Saturday, April 10, 2010

Schenck the Modern

The infamous Monday reading group at IWU (okay, so we're not really that well known) is finishing up this semester dabbling in Charles Taylor's Sources of the Self. It is a somewhat dense book for we lightweights, but most are persisting. I have received a couple F's for not having my homework done.

The book does a fair job of articulating some of my thinking in relation to modernism and, perhaps even more helpful, has helped give me some categories for understanding some of those I come into most conflict with on the blog and on the Facebook edition of these posts.

I have usually described the difference between myself and my detractors as the difference between pre-modern and modern. Forget post-modern. I am far more modern than post-modern.

Of course Descartes and the Enlightenment are the boogiemen right now. I actually think they get the credit for the great advances of Western culture. I feel like they more need some crucial footnotes than anything like a return to what was before. So, yes, there is no such thing as the completely detached observer of Descartes. But it sure would help the world if we all at least tried to be.

We're reading chapter 11, "Inner Nature," for Monday, and something just clicked for me relative to some recent debates. Prior to Descartes, it was assumed that truth was a characteristic of the world, in the world out there. I'm not quite putting it clearly, but perhaps an example will help. Taylor suggests that one reason the theory of evolution was difficult for people when it came out was because of the concept of extinction. If the universe embodies truth, then something can't go extinct because that would be like a truth going away.

That's still not quite clear, is it. Another example is melancholy, which used to be associated with black bile in the body. "On the earlier view, black bile doesn't just cause melancholy; meloncholy somehow resides in it... black bile is melancholy" (189).

I have grown up, I think, with the Cartesian model, and I think this is why it is so hard for me even to make sense of some of the things my discussion partners say. I attribute this to their being unreflective, pre-modern, but this is obviously language that places a judgment on their ability to reason. I will need to reflect more carefully on how to bridge my language with them.

To use an example that has not come up in discussion, I generally have trouble making sense of the following statement: "There is a moral structure to the universe." I don't know what such a statement would mean. Where? Is there a gene in my DNA? Is it hiding behind Orion's belt?

For me, God has a will regarding morality. Yes, the consequences of certain actions will tend to lead to certain bad consequences. But this is completely modern thinking. It is something completely different from the pre-modern view, which somehow sees moral structure as somehow in the universe. I have no idea what this even means.

Another example is a recent speaker on campus who suggested that the literal meaning of marriage might be the wedding of Christ with the church and that specific human marriages are metaphors that point to it. I have great difficulty even making sense of such a statement. The idea of the bride of Christ is the barest sliver in the New Testament. So this suggestion is that in God's mind, before the foundation of the world, He designed human marriage to point to the ultimate marriage of the church to Christ.

This is an interesting idea, but seems a quite peculiar suggestion, mainly because I wonder how many Christians throughout history have received this revelation, let alone any OT individuals! There have been millions of marriages since the foundation of the world, and how many dozen have realized the symbolism of their union?! Clearly the normal sense of the world marriage is the union of a man and a woman to live together their lives long and perhaps have children. At least in terms of our experience (including the first New Testament individual to whom the idea of the bride of Christ first occurred), the notion of the bride of Christ is a new truth based on transferring language from its normal use to a different context.

In short, to consider the normal use of marriage as the metaphor requires us to know things in God's mind that we simply don't know, indeed, that the overwhelming majority of Christians have not known. The idea is not spelled out in Scripture, meaning that must be secret insight into God's mind to be true, brought to us on the lips of prophets.

But Taylor helps me understand. Before Descartes, it was perfectly normal thinking to see the particulars of our existence (like marriage) as reflections of the inherent order of the world (marriage of the church to Christ). After Descartes, we build up to the universals from the particulars by establishing common ground between the particulars.

I have not explained things well. Perhaps in future discussion I will have opportunity to point out examples. I am simply unable to think that black bile is melancholy, that melancholy inheres in bile. I believe that God has a moral will for the creation. I cannot make sense of the statement that the universe has a moral structure.


Keith Drury said...

You did your homework! ;-)

Angie Van De Merwe said...

Thanks for this post, as it leaves little room to manuever when it comes to historical progress.

The question in regards to science today is what is a human being. That is, at least in my opinion, a complex and difficult question that one has to ask if it is like asking "Who or What is God".

The physical aspects of man and his needs are universal, this is true, but is this all that makes for the 'human"?

When one comes to the higer needs of "man", then we find potetialities, and choice/decisions. These can only be met within a liberal democracy, which the Enlightenment wrought. And the "moral government" is a government that protects the higher values of human liberty in life and one's pursuit of happiness.

I read somewhere that the conflict over the Epicurean and Stoic ideas are what underlie the conflict over how we understand liberal democracy today.

Stoicism defines the Christian faith, as faith believes in "god" controlling events or in purposes, etc.. But, I believe I read where Thomas Jefferson's view tended more toward the Epicurean, where the empirical evidence is against such belief..

I am reading "The Science of Liberty" by Timothy Ferris that argues for the modern position.

In liberal democracies, man has developed morally, apart from spiritually defined models of ethics. And the "end" of such development is constitutional government that protects liberty, so that humans may have choice of value.

Authoritarian regimes, whether political or religious will not do service to man's need to choose and develop his own goals for his own good, as well as society's.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

BTW, there is no agreement over whether there is a absolute "reality" in regards to abstract math...does this math describe the "real world of God's order", or is it a social construct of scientist as he investigates the world.

Because there are a number of theories that can describe the same thing when it comes to "science", then I would think that man constructs these theories to describe the "realities" of science.

Ken Schenck said...

Angie, Taylor is actually building a case against Cartesian Enlightenment, so 1) I am interested to hear his critique and 2) a chastened modernist epistemology or a critical realist epistemology does not preclude the existence of God.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

No, the existence of God can only be held by faith, after embracing agnosticism, as a critical realist. Most embrace God, as a critical idealist in the Christian world (if I am understanding the terms correctly).

Angie Van De Merwe said...

I am not arguing from a Cartesian view...thinking, therefore I am...

You argue, as a Wesleyan, from a "I am, because I do" (character, as defined by virtue). That is an empirical and verifying of faith claims. I just don't want to "perform" for entrance into the "in group" (a Christian), because I believe that evaluations of this type are not according to the "ideals" of a liberal democracy, but an autocratic governing of other human beings.

Marc said...

The metaphor of God being betrothed to his people runs right through the Bible and is surely the most intimate and shocking images of the relationship in the OT: Isaiah 50:1;54:4; Jeremiah 3:8

Ken Schenck said...

Quite right that the OT also expresses God's relationship with Israel in terms of the metaphor of marriage (Hosea also). But these verses are expressed as metaphors and Israel certainly would have experienced them as metaphors built on the normal use in normal life.

It remains the case nonetheless that the Bible never says that God created human marriage as a metaphor for God's relationship with his people. It is always worded the other way around, with God's relationship with His people being like the relationship between a man and a woman. To state the opposite is to "read into" the nature of reality.

Now that doesn't necessarily mean that such individuals are wrong--only that they should not think the idea comes from the Bible.

Marc said...

You are of course perfectly correct, but the Bible doesn't explicitly say a lot of things we believe, having arrived at them by reason or experience.

However, don't you sometimes think that creation is a graphic representation of spiritual truth. That physical seeds which grow to feed and nourish us are in some way intended to point us to the way God's Word does this spiritually? The alternative is that the metaphors are simply grasped as handy examples which might well have been otherwise.