Posted by: gcarkner | November 4, 2015

Lost in the Cosmos: Can we find self in community?

Recovery of Self in Community

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Walker Percy’s book, Lost in the Cosmos: that last self-help book, depicts individuals as fundamentally, existentially disoriented in late modernity. They are struggling to find their way. Many others consider that there is an identity crisis. As we see in Michel Foucault’s ethics, some leave the self even more intensely alone in late modernity–with the responsibility to create and recreate both one’s reality and oneself. See the blog series on the critique of the Aesthetic Self. This pressure drives many to discouragement, even alienation and despair. They claim to be free but actually know they are lost, and do not know where we are going. We are very busy impressing our friends and getting on with life, but we come up empty on the question, Who am I? Below are some thought-provoking quotes from Percy’s book that set out the problem, and then some responses to address this issue of self and identity. This was the focus of my PhD.

The peculiar predicament of the present-day self surely came to pass as a consequence of the disappointment of the high expectations of the self as it entered the age of science and technology. Dazzled by the overwhelming credentials of science, the beauty and elegance of the scientific method, the triumph of modern medicine over physical ailments, and the technological transformation of the very world itself, the self finds itself in the end disappointed by the failure of science and technique in those very sectors of life which had been its main source of ordinary satisfaction in past ages.

Social life is disappointing. The very franticness of attempts to reestablish community and festival, by partying, by groups, by club, by touristy Mardi Gras, is the best evidence of the loss of true community and of the loneliness of self, stranded as it is as an unspeakable consciousness in a world from which it perceives itself as somehow estranged, stranded even within its own body, with which it sees no clear connection.

How can you survive in the Cosmos about which you know more and more while knowing less and less about yourself, this despite 10,000 self-help books, and 100,000 psychotherapists?

The Self since the time of Descartes has been stranded, split off from everything else in the Cosmos, a mind which professes to understand bodies and galaxies but is by the very act of understanding marooned in the Cosmos, with which it has no connection. It therefore needs to exercise every option in order to reassure itself that it is not a ghost but is rather a self among other selves.

Why is it that the look of another person looking at you is different from everything else in the Cosmos? That is to say, looking at lions or tigers or Saturn or the Ring Nebula or at an owl or at another person from the side is one thing, but finding yourself looking in the eyes of another person looking at you is something else. And why is it that one can look at a lion or a planet or an owl or at someone’s finger as long as one pleases, but looking into the eyes of another person is, if prolonged past a second, a perilous affair?

We thank Walker Percy, a medical doctor who morphed into a writer, for his provocative questions. He wrote six novels and as such he found a way to tend to the healing of souls, to offer some signposts for a lost culture. If we are to deal with our pain, it cannot be accomplished on our own. These questions wake us up to our current dilemma. We are not in fact totally marooned, but perhaps we need a new map of reality, a new social imaginary or way of seeing, as Charles Taylor puts it. We have suffered a debasement of our language and a desiccation of our imagination. We need to rediscover our mother tongue, a vocabulary and syntax to name things once again, an ability to recognize what is going on around us and find our way home. Rowan Williams asks:

What is it to be human: to be a creature, a part of the world, a moment in a pattern, dependent on others, others dependent on ourselves, called therefore to contemplation, without which there is no growth or fullness. Isolation is the refusal of humanity; and that includes the isolation of my or our needs from those of the human world. Beyond it stands the Luciferian impulse to destroy reality for my sake, the impatience with the weary burden of creatureliness. Creatureliness means never having ‘done with’ people or the world or God. It means the risk of response, decision, listening and answering, attending to a constantly shifting environment. (R. Williams, 2005, 42, 43)

We propose that the lost and homeless self of late modernity can find a home in ‘I-Thou’ community as openness to the Other (God and other human selves). Ephesians 4 shows that community is grounded in the loving community within the Trinity, a unity that represents diversity and sociality, a community that is part of a larger drama. Charles Taylor writes about identity this way:

I can define my identity only against the background of things that matter. But to bracket out history, nature, society, the demands of solidarity, everything but what I find in myself, would be to eliminate all candidates for what matters. Only if I exist in a world in which history, or the demands of nature, or the needs of my fellow human beings, or the duties of citizenship, or the call of God, or something else of this order that matters crucially, can I define an identity for myself that is not trivial. (C. Taylor, 1991, 40-41)

Taylor suggests that we do not take ourselves or our human journey seriously enough. Colin Gunton, in his very helpful book on the Trinity, The One, The Three and The Many (chapters 5-8), illustrates this beautifully. Here we begin to explore the “inter-subjective” aspect of true selfhood with moral and political responsibility in the context of community and tradition, a self that is grounded in the selfhood of God. Personhood is grounded in the nature of God-as-Trinity, characterized by his self-imparting love, three-persons-in-communion (perichoresis). Trust can then re-emerge as one begins to discover the I in the Thou (empathy or entering the framework of the other–Wilhem Dilthey). A. I. McFadyen’s basic concept of the person depends on its relation with other personal centers, through commitment to others (A. I. McFadyen, The Call to Personhood: A Christian Theory of the Individual in Social Relationsips. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990, 9).

Reciprocality (one-anotherness or mutuality) replaces individualism of identity and the lostness, alienation or aloneness we feel intensely at times. Self is re-discovered through the mission of serving the other, taking responsibility for the other (Levinas), commitment to the other, and being with the other in communion and friendship. This complements Brené Brown’s concept of vulnerability, which she believes is central to human health and well-being. Alasdair MacIntyre and Robert Bellah attempt to reconnect the self to some larger reality in order to overcome the fearsome slide toward radical subjectivism that is so common in the identity of people today. This agrees with sociologist George Herbert Mead, who  made the point about the social genesis of the self. We are never our full self as an individual lone wolf.

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Alasdair MacIntyre attends to the cultural and historical roots of the self, its embodiment in tradition and community. This is often referred to as embeddedness (Merleau-Ponty). Matthew Crawford picks up this theme in his clever 2015 book, The World Outside Your Head. Community does not imply a traditionless assemblage of individuals. Both culture thinkers fight the Enlightenment atomism of the subject which is ahistorical and universalist, an atomism which has helped to contribute to the crisis of self, the crisis of community, and many crises of global affairs. Knowledge needs a strong community to preserve its integrity, to keep it from collapsing.

Community and a strong storyline or narrative is essential for a stable identity, where the why of our existence is out front of the how. This is well worth drilling down into, and one might benefit from author Andy Crouch’s book, Culture Making: rediscovering our creative calling. Crouch reasserts a directionality to life with both a conserving and creative edge: to learn from the past heritage of culture as we contribute new goods and innovations to promote shalom, the common good. Another key voice in rediscovering the soul of community is architect Christopher Anderson (The Nature of Order). Without a rediscovery and reassertion of community, our world is in for some devastating and persistent problems as we see in the current refugee crisis in the Middle East and Africa.

~Gordon E. Carkner PhD Philosophical Theology

See also the full vision in The Great Escape from Nihilism: rediscovering our passion in late modernity. by Gordon E. Carkner (2016)


Gordon Carkner, a critique of divisive individualism: Radical Individualism Examined

See also Matthew Crawford, The World Outside Your Head: on becoming an individual in an age of distraction.

 Other authors/intellectuals offering this approach: Stanley Grenz, Jurgen Habermas, Immanuel Levinas, J. Richard Middleton, G.C. Berkouwer, Jim Wallis. 

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