Trust is enough

I’ve been grappling with how to make more of the newfound trust in God I’m experiencing.

Yet my habits of thought haven’t yet caught up. I’m used to trying to work it all out by myself.

Trust doesn’t feel like an answer to a question so much as being uplifted and supported by a power vastly greater than my own.

It’s as if I’ve spent years working out how to fly, and only now let myself be picked up by the wind.

And that old “working out” habit still wants to dig into the trust I feel. It will work, I’m sure of it, but from a position of further surrender, further trust, not a detached and lonely analysis.

With that in mind I offer this:

Let trust be enough.

It’s not something you can add to the mix, take on board, or bear in mind as you return to business as usual.

Let trust be enough, because trust is now the avenue of everything else you’re wanting.

And don’t forget you only want all of that because it feels so much like trust.

So just let trust be enough. You needn’t add to it, augment it, or transform it.

Trust, and you’re already there. Trust, and you’re exactly where you’re meant to be. Trust, and there’s nothing else you need do, or can do.

Look nowhere else but at the trust growing inside you and outside you. And let that trust be enough.

Empty your cup

Yesterday I started tidying the kids’ bookshelf. It was a real mess, with new books having been piled horizontally on top of the others making it almost impossible to retrieve one without triggering a book avalanche.

There wasn’t enough room for everything so I moved onto the parents’ bookshelf hoping to make some space.

An intellectual house-cleaning

Wow! There were some really old books in that shelf!

I don’t mean hundred-year-old treasured volumes. I mean books that represent a part of me I no longer want or need to hold onto.

Textbooks on Neuro-philosophy from my Honours year that were horribly bleak when they first came out and are now outdated to boot.

Books on orthodox Catholic philosophy and theology from when I thought that perfect intellectual formation was the key, as if the answers to life’s questions could all be found via sufficient mastery of the Summa Theologicae.

A couple of new-age and qigong books from people I now know are basically charlatans.

Incredibly abstruse texts on philosophy of language and parsing religious relativism from my PhD studies that might as well be treatises on theoretical physics for all the interest they now hold for me.

The tome-like “Zen and the Brain” I ordered from America back in the early 2000s which I hoped would give me some kind of objective guide in my search for spiritual insight.

Books complaining about the decline of Western civilisation, marshalling the proof that the world as we know is falling apart in all new and exciting ways!

Whether these books were on apologetics and philosophy or mysticism and prayer, they each represent part of my search outside myself. A search for identity, a search for wisdom, a search for inner peace and happiness, a search for empowerment through knowledge or spiritual practice.

Getting rid of these books is like allowing a space to open up for new things in life. Not likely new books, but a new approach. Nor new answers but a new receptivity to what life is offering me.

Because the only reason for keeping a big old textbook on Philosophy is to have it there, on the shelf, as if to advertise my intellectual inventory.

Not a single person has ever inquired, and with good reason. I kept those old books on the shelf but they weren’t active in my life. I was presenting them to others, but even I didn’t value them anymore.

Empty your cup

“Empty your cup” is a popular martial arts idiom derived from a Zen proverb.

It means that we can’t learn something new when we are already full of our own opinions and ideas.

It’s become cliché but I think it fits well with another popular saying “when the student is ready the teacher will appear”.

What does this mean in practice?

For me it means that yesterday I got rid of all the “answers” sitting on my shelf, all the tomes of dead wisdom and intellectual esoterica that I’ve been carrying around as part of my identity, like a sticker saying “ask me about my philosophical background!”

And these non-answers, like the proverbial overflowing tea-cup, kept me from receiving actual answers and insights and wonderful coincidences.

So this morning as I walked home after dropping my son at school I bumped into a friend and enjoyed a conversation that was a perfect match for where I am at today.

There was more satisfaction in receiving that answer, like a sign-post along the way, than I could ever have found digging into my old resources searching for wisdom.

Besides, I’ve already become what I was looking for in many of those books. My personal knowledge and experience outstrips what one might gain from rereading them.

So with a great appreciation for irony I’ll end with a quote from the long-dead Zhuang-zi, translated by the also-dead Thomas Merton:

The men of old 
Took all they really knew
With them to the grave.
And so, Lord, what you are reading there
Is only the dirt they left behind them.

The Thinking trap for INFPs (Melancholic-Phlegmatic)

As a child and teenager I wasn’t obviously good at anything. But I enjoyed reading and occasionally I had good insights or creative solutions to problems that arose within the home.

So at some point I was marked out as “intelligent” by my parents and some teachers, and that became part of my self-perception.

By High School I had internalised the message that I was intelligent but lazy, and needed to apply myself more.

But even then I knew that my intellect was somehow different to others who excelled at maths and physics. They seemed a lot more hard-headed and mentally quick.

My intelligence felt weird, with idiosyncratic peaks and troughs of ability.

Being a problem-solver

I studied philosophy at university – the ultimate generalist discipline – and my subsequent work in bioethics cemented my self-image as someone good at solving problems or “making sense” of complicated or confusing issues.

Along the way I cultivated all kinds of interesting and unusual topics, because I believed that my greatest attribute and value as a person lay in my thoughts and ideas: the way my mind worked.

Thinking too much

Yet all this time I’ve been a compulsive thinker. I think constantly, composing thoughts and opinions on all kinds of subjects day in, day out.

With strangers and acquaintances I’m reserved and reticent to speak, but with close friends and family I talk almost incessantly.

For me, this way of speaking is a learned behaviour. I taught myself to verbalise my incessant thinking process, and for many years my personality was comprised mostly of my “interesting topics” thought out-loud to others.

INFPs aren’t Thinkers

I remember visiting China years ago and being unable to communicate with all the new people I met. I felt terrible, like a non-person, because all my value was tied up in the content of my “interesting” thoughts and ideas.

In recent years I’ve come to accept that INFPs aren’t really “Thinkers” after all. I might be good with words and have some creative ideas…my whole outlook on life might be intriguing and different, but this is quite different from the standard model and expectations of an intellectual or a Thinker.

This wouldn’t really matter, except that I took to heart these expectations and in my own way I tried to push my intellect to the fore.

Do I think constantly because I enjoy it, or because I believe it’s my greatest value and best quality?

Honestly it’s the latter. If I stop thinking…I start to feel like a nobody. If I don’t communicate my thoughts, I start to feel very very ordinary.

But the irony is that the people closest to me don’t really value me for my ideas; they’re more likely to be annoyed by my incessant sharing of my thoughts.

And when people do find value in what I’ve written it feels completely normal and straightforward, and I feel happy for them.

In other words, I’ve greatly outlived the usefulness and gratification that once came from being told “You have great ideas!” or the sense of identity that came from being told I was intelligent and should apply myself.

A more authentic self

I would like to put away my thinking, problem-solving, and interesting-idea hats. I’m tired of wearing them, and I don’t need them anyway.

I never used to talk that much, back when I was happiest. And my friends never looked to me for ideas or points-of-view.

And even when good ideas come and they are appreciated, it’s easy and cannot be forced. Like the augur reading omens or the seer having visions, it’s just there. Not a process but a perception.

So don’t be lured into the thinking trap, fellow INFPs. Our value doesn’t lie in trying to imitate our INTP cousins. Whatever insights we have are eclectic and unpredictable, not the careful analysis of introverted Thinking, but the broad strokes of introverted Feeling.

It’s like the difference between a surgeon and a shaman, but no one will offer you a career pathway to being a shaman.

What do we look like when we stop trying to imitate other temperaments? That’s the question we can only answer for ourselves, not by thinking, but by allowing it to happen.

In hindsight, the ideas and subjects I gravitated towards weren’t “interesting” to me, but meaningful, and it’s this strong but ineffable sense of meaning that lies at the heart of the INFPs authentic self.

In search of authentic self-expression

I trained myself to respect and revere objective, logical, and dispassionate analysis.

I idealised an approach that takes all the personal meaning and enjoyment out of a subject, holding it carefully in check until the facts are verified and any risk of falsehood or misinterpretation is eliminated.

I made personal satisfaction subordinate to external validation.

Philosophy demands the most severe internal criticism of our own beliefs. We are supposed to be our own harshest critics, because that is the path to real knowledge and understanding.

But I ventured into philosophy not because I loved what I found there, but because I saw it as the best place to continue my search.

I couldn’t relate to philosophers who specialised in the works of some entirely mundane and spiritually dry thinker, because I didn’t understand differences in individual temperament.

I didn’t realise that most philosophers were intellectuals building careers out of their areas of interest and priding themselves on the quality of their thinking.

There’s a big difference between “I love being right!” and “I’m terrified of being wrong”, yet the latter is how I related to the more choleric philosophers I met, those who were most keen to be at the forefront of contemporary thought.

My motivation was more of a search for answers arising from a deeply spiritual orientation driven by the burdens of a dysfunctional formative life coupled with my melancholic temperament.

I had little actual interest in philosophy unless it fed into my search directly or indirectly via the intellectual skills that were supposed to lead to truth.

But this isn’t really about philosophy. It’s about my deeper sense that all my beliefs, thoughts and actions are open to scrutiny and I must find external validation for them if I expect to avoid censure, criticism, or mockery. Philosophy merely presented a pathway to validation.

So how am I to authentically express myself when I’ve internalised the need for external validation?

It is frustrating beyond belief to feel as if every thought and every word must pass through a filter and be denatured before I can communicate it.

I’m afraid that if I don’t filter, my own words will be used against me. So the onus is on me to ensure that everything I say and do can be defended against.

Which means I’m expecting someone – maybe everyone – to turn against me at any time, if I give them the ammunition.

I used to find satisfaction in ensuring that my articles were watertight. Using my philosophical training I was careful to couch everything in appropriately modest terms, never over-reaching.

It’s a worthwhile discipline in the right context, learning to replace empty assertions with “if you accept this premise, then you must at least agree that my conclusions are reasonable”.

But the process itself is wearisome and grounded in anxiety and fear of humiliation. The satisfaction is merely in being unassailable, not in having truly expressed myself.

What does authentic self-expression look like for me?

I think it must be devoid of fear, the kind of fear that leads to self-censorship and the deadening compulsion to research, double-check, qualify and hedge.

I think it must also be driven by some kind of inner need for exploration and development of my own thoughts and ideas – a genuinely pressing desire to work something out.

After all, that’s what is most satisfying in my own life. Working out the answers that are most meaningful to me.

99% of the writing I do each day is my own, for my own personal meaning and with myself as the audience.

Faith and heresy for Thinkers and Feelers

A reader asked a great question on my post about explaining myself, and I wanted to respond at length:

How do you reconcile this approach with the demands of Christianity to submit to authority (Scripture, the Church, sensus fidelium, etc)? Doesn’t Christianity demand not only that we conform to its doctrines, but also to be able to justify our ideas by appeal to the sources?

I’ve enjoyed your posts on being an INFP tremendously, and wanted to put some of your ideas into practice, but I’ve felt unsure of how to do so as a Catholic. What if I end up being a heretic?

I’m not a practicing Catholic, and my views are likely heterodox; but I can relate to your struggle.

Studying Catholic theology and philosophy as part of my own search left me with some big questions, especially when challenged by friends or family.

But I think there are a couple of different issues here.

The first issue is about me as an INFP having embraced my inferior function (extroverted Thinking) and subsequently letting go of it.

This is really a question of how we arrive at judgements, and I think you’ll find that Catholicism does not require you to arrive at judgements in a particular way, it just requires assent.

In that sense it doesn’t matter whether a person says “I feel this is true” or “I think this is true”.

There’s a lot of apologetics material out there that blames poor formation and sloppy thinking for the crisis in the Church and the broader culture.

Apologists have written in criticism of “feelings” as a basis for belief. But honestly that’s just a prejudice given by people (mostly Cholerics – xNTx) who want everyone to play on their intellectual “home turf”.

Feeling as a judging function in the Jungian/MBTI sense is more subjective, harder to communicate, and harder to scrutinise than Thinking; but that doesn’t mean it’s invalid.

No one can claim that Thinking renders people inerrant and brings only objectivity and convergence of opinion.

On the contrary, scripture and Church history are full of instances of conversion and holiness that have little to do with intellectual formation or education.

So who says that Thinking is superior to Feeling?

That brings me to the second issue: what is it that makes a person believe?

I don’t have a simple answer to this one. Faith is a gift – and a divinely infused virtue. If God decides whom to give faith to, then is there anything for us to worry about?

If you look at Aquinas on predestination, free will, and providence it is clear that nothing is outside of God’s command or God’s plan.

Yet even your grappling with questions such as these is part of God’s plan, is it not?

Does God make believers believe and heretics diverge?

When I start thinking about these kinds of questions I quickly resolve to a feeling that “all is well”. I trust that inner knowing, and it clearly transcends my intellectual activity without nullifying it.

What it does nullify are anxieties and worries, including (for me) any fear of being in the wrong.

I feel comforted by the knowledge that everything is in God’s hands and always has been, and our role in it all remains a mystery even though the outcome is guaranteed.

Isaiah’s words on the potter and the clay come to mind.

If that still doesn’t bring me to accept certain teachings, then that is how I am. In the end, if you don’t want to be a heretic that is a pretty good indicator that you won’t be.

Is morality rational?

Bonus question: is reason moral?

Matthew asked the following question in response to our discussion of the is-ought problem:

if “there is no rational way to convince me that I ‘ought’ to do anything” then the result is that either I am not compelled to do that thing (adhering strictly to rationality as the basis for action) or I still do that thing independently of what reasons/rationality compels me to do (perhaps out of desire or inclination or external influence). This points to the question of “what is the role of reason?” when it comes to our actions or judgments.

So I wonder in what sense are reasons (or rational justification) relevant to natural law. I haven’t given this much thought but perhaps there might be something to be said about whether or not natural law fits into the “orthodoxy” of moral philosophy which is typically to provide reasons or rational justifications for our judgments about what we ought to do (i.e. moral precepts), from which the is/ought problem arises.

If it is not necessary to provide a rational justification for why we ought to for example, “fulfill our essential nature”, or if somehow this whole enterprise or rational justification is based on a misconception about morality, then it would seem that reason/rationality is not essential to moral knowledge (or moral understanding) according to natural law theory and therefore natural law theory fits outside of the “orthodoxy” of moral philosophy.

Do you think this distinction between natural law theory and “orthodox” moral philosophy exists?

I think the key question is “what is the role of reason?” with regard to actions and judgements.

During my ill-fated PhD studies I took a closer look at the intellectualist perspective of the will, which informs the Natural Law perspective. Aquinas is pretty much the poster-boy of intellectualism, and in his view the will is defined as the appetite for the good as perceived by the intellect. In this sense, we are hard-wired to do whatever the intellect (reason) tells us is good.

What the intellect identifies as good is an open question. A skeptic can become paralysed by moral doubt, genuinely unable to decide what is truly good. An ordinary person might think twice about eating meat after seeing some horrific mistreatment of livestock. A tasty piece of food might suddenly become unappetising when you realise your three year old son dropped it in his potty by accident.

All our choices are underpinned by reasons. But the motive force – what moves us to make choices – comes not from intellect/reason but from will.

The purpose of Natural Law is to straighten out the operation of the intellect so that the goods it presents to the will are genuine goods. In other words, it seeks to ensure that our reasons are rational ones.

But how does the intellect know what is good? Doesn’t that just bring us back to the problem of how the intellect (reason) can determine what is good and what isn’t? Won’t we just get mired in meta-ethical debates at this point?

This is a genuine problem, by which I mean a practical one in addition to a theoretical one. If good means “that which the will desires” but the will desires based on what the intellect tells us, then good must be whatever the intellect determines it to be.

But as we’ve already explained, the intellect cannot reach those kinds of determinations without a given premise. Pure reason gets us nowhere. A pure moral skeptic cannot recognise any criteria for ‘good’, and thus doubt can stymie the will, the appetite for (unknowable) good.

Nonetheless, there is a way out of this cul-de-sac. There isn’t space to turn around, but we can hit reverse and find our way back to the open road.

While it may be true that, starting from scratch, we cannot determine what is good on purely rational grounds, it is also true that we cannot justify “starting from scratch”, nor the demand for purely rational grounds.

In the first instance, this means that Aquinas and his ilk set out not to create a rationalist or skeptical ethical framework from scratch, but to determine through observation how it is that we already make choices, how we already do ethics, and whether we can improve on what we already do.

This is where the analogy to psychology is quite reasonable. Psychologists don’t really know what mental health means as some absolute or refined category. They define it in the context of people’s ordinary lives, where the line between mental health and illness is drawn fairly broadly in terms of whether or not you can get on with living.

It would be a strange and (ironically) an unreasonable step for Aquinas to decide arbitrarily that from today he would start determining good and evil from a purely skeptical premise. He’d have to – to put it crudely – be a real believer in skepticism.

Instead, he took the much more reasonable approach of looking at how people – including himself – already identified things as good or evil, and sought to find clarity in that dynamic. That doesn’t mean he abandoned reason at all, rather, he identified the reason implicit in people’s ethical choices and judgements, and found that it was coherent even if it wasn’t absolute.

That is, there’s a reason why people prefer truth over falsehood, just as they prefer eating bread over eating dirt.

In this sense, the good in its varied forms is something Aquinas discovered through observation and analysis of human behaviour (and reading Aristotle). These goods are rational, which is to say, there is an order and a proportion and an appropriate relationship between the many things consistently and coherently identified as goods.

And the reason behind them can be compelling. But compelling in the hypothetical sense that presumes we all already have this practical ‘natural’ inclination toward certain things as good for us, not compelling in the sense that these reasons can move a skeptic. But then, a skeptic is someone who has chosen to take an immovable position.So I would agree that Natural Law is outside “orthodox” modern moral philosophy, but I think the is-ought problem and the question of rational justification are just symptoms of a deeper problem.The is-ought problem in its historical context was not a response to Natural Law, but to Moral Rationalists. Ironically, the group Hume sided with sound much more like Natural Law theorists:

The moral sense theorists (Shaftesbury and Hutcheson) and Butler see all requirements to pursue goodness and avoid evil as consequent upon human nature, which is so structured that a particular feature of our consciousness (whether moral sense or conscience) evaluates the rest. Hume sides with the moral sense theorists on this question: it is because we are the kinds of creatures we are, with the dispositions we have for pain and pleasure, the kinds of familial and friendly interdependence that make up our life together, and our approvals and disapprovals of these, that we are bound by moral requirements at all.

The ‘deeper problem’ I mention is simply that the approach to ethics changed. I’m not sure if it changed with Descartes, and the more general philosophical revolution, but change it did. As a result, subsequent theories of ethics seem to want to reproduce not Natural Law but Divine Law outside of a religious context.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

You think too much

I’ve often been told I think too much, but it has – with no sense of irony – taken years of thinking for me understand what this means.

I would have said that in fact I do not think enough, and I continue thinking precisely because I have not yet arrived at the answers I seek.

Recently I have been thinking about the difference between training and performance, specifically in a martial arts context. My natural tendency upon encountering failure or less-than-ideal circumstances is to think about it. I think because experience has shown that thinking often helps me to understand, and that understanding helps me to do, and to do better than I would if I didn’t understand.

But there are exceptions, and martial arts is one of them. Because, if instead of ‘performing’ the moves I go back to thinking about them and analysing them, the actual quality of the move changes dramatically.  It turns out you cannot both perform a move and analyse a move at the same time. Then the question arises: what are you actually practicing when you practice your martial art? Are you practicing ‘performing’ or doing the moves, or are you practicing thinking about and analysing the moves?

By analogy, it’s as though I’ve found driving a car to be uncomfortable, confusing, and overall dissatisfying, and so I’ve resolved to stay on my learner’s permit for as long as it takes for me to “work it out”.  Sixteen years later, my instructor is thoroughly sick of me, and I’ve finally had to admit that there aren’t really any secrets or revelations to acquire from the learner’s stage, and that I will only ever be good at driving normally if I practice driving normally.

This has particular relevance in martial arts where various luminaries have extolled having a beginner’s mind a la Zen Buddhism, and others have admitted amidst the heights of their skill to be nonetheless always learning.

We obviously aren’t talking about the same thing.

I don’t really know what to make of having spent so long in a flawed approach to practicing a martial art. And paradoxically I still have to credit analysis and “thinking” with having brought me to these realisations. The best I can say is that previously I was thinking about the wrong things. Or I lacked information that I could only come across via the frustration built up through years of dissatisfying practice.

It took years of failure to break through the assumption that kung fu is somehow not dependent first and foremost on a sound physique, or that being bad at sport generally would have nothing to do with being bad at a martial art. Or that the esoteric allure of kung fu might be glossing over a number of more mundane requirements.

Ironically, if I had seriously thought about kung fu in the way that I have learned to think about philosophy, ethics, and other subjects, I would have known to start without assumptions, without desired outcomes. I would have been highly suspicious of the wishful thinking at the heart of my motivation.  At the same time, being more detached from the object of my desire might have left me more open to improvements and inspiration “out of left field”. Instead, my doggedness to pursue this long-standing ideal has been thoroughly detrimental to my development.

All I can say in favour of it is that I have persevered for a long time; but paradoxically, if I had not stuck to this unexamined ideal for so long I might not have needed to be so blindly perseverant.

Craving or desire warps the intellect. We tend to cling to our cravings and desires because they feel so deeply a part of us. But there is always something deeper and more wholesome that is not dependent on external conditions, and if I had been more honest with myself I would have recognised that the very appeal of esoteric martial arts was in fact a symptom of a deeper and more constant awareness that I was not physically strong, balanced, or at ease.

Sertillanges writes in The Intellectual Life:

Do you want to do intellectual work? Begin by creating within you a zone of silence, a habit of recollection, a will to renunciation and detachment which puts you entirely at the disposal of the work; acquire that state of soul unburdened by desire and self-will which is the state of grace of the intellectual worker. Without that you will do nothing, at least nothing worthwhile.

I am familiar with this “zone of silence”, and it is the natural answer to the problem of “thinking too much” and thinking not enough. It is not thinking that matters or that gives answers; we do not arrive at truth by thinking about it, rather thinking is merely a manifestation of the work of attending to the truth in its entirety and without holding anything back.

This is our noble and excellent calling, and it is only in stupidity and vanity that I have failed to turn it to other areas of my life, somehow imagining that truth has no bearing on the mundane or strictly personal, perhaps afraid of what I might find when turning that brightest of lights onto the mess and darkness of my own orbit; or intimidated by the magnitude of the task ahead, bringing my own admittedly pathetic self into the same domain as exalted abstractions, principles and truths.

It’s one thing to know truth, quite another to know that you do not measure up to it, or how far you fall short; better not to ask that question, isn’t it?

Indeed, the prospect of bringing my own deeply held desires and ideals, the very personal themes with which I identify, and submitting them to this “zone of silence” is immediately terrifying. And that, more than anything, indicates that I should do it.

 

The limits of non-fiction

The problem with my first attempt at writing  a novel was simply that it lacked meaning. It wasn’t meaningful enough for me to pursue it beyond the first five or six rejection letters and additional non-replies. I knew deep down that despite finding it interesting, enjoyable, and challenging, it had particular faults that stemmed ultimately from a failure to fully invest myself in it.

This is, I think, the most likely answer to the previous post’s question: why am I so conflicted about writing fiction? – a question I attempted to unravel through finding the essential value or purpose of stories or histories generally.

But on reflection, it turned out that what matters more than the essential purpose (there may very well be multiple non-essential purposes) is finding a single purpose that is sufficient to motivate me. After all, different authors have different reasons for writing, and all that matters in the end is that my reason is good enough to get the job done. And for me that means that the process itself has to be personally enriching.

A novel is a huge undertaking, and I don’t have the patience or the energy to write for the sake of merely completing the task. What I need is a purpose and a process that can sustain me through it, make me want to keep going, make me turn to fiction for nourishment or re-invigoration.

That purpose lies in the special nature of stories as opposed to non-fiction: I love that non-fiction lets me describe, analyse, and solve problems with as much clarity and wisdom as I can muster. But the fact is that fiction has its own power to solve problems, with a clarity and wisdom that is paradoxically both stronger and weaker than its more realistic counterpart.

Ideal non-fiction has the attributes of realism, certainty, and fact. It is direct and unadorned, making no attempt to hide the truth or to embellish it; relying only on what can be known and reveling in the clarity and openness of whatever it can grasp.

Fiction, on the other hand, is not limited to facts, certainties, or the real. It is entirely unreal, and accordingly imprecise; attuned as much to the wildest fantasy as it is to truth. It can grasp anything, but nothing of any substance. It is totally without the raw integrity of non-fiction – the constraints that make non-fiction relevant, that keep it grounded and useful.  Fiction is ultimately empty; the freedom from constraints equally a lack of discernible essence or identity.

Yet in this weakness lies also fiction’s strength. While non-fiction allows us to identify, analyse, and resolve problems, its power is really our own power, and we are limited precisely to what we can identify, analyse, and resolve for ourselves, using whatever reason and wisdom is at our disposal.  Fiction may be imprecise, but this is what makes it perfect for problems we cannot precisely identify.  Fiction may be as attuned to fantasy as to truth, but non-fiction cannot go far beyond the truths we already recognise and understand. Fiction may be empty, but its very emptiness allows it to soar far beyond the crawling limits of non-fiction’s methodological constraints.

What is of all things most yielding
Can overwhelm that which is of all things most hard.
Being substanceless it can enter even where is no space;

– Daodejing 43

The value of fiction, then, is that it alone can deal with the problems we cannot pin down, the challenges and themes of which we are at best only vaguely aware. Not every problem or challenge in life can be safely abstracted, intellectualised, and dissected under the light of day. In the dark there are dragons and monsters that can only be fought, treasures that can only be found, if we are willing to enter – even blindly enter – into the fray.

Dealing only with problems we feel we can understand is like only fighting battles we know we can win. It is safe, secure, and some would say wise. But much can be gained or lost in the space between what we know we can win, and what we actually could win if we fought for it. What is lost, above all, in limiting ourselves to problems that can be dealt with through careful analysis is the broader domain of our own selves. We are not simply analytical intellects. And though the whole of our lives, selves, and experiences may be intelligible, they cannot all be engaged or approached with the shining clarity of the intellectual problem-solving mind.

For me, the appeal of non-fiction is that it can draw the entire world and reality itself into my intellectual domain. The challenge represented by fiction is to drag me out of that very same domain, that safe and comfortable fortress, into the broader, wilder, more mysterious world beyond.  It’s no wonder then that I have both resisted and yearned for it, knowing that there is more out there, but unwilling to put aside the obvious power and clarity of the intellect.

 

 

Imago Dei and the basis of human dignity

My recent article on the awful truth of human dignity produced an interesting discussion, with some readers wanting to emphasise the notion of Imago Dei – the Christian belief that humans are made in the image of God.  I wrote the following reply to a commenter who argued that Imago Dei is a more valid basis for the widespread sense of human dignity:

But I think few people are able to articulate ‘Imago Dei’ either. In terms of knowing something to be true intuitively, even then we ought to be able to reflect on the nature of this knowledge.

For example, the first principles of reason such as “a statement cannot be true and false at the same time and in the same way” cannot be proven, nevertheless we all know it almost intuitively. But on reflection we can find that the truth of this principle is grounded in the more fundamental behaviour of reality, i.e. “an object cannot be and not be at the same time and in the same way”.

So there is a deeper basis, and when we know it our understanding is more complete.

Applying the same process to the Imago Dei, Aquinas writes: “some things are like to God first and most commonly because they exist; secondly, because they live; and thirdly because they know or understand; and these last, as Augustine says “approach so near to God in likeness, that among all creatures nothing comes nearer to Him.” It is clear, therefore, that intellectual creatures alone, properly speaking, are made to God’s image.”

Without going into it too deeply, I think the implication is that our intellectual nature is our likeness to God.  This is in fact very closely related to my depiction of dignity. Our capacity to know and to understand is the part of us that is most like God; and one could say that my theory of dignity is merely the humbling recognition that other humans (not merely oneself) are, by nature, able to know and understand and therefore resemble God.

Yet as I said at the start, most people do not seem to have a clear understanding or even a theory of what Imago Dei means. Rather, they derive significance from this teaching at face value.  If, on the other hand, one had no knowledge of God or the Imago Dei concept, one could nonetheless become aware of the reality of the knowing human mind, and as I have shown, the humbling and awesome reality of other people’s minds; and this in itself would be a recognition of Imago Dei without the explicit religious and historical context.

This is not to say that one can have a value or an invented dignity independent of God.  Existence itself depends upon a creator, and we are indeed prone to deluding ourselves with vain concepts and ideas.  But if God has created us in his image, it is okay to inquire as to what this means, what part of us is distinctly God-like in that sense.  This knowledge enriches our understanding of the Imago Dei concept, by showing what the idea is pointing to in reality.

Personally I find it quite exciting to think that what we call ‘Imago Dei’ is a part of human nature universally recognised as somehow transcendent, spiritual, and even divine, in a variety of religious, philosophical, and cultural traditions independent of Judaism and Christianity.  I think this may well open a path for a rapprochement between otherwise quite diverse traditions.

Tonti-Filippini’s intellectual quest undaunted by physical pain

Eureka Street asked me to write a brief obituary for the late Professor Nicholas Tonti-Filippini, the prominent and distinguished Australian Bioethicist.  I met the Professor a few times while I was working in bioethics.  He was an exemplary intellectual, and I never knew until later that he was suffering all the while with severe illness and debilitating pain.  According to a 2011 report, he was at that stage undergoing dialysis four nights per week.

Having quoted Sertillanges in the published obituary, I’ll leave you with another quotation that seemed fitting for a man who was, in addition to his intellectual virtues, a devout and faithful Catholic:

“when the thinker thinks rightly, he follows God step by step; he does not follow his own vain fancy. When he gropes and struggles in the effort of research, he is Jacob wrestling with the angel and ‘strong against God’.”

http://eurekastreet.com.au/article.aspx?aeid=42292#.VGK09cm0QWk