Tag Archives: John Locke

God and The Modern Self: The Me-Centered Self (Part 1)

In this post I will address the theme developed in Chapter 1 of God, Freedom & Human Dignity, entitled “How the Me-Centered World Was Born.” I begin by quoting from the introductory comments to that chapter:

“As children we never questioned our identity or wondered about our place in life. Nor did we think of our “selves” as distinct from our relationships, activities and feelings. We just lived in the context we were born into and followed the natural course of our lives. But as we grew older we were encouraged to discover our own unique blend of preferences, talents and joys and to create an identity for ourselves through our choices and actions. In contrast to previous ages, modern culture denies that one can become an authentic person or experience fulfillment in life by conforming to natural or socially given relationships and roles. Instead, we are taught that our self-worth and happiness depend on reconstructing ourselves according to our desires. And the project of redesigning ourselves necessitates that we continually break free from the web of social relationships and expectations that would otherwise impose an alien identity on us. I am calling this understanding of the self “me-centered” not because it is especially selfish or narcissistic but because it attempts to create its identity by sheer will power and rejects identity-conferring relationships unless they are artifacts of its own free will. It should not surprise us, then, to find that the modern person feels a weight of oppression and a flood of resentment when confronted with the demands of traditional morality and religion. In the face of these demands the “me-centered” self feels its dignity slighted, its freedom threatened and its happiness diminished…

“How and when and by whom did it come about that nature, family, community, moral law and religion were changed in the western mind from identity-giving, happiness-producing networks of meaning into their opposites—self-alienating, misery-inducing webs of oppression? How was the “me-centered” world formed?” (pp. 17-18).

The modern “me-centered” identity, like the Christian God-centered identity, has a history. Ignorance of this history constitutes one of the greatest challenges to engaging with our contemporaries on moral and religious issues. If we don’t know this story we won’t understand how they think, and if they are ignorant of it they won’t understand themselves. Hence it is imperative that we answer the question in the italicized part of the above quote.

It is impossible to assign an absolute beginning to any era in history. Nevertheless, we won’t be distorting history too much if we say that the modern view of the self began around 1620 and reached maturity by 1800, at least among the educated elite. As articulated by Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) and Francis Bacon (1561-1626), a new scientific way of thinking (the scientific revolution)  inspired a different view of humanity’s relationship to nature and a new optimism about human reason’s power to shape nature into whatever form it desired. René Descartes (1596-1650) brought this new attitude over into philosophy, placing human freedom and reason at the center of philosophy’s agenda. John Locke (1632-1704) applied the new human-centered thought to morality, politics and theology. Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) and the Romantic poets and philosophers who followed him gave human feeling and desire a central place in human self-understanding. Gottfried Herder (1744-1803), expressed a view that people today utter as if it were self-evident and indisputable. “Each human being has his own measure, as it were an accord peculiar to him of all his feelings to each other.” In other words, each individual is so unique that there can be no moral and religious rules that apply to all individuals: “Find yourself.” “Do your own thing.” “Question authority.”

The history of the formation of the me-centered identity can be summarized by saying that every rule and law, every power and right, and every ideal of what is good, true and beautiful was moved from outside the human being—from nature, God, moral law—to inside human consciousness where it could be brought under the power of free will. Human dignity became identical with the power to decide for yourself what is good and right. And human happiness became attainable only by following the inclinations of your individual self. The modern self evaluates every moral and religious idea by this standard. These ideas are accepted or rejected according as they enhance or detract from the individual’s immediate sense of self-worth and well-being.

Unless we understand how the me-centered self was formed we will find ourselves at a loss to understand or communicate with people immersed in modern culture. And we will be unable to help them understand themselves enough to gain the distance necessary to criticize the modern human self-understanding. If we are not careful we too will be swept away by what Augustine called the “torrent of human custom” (Confessions, 1.16; trans, Chadwick).

 Questions for Discussion

 1. To what degree and in what areas does Chapter 1’s description of the me-centered self fit people of your acquaintance or resonate with your self-understanding?

2. In what ways do you think a review of the history of the formation of the me-centered identity reveal modern identity’s limits and flaws?

3. What light does this chapter shed on contemporary culture’s knee jerk criticism of Christian faith and morality as oppressive, intolerant and judgmental?

4. If this chapter’s description of the modern self is accurate, how can we begin to engage people who have this self-understanding in productive discussions?  What strategies should we employ and which should we avoid?

Next week we will look at the first of three common attitudes toward God taken by the modern self: Defiance.

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Thinking and Thoughtfulness (Part 1)

Since a major theme of my blog is “thoughtfulness in religion,” I owe it to you to explain what I mean by thoughtfulness and why I believe it is so important. Today I begin a short series on thinking and thoughtfulness. So, think with me for a while about thinking.

 

To understand a concept thoroughly it is not enough merely to define it. We must grasp its relationships to other concepts in the neighborhood. Only by bringing to light how it differs and resembles to those nearby ideas can we locate it on a conceptual map. The larger the scope of our vision, the more precise will be our sense of its location. Hence I plan to consider thoughtfulness in relation to such concepts as intelligence, reason, observation, common sense, critical thought, introspection and thoughtlessness.

 

A few years ago I read Bernard Lonergan’s huge book Insight: A Study of Human Understanding (1957). This book stands in the long tradition of books with similar titles: John Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690) and David Hume, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (1748). Lonergan surveys the map of concepts and activities that orient us to the human act of insight, which is the act of understanding. I will not attempt to summarize his study here. But I want to acknowledge that my thinking about thinking and thoughtfulness has been influenced by this profound book. Specifically, the distinction I make below between common sense and critical (or scientific) thought comes directly from Lonergan (p. 181).

 

Intelligence and Reason

Intelligence is a more encompassing concept than reason. Intelligence is the power of a living being to perceive and respond appropriately to the information it receives from its environment. Billiard balls and hydrogen atoms do not possess intelligence even though they respond to physical contact by other things. Intelligence involves interpretation or processing of information by internal systems capable of such activity. Many intriguing questions arise at this point. What is information? Is information always the product of intelligence? Is it possible to construct an intelligent machine? But I won’t pursue them here. Human beings are not the only living creatures to possess intelligence. Horses, rabbits, mice and even one-cell creatures are marked by intelligent behavior.

But human beings possess a higher form of intelligence we call reason. Reason is not simply more intelligence; it is a qualitatively different kind of intelligence. In brief, reason is intelligence combined with freedom. Human beings not only respond intelligently to information in the automatic ways animals and plants do, they are conscious of their intelligence and partly in control of its application. We can initiate the processes of thinking and imagining apart from external contact with information bearing systems. We can resist being determined by the information pressing in on our senses, and we can anticipate several steps ahead to future states of our world. Reason is the power to see, understand or comprehend relationships— spatial, temporal, mathematical but especially causal and logical relationships. Information is always encoded in a system of relationships, and reason can see the relationships and read the information written therein. Only reasoning beings can attain insight or understanding.

Observation

All intelligent beings can receive information from their environment but only reasoning creatures observe the world. Observation is an intentional act designed to raise mere perception to a higher level by giving the object the kind of attention that will allow it to show itself in its fullness. In ordinary life it usually suffices to see things as images in their wholeness. To avoid hitting the car in front of us, it is enough to see the image as a car. We need not observe it in detail. In that situation, observing would be a foolish thing to do. Observation is the skill of focusing intently on the appearance of something. It is taking note of the details of its parts and shades and activities. If you don’t notice something you can’t think about it or take into account how it might affect you. So, observation precedes serious thought and analysis. To become a good observer you have to train your mind to notice things that we ordinarily overlook. Description is the way we communicate the results of observation.

Common Sense

As I said above, reason is the power to see all sorts of relationships. Common sense is reason’s power to grasp relationships between things and us; that is, common sense enables us to anticipate how things will affect us in practical ways. It learns from personal experience and the experience of other people how things work, how to adjust to them and use them for our benefit. It also works to avoid danger, to make a living or to achieve success in our activities.

It reasons like this: when you do this, that happens; or when that happens, it affects us like this. It is the form of reason used in learning a skill: auto mechanics, bricklaying, getting along with difficult people, or playing basketball. It is not directly interested in theoretical explanations. It gets impatient with any line of thought where the practical relevance is not evident.

Clearly, common sense is very important for daily life. We are related to everything in our environment, and to act wisely we need to anticipate how our actions will affect other things and how those things may affect us. Common sense conforms to the general pattern of reason; it sees connections, analogies and relationships of all kinds. It is especially sensitive to causal relationships. It can use this knowledge very creatively to solve problems. To be continued…

Next: critical thought, introspection and thoughtfulness