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Radical Individualism

In Worldview on March 28, 2016 at 6:26 pm

Human relationshipsThis idea, that meaning resides in the individual human mind, has been a long time in development. We take it for granted and it is no longer considered a way of looking at reality, but the way reality is. It has not always been so; 500 years ago, meaning was external–context mattered.

In the Medieval world and before, the human self was understood in terms of three key relationships. That between God, other people, and the world. Everything that existed was placed in a hierarchy; the most spiritual things were on the top and the most physical things were on the bottom. Angels were at the top, with humans just underneath, then animals, birds, plants, planets, and the purely physical elements. Each of these categories were structured in their own hierarchies–the animal hierarchy was headed by a lion with the oyster at the bottom.  The elements were framed by gold and lead.  Every human lived between the king at the top and the insane beggar at the bottom. One’s identity, and the meaning of all things, had everything to do with where it fit within all these hierarchies.

Then came a series of events that would free the individual from all these hierarchies.

  • Religious Freedom came about with the Protestant Reformation which began in 1517 with Martin Luther nailing his Ninety-Five Theses to the door of All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg. This event was the catalyst to a movement that would allow individuals to read a the Holy Scriptures in their own language and interpret the content for themselves.
  • Political Freedom came in a series of revolutions. The English Revolution in 1649, the American Revolution in 1776 and the French Revolution 1789 seriously limited or eliminated the hereditary position of king.
  • Freedom from the Transcendent/Divine. When did we stop believing in God? Some of us haven’t, but let’s just say that it was in 1882 with Friedrich Nietzsche’s The Gay Science. In it we find those famous lines, “God is dead. . . . And we have killed him.”
  • Racial Freedom continues to be clarified, but two significant events are worth mentioning: the Abolition of slavery and America’s Civil War in the 1860 and the Civil Rights Movements of the 1960s.
  • Freedom for Women – In the first have of the 1900s women won the right to vote in many Western countries. Countries. Progress in even more equality were won in the 1960s.
  • Sexual Freedom was also a part of the 1960s.
  • Freedoms related to Sexual Orientation have been won in many jurisdictions in the last decade.
  • Freedom from Biology – 2015?  The latest emancipation seems to be from our biology. Caitlyn Jenner and Rachel Dolezal are representative of this new-found freedom against biological gender and race respectively.

BufferedThis is where we are now.  For the modern self, context doesn’t matter–meaning is internal, within the individual human mind. There is no authority higher than the self. The modern human is an autonomous human, not to be ruled by God, pope, king, or biology.

There are some consequences to this shift from external to internal meaning.  Just one effect is our isolation from other people and things.

We aren’t as engaged in our world as we once were: In his book Bowling Alone Robert Putnam points out that civic engagement has been in steady decline in the last third of the century. What is the evidence?  We don’t do a bunch of things as much as we used to, things that Putnam suggests are indicators of civic engagement.

  • newspaper reading;
  • TV news watching;
  • attending political meetings;
  • petition signing;
  • running for public office;
  • attending public meetings;
  • serving as an officer or committee member in any local clubs or organizations;
  • writing letters to the editor;
  • participating in local meetings of national organizations;
  • attending religious services;
  • socializing informally with friends, relatives or neighbors;
  • attending club meetings;
  • joining unions;
  • entertaining friends at home;
  • participating in picnics;
  • eating the super with the whole family;
  • going out to bars, nightclubs or taverns;
  • playing cards;
  • sending greeting cards;
  • attending parties;
  • playing sports;
  • donating money as a percentage of income;
  • working on community projects;
  • giving blood.

As far as I know, there is no proof that civic disengagement is a result of the radical individualism I have described, but it seems to follow.

Freedom and Individuality are good things, but they are not ultimate things.  We’ve made them ultimate things–we judge everything based on the degree to which it aligns with the worship Individual Freedom.  But good things cannot fulfill the demands made of them when we put them into the place of God. They will become very cruel gods before too long, but before that they will move us away from the other.  That they move us away from relationships, suggests their inadequacy as gods, for we find we are most fully human within our relationships–the purpose for which we were made.

YOLO: The Wisdom and the Folly

In Time on March 22, 2016 at 9:43 pm

Yolo“YOLO” — You may have heard a young person say this just before they do something stupid, or as an explanation as to why they did something stupid. It means “You Only Live Once.”

It suggests we ought to live for the present, as opposed to think too much about the future.

On the surface, there is some wisdom in this. Focussing too much on the future is foolish.

I know I think too much about the future. I think about the airplane crashing. I think about my future health. I think about next year’s writing projects and potential speaking engagements. I think about retirement. I don’t think I am alone in my obsession with the future. Our obsession with the future plays right into the hands of the demonic powers–this is C. S. Lewis’ view articulated in The Screwtape Letters. Senior tempter, Screwtape, says that God wants us “to attend chiefly to two things, to eternity itself, and to that point of time which [we] call the Present.” The devils purpose, then, is to get us “away from the eternal, and from the Present.” They do this by making us ” live in the Future, because thinking about the Future “inflames hope and fear.”

By thinking about the future we are focused on “unrealities.” I can simultaneously worry about never marrying (being alone for the rest of my life) and about marrying the wrong person (being miserable for the rest of my life). That both of these would occur is impossible, still I manage to fear both. And one lifetime is not enough to encompass all that I have ever hoped for. I will not get one of those $20,000 grand pianos that play all by themselves. I won’t live in New York City and write books. Won’t get a PhDs in history, philosophy and literature. I won’t work as an author/artist in Britanny. With all its hopes and fears, the future is filled with unrealities, and to live in the future is to live outside of reality.

We want a man hag-ridden by the Future . . . We want a whole race perpetually in pursuit of the rainbow’s end, never honest, nor kind, nor happy now, but always using as mere fuel wherewith to heap the altar of the future every real gift which is offered them in the Present. –Screwtape

The YOLO mantra correctly breaks us away from obsessing on the future, and turning toward the present.

Coffee can only be enjoyed in the present.

A good book can only be enjoyed in the present.

A friend can only be enjoyed in the present.

A lover can only be enjoyed in the present.

We can only be kind in the present.

We can only be happy in the present.

We can only be honest in the present.

But if you dig a little deeper into the YOLO philosophy, you will find it empty.

Lewis says that the Present is the most real component of time, and it is “the point at which time touches eternity”; it is “all lit up with eternal rays.”

The YOLO philosophy says that the present is important, but not because “it is all lit up with eternal rays,” but because it is all there is.  This life is all there is. When it is over, there is nothing. So if you don’t do it now, you will never do it. There is no eternity, so have fun while you can. Live for pleasure; live for the present.

Christianity asserts that every individual human being is going to live for ever, and this must be either true or false. Now there are a good many things which would not be worth bothering about if I were going to live only seventy years, but which I had better bother about very seriously if I am going to live for ever. –Mere Christianity

Hear Oh People, The Lord is Chronos

In Time, Worldview on March 6, 2016 at 12:04 am

Time WorshipI began this series of posts suggesting that having a “Biblical” or “Christian” worldview meant much more than opposing abortion and gay marriage, or being generous with ones time and money (read more here).   I argued that these things make up a very small part of what we call our worldview and that American Christians have the same worldview as their non-Christian neighbours.  I attempted to make the point Americans, whether Christian or not, have a very secular idea of time.

Secular Time:

  1. It is homogeneous — a minute is a minute; one hour is the same as every other hour–not really.
  2. It is sequential — minutes, hours, days and years occur one after the other.  There is another way to look at time as non-sequential–read more here.
  3. structured by progress — we are, things are, improving, evolving, getting better as time passes.  Not really–read more here and here.
  4. It has been emptied of the transcendent — there is nothing supernatural in our conception of time.  Really?

The Shema is considered by Jews to be the most important part of the prayer service and it is recited twice a daily.  It is found in Deuteronomy 6: 4-9. It is so important because it asserts the central tenant Judaism–there is only One God.  It says that the only way we can remember that God is God, is by making this idea central in our lives.

Worldviews can be built and shaped through ritual and repetition.   All residents of American culture are steeped in religious repetition and ritual in their worship of secular–or Chronos–time.   Here is my version of the Shema to reflect this idolatrous reality:

4 Hear, O resident of the secular age: The Lord is Chronos, the Lord is Linear. 5 Fear the Lord Chronos with regret for the past and fear for what the future might hold. 6 Time consciousness should always be on your hearts. 7 Impress on your children the importance of not wasting time and be sure they are in time for things, when necessary use bells. Talk about punctuality when you sit at home and as you walk along the road, insure that you set an alarm when they lie down so that they may get up in time. 8 Tie time symbols on your wrists or bind it on home screens of smart phones. 9 Hang them on the walls of every room in your houses, in your cars and at your places of work.