Thursday, February 19, 2009

Sometimes I'm really glad I did my homework.

"The human spirit is revealed by this analysis as having an infinite thirst for truth and an infinite capacity for truth, an infinite dynamism toward truth. We can keep on asking questions and keep on receiving answers, but it does not shut us down; rather, it keeps awakening us further. One of the worst sins persons can commit is to stop asking questions, because then they are prematurely dead inside; they have quenched the spirit. The questioning of our dynamic spirit reveals that we are thirsty for the truth and that we have a capacity for it that does not ever get filled up. Now at this point we raise the question: Are human beings ever fulfilled? Does this quest of ours for truth ever reach a resting point? Obviously not in this world. The only reality that will quench this quest of ours is God's own being which is infinite truth. Truth itself."

—From Consider Jesus: Waves of Renewal in Christology, by Elizabeth A. Johnson

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

"Limn" means "to portray." Don't worry; I had to look it up, too.

I was doing my weekly shelf-reading in the library (dusting shelves and making sure that the Dewey Decimal numbers lined up), when I came across a title that held all the thoughts I’d been thinking lately. Well, not all of them, but a remarkable amount of them. Called Limning the Psyche: Explorations in Christian Psychology, it’s a collection of research essays that examine the roots of modern psychology and attempt to determine what relation it could possibly hold to Christianity.

And relationships are what it is all about. Christianity, many of these theorists hold, in direct opposition to modern secular thought, sees the individual not as an autonomous, self-reliant agent, but as a figure in relation to many other figures. “[T]he minimum definition of humanity is being in encounter . . . ‘I am as I am in relation’” (62). The trinity functions as the model of the perfect relationship, in which the members are distinct but unified. Jesus at times expressed a differing will from that of the Father; this differentiation did not constitute disunion, which is a helpful consideration in reframing the idea of conflict. Conflict allows us to identify ourselves in relation to one another.

An established framework is essential for full human flourishing. The infant needs the assurance of a stable environment; the adult, on a different level, requires the same. “If I am sufficiently unsure I have the right framework, then it does not matter how richly articulated it is” (113). Because modern psychology lacks the definiteness of a moral, religious framework, it is ultimately unreliable.

Many of the authors reference Alasdair MacIntyre, whose work I have been stealing bits of in my spare time. The ideas of context, narrative, and virtue ethics are constantly swirling around in my head. I want to capture them and know what I’m thinking. And that’s why I’m doing this instead of homework right now.

There were so many passages that I wanted copy down, but these, from “Attachment: Bowlby and the Bible,” by Robert C. Roberts, touch on a lot of the major concepts.
What caused the species to have the attachment disposition? The Darwinian answer is, Because attachment behavior promoted survival, the physical characteristics that caused instances of it tended to be passed down through the generations. The theological answer is, Because God intended human beings to live a life characterized by love of himself and of fellow humans, he created them with the attachment disposition (214)

The Christian psychologist can explain more than the Darwinian about personality because her exploratory framework is ultimately personal: Why do human beings have the attachment disposition? Because they are created by God, who is love. That is, they were created out of a kind of proleptic attachment, and for attachment of a certain sort to one another and to their God. The Christian psychologist can acknowledge that the attachment of an infant to his mother, which consists, behaviorally, largely in keeping close to her, has a safety-regulating function. Something like an evolutionary process may indeed be the means by which God created the human race. But the Christian psychologist has an added explanatory resource that allows the deeply personal aspects of human life—of which Bowlby too feels the need to make sense—to be themselves, without “reducing” them to something explainable in terms of mere survival function (217)

Proper attachment is not just a phase people pass through on the way to individuation; it is an irrevocable structure of personhood, an abiding feature of true individuation.” But because “the human constitution contains an essential Godward tendency . . . it follows that we need another, higher, and more essentially reliable object of attachment by reference to which we can qualify our dependence on human objects (223).

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Dependent Rational Animals by Alasdair MacIntyre.

[Many quotations and minimal commentary, like usual.]

Deliberation is what distinguishes us from animals. "They do not have to go through a stage in which they separate themselves from their desires, as humans do, a separation which involves a recognition of goods other than the pleasures of satisfied bodily wants" (68).

At some point in our maturity, we begin to ask ourselves, "What is it best for me to do?" as opposed to to simply, "What do I want?" (70). We are not always experts on what would be best for us to do, however, which is where the influence of community and authority aids in the development of the virtuous life. "What each of us has to do, in order to develop our powers as independent reasoners, and so to flourish qua members of our species, is to make the transition from accepting what we are taught by those earliest teachers to making our own independent judgments that we are able to justify rationally to ourselves and to others as furnishing us with good reasons for acting in this way rather than that" (71). Through the initial submission to authority, the individual emerges as an independent reasoner."To become an effective independent practical reasoner is an achievement, but it is always one to which others have made essential contributions" (82).

Separating one's desires from one's self is the only way to achieve this independent, practical reasoning. For the infant, affection and physical need are one and the same. The object of the parent is to gradually introduce to the growing child the idea that one should not blindly seek to satisfy one's desires, but rather act in accordance with what is right and good. "[O]ne outcome of failure to transform the attitudes and relationships of early childhood is an inability to achieve the kind of independence that is able to acknowledge truthfully and realistically its dependences and attachments, so leaving us in captivity to those dependences, attachments, and conflicts. Acknowledgement of dependence is the key to independence. For one consequence of failure to break free from such captivity may be an inability even to acquire an adequate sense of oneself as an independent person with one's own unity as an agent" (85).

So that we do not live in a "self-deceiving phantasy," authentic self-knowledge is essential, and this is achieved through the correction and advice of others. This requires "honesty, primarily truthfulness about ourselves, both to ourselves and to others." "If I am to imagine reaListically the alternative futures between which I must choose, the quality of my imagination also depends in part upon the contribution of others" (95).

Power is a dynamic that influences every interaction. "We have to learn how to live both with and against the realities of power" (102). Conflict is inevitable; we must deal with it constructively. "The worst outcome is when the rules that enjoin giving and receiving have been substantially subordinated to or otherwise made to serve the purposes of power, the best when a distribution of power has been achieved which allows power to serve the ends to which the rules of giving and receiving are directed" (103).

"[T]he exercise of independent practical reasoning is one essential constituent to full human flourishing." While one who is not able to reason is not precluded from flourshing at all, "not to be able to reason soundly at the level of practice is a grave disability" (105).

"Practical reasoning is by its nature, on the generally Aristotelian view that I have been taking, reasoning together with others, generally within some determinate set of social relationships . . . of family and household, then of schools and apprenticeships, and then of the range of practices in which adults of that particular society and culture engage. . . . So the good of each cannot be pursued without also pursuing the good of all those who participate in those relationships" (107).

Market relationships are never devoid of the human element. A man would never enter a butcher's shop and, upon seeing him collapse with a heart attack, immediately leave, angry that he did not get his cut of meat. "I will have obviously and grossly damaged my whole relationship to him, including my economic relationship, although I will have done nothing contrary to the norms of the market. . . . Market relationships can only be sustained by being embedded in certain types of local nonmarket relationships, relationships of uncalculated giving and receiving, if they are to contribute to overall flourshing, rather than, as they so often in fact do, undermine and corrupt communal ties" (117).

While the expression of affection and pity is an elemental aspect of the virtuous life, so is moderation and a conception of propriety. "Sentiment, unguided by reason, becomes sentimentality and sentimentality is a sign of moral failure" (124).

Political structures must give a voice to all, regardless of their ability to become independent practical reasoners, because dependence is a universal quality, varying only in intensity. "What I am trying to envisage then is a form of political society in which it is taken for granted that disability and dependence on others are something that all of us experience at certain times in our lives and this to unpredictable degrees, and that consequently our interest in how the needs of the disabled are adequately voiced and met is not a special interest . . . but rather the interest of the whole political society, an interest that is integral to their conception of their common good" (130).

The modern nation-state cannot provide the common good. "[T]he shared public goods of the
modern nation-state are not the common goods of a genuine nationwide community and, when the nation-state masquerades as the guardian of such a common good, the outcome is bound to be either ludicrous or disastrous or both" (132). Those who espouse virtue ethics can recognize the necessity of the modern nation-state and the essential national security that it provides. "But they will also recognize that the modern state cannot provide a political framework informed by the just generosity necessary to achieve the common goods of networks of giving and receiving" (133).

"It is by having our reasoning put to the question by others, by being called to account for ourselves and our actions by others, that we learn how to scrutinize ourselves as they scrutinize us and how to understand ourselves as they understand us" (148). By having to make ourselves intelligible, we discover who we are, what we are doing, and why we are doing it. The why is nearly always predicated on the question of the good that was being pursued in a given action. "Why did you do this?" is ultimately the same as "What good were you pursuing in doing this?" This requires "elementary truthfulness in our accounts, so that they can learn from us and we from them" (150).

Boastfulness denies what we owe to others; self-deprecation "is a refusal to allow others to acknowledge our contributions to their achievements. Both vices focus attention on us and obscure our relationship to others" (151).

"Rational enquiry . . . is therefore not something that I undertake . . . It is something that we unedrtake from within our shared mode of practice" (157).

"[T]he task of education is to transform and integrate those into inclination towards both the common good and our individual goods, so that we become neither self-rather-than-other-regarding nor other-rather-than-self-regarding, neither egoists not altruists, but those whose passions and inclinations are directed to what is both our good and the good of others" (160).