A Problem of the Personal

A Response to Peter McLaren on Rufo’s Hermeneutics of Evil

The Great Chain of Being (Didacus Valade, 1579)

Here Lanney Mayer responds to Peter McLaren’s columns engaging with Christopher Rufo. Lanney is currently writing a book on the Enlightenment and education called Recovering a Human(e) Education: A Trans-Modern Perspective.

Addressing Rufo, I see two related problems with the ongoing unsuccessful dialogue with the right in general and Christopher Rufo in particular. One has to do with the unexamined premise of the individualising and psychologising of man since the Enlightenment (what Wynter calls the degodding and overrepresentation of ‘man’). The other has to do with the otherworldly abstract ideas cum ideologies, defining our humanity and our experience rather than grounding our ideas in lived experience. It is in MacMurray’s language to prioritise the theoretical over the practical and to identify thought with being (The Self as Agent). Two consequences result. One is the docetic disembedding of man and life from bodily fleshy human experience. The other is the inability to find common ground to overcome the compartmentalised ideological identities within which people live. No wonder conservatives like Rufo don’t understand the left. An important aspect of human identity being defined via ideological abstractions is that it becomes a matter of mutually exclusive identities and a consequential overwhelming fear of loss when threatened. Certainly, the right, and often the liberal left as well, are desperately afraid and attack out of that fear. There is a critical need both for empathy (amidst our angry, loving ‘No’ to oppression) and a shift of the conversation from abstract ideas to grounded and shared human experience. Similarly, MacMurray suggests we shift from the theoretical Cartesian ‘I think’ to the agency of ‘I do.’ For him, as for Levinas, ‘to be part of the world is to exist.’ This roots ideas in human engagement with nature echoing both Dewey’s naturalistic experience and Freire’s problem-posing. If we start from the standpoint of theory, as in ‘I think,’ an artificial gap is created to overcome to reach practical action. If we begin with a standpoint of practical action over that of theory, the Enlightenment binary between theory and practice or fact and intention is dissolved.

Individualism and Psychologism: Narcissistic Egoism and the Psychologising of Man

The egocentric, even narcissistic, self-understanding of man enfranchised by the likes of Descartes and Kant allows for two options regarding the relation of individuals to others, that is, the connection between the one and the many necessary for a community of persons or a reasonable (as distinct from abstract/rationalist) social theory. One option is the Cartesian ‘I-it.’ In this case, we can never know the other as a subject, only as an object of study. The other is solipsism. In either case, community, if it exists as anything more than a conceptual abstraction or an impersonal epiphenomenal aggregate of individuals, is like billiard balls being held together by extrinsic racks of ideologies which themselves are rationally derived rather than the ideas themselves being derived from human experience (from the womb on) and an organic connection between the billiard balls themselves. In Levinas’ terms, man is only fully human when providing a relational response to the claim of the other. His ethical metaphysics links fundamental solidarity and ethics where Cartesian man devolves to the politics of self-interest and community, defined as tribalised impersonal identity politics. In MacMurray’s terms, ‘action [or agency] is itself impossible unless there is presupposed a plurality of agents in relation to one other in one field of action.’ It echoes Fanon’s sociogenics and moves from the impersonal objectivised happenings of history (Historie) to the socially constructed interpersonal story of history (Geschichte). Being human is inherently interpersonal.

Levinas and MacMurray are not new here. By responding to the Holocaust, the flowering of Enlightenment impersonal rationality (eugenics cum genocide), Levinas reflects similar pre-Enlightenment conceptions of being human seen in examples worldwide. His own Jewish conception of corporate solidarity in which H. W. Robinson articulated the identity of individuals constituted by familial-tribal-national relation (being alone was the very definition of hell to H. W. Wolff, Anthropology of the Old Testament), African Ubuntu (‘I am because you are’), Mayan In lak’ ech (‘I am another you as you are another me’), Native American social identity seen in the embedded nature of their democratic politics, economics and spirituality, and Buddhist ‘interbeing’ (Thich Nhat Hanh) represent what is today the Global South untouched by the White Christian male Eurocentrist Enlightenment reduction of man. Historically, politics, economics, spirituality and education were generally embedded in and grew out of social interdependence (or at least social checks), which, in the Enlightenment, was reduced to a disembedded individualised and impersonal man whose relationships were an epiphenomenon of self-concern. If man is understood as fully human only when in dialogical relationship with others (the Global South generally including Freire, Wynter, MacMurray, Levinas and, perhaps, Fanon and Bateson), a number of inferences follow. Firstly, the individual is not understood apart from community, and the community is not understood apart from individual agency. Secondly, ethics adhere to the very definition of being fully human rather than as a rationally justified addition to an individual monad. Finally, epistemology can no longer be reduced to Cartesian and Kantian models of inductive empiricism and deductive logical coherence. There may be a third and interpersonal dialogical way of knowing (E. J. Carnell). ‘To know,’ for the Hebrews, was the word for sex (ידע, yāḏa´). Was there additional knowledge provided in human intercourse of all kinds not available in empiricism and logic? I would argue that Cartesian knowledge is akin to Newtonian physics, the rules of which don’t explain the realities of more quantum relational realities, much like the electron is only particulate when measured in Newtonian ways before and after which it functions as a wave fulfilling thereby incommensurate formulae. Both ontology and epistemology can be relieved of their Cartesian binary constraints as is being done by the Global South, but also by neuroscientists like Damasio, philosophers like Whitehead and others recently seeking middle ground, all in fleshing out aspects of Dussel’s transmodern concern. The individualism of the right cannot see any social reality as anything but a threat to their ill-defined individualised ‘freedom,’ which is detached and disembedded from a community demonised as socialism or communism (all the same from the distant standpoint of the right). This opens us to the second concern.

Secular Docetism: Ideology as the New Enlightenment Mythic Context for Meaning and Identity

The other, and related, concern has to do with defining our human identity rationally through abstract concepts (ideologies) rather than from human experience and dialogical encounter (note educators like Dewey here vs Thorndike). This is a fundamental difference in starting points between the Global South and North that further cripples dialogue between them. I have characterised this as the Enlightenment’s secular Docetism, which, somewhat ironically, replaces the escapist bodiless spirituality of the Protestant Church (and Western, more than Eastern more Semitic Catholicism).

Moreover, the mythic aspect of Christian cosmology was replaced by the new myth of the ‘demythologising’ Enlightenment and its rational abstractions (viz., Horkheimer & Adorno). Conforming our identity to ideas or ideologies is impersonal and mechanistic, making relationship with others based on rational laws (Kant) and Rufo’s social order (his presuming that order is justice). Such extensions of private rationality do nothing to engender a trust between persons critical to a socially embedded economy and politics, a spirituality rooted in wisdom and prophetic texts that inspire care for the poor, and an education for full humanity rather than to become consumers and workers. These human arenas are interconnected interpersonal functions dehumanised by a vision of a mechanistic homo economicus. Ideologies and -isms totalise impersonally and, according to Arendt, lead invariably to totalitarianism and any variety of inhuman holocausts (the next iteration of which may make the last one look like Disneyland).

For example, in the name of an absolutised ideology of ‘freedom’ or ‘liberty,’ the Colonies revolted against British taxation, but, within a decade, there were similar revolts in Boston and Pittsburgh against the debilitating colonial governmental taxation to repay the war debt. Both were considered terrorist acts by the ‘ruling order.’ In neither case were the ruling authorities or the rebels able to see past their tribal self-interest to the needs of others. There was both a need to tax and a need to do so humanely. Pure mechanistic rationality simply has no tools to address the human(e). Both left and right ideological positions are imprisoned in a historically ever-present individualism and rationalism formally enfranchised as orthodoxy by the Enlightenment. If the early Marx was inspired by biblical otherness, latter forms of Marxism were not. A self as worker is as limited as a self as thinker as the concept seems premised on an organic Hegelian developmentalism rather than ethical agency. His intent is humane, but latter forms and, certainly, the perception by the right is that of a collectivism at odds with and threatening the order of the God-given individualist order. When driven by such ideologies, our good cause makes others expendable, collateral damage of sustaining Christian nationalism, capitalism, or collectivism. American education reifies our ideological orthodoxy, but it is our conception of self that is the critical error.

I suggest that in our discussions with the right and our educating of the left, we begin with the solidarity of human experience and human pain rather than devolving to defining our humanity from political, economic or spiritual-isms. This is the premise of Dussel, Villega, Freire and Levinas. William Law, a primary influence on the Wesleys, suggested this idea to a man demonising his neighbour for his irresponsible behaviour. He stopped the man and suggested he pray for the man for two weeks and come back to discuss the matter. It is impossible to demonise when we step into another’s shoes and empathise with his pain and victimhood. My sense of security must be undermined not just by my circumstances (which important materiality CRT may be in danger of emphasising to the exclusion of Fanon’s second level of the subjective personal/existential – they are ultimately distinguishable but inseparable and equally critical to justice), but also by the painful material reality of others. Native Americans never made their impoverished rich, but they never let them starve. Property was not acquired and possessed for security but had value in service of building community. Chief Maquinna, upon learning of colonial banking practices, concluded, ‘Our way of giving is our bank.’ Rather than atomise humans and disembed politics, economics, spirituality and education from the social and relational aspects of our humanity and, therefore, leave ethics as a rational add-on to recreate an artificial connection of the one to the many, begin our conversations within and without on a humanity whose metaphysic is based not on ontology but whose ontology is based on a prior solidarity, a primal claim on us by the Other. Our humanity, if it is to remain fully human, is a solidarity of humans whose metaphysics is essentially and ethically, in Fanon’s sense, objective (materiality) as well as subjective (existential meaning).

Observations on McLaren’s Theological Argument to Rufo for Social Justice (Seeking Common Ground?)

With Rufo’s individualised human identity and his ideological distance from the left (or the non-Enlightened Global South), his individualised, impersonal and rule-based understanding of things like ‘freedom,’ ‘democracy,’ ‘the social,’ such things as ‘Wokeness’ and the consequential working out of social realities like economics, politics, spirituality, and education, it is no wonder there is difficulty finding common ground. From his distance, the left all looks alike, and threats to his ideology constitute a threat to the ‘ruling order,’ a ‘re-engineering of our souls’ and ‘conquest’ of his human identity rather than meaningful dialogue. In an ideological hermeneutic like Rufo’s, people become expendable as they are subordinated to the ordering of individualism and capitalism. Perhaps theology is a better starting point to undermine Rufo’s Enlightenment assumptions. If he can be led to see, in your terms, that ‘modern Christians have wholeheartedly swallowed the individualistic conceit of modern liberalism, while they vehemently protest against both modernity and liberalism,’ which then implies your ‘It’s not merely about choosing between Democrats and Republicans; it’s about grappling with the very essence of our humanity.’ Agreeing with your argument and the profound insights of Miranda and Herzog, my comments below are offered as nuanced colour commentary.

The Imago Dei. Following Karl Barth, I suggest that the image of God is not best understood as Adam before surgery. Rather, it is more like the Hebrew conception of the divine council, an extension of which is the human family of Adam, Eve, and children, a dialogical social reality. Personhood and social relation are at the core of Hebrew and early Jewish-Christian thought, and they should not be understood so much as anthropopathic as theopathic reflections of God’s personal character (Buber, and Heschel on The Prophets and the God of Pathos over the unmoved mover of Calvin’s Enlightenment-influenced theology). To Will Herberg (Protestant, Catholic, Jew, ch. 2), personhood is what distinguishes Eastern and Western cosmologies. Personhood, consequently, is the point of biblical connection between God and humans, and that image is carried throughout both testaments. That God expresses his full deity limited to interpersonality is the miracle of his humility.

God as Wholly Other: He Can Only Be Known Indirectly Through People. That God is wholly other in the sense that he cannot be examined, controlled, or otherwise named is true, of course, as may be inferred from John’s remark on Jesus (21.25), ‘the world itself could not contain the books’ or God’s reply to Job, ‘Where were you when I….’ However, other he is, ontologically: he has always been driven into the earth relationally (see Heschel’s God in Search of Man). God cannot be reduced and known ontically, that is, scientifically and directly, via classical epistemology of empirical induction and logical deductive coherence so as to be observed, named, and controlled. On the other hand, as Cardinal Newman suggested, God is so deeply embedded in his creation that he can be known there. And biblical Wisdom literature, a neglected genre in the modern age, asserts that we can ‘know’ apart from revelation and creeds just via the way the world works. Jesus’ parables assert that, by analogy, earth is like heaven. If you want to know what God is like, look at a good father or a bad judge (Lk. 18). I suggest that in the demythologising and degodding of the Enlightenment, God is, in a binary fashion, rendered either wholly transcendent and removed or wholly immanent, controlled and named. Were God to present himself, we would be overwhelmed as Moses might have been at the burning bush. But as God used a genuine but not exhaustive encounter via the burning bush, personhood is our point of contact with God, and relational encounter may be a way to know God that is very limited vis-à-vis knowing ontological deity, but also very genuine. I suspect God could reveal himself fully divine in the architecture of clams, but it would only be relevant to clams. To us humans, however, it is as persons in relationship that God is revealed and known, and that is the imago dei.

Jeremiah reports God saying,

Let not the wise man glory in his wisdom, let not the mighty man glory in his might, let not the rich man glory in his riches; but let him who glories glory in this, that he understands and knows me, that I am the Lord who practises steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth; for in these things, I delight (9.23f).

And, again, when speaking of the last god-king Josiah, ‘He judged the cause of the poor and needy; then it was well. Is not this to know me? Says the Lord’ (22:16). Recalling the overlapping meaning of relational knowledge and sexual intercourse in Hebrew (ידע, yāḏa´), what is shockingly earthy if taken seriously, is that the prophet Hosea extends the knowledge of God as ethical behaviour to marital intimacy whether in fidelity or infidelity. For example, regarding the infidelity that motivated his marriage to Gomer, God says to Hosea, ‘For the spirit of harlotry is within them, and they know not the Lord’ (to whom they are married, 5.4 RSV). Regarding marital fidelity as knowing God, God says to Hosea, ‘And I will betroth you to me forever; I will betroth you to me in righteousness, in steadfast love, and in mercy. I will betroth you to me in faithfulness, and you shall know the Lord’ (2.19f, RSV). God seemingly receives the same level of intimacy and pleasure from humans’ loving behaviour toward one another as married couples have in sex. That fleshy sexual image is carried throughout in God’s marriage to Israel, in Christ’s relation to the Church and at the end of all as a wedding feast.

Perhaps, leaving the Newtonian rules of Descartes and Kant, we enter the quantum world of relationships. In this arena, as Levinas points out, all persons are, like God in this sense, radically exterior. We can encounter genuinely but never exhaustively. That is the romance of Chesterton’s Orthodoxy, the wonder that grass is green when it might well have been blue. How, then, do we know God? Apart from direct revelation and the words of prophets, God may be known in wisdom, in the earthy fleshy Jesus, and in creation and that, especially as you rightly underscore, in resonating God’s character in loving relationships with other persons. The incarnation is the culmination of God’s ongoing drive into earthy existence. From Tabernacle (tent of dwelling) to Holy of Holies, to Jesus, to the Church, to the individual believer, God becomes enfleshed and dwells (literally ‘tents’) with us. The call to Israel was to bring heaven to earth, and that has not changed (so also the Lord’s Prayer). It should be noted that, in personal encounter, the wholly other aspect of God is not violated. While Omniscience, Omnipresence, and Omnipotence may be legitimate inferences regarding God’s character, they are of Greek rather than Semitic origin. Moreover, focusing on the omnis has interfered with theology, especially Calvinism, so that a key aspect of interpersonal relationships is threatened when human choice is displaced by predestination, and God appears interpersonal, but is, in reality, a software program. Qualitative omni terms were not part of the Jewish metaphysic. To Jews, God is very strong, very knowledgeable and unavoidable (and clearly more in every aspect than any man), but the qualitative omnis never occurred to them, and they remained implicit. Neither existed such ideas as ‘forever’ or ‘eternity’ in any denotative sense.

In Jesus, a number of important things crystallise. First, he never takes on omni status, which is the basis for the messianic secret. The humility of God in Christ is the point of the hymn to the Messiah in Phil. 2. He can put aside everything separating him from men without losing his deity! In fact, when John (1.14) wrote of the most glorious aspects of his divinity, it was not omnipresence, omnipotence, or omniscience, but his grace and truth that were underscored. Both of these are interpersonal qualities of which humans are capable. This is the point of contact between God and humankind. Grace (חסד, ḥesed) is here the lovingkindness of covenant relation rather than contractual quid pro quo. Raymond Brown’s (Anchor Bible) suggested translations for אםת/’emet are: ‘fidelity and constancy Faithfulness’ to the covenant relation, which is a marriage relation. The words are the same as in Hosea 2.19f above. Here, the very Shekinah or God’s glory becomes visible in the flesh of Jesus as it was to be in the Church (the ongoing enfleshment of God in the world per Ephesians) and the individual believer in I Corinthians. It should be clear, in this context, that loving relational encounter with God is identical with relational encounter with other persons, especially as it is validated in the flesh of Jesus. Throughout I John, the knowledge of God and loving relation with others is emphasised (3.16f, 4.20) whereby, as family, we verify we are his children and ‘he is not ashamed to call us brethren’ (Heb. 2.11). Solidarity is implicit in the promise to Abraham that the whole world will be blessed through him to the charge to the Church to follow Christ in loving service. According to Jeremias, perhaps the only teaching of Jesus not replicated in the rabbinic literature is that of God in most intimate terms, not merely as father (אב,ab) but ‘daddy’ (אבא, abba). In affirming the fleshy deity of Jesus (it was in his flesh that we see God, and, in our flesh, he continues to be seen), James Dunn (Jesus and the Spirit) was willing to affirm – rather unpopular to some – that Jesus was led by the Spirit in the same way we are so that we too can know God the same way he did. But, again, as throughout I John, that knowledge of God is loving relation to others, the phenotypic outworking of spiritual chromosomes (the sperm of God, 3.9). The Christian right expresses its genetic heritage as other than what drove Jesus to us, much less what got him killed.

The Presence of the Kingdom: There Is no Later if There Is no Now

Focusing on the language of eschatology, there were two key words for time, now, or close at hand (את, et) and far away or undisclosed (עולם, olam). Moreover, the tenses in Hebrew describe completed acts and incomplete acts, such that the focus is on historical action rather than transcendent temporality. This allows for the poetic quality of prophetic voice as it is often only in context that one can possibly infer the historical period referred to. Hebrew thought remained earthy and historical rather than qualitative and abstractly otherworldly with, however, poetic and analogical openness much like the interpenetration of the world to come and the present world in the novels of Charles Williams. There was always a material aspect to the presence of the kingdom. In Hebrew thought, God’s presence throughout their history was a signal both of God’s present control and the promise of a future resolution with the raising of the dead. That is why the prophets cried out continually for the nation to live up to God’s presence with respect to reflecting his pathos and care for the people. The Christ event was the beginning of the end as the olam to be disclosed was being opened to us. Oscar Cullmann (Christ and Time) argued that Christ’s coming was like D-Day, landing on the beaches, so that there was more to be revealed or unravelled as we marched toward V-E Day, but that the Kingdom was present in us via the person and life of Jesus, the Transfiguration, and the gift of the Spirit. G. E. Ladd (The Blessed Hope) argued for what he called an inaugurated eschatology whereby there is a definite now but also a not yet. What is important in this is that without a now, there is no later. If I don’t live out the material implications of the Kingdom now, I will forego any right to participate later. Moreover, I suspect that if Jesus came back today in the somewhat secretive fashion* of his first coming, he would be equally misunderstood and killed by present-day Pharisees, the Evangelicals who love the text but not people that very text calls us to love.

*Note: Recall how misunderstood he was,

  • Jesus’s mother came home as a 14-year-old pregnant girl and asserted ‘God did it.’ What girl today would get away with that argument? What was God thinking?
  • Jesus was considered a bastard child his whole life (‘We know who our father is’ was certainly thrown in his face more than the one occurrence in the gospels). Yet every bastard child can now have hope.
  • His family considered him just a little nuts (‘he is beside himself’ or standing beside himself Mk. 3.21), where his healings and kingdom teaching seemed symptomatic to his family, who tried to restrain him.
  • ‘Isn’t this the carpenter, the son of Mary’ (just a regular guy with no mention of his father)
  • He likely had to support his family when his father likely died (no mention of Joseph later, and the 12-year-old scene in Luke never materialised in rabbinic training – though it did in his earthy parables)
  • Such ironies are hardly what they then, or we now, would likely have expected. Were I God, I would have put him in Caiaphus’s house and got him a good Harvard education.
  • Gerhardus Vos’s famous remark is always relevant, ‘the best interpretation of eschatological events is the events themselves, so it behoves the saints to maintain a peculiar kind of eschatological patience.’

Co-Creation with God

One of my master’s theses involved The Concept of Yetser in Late Judaism. While, in rabbinic literature, it was ‘the evil impulse,’ influenced, I believe, by Zoroastrian thought, within the Hebrew Bible, it is related to the image of God in man. As God moulded (יּצּרּ or yēșer) man from dirt, so man also moulded his life. This is the basis of the bookend statements in the flood narrative both as its cause (Gen. 6.5) and the reason for mercy (Gen. 8.21). Despite the flood and Moses’ interceding for Israel in Exodus 32, man has always been considered God’s co-creator. His people are both defined and known by their alignment with the character of God. Sadly, Evangelical docetic views of the kingdom stirred Billy Graham to dismiss social justice as an impossibility before the apocalypse, and nowhere did he even suggest that we should die trying. . . which is precisely what marked Jesus, the prophets and his true brethren. The issue, therefore, is not just the temporal presence of the kingdom now so much as it reflects our social humanity. We either orient ourselves in positive and empathetic relation toward the world, people and God, or we orient ourselves negatively by withdrawing into ourselves and making the world and others objects to be controlled, used or destroyed. The kingdom in creation and redemption is simultaneously a top-down act of God and a bottom-up co-creation with and of mankind, for it cannot happen without our participation without violating the very relational reality that is creation itself.

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Lanney Mayer

Lanney Mayer (retired) has been Associate Professor of Education at the University of La Verne’s La Fetra College of Education and Regional Director for Teacher Education at College of the Canyons Regional Center in Santa Clarita. Trained as a theologian at Trinity Seminary and Claremont Graduate School and in Educational Leadership and Critical Pedagogy at UCLA, his work as a teacher and administrator with incarcerated students in the Los Angeles County Office of Education’s Court and Community Schools informed his research linking human(e) values and education for social justice. His research interests include values and spirituality in education, critical pedagogy, education for social justice, and trans-modern humanity. He has published articles addressing student culture as educational outcome, integrating faith and learning, alternative education informing traditional education, recovering full humanity in teaching and learning, and decolonizing the Cartesian educational hegemony.