Thursday, June 2, 2016

The Discipline of No: Free-Won't, Batman, and the Desert Fathers

As anyone knows, journalism likes to be sensational, particularly about things it knows little about. And of course, people with opinions to push like to take advantage of this. So, of course, the other week The Atlantic published an article on the non-existence of free-will. 

However, the article continues, our own perpetual state of puppetude can open up a multiplicity of responses. Some argue that accepting the demise of free-will creates channels necessary for compassion and rational response. In this schema, man is returned as a mere outcropping of the natural environment. Other argues that the illusion of free-will ought to be the deepest guarded lie, lest we embrace a fatalist that leads to immorality and slackness.

However, what the article fails to mention is what the scientist who originally conducted the experiments had concluded. Indeed, the neuroscience tests had revealed that man's physical brain triggers before conscious decision, thus our bodies do not respond to our conscious directives. However, a reversal occurred when one was asked to stop an action. In being told to act and then cancel the act, the conscious decision preceded physical response. In this, Benjamin Libet, the scientist who conducted the study, revealed the non-existence of "free-will", but, rather, the existence of what he coined "free-won't"

If this disturbs you,  it shouldn't. In fact, this experiment only confirmed the wisdom that quite a few early Christians discovered in the Desert. 

We refer to these men and women as the Desert Fathers and Mothers because they chose to live in the Egyptian and Syrian desert. While other monks saw themselves, at different times and places, as fleeing from a corrupt society, they did not. This is a perversion of the original Christian monk. Instead, these particular Christians saw going into the desert as engaging in spiritual warfare. This was not escape, but charging into battle. This was a life of extreme growth and challenge. It was about spiritual maturity and mastery over the demons, both within and without. They followed the life of their Lord, who entered the desert for 40 days in order to triumph over Satan. 

Not every Christian is called to enter a literal Desert, but most of us enter into a figurative Desert. Sometimes this ends in martyrdom, sometimes a painful season of loss and confusion, sometimes it's a reevaluation of one's life. It is about a life in the Spirit, and we're all enjoined to take their advice seriously. They, more than many others, saw life as it truly was, even if they were, at times, given to extremes. This is not to say everyone of these monks was holy (and the wisest of them warned such, for Satan is the greatest ascetic, not needing food or sleep, and yet he was the antithesis of holiness). There are plenty of examples of wisdom drawn from the failings of particular Christians. But such is why they are truly wise.

The Desert Christians perceived the Man is not some masterful arbiter over himself or the world by the fact of being Man. The rule of Sin, Death, and Devil was real and exacting and was only overcome through a life of the Spirit, obedience to Christ. Only through the indwelling of God's Spirit were the Tyrants overcome.

The tyranny over man that the Desert Fathers saw was particularly through what they called the "passions". While the passions were emotional responses, and the monks can sound like rank stoics, they do not devalue emotion in se, but rather place emotion in a place where it must be tamed and disciplined. Rage and anger must be channeled into zeal for righteousness and truth. Lust must be transformed into love for God and all of His creation.

Yet this transformation is hard fought because it is through the passions that the demonic takes hold of man. However, overcoming this is not through erasing the existence of these passions, it is in taming them. Thus, it's in the power of recognizing them for what they are and rejecting them. Christians do not become impervious to the wiles of the demons, but can overcome them through rejection.

In the same way, neuroscience confirms that such is the strength of man. Whether this is a product of the Fall or if it a part of Humanly creaturely functioning is a non-issue. Instead, it's in seeing the true growth is not when we cease to have evil urges, but being able to recognize them. It is being trained in discernment and discipline. It's being able to see the traps, and gain the strength to avoid them as they come.

A lot of pastoral counseling still remains mired in the optimism of the Reformation-Enlightenment about the functioning of the autonomous individual. 

I'm conflating a larger trajectory. This has nothing to do with the particular views of Luther, Calvin, Rousseau, Locke, or Kant. But the Calvinistic urge towards self-discipline provided a bad anthropology. I laud the Reformed (Anabaptist too!) emphasis on the power of a solitary Christian life, but they fail to provide a more complete understanding of what that looks like. I am speaking generally, I'm sure there were a few figures, here and there that speak otherwise. But it is from such a matrix that the common Evangelical psychology and anthropology emerge. 

This optimism will ultimately lead to a kind of despair or hypocrisy. It's from that sort of angst that reactionary movements have emerged, resulting in things like the Sexual Revolution and Counter-Culture. Of course, as I already said, I laud Evangelicalism for constructing a notion of the self who can overcome personal foibles. There is a universal call and access to the fullness of Christian life that is eclipsed in some other ecclesiological thinking. But, the vision of Christian life is unmoored from the depth of darkness in the created world. Thus, the Christian life becomes moralistic, shallow, and, ultimately, unsuccessful.

I know this is a sweeping claim, but so it is. I believe it comes from the high notion of free-will that is patently untrue. But lest we become fatalists, the wisdom of the "free-won't", preserved in the Desert Christians and demonstrated in even secularized neuroscience, can liberate us to seek a better life. For unlike Sam Harris, I see no good in devaluing free-will for a puppet like existence. A bleak "understanding" is no mercy. Instead, mercy is judgment deferred, or withheld, and such is what we must do in our inner-life. Such is richness and the gospel enacted. When we restrain our inner impulse towards judgement is when a real battle is won and we begin to be transformed as the impulses lose their power. Instead, the discipline of No triumphs over evil.

Funny enough, the comic world of DC confirms this in the character of Batman. He is the weakest of all the characters on the Justice League, yet he is the strongest. Unlike the other characters, Batman has overcome his fear and his fantasies. It's not that he does not fear or have delusions. Rather, he has gained the necessary wisdom in order to recognize them for what they are. In some ways, this makes him very suspicious. But regardless of this, he remains the most hopeful of all Justice League characters. He is the one who refuses to backdown from his principles, and continues to hope even as he faces some of the most twisted villains. I suppose that's why it is fitting that his love-affair with Catwoman is with a conflicted anti-heroine/villainess. Even a psychotic jewel thief can be redeemed in Batman's eyes, yea, even the Joker could turn.

Strangely, despite all the christological symbols attached to Superman, Batman is the most Christian character. And this is concluded in his own struggle to overcome the demons that plague his heart. And, of course, the hideousness of the Bat reflects the abject scandal of the Messiah crucified. In both cases, a symbol of terror is transformed into a symbol of hope. And yet, for those perishing, the sign possesses the smell of death.

Batman understands the power of the No, being able to turn himself off his desires towards what is real. In this way, Christians ought to follow Batman as he is, inadvertently, following Christ. When we understand what we are, through the Spirit of Christ given, we can tread down the snakes and scorpions of the soul, namely those things which poison us. Christ liberates us to practice the "free-won't", the discipline of No, that matures us into what we are destined to become.

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