Christianity and Hellenism, Part 2 of 3: On Being, Loosely Speaking

In my last post, I asserted that the early Christians made discriminating use of the ideas and methods of Greek philosophy. The key terms and categories were carefully reshaped and turned towards biblical ends. If old Plato was baptized in early Christian thought, it was only because he was generally catechized and exhorted first.

I mentioned that I have seen simplistic claims about the influence of Greek philosophy from all corners. An example: I was sitting in on a session at a major, mainstream academic conference. One presenter was discussing the concept of the canon, and the importance of heeding the timeless truths of the creeds of the early Ecumenical Councils. During Q&A, one presumably learned gentleman stood up and said, essentially, “I see no timeless truths in the Nicene Creed alongside all the Neo-Platonist imagery.”

Now, our esteemed anonymous questioner was probably exaggerating. But still, on the surface, he seems to have a point. Continue reading


Metaphysics and Meaning of James Davison Hunter

Milliner’s characteristically incisive remarks today include this graph from James Matthew Wilson:

The meaning of the world that we usually describe as constituting culture, or a culture… does not depend primarily upon our social conventions. Rather, the signs of a culture are founded on natural signs, and, indeed, are themselves natural signs in whose fashioning our intellects cooperate, and for whose knowledge and joy they exist. Given how destructive the wars and social changes of the last century have been—above all the change in thought that has tried to reduce even the human person to a fungible fact for exploitation—we should take great comfort in that fact.

Though Milliner’s dealing with the question in an artistic context, metaphysics comes in different forms.  I’m not in the same league as the fellow he mentions, but I’m trying.  The refrain–which was O’Donovan’s before it was mine– “there is an objective order of goods in creation” is simply Milliner’s point in different clothing.

Either a natural order exists, or we impose it.  Either the meaning is tied to the structure of things, or we make it up.

And if the order exists, our options are conformity or rebellion.  There is no middle ground here, despite the ambiguities and uncertainties that we experience in our confrontation with it.  But if we reject metaphysics, our only resource for ethics is our will, and God’s.

And we only need to read James Davison Hunter to see how that turned out.

(Apologies for simply repeating a point I’ve made before, and Milliner’s point.  However, I’m increasingly convinced that this is the notion on which Christianity in the modern world stands or falls.  Which means if I wear myself out trying to make it in different ways and places, well, count it as my attempt at establishing a faithful presence.)

The New Dualisms

Gene Fant dug up this little gem from the latest Proceedings of the Modern Language Association by Timothy Morton:

It’s not just that rabbits are rabbits in name only; it’s that whether or not we have words for them, rabbits are deconstructive all the way down—signifying and display happen at every level.  Nothing is self-identical.  We are embodied yet without essence.  Organicism is holistic and substantialist, visualizing carbon-based life-forms (organic in another sense) as the essence of livingness.  Queer ecology must go wider, embracing silicon as well as carbon, for instance. . . .  Queer ecology would go to the end and show how beings exist precisely because they are nothing but relationality, deep down—for the love of matter” (277).

I’ve read the full essay so you don’t have to. Perhaps the most shocking line is this one:

Karl Kroeber suggests that if you don’t believe Nature exists, you need to stand out in a midwestern thunderstorm (42). This suggestion now sounds distressingly almost like waterboarding.

We should use this to establish a new academic rule:  if your theory leads you to believe that standing in a thunderstorm and waterboarding are nearly equivalent, then we are prima facie justified in thinking that you have something wrong in the water upstream.

But while it’s tempting to dismiss Morton, I actually think that there is something we can learn from them, like this:  dualism might be unavoidable.

The feminist literature (and much of post-modernism) has been driven by an animosity against Descartes and his substance dualism.  But it’s not clear they’ve managed to escape it, at least not in any way that might be helpful.

Where Descartes turned to the language of substance to explain certain philosophical problems,  social theorists like Morton frequently establish a body/culture dualism in its place.  We may be ‘relationality’ all the way down when it comes to establishing our understanding of identity, but there’s still some particular matter that exists within those relationships–something that will still still stand beneath explanation and call for it.

For scientists, body/soul dualism is out–but they’re pretty happy talking about consciousness in non-bodily terms, and leaving it to the philosophers to explain its interaction with our brains in the way Descartes had to explain the soul.  That turns out to be a hard problem to solve, such that one has resorted to playing the mystery card at that point.

There is a lot to be said about the various strengths and weaknesses of the new dualisms.  But that there are other dualisms out there is worth bearing in mind before critiquing Descartes for his.

It’s possible–and I may defend this at some point–that he was using the philosophical vocabulary at hand to explain some of the same phenomena that Mr. Morton is attempting to solve, albeit in very different ways and with very different presuppositions.

The Expansiveness of Time

Tomorrow, my experience of time will dramatically change.

Over the past six months, I have been working for an international corporation in what amounted to a digital stockroom.  It was the sort of job that would turn the most hardened capitalist into a Front-Porcher (not that there’s anything wrong with that).  It was the equivalent to pressing a button over and over again–4, 8, 16, 23, 42–except without the threat of blowing up the world.

Eight hours is a long time in that environment.  I might not have killed time, but I certainly tried.  Hard.

My next job is structured very differently.  More time, more flexibility.  More meaningful tasks.  Not subject to the ticking of the clock, but the production of goods (I hope) for a community of people.  In short, work–not a job at all.

That means not just that I’ll have more time in my schedule, but that my whole world will be different, including my experience of time itself.  In the fascinating Theology, Music and Time, Jeremy Begbie deploys John Hull to describe this phenomenon:

“When you have a lot of time, you experience time-inflation…You are no longer fighting against the clock but against the task.  You no longer think of the time it takes.  You only think of what you have to do.  It cannot be done any faster.  Time, against which you previously fought, becomes simply the stream of consciousness within which you act.”

To him who has, more will be given.  The law applies to time as much as it does anything else, provided that we operate within its rules.

But this also rubs against contemporary strategies to avoid distractions by putting ourselves “on the clock” to block out distractions.  While they might be helpful, they fail to correct the more fundamental problem:  our lack of interest in what we’re doing.  When we act out of love, out of delight toward the duty before us, we cease to be subject to the corrective measures of the watch and the timecard.  Time expands and takes a different shape than that of discrete units, a shape that is governed and dictated by love.

Which Dualism, Whose Description?

“Dualism” is a dirty word.

Whether it refers to bodies and souls, men and women, reason and emotion, gender and sex, binary thinking is no longer in.

The rejection of dualisms takes different forms, depending on which intellectual tradition you’re standing within.  Consider this implicit denial of the dualism of gender and sex by Thomas Lacquer:

The problem is rather that in the imaginative world I am describing there is no “real” sex that in principle grounds and distinguishes in a reductionist fashion two genders. Gender is part of the order of things, and sex, if not entirely conventional, is not solidly corporeal either. Thus the modern way of thinking about these texts, of asking what is happening to sex as the play of genders becomes indistinct, will not work. What we call sex and gender are in the Renaissance bound up in a circle of meanings from which escape to a supposed biological substratum is impossible.

Lacquer eliminates “masculine” and “feminine” as categories of gender by eliminating “men” and “women” as sexual entities.  Both gender and sex, turns out, are culturally constructed.

This happens in phenomenological literature as well, where there is a tradition of attempting to overcome the dualism in Descartes’ epistemology by starting with the body as the center of the epistemological field.  In this tradition (post-Heideggerian as it is), substance ontology is eschewed in favor of phenomenological analyses.

There’s lots of interesting insights to be gleaned from both traditions, I think.  But the claims that dualism has been overcome tend to be a bit premature.  In the feminist tradition, there’s still a tense relationship between the ‘cultural norms’ of gender and sex and the possibility of resistance. Because most feminists eschew the language of body/soul dualisms, it becomes a question of what is resisting force of the cultural norms.

Similarly, in the phenomenological tradition, body-consciousness language has replaced the language of substances.  But while this has its own virtues, it seems to posit multiple modes of existence that the tradition has struggled from its inception to overcome.  The “objective body” as it is studied by science and the “lived body” of our experience remain, for the most part, independent of each other.

To put the problem somewhat cheekily, then, it’s not necessarily a question of dualism or not:  it is a question of which dualism, and whose description.