Friday Flurry

Friday Flurry August 18, 2017

Every Friday, I compile snippets into a potpourri of musings and mutterings, served up in a Friday Flurry (not available at DQ).

God made us to be knowers. We long to know. Esther Meek argues (Longing to Know) that the frustration of this desire is one of the effects of skepticism and relativism:

“To be human is to make sense of experience. There are voices today that would discourage the attempt. They say, You can’t really get it right, you can’t really understand. All you can do is come up with some private interpretation, and you need not worry about your private interpretation fitting the world, because there is no world for it to fit. And for you to think you can get it right, objectively right, is an attitude that threatens everyone else’s freedom to think what they like. It is socially inappropriate to believe that you can understand, or make sense of experience, in any objective way. It is socially inappropriate to long to know. So keep your opinions in the realm of the private, please” (71-2).

Meek exhorts her readers to resist: “Don’t let these antagonistic voices win the day! Do not deny or repress your own fundamentally human passion to make sense of experience. As a human, I believe, you long to know. Do not surrender the passion.” This amounts to “a call to authenticity – honest admission of what is already going on. Humans make sense of experience. In this way they navigate life and give expression to their longings. Don’t stop loving the longing” (72).

***

No one before the twentieth century, writes Robert Solomon (The Passions), paid serious philosophical attention to the emotions.

There’s a good reason for that, writes Thomas Dixon (From Passions to Emotions): The category “emotion” didn’t exist prior to the 19th century. Between 1800 and 1850, a “wholesale change in established vocabulary occurred such that those en- gaged in theoretical discussions about phenomena including hope, fear, love, hate, joy, sorrow, anger and the like no longer primarily discussed the passions or affections of the soul, nor the sentiments, but almost invariably referred to ‘the emotions.’ This transition is as striking as if established conceptual terms such as ‘reason’ or ‘memory’ or ‘imagination’ or ‘will’ had been quite suddenly replaced by a wholly new category” (4).

Talk of “emotion” replaced previous talk of “passions” or “sentiments.” And the shift was a diminution of psychology rather than an enrichment. All sorts of disparate interior states, reactions, feelings, everything between sensations and thoughts, were bundled under the catch-all category of “emotion.” Previous generations had offered a more differentiated classification.

A diminution, and a secularization. As Dixon puts it, both the old and new terms “derived their meanings from networks of related concepts. The words ‘passions’ and ‘affections’ belonged to a network of words such as ‘of the soul,’ ‘conscience,’ ‘fall,’ ‘sin,’ ‘grace,’ ‘Spirit,’ ‘Satan,’ ‘will,’ ‘lower appetite,’ ‘self-love’ and so on. The word ‘emotions’ was, from the outset, part of a different network of terms such as ‘psychology,’ ‘law,’ ‘observation,’ ‘evolution,’ ‘organism,’ ‘brain,’ ‘nerves,’ ‘expression,’ ‘behaviour’ and ‘viscera’” (4-5).

The weakness of the philosophy of emotion that Solomon attempts to correct – the reduction of “emotion” to “physiological, non-cognitive, and involuntary feelings” – gained currency as a result of divergence from traditional teachings about the ‘passions’ and ‘affections’ and the concomitant adoption of the secular category of ‘emotions’ in the nineteenth century” (Dixon, 14). The problems were created by the new category; and then Solomon comes along to solve the problems using the same category.

***

Philip Watkins (Gratitude and the Good Life) identifies three “pillars of gratitude.” These are components of gratitude as an emotional “trait,” as opposed to gratitude expressed in response to specific good received or as an emotional state:

“These are presumed to be three subordinate facets that contribute to and comprise the superordinate factor of trait gratitude (the attitude that all of life is a gift). First, . . . that grateful individuals should have a strong sense of abundance, or put negatively, they should have a lack of a sense of deprivation. Thus grateful people should feel that life has treated them well (indeed, the gifts of life have been abundant), and they will not feel that life has treated them unfairly or that they have been deprived of the benefits that they feel that they deserve. Secondly, people high in the grateful disposition should appreciate simple pleasures. If all of life is a gift, then grateful people should show more appreciation for the day-to-day benefits that come their way. Put differently, a grateful person should not have to wait for a trip to Maui to feel grateful. Finally, grateful people should be characterized by what we called social appreciation or Appreciation of Others: they recognize the importance of appreciating the contributions of others to their lives, and they also recognize the importance of expressing their appreciation. In sum, we argued that the attitude underlying gratitude should be characterized by a sense of abundance, an appreciation for simple pleasures, and social appreciation” (22).

People with a disposition to gratitude “show facets of intensity (they show a higher intensity in their grateful experiences), frequency (they should experience gratitude more frequently), span (they are more likely to feel grateful for a number of different life circumstances at any moment), and density (they are more likely to attribute successful outcomes to a wider variety of sources)” (22).

***

I devoted my First Things column last week to a critique of Anthony Kronman’s attack on Christian gratitude. Kronman, former Dean of Yale Law, says that Christianity demands infinite gratitude for the gift of salvation but frustrates our ability to respond by insisting that we can never repay the infinite God.

Kronman’s argument depends on a conception of gratitude that makes sense only in a quasi-egalitarian society such as ours. As John Carman observes (Spoken and Unspoken Thanks, 157-8), Americans “like to maintain their self-respect by saying ‘even’ in the exchange of gifts with friends and relatives.” That doesn’t work in hierarchical societies, in which “there is a structural imbalance. The flow of gifts is uneven and whatever return is made is quite insufficient to make the relationship ‘even.'”

Among other things, in short, Kronman’s complaint against Christianity is parochial. It amounts to a complaint that Christianity doesn’t measure up to contemporary standards of fairness. Which is, to put it mildly, hardly a novel complaint.

***

During a recent Theopolis course on Trinitarian theology, James Jordan made the typically arresting comment that the Trinity is the most obvious thing in the world. It’s not difficult and obscure, but evident everywhere in everything.

Consider: Paul says that God “divine nature” is evident in the things that He has made. The only God, the God who created and shows Himself in the creation, is the God who makes through Word and Spirit. This God, not some generic “divine nature,” is what creation reveals.

Christians have often missed this point, but there are plenty of hints in the tradition of Trinitarian theology that support Jordan’s point. Since at least Augustine, Christians have discerned a host of vestigia Trinitatis, vestiges or traces of the Trinity, in creation. It’s a sign that some Christians have sensed that the Trinity is as obvious as 1 x 1 x 1 = 1.

***

“Person” has been a disputed term in Trinitarian theology for some time. Some insist that in classic Trinitarian theology divine persons aren’t persons in the modern sense – not individual centers of self-consciousness that exist in relation to others. Rather, appealing to Boethius, they are said to be “individual subsistences of a rational nature.”

I’ve suspected that the gap between modern and Boethian definitions isn’t as great as some claim, and now find support from Robert Sokolowski (Christian Faith and Human Understanding, 133-4):

“The rationality of persons is shown not only by their ability to think universal truths, but also by their ability to articulate things through their speech, and their ability to declare themselves as the ones responsible for the thinking, speaking, and acting that they carry out. Rational agents disclose the truth of things; they can reveal the way things are. In doing so, however, precisely in revealing the way things are, they also disclose themselves as the ones who hold the opinions or manifest the things they express. They disclose themselves as agents of rationality, agents of truth. Persons cannot manifest the truth of things without also manifesting themselves as such, as agents of truth.”

He adds that, because a person is a rational and responsible agents with capacity to think and speak, a person is a being capable of saying “I”: “A person is someone who can make use of these resources of language; he can say ‘I,’ ‘me,’ and ‘mine’ in the special manner that expresses a rational agent. The fact that languages have first-person expressions is due not just to the accidents of linguistic evolution, but more fundamentally to the nature of the being that uses language and the power of disclosure with which that being is endowed. There is pressure on the language to develop a first-person singular because a person is speaking the words of the language.”

Though Sokolowski doesn’t say it, this capacity of first-person speech, and the capacity for responsible affirmation of truth, implies relationality. For a being capable of responsible speech must be a being responsible to someone.

All this is implied by the “rational” in Boethius’s definition. Could a social Trinitarian wish for more?

***

Beverly Gage doesn’t think much of Mark Lilla’s new Once and Future Liberal. Reviewing Lilla for the New York Times, Gage writes: “Rather than engage in good faith with movements like Black Lives Matter, Lilla chooses to mock them, reserving a particularly mean-spirited sneer for today’s campus left. ‘Elections are not prayer meetings, and no one is interested in your personal testimony,’ he instructs ‘identity’ activists, urging them to shut up, stop marching and ‘get real.’ . . . Lilla opts for attitude over substance. Though he calls for liberals to adopt ‘a coldly realistic view of how we live now,’ he spends much of his book jeering from afar at millennial ‘social justice warriors,’ whose ‘resentful, disuniting rhetoric’ supposedly destroyed a once-great liberal tradition.”

Lilla’s complaints sound a lot like complaints from the Right, causing one to wonder about the accuracy of that “future” in Lilla’s title.


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