A Genealogy of the Lonely Modern

In the typical scenario, which comes loaded with the modern view of history, the question is posed, “Would you smother baby Hitler in the crib, given the opportunity?” What if we discover, perhaps with the deed complete, it was actually Hitler’s reading of Nietzsche, and that in fact there were many German boys of a peculiar intellect and disposition who, given bad philosophy, could fill the role of Hitler candidates. Smothering baby Nietzsche will not really help, as he too arises with the secular age whose end he envisions.[1] The problem with the scenario is contained in the presumption that Hitler is an isolated, unique individual, and not a product of his time and circumstance.

John Milbank though, has the perfect candidate for smothering. According to Milbank, Duns Scotus is the culprit who created the theological vision that ultimately disenchanted the world which has given rise to both modern experience and modern political structure, with all of its attendant disasters. Milbank would explain the modern and secular, whether modern American evangelicalism or modern global Christianity as a “thinned out version of the Catholic faith” – all the result of the theology of Scotus.[2] In turn, Milbank imagines that if we could recover medieval ecclesial and political structures the root problem would be addressed. He puts on display both a failed understanding of the nature and depth of the human predicament and its solution.

My point here is not simply to indicate the weakness in attaching blame for all of modern thought to one medieval scholar. Milbank, after all, is simply following a long line of modern scholarship (the very thing he is critiquing) which would attach supreme importance to one individual or a particular stream of history. While it is not exactly “the great man theory of history” (in which history is biography), it is something of a “disastrous idea theory of history” which attaches a near sui generis notion to particular ideas, periods and persons. For example, Leslie Newbigin, typical of the previous generation, wrote of Rene Descartes having caused the second Fall of humanity. He presumed that if Descartes had not gone into that warm room on a cold day and composed his meditations (beginning with “I think, therefore I am”) the modern period would not have commenced or would not have been so disastrous. The tendency is to think, “That darn Descartes, he ruined it for all of us.” This, “If it weren’t for that darn Descartes-that darn Scotus-that darn Hitler-view of history,” is faulty, not simply in its simplistic view of history but is attached, I would claim, to a peculiarly thin (modernist) theology which does not presume, as I think the New Testament does, something like a negative unified field theory of sin (addressed in the work of Christ).

It is not that we cannot or should not trace the genealogy of ideas, as we really do live in a world impacted by the thought of particular individuals and there really are streams of thought or historical circumstances that shape our horizons. It is true, that basic human experience is changed up in this secular age and that our world has been disenchanted, no matter our personal (religious or nonreligious) frame of reference. There is no passing over the depth of details to be found in Scotus or William of Ockham and their part in bringing about the secular. The mistake is not in tracing the genealogy of ideas, but it is in imagining that any one individual or any one age or epoch is a realm apart and thus does not share in a common root failure. Milbank’s intense focus on Scotus could and has been argued on the details but the larger error, whatever the merit or lack in the details, is to imagine this failure is a one-off event which can then be corrected by returning the world to something like its pre-Scotus state.[3]

Conceptually modernity, for example, with its turn to nominalism and the focus on divine sovereignty (divine power) in philosophy and theology (something like a pure formalism or legalism), with its juridical-constitutional model of autonomous state authority (the government is secular and the ecclesial powers are now subservient), with its presumption of bio-political control of the human body through the body politic (the biological body is written over with secular law), seems to simply be an aggravated reconstitution of Paul’s depiction of sin as a misorientation to law. The voluntarist conception of God (focus on the will or causal power of God) was secularized in the conception of the state and in the focus on the individual, and this raw power is codified in law and by legal (state) institutions.

The steps that lead to exclusive focus on divine sovereignty (as opposed to divine love or beauty) follows the course Paul traces as the universal predicament, in which the unmediated presence of God is traded for the force of the law. For Paul, the reality of every individual is understood in light of the experience or identity of corporate humanity (unregenerate humanity) in Adam and in Israel. In Eden, the law of the knowledge of good and evil literally displaces God and is made the means to life, and the law of Sinai is made to serve the same end. Part of the point of Christianity, perhaps the main point, is to separate out this obscene orientation to the law (psychologically and religiously) so as to be able to arrive at the law of love. Sin, in Paul’s definition, fuses itself with the law so that one who becomes a servant of the law (as Paul did, and as Adam did, and as, in Paul’s explanation, everyone does) becomes a servant of sin and incapacitates agape love.

The irony is that Christianity has done its work in extracting this condition (orientation to the law of sin and death) from religious enchantment. Now the law is not presumed to have any religious (ontological) ground but is a secular establishment, a bare and open law built upon raw power, that nonetheless reigns in the psychic and social orientation. In this nominalist universe no appeal can be made to an actually existing goodness, as the best we have – all we have – is the mediating power of law and legal institutions. “Might makes right” may have always been the case, but in the medieval period kings presumed they were the channel of a divinely bestowed power (and there was a check on this power), but in the secular realm power is its own legitimating force (there is no ecclesial legitimating power) so that war is the constituting power of the state to which it will need continual recourse. Making war makes the state. In the same way money, in the early stages of capitalism, was a sign of God’s blessing and depended upon this theological construct, now money need not appeal to any outside legitimation. Money is its own legitimating power. Human life is literally and metaphorically put on the market, so that life and time become a commodity to be bought and sold.  

As Charles Taylor has described it, the immanent frame now prevails, or as Carl Schmitt (the famous Nazi jurist) has put it, “all significant concepts of the modern theory of the state are secularized theological concepts not only because of their historical development—in which they were transferred from theology to the theory of the state but also because of their systematic structure.” As Schmitt describes it, “the omnipotent God became the omnipotent lawgiver” and with secularization we are left with omnipotent law.[4] It is no surprise then that miracles (due to natural law), become an impossibility, and by the same token, according to Mike Pompeo, there should not even be the possibility of questioning the constitution. The modern constitutional state reigns supreme (in place of the divine). The constitution replaces commandments, the nation replaces the community of faith, and at an individual level human decision and will is the final arbiter of ethics.

Among the many consequences of modern secularism is the rise of an intense and peculiar individualism, in which the organic and communal sense of the subject is displaced by the notion that the individual is a monad – an isolated entity.  It is only with the secular that there needs to be a reaffirmation of a basic biblical understanding and an integral part of medieval culture: humans are constituted as part of a family or group. Hegel hits upon this truth as if it is a discovery. As he explains in the very beginning of “Independence and Dependence of Self-Consciousness: Lordship and Bondage,” self-consciousness could be achieved only through being acknowledged by others. As the philosopher Immanuel Levinas has described it, at the most fundamental level, “self-consciousness is not one-sided action as people assume, but; it necessitates an other to reach it.” Facing with an “other” is not only necessary for the recognition of the self but it is also a must to have a self-consciousness.

The necessity to describe this mutuality would not likely have arisen in a traditional culture. As Taylor describes it, “One of the big differences between us and them is that we live with a much firmer sense of the boundary between self and other. We are ‘buffered’ selves.” The traditional porous sense of self came with certain deficits in that the emotional and moral life did not exist in an inner, mental space and was thus subject to a variety of malevolent influences such as spirits, demons, or cosmic forces.[5] But the buffered individual has been removed from this world of fear at the price of a profound sense of isolation. An article in JAMA journal of psychiatry refers to this as an epidemic of loneliness responsible for the death of 1 American every 5.5 minutes due to suicide and opioid overdose, which is chalked up to the root cause of loneliness. An annual mortality of 162 000 Americans is attributable to loneliness (exceeding the number of deaths from cancer or stroke), which is a term that, according to the British historian Fay Bound Alberti, did not exist in the English language until 1800.[6]  

Is not the destructive nature of modern loneliness an indication this is simply an aggravated condition of the objectified “I” which Paul depicts as arising in conjunction with the alienating law? In Paul’s depiction, this ἐγὼ or “I” is not subject to growth and change as it is an object fixed as part of a formal structure under the law, characterized by fear and struggle. The antagonistic dialectic between the law of the mind and the law of the body is, according to Paul, the very thing that produces this isolated ego desperately grasping after life and power through the law. Freud could be quoting Paul in calling the ego “the seat of anxiety” due to its fear of annihilation under the cathected law (the superego).[7] As Lacan will describe the ego (renaming it the imaginary), “Alienation is the imaginary as such.”[8] This fully interior or self-conscious ego, or this “I” which is one’s own is, in Paul’s description (and Paul is commenting on Genesis 3) the Subject of sin.  

This is not an attempt to simply lump together all forms of sin, but it is to suggest that a true genealogy of the modern begins with a biblical diagnosis, which also promises more than a return to the medieval or artificial attempts to reenchant the world.


[1] Enough smothered babies equal a holocaust type strategy – Hitler was, after all, attempting to correct history. It is the strategy of the powers from Pharaoh to Herod to the late modern Democratic Party.

[2] See John Milbank, Beyond the Secular Order: The Representation of Being and the Representation of People, (Wiley Blackwell).

[3] If modernity is a turn to the individual, and society is pictured simultaneously as made up of individual monad’s, this is not an error corrected by imagining one individual has reconstituted the whole.

[4] Carl Schmitt,  1928 (2008), Constitutional Theory, transl. J. Seitzer, (Duke University Press, London), p. 36.

[5] Charles Taylor, “Buffered and porous selves” https://tif.ssrc.org/2008/09/02/buffered-and-porous-selves/

[6] Dilip V Jeste, Ellen E Lee, Stephanie Cacioppo, “Battling the Modern Behavioral Epidemic of Loneliness: Suggestions for Research and Interventions,” JAMA psychiatry, 77(6) https://escholarship.org/content/qt47n6790s/qt47n6790s.pdf?t=q7c0kj

[7] Sigmund Freud, The Ego and the Id (Standard Edition), 59-60.

[8] Jacques Lacan, Seminar III, 146

I Am Not Me!

My children bought me a birthday present in which each week I am given a writing prompt and then at the end of the year my responses will be put together in a book. I have written about my favorite dog (Mr. Magee, who could open his own cans of dog food, politely wiped his feet when entering the house, and who stole our Thanksgiving Turkey), memories of my grandmother (Grandma was a drag racer), my first job (a circus), etc. but this week the question, “Are you the same person you were as an adolescent?” seems to strike at the very notion of subjectivity, and yet it was an issue that occurred to me very early. Everything is changing so what of me endures? I presumed, instinctively, that memory must be the singular enduring thing about us, so I performed memory experiments. As the car was speeding down the road, I would look at a particular rock or telephone pole or tree and try to retain the object in my memory. “There’s a rock, a rock, a pole, a tree.”  The high rate of speed made it difficult to pick out any particular object, but I presumed this accelerated condition reduplicated, in brief, everyday experience. I ran the experiment repeatedly, trying to remember any particular object. The unwritten rule I had formulated is that the ordinariness of the rock was part of the issue. A spectacular rock, by definition, would not qualify because if memory is to have any continuity it cannot be one spectacular thing after another (an inherent contradiction). If our own being depends upon the continuity of our memory, it must be in the continuity of ordinary memory. The issue of speed also, I presumed, should not in any way be an obstacle – whether fast or slow, memory should not be affected. Things happening quickly should not obstruct our being. Yet, no particular rock or pole proved to have an enduring image, so it seemed the details of memory are continually lost.  

Around this time, I hit upon a formula which proved quite satisfying, and it seemed to resolve the issue: “I am me.” I don’t know if I literally pounded my chest at the discovery, but that is the spirit of the sentence. The existential realization, at least upon initial discovery, was a sort of alignment which proved very satisfying. I had only to repeat the formula to feel once again a profound feeling of coinciding with myself (I did not yet know the term “ipseity” though I had discovered the desire for achieving it). The pronouncement itself, at least initially, seemed to accomplish this coincidence and affirmed my being. That is, I did not experience it as an abiding reality which I had discovered, but the feeling came only as I made the pronouncement.

This very soon brought a moment of despair, as I realized that the “I am” and “me” were only held together in the sentence, and by repeating the sentence. I recognized that even in the sentence there was not complete coincidence or convergence between the two major terms. I tried saying the sentence with force – “I am, me.” Then I tried thinking it rapidly, as if I could close the gap between the “I” and “me” through force of thought or speed. What had initially appeared as a discovery or capacity proved to be the opposite. On the heels of feeling great satisfaction with my new formula I realized the formula (the need for it and the need to repeat it) was itself an indicator of a third term between I and me which disrupted my unity with myself.

I presumed that this third element between “I” and “me” was simply there, but I could not say it. I could pronounce “I am me,” but the discord or gap between the two could not be closed. To say that I literally attempted to access or posit this third element is not exactly correct but I turned, perhaps instinctively, to the unconscious. As I have described it elsewhere:

Flying over the desert of an evening, around Window Rock, over the Grand Canyon, the cool breeze a necessity for equilibrium and the star lit sky preferable for navigation; this was my singular capacity. With the veil of darkness, the arms pumping and as I gained confidence, the leap into a canyon or off a tall building (nearly absent in Page, Arizona) and I could just manage to obtain lift-off.

The ordinary family into which I was born had their abilities – special even – among mortals. I did not question their earth boundness, nor could I articulate the equation of flight with immortality, but this is how it functioned.   I was not grounded by the contingencies of bipedalism. Flight was incomparable with the local means of achieving immortality – throwing a fastball or running bases – it constituted an ontological difference. My apparent incapacities as the youngest and smallest were simply a foil. The three-foot frame housed an ego temporarily fallen from the heavens. Though the slightest talent at anything might have tempered the necessity, but as it was, flying was my Kant and Plato – the equivalent of a philosophical proof of being – of innate immortality.

I assume that my slow development must explain my memory of what must be a universal passage – the passage through a growing awareness of self-identity and yet the unease and dissatisfaction inherent in the incompleteness of the process, and then some compensatory move in which we posit a third element. Descartes’ “I think therefore I am” must describe a universal passage to a presumed absolute knowledge – a foundation, and Kant’s notion that the thought (“I think”) and thinking thing (“I am”) actually constitute a disjunction, a felt noncoincidence, within the self. Isn’t this simply a description of the passage through adolescence and the dissonance this creates  

As Søren Kierkegaard (or SK) describes it, there is a passage into despair in the self’s relationship to the self. “Despair is a Sickness in the Spirit, in the Self” in which there is a refusal (there is no continuity) or failure (there is incomplete continuity) to be a self. This despair has primarily to do with one’s relation within the self – between what SK calls the relation between the body and the soul. “In the relation between two, the relation is the third term as a negative unity, and the two relate themselves to the relation, and in the relation to the relation; such a relation is that between soul and body, when man is regarded as soul.” There is an antagonism built into the human self-relation which is definitive of the human disease and SK assigns primary importance, not to any one element of the relation (soul or body) but to the dynamics of the relation which might be a kind of negative incapacity to cohere.

SK suggests that this absence can be accounted for. “If this relation which relates itself to its own self is constituted by another, the relation doubtless is the third term, but this relation (the third term) is in turn a relation relating itself to that which constituted the whole relation.” He acknowledges that the relation can be constituted in a negative unity but he also offers another possibility: The one “which constituted the whole relation.” “This formula [i.e. that the self is constituted by another] is the expression for the total dependence of the relation (the self namely), the expression for the fact that the self cannot of itself attain and remain in equilibrium and rest by itself, but only by relating itself to that Power which constituted the whole relation.”

The unease or disease of not being fully a self, an I that cannot arrive at its me, turns out to be the fundamental problem, the ultimate prompt which, if we do not take flight, points to the constituting Power of “I am.”

The Biblical Personality Spectrum: 1. The Masculine

Paul, in his depiction of the various stages or possibilities for the human subject (building on the Old Testament), depicts four primary ways of being human or four ways for ordering human subjectivity. The primary poles around which he arranges these four possibilities are desire, language, and death. Each of these elements are interrelated, as desire has to do primarily with lack (lack of being, mortality, death, finitude, sexuality) and language or the symbolic order (law, authority, culture, religion, etc.) is the medium through which desire is channeled in dealing with lack. Each of the primary poles is linked (not exclusively but primarily) to an embodied cognitive capacity so that the auditory, the spectral, or the sensuous, are either privileged or subordinated in the four subject positions. In turn, the emotional spectrum (which is inclusive of all three poles and is not simply “feeling”) can be ranged from the root negative emotion of shame (in which lack or death holds sway through the spectral and sensuous) to guilt (in which the symbolic dominates) to love (in which the punishing effect of the symbolic is suspended).  For Paul, it is not simply a matter of being a Christian, as he will locate Christians in several places along the spectrum, but he does trace a developmental progression. In this short piece, I will describe the first of Paul’s four subject positions: the masculine. Continue reading “The Biblical Personality Spectrum: 1. The Masculine”

Easter’s Defeat of the Necessity of God

The God of the philosophers (the unmoved mover), the God of German idealism (who is becoming), and the God constituted as part of the psyche (the source of the previous two) is, I would claim, a singular entity which Christ defeated and rendered unnecessary in his death and resurrection. In each instance, God is the end term of a logical and psychological necessity in which the posited structure requires God. The philosophical, metaphysical, and psychological world constituted (I was going to say “glued together” but this is a world continually coming unglued) in conjunction with this God precedes, rather than proceeds from, his existence. It is not only a particular logic and mode of argumentation at work but this logic, in producing or arriving at God, absolutizes itself or the self’s capacity for the divine.  This way of putting it may miss the fact that this is an absolute immediately at hand, which argument does not so much render necessary as it renames. Underlying the absolute conclusion (God), the necessity of the argument (an irresistible logic, often equated with the divine), is a more immediate constraint – human finitude and mortality.  The trick of turning death into an ontological and epistemological resource equated with God is, precisely, the necessity Christ overcame. Continue reading “Easter’s Defeat of the Necessity of God”