Charles Taylor and the Late Modern Search for Identity

University students today are obsessed with finding, copying or creating an identity. Their lives are in major transition, with the responsibilities of adulthood looming on the horizon. One’s identity can feel quite fragile and cross-pressured, especially under the strain of final exams or thesis defence. Students swim in a sea of multiple declared identities, and this can be deeply challenging. One might indeed ask, Who am I?  For students in the humanities, social sciences and education, identity politics is a ubiquitous concern. Cynicism about the whole prospect of shaping one’s identity is not really an option for the flourishing, whole individual, the examined life. How do I give account of myself amidst a vast universe and a complex global situation, with its intense competition? How do I insert myself into the larger scheme of things?

Pre-eminent McGill University philosopher Charles Taylor is an iconic figure in this field of defining what exactly constitutes identity. He can introduce us to new language and new concepts that build substance into our story. This super scholar has written three weighty tomes on the subject: Sources of the Self, 1989; A Secular Age, 2007; and The Language Animal, 2016. We have the highest respect for his work and his ability to analyze the depth and breadth of forces and ideas that have shaped the West, with its multiple identities and many social imaginaries. Much scholarship has branched off from his work, including the various human flourishing projects (for example, Miraslov Volf at Yale), and his brilliant insights concerning rethinking the secular. Perhaps our grande penseé can help us grapple with this important aspect of development, lest we feel totally out of our depth. The current existential identity crisis among Millennials is impacting so many, so we have good reason to pursue the inquiry.

Identities are constituted from moral sources, claims Taylor, sources that nurture the inner person (aka the soul). Identity, morality and spirituality are inescapably interwoven in our lives, our experience and our consciousness, if we take time to think about it. We intuitively grasp this. Central to an account of human existence is the moral sources which appear within one’s moral framework (aka moral horizon). These moral frameworks are often invisible to people, pre-articulate realities that we nevertheless depend upon, and interact with, daily.  Our education is partly to blame, rendering us illiterate or confused on the most important identity categories and questions. For Taylor, these categories and the reality they represent are absolutely vital to our sanity and wellbeing. Our relationship to our moral framework has deep significance. If we are not careful, our negligence can also handicap or even cripple us. For example, if we do not grapple with the framework of others, dialogue and mutual understanding can be very difficult to accomplish, leading to conflict and alienation. We are out of sync with a very important aspect of life.

Taylor notes that there exists a hierarchy of moral goods within each framework, and it is up to the individual to order these goods in priority.  As a key aspect of one’s identity, there must be qualitative distinctions between the value of each of these goods. The highest, controlling good within a framework Taylor calls the hypergood–also seen as a person’s core passion. We have a deep personal and emotional connection to our hypergood–it orders the other goods in priority within the hierarchy of the moral frame. Identity is the understanding of oneself as a person within family, a story, a religion, a profession, a country, in fact all one’s significant relationships. Sometimes these goods come into conflict with one another (work and family, for example) and need to be negotiated, but these qualitative distinctions are intrinsic to the way we conduct our lives. Critically, they inform our orientation towards the world, help us set our goals, and plan our future. The best account of human experience has to make sense of these moral sources which, at the end of the day, become sources of meaning and identity.

Three axes of moral frameworks: these are not properly defined by natural laws of science

  1. Beliefs about the value of human life, the respect that is due to others, and what this will cost us, demand from us.
  2. Beliefs about what kind of life is worth living. This permeates all our choices and actions.
  3. The dignity we afford ourselves and others based on how we understand our role and usefulness to society, and our place or calling within the larger scheme of things.

~Dr. Gordon E. Carkner

What exactly is a moral good in Taylor’s definition?

Read More…

Posted by: gcarkner | April 20, 2019

Easter Poems by Malcolm Guite

_________________
XI Crucifixion by Malcolm Guite
See, as they strip the robe from off his back
And spread his arms and nail them to the cross,
The dark nails pierce him and the sky turns black,
And love is firmly fastened onto loss.
But here a pure change happens. On this tree
Loss becomes gain, death opens into birth.
Here wounding heals and fastening makes free
Earth breathes in heaven, heaven roots in earth.
And here we see the length, the breadth, the height
Where love and hatred meet and love stays true
Where sin meets grace and darkness turns to light
We see what love can bear and be and do,
And here our saviour calls us to his side
His love is free, his arms are open wide.
—————————
_________________-
XV Easter Dawn by Malcolm Guite
 

He blesses every love which weeps and grieves

And now he blesses hers who stood and wept

And would not be consoled, or leave her love’s

Last touching place, but watched as low light crept

Up from the east. A sound behind her stirs

A scatter of bright birdsong through the air.

She turns, but cannot focus through her tears,

Or recognise the Gardener standing there.

She hardly hears his gentle question ‘Why,

Why are you weeping?’, or sees the play of light

That brightens as she chokes out her reply

‘They took my love away, my day is night’

And then she hears her name, she hears Love say

The Word that turns her night, and ours, to Day.

Posted by: gcarkner | April 13, 2019

Some Thoughts: Good Friday and Easter

Faith in God includes one’s ongoing resolve to receive God’s moral character in Christ inwardly, and to belong to God, in the reverent attitude of Gethsemane; Christ in you is the inward agent-power of Christ working, directing at the level of psychological and motivational attitudes, towards a cooperative person’s renewal in God’s image as God’s beloved child; furthermore Gethsemane union with Christ as Lord calls for volitional cooperation and companionship with Christ, who empowers and guides how we think, not just what we think.

~Dr. Paul Moser, Philosopher Loyola University, Chicago

How are we to understand Good Friday and Easter from such a distance? How does it relate to our experience? Is it mere sentiment or something more profound? Andy Crouch in his book Culture Making: recovering our creative calling, (Chapter 8 “Jesus as Culture Maker”) has some brilliant insights into the difference that Jesus life, death and resurrection have for shaping the horizons of possibility (shalom and human flourishing) for societies, ancient and modern. He helps us grapple with the various dimensions of this sorrow and celebration. See also I Corinthians 15 and reflect on the meaningful quotes by other authors and leaders.

~Gordon Carkner

The Cross

He suffered the full weight of the human story of rebellion against God. He was literally impaled on the worst that culture can do–an instrument of torture that stood for all the other cultural dead ends of history, from spears to bombs, gas chambers to waterboards. Like all other instruments of violence, a cross is cultural folly and futility at its most horrible. (141)

The core calling of [Jesus] life is not something he does at all in an active sense–it is something he suffers. The strangest and most wonderful paradox of the biblical story is that its most consequential moment is not an action but a passion–not a doing but a suffering. (142)

On Good Friday, love embraced suffering as Jesus drank the bitter cup. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. self-consciously followed the same journey of the suffering death of Jesus, the way of the cross, as he promoted civil rights for African-Americans in the Southern USA in the 1960s. He worked hard to replace the perverted symbol of the cross which was used as a justification for aggression, hate and violence—e.g. as an instrument of the Ku Klux Klan. His life quest was to restore the cross as a symbol of love, mercy, justice and non-violence. He incarnated a form of extreme love, a committed non-violent protest against systemic injustice.

~Iwan Russell-Jones, former BBC Filmmaker and Professor of Faith and the Arts, Regent College

https://ubcgcu.org/2014/04/17/good-friday-by-malcolm-guite/ Good Friday Poem by Malcolm Guite

Can Beauty Save Us? 

This is the image of a Jewish man from Nazareth, crucified. In fact, his is the face of “the King of the Jews” and yet, it is supremely grotesque, bearing all the marks of suffering. His face reveals real forsakenness; his body aches of real bodily torture and real agony. His corpse lies mangled and bloodied, and his eyes…proclaim the dreadful word that causes all who hoped in him to shudder: death. There is nothing at all glamorous, desirable, or romantic about this image of the crucified One. But, of course, what is so profound about the face of this human is that his is also the face of God. His face radiates the Beauty of divinity, for he is Light from Light uncreated, the perfect image of the Father. He is, as Hebrews 1:3 says, “the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature.” The beauty of this person, wholly man and wholly God, lies in the mystery that he brings salvation to the world not by excluding suffering but by uniting himself to it. He refuses to recoil from a world that has become repellent; he does not laugh at the dereliction of others; he does not look at all that is bad and conclude, “all is well.” He does not stand far off. In his beauty, he comes near and embraces the “ugly” ones. He associates with strange and lonely and exiled folk, bringing the outcast in. He is the servant who suffers, and, protesting against “the way things are,” he laments “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” He exemplifies and creates a people committed to what David Hart calls “strange, impractical, altogether unworldly tenderness” to those whom Nietzsche would have annihilated…. He brings the whole festival of divine grace to a world that has excluded itself from it and invites…humanity to take part, to enjoy a feast of resurrection where all divisions, segregation, and exclusion are transcended, where all have their place at the supper of the Lamb, where all, who see the face of the Beautiful One and in that seeing are transformed, are inundated and radiated by Beauty itself. In a word, to paraphrase St. Athanasius, he becomes the Ugly One so that we, the original ugly ones who have made this world ugly with our violence, might become beautiful. This reveals the scandalous message of the Christian aesthetic regime, an alternative regime to that of our time: Beauty saves the world, but only by facing the Ugly head on and actually uniting himself to the regime of the Ugly. We cannot be saved by beauty as long as “beauty” is held captive by immanent attempts to achieve transcendence. The thought that we can be saved by immanent beauty is the presumption of a contemporary secularity that thinks that humanity can ever slowly, by carefully putting one foot above the other, ascend the ladder towards infinite beauty that awaits an enlightened race of humans. The truth that will always confront all of us at the top of that ladder, however, is the face of the God who, beyond history, came into history and became ugly, mangled, and ripped apart by deep dereliction and thorns, a face that unbearably whispers: you can only be saved by the beautiful one who has become the ugly one. In other words, the Ugly one alone can save us, the man of sorrows, acquainted with grief, whose divine Beauty is manifest in his descent to become—Jesus of Nazareth. (Jimmy Myers, Can Beauty Save Us?www.firstthings.com)

The Aftershocks of the Resurrection

The New Testament writers speak as if Christ’s achievement in rising from the dead was the first event of its kind in the whole history of the universe. He is the “first fruits,” the “pioneer of life.” He has forced open a door that has been locked since the death of the first man. He has met, fought, and beaten the King of Death. Everything is different because He has done so. This is the beginning of the New Creation: a new chapter in cosmic history has opened. ~C.S. Lewis, Miracles

The resurrection was a culture-shaping event…. If indeed it happened as Jesus’ followers proclaimed, [it] changed more of subsequent human history, for more people and more cultures, than any other event one can name. See N.T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God. which examines it using the tools of historical research. (143)

The resurrection of Jesus is like a cultural earthquake, its epicenter located in Jerusalem in the early 30’s [C.E.], whose aftershocks are being felt in the cultural practices of people all over the world, many of whom have never heard of, and many more of whom have never believed in, its origins. (145)

The resurrection is the hinge of history–still after two thousand years as culturally far-reaching in its effects as anything that has come since. (145) It is a cultural triumph–an answer, right in the midst of human history, to all the fears of Israel in the face of its enemies. (146)

Indeed one of the most dramatic cultural effects of the resurrection is the transformation of that heinous cultural artifact known as a cross. An instrument of domination and condemnation becomes a symbol of the kingdom that Jesus proclaimed; an alternative culture where grace and forgiveness are the last word…. The cross, the worst that culture can do, is transformed into a sign of the kingdom of God–the realm of forgiveness, mercy, love and indestructible life. (146)

Adrienne von Speyr, a 20th century Swiss mystic, offers a reflection:

The Lord knows that all is now finished. His life is finished, what will succeed it is also finished. In the course of his sojourn on earth, he has put in place everything out of which the later Church will arise in the many-sidedness of her life; he has trusted his disciples and all those who believe in him with their special task. After he has then given his Mother to his favorite disciple, nothing further remains for him but to suffer; he can devote himself exclusively to suffering, plunge once and for all into suffering. It is in Christ’s isolation from the Father, where the center point of his suffering lies. To be separated from a love from which one has lived since eternity, one which constitutes the entire substance of one’s being, that is lethal.

Alister McGrath captures Easter’s impact: “The resurrection declares in advance of the event God’s total victory over all evil and oppressive forces—such as death, evil and sin. Their backbone has been broken, and we may begin to live now in light of that victory, knowing that the long night of their oppression will end.” ~What Was God Doing on the Cross?

Kari Jobe, Forever  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XnKhPypW-Co

Jesus is perlocutionary speech act, God’s most powerful communication to human ears and lives (Kevin Vanhoozer). He addresses us, calls our name, calls us forward into an adventuresome life. His words and teaching (e.g. the Sermon on the Mount) are a phenomenal culture driver that has helped to shape the world in positive ways. His compassion for the needy and broken is a sign that God has not given up on us, that he is there for us and that he cares deeply what happens to us. His resurrection is a starting point, a singularity that cannot be explained by anything prior; it stands as a huge revelation, an epiphany, a new beginning, a brilliant hope for change, for forgiveness and renewed relationships. It is hope for renewal of all our loves. He speaks for God from a powerful, dynamic center, a communion of love within the Trinity. This communion is the ground of being itself, the ground of human community. Through him, we have been identified and called into a new community, given a new identity as royal priests (I Peter) and the people of God, his loved ones. He is the hermeneutic of a new reconciled humanity, drawn from all the nations of the globe, committed to bless and make peace, to be compassionate, to live with integrity (shalom), to shine as moral light. He is the sign, the signifier and the signified. He calls us to practice resurrection, to move into resurrection life.  ~Gord Carkner from Jesus is the Yes and Amen to It All

If Jesus is risen, then – and only then – has something truly new happened, something that changes the state of humanity and the world. Then He, Jesus, is someone in whom we can put absolute trust; we can put our trust not only in his message, but in Jesus himself, for the Risen One does not belong to the past, but is present today, alive. ~Pope Francis

Andy Crouch, Playing God

Love transfigures power. Absolute love transfigures absolute power. And power transfigured by love is the power that made and saves the world. (45)

Sin and death, and the twin systems they create, idolatry and injustice, are already umasked and have lost the critical battle. Creative love was always stronger and more real—and in the community of the resurrection, the first and latest followers of Jesus find that the reality living, breathing and working powerfully through us. (53)

Within a few more generations, the news of Jesus’ resurrection had indeed “turned the world upside down,” just as the early reports from Thessalonica suggested (Acts 17:6). The proclamation that the true Image Bearer had lived, had not been vanquished by the powers of idolatry and injustice but had risen victorious over them, and had now poured out his spirit on flesh, turned out to be the pivot point of history, the hinge on which the whole story turned. The promise that human beings were not destined to be ground under the history of idols and god players like Caesar, but to lie and rise to participation in the divine nature, set in motion the most wide-ranging social movement in history.” (93-94)

When a man [woman] truly and perfectly says with Jesus, and as Jesus said it, “Thy will be done,” he [she] chooses the everlasting life-cycle. The life of the Father and the Son flows through him [her]. He [she] is part of the divine organism. Then is the prayer of the Lord in him [her] fulfilled: “I am in them and thou in me, that they may be made perfect in one.”

~George MacDonald, from Creation in Christ

Made for spirituality we wallow in introspection. Made for joy, we settle for pleasure. Made for justice, we clamor for vengeance. Made for relationship, we insist on our own way. Made for beauty, we are satisfied with sentiment. But new creation has already begun. The sun has begun to rise. Christians are called to leave behind in the tomb of Jesus Christ, all that belongs to the brokenness and incompleteness of the present world. It is time, in the power of the Spirit, to take up our proper role, our full human role as agents, heralds, and stewards of the new day that is dawning. That, quite simply, is what it means to be Christian: to follow Jesus Christ into the new world, God’s new world, which he has thrown open before us.

~N.T. Wright, Simply Christian

Dr. Gary Habermas on Transformation in Scholarship on the Resurrection:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ay_Db4RwZ_M

See also blog on Evidence of a Resurrection https://ubcgcu.org/2013/03/25/evidence-of-a-resurrection/

Rene Girard, I See Satan Fall Like Lightning (commentary of the New Testament unmasking of evil and scapegoating in the Easter Narrative)  https://ubcgcu.org/2015/03/30/rene-girard-on-deep-easter/

Posted by: gcarkner | March 20, 2019

Malcolm Guite Lectures on The Imagination

Live streaming available at Regent YouTube Channel

See online Guite’s Sonnets of the Christian Year.

As an appetiser, and to give you an idea of my reasons for compiling this anthology here are the opening paragraphs of my introduction: ~Malcolm Guite

Why might we want to take time in Lent, to immerse ourselves in poetry, to ask for the poets as companions on our journey with the Word through the wilderness? Perhaps it is one of the poet’s themselves who can answer that question. In The Redress of Poetry, the collection of his lectures as Oxford Professor of Poetry, Seamus Heaney claims that poetry ‘offers a clarification, a fleeting glimpse of a potential order of things ‘beyond confusion’, a glimpse that has to be its own reward’ (p. xv). However qualified by terms like ‘fleeting’, ‘glimpse’ and ‘potential’, this is still a claim that poetry, and more widely the poetic imagination, is truth-bearing; that it offers not just some inner subjective experience but as Heaney claims, a redress; the redress of an imbalance in our vision of the world and ourselves. Heaney’s claim in these lectures, and in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, is that we can ‘Credit Poetry’, trust its tacit, intuitive and image-laden way of knowledge. I have examined these claims in detail elsewhere (Faith Hope and Poetry) and tried to show, in more academic terms, how the poetic imagination does indeed redress an imbalance and is a necessary complement to more rationalistic and analytical ways of knowing. What I would like to do in this book is to put that insight into practice, and turn to poetry for a clarification of who we are, how we pray, how we journey through our lives with God and how he comes to journey with us.

Lent is a time set aside to re-orient ourselves, to clarify our minds, to slow down, recover from distraction, to focus on the values of God’s Kingdom and on the value he has set on us and on our neighbours. There are a number of distinctive ways in which poetry can help us do that and in particular the poetry I have chosen for this anthology.

Heaney spoke of poetry offering a glimpse and a clarification, here is how an earlier poet Coleridge, put it, when he was writing about what he and Wordsworth were hoping to offer through their poetry, which was

“awakening the mind’s attention to the lethargy of custom, and directing it to the loveliness and the wonders of the world before us; an inexhaustible treasure, but for which, in consequence of the film of familiarity and selfish solicitude, we have eyes, yet see not, ears that hear not, and hearts that neither feel nor understand.”

(Coleridge, Biographia Literaria, Vol. II, pp. 6−7)

Posted by: gcarkner | March 7, 2019

Dennis Danielson Grapples with Moral Discourse

 

Beyond Paralysis: Radical Hope for Morality in a Cynical Age

Dennis Danielson

Professor Emeritus English UBC

 

Wednesday, March 13 at 4 pm,  

UBC Mathematics Building, Room 100

Audio Recording File: Z0000008

Abstract

Three quarters of a century after the publication of C. S. Lewis’s The Abolition of Man, moral relativism remains the approach to ethics that dominates the public square. The reductionist (even nihilist) approach to morality and other things that give meaning to human life also continues to shape what our children are taught in school. In the face of this ongoing dominance, it is imperative that we reassert a case for moral realism and cultivate hope for an ethics transcending a mere exercise of power.

Biography

Dennis Danielson (PhD Stanford) is Professor Emeritus and former Head of English at the University of British Columbia. His interests have ranged across literature, religion, the history of science, and ethics. He is a past recipient of UBC’s Killam Prize for research in the humanities, and of the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation’s Konrad Adenauer Research Award. His articles have appeared in Mind, Milton Studies, Nature, American Journal of Physics, Journal for the History of Astronomy, and Scientific American. His books include Milton’s Good God: A Study in Literary Theodicy (1982), The Book of the Cosmos: Imagining the Universe from Heraclitus to Hawking (2000), The First Copernican: Georg Joachim Rheticus and the Rise of the Copernican Revolution (2006), Paradise Lost and the Cosmological Revolution (2014), and, most recently, The Tao of Right and Wrong: Rediscovering Humanity’s Moral Foundations (2018).

 

On The Tao of Right and Wrong:

“Dennis Danielson’s message in The Tao of Right and Wrong needs to be urgently heeded. … This book should be on every teacher’s reading list.”

—Margaret Somerville, Professor of Bioethics, University of Notre Dame Australia

 

The Tao of Right and Wrongis a remarkably compressed and equally lucid exposition of the truths that really count. … The debate in which this book engages is, in the full sense of the term, a fundamental one.”

—Rex Murphy, Commentator for The National Post and formerly for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation

 

“Dennis Danielson marks the 75thanniversary of C.S. Lewis’s classic work The Abolition of Manby updating it for our present situation and applying it to current concerns in a skilful and thought-provoking way. Timely, deft, impressive.”

—Michael Ward, University of Oxford, co-editor of The Cambridge Companion to C.S. Lewis; author, Planet Narnia.

In The Tao of Right and Wrong, Dennis Danielson offers a vigorous primer on moral realism, asserting that humans can and should exercise ethical judgments—and that these judgments are not reducible to subjective opinion, animal instinct, or cultural “construction.” The book is a twenty-first century call for the virtuous cultivation of “humans with hearts,” for a rejection of moral nihilism, and for a life-affirming embrace of moral realism founded in the Tao—the transcultural fund of ultimate postulates that form the very ground of moral judgment, codes of ethics, and standards of right and wrong.

The point is not that animal behaviours have no relevance to our understanding of human nature, but rather that we  require a standard  of judgment above and beyond that offered by bare biology as a guide to what is morally permissible, advantageous, or obligatory. (39)

The very fabric of our lives is teleological–purpose-driven–in ways that far transcend the disseminating of our genes (though perhaps that is part of it). Therefore, a failure to account for that strong sense and experience of purpose, of goal-directedness, of moral worthwhileness, is a serious failure indeed. It points decisively to a limitation of science as naturalistically conceived and practical….So the inability of naturalistic science to account for the “goods and shoulds” of human moral life might accordingly be treated less as a failure than as blameless omission–a mere innocent incapacity to achieve something that was never part of its competence or job description in the first place. (58, 59)

[Human rights codes] embody, or should embody, or at least reflect, a vision of what it means for human beings to flourish, to fulfill their potential, to cultivate their gifts, to pursue good purposes, to live lives of meaning and justice….Rights codes by themselves, however, are inadequate as a moral foundation….They are no substitute for the cultivation of virtue. (63, 75)

What assumptions are you making about the nature and purpose of human beings, about what constitutes the good life? How does your moral framework promote virtues of beneficence and magnanimity? How does it cultivate human happiness? (76)

Great selection of C.S. Lewis books at Regent Bookstore (Wesbrook @ University Blvd.) Gate One

Other Scholars Who Hold to a Form of Moral Realism

Charles Taylor, Sources of the Self; A Secular Age; The Language Animal.

Alasdair McIntyre, After Virtue; Three Versions of Moral Inquiry

R. Scott Smith, In Search of Moral Knowledge.

Russ Shafer-Landau, Moral Realism: a Defense.

Miraslov Volf, Flourishing: Why We Need Religion in a Globalized World.

Jim Wallis, The (Un)Common Good.

Dennis Hollinger, Choosing the Good: Christian Ethics in a Complex World..

David Brooks, The Road to Character.

Glenn Tinder Atlantic Monthly 1989 article “Can We Be Good Without God?” which morphed into his book The Political Meaning of Christianity.

Jordan Peterson, 12 Rules for Life. (read in parallel with Gordon Carkner’s The Great Escape from Nihilism)

 

Read More…

Posted by: gcarkner | March 4, 2019

Sources of Identity and Meaning

Sources of Identity, Sources of Meaning

The Examined, Reflective, Purposeful Life is  Well Worth Living

  • my culture, country and family of origin, the history of my people, my mother tongue and color–where I was born, my early years
  • my personal passion, or more deeply, my sense of calling–what I want to contribute, my life trajectory
  • my educational and job experience/training–my leadership skill set
  • my personal mentors, coaches, partners and life journey guides
  • my sexual orientation, the biology of my body, my gender socialization and choices about self-expression, my management of sexual desires
  • my religion, philosophy of life, worldview or ideological orientation, my ideals, standards and principles–the meta-biological drivers or factors of life
  • my experience of trauma, tragedy and suffering, failures, handicaps and how I cope with hard circumstances or personal loss
  • the friends I hang with–my social life and romantic life
  • my creative engagement with people who differ from me, either in background or convictions, my listening skills and ability to learn from others that I may disagree with, or who make me feel uncomfortable with my assumptions
  • the community or charity projects where I volunteer and attempt to make a better, more equal playing field
  • the larger story or narrative that makes sense of my life–clarifying what really matters, what constitutes being human, what gives solidity and substance to my biography
  • my children, their lives, their needs and aspirations–the creative sacrifice of giving them life, nurture, guidance and purpose
  • my commitments to the poor, the homeless, the marginalized–community service, social compassion, positive social change
  • my political affiliations, causes, debates and engagements–my sense of justice, human rights, concern for peace-making
  • my moral commitments to certain virtues and values (strong evaluations)–the good and the common good, the admirable and noble–leading to my growth in character and civility, my relationship to my highest good, things that empower my moral agency. This is how I “become better through seeing better” (Charles Taylor).
  • my self-concept as a global citizen, commitments to the wellbeing of other people groups and nations
  • my relationship to creation, to the land, air, and oceans, to the wellbeing of the planet for the long term
  • my local social roots–my deeper experience of neighbourhood and community
  • my economic, career track potential and capacity–traction in applying my knowledge, being innovative, taking leadership, shaping culture, leaving a positive legacy
  • my prayer, worship and spiritual life practices, relationship with the divine–experience of the transcendent, my quest for wisdom towards a life worth living
  • my music interests, loves, participation–seeking the good of my mental and emotional health, my creative artistic expression, the nurture of my aesthetic self
  • my personal addictions and obsessions–darker motives and habits–my chaos, my deceptiveness, dishonesty with self and others, my refusal to take responsibility, to admit where I have been wrong, to admit where I am not speaking the truth
  • my means of recreation, relaxation, creative outlets, entertainment, fun and adventure
  • my self-articulation on social media, video, audio or print media, public speaking, book and article writing
  • my relationship to agape love, which helps heuristically to shape and interpret both my stance towards myself and my stance towards the larger world

Be Real; Be Attentive; Be Whole; Be Innovative; Be Resilient; Go For Depth; Live with Integrity; Take Care of Yourself; Find Harmony Between Various Sectors of Your Life; Don’t Put All Your Eggs in One Identity Basket, Prioritize Them; Examine Your Motives and Conscience; Tell the Truth; Invest in Community, Write Your Unique Story; Build Out From What You Have Been Given; Practice Gratitude; Keep the Poetry in Your Life; Take Full Responsibility for Yourself and Your World

To have meaning is to stand for something other than oneself, to establish a link with a value, an idea, an ideal beyond oneself [a referent]. Life has meaning, for example, for those who spend their lives in search of a cure for a disease., or in the struggle against injustice, or just to show every day that society can be more than a jungle. The link one establishes with this value or idea confers a higher value on life….A life that has meaning recognizes certain references….In other words, it is paradoxically worth something only to the extent that it admits itself not to be of supreme value, by recognizing what is worth more than itself, by its ability to organize itself around something else. Everyone will admit that existence is at once both finite and deficient. We consider society to be mediocre, love insufficient, a lifespan too narrow. The person whose life has meaning is the one who, instead of remaining  complacently in the midst of his regrets, decides to strive for perfection, however imperfectly, to express the absolute, even through his own deficiencies, to seek eternity, even if only temporarily. If he spends his life making peace in society or rendering justice to victims, he is effectively pointing, even if it is with a trembling finger, to the existence of peace and justice as such….By pursuing referents, he points to them. He awkwardly expresses these impalpable, immaterial figures of hope or expectancy….Individual existence, when it means something, points to its referent through its day-to-day actions and behaviours, the sacrifices it accepts and the risks it dares to take….The seeker moves forward, all the while wondering, “What is worth serving?” Individual existence structures itself through the call for meaning. Existence is shaped by questions and expectations.

~Chantal Delsol, Icarus Fallen: The Search for Meaning in an Uncertain World (4-5)

 

Two Ways of Seeing/Reading/Understanding the World 

a. The Epistemological Way of Seeing:

The set of priority relations within this picture often tends towards a closed world position (CWS) within the immanent frame (Charles Taylor, A Secular Age, 2007, chapter 15). Its assumptions include proponents like Descartes, Locke, and Hume. Taylor calls this the modern buffered self. We find this approach rooted in Anglo-American philosophy. The connection between self and world is an I-It relationship.

  • Knowledge of self and its status comes before knowledge of the world (things) and others (cogito ergo sum).
  • Knowledge of reality is a neutral fact before the individual self attributes value to it.
  • Knowledge of things of the natural order comes before any theoretical invocations or any transcendence. Transcendence is often problematized, doubted or repressed—for example, in reductive materialism. This approach tends to write dimensions of transcendence out of the equation as a danger to wellbeing (superstition). Science morphs into scientism.
  • Human meaning is much harder to capture in this frame of reference—leading to disenchantment. It can cause alienation and lead to skepticism, or promote disengagment from a cold, mechanistic, materialistic cosmos.
  • Language is the Designative type (Hobbes, Locke, Condillac)—instrumental, pointing at an object, manipulating objects, and often in turn manipulating people as objects. It is a flattened form of language, which does not allow us to Name things in their depth of context, their embeddedness. Poetry, symbol, myth are missing. Scientific rationalism is dominant: evidence and justified belief.
  • Power and violence hides under the cloak of knowledge and techne: colonization, imperialism, war, environmental exploitation, Global North versus Global South. Hubris is an endemic problem.
  • Ethics is left to the private sphere of individual values, because of the fact-value split or dualism—moral subjectivism results. This often leads to loss of moral agency and nihilism, partly due to the loss of narrative and the communal dimension of ethics.
  • Human flourishing is a central concern within this immanent frame: reduction of suffering and increase of happiness/wellbeing. Health, lifespan, safety, entertainment, economic opportunity, consumer choice are key cultural drivers. This results in a thin self, focused on rights, entitlements, opportunities to advance one’s own personal interests.

b. The Hermeneutical Way of Seeing:

The working assumptions of this approach includes proponents like Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty, Gadamer, the later Wittgenstein, Charles Taylor and Jens Zimmermann. We find this approach rooted more in Continental philosophy. The connection between the self and the world is an I-Thou relationship.

  • Self is not the first priority: the world, society and the game/drama of life come first. We only have knowledge as agents coping with the world, and it makes no sense to doubt that world in its fullness. Taken at face value, this world is shot through with meaning and discovery.
  • There is no priority of a neutral grasp of things over and above their value. It comes to us as a whole experience of facts and valuations all at once, interwoven with each other.
  • Our primordial identity is as a new player inducted into an old game. We learn the game and begin to interpret experience for ourselves within a larger communal context. Identity, morality and spirituality are interwoven within us. We sort through our conversations, dialogue with interlocutors, looking for a robust and practical picture of reality.
  • Transcendence or the divine horizon is a possible larger context of this game. Radical skepticism is not as strong here as in the epistemological approach. There is a smaller likelihood of a closed world system (CWS—closed to transcendence as a spin on reality) view in the hermeneutical approach. In a sense, it is more humble, nuanced, embodied and socially situated.
  • Language use is the Expressive-Constitutive type (Herder, Hamann, Humboldt, Gadamer) The mythic, poetic, aesthetic, and liturgical returns. Language is rich and expressive, open, creative, appealing to the depths of the human soul. Language is a sign. See Charles Taylor, The Language Animal.
  • Moral agency is revived within a community (oneself as another) with a strong narrative identity, in a relationship to the good, within a hierarchy of moral goods and practical virtuous habits that are mutually enriching and nurturing. One is more patient with the Other, the stranger: hospitality dominates over hostility.
  • The focus of human flourishing is on how we can live well, within our social location—a whole geography of relationships that shape our identity, and which we in turn shape as well. This is a thick version of the self, open to strong transcendence, within a meaningful whole.
Posted by: gcarkner | February 26, 2019

Key Alternative to Ethical Relativism

A Critical Alternative to Relativism

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Talks on Alternatives to Relativism by Jerry Root, Wheaton College : http://www.cslewis.org

We see genuine hope in premiere Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor and his retrieval of the language of the good.  Ethical relativism denies that any objective, universal moral properties exist. It arose in the philosophical context of the dominance of empiricism and naturalism and the rejection of metaphysically abstract universals. It perpetuates the mindset that  we know how things really are for all people: i.e. that morals are relative to individuals or cultures. It is a universal claim that there are no universals. Nietzsche saw very clearly that if there was an end to God and traditional values, then the strong could impose their values on the masses. Domination would be widespread. Thus came his model of the ubermensch (superman) and the ethics of will-to-power.  There is a natural progression from relativism to will-to-power ethics (with the view that a human is just another thing in the world).

William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, which many of us studied in secondary school, is a graphic, heart-wrenching picture of unrestrained evil, where might makes right and bullying and scapegoating is the accepted social ethos. A group of boys marooned on a remote island make their own society, and the results are shocking. The twentieth century has trembled at the great atrocities and abuse of power by those who are without any fear of a transcendent being or any sense of obligation to a code of conduct, higher ideals, or set of norms. They operated without accountability. We enter a Hobbesian world where it is ‘all against all’. See the BBC documentary on Nietzsche “Human all too Human” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3EGOwduWVKA

Moral philosopher R. Scott Smith argues (In Search of Moral Knowledge) that ethical relativism or moral subjectivism is a bankrupt view of the nature of morality. It fails as a moral theory and a guide to one’s moral life. It results in morally inconsistent and untrustworthy behaviour. It leads to the corrosion of morality itself with absurd consequences:

We should not settle for a relativistically based tolerance, since it will not succeed in building a moral society or in helping people be moral.That kind of morality forces us to consider all ideas and ways of life as being equally valid, yet we can know that this is not the case … Nevertheless, tolerance (as respect  of people as having equal moral value) would make sense if a universal, objective moral basis exists for that equality. (R. Scott Smith, In Search of Moral Knowledge, 162)

Relativism in the twentieth century has led us into some very dangerous political experiments; billions have been spent on war-making with the consequence of potential total annihilation (MAD); human rights have been violated in terrible ways; imperialism ran rampant; multiple millions have perished. The amount of suffering was unprecedented, giving it the legacy the bloodiest century in history.  British journalist Paul Johnson (A History of the Modern World: from 1917 to the 1990s) graphically illustrates the way in which the ethic of will-to-power has flourished in the soil of relativism during the twentieth century. In fact, we may well ask: Do we have one example in history of benevolent leadership without the restraint of traditional morality and the rule of law? Indeed, can we find a historical-political context where the governing authorities who have absolute power (whether king, dictator, tzar or proletariat leader) actually do not become corrupt and abuse that power?  Read More…

Posted by: gcarkner | February 18, 2019

Taylor’s Take of Moral Realism

Taylor’s Case for Moral Realism

Charles Taylor’s argument for moral realism is five-fold. In terms of moral givens, he argues that certain perennial features of the self are present irrespective of culture or the way they are expressed or understood. He starts his analysis with the question of how humans operate as moral beings in their actual moral experiences, and how they reflect upon those experiences. He is interested in praxis or applied ethics as well as moral theory. Beginning with humans and the way they experience morality, he claims that the most plausible explanation of morality is one that takes seriously humans’ perception of the independence of goods. He does not want to substitute a philosophical abstraction for how people live and think. His idea of freedom includes a relationship with the good.

Firstly, he argues for the ubiquity of moral intuitions and judgments in human experience. These are intuitions that transcend basic human desires for survival, sex, or self-realization. They are also referred to as second-order desires, strong evaluations or qualitative discriminations. One notes the important reference to the quality of the will. This concept of second-order desires appeals to the ancient idea of the good, one which although interwoven with the self, transcends the self in significant ways. He is inspired by Oxford’s Iris Murdoch in this emphasis on the moral good.

Secondly, he argues that there is a need for a larger moral picture to facilitate the task of making sense of moral experience (debates, deliberations, decisions and actions). He calls this picture (map) a moral framework or horizon. Each framework is made up of several goods held together in a coherent relationship with one another, producing a coherent moral worldview. The moral self is in a dialectical relationship with its framework. We do not have a static set of conditions, but rather it is dynamic and developmental.

Thirdly, he recognizes that there is a key defining good within each moral framework, which he calls the hypergood. The hypergood is the highest or preeminent good. It operates with a controlling influence and organizes the other goods in priority within the framework. The hypergood defines the overall character of the framework, and thus it is central to the discussion of the moral self.

Fourthly, Taylor recognizes a narrative and communal texture to the pursuit of the good in moral self-constitution. Humans interpret their lives in narrative and communal terms as they pursue these various moral goods. These goods give vision and mission to life and begins to define one’s calling or purpose in life. This important narrative articulation helps the self to find a unity amidst the complexity of moral experience and a plurality of goods vying for one’s attention.

Fifthly, Taylor speaks of the motivation to do the good, the sources of the moral self. This he refers to as the constitutive good. This is often poorly understood, but vital to moral understanding. The constitutive good gives meaning to and empowers (inspires) the hypergood and the other life goods within the moral framework. It acts as a moral driver. It provides the constitutive ground of the worth or value of the life goods, and allows the self to live the good life. This is a very significant nuance to the moral self. Moral identity is interwoven with the pursuit of the good in life in Taylor’s ontology. He discerns these five categories as givens, structural features that are common to the life of all morally healthy human beings. Taylor wants to problematize the occlusion or exclusion of such parameters, such qualitative distinctions for moral reasoning, because he believes that within the life of the self, there is a multiplicity of goods to be recognized, acted upon and pursued. We must articulate them and bring them to the surface of consciousness. Taylor emphasizes the importance of being circumspect about these goods. It is quite a challenging proposal, a moral ontology of the self at its best, noblest or most whole. It offers a useful framework for this dialogue on moral self-constitution.

See Charles Taylor, Sources of the Self: the Making of the Modern Identity. Part One.

Gordon Carkner’s PhD dissertation: “A Critical Examination of Michel Foucault’s Concept of Moral Self-Constitution in Dialogue with Charles Taylor” (2006 University of Wales)

See other posts on Qualities of the Will; and also Ethical Relativism

Posted by: gcarkner | February 16, 2019

Can Language Set Us Free

Language and the Road to Freedom

Sometimes our language is quite restrictive; it can really nail us down. It is hard to see beyond the picture of the world that has taken us captive and the language that articulates this picture. But fresh language and new interlocutors can free us from the grip of too narrow a perspective on life and reality. Perhaps we academics need to collaborate more on language, to expand our imagination whatever our discipline. We have been impressed with engineering and science faculty who have done a second PhD in Fine Arts or Humanities. These were some of the most innovative academic program developers at University of Waterloo; they pioneered communal learning in Systems Design Engineering. Can new language set us free into new levels of genius and creativity? We suspect so. This is also the benefit of interdisciplinary studies at UBC. We should see language as a kind of wealth to steward. To close ourselves off, to implode into a minimalist or reductionist language game, is to be in denial of this common human possession, this larger linguistic horizon.

In the CBC Series The Myth of the Secular, David Cayley and his guests open up for re-examination the language of the secular. It is an excellent series. They don’t buy the traditional thesis of secularization (flattened one-dimensional secularism) that involves the subtraction of religion as science enters the picture in a bigger way. Today religion is flourishing throughout the world. Charles Taylor is suggestive of the transcendent condition of our having a grasp on our own language, especially as we explore the expressive-poetic tradition of language. We often discover this in dialogue (Sources of the Self, p. 37), when pushed to the wall by colleagues who disagree with our personal convictions. It can be irritating but at the same time freeing and life giving. Language is so embedded in our identity that we have a hard time transcending it without dialogue with others of a different worldview of academic field. Celebrate what other language games and metaphors, figures of speech, can illuminate for you. Celebrate how they can show you ways to transcend the narrowness of the academic speak within your discipline. Tap in to that vital, broader conversation. Read More…

Posted by: gcarkner | January 22, 2019

Our Existential Identity Crisis

An Investigation into Our Existential Identity Crisis

Dr. Gordon Carkner

In speaking with a PhD Biology student recently, we began to dig a deep into a personal problem among students today (Millennials in general). Yes, we want to know whether the universe has a beginning, how time relates to eternity, whether science and theology are in conflict, the difference between the ideology of scientism and science per se. We are in awe when we hear about a universe that is 13.7 billion light years in age. We want to know how quantum gravity relates to General Relativity–no one has discovered this yet. We are deeply curious about the many-splendored world of the human brain and the profound power of DNA to shape our potential future. We are fascinated by the potential of nanotechnology. We wonder where Artificial Intelligence will take us, whether machines will replace humans on a large scale, making embodied humans inferior and perhaps redundant. Note the musings of Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari in Homo Deus.

And yet there is something else weighing on our minds and hearts more heavily in our quieter, reflective moments.  It is the crisis of identity. Who am I really and why am I even here? Am I a complete fraud? Where do I find love, support and common cause with other human beings in this journey? What gives bigger purpose to my life? What does it mean to be a good person? Where are the sources for my self, my identity, my agency? Is there an Order of Being or is this all one big accident, a chance occurrence, or something we make up as we go along in life? Do I have to invent all this meaning by myself, map my own future, mark out my own path like a great explorer on a quest across the Pacific? What does freedom, choice and morality really mean? Why do I feel so alone and lonely, even though I am connected with so many on five social media platforms and live in a sea of people every day? These thoughts can rock the soul, making us deeply anxious at a subterranean level. It would be wrong to ignore them and hope they will somehow go away. They are like molten lava at the heart of a volcano, ready to erupt. We want purpose, impact and personal challenge, but struggle with despair, hopelessness, anxiety, fear and anger. Amidst all our brilliant technology and knowledge, we struggle with a serious identity crisis in the West–a knowledge of self. It is possibly one of the most serious problems to which we need to pay attention, says American Clinical Psychologist Gregg Heinrichs.

Heinrichs notes wisely that, “The conflict between notions that humans society constructs human psychology versus the idea that our societies reflect our psychological natures, is one of the deepest disputes in the academy today.” Our culture is going through an identity crisis. He suggests that a healthy identity would allow for dialectical tension between extremes, have a clear value-based narrative, have identified problematic extremes and built a strong, stable system that promotes liberty and equality, allowing competing values/goods to co-exist and inform the other, finds a balance between individual and collective identities.

Let’s begin by diagnosing some of the possible reasons for such  Millennial angst.

  • Scientific (exclusive) humanism is found wanting. We have been running this program for some two hundred years and it is showing definite cracks. Intellectual John Milbank from the UK diagnoses the problem: science, he says, was never equipped to provide a worldview, a structure of meaning, or a way of life. If we give up on God, the transcendent and religion in general, we will have nihilism, not humanism. So many of our atheistic humanist experiments have turned out very badly. There was a con built into the heart of them. Science cannot and will not provide our need for meaning and purpose. The ideology of scientism that partners with exclusive humanism is the enemy of meaning. Science is wonderfully designed to help us understand limited aspects of the physical world, but it will not satiate our existential thirst. See David Bentley Hart, The Experience of God; or Miraslov Volf’s important work Flourishing. The death of God in culture, wrote Michel Foucault (Nietzsche before him) presciently, would result in the death of man as well.

 

  • Many today suffer from personal trauma, relational confusion and hurt. They are broken, have lost trust in people and institutions. They may be cynical, seething with anger at the world, or the opposite sex, or burdened by self-loathing. We are cool and competent on the outside, get top grades, make the team, but just underneath our skin, we are in emotional chaos, crying ourselves to sleep. We need a skilled listening ear to sort things out and get perspective. Facing the truth about ourselves, and our mixed motives, can be one of the toughest challenges life has to offer. It is no shame to admit that we need healing.

Read More…

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