a thought about thinking

Modern thought patterns are marked by the attempt to understand everything in the simplest terms possible; which means, that if we are prone to any fallacy, it is that of reductionism. Recurrently we find this to be the case.

a conversation with Ralph Waldo Emerson :: on self-reliance

Someone I greatly love and respect recently sent me a copy of Emerson’s essay on “Self Reliance” as an expression of his basic instincts with regard to religion, power, and the study thereof. He asked for my thoughts on the matter—which is a rare enough event these days that I jumped at the opportunity. I thought I would share the comments more broadly. They come in two forms: 1.) Below is a summary of my basic feelings on the piece. 2.) By clicking here (On Self-Reliance), you can access a Word document that has my comments written in the margins of Emerson’s text. I would love to hear what others think of Emerson, or my take on his thought.
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The creed that Emerson is preaching seems to me to be the perfect religious expression of the Romantic wing of the Enlightenment. He is attempting to be very counter-cultural, and I have no doubt that in his day he was perceived by many people to be quite radical. But what he is offering, I will suggest, is not counter-cultural but is only the expression of the liberal half of the culture. His adamant non-conformity only represents conformity to a broader tradition than the traditions he saw at hand. To do that claim justice would require elaborating further on the history that I only briefly mentioned in one of the notes, but maybe I can offer a few points.

What is radical about what Emerson has to say?: That we should all decide for ourselves and guide ourselves? That authority cannot be trusted? That anything outside our own experience is liable to be the expression of someone else’s attempt to control us? Again, that is only the expression of an attempt to get “back to the sources” back to the very beginning, the very root of human existence, to see the very beginning and so to see human life in its pure form. With such a vision (we imagine) we could live rightly. The Enlightenment has been the sustained attempt to think or to experience ourselves back to our own beginnings. It is a fundamentally religious endeavor. And that is why persons within the Enlightenment tradition find themselves perpetually at odds with religion—and perpetually drawn to explain it. On that note, Kant tried to keep religion, but he had to divorce it from philosophy. Hegel tried to keep religion and philosophy together (because he knew they couldn’t be separated) and he ended up declaring himself to be God! Marx was wise enough to know that religion had to be one of the first things to go in his utopia because it offered a competing meaning for human life. To go even further back, Plato wanted to banish poets from the Republic—stories are not good for ideal citizens. The best theologians have always recognized Western philosophy as another religion. Modernity itself is a religion of sorts, or a whole host of little sects if you’d rather. Romanticists think that they’ll plumb the depths of truth by living with their hearts wide open to the world, because they understand human beings as primarily an experiencing creature. Many of them ended up in very, very dark frames of mind, wearing a lot of scars. Idealist and rationalists sought to establish human beginnings by putting themselves in contact with (supposedly) universal Reason.

Here’s a bit of Bonhoeffer: “Thinking pounds itself to pieces on the beginning. Because thinking wants to reach back to the beginning and yet never can want it, all thinking pounds itself to pieces, shatters against itself, breaks up into fragments, dissolves, in view of the beginning that it wants and cannot want…. Critical philosophy may proudly renounce what it lacks the power to attain or else lapse into a resignation that leads to its complete destruction; either alternative stems from the same human hatred of the unknown beginning.”

The other side of this dynamic, and to my mind an equally unhelpful one, is an insistence on traditions and institutions for their own sake. Emerson and folks like him often have people to argue with who are little more than their mirror image on the other side of the same cultural movement. One side pulls while the other pushes. I may sound like I’m taking that other position (honestly, if I had to choose I might lean to that side at the moment). I hope that I am not being blind in the importance I place on tradition. There is no point in space “out there” where we can stand and objectively evaluate traditions from outside them. But after all that I’ve said, I am grateful to the Enlightenment for the notion that we should think as objectively as we can about different traditions. A big part of my decision to stay in the Christian tradition has been the help I’ve gotten from others in recognizing modernity as a tradition unto itself—and one that equally deserves evaluation.

All that to say, when Emerson urges “self-reliance” as the key to living well as a human being, I can’t help but hear him echoing a lot of other figures, and I’m not yet convinced that the religious option modernity has on offer is the best one available.

That’s not to say that I don’t love philosophy, nor that I don’t see value in studying it. But it often comes with its own account of history, reason, and what it means to be human—and when those presumptions are examined, what is taken to be “foundational” is no less “superstitious” than what is rejected out of hand. That realization is driving a lot of post-modern philosophy, or hyper-modern if you’d rather, and philosophy is literally consuming itself. I’m getting off track.

My main gripe with Emerson, besides what lies above [in the marginal comments], is not that he isn’t looking hard for truth. I just wonder if he is looking in the right places. He argues that truth can best be found within one’s self – apart from tradition, apart from history, apart from authority, apart from the advice (imitation) of others. But what is left of the “self” that Emerson describes? I’m not sure that the self can be understood outside of all the relationships that Emerson wants to strip away. And derivative of that, I’m not sure that he’ll find truth there. I don’t necessarily expect Emerson to come to a final agreement with me, but I’m not sure about the wisdom of searching for the meaning of history outside history. Looking for spiritual truth in lofty heights of personal experience and inward navel-gazing means that one will always miss Jesus, born in a rough and simple manger, died on a rough and simple cross, who lives still in the rough and simple realities of the world, and even communicates through the rough and simple realities of human habits, customs, and traditions.

After Virtue:: a critique of modernity from the inside

Alasdair MacIntyre provides an exquisite account of the moral failings of modernity in After Virtue. His account is both exquisite and itself thoroughly modern. For what we find in After Virtue, is the brilliant commentary of one thinker standing back from the culture and providing an account of the whole. MacIntyre’s account of modernity’s moral self-destruction is thoroughly modern on account of the stance that he takes; for he stands at an uncommitted distance and offers the most objective account of our moral condition possible.

As valuable as MacIntyre’s account is, in the end it is hollow. This is not necessarily a bad thing. After Virtue is not an account of virtue itself, but an account of what is necessary for virtue to flourish. If an astute but morally perplexed individual came to After Virtue hoping to find moral guidance she would finally close MacIntyre’s book with a vastly clarified sense of the moral landscape around her, but she would also face a great choice. For MacIntyre’s book delivers its reader to the point at which she must identify with a particular tradition—chosen from the array of traditions (and pseudo-traditions) available. MacIntyre leaves readers at the front door of the moral supermarket, convinced that while a tradition is precisely what is needed, a tradition is precisely what MacIntyre’s account lacks. Apart from arguing for the unique coherence of a broadly Aristotelian understanding of ethics (and how many Aristotelians have you met lately?), MacIntyre’s account delimits the shape of tradition in general without ever mentioning tradition in particular.

To call the account hollow is not to argue that After Virtue is not worth reading. I mean to be descriptive, not dismissive. I would recommend MacIntyre’s lucid argument to any number of friends with the requisite basic grasp of philosophy. Rather it is only to say that MacIntyre’s account is not really complete until its reader identifies himself (and begins to work within) a tradition of the sort that MacIntyre describes broadly, but refrains from advocating specifically.

This sort of noncommittal pose is politically astute—it is precisely what catches modern ears and leaves them tingling. MacIntyre offers a stance from which to explain every other stance (and make sense of the incommensurable disagreements between them). The position at which MacIntyre leaves us is one that is tempting to occupy longer than would be healthy. Like Christ on the mountain, MacIntyre has shown us all the kingdoms of the earth—the temptation would be to rule them all from an uncommitted distance. Like the character of the “manager” he describes at length (74-78), MacIntyre really understands how ethics “works.” Unlike that manager, his understanding does not enable him to really “work” ethics until he joins himself to a community of like-minded folk inhabiting a living tradition—that is until he comes down off the mountain and takes up residency within one of the kingdoms below.

The “hollow”-ness of the account also explains the enthusiasm with which his account has been received by theologians, who already stand within a semblance of the tradition described. MacIntyre’s work can be read as a sort of ethical pre-apologetic, dropping people off on the sidewalk outside the church’s front door, where they can be invited inside. To read it as such is not at all to misuse the book. After Virtue can also be read as a framework within which to understand the ethics of a community whose lives are bound within the narrative tradition of the gospel, and Stanley Hauerwas, among others, has put MacIntyre’s thought to service in precisely this way. Here, the book is the impetus for a restoration of the church’s virtues and a fuller account of Christian life as a whole. Reading After Virtue, Hauerwas’ work came to mind with regularity; it is not too difficult to hear his voice echoing MacIntyre’s.

In the next week or so, I hope (no promises) to offer a few comments on MacIntyre’s account of action and its relationship to a few other philosophers…

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Alasdair MacIntyre. After Virtue, 2nd ed. (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1984).

theology and science :: “the rationality of modern times”

“There is one thing I would like to tell the theologians: something which they know and others should know. They hold the sole truth which goes deeper than the truth of science, on which the atomic age rests. They hold a knowledge of the nature of man that is more deeply rooted than the rationality of modern times. The moment always comes inevitably when our planning breaks down and we ask and will ask about this truth. The present bourgeois status of the Church is no proof that [people] are really asking about Christian truth. This truth will be convincing when it is lived.”

Carl Friedrich von Weizsacker quoted in Hans Kung’s On Being a Christian.

Perhaps the bourgeois status of the Church is breaking down. In some corners of the empire, it would seem to be so. It is precisely in these places where I have seen Christianity being most convincingly lived.

the awkward establishment :: merry… happy… whatever

Sitting in Starbucks and listening to Josh Groban croon hymns alternately to my Lord and to the arctic-dwelling sleigh-driving symbol of Mammon’s reign, I read the following with a smile:

‘[Christianity is] in the awkwardly intermediate stage of having once been culturally established but [is] not yet clearly disestablished.’ . . . To one degree or another, all of us are enthralled by a conception of the Christian religion as majority; and our North American fixation upon this imperial model of the church is the more entrenched and adhesive because our sort of establishment has not been one of form but of content—not de jure but de facto. Moreover, in many if not all situations within our context it is still possible to carry on ‘as if’—namely as if it were still Christendom. We are ‘not yet clearly dis-established.’ It is thus a particularly ‘awkward’ period in the history of Christianity in our experience as a (heretofore) mainly European civilization.

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Douglas John Hall “Ecclesia Crucis: The Disciple Community and the Future of the Church in North America,” in Theology and the Practice of Responsibility ed. W.W. Floyd Jr. and C. Marsh (Valley Forge, PA: Trinity Press International, 1994), 59-60; quoting Lindbeck, The Nature of Doctrine, 134.

the ‘makeshift and incoherent life’ of tinkerers

Over lunch (triple-decker peanut butter and jelly, to be precise), I ran across a paragraph that reminded me of an ongoing conversation with a good friend:  

“The central image the Wuthnow uses to describe twenty- and thirty- somethings, when it comes to life generally and religion specifically, is ‘tinkering.’ They are, he says, ‘a generation of tinkerers.’ These are a people who pragmatically piece together a jumble of disconnected and sometimes contradictory bits of belief and practice as they—supposedly autonomous individuals—see fit. Tinkering, Wuthnow argues, is a style or habit or strategy driven ultimately by the many economic and cultural uncertainties that characterize American society in recent decades. Tinkerers are resourceful and adaptable but also often live makeshift and less than fully coherent lives.” [1]

Tinkering already assumes the disjunction of trust and truth. Trust is an impossibility in the tinkering life because truth is always something that I (a tinkerer) possess or assemble myself, truth is always contained within my own experience, and therefore there is no room for trust. If trust becomes a truth, it is appropriated as a subjective feeling of dependence, rather than as submission or obedience. Tinkering is a way to remain self-contained, self-controlled, and self-directed. Like every Babel, it tends toward confusion and fragmentation—and leaves every tinkerer alone.

This is the spiritual expression of the American Dream, the entrepreneurial spirit, and the capitalist manifesto—work hard and don’t let anyone tell you what to choose. You can make it!

This deep in history, there seems to be something of the tinkerer in every theologian, but the best theologians self-consciously work within a tradition. Christian theology is born out of the depths of prayer, not out of a sense that it would be nice to have a habit of praying, or that praying might make me a deeper and more sensitive person. This means that Christian theology already presupposes trust as its resting point, the precarious stance from which the whole gospel is proclaimed.

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[1] Christian Smith, “An Unbooming Business: Review of After the Baby Boomers by Robert Wuthnow [Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007]” First Things, no. 179 (Jan 2008): 50.

moltmann :: bodies and death

“…ideas about ‘the self’ have undergone a remarkable transmigration. As long as the living character of the human being was seen in the inhaling and exhaling of air, the self was localized in the diaphragm. The person is alive in the rhythm of his breathing, and his life ends when ‘he breathes his last.’ Later on, people viewed the living character of the human being in his powerful emotions, in the trust of the heart and in ‘cordial’ love. So the centre of life was localized in the human heart. When the heart stops beating the person is dead. But then the human being came to be viewed as the suject of reason and will; and the self migrated once again, in the world of the imagination, and came to be lodged in the human brain, generally behind the eyes. Today ‘brain death’ counts as real symbol for the death of the human being.”

Moltmann, God in Creation trans. Margaret Kohl (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1993), 255.

words for the week :: my distractions

The New York Times had an op-ed piece by philosopher Slavoj Zizek on religion in China.

Perhaps we find China’s reincarnation laws so outrageous not because they are alien to our sensibility, but because they spill the secret of what we have done for so long: respectfully tolerating what we don’t take quite seriously, and trying to contain its political consequences through the law.

Dan is carrying out a terrifying thought experiment about Christian terrorism on behalf of the marginalized. He suggests that if violence is even permissable (much less obligatory)–a typical “just war” claim–then Christians would be obligated to take up arms against governments and multi-national corporations on a wide-spread basis. I, for one, am thankful that Dan is still committed to nonviolence.

a common word :: muslims, christians, and two commands of love

One hundred thirty eight Muslim leaders have sent a letter to the foremost Christian leaders of the world urging peace and reconciliation between the two faiths. Below is a summary of the letter, the longer version can be found here, or at the organization’s website.

In the Name of God, the Compassionate, the Merciful

A Common Word between Us and You
(Summary and Abridgement)

Muslims and Christians together make up well over half of the world’s population. Without peace and justice between these two religious communities, there can be no meaningful peace in the world. The future of the world depends on peace between Muslims and Christians.

The basis for this peace and understanding already exists. It is part of the very foundational principles of both faiths: love of the One God, and love of the neighbour. These principles are found over and over again in the sacred texts of Islam and Christianity. The Unity of God, the necessity of love for Him, and the necessity of love of the neighbour is thus the common ground between Islam and Christianity. The following are only a few examples:
Continue reading “a common word :: muslims, christians, and two commands of love”

words for the week :: evolution and reformation

Father Stephen wrote a challenging essay on what he calls the “myth” of reformation–including the poignant quip, “Semper Reformanda is not Scripture, it’s just modernism with a Latin motto.” He urges humility in our relationship to the church, and offers a reminder that we do not save the church, the church saves us. Plenty to think about, even if one would like to argue.

Avery Cardinal Dulles has an excellent article in First Things, available online, which gives a brief history of growing Roman Catholic openness toward Darwinian evolution, a typology of three coherent Christian positions on evolution, and a call for dogmatic anti-theists to interact with theologians better versed than the straw-man portrayals of faith that they lampoon.

ecology and consumption :: the “nimby” effect

Here is a list of ten places you will not see on the cover of any travel magazine for the next few…hundred years. For the second year running, the Blacksmith Institute has released a list of the most polluted places on the planet. Needless to say, there was an unfortunate amount of competition for the honor.

Factory in Azerbaijan

What is remarkable (but not necessarily surprising) is the concentration of sites on the map. North America (North of Mexico), Western Europe (West of Belarus), and Australia are scot free. None of the top ten, not even the top thirty most polluted sites are to be found in our backyards. What does this mean? Should we “developed folk” congratulate ourselves on the success of our environmental regulations and efforts at conservation? We’ve realized our errors and are cleaning up our messes. We are taking good care of the planet. Being stewards of what we’re given. Those backwards folks in the third world have yet to get on the ecological bandwagon.

I would not be too hasty with the laud. It rests on an answer (“Not In My Back Yard!”) too facile to function for long. Continue reading “ecology and consumption :: the “nimby” effect”

moral (in)formation

The obsession with information in our culture has left us with a situation in which we each choose our own elders and role models.

Previously, your parents, your extended family, or your community would pass lessons on to you about the meaning of life and the proper way to exist in the world. One went through years of an “apprenticeship” watching one’s parents interact with all sorts of people, work in the field or the pasture, distinct from the vocational institution.

These days, we throw kids in front of a television, give them a library card, and put them on the Internet. The flow of information is relentless, and formative. We learn as we grow, but there are so many voices. Out of the cacophony one voice strikes a particular chord, or one piece of advice is particularly poignant. And for the moment, that voice, that advice is our pole star. We may be utterly disconnected from its author, but if it rubs us the right way we take the information to be revelation, and we are prepared to live for the idea.

This leads to the situation where our cultural “wisdom” consists of the patchwork quilts each of us assemble from the endless flow of “good ideas” we come across.

On the one hand it is a relief to think that we haven’t lost the practice of mentorship and eldership altogether. We still pass on wisdom. It’s still important to learn how to live. On the other hand it is disturbing that the whole process is so disconnected – and so individually selective. We listen to the voices that we want to hear and shape our behavior accordingly. Nothing compromises our personal sovereignty. Truth is what I want to hear – what sounds good to me.