The Christian Consciousness

On his blog Stoning the Devil, Adam Fieled posted a thought provoking article regarding language and consciousness. To summarize, he synthesizes Buddhist meditation with Deconstructionism. It appears his purpose is to suggest that when reading and analyzing poetry, we need to look at our language tools as imperfect and faulty, but worth using anyways. I agree with this overall conclusion, but Fieled (unintentionally?) doesn’t give the Christian Consciousness a fair shake. In his introduction, he states,

The Buddhist’s focus, indeed, is just as much on consciousness as on morality, and “right” consciousness creates right morality. Judeo/Christian cognitive systems often (but not always) privilege morality and its expression in strictly defined (ethical) behavioral patterns over consciousness; i.e., your consciousness can be shaped, refined or even reified in any way, as long as you tow the party line. In the context of most Judeo/Christian systems, a given subject is by no means compelled to investigate his or her own subjectivity; questions of language and consciousness can be discarded if deemed uncomfortable or irrelevant. For a Buddhist, the linguistic investigations of Deconstructionism have (I would think) a more urgent pull.

Fieled doesn’t set out to establish Christian versus Buddhist consciousness, but I think somebody aught to discuss how the Christian consciousness plays into the discussion. Fieled is obviously familiar with Buddhist teaching, as he refers to the Four Noble Truths and various teachers and thoughts regarding Buddhism. Sadly, he seems to have based his opinion of the Judeo/Christian on his perception rather than actual Biblical concepts/teachings. I think Fieled has pegged the “religious” person (someone who thinks they have to follow all sorts of rules), rather than the individual who seeks to understand and emulate both the true character of Jesus (as man and messiah) and what the Bible says.

The first inaccuracy in Fieled’s claims about Judeo/Christian “cognitive systems” is that you destine your own consciousness by “tow[ing] the party line.” If you do what you are supposed to do, you can manipulate your own consciousness into whatever you want it to be. However, the Christian “system” of growing in consciousness is called sanctification, where God changes the heart and mind of the believer through the Holy Sprit, and it takes the entirety of one’s life to complete (from salvation to death). The Christian is to pay attention to this process, and work at getting better, but it should be more meditative and genuine than simply dancing around a line of rules and regulations. This is somewhat similar to Fieled’s idea that our tools are imperfect–the growing Christian sees himself as imperfect and desires to be involved.

Secondly, the idea that Christian “systems” aren’t “compelled to investigate his or her own subjectivity” is ludicrous. Whether one investigates the ideas of spiritual gifts, the sentiment in the Psalms and Proverbs, or even the creation story, it becomes obvious that uniqueness is important in the Christian journey. I think if someone believes in Jesus as savior, he or she needs to figure out how he/she is unique, figure out what God has wired him or her to do.  The difference here with the idea of consciousness is one of God consciousness rather than self consciousness. While Buddhists seem to try and rid one’s self of that self in search for emptiness, the Christian sets out to align his or her heart/mind/spirit/soul/will with God’s. This is part of the sanctification process mentioned earlier. In this search for subjectivity, man finds unity in the spirit of God, thus opposing the idea of deconstruction (and making this entire thought process relevant), which I will return to in a bit. This God consciousness is most clear when Jesus is in a garden the night he was arrested. He walks a short distance from his friends and confesses to God that he doesn’t want to go through with this whole crucifixion thing, but then he says that God’s will is more important than his own. Even Jesus showed an example of aligning the human mind with God’s.

Thirdly, I am saddened by the fact that Christians are perceived as discarding questions of language and consciousness if they are uncomfortable or (self-proclaimed to be) irrelevant. If this is a perception, then people must be thinking that way, but I don’t think it is in line with Biblical concepts. Jesus says to take the tree out of your own eye before judging the piece of sawdust in someone else’s eye. This relates to the previous point of self-reflection, but it also relates to the idea that if something is uncomfortable or challenging, it needs to be a higher priority than anything else.

Hopefully, this provides a few points that paint a different picture of the Christian journey, one of of self-reflection, meditation, and growth, rather than one of snippy religious rule-following. With this in mind, I’d like to add my own thoughts on language, Deconstructionism, and Christian consciousness. Fieled gives importance to language through meditation. Language must be equally important (if not more so) to the Christian, as language itself transcends mankind. The book John says that “in the beginning [of time] was the Word, the Word was with God and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning.” Many pastors may stop me right here and say that this passage is about Jesus being the physical representation of scripture, the actual word of God. I’m not arguing with that, but I’m struck that the word, or words, or language are synonymous with God. (I’m not saying only Christians have access to language, that’s silly. I am saying, from the Christian point of view, that words are a pretty big deal!!). Add to this thought the creation story in Gensis. (I’m not getting into evolution versus creation here either–I’ve already written extensively about that.) Genesis says that when spoke, major things happened. God said let there be light, and the light seperated from the darkness. God said let there be a seperation between land, water, and air and the skies and oceans came into being (again, I’m not commenting on how long this took, or making statements on old Earth young Earth big bang. RIght now, it’s about the language!!). Not only does God equate himself with language, but he uses His spoken word create. And all of this before the existence of humans. I would say that language should be a big deal within the Christian system.

Which leads me to Deconstruction. The idea behind Deconstructionism is that when evaluating a piece of literature, the reader assumes that that piece exists solely on its own, completely independent of anything else. The Deconstructionist cannot see the writing as a cohesive whole, but rather as a work that is contradictory, that doesn’t mean what the author intends it to mean, and therefore resulting in creative failure.

Deconstruction then is in direct opposition to the Christian system.  The practice of automatically looking for contradictions has led many people to atheistic and agnostic beliefs (I’m not saying this is the only reason people abandon and/or reject the Christian faith, but one possibility.). Looking for contradictions have also led people into a deeper, more honest relationship with Christ.  Jesus sought unity between mankind and God in every facet of life. In this sense, Deconstruction is in itself, contradictory. I don’t think this means being a religious robot because who loves something/someone who is holding their feet (or soul?) over the fire screaming, “Love me, or die! Love me!!” Deconstruction seeks disunity, and the Christian system seeks unity.  And they are synthesized through Christ. [Edit: By synthesized, I mean brought together and changed–maybe synthesis isn’t the right word here, but I’m trying to get at the idea the Christ brings forth change towards unity.]

Like I said earlier, Fieled and I agree that our tools of language are imperfect and flawed. I add to that thought that we ourselves are imperfect and flawed, contradictory in nature. In our humility and realization of our fallen nature, we can openly turn to Christ for saving unity. This doesn’t mean that everything is peachy-keen as Christian radio, art, and music might suggest, as it is only the beginning of the sanctification process.

So I do think that the Christian system holds the responsibility to seek an understanding of language, contradictions, and unity through a desire to be aligned with God’s consciousness. This impacts not only one’s perception of literature, but perception of life as well.

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9 thoughts on “The Christian Consciousness

  1. Joel! I just ran across this post; haven’t read it yet but printed it and Adam’s out to read together. If I have anything to add I will.

    You might be interested in this review of two books on this whole subject area: http://www.buddhistethics.org/5/lomag981.html

    One of the books the reviewer deals with is edited by my favorite Buddhist philosopher, David R. Loy….

  2. Thanks for the link. I want to read Magliola’s article. Here’s a quote from the review:

    In Magliola’s terms, Buddhism and Christianity form a cross: two streams of thought, each pulling in a different direction. The presence of the “other power” of Christianity is forever being undermined by the Buddhist practice of letting go. The two traditions come together to form a space or moment, but it is a negative moment, a state of tension or a gap, which forever undermines the content of the gap, whether it be Buddhism, Christianity, or Magliola’s life. For these two streams are “joined”— happily or unhappily—in the body of Robert Magliola. Magliola writes about the consequences of living this tension, and that is his accomplishment. While Magliola’s style is overwrought at times, this is a minor quibble in a bold and original work.

    I’m interested in seeing his conclusions. I think there is a polar opposition between the two.

    I’d love to hear thoughts! I hope this doesn’t fall under the religious unreason umbrella that you mentioned! Cheers!

  3. I still can’t carve out the kind of time I want to go forward with this conversation, but I did want to say that I think Adam is wrong a) to contrast Buddhist “systems” with “Christian” systems, because there are plethoras of both; b) to claim that “language is the basic fabric and texture of lived human consciousness,” something no Buddhist would agree with, I think, and which I believe there is no evidence to support in any case; and c) to portray Derrida’s project as somehow “Buddhist” in character, when in fact it ultimately reinforces the fixations that Buddhist practice (as I understand it) seeks to free us from.

    I should add that David Loy, in his 1988 book Nonduality: A Study in Comparative Philosophy, compares Derrida’s ideas with those of the great Buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna. He notes that “Derrida understands that all philosophy, including his, can only ‘reinscribe,’ but for him the sole solution is to disseminate wildly, in the hope of avoiding any fixzation into a system that will subvert his insight. […] In contrast, we have the nondualist example of a Zen master [Nagarjuna], who plays with language—moving in and out of it freely—because he is not caught in it. His laconic expressions emerge from / are one with an unrepresentable ground of serenity, and although they cannot directly point to this ground, there are ways to suggest it for someone else. In comparison with this freedom, to rejoice in being caught in a language that has lost its ability to represent any truth brings to mind Bernard Shaw’s comment on the pleasures of an endless holiday: “a good working definition of hell.”

    From my point of view, many post-avant writers follow Derrida into this hell. I would rather not.

    All that said, I’d have to disagree with your arguments as well, and not only because I’m not a Christian. First, you’ve been misled by Adam (Fieled, I mean) into defending a “system” that is neither coherent nor much to the point. As I said, there are many Christian systems, and the one whose values you put forward is not one the Catholic Czeslaw Milosz, for example, would have subscribed to, nor would the Christian mystics Jacob Boehme or Emmanuel Swedenborg. My point is not to devalue your personal Christianity, but to suggest that it’s not the real issue between you and Adam. The real issue, I think, is the Aristotelian idea of language as essentially representational (the view embraced early on by Aquinas and elaborated quite beautifully by the modern Thomist philosopher Jacques Maritain) vs. Wittgenstein’s (and Derrida’s) idea of language as a self-reinforcing system of signs that represent other signs.

    One of the things I like about Owen Barfield is that he critiques both systems from a third point of view, one that is neither Aristotelian nor Wittgensteinian. While I don’t subscribe to even a majority of Barfield’s views on other subjects, as a poet I have to say that his views on the nature, development, and purpose of language ring true.

    Don’t know if any of this makes sense, but there it is….

  4. The quote on an eternal holiday made me laugh. I was wondering if you could clarify a couple statements for me. I’m confused by the statement that I’m defending a system that is neither coherent or to the point. Is this in regards to Adam’s original idea? Is my logic/explanation nonsensical? Does it wander aimlessly? I’m just trying to figure what you mean.

    It also seems to me that the explanation of language (Aristotelian vs Wittgenstein) seems to be the same thing, unless Aristotle’s view was that language represents something concrete-ish while Wittgenstein viewed language as an ambiguous symbol representing something else equally ambiguous. Is this an accurate interpretation?

    As always, thanks for your thoughts!

  5. From my POV, “Christian systems” and “Buddhist systems” are irrelevant because the terms don’t mean anything to this debate; Christianity and Buddhism each have many different sects, each with a different “system.” So what I meant was that the terms themselves are incoherent and not to the point. Your thinking is coherent and well argued from within your particular form of Christianity, just as Jacques Maritain argues coherently from his Thomist POV.

    Now, I’m no expert on Wittgenstein, though I’ve read enough of him to last me until the grave. Aristotle’s approach to language is that it represents things in the world; Wittgenstein views language as non-referential in that way: words don’t point to things in the world, but to other words and the concepts they carry. I get his critique of Aristotle. If I use the word “stone” in a poem, I’m quite sure the stone I picture will not be the stone you picture; so the word “stone” doesn’t refer to a thing out in the world. But if I refer to “Joel Jacobson,” I am referring to something real in the world. So I don’t buy the idea that language itself is non-referential. Aristotle, following Plato, got around this dichotomy by saying that “chair” refers to an ideal form of which all chairs in the real world are flawed versions of. Barfield’s answer (if I understand him correctly) is that language itself is the result of human beings creating meaning out of their experience of the spiritual aspects of things in the world. Like Blake, he believes that the world as we see it is an expression of spiritual realities, and that the purpose of poetry is to concretize those realities. The problem is that reality leaches out of words over time: all concrete words decay into abstraction. The only way to stave off that decay is through metaphor….

    But don’t take my word for it! (Hah!) Read all these people. But the best reading out of the group is Blake, in my opinion: as a poet, as a metaphor-maker, he delivers more reality than the other three put together.

    I did want to add one thing, on a different level of Adam’s commentary. If his experience with Christianity was like mine, then I understand his view of it, though I think he’s wrong. I was raised a Lutheran, and when I was studying the Catechism had the unfortunate experience of my Pastor telling me that paleontology was a crock. He cited the Piltdown hoax by way of claiming that all “old bones” were fakes. Now, the man was an idiot, and I was enamored enough of dinosaurs and science to know he was an idiot. So I left the church—unconfirmed, I’m proud to say—and started down a long path of study that landed me in the Agnostic camp, where I reside today. On that path of study I learned that all Lutherans, nevermind all Christians, are not idiots. But I do retain a distaste for blindered fundamentalists, whether they are Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Theosophist—well, you get the point!

  6. Doh! Sometimes I forget to sit back and just look at terms–that whole language thing. Thanks for clarifying. I don’t like the term “system” either; I feel like it puts limits on things–closes them down into something that can be completely understood. I think things are a bit more complicated. You convinced me awhile ago to get this Barfield book. And I’ve had a hard time getting in to Blake, but I feel like I should keep trying.

    I wasn’t surprised by Adam’s interpretation based off of experience. And I’m not surprised about your experience either. It bums me out. I’m not sure why there is such a huge disconnect between pastors and science. I come from a sciencey family–my dad had a doctorate in geothermal physics and my mom was a math/chemistry major in college (she still teaches math). I can’t discount science as fake and silly. But I also think scientists can use more imagination!! There’s a link on Silliman’s post yesterday to a physicist ironically enough.

    I don’t know if you’ve read anything by Hugh Ross, but he’s started an organization called ( Reasons to Believe which takes the contemporary Christian view of science to task. I think his research is the best “Christian” science I’ve come across, as his whole idea is that there needs to be a dialog (especially between evolutionists and creationists…again, more closing labels!!) via commendable scientific processes on both sides of the 6 dimensional coin.

    All of that to say thanks for the dialogue and sharing a bit of your own background! I hope we can have more in the future!

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