Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Genesis Explains the Origin of the Self

In my first year of college, I began dating a girl who was nominally Christian. As we departed for winter break, a kind of existential crisis loomed over me. I was serious about understanding Christ and serious about questions of life and death, meaning and direction, that a lot of people I knew tended to ignore or placate. However, I wondered, was she? I soothed myself with the thought that a person's interior was like a body of water. Everyone has levels of depth, just some people (a lot of people?) tended to stay in the shallower end of the pool. But if I asked the right questions, if I prodded her, then I'd find out what she 'really' thought about x, y, and z.

Another time, years later, I got into a semi-facetious argument with a girl I knew. She was big into philosophy and asserted that not everyone was a philosopher, only certain people had the capacity to explore the difficult and real questions of life. To troll her, I argued on behalf of all the unreflective idiots of the world, and argued they indeed possessed philosophies, they just were not aware of what philosophical ideas they held. This was a world-viewish type argument about presuppositions and the like.

Recently, I have begun to realize that I argued from the wrong place in both of these stories. For the longest time, I assumed that the self was a static quality. However this static quality possessed a cavernous interiority, a depth that was impossible to probe. I misapplied the verse from Ecclesiastes, "He has set eternity in our hearts", to mean the sort of infinitude of the self's self-reflective exploration. The process was like looking into a tripartite mirror (like ones in hotel bathrooms) where the different mirrors reflect images into one another, projecting an infinite hallway of images.

This accords with the identity fixation of our present age. There is something distinctly modern about the quest for authenticity and the outward expression of one's 'true' inward disposition. However, I added an Augustinian depth to this. Unlike certain crude discussions, where people speak and act with a foolish confidence in their authentic acts, Augustine advocates caution. He was perceptive enough to see that one, by looking, can never find one's self. It's an endless maze.

But what if the self is not a static quantity? What if who I am is not some essence buried under heaps of inauthentic social conformities and historical accidents? Indeed, Heidegger understood something of this when he talked the thrownness of being. There is no quiet unfolding or entrance, which the forces of time and space warp and ware. Instead, the very processes of time and space are the disclosing of our being in the world. In this, the self is motion, it is a process of becoming that one can only freeze and abstract for analytical purposes, not for recognition and true understanding.

In addition, what if this being is a void? This premise emerged within a kind of materialism, but it doesn't necessitate it. What this means is that our inward reflection is confusing and strange because, in a sense, it's like trying to see in the dark. There is no authentic inner-self that one has to go look for. The self is a cognitive artifact, something we create, an image of ourselves to look at through the dialectical act of the Same examining Itself as Other.

What does any of this mean? In practical terms, it means that the quest for your 'real' self is a waste of time, if not an intentional distraction. Call me paranoid, but I think this ideology of the authentic modern self has been promoted and weaponized over the past couple centuries for the purposes of population control. In modern times, this is why so-called Left movements, like the Feminism of Betty Freidan and Gloria Steinem, are extremely conservative if you read between the lines. They insulate the status-quo from actual critique.

This, I argue, is a part of the modern West's search for an alternative social control beyond templecraft. It's amazing how much time people waste in the pursuit of "meaning", trying to find themselves, know who they really are and what they are really supposed to do. It's strength lays in the fact that it doesn't need top-down propagation, instead it circulates on its own, as it promotes the experience of Heaven on Earth for those who buy the books, take the classes, etc etc. Some people deceive themselves through a kind of self-hypnosis. Other people are lured into it through the false promises of advertising and mass-media. However one ends up there, it makes you into a naval-gazer and a radical disconnect between interiority and exteriority is complete. You can mindlessly sustain the empire and be completely distracted.

However, I am not arguing against interiority, the self, or self-reflection. All of these are affirmed or commended in the Scripture. Rather, I'm arguing that we are reading modern notions back into the text to justify a Christian version of the cult of authenticity. This fits with Evangelicalism's middle-class near-complete bondage to Americana.

Instead, we should look in terms of Genesis 1. I think it is wise, as St. Maximus argued, to see the Human being, as priest of Creation, as a microcosm of the created world. As the Creation was called into being, which occurred through time, from a void, so is our interior life. God's Spirit hovered over the waters, and so God's Spirit is involved in the creation of an interior space. This is the gift of the Image of God imprinted into all Creation.

However, Orthodox theology makes a distinction between the Image of God and the Likeness of God (based on two different Scriptural phrases in Genesis). This reading sees Adam as good, yet not perfected. Through obedience towards God's commandments, Adam would fulfill the Image in bearing the Likeness. As a side-point, I think this has parallels to the Reformed distinction between Covenant of Works and Covenant of Grace, especially when not conceived as opposition per the Lutheran Law/Gospel dialectic.

What is the process of the Image coming to be in Likeness? This is the self coming to be out of the void of subjectivity. How does this happen? Through obedience to God's commandments, which in following, we become. This is the process St. Peter describes in his first epistle: "add to your faith virtue, to virtue knowledge, to knowledge self-control, to self-control perseverance, to perseverance godliness, to godliness brotherly kindness, and to brotherly kindness love". We discover ourselves in the living voice of God, the Word, who took flesh and saved us. Without this, the self that emerges out of the void is always teetering on the edge towards return. Sin is this process of destruction, this return towards oblivion as we construct selves that bear not the likeness of God, but of beasts and lizards.

What this means is that instead of filling up with anxiety about who you are or trying to figure out what your purpose is turn away. Instead, listen to voice of God who calls your name. Seek God and obey His commandments (e.g. prayer, fasting, loving your neighbor as yourself, loving God, growing in the virtues, giving to the poor etc.). This is the only way an interior life is created and begins to image God throughout our whole being, no matter how it was thrown into the world. Faith in Christ gives us the beginnings of recognizing our self in the world.

1 comment:

  1. very, very indirectly this reminds me of one of the things I concluded tentatively about spiritual gifts before becoming ex-Pentecostal. Rather than seek the higher gifts as a goal in itself it seemed Paul's instruction to the believers in Corinth was that if you make love your aim and to love God and neighbor that the work of the Spirit would sort out whatever spiritual gifts you had to give through the mysteries of providence and the work of the Spirit as you follow Christ. The spiritual gifts should not be thought of as some Meyers-Briggs Temperament Index. The Spirit can't be tethered to an American pop psychology expectation that you or I get spiritual gift X or Y throughout our lives.

    I also reached a tentative conclusion that whatever spiritual gifts are exist not for an atomized individual but a person participating in the life of the local church. You or I will not discover whatever our spiritual gifts for a time may be in explicitly looking for them but by participating in the Christian life and loving and serving where ever we may be. Yet American charismatic practice and theory so often continues to put the cart of the taxonomy of the gifts before the proverbial horse of loving God and neighbor that Paul explicitly instructed ought to be our aim.