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In Conversation with the Rev. Dr. Joseph G. Holt Sr.:  Love, Unfolding Reality & Obnoxious Know-It-Alls

In Conversation with the Rev. Dr. Joseph G. Holt Sr.: Love, Unfolding Reality & Obnoxious Know-It-Alls

The part of the conversation included here between Berit Jane and her father is only a fraction of what they covered on their phone call that day.  Or any day.  The two of them have been getting caught up in conversation since Joe initially started attempting to answer the crazy questions his little daughter kept coming up with.  The Rev. Dr. Joseph G. Holt Sr. (as he is officially known) kept his little daughter challenged and intrigued by encouraging her to explore his library of philosophy and theology, never giving her the impression that anything was not yet accessible to her, but gently guiding her through such early favorites as Hegel, Kierkegaard, and Alan Watts.  He has never willingly let her win at chess.  And he still provides expert advice in Greek and Hebrew as can be seen in this conversation.  It is perhaps no surprise that Berit Jane considers herself carrying on in the family business of thinking-in-the-world.


JGH
What do plants have to say to us?  Plants don’t have an audible language, but they are telling things about themselves all the time—their leaves, their stems, whether they have light or not, whether they are healthy—you can see what a plant is saying to you. But, how do you know in terms of a relationship with a person?  What are they trying to say to you?  What is not coming across because they have not yet found the words to form what they want to tell you?   They might know what they would like to say but don’t say it because of the fear or anxiety or distrust that it won’t be accepted, or that their words would be used against them. 

There is always broader meaning behind a discourse, beyond two people that may or may not be communicated.  Building a relationship requires a gradual unfolding of broader meaning that is there in who this person is and who you are—an unfolding of the layers of the material in between, revealed by choice of words giving meaning to all that is there.

BSH
Where is love in that process of unfolding?  Is it in the unfolding, or rather, is it the actual movement of unfolding?  Does the unfolding make love possible or love make unfolding possible?

JGH
What helps me there is the Greek language. I can still remember when I learned this in Greek, it was one of those “Aha!” moments:  Greek has three different words for love; one love is eros—you know eroticism, another is phileo—brotherly love—our word Philadelphia comes from this, the city of brotherly love.  And then there’s agape—you know someone and accept them as they are with no conditions. 

It is hard to know where a relationship begins, if it begins in phileo or eros.  What is it that attracts us to another?  What catches our eye?  We initially relate physically to somebody.  We get to know another through our senses—what we see, hear, smell, touch and taste. Our bodies are designed so that certain things will attract us through our senses. This attraction will be different to everybody based on what their senses are trained to know.  As human beings we want to know that what we see in our world and our environment is what it is according to our interpretation. And then we chose how to form our interpretations when it comes to getting to know another person.  We see differences in others in relation to ourselves.  Now what makes that difference?  Who the person is, or what I perceive that person to be? What first attracts one to another may be some kind of physical sensation, or a preconceived bias, that creates a certain consciousness.  And what follows is that I want to relate to this person based on this built up consciousness.

BSH
Is it possible to love and accept all people no matter if you know them yet?

JGH
I don’t think you can. You learn things about another person—their body, characteristics, likes, dislikes, attitudes, goals…  and the more you get to know them and you let them get to know you, at a point agape begins to form, accepting all the warps without making them into someone you want them to be.  I think we have to grow into this experience.  Where do most relationships break up?  When one begins to do things, act a way that is unacceptable to the other and all efforts to change one or the other fail.  But in this instance, our basis hadn’t been love all along, it has been one of molding someone.

from Instagram collection of lighted walls, December 2016

from Instagram collection of lighted walls, December 2016

BSH
So here’s a question then—I struggle with different kinds of love because even as you are saying these things and I agree with them to an extent, but I think there’s a rift because agape functions without knowledge.  It has to right?  Because it an acceptance within no-matter-what.  So to build agape on knowledge or based on knowledge or accompanying the knowledge of a person, perhaps it is kind of like the fact that love at first sight isn’t proved until later, right?  Because agape would have a purer definition before knowing someone—it is only proved, so to speak, through knowing.

JGH
One way to understand this is to remember the story where Jesus had breakfast with disciples and he asks Peter, “Do you love me?”  Peter says “yes” and Jesus asks him two more times.  In English we don’t really understand the progress of the conversation.  When Jesus asks the first time he is saying “Do you accept me as I am?” he uses the term agape.  And the first time Peter says “yes” but he replies with phileo, “yes, I am your friend.”  See?  Jesus asked him one question but Peter answers differently based on his cultural experience because to go from being a friend to a lover is wholly different experience.  The third time Jesus asks if Peter even loves him as a brother (phileo), “Are you even my friend?”  What does that say about relationship?

A man asks a woman, “Do you love me?” and she replies “I think you are a nice guy, you have a nice butt, you take care of me…” whatever the reason, but is that love?  Do you know me?  Or am I just an echo?  An image?  This is confusing in human relationships.  It is about seeing beyond seeing, hearing beyond hearing.  Maybe it is true, agape is the tool for this, for getting to know another person.  Agape makes possible an openness to listen and learn about the other. If we are not open and accepting how can we grow to know the other and come to love in agape sense?  To see beyond what’s already there, to hear words and the meaning behind the words, behind what’s being said. 

BSH
How do we know we are doing this, and not merely participating in our larger cultural structure or bias, though? How do we know when we are not merely just making something up that we want to hear beyond the words spoken?

JGH
The larger culture, for the most part, shapes how we see and hear things to start out with and then what begins to happen is that the consciousness can begin to question it.  Am I seeing things correctly or is there a different way of seeing things?  There can be a sense there is something different than what you are being told.

BSH
There’s something I want to point out in sensing this difference.  I think is important because you’ve been saying that we don’t only know another person by their words or actions, but also smell and touch.  I guess my question is, okay, we have the notion that we can sense beyond, but how to we make sense of this sensing?

JGH
Good question, that’s always puzzled me.  When someone expresses life a different way than me or there is a person acting in a different way or organizing reality in a different way—I can ask myself:  is it me? or is it my mental or cultural process? or is it something beyond myself?  

In a moment of inspiration, is there something called divine inspiration outside of human experience?  There are different ways of seeing, knowing, lighting up reality, and this becomes the human problem.  Some people go to the extreme of not-seeing-it-not-believing-it.  This idea that anything I believe and that I can do, that then I am in charge of it, this is basically the agnostic argument.  The argument follows that unless there is a body of knowledge to prove it, I won’t believe it.  That all human experience and possibility of human life is always within the agnostic’s power to think or imagine—“I can eat the fruit.  Who needs god?  I can be my own god!  I know everything!”  The most obnoxious people in the world are the ones who know it all.

BSH
I never thought of agnosticism as being laden with so much hubris before. 

JGH
Yeah.

BSH
Because, in a way, we are also skirting around a possible conception of faith, no?  Faith in love, faith in other people, trust—but maybe I’m confusing terms…

an image that did not make into final design of 99 Problems to be told to a plant & The Excavation of Its Future Memory

an image that did not make into final design of 99 Problems to be told to a plant & The Excavation of Its Future Memory

JGH
But is faith a reasonable experience?  Or is faith an experience beyond reason?

BSH
I always think it’s kind of funny, that when something doesn’t quite fit within a defined set of parameters, because “reason” has quite distinct parameters, right?  But when something doesn’t fit because it somehow goes beyond the limits of reason or is larger than what reason allows, it is immediately suspect and dangerous.  Even though we made the parameters to begin with.

JGH
The person who needs proof to believe in god will never believe in god because you can’t come to an awareness of something beyond yourself based on something within yourself.  How can you believe if you say you want me to believe?  To put faith in god you have to prove it to me although there is something within human reason that will lead to faith.  But if the reality of god or higher power is beyond human reason, than you can’t come to faith through reason.  It has to be in another way.  I’m not sure what that way is, but you don’t build up to it by accumulating a knowledge.  An agnostic can never come to faith based on knowledge.  The gnostics tried that, a form of Christianity that demonstrated the reality of god through human wisdom and knowledge

BSH
How did they do that?

JGH
They attempted to prove the logic of the nature of god was human wisdom through a priori, something beyond the first to create the first.  These are fine philosophical arguments on the existence of god, but they are still built on the creating god in your own image.  God is who you say god is based on your understanding.

Then there is Buddhism.  It is not that Buddha said there was no god.  What Buddha said is god is beyond the whole idea of god.  The reality of god is beyond the ability to conceive it.  So why spend religious effort trying to understand what you can’t understand instead of doing something you can do?  For Buddha that was relieving human suffering, the eight-fold pathway for dealing with human suffering.

BSH
But the way of a path, so often we don’t necessarily get that confirmation of moving through understanding.  We just expect that if we aim for something we can achieve it without all the little failures and successes along the way.  Do you feel there are stages to understanding in a grander sense?  I guess this leads to my wondering about if knowledge is accumulated or if it something else.  If it grows the way we consider maturity to be growth, right?

JGH
I think it is an unfolding of reality.  We open ourselves up in our sense to learn, to know, to explore.  We reach out touching and tasting trying to understand life.  What am I supposed to be doing?  What is my relationship to people?  It is always an unfolding, we never come to a finishing point, to the “Aha! I’m done!”  Mysteries of life are beyond us and as we come to know more, we come to understand. 

Remember that conversation you and I had about Borges? About the library?  You go to a library and you have all of those books, all of those books have been written, they are already there.  Whenever we write a book we aren’t writing to encapsulate the world—these are the grandiose games of philosophers throughout time.  But I don’t think that is our purpose.  Our knowledge is what frames our life.  If we keep opening ourselves up to an unfolding of a greater reality that connects us, and if we accept it for what it is, then this connects us to one another.  If we close our minds in dogmatic conservatism, then there is nothing else but this idea that we’ll do it this one way and this limited way will be what defines us and our relations.

The human body it a good example.  Let’s say I am a foot trying to figure out my purpose.  I see a brain and want to be a brain, but I can’t—I am a foot. My awareness of being a foot and all the connections of carrying the body and having the nerve endings, it is all connected.  And the more I see who I am, the more I see who I am connected to—the greater whole.  The body has a far larger function than merely what feet do.  I’m also connected to all these parts and people and together we can do something.  Not everybody is a foot.

Life unfolds into greater patterns that merely encompass our tiny selves.  For me, it is divine providence that creates us to live in communities, to live with one another and the ever unfolding building of human community. And being related to this greater pattern is to be stewards of what we have and working together to make it extend towards something greater beyond us. 

The world is far greater than me.

from Instagram collection of lighted walls, December 2016

from Instagram collection of lighted walls, December 2016

In Conversation with Jeremy Fernando:  Kittler, Telos, & Love

In Conversation with Jeremy Fernando: Kittler, Telos, & Love

In Conversation with Toni Hildebrandt: Postcards, Conversations & Other Blind Sports

In Conversation with Toni Hildebrandt: Postcards, Conversations & Other Blind Sports