detours too, with devastating consequences, and more are happening even now. In present times, however, new platforms that urge for change are springing up – outside, but now gradually also inside academia. Now that I am learning to say yes, I find companions who have been getting to this same place on their own lonely journeys. A window in time has opened and one never knows for how long it will remain so. Criticism is wanted, and now directly transforms into affirmation for those working for positive changes. This is called momentum.

In this blog I have commemorated my friend Reva van Haaster, who died in 1997 – I have hardly known a more dedicated, thorough, and unprejudiced researcher than her, and she was also that friend who brought flowers when you had passed a difficult exam… Over the years we pursued a dialogue between our often diverging viewpoints, inspired by true friendship and love for knowledge.

This post is also a greeting to all my philosophical friends, new and old, you know who you are. Let’s enjoy the momentum and make a difference!

The photo shows me, 1981, a fan of negative dialectics and critical theory – still pursuing philosophy after my friend had left the studies.

The research I did for my PhD thesis on Spinoza’s Theological-Political Treatise, in the late eighties and the early nineties, left me with an aversion for the idea of an esoteric philosophy. I had set myself to reading the works that were seen as authoritative studies on the TTP in those days, and among them were those that made a lot of work of discovering the esoteric philosophy that would be hidden in the so called exoteric texts of Spinoza. I could understand that the deep and difficult roads travelled by Spinoza inspired readers to imagine that there would be something even deeper and more mysterious between the lines – hidden kabbalism for instance. The problem was, however, that those same interpretators ignored some very obvious and explicit things Spinoza said about religion. It didn’t make sense, as he had risked a lot to be so open about what was important to him.

Just the other day, however, the idea of an esoteric philosophy came up in another context. I was attending a lecture of a Dutch colleague, who was speaking about studies he had done which were somewhat outside the field of ‘official’ academic philosophy. He said that he would not write the insights they had given him down until he was more certain about what he wanted to claim, and he joked this to be (for now) his esoteric philosophy. The idea not to write on things before one can give more than just an opinion on them is close to my heart, so I could relate to his statement very well. It reminded me of the ten, fifteen years that I worked to say something well-founded on what I have called here anim(al)ism, a concept I am still exploring further. It is a broad term for relating with the world while recognizing ourselves to be among animals as among relatives, and even among other non-human souls, and to be able to communicate with them in other ways than the rationalist and empiricist epistemologies recognize.

I thought that I had come far in this respect. Until just yesterday, when I had an unexpected experience. I was with academic friends, the theologians with whom I have been sharing research on ethics over the past 15 or more years, in our research group on theological ethics. Being, I think, the only non-theologian by training in the group, I am always very careful not to claim anything ill-founded on religion, and because of that I try to stay very close to my personal discoveries in the field. One of the nice colleagues asked my views on ‘revelation’ – which made me quite uncertain. As a philosopher one tends to think of Heidegger and Husserl on hearing that word, but I was certain that he was hinting in another direction – and he was, more in the direction of Karl Barth. I could not position myself in the academic theological debate on the matter, but still wanted to answer him meaningfully. I tried to word very carefully how my intuitions on ‘anim(al)ism’, on shamanism, and my encounters with the different ‘Abrahamic’ and some Asian religions had formed my views, and how this all made me see the Christian idea of ‘revelation’. I confessed that I had thought about this for quite some time, and would love to write more extensively on it, but wouldn’t know how to ‘sell’ the plan – being an academic philosopher and not a theologian of Christianity.

Then, slowly, it dawned on me… there was some esoteric part in my own philosophical existence too… but I don’t like that. Speaking and writing have a different format, and academic writing has quite a few demands which sometimes forces one to let some part of one’s thinking remain ‘esoteric’ for now. The aim is to study, however, just as long as necessary to be able to write one’s insights down properly, in a discussion with the relevant and knowledgeable authors. So much still to be done!

 

I have never called myself a Marxist. Or a Spinozist. Marx and Spinoza are to me just thinkers, who added important new viewpoints to our understanding of our human selves and our human world. In their attempt to create a coherent philosophical explanation of the world, they created as many (philosophical and actual) problems. Confessing to the thought of one of them would mean to think those problems are not there, or can be overcome, which I do not. I have sometimes made an exception to my habit of not confessing to the work of any thinker as work that I could almost always in some way agree with. Sometimes I call myself a Derridian – to me that is less problematic, as Derrida never aimed to create a coherent philosophical explanation of the world, but just wrote endless commentaries to deconstruct any claim to universal truth. So being a Derridian is actually inconsistent in itself, and therefore less problematic to one who thinks, like me, that there is no such thing as a consistent philosophical view. Consistency is not nonsense, of course, but it is just a norm, indicating what we should strive for, like politeness, or maturity – no more.

Still, some months ago, when some colleagues were having drinks at a conference, continuing our learned conversations in a more easy tone, someone said that I lived in an Eco-Marxist bubble. Although I was rather surprised, I found it very funny, and immediately after my friend had crafted this expression, I knew I would be using it for my blog. The more so as it was used to describe the mindset of my internet personality, who was supposed to see the world through the filter of this epistemic shelter. Although it was said jokingly, I could understand that it was still meant to contain some real description of me. And I also immediately understood that it related to the subjects I tweet about on twitter. Indeed they often include articles that criticize how mining and deforestation threaten the lifeworld of indigenous peoples – the eco-part. As well as articles that criticize social problems created by neoliberal capitalism (the Marxist part). Still, I never was a Marxist, and I never adhered to any ecology movement or ideology.

Why, then, do I tweet about these subjects? And how do they relate to what I think about and write about here? My friend forgot one aspect, which is not so ubiquitously present on my twitter timeline, but that is because there is less interesting news about it – that is the aspect of the spiritual, especially in its more anim(al)istic manifestations. This forgotten aspect explains a lot about my interests and concerns, though, also those of a more ‘socialist’ and ‘ecologist’ character. It clarifies what motivates the other tweets. Let me first make it clear though that I am neither a spiritualist, a new ager, or a romantic traditionalist. I just take the approach to ourselves and our world that is often called animistic, and which I would rather call anim(al)istic, very serious. And I don’t do that because I fell for some new Latourian fashion. I have from a young age known this approach to make sense.

I would never argue that we should take more care of the planet because we would otherwise destroy it, or because otherwise the future of humankind would be at risk. We should take care of the world we live in, because taking care in itself is meaningful and makes life better. There is just nothing attractive or meaningful in using up everything around us and transforming it into waste. It hollows out our life, and that of the other creatures around us. I would also never argue that wealth should be distributed more evenly for the sake of making an end to the reign of capital, or to create a classless society. I would not know what that would mean, nor if it would help us. I do think however that amassing wealth on one side, and creating poverty on the other, should never be a goal of one’s actions, as that makes – again – no sense. It is ugly. Destroying nature and giving the economy complete free reign makes for a very ugly world. So is my position an aesthetic one, then? Again, no. I do not value beauty in itself. It is just one of the things to enjoy, like tastefulness, warmth, or bodily movement.

The point is, my hunch is, that, first, a human life can be best enjoyed when one knows one’s limits – having enough to not constantly think about food or money, and not so much that it creates its own worries. That ‘enough’ is not exactly the same for everyone is okay by me. My hunch is, secondly, that in conditions of ‘enough’ one can most easily search those experiences that create real joy, and those are of the relationship kind. Enjoying the shadow of the tree, the whispering of the grass, the flowering of the weeds, even the torture of the wind on a stormy day. Enjoying the kindness of animals, and among these, the kindness of our fellow-humans. Also their otherness, that challenges our own being. Their mystery that makes us wonder. That seems to be a good life for most of us.

It is generally called animistic to value grasses, winds, and other things as things with which one can enter into a relationship. Yet we do so all the time. Not just with natural things, but also with those of our own creation. We miss ‘the old house’, we grieve a thing that has been broken, we get frustrated at an instrument that doesn’t work. As I said, I take that approach very seriously, as it makes me understand a lot of our behavior. So why add the ‘al’ – creating the word anim(al)istic? To remind us that we are animal, and that the other animal is our relative, and that we can best learn from our close relatives how to be animal in a better way. We humans constantly wander astray from our animality, which is strange, to say the least, as it is the beginning and the end of all human life.

 

I like it when new and unread books are standing on my desk, waiting for me to read them. In my student days in the eighties of the last century, when course programs where published in a booklet in the summer, I used to get the new prescribed half meter of books as soon as possible and put them there in front of me – creating the excitement of anticipation for the next year of study. Nowadays my years of teaching have no end, they are like a circle that begins again when it reaches its fulfillment. Studying has become an even greater joy as it is my reward when course administration, grading, actual standing for the classroom leaves any spare time. Among those new books have been, for some time, the titles by two Eduardo’s: Eduardo Viveiros de Castro’s Cannibal Metaphysics, and Eduardo Kohn’s How Forest’s think. Preparing my next conference paper, the time to read them has come (and I have to make haste to get my presentation ready in time!) Although very different in style and argumentation, both books show in unison that much creative philosophy is done outside philosophy departments. Here we have anthropologists who delve into the works of philosophers to question the ontological presuppositions that stand in the way when they try to understand how their research subjects, ‘non-Western’ peoples, understand the world and interact with it.

While still reading the introduction of Kohn’s book I got a pleasant surprise – that it will be the old pragmatist Charles Sanders Peirce (1839-1914) who will provide for Kohn the groundwork for understanding how forests, and animals, all living creatures for that matter, think. Kohn announces that he will draw on ‘the “weird” Peirce [that is on] those aspects of Peirce’s writing that we anthropologists find hard to digest – those parts that reach beyond the human to situate representation in the workings and logics of a broader nonhuman universe out of which we humans come.’ This made me happy as it again brought me back to an important period in my years of study: following the courses of one of our most excellent teachers – Gabriel Nuchelmans (1922-1996), who taught philosophy of language and analytic philosophy. All very broadly understood. Nuchelmans wrote sturdy and thorough books on philosophical problems, and specialized articles that were just as thorough, all of which will only be familiar still to those who specialize in the history and philosophy of logic. As a teacher he just passed on some of his wide readings in whatever interested him. One year he passed on his knowledge of pragmatism – and although at first I did not know how to fit this in with my mostly ‘continental’ interests, over the years my notes of this course would be the only ones that I always kept – which in retrospect can be seen as a predicting sign of my later return to the material.

For years it was mostly William James that interested me, first his Varieties of Religious Experience, and later his Pluralistic Universe. Works that I still consider to challenge standing frameworks of thought and to be indispensable if one tries to begin to build a critical ontology of the spiritual. In the article by Eugene Taylor which serves as an introduction to the centenarian edition of the Varieties, I read about the influence of Swedenborgian thought on James, but also on Peirce, as both longtime friends participated in the circle of James’s father, and in experiments that aimed at understanding spiritual communication. I only knew Peirce as having contributed to logic and philosophy of science/epistemology, so this came a bit as a surprise to me. But now I find that Peirce’s ability to think beyond philosophical modernism, seeing relation and signification  as the basis of thought rather than immediate intuition and mental clarity (which one can call the unfounded dogma’s of modernist thought) – forms the inspiration for those that are creatively moving beyond modernism by different paths, as Kohn does while trying to understand the world as understood by the peoples of the Amazon.

When I will be reading along, I will not only follow Kohn’s path of a semiotics of the forest, but I will also remember the mysterious smile of professor Nuchelmans when he spoke about Peirce’s weird categories of ‘firstness, secondness and thirdness’. And also how this old-fashioned professor lifted his hat for female students, calling them ‘mevrouw’ (mrs) – and then again how he left his comfort zone of the history of logic when he felt the need to criticize Heideggerianism. Then his face gained more color, and his voice betrayed suppressed excitement – and one felt the echoes of the struggle against the irrationalities that had swept over Europe only fourty years ago. Nowadays Nuchelmans’ suspicions of Heidegger have been vindicated by the publication of Heidegger’s explicitly racist notebooks. But that is perhaps not the most important thing in which Nuchelmans’ teaching put up signposts. More important was how his own work showed that digging into abstract stuff like logic, grammar, and structures of thought did not have to lead away from real world issues. As goes for the work of the ‘weird’ Peirce – which invites us to think the human in relation to the non-human in a thorough philosophical manner – work that is very relevant in these days, when it becomes more and more visible that the human, all too human issues that have led modern civilization, are destroying the possibilities to lead enjoyable lives for so many. Let’s try to read the signs of other ‘living ones’, and forests are not the least among them.

It is almost two years ago that I started this blog, and I started, with deliberate intent, with Feuerbach. Referring to his Philosophy of the Future, I articulated my conviction that philosophy should come out of the ivory tower and concern itself with the global problems that face us humans and our fellow earthlings. Mentioning the common prejudice about Feuerbach of writing religion off in a simplistic manner, I suggested to come back to that topic some other time. Now is that time. And there are two reasons for it. One is the confusion, around the world, on so-called ‘islamic’ terrorism. The wars for self-rule of certain islamic groups are mistaken by many as a direct expression of their religion, which in its turn is understood in an essentialist manner. The other reason is that we discussed, recently, in our Africana philosophy reading group, Faith of our Fathers, by Mumia Abu Jamal. In this book, the writer researches the history of spiritual life of those who were taken as slaves from Africa to the Americas and their descendants. In so doing he takes a Feuerbachian approach to religion – seeing it as something constructed by humans to give expression to their desires in an idealized and transcendentalized way.

Feuerbach critiqued Christian religion as it was prominent in his day from a humanist and a socialist perspective. This we see when he wrote in lecture XXX of his Lectures on the Essence of Religion: ‘Christians call it blasphemous or inhuman to deny the existence of a hereafter and so deprive the unfortunate, the wretched of this earth, of their one consolation, the hope of a better world to come. Herein, they still believe, lies the moral significance of the hereafter, its unity with the divine; for without a hereafter there would be no retribution, no justice, no reparation in heaven for the misery of those who suffer on earth, or at least of those who suffer through no fault of their own.’ The hope for a better life after this one for the poor and the oppressed is a false lead in the eyes of Feuerbach, for it detours the belief in the possibility of a good life here and now, which is what people actually desire. Not riches and luxury, but just the necessities to live a human life, necessities which are withheld from many. In such a situation, where religion detracts the poor from their normal desires, Feuerbach sees ‘atheism [as] positive and affirmative; it gives back to nature and mankind the dignity of which theism has despoiled them; it restores life to nature and mankind, which theism had drained of their best powers.’

In the work of Abu Jamal, we see a different outcome, however, of a similar critique of religion. He describes how the slaves of African descent in the Americas, who were forced or enticed to convert to Christianity, saw it as inauthentic. To them it was the religion of their cruel white owners, who used it as a means to subdue them not only corporally and emotionally, but also spiritually. Still, Abu Jamal describes, those who did convert, made their own variety of it, as well as they rediscovered/invented their own versions of islam. Characteristic of these new, African-American religions is that they intimately connect the concepts of spiritual release and this-worldly freedom. Religious speech of freedom and salvation in heaven for the slave was just a means to cover up and justify cruelty. So the new religions of the slaves and their descendants combine worship with engagement for change towards a more just society. This goes also for small initiatives like the ‘natural’ religion of John Africa, which combines a love for nature with a rejection of industrial capitalism. Just one citation of this little known prophet: ‘You see, air is the necessity of God, but pollution is the accessory of civilization ’cause industry is an excess of life.’

When Abu Jamal writes that ‘no religious system exists in a vacuum [as it is] by its very nature, a carrier of culture’ we are reminded of the ideas of Feuerbach. And also in his words that ‘spiritual projections of what is seen as the greatest conceivable good become culturally crystallized as heaven, while most horrific visions find expressions as Hell’. Still there is a – slight, but significant – difference. Feuerbach was convinced that established religion would – in modern times – better be replaced by a humanistic and engaged philosophy. So that the human race could come of age and take responsibility for its own desires and their projections. Abu Jamal, who wrote his book in the isolation of his prison cell sees religions as cultural creations, but as creations that answer to the injustices of the world. He would not want to know better than the ‘poor’, who create and invent these religions, but recognizes the many different expressions the longing for deepest notions of the good must take – these expressions are ways of taking responsibility.

Now I have to return to my point about ‘islamic’ terrorism – and will show how the above analyses can help to fight confusion. The quotation marks not only aim to signify that terrorism that claims to be religious shows inauthenticity – like the false Christianity of the slave masters. They also indicate that we should not understand ‘islam’ as an unambiguous signifier. There are many (greatly differing) islamic traditions, like there are many versions of Christianity, Buddhism, etcetera. According to our writers, religions are not only cultural carriers, and therefore adapted to different localities and ethnicities – they are also creations and projections of human beings trying to express their desire for the highest good. It doesn’t make sense to debunk them as ‘unenlightened’ projections. It helps to see them as elements in the struggle of human beings to express their longing for a real freedom and a real good life. As difficult as it is to create, together, a world with that kind of freedom and goodness, one can as well maintain that the object of our longing is transcendent, promised by the One who is beyond our world. This should not mean that human beings should honestly maintain that the realization of that object can be postponed to the beyond. It should still be done here and now. Making war can not be part of the effort, therefore, for destroying happiness and peace in actual lives is creating parts of hell here and now.

IMG_2105I just say things, sometimes. Things that just come to my mind. It is out of a kind of playfulness. Playing with thoughts, observations and words. It is something we did at home when I was little. I mean we, the kids. Sometimes it was irritating, over the top and not nice to one of us or to someone else. When it made us laugh, it didn’t always feel like having fun. Often the laughter covered up tensions in the tribe we were, seven kids. But whatever it was, the art never left me. The art to come up with strange observations. And I must confess that I’ve hurt others saying witty and clever things that were not nice, and I only realised afterward. That is the down side of it. The up side is for me however that it helps to think. To gain some new and surprising insight. From my own words (they, themselves are not the result of thinking, they just bubble up from somewhere). Or from the reaction they provoke in others.

Like the other day, when I watched the cat sitting like cats can with her paws folded inwardly towards her own chest. I said to my loved one: ‘the cat is also praying for us’. You see? A remark like that is not the result of reflection, it is just a strange thought being formed into words. I was completely baffled about his reaction, though. He said, completely serious: ‘yes, in my country (which is in West Africa) it is said that only human beings can skip their prayers and live. Animals can not skip one day – or they will die. They always have to pray.’ What had I expected? Just a compliant smile about my silly observation, perhaps. Or, nicer, a really friendly reaction because of my kind intention towards the cat. But not being taken serious – and more having my observation being fitted in a foreign frame of thought about animals and religion.

The only slightly comparable view of animals I know of is Thomas Aquinas’ remark that whereas human beings have to choose the good, in order to do God’s will, animals are created with an innate propensity to do what they are meant to do. The good in the creation sence, that is. Thomas distinguished between for levels or aspects of ‘law’  – and law meant for him not a fortuitous rule but the telos of things: what is meant to be. There is the eternal law, the ‘ideas in God’s Mind’ – say things as they are meant to be on the cosmic and eternal scale. There is natural law, which is the order of creation – how things should behave in time and space. Then there is the human law, which is the closest one can come to being accidental, as it is how things should be according to human morality. But that is neither completely accidental, as it is reigned by practical reason. But human morality is plural, Thomas is clear about that. It is contingent, one might say with that beautiful philosophical word. Factual. Not eternal. The fourth aspect or level of law is divine law as it has been revealed to mankind. It gives humans a better way to direct their lives than just practical reason, as it teaches us not only how things should be in a moral sense, but also spiritually. It leads us, quasi circular, to what we can know (not by reason, but through revelation) of eternal law.

For animals things are not complicated as that, in the eyes of Thomas. They do not have to struggle theologically, philosophically and ethically through so many levels, which perhaps conflict and complicate things amongst each other. For them all levels are conflated: they just do what was meant for them to do. God has blessed them by withholding them the curse of free will. The viewpoint I just learned, that stems from one of the many West-African traditions (or perhaps from the Arabic heritage that was brought in with islamic religion) was only similar to Thomas’s, though, in the sense that it distinguishes the human and the non human animals primarily by their relation to the Creator and not by their level of consciousness or their intelligence. There is a great difference, though, too. The praying animal is not that blessed as the Thomist animal. It does not have moral freedom perhaps (the freedom to choose evil over good), like humans have. But it has a certain kind of spiritual freedom. Humans can always turn away from God and repent again, it seems – until they come to their natural death. That is not real freedom, it is being treated like children.

The non-human animal on the contrary is taken more seriously, spiritually. It can choose to turn away from God, but only at its own mortal peril. Which make animals seem to be more serious pillars of all there is. Without them praying the fabric of the world would start to crumble. So in that frame of thought, I was right to utter the words: ‘the cat also prays for us.’ I didn’t know what I meant when I said it, but somehow I was dead-serious too. Then, how does it come that writing about such metaphysical stuff always makes me want to giggle? Is it just the remainder of the practices of my youth to surprise each other and make ourselves laugh? Or is it because it becomes clear that the most serious stuff of philosophy, the stuff about God and Creation, and How Things Are Meant to Be can only be approached by becoming a child in some sense of that expression – by just playing with funny and crazy thoughts and words, because practicising rational argumentation without the slightest fun can never come that far?