My longing for truth was one single prayer. –Edith Stein
In response to the simple but essential question, how do you know what sources to trust?, the easiest and best answer is: trust your gut. In the beginning, of course, one has to get a feel for sniffing out snakes and fakes–people who have “run out of holy spirit” and so “speak in mechanical tongues,” as Adorno put it; those whose motives are corrupted in whatever way, who spread bloated truths or spinelessly pontificate, or who belabor and bore with numberless stalls and equivocations. But, by trusting, one is soon led away from all the drones and boosters. Soon one finds only those spirited souls who do not want anything for themselves–who basically don’t need to appear, and if they must only lend weight to human-generic potentiality, letting an impersonal light shine through. Beyond that, trust those who are trusted by those you trust–look up the steady influences and loves, draw the useful comparisons, follow the trails and mark out new ones, connect all the dots only you could spot. Do not trust councils and authorities or too much established doxa, but complete humans–especially those who had a taste for solitude, for they will be honest about the real difficulties. Incapable of mishandling any inquisitive eye, they will quicken vision to the point of the actively-creative truth, revealing their generative impulse to the aspirant, which is surely the hope of every genuine soul.
More interesting than learning correct knowledge is discovering what creative things can be done with knowledge. I value reference to tradition, but not as highly as innovation. I lay the most importance upon works that have a high “testament” quality: when one can tell that a soul has unceasingly poured itself out into its work, in abandon and in care, even if this means confusion and contradiction all along the way. To testify to an ordeal is better than to give answers, especially when it comes to the “spiritual.” Thus I view with equal credibility Simone Weil, who drove her religion to the physical extreme, and Antonin Artaud, who did the same with his atheism and rejection of God. Both understood the need to upturn the normal modes of thought and action in man, and that philosophy, religion, mythology, theater, and prayer had to be used in novel ways to achieve this end and to spur this development. When it comes to the soul–not objective theories about what the soul “is,” its place in the cosmos, its relation to God, or anything that would adequate it through knowledge, but to our soul, the monument at stake in all our psyche–both offer indispensible testimonies. It is worthwhile to engage and deem credible all the colors of this spectrum, from Merton to Cioran, Wei Wu Wei to Tzara. Regardless of where one ends up, one is strengthened by this exposure and better understands one’s own doubts, as well as all the openings for novel rumination.
There is a form of engagement that goes beyond close reading, attentive examination, and the tireless suspension of certainty that is required to touch the body of any other thinker. What exceeds and fulfills this is a more complicated, incohate form: experimenting-with. To experiment-with is to let one’s mind and habits be fundamentally altered, if only for a time, by another thinker and their worries, to adopt not only their terms and concepts, but also their outlook and temperment, and thus to befriend them, to share a form-of-life and a common world of concern. But even the word “experiment” is inadequate here, for it could imply a controlled set-up with known parameters and variables, a mere test that could run its course and end back at a neutral state, with only some conclusions or “findings” deduced. Whereas here there is no return to origin. Setting aside any objective or critical distance, you must let the other leave direct some traces in your life-world, your moves and your memory, by entering or even mimicing their ordeal as best you can, of course in the compass of your own constraints and freedoms.
To become a credible witness, to verify the source as credible, to discern sources that are credible–those sources that alone can lead you to yours–one must follow. To follow is, “to give oneself up to the same trial, to the same derangement,” as Bataille says regarding his quest for community with Nietzsche. If it is Lacan you are reading, you will know you are being trained as an analyst; if it is Kierkegaard, you will be sure your training is in Christianity; if it is Laruelle, you will be sure you are becoming a non-philosopher. There is no other way to pursue a lived thought through to its consequences than to let it derail you, shift you, change not only your identity but your basic horizon. In this way you carry the other with you and everything they carried with them. Then your body remembers them and what they sought to transmit. Translating and transforming it, you absorb it in an unconscious, physical way. You are generated, yet another alterity. Of course, one must choose good companions along this journey, but it is not a matter of picking the perfect leader or the right system. This is an appretenticeship in a vocation without preexisting form–an adventure into a world never yet born. It is an imitation without original, a variation on a melody not yet played. It leads one closer to oneself, by leading astray. By following, one learns what it means for one to believe. Perhaps it even makes one worth following for a while: credible.
What Nietzsche says of the New Testament–that it is advisable to read it with gloves on–is therefore good advice regarding all texts, ancient or new. Never forget that even sacred texts were written and chosen in human, all-too-human ways, and nothing about their provenance or their arrangement is to be deemed heaven-sent. One look at the apocryphal Gospels of Philip or Thomas, which exceed the Synoptic account in profundity and intensity, will convince you of that. Like any group seeking worshippers, subscribers, and never wanting to empower solitary followers–a church seeks cohesion in doctrine and structure, thus reproducing a monotonous homogeneity in thought and practice. Because of the risk they pose to its foundations, it has to torch the heretics who give simpler and more elegant visions and explanations than it ever could. With these sorts of groups, which include anything from academia to revolutionary parties–for these too are ‘sources’ that aspire to credibility–it is good to maintain a cool distrust. Likewise with all big structures and mindsets that seek unification, for they inevitably clash with the instauration of the complete human. On the other hand, when it comes to basics, “unity” and agreement can often be found easily, without nit-picking overly and with the simple goal of upbuilding the general spirit. Usually in public that is all that is needed: to ally oneself with the causes worth following and lend them the support of one’s voice and reason. Obviously occasions affect the urgency of this support and its volume, but at bottom one must still trust one’s gut and not react out of compunction.
When it comes to one’s own yearnings and need for soul-satisfaction, it will forever be necessary to dig beyond the level accessible to committees and thinktanks. It will forever be necessary to make form. The good in the world calls for it, as Frost reminds us. Luckily, all of poetry, art, philosophy, and science is there to keep one busy, free of the mediocre and boring. What one can learn from the Bible and other mainstream sources must be supplemented with the strange outliers and exceptions, which is where their truth is to be found; they must be complexified to match one’s own endeavor in the making of form, without worrying if this straying might be perceived as a transgressive, sacreligious, or disrespectful. Rather, one must learn to trust these secret interpretations that, in a way, remain secret even to oneself. It is enough to not be ungracious in listening, and to follow the trail.
What is a credible source? Although it will surely transmit a well-founded knowledge, it is important to situate that knowledge within the context of its emergence. I have tried to argue that knowledge is inseparable from its testamentary value, and this substantially so. To put it another way, the production of knowledge must be a pleasure for the soul–a creative labor of love. Thereby it retains the traces of its ordeal, though this does not make it “subjective” or expressive of an enclosed identity. Rather, it bears the mark of a solitary passage, of an exposed experience traversing the limits of the possible. Beyond all the ends to which knowledge can be put, in the last analysis it must at least also attest to the faith that makes it supportable, that sustains it through unknowns and pivots, that haunts its bearer even beyond their tolerance of abandonment, and destines them to a truth and a movement that could never once be called their “own.”
Faith and understanding are of heterogeneous orders. While action should be informed by what is known, there is always a leap that goes beyond knowledge and entrusts our fate to the unknown. It leads us to follow our lead, to believe in a destination that does not yet exist. This of course leaves us on guard with ourselves, since we can never be sure we’re headed in the right direction; moreover, there isn’t one until we’re traveling it, and perhaps the best direction is one defined by permanent reroute. Still, it is undeniable that a sense of “being-carried” is often there. I believe this is called grace–lightness in distress, clarity in confusion, bestowal at the impasse. Here, one is possessed rather than possessing, had rather than having. One is pushed, seduced, seized into new being. Recall how Paul confessed, “I do not yet consider myself to have taken hold of it,” that is, of the very thing that has already so strongly taken hold of him, “But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead…” (Phil 3:13).
What can be credited–what can be followed–always surprises freshly. It changes with each act of creativity that follows from the last. Even the slightest achievement in making form, “must stroke faith the right way,” Frost also tells us. But we have to be very resolute participants in this quest, impervious to a great many distractions, including all the bumpers that would redirect us back to the central track. Often we fail in perseverance and lack the requisite gravitas, the temerity of the prodigous. But we can trust that we can begin again anywhere, that our faith in the instant of renewed creation is never blocked off from us; that we begin open to it, or are already opening on to it, wherever we might begin.