Tikkun Magazine, Winter 2011

Reconciling Outer and Inner Enlightenment

by Peter Dale Scott

For two decades now I have been writing both book-length poems about the human condition (Coming to Jakarta, Minding the Darkness) and book-length investigations into the deep politics of America's wars (The Road to 9/11, American War Machine). The poems have worried more about the health of our civilization, the prose more about American foreign policy.

But both activities have been converging as I explore the insight I voiced in an afterword to Minding the Darkness (2000), "that both outer and inner enlightenment (the current word is development) are damned, even murderous, if they do not honor each other." I think my writings most relevant to tikkun olam have been those, in both poetry and prose, seeking to reduce the tensions between these two strands of enlightenment.

Increasingly I see both communism and capitalism as twin offspring of the increasingly secular outer enlightenment of the eighteenth century. This has produced both radical progress and radical problems, along with Comte, Marx, Freud, and today's academic social sciences. This trend has lost sight of the truths of the eighteenth century right-lobe spiritual enlightenment, which eventually produced Blake, Hoelderlin, Kierkegaard, Rilke, and Eliot.

On a more practical level, we have seen U.S. foreign policy become more and more obsessed with the search for so-called full-spectrum dominance, with less and less attention to the human restraints we see defined in the Declaration of Independence. Western theologians like Niebuhr, accepting the immorality of global affairs, only accelerated this process. Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, we have China's revolution, both prodigiously productive and unable to deal with freedom, let alone the Falun Gong, Uighurs, or Tibet.

In my recent prose I have dwelt on the fact that so many important reform movements of the last century -- including Gandhi's independence movement, the Civil Rights Movement in the American South, and the Polish Solidarity movement -- have achieved their political goals by building coalitions that were spiritually energized. Utopian as it may sound, I believe that the hope for significant reform in the United States as a whole must also create a strong civil society in which the competing demands of faith and reason have somehow been reconciled.

My recent prose writing has expanded from purely secular critiques of America's militaristic domination syndrome, to a number of essays about spiritual guides like Thomas Merton and Czeslaw Milosz (not just a Nobel Prize poet but also, through his writings, one of the architects of the Polish Solidarity movement). Going back and forth between these two varieties of prose, I have become increasingly aware of how alienated I feel when writing about the Afghan drug traffic, and how spiritually nourished I feel when writing about Merton or about poetry. So I feel now at a cusp, expecting to write less and less secular political analysis, more and more about the spiritual dimensions of tikkun olam. But my special effort, as I said above, will be to work for the interaction of both.

Peter Dale Scott, a former Canadian diplomat and English professor at the University of California, Berkeley, is a poet, writer, and researcher.

Source Citation: Scott, Peter Dale. 2011. Reconciling Outer and Inner Enlightenment. Tikkun 26(1): online exclusive.


tags: Politics & Society, Spirituality, US Politics  
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