The Enlightenment Has Its Own Narrative Too

James K.A. Smith, in clarifying the difference between “Christian dominionists” and Kuyperians, writes on Abraham Kuyper’s understanding of worldview, especially post-Enlightenment:

To say that everyone works from a ‘worldview’ is to point out that everyone’s take on the world—how we understand the good life or human flourishing or the ideals for a society—are rooted and grounded in some story we believe about ourselves. There are many, competing stories about that, and the Enlightenment narrative is one worldview among others (which usually pretends it’s just ‘the way things are’). These orientating narratives and governing myths are the source of norms for what we think is the goal and good of society. There are differing worldviews, but there is no standpoint outside of a worldview.

Two important notes here. First, the Enlightenment narrative “usually pretends it’s just ‘the way things are.’ What is the Enlightenment narrative? It’s the one that (1) tells us that humans are capable of autonomous, rational thought, and (2) evidence-based knowledge is all we need to understand reality as-it-is. It is further a narrative about authority (something I mentioned in a previous post) — that ultimately, reason and evidence trump experience and tradition when determining what is true about the world. The point being made by Smith though, is that this is more than just a claim about authority and knowledge — the Enlightenment narrative is often presented as though it is not a narrative at all; it’s just simply how the world works. Everyone else might have a narrative, or reasons for subjecting themselves to a belief system, but Enlightenment thinking? That’s just good sense, the best way to be human.

Second, Kuyper’s sense of the term ‘worldview’ (that there is “no standpoint outside of a worldview”) is a precursor to some of the original claims of postmodernism. Smith says as much in his article. This is something else that is a part of the Enlightenment narrative that its proponents will not often admit. Enlightenment thinking often assumes that, given its trust in reason and evidence, its stance is inherently a stance “outside of any particular worldview.”

Kierkegaard, through his pseudonym Johannes Climacus, was among the first of the modern philosophers (following Kant) to doubt the Enlightenment claims towards pure objectivity:

Pure thinking is — what shall I say — piously or thoughtlessly unawaare of the relation that abstraction still continually has to that from which it abstracts… pure thinking is a phantom. And if Hegelian philosophy is free from all postulates, it has attained this with one insane postulate: the beginning of pure thinking. (CUP, 312)

On this point, C. Stephen Evans expands:

Human beings think as whole persons. It is human beings who reflect, not brains or minds detached from concrete human persons. Their thinking therefore necessarily reflects the shape of tehir human interestes and habits. (Faith Beyond Reason, 98)

Kierkegaard was, perhaps, a postmodern thinker even before Kuyper (not in the sense of worldviews and globalism and religious pluralism — those would come later). Kierkegaard was interested in critiquing the ability of rationality to transcend our finiteness, and laid the groundwork for theologians like Kuyper to question the haughtiness of rationality in the post-Enlightenment era.

On Pretension

I have often been accused of being too snobby and pretentious about whatever new habit I might have picked up (or, rather, become obsessed with). Often, my excitement about something (coffee, new music, whatever theology I happen to affirm that week) leads me to declare myself an expert on the given subject. And, to be fair, this can be a pretty bad characteristic — letting my excitement turn into snobbishness.

In The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction, Alan Jacobs writes that sometimes pretension may not always be a bad thing. Rather,

Young people often signal through their pretensions what they hope to become: they have discerned, maybe in a limited way, some good and they are pursuing it the best they can, given limited knowledge and experience. They see people whom they admire, or are in some way attracted to, and they try to copy the preferences of those paragons. Such copying can lead to more and more pretension; but in many cases the pretense becomes real: the tastes we aspire to often become our own taste.

So, perhaps, pretension isn’t all bad. At its best, perhaps pretension can help us learn the kind of people we want to become.

Kierkegaard the Liberal?

In a recent post, M.G. Piety (who wrote the main book on Kierkegaard’s epistemology I’m using for my thesis) argues that Kierkegaard falls solidly within the tradition of “liberal theology.” She makes this claim because of Michael Langford’s defines the fundamental characteristics of liberal theology in A Liberal Theology for the Twenty-First Century as,

(a) ‘The desire to use rational methods, including those of the empirical sciences, as far as they can be taken,’ (b) The confident ‘pursuit of truth’ from the perspective of belief ‘in a God who is active in the world, and who is the source of all that is.’

Piety argues, given Kierkegaard’s ultimate trust in rationality/logic and his (perhaps slightly) modified belief that God can be found in the world (Piety says that Kierkegaard only affirms that this happens “through the eyes of faith”). All well and good — however, I have a qualm that these characteristics solely define “liberal” theology. Modern theology, perhaps. Liberal?

Let’s take an example from Roger Olson:

In order for a theological proposal to be “liberal” it MUST be offered on the ground that modern thought requires it even though what is requiring it is not a universally recognized material fact (such as the earth moves around the sun). In other words, liberal theology makes modern thought in general a norming norm for theology–alongside if not above Scripture.

I’m inclined to trust Olson’s definition of “liberal theology” against Langford’s — partially because he’s making a claim about authority. In other words, liberal theology is not only characterized by trust in rationality, but a trust in rationality as a higher authoritative norm than Scripture and tradition coupled together. So then the question becomes, “Can we define Kierkegaard’s theology as inherently liberal?” Maybe, but not necessarily.

Kierkegaard trusted that rationality was capable of accessing truth about the natural world. Especially, as Piety says, regarding both tautologies/logic, the natural world, and human history. But was he so confident in the capability of rationality to determine truth in ethico-religious terms? Not particularly. Rationality lends itself to understanding ethico-religious truth(s) abstractly, “objectively.” His desire was to show, in his time, that embodiment of ethico-religious truth was the necessary requirement for truly being a Christian (“Subjectivity is truth,” etc.). In my mind, this implies that he distrusted objective, rational thought insofar as it was able to correct scriptural and creedal theology. True Christianity requires one to subject oneself to Christian tradition, to submit one’s reason to religious truth. Hence, rationality necessarily cannot function as a “norming norm” (as Olson says) for theology.

Ergo, Kierkegaard’s theology was not a “liberal theology.” Modern? Yes. Liberal — not so much.

Two More Notes on Blogging

I’ll get off of this sort of meta-discourse on social media and blogging and better uses of the web eventually, but I came across another couple of posts worth mentioning that spurred some more thoughts for me. First, I came across this post via Manton Reece’s blog (the founder of Micro.Blog, a new social web service that is pretty intriguing to me). Brent Simmons writes:

But if you think of the years 1995-2005, you remember when the web wasour social network: blogs, comments on blogs, feed readers, and services such as Flickr, Technorati, and BlogBridge to glue things together. Those were great years — but then a few tragedies happened: Google Reader came out, and then, almost worse, it went away. Worse still was the rise of Twitter and Facebook, when we decided it would be okay to give up ownership and let just a couple companies own our communication.

I remember this distinctly — in fact, this was how I grew up in the web. My friends and I all started blogs, and it wasn’t just a method of internet-journaling. It was more than that. It helped us to form early social networks, but networks that we controlled.

Then, after following the trail of breadcrumbs a little more, I found this post by Om Malik, where he writes:

What people don’t realize about blogs is that they are never a complete story. They are incomplete and by nature more mysterious, more episodic, and thus more interesting. Blogs are meant not to leave you with everything. The whole idea is to think to deliberate, and to come back again and again, to finish what was started a long time ago. But there is no end, just a pause, for a voice to start, talking again.

Which made me think two things:

  1. It reminded me of my previous post about making connections — the art of the blog is almost never to give a complete picture, especially to readers. Instead, the blog’s job is to help me to make connections. I’ll be able to look back one day and see things that I didn’t see before.
  2. I wonder — is it possible that blogs will make a comeback in the same way that podcasts did a few years ago? Podcasts were around long before the boom of podcasting happened in… what, 2013? Everyone thought podcasting was essentially dead, or at least had outlived its novelty. The “blog” was pronounced dead not that long ago, but if Manton Reece and others like him can help us build stronger support systems to make the web itself more social, outside of the walled gardens of social media, then we might just witness a comeback in the next few years.

(Side note: I’ve noticed that since I’ve been focusing more on my personal digital space [i.e., the blog here], I’m not all that interested in Twitter anymore, which is the last vestige of any “owned” social media that I still participate in.)

Blogging Daily

I’m attempting to blog daily (or, at least, Monday through Friday) — not as an attempt to gain more followers or build an audience or somehow monetize my blog. I know those things probably won’t happen. I’m doing so for a lot of reasons; one of which is something I read on a bunny trail I came across last week through CJ Chilvers’s blog (its origination is from Seth Godin’s podcast Akimbo). In a recent episode, Godin says:

I’m encouraging each one of you to have [a blog]… because of the discipline it gives you, to know that you’re going to write something tomorrow. Something that might not be read by many people—it doesn’t matter—it will be read by you. If you can build that up, you will begin to think more clearly. You will make predictions. You will make assertions. You will make connections.

It’s that last bit — “You will make connections” — that stuck with me when I read that. There are other reasons: building up a writing habit is something that is just good for me. Blogging every day helps me harken back to my young teenage years when blogging was everything. It was a brand new medium I could use to express myself any way I wanted. Now, I think the discipline of blogging daily is something that has the potential to benefit me over time. I probably won’t see these amazing leaps and bounds in my thinking immediately. But I hope that I’ll be able to look back in one year’s, two years’, or ten years’ time and understand a little better why I think the way I think, and perhaps make connections I didn’t see clearly.

This is, perhaps, one of the main benefits of blogging as a practice over the mindlessness of certain forms of social media. When I interact with social media, the friction to converse with people and throw my opinion out there is low, but I’m unlikely to scroll back through my timeline. Lack of friction equals low remembrance. The higher friction of pulling out a word processor and typing out a few coherent paragraphs (or more, if I’m feeling indulgent) lends itself to aiding my memory and helping me see clearly (later) not only what I was thinking but why.

What is Trumpism? A Riff on David Brooks

A cursory glance at any political commentary over the last two years will provide us with multiple, disparate answers to the question in the title of this post. Usually, answers include some mix of nativism, celebrity culture, authoritarianism, and tribalism (i.e., a strong distrust in institutions).

David Brooks, in a recent op-ed at NYT (“You can be a conservative or a Republican, but not both”), gives what I think is a better answer, though he does so unwittingly. The article actually attempts to give a short history of conservatism and its beginnings as a response to Enlightenment political thinking. He writes:

Enlightenment thinkers were throwing off monarchic power and seeking to build an order based on reason and cosent of the governed. Soceity is best seen as a social contract, these Enlightenment thinkers said. Free individuals get together and contract with one another to create order.

Conservatives said we agree in general but think you’ve got human nature wrong. There never was such a thing as an autonomous, free individual who could gather with others to creat order. Rather, individuals emerge out of families, communities, faiths, neighborhoods and nations. The order comes first. Inividual freedom is an artifact of that order. [Emphasis mine]

This is an important distinction: liberalism tends to think that individuals freely create order, ex nihilo. Conservatism (real conservatism, anyway) thinks order is already inherent in the human social experience, and individuals are not fundamentally autonomous or simply “free” to act however we please. The point Brooks ends up trying to make is that Trump isn’t a true conservative, and neither are those following his vision of politics:

[Trump] doesn’t base his belonging on the bonds of affection conservatives hold dear. He doesn’t respect and obey those institutions, traditions and values that form morally decent individuals. His tribalism is the evil twin of community. It is based on hatred, us/them thinking, conspiracy mongering and distrust. It creates belonging, but on vicious grounds.

In 2018, the primary threat to the sacred order is no longer the state. It is a radical individualsim that leads to a vicious tribalism.

So what is Trumpism, then? It’s not conservatism or liberalism. It’s not just tribalism or nativism or authoritarianism. Instead, it is simply the very worst aspects, and the distorted, extreme pictures of what unfettered liberalism and conservatism look like at the same time. Trumpism is a fundamental belief in the autonomous individual that can do as he/she pleases as long as those actions garner power. Trumpism is also interested in creating the kind of belonging that conservatives desire — but it is a false belonging, built ultimately on distrust and fear.

Common Prayer Subverts Our Present Anxiety

I have been attempting to pray daily using the pocket edition of Common Prayer from Shane Claiborne and Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove. It’s a good way to sustain a daily prayer habit (something I consistently struggle with), and also helps me to not feel like time I spend in prayer needs to be spontaneous to be heartfelt and meaningful. With Common Prayer, I am allowed to let my need for originality go in favor of joining a broad group of Christians whom I know are praying the same prayers I am, every day.

The juxtaposition of the words of the midday prayer caught me off guard today. Since last Friday, I have curbed all social media use — not entirely, but my use of Twitter has greatly diminished. After spending a week in anger and frustration at the immigration situation (about which I could do literally nothing except make a call to my representatives, who had already critiqued the president’s position anyway), I decided that I needed a break from a timeline full of outrage. So I stepped back for the weekend. I tentatively took a peek at my timeline again on Monday, but only once. The same has been true for yesterday and today. I just can’t help but feel that allowing my brain space to be overtaken by political and social outrage is a misuse of my attention.

The pocket edition’s midday prayer, however, offers a subversive response to the evil and anger we find in the world:

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace

Where there is hatred, let me bring love;

where there is injury, pardon;

where there is doubt, faith;

where there is despair, hope;

where there is darkness, light;

where there is sadness, joy…

Make us worthy, Lord, to serve our brothers and sisters throughout the world, who live and die in poverty and pain. Give them today, through our hands, their daily bread; and through our understanding love, give peace and joy. Amen.

The next section of the prayer is a recitation of the Beatitudes. You know, “Blessed are the poor,” “Blessed are the hungry,” and so on.

Most of my concerns about social media that I have expressed on this blog and elsewhere have centered around both civil discourse and focus. Those are true and good reasons to stay off social media, but they are really only half of the story for me. I’m also convinced by James K.A. Smith’s argument in Desiring the Kingdom that “All habits and practices are ultimately trying to make us into a certain kind of person” (83). If I’m spending my time on Twitter — a service that is increasingly political, siloed, and feeds on outrage before it feeds on virtuous action, into what kind of person is that habit forming me? Later, Smith writes, “Some of the habits and practices that we are regularly immersed in are actually thick formative practices that over time embed in us desires for a particular version of the good life.” So it’s not just about the kind of person I’m being formed into; my understanding of what constitutes a vision of a good, beautiful world (and therefore, what is good for everyone else) will be formed by my habits and practices.

It’s here that the prayer above can help subvert and short circuit our current political and social moment. If I’m praying the Lord’s prayer and prayers like the one above every day in lieu of seeing what else people are angry about on the web, it’s more likely that I’ll become the kind of person that will (lovingly) do something about the injustice I see around me.

Social Media is Meta-Commentary on Ourselves

It’s strange how you can fall down several different, seemingly disparate rabbit holes in a day, and they all sort of connect with each other somehow. After spending some time reading through a few of Alan Jacobs’s old pieces at the Atlantic, I later randomly stumbled across this piece on Bo Burnham and his recent film, “Eighth Grade.”

Jacobs’s posts at the Atlantic offered some interesting commentary (from back in 2012 and 2013!) on the open internet and the indie web that led me down a strange internet wormhole. In several of these pieces, Jacobs, true to form, writes on the importance of autonomous web pages — spaces which we have our own control over, and which are not at risk of deletion or loss because some company owns the material we post. While he doesn’t explicitly talk about Twitter or Facebook, he does mention in at least one piece how he manages his online reading (Twitter/RSS to Instapaper to Pinboard). These allow him to stay up to date without being held hostage by the Twitter hoard. I don’t know if that’s what he does now, but it’s what he describes in this post.

In the profile of Burnham, the author describes what Burnham has been working on the last couple of years while taking a break from stand-up comedy: a film (“Eighth Grade”) that seeks to pull back the curtain on what it feels like to be an adolescent in a world enveloped and overwhelmed by social media and building audiences and having a voice. Kayla is the film’s protagonist, and he says of her character: “In the movie, she’s meta-commenting on herself in a way she’s totally unaware of. She thinks she’s living one coherent life.” In other words, as Kayla is attempting to say something meaningful to her (non)audience via social media, she’s actually speaking (in)directly about her own fears and selfhood. The problem really ends up being that it’s a show meant for others, and by attempting to gain an audience, she doesn’t understand that she’s “meta-commenting.”

I wonder, if we followed Jacobs’s and others’ vision of what a better web looks like (owning our own space, using it as a personal archive, etc.), if we can avoid some of the pitfalls of performance that social media in its current forms propagates.

Subjective Knowledge is the Only Knowledge That Matters

The main point of my thesis work this year is to address the realm of “religious knowledge” — whether such a realm of knowledge is legitimately understood as knowledge, and if it is, what is required of us if we say we “know” something religiously.

This is where Kierkegaard’s understanding of types of knowledge is helpful. He doesn’t explicate any kind of explicit system for “kinds of knowledge,” but M.G. Piety, in her book Ways of Knowing, teases out some of the implications of Kierkegaard’s writings (especially Concluding Unscientific PostcriptPhilosophical Crumbs, and his Journals and Papers). To paraphrase Piety, there are two distinct fields of knowledge in Kierkegaard’s thought: objective and subjective.

Those fields break down even further. Objective knowledge has two distinct categories. The first of which (and most people agree on this) is “strict” — that is, anything absolutely provable mathematically or logically. The second form of objective knowledge is “loose” — that is, knowledge about the natural world or history. This second category is inherently a little fuzzier, even though it is still considered objective. We can know things about history and nature with relative confidence, even if we hold that knowledge loosely (and we should, considering that new, objective evidence could show that our previous conclusion was false).

I find the field of subjective knowledge extremely helpful for talking about religion and moral action. For Kierkegaard (via Piety) subjective knowledge also has two distinct categories: “proper” and “pseudo.” Proper subjective knowledge requires the combination of action and understanding. This means whatever ethical or religious norms that have been revealed to us must be enacted in our lives in order for us to consider those religious or ethical norms properly subjective. (And it’s important to note here that this is an entirely different use of subjectivity than we often use today. Kiekegaard [through his pseudonym Johannes Climacus], when he writes a phrase like “Subjectivity is truth,” doesn’t mean that truth is whatever you want it to mean. It’s closer to say that he thinks religious or ethical truth must be embodied and internalized if it can properly be said to be “truth.”) Psuedo subjective knowledge, then, is abstracted knowledge of ethical or religious truths. In other words, it’s kind of like armchair theologizing — taking great pleasure in knowing about and discussing theology, but not appropriating that theology within one’s existence.

And this is the reason I love Kierkegaard — he’s not really a philosopher or someone that’s interested in abstract system-building. What he’s interested in is making us more honest with ourselves.

Charitable Thinking, Charitable Living

One of my favorite reads this year has been Alan Jacobs‘s How to Think: A Survival Guide for a World at Odds. Jacobs’s purpose in this (short) book is simple: the reintroduction of the reader to rational, intentional thinking in our present age, which is often marked by irrationality, and the unwillingness to engage in civil, thoughtful debate and conversation with those on the other side of the aisle — whatever aisle that might be. I don’t even need to present an argument about why this book is important — we all have a sense that something is seriously wrong in current political, religious, and cultural discourse.

This book has proved significant for me, both in the ways I have attempted to re-order my thought life and in how I understand my relationships with others. His best (and perhaps even overarching) point of the entire book, is that good thinking requires charity. That’s not a word he uses, but it shows in how he encourages his readers to interact and dialogue with others. In a passage where he quotes Kierkegaard (my boy!), Jacobs says:

In his book Works of Love, Kierkegaard sardonically comments, ‘Neighbor is what philosophers would call the other.’ And it is perhaps significant that Kierkegaard, who spent his whole life engaged in the political and social conflicts of what was then a small town, Copenhagen, can see the the degeneration involved in the shift from ‘neighbor’ to ‘other.’ He is calling us back from disinhibition, and accompanying lack of charity, generated by a set of technologies that allow us to converse and debate with people who are not, in the historical sense of the term, our neighbors. (82)

What is Jacobs saying (that Kierkegaard is saying) here? Philosophizing — and even more than that, engagement with others — requires that we not automatically ascribe negative intention or stupidity to the persons with whom we are conversing. If we want the potential for a better society, one in which good quality thinking is a virtue, we have to be charitable about the intentions and logic of the people with whom we disagree. Of course, this entails risk, right? It means that we are admitting that the person we think is wrong may actually have valid reasons for thinking the way she does. Further, it means that we must accept that our reasons may be fundamentally flawed or illogical, and our posture must therefore be open to a changed perspective.

I’ve also been thinking about this in relation, not to thinking, but in relating to others. What does a healthy marriage look like, for instance, if openness and charitable thinking are virtuous characteristics? It means that when my wife and I reach a fundamental disagreement about something, I need to step back for a moment and open myself up to the possibility that her reasons are possibly better than my own. It means that, when her feelings are hurt by my actions, even if I know my intentions were not to be hurtful, that her understanding of my actions as hurtful is still valid (and, perhaps, her understanding of my actions is a better interpretation of my actions than my own). That can be difficult, because it requires me to suspend my limited rationality and admit that I ought to shift my perspective and change my future behavior.

Either way, charity, in both thought and relationship, requires risk.