Saturday, December 21, 2013

Not Sure What I Think About This

From The Post-Christian Mind by Harry Blamires:

We are always hearing that someone has found himself or herself, got to know himself or herself, learned to live with himself or herself. On all sides people are prating about someone discovering their 'identity', as though one could help having one. A figure famous in the eyes of the media's public will explain how, after some remarkable experience and as a result of some mighty effort, 'I found out who I really am'. Most of us acquire this knowledge before nursery school age. Incidentally, the Christian call to lose oneself stands at the very opposite pole of experience to these truly meaningless slogans.

Of course, Blamire is right to insist upon the death to self, which is a central tenet of Christianity. "He must increase, but I must decrease". "And I live, now not I, but Christ liveth in me." "Amen, amen, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat; but if it dies, it produces much fruit."

And yet, I must admit I'd be rather sad if I thought that the whole business of "finding yourself" or "discovering yourself" was nonsensical and anti-Christian. The least you can say for it is that it implies that the meaning of life is something that's not obvious, that requires some exploration and effort to find. In other words, that life has depths, and isn't simply what we see, hear, touch, taste and smell-- not simply what can be stated as a matter of physical or economic or social fact. That the spiritual is real.

I like what Lewis wrote in Mere Christianity:

...Suppose a person who knew nothing about salt. You give him a pinch to taste and he experiences a particular strong, sharp taste. You then tell him that in your country people use salt in all their cookery. Might he not reply ‘In that case I suppose all your dishes taste exactly the same: because the taste of that stuff you have just given me is so strong that it will kill the taste of everything else.’ But you and I know that the real effect of salt is exactly the opposite. So far from killing the taste of the egg and the tripe and the cabbage, it actually brings it out. They do not show their real taste till you have added the salt. (Of course, as I warned you, this is not really a very good illustration, because you can, after all, kill the other tastes by putting in too much salt, whereas you cannot kill the taste of a human personality by putting in too much Christ. I am doing the best I can.)

It is something like that with Christ and us. The more we get what we now call ‘ourselves’ out of the way and let Him take us over, the more truly ourselves we become. There is so much of Him that millions and millions of ‘little Christs’, all different, will still be too few to express Him fully.

(Conversely, I remember noticing in college that "free thinkers" always seemed to think in exactly the same way. And isn't it notorious how all abstract art and experimental literature-- obsessed as it is by rejecting the stultifying weight of the past, and tradition, and convention-- is drearily samey?)

I delight in films like Regarding Henry or The Vow that are about a quest of self-discovery. I adore stories about people seeking meaning in their lives, or reconnecting with their past. I like characters like Data in Star Trek: The Next Generation or Seven of Nine of Star Trek: Voyager who are seeking to find an identity. As drama, it is both inexpressibly poignant and endlessly compelling.

I think also of Pope Benedict's electrifying words:

Are we not perhaps all afraid in some way? If we let Christ enter fully into our lives, if we open ourselves totally to him, are we not afraid that He might take something away from us? Are we not perhaps afraid to give up something significant, something unique, something that makes life so beautiful? Do we not then risk ending up diminished and deprived of our freedom? . . . No! If we let Christ into our lives, we lose nothing, nothing, absolutely nothing of what makes life free, beautiful and great. No! Only in this friendship are the doors of life opened wide. Only in this friendship is the great potential of human existence truly revealed. Only in this friendship do we experience beauty and liberation. And so, today, with great strength and great conviction, on the basis of long personal experience of life, I say to you, dear young people: Do not be afraid of Christ! He takes nothing away, and he gives you everything. When we give ourselves to him, we receive a hundredfold in return. Yes, open, open wide the doors to Christ – and you will find true life. Amen.

Don't all of us, as Catholics, feel the frustration of trying to explain that the Faith is not a strait-jacket, a dead end, a mental prison, but rather the very opposite of all these things? That "thinking with the Church" is exactly what stops us from nose-diving into all the boring and futile pits-- cynicism, nihilism, Pollyanna-ish optimism, hippydom, Epicureanism, existentalism, careerism, libertarianism, and so on ad infinitum-- where we lose any hope of wholeness or sanity or freshness? (Admittedly, this point probably won't make any sense to someone who hasn't felt this already.)

I also feel that the whole notion of self-discovery makes little sense without certain religious concepts, such as the soul, free will, Providence and vocation (I don't understand how their can be a non-religious understanding of vocation).

I'm not saying Blamire is wrong. But I hope he's wrong. It would sadden me to think that the psychological drama of self-discovery-- our own, and those of other people, real and imaginary-- is something we must relinquish as Christians. Or that it has to be something narcissistic or turned in on itself.


  1. Since I haven't read Blamire's book I may not fully understand the point he's making, but perhaps he was talking about people who "discover" themselves in a religious sense. I know that sounds odd because he says Christianity is the opposite, but you know there are people (like some celebrities) who are constantly jumping religions in order to discover themselves.

    If he's talking about discovering one's self in a way that has more to do with your personality, interests, or your path in life... that could still be taken two ways. It would be unusual if he meant that he was against the idea of people trying to understand themselves more as this is something that everyone does; even subconsciously. How would we get anywhere in life if we didn't try to understand what we are good at, etc?

    I'm sorry if I'm not making sense. I'm a little tired.

  2. You make perfect sense. The whole idea of self-discovery is one that is rather difficult to describe but I like to think that it is something that is not just narcissistic or egotistic. I do think God has a plan for each one of us.

  3. I haven't read Blamire's entire article, only what was quoted, and what I understood is that his questioning of this 'self discovery' was the modern (is it modern?) and ever so popular cliche of "traveling around the world and eating out of a tribal clay cups" to "YOLO" (You Only Live Once) attitude - more secular attitudes, and not so much dismissing the 'self discovery' through Christianity.

  4. From what I understood, Blamires isn't dismissing the idea of self discovery through Christianity, but the more secular mentality that is ever so popular amongst all the anti-establishment/be-an-individual crowd. The "backpack through Europe and Asian while eating of a tribal clay cup" or the YOLO mentality (therefore do everything that your parents wouldn't have done before you marry and have kids). I think he's dismissing the more secular way of life that all seems rather juvenile and (forever) angsty.

  5. I do get that, but I think arguments have to be made consistently. I also think that the whole "backpack through Europe and Asian while eating of a tribal clay cup" thing has a certain admirable quality to it-- at least it's a turning towards the transcendent and meaningful. Although it misses the point that the same thing could be found in their local church.