Marilynne Robinson’s “Absence of Mind”

I recommend you check out David Bentley Hart’s review of Marilynne Robinson’s book “Absence of Mind”. The literary talent behind Gilead, and Home (among others), and the keen mind behind The Death of Adam offers a published version of last years’ Terry Lectures given at Yale University. With her discerning eye and broad scope — encompassing culture, science, history, and philosophy — she takes on the modern “parascientific” myths about the human mind that are popularly shopped to us. Trust me, philosophy of mind is a high stakes hurt locker of questions and literature; and often the questions and the literature don’t match. According to Hart (whom I trust), Robinson (who I respect) has handled this important topic responsibly, deftly, and insightfuly.

If you’re not immediately interested because of DBH’s endorsement or because, well, it’s Marilynne Robinson, here’s a taste of what Hart has to say.

What Robinson’s book shows perhaps most clearly is that reductionism is not a philosophy honestly distilled from experience, but a dogma imposed upon it. For roughly a century and a half, Western culture has been falling ever more thoroughly under the sway of the prejudice that modern empirical science is not only the sole model of genuine truth but also capable of explaining all things. It is a strange belief, but to those who hold it sincerely, nothing is more intolerable than the thought that anything might lie beyond the probative reach of their “mechanical philosophy.” And so the exclusion of interiority, and of the self’s consciousness of itself, from their understanding of our humanity is simply inevitable, no matter how irrational or arbitrary that exclusion may be. “Subjectivity,” writes Robinson, “is the ancient haunt of piety and reverence and long, long thoughts. And the literatures that would dispel such things refuse to acknowledge subjectivity, perhaps because inability has evolved into principle and method.”

Even his criticism is a compliment:

If, though, I had to come up with some complaint to make against the book, I suppose I could fret for a few moments that its rhetorical power might possibly distract many readers from the cogency of its arguments. Ours is the age of “bullet” headings, after all, and expository prose is expected to come in bland, easily digestible fragments, composed entirely of short, often repetitious declamatory sentences. There is some danger, consequently, that Robinson’s literary grace — the expressive force of her language, the dense economy of her sentences, the fluidity with which she moves from point to point — will be mistaken by some as willful obscurity, or resented as a cruel tax upon their patience.

It would, however, be a dark day for civilization if writers of Robinson’s gifts could be swayed by complaints of that sort. In point of fact, much of the joy of reading Robinson comes from her ability to translate complex ideas into words suited to their subtleties. Beginning with her remarkable debut novel Housekeeping (1980), all of her work, fiction and essays alike, has been marked by a luminous intelligence and a rather attractive intellectual severity, communicated in a language that wastes no words and that demands attentiveness. Absence of Mind is a short book, but also an intensely reflective and penetrating one, and it offers considerable rewards for anyone willing to read it carefully, and to think along with it. For all its brevity, it makes its case with surprising comprehensiveness.

If you haven’t read Robinson before, consider this your call to duty.  I haven’t read Absence of Mind yet, but it has just rocketed up on my list.


St. Silouan on Nietzsche

From Blessed Elder Sophrony Sakharov’s book St. Silouan the Athonite. (“Staretz” is a Russian term for a spiritual elder, and the term is used affectionately by Elder Sophrony for his mentor and spiritual father.)

I remarked to the Staretz that there are people who interpret freedom from passion, not as love for God but as a particular kind of contemplation of being, ranking higher than distinguishing good from evil, and they rank such contemplation above Christian love. To this, the Staretz replied,

‘That comes from the devil. The Holy Spirit teaches otherwise.’

And listening to the Staretz, I could not help thinking to so-called ‘supermen’ who ascend ‘on the other side of good and evil’.

The Staretz used to say,

‘The Holy Spirit is love, and He gives the sould strength to love her enemies. And he who does not love his enemies does not know God.’

This last criterion occupied an absolutelyexclusive and incontestable place in the Staretz soul. He would say,

‘The Lord is a merciful Creator, having compassion for all. The Lord pities all sinners as a mother is compassionate with her children even when they take the wrong path. where there is no love for enemies and sinners, the Spirit of the Lord is missing.’ (104-5)

What follows is one of my favorite stories from  St. Silouan’s life that illustrates his exceeding love.

I remember a conversation between him and a certain hermit, who declared with evident satisfaction,

‘God will punish all atheists. They will burn in everlasting fire.’

Obviously upset, the Staretz said,

‘Tell me, supposing you went to paradise, and there looked down and saw somebody burning in hell-fire — would you feel happpy?

‘It can’t be helped. It would be their own fault,’ said the hermit.

The Staretz answered him with a sorrowful countenance:

‘Love could not bear that,’ he said. ‘We must pray for all.’

And he did, indeed, pray for all. It became unnatural for him to pray for himself alone. All men are subject to sin, all ‘come short of the glory of God’. The mere thought of this was enough to distress him — in the measure given to him he had already seen the glory of God and known what it was to fall short of it. His soul was stricken by the realization that people lived in ignorance of God and His love, and with all his strength he prayed that the Lord in His inscrutable love might suffer them to know Him. (48-49)

The Ethics of Avatar

I recently remembered that I meant to write something about Avatar.  The reason I forgot?  Well, its Avatar, how much time can you really spend thinking about it?

When I saw the film I pretty much had the reaction I thought I would.  I was entertained, impressed by the special effects, annoyed by the stale dialog, bored by the plot, and rather embarrassed by the moments it started channeling Pocahontas and Fern Gully. Unlike many other Christians I have very little venom towards the film’s goofy pantheism, maybe I would if I felt it was nefarious or compelling.  But it was about as seductive as a spell cast in a Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode, minus the cool 90’s appeal. I think our kids will be OK. Is it a sign of the times that such values are considered “stock” and fit for mass consumption.  Sure, but that’s not really news.

What I thought was most interesting and avant garde about the film, was the means by which it sought to compel you to root for the Na’vi and the divine energy upholding Pandora: Beauty. All you have to do is go on Cameron’s magical mystery tour of the forests of Pandora and the right thing becomes self-apparent.  There’s no argument, just jaw dropping grandeur. Sure the human scientist types may flap their gums about the precious opportunity they have to study the Na’vi culture, but the science and PC agenda sounds (as I believe it’s meant to) hollow and naive.  Platitudes and platforms are dismissed– just come and see.

It’s about beauty, not diversity.

Once the viewer has sat awash in sci-fi splendor of Cameron’s wood, the right way is not wholly lost and gone, but clear as a Pandorian river.  How should we then live?  In a way that loves the Beautiful and participates with it.  David Hume torqued philosophers for centuries by claiming that the state of things has no bearing on how things ought to be: that you cannot move from is to ought.  Sure if I don’t feed my pets they will die, so?  That is the case, but how does it follow that I ought to feed my pets, or myself for that reason? At a time when people are allergic to oughts Cameron proves Hume wrong by showing us something beautiful.

If only he hadn’t cluttered it up with the rest of the film.

Wittgenstein & Chesterton’s ‘Everlasting Man’

There’s an insipid idea of “progress” that not only does a disservice to our ancestors but also fosters and spirit that robs joy and wonder from our experience of the world.  Both Chesterton and Wittgenstein named this spirit for what it was; and urged an awakening of vision of the world.  For Chesterton this awakening was one of beauty and adventure, for Wittgenstein it was one of duty and truth — and maybe the two are not as far off from each other as they might seem.

From Wittgenstein’s notes collected in Culture and Value, written in 1930.

In Renan’s ‘Peuple d’Israel’ I read: “Birth sickness, death, madness, catalepsy, sleep, dreams, all made an immense impression and,  even nowadays, only a few have the gift of seeing clearly that these phenomena have causes within our constitution.”

On the contrary there is absolutely no reason to wonder at these things, because they are such everyday occurrences. If primitive men can’t help but wonder at them, how much more so dogs and monkeys.  Or is it being assumed that men, as it were, suddenly woke up and, noticing for the first time these things that had always been there, were understandably amazed? — Well, as a matter of fact we might assume something like this; though not that they become aware of these things for the first time but that they do suddenly start to wonder at them.  But this again has nothing to do with their being primitive.  Unless it is called primitive not to wonder at things, in which case the people of today are really the primitive ones, and Renan himself too if he supposes that scientific explanation could intensify wonderment.

As though lightning were more commonplace or less astounding today that 2000 years ago.

Man has to awaken to wonder — and so perhaps do peoples.  Science is a way of sending him off to sleep again.

In other words it’s just false to say: Of course, these primitive peoples couldn’t help wondering at everything.  Though perhaps it is true that these peoples did wonder at all the things around them. — To suppose they couldn’t help wondering at them is a primitive superstition…

Things are placed right in front of our eyes, not covered by any veil. — This is where religion and art part company.

Ok, so I don’t know how much they share that last sentiment, but the likeness is enough to make me grin.

On Not Being Yourself

So I’m sitting at work when a coworker reminds us all that the problem with most people is that they’re not always themselves; that they change who they are depending on their whereabouts and social setting.  It just so happens that I agree with my coworker, inasmuch as a statement like this can be agreed upon.  That is to say that – technically – I do not agree with the statement as it appears on your computer screen, but that I agree with it considering its particular whereabouts and setting.

Ironic, huh?

And this is precisely my point: that the statement simply as is useless, and it is useless because people are incapable of “being themselves” regardless of their whereabouts and social setting.  Sure, we all know what she was trying to say: duplicity and fractured living is a sad and sick thing to behold in people.  In this case, a woman from my coworker’s church, who happens to lead a charitable ministry, has some less then savory dealings with the retail store where I am currently employed.  Yes, the situation is all too sad and typical.

Why does it behoove us to be critical of my coworkers statement?  I suggest that the sloppiness of the statement leads to a lack of understanding of the problem, and more importantly, an inability to grasp the solution.

The human being is not a closed social unit.  Just like we are a moderately open environmental unit — we breathe in and out, we allow substances like food and water inside of us — we are a moderately open social unit.  To think of “being who you are” regardless of social setting is as faulty and fictional as thinking of us living as we are on Mars.  It just ain’t gonna happen.  We must accept this fact and move on; which, in this case, is moving back.

If setting is a factor, how are we to be “ourselves” regardless of setting?  If I am going to change my ways depending on where I am, what I’m doing, and who is around, how do I avoid being an evil duplicitous person? Where do we find that solidarity of character that is noble, honored and rare?

Adding to the milieu is the issue of disposition, or what Aristotle might call habituation.  I am a person pointed in direction.  Where I am going, and whence, is an essential part of “being who I am”.  One thinks of how the early Christian Creeds explain the person of Christ in terms of these questions, or the importance of the surname in almost every culture other than ours.  Consider “attitude” in the aeronautical sense, which is the disposition of the aircraft to the horizon, landscape, and the direction of travel. The term also used to have a sense of physical carriage and posture which, of course, bespeaks of the persons inner composure and mindset.  Sadly, these days the term simply refers to taking the temperature of one’s feelings at a given moment. (“Are you feeling good or bad about it?”  “Are you fur it, or agin it?”)  Rather than focusing on some esoteric and ever-vanishing core of “yourself” that we are supposed to firmly hold in place, we can consider our disposition and concentrate on holding the course.

The term “habituation” reminds us that character is not as much found as it is made.  There are watershed moments in our lives to be sure, but these are put in place by plain ol’ boring repetition. Solidarity of disposition is no small thing, and part of reaching it is attending to the environment.  It cannot be gained by “reaching within yourself”, “following your heart”, or continuing to see yourself as opposed to the “world”.

Likewise another companion to solidarity is the environment itself.  The more that one can get away with anything, the more likely one is to feel the need to recreate and reestablish his or her identity on a daily basis. And as we have all seen before, when someone is allowed to get away with anything, they often do.  The decay of community (which in this case means. “a consistent environment– social and geographic”) has naturally led to an increase in hypocrisy.  Considering this, it is not surprising for us to see the women from our church’s acting out of sync with their typical Sunday behavior.

If we wish to move towards solidarity of behavior and disposition, we must embrace and foster our community.  To be sure this is a bit ironic– that we may choose our environment– but this bit of irony does not preclude us from moving towards solidarity. Committing to your community, fostering your environment, attending to your disposition, practicing the proper habits, are key ingredients to personal solidarity.  If you want to be who you are, you must be who you are becoming.

Culture Revisited, Again

A couple things have sparked my interest in the misconception of culture. The first is my experience at the strange little private school I work at, aka “Flexing Poplars”. Walking into the place is a bit like walking into another world. Hogwarts would be more relateable. When I first started working there a year ago several of the students had heroin problems. One of my favorite students was a 14 year old boy who was working very hard to kick a nasty cocaine problem. Everything I normally assume was exchanged for the opposite, and it has been difficult adjusting without being derailed.

What does a place like Flexing Poplars need? It needs more than just motivation, direction, vision, and competence. It needs a culture change. So I have been focusing on using my presence there to affect a culture change, both in and outside of class.

Teaching high school Sunday School has afforded me a means of comparison. The problems there are similar but different, and the discussions between the priests and myself have been on the same motif: culture creation.

The more direct impetus for this rant was a discussion with a group of conservative Christian men (from many denominations) about how Christians should view education. The issue was brought up by a man who has been deliberating over different post-high school options for his daughter, and it bears noting that his daughter was present. During the conversation I noticed that culture and education were sometimes used synonymously, and sometimes antithetically. Now both these terms suffer frequent violence, but the drum of “impacting culture” was beat regularly and unenthusiastically by everyone present.

The man’s main concern was for his daughter’s development; he wants her to be a happy, responsible, and respectable person. His worries were concerning the information she would be fed, and that the conglomeration of ideas, themes, and values present in the media would be absorbed by her. Surely these fears are reasonable, but what is the response? I know people who went to Berkley in the 60’s and are as conservative as they come. There are plenty of people who are media-literate who aren’t enslaved to whatever happens to be channeled on a given week.

The problem is not as simple as where you get your information from. It’s about who you are.

Of course that seems like a tall order: “who you are”. How does one become a good person? This is in fact the question that forms culture.

So I asked the man’s daughter, “What has shaped you into who you are?” This question is beyond the scope of this piece, but it throws into relief where I think we go wrong. Culture isn’t mainly about information, it’s about the vision of the Good Person.

Two sober remarks need to be made about the current state of our culture: American culture was not formed as a Christian culture, and the secular/sacred distinction has neutralized American culture from developing. The founding fathers’ view of the Good Person was largely the Ben Franklin model. Franklin, not a Christian, was working towards human perfection sans God. Ingenuity, hard work, and habits that supported these virtues took the spotlight. Humility and mercy receded. Ben Franklin, who was not meek, has inherited this piece of earth.

The founding fathers were largely deistic in their philosophy, and certainly shows in their politics. They created a government that assumes that God will not be acting within it, and encouraged mankind to prepare to live and govern without His help. Government, then became a space neutral to divinity. Secularism is built into political philosophy.

Christ was baptized. Water has not been the same since. He was nailed to a tree, and they have yet to forget it. He was buried in the earth, and it is hallowed. I may render to Caesar what belongs to him, but he belongs to God. Christ is present, and he is the Good Person. Christianity is about this Good Person and us becoming more and more like Him as we abide in Him. Christianity acknowledges everything as sacred, and the role of humankind is to take the fruits of the earth and, lifting it up to Him, allow Him to exchange it with something holy. Everything is being transformed, nothing is secular.

Living this way is a tall order, and it is one that we cannot do by ourselves. Convinced as we might be of the sacredness of all things, we wake up in the morning feeling removed from the sacred and ignorant of how to continue in the movement of Christ’s transformation of the cosmos. This is because transformation is occurring within us: we are growing and developing. That is, we are developing if we continue.

I’ve found myself asked quite frequently if being a Christian has any impact in our lives. Can it be the case that I can look like everyone else, act like everyone else, and be a perfect Christian because what Christ has done for me has already been done. However, until death, what is there for us to do? Evangelizing doesn’t seem to match many people’s personalities, and those who seem suited to it are often very annoying and counterproductive.

The dilemma is, in other words, either Christ affects my entire life, or He affects only my post-death destination. Personally, I understand this dilemma well, and it points to a deficiency in contemporary Christianity. Why do we have no Christian culture, no development, no hope? How can we read the Bible and not see the concern that God and his authors have for the continual deification of His people?

If culture is “how one sees the world”, and we cannot see Christ anywhere in the world, then either Christ is false or we are blind to reality. Fr. Alexander Schmemman offers this definition of a Christian: one who sees Christ in everything and rejoices. The mark of culture is that those who grow it see the world in a mature, developed, and cultivated way, and the mark of Christian culture is that we see Truth in the world, shining in the light of His glory.

Culture, revisiting a place to start

What is the relationship between culture (as I am using it) and psychology?  To what extent is culture within the person, and to what extent is it without?  This seems to be where the culture/schema distinction ultimately leads us.  As I mentioned in the comment section, if possible I want to avoid using the word “schema” both because it is jargon, and because it imports Kantian baggage that I find misleading and (for a Christian) un-Incarnational.

We could say that schema is psychological – that is to say, it is a certain sense of what could be understood when I spoke of “a way of seeing the world”.   Schema however, is not in the world, but in us, and the world can become more or less the servant of “our way of seeing it” depending on our previous philosophical and personal tastes.  This leads me to a major objection to using the word: the locus of power can become completely the individual human being.  This  leads us to the typical nature/ nurture whirlpool, and epistemological skepticism.  Sure we could talk about it, but the more that discussion happens, the less removed it is from reality.  Also, I simply don’t care much for it.  Largely it is unhelpful.

What is more important is to keep Truth on the table.  This means, allowing for the common understanding of the world being at least part of reality.  We, schemas included, are subject to the “tribunal of experience”.  Moreover – and this is complex philosophical position worthy of rigorous attention – I believe that experience is conceptually laden.  It is the case that ideas enter into us experientially, even in a certain sense physically.  Epistemologically speaking, man is opened up to the world when he experiences the world.  Experience is not streams of data, but of actual things in an actual world.  (This, as I have noted before, gives an interesting perspective on physical sin, which allows concepts to harm the νούς as well as the body.) Thus I prefer to talk of concepts and experience instead of schema, because I believe it maintains the proper authoritative relationship between the person and the world.

Where is culture in all of this?  I mentioned in the comment box my heritage from Aristotle who continually speaks of the man who is μουσικός , which is either “musical” or “cultured” in most translations.  It comports well with our idea of culture here, though mostly because it signals an initiation into a particular practice of the polis, like music or reading/writing.  There are, of course, other words that also refer to culture in Greek: Plato talks of “education” or “training” (παιδεια), and of course Aristotle’s ethics (from ἐθός ) are all about forming man into true man, the good man.

The multiplicity of words doesn’t detract from my understanding of culture, but further points to what it is I claim we are missing: formation towards an end.  When sociologists talk of “schema” there is not much of an inherent  developmental sense, only a pragmatic one.  Being cultured in this sense would mean learning how to cope with the world, not about how to become most truly and beautifully who you are.

This sense of culture opens the human being up into the world and lifts his face to God, for it is Christ who is the Truth and the example of the Good man.  It is in Him that we can live with each other and the world in Beauty.  Christian culture is that which develops us into persons who can see the world rightly, who can affirm that the heavens declare the glory of God, and the image of God in our neighbor.

Development means change, and change means the death and passing away of somethings.  Being a Christian means being cultured and leaving behind the dead old man we once were.  Does it mean leaving behind our heritage?  Well yes and no.  The Irish were still Irish after St. Patty, but they were no longer Druids. (Apparently that task now falls upon one of my high school students.)  A friend of mine was reaffirming for me the completeness of change in Christ, but even this is not clear.  Is it I who persist through the change, or is it I that am the subject of change; and if the latter, how is it still me?  This question can quickly become mostly fruitless like epistemological skepticism, but it highlights one of the main fears when we talk about culture and “the Good”: namely, how do we judge what stays and goes?  Who are we to be the judge?  I cannot answer that question, but I can tell you part of how we should approach the issue: humbly.