Journalism as sacred dialogue

Today marks my third year as a member of the Baha’i Faith. To commemorate, I would like to explore something which I hope might be a positive theoretical contribution to my religious community: exploring and engaging in journalism as a fundamentally religious endeavor which, in its highest expression, constitutes a sacred dialogue. To develop this, I first need to take some time to explore the ways in which journalism, often rightly recognized as a scientific-like activity, nonetheless has, as it were, a religious soul.

The spiritual principle of detachment dictates that one give and then let go, so what follows herein is something that I am attempting to work out in such a spirit. It is also as much good spirituality as it is good academic etiquette to give credit where credit’s due: the phrase, “journalism as a sacred dialogue”, actually comes from one of my professors, Bart Pattyn, in response to my blog post, “Transcendental Journalism?”, wherein I describe my original intuition. The notion of “journalism with the soul of religion” is also inspired by recent work, as-yet unreleased, of my friend Ben Schewel into the notion of “religion with the soul of science”.

So, to get to the point: my essential thesis is that the journalist is a breed of philosopher as described by Edmund Husserl. As such, he or she can be understood as engaging in an activity that is quite surprisingly spiritual, to the point that it might even be described as in some sense mystical.

By claiming that the journalist is a Husserlian philosopher I mean that the journalist is a phenomenologist. Alternatively, my claim here can be understood that all critical intellectuals are phenomenologists when they are engaged in the study of experience, a definition that encompasses many of the “erudite” professions, from anthropologists to artists. In my view, the journalist and the philosopher are among those who are the most routinely engaged in such a study.  Either way, the journalist and the philosopher are blood siblings, although it is hard to see this from outward appearances — ironically, we must be phenomenologists to understand the deep family resemblance between them.

Without intending to do injustice to the complexity of Husserl’s thought, as I understand him, a phenomenologist is a person who “takes a step back” (“epoché“) from experience by assuming the stance of a “transcendental subject” in order to examine and report upon the former. Husserl could just as well have been describing the journalist. Now, in my experience, many secular Western journalists would prefer terminology like “neutral observer” or “spectator”, but my Islamic colleagues would agree with a Husserlian description of their work. That is because in traditional Islamic thought, going back to al-Ghazzali (“occasionalism“), there really is no such thing as a “neutral observer”; rather, there is the divine subjectivity that holds everything together and that only appears as a neutral observer because it is the perspective that bedrocks all perspectives:

“No vision can grasp Him, but His grasp is over all vision. God is above all comprehension, yet is acquainted with all things” — Qur’an 6:103

I think it noteworthy that Husserl himself has described the “step back” with spiritual terminology: “resolved to understand the world out of the spirit”, “spiritual movement”, “religious conversion”, “fundamental transformation”, “ground experience”, “un-humanize”, and “meditation”. He probably means this in the Buddhistic sense of stilling the mind, but this terminology brings with it a contemplative connotation, namely, that the stance of spectator requires a stepping outside of one’s perspective so as to examine oneself and the world more surgically and meaningfully.

We may ask: “who” is the transcendental subject? Husserl probably has in mind the Cartesian cogito (“I think, therefore I am”), which isn’t necessarily either the “I” we individually associate with, opening the possibility that it is God. I don’t know whether Husserl himself intended this (and if one reads Descartes very closely, he’s actually quite fuzzy about the relationship between the cogito and the divine), but I think the Islamic tradition makes a good case that the transcendental subject is the divine, if not the divine essence, then that aspect of the divine which is the “grasp over all vision”.

What this means, then, is that the phenomenologist — and by extension, the journalist and the philosopher — has a hugely important element of the mystical in the Heschelian or Avempacean sense of them aspiring to unite with the transcendental and absolute, thereby achieving the divine perspective, a.k.a., “objectivity” and “neutrality”. Whether they are successful and how we could assess this is an entirely different matter; what interests me here is this fundamental religiosity at the core of journalistic and philosophical work (ironically, even if the specific journalist or philosopher is a staunch atheist and opponent of religion).

Herein lies the (rather Straussian) turmoil of the journalist and the philosopher, for the more one attempts to take the “God’s-eye-view” of things, the more one may risk alienation from human society. Thus, we come to the ethical problem that has beset critics throughout history: can one reconcile lower subjectivity (relativity) and higher subjectivity (objectivity, universality)? Or in laymen’s terms: can one be both a patriot and a critic? Socrates tried to be both, and for his efforts he was executed by the Athenian government, essentially for treason. Then again, perhaps drinking hemlock is proof that he was right to try:

“In My faith poison’s as a healing drink;
in My Path, fate’s wrath is a tender grace.
Cease claiming to love, or accept all this,
For thus was it ordained in My Law’s scroll.”

— Baha’u’llah, Qasídiy-i-Varqá’íyyih, lines 60-61

Moreover, one’s social context and historical era shapes the very language of description used. Baha’is often bring up this point in the context of religious history. We believe that all the great religions’ founders were preaching the same essential and eternal message. The apparent differences between the founders is due to the cultural conditions and conceptual vocabulary of their respective eras. Hence, as seeming an opposition as Krishna proclaiming the existence of an Atman (Ultimate Self) and the Buddha an An-Atman (No Ultimate Self) is in form and yes, also content, but not essence, since although positive and negative theologies present different ways of approaching the divine, it is the same divine ultimately.

The consequences of this for the phenomenologist is that there is no “stepping back” that is not necessarily construed via experiene, i.e., one cannot “be outside” without having at least one foot still “being in”. As phenomenologists, the journalist and the philosopher may strive to abstract themselves from their context, but they can only get so far. As the Baha’i Faith teaches, God is beyond all description:

“Thou didst describe a self and say it’s mine–
the gravest sin, for therein limits lay.
Thou didst desire a hopeless union…”

— ibid., lines 54-55.

So it must likewise be with the spectator of the journalist and the transcendental subject of the philosopher. Indeed, like the seeming disagreements between religions, the disagreements among journalists and philosophers can also be attributed to relativity (without endangering the ontological status of an eventual and ultimate absolute).

This paradox highlights that there are actually two sides to this religious conception of journalism (“religious” in the Ghazzalian-Heschelian-Avempacean sense), a negative and a positive, the deconstructive and the constructive. So, there is an ethical question at stake: why does the journalist “take a step back” to begin with? What is his or her motivation?

A journalist with dim or inarticulate self-knowledge runs the risk not only of sloppy content, but depending on their subject or location, risks reputations and lives. Beyond life and death, however, there are spiritual consequences, as well. Bahá’u’lláh has described newspapers as the mirror of the world (rather phenomenological, I think) and journalists as those “endowed with the power of utterance” – no small statement, since “utterance” is also God’s most supreme power in this world. Nothing less than eternity is at stake here.

The problem is that even a Husserlian conception of the journalist is insufficient, because it still emphasizes the negative: the journalist stands apart, reviews, deconstructs, attacks. Indeed, when we look at figures such as “gonzo journalist” Hunter S. Thompson, we see the call of the divine, when its negative aspects are not balanced with its positive aspects and vice versa, actually can lead the journalist away from the divine.

Criticism is certainly divine, but it is not the entirety of the divine, and at its most extreme, it can turn anarchist. One needn’t go as far as Thompson to see just how disfigured journalism has become in its drive to the critical: just look at mass media today, its extreme relativism, its celebration of controversy, etc. — if they believed in God, mass media would probably seek to tear Him down in the sincere belief that doing so would be the utmost act of worship. Another perspective: I remember talking with Julian Assange about this very point. In an e-mail conversation, I had quoted Baha’u’llah’s remarks about journalism to him, and he replied bluntly, “It’s hard to believe in God in this business”. I take him to mean that there is something acidic about journalism today: an excess of negative divinity.

What happened to the coffeehouse and the salon so lionized (and their disappearance so lamented) by Habermas? What happened to fruitful dialogue, constructive conversation, a common project and a common good? Retrieving the sacred dialogue seems of the utmost importance in Modernity. Indeed, if in previous eras the apparent disagreements between religions were taken tragically too literally (there can be, of course, real and important differences between theologies/paths to the divine, but if taken to mean that there are different divines, then believers have strayed into idolatry and war is not far behind), the parallel in our era are the clashes among journalists and philosophers.

I suspect the answer — or a hint toward the answer — lies not with Socrates, but surprisingly, with Euthyphro. Plato may have intended the character to be at least un-critical and slightly buffoonish, as Euthyphro’s name means “right-minded” or “sincere”, but I imagine many philosophers today see him as something more akin to a rigid fundamentalist not worthy of a second consideration. Another of my professors here at Leuven, William Desmond, however, has defended Euthyphro in terms of particularity, singularity, relativity (what I have called “lower subjectivity” in this reflection), versus the philosopher’s drive toward the critical and the universal:

“Perhaps Euthyphro has a truth on his side that must be approached with a little more respect? Perhaps there is something about singularity that can never be completely rendered in the universality of the concept? Perhaps this singularity also asks us to reformulate what a community of being is. I say a community of being, not a community of concepts, which is perhaps the limit for some philosophers. Our anxiety with the singular as singular seems from our inability to formulate it in a system of universal categories. We seem to be reduced to an inarticulate gesture towards its thisness. Our anxiety is that outside of a system of universal categories and their possible completeness we are always threatened by such an idiot inarticulacy.” — William Desmond, Perplexity and Ultimacy, p. 58

I think Desmond is correct, but there is also something else. In re-reading Plato’s dialogue, I am struck by Euthyphro’s argument that we are the ones who need God, not the other way around, before Socrates turns this argument on its head (the famous, “Do the Gods love something because it is pious or is it pious because the Gods love it?”) It is true that Euthyphro is certainly not an especially articulate individual, especially compared to Socrates, but as Desmond notes, articulacy is the problem. Moreover, I wonder whether Euthyphro was struggling to say something as equally profound to Socrates as the latter was trying to say to him, namely, that at some level, criticism must cease, or at least not proceed for its own sake:

Euth. I really do not know, Socrates, how to express what I mean. For somehow or other our arguments, on whatever ground we rest them, seem to turn round and walk away from us.

Soc. Your words, Euthyphro, are like the handiwork of my ancestor Daedalus; and if I were the sayer or propounder of them, you might say that my arguments walk away and will not remain fixed where they are placed because I am a descendant of his. But now, since these notions are your own, you must find some other gibe, for they certainly, as you yourself allow, show an inclination to be on the move.

Euth. Nay, Socrates, I shall still say that you are the Daedalus who sets arguments in motion; not I, certainly, but you make them move or go round, for they would never have stirred, as far as I am concerned.

Call it Aristotle’s first principles or Kant’s apex of reason, there is a limit. When one takes an historical view, it is clear this limit is constantly being tested, pushed, deepened, that the light of human insight casts further into the darkness, but the darkness also persists: light brings about more mysteries, indeed, very often just the same mysteries re-cast (as any spiritual reader of Kuhn’s theory of scientific paradigms will probably conclude).

How we can practically establish journalism as a sacred dialogue and cease our Habermasian laments  I do not know. However, the Baha’i community is trying to figure it out. There is a small group of Baha’i journalists and communication professionals, and apparently there is a big interest in these questions in the external affairs divisions of the World Centre, the Baha’i International Community (BIC), etc., all of whom are taking a scientific attitude to the question of patient hypothesis, trial, data, and revision. Perhaps, inshallah, I can find a way to contribute…


2 Replies to “Journalism as sacred dialogue”

  1. In my opinion, Journalism is neither religious or philosophical, it is the naked truth. It is a plain picture, it is the facts and nothing more. Journalism doesn’t embellish with poetry or mythology, and it doesn’t require faith, only verification of truth. Of course there will always be biased opinions parading as truth, and sensationalism will always be good for business, but the real journalists of the world are more akin to scientists, testing the facts of the story so far against all new information that comes to light.

    1. Yo Declan!

      I completely agree there’s a huge scientific aspect to what journalists do. My intention here wasn’t to underplay that but to bring to light what I think might be a whole other dimension. And remember, I also don’t think science and religion need necessarily be enemies, so for me it’s okay and even preferable if a journalist is both scientific and religious (which is not say that journalism is science and religion). In fact, I hope that the two aspects can positively reinforce each other.

      That reinforcement can happen several ways. One way is if we understand an ultimate principle (God, Heaven, Fate, etc.) demanding moral accountability through the light of knowledge; another would be to question power (as the Muslims say, “There is no other God but God…”, now translated into a secular principle that there is no final authority); and yet another is when the scientific reminds the religious of the necessity for skepticism, and when the religious reminds the scientific of the necessity for first principles — a dynamic tension, for sure.

      What I wanted to focus upon specifically in this post is yet another way the two could reinforce each other: to build something through knowledge, akin to the notion of science as a community of inquirers who work over the generations to build material civilization and to the notion of religion as a community of seekers who also work over the generations build spiritual civilization. But it would take a book to properly explore all the many different ways the two aspects can have partnership within the person of the journalist.

      There’s another aspect to what journalists do that I haven’t mentioned all, however, and that’s the literary or artistic. One way of looking at it is this way: both science and religion deal in universals (although of different breeds), but literature or art deals in particulars. So the journalist has the ability to make a universal (the fact) really important for an audience morally and personally. I’m, of course, talking about the REALLY damned good journalists now…


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