Who you are versus what you do

One of the major questions all philosophies have to wrestle with is “what makes something what it is?”. Some people call this ontology. To but it another way, “Are you defined by what you do or who you are?” (This could go for objects, not just people, but we’ll stick with people for now.)

A simple example would go something like this:

Is a man a painter because he paints, or is he a painter because that is his title? If he makes his living as an artist, certainly he is a painter. But what about the insurance salesman who also paints in his garage in the evenings. Is he a painter? Well, sort of.

Sometimes, black children raised by white parents are shunned by their black peers for not really being “black”. In this case, they aren’t talking about skin color (which obviously can’t be changed), but about a set of behaviors. So in that case, “black” is defined by what you do, how you act.

Seth Godin recently commented on this in relation to online communities and actions:

The neat thing about the online world is that you are judged almost entirely by your actions, usually based on just your fingers.

If you do generous things, people think you are a generous person.
If you bully people, people assume you are a bully.
If you ask dumb questions, people figure you’re dumb.
Answer questions well and people assume you’re smart and generous.
… you get the idea.

This leads to a few interesting insights.

1. If people criticize you, they are actually criticizing your behavior, not you.
2. If you’re not happy with the perception you generate, change the words you type and the messages you send.
3. When you hear from someone, consider the source. Trolls are almost always trolls through and through, which means that you have no obligation to listen, to respond or to placate. On the other hand, if you can find a germ of truth, can’t hurt to consider it.

In this case, he is drawing attention to the fact that the online medium serves to filter out a lot of “who we are” – our facial expressions, tone of voice, what clothes or perfume we are wearing, how tall we are, and even what friends we are seen with. This makes a place where our identity is defined almost entirely by our volitional behavior. If we flame someone in an online forum we didn’t too it by accident, right? This is a liberating prospect for many. I think it can also be a stifling atmosphere for individuals who’s most admirable traits are less tangible.

Theologians have to deal with this all the time. Of course you’ve heard that “We are sinners not because we sin, but we sin because we are a sinner!” Of course this language is kind of confusing. The point is to affirm the doctrine of original sin, that states we are not born innocent, but carry rebellion toward God in our hearts, inherited from our ancestors, Adam and Eve. So we are sinners, period. Telling a lie or murdering someone doesn’t make us any MORE of a sinner than we already were.

This bleeds pretty quickly into the nature/nurture argument as well.

Calvinists of course ascribe our identity entirely to our essense, not our behavior. We are sinners not because we sin. We are not saved by anything good thing we ever did, not even a thought of faith. We are saved because we are elect. Or not. We are husbands because we are married, not because we treat our wives kindly (or not). Yet you can see how you can carry on with this to the point of absurdity.

So we find some kind of balance where we go back to defining ourselves by what we do. If you say something mean, are you a bully? If all you ever say are mean things, can you prove that you aren’t a bully?

Are you in charge of your own identity, destiny even? Or not?

This is one of the great deep problems. You see it everywhere. Look at Victor Hugo: Inspector Javert was the “good” guy, but really destined to be evil, despite his passionate efforts to be just. Valjean was the “bad” guy, but destined to be good, despite having the regularly lie and evade the law.

This is one of the grand, grand themes of life. How will you resolve it? How will you tell the story?

I really only got to musing about this after reading a section in musician John Michael Talbot’s book. He takes a balanced approach, saying: yes, these things define me, but only so far.

I continually witness the connections between my own body, soul, and spirit. I am both a musician and a singer. I am also a teacher. Fulfilling these responsibilities utilizes all aspects of my being. But suppose I wer to lose my hands, so that I could not play the guitar. Would this make me less “me”? Or suppose I lost my voice, so I could neither sing nor teach. Would this make me lose my uniqueness in God’s sight? or suppose I injured a part of my brain, o that my emotions became confused, or I could no longer grasp or teach all the things I currently talk about. Would I lose the essence of myself? Would I no longer be me? Would I no longer have genuine value or worth?

My music is truly me. It communicates something that is central to my being. My teaching is truly me as well, ad through teaching I communicate concepts and visions that are a very important part of who I am. My emotions are also me, and they reflect my own values about life and God. All of these various aspects reflect me, and to some degree, even are me. They are part of what the Eastern Christian mystics call my energies. But they are not the essence of me.

If I were to lose any or all of these energies or abilities, my essence would remain. I would still be me. The core of my being would remain always. The same is true for you.

-John Michael Talbot, The Music of Creation, p.29

Owen lays the smack down!

Much of Barfield’s writing is spent systematically explaining his thinking, giving lots of examples. He rarely mentions other people’s work and doesn’t have a lot of footnotes and references. It’s mostly meat, with little time spent agreeing or disagreeing with other scholars.

But then, every once in a while, seemingly out of nowhere, he whips out his Kalashnikov and fills somebody full of lead. He first quotes this passage by Max Muller:

Spiritus in Latin meant originally blowing, or wind. But when the principle of life within man or animal had to be named, its outward sign, namely the breath of the mouth, was naturally chosen to express it. Hence in Sanskrit asu, breath and life; in Latin spiritus, breath of life. Again, when it was perceived that there was something else to be named, not the mere animal life, but that which was supported by this animal life, the same word was chosen, in the modern Latin dialects, to express the spiritual as opposed to the mere material or animal element in man. All this is a metaphor. We read in the Veda, ii. 3, 4: ‘Who saw the first-born when he who had no form (lit. bones) bore him that had form? Where was the breath (asuh), the blood (asrik), the self (atma) of the earth? Who went to ask this from any that knew it?” Here breath, blood, self are so many attempts at expression what we should now call ’cause’.

Now if you didn’t know much about linguistics (like myself), you might nod your head when reading this and say, “Um, OK. That makes sense.” Ah, but this is a big deal! Barfield goes nuts:

It would be difficult to conceive anything more perverse than this paragraph; there is, indeed , something painful in the spectacle of so catholic and enthusiastic a scholar as Max Muller seated so firmly on the saddle of etymology, with his face set so earnestly towards the tail of the beast.

He seems to have gone out of his way to seek for impossibly modern and abstract concepts to project into that luckless disbin of pseudo-scientific fantasies – the mind of primitive man. Not only ’cause’, we are to suppose, was within the range of his intellect, but ‘something’, ‘principle of life’, ‘outward sign’, ‘mere animal life’, ‘spiritual as opposed to mere material’, and heaven knows what else.

Perverse; and yet for that very reason useful; for it pushes to a conclusion as logical as it is absurd, a view of mental history, which, still implicit in much that passes muster as anthropology, psychology, etc. – even as ordinary common sense – might easily prejudice an understand of my meaning, if it were ignored without comment.

-Owen Barfield, Poetic Diction: Metaphor (Reader p.12)

This is like someone explaining how some bronze-age peasants put together a wagon and describing it like this:

“First, the ancient craftsman would select a building material for their wagon. Wanting to reduce their carbon footprint, they would likely choose wood for their cart instead of a steel or aluminum frame. They generally tried to find strong hard-woods for the spokes of the wheels, which enabled them to reduce the wheel width so as to make the cart more aerodynamic. Finally, the cart was left unpainted so their mode of transportation would properly accessorize their earth-tone inspired wardrobe.”

How silly. Contemporary material science and environmental conservation, physics, and even high-taste and fashion awareness projected onto ancient anthropology.

But is this really that much different than what Muller was doing? Contemporary psychology, modernist philosophical thought given as these ancient people’s clear motivation. Really? And making all kinds of assumptions about how their language developed to boot. What else would make a careful scholar fly off the handle?

How often do we buy silly explanations of things we know little about?

Inheriting the lie, killing the prophets

The words of Jesus from John 8 43-44:

Why do you not understand what I say? It is because you cannot bear to hear my word. You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, and has nothing to do with the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies,he speaks according to his own nature, for he is a liar and the father of lies.

And Rene Girard’s commentary:

Here the essential point is that a triple correspondence is set up between Satan, the original homicide, and the lie. To be a son of Satan is to inherit the lie. What lie? The lie that covers the homicide. This lie is a double homicide, since its consequence is always another new homicide to cover up the old one. To be a son of Satan is the same thing as being the son of those who have killed their prophets since the foundation of the world.

This takes some explanation. I’ve been astounded by Girard’s brilliance ever since discovering his work earlier this year. The problem is, it’s incredibly difficult to boil down to just a couple of paragraphs for a blog post. It’s remarkably simple, but not so simple you can sum it up in just a few sentences without using too much jargon. Other breakdowns I’ve found on the web seem to spend too much on the core of his theories and fail to expound on why it is so significant to Christians. (And it is!) Alas, I’m not going to try to do that here…yet.

No wonder he was eaten by turtles

Today I clicked the link to one of those “20 ways to make more freetime” blog posts. However, I lost interest in the article when I saw the opening quote:

“The really efficient laborer will be found not to crowd his day with work, but will saunter to his task surrounded by a wide halo of ease and leisure.” – Henry David Thoreau

Riiiiiiiiight. OK. That’s helpful. Try telling that to a mother of toddlers. Or a lot of other folks too. What was this guy thinking?

Dave Barry, in his excellent history of the United States, sheds some light on this character:

“Meanwhile, culture was continuing to occur in some areas. In New England, for example, essayist Henry David Thoreau created an enduring masterpiece of American philosophical thought when, rejecting the stifling influences of civilization, he went off to live all alone on Walden Pond, where, after two years of an ascetic and highly introspective life, he was eaten by turtles.”

Photo credit

Beating up Plato

I’ve never read a philosophy book before. Really. I’ve skirted the subject with some of my interests in theology and psychology, but I’ve never jumped straight into one. With Rene Girard’s Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World, I’ll be attempting just that.

I’ve once heard that virtually all western thought is simply a footnote to Plato, and I’m beginning to see what is meant by that quote. So much of modern thought has just assumed all these things that Plato said were true and it’s proponents start with that assumption. Unfortunately, Plato’s ideas were NOT Christian and certainly not trinitarian. The fact that we as Christians continue to hold on to his ideas about metaphysics is actually a huger barrier to our understanding the Bible.

The main Platonic idea I’m talking about of course is the idea that the soul and body are completely separate entities. The soul is immortal. Our body is dust. Our body is just a container for our soul. The soul is good, the flesh is fallen and passing away. Sound familiar? I think I’ve heard this in church before. Except that’s actually not in the Bible. Not at all. This is not the basis of a sound theology of heaven and life after death. This is not the basis for understanding the incarnation and who Jesus is. This is not the basis for our approach to the future and the end of the world. But we are so used to this idea, it’s very hard to part with it.

(Plato on the far left. Not me on the far right. Photo credit.)

In beginning this book, I’m struck by how much the author has in common with N.T. Wright. Both of them feel it necessary to beat up Plato with a big stick before they can move forward with their discussion. They see this faulty idea as being a key thing that is holding us back from growing in our understanding of eschatology and life after death (in Wright’s case) and in religion and social relations in general (in Girard’s case). Girard is also a Christian, but he approaches many of these deep theological from a completely different angle then I am used to hearing. He doesn’t start by exegeting verses from the New Testament, but instead attempts to articulate a more global theory of religion and then work gradually inside from that to Jesus and why he is such a big deal. I’m looking forward to working through this one.

Since the attempt to understand religion on the basis of philosophy has failed, we ought to try the reverse method and read philosophy in light of religion.

-Rene Girard