Categories: Body of Christ, Narratives and truth
The modern man of the West knows in his bones that he is an individual, born an individual, a clearly defined entity which stands in some sense above not only the confusing and often chaotic world around us but also above our bodies, our organisms which are also confusing and chaotic at times. An individual human being can be a chimera with the DNA of multiple human individuals—twin embryos can merge in the womb. A woman can be a genetic male because of a faulty switch which is supposed to begin the masculinization of the embryonic body. Statistically, men are more likely to have homosexual desires if they have older brothers—speculatively, the mother’s womb develops some sort of resistance to the masculinization process.
One of my favorite problems of this sort, because it shoots down the modern form of `free-will’ is the well-established fact that, when we move a finger or leg, the movement control regions of the brain begin to act before there is any activity in the regions of the brain associated with conscious thinking, including conscious planning. This is not an argument against our freedom, including our moral freedom, though it is an argument against free-will as usually imagined. That is, it’s an argument against the delusion that a human organism is controlled by some self-contained, subsistent entity that is the real us, an entity which rules our bodies.
Our individuality, which is clearly tied to our various sorts of freedom, cannot be associated with our DNA or with the conscious regions of the brain. Our individuality is a matter of our entire being, which starts with our bodies, our physical being but extends out into what seems to be not-us, human communities—past and present and future, as well as the non-human regions of Creation. We are free as being certain types of organisms, as are nearly all living creatures—viruses are almost mechanisms rather than organisms but even bacteria move with apparent freedom. To be sure, the human capabilities for certain sorts of awareness, including an explicit awareness of past and present and future, and for planning give us the possibilities of greater freedom though there is a lot of anecdotal evidence that many human beings don’t have, or at least don’t exercise, the sort and level of freedom which would allow them to be self-governing as citizens or as full participants in the marketplace or even as parents.
We’re creatures embedded in a particular universe and in very particular and very small environments inside that universe. We’re strange creatures by most traditional understandings, at war with ourselves as taught by the Biblical prophets and St Paul and the Jewish sages of the early Christian era, yet the details of DNA and sexual battles (mostly unconscious and sometimes fought at the level of parental DNA) are eerie. Some of our DNA and some of our body mass comes from bacteria and even viruses. To a pure Platonist (not a description applicable to Plato himself), there doesn’t even seem to be any `human being’ which could be part of any realm of the Real.
And that is the sort of problem that everyman faces. We have a self-understanding, and an understanding of our world, which doesn’t look plausible in light of modern empirical knowledge and we try hard to hold on to those understandings as we face up to those bits and pieces of modern empirical knowledge which come to our attention.
It won’t work. As a result of our indifference toward or rebellion against what-is, we have become confused and fragmented creatures—see my novel, A Man for Every Purpose. Those under 40 or so are in a still worse condition. They have been raised under conditions where few adults even held an inherited and defective understanding of their human self or of the world. The young of the early decades of the 21st century seem unformed, somewhat in the way of a two year-old who is just beginning to explore her environments, but there is no sign they are so exploring. They accept the condition of an unformed human being in a chaotic world and just turn to video-games or cellphones.
There is no readily available understanding of human being or of our world. It can’t be found in television shows or movies or popular music. It can’t be found in the bare facts of science documentaries, bare facts presented as if that’s all there is of human being and the world—just bare facts. It can’t be found in the fairy-tales of Catholic CCD or Protestant Sunday Schools, teachings which are fairy-tales not because they speak of the Creator and His purposes for us and for the entire world, teachings which are fairy-tales because they come from understandings of the world which were once the best the human race could do but no longer make sense.
We can read a very confused, and seemingly honest, man on this issue: We’re All Zombies. Robert Bonomo tells us:
As the Christian myth begins its third millennium, is the zombie meme telling us that this religious story is no longer viable ? Are billions of ‘zombies’ eating flesh and drinking blood but finding no nourishment? The vast majority of Western people have a profound belief in science and science tells us that the story of Jesus is not to be taken literally, yet our churches insist that the ‘myth’ of Jesus is historical. The Christian software no longer works as the science ‘virus’ has rendered it useless.
Myths are other people’s religions and for Westerners in need of spiritual ‘food’ the Eastern systems of yoga and Buddhism, which don’t depend on dogma that contradicts science, seem to be more palatable to their scientific worldviews. Unfortunately, those ‘programs’ where written for a machine other than modern Western man.
Science can give us answers to almost all our questions, yet in the end its meaninglessness is disquieting. Science gives us technologies and deep understandings of the mechanics of the universe, but it’s unwilling to the breach the topic of meaning. We are asked to live for cliches, consumerism, hedonism or fundamentalism. Rejecting science is absurd but embracing it is deadening.
If we were able to understand our own religions in the same spirit that we decipher the religions of others (myths) while embracing science (with its limitations), than maybe we could find our way to a new myth that would shed meaning on our cold world. But myths emerge, they are not consciously created, and for the moment we wade in the void of knowing how but not why. We consume but are never filled, we seek but we do not find.
We are all zombies.
No, we’re not, but we are victims of some number of generations of cowardly, faithless, dishonest leaders, priest and ministers as well as philosophers and theologians as well as businessmen and local political leaders as well as politicians and doctors.
I can imagine the pain of the inhabitants of the Mediterranean region in the fifth century who saw all meaning decaying along with the stability and nobility of Rome. I can also imagine one man, Bishop Augustine of Hippo, setting out to make sense of that decay in light of his Christian faith and then dying not even realizing he’d made such good sense of it as to provide a narrative for a still greater civilization than even the Roman. Yes, the West was founded by one man setting out to counter claims by pagan thinkers he admired, claims that Rome was falling because it had become Christian. In doing so, Augustine made such good sense of it that his basic narrative lasted for nearly 1500 years.
We need a major effort by Christians to address the claims not of those who would be our enemies but rather of those who were and are simply good historians and physicists and biologists. We need to make sense of their claims in light of Moses and Jeremiah and, most of all, in light of the man-God who walked the earth and whose story is told in the Gospels.
We of the modern world can’t possibly understand ourselves without serious knowledge of not only human history proper (disciplined writings of facts and narratives) but also our species history. We have to be inspired by Augustine of Hippo, historian and theologian, and we have to be strong where he was weak—in science and metaphysics.
We can even come up with a coherent and morally well-ordered understanding of the freedom we enjoy, not the false freedoms of a subsistent individual somehow independent of his proper and improper desires and not the false freedoms described by reductionists, such as advocates of the selfish-gene viewpoint. Even when it comes to the biology of the human being, for example our tendencies to seek relative independence from communities or to naturally subordinate individual self to community are largely found in our bodily based feelings and emotions and those bodily based human traits are not uniform across the human species; each of us has a history of particular ethnic lines within that human species. Each of us also has a cultural and family and personal history. We are individuals but not made for standing freely of either our communities or our environments.
We, as individuals or as communities, have no freedom to change much of this, some freedom to change some of it; little of true importance can be changed in the short-run. We do have the freedom to act according to our customs and the habits and thoughts we’ve developed through our own efforts and the efforts of our parents and other teachers and guides. This is where human conscious types of moral intelligence are truly important: we can form habits and shape our future selves. Otherwise we remain dependent upon either inadequate habits and ways of perceiving reality or else force ourselves to attempt the heroic effort of deep analysis for each and all of our difficult moral decisions and many of our less difficult moral decisions.
Our freedom comes as a result of proper formation of self, a self which is both individual and communal. Our freedom comes when we act as that properly formed self. Our moral habits, as well as other good habits, are encapsulated in those movements of finger or legs which begin before we consciously think about that scream of pain toward which we move or about that drink too many which has been placed in front of us by a generous buddy at the bar. This is true also in our vocations and our avocations and our daily activities of the most casual sort.
Freedom can’t be found by pursuing the false dreams of radical individualism which don’t correspond to true human being, other than perhaps to that of some extreme individuals, most of whom are probably found in the extreme ethnic groups of northwestern Europe and the descendant populations mainly in the Anglo- regions of the world. Freedom won’t be real and certainly won’t be stable if it is, in fact, a freedom to pretend to be something we really aren’t. No wonder we are so confused and fragmented, so many in the younger generation are simply empty.
We have given up our particular cultures, especially those of us who are the mush produced by the melting-pot called America. We have no greater civilization which can provide us with a narrative that tells us what it all means, where `it’ includes our own human beings. Western Civilization has decayed, almost gone away. Christ remains as Lord of Creation but His Church is in ruins and its leaders are without clothes. We are free individuals, that is, we are atoms being freely slammed and banged about by forces and even the most social of those forces are external to us, enemies.
After all this talk about individualism and freedom, I’m going to retreat to a basic, Socratic question: What is freedom? I wrote this essay under the assumption we best seek freedom as if answering the question: how can we better shape ourselves to be what we should be. We start with what we already are: poorly integrated organisms with both individual and communal being. I should stress that it is both individual and communal being which is poorly integrated.
We gain freedom by shaping ourselves properly to what lies outside of us, the objective reality which is typically, and properly for the most part, perceived as opportunities and problems. But, that by itself, should make no sense to modern men, including most Christians trying to be faithful to the traditions of their faith for they are bound to think and feel that, at conception or at least some time before adult awareness, there will be that subsistent entity which is a human being, an entity defined as a self-aware individual. It is that subsistent, self-aware entity which desires the good or what gives purely physical pleasure or something else. It is that subsistent, self-aware entity which is an atom, a plaything of a hostile world, a world in which we are aliens.
I stand against all this confusion and all this failure of Christians and others to resolve this confusion, to give us a meaning, a narrative which brings all this horror, as well as all this beauty and pleasure, into moral order. I’m advocating a worldview, an understanding of all created being and its relationship to God, which is Christian all the way down. What is good and beautiful and true, what is conducive to good order, is found in all of Creation and is there because Creation and all that is found in it is the manifestation of certain thoughts God chose freely for the very specific Creation and this still more specific world He chose to create, to create from nothingness and then to create in the way of shaping. Some of this goodness and beauty and truth is in human being in partial and imperfect states, but most of it lies outside any individual human being, outside of any communal human being—even the pilgrim Body of Christ. Ultimately, the goodness and beauty and truth are found in God, but we find them in each thought and all thoughts the Almighty has manifested as created being.
We move toward the completion and perfection found only in the world of the resurrected and we move as individual members of the pilgrim Body of Christ and as that Body in its entirety, but we move as beings existing as acts-of-being of the Creator, as objects of His attention and of His love.
That places a heavy burden upon Christians who would carry the Good News to all men. We have no Good News because our Jesus isn’t true to the universe of evolution and genes and curved spacetime, which means our Jesus isn’t the true Jesus Christ. Christians have no plausible understanding of the universe, no narrative telling other men or even our own selves what it all means. Our main failure is not that of not reading the Bible or not praying, though we may be also failing in those matters. Our main failure is not reading the revelations found in our own human beings, in the stars, in the strangeness and the beauty of modern mathematics. We don’t understand created being in this universe and we think we can jump to the meaning found in Christ who is God but also perfected and completed man, man as found in reality and not in our imaginations.
Here is what St Thomas Aquinas had to say about the importance of knowledge of Creation, empirical knowledge of created being:
[J]ust as a disciple reaches an understanding of the teacher’s wisdom by the words he hears from him, so man can reach an understanding of God’s wisdom by examining the creatures [God] made… [Page 17 of St Thomas Aquinas’ commentary on 1 Corinthians. Translated by Fabian Larcher, O.P. in unknown year and originally made available at website of Ave Maria University. It is now available online here and in print here. Both of those are edited and corrected copies unlike the one I had downloaded and lost which was Fr Larcher’s final draft at his death.]
Some Medieval Scholastics were said to phrase it: “Most of what we know about God comes from knowing His effects in Creation.”
Radical individualism and some other defective lines of thought in recent centuries developed and spread so widely because of a vacuum of sorts. Western Civilization was deeply, if quite incompletely and defectively, Christian. Western Civilization was founded upon what might be labeled the Augustinian understanding of human history and its relationship to the more specialized Christian understanding of human origins and human moral nature and much else culminating in an understanding of salvation, of the relationship of this world to its Maker. This last understanding, once rethought in terms of those lesser understandings, had then re-absorbed those lesser understandings.
Earlier men of Western Civilization were individuals with some substantial freedom and also members of various communities with their own sorts of freedom. Ultimately, individuals and communities were part of the Body of Christ.
No longer can we provide meaning by an appeal to our inherited understanding of what-is, not because it wasn’t true. It was true and is true, but the individuals and the various communities have to be understood in terms of reality, in the best terms available to men of any given age, not in textbook terms drawn from prior and no longer valid understandings of created being.
Any understanding of “what it all means” in the mainstream of the Catholic Church or any other part of Christianity is centuries out of date and can’t be taken seriously—one of the reasons so many no longer take the Catholic Church or other Christian churches seriously. Christian theologians and philosophers attempt to speak about human moral nature or—somewhat equivalently—about human origins by, at best, squeezing selected bits of knowledge about genes and evolution into old frameworks of knowledge. (The totality of any such consistent frameworks would constitute what I call a “worldview.”)
We hear of one view of human origins and human moral nature in homilies and sermons and theological or spiritual books. We hear of other views in popular or academic works about science and history. Too many will wave their hands spasmodically and claim, “There is no conflict.” There is, though it isn’t a conflict between religion and science but rather a conflict between science of past centuries and science of our own time—using the term `science’ in the broader sense of “disciplined study of facts” and including history and some philosophy as well as physics and biology. Mainstream Christian worldviews are based upon the best of human empirical knowledge as of, perhaps, 1800 in Etienne Gilson’s quite knowledgeable and intelligent understanding of the history of Christian thought. (I would tend to put the break nearer to the persecution of that orthodox Augustinian theologian Galileo, the early 17th century though the rebellion of Christians against God and His Creation had been developing for some time before that.)
I think I’ve laid a good foundation for a new understanding of Creation in my various books and other writings, but few seem interested. Some prefer to join in the fun as barbarian children party in the ruins of Western Civilization. Some prefer to watch in horror and to write learned commentaries of the decay in light of the inherited understandings which no longer work. And others, such as the blogger I quoted above, Robert Bonomo, simply express their confusion and perhaps their pain.
Readers, learn from what I’ve done and spread the word. Perhaps you can do better or perhaps join in the work to which God has called me.