Finding Our Father and Loving Our Mother: How Humility Can Contribute to an Understanding of Ecological Theology (pt. 4)

In the 20th Century thinkers such as Simone Weil and Iris Murdoch developed philosophies influenced by Platonism and a non-theistic religiousness, again emphasizing the distorting effects of pride and the need for humility to receive truth. I came to know their writings through the teaching of Diogenes Allen, former professor at Princeton Theological Seminary, and it is his development of this line of thought that I find particularly helpful regarding development of a Christian response to the anti-environmentalist theology of the Christian Reconstructionists. In the book Finding Our Father, Allen sets out to distinguish the religious perspective versus the more immediate, default standpoint, or the “moral self” versus the “de facto self.”[1] The de facto self is the place we all start. From infancy, we are aware of our needs and strive to meet them, at first instinctively and later with more deliberation. The world as we perceive it centers on ourselves, quite literally as far as perception goes, as well as psychologically; the world is made up of objects of desire, of obstacles and tools. Later we may rationally conclude that there are other persons beside ourselves, but we still tend to think of them as they relate to our own needs: friends or foes, lovers and beloved, strangers or acquaintances, foreigners versus neighbors. We may rationally know that this is not an accurate picture of the universe, that in fact we are but momentary atoms in a very large cosmos, but that is not what we experience most of the time. Normally, and naturally, we experience ourselves and our own needs most strongly.

Despite the rarity of an experience of the independence of reality, Allen does believe it is possible. He describes it first as it is depicted in Iris Murdoch’s novel The Unicorn, where an extremely self-centered young man, facing inevitable death, finally lets go of his egoism and senses the beauty of all things. This, Allen says, is “perfect love” of the world. The young man realizes that his whole life, people and things have been around him that were wonderful in themselves, regardless of how or whether they affected him at all. Allen writes:

 

This experience of love is something that happened to him; he did not seek it, prepare for it, or apparently even know that such an experience was possible. The novelist stresses that it occurred “quite automatically.”… This nearnesss of death enabled him to become full of the presence of other sthings and to lack self-consciousness because by its nearness he became aware that he had no power or control over them. He will die and cease to have power over anything, and yet other things will continue to be. They thus become recognized as realities because they are independent, utterly independent of himself. This is the death of the self as the one reality, the only reality one recognizes, with all else subordinate, orbiting about oneself, having significance and value assigned unrealistically because assigned primarily in terms of its relation to oneself.

It is the withdrawal of power or control, then, which is fundamental to a recognition of the independence of things, and with their independence, they can confront him with a compelling, beauteous radiance.[2]

 

Allen then goes on to discuss whether such an experience is possible in reality, outside of the confines and improbable conditions of a novel. He cites the writings of Simone Weil, the French philosopher writing in Vichy France, and Laurens van der Post, a World War II POW expecting summary execution as the war was ending, as two real-life examples of this same experience. In both cases, people who had given up or lost control of the world found themselves moved spontaneously to experience and to love that which was entirely independent of themselves, to love what is simply because it is, and to forgive even what was crushing them.

So this experience of what Allen calls “perfect love” exists. Why do we not experience it more widely? And since it seems so rare, what is its relevance to the rest of us? The first question points towards the second. The reason we don’t generally experience perfect love is that we are all experiential solipsists. Each person, indeed each existing entity, is a unique center of activity. Each self has ontological priority for itself; I know myself first and immediately, experience my own needs and the effects of the world on me. Allen calls this the life of the de facto person. The de facto person lacks ontological humility. Each of us can see the world as orbiting around us, and we do so quite naturally. Elsewhere, Allen identifies this as the source of the original sin, not sin itself but temptation and possibility. As long as anything exists as an independent thing, it has its own inner activity. Since we are each aware of our own inner activity (and not of any other), we can experience reality as it orbits around us. But this is a distortion of reality. I am not the only center of activity; there are other minds and other objects. I know this, but even knowing it does not mean I experience it. Therefore, if I am to experience the truth, I need to seek to move beyond my standpoint as a de facto person and to strive to become a “moral person… one who is aware that he is but one reality among many realities.”[3] This is a position that none of us is able to occupy more than fleetingly, if only because the pressure of being an existing reality which knows its existence is threatened is so strong; it seems that the only way one could sustain the awareness of the moral person would be to be able, as God is able, to be aware of other things without being dependent on them or threatened by them. Such an experience would only be sustainable for someone who has moved from the de facto perspective to the place of one who knows he or she is perfectly loved by God, and has ceased to think about his or her own existence because the experience of God’s love has become central. (In a somewhat complicated way, this becomes an argument for the belief in the coming Kingdom of God.[4]) It is self-centeredness, or pride, which distorts the person’s experience of God and existence; and it is ontological humility that makes perfect love and a true experience of reality possible.

[1] Diogenes Allen, Finding Our Father (Atlanta, GA: John Knox Press, 1974) pp. 21-48

[2] Allen, pp. 23-24

[3] Allen, p. 31

[4] In Kant, the moral demand together with the impossibility of perfectly realizing the moral task in this life made it reasonable to believe in an afterlife, where one could forever strive to more fully fulfill the requirements of morality. For Allen, the awareness of perfect love, plus the knowledge of the truth of the moral perspective, together with the impossibility of sustaining moral personhood in this life suggests that there must be another sort of existence after this one, in which the de facto person indeed dies but the moral person lives on, perfectly loved by God and perfectly loving all things and God, so that the awareness of reality actually matches the nature of reality.

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