Friday, June 30, 2017

What Shapes Us

In June, I read a variety of things, none of which offers a main point around which to build a blog post. But all touch upon the structures, relationships, and forces that shape the individual. They even talk about forces that act upon us to make us free agents, a process that sounds like a contradiction at first but appears on closer inspection not to be.

According to his introduction, Augustine wrote On Grace and Free Will not, as a casual student of the history of theology might suppose, to emphasize grace in the persisting relationship of the two, but to defend free will against, as he says, those who take grace too far. Some religious thinkers at the time apparently wanted to place the immediate cause of every action in God’s Being, but Augustine points out that the Scripture speaks commandments as if to people who have the free power to obey or to disobey those commandments. The intention stated at the beginning of the book notwithstanding, as soon as Augustine mentions the Pelagians, he shifts to defending grace. He concludes that grace and free will work together: God shapes our wills, and we act freely to obtain what we will.

A biography of William James, William James in the Modern Maelstrom, is harder for me to summarize because it was harder for me to follow. I think I have a grasp on James’s psychological view after reading parts of his Principles of Psychology every year for many years. But to watch the ideas form, change, blend, crystallize, strengthen, and weaken over his life reminds me that even the most careful, insightful thinker is human after all. James’s work often addresses the forces that shape us, and forces indeed shaped his views of just how this works. His narcissistic father, the death of a girl he loved, other writers (Peirce and Emerson notably), experiences with his patients – all these experiences played roles in the development of his mature philosophical system. And that system in turn partly said that all thought and belief is grounded in experience. Late in his life, James turned to philosophy of religion and said that, since religious thought, too, should be grounded in personal experience, “earnest” religion must eschew institutions and dogmas. But what if my experience (including my experience of having read about James’s changing ideas) tells me that I should honor Church and dogma? Credo ut intelligam.

One quick note from some letters of C. S. Lewis: While America’s favorite Anglican held, as I do, reverence for the Christian Church and its ancient creeds, he held suspect a different kind of dogma. Lewis said he disapproved of lists of “greatest books” since, he complained, any such list handed people their tastes ready-made.

As with William James, reading Lewis, learning from him, and agreeing with him is exactly what makes me want to argue with him here. Was Lewis’s profession as a literature teacher not a matter of shaping his students’ tastes? Lewis’s interests have certainly shaped mine. His reading lists have influenced mine. His analysis of various Renaissance books has increased my understanding of them. I started my entire program in reading Great Books because of something Lewis said about Orlando Furioso. Maybe there are other books out there somewhere that I haven’t heard of that I would like better. It seems unlikely, but it’s theoretically possible. In my ignorance, though, I’m happy with my tastes and grateful that Lewis handed them to me ready-made.

But grace and free will are in tension. I wouldn’t accept and enjoy the gift of taste from Lewis if it didn’t resonate with what I already want. For Christmas when I was eight years old, my dad gave me an edition of Sidney Lanier’s boys’ version of King Arthur. I opened it up that December morning eager to enjoy it and read, “It befell in the days of Uther Pendragon.” I immediately closed the book, realizing that if I couldn’t understand the first line, I wouldn’t be able to get through 300 pages. Not yet, at least! If I knew I wasn’t up to the task at eight, I also knew that I would be one day, and that I wanted that day to come. My dad and Sidney Lanier were trying to shape my tastes, and I knew that I wanted what they had to offer even when I was too young to understand it. I knew it was in me to like a book that began “It befell in the days of Uther Pendragon.” And now I do like that book (and Malory’s “original”), partly because it presents a story in which God’s grace and the knights’ free will interact and cooperate to shape the story.

No comments:

Post a Comment