Adherents of the mythological worldview tend to regard the statements of their creeds as indistinguishable from empirical “fact,” even though such statements were generally formulated before the notion of objective reality emerged. Those who, by contrast, accept the scientific perspective—who assume that it is, or might become, complete—forget that an impassable gulf currently divides what is from what should be. —Jordan Peterson, Maps of Meaning: The Architecture of Belief (Routledge, 1999)
Are you, dear reader, familiar with Jordan Peterson, YouTube videographer extraordinaire? If not, you should be, at least if you are interested in figuring out the Zeitgeist of web-driven cultural upheaval in the West. In the last year or so, Peterson has almost singlehandedly shifted the tide of popular opinion away from support to opposition on identity politics and social justice warriors. The “regressive left” is now a bad guy.
That makes life for Episcopalians, well, interesting. If the cultural underpinnings of our church are crumbling, what can this possibly mean? I’d like to gather some tentative thoughts by discussing a particular historical issue: reason vs. desire.
Somewhere around my middle-school years in the 1990s I remember Reformed theologian R.C. Sproul excoriating the tendency of folks on the street to say “I feel that” instead of “I think that.” Sproul believes that the statement “I think that the church should promote justice in the world” is vastly superior to “I feel that the church should promote justice in the world.”
In making this point, Sproul was drawing from Aristotle, for whom reason, from the top position of the human soul, is responsible for managing, disciplining, or directing that middle part of the soul, appetite or desire. I shudder to imagine what Sproul might say about the habit among millennials to say “I feel like,” as in “I feel like single-origin coffee is more epic than the typical Starbucks roast.”
Years later I discovered Alasdair MacIntyre (another Aristotelian), who in his influential After Virtue inveighs against the cultural vice of emotivism, the habitual failure of Western citizens to engage in serious dialogue about political issues. They instead turn to vague feelings, appeals to emotion, and fragmentary shards of hype, ripped out of context. “On values,” MacIntyre reminds us, “reason says nothing,” at least according to emotivism.
So much for Aristotle. What about Plato, and (perhaps hitting closer to home) the tradition of Neoplatonism? Here is where things become interesting. At first blush, Plato seems to agree with Aristotle: within the structure of the human soul, reason is at the top, and its job is to exercise due control over the unwieldy passions, both the desire for intangibles like glory, victory, or vengeance (thumos), and the baser desire for “external goods” such as food and sexual gratification.
And yet there are hints that Plato is not simply a reason man. Quick examples include the fact that, hovering above the “divided line” image in Book VI of the Republic, one finds the presence of the good, which one might see as a kind of attractive force that entices the entire human soul under its beneficent sway. In other middle dialogues, such as the Phaedrus and the Symposium, the good seems to be a mysterious reality in which the human soul participates. In each case the good is transcendent and elusive while nonetheless characterized as a kind of desideratum for which the human mind or soul strives, into which it is seduced or wooed, and in which it participates.
In Book VIII of The City of God, Augustine reinforces this latter portrait of Plato, emphasizing his status as a lover of God. For Augustine in the Confessions, verus philosophus amator dei est, and he certainly regards Plato as fitting that bill (see City of God VIII.5). In this estimation, Augustine was certainly of one mind with his Neoplatonist influences such as Plotinus.
For this Platonist tradition, then, there is a desire above both desire and reason. Human beings are not logic machines. This brings us back to my opening point about our contemporary culture and the role of the Church within it.
After years (decades, even) of struggle, I have landed on a position: I favor desire over reason. One of the tipping points for me was the epiphany that faith, hope, and love — those absolutes of the Christian life — are instances of desire. I’d argue that one can witness this appeal to religious desire in Bonaventure’s protests against the rigid and secular Aristotelianism of his day in 13th-century Paris; or, a few centuries later, in Kierkegaard’s passionate invective against the totalizing system-builder G.W.F. Hegel. Each Christian thinker ardently, almost viscerally, advocated for the primacy of faith and love. Each championed the cause of desire.
Finally, though, does any of this even matter, for us, today? I think it does. I offer three applications.
First, same-sex issues in our culture and church: If reason is not fully, finally and simply at the top, then cultural or relational space or opportunity opens for me to unite with those who configure their rational truth differently than I do, even on issues of sexual ethics. Much in the spirit of Wesley Hill’s recent article on “fellowship with the unorthodox,” if sisters and brothers on both sides of the ideological divide can see themselves as striving after the same Object of Desire, the good God who seduces and woos us (not least in the liturgy) then, we can celebrate our deep unity.
Second, and very much related, is what I call ecclesiastical stickin’: Perhaps a decade ago I read a book by Bill Clinton adviser James Carville called Stickin’: The Case for Loyalty. In it Carville defends his decision to “stick with” his incommodious and grotesque friend President Bill Clinton during the Monica Lewinsky affair. “Bill was my friend. I loved him and I love him still,” Carville writes. “Yes, he makes me want to pull my hair out at times and worse, but I’m not going to betray him, or our loving friendship. When it comes to Bill, I’m stickin’.”
Surely this kind of attitude, applied to that messy family known as the Church, becomes more plausible when we relativize brute reason, dethrone it of it hegemony, and privilege desire as that which truly binds us together under the good.
Last, and on a somewhat different note, let us return to Jordan Peterson, whose primary influences include Carl Jung and Friedrich Nietzsche. Peterson has crystallized an important truth that somehow remained hazy for me throughout my academic studies: the realm of desire is connected to that of myth. How did I miss this connection, given its prominence in the writings of C.S. Lewis, not least in his essay “Myth Become Fact”? It does seem to me that Christian theology privileges mythos over logos in important ways. The story of Israel and that of Jesus Christ provide the context for any and all truth. After all, it is not an abstract set of propositions we confess every Sunday after the sermon; it is a story, a mythos.
On this last point about myth, there is much more we could say. I’ll close with a point of Peterson’s, which he thinks originates with Nietzsche. When the cultural cachet of the Judeo-Christian story wanes, the underlying foundation of all access to truth (including the allegedly all-powerful domain of modern science) wanes. When the former is abandoned, the latter is lost.
With the new shift in public opinion away from the hegemony of regressively leftist ideologies such as extreme political correctness and dogmatic identity politics, one can feel the foundations of our culture trembling. It is easier now than ever to imagine ideological antagonists resorting to violence. Consider the recent violence in Charlottesville or any other number of recent examples.
Until now, what has prevented pandemonium has been our collective, Judeo-Christian myth, acknowledged or not. Since myth is the language of desire, when we appeal to desire we promote the dominant myth. Thanks be to God that it is a mythos of peace.
Very interesting piece with a lot that I’m going to have to chew on for a while. I really appreciate the connection of desire and myth, and the space you mention opening up for relationships with those who may not reason as we do. The one qualm I have is the proposition that identity politics has lost in our cultural moment. I think what has actually happened is that the dominant voices in the popular right have actually embraced a sort of identity politics. I don’t think our current president can be explained apart from that. Now, there’s a backlash… Read more »
Agreed, Jody. Yeah, all I’m saying is that, very recently, identity politics seems to have been dethroned from its previous place of hegemony. That’s why I said, “a bad guy,” not “*the* bad guy.”
Jody, as an additional example of a prominent & influential thinker who undermines liberal ideology, I’d offer Slavoj Zizek.
I am reminded of the compelling argument Leslak Kolakowski makes in his book The Presence of Myth, a book that helped me reengage with Christian faith.
Matt, I am not familiar with this book; I’ll have to check it out. Thanks!