Posted by: gcarkner | May 22, 2014

We Want Our Humanity Back

Recovering Our Humanity Involves a Courageous Moral Stance and Content

New 2018 Book Release on this theme: Craig M. Gay, Modern Technology and the Human Future: a Christian Appraisal, IVP Academic.

There are many forces in the world today that would seek to steal our humanity, our innocence, our dignity and self-respect, our higher calling in life, our good reason, our good faith, our deeper sense of purpose. There are forces that seek to dismiss our connection with a moral robustness and a transcendent horizon of meaning, seek to dumb us down. We are tempted to sell out to the cheaper definitions of the human experience, to live a trivial existence of narcissism and radical self-interest–the prideful consumer. At the end of the day, these cheap versions are lies and smokescreens, keeping us form deeper insights and wisdom of the ages. They set us up for a spectacular fall, prevent us from reaching our better self. People should not settle for cheap versions of humanity; they should expect and demand a full and whole humanity and pursue a thick self. Don’t miss the profound quotes at the bottom of the article, especially those from Abraham Heschel.

But who would deny that humans have ethical capacity and are skilled at apprehending the good and the true? There is often disagreement about ethical foundations but not this fundamental capacity to make ethical choices and reflect as ethical beings. From a materialist perspective it may seem enigmatic, but nevertheless a real phenomenon as noted by Charles Taylor in Sources of the Self. This is quite amazing for any animal. Without this critical ability, one could not expect good science or good relations among scientists, let alone justice and fairness of opportunity within an academic institution, a courtroom or a society. Science would be bankrupt without a tremendous amount of trust, critical thinking and peer review accountability. This is all about ethics and normative expectations; truth and goodness are both operative.

Nor is this moral capacity simply a mere product of evolution, although biologists such as Jeffrey Schloss at Westmont College are working on the evolution of altruism. The moral dimension of our humanity cannot be properly reduced to a survival issue or self-propagation. All humans by choice and desire participate in a quest for truth and struggle with their grasp of the ethical (except for psychopaths or sociopaths), the just, and the fair. Both truth and love are together needed for genuine knowledge according to the late Wittgenstein. [1]

In my PhD work, I was delighted to discover the deep genius of philosopher of the self Charles Taylor at McGill University. According to Taylor’s important tome Sources of the Self, [2] people are deeply embedded as moral creatures and universally have some relationship to the good; they cannot escape their moral capacity, behaviour or moral desires. They cannot escape being moral interpreters and interlocutors. I wrestled much with his position on the moral subject in my critique of Michel Foucault’s concept of moral self-constitution, which was rooted in radical freedom. Taylor, Canada’s premier philosopher, has many important things to offer to this philosophical anthropology conversation. You can read more about the parameters of his position in the GCU blog posts  entitled ‘Quality of the Will’.

Within the discussion of recovering the good and our moral inheritance in the West, Taylor has great insight into the importance of reconnecting human freedom and the good. In my thesis, I also trace his transcendent turn to agape love and explore a thought experiment that integrates the quest for freedom and identity with a Trinitarian concept of goodness. This trajectory avoids the trap of contemporary nihilism, one of the cultural consequences of the ideology of scientism. If we lose God, we lose self as well: in the loss of transcendence, immanence becomes trivial, even banal. This philosophical turn offers resolution to the current distressing dilemma of choosing between either moral lobotomy or self-hatred. There is indeed a third alternative that develops further in his major tome A Secular Age. He encourages late moderns to resist the temptation to exclude God from their sources of moral inspiration and identity. To use Kierkegaard’s language, we need to appreciate the aesthetic, but move on in maturity to the ethical and finally rise to the religious.

The great Western philosophical tradition tells us that human rationality is at least capable of giving us a true picture of reality if we commit ourselves to the disciplines of consistency, non-contradiction, empirical openness and peer accountability. This is basic to critical realism. It also teaches us that one can comprehend and apprehend the good (something that is not a mere human projection). There must be something which is to all beings the cause of their being, goodness, and every other perfection, the basis of their flourishing. This something is what Christians call God, a way of making sense of the interwoven moral and physical as well as the spiritual worlds. Can we really separate the spiritual and supernatural from the merely physical as if it were two realms? Only by unnatural abstraction.

Our quest for human wholeness and integration takes us beyond mere matter, to what really counts. It involves reaching for the richest experience and the highest knowledge available (E.F. Schumacher); scientific analysis alone is only partially adequate for this task (Mikael Stenmark). Our culture needs a new perspective in order to avoid the intellectual and cultural abyss. We seem intent on peering over the edge of this abyss from time to time and need wisdom to step back and reconsider our path philosophically.

Who offers sound philosophical anthropology today? Rene Girard (France), Charles Taylor (Canada), Rowan Williams (Britain), Merleau-Ponty, Paul Ricoeur (France), F. LeRon Shults (Norway) among others.

Perhaps we can hope for a time when we can see science in a fresh perspective culturally, in the overall context of a God-shaped universe, and as a servant to God and humanity. We often don’t see the material world for what it is meant to be: the means to communion with God. Perhaps wisdom, humility and servanthood (not will to power) will guide our culture down healthier intellectual and social paths. Scientific reason and personal Christian faith are deemed to be very compatible, and mutually stimulating in developing the soul’s full economy and ecology, in pursuing the entire story of our human existence. This is the claim of those who participate in the Test of Faith DVD series from the Faraday Institute Dialogue on Science and Religion at Cambridge University.

Science and religion can be excellent partners and interlocutors in this task.Two contemporary authors give us good insight into the recovery of a holistic humanism within the pursuit of truth: Jens Zimmermann (Incarnational Humanism) and Andy Crouch (Culture Making). At a public scholarly level the CBC Ideas Series “The Myth of the Secular” (especially the interview with John Milbank) produced by David Cayley offers a prophetic tone to our conversation of recovery. It is definitely not over for religion in Western culture.

As we have seen in this series, scientific reason alone is unable to answer all the important human questions, or to make us fully human. In fact, we know things to be true in everyday life or society that we cannot prove with science. We need to search for other reasons, other forms of knowledge and wisdom. It is not scientific to assert that knowledge which falls under the observable and empirical is all that exists; we must be open to supernatural sources of knowledge as well.

The robust quest for whole truth proposed in this recovery of our humanity project includes the best of scientific research and at the same time involves a generosity towards others, a radical fidelity to virtue, truth, beauty and love. By refusing to subordinate truth to power, or willful self-assertion, it serves us better as a race as we explore new horizons of insight. Truth is an activity, a judgment inextricably linked to the good, and therefore to moral transformation; it is not to be taken lightly. This kind of truth is an important prerequisite for healthy human freedom; when we are pursuing truth and freedom we must also pursue goodness or virtue. The limits Wittgenstein placed on philosophy for the sake of a life worth living are similar to the limits Acquinas put on philosophy for the sake of the Christian life as a way of following Jesus Christ into the truth of God (D. Stephen Long). The accumulation and preservation of knowledge and the transmission of a common heritage is the role of both the university and the church (John Redekop). This is an important stewardship question.

Thus, we can appreciate science within its proper context and limits, its methodological rigor and testability, and the extremely valuable information that it offers us. And yet at the same time, we refuse the narrowness, overly simplistic illusions and falseness of scientism. Life and reality are so much richer and creative than scientism allows. Humans need a substantial and holistic worldview to guide them through the twenty-first century, to face its challenges, including global terrorism, global warming and other environmental species extinctions, the surveillance society, equity of economic opportunity, health, education and poverty issues. Marilynne Robinson has a note for us here (When I Was a Child I Read Books p. 15).

The notion that religion is intrinsically a crude explanatory strategy that should be dispelled and supplanted by science is based on a highly selective or tendentious reading  of the literature of religion…. The effect of this idea, which is very broadly assumed to be true, is again to reinforce that science and religion are struggling for possession of a single piece of turf, and science holds the high ground and gets to choose the weapons. In fact there is no moment in which, no perspective from which science as science can regard human life and say there is a beautiful, terrible mystery to it all, a great pathos. Art, music, religion tell us that. And what they tell is true, not after the fashion of a magisterium that is legitimate only so long as it does not overlap the autonomous republic of science. It is true because it takes account of a universal variable, human nature, which shapes everything it touches, science as surely and profoundly as anything else.

This open-ended conversation offers an invitation to dialogue and to encourage great heuristic developments in scientific, aesthetic, moral and theological muscle. Christian theism offers real promise for a healthy non-reductionist worldview and posture to guide our thinking and living into the future.[3] This is what Faraday Institute’s Denis Alexander offers in his brilliant tome, Rebuilding the Matrix. The need is for an integration of knowledge and a language recovery (both designative and expressive-poetic), including the language of the good, which will open our minds and empower our work. This may also be a way for the New Atheists to get over their cosmic authority problem. Flannery O’Connor wisely pointed out to one of her students who began to question her faith:

Faith is more valuable, more mysterious, altogether more immense than anything you can learn or decide upon in college. Learn what you can, but cultivate Christian skepticism. It will keep you free—not free to do anything you please but free to be formed by something larger than your own intellect or the intellect of those around you.

~Gordon Carkner PhD, Philosophy of the Self.

See also series on Problematic of Relativism

[1] The early Wittgenstein took the scientific experiment to its limits, and hit a wall with Analytical Philosophy: typified in Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus.

[2] Charles Taylor, Sources of the Self: The making of the modern identity. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1989). See especially Part 1, “Identity and the Good”

[3] A strong view is held by prominent German Lutheran theologian, Wolfhardt Pannenberg (Towards a Theology of Nature), who is well studied in philosophy of science. He laments the tragic split between science and theology in the late 19th century, and sees both science and Christian theology as a study of one reality. He also wishes science to be accountable as a praxis to a belief in God as Creator.

Thoughts on Recovery of Humanity from Genius Abraham Heschel

What is the meaning of my being? … My quest is not for theoretical knowledge about myself … What I look for is not how to gain a firm hold on myself and on life, but primarily how to live a life that would deserve and evoke an eternal Amen. What am I here for?

To be human is to be involved, to act and react, to wonder and respond. For humans to be is to play a part in the cosmic drama, knowingly or unknowingly. Living involves responsible understanding of one’s role in relation to all other beings.

We cannot restrain our bitter yearning to know whether life is nothing but a series of momentary physiological and mental processes, actions, and forms of behaviour, a flow of vicissitudes, desires, and sensations, running like grains through an hourglass, marking time only once and always vanishing … Is life nothing but an agglomeration of facts, unrelated to one another–chaos camouflaged by illusion?

Humans are more than what they are to themselves. In reason the human may be limited, in will perhaps wicked, yet the human stands in a relation to God which one may betray but not sever, and which constitutes the essential meaning of life. The human is the knot in which heaven and earth are interlaced. God in the universe is a spirit of concern for life … We often fail in trying to understand him not because we do not know how to extend our concepts far enough, but because we do not know how to begin close enough. To think of God is not to find him as an object in our minds, but to find ourselves in him.

A religious man is a person who holds God and man in one thought at one time, at all times, who suffers harm done to others, whose greatest passion is compassion, whose greatest strength is love and defiance of despair.

People of our time are losing the power of celebration. Instead of celebrating we seek to be amused or entertained. Celebration is an active state, an act of expressing reverence or appreciation. To be entertained is a passive state–it is to receive pleasure afforded by an amusing act or a spectacle … Celebration is a confrontation, giving attention to the transcendent meaning of one’s actions.

A test of a people is how it behaves toward the old. It is easy to love children. Even tyrants and dictators make a point of being fond of children. But the affection and care for the old, the incurable, the helpless are the true gold mines of a culture.

The Search for reason ends at the known; on the immense expanse beyond it only the sense of the ineffable can glide. It alone knows the route to that which is remote from experience and understanding. Neither of them is amphibious: reason cannot go beyond the shore, and the sense of the ineffable is out of place where we measure, where we weigh. We do not leave the shore of the known in search of adventure or suspense or because of the failure of reason to answer our questions. We sail because our mind is like a fantastic seashell, and when applying our ear to its lips we hear a perpetual murmur from the waves beyond the shore. Citizens of two realms, we all must sustain a dual allegiance: we sense the ineffable in one realm, we name and exploit reality in another. Between the two we set up a system of references, but we can never fill the gap. They are as far and as close to each other as time and calendar, as violin and melody, as life and what lies beyond the last breath.

Remember that there is meaning beyond absurdity. Know that every deed counts, that every word is power … Above all, remember that you must build your life as if it were a work of art.

See also the sage Pullitzer Prize-Winner Marilynne Robinson, When I Was a Child I Read Books on the richness of language that impacts our humanity.

Freedom makes a huge requirement of every human being. With freedom comes responsibility. For the person who is unwilling to grow up, the person who does not want to carry his own weight, this is a frightening prospect.

~Eleanor Roosevelt

Philosophy should be the love of wisdom that prompts persons to use reason in the quest for truth, goodness and beauty…. Philosophy and theology have distinct tasks, but those tasks cannot be delineated solely in terms of nature and supernature or reason and faith.

~D. Stephen Long, God Speaking, pp. 83-4

The good characterizes a public, successful performance of truth; it refuses fideism….Truth is an activity, a judgment inextricably linked to the good, and therefore to moral transformation. When I am pursuing truth I am pursuing goodness…. This truth both an undying fidelity and love, and at the same time a generosity towards others. By refusing to subordinate itself to ‘power’, understood as willful self-assertion, it best serves the tradition of democracy. 

~D. Stephen Long, God Speaking, pp. 320-1, and 325

The dizziness in the face of les espaces infinis–only overcome if we dare to gaze into them without any protection, and accept them as the reality before which we must justify our existence. For this is the truth we must reach to live, that everything is and we are just in it.

~Dag Hammarskjold  (Swedish diplomat, economist and author, second Secretary-General of the United Nations)

Christ draws all people and all cultures into his own life, sanctifying them and preparing them as a new creation. ~Bonhoeffer

Psalm 107:1 exhorts us to “Give thanks to the Lord for he is good; his love endures forever.” This is one of the most profound statements in all of recorded history—foundational to human existence and cultural development. If we ever believed that language could leverage the world, the Psalmist captures its power here. God’s goodness is the infinite source of all human goodness and the fathomless love of God is such a profound starting point for our identity and our sense of calling and our posture in the world. To know that there is this infinite source of goodness and that we are loved deeply by our Creator is such wonderful affirmation (an embrace) and encouragement to do the good, love mercy and walk humbly. We can rub shoulders with this goodness and put visuals on this love through Christ. He offers us a paradigm shift in our vision of reality.

Here we discover the means of ascent out of the depths of hell of our narcissism and nihilism (Dante) into a virtuous community of compassion, becoming persons in communion with the Trinity. The beauty and immensity of this is so rich and deep and profound. It is over to us to drill down into it. Dietrich Bonhoeffer has wisdom on this point: “As reality is one in Christ, so the person who belongs to this Christ-reality is also a whole. Wordliness does not separate one from Christ, and being a Christian does not separate one from the world. Belonging completely to Christ, one stands at the same time completely in the world…. Christ is the center and power of the Bible, of the church, of theology but also of humanity, reason, justice, and culture.” This requires a dual agape love of God and secular reality, from a fresh Christ-incarnate stance.

The philosophy of Emmanuel Levinas includes the concept of infinite responsibility as the core of his conception of ethics. This is a tremendous counterpoint to the deep self-orietntaion of most poststructuralist writers.

Gifford Lecture with John MacMurray: two volumesThe Self as Agent; Persons in Relation.


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