The Ultimate Sexism: Gender Specific Metaphysics
by Dr. Robert D. Crane
Current events have raised the issue of sexism as part of a clash of civilizations. The issue is whether the oppression of women even to the extent of crimes against humanity, such as beheading one’s wife, results from Islam, from Muslim culture, from neither, or from both.
This is the tip of the iceberg or the top of the volcano. More fundamental is the current intellectual trend to counter the superficial male machismo by branding everything bad in life as male and everything good as essentially female or feminine. The two extremes, the male chauvinist and the feminist, are both sexist, but the feminist claim is more serious because it is paradigmatic, arguably false, and much more appealing to modern intellectuals, including Muslims.
Every paradigm arises out of some spark of truth and every paradigm has its limitations. This is especially true for the limitations of gender-based metaphysics.
The history of paradigmatic sexism originates not with Sigmund Freud, who produced a closed ideology of secular fundamentalism, but in the metaphysics of Jean Gebser and Richard Tarnas, who have captured the imagination of those Muslims who are trying to reconcile classical Islamic Sufi thought with the current rage of post-modernist heuristics.
Gebser was a German born 1905 in what is now the Polish city of Poznen. He was a mystic who traveled widely in India and the Far East. His master work, Ursprung und Gegenwart, translated into English as The Ever-Present Origin, advanced the thesis that the stress and conflicts in Europe between and during the two world wars were the symptoms of a structure of consciousness that was at the end of its effectiveness, and which heralded the birth of a new form of consciousness. He invented what is now known as “integral consciousness,” which has spawned a number of popular books, such as Modern/Postmodern: Off the Beaten Path of Antimodernism, by perhaps his most astute student, Eric Mark Kramer. Gebser speaks especially to the modern generation of environmentalists who fear the end of the world as we know it.
Richard Tarnas, born in 1950, is professor of philosophy and psychology at the California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco, and Founding Director of its Graduate Program in Philosophy, Cosmology, and Consciousness. For many years he worked at the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, California, studying with Joseph Campbell and Huston Smith, who are well known to Muslims. He served as Director of Programs and Education there and became widely famous in 1991 for his history of Western thought, entitled The Passion of the Western Mind. His latest work, Cosmos and Psyche, appeared in 2006.
These two intellectual giants sought to reconcile the opposites of traditionalism and progressiveness through a detailed understanding of the movement of collective consciousness. In other words, they were trying to coordinate and combine the transcendent with the immanent. Their most problematic innovation was to identify these two elements of reality, respectively, as female and male.
The question is whether these two explanations of ultimate reality can credibly be explained in terms of human sex, even if sex might be used merely as a metaphor.
The followers of these two philosophers no doubt are right that “Western” thought is ideologically restricted to the immanent, the readily observable here and now. This is distinct from practically all the thought of humankind for millions of years everywhere else, which has been fundamentally oriented toward the transcendent, namely, the metaphysics of the “spiritual” beyond but encompassing the laboratory test tube.
The difference between the two was brought home to me in 1967 when I visited the tribes or organic nations all along the periphery of China from Vietnam to Nepal during the Vietnam War to investigate for my boss, Richard Nixon, whether they had to be bombed in order to prevent them from going Communist. Their leaders all said that I was the first white man they had ever met with whom they could communicate, which I later realized must have resulted from my Cherokee background. I concluded that the human norm is transcendent and that the only odd-balls in the history of sentient beings on planet earth were the Europeans, whose secularist mindset did not emerge until as late as the classical Greek philosophers only 2,700 years ago.
Actually, I think that the origins of Western thought lie more in the Semitic religions than in Greece, because the Greeks viewed reality as cyclical, whereas the dogmatic monotheists, especially the anthropomorphic ones, considered that reality runs along a straight line to an end. Their descendents developed this further in the conviction that our task is to shape and manage the future, including even our own evolution, both biological and spiritual, toward this end.
Our question is whether it is legitimate to consider this immanentist mindset as male, and the transcendent mindset which focuses on the permanent things as female. Is it not sexist to say that reality is either male or female and that evolution will bring them together in de-Chardian higher reality? Is not the very thought that the male must reunite with the female for ultimate fulfillment a misleading metaphor based on a sexist perspective, even though at the non-metaphorical level we may be all for it.
Western intellectuals are thought to be intellectual because they deny the higher intellect in their rebellion against the metaphysical (what is beyond the observable or immanent), that is, against what Tarnas calls “the matrix” out of which they have emerged, against “undifferentiated unitary consciousness,” the “anima mundi,” “the community of being.” He calls Western thought “male” because it declares independence and even opposition to “the all-pervading,” to “mystery and ambiguity, imagination, emotion, instinct, body, nature, woman - of all that which the masculine has projectively identified as the ‘other’?”
What has the female got to do with this? Admittedly, Western culture until very recently has excelled in dominating, oppressing, and enslaving women, just as it has tried to do with all of the natural world, but why is this necessarily gender specific? Do we know that in matriarchal cultures women did not do the same thing to men? Power is power!
In Islamic thought, taqwa or awareness of tawhid and of the inner coherence and balance of Creation provides proof of a higher ultimate Being or Beyond Being, as well as a means to commune with Allah. Both are part of human nature or fitra and therefore have no gender distinction. Our modern problems may result in part from the fact that our sexist culture is self-reinforcing so that women accept their assigned role, which, in turn, validates and strengthens the superficial power of male sexism to legitimate this imbalance in every field of thought and action.
Tarnas and Gebser share the primordial wisdom of our species, which should teach us that civilization in its present stage is doomed. Tarnas writes, “The masculine heroic quest in its absolute isolation has appropriated to itself all conscious intelligence in the universe (man alone is a conscious intelligent being, the cosmos is blind and mechanistic, God is dead). Then man faces the existential crisis of being a solitary and mortal conscious ego thrown into an ultimately meaningless and unknowable universe. And he faces the psychological and biological crisis of living in a world that has come to be shaped in such a way that it precisely matches his world view, i.e., in a man-made environment that is increasingly mechanistic, atomized, soulless, and self-destructive.”
Tarnas’ weakest point is the assertion in his next sentence: “The crisis of modern man is an essentially masculine crisis” [emphasis in the original]. He writes, “I believe that its resolution is already now occurring in the tremendous emergence of the feminine in our culture, ... in the growing sense of unity with the planet and all forms of nature on it, in the increasing awareness of the ecological and growing reaction against political and corporate policies supporting the domination and exploitation of the environment, in the growing embrace of the human community, in the accelerating collapse of long-standing political and ideological barriers separating the world’s peoples, in the deepening recognition of the value and necessity of partnership, pluralism, and the interplay of many perspectives.”
This stands as a beautiful condemnation of everything that motivated and dominated the Bush Administration and the NeoCon ideology in America at the beginning of the present millennium. But why should we use the term “masculine” to describe the total perversion during the past eight years of all the ideals that gave rise to the traditionalist movement in the Scottish Enlightenment and to its hope-filled American incarnation in our Founding?
Indeed, the Qur’an says that every form of life is created in pairs and is designed to live in communities, which does suggest some natural polarities. No doubt women are created with a nurturing instinct appropriate for caring and conflict resolution, whereas men are created with an instinct to kill the saber-tooth tiger and bring home the meat, as well as to kill any members of a tribe that dares to intrude on one’s own hunting ground. It is all too clear that this “masculine” instinct no longer has any survival value and, in fact, if continued unchecked, could destroy all civilization if not all life on earth. For this reason alone, one would hope that the balance of instincts would make possible life in communities, including the community of our entire species and even of sentient life in other galaxies.
The true polarity that threatens our purpose here on earth (which Divine Revelation reveals is not a human invention) is between the concern for the here and now, namely, the immanent, and the permanent or spiritual, namely, the transcendent. This is even more fundamental than any physical and even psychological polarity, and is entirely independent of sex.
Tarnas concludes his essay with the quite profound insight that the polarity of the sexes in the Western mind “has been gradually leading, in an immensely long dialectical movement, toward a reconciliation with the lost feminine unity, toward a profound and many-leveled marriage of the masculine and the feminine, a triumphant and healing reunion ... now reaching its climactic stages.” He calls this our “stupendous Western project,” and explains, “Not only has this tradition achieved that fundamental differentiation and autonomy of the human which alone could allow the possibility of such a larger synthesis, it has also painstakingly prepared the way for its own self-transcendence, ... for each polarity requires the other for its fulfillment.”
He poses the rhetorical question, ” But why has the pervasive masculinity of the Western intellectual and spiritual tradition suddenly become so apparent to us today, while it remained so invisible to almost every previous generation? I believe this is occurring now only because, as Hegel suggested, a civilization cannot become conscious of itself, cannot recognize its own significance, until it is so mature that it is approaching its own death.”
The Gebser/Tarnas contribution to human thought has two culture-bound weaknesses. First, it buys into the Marxist concept of the thesis, synthesis, and antithesis, which itself is borne out of the lineal concept of existence whereby man inevitably is moving toward a grand utopia. This is the origin of all totalitarian ideologies and could be part of the death throes of modern civilization.
Second, to explain all of reality in terms of sex suggests a quintessentially modern framework of thought, and one that is itself caught up in the immanent and divorced from the transcendent. In effect, Tarnas is arguing in a paradigm that denies the very validity of what he really seems to be saying.
Tarnas and his followers would do well to drop their sexist metaphor of human dynamics and adopt the traditionalist framework of all the world religions, which posits a duality between the physical and the metaphysical in the human person (jizm or body, nafs or soul, and ruh or spirit) and then recombines them at a higher transcendent stage in an integral level of consciousness, whether one wants to call this heaven or nirvana, which are essentially the same, namely the ultimate in transcendence.
The concept of integral consciousness is sound but it is problematic whether the gender metaphor is the soundest way to express it. One can argue that gender fits the current popular culture in America, because in the popular mind gender has to do with sex, which is the most popular means of communication in the advertising industry. This use of gender terminology in metaphysics, that is, what is beyond laboratory physics, is new and may fit well into the new “human rights” movement in response to gender injustice. Nevertheless, it may also divert attention from the classical Islamic view of the nafs, whereby all human beings having emerged from a single genderless nafs at a level common with the angels but superior to them. Unlike the angels, we know through knowledge both deliberately acquired and infused.
The mechanisms of infusion may include: 1) indirect transmission from the ruh to the nafs to the human brain; 2) direct transmission through inspiration or ilham to an individual for one’s own enlightenment; 3) direct transmission to a prophet for a specific nation or for all of one’s own sentient species; and 4) transmission through a receptivity about which we know nothing or at least little, such as the worship of Allah by trees and stars, which is clearly taught in the Qur’an, wa najmu wa al shejaru yasujdan, and would be quite compatible with the concept of the “integral consciousness” at the highest level.
The perennial philosophy, the traditionalist sophia, and perhaps most metaphysics of the past couple of million years speak of the dichotomy between the rational and the intellect, whether or not one wants to use the Suhrawardian or even the Neo-Platonic concepts of emanationism to explain what the higher intellect is. The use of gender is a popular fad nowadays and may get the point of tawhid across better in our post-modernist culture than any other. Nevertheless, we should be careful to use it only as a metaphor, if at all, because otherwise one might mistake the analogy for the real thing.
The issue is partially about semantics as a branch of cognition. Native American religions and those of the more primordial teachings and peoples of the world, including Islam, which is my life-long specialty, have also used the symbolism of gender in expressing what they otherwise could not articulate, because understanding through symbolism is inherent in our human nature. We all use symbols, whether it is sign language, words, letters and characters, or statues and monuments, because symbolic thought and the free will to use it even against our own human nature, are the two characteristics that differentiate us from the angels.
Like the angels, however, humans can think without symbols, which is the highest form of comprehension and knowledge. We can rise above the symbolic, as some Muslim Sufis do by invoking the name of Allah, and some Russian Orthodox used to do in the Jesus Prayer, and the Tantrayana Buddhists in Tibet have always done. Lakum dinakum wa liya din.