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November 15, 1987
'I DO NOT BELIEVE IN GHOSTS'
By DAVID L. MILLER; David L. Miller, the Watson-Ledden Professor of Religion at Syracuse University, is the author of ''The New Polytheism'' and ''Three Faces of God.''
ANGELS FEAR Towards an Epistemology of the Sacred. By Gregory Bateson and Mary Catherine Bateson. 224 pp. New York: Macmillan Publishing Company. $18.95.
KENNETH BURKE once said, ''A person has the right to worship God according to his or her own metaphor.'' Gregory Bateson's metaphor came to be ''metaphor'' itself, as his anthropology crept, like Yeats's rough beast, toward a new vision of religion. This is made interestingly plain by Mary Catherine Bateson's intelligent and loving editing of her famous father's last manuscript (he died in 1980), ''Angels Fear.''
At the end of his life, Bateson believed that ''we are not going to get far unless we acknowledge that the whole of science and technology . . . springs out of and impinges on religion.'' The way was prepared for this view in ''Mind and Nature,'' in which Bateson affirmed a holistic unity among human mental processes and culture and biology. He described there how this connection is only comprehensible metaphorically, particularly in metaphors which are familiar from religion.
For Bateson, ''it becomes evident that metaphor is not just pretty poetry, it is not either good or bad logic, but is in fact the logic upon which the biological world has been built, the main characteristic and organizing glue of this world of mental process.'' Indeed, metaphor is the clue, the link to what others may find diverse and oppositional. ''Metaphor'' itself is thereby the metaphorical connection between science, cybernetics and epistemology, on the one hand (''this book is not much concerned with truths about things - only with truths about truths''), and, on the other hand, poetry, parable, anecdote, humor, play and myth (''it is time to reverse the trend which since Copernicus has been in the direction of debunking mythology''). As Mary Catherine Bateson properly remarks, her father's method is ''insight through analogy.'' ''Angels Fear'' is an essay in discovery, an uncovering of ''the natural history of the relations between ideas.''
This is all bound to bother those who feel that the work attempts to reinvent the wheel of being, that it is one more instance of science coming late to what philosophers and theologians have known all along. It is also bound to irritate those who deem amateur philosophizing and theologizing hopelessly unsophisticated. Such readers will think that the ideas of Wittgenstein, W. V. O. Quine and John Searle render this book epistemologically beside the point, that Nietzsche, Heidegger and Derrida make it look naive in literary terms and that it is theologically simplistic in the face of the work of Mircea Eliade, Paul Tillich and Bernard Lonergan.
Bateson anticipated those objections: ''The logic boys say they have new and better models.'' But the fact is that, by reading this work of the Batesons through such prisms as are provided by conventional academic wisdom, a reader may rush foolishly to conclusions that even angels would fear. For in fact, ''Angels Fear'' is not one more instance of the cultured despisers of religion experiencing evangelical rebirth.
Bateson is holistic, to be sure, but he is not literal about that; ''uniformity is surely one of those things that becomes toxic beyond a certain level,'' he says. He is against dualisms, but he is not using religion to fill the gap between mind and body, ideology and politics, subject and object, thinking and feeling. Rather, he names the connection between these opposites with a paradoxical image borrowed from C. G. Jung, who in turn took it from ancient Gnosticism - ''pleroma/creatura.'' Implied in this image is the idea that the fundamental connection is not between two substances, mind and matter. Rather, mind (or Bateson's ''god'') is the pattern and fabric, texture and weave (pleroma) in all matter (creatura).
Unlike the adherent of conventional piety (or conventional scientism, for that matter), Bateson affirms discontinuity and difference as an integral part of order in the world: ''This gap is inevitable and necessary.'' ''All knowledge has gaps.'' ''Gaps are a characteristic of Creatura.'' Bateson knows that his perspective is metaphorical and indirect. He speaks eloquently and compellingly in praise of secrecy and noncommunication, precisely on behalf of the goal of openness and connection, and he gives many examples - from Coleridge, Greek myth and cybernetics - of metaphor in everyday life. For Bateson, the ''angel'' (the Greek word originally meant ''messenger'') appears in the gap rather than in the certainty. He detests the literalism of current cultural pieties: ''I do not believe in spirits, gods, devas, fairies, leprechauns, nymphs, wood spirits, ghosts, poltergeists, or Santa Claus. (But to learn that there is no Santa Claus is perhaps the beginning of religion.)'' ''When the bagel is eaten, the hole does not remain to be reincarnated in a doughnut.'' In Bateson's religion, ''in the asking of questions, there will be no limit to our hubris; and . . . there shall always be humility in our acceptance of answers. In these two characteristics we shall be in sharp contrast with most of the religions of the world. They show little humility in their espousal of answers but great fear about what questions they will ask.''
BATESON lived in the gaps, betwixt and between. Not that he, or the book, idealizes the absurd. Mary Catherine Bateson has masterfully pulled together what must have been a hodgepodge of several years of reflections. As a connecting device, she engages her father in dialogue about the book and its ideas. The imaginary conversations are often constructed from notes of real ones, but just as often they are purely fictive. This strategy works. It aids the reader and is appropriate to the content of Bateson's argument.
Bateson's liminal stance is understood best when he speaks about the ''unacceptable solutions'' to the mind-body problem represented by supernaturalism and materialism: ''Very simply, let me say that I despise and fear both of these extremes of opinion and that I believe both extremes to be epistemologically naive, epistemologically wrong, and politically dangerous. They are also dangerous to something which we may loosely call mental health.'' So he takes as his task ''to explore whether there is a sane and valid place for religion somewhere between these two nightmares of nonsense.'' Especially, he hopes that the metaphoric view may provide ''a new and badly needed humility.''
I believe there is a clue to this humility, and to this book, in the shifting title. Bateson began the writing in 1978. His daughter tells us that it was to be called ''Where Angels Fear to Tread,'' but that he often referred to it as ''Angels Fear.'' She retained the latter. This title appropriately, if subtly, calls up notions of angelic reticence and humility rather than an image of fools rushing into religion. But there is also a hint of a missing apostrophe in the title, like the one omitted in Joyce's ''Finnegans Wake.'' This opens the possibility that fears may be viewed as angelic. For in profound fears one may discover a response to the question the anthropologist shares with the Sphinx and the Psalmist: ''What is the human?'' Deep in such fears are the angels - ''deep unconscious philosophies,'' as Bateson calls them. ''The myths in which our lives are embedded . . . are built deeply into character, often below awareness, so that they are essentially religious, matters of faith.'' It would seem that Bateson knew both the humor and the truth in some wag's saying: ''A man's reach should exceed his grasp, or what's a 'meta' for?''