Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Desiring the Kingdom Book Club: Contemplation and Affect and Desire

 Desiring the Kingdom Book Club

For this post on Desiring the Kingdom,  I am linking up with Mystie at Simply Convivial.
Go there for links to more discussion!

I mentioned a couple of posts ago that I never liked the idea of "worldview" teaching.   I think perhaps it was useful at a certain time in history for some Christians who didn't have a good sense of intellectual or cultural tradition to start with.  And I am sure, as with all partially good and enthusiastic efforts carried out by individuals, it did good things in many homes.

But too often, in my opinion, it became a substitute for the intellectual (and deeply creative and personal) work you have to do to integrate secular and religious realities.  It seemed too thin and "notional" (to use a word of Cardinal Newman's).   So in a way I was critical of worldview teaching for rational/cognitive reasons, and in that way, I came at it from a different perspective than Smith does in Desiring the Kingdom.  

But in another way, I think there is common ground, and it shows up in this section on the Social Imaginary.     From the book: 

(Charles) Taylor suggests a helpful analogy: The understanding implicit in practice is akin to knowing how to get around your neighborhood or town. This is a kind of know-how that is embedded in your adaptive unconscious......The “social imaginary” is an affective, noncognitive understanding of the world. It is described as an imaginary (rather than a theory) because it is fueled by the stuff of the imagination rather than the intellect: it is made up of, and embedded in, stories, narratives, myths, and icons. These visions capture our hearts and imaginations by “lining” our imagination, as it were—providing us with frameworks of “meaning” by which we make sense of our world and our calling in it. An irreducible understanding of the world resides in our intuitive, precognitive grasp of these stories....  And insofar as an understanding is implicit in practice, the practices of Christian worship are crucial—the sine qua non—for developing a distinctly Christian understanding of the world. The practices of Christian worship are the analogue of biking around the neighborhood, absorbing an understanding of our environment that is precognitive and becomes inscribed in our adaptive unconscious.
My homeschooling solution to the "worldview" question has always been to read stories, legends and myths with my children and to talk about them.     And a certain kind of simplicity of detail in household affairs and an environment fairly influenced by natural and liturgical rhythms of the season has made up for some, not all, my deficiencies as a teacher and mother. 

Yesterday while I was reading this section of the book, I made a list of adjectives and some nouns that Smith uses to describe the attributes of this social imaginary as opposed to the "mere worldview" context:

embodied, imaginative, desire, visceral, tactile, sensorial, story, communal, traditional, visionary, embedded, inarticulate, neighborhood know-how, pre-cognitive, religious (as opposed to theological), devotion

He sums it up as "desire forms knowledge" and makes the point that cultivation and culture are etymologically related, and that "poieses" or making is part of the same thing.

"Such a movement can occur in three kinds of poiesis: (1) Natural poiesis through sexual procreation, (2) poiesis in the city through the attainment of heroic fame, and, finally, (3) poiesis in the soul through the cultivation of virtue and knowledge."[  --Socrates, Symposium
I should really stop there but I have been reading a lot of philosophy recently and I just wanted to mention a few concepts that seem to relate to this train of thought.

Something that subliminally bothers me while I am reading this book is the recurrent dichotomy between the rational and the affective.    I see why he is making this distinction, and I know it is the framework which we seem to be stuck with ever since Descartes, and that he is trying to show us a way out by evoking it, but I think that talking in those terms can make it hard sometimes not to subliminally accept the very framework that he wants to break down.

Perhaps the Greek philosophers and medieval theologians were right in distinguishing between two kinds of reason -- intellectus and ratio.   Knowledge incorporates both these two things, to the classical and medieval philosopher, but the modern view of knowledge is simply "ratio"  -- the strenuous, chain-of-reasoning part of your thinking equipment.   If you have read your Josef Pieper, you probably have a sense of the difference.  

What these classical and Christian thinkers required for proper human flourishing was both ratio and intellectus. Knowledge was not possible without work (ratio) but it did not reside exclusively within the world of work: the fruits of ratio were a philosophical or spiritual knowledge of intellectual contemplation (intellectus). According to Pieper, the moderns made two mistakes in their conception of knowledge. On the one hand, some thought of knowledge only as the product of ratio (e.g., Kant, Marx, Weber); while others believed knowledge was simply passive and receptive in nature (e.g., romantics like Jacobi, Schlosser, and Stolberg). Genuine knowledge demanded both ratio and intellectus, work and contemplation, in our understanding of reality.
I think perhaps Smith is talking about roughly the same thing with his "affective" as the Thomists talk about with their "intellectus", or at least he incorporates this contemplative, receptive aspect of thought into his treatment of "social imaginary", but I think because he puts "intellectual" (in our modern use of the word as scholarly or academic) on the "worldview" side as opposed to the "social imaginary" side, there is danger of thinking that contemplation is on the rational, theoretical side of things, whereas it is actually in the very core of the "kardia" in my view.

To bring Ignatius in here, the Christian is ideally integrated -- ratio and intellectus, practice and doctrine.    If I had to boil all the modern papal encyclicals into one over-arching thesis or theme, it would be this idea of integration.    Each encyclical takes one aspect of the modern experience and filters it through a Catholic understanding of this thing's significance.     And this is not simply a proclamation of a worldview, but a summons to contemplation of the real meanings of things and how they are worked out in the "social imaginary."

Christians are in the position of being "in the world but not of it".    Their "collective intentionality" (to use a term from phenomenology, that Edith Stein wrote about, which basically means the "aboutness" of a group and in that way is similar to Taylor's "social imaginary")  has to be different from, but not isolated from, their larger social context.    Husserl, Stein's teacher, talks about one's lifeworld:

even at its deepest level, consciousness is already embedded in and operating in a world of meanings and pre-judgements that are socially, culturally, and historically constituted. Phenomenology thereby became the study not just of the pure consciousness and meanings of a transcendental ego, as in Husserl's earlier work, but of consciousness and meaning in context. The lifeworld is one of the more complicated concepts in phenomenology, mainly because of its status as both personal and intersubjective. Even if a person's historicity is intimately tied up with his lifeworld, and each person thus has a lifeworld, this doesn't necessarily mean that the lifeworld is a purely individual phenomenon. In keeping with the phenomenological notion of intersubjectivity, the lifeworld can be intersubjective even though each individual necessarily carries his own "personal" lifeworld ("homeworld"); meaning is intersubjectively accessible, and can be communicated (shared by one's "homecomrades"). However, a homeworld is also always limited by an alienworld. The internal "meanings" of this alienworld can be communicated, but can never be apprehended as alien; the alien can only be appropriated or assimilated into the lifeworld, and only understood on the background of the lifeworld.
Terms like "lifeworld" sound much better in German -- "lebenswelt"-- a language which allows for noun-synthesis without dorkiness   --- (in fact, it seems to me that your mother tongue  tends to shape the way you think about things -- sometimes surprising that we can communicate at all!).

Anyway, now I'm rambling, but to close this part of the book study, I would say that the track my thinking is on right now is that contemplation is the essence of desire.    Aquinas says:

Man’s ultimate happiness consists in the contemplation of truth, for this operation is specific to man and is shared with no other animals. Also it is not directed to any other end since the contemplation of truth is sought for its own sake.

And the highest contemplation of truth is in the beatific vision,.

In that way I would think of the "social imaginary" I desire for my children as contemplative, while agreeing completely that the embodied, sensory, story-oriented practices of faith can be an enormous aid to contemplation.   

But Aquinas does not disagree with Smith, because he agrees that the affective trumps the cognitive: 
"With respect to things that are above the soul, love (amor) is higher and nobler than knowledge; whereas in respect to those things that are below the soul, knowledge (cognitio) is more important"
 I think the Bible is (besides many other things) an indispensable handbook for this kind of embodied and imaginative practice of the faith.   It comprises story, history, proverbial wisdom, liturgy, and contemplation.   It makes manifest all the essence of the "pedagogy of desire", and in that way is Eucharistic and Christ-oriented from the first page to the last, as the Catechism points out

You recall that one and the same Word of God extends throughout Scripture, that it is one and the same Utterance that resounds in the mouths of all the sacred writers, since he who was in the beginning God with God has no need of separate syllables; for he is not subject to time--
 But that is a subject for another time, since I have already gone on too long!  


  1. Great point about the Bible! That's why it's the ultimate living book, isn't it?

    1. That's what suddenly occurred to me as I was writing and it makes me wonder whether Smith is going to say something about that later in the book!

  2. You have me looking forward to the days when I can dig into philosophy. :)

    Though contemplation sounds like it belongs in the cognition/thinking/ratio category, I do know my Pieper and therefore know that contemplation is what Smith means when he talks about imagination.

    Worldview was also a German word first. How do worldview and lifeworld differ?

    1. Worldview or Weltanschauung is according to Wikipedia: "the fundamental cognitive orientation of an individual or society".

      Lifeworld or Lebenswelt "may be conceived as a universe of what is self-evident or given,a world that subjects may experience together". I am sure those definitions are a bit simplistic.

      I am thinking that weltanshauung is probably one's conscious, cognitive stance towards things while Lebenswelt is your total immersion into your environment, including your cognitive response to it.

      Basically we don't receive our environment by choosing to open or shut mental gates -- from before birth we are always "in" something and receiving a barrage of impressions even while trying to understand and make sense of them.

      If I am understanding Smith he is saying that a worldview is fine and necessary, just not the sum total of our Christianity. Our conscious, cognitive stance on things often stands on presuppositions that are sort of built into us from Day One. That is not to say that our cognitions are *controlled* by our presuppositions, even though "built into us" makes humans sound passive and I don't think they are at all -- I think the tiniest baby is already in a way "making" meaning out of things. It's just that reasoning has to start somewhere -- it is always "about" something, and that something is not experienced through a purely cognitive process -- it involves the whole array of human capacities.

      It seems to me that this could cast some light on a section of Charlotte Mason that has always perplexed me -- that part about how Reason can be misleading because it simply tries to justify whatever you already hold and practice by means of your will. Maybe she is thinking along somewhat the same lines as Smith -- certainly her system of education seems to be affectively oriented as when she says "the question is not how much the youth know? when he has finished his education, but how much does he care?" LIke Smith she seems to see humans as arrows pointing somewhere.

      HTH Mystie, I confused myself a bit writing this so it wouldn't be surprising if you felt the same way about it ;-). The discussion is making me think!

  3. I love this post. Do I say that every single week? I think I might.

    I do sometimes feel like throwing this book across the room. I want it to be both-and rather than either-or and I don't like that feeling that he's pushing me to choose, even when he is saying otherwise. I think you hit the nail on the head when you said:

    "Something that subliminally bothers me while I am reading this book is the recurrent dichotomy between the rational and the affective. I see why he is making this distinction, and I know it is the framework which we seem to be stuck with ever since Descartes, and that he is trying to show us a way out by evoking it, but I think that talking in those terms can make it hard sometimes not to subliminally accept the very framework that he wants to break down."

    One of the things I always love about your posts is that (1) I feel more learned for having read them and (2) you make me want to read and think more. That is pretty much the highest praise I can give someone, so there you go. Maybe I should give you a prize or something. ;)


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