Stephen Larsen’s Introduction to “The Beauty and Nobility of Life”

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INTRODUCTION

by Stephen Larsen, PhD

B&N Cover 122This sweet little book could and should be read by everyone. Andrew Cort in his previous eight offerings has honed an elegantly simple style that is accessible to a high-school senior: but for the thoughtful and highly literate reader, the profundity of his thoughts and the reach of his intellect seize your interest, and intrigue you to follow his flow of thinking.

As the book moves from “what went wrong” to what can “come ‘round right,” we are led on a spiral dance that follows the sacred geometry laid out in the Renaissance Book of the Twenty Four Philosophers: “God is an intelligible sphere whose center is everywhere, and circumference is nowhere!” That is to say, Dr. Cort takes us on a clearly spiritual journey without excessive mention of the belabored term “God,” or any preachy rhetoric.

He starts out from a painful place that I have spent a number of years trying to limn for myself and for the literate public, eventuating in my 2007 book The Fundamentalist Mind. The book arose from my agony of the soul about how something as seemingly beautiful as religion can become one of the major divisive forces that incites violence, and tears the world apart. Dr. Cort mentions the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, who knew that we need to take religion seriously, but not literally. My long-term mentor and friend, Joseph Campbell, put it this way: “Half the people in the world think that the metaphors of their religious traditions…are facts…and we have others who classify themselves as atheists because they think religious metaphors are lies…. Which group really gets the message?” (from Thou Art That, also quoted by Cort.)

Andrew Cort is no stranger to rigorous thinking; he went from being a teacher of mathematics and physics, to a licensed healer (doctor of chiropractic), to a practicing attorney, and then, in later years. returning to chiropractic and being ordained as an interfaith minister, in which his main plea is for religious tolerance in our contentious world – but without a simplistic wooly-minded inclusiveness, thank you very much. We must learn to think, he exhorts us throughout the book, with the precision of Plato, like Kant and Schopenhauer, like the architects of the American Constitution, like Emerson, while still affirming “the beauty and nobility of life.”

To establish “where we went wrong,” Cort goes back to the urgrund, the underlying paradigm of Western culture, and its outcomes. It may have been in literalizing Democritus’ atoms and hurrying particles of matter everywhere, or Descartes, who insisted we are apart from nature as mere “beholders,” or Newton, who articulated very useful laws of mechanics that we use every day, but that don’t apply to dimensions beyond the human scale – the vast cosmology of astrophysics or the infinitesimal particles of quantum mechanics. Humanity changes the content of its thought, going from religion to post-Enlightenment science, but not the style of its thinking, in that modern scientism is just as dogmatic and “fundamentalist” as the religion that preceded it. Neither “popular science,” nor the view of the universe based on it, has gone much beyond 10th grade science, in which force and coercion are the dynamics, rather than subtlety, indeterminacy, “fields of effect,” and relativity, which are far better descriptions of “the way things really work”. (Nothing can pretend to be an ultimate description either of the way the universe works, or who or what God is for that matter, but why shouldn’t our closest approximations be based on our best and latest science?)

Dr. Cort shows us how our view of the universe affects everything we do, from the way we treat nature, to animals, to each other, to ourselves. A misreading of Genesis says we white Europeans must assert domination over nature, and even over “more primitive” peoples such as Africans or Native Americans, rather than accepting the peaceful responsibility of having dominion. (Conservative political commentator Ann Coulter outspokenly asserts that the Bible gave us permission to “dominate” the North American continent, all its resources, species, and indigenous inhabitants – which leads us as if caught in a terrible world-annihilating spell, step by step to the ecological disaster we now find ourselves in, as well as the genocides we have committed.) These paradigms are so fundamental that they easily lend themselves to a blithe and unconscious materialistic fundamentalism, out of which come excesses and harmful depredations on the ecosystem, our fellow creatures, and other people.

My own inescapable example of this is connected to my livelihood as a health professional, and it is a topic Cort also goes into, just as he does the educational and social fundamentalisms: that is to say, the application of the mechanistic paradigm to the human body and its nervous system. For my part, I deal with patients affected by traumatic brain injury (TBI) or post-traumatic-stress-disorder (PTSD), and a raft of other problems covered in the DSM-V: anxiety, depression, addictions. Although these people are clearly affected in their bodies and souls (the Greek word psyche means “soul”) they feel the medical paradigm treats them as “machines” or “bags of chemicals” to which prescription drugs should be added to rectify chemical imbalances. They are not related to as “thou” nor invited to participate as intelligent, living dynamical systems in their own “cure.”

Although this book does not shirk from the many problems that currently beset our species, there is nonetheless a palpable optimism throughout; as if somehow Andrew Cort believes that humanity can realize its own essential goodness – can come to that innate ethical knowing Plato calls the Nous – a faculty of innate and direct knowing of what is truly good and beautiful present in every human being. I am reminded of my friend Michael Schacker’s Global Awakening, in which, in spite of detailing everything wrong in our greedy, gullible, suicidal culture, he affirms that a new “organic shift” is not only possible, but an actual certainty, because our world has always been transformed by such collective metanoias – from the Sixth Century BCE, with Lao Tzu, the Buddha, and Zoroaster, through the time of Christ, the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, and that amazing period of our last century called “the sixties” when a whole new re-appreciation of the environment, original peoples such as the Native Americans, and vast panoramas of the mind opened by the consciousness revolution appeared.

I finish this brief introduction to Andrew Cort’s important new work with a poem by Rilke that seems to describe his developmental journey:

The Ancient Tower

I live my life in growing orbits,
that move out over the things of this world.
I do not know if I shall achieve the last,
but that will be my intent!
I am circling around God, around the Ancient Tower,
and still I do not know,
If I am a falcon, or a storm, or a great song!

***

Stephen Larsen, PhD, LMHC, is Professor Emeritus of Psychology at SUNY Ulster, board-certified in EEG biofeedback, and is the author of several books, including A Fire in the Mind: The Life of Joseph Campbell (the authorized biography, written together with his wife Robin), The Fundamentalist Mind, The Mythic Imagination, and The Neurofeedback Solution. Dr. Larsen is the founder and director of The Center for Symbolic Studies, as well as Stone Mountain Center (offering biofeedback, neurofeedback, and psychotherapy treatments). The Larsens live in New Paltz, NY.