The Church’s Role In Suffering And Longing

In The Idolatry of God, Pete Rollins suggests that we have an insatiable longing, restlessness and uncertainty, all stemming from the emergence of the self in the infancy stage. The mistake the church makes is legitimizing the quest for the end of this restlessness, rather than seeing it as the womb of the Spirit. Rollins wants to articulate an understanding of salvation that takes place in the very place of our unknowing and dissatisfaction.

Frank Lake, a British psychiatrist writing in the 1960’s, expresses a similar notion:

The nature of the help God gives through His Church is to make what cannot be removed, creatively bearable. Paul’s thorn of weakness in the flesh remained. Resting in the power of God, he could glory in his infirmity. It is natural, and it is, I think, spiritually desirable, that we should at first strive and pray, as Paul did, to have our weakness and negativities removed. But the utmost of personal effort and of professional skill may disappoint our hopes in this direction. What then? There are no lectures in the medical course to inform the doctor of that paradoxical movement of the spirit which can turn decisively away from the evidently vain hope of a cure, to a courageous bearing, and more, to a creative using of the pain and loss that cannot be cured. There is a strength which is made perfect in weakness. Without the prior weakness this particular endowment of strength could never be experienced. Medical practice must extend itself to prevent the outward man from perishing. Pastoral practice, recognizing a certain inevitability of failure in this entirely laudable object, extends itself to ensure that the inward man is concurrently renewed from day to day.

The natural man in us tends to reject the paradox that mental pain and spiritual joy can exist together in us, without diminishing either the agony of the one or the glory of the other. The whole personality may be afflicted by a sense of weakness, emptiness, and pointlessness, without diminishing in the least our spiritual power and effectiveness. This is possible because Christ is alive to re-enact the mystery of his suffering and glory in us. So far as our own subjective feelings are concerned, any inner-directed questioning of our basic human state may produce the same dismal answer as before; the cupboard is bare. While we regard our humanity as a container which ought to have something good in it when we look inside, we miss the whole point of the paradox. We are not meant to be self-contained, but channels of the life and energies of God Himself. From this point of view our wisdom is to let the bottom be knocked out of our humanity, which will ruin it as a container at the same time as it turns it into a satisfactory channel.

-Frank Lake, Clinical Theology

The Development of Self and the Origin of Loss and Longing

I’ve just begun reading Pete Rollins’ The Idolatry of God. In the first chapter Rollins, borrowing a bit from Lacan, explains how early human development plays into a perennial sense of longing and need for security that categorically shapes the human condition.

This important point in human development was named “the mirror phase” by the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan and is generally estimated to start between the ages of six to eighteen months. While the process is gradual, it is around this time that the infant begins to identify as existing in separation from her surroundings and slowly begins to experience herself as an individual.

The time before this awakening can be described as a type of prehistory, for it is the time before language, before self-consciousness, before the sense of “I.” It is only as the infant begins to enter selfhood that her history really begins, a history that cannot articulate what came before it, yet which remains indelibly marked by it.

One of the fundamental experiences that arises from this second birth is a profound and disturbing sense of loss, for as soon as we experience our inner world, we encounter for the first time an outer world. As we develop a sense of our internal space, we are confronted with another one, a space existing beyond the borders of our flesh. Before the formation of our inner world, there is no sense of “me” and thus no notion of “you.” There is no near and no far; no inside and, therefore, no outside; no barriers that would separate me from everything beyond the threshold of my skin. Before the advent of selfhood, the infant’s body exists in a type of equilibrium with the environment, being impacted by it but not standing in contrast to it.

All this changes as the child gains a sense of selfhood, for at this point, the world is experienced as “out there.” With the advent of the “I,” there is an experience of that which is “not I.” The sense of selfhood is marked indelibly with the sense of separation.

This means that one of our most basic and primal experiences of the world involves a sense of loss, for when we feel separated from something we assume that there was something we once had. The interesting thing to note, however, is that this sense of loss is actually an illusion, for we never actually lost anything. Why? Because there was no “me” before this experience of separation. Before the experience of loss there was no self to have enjoyed the union that we sense has been ripped away from us. The very birth of our subjectivity then signals a sense of losing something that we never had in the first place.

This primordial experience of separation means nothing less than the experience of a gap, a feeling that there is some gulf between us and that which we have “lost.” In light of this we can read the scriptural saying “For we brought nothing into the world” quite literally, as meaning that we enter the world with one thing in our possession: nothingness itself (i.e., a sense of some space separating us from the world we inhabit).

The gap this separation creates is what causes this deep and abiding sense of incompleteness in us all. Rollins then goes on to suggestively connect this sense of incompleteness and the way we attempt to address with with Paul’s concept of the Law:

An important distinction needs to be made at this point between objects that we seek because we feel (whether rightly or wrongly) that they will improve our life in some way and objects that we believe will fill the gap we experience at the very core of our existence. For example, one person may wish to make money in order to look after her family or gain some extra comfort, while someone else might pursue money in a way that suggests they think that wealth will provide them with ultimate meaning.

There is a very simple but vital mechanism that transforms an object from being something we would like to something we believe would make us whole: a prohibition. Whenever something we would like is refused to us in some way, this refusal causes us to want the object even more.

We can see this happening in a very transparent way while watching children play. We might imagine a child wanting to play with a toy he sees but is denied access to by a parent. By this act of prohibition, the child’s normal desire for the object is transformed into something much more potent. He is likely to invest that toy with a significance not merited by the toy itself.

This prohibition was called “the Law” by the Apostle Paul. He understood that the prohibition of the Law does not cause one to renounce an object but rather fuels a self-destructive drive for it.



Orthopraxy is Postmodern?

Great insight by J.K. Smith about how people pit orthodoxy vs orthopraxy, and see the former as modern and the latter as postmodern:

So this is why I think the distinction between orthodoxy and orthopraxy is a moot point. Any community of practice is going to have both. It’s not doxa or praxis that’s at issue; it’s the ortho! On my account, the Christian community can’t avoid defining the ortho because no community of practice can be without standards of excellence.

(Permit a digression: I’ve never understood why some think that orthodoxy is hopelessly “modern” whereas orthopraxy is sexy and postmodern. Have folks not read Kant’s Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals, or his Critique of Practical Reason? The latter is a pretty classic “orthopraxy” it seems to me, to the point that Kant really doesn’t give a rip about the specifics of orthodox dogma, as long as you’ve got your orthopraxy in place. [Sound familiar? See any 15 popular “emergent” books of your choice.] Do we really want to suggest that Kant was a proto-postmodern? Or does this show us that those who make this doxy/praxy distinction are still locked within a modernist paradigm? Indeed, at the end of the day, isn’t it the ortho that they really resist?)

Nietzsche, Nihilism and Moby Dick

Sean D. Kelly wrote a remarkably engaging and insightful piece on the NY Times Opinionator blog yesterday. He takes on the task of unpacking what Nietzsche really meant when uttered that “God is dead” over a century ago. God is dead, Kelly argues, in a very particular sense…

He no longer plays his traditional social role of organizing us around a commitment to a single right way to live.  Nihilism is one state a culture may reach when it no longer has a unique and agreed upon social ground.

This de-centering of a culture’s shared sense of organizing values and ultimate meaning has some upsides. It allows marginalized minorities to “achieve recognition or even be held up and celebrated…Social mobility ─ for African Americans, gays, women, workers, people with disabilities or others who had been held down by the traditional culture ─ may finally become a possibility.” But it has its downsides for sure. With a loss of a shared universal sense of meaning we can be driven to live lives of quiet desperation, feeling that there is no God or god-like purpose that is worthy of our allegiance, we instead choose from a variety of consumer options and identities in search of self-actualization. To be sure, people may still engage in what look like lives of traditional religious devotion, but they can only do so in a delusional fashion, imagining that their neighbors can’t possibly be living admirable or meaningful lives because they do not share the believer’s commitments.

Kelly lifts up Melville’s Moby Dick as charting an alternate way forward. Melville rejects the impulse to search for a transcendent organizing center that would animate Western culture, coming as it does from the combination of the biblical and platonic traditions that have together come to shape us so deeply. He wants to replace this with a new polytheism:

Melville himself seems to have recognized that the presence of many gods — many distinct and incommensurate good ways of life — was a possibility our own American culture could and should be aiming at.  The death of God therefore, in Melville’s inspiring picture, leads not to a culture overtaken by meaninglessness but to a culture directed by a rich sense for many new possible and incommensurate meanings.  Such a nation would have to be “highly cultured and poetical,” according to Melville.  It would have to take seriously, in other words, its sense of itself as having grown out of a rich history that needs to be preserved and celebrated, but also a history that needs to be re-appropriated for an even richer future.  Indeed, Melville’s own novel could be the founding text for such a culture.  Though the details of that story will have to wait for another day, I can at least leave you with Melville’s own cryptic, but inspirational comment on this possibility.  “If hereafter any highly cultured, poetical nation,” he writes:

Shall lure back to their birthright, the merry May-day gods of old; and livingly enthrone them again in the now egotistical sky; on the now unhaunted hill; then be sure, exalted to Jove’s high seat, the great Sperm Whale shall lord it.

Theories of Change

David Brooks wrote a nice piece on the legacy of the British Enlightenment in today’s NY Times. Unlike their French counterparts, British Enlightenment thinkers didn’t just extol reason’s capacities, they underscored its limits. There is no greater example of the this tradition than Edmund Burke, who rejected the radical approach to social change advocated by the French.

Burke, a participant in the British Enlightenment, had a different vision of change. He believed that each generation is a small part of a long chain of history. We serve as trustees for the wisdom of the ages and are obliged to pass it down, a little improved, to our descendents. That wisdom fills the gaps in our own reason, as age-old institutions implicitly contain more wisdom than any individual could have.

Burke was horrified at the thought that individuals would use abstract reason to sweep away arrangements that had stood the test of time. He believed in continual reform, but reform is not novelty. You don’t try to change the fundamental substance of an institution. You try to modify from within, keeping the good parts and adjusting the parts that aren’t working.

If you try to re-engineer society on the basis of abstract plans, Burke argued, you’ll end up causing all sorts of fresh difficulties, because the social organism is more complicated than you can possibly know. We could never get things right from scratch.

Brooks sees this tension between radical and more traditional Enlightenment perspectives as playing out in our politics today:

We Americans have never figured out whether we are children of the French or the British Enlightenment. Was our founding a radical departure or an act of preservation? This was a bone of contention between Jefferson and Hamilton, and it’s a bone of contention today, both between parties and within each one.

Today, if you look around American politics you see self-described conservative radicals who seek to sweep away 100 years of history and return government to its preindustrial role. You see self-confident Democratic technocrats who have tremendous faith in the power of government officials to use reason to control and reorganize complex systems. You see polemicists of the left and right practicing a highly abstract and ideological Jacobin style of politics.

No surprise where Brooks comes down.

Does Natural Law Exist?

Peter Leithart posted a great review of J. Budziszewski’s The Line Through The Heart, a new work on natural law theory. Leithart is quite complementary in his review which concludes with the suggestion that natural law, even with all of Budziszewski’s qualifications, can’t achieve what many of its enthusiastic supporters think it can:

Paul says all know God and His requirements from creation, but J. Bud is right that we suppress, evade, rationalize, pretend, and can do that for so long that we virtually forget we’re evading.  However that law is woven into our minds and hearts, it is woven differently from the way language, thought, creativity, and many other human qualities are woven.  Somehow, it is possible to unravel knowledge of God and remain human, which must mean that it is woven differently…Let me make that point stronger, in a Hauerwasian direction. The universe has, I agree, a grain, a design given it by the Triune Creator, and we are to live in accord with that grain.  But we discern that grain not from “unaided reason” (J. Bud hedges with “so-called unaided reason”) but in the light of Christ, by the Spirit, through the spectacles of Scripture.  When we have the mind of Christ, we see how the world is to be, and how humans are to live, and we learn in turn that the world is not as it should be.   To put it more strongly, provocatively: There is nothing bigger, more basic, more universal than Christ the Lord, the One by whom all things were made, the One in whom all things cohere.   Christ must be given epistemological priority, and natural law theories, even of the best varieties, don’t honor that priority…This circles back to the practical point.  If this argument is true, then the persuasiveness of natural law of J. Bud’s variety requires just as radical a conversion as the fundamentalist demands.  It requires the same conversion.

Enough With The New Atheists Already

David B. Hart’s assessment of the New Atheism is a must read for believers and non-believers alike. If one has an exceedingly low tolerance for feisty rhetoric, then this piece will be tough to slug through, though still well worth the effort. For example:

The principal source of my melancholy, however, is my firm conviction that today’s most obstreperous infidels lack the courage, moral intelligence, and thoughtfulness of their forefathers in faithlessness. What I find chiefly offensive about them is not that they are skeptics or atheists; rather, it is that they are not skeptics at all and have purchased their atheism cheaply, with the sort of boorish arrogance that might make a man believe himself a great strategist because his tanks overwhelmed a town of unarmed peasants, or a great lover because he can afford the price of admission to a brothel…But how long can any soul delight in victories of that sort? And how long should we waste our time with the sheer banality of the New Atheists—with, that is, their childishly Manichean view of history, their lack of any tragic sense, their indifference to the cultural contingency of moral “truths,” their wanton incuriosity, their vague babblings about “religion” in the abstract, and their absurd optimism regarding the future they long for?…I am not—honestly, I am not—simply being dismissive here. The utter inconsequentiality of contemporary atheism is a social and spiritual catastrophe.

It’s not as though Hart has no appreciation for atheism. On the contrary, he recognizes that

…Something splendid and irreplaceable has taken leave of our culture—some great moral and intellectual capacity that once inspired the more heroic expressions of belief and unbelief alike. Skepticism and atheism are, at least in their highest manifestations, noble, precious, and even necessary traditions, and even the most fervent of believers should acknowledge that both are often inspired by a profound moral alarm at evil and suffering, at the corruption of religious institutions, at psychological terrorism, at injustices either prompted or abetted by religious doctrines, at arid dogmatisms and inane fideisms, and at worldly power wielded in the name of otherworldly goods. In the best kinds of unbelief, there is something of the moral grandeur of the prophets—a deep and admirable abhorrence of those vicious idolatries that enslave minds and justify our worst cruelties.

What I enjoyed most about Hart’s reflection was the marked appreciation for Nietzsche, who comes off as a figure who (rightly in my opinion) deserves our admiration and gratitude:

Above all, Nietzsche understood how immense the consequences of the rise of Christianity had been, and how immense the consequences of its decline would be as well, and had the intelligence to know he could not fall back on polite moral certitudes to which he no longer had any right. Just as the Christian revolution created a new sensibility by inverting many of the highest values of the pagan past, so the decline of Christianity, Nietzsche knew, portends another, perhaps equally catastrophic shift in moral and cultural consciousness. His famous fable in The Gay Science of the madman who announces God’s death is anything but a hymn of atheist triumphalism. In fact, the madman despairs of the mere atheists—those who merely do not believe—to whom he addresses his terrible proclamation. In their moral contentment, their ease of conscience, he sees an essential oafishness; they do not dread the death of God because they do not grasp that humanity’s heroic and insane act of repudiation has sponged away the horizon, torn down the heavens, left us with only the uncertain resources of our will with which to combat the infinity of meaninglessness that the universe now threatens to become…Because he understood the nature of what had happened when Christianity entered history with the annunciation of the death of God on the cross, and the elevation of a Jewish peasant above all gods, Nietzsche understood also that the passing of Christian faith permits no return to pagan naivete, and he knew that this monstrous inversion of values created within us a conscience that the older order could never have incubated. He understood also that the death of God beyond us is the death of the human as such within us. If we are, after all, nothing but the fortuitous effects of physical causes, then the will is bound to no rational measure but itself, and who can imagine what sort of world will spring up from so unprecedented and so vertiginously uncertain a vision of reality?…For Nietzsche, therefore, the future that lies before us must be decided, and decided between only two possible paths: a final nihilism, which aspires to nothing beyond the momentary consolations of material contentment, or some great feat of creative will, inspired by a new and truly worldly mythos powerful enough to replace the old and discredited mythos of the Christian revolution (for him, of course, this meant the myth of the Übermensch).

Vehemence, Oy Vey!

I’m currently slowly working through Philip Fisher’s The Vehement Passions. Fisher begins by asking if there are any pair of words that seem as natural together as “dispassionate knowledge.” But the passions in at least one instance have always been seen as inextricably connected with the quest for knowledge: the case of wonder. Descartes considered wonder to be an impassioned state that makes learning possible at all. “In wonder we notice the background of a lawful and familiar world something that strikes us by its novelty and by the pleasure that this surprising new fact brings to us.” We all at every stage of life have a “distinct but provisional horizon” that separates the familiar from the unfamiliar and the unknown. Wonder lets us know where this horizon is at any given moment.

If it is only scientific knowledge that we are considering, then anger or grief would seem to “preclude clear thought”, that is “the pursuit of a continuous chain of thought and experiment, and the preservation of the calm atmosphere in which order and rationality make possible long and arduous projects.” But Fisher thinks that “vehement passions” like anger, grief, shame and fear have a significant role to play in the quest for knowledge. Wonder is no mere exception to the rule. The vehement passions design for us “an intelligible world” doing so by means “of a horizon lines that we can come to know only in experiences that begin with impassioned or vehement states within ourselves.” For instance, just as wonder plays an important part in scientific thought, so anger plays a significant role where the discovery and delineating of injustice is concerned. The fact that we are surprised by wonder or anger is a clue that something new really is disclosed in “states of vehemence.”

How Do We Know Anything?

I’m re-reading T.S. Eliot’s doctoral dissertation which was on F.H. Bradley’s understanding of knowledge and experience. It’s incredibly elegant and profound prose.

When we use terms like “experience” and “feeling” we need to be careful suggests Eliot. Eliot here is explicating what the terms mean to Bradley, but he’s certainly a sympathetic interpreter. He thinks it’s important to resist the temptation to identify experience with consciousness, or to make experience and adjective that modifies a subject. Nor should experience be confused with immediate sensation, like “a panorama passing before a reviewer.” Likewise it’s not the content or substance of a mind.

Feeling is just as complicated to nail down. It’s not the feeling describe by psychologists, though it is related to what they describe and “continuous with psychological feeling”. Eliot thinks it’s important to note that while Bradley describes feeling as “the immediate unity of a finite psychological centre”, it’s not merely the feeling of a mind or consciousness. For Bradley feeling is the “the general condition before distinctions and relations have been developed, and where as yet neither any subject nor any object exists.” Feeling is anything that is “only present and simply is”. This means that everything actual must be felt, but that we only call something “feeling” in so far as we take it “as failing to be more.”

Experience then for Bradley, in contrast to most of his philosophical contemporaries, is not at “any stage of consciousness merely a presentation which can be isolated from other elements also present or subsequent in consciousness.” It isn’t “sense-data” or “sensations”, nor is it a stream of feeling that “as merely felt, is an attribute of the subject side only and must in some way be “related” to an external world. It’s also not more purely or immediately felt in the animal or infant mind than in the mind of an adult engaged in critical inquiry. Bradley is doubtful that there is such a thing as “immediate experience”. Eliot thinks Bradley understates matters, claiming that there certainly is no immediate experience at all.

If we’re going to develop a theory of knowledge, we have to postulate some given upon which knowledge is built. We’re then forced to take this construction as something which develops in time. We think of things presented to our notice at any or all given moments, and “of the whole situation in knowing as a complex with this datum as one of the constituents.” We also tend to consider the development of consciousness “in biological evolution as a development of knowledge”. If there is indeed a “problem” of knowledge so to speak then neither of these perspectives is irrelevant. But there’s a tendency to confuse the two and herein lies the issue. From the genetic point of view, all of the so called “stages” are actualities, “whereas the various steps of knowing in the mind of an adult…are abstractions, not known as separate objects of attention.” They all exist for us simultaneously without priority. In any stage of human development we don’t find feeling without thought, or presentation without reflection. Even at primitive levels of consciousness we find what we call feeling and thought, presentation, redintegration and abstraction, all at a lower stage. This calls into question the study of primitive consciousness because we find in our own knowing all the same constituents, if only in a clearer and thus more readily apprehensible form.

All that being said, if all the same constituents were present to us in every instance of knowing, “if none were omitted in error, or if none had any temporal precedence over another, all analyses of knowing would be equally tenable.” There wouldn’t be any real difference. Where there are no bones “anybody can carve a goose.” If we didn’t think that at some points in time our consciousness is nearer to “pure experience” than at others, if we didn’t at some points think of “sense-datum” as prior to “object”, or feel that “act” or “content”, or “immanent” and “transcendent” object were not in some sense independent from one another, and capable of “entering into different contexts as table and chair, the fact of their difference would be a perfect example of useless knowledge.” In Bradley Eliot finds this difficulty in an “aggravated form”, but not one that is more fatal than in any of his contemporaries.

We talk about immediate experience and contrast it with ideal construction. This immediate experience is prior in time to ideal construction. But no actual experience can be merely immediate, for if it were “we should certainly know nothing about it.” We also can’t clearly draw the line between the experienced, the given and the constructed. Difference only “holds good” in a relative and fluctuating perspective. “Experience alone is real, but everything can be experienced.” There is no absolute point of view where real and ideal can be ultimately distinguished and labeled. “All of our terms turn out to be unreal abstractions; but we can defend them, and give them a kind of reality and validity (the only validity which they can posses or can need) by showing that they express the theory of knowledge which is implicit in all our practical activity.”

Although we really aren’t acquainted with any element of experience that we can truly identify as immediate, nor can we know immediate experience directly as an object, “we can yet arrive at it by inference, and even conclude that it is the starting point of our knowing, since it is only in immediate experience that knowledge and its object are one.” The fact that we can make this reifying move and to some extent make our immediate experience an abstract inferred object, but not an object “among others”, nor a term which “can be in relation to anything else” is an embarrassing problem. We’re forced to further abstraction, handling this “object” as if it were an adjective of either a subject or an object, as our experience or as the experienced world. But whether we choose to say “the world is my experience” or that experience is constituted by “that, of just what appears, of space, of intensity, of flatness, brownness, heaviness, or what not, we have been in either case guilty of importing meanings which hold good only within experience.” We can only discuss experience from various sides in an effort to correct the descriptions from other sides which are always partial and abstracted.