Tuesday, November 4, 2008

The Death of Socrates

1787 Jacques-Louis David

I found an old testimonial I wrote in April of 2004 - it's funny to look back and trace theological development. Here it is...

The search for the "authentic self" is a complicated business. Any commentary on it is sure to be contingent upon the present stage of the individuals life and furthermore on the particular mood of the commentator at which time he picks up his pen. I can make few other general statements about what common elements make up the broader search for self for the rest of humanity, though I suspect they deal often with God, love, spirit, pain, and death. I will then deal primarily with my own account and progression of coming to selfhood, with an emphasis on matters of spirit given their overhauling affect on the journey.

When I entered high school I met a friend who used psychotrophic drugs, wore dreadlocks, smelled a bit, and spoke language on matters I had never heard. He introduced me to Buddhism, in which I became entranced by the teachings, meditations, and empowerment derived from it. The four noble truths and eightfold path came at a time which proved deeply beneficial. Entering a new high school had been difficult. I was insecure, and was scared stiff around new people, and nearly anyone for that matter. Never the less I wanted folks to like me (though couldn’t yet talk to them), wanted a car like the cool kids, wanted to be different, wanted a different family and so forth. I hated my job doing janitorial work in a nursing home. I was basically miserable. Reading various sources on Buddhism provided me with the most valuable fundamental and universal truth: Life is suffering. It made immense sense too, provided I had one friend kill himself with a shotgun that first year of school, and many of my other friends who chose a variety of serotonin reuptake inhibitor drugs instead. Accepting life as a generally melancholic journey with intermediate yet brief bursts of joy or terror served as a counterbalance to these common tragedies. My conscious exercise to early on free myself from the certain "consuming" wants I had in life likely saved me from complete despair and the other pitfalls. Accepting suffering, or in fact embracing it as the natural condition, is still fundamental to any search for what the philosopher considers "self." What is lacking from these philosophical traditions regarding this natural knowledge of suffering is original sin.

Despite my ability to grasp some release from the instability of early adulthood, I still had the impression something was missing from life. During the autumn season of my final year in high school I approached the Bible. I had had no experience with the text, save a time I joined a friend for a catholic catechesis lesson as a young child. I recall the lesson in a poorly lit room sitting on immensely thick orange shag carpet which might have easily swallowed me up, listening to a towering thin presence dressed in black. I had neither a fond nor poor memory of this encounter. Nevertheless, this autumn I began reading the bible diligently with no certain expectations. At school I did not have many friends or much of a social life so I was thus granted the liberty to slowly make my way through the 2000 page document. At this time, I read it purely as a literary source, aware that it was quite important to many people. In Genesis, the oceans and land were formed with vegetation and animals being whisked into place. In the garden Adam and Eve were given breath and were put to work. Shortly, things go awry, with a Serpent, Cain, Gomorrah, and slavery. I read the trials of Moses and the Israelites, the epic dictation of the 10 commandments, and the strange books which followed. Then on to the earthly wisdom of the proverbs and the desperate cries to God from Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel.

When I reached the Gospels something much different began to occur for me. It was God incarnate, a man who healed the sick and spoke on the kingdom of heaven. This God was gentle, stooping down into the mud and grime, washing feet of disciples, and absolving sin. The apostle Paul provided me with the necessary theology to understand what took place at the cross, namely the taking on of sins, a descent and burial, and a most triumphant resurrection which all humanity was invited in to! This singular event in human history was not mere social doctrine or source for new age spiritually but provided the means by which we are justified eternally before God. The pieces of shattered world were put back together. At this point I was no longer reading an important historical document or literary source with advice for good living, for the words of this gospel became life itself. I remembered the countless times this Christ had been prophesized, with distinct clairvoyance by Isaiah, "Smitten by God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, He was led as a lamb to the slaughter…and made intercession for the transgressions" (Isaiah 53).

Provided the acquiescence of this new Christian doctrine, the search for self came to mean something quite different than how I had previously conceptualized God, myself, and meaning of universe. William James popularization of the phrase "look within your heart," which was a continuation of the Socratic tradition, though this time steeped in religion underpinnings. The only benefits I personally see from looking within is the examination of a mild neurosis and a deep cavern of human depravity, thus a fine preparation for the healing grace of the Gospel. There is nothing within me which I might revere, saying to my friend, "Look here at this pure heart – it is special and leads me to that which is good!" Within me is deceit, selfishness, hostility and rage, and a variety of offensive inclinations. A lifetime of self examination in expectation of some inner and divine light would only result in my running circles around my own madness, mistaking it for holiness. The search for self is best served by turning away from looking inward, and focusing instead on your neighbor. Subjugation of the inner impulses is the defining mark of self-hood and the highest of arts. Devotion to neighbor, family, and community is right and true. We "find ourselves" or better yet "lose ourselves" by assuming the life of a servant in our daily vocations, no matter what they may be. The worker actualizes his selfhood by serving his employer in ways which increase their wealth and support their property. The employer actualizes the self by devotion to his workers through fairness in treatment and compensation.

Plainly put, the search for self is to cling to the more admirable portion of the human spirit which clings to a faith which says, "Care entirely for one another!" The search for self is not a lofty intellectual pursuit reserved for those in the cloister, ivory tower, or symposium. Furthermore, it is these places where the greatest poverty of self is enacted, where isolation cloisters off the rest of the world – the daily grind of labor, the needy, and helpless. My vocational work as farmhand and city street sweeper has provided me with the blessings to contribute to the cleanliness of the city and participation of tending to the food which nourishes its citizens. It is unfortunate that the religious mystics and famous soul searches deny themselves such pleasures as these.

The philosophers search for 'self' is only found when he casts off his doctor's robe and descends into Holy Baptism and receives an eternity of Absolution. The uniqueness of the individual self can only be claimed by God in Christ, who numbers every hair on a saints head. The 'authentic self' as sought by all the enthusiasts, is only actualized as the new man arises out of the living waters, as God declares, 'this is my son which whom I am well pleased.' And so it was and is for me. The entrance into Christ's church does not compromise individuality or what the philosopher considers 'selfhood' but establishes the authentic and true self as God intended from the beginning until the end. For 'hast thou not poured me out as milk, and curdled me like cheese? Though has clothed me with skin and flesh, and hast fenced me with bones and sinews.' The freedom to be fruitful is only in the body of Christ, and each saint performs a valuable work and eternal function within it.

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