The Self: A caption box

paper_speech_bubbles_vector_548315I’ve been reflecting on discussions I’ve been in regarding the meaning (or meaninglessness), structure (or not), of the Self. I haven’t constructed an air-tight syllogism, but I wanted to summarize some thoughts based on the conversations I’ve been so enjoying.

As I thought about an image to ‘capture’ (pun intended) my thoughts, I stumbled into a page full of ‘caption boxes’, also called ‘speech bubbles’. They’re used by cartoonists to capture and identify the speech of characters. As I pondered these figures (in the context of recent conversations – I’m not sure why) the thought occurred to me that the ‘Self’ (that structured ‘someone’ who is the subject of our conscious, interior experience) can profitably be thought of as a caption box, a speech bubble. We’re full of things to say, and we say them. But there’s something about the givenness of the Self (its createdness, its ecstatic nature, its irreducible teleological orientation and aesthetic appetite) that suggests not only does the Self speak, but it is spoken. And so I say the Self is a caption box, a speech bubble. Question is – whose caption box am I? Whose speech creates us? Hence the progression of my reflections in what follows.

1) I am.

2) I am created (i.e., I do not create or sustain myself).

3) So, I am given (i.e., given existence).

4) So, existence is a benevolent gift.

5) So, my “I am” = “I am created and sustained by some uncreated, gift-giving love.”

6) There is a benevolent, Uncreated “I am” who is the Gift-Giver and Life-Sustainer.

7) Only this Uncreated “I am” can tell me who I am.

8) Christ’s “I am” was one with the Uncreated “I am” (as demonstrated to be the case by his resurrection; Rom 1.4).

9) We murdered Christ but could not silence his “I am.”

10) Christ-crucified demonstrates the indestructible love of the Uncreated “I am” who grounds and sustains every created “I am.”

11) Only the risen Jesus can tell us what his death means (i.e., only an experience of the living Jesus can mediate ‘Christ-crucified’ to us).

12) Through Christ, my “I am” (from [1] above) participates in the Uncreated “I am” of the Son’s eternal “Abba, Father” (Rom 8.15) revealed in, and mediated to us via, the Incarnation/Cross/Resurrection, and is thus transformed into “I, not I, but Christ.” (Gal 2.20).

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Nous Christou

imageThe Spirit so radically expands the horizons of awareness, of space and time, of life and death…that such reductionistic notions become almost trivial. Thus it should be stressed that the main thrust of 1 Cor. 2 is not negative but overwhelmingly affirmative. It is not to denigrate nous or mind but to proclaim what is in the nous Christou [the mind of Christ]. It is here that one sees and participates in “what eye has not seen and ear has not heard.” What has not entered into the human mind, God has prepared for those who love him. This is open to those whose spirits, in agreement with the Holy Spirit, search out the deep things of creation and of God, and whose relationship to God preserves the vital relationality that marks them as bearers of the image of God. To be endowed by the Holy Spirit with the nous Christou is not other-worldly, but it is instead to perceive and to behold this world as if for the first time because it is knowing the world through the Logos, the One through whom all things have been made. The natural order then becomes, remarkably, the creation of God in which every moment is sustained by God’s grace alone.

James Loder, The Knight’s Move

A theology of fragments

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERAHere is a helpful passage* from David Tracy that ties in to what I’ve been exploring with others about Paul Hessert’s book Christ and the End of Meaning, the second chapter of which contrasts (1Cor 1.22-25) human ways of meaning-making through the use of ‘power’ (Jews demand signs) and ‘rational systems that seek total explanations’ (Greeks seek wisdom) with the abandonment of this structure of meaning that faith calls us to in Christ.

Beyond this early Romantic groping after ‘fragments’ which helped to challenge the stranglehold of the Enlightenment system lay the two greatest unveilers of modernity’s secret dream to be the logos of its own secret, ontotheology – Nietzsche and Kierkegaard. Is there anyone, even today, better than Kierkegaard at exposing the bizarre drive to totality of almost all modern rationalist, idealist systems including Christianity become Christendom? What Kierkegaard showed is that Christendom, not Christianity, is an attempted triumphalism, a triumphant totality system that could not and cannot survive any experiment with authentic Christian living. Philosophy should abjure its modern pretensions to a total understanding of life, the individual, art and religion and learn to think anew from the new forms for dialectical though invented by Kierkegaard in two of his greatest works; the works by Johannes Climacus, entitled Philosophical Fragments and Concluding Unscientific Postscript. He left us what? Fragments and inconclusive postscripts. Both are fine forms indeed to challenge Hegelianism, the then reigning totality system of Kierkegaard’s culture. As several post-modern thinkers now argue, Kierkegaard’s fragments smashed not only Hegelianism with its temptations to totality. It is Kierkegaard, in several of his works, who first begins to use the category of the “Impossible.” He strove, through Johannes Climacus, not for the actual, nor the possible, but for the Impossible. In nearly all his work, on how religion – both religiousness “A” and religiousness “B” (Christian religion for Kierkegaard) – showed how to render what would otherwise be consider Impossible.

Kierkegaard will do almost anything to break the reified ice of what he considers modernity’s hold on all our thinking or Christendom’s hold on Christians…He will forge a new and indirect discourse for the sacred to undo any claim to adequacy of direct discourse in the idealist version of totality…But then what about this breakthrough into a form for the Impossible, into grace?…Kierkegaard did not have the calling to preach…Therefore he invented form after form to render present the one content modernity denied—the reality of the Impossible—grace, Christ, God.

Kierkegaard’s paradoxically anti-Christian double, Nietzsche, plays the same fragmentation role for Christendom and Enlightenment modernity alike, but now with a hammer. When Nietzsche’s hammer becomes too blunt a tool against Christianity as well as against bourgeois modernity, he too, like Kierkegaard will try any form, any genre, any intellectual strategy to try to break out of any totalizing system. He forged style and style just as Kierkegaard forged genre after genre. Form Nietzsche’s early essays to his quasi-gospel genre in his great Thus Spoke Zarathustra to genealogical analysis through aphorisms piled upon aphorisms to fragments juxtaposed to fragments, Nietzsche organized in what seems to me in an increasingly desperate attempt to recover…not merely the controlled rhetoric of Aristotle’s topics but the out of control rhetoric of the tropes, especially the trope of irony careening with joy at the very edge of what he saw as an Abyss or Void opened up once the totality systems collapsed.

For those familiar with Hessert, compare Hessert’s exposition of culture’s false attempt find the world “meaningful” (per the ancient Greek’s search for “wisdom,” 1Cor 1.22) to Kierkegaard’s attack upon modernity’s “systems of totality” and it’s “dream to be the logos of its own secret.” Achieving a single logos, a single, all-embracing system of rational explanation that can reduce the cosmos to a fixed account of the whole is not what Christianity is about. Any truly Christian attempt at a rational account of things will necessarily be ‘fragmentary’. It can be logos. It can never be Logos. And oh how we balk and complain with ‘fragments’. So as Tracy said, faith is necessarily a way to live with fragments, and we need a ‘theology of fragments’. This is not to say faith does not locate all fragments (all logoi, however imperfectly understood) in the One (unfragmented) Logos who is Christ the God-Man. We may have only fragments, but each is a small mirror that reflects, in its limited capacity, Christ who is in all things and in whom are all things.

*“Form and Fragment: The Recovery of the Hidden and Incomprehensible God” in The Concept of God in Global Dialogue, eds. Werner Jeanrond and Aasulv Lande (Orbis Books, 2005).

What Jesus suffered

11-The-Agony-in-the-GardenJesus cannot suffer, as we must, the pain of the death of the false self which is the despair of misrelating to the Void (the Void simply being our absolute contingency and finitude). As Hessert suggests, Christ has no false self, no way of being in the world that derives from the ‘power-driven’ and ‘wisdom-seeking’ agendas of culture (1Cor 2). His whole life was lived in light of the truth of his God-given identity as Son (“Abba, Father”), an identity he never abandoned to go off and construct another.

Our salvation requires not that Christ experience his own existence as meaningless, interpreting his own Cross as did they who pressed his suffering upon him as evidence of his meaninglessness and godforsakeness. That is, after all, what being crucified meant to them. And you can find Christians today who agree that if Christ does not experience himself as godforsaken and meaningless, he is not ‘fully human’.

But consider, false selves are a false humanity, not a truly full humanity, and to live in light of the culture’s ‘power’ and ‘wisdom’ is to live as ‘less’ than fully human. To be fully human in our fallen world – as Christ alone was – is to live and die in light of the God-given truth of who you are, something no cross can render meaningless.

Then the ‘I’ receives itself

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“When around one everything has become silent, solemn as a clear, starlit night, when the soul comes to be alone in the whole world, then before one there appears, not an extraordinary human being, but the eternal power itself, then the heavens open, and the ‘I’ chooses itself or, more correctly, receives itself. Then the personality receives the accolade of knighthood that ennobles it for an eternity.”

– Soren Kierkegaard

The Void not suicide

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“Rebirth” by Delawer-Omar

I’ve been enjoying a Facebook conversation of Paul Hessert’s wonderful book Christ and the End of Meaning. I’ve quoted from Hessert’s book here before. It’s not an easy book to digest, but with the help of others each chapter’s review reveals bit more. Irish philosopher Peter Rollins also has an online discussion of the book, so naturally some of Rollins’ reading of Hessert is part of the conversation I’m in. If you haven’t encountered Rollins’ provocative and controversial ideas, check him out.

Rollins over-reaches, I think, in making his point against the “structure of meaning” we adopt from culture. I think he too indiscriminately dismisses the essential narrative/meaning-making structure of experience. It’s almost as if Rollins disposes of what we call the transcendentals (beauty, truth, goodness) or views them as impositions of fallen culture. I may be misunderstanding him, but I’m more confident Hessert isn’t doing this, and I want to focus on Hessert anyhow. But I fear that in trying to make my point (defending ‘meaning’ and ‘desire’), I might be understood as defending things I don’t believe in (i.e., false narratives and structures of meaning imposed on us by culture). In reading through Hessert (Ch. 2) again, I think I see his point more clearly, and I’d like to try to describe the common ground.

1) We are natural meaning-makers. On the one hand, we’re naturally driven to interpret our lives in meaningful ways – existentially, rationally, aesthetically, etc. We construct a ‘sense of self’ (an ‘identity’). This sense of self provides our answers to the questions, ‘Who am I really?’ and ‘What is my place in [the meaning of] the universe?’ question that get answered in terms of identity, relationships, belonging, significance, permanence, purpose, etc.). All textbook stuff.

2) Meaning-making as world-constructing. As finite, human beings, however, we don’t come into the world with pre-installed interpretations of life that give us the world as satisfying and meaningful. We’re born into the questions, not the answers. We have to ‘world-construct’ or compose our sense of self, and the materials out of which we build are the relationships and events of our lives, the very things whose meaning we’re seeking to establish. This search becomes a venture of despair for all of us. Why? Because nothing in or of the world (none of the ‘materials’ I use to world-construct) can tell me ‘who’ I am and what I mean. Why not? Because everything in the world is, like me, looking for its own meaning and purpose. Everything created is in that same fix, asking the same question. Indeed, to be created and finite just is to ask this question (a point on which Rollins and I may disagree if, as I suspect, he judges the question itself as misguided; that is, he sees the gospel as a way to free oneself from the questions since, in his view, there are no answers, only ways to live without them). Anyhow, we experience this failure immediately in life, but it typically takes a life-time to admit the failure of everything in the world to be a source of meaning and purpose. Hopefully our journey leads us to the Void, where only faith can lead us on.

3) Replacing ‘World’ with ‘God’. Now,  what is often said (which I’m guessing some read me as offering) is something like this: “Look, stop trying to derive meaning and satisfaction from anything in the world and just get it from God instead. God is not, like the world, caught up in some existential search. As benevolent creator, God can do for you what the world has failed to do for you – viz., give your life meaning and purpose.”

What I hear Hessert saying to this is: This isn’t enough. It’s not enough simply to replace ‘World’ with ‘God’ as the source from which we derive our meaning and satisfaction and leave everything else the same. There’s something else we’ve gotten badly wrong in confusing faith with the belief that if we just put ‘God’ in the place of ‘World’ then life will become satisfying and meaningful. There’s something structurally wrong here.

What’s structurally wrong is that this mere replacement leaves in place a fundamental failure to relate to God in terms of creaturely nothingness. It leaves unaddressed the mistaken priorities in how we self-relate (and world-relate and God-relate). Amazingly, it’s possible to replace the ‘World’ as our source for happiness with ‘God’ and still be unspeakably miserable. How so? Because the Self (the “I”) is still at the center, in charge of the meaning-making with both ‘God’ and ‘World’ as options on a meaning-making menu from which the Self chooses (from some imaginary location outside the two). What’s overlooked is the fact that the Self is constitutive of the ‘World’ that needs to be displaced. Too often today, even if ‘God’ replaces ‘World’ within a person’s explicit beliefs, the structure that supports and defends the Self is still in place.

4) Idol swapping. Leaving this structure in place leaves us with a Christianity that amounts essentially just swapping out idols – ‘God’ instead of ‘this’ or ‘that’ (wherein God is another this or that, if you follow me). This leaves intact the structures of existential despair. Even as Creator, Sustainer, and Savior, if God remains that which revolves around the Self, if this structure is in place, we’re still idolaters. If this is what Hessert is getting at (and I think it is), then (a) count me in, although (b) Rollins, I think, is saying something different (and more objectionable), but that’s another discussion.

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Dylan Guest sculpture

5) Restructuring and relinquishment. The fundamental restructuring (not mere replacing) that heals and redeems spells the death of the Self in all its false forms. It is an exchange that is both death and life: death of the autonomous Self, made relative to God as the Absolute in light of the Self’s nothingness. When our capacity for self-reflection (which cannot itself be an evil), for choice (which choices we cannot but make), and for meaning-making (the capacity for which cannot itself be evil and which defines choice inherently) is relinquished in the recognition of our nothingness, then structurally things are radically different. Now our meaning is “given” to us (not autonomously constructed “by us”) and relinquishment becomes possession, but a ‘possessing’ which is ‘being possessed’, a ‘desiring’ which is fulfilled in ‘being desired by’ God. In this sense we abandon our structure of meaning, but we are not unstructured or without meaning.

6) Transcendental structure. There are at least two different “structures” in Hessert’s discussion. Though he only discusses one, he hints at the other. One structure is the Self as centered and autonomous (whether bowing to an idol or to God) with God revolving around the Self in an economy of supply and demand that the Self orders and manages in terms of ‘power’ and ‘wisdom’ (1Cor 2) legitimized by culture. This structure has to be done away with. But what cannot be done away with is the transcendental structure of the human spirit – those God-given capacities (for thought, choice, self-relationality, self-transcendence, aesthetic perception and valuation).

The false self misappropriates these capacities in a despairing venture for meaning and certainty in ways culture permits, but functionally speaking these capacities remain intact for us even after our subjective powers of perception and agency become relativized by Christ. It is “I, not I, but Christ who lives in me” and not simply “I no longer live; Christ lives instead.” To judge these capacities as essentially mistaken or as an imposition of culture is to judge as mistaken the very God-given structure which makes possible “hearing” the preaching of Christ crucified and “faithing” (Hessert’s terms for “active, living, faith” that refuses cultural impositions of power and wisdom) in response. And that kind of dismissal, I suggest, is just the autonomous Self donning yet another disguise – this time the refusal to desire at all, the refusal to make-meaning at all, the refusal to feel or make aesthetic valuations at all, a kind of refusal to ‘be’ – all of which are impossible refusals to carry out. One sees how corrupt the autonomous Self is and so chooses to starve it into non-existence by denying all desire and meaning. But this leaves the Self in place just as securely as the culturally imposed structures leave it in place, because to deny desire and meaning is not to affirm the truth of one’s nothingness. That’s just a kind of suicide, and embracing the Void is not suicide.

The Spirit-transformed ‘ego’

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The Spirit-transformed human ego directs all of its powers of identification and differentiation to one thing: God its Creator. The ego realizes its own nothingness in attempting to get its feelings of solidity and permanence in identifying with and differentiating from some “other.” When it does this with the created order, as impermanent as it is, it collapses into nothingness. When it does this with God as benevolent source and ground, it steps into its God-given logos (its meaning).

The Creator is the ultimate “You” without whom our human “I” cannot ultimately sustain itself against our own nothingness. When the human ego fully and consciously accepts its nothingness before God, then it realizes that God, not the human ego, is the ultimate Uncreated “I” of all, and that we all are created “you’s” receiving grace and being at all times. The ego is removed from the throne of Selfhood and God the Center is placed there.

When the human ego is displaced from being the center of its own life story, it can be free from itself to fully realize its potential as a living temple of divine presence, giving and receiving love in all its ‘stories’. When it does this, it participates in God’s life and re-expresses God in the world and finds the weight of reality it longs for. Thus the Spirit-transformed ego uses its inherent emptiness to be filled with God.

(Dwayne Polk)