Recoupling Individuality: Relational Selves and Redemptive Relationships
We must love each other or die. – W. H. Auden.
The particularly toxic form that individuality has taken in European and Anglo-American culture in this era is substantially underpinned by a conception of mind, self, and soul that would hold these to be internal to the central nervous system of our biological organism. This conception of an internal/external boundary has roots as far back as the early modern emergence of science (Berman 1989). Codified as Cartesianism, there is an internalism in both dualist and nondualist views of mind and soul. The historical development of individuality has taken an increasingly bounded and self-contained view that may be corrosive to our communal life (Cushman 1990). Nevertheless, rooted in the arguments against private language from the followers of Husserl to the later Wittgenstein (1953), and the externalism of Sartre (1958), rejecting both the individual possession and locational internalism of Descartes, there is a growing movement within scientific and philosophical studies of mind which view it as embodied, enactive, encultured, and embedded in social and technical networks, and as a construction inclusive of its extensions beyond the boundary of the individual organism (Wilson 2004). Originating a generation ago in the content externalism of Hilary Putnam (1975) and Tyler Burge (1986), that the semantic content of mental states is often dependent on factors external to the subject, the last decade has seen the emergence of a substantially stronger process or vehicle externalism, that the structures or mechanisms making various mental states possible may themselves extend beyond the skin (e.g. Hurley 1998, Clark and Chalmers 1998). Amongst the external structures that carry information relevant to completing an action, which can be operated upon to accomplish that action, certainly the commonest and most important of these are other human beings with whom we sustain ongoing relationships.
The thesis of the present essay is that vehicle externalism can be rooted in a relational ontology of self, and a primary intersubjectivity, which have mutual and reciprocal implications for a number of religious themes, from the nonduality of enlightened Buddhist views, to more conventional Western theological concepts like the imago dei and our understanding of redemption. I have argued elsewhere that redemption must be social (Teske 2000). I believe that our redemption has its origination in our most intimate relationships, where we must swallow our projections in order to heal our real, living, reciprocal and mutual relatedness, acknowledging the value of imagination both in empathic mutual understanding, and in orienting ourselves hopefully and confidently toward a sustainable human future, without confusing that imagination with genuine connections between self and other (which themselves do not exclude shared imaginal elements). Conceptions of isolated individuality entail great risks in the projective attempts at symbolic completion destined not only to fail, but to damage the real possibilities of loving interconnections with each other. The redemption that is tied to faith, hope, and love may be led astray when confused with need-based understandings of our relationships, as it is caritas that may better lead to the development of faith in each other and our futures together, and in a larger sense to agape, and our embedding in corporate (embodied), collective (enactive), and communal (relational) life.
Externalism is, quite simply, the view that “the mind ain’t in the head.” It denies that thoughts, beliefs, and desires are entirely constituted by states and processes physically internal to the organism. It does not mean that the mind is elsewhere, as the individual’s head, and his body, are proper parts of a mind. It entails a subject’s essential embodiment and immersion in the world. Bodies are not only necessary for the “somatic marking” that may be central to our conscious experience (Damasio 1999), but for our external interdependencies, the most important of which are both developmental and social. Mental phenomena are hybrids of physical events in the head and events in the world to which they are often coupled, not least of which are events both within and between other people and ourselves. According to Mark Rowlands (2003) this the most important development in the philosophy of mind in the latter half of the twentieth century, though it has historical roots in the phenomenological philosophy of Husserl and his followers, in the existentialism of Sartre, and the linguistic philosophy of Wittgenstein.
- Content Externalism,
- or “taxonomic externalism,” put forth by Putnam (1975) and Burge (1986), turns on Brentano’s Thesis, the claim that mental events are essentially and nonreductively intentional, that is that they refer to or are “about” events outside themselves. The “demon” behind Cartesian dualism, the possibility that the mind could exist with only a demon to delude it, presupposes what Gregory McCulloch (2003) calls the “Demonic Dilemma,” an ontological distinction between mind and world, and between a self-contained mind and a mindless world. But this leaves either a mind cut off from the world, leaving no account of how intentionality could come into being, or a mind without content or subjectivity. Either intentional properties are a sham, or there is nothing to which intentions can be directed. To ask what is a mental representation is to ask what it is to be directed at the world; if it is merely the reliable causal effects of objects in the world, then there is nothing to make it a mental representation. McCulloch argues that a brain in a vat, in a null environment, would have no intentionality. Or pace Wilson (2004) or Thompson (2007) that the vat, since it would have to duplicate many of the properties and processes of the body, including all of the external events to which its sensorimoter couplings would connect it, would constitute a surrogate body, bodily processes still being part of the minimally sufficient conditions for consciousness. It is on similar bases that Putnam (1975), in his twin earth arguments, shows that the meaning of a mental representation depends on, is necessarily individuated by, the events in the world to which it refers, which is what distinguishes between different intentional states like memory, imagination, or even hallucination.
- Phenomenological externalism
- follows from the view that phenomenological content is in the mind; combined with Putnam’s moral, this entails that the mind isn’t just in the head. McCulloch (2003) argues that since phenomenology has to do with the subjective, and externalism with the objective, then the objective has to be invoked to understand the subjective; in short, that the subjective must be inclusive of the objective. There is a sense of this even in Jean-Paul Sartre’s (1958) assertion: “It is not true that…the union of soul and body is the contingent bringing together of two substances radically distinct. On the contrary, the very nature of the For-itself [consciousness] demands that it be body” (p 309), just as “to perceive the Other is to make known to oneself what he is by means of the world” (p 340). We also see this spelled out in more neurophysiological detail in Damasio’s “somatic marker” hypothesis (1994). From here, McCulloch (2003) argues for an epistemological distinction, that, while not incorrigible (contra Descartes), “…knowledge of the intentional is both radically distinct from and privileged with respect to scientific knowledge” (p13). This has powerful repercussions for the human sciences since, as the historian R.G. Collingwood (1993) makes clear, we have to think ourselves into thinkers’ positions to understand their experience as, without doing so, their words, their beliefs, and their actions would be meaningless. One doesn’t need to mimic a causal trajectory, but one does need to mimic the thinking to acquire knowledge of minds. While this may be quite unlike the physical sciences, other philosophers in the externalist tradition (Thompson 2007, Wilson 2004) argue that in a mature science of mind, first person phenomenological methods and objective scientific experimentation must be mutually informative, not merely in terms of correlations, say, between brain events and naïve subjective experience (though even here, context can result in particular states being both multiply realizable and multiply constitutable, Murphy 1998), but in terms of the greater sensitivities and richer phenomenologies involved in more disciplined first-person methods, like those of the contemplative traditions. Consistent with Collingwood’s view of history, it has also been true of sociologists in the Verstehen tradition (Martin 2000), and even primate ethologists like Barbara Smuts (1985) have argued for the epistemic necessity of attention to individual, embodied, subjective points of view.
- Vehicle Externalism,
- or “location externalism,”takes a further step. In addition to denying the logical or semantic independence of the possession of mental properties from a world of object, properties, or events external to the subject, vehicle externalism denies that even the mental particulars need be spatially located inside the skins of mental subjects. Rowlands (2003) suggests that there is no principled reason for not supposing that as “…the structures and mechanisms that allow a creature to possesss or undergo various mental states are often structures and mechanisms that extend beyond the skin of that creature” (p. 6), so too the mental states themselves. If externalism is true of the architecture that allows us to perceive, remember, reason, or use language, then it is true of the processes which the architecture implements. The external structures can be as likely to carry the information relevant to accomplishing a task, and to the extent that they are manipulated and transformed by the organism to accomplish those tasks, they can be said to be parts of the process. Why would manipulating an external structure be any different in principle that manipulating one that is attached to or incorporated within one’s body? Rowlands presents an evolutionary argument against developing genetically expensive encephalizations that might well have selective disadvantages to downloading them to the environment, as beavers do with dams, where the capacity to manipulate the environment obviates the necessity of internalizing it, whether initially adaptive or exaptive. This is true for external information bearing structures like the “optic array” in James J. Gibson’s (1979) “ecological approach” to visual perception, where “information processing” begins with the manipulation of the optic array in active sampling. Wilson (2004, pp. 175-6) also cites examples from the socially distributed cognition of seafaring navigation, and the deictic coding of eye-movements in animate vision, to the maxim of robotics, that the world is its own best model. It also applies to a whole range of day-to-day external memory aids, from knotted strings, shopping lists, and marks on calendars, to books, and the whole panoply of symbolic artifacts in a literate culture. Memory for an argument might consist in the capacity to flip through a book, scan the relevant portions of each page, until one comes across the argument.
The manipulation and exploitation of information-bearing structures is also likely to have been important in the historical development of some of the abilities which they make possible, as in code memorization, or the development of capacities for reading and writing. Indeed, as documented by Luria (1976) and Vygotsky (1978), many of our higher cognitive functions have been socially scaffolded in ways that are contingent on historical changes in social life and organization. Such abilities have been so shaped by the symbolically rich environment around us that we cannot make a principled separation between our ability to remember and our ability to exploit ambient information. From the formalisms that reduce complicated arithmetic calculations to an iterated set of simpler steps, to the use of technological artifacts which we find increasingly indispensable for the performance of a task. To the extent to which the cognitive burden is distributed, so too the epistemic credit. Wilson (2004) calls this “wide computationalism.” Just as literacy can substantially reduce our internal memory load, so too can a series of external supports provide for substantially reduced dysfunction in Alzheimer’s patients. When external aids improve memory in the same way as on-board internalizations, are we not entitled to take credit for so remembering?
Merlin Donald (2001) has suggested that human cognitive evolution has reached the stage of the externalization of memory. Mimesis and language, although themselves coevolved with culture, still depend on the internal memory capacity of individuals. Biological memory is impermanent, its medium is fixed, and its format is constrained. The emergence of literacy, and other skills involving symbioses with symbolic external storage, allows memory to be externalized in ways that are enduring, refinable, and even capable of reformatting. External storage also, via the use of a spatialized external information space, allows us to harness vision for reflective thought, to change the part of the brain used for thinking, to interrelate information an images in novel ways. It makes it possible to develop new cognitive strategies which are socially organized, and can be institutionalized to survive the replacement of member individuals. External storage thus makes possible an even more thorough invasion and use of the brain by cultural programming, especially institutionalized education, the development and elaboration of new devices (from wax tablets to manipulable computer imaging systems), and new visual symbolic codes. This may change the role of biological memory to be more symbiotic with cultural artifacts, and increase demands on certain areas of the brain which, given its neuroplasticity, can expand their territory at the expense of other functions (e.g., the loss of rote verbal skills and visual imagination that may come with literacy).
In Natural-Born Cyborgs (2003), Andy Clark argues that we have been human-technology symbionts since at least the invention of words, and that what is distinctive about our long developmental dependency and our neuroplasticity is precisely our ability “…to enter into deep and complex relationships with nonbiological constraints, props and aides” (p. 5). Pens, paper, wristwatches, scratchpads, notebooks, calculators, cell phones, and internet access are just the current and newest layer of our extended cognitive systems, expansions of our consciousness by temporal extension, scaffolding, embodiment and embedding (Wilson 2004). Certainly offloading computation to calculators, memory to written text, or temporal orientation to clocks can and has altered our brains historically and developmentally. It is an illusion to believe that the normal understanding of mind and person is limited to the boundary of our skin, as “our sense of self, place, and potential are all malleable constructs ready to expand, change, or contract at surprisingly short notice.” (Clark 2003, p 33) This should be obvious to anyone who has wondered about the ownership of a benumbed arm upon awaking, or felt personally violated upon another’s contact with one’s automobile’s surface several meters away. We are as much made up of the social and technological matrix in which we exist as organisms as by the neural events, conscious and unconscious, that occur inside our skin.
If our neuroplasticity makes it possible for us to be “natural-born cyborgs,” one of the crucial lessons of our extended developmental dependency must certainly be how much our externalism is rooted in biologically embodied relationships with other human beings. It should be clear that the position being put forth here is that mental life is both embodied and embedded in the world, not just located within the nervous system. While there are endogenous, dynamic patterns of neural activity which inform and are informed by the sensorimotor coupling between organism and environment, part-whole relations are dynamic and co-emergent, making autonomy a system-level, relational property. Two or more such systems are said to be coupled when the conduct of each is a function of the conduct of the other. A structural coupling is produced by “the history of recurrent interaction between two or more systems that leads to structural congruence between them” (Thompson 2007, p 45). One such structural congruence is produced in the dynamic co-emergence of interiority and exteriority, in which the autonomous self-production of an “inside” also specifies an “outside” to which it is normatively related.
Evan Thompson (2005, 2007) argues that thinking about consciousness and subjectivity as interior is a distortion, as the co-emergence of internal/external or self/other “depends formatively and constitutively on the dynamic coupling of self and other in empathy” (2005, p. 263). Intersubjectivity is primary, experiences of individuality, or interior and exterior, of self and other only develop within the context of an empathic coupling. Self and other enact each other reciprocally within such couplings. “One’s consciousness of oneself as a bodily subject in the world presupposes a certain empathic understanding of self and other” (2007, p 382). Human subjectivity is intersubjectivity from the outset, emerging developmentally and “configured by the distributed cognitive web of symbolic culture” (p 382).
The first level of empathy is that of our involuntary affective and sensorimotor coupling. This is a powerful set of mechanisms by which we are linked to each other biologically and physiologically. Sensorimotor coupling is mediated by a population of “mirror neurons,” that respond similarly whether preparing one’s own or observing the movements of another. There is also an affective resonance which has to do with our capacity to read and mimic facial expressions, as well as a set of circuits for producing patterned interactions between the orbito-frontal cortex and the limbic system. There is a measurable nonverbal duet in empathy, which includes matched patterns of arousal, and even complementary breathing (well summarized in Goleman 2006).
The second level of empathy is more active and cognitive, and involves the imaginary transposition into another’s place. Human levels are linked to the emergence of joint attention (including gaze-following, joint engagement, and imitative learning), and the attribution of mental states thought to require the emergence of a “theory of mind.” Barresi and Moore (1996) propose the mutual development of self and other-understanding out of an experience of intentional relations in which first-person and third-person sources are not differentiated.
The third level is mutual self and other understanding, which involves a reiterated experience of seeing each other as experienced empathically by the other, and can include the vocal interaction by which each participates in an intersubjective viewpoint which transcends the first-person view. Since one’s own lived body is always at the zero-point of intersubjective space, this is the only way one can come to experience one’s own lived body as an object belonging to an intersubjective world. “In this way, my sense of self-identity in the world, even at the basic level of embodied agency, is inseparable from recognition by another, and from the ability to grasp that recognition empathically” (Thompson 2005, p 268).
The fourth level is the ethical and moral perception of each other as persons worthy of concern and respect, not from imposed rules, but by empathizing with the other as a mental agent whose point of view one can take. Thompson asserts that without empathy such concern and respect for others as persons would be impossible. Interpretation and understanding comes dialogically, not in additive combination of pre-existing isolates, but emerging from, and reciprocally. Moreover this does not just occur instant by instant, but in memory, as the relationship has a history in which my sense of my own individuality, of my story, depends on being someone with a story for the other and with that other’s story to tell.
This powerful intersubjectively externalist view of mind, self, and relationship may have implications for a nondualist view of self and other, in which self and other have no independent existence, no intrinsic identity. This would open the way for a Buddhist view that it is the egocentric attachment to a mentally imputed self that is the source of all suffering, and suggest ethical practices of empathic imagination, of addressing pride, rivalry, and jealousy by looking at oneself through the eyes of an inferior, an equal, or a superior, and of a self-other equality wherein the pain of another is suffered as one’s own, to decenter the ego, and open oneself to “an originary intersubjectivity prior to the reified imputation of “self” and ‘other’” (Thompson 2005, 271).
We will not learn what, if anything, we can understand and project about ourselves from scientific facts considered solely from an external perspective. Facts can constrain possibilities, but they cannot tell us what possibilities are. Religion is part of our dream of possibilities; its study provides a lens for the observation of many aspects of what the human enterprise is and can be about, of explorations of what it might mean to have different notions of our selves, and why it might matter if it did. (Laurenson 2007, 815)
What I want to explore, in the remainder of this paper, are a number of contemporary theological developments within which we might begin to construct a broader set of religious meanings from the particular intersubjective and externalist view of mind, self, and relationship sketched above. What I want to suggest is in contradistinction to a view of the redemptive value of a private, individual relationship with the sacred, or the divine, while experienced “interiorly” in terms of bodily and emotional function, functions which may themselves require, even on scientific grounds, an externalist understanding. Rather, it is in our relationships with others and with a larger communal world, our relationality and our communality, to which our understanding of redemption might better be bound, particularly in this era.
There are deep and historical contributions of Christianity to the understanding of interiority as separate, individuated, and bodily restricted. Nevertheless, though we can recognize that Augustine’s interior is walled, it also has no roof, that Aquinas’ individuation of agent intellect is still drawn from divine light, the mind does not become a dark chamber until the Enlightenment, and Locke (Carey 2000). Contemporary theological resources for an externalist, intersubjective view include Barth’s (1958) conception of the imago dei as existing not in individuals nor in the capacity for relationship, but in relationship itself, and his view that the center of our being is dynamic and cannot be isolated from our embodiment, or our embedding in the world. They also include Karl Rahner’s (1978) anti-Platonist views, that the substantial unity of the human person is not merely in praesenti statu vitae, but that we are inescapably wedded to the world, literally one flesh with it, as we are to each other. Finally, we will explore the relationship between the projections of our images of each other, with both our tendency to alienate ourselves from the reality of our loving, finite, and mortal relationships, and our need to imagine the possible worlds without which hope can readily turn to despair.
The particular fleeting and tenuous nature of our technologically and electronically externalized social involvement has been detailed elsewhere (Teske 2002), in the context of the history of the self, of individuality, and of human relationships, showing the growing erosion of our embodied social interconnectedness, and the resulting increases in our sense of psychological fragmentation. Despite the proliferation of communicative technologies, we are plagued by feelings of isolation and longings to be connected. I think this may be largely due to the fact that the particular form of our externalizations in this era, while widely extending our communicative antennae in time and space, too frequently attenuates the sense of mimetic, bodily, and face-to-face engagement that has historically bound us to each other and to our communities, and given us a felt sense of belonging, of place, of involvement, and even of love. Our social groups are increasingly fluid, our relationships providing neither the duration nor solidity against which our self-definition and self-assertion can gain purchase (Bauman 2003). The construction of personal identity is therefore an increasingly difficult achievement which, while contributed to by belief systems, and grounded in subdoxastic emotional integrations sketched elsewhere (Teske 2007) , is largely produced via our position within larger communities, our personal integrity depending upon the psychological interiorization of purposes which extend well beyond the individual embodiment of our mentalities (Teske 2000), and are sustained and enacted only in a world of relationships.
Stanley Grenz’s encyclopedic work, The Social God and the Relational Self (2001)extends contemporary trinitarian thought, and develops a communal understanding of the imago dei in the face of the postmodern fragmentation of the self and the quest for relationality in community. His intent is to “foster a renewal of the Christian communally constituted soul out of the ashes of the demise of the centered self” (p. 3). He draws heavily on a patristic social analogy, traceable to Gregory of Nyssa’s parechoresis, of a trinitarian God as three subjective centers of action, the revival of which has produced a rethinking of person as relational rather than substantial, embedded in community rather than in isolation or abstracted from it. It appears that the unease toward the substantial and the ascendancy of relational ontologies is widespread, including Roman Catholic and Orthodox as well as Protestant theologians, and has brought together feminist, liberation, evangelical, philosophical, and process theologians. A metaphysic of individuals related internally might well have undermined patriarchal theologies via an understanding of individuality as necessarily social and interdependent. Grenz traces this development to the early twentieth century “social personalism” of thinkers like Martin Buber, Michael Polanyi, and John Macmurray, influencing theologians like Karl Barth, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and Emil Brunner in helping to contrast a “possessive individualism” of individual, self-disposing actors who are apart from others with an “I-Thou” relationality, not isolated selves but dynamically related persons. “…it is only in relation to others that we exist as persons…. We live and move and have our being not in ourselves but in one another” (Macmurray 1991, p. 211). As with a feminist theologian like Catherine Keller, Grenz sees a self in motion, where relations with others are not seen to be external, but internal to our very identity. This is also consistent with contemporary psychological theories of ego development, like those of Jane Loevinger (1987) and Robert Kegan (1982). Loevinger’s stages of development move from conformist and conscientious, to the individualistic and autonomous, whose interpersonal modes are mutual and interdependent. Kegan’s stages of the self cycle between poles of independence and inclusion, moving from the imperial self of needs and wishes, and the institutional self of authorship and identity, to interpersonal mutuality, and the interindividuality of interpenetrable self-systems.
From developing ideas of relationality, Grenz (2001) builds a theological anthropology rooted in an imago dei in which this concept becomes central and crucial for human relationships, calling for partnerships entailing commitment to mutual respect, fairness, and cooperation. The imago dei leads to a theological center in creation rather than fall, following a contemporary renewal of Trinitarian theology which sees God as “inherently relational and dynamic” (p 16). This will ultimately lead us to Grenz’s theological vision of humanity as an escatological community of embodied, sexual persons ecclesially bonded together in loving relationships. He traces the origins of this vision to the trinitarian escatological panentheism of Jurgen Moltmann, and the reciprocal relational trinitarianism of Wolfhart Pannenberg. The key concept is that of communion, in which God’s being consists in personal communion. “At the heart of recent attempts to devise a new ontology of communion has been a retrieval of the Greek tradition, especially as embodied in the Cappadocian fathers, together with a rejection of the Western theological tradition that finds its genesis in Augustine” (p 51). Augustine is the only Latin father, and his work was not available in Greek for some time. Rather than viewing person as prosopon, as a kind of “mask,” the Greek fathers identify hypostasis with it, rendering it as constitutive of being. A person is seen not as a static entity, a self-existent substance determined by its boundaries, but as a drive toward both integration and self-transcendence (also the essence of faith for Paul Tillich 1957),implying an ecstatic drive toward communion, its freedom in transcending the boundaries of self. Communion does not threaten our uniqueness or particularity but, since we are ourselves only in communion, we are constituted, indispensably and irreplaceably, by being part of a relational existence.
Grenz’s first step is to trace the rise of modern “centered” self, rooted in Augustine’s “turn inward,” leading to a centuries long attempt to see the self as the stable reality underlying individuality, the self-mastery of the Enlightenment (and of the evangelical movement), leading to its apex in the self-sufficient, self-constructing, “therapeutic” modern self. Nevertheless, this modern self is quickly undermined by a self-focused “expressive” self, rooted in autobiographical explorations like that of Montaigne and Rousseau, a Romantic self destabilized by Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, and Freud, reaching its apotheosis in Foucault’s extension of the metaphor of the death of God to the postmodern embracing of the self’s demise. What is left for Grenz to build a Soul upon is a “…semblance of a self that is constituted by a narrative that is marked by a position in a vast relational web, and that looks to relationships for identity” (2001, p. 17).
According to Charles Taylor (1989) the contemporary self is constituted by its “inwardness.” We understand “person” in this era much on the model of our public masks, of the roles we play, our visible, embodied being, in contradistinction to the “self” we take ourselves to be, with a personal unity or coherent inner being, possessing (or attempting to establish) a unique identity, with a continuous history (cf. Rom Harre 1984). It is, of course, Augustine’s inwardness, both cognitive and emotional, adopting the reflexive first person point of view, which leads us to the idea of the mind on a journey to truth, the certainty of his existence proved, ironically, by the ability to be deceived, and making the social and communal outwardness of our relationality to others difficult to see. For Augustine, the fragmented and scattered self, in the midst of a disintegrating world, stands in need of the unifying impulse to which only the inward journey toward God can provide, the open roof of our walled interiority. From here it is the declaration of Boethius that we are indivisible individual substance, of soul rather than mortal and decaying body that leads to the modern assumption that our true personhood lies in an “inner self,” giving prominence to an inevitable existential aloneness, separate from what we might see as an equally inescapable existence which is always, and perhaps constitutively, in relationship to others, to what is Other. Decartes did not invent subjectivity, but his use of Augustine’s cogito shifted the focus of rationality, certainty now lying within the autonomous subject, “knowledge arising from the knowing subject’s own personal self” (Grenz 2001, p. 70), and transformed an inward journey toward God to “an inwardness of self-sufficiency.” Nevertheless, it takes the dark room of Locke’s passive, disengaged camera oscura to equate personal identity with a punctual self of mere self-consciousness. Kant provides the final philosophical foundation for the shift to the radical individualism of modernity, by raising the active mind, individualized by Aquinas from the divinity of Ibn Sina’s (and Aristotle’s) agent intellect (cf. Thomas Leahy2000),to the definitive agent in “creating” the world of experience, the process of knowing, and even in living ethical lives.
For Grenz (2001), there is but a small step from a Kantian transcendental ego to the self-mastering religious self of the Puritan and Pietist movements, and their evangelical spawn, where merely discerning the presence of “signs of grace,” becomes the inner combat necessary for the assurance that one is elected rather than damned from eternity, including a personal experience of regeneration or rebirth, shifting the locus of salvation from baptism, and justification by faith, to a subjective personal conversion. With Wesley and Edwards, the converted self of evangelical piety becomes the experimental self, proving the truth of the faith practically and instrumentally. According to Don S. Browning (1986), Edwards forms the transition to modern psychology in the protracted research into testimonies of conversion that would provide concepts and techniques for ordering our interior lives. Enter Psychology as the Jamesian science of consciousness, the self constituted momentarily by the functional and creative thinker’s linking of the present to the totality of its past, and the elevation of the self to the center of psychology by Allport, Freud, and Erikson. “The task of becoming a mature self involves struggle, crisis, hopelessness, despair, and recovery, all of which participate in the movement of the person through inner conflict to integrity” (Grenz 2001, p. 93).
The proposals of psychologists such as Fromm and Maslow mark the end of the journey away from self-improvement or self-mastery as a religious vocation aided by divine grace, indicative of Edwards, to a secularized self-mastery characterized by the autonomous self’s quest for psychological health through the actualization of an essential human nature as aided by the psychotherapist or by therapeutic relationships. (p. 96).
This is what Philip Rieff, called the “triumph of the therapeutic” (1966), in what Christopher Lasch has diagnosed as a “culture of narcissism” (1979), where health is defined in terms of personal well being, not as a means to some higher end or the result of commitment to some greater good, but as life’s worthy goal: “a self assured, self-sufficient, centered self that constituted a stable identity in the midst of a chaotic world” (Grenz 2001, p 97). This center does not hold. Thank God.
The self-mastery that is the key to the construction of the Enlightenment self makes it possible to disengage from both natural and social contexts, and even from one’s own self, and to objectify the world, inner or outer. Taylor’s (1989) idea is that this is the “foundation for the modern ideal of individual autonomy, understood as the ability to determine one’s own purposes apart from the controlling influence of natural and social forces” (Grenz 2001, p 99), but it leads to an atomized view of the individual as the source of social connectivity, social institutions, and even ethics for thinkers such as John Rawls (1971). From the “looking inward” to find a unique individuality comes the “autobiographical self” of Montaigne and Rousseau, the unity and wholeness provided by Augustine’s God now provided by a self-satisfied self-absorption. However, the Romantics deeper probing of the contradictions within the human person uncovered an untamed and disorderly interior life, including the irrational and even immoral, the underlying unity to be provided only by emotive participation, the realm in which religion was to be understood, beginning with Friedrich Schleiermacher. For him, the essence of religion is in the infinite “beyond,” behind and within our finitude, and upon which it depends, which we experience as “utter dependence.” Not reason and intellect then the guide to truth, but emotionally stimulated imagination. “Consequently, for the Romantics, the pathway to true knowledge comes through introspection—including the discovery of one’s own hopes and imaginings—for the finite, individual self is the voice of the infinite” (Grenz 2001, p 111). Reality is to be found in ourselves, but, pace Arthur Shopenhauer, as will rather than reason, the world but a transcendental illusion, and that, with Friedrich Nietzsche, that truth, like value, is created or willed rather than discovered, even artistic expression a vehicle for illusion or deception, the world itself a work of art, a web of illusion behind which, nothing, the ego itself a fiction.
With Freud, the epistemological crisis is in full swing: Not only does he ask about the degree to which human motives are knowable, about the opacity of the human mind to know itself, but suggests that even in ordinary life, people hide their wishes, intentions, and motives from themselves, and that, as Owen Flanagan (1992) put it “many perfectly mundane and pedestrian human actions are the result of motives of which we are unaware and which we would, in fact, deny having were they attributed to us” (p 66). Introspection appears to be not only underprivileged, but decidedly corrigible, and the idea of an unconscious self no longer oxymoronic. Moreover if our very ego develops via the incorporation of our relations with other objects, there clearly is no fixed identity, but a “free-floating” self, in endless interplay between what is conscious and what is not, and between reality and fantasy. As the modernist novelist Robert Musil suggests in The Man Without Qualities (1997, orig. 1953), we are incomplete, unfinished, and we live in a world of possibility, “the capacity to think how everything could ‘just as easily’ be, and to attach no more importance to what is than to what is not” knowing that the possible “covers not only the dreams of nervously sensitive persons, but also the not yet manifested intentions of God” (p 12).
The postmodern ethos may actually celebrate the loss of an illusory consistency and stability, intentionally deconstructing such a self. Rom Harre (1984) suggests that we are cultural artifacts rather than natural objects, and I have elsewhere argued that this can just as easily be extended to a concept of human spirit (Teske 2000), constituted, like personal identity, in the form of a socially constructed narrative, a story that is initially told about us, but that we learn to tell for ourselves (cf. Katherine Nelson 2003). We therefore exist in Charles Taylor’s (1989) “webs of interlocution,” the question of who I am, answered at least in part via “a definition of where I am speaking from and to whom” (p 36). Our identities are therefore only fully understood via the nexus of relationships that in fact constitute us. However, as Grenz (2001) indicates, this leaves a self that is not only decentered but fluid, fluctuating with our relationships, a highly unstable and impermanent self in a rapidly changing world. A fluid, decentered, fleeting self, constructed moment by moment, translates too easily into fragmentation, and splintering into multiplicities, and we could only expect symptoms of identity dissociation to increase, the 1970’s punk rock vocalist Johnny Rotten as the Swiss Marianist Fr. Johann G. Roten’s “chaotic self.” Or, in the midst of the terrifying emptiness of our postmodern whirlwind, too often but a defense against meaninglessness, it could induce us to imagine something more meaningful. “You’ll find that empty vessels make the most sound” (Johnny Rotten).
In this quest, I think Grenz (2001) provides some hope. Drawing on an escatologically informed exegesis of the biblical creation narratives, he suggests a link between the imago dei and human relationality in the form of sexuality: “Sexuality as the sense of incompleteness together with the quest for wholeness. The escatological community that is the goal of the creation of humankind as sexual creatures is not marriage per se, but the new humanity.” For Grenz, the empathies of the “I-Thou” model are not enough. “The relational self is sexual, therefore, understood as persons-in-bonded-community. As such, the relational self is also the ecclesial self, the new humanity in communion with the triune God” ( p. 19). If personal identity arises extra se, if the self arises in relationships, then its development is a communal task, and Grenz develops an understanding of the ecclesial self via a reintroduction of the sexual dimension to the relational self, offering a theological response to the constitution of the self, in Christian anthropological terms, in the character of the imago dei.
For Grenz, salvation is social, and involves discovering true community. The biblical narrative of the imago dei begins with the creative act of God which presents humanity as the earthly representation of divinity. It only ends when the divine intention for humanity is realized in community. It is an ontology of person-in-community that can make possible the reconstruction of self-in-relationship. Humankind is made in the divine image, as sexually differentiated male and female, and hence as relational. Grenz points out that while creation out of clay is a widespread creation motif, that it is the addition of a separate creation of woman which distinguished the biblical narrative in its historical context. This emphasizes the sexual dimension of human existence, which, while biological and individual, is closely linked to our sociality. It is not in the solitude of a man that the imago dei finds its full meaning, but in the relationship of a man and a woman, the original social relationship. “It is not good that man should be alone” (Gen 2:18). Grenz suggests that sexuality is the fundamental drive that leads to the dynamic of bonding, the social purpose of sexuality, that we are formed to be social animals. He unpacks the social nature of sexuality by examining the two words used to describe this nature” helper and suitable. He points out that ‘ezer, translated as “helper,” does not denote subordination, since it is also used to denote the relationship of Yahweh to Israel, hence translated in the Septuagint as boethos, which refers to help from one not needing help, implying a relationship of mutual support, also central to true human community. Kenegdo, translated as “suitable,” can also be translated as “alongside,” or “corresponding to,” a being in whom we can recognize ourselves, in mutual understanding whether, in words or silence, constituting life in common. To this, Adam’s ecstatic cry: “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh” (Gen 2:23), a covenant formula expressing a common, reciprocal loyalty. It is only in the presence of this woman, his counterpart, ‘ishshah, that Adam refers to himself as ‘ish, as “male,” only in relationship to his counterpart that Adam becomes aware of the sexually based nature of his unwholesome and debilitating solitude, endemic to his existence as a sexual being, and the liberation bestowed upon him by this relationship.
What Grenz suggests, however, is that this mutual intimacy is not the climax of the story. Instead, it indicates that our embodied existence entails an incompleteness, a yearning for completeness, for a wholeness and connection reaching beyond our differences and divisions. This begins with the bonding relationship, the personal community of man and woman, bodily and spiritual, of mutual help and understanding, which does not end with the couple as an isolated unit, but is a step toward a broader human community, spurring us to seek community through relationships, and also motivates the quest for God, and is ultimately escatological, as the new Jerusalem “prepared as a bride adorned for her husband” (Rev 21:2). Grenz sees the City of God as “the society of transformed, yet embodied human beings, the perfect community in which all participate in the fullness of relationship…a realm in which sexuality – that is, the dynamic of finding one’s personal incompleteness fulfilled through relationality – not only remains operative, but operates on the highest level” (2001, p 281). Indeed, Grenz suggests that this creation also reflects the nature of the imago dei as male and female, pointing out multiple references to God as protective mother, as primal matrix, God as Spirit-Sophia, who cries in labor giving birth to a new creation, Christ as Sophia’s child, as Sophia herself pitching her tent in the flesh of humanity, revealing Wisdom’s love for the world (cf. Elizabeth Johnson 1992). The Hebrew term for spirit, ruach, is feminine, and is often symbolized with feminine images, as fire or a dove.
Even if one views God as beyond sexual differentiation, the theological significance of human sexuality may be precisely in interpreting the imago dei in relational terms. Deitrich Bonhoeffer does so (1959), insisting that God recognizes himself in human freedom, which he sees in a relationship between two people in which each is free for the other, that we are only free in relationship, sexuality representing the great depth and seriousness in which we are bound, by which we belong to each other. Karl Barth (1958) focuses more on the “I-Thou” relationality, a relationship of freedom and love, humanity reflecting the imago dei by standing in the same relationship to each other, the prototype being the male-female relationship in which we differ from but still belong to each other. Nevertheless, Grenz believes that this does not give “sufficient place to human embodiment as sexual creatures” (2001, p 300), because it is that sexual embodiment, and our sense of incompleteness, that leads us out of our isolation into bonded relationships. He argues that without sexuality, the significance of the resurrection is undercut, in which humans participate in its transforming event as embodied persons, sexuality providing the basis for community eternally as well as temporally. For Grenz, the imago dei is more than relational, but ultimately communal, even ecclesial.
Ultimately, Grenz sees the imago dei in the relationality of persons in community rather than in the individual per se, a view which, given the extended and socially coupled individuality we sketched early on, literally owing its existence to the relationships of which it is a part, gives us heart to see even broader goals to the development of our understanding, our actions, and our lives. The modern erosion of community in the increasingly isolated, internally fragmented, and even empty self (Cushman 1990) has been documented extensively, and appears to even have entered a period of precipitous acceleration in contemporary life. Even recent U.S. census data (see Newsweek, 28 May 2001)shows married households with children dropping from 40 to 24 percent and single person households doubling from 13 to 26 percent in little more than the space of a generation. The unlikelihood of the individual being the source of any kind of salvation is detailed elsewhere (Teske 2002), but meta-analytic findings of major increases in trait anxiety over the latter twentieth century suggest that it may not be a source of any solace at all. From sociologists like George Herbert Mead to existential philosophers like Jean-Paul Sartre, it has been understood since the early twentieth century that we can neither know ourselves, or even continue as selves but for the dialectic confrontation with another knowing self, the “generalized other” by which a community or social group grants us what individual unity of self we might ever have. The self is then something that is generated by and continues to exist only within the process of relating to others, neither pre-existing them or being sustained long without them. With Wolfhart Pannenberg (1995), we can see the self, in being social constituted, as “bestowed,” and take a thoroughgoing social constructivist model of self (also cf. Teske 2000).
While accepting and celebrating this understanding of the relational self, Grenz points out that, by not incorporating the “sexual character of the self-constructing dynamic” (2001, p 312), we are not in a position to “draw from the idea of love that lies at the heart of Christian theological anthropology” (Ibid.). Hence, it may be from theology that we may need to take some insight for providing a fuller model of the relational self. Citing Emil Brunner, Grenz asserts that we cannot be human “by ourselves” but only in community, as love only operates in community, and hence that human life is to be characterized, not by reason, but by our union in love, and that we can discover what love truly is by seeing how God acted toward us in becoming incarnate. Even Augustine saw the Spirit to be the mutual and reciprocal love between the Begetter and the Begotten, the Father and the Son, a triune God comprehending lover, beloved, and shared love, love being constitutive of what God is, not a secondary property. Similarly, in imago dei, we can understand a dynamic ontology in which the essential nature of personhood consists of mutuality and interdependence, in which communion does not threaten but constitutes our personal particularity. Nevertheless, in this model, it is the divine love of agape, in holy community, that the need-based, natural loves of storge, philias, and eros are elevated beyond their self-centered limitations, reconciling sinful humans and, on the basis of the embodied, biological and therefore sexual character of human beings, draw the reconciled into communion, opening the way for an ecclesial self, ultimately, therefore, escatological, enabling a true participation in divine life, theosis, something wider even than redemption (in accord with the Greek fathers and with the Orthodox tradition), and involving a new community in the logos by whom all things find their interconnectedness.
In sum, Stanley Grenz (2001) has drawn our attention to an ontology of communion, opened readily by a more fully relational understanding of the human self, producing a concept of an “ecclesial self.” The social nature of personal identity gives this self a communal character, not primarily produced by an inward turn (though this is important to the social construction of self), but neither absorbing individuality into an undifferentiated collective, as it is the corporate community which itself constitutes those particular individualities, not as fictions or illusions, but as socially instituted, and socially interdependent entities. It is also a perichoretic “in-one-another,” also consistent with Thompson’s (2007) more Buddhist perspective, in which we take empathic traces of each other into ourselves, the scientific and biological basis of which we examined earlier, and we each find ourselves in others. It does require, as I have argued elsewhere (Teske 2000), a desacralization of the boundaries of self, no longer to be understood as introducing impurity or pollution (but, perhaps, sacralizing sexuality as prototypiocal, as well as other forms of embodied, relational communion), but as the only means by which we can include each other in a shared, externalized, embodied life, and in each other becoming more than each alone, we all become more than we thought possible, in faith and trust.
From I to We
The present essay has been an attempt to map out how the toxicity of contemporary individuality, rooted in the Augustine’s inward turn, bounded in its dark interior room, and corrosive to communal life, can be recoupled to the external world, understood as relational, and meaningful only by virtue of our communal life. It is my view, and it is a déjà vu, that our redemption comes, and perhaps can only come, in particular, one-in-one, close, intimate, and loving relationships, even and perhaps inevitably, as mortal, embodied beings, unto suffering and death, as we are also redeemed. We do save each other, we can and must save each other, in imago dei, as the only path we have to the escatological communion which is our telos.
One Christian theological project pursued so well by Karl Rahner (1978), has been to flush out and banish the closet Platonism of Christianity, the separation of reality into separate realms of spirit and matter, of a self divided into soul and body. He opposes all-too-common formulations of Christian doctrine that view death as a separation of soul from body, our goal the immortality of the soul in an incorporeal heaven, our salvation inversely proportional to our material relationships with the world. Rahner holds that the Thomistic assertion of the substantial unity of the human person is not only in praesenti statu vitae but as the only state of life, that we are not only ineluctably “thrown” into the world, but inescapably material and related to matter. Our minds are always and exclusively focused on empirical data, unable to peek over our shoulders at some other realm. We are married to the world, for better or worse, literally as “one flesh,” that we do not part even in death. We may talk about eternity when we speak of salvation, but there is no afterlife, no continuation as if we just changed horses, no duration beyond experienced time. Death is a fulfillment of what we have made of ourselves in life, which comes to be through death, not after it. We do not leave the world even in death, but enter more deeply into it, God not to be found in some separate sacral realm, but accepted by falling into the abyss of the mystery of our existence with ultimate resolve and trust.
The present argument from externalism presses us to take the idea of being wedded to the world, literally of one flesh with it, ever more seriously. We are not only cyborg selves, incorporating our technologies, particularly extensive informational technologies, into our empirical self-experience, but, in the extensive exteriorization of higher cognitive abilities, and even memory, we are truly symbionts with a symbolic material culture. Moreover, in the ways in which our memories, and the externalizations of them, can be involved in the highest levels, not only of cognition but of empathy, inclusive of our histories and our stories, our marriage with the world is also a marriage to time, it is diachronic. Preeminent amongst the externalities from which our selves are composed are our relationships with other human beings, particularly those with whom we have deep and lengthy, even life-long, intimacies. Susanne Langer (1948) defines symbols, as Aquinas and Maritain did, as a kind of knowledge which includes identifying the “knower and the object known,” in the same way that one person comes to “know” another, no longer strangers, though there is always more to learn. As with Gabriel Marcel (1951), what is more important is not “I think,” but “we are,” as knowledge is intersubjective, we know by knowing each other.
What externalism entails is that we are, even physically and materially, not limited to the boundaries of our skin. What we are about is outside ourselves, is other. What we are even as individual selves, is not an internal space, connected to other such spaces, but that we are quite literally, and externally, composed of each other. We are one flesh, immersed in the world and married to the world, we are of one flesh with it as we are one flesh with each other; not in ourselves but in each other do we live and move and have our being. As minds and selves, we are embodied, enacted, encultured, and embedded within each other, our bodies, in living community. Given a primary intersubjectivity, a relational ontology of self, our selves are developed and enacted only in empathic, and hence bodily, coupling. Our contemporary culture of indirect, distant, electronic communication, however available, can too easily attenuate our mimetic, face-to-face, and embodied empathies, which need the regular renewal which can only come via these engagements (cf. Teske 2002). We must remember, with Kegan (1982), that the interindividuality of interpenetrable self-systems, the highest stage of the development of “self,” may be a fragile achievement, bearing our nurturance, and care.
Our relationships are our redemption. We act on each other’s behalf, and show kindness in our bodily presence, with a touch, a kiss of peace, in holding and being held, in assurances of love, in the return of hope, in laughter and in tears: “Your tears moved me. I don’t think people really have any idea what they do for one another. I don’t know if you realize how much you’ve done for me.” We are redeemed in our most loving relationships, in our lives together, by our caritas we save each other, as we are saved, in agape. From Walker Percy’s Second Coming:
“Is it possible that there is such a life?”
“As a life of smiling ease with someone else and the sweetness for you deep in me and play and frolic and dear sweet love the livelong day, even at four o’clock in the afternoon turning the old yellow green-glade loneliness into a being with you at ease not a being with you at unease?”
“Yes, it’s possible.” (1980, p 328-9)
“It is not good that man should be alone” (Gen 2:18), and we can hear Adam’s cry of delight even from Bertrand Russell, in his autobiography (1967):
With passion I have sought knowledge, [but with equal passion] I have sought love… I have sought it because it relieves loneliness – that terrible loneliness in which one shivering consciousness looks over the rim into the cold unfathomable lifeless abyss. I have sought it … because in the union of love I have seen, in amystic miniature, the prefiguring vision of the heaven that saints and poets have imagined.
Stories of suffering and death are often the most moving. Joseph Heller’s hero, Yossarian, in the novel Catch-22, reads a message in the entrails of his friend Snowden, dying in the waist of a B-24 bomber:
He gazed down despondently at the grim secret Snowden had spilled all over the messy floor. It was easy to read the message in his entrails. Man was matter, that was Snowden’s secret. Drop him out of a window and he’ll fall. Set fire to him and he’ll burn. Bury him and he’ll rot like other kinds of garbage … “I’m cold,” Snowden said. “I’m cold.” “There, there,” said Yossarian. “There, there.” (1961, p. 450).
Yes, we are matter. But in his “There, there,” Yossarian can show Snowden a drop of caritas, and in so doing, perhaps, redeem them both.
It is not just in the Christian tradition that we find the redemptive power of relationships. One of my favorite myths is of Psyche and Eros. Having scratched himself with his own arrow, Eros falls in love and marries Psyche, but forbids her from looking at him. Her betrayal is to gaze upon his real face, and realize she loves him as he truly is. Her only hope is to submit to an ordeal of impossible tasks put to her by the jealous and unrelenting Aphrodite (mother of Eros, interestingly enough), culminating with her descent to Hades, knowing no mortal can survive. But in doing so, she puts the gods to shame, and she is made immortal, the capricious Aphrodite blessing the union, the power of unconditional human love swaying even the gods. Psyche and Eros are reunited, in honest love for each other, standing face-to-face. Psyche has earned the ecstatic fulfillment not by force or emotional manipulation, but by her steady inner commitment to loving, including resentment, betrayal, separation, despair, and even the readiness to surrender it all. The conscious union of two loving but separate partners raises Psyche to immortal status, her love now encompassing a spiritual as well as a personal and sensual dimension. Psyche’s love has also humanized Eros; he no longer needs to hide his face from her sight, and Psyche deep love brings her in connection with the divine. Loving another person can open the heart to a love for life itself, to meaning, and purpose, and a vision of a larger world. Plato wrote that in the face of the beloved we can see the reflection of the god to whose choir we once belonged, a humble and honest love connecting us with our own souls, and a feeling of permanence, meaning, and the goodness of life. Not every relationship achieves this promise, and none do it all the time, but, in hope and faith, we keep trying. As Rollo May wrote in The Cry for Myth: “There are assets to being mortal – that we experience our own loneliness, and as Zeus said, “the poignancy of the transient, the sweet sadness of grasping for something we know we cannot hold” (1991, p 294). This is what the gods envy of mortality, and why, so often in Greek myth, persons offered immortality choose mortality instead, as Ulysses gives up immortality with Calypso for more years on the wine-dark sea, in the uncertain hope of returning to Ithaca, and his beloved, the aging Penelope. Could we learn to love each other, to love passionately, if we knew we’d never die? And might this not be the greater good, when eternity breaks into time, both incarnate in our mundane existence, and in a reaching beyond it. Is this not truly redemptive?
Nevertheless, I think Grenz’s (2001) insight is an important one, and that we redeem each other bodily. We are fully, biologically, embodied and hence, particularly in the prototypical relationality of male and female,the final act of creation in Genesis, fully sexual. There is an externalism entailed by sexual incompleteness, and the quest for a coupled and communal wholeness. There is also, of course, as Rebecca Goldstein points out, in her novel The Mind-Body Problem (1983), a solipsistic view of sex, which treats the object of sexuality as mere sensation, and leaves out “the complexity, the depth, and the reason this part of life matters so much to us” (p190). Goldstein reflects on Sartre’s (1958) view that the object of sexual desire is a “double reciprocal incarnation,” expressed by a caress: “My caress causes my flesh to be born for me insofar as it is for the Other, flesh causing her to be born as flesh.”
But it seems to me that even deeper than Sartre’s object lies another: a double reciprocal mattering, the most typical expression of which is the gaze. In gazing with desire on the Other I reveal how he, in my desire, takes me over, permeates my sense of self; and in his gaze I see how I similarly matter to him, who himself matters at that moment so much. It’s this double reciprocal process that accounts, it think, for the psychological intensity of sexual experience. It answers to one of our deepest needs, a fundamental fact of human existence: the will to matter. (p 189-90).
This, perhaps, is why Grenz can insist that sexuality continues to be operative, even at the highest levels of the escatological community. It is in community that our place, our role, our meaning is most readily found, how we matter. As Paul puts it in his first epistle to the Corinthians, we are all parts of one body, “But God has so composed the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior part, that there may be no discord in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together” (1 Cor 12:24-26).
Our bodily attachment, the bonding with each other that can produce communal life, is a product of our commonality of affective experience, rooted in our biology, as well as in the developmental shaping that makes cultural differences so difficult to overcome, and historical changes in it possible. Love is the positive form, shame an affect that produces the boundaries of individual isolation. Donald Nathanson (1992, p. 243 ff.) suggests that our expectations of love are built around the reduction of negative affect and the relief of needs in childhood. Love is built out of a cumulative memory of scenes which combine urgent need and the solace of relief, the scripts which we call love in adult life. Loneliness and redemption are paired experiences, the magnification of which can be seen in the relief of lovers’ “at last I have found you.” Pride expands the boundaries of self, but shame guards them. As we see ourselves, or parts of ourselves, as defective, so we can cast another who sees us that way, and we develop a catalog of such experiences over a lifetime. Shame always haunts love, as the more we long for communion the more we are vulnerable to the shaming augmentation of its attenuators. Love always involves the risk of pain, intimacy validating, but its impediments injuring, our experience of self. Shame is what modulates those affects that lead us to be social, communal, as we develop strategies to protect ourselves by witholding interest or remaining isolated. Vulnerability to pain and shame is the cost of being unarmored, the cost of being open to loving. Such emotional dynamics are central to our relationality; our religious yearnings are deeply driven by them. We have each felt the difference between communities in which one feels the power of the communion of positive emotions and ones in which shame and judgment predominate. The abject isolation of social shame is mitigated only by loving communion, and its redemption of disgrace, of exile, of feeling forsaken (Teske 2007).
Can this, then, be the imago dei, in our quest for loving relationality in our communal life, at historical tension, in our contemporary world, with the postmodern isolation of the individual, the fragmentation of self and meaning? We live as embodied, sexual persons, ecclesially bonded together in loving relationships, their escatological communal life our telos. Our meaning, how we matter, is not in the ends we attain, or even whether we attain them, but in our reaching for them, and the hope that we can. Hope is, as Vaclav Havel put it:
…is not the same as joy that things are going well, or willingness to invest in enterprises that are obviously headed for early success, but rather, an ability to work for something because it is good, not because it stands a chance to succeed. The more unpropitious the situation in which we demonstrate hope, the deeper that hope is. Hope is definitely not the same thing as optimism. It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out. (1990, p. 181)
You have to love a man who, in one of his first acts as president of the newly democratic Czech Republic, has The Rolling Stones as state guests.
It is truly in our hopes for loving, communal ends that we defeat the barriers of shame, not by ignoring them or pretending they are not there, but by looking them square in the face, and seeing the differences between the limitations of our mortal, embodied state, and the limitations incurred by the isolating boundaries of shame. An intersubjectively externalist view of mind, self, and relationship is one of the ways to help understand and undercut historical views that have contributed to constructing and reinforcing these isolating boundaries. But it is in religious imagination that we can project new futures for ourselves, of what it might mean to think about ourselves, our relationships, and our communities differently, and why it might matter deeply to do so. We can hear this in what Marshall Frady (2002) calls America’s “highest moral adventure in recent history” p206), in Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I have a dream.” His dream was about “sitting down at the table of brotherhood,” that if we “let freedom ring…we speed up that day when all God’s children—black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics—will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, Free at last, free at last, thank god Almighty, we are free at last!” That doing so, projecting such dreams for the future, and doing so in embodied, enactive, relational, and communal ways will certainly mean that we make ourselves as vulnerable as lovers do, and in ways that, in living more fully (and what is our fear of death but our fear of not living fully?), we risk pain and suffering, and may sometimes hasten our mortality, and even do so knowingly, as most of us would readily do for a beloved partner, or child. King knew this too and said, the night before he was murdered:
Like anybody, I would like to live a long time. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will—And he’s allowed me to go up to the mountain, and I’ve looked over, and I’ve seeeen The Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land! And so I’m happy tonight! I’m not fearing any man! Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord! (Frady 202-3)
We still face injustice, racial and otherwise, we still feel the alienation of one tribe from another, of hatred and warfare, of the isolation and separation of our loneliness, and of the ecological degradation of our planet. What an intersubjective externalism can help us see, is how we are parts of each other, members of a communal body, and coupled with, wed to the world, of one flesh with it, and it deserves no less care. What it may take a religious imagination to see is how, in redeeming each other, and our broken world, we redeem ourselves.
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