Thursday, September 15, 2011

Emphasizing Self-Knowledge in Apologetics

"Know thy self."
I have recently become increasingly aware of the importance of self-knowledge - primarily as a result of my new infatuation with the writings of Walker Percy. I wanted to share a series of quotes dealing with self-knowledge and man's inability to find himself apart from God. I'll begin with a quote from Walker Percy's magnificent book Lost in the Cosmos. This quote alone has had such a profound impact on my own life, in existential terms, which I find difficult to describe. It's been about a month since I first read it, and I continue to be grateful for having read it:
The Self since the time of Descartes has been stranded, split off from everything else in the Cosmos, a mind which professes to understand bodies and galaxies but is by the very act of understanding marooned in the Cosmos, with which it has no connection. It therefore needs to exercise every option in order to reassure itself that it is not a ghost but is rather a self among other selves. One such option is a sexual encounter. Another is war. The pleasure of a sexual encounter derives not only from physical gratification but also from the demonstration to oneself that, despite one’s own ghostliness, one is, for the moment at least, a sexual being. Amazing! Indeed, the most amazing of all the creatures of the Cosmos: a ghost with an erection! Yet not really amazing, for only if the abstracted ghost has an erection can it, like Jove spying Europa on the beach, enter the human condition.
How empty are our pursuits of pleasure! If they do not find their root in God, then they are meaningless and we remain lost in the cosmos.

Many do not like Kierkegaard because of his high philosophical language and because of his "leap of faith" approach to apologetics, which one may or may not see much virtue in. Kierkegaard was a Lutheran, however, and understood that human antipathy against God lies at the heart of all human problems. For all of his faults he was a great thinker and had a profound grasp of the human condition. In this age of alienation, despair, and lostness, modern man could do worse than to grasp the reality of what Kierkegaard understood about the self and despair.
The human being is essentially spirit. But what is spirit? Spirit is to be a self. But what is the self? In short, the self is a synthesis of the infinite and the finite, of the temporal and the eternal, of freedom and necessity. The self is the conscious unity of these factors, which relates to itself, whose task is to become itself. This, of course, can only be done in relationship to God, who holds the synthesis together. When is despair completely eradicated? It occurs when the self, in relating to itself and in wanting to be itself, is grounded nakedly in the power that established it. In other words, when it is related openly to and dependently on God. To transcend despair is neither to become finite nor to become infinite but to become an individual in their synthesis, which God alone holds together. In so far as the self does not become itself in this way, it is not itself. And not to be oneself, as God created you, is despair.
Lest one think all this talk about self-knowledge sounds a bit to high and philosophical, I wanted to bring in the friend of all good Presbyterians, John Calvin. Calvin famously argued at the very beginning of his Institutes (1.1.1) that self-knowledge is crucial to Divine knowledge, and that Divine knowledge is the only thing which would make true self-knowledge possible.
Our wisdom, in so far as it ought to be deemed true and solid Wisdom, consists almost entirely of two parts: the knowledge of God and of is evident that man never attains to a true self-knowledge until he has previously contemplated the face of God, and come down after such contemplation to look into himself. For (such is our innate pride) we always seem to ourselves just, and upright, and wise, and holy, until we are convinced, by clear evidence, of our injustice, vileness, folly, and impurity. Convinced, however, we are not, if we look to ourselves only, and not to the Lord also —He being the only standard by the application of which this conviction can be produced...But though the knowledge of God and the knowledge of ourselves are bound together by a mutual tie, due arrangement requires that we treat of the former in the first place, and then descend to the latter.
I believe it entirely possible that in our apologetics, we have - in terms of our language, in terms of our overall approach, so emphasized the objective truth of God's existence extra nous that we have neglected the one area where our fellow human beings cannot deny a lack in themselves. They do not understand themselves, and they hate the One who can make sense of their existence and self-hood.

It is patently obvious, though perhaps not scientifically provable, that human beings are, as Percy says, "something more than an organism in an environment, because for one thing he acts like anything but an organism in an environment." Is it possible that in reformed apologetics we have made the same mistake Percy says scientists are making, and that we are approaching the universe (and perhaps even God Himself) as a scientific observer rather than as one who is to "know and be known" by God?

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