January 19, 2008

We first experience "all men are created equal" and then "become aware of others, and of forms of sociality"

Bolton makes an important point that serves as a good segue back to our discussion of Taylor, which is that "Exoteric religion, however sincere, allows people to go on believing themselves to be solely what they appear to be to other people. Deeper insights into the self lead outside the exoteric, and are usually resisted in a mistaken belief that this must be a danger to orthodoxy." This often results in a situation directly antithetical to the purposes of religion, in that the most conventionally devout can have the least insight into the nature of the self. These are the grinning robots who give us the Jesus, Krishna, Buddha, Joseph Smith, or Ken Willies.
Jesus famously asked, "who do you say that I am?" The answer partly depends upon what we mean by "I" as applied to Jesus and to ourselves. There is always going to be a gap between the I AM and what we can say about it, which is true of the relation between any two subjectivities, or I AMs. The better you know someone, the more you can say about them, but there is always a limit to what you can say, since you are not them. Nor are you even fully yourself, as that relationship is subject to evolution as well. When you were a child, you understood as a child, but even today, you are hopefully a child to the man you'll someday be. Who, with luck, will also be as a little child in relation to its own manchildish future.
In A Secular Age, Taylor goes into great detail about the contextual limits to the imagination of the self, limits which have changed drastically over the centuries (I just don't have time to cite 700 pages of documentation). A few readers keep insisting in the teeth of this evidence that "folks is folks, everywhere the same." To the extent that they truly believe this, even after examining the evidence, then it's just a statement about themselves, not about reality.
For example, people who live in the modern West just take the idea of the individual as a given -- as if it has always existed, or as if it exists for everyone, say, in the Muslim Middle East, instead of being an exceptional deviation from all mentalities that came before. But in its own way, the difference between reflective individual minds and the unreflective group mind is as striking and unexpected as the difference between man and animals (and no, I am obviously not equating primitive groups with animals, or diminishing their humanity -- I'm explaining the phenomenon instead of explaining it away in the manner of cultural relativists).
In the West, we first experience ourselves as individuals (i.e., "all men are created equal"), and only then "become aware of others, and of forms of sociality" (Taylor). But in all human groups until quite recently, this formulation was literally unthinkable. So much was your identity embedded in the group, that you wouldn't know who you were in its absence. You would be utterly lost, a nothing and a nobody. Banishment from the group was existential death. It's somewhat like trying to imagine if you were the opposite sex. For example, so much does the normal male identify with his sex, that he can't imagine what it would be like to be John Edwards.
Again, Taylor traces this unprecedented change from immersion in the group-mind to the ability to conceive of ourselves as free individuals and "to have our own opinions, to attain our own relation to God, our own conversion experience." But ironically, Taylor believes that this was actually a sort of "delayed reaction" to the implicit metaphysics hidden in plain sight in scripture. For example, in the New Testament there are numerous calls "to leave or relativize solidarities of family, clan, society, and be a part of the Kingdom." This is actually a mind-blowing idea, especially in the context of the times (not to mention a culture- and state-blowing idea, as you are called to solidarity with a higher mind, i.e., the "body of Christ"; nothing could be more radical and subversive to the "powers that be").
In fact, it would be hard to imagine a more radical idea, because this "new inwardness" was going against the grain of all human and religious organization prior to that time. No wonder individualism only arose in the West, and that it took another 1600 or 1700 years for it to begin happening on a widespread scale! It was literally like trying to evolve a third eye or some other new organ. Because that's what the Self is: a new immaterial organ (to be perfectly accurate, it's a subtle material) for navigating around the hyperspace of human subjectivity, which is infinite at its outer inner reaches. You might say that religion tracks the outer reaches of inner space, while science tracks the inner reaches of outer space, whereas my book shows how the two meet in the muddle of the mount, if you'll just be an accomplice to my literary climb.

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