Who Am I? (Part 2)

 

In part 1 we asked whether we were primarily mind or body.  While acknowledging both we sought to discover which one most often ran the show.  We concluded that most often we follow the inclination of our bodies over our minds.  Therefore we answered the question, “Who am I?” by saying, “We are embodied creatures.”  In this article we want to add a layer to that.  I want to suggest that we are “teleological creatures.”1

The word telos (from which we get “teleological”) is a Greek word which means something like “goal” or “purpose” or “aim.”  By saying that we are teleological creatures I am saying that we are always “aiming” at something.  We aim at all sorts of different things in all sorts of different ways but the thing common to it all is that we are aiming.  To illustrate, take a moment and think.  Don’t think about anything.  Just think.  You can’t do it can you?  Now try this: want.  Don’t want anything in particular, just want.  It’s impossible.  See, none of us can simply think or want or hope or fear.  All of these things are always aimed at something.  We must think about something, even if it’s just thinking about thinking.  Neither can we just want.  We want pizza or excitement or rest or sex but we want something.  The same goes for all of the other ways that we intend or “aim at” the world.  There is always an object.  We are intentional beings.  We are teleological creatures.

When we combine the fact that we are embodied with the fact that we are teleological this helps us further the conclusion in our last article.  If I were primarily a thinking-thing then I would aim at things through thinking.  Most of what I did would be based upon what I thought or believed about the world.  I would seek abstract ideas like peace, justice, pleasure, and happiness.  But there are two problems: 1. I am not primarily a thinking-thing.  I am an embodied creature.  I am primarily a desiring-thing, and therefore thinking is not primarily how I intend the world.  2. Even if I were primarily a thinking-thing that would be a difficult life.  Take a moment and imagine justice.  Not a just society or a just household.  Just justice.  Again, it’s impossible.  Or how about peace?  You cannot imagine just peace.  You can imagine a peaceful relationship, peaceful scenery, a peaceful government, even world peace.  But you cannot imagine just “peace.”  And it is incredibly hard to aim at something that you can’t “see.”  As James K.A. Smith puts it,

 

“[W]hat we love is a specific vision of the good life, an implicit picture of what we think human flourishing looks like … implicit in it will be assumptions about what good relationships look like, what a just economy and distribution of resources look like, what sorts of recreation and play we value, how we ought to relate to nature and the nonhuman environment, what sorts of work count as good work, what flourishing families look like, and much more.”2

 

This is because I am primarily a desiring-thing (not a thinking-thing).  I aim at a vision, not ideas/beliefs.  “It is important to emphasize that this [vision of the good life] is a picture.  This is why I have emphasized that we are fundamentally noncognitive, affective, creatures.  The telos to which our love is aimed is not a list of ideas or propositions or doctrines; it is not a list of abstract, disembodied concepts or values.” 3

As was mentioned in the previous article we might be tempted to consider the imagination under the control of the mind instead of the body. However, our imagination works on us in a different way than our reason does.  Listening to a definition of chaos (which would target our reason) is different than considering a painting of chaos (which would target the imagination).  A definition engages the intellect, a vision engages the guts.  It works on our passions and our emotions.  Consider the different reactions you experience when you hear statistics about poverty in Africa compared to when you see a photo of a poor child with a swollen belly and belabored breath.  That’s the difference in idea and vision, intellect and imagination, mind and body.

In general, we do not seek to obey a set of rules/convictions.  We desire to live into a vision, a picture of life, like the Pevensie children of C.S. Lewis’ Voyage of the Dawn Treader.  We may think, like Edmund, that looking at a picture doesn’t do any good.  ” ‘The question is,’ said Edmund, ‘whether it doesn’t make things worse, looking at a Narnian ship when you can’t get there.'”  He thought that no matter how badly they wanted that vision of life, picturing it wasn’t going to get them there.  But they were wrong, and so are we.  The children stared at the painting of the ship and eventually found themselves transported into the world of their imagination.  “The things in the picture were moving … Down went the prow of the ship into the wave and up went a great shock of spray … Eustace jumped to try to pull it off the wall and found himself standing on the frame; in front of him was not glass but a real sea.”4  Just as their longing for the Narnia of the painting was able to transport them there, so we will be transported into our vision of the good life, however we paint it.

 

“A vision of the good life captures our hearts and imaginations not by providing a set of rules or ideas, but by painting a picture of what it looks like for us to flourish and live well.  This is why such pictures are communicated most powerfully in stories, legends, myths, plays, novels, and films rather than dissertations, messages, and monographs.”5

 

When we are captured by a vision we live into it.  I once listened to an episode of the early morning radio show Kidd Kraddick in the Morning where J-Si described his misplaced motivation to cut his son’s hair.  He said something like, “I was at the salon getting my hair cut and the lady did it so fast!  She made it looks so easy.  So when I got home and my son said he wanted hair like mine, I thought, ‘I can do that.'”  It did not go well.  He and his wife, Kenzie, had to take their son to have a trained professional fix his hair.  The point, however, is about what made J-Si want to do it in the first place.  It was the skill and ease of his hair dresser.  He was fascinated by her.  She did not reason with him while he was in the chair to convince him of why he ought to cut his son’s hair, why it would be a good idea, or how it would be an economical decision.  None of those things are the “reason” why he cut his son’s hair.  This was a visceral bodily phenomenon.  He was moved into a vision where he could cut hair with the same ease as she could. He tried to live into that life he had imagined, and failed.  But he tried none the less.

In the movie Adjustment Bureau David Noriss (played by Matt Damon) meets the girl of his dreams (Elise–played by Emily Blunt) but is suddenly separated from her and unable to find her again.  Upon serendipitously meeting he explains his efforts to locate her.  He says, “I didn’t have your number.  And I didn’t even have a last name to go by.  You know, if you Google just ‘Elise’ you get seven-hundred and …” “You did not!” she objects.  “… fifty seven thousand hits.  And none of them are you.”  See, Noriss was captured by a vision.  No one convinced him that he should find Elise.  No one argued with him to prove that this course of action was right or good or profitable.  Noriss imagined a world in which he and Elise were together and he put forth tremendous effort to make that vision a reality.

We do the same thing.  Because we are embodied creatures we are captured by a vision of our life and because we are teleological creatures we then proceed to live into that vision.  But our lives are not isolated from others.  We live in families and communities and therefore our vision is always a social vision.  We imagine that we are rich or famous or good looking or successful or healthy and we try to be that.  (Notice also that these are not things which are “right” or “wrong”–the are things which are desired or not).  We imagine that we have a dog in the country or we imagine that have a loft in the city where we can bike to work and walk to the coffee shop.  We imagine a home with large open windows, the smell of apple pie in the kitchen, kids playing in the floor, and ourselves reading a book by the fire (at least I certainly do).  The point is, these are the things that move us.  And even these more local visions are always situated in a wider contexts.  All of the pictures I described above are set in a peaceful America, not a world at war.  They are pictures of economic prosperity, not poverty.  The vision of the city is ethnically diverse, not racially divided.  These visions have universal implications and we live towards them.  This is how we operate as human beings.

We are all seeking a vision.  The danger is that different visions are constantly vying for our affection.  Some visions are communities which are hospitable to being fully human while others are dehumanizing and inhumane. But how do we know that we are seeking the right one?  That will be the concern of future articles.  Let me say for now that as a Christian I believe that the vision of the future towards which God is headed is a New Heaven and a New Earth.  It is a place where Jesus reigns as king and we reign with him.  It is an ethnically diverse kingdom of peace.  It is a place where all have justice and none are oppressed.  There are parties with music and celebration without the debauchery which often infects our own festivities.  There are feasts without the bad health that accompanies our gluttony and bad decisions.  There is art without pornography, technology without war, dance without lewdness, family without death, friendship without deception, and joy without sorrow.  This is what it means to be fully human.  This is the vision I live into.  This is the vision we are all invited to live towards.  So join me in being simply human.  You were born to.

 

©M. Benfield 2016


1. James K.A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom, (Grand Rapids: BakerAcademic, 2009), 52.
2. Ibid, 52-53.
3. Ibid, 53.
4. C.S. Lewis, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, First Harper Trophy Edition (New York: HarperCollins, 2000), 9-10.
5. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom, 53.

Who Am I? (Part 1)

 

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks is fond of saying that there are three questions which every reflective person eventually asks: 1. Who am I?  2. Why am I here?  3. How then shall I live?  This article begins a series of articles which seek to answer theses questions, the first of which is, “Who am I?”

There are a number of phrases floating around which one hears here and there that attempt to give an answer to this question.  One says, “You are what you think.”  Another says, “You are what you believe.  Still another suggests, “You are not a body which has a soul.  You are a soul which has a body.”  All of these indicate a common conception about the nature of man.  They both conceive Man as being primarily an immaterial thing.  They all admit that we have a material part, we have bodies, but they reject that as being our essence.  In these conceptions of what it means to be a human being we are first immaterial creatures and second we are embodied creatures.

The other available option to us is that we are primarily embodied creatures.  This idea suggests that while we have an immaterial part, call it mind or soul or whatever, that is not at the core of our identity.  We are earthy first and spirit-ish second.

But how do we decide which of these options is the right one?  Neither conception denies the existence of both material and immaterial parts.  The question is simply which one is nearer to the center of what it means to be human.  We can answer this question by asking which part “runs things” most of the time.

When we speak of these two “parts” of us we list things like thinking, believing, and reasoning under the control of the immaterial part, the mind.  Things like love, hate, fear, desire, lust, and imagination are more visceral and hence are under the control of the material part, the body.  Even though we might be tempted to think of imagination as more of a thing that happens in the mind, imagination does not deal in abstraction but in pictures thus appealing to the senses and therefore more related to the body than the mind.  James K.A. Smith likens this to the difference in reading a textbook and reading a poem.  “Both have content, but they activate very different comportments to the world, drawing on different parts of us, as it were.”1

Now let’s consider exactly how much of our day we actually think about. Most of what we actually do we do without thinking.  In fact, we often find thinking to be a hindrance, not a help.  When we first learned to drive we had to think about checking the mirrors, using one foot (not two) for the gas and brake, shifting from Park to Drive then to Reverse and back again.  It was a nightmare.  It was only when the things we “knew” worked their way down into our bodies that we were able to drive smoothly.  The same goes for most skills.  Typing, playing piano or guitar, speaking another language, riding a bike, dancing or doing martial arts, all are done poorly when we have to think about them.  It is our bodies that makes those things happen, not our minds.  Actually, our bodies do these things so well that some times we do them without even knowing that we are.  Who among us has not had the experience of hopping in the car and then arriving at our destination without remembering the drive?  We don’t think our way through our lives, we “feel” our way around them.  All of this suggests that our bodies are primary, not our minds.  So to the question, “Who am I?”  We answer, “I am an embodied creature.”

This explains why we so often find ourselves doing things that we “know” we shouldn’t do.  Consider the man recently in love.  Even though he knows that he ought to go to sleep so that he will be well rested for his early morning meeting he stays up until 2am to talk to the woman he loves.  This irrationality is what Rumi described when he said, “Let the lover be disgraceful, crazy, absentminded.  Someone sober will worry about things going badly.  Let the lover be.”2 In cases like this, when the cognitive part and the non-cognitive affective part of us clash, it is most often the affective part which wins.

Related to the above, this also helps explain the phenomenon of temptation.  Temptation inherently assumes that our bodies are moving us to do something that our minds say we ought not to do.  If our mind did not tell us that we ought not to do it then we would not consider it temptation.  Also, if we know that we ought not to do it, and our bodies do not want to do it, then we do not consider ourselves to be tempted.  Temptation means that the mind says “no” while the desire says “yes” (cf. James 1:14).  If our minds ruled the day then we would rarely sin, except when our minds were mistaken about the difference in right and wrong.  It is because we are more moved by our passions than we are by our convictions that we find ourselves so often bogged down in sin.

But “So what?”, right?  Why does this matter?  For this reason: “behind every pedagogy is a philosophical anthropology.”3 In other words, our ideas about how to teach people are dependent upon our conception of what sort of thing Man is. If who we are is determined by what we think/believe then the way to help a man be who he is supposed to be is to fill him up with all of the right ideas.  In many schools, universities, and even churches this is the common practice.  However, if our identities are dependent more upon our bodies then we need a conception of education (and discipleship) which addresses the body, the non-cognitive and affective part of Man.  We need education which teaches us to love, not just what to believe.  This is sadly lacking in many Christian traditions (mine included).  As we continue to learn more about what it means to be embodied creatures we will “flesh out” (pun intended) how this should affect our education, worship, and discipleship.  For now remember this: being human means being in a body.  As embodied creatures if we want to change we have to aim our efforts at the body as well as the mind.  Instead of trying to convince our minds to conquer our bodies (as happens too often), we ought to try and enlist our bodies so that they fight on the same side.  Trying to conquer the body is, in essence, to attempt to dis-embody ourselves.  But that is to be less than fully human.  We are bodies.  So join me in being simply human.  Because you were born to.

©M. Benfield 2016

 


1. James K.A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom, (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2009), 28, n.11.
2. Rumi, The Book of Love: Poems of Ecstasy and Longing, “The Ache and Confusion” (New York: HarperCollins, 2003), 60.
3. James K.A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom, 27.

Hacksaw Ridge: Teaching Us to Hear One Another

 

Let me begin by saying that at this moment I have no settled convictions about pacifism.  I have my thoughts and concerns, of course, but this article is not an argument for or against pacifism.  This is about urging us to listen to one another.

In person, on Facebook, and on Instagram I often see disagreements take place where the participants fail to listen to each other.  It appears–I say “appears” because I cannot be certain of the motive–that participants have preprogrammed responses to certain words and phrases which serve as triggers.  Things like “religion”, “Democrat”, “Republican”, “liberal”, “conservative”, “fundamentalist”, “redneck”, “hick”, “racism”, “Christian”, “feminist”, “slut”, “player”, “constitution”, “rights”, “peace”, “war”, “terrorism”, “Muslim”, “gay”, “environmentalist”, “hippy”, “sexist”, “guns”, “gun control”, “evolution”, “second amendment”, and others.  The hearer/reader, without listening, then takes the things which he/she associates with those triggers and attributes them to the speaker, regardless of the speakers objection, “That’s not what I’m saying.”  And, as an observer (and occasional participant) of the conversation, I often agree.  That’s not what the speaker was trying to say at all.  On such occasions I have tried my best to facilitate conversation between both sides, and this is one such occasion.  I want to encourage readers to see the upcoming film Hacksaw Ridge (you can watch the trailer here) and to “hear” what the film has to say.  It is the true story of Private first class Desmond T. Doss.  As a devout Seventh-Day Adventist he believed he could not touch a gun, much less take another’s life.  Still, he served in WWII as a medic and received the Congressional Medal of Honor after successfully saving the lives of 75 of his fellow soldiers.  I believe this film helps to overcome two common associations I witness in regard to the triggers “pacifist” and “non-violence.”

First, as pictured in Hacksaw Ridge, some associate non-violence with cowardice. One of Doss’ fellow soldiers says to him, “I don’t think this is a question of religion. I think this is cowardice.” In his excellent lecture “Why I Am Not a Pacficist”, which can be read with benefit regardless of one’s agreement or disagreement, C.S. Lewis also suggests that pacifism (he suspects) may be motivated by cowardice.  He makes the suggestion gingerly, even indicting himself, not wishing to insult his hearers. “Let me say at the outset that I think it unlikely there is anyone present less courageous than myself.  But let me also say that there is no man alive so virtuous that he need feel himself insulted at being asked to consider the possibility of a warping passion when the choice is one between so much happiness and so much misery.”1  He goes on to give one of the most succinct and vivid accounts of war anywhere written:

 

“All that we fear from all the kinds of adversity, severally, is collected together in the life of a soldier on active service.  Like sickness, it threatens pain and death.  Like poverty, it threatens ill lodging, cold, heat, thirst, and hunger.  Like slavery, it threatens toil, humiliation, injustice, and arbitrary rule.  Like exile, it separates you from all you love.  Like the gallies, it imprisons you at close quarters with uncongenial companions.  It threatens every temporal evil–every evil except dishonour and final perdition, and those who bear it like it no better than you would like it.”2

 

If pacifism did in fact call men to avoid that which threatened the realities described above then we would be right to consider whether or not our “conviction” was inspired by a personal wish to avoid such horrors.  We find, however, that Lewis’ picture of pacifism is not nuanced enough.  He goes on to say, “[I]t is certainly a fact that Pacifism threatens you with almost nothing.”3  Whereas this may be the case with some pacifists (I have not known any) it is not the case with all.  If we take the time to listen we will discover that this is so.  In fact, some shirk the label “pacifism” all together believing it to be too “passive” (though this mistakes the meaning of the word).  They instead prefer the term “non-violent resistance” indicating their commitment to fight evil.4  This sort of pacifism is quite the opposite of what Lewis specifically describes as “nonresistance.”5 This sort of pacifism is that sort pictured in Hacksaw Ridge. Private Doss, nicknamed “Doss the Coward,” proves to be quite courageous. In one scene an officer says to him, “Private Doss, you are free to run into the hell fire of battle without a single weapon to protect yourself.” I feel safe saying that it would seem to take less courage to run into battle with a weapon than without one. Whereas there may be forms of pacifism which cater to cowards we ought not to hear “pacifism” or “non-violence” and simply assume the person advocating non-violence is thereby advocating cowardice. Hopefully Hacksaw Ridge will help train us to really hear one another, to listen to those who think differently than we do, and to learn to consider other ways, other perspectives. It does so here by showing that pacifists need not be cowards.

Second, in conversations I have had in regard to the topics of war, peace, non-violence, and nationalism some have objected on the grounds that pacifism somehow disrespects the soldiers that have fought and died to secure our freedom. It is believed that the suggestion of pacifism somehow belittles the courage and sacrifice of past and present soldiers. It should be noted briefly that though this objection may win a crowd rhetorically it is no accurate measure of truth. There are a great many truths labeled disrespectful regardless of how respectfully they are expressed. Even so, Hacksaw Ridge once again shows that associating disrespect with pacifism is unnecessary. Doss showed great respect for his fellow soldiers as well as his country. He respected others so much, in fact, that he could not simply send others to make a sacrifice on his behalf. He says, “I can’t stay here while all them go fight for me.” We make a mistake when we make people equal to ideas. The result is that when I disagree with a person’s belief that I am somehow perceived as being unjust towards that person. That is not the case. A person may disagree with the use of violent force without insulting or disrespecting those who support violent force. Again, Desmond Doss leads the way.

If our preconceived ideas about pacifism can so successfully be exploded, what other things might have been misunderstood?  Is it possible that we have misunderstood gun control or Just War Theory?  Is it possible that we have misunderstood evolutionary science as well as fundamentalist Christians?  Is it possible that we have misunderstood the Democratic party as well as the Republican party?  Could it be that we have misunderstood Islam and atheists, Buddhists, and Hindus?  Some of these things I agree with and others I do not.  But I do not want to make the mistake of disagreeing without first understanding.  I do not want my prejudices and my fears to make me ignore a differing view.  Sometimes a film comes a long that makes us take stock of our assumptions and question our beliefs.  Maybe Hacksaw Ridge is one of those films.  I believe that it is.

I am hopeful that Hacksaw Ridge will receive a wide viewership. I am further hopeful that we will not view the movie as simply entertainment or “about” pacifism. My hope is that this movie will do much more. I hope that Hacksaw Ridge will cause us to reflect upon all perspectives which may differ from our own. It is my wish that we will learn that those who think differently than we do are not necessarily our enemies, indeed they may be our dearest friends in time of need. I hope this film will help us learn to hear one another–to slow down, listen, and give others fair consideration. This is a Christian virtue (James 1:19), not to mention basic human decency. So join me in being simply human. Because you were born to.

 

©M. Benfield 2016


1. C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory, “What I Am Not a Pacficst” (New York: HarperCollins, 2001), 88.
2. Ibid, 89.
3. Ibid.
4. Preston Sprinkle actually entitles his book on non-violence Fight to reflect this commitment. See Fight (Colorado Springs: Cook, 2013), 25, 29, 30, 35.
5. Lewis, Weight of Glory, 85.

To Thine Own Self Be True

 

There is a lot of concern today with identity.  People go on long trips to “find themselves.”  Teenage years are filled with angst over “figuring out who I am.”  And this is applauded.  Authenticity, i.e. “being true to one’s self”, has become one of the highest virtues with the authority of the likes of Shakespeare behind it.  “This above all: to thine own self be true”1 Problems arise, however, when “who I am” turns out not to be so good. The drunk says to his battered wife when she asks him to quit drinking, “Get off my back! This is just who I am.” The promiscuous son retorts to his disapproving parents, “I thought you were supposed to accept me for who I am?”  And the liar confesses when asked why he can’t “just tell the truth”,  “I don’t know.  I guess it’s just who I am.”

Another similar thing happens whenever a person makes a mistake and responds, “Well, what do you expect?  I’m only human.”  Addiction, sexual promiscuity, and lying are now identities and making mistakes has some how become synonymous with what it means to be human.  But the Bible tells quite a different story.

Man was not created for addiction and injustice, but for freedom, service, goodness, and creativity.  That is what it means to reflect the image of God into the world.   That is “who we are” and that is what it means to be “human.”  Whenever we fail to do and be these things we are being something other than what we were created to be.  Imaging God into the world by extending his dominion over creation is part of Man’s “glory” (cf. Ps. 8:5-8) and falling short of this sacred charge is the very definition of sin.  “[A]ll have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23).  This means that I am “myself” when I live out God’s goodness in the world, not when I am giving into to my base impulses and fulfilling my carnal passions.  I am most “human,” not when I err from God’s glory, but when I fulfill it.

This is why Jesus, the True Human Being, is in fact sinless.  Or rather, because he is sinless he is the True Human Being, he is “the image of God” (Col. 1:15).  Therefore, if we would know what it means to be truly ourselves, indeed truly human, we must deny “ourselves” and follow Christ.  He will show us the way. By his own admission he is the Way (cf. John 14:6).

C.S. Lewis describes this marvelously:

“The more we get what we now call ‘ourselves’ out of the way and let Him take us over, the more truly ourselves we become … It is no good trying to ‘be myself’ without Him … Give up yourself, and you will find your real self.  Lose your life and you will save it”2

With qualification, then, we agree with Shakespeare:  “To thine ownself be true.”  But we must know that being true to ourselves does not mean giving into our weaknesses, quite the opposite.  And “finding ourselves” or “figuring out who we are” is not as much an inward journey as it is an outward one.  We do not find ourselves by following our inward impulses but by looking beyond ourselves to the roads of Nazareth and Jerusalem where walked the True Human Being, to the cross where he was crucified, and to the tomb from which he arose.  He will show us who we are, if only we are willing to follow him.  So, join me in being simply human.  You were born to.

©M. Benfield 2016

 


1. Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act 1 Scene III 78-82.
2. C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: Harper Collins, 2001), 225, 226.