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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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.

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.

I am the great and terrible Oz!

Image result for world without mindIn his book World Without Mind: The Existential Threat of Big Tech, Franklin Foer examines the impact and dangers of technology giants such as Google, Facebook, and Amazon. Many of his warnings should be of interest to us as Christians, parents, and consumers.

Of particular concern are the god-like goals that many of these organizations pursue. One of these is exhaustive knowledge of their users through the amassing of data. On the basis of a user’s likes Facebook can predict their “race, sexual orientation, relationship status, and drug use” (76). Knowledge, as they say, is power. And this knowledge is amassed specifically to manipulate the users. Foer records how Facebook has used its power to control people’s newsfeeds in order to run tests on human emotions. One team member admits, “Anyone on the team could run a test. They’re always trying to alter people’s behavior” (75). He explains how Amazon and Netflix use recommendations in exactly opposite ways: Amazon steers buyers toward the most frequently bought products because volume means profit for them while Netflix recommends less well-known movies which cost the service less to stream.

Foer concludes: “Facebook would never put it this way, but algorithms are meant to erode free will, to relieve humans of the burden of choosing, to nudge them in the right direction. Algorithms fuel a sense of omnipotence, the condescending belief that our behavior can be altered, without our even being aware of the hand guiding us, in a superior direction” (77). Foer even envisions a scenario where Facebook uses geographic and demographic information to selectively influence users to vote, thus deeply impacting an election.

These revelations give me pause on both practical and intellectual levels. Practically, as Christians we should strive to be aware of the forces that are at work upon us. We are enjoined to be ruled by the Spirit of Christ, not by external forces nudging us toward their vision of human flourishing. We do not operate with wholly libertarian free will. Google, Amazon, Netflix and the like are deeply invested in manipulating our decisions and doing so in a way that preserves the illusion of free will. On an intellectual level I find it ironic that the very atheist/agnostic folk that reject as invasive and immoral the idea of an all-knowing, all-powerful God mysteriously meddling in human affairs, have no problem exerting their growing knowledge to mysteriously meddle in human affairs.

The background for all of this is still the ancient account of humanity’s fateful reach beyond itself for divine knowledge. “But the serpent said to the woman, ‘You shall not surely die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.’” (Gen. 3:4-5). We need to keep our eyes open to see the forces shaping us, our children, and our world. They are not ultimately out for our good, only their own.

Idolatrous Word

Early in Royal Priesthood: A Theology of Ordained Ministry, T. F. Torrance addresses the tight link between the cultic role of the priest and the word of God. The divinely ordained priestly tasks were not efficacious in themselves but rather witness to God’s promise to be faithful to the covenant and gracious in forgiveness.

All priestly action within the place of meeting was by way of acknowledgment and witness to God’s testimony of himself in the Covenant. God is not acted upon by means of a priestly sacrifice. Priestly action rests upon God’s Self-revelation in His Word and answers as cultic sign and action to the thing signified (3).

However, Israel tended not only to pursue gods more in keeping with their desires but also to detach their God-given liturgical actions from the word and action of God. Torrance explains this as a “temptation to escape from direct meeting or encounter with the living God” in and through the liturgical practices. The effect is that the liturgical acts themselves become idols. Rather than signifying the gracious, covenant-keeping actions of God, they become humanity’s idolatrous acts of self-righteousness. Torrance again explains this as an effort to avoid an encounter with the divine: “The more the liturgical forms are turned into idols, the less men are disturbed by a speaking God” (5). That the sacrificial act be a repeated declaration of the Covenant God’s Word that He forgives freely though He has the right to judge is too close to the terrifying thunder and lightning of Sinai. And so the sacrificial system is domesticated by becoming human actions appeasing a distant deity.

One might be tempted to draw parallels to the view of the sacraments in some sectors of the church, and may by justified in doing so. But an equally valid parallel may be drawn to the relationship to Scripture in more Word-centric sectors of Christianity. Scripture can be centralized, analyzed, and doctrinalized and yet in such a way that it ceases to be a conduit for hearing the voice of God.

As Psalm 29 attests, when God speaks, things happen. Cedars break, fire flashes forth, forests are stripped, the wilderness shakes. And yet, in the very churches that claim to have a high view of Scripture, the Word of God rarely speaks, nor is expected to. Like a dumb idol, it says and does exactly what we expect it to. Perhaps we are equally fearful of an encounter with the Speaking God.

Faux Po-mo

One of the supposed effects of post-modernity was the deconstruction of all sure foundations for thought, un-writing of all “metanarratives.”  All interpretation and reason is theory-laden; all stances are contextual. Acknowledging this was supposed to lead to epistemic humility and that, to tolerance. To a certain extent it has.

But a casual glance at the rhetoric of most public political and moral debate reveals that apparently most people didn’t get the memo on the provisionality of their conclusions. As the following quote from Alasdair MacIntyre captures, there is no shortage of certainty in these uncertain times.

“For the modern radical is as confident in the moral expression of his stances and consequently in the assertive uses of the rhetoric of morality as any conservative has ever been. Whatever else he denounces in our culture he is certain that it still possesses the moral resources which he requires in order to denounce it. Everything else may be, in his eyes, in disorder; but the language of morality is in order, just as it is.”

Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue, 4.

But…Swine flew

25990935-_uy200_In The Actuality of Atonement, Colin Gunton thoughtfully considers the role of metaphor in human thought and theology in particular before examining three specific biblical metaphors for atonement: the battlefield and the demons, justification, and sacrifice.

In his discussion of the victory theme he takes on the issue of the ontological status of the demonic. He concludes that talk of demons as personal forces is too mythical a take on the matter. Rather they are vivid ways of talking about social and moral forces at work in the world. He defends that far from being the result of ignorant myth-making, this sort of language is the best and perhaps only way to talk about forces that can only be described indirectly. He concludes: “The texts present us not with superhuman hypostases trotting about the world, but with the metaphorical characterisation of moral and cosmic realities which would otherwise defy expression” (66, emphasis original.)

I appreciate Gunton’s work here and there’s part of me that wants to buy in. After all, belief in the spirit realm is not easy to sustain in the modern context. And, being a bit of a ‘belief minimalist’ I don’t want to believe anything that I don’t have to believe. So if I could be convinced of such a position I might be tempted.

However, I wonder if Gunton’s presentation really does justice to the permeation of the spiritual forces theme throughout Scripture. This aspect of the ancient worldview is not merely retained as a light residue in a few Gospel stories and exhuberant statements in epistles. The thread of a spirit realm with its own narrative that intersects with the earthly story is shot through the biblical story.

Furthermore, it’s not clear to me how these apersonal, “moral and cosmic realities” are understood to have the effects that they do. I understand, I suppose, how one might explain sickness as a result of certain “moral and cosmic realities”, but the gospels show a clear awareness of a difference between sickness and demonic activity, though the categories can overlap.

Put another way, “moral and cosmic realities” might be able to explain the existence of swine flu, but I fail to see how they can explain why swine flew.