Archive for June, 2011

Latest notes from David Brook’s excellent book The Social Animal: emotion and intuition are at the center of moral decision-making rather than reason (p282). Reason is not out of the picture. But it is not the classic Greek picture of passions driving the chariot while reason guides it. Rather, we have wholesome emotional/intuitive choices and unwholesome emotional/intuitive choices. We more often than not have what Brooks calls “deep and often hot” responses to situations. Hardly the cool rationality of Mr. Spock. Rather, we respond quickly and often with strong visceral disgust or approval to situations.

One example: reading the Bible to make a decision about homosexuality. The strategies of folks across the continuum of thought and response about same-sex sexual love has often been misguided. “If only they would read the text.” “If only they would think about it.” “I think education makes all the difference.” All of these considerations depend too much on the power of reason, when really most of the moral work is being done in the vast unconscious mind, flowing out of a seething, wave-tossed, vast generational and social ocean that forms and flows in and out of human cognition.

More apt is the thought “if only they would meet someone and really get to know them.” Drawing near to another and especially getting involved in their life regularly is vastly informative of our complex cognitive processes. This does not mean, of course, that everyone would turn to acceptance or rejection or modification or movement in their moral response to homosexuality. But relationships are the matrix in which we move and by which we are most moved. Strong regular human contact will change us and sustain us in our commitments more than anything.

Although this last bit is a leap and full assumptions and much in need of unpacking and clarification, I believe that the more honest and true relationships we get into with all sorts of people, the greater we will become and the better our moral emotional/intuitive responses will become. We need to nurture and live into a vital matrix of relationships.

Can the Bible function as part of our relational matrix? Perhaps so. It is a text of stories of people encountering the Holy Spirit just as we may encounter the Holy Spirit. So we have a spiritual connection with people we only know through reading. We’re not just reading their wisdom in a rational process. If we think about entering into ancient-text reading as a matter of entering into a spiritual community of relationships, then our reading encounters the full range of what it means to be human in encounter with the divine, all the irrationality, all the passions, all the vast ocean of the unconscious. With this approach to the text, we may find less distortion in what this project we call “Bible reading” entails.

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David Brooks in his book The Social Animal (title taken from a concept found in the “British Enlightenment”), references the term “epistemological modesty.” This is an approach to life aware that we do not know ourselves. In answer to the injunction “know thyself” we must, in this approach, answer “I am unable – at least not as a fully conscious project.” Brooks notes “We are our own greatest mystery.”

However, he adds, this does not result in passivity. Epistemological modesty is a basis for action – it just means that more action has to do with addressing and designing paths and solutions aware of our limitations.

My mind immediately goes, as a pastor, to the question of reading sacred texts. Sacred texts seem to bring out the certainty in people. But what if we read the Bible not only aware of some of our biases, but also aware that we are unable to be aware of our selves on a conscious level, except for an extremely limited collection of self-ideas? The rest is our vast, roiling, lighting-flashing unconscious. It is a powerful information processor, but not subject to full control.

This understanding might lead us to entering into sacred text reading with a more organic and fuzzy sense of engagement. And it might lead us to consider the results and actions based on our reading as the complex and contextual things that they are. Not pristine rules or guidelines or even principles but vast, liquid, wave-tossed oceanic sweeps of sensibility and insight that connect us to an intuition of the divine that is flexible, subtle, multi-layered, and far “surpasses all understanding” (Philippians 4:7)

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