Self-understanding: It’s a messy business

Early in his The Last Days of the Renaissance & The March to Modernity, Theodore K. Rabb discusses the dramatic impact of the decimation caused by the plague on social and economic structures in the centuries following. Further he suggests that the rise of the use of gunpowder caused significant shifts as well by eroding the socio-cultural codes of knightly valor while concentrating military power with those with sufficient financial means to make and maintain the artillery associated with gunpowder. It goes without saying that these changes impacted not only social structures but also the contexts in which people conceived of themselves as persons. That is to say, that these social and cultural events forced changes in self-perception, changes that unfolded over the ensuing centuries.

But Rabb’s indication of the devastation of the plague and the technology of war prompted thinking about how often our sense of ourselves and the world is changed by dramatic events rather that pure philosophical abstraction. Much is made of the anthropological impact of Rene Descartes’ reasoning to the foundation of the thinking self–“I think, therefore I am.” But many philosophical shifts have been born out of more traumatic events. A few examples came to mind:

  • In Evil and Modern Thought, Susan Nieman re-reads the history of philosophy as a coming to grips with the problem of evil out of the devastation of the Lisbon earthquake of 1755.
  • Louis Menand’s The Metaphysical Club addresses the impact of the American Civil war on the deeply influential philosophies of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., William James, and Charles Pierce.
  • Many have observed the impact of The Great War and to a lesser extent WWII on subsequent human thought and self-understanding.
  • Nieman and others have discussed the impact of the Holocaust on all philosophical thinking thereafter.
  • And we are understandably still exploring the impact on our self-understanding of the existence of weapons of mass destruction.

Other examples could likely be adduced. But these suffice to warn us against attempting to write the history of philosophy and especially the narrative of shifting notions of the human person as merely a progression of philosophical developments from Descartes to Locke to Rousseau or whatever. Rather than a peaceful, logical narrative, our shifting collective self-understanding is often moved forward by paroxysms of terror or violence.

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Back to School

In Psalm 27:11 the psalmist asks God, “Teach me your way, O LORD.” We may not often think of God as teacher, but it is a frequent them in the Psalms. Nearby Psalm 25:8 says that God instructs sinners in “the way” because He is “good and upright.” In Psalm 119, the psalm so focused on God’s word, God is repeatedly depicted as teacher, perhaps most directly in v. 68: “You are good and do good; teach me your statutes” (see also 12, 33, 66, 124, and 135).

While perhaps not common to us, this view of God is not surprising when one considers that the word “Torah”, the textual heart of Israel’s relationship with God, means “instruction” as well as “law.” We tend to regard the Torah as Law in a legal sense and therefore see God as Lawgiver and Judge. But the Hebrews saw the law as God’s divine gift of instruction for peaceful living (Deut. 4:7-8) and God as its ultimate teacher. The teaching of the Law held an important place in the life of Israel and was one of the key responsibilities of the Levites.

The view of God as teacher makes further sense when one considers the NT. One of the most frequent designations for Jesus in the Gospels is “Teacher.” This described what Jesus did—and he did a lot of teaching—but also defined his relationship to his followers. They were his students, his disciples. “It is enough for the disciple to be like his teacher” (Matt. 10:25). Not only was Jesus an authoritative teacher, one of the main roles that he indicated that the Holy Spirit would fill was that of teacher: “He will guide you into all truth” (John 16:13). Interestingly, Jesus warned his Disciples against vaunting themselves over others by calling themselves teachers (as the Pharisees did) precisely because there is only one True Teacher: “But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all brothers” (Matt. 23:8).

As God’s Word himself, Christ has much to teach us by his Spirit through the written word. God IS both Lawgiver and Judge, but it can be stifling to interact with him primarily in that way, especially in prayer. While the Psalmists certainly related to God in that way, they also presented present an alternative: Engaging with him as Teacher, his word as the instruction, and themselves as his students.

I believe the Psalmists invite us to share this perspective. We should pray with them, “O Lord, teach me your ways.” In fact, all the more so. For in Christ the curriculum has become more clear, and in the Spirit the Teacher more accessible.

Embracing Death, Transcending Death

In a 1973 Pulitzer Prize winning work of psychology, The Denial of Death, Ernest Becker argued that much human effort is spent grappling with the reality of death and attempting to overcome (deny) it. Becker traced this frustration to humanity’s duality: “Man is literally split in two: he has an awareness of his own splendid uniqueness in that he sticks out of nature with a towering majesty, and yet he goes back into the ground a few feet in order blindly and dumbly to rot and disappear forever” (26).

Much of the book is given to Søren Kierkegaard and Sigmund Freud’s differing analysis of this duality and its effects. Becker discusses the ways that humans push back against this fear of death—sexuality, relationships, heroic accomplishments, etc.—and chronicles the psychological effects of most people’s recognition of their failure to cheat death. Principally, he notes, we deny death by producing various shields to block or distract ourselves from really reckoning with it, often to damaging psychological and spiritual effect.

Kierkegaard concluded that the way through this impasse is to confront directly our dependence upon the Ultimate Power, and our fundamental inability to transcend death or make our lives eternally meaningful. Becker summarizes: “One goes through it all to arrive at faith, the faith that one’s very creatureliness has some meaning to a Creator; that despite one’s true insignificance, weakness, death, one’s existence has meaning in some ultimate sense because it exists within an eternal and infinite scheme of things brought about and maintained to some kind of design by some creative force” (90).

The psalmists’ model just such a response. Living lives far less buffered against the reality of death than we, they confront death directly. They speak of the “cords of death”, the pit, and Sheol. “What man can live and never see death? Who can deliver his soul from the power of Sheol?” (89:48). Their confrontation with death and the meaninglessness of life is raw and honest. Yet they do not confront death alone. Nearly as frequent are affirmations such as, “Bless the Lord, O my soul…who redeems your life from the pit” (103:4).

That said, the psalmists rarely seem to have a clear picture of how God will redeem them, nor how their lives will be made meaningful in the larger scope of God’s dealings. This confidence can be seen in the final verses of Psalm 102 where the psalmist both stands in awe of God’s utter vastness and unchangeability and yet also affirms “the children of your offspring shall dwell secure.”

“Full humanness,” Becker asserts, “means full fear and trembling, at least some of the waking day” (59), a daunting prospect no doubt. But denial, distraction, or defiance provide no way forward. Rather, we can be schooled by the psalmists in embodying a humble embrace of our frailty trusting our transcendence of death to God’s mysterious grace.

Feeling Badly

In a recent opinion piece in the Hedgehog Review (Spring 2018), James McWilliams ponders the significance of the recent removal of public monuments honoring Confederate heroes such as General Robert E. Lee. He worries that, for many people, endorsing the removal was a way support a popular cause without probing more deeply their own complicity in the legacy of slavery or contemporary racism. Atonement, he fears, came too cheaply.

Protests of such removals confirm that racism is alive in America, he maintains, and still tightly linked with the nation’s past. Rather than papering over that history by removing its memorials, McWilliams insists that today’s whites need to connect personally and emotionally with past and present racism by feeling shame. White shame over the racist past and present, he claims, is necessary for progress in justice. “Before justice and history merge on the landscape, they will first have to merge in our hearts. Without shame that cannot happen. Taking on shame is a process that will inevitably ask whites not only to feel that emotion, but also to live in it, and to harness it for the cause of righteousness” (16).

The author is surely correct that progress in racism and justice requires both rational and emotional engagement. If people don’t feel badly at some level about the existence of injustice, it is unlikely that they will be moved to remedy it. But in advocating shame he has misidentified the feeling that is needed.

First, shame is the wrong emotion because it cannot be easily conjured. No doubt many people foster racist attitudes. But most people find it difficult to link themselves with the extreme racist actions of the past even if they are knowingly direct descendants of slave owners. And while McWilliams’ own shame may be linked to his belief that he, by virtue of his whiteness, “benefits daily from the legacy of slavery,” that complicity is generally too opaque for most people to conjure shame from. At best one might be able to develop a general shame at human malignance.

Second, shame is the wrong feeling to foster because it is not productive. Contrary to McWilliams’ hopes, shame is not easy to “harness for the cause of righteousness.” Shame does not unify; it isolates. Shame does not motivate; it debilitates. One need only consider the shame of Adam and Eve in the garden to recognize shame’s limitations. Like them, faced with shame, we cover.

From a biblical perspective, a better emotional response is sorrow. Sorrow over one’s own sins blends naturally with sorrow over the sins of others, past and present, and sin’s effects. And sorrow unifies more than shame because we can share each other’s sadness. Lament is communal. Further, sorrow motivates better than shame. Whereas shame moves us inward, sorrow can move us outward toward others.

There is certainly room for shame in the story of slavery and racism. Each of us needs to work out the shameful prejudices that mark our interaction with others. But that shameful history will not be solved through the multiplication of shame. It should be met with shared sorrow and shared resolve.

Textual Tourism

Though most people think of him as a writer of children’s fantasy, for his familiar Chronicles of Narnia, C. S. Lewis’s true area of expertise was Medieval literature. In one of his studies on the topic, The Discarded Image: An Introduction to Medieval and Renaissance Literature, he makes some comments that are equally applicable to the study of the Bible. He mentions the reader’s tendency to consult expert literature only when the reading is forbiddingly hard. “But,” he warns, “there are treacherous passages which will not send us to the notes. They look easy and aren’t.” Part of the reason for this difficulty is the vast difference between the reader’s world and the world of Medieval literature, and by the same token, the world of the Bible. We all know about passages in literature or Scripture that are difficult because of the concepts or strange vocabulary that is used (Agh! High school Shakespeare!). When the vocabulary is familiar we can easily be lulled into thinking that we know what the writer is talking about. But medieval and biblical authors alike lived in very different worlds than we do and speak of common things—nature, souls, love—from perspectives very different than ours. We cannot merely read their writing through the lens of our world.

Lewis cleverly depicts the difference between readers that, recognizing the difference between worlds, seek to enter the world of the author, from those who take their world along with them in their reading: “There are, I know, those who prefer not to go beyond the impression, however, accidental, which an old work makes on a mind that brings to it a purely modern sensibility and modern conceptions; just as there are travellers who carry their resolute Englishry with them all over the Continent, mix only with other English tourists, enjoy all they see for its ‘quaintness’, and have no wish to realise what those ways of life, those churches, those vineyards, mean to the natives.”

Just as readers could take their “modern sensibility and modern conceptions” to the works of medieval which are the focus of Lewis’s book, so too readers of Scripture can come to it with their contemporary ideas. Rather than trying to enter the world of Scripture on its terms, marveling at the strange and at times incomprehensible features that we find there, we come to it with our ideas and expectations. The result is that we manage to find exactly what we expected to find in the literature. It is not Scripture and its authors that are speaking to us, but our own ideas.

There is no doubt that there can be some pleasure from reading literature this way. Lewis concludes of these readers, “They have their reward.” But when it comes to Scripture, we should wonder whether the reader, reading in this fashion, heedless of the world from which the text has come, has truly read the word the author has written. And if he has not really read the word that was written, will he really encounter the voice of God in that word? Let us not take our “resolute American Christianry” with us on our journeys on the Continent of Scripture. Let us enter that world eager to engage with its strange culture rather than settling for quaint postcards.