Posted by: gcarkner | January 21, 2022

Can Excellence Hurt Us?

High performance, excellence, superior effort: Who would argue against that? Matthew Crawford, senior fellow at the University of Virginia’s  Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, detects a flaw in the quest for excellence. He has some vital insights on a current dilemma facing students and faculty. In his brilliant 2015 book, The World Outside Your Head: on becoming an individual in an age of distraction, he suggests that our quest for radical individualism and autonomy is leading us into a unhealthy moral autism. We are actually losing our agency, our precious moral skill. Matthew calls this the ‘cult of sincerity’, i.e., that you yourself can be the source of the norms by which you justify yourself. This is a radical responsibility for which we may not really be prepared. It offers too much self-sovereignty of the wrong kind. He notes that we actually need others (friends, family, colleagues) to check our own self-understanding–through triangulation–to tell us we are doing okay, that we are good or excellent (or sometimes not up to our best effort, silly or downright irresponsible). How else do we avoid the narcissistic assumption that we are the centre of the universe, that we can do no wrong.

One thing that sets us apart as humans is our desire to justify ourselves; we never act without moral implications, says Crawford. We are the moral animals all the way down.. That might come as a shock. We all need a web of people that we respect to which we feel accountable. And we need a healthy set of norms to guide relationships and mutual expectations, in order to build trust in an uncertain world. Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor agrees (Sources of the Self) that morality requires an understanding of how certain goods operate within our psyche and within a community. See the series Qualities of the Will in this blog. Crawford appreciates Iris Murdoch, who was a mentor to Taylor during his PhD work in Oxford. Murdoch believed in the recovery of the ancient language of the good, in certain ideals that transcend human desires and decisions.

Ay, There’s the Rub Matthew Crawford notes that in times of cultural flux, where it is unclear what the rules or norms are in the greater society, it is quite difficult for us to understand ourselves socially. We feel isolated, disempowered, uncertain, afraid to make moral judgments. This leads to an existential problem, an angst. As a result, we become victims of the values of the marketplace–productivity, performance, usefulness, cash-out value. The marketplace was never meant to set the standards of human relations, moral identity or integrity, but today our consumerism/capitalism ideology is quite strong. This culture is performance all the way down. Psychologist Alain Ehrenburg (Weariness of the Self), notes that this is leading to epidemic levels of depression in our current culture of performance. Enough is never enough; there is always more that we could do to pursue excellence, to please our supervisors. We are never good enough on these terms and conditions. What started out as an inspiring motivator (high quality work) has morphed into a kind of slavery. 

Ehrenburg writes:

Depression presents itself as an illness of responsibility in which the dominant feeling is that of failure. The depressed individual is unable to measure up; he is tired of having to become himself. In a culture of performance, the person reads the value and status of her soul in her worldly accomplishments.

Today, we are suffering chronic stress about not doing enough, spending enough of ourselves, enough hours in the lab or library, not having a strong enough resumé. IT workers are constantly on the prowl of the internet in their off hours to keep up with the latest technology, so that new college grads don’t replace them in their jobs. The calculus of excellence often means for us that we feel that we have to hit a home run every time we are up to bat. We are always faced with the raw issue of our capacity to make things happen, leading to this new pathology of weariness. We are taught in graduate school either covertly or overtly, Be Exceptional! The weariness of having to become one’s fullest self is leading to new levels of depression, and personal breakdown. Workaholism naturally kicks in. On top of this, it is difficult to mitigate this depression level of stress and anxiety in an age of high performance, because weariness calculates as weakness. Guilt and shame kick in (Brené Brown).

Who wants to appear weak in a competitive marketplace of jobs and accomplishment? We are taught to make ourselves irreplaceable to our employers. How do you tell your supervisor that you are weary and need a stress leave? Thus, we turn to self-medication quick fixes, stimulants like Prozac or Adderall (an amphetamine) to keep us at the top of our game, high-performing. There is an epidemic in the usage of such substances among university students (engineers?) and also young faculty seeking tenure in high-performance universities. Many students that we have dialogue with strongly affirm this concern. But have we been sold a lie? Is excellence really a code word for workaholism and inevitable exhaustion and burnout, broken marriages and addictions? Where is the wisdom in that pursuit?

While we seek liberation through this glorious autonomy of the self, we are discovering that it can be a very serious kind of slavery. And we are desperately, painfully lonely. It is a Venus flytrap phenomenon. Has modernity and the Technological Society turned on us? Paul in the Book of Ephesians believes that Christ can give us some reprieve and perspective on this modern dilemma. But we will have to rethink reality, rethink where we place our identity and our understanding of success and excellence. Ephesians 4 gives an alternative paradigm of community and one-anotherness. The irony is that as we pursue excellence for the sake of love or appreciation (recognition, academic glory), but we often don’t get it in the end. We need a better place to locate our identity. We get disappointment, despair, and even jealousy from our peers.

 ~Gordon Carkner PhD, Philosophy of Culture, Meta-Educator with UBC Graduate Students David Crowder, Come As You Are


Tough Questions:

1. How do we set boundaries on our work in such a cultural climate?

2. At what point does building our resumé become idolatry or enslavement?

3. Are we building significant, accountable relationships in grad school?

4. What are the virtues, character, values, principles, moral goods  that are worth fighting for? See David Brooks, The Road to Character.

5. How do we find spaces for reflection, deciding on big issues like calling and covenant?

6. Where is our community outside of work? When do we play? How do we escape self-absorption?

7. How does emotional intelligence apply to the current dilemma of workaholism and weariness?

8. We take time out to update our computer software. When do we take time out to update our soul?

9. How can professors aim for something less than excellence when we see our students striving to keep up with the literature, the laboratory production, the peer-reviewed paper writing alongside their personal, church and family relationships? They need encouragement as people.

Posted by: gcarkner | January 13, 2022

Challenges to Faith in the Middle East

Thursday, January 20, 2022 @ 7:00 PM  


The Future of Christians Living in the Authoritarian Context of the Middle East

Dr. Paul Rowe

Professor of Political and International Studies
Chair, Department of History, Political, and International Studies at Trinity Western University. 

The past decade of crisis in the Middle East has claimed the lives and livelihoods of tens of thousands of its indigenous Christian populations. Among those small communities that remain, age-old strategies of survival under authoritarian governments persist. What are these strategies, and how might small numbers of Christians continue to claim a place in a region that seems singularly hostile to their persistence? 


Dr. Paul Rowe, Professor of Political and International Studies
Chair, Department of History, Political, and International Studies at Trinity Western University. He earned a PhD from McGill University in 2003. His dissertation title is “Ancient Crosses and Tower-Keeps — the Politics of Christian Minorities in the Middle East.” He has spent extended time in the Middle East and continues to study the politics of religious groups in developing countries. He is author of Religion and Global Politics, Toronto: Oxford University Press Canada, 2012; and The Routledge Handbook of Minorities in the Middle East. Routledge, 2018.

“A freed activist, a captive church? How do Christians navigate new forms of authoritarianism in the Middle East?” ~Paul Rowe

Resources on Faith & Scholarship:

Posted by: gcarkner | January 7, 2022

Incarnational Spirituality: a new horizon 15

The Holy Spirit as Ultimate Source of Human Goodness

As the third Person of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit is a vital part of the discussion of goodness within incarnational spirituality. Humans cannot flourish by the example of Jesus alone. If goodness is a dynamic, mysterious gift, and cannot be achieved by human effort alone, even heroic effort, from whence comes Taylor’s source of motivation in the constitutive good (note 1. below)? How is the quality of the human will actually enhanced in everyday terms?

The Incarnation is the locus of God’s self-revelation–the primary site of God’s self-giving. Thus the logic of the incarnation is fundamentally an account of what gives, of how difference and otherness is revealed–whether that is the “horizontal” revelation of ourselves to one another or, paradigmatically, the revelation of divine transcendence in the region of immanence that is creation. Hence the logic of incarnation is an account of revelation. (J. K. A Smith, 2021, 201)

But how is goodness mediated through the transcendent turn towards agape love (Taylor, 1989), beyond the life example of the person of Jesus the Christ? Is this why Jesus sent the Holy Spirit after his ascension? Clearly, there must be a source of empowerment for living in a positive, inspiring relationship to the transcendent trinitarian good, motivation for the practices of the good, for mediating such goodness within society. If one pursues it alone without epiphanic divine help (grace), how can transcendent goodness avoid the charge of unattainable ideal–so heaveny other that it is no earthly help? What is its tangible, embodied human possibility of goodness transformation?

With these questions in mind, it is crucial knowledge that the Holy Spirit is a key inspirational and transformational factor in human goodness, that is, the human receipt and actualization of divine goodness. The Spirit is at work amidst the historical contingencies of community development. This is pertinent to the “logic of incarnation” spoken of by James K. A. Smith (2021, 63-92). Incarnation does not stop at the life of Jesus. Brilliant theologian D. Stephen Long (2001) is both realistic and optimistic about the human quest for the good, and for good reason. He believes that with the Holy Spirit, the third member of the Trinity, moral self-constitution can be intimately and fruitfully interfaced with the goodness of God. This will in turn rejuvenate ethics and moral self-realization. It offers a reconstitution of both goodness and freedom for the individual (producing goodness-freedom).

The Holy Spirit infuses a goodness into us that makes us better than we know we are by ourselves. This better is what theologians mean by grace. People find themselves caught up in a journey that results in the cultivation of gifts and beatitudes they did not know were possible. They discover that this journey was possible only through friendship … The mission of the Holy Spirit is to move us towards the charity that defines the relationship between the Father and the Son, a charity so full that it is thoroughly one and yet cannot be contained within a single origin or between an original and a copy, but always, eternally, exceeds that relationship into another. The Holy Spirit is that relationship. (D. S. Long, 2001, 302-3)

Divine goodness is made tangibly available as a gift, by means of the Holy Spirit, for the transformation of the individual self–everyday folks have the potential to become ‘new creatures in Christ’. The Holy Spirit offers relationship and empowerment towards acting out and promoting the good in the world, working towards a more fair and just world. Humans embody and become entrepreneurs of divine goodness via the empowerment of the Spirit.

This is an aspect of the epiphanic experience of I-Thou encounter that we spoke of in earlier posts. The Holy Spirit is very central to the moral life because the Spirit gifts individuals for works they cannot achieve in their own strength, i.e., within the limits of their personal resources. He makes them capable of forgiveness, virtue, reconciliation and love. He makes possible and effective the mission of transformative goodness of Jesus Christ within and through his church. The Spirit represents the ongoing presence of Jesus in the church and in the world; the church can become the faithful presence of Christ (J.D. Hunter). The Spirit catches humans up into the life of God in this profound way, into the communion of the Trinity.

This particular process of moral self-constitution and spiritual wholeness opens up the horizon of human moral thinking and action (qualities of the will), first towards God. Secondly, it connects the individual through compassion with human suffering, empowering people to move beyond raw self-interest into self-giving service to the other (hospitality). Within the trinitarian goodness plausibility structure, we can answer Charles Taylor’s question: Can we sustain our world benevolence? The Holy Spirit enriches, motivates and empowers the self and the human community as the abundant and fecund source of goodness/grace.

Stephen Long adds an important addendum. Along with Christoph Schwöbel, he finds that the kind of ethics that emphasizes the will and absolute freedom of choice (Foucault et al), is poorly focused on a Dionysian release of the self and its desires. It leads to the dangerous human temptation to set its own standard of goodness as the ultimate standard, and thereby to manipulate the language of the good in the direction of self-interest. In past, that has created a problem for human society and lead to corruption, violence and exclusion of the other (especially the poor and weak).

Humans are very capable of using their freedom in contradiction to God’s goodness: to coerce or deceive fellow humans, to misrepresent the truth, or abuse the natural world through their own controlling interest in setting the standard of moral currency. Long and Schwöbel promote the idea that ethics should be focused on the constitution of the self as it relates dynamically, and embraces God and transcendent goodness as a moral a priori. This is a parallel thought to that of Charles Taylor, who noted that the first question of ethics is: Who or what do you love? The qualities of the will comes into play at exactly this point (see the series in this blog on Qualities of the Will). Long believes that moral self-constitution must be rooted in, and animated by, a love of God and a love of the infinitely superior and pure goodness that is God. This is a trajectory for self-transformation and renewed energy for the good.

The picture of a lone will choosing between good and evil, or embracing both in an aesthetic move of self-mutilation, or choosing to define self, constitutes a distraction from moving into the goodness-which-is-God, and being taken captive by this goodness. Long’s focus is to build one’s life-orientation, one’s identity, one’s lifestyle around transcendent trinitarian goodness. It cannot to be reduced to an achievement of the mere human will. Goodness-making is not a faculty, within the all-too-human, that can be conjured.

Human freedom is not about the capacity to choose [merely] between good and evil. Human freedom occurs when our desires are so turned toward God and the good that no choice is necessary … Jesus shows us that such a life is possible in our humanity—not against it. (D.S. Long, 2001, 46)

It follows in sync with the trajectory of our lives, loves and longings. Moral transformation comes to us through a commitment to the good, not through seeking a controlling knowledge of good and evil or through creative strategies for self-control or manipulation of power relations and truth games (Foucault). Human creatures as self-legislating, individualistic beings do not possess the moral resources to enact goodness per se, although they certainly have tried. Acts of the will do not automatically constitute acts of goodness. Goodness is discovered in God, not invented by the self. Further in the same moral direction as Taylor, Long concludes that the primary question for the moral self is “What or who is the good I seek and that seeks me?” (D. S. Long, 2001, 130) Here lies the idea of a serious quest for the good in one’s whole life. Schwöbel summarizes the thrust of our argument.

The reconstitution of created freedom through the appropriation of the revelation of God’s goodness in Christ which is made possible in the Spirit is characterized by the acknowledgement of the limitations of human freedom that become evident where this freedom is no longer understood as self-produced, but as a gift of grace. The liberation from the abortive attempt of self-constitution of human freedom discloses the reality of the other person and the non-human creation as the one to whom good action is directed. Human goodness is realized where it is acknowledged that it is not self-produced, but the gift of God’s creative, revealing and inspiring action. (C. Schwoebel, 1992, 75)

Through the Spirit, goodness becomes both radically communicable and accessible. It impacts culture deeply as Larry Siedentop (2014) writes in Inventing the Individual. The individual is not left alone to their own devices and resources, to make their way in the world, nor to continually justify their behaviour (which can be a narcissistic obsession). The Holy Spirit initiated connection of human goodness to the transcendent brings a robust hopefulness of reviving the culture along with the language of the good. Charles Taylor has sought to do this in Sources of the Self (1989). This is also writ large in the poetry of Psalms 90-103; the sheer majesty of the breathtaking goodness of God is made very powerful and transformative in the lives of people. We remain skeptical regarding human construction of the good, but open to all that can be communicated about the goodness of the triune God. The conversation about the good in moral discourse is fruitfully enlivened as we experience the tangible presence of the life transforming divine goodness within the New Covenant.

This is a paradigm shift from Foucault’s position. He assumes that individual humans are the origin and controlling agents of moral currency and the moral life through his ethics as aesthetics. The moral self, in his picture, seeks for autonomous resources (apart from God) in the pursuit of a radical freedom of self-control, self-expression and self-construction. In the dialogue/debate between Foucault and Taylor, it does come to a watershed between the sovereignty of self versus the sovereignty of God (who is essential, infinite goodness), the telos of self versus the telos of divine love. It makes a huge difference whether God and agape love are allowed to enter the map of one’s moral and spiritual horizon. This raises us to a new horizon level. It encourages love of self and love of the world (despite the evil inherent in that world and in oneself) as one is open to the circulation of grace (Ephesians 3: 14-19). This is incarnational spirituality at its core.

Dr. Gordon E. Carkner, Meta-Educator with UBC Postgraduate Students, Author, YouTube Webinar Leader.

In light of all this, one is inspired by a new possible hermeneutic of emancipation, a theonomous goodness-freedom, a God-related freedom that is defined or qualified by trinitarian transcendent goodness. The transcendent turn has proved a fruitful thought experiment that bears deep consideration and reflection for progressive moral identity thinking and just living. As an alternative to the radical approach of Foucault’s aesthetic, autonomous view of morality, a paradigm of trinitarian goodness-freedom reveals a fresh and vital subject position within community–with weighty agape love at its core. The Holy Spirit builds this relationship.

Schwöbel, C. (1992). “God’s Goodness and Human Morality.” In C. Schwöbel, God: Action and Revelation (63-82). Kampen, Holland: Pharos.

Long, D.S. (2001). The Goodness of God. Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press.

Smith, James K.A. (2021) The Nicene Option: An Incarnational Phenomenology. Waco, TX: Baylor University Press.

Siedentop, L. (2014). Inventing the Individualthe origins of Western Liberalism. Belnap Press.

Taylor, C. (1989). Sources of the Self: The making of the modern identity. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Note 1. The constitutive good (a category of moral motivation) gives meaning to and empowers, the hypergood (our dominant inspirational ideal) and the other life goods within the moral framework. It provides the constitutive ground of the worth or value of the life goods, and allows the self to live the good life, to flourish. Moral identity is interwoven with the pursuit of the good in life in Charles Taylor’s moral ontology. It is the type of good that provides enabling conditions for the realization of strong qualifications in one’s life. Therefore, one’s relationship to such a good is vital to building moral capacity for individuals and communities. Knowing such a good personally also means loving it, wanting to act in accord with it, growing toward it. Crucial to the position of the constitutive good is that it has independence from the self. As Taylor put it to me, “A constitutive good is a term I used for what I also called moral sources, something the recognition of which can make you stronger or more focused in seeking or doing the good. It’s a matter of motivation and resilience, and not just definition of your moral position.”

Posted by: gcarkner | December 15, 2021

Incarnational Spirituality: a new horizon 14

Transcendent Goodness and Human Hospitality

Dr. Gordon E. Carkner

Abstract: What are the theological and philosophical roots or drivers of hospitality? From his research on the self in late modernity, Dr. Carkner delves into this question. He draws on the insights of eminent Canadian philosopher, Charles Taylor. In his project Sources of the Self, Taylor attempts to recover a discourse of the good for contemporary moral philosophy, and for culture. He believes that a transcendent turn towards agape love could help solve a contemporary existential crisis of affirmation. The human goodness that is hospitality stems from a social imagination inspired by the self-giving love within the Trinity. Jesus in his human flesh is the most clear instantiation of this agape love. He embodies and mediates God’s goodness, his gift of hospitality in dramatic and fruitful ways. The Body of Christ thereby knows that hospitality, generosity and grace lie at the core of its identity.

Strong transcendence is critical to our exploration of the good. For Charles Taylor, transcendent agape love transforms the self, a love from above, transcendent of the human community. This is the constitutive good which can empower the moral self, a self that emerges most robustly within a community of mutuality. Trinitarian divine love offers the self a certain stance towards society; it sees something good in the human self, that is, the created image of God (imago dei) in the human (C. Taylor, 1999, 33). Taylor’s solution is an unconditional love, and a belief that people are made in the image of God:

Our being in the image of God is also our standing among others in the stream of love, which is that facet of God’s life we try to grasp, very inadequately, in speaking of the Trinity. Now it makes a whole lot of difference whether you think this kind of love is a possibility for us humans. I think it is, but only to the extent that we open ourselves up to God, which means in fact, overstepping the limits set by Nietzsche and Foucault. (C. Taylor, 1999, 35)

It is intriguing to see that Taylor suggests that Foucault sets limits (weak transcendence) that stifle certain alternatives for self-constitution. Foucault operates within the immanent frame and a posture of intense self-love/self-care. This is ironic, because Foucault is the champion of a freedom which resists stifling limits. What will transform the self, under these circumstances, is an “ability to love the world and our selves, to see both as good despite the wrong and the suffering”. Taylor extends that thought.

The original Christian notion of agape love is of a love that God has for humans which is connected with their goodness as creatures (though we don’t have to decide whether they are loved because good or good because loved). Human beings participate through grace in this love. There is a divine affirmation of the creature, which is captured in the repeated phrase in Genesis 1 about each stage of the creation, “and God saw that it was good”. Agape is inseparable from such “seeing-good”. (C. Taylor, 1989, 516)

The individual self is elevated by this love, affirmed in its destiny. Agape informs the good and the quality of the will. Trinitarian goodness empowers, clarifies, and animates the human self in its moral and meaning quest. It acknowledges the value that each person gains from the recognition, mercy and affirmation of God. Within this paradigm, the self does not struggle to define itself by itself alone (self-reflexivity) but engages this transforming love from the divine Other.

Divine trinitarian love creates the very possibility of human loving, a love that issues from the power to love in spite of rejection: a sacrificial, courageous love of friends and enemies. This goodness is a relational attribute in God; it exists and exhibits itself in the form of a communion of love: the relational, interpersonal, mutually supportive, loving relationship among the persons of the Trinity. Theologian Christoph Schwöbel (1992, 73) explains how human goodness is rooted in this divine transcendent love: “In a conception where goodness is understood as a divine attribute, rooted in God’s trinitarian agency, goodness has to be understood as an essentially relational attribute.” From this perspective, humans do not invent the good, but discover it derivatively from God and in community. We don’t invent it, but it comes to us as a gift from God, full of surprise and delight. Agape love (I Corinthians 13) overcomes the distance between divine and human goodness. We can love one another because He first loved us (I John 4).

This plausibility structure of divine trinitarian goodness calls into question the validity of a pure self-assertion, self-indulgence or violence. Taylor’s appeal to the concept of quality of the will offers one hope and a basis for critical evaluation between destructive forces like Dachau, Hiroshima or Cambodia’s Killing Fields, and the constructive forces like Amnesty International, Doctors without Borders, the World Wildlife Fund. The motives for the former are destructive and death-dealing greed and will-to-power; the motives of the latter are compassionate, life-affirming and life-protecting. They are not both legitimized because they are self-expressions or practices of freedom. Foucault’s outlook of aesthetic freedom and anti-normativity makes him blind to this discernment at a fundamental level.

The discussion of this section lays the foundation for a new definition of freedom as goodness-freedom, freedom qualified by divine goodness. The will is qualified; pure autonomous choice is seen not to be adequate or sufficient; the beautiful life must be scrutinized by transcendent goodness and the Other.

This transcendent divine goodness is both present and accessible in the human sphere through the incarnation of Jesus the Christ, one of the members of the Trinity. Transcendence does not therefore mean aloofness and indifference, or a burdensome or unreachable standard of perfection, but rather a creative, fruitful engagement with the world, everyday people, society and its institutions. Transcendent divine goodness takes on an historical and christological determination in order to impact the human moral world. By reading the moral life through the life of Christ, one cannot espouse a minimalist and juridical conception of the moral life that merely acts on what is permitted and forbidden. We find a moral life that makes sense in the light of a Christ who is full of a rich and dynamic goodness, who incarnates goodness in human flesh, articulates it historically and culturally with integrity. D. Stephen Long appeals to the moral normativity of the life of Jesus.

In Christian theology, Jesus reveals to us not only who God is but also what it means to be truly human. This true humanity is not something we achieve on our own; it comes to us as a gift … The reception of this gift contains an ineliminable element of mystery that will always require faith. Jesus in his life, teaching, death and resurrection and ongoing presence in the church and through the Holy Spirit … orders us towards God. He directs our passions and desires towards that which can finally fulfil them and bring us happiness … [and] reveal to us what it means to be human. (D. S. Long, 2001, 106-7)

This immanence offers the option of life of the self, lived not autonomously but in cooperation with divine wisdom and goodness. In the incarnation of Jesus Christ, goodness is made accessible, personal and real. It is not left as an abstract unattainable ideal, or a wholly other reality alone. It is a transcendent goodness expressed within immanent reality, a will-to-hospitality.

Within the plausibility structure of the Christian meta-narrative, the roots for the ethical life, the transcendent condition for this life, lie in God, not in a mythological ontology of freedom (a hollow concept). Jesus and his followers (the church) are the dynamic unity between the transcendent and the temporal, eternity and time, the absolute and the contingent. The relational goodness of God is discovered not by means of a merely abstract speculation but in embodied human lives oriented toward God. It involves human subjectivity engaged and inspired by the needs of the human Other, as well as by the goodness of God.

Therefore, the first human life to consider for this position of hopeful goodness-freedom is the life of Jesus. This trinitarian goodness is a gift, and profoundly it is the gift to the human race of Jesus Christ. He is God’s goodness embodied, God’s own self revealed in a most dramatic way. It makes him the ultimate mentor, as Jordan Peterson might say. The big shift from Foucault’s interpretation is that the human self, in this case, is constituted by its engagement with the divine self in the process of discovering spiritual and moral epiphany. This is breakthrough at its best. It is an existential encounter which provides transformation of the self to be better, more resilient in doing the good, living the good. The focus is on love not power. One does have a relationship with one’s self, but one can also have a relationship with a transcendent self who is goodness, love-in-communion. This social imaginary provides a morality that is robust and sustainable.

The church at its best is an organization that majors on hospitality (welcoming the other). As Christ’s representatives on earth, it produces people on a quest for goodness of this quality, and seeks to mediate this transcendent goodness (righteousness) into society. It still believes that God speaks and acts, that the triune God is present to and in the world, that it is vital to love this personal Good and be loved by him, vital to seek the divine personal, unfathomable Good and be sought by him. It renders problematic the seeking of the good or goodness apart from seeking God, the pursuit of the good while walking away from relationship to God. It transforms ethics, within the economy of human relations, from a contest within a general will to power and self-assertion, to the economy of grace within a communion of agape love. It is not the economy of a naked, free human will choosing to design oneself autonomously. Goodness is no mere achievement of the human will. It is truly a mysterious gift of God. That is what we celebrate at Christmas.

Ruth Haley Barton has a wonderful chapter on our longing for a strong sense of God’s goodness in leadership loneliness in Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership (155-167). It is rooted in a meditation on Moses dilemma of leadership in Exodus 33.

~Dr. Gordon E. Carkner, Meta-Educator with UBC Postgraduate Students and Faculty, Author, Blogger, YouTube Seminars.

Taylor, C. (1989). Sources of the Self: The making of the modern identity. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Taylor, C. (1999). In J.L. Heft (S.M.). (Ed.). A Catholic Modernity? Oxford: Oxford University Press. 

Long, D.S. (2001). The Goodness of God. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press.

Schwöbel, C. (1992). God’s Goodness and Human Morality. In C. Schwöbel, God: Action and revelation (pp. 63-82). Kampen, Holland: Pharos. 

Prayer on Christmas Day

Giver of all that is good,
we thank you today for the gift of your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord,
who was born into poverty in a hard and cruel time,
who gave himself for us,
and lives with you in glory.

We thank you for all your friends and prophets who have gone before us,
and those who taught us to celebrate this feast of the Nativity with beloved
Scripture, and beloved carols, and loud rejoicing;
help us to teach those who come after us that Christmas is a holy time, a
time to seek reconciliation and peace.

Bless us, Lord, as we seek Christ in the lowly mangers of this world,
bless us, as we seek to honor the mystery of the Incarnation in our midst,
remembering always that you made us, and all humanity, in your divine 

Help us to gladly welcome today, and all days,
your Wisdom, your Power,
your Emmanuel, your Prince of Peace.

– Kathleen Norris from God With Us

Song for the New Year: “By Gracious Powers So Wonderfully Sheltered,” whose lyrics are from an Advent poem by Dietrich Bonhoeffer.  During this time of pandemic weariness and economic ruin facing so many nations, the words are indeed a salve and source of encouragement, especially when we learn that Bonhoeffer wrote it just months before his execution, in order to comfort and encourage his parents and fiancée. (German, with English subtitles)

Posted by: gcarkner | December 10, 2021

Gord’s Christmas Reading 2021

Gord’s Christmas Reading 2021

Michael Ford (ed.), Eternal Seasons: a liturgical journey with Henri Nouwen.

Tim Keller & John Inazu, Uncommon Good: Living Faithfully in a World Divided

Cristobal Krussen, They Were Christians: The Inspiring Faith of Men and Women Who Changed the World.

J. Richard Middleton, Abraham’s Silence: The Binding of Isaac, the Suffering of Job and How to Talk Back to God.Baker Academic, 2021.

Peter Scazzero, Emotionally Healthy Spirituality: It’s Impossible to be Spiritually Mature while Emotionally Immature.

Jamie Smith, The Nicene Option: an Incarnational Phenomenology. Baylor University Press, 2021.

Clyde Kilby, The Arts & the Christian Imagination: Essays on Art, Literature and Aesthetics. (Editors: William Dyrness & Keith Call). Paraclete, 2017.

W. Ross Hastings, Echoes of Coherence: Trinitarian Theology and Science Together.

Daniel K. Williams, The Politics of the Cross: Christian Alternatives to Partisanship.

Richard Goossen, Public Speaking For Every Occasion: Laws of Success. Morgan James Publishing, 2021.

Curt Thompson, The Soul of Desire: the Neuroscience of Longing, Beauty and Community. InterVarsity Press, 2021.

Alan Noble, You Are Not Your Own: Belonging to God in an Inhuman World.

Rowan Williams, Christ the Heart of Creation. Bloomsbury, 2018.

Nicole Perlroth, This is How the World Ends: The Cyber-Weapons Arms Race. Bloomsbury, 2021.

Great Selection of Thoughtful Reading Materials at Regent Bookstore: Wesbrook Mall @ University Blvd., UBC Campus

Posted by: gcarkner | December 2, 2021

Dramatic Moments of Epiphany

Mary Encounters Something Wholly Other

Luke 1: 26-56

Epiphanies are suggestive of transcendence. Michael Morgan (1994, pp. 56f)) points out that Charles Taylor sees a parallel between the epiphanies of art and poetry in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and the I-Thou epiphany of religious encounter with the divine. Taylor elaborates the idea of epiphanies (1989, pp. 419f, especially 490-93). He sees Post-Romantic and modernist art as oriented to epiphanies, episodes of realization, revelation, or disclosure. Epiphanies and epiphanic art are about a kind of transcendence, about the self coming in touch with that which lies beyond it, a ground or qualitative pre-eminence. One might call it a gift of the imagination or a re-enchantment of reality.

Taylor reviews various ways of articulating epiphany in Sources of the Self (1989, pp. 419-93). He articulates how God, inserted into this idea of epiphany, fits as a moral source (Sources of the Self, pp. 449-52). Epiphanies can be a way of connecting with spiritual and moral sources through the exercise of the creative imagination: sources may be divine (Taylor), or in the world or nature (Romantics like Thoreau), or in the powers of the imaginative, expressive self (Michel Foucault).

These epiphanies are a paradigm case of what Taylor calls recovering contact with moral sources. A special case of this renewal of relationship between the self and the moral source is religion and the relation to God, which he sees in the work of Dostoyevski. The relationship to art parallels the relationship to religion. The self is oriented in the presence of the inaccessible or sublime, that which captures one’s amazement or awe, for example, when one’s eyes are riveted to a certain painting like Monet’s Lillies, and one’s inner emotions are deeply moved by a poem. One is taken beyond oneself, in an experience of transcendence; the experience involves both elements of encounter and revelation. It can come in a discovery such as finding out the chemicals in our bodies were once part of the death of a star; we are stardust, embedded in creation itself; we owe the stars our very life.

When Mary hears from an angel that she is to become the vessel of a most profound turn of events in history, she is in awe, overwhelmed. It is truly an epiphany, an I-Thou encounter with radical alterity. Heaven and earth reach out to each other at this juncture and something dramatic occurs. This news changes everything. Time stands still in this kairos moment. She allows transcendence and immanence to intermingle within her body, her life. Mary’s story is punctuated by the incursion of the eternal into the temporal, informed by the descent of transcendence into a historical teenager’s life. We know it as the incarnation. D. Steven Long writes in Speaking of God (309): “The purpose of the church is to recognize and acknowledge those conditions by which we can, like Mary, say yes to God and in so doing make Jesus present to the world. Those conditions are the way of holiness and that assumes the transcendentals—truth, goodness and beauty.”

Christmas on the Edge by Malcolm Guite

Christmas sets the centre on the edge;
The edge of town, the outhouse of the inn,
The fringe of empire, far from privilege
And power, on the edge and outer spin
Of  turning worlds, a margin of small stars
That edge a galaxy itself light years
From some unguessed at cosmic origin.
Christmas sets the centre at the edge.

And from this day our  world is re-aligned
A tiny seed unfolding in the womb
Becomes the source from which we all unfold
And flower into being. We are healed,
The end begins, the tomb becomes a womb,
For now in him all things are re-aligned.

It is a strong transcendence to use philosopher Calvin Schrag’s insightful language. Transcendence means more than a selfless exposure or reorientation alone, but also a receiving that deeply involves the self, its imagination, its inner resources, its visions and revisions. In this calculus, for religion and art, the self remains autonomous and becomes fulfilled as it opens to the impact of the Other. It powers the sensus divinitatis. The human soul is enlarged. Morgan elaborates through the example of Jewish writer, Martin Buber, on this concept of religious epiphany or I-Thou encounter (Morgan, 1994, pp. 60-61). Taylor appreciates (1994, pp. 226-29) his use of Buber in relation to his (Taylor’s) concept of epiphany. For Buber, the religious event, revelation, involves a meeting between the self and the divine Other, an encounter that depends upon both parties. It is an act of self-affirmation, even as it is a giving over of the self to the Other. Life is enhanced. There is revelation, high thought, deep realization.

The self is receiver, but it is a receiver, not of a content, a proposition, a truth, but rather of a ‘Presence, a Presence as Power’. Furthermore, that Presence provides ‘the inexpressible confirmation of meaning’, a meaning that calls out to be done, to be confirmed by the self in this life and in this world … This confirmation and this affirmation of God and self in the world are what Taylor calls a ‘changed stance towards self and world, which doesn’t simply recognize a hitherto occluded good, but rather helps to bring this about’. (Morgan, 1994, p. 60)

Mary Shares the Profound News with Cousin Elizabeth

There entails the emergence of a supreme good in one’s experience. Thus, the concept of transcendence through epiphany, that has currency for artists and poets of the twentieth century, provides a category for us to extend to the transcendence of God. May this epiphanic realization continue this Advent Season and open up our world to horizons beyond our normal imagination, a re-enchantment. Mary is a model to us. She allowed epiphany and grace to transform her into a vessel of the Christ-event. “I am your servant Lord. As you wish.”

Dostoyevsky’s (1974) work The Brothers Karamozov reveals the power of transcendence and the danger of refusing it, i.e. remaining trapped within an immanent frame. Charles Taylor notes that:

One of Dostoyevsky’s central insights turns on the way in which we close or open ourselves to grace. The ultimate sin is to close oneself, but the reasons for doing so can be of the highest. In a sense the person who is closed is in a vicious circle from which it is hard to escape. We are closed to grace, because we close ourselves to the world in which it circulates; and we do that out of loathing for ourselves and for the world … Rejecting the world seals one’s sense of its loathsomeness and of one’s own, insofar as one is a part of it. And from this can come only acts of hate and destruction. Dostoyevsky … gives an acute understanding of how loathing and self-loathing, inspired by the very real evils of the world, fuel a projection of evil outward, a polarization between self and the world, where all evil is now seen to reside. This justifies terror, violence, and destruction against the world; indeed this seems to call for it. No one … has given us deeper insight into the spiritual sources of modern terrorism or has shown more clearly how terrorism can be a response to the threat of self-hatred … The noblest wreak it [destruction] on themselves. The most base destroy others. Although powered by the noblest sense of the injustice of things, this schism is ultimately also the fruit of pride, Dostoyevsky holds. We separate because we don’t want to see ourselves as part of evil; we want to raise ourselves above it. (C. Taylor, 1989, pp. 451-52)

The various school shootings are just such a projection of hatred for the Other and sometimes Being itself says Jordan Peterson. It is a simple, cold, deadly logic. It is completely grace-less, warlike and violent, full of hatred and resentment. There appears to be a provocative link from self-sufficiency to pride and to the aesthetics of violence (religious or secular). Taylor holds out hope for a transcendent turn to agape love, hope for a different type of transformation from beyond pure immanent choice focused self-invention and greedy self-interest which brackets the social world/common good and God. There is discovery of self within the economy of grace, a discovery and a transformation that offers a different stance towards self and the world. It is an epiphanic discovery, but only if we allow it. Continuing with his discussion of Dostoyevsky, Taylor (1989) writes of this epiphanic encounter with transcendence,

What will transform us is an ability to love the world and ourselves, to see it as good in spite of the wrong. But this will only come to us if we can accept being part of it, and that means accepting responsibility … Loving the world and ourselves is in a sense a miracle, in face of all the evil and degradation that it and we contain. But the miracle comes on us if we accept being part of it. Involved in this is our acceptance of love from others. We become capable of love through being loved; and over against the perverse apostolic succession [of terror and violence] is a grace-dispensing one. Dostoyevsky brings together here a central idea of the Christian tradition, especially evident in the Gospel of John, that people are transformed through being loved by God, a love that they mediate to one another, on the one hand, with the modern notion of a subject who can help to bring on transfiguration through the stance he takes to himself and the world, on the other … What he [Dostoyevsky] was opposing was that humans affirm their dignity in separation from the world. (C. Taylor, 1989, p. 452)

We mourn the terrible, tragic  loss of life that comes with terrorist acts against humanity, and yet we must not give up on love. We need transmission, the ability to see through the world to something better. We must be open to the transformation of the world, rather than the elimination of those who are different. We must move away from self-righteousness to suffer and struggle for peace. We must reject the forces of diabolos, division, fear and hatred. The clenched fist must be replaced the open hand of fellowship and hospitality. If we come to realize that the very core of reality is love, our cynicism will melt away, our nihilism will give way to rich meaning and purpose. What do we make of Mary’s epiphany? Can it rethink and remake us? Can light shine into our inner darkness and bring transformation? An epiphany could change everything.

~Gordon E. Carkner PhD, Meta-educator UBC Postgraduate Students

Morgan, M.L. (1994). Religion, History and Moral Discourse. In J. Tully, (Ed.), Philosophy in an Age of Pluralism: The philosophy of Charles Taylor in question. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Taylor, C. (1989). Sources of the Self: The making of the modern identity. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

See also Real Presences by George Steiner; The Self After Postmodernity by Calvin Schrag; Not in God’s Name by Jonathan Sacks.

See also my thirteen-part blog series Incarnational Spirituality: a new horizon

Music For Christmastide: Nine Lessons & Carols Cambridge

Pentatonix Christmas Album

Christmas Readings Eternal Seasons: a Liturgical Journey with Henri Nouwen edited by Michael Ford

Posted by: gcarkner | November 28, 2021

Truth is a Boon for Life; it Empowers

This is Part 2 of The Genius of Truth series by Dr. Gordon E. Carkner. In this short video, he focuses on how truth can be integrated into one’s life. What can I be sure of at my deepest core? How can I embody truth so that I learn how to grapple with it and communicate it to my friends? Can truth be found in a person? Find your voice, your integrity in truth-telling and responsible truth-living. But by all means, never, never give up on truth. There is far too much at stake.

To have meaning is to stand for something other than oneself, to establish a link with a value, an idea, an ideal beyond oneself. 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).

See the Netflix Documentary Icarus on Olympic Doping/Cheating for why truth matters in life. Dr. Daniel Amen, The Genius of Life

One of the particularities of our time consists in the fear of truth. We hold dearly to the good but we are suspicious of the truth…. [Modern man] does not fear what is false but what is evil…..The disappearance of truth understood as objective truth, and its replacement by “points of view” or subjective “truths,” does not stop contemporary man from identifying moral imperatives that he would not abandon under any circumstances. Where do these moral imperatives come from, seemingly born out of nihilism, like trees flourishing in the desert? (Chantal Delsol, Icarus Fallen 45, 46)

Posted by: gcarkner | November 15, 2021

GFCF Forum Special November Presentation

Brian Bird, Assistant Professor  Peter A. Allard School of Law, UBC
DCL (McGill), BCL (Oxford), JD (Victoria), BA (Simon Fraser), of the Bar of British Columbia

The Struggle for Tolerance

Thursday, November 18 at 4 PM


In many liberal democracies, there has been a tectonic shift in how we handle ideological conflict. Whereas the starting point was once a robust form of tolerance (live and let live), this principle is now fading. Tolerance, once widely regarded as an essential element of free and democratic societies, has become suspect. It is much easier to exhibit tolerance when we agree with each other. But we must also do the same—perhaps especially—when we disagree. If a grassroots rediscovery of tolerance does not occur, and tolerance fades further from view, our society will inevitably gravitate closer to the so-called tyranny of the majority, or at least the tyranny of an intolerant minority within the majority. Such a state of affairs is antithetical to the essence of liberal democracy. It also runs the risk of creating a vicious cycle: in which today’s tyrannized minority will be tempted to become tomorrow’s tyrannizing majority. Human nature, we can agree, is flawed. We do well to avoid inviting such human frailties to take centre stage in today’s culture.


Brian Bird is an Assistant Professor at the Peter A. Allard School of Law at the University of British Columbia. Before joining Allard Law, he was a postdoctoral research fellow at Princeton University in the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions. He clerked for judges of the Supreme Court of British Columbia and for Justice Andromache Karakatsanis at the Supreme Court of Canada. Brian completed his doctorate at McGill University on The Freedom of Conscience and holds degrees from Oxford, University of Victoria, and Simon Fraser University. Brian’s academic writing has appeared in venues such as the Dalhousie Law Journal, Cambridge Law Review, Alberta Law Review, Supreme Court Law Review, and Manitoba Law Journal. He is co-editor of The Forgotten Fundamental Freedoms of the Charter (2020, LexisNexis Canada). His primary research interests are constitutional law and theory, interactions between courts and legislatures, jurisprudence, philosophy of law, legal history, and bills of rights.

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Stay tuned for an upcoming January 2022 lecture by Robert George of Princeton University (a mentor of Brian Bird) on ‘Truth and the University’.

Also see the Video Seminar by Dr. Gordon E. Carkner on The Genius of Truth 

Posted by: gcarkner | November 10, 2021

Consequences of Radical Freedom

Radical Freedom and its Discontents

Screen Shot 2015-08-05 at 2.36.53 PM

According to Charles Taylor (Hegel and Modern Society, 1979, pp. 156f), historically the trend toward the radicalization of freedom comes from four key moves. It is an adventure in nihilism. It involves a decontextualization, a shaking loose of the self from definitions of human nature and from the natural world, the cosmic order, social space, or history. This gets back to Michel Foucault’s notion of getting free of oneself and his critique of the present. There are four stages to this move and four consequences.

Stage (a) The new identity of the self-defining subject is won by breaking free of the larger matrix of a cosmic or societal order and its claim. Freedom is defined as self-dependence, and self-sufficiency. It entails a negative concept: freedom is won by breaking the hold of the lower oppressed self (constructed by a disciplinary society for Foucault) so that one might explore one’s potential, experimental self. (Ibid., p. 156)

Stage (bHuman nature is not simply a given, but is to be remade, reinvented. To be integrally free, one must reshape one’s own nature. The only kind of situation which this view can recognize is one defined by the obstacles to unrestricted action, which have to be conquered or set aside as external oppression; liberation is a process which results in freedom from shackles. One of the key shackles is the identity given to one’s self by others. (Ibid., pp. 155, 156)

Stage (c) In this stage, there is a celebration of the Dionysian expressive release of instinctual depths (the uncensored self) of the human animal. ‘Modern society is seen as the oppressor of the spontaneous, the natural, the sensuous or the “Dionysiac” in man’ (Ibid., p. 140). Rooted in Schopenhauer, this dark and pessimistic view of freedom and the human condition leads to despair about freedom understood as self-dependence, because this sort of freedom can release violence and many other forms of negative human self-expression. There is both fear of, and celebration of, such human desires in the third part of Foucault’s oeuvre, the later ethical works.

Stage (d) The final stage of this Nietzschean nihilism is the death of all traditional values (transvaluation of all values) and the admission that ethics is grounded in the will to power. The empty self risks ending in nihilism, that is, self-affirmation through the rejection of all values. One after the other, the authoritative horizons of life, Christian and humanist, are cast off as shackles on the will. Under these circumstances, freedom means dependent in one’s actions only on oneself, lacking accountability to God, principle or society (Ibid., p. 157). Foucault’s ethics seems to include all four stages. He points enthusiastically in the direction of freedom, but does not offer parameters or guidelines of how to proceed, intentionally so. Nor does he offer ways of avoiding or managing the most negative results of this kind of freedom.

Taylor’s Moral Self-Construction Diagnostics (structure for articulation of freedom) 

~from Malaise of Modernity

Category A (Creativity)

(i) Creation and construction (as well as discovery) of the self.

(ii) Pursuit of originality in one’s self-crafting.

(iii) Opposition to the rules of society and even potentially to what one recognizes as morality, or the moral order.

Category B (Social and Moral Accountability)

(i) Openness to horizons of significance prevents one’s self-creation from losing the background that can save it from insignificance and trivialization (self-destruction of meaning).

(ii) Self-definition needs to be developed in dialogue with significant Others, that is, fellow moral interlocutors within a community and a narrative. (Taylor, 1991, pp. 65, 66)


Consequences of Radical Freedom: Taylor argues that there are four significant dangers in this type of self-determined, atomistic, situationless freedom. He saw the same problems in Hegel.

(a) Self-trivialization: The feeling of emptiness emerges within this notion of freedom; it produces a self that is hollow.

Complete freedom would be a void in which nothing would be worth doing, nothing would deserve to count for anything. The self which has arrived at freedom by setting aside all external obstacles and impingements is characterless, and hence without defined purpose. (Taylor, 1979, p. 157)

The goal of freeing the self for creativity is not sufficient as a defined moral purpose; it is yet undefined or indeterminate as a criteria of human action or mode of life; moral action needs to impart a shape to this creativity. The aesthetic self exists in a void of situationlessness, that is, form and style without defined moral content. Aesthetic-freedom does not offer significant discernment between good and evil, higher and lower trajectories of the will, the nobel versus the ignoble, benevolence versus terrorism. This is why nihilism is attractive to fundamentalists. Taylor the philosopher is inclined to ask about the telos of freedom: Creativity? Serving others? Community? Worshipping God? Character development? Self-indulgent sensuality? Violence? Egoism? Any of these could constitute the aesthetic ethos that Foucault purports. Art and poetry have been use to justify oppression, as well as oppose it.

(b) The Dionysian problem: Taylor (1979) writes of this danger in the following way.

If free activity cannot be defined in opposition to our nature and situation, on pain of vacuity, it cannot simply be identified with following our strongest, or most persistent, or most all-embracing desire either. That would make it impossible to say that our freedom was ever thwarted by our own compulsions, fears, or obsessions. One needs to be able to separate compulsions, fears, addictions from higher more authentic aspirations. (p. 157)

There is definitely the positive side of the expansion of one’s individual freedom through taking responsibility for oneself and the world, but also a dark side to this release of the passions and appetites, on a trajectory of pleasures without end. The sadistic, unhealthy sociopathic self can gain pleasure from causing other people pain. One ought to be able to distinguish between base compulsions and the ability to hold those compulsions in check for a higher purpose, for example, to save the life of a child or feed the poor. The moral advance accomplished by Foucault’s self in the pursuit of justice as a release of the captive self from repression is one side. But we cannot miss the darker possibilities (as continental people do) of the desires of the moral self: toward a possible addiction to anti-human irrational hatred, or racism as one notes on the uncensored Internet. This is what Taylor (1979, p. 158) cautions:

We have to be able to distinguish between compulsions, fears, addictions from those aspirations which we endorse with our whole soul. It is a key point that absolute freedom misses the point about the distortions of inauthentic (suspect) and malevolent desires, and how they can lead to a life of mediocrity, self-indulgence, or self-destruction.

Freedom, both in its resistance and self-actualization, is both ontological ground and telos for Foucault. But what does freedom for freedom mean? Does it add up to a self-reflexive tautology. Should it not be connected to the good or a higher purpose? The Foucauldian self wants to break free from the social, historical and institutional webs which, in his view, seek to control it. His ideology of the expressive, artistic self needs radical decontextualized freedom, a freedom that is also transgressive of limits and questions social boundaries on the self. It slips into ideology. See the documentary The Human Experiment.

(c) Problem of Despair: How is despair entailed in self-determining freedom? Without any larger horizon of meaning than that within the borders of the self, the burden weighs heavily on the individual self to invent all meaning. Despair is the term used by Kierkegaard (1941) and noted by Taylor (1979, p. 159). It entails the inability to accept oneself, and the sense that one is trapped inside oneself, obsessed with getting out, getting free of oneself to use Foucault’s language. Is the call to continually recreate self, and get free of self, in the thinking of Foucault, a symptom of a battle or dialogue with despair? We believe it is. Kierkegaard would see this trap in the loop of Foucault’s self-reflexive relationship with self in his work Care of Self. His discourse on ethics implodes into self-love and self-protection.

For Foucault, is the self really free, or is it caught in a self-enclosure that Kierkegaard labelled despair? This is similar to Jean Paul Sartre’s play Exit. Foucault exits into the tradition of freedom as autonomous self-determination; Kierkegaard makes the exit altogether outside the tradition of freedom as self-dependence and into interdependence with God and other persons. In Kierkegaard’s estimate, despair can only be overcome by relating oneself to the external Self (to receive and give love). This external and transcendent Self (God) constitutes the whole relational possibilities of the self. For him, one is free only when relating to other persons freely in a way that promotes their freedom.

Again, Foucault’s position is a refusal of context. Taylor (Ibid., p. 159) reiterates,

If the radical freedom of self-dependence is ultimately empty, then it risks ending in nihilism, that is, self-affirmation through the rejection of all “values”.’ Radical freedom paradoxically creates a trap for the self. The only way out of this despair is to situate freedom in relationship to the good, to world, to society, and to one’s calling and purpose.

Taylor (Ibid., p. 160) leaves us with much to ponder:

This means recovering a conception of free activity which sees it as a response called for by a situation which is ours by virtue of our condition as natural and social beings. Crucially, this means acceptance of our defining situation as a positive place to stand, rather than a place from which to escape.

(d) Lost Potential in Relationships: Complementarity or Incommensurability?

Furthermore, on the issue of the dangers or drawbacks of self-dependent freedom and the culture of self-love, there is the avoidance of the good of complementarity between persons. In the book, A Catholic Modernity?, Taylor (1999, pp. 114f ) makes an important point about Foucault’s definition of freedom as self-dependence. It offers a good test of Foucault’s doctrine of freedom. In contrast to the Herder-Humboldt model of complementarity (Ibid., p. 115), freedom as self-dependence rejects the possibility of human complementarity. Foucault noticeably never uses freedom as a form of interdependence with others; he is quite suspicious of this association and its potential harm. Foucault’s appeal to difference is in fact a refusal of exchange, of complementarity, which turns difference into incommensurability. That promotes an anti-social stance in life and leaves one in intense loneliness. It can also tend towards elitism as we see in Nietzsche (Human all too human).

Taylor, in contrast, sees much potential in complementary relations, and has dedicated much of his thought to conciliatory relationships, even amidst difference of opinion. He points to Hannah Arendt as a key intellectual who promotes the empowerment of collaboration, or mutual association. The posture of decontextualized freedom is always one of independence of the control of others. Taylor (1999) captures Foucault in a lucid manner as a philosopher of freedom but not necessarily a philosopher of hope. It is a negative view of freedom according to the categories of Isaiah Berlin.

Foucault in an important sense was a philosopher of freedom … that is, he was a philosopher who claimed to unmask and lay bare domination, the interiorization of power relations by victims, and although he often claimed that power had no subject he certainly portrayed it as having victims … The moral thrust of these analyses … was implicit in the language in which it was cast. They called for opening a line of resistance for the victim, a disengagement from the full grip of the current regime of power, particularly from its hold on our self-understanding. Foucault’s own intervention in politics and public life … bore out this interpretation … In his History of Sexuality 2 & 3 and latest interviews, he made clear his view of freedom, the building of an identity relatively uncolonized by the current regime of power. (p. 115)

This reveals insight into appropriate resistance under oppressive circumstances, but those who celebrate Foucault and advocate for radical freedom should reflect on these negative consequences. Taylor suggests that one needs a positive stance on freedom as well; it needs to have content, attention to one’s situation and direction. His recovery of the language of quality of the will (relationship to the moral good) applies here. See other posts on this topic.

~Dr. Gordon E. Carkner Ph.D.

Posted by: gcarkner | October 26, 2021

The Genius of Truth

Newly Released on Friday, October 22, 2021

Dr. Gordon E. Carkner, a Meta-Educator with postgraduate students at UBC Vancouver, examines some of the critical parameters of the quest for truth. He offers some lucid clarifications in a day when many have given up on truth. From his broad experience in campus dialogue with creative interlocutors from around the world, he shows that truth is definitely worth fighting for: it is important and powerful for human flourishing. We should never, never give up on truth. He also shapes a discussion of how Christian faith, reason and the quest for truth and compatible.

Friday November 12, 2021 Part 2. The Existential Life Genius of Truth

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