Sunday, June 13, 2010

Meditative Thinking as a Response to Technological Rationalism: George Grant’s Socially Concerned Christian Apologetic By Andrew Kaethler

Who is George Grant? He is often referred to as Canada’s most influential philosopher and social commentator. Numerous articles and books have been published by him and about him, there are even two such books in our limited LCC library. It is especially appropriate to look at Grant’s thought as this Spring there are a few books coming out on Grant to celebrate the twentieth anniversary since his death.

Why present a paper on meditative thinking and technological rationalism at a conference on Culture and Dialogue? The answer is simple: technology consumes us, controls us, and is us—technology is all around us; it is a paradigm of thought. As this is the case, dialogue and culture do not reside outside of it. The way I present, the way you formulate what I say, and the questions you may ask are shaped by the culture that you live in and the one overarching commonality among all the cultures is technology.

Due to the brevity of this presentation and the publication that follows I have had to change the direction of this paper limiting the theoretical while increasing the practical. Rather than unpacking the abstract that I submitted I will use the abstract as a springboard to look at the way that Grant engaged the great scholars of his time in order to perceive and critique the culture that surrounded him. And hopefully this will not only expose some of the problems of Christianity in cultural dialogue, but it will also provide an example for Christians within academia. The abstract as follows: George Grant insightfully put forth the notion that technology as a way of existing and thinking has become the dominant language of modernity. Turning to the formidable German philosophers Martin Heidegger and Friedrich Nietzsche, Grant exposes the dangers of this modern predicament. The homogenizing and systematizing effects of technology removes the ability to think deeply and destroys our autochthony (our indigenous place of identity. The place where we are grounded in our own particularity) leading to an existence void of particularity and, as Grant posits, transcendence and thus justice (Note that the use of justice is not in your copy). However, Grant cannot stay within the German existential camp because of his belief in that which transcends the particular, God and justice. Here Grant turns these two great thinkers back onto themselves arguing that both of them critique the technological paradigm but in doing so they succumb to it. With this maneuver Grant attempts to show that contemplation in the platonic Christian tradition is the only response to the destructive force of technology that may be able to redeem modern society without falling into the technological trap.

First, Grant, was concerned with broad questions of meaning, rather than detailed minute specialization. He wanted to be in dialogue with the public, not solely with those hiding in the ivory towers of academia and both of these groups have, on the whole, lost interest in traditional Christian apologetics (an area that many Christians are still stuck in). Such apologetics typically hide in the old bunker of modernity and take pot-shots at post modernity, but refuse to actually engage with post-modern thought and to learn from it. Rationalism, analytic philosophy and logical positivism only hold the interest of a relative few. Arguing propositionally for the existence of God hardly hits home with the existential needs of a society that no longer thinks in such a manner. In addition, Grant claims that such thought only reflects the objectifying and systematizing nature of technology, a paradigm that inevitably leads to the erasing of transcendence. Interestingly it was the postmodern thinkers that so many Christian academics were afraid of that led Grant to his insight concerning technology.

Second, as already alluded to Grant wrestled with the big questions by dialoguing with the current thinkers and using their language. Realising the insight of the thinkers so closely linked with post-modern thought Grant ran out to meet them with great interest. First, Grant devoured the works of Sartre and was mesmerized by his thoughts; however, in the early 1950’s he began to closely study Heidegger’s works and soon espoused that Heidegger was the greatest philosopher of the twentieth century. The profundity of Heidegger’s writings overshadowed Grant’s former interest in Sartre—later in life he claimed Sartre was a mere plagiarist of Heidegger. It was Heidegger that allowed Grant to understand the overarching power of technology and it was Heidegger that also reinforced the notion that transcendence was at stake.

Grant was concerned about the technological paradigm because of its affects on the world at large. The loss of transcendence would cause ripples that would do more than just shake the boat of religion. The systematizing and homogenizing affects of technology close one down from thinking. Here we hear the voice of Heidegger: Thoughtlessness springs from modern humanity’s constant ‘flight from thinking.’ The achievements of the modern world disclose this and reveal that calculation is the primary method of knowing rather than thinking. Heidegger states, “Calculation is the mark of all thinking that plans and investigates.”1 Calculation computes and is always racing from one prospect to another never taking the time to stop. It is always achieving and is highly pragmatic. Such thinking does not contemplate meaning in everything that is, as meditative thinking does.

Grant’s meditative approach is similar to Heidegger’s, but there is a major distinction with their differing uses of philosophy. Heidegger turns to philosophy to gain receptivity of the Being of being (what it means to be) to understand the meaning of how things appear to us. Grant believes that philosophy “deals with the wholeness of existence . . ..”2 In his lecture notes on political philosophy Grant posits, “To ask what technical civilization portends for good or ill is to ask a question of the whole. To ask any question about the human good is to ask a question about the whole.”3  For Grant there are intimations of the whole that can be understood if one is open to the Good/God (Note: Grant read Plato as a pre-Christian mystic and thus the Good and God are synonymous. Early on in his career Grant learned the hard way that God was not well received in the world of academic philosophy). What may be understood or perceived from the whole is supra- historical truth: truth that exists outside of the individual and outside of time. Heidegger does not purport that such intimations of ‘reality’ can be perceived, but rather all perception is within time—we are beings in time—and thus we learn from appearances because appearances are all we have. Heidegger is open to the otherness of appearances, that is, appearances that have yet to be determined, explained, and categorized. Grant shares Heidegger’s openness to the other, but their concept of the other differs. Heidegger rejected cold calculated reasoning so that he could be open to anything (meditative thinking); Grant rejected modern reasoning so that he could receive intimations of the Good/God.

At this point their paths diverge. Heidegger, like Nietzsche, who unfortunately I do not have time to deal with, were silent before the notion of justice. Heidegger’s absolute openness did not allow him to close down on justice. This is apparent for Grant as Heidegger unashamedly was involved in the Nazi regime during WWII. Justice for Grant must transcend us; it must be linked to the Good/God, otherwise, like Heidegger, one will be left silent in the face of justice.

Justice was something that Grant cared deeply about and he knew that few would see this as negative. Justice is the concept that Grant used to interest his readers. Who does not like justice? Who wants to praise the folly of injustice? Nobody! But technological rationalism is removing our ability to think about justice. Such thought cannot be racing from one prospect to another or be based upon achievement and pragmatic utility as justice would then become a matter of convenience. Technology is removing our ability to think about what is of primary import, justice. To think about justice is to contemplate the whole, to open one up to that which is beyond us, namely God. Here we see the third way in which we can learn from Grant. Grant found a note—justice—that rings true for everybody and this became the picture that he painted in juxtaposition to technology and to Heidegger who, according to Grant, slid into technology because of his view of historicism and freedom, which, as mentioned, left him silent before justice.

In summary, Grant reveals the need to grapple with the big questions. All too often we get bogged down in the details of theology or philosophy and become detached from the very questions that drove us in this direction in the first place. The big questions also keep us connected to the world outside of academia. Secondly, as Christian scholars we need to learn the language of the culture that we are part of, learn from it, and use it to critique itself; the language of modernity is little more than nonsense for those enmeshed in post modernity. Grant didn’t simply hide in the land of Plato and Christianity—his home, his base-camp--where he felt comfortable, rather he traveled into the land of Heidegger and Nietzsche. Thirdly, we need to find something that all people are invested in, for Grant this was justice. Perhaps we could add: ‘something which all people are emotionally invested in.’ Justice, the pivot point of Grant’s thought, existentially draws the reader in. Few people can talk about justice in a cold-hearted abstract manner. This leads into one more point: the heart and the head need to be connected. Grant did not want to separate the knower from knowing. Knowledge and learning must be holistic.

1  Martin Heidegger, “Memorial Address,” in Discourse on Thinking, trans. John M. Anderson and E. Hans Freund, (New York: Harper & Row, 1966), 46.

2  George Grant, “Philosophy,” in Collected Works of George Grant, ed. Arthur Davis (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2002), 2:10.

Grant, “Notebook M: Lecture on Political Philosophy and its Relation to the Tradition” (unpublished class notebook).

Originally presented at the Culture and Dialogue Conference on Interdisciplinary Research and the Future of Higher Education. April 11-12, 2008. LCC International University.

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