Gil Bailie on symptoms and sources of the postmodern self adrift
The term “identity crisis” first appeared in the work of psychologist Erik Ericson (1902–1994). It described the struggle most people experience during adolescence to answer the existential questions, “Who am I? Who can I be?” In Ericson’s view, these are perennial human questions. But they are, of course, asked and answered differently in different cultural settings.
For decades, numerous psychologists, sociologists, philosophers, and theologians have reflected on how some assumptions about human nature and human identity become more plausible than others as social, political, and economic conditions change. Many Church leaders have long recognized that even the most thoughtful account of human personhood — grounded in biblical and careful theological reflection— will be treated with suspicion by their contemporaries if the picture it presents doesn’t match what their cultural experience has predisposed them to accept.
Within what was once “Christendom,” dominant assumptions about human identity were long shaped by Christian concepts. But the various forces of modernity and hyper-modernity displaced or rejected the Christian framework, creating a culture-wide “identity crisis” that requires intellectual and pastoral attention. “Who am I?” and “Who can I be?” are questions that require a theological anthropology that courageously challenges the dominant account of human nature.
Gaudium et spes, the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, issued by the Second Vatican Council, has prompted continuing reflection on the differences between Christian understanding of human experience and that promoted — explicitly and implicitly — in modern societies. In a paper titled “The Subject of Gaudium et Spes: Reclaiming a Christocentric Anthropology of the Human Person,” theologian Gil Bailie describes how the Patristic use of the word “person” to describe some aspects of the mystery of the Trinity “laid the groundwork for a revolution in human self-understanding.” But, like many others, Bailie believes that much more can be built on that long-standing foundation, and that current social and political confusions are evidence of the need for such construction.
The Abstract that summarized his paper began: “Beneath the surface of many of the disturbing moral, political, cultural problems now looming is the growing incidence of what Henri de Lubac called the diminution of ‘ontological density,’ a spiritual distress that Hans Urs von Balthasar characterized as the ‘loss of ontological moorings.’ The modern self, fashioned according to Cartesian presuppositions which vastly inflated its capacity for social autonomy, is succumbing to pathologies intrinsic to the anthropological fallacies upon which it was premised. The attenuation of the Christian revelation that gave personal existence its theological underpinnings and cultural sustenance is having a devastating effect, especially on the young. No response to the political, cultural, and moral confusions of our time will succeed if it does not address this underlying problem.”
Later in the paper, Bailie summarized the descriptions of our social and personal condition offered two social analysts who describe our plight but offer no alternatives:
“The spiritual, psychological, and increasingly ontological predicament in which many — especially the young — are today living has been disturbingly captured by Kenneth Gergen [in The Saturated Self: Dilemmas of Identity in Contemporary Life (Basic Books, 1991)] and made all the more distressing by his effort to remain sanguine in the face of it. Like Freud, however, Gergen and a few of his postmodern contemporaries, provide an inestimable service by insightfully surveying social and psychological phenomena they have nevertheless analyzed so inadequately. The lived experience of the postmodern self, Gergen seems happy to announce, is multiphrenia. He writes:
“‘As one casts out to sea in the contemporary world, modernist moorings are slowly left behind. It becomes increasingly difficult to recall precisely to what core essence one must remain true. The ideal of authenticity frays about the edges; the meaning of sincerity slowly lapses into indeterminacy. And with this sea change, the guilt of self-violation also recedes. As the guilt and sense of superficiality recede from view, one is simultaneously readied for the emergence of a pastiche personality. The pastiche personality is a social chameleon, constantly borrowing bits and pieces of identity from whatever sources are available and constructing them as useful or desirable in a given situation.’
“Like so many postmodern apologists, Mr. Gergen — having diagnosed a self-dissolution that coincides with the loss of Christian sources of hope — must try as best he can to remain cheerful. Now perfectly unencumbered by the modern quest for what de Lubac termed ‘static sincerity,’ the postmodern accommodates to his life as a de-centered ‘social chameleon,’ taking bits and pieces at random from the incessant parade of mimetic models to which he is exposed. ‘If one’s identity is properly managed, the rewards can be substantial,’ Gergen strains to assure his readers: ‘the devotion of one’s intimates, happy children, professional success, the achievement of community goals, personal popularity, and so on.’ All this is possible, he imagines, ‘if one avoids looking back to locate a true and enduring self, and simply acts to full potential in the moment at hand.’ Avoiding this glance backward — the glance that might awaken that blissfully dormant ‘guilt of self-violation’ and its accompanying ‘sense of superficiality’ — is what another postmodern apologist, the indefatigable Norman O. Brown, calls ‘improvising a raft after shipwreck,’ the shoring up of fragments against one’s ruin.
“In his Apocalypse and/or Metamorphosis Professor Brown managed to sustain the hyperbolic prose and the erudite impudence for which his books in the 1960s were famous. The result is one of the strangest and most candid paeans to the postmodern spiritual catastrophe extant, but one, like Gergen’s, rich in anthropological insight massively misdiagnosed. Brown starts with a definition of psychological identification that might have been written by René Girard and adopted for use by the Church in the now urgent task of recovering a reinvigorated hagiographic catechesis. Psychological identity, Brown writes, is the ‘process whereby the subject assimilates an aspect, property or attribute of the other and is transformed, wholly or partially, after the model the other provides.’ It is, in other words, ‘sympathy intensified to the point of reproduction’ but within the permissible spectral range, whereas clinical hysteria is an involuntary and unwelcomed experience of mimetic influenced, warded off by a repertoire of strategies which comprise the disease symptomatology. But all that professor Brown can do with this immensely fruitful insight is to turn it into just another rough beast slouching toward the local mall or web browser to be fed and famished. . . .
“Those clinically diagnosed as hysterics in the late 19th and early 20th centuries inhabited societies more structured and less fluid than those of today. Individuals were expected to retain a higher degree of psychological continuity, and the failure to do so tended to draw more attention than the corresponding failure today, when identities morph far more routinely and arouse considerably less clinical scrutiny or social concern. The cultural institution that has facilitated this more psychologically fluid situation is the market. Just as there is something to be said for aspiring to a degree of social autonomy — it is necessary in order to resist the gravitational power of collective hysteria, the mob phenomenon — so there is something to be said for the collaborative construct of material need and mimetic desire, of social restlessness and psychological tenuousness, for which the market provides a venue and an outlet. The economic value of the market cannot be disputed, and its globalizing tendency, while problematic to some extent, may effect more long-term reconciliation between peoples and cultures than the transnational institutions explicitly dedicated to these things. As Gaudium et spes observed, however, ‘the progress of the human person and the advance of society itself hinge on one another,’ and in a world where market forces are congenial to the loss of both social and psychological cohesion, material improvements are accompanied by a spiritual pathos far less easy to measure or meliorate. Whereas the modern self was adapted to and fostered by the majoritarian voluntarism of a democratic polity, the disaggregated and atomized postmodern self is adapted to and shaped by the consumptive voluntarism most congenial to the now all-encompassing market, and ever at the mercy of the political and moral edicts that emanate from it. It may well be the case that it is the availability of the market — as the repository of desire and the ritual arena where disappointed desires can be easily and quickly recycled into new desires — that has caused clinical cases of hysteria to disappear into a sea of subclinical episodes. Had those suffering from the ontological deprivations of late modernity and postmodernity not had the market available to them these deprivations may well have manifested themselves more explicitly as psychopathology. The market facilitates the routine and incremental forms of self-transformation for which material acquisitions and their short-lived exhilarations function in quasi-sacramental ways.”
As of this writing, Gil Bailie is in the process of completing a book with the working title, The Apocalypse of the Sovereign Self: Recovering the Christian Mystery of Personhood. The concerns expressed in the paper excerpted above will be developed more fully in that book, and I hope he and I can talk about the book when it is published.
Andrew Davison on the importance for theology of becoming more philosophically self-conscious
On Volume 150 of the Journal, I talked with Andrew Davison about his book Participation in God: A Study in Christian Doctrine and Metaphysics. During that conversation, he mentioned an earlier book that he had written, The Love of Wisdom: An Introduction to Philosophy for Theologians (2013). The Introduction to that book is titled “Why Study Philosophy?” In it, Davison writes:
“The Scriptures warn us not to be ‘taken captive’ through philosophy (Col. 2.8; cf. 1 Cor. 1.20–25). As an aid to achieving that end, this book makes a counter-intuitive proposal: our theology is less likely to be hijacked by philosophy if we pay attention to philosophy. We can be more philosophical in order to be more theological.
“We all operate within a philosophical framework. Philosophy, in this sense, is the position a person, culture or school of thought takes over what reality looks like and how its aspects fit together. Define philosophy this way, and every last person is a philosopher, and every last person has a philosophy. Everyone has a sense of how to think about time, knowledge, causation, justice and so on. There is an ‘architecture’ to the mind. As John Stuart Mill put it, the mind has ‘furniture’. We may not be able to articulate these assumptions in any systematic way, but we have assumptions nonetheless. By and large, English-speaking cultures do not provide much space for us to think about these matters. It would be different if we lived in France or Iran, two countries where philosophy is prized and philosophical books sell in large quantities.
“The Christian theologian will want his or her framework to reflect a Christian vision of the world, and unexamined philosophical presuppositions determine our outlook even more than examined ones. Unexamined presuppositions are the ones that it does not cross our mind to question. Fergus Kerr has described the consequences:
“‘if theologians proceed in the belief that they need neither examine nor even acknowledge their inherited metaphysical commitments, they will simply remain prisoners of whatever philosophical school was in the ascendant 30 years earlier, when they were first-year students’ [from Theology after Wittgenstein, SPCK, 1997].
“‘When the existence of metaphysical commitments is ignored or denied, as Kerr goes on, ‘their grip only tightens.’ I can think of two theological books, whose titles I shall pass over, where the clinching move in the argument comes straight from Hegel. The author’s conclusion, ultimately, does not rest on theological sources but upon Hegel’s conviction that a cycle of tension and resolution lies in the heart of things. Neither author wrote ‘as Hegel would say’ as part of his argument. Indeed, if either had, he might have questioned whether Hegel’s metaphysics should be given such sway.
“This book takes a historical approach. Familiarity with the history of philosophy is useful, if only as a reminder that ideas have a history. However much an outlook today appears obvious to us, it has a heritage. At other times, people thought otherwise, and because we each receive our philosophical heritage in a different way, other people will think otherwise even in our own time.
“We cannot take ourselves outside of philosophical tradition, if for no other reason then that we cannot get outside of language. In the words of Michael Polanyi: ‘The practice of speech in one particular language carries with it the acceptance of the particular theory of the universe postulated by the language.’ We can, however, think critically about where we stand and what we take for granted. Polanyi’s comment need not be fatalistic. ‘Language’ here means something more specific than English, French or Lithuanian. We can all ‘learn to watch our language’, so that ‘our metaphysical inclinations are laid bare’, to quote Kerr again, and start to refine it where necessary. We will do that when our philosophy is prayed through alongside readings from the great theologians, mystics and activists of Christian history. Theology can bend our philosophy into new shapes. This is part of taking ‘every thought captive Christ’ (2 Cor. 10:5).”
John Milbank on the need for a more robust apologetics
On Volume 115, of the Journal, I interviewed theologian Andrew Davison about his 2011 book Imaginative Apologetics: Theology, Philosophy, and the Catholic Tradition (Baker Academic). One of the things he talked about was how he persuaded John Milbank to write the foreword to the book. That foreword bears the title “An Apology for Apologetics.” In it, Milbank notes that apologetics “has come to mean a theologically secondary exercise: not an exposition of the faith, but the defence of the faith on grounds other than faith — on one’s opponent’s territory, where one risks remaining in a weak or even a false position. The best that such a posture can hope to achieve would be the occasional demonstration that one’s adversary has somehow missed the authentic wider ground of her own standing. But calling this very standing into doubt would appear to be beyond the apologetic remit.
“For these reasons apologetics often fell into disfavor within twentieth-century theology. Instead, what was recommended was an authentic exposition of faith, capable of persuading the non-believer to start to inhabit the alternative world which that exposition can invoke. In this light apologetics appeared to be a compromised exercise, unlikely in any case to succeed. And yet, the latter assumption was belied by the wide popular reach of some apologetic writing, most notably that of C. S. Lewis — the sign of the success of his Screwtape Letters being that they were often much admired even by those whom they did not convince.”
Milbank goes on to ask whether it was ever correct to assume that apologetics should have a secondary and deferential role. “Perhaps the exposition of faith always includes an apologetic dimension?” Perhaps “any successful exercise of apologetics, like indeed that of Lewis, must contain a strong confessional element which convinces precisely because it persuades through the force of an imaginative presentation of belief. . . .
“Instead of . . . a falsely ‘neutral’ approach (and one can think here of the folly of much ‘science and religion’ debate in our own day) which accepts without question the terms and terminology of this world, we need a mode of apologetics prepared to question the world’s assumptions down to their very roots and to expose how they lie within paganism, heterodoxy or else an atheism with no ground in reason and a tendency to deny the ontological reality of reason altogether. . . .
“[W]hile the truths of the Creation, the Incarnation, the Trinity and of Grace are replete of themselves, they complete and safeguard rather than destroy our sense of natural order and human dignity. This means that they themselves presume such a defence [as is offered on behalf of revealed doctrines], and therefore that belief in these supernatural truths cannot survive the threatened collapse of the ordinary and perennial human belief in soul, mind and will, and its intuition of a teleological purposiveness in all existing things.
“For this reason today apologetics, which is to say Christian theology as such, faces the integral task of at once defending the faith and also of defending a true politics of civic virtue (rooted in Platonic and Aristotelian assumptions), besides a renewed metaphysics of cosmic hierarchy and participatory order.
“Yet today also we have a more specific sense that such a metaphysics was lost through an assumption that the only ‘reason’ which discloses truth is a cold, detached reason that is isolated from both feeling and imagination, as likewise from both narrative and ethical evaluation. Christian apologetics now needs rather to embrace the opposite assumption that our most visionary and ideal insights can most disclose the real, provided that this is accompanied by a widening in democratic scope of our sympathies for the ordinary, and the capacities and vast implications of the quotidian — like the road running outside our house which beckons to endless unknown vistas.”
Matthew B. Crawford on the personal knowledge acquired in apprenticeship
“Some of the best pipe organs in the world are made by George Taylor and John Boody and their team of craftspeople in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. It is a business in which the employees require long acculturation into the history and finer points of the trade. They are able to trace lineages of who taught whom in the overlapping networks of apprenticeship among shops that do similar work around the world. In this fraternity, which includes people living and others long dead, the spirit of emulation and rivalry is intense; they try to outdo one another in making the best organs possible. The work is historically and socially situated in this way, and seems to invite each of its practitioners to experience his or her own development as a craftsperson as a chapter in a longer historical arc.
“In the United States (but not Germany, for example), the idea of apprenticeship is criticized for being too narrow an education. It is said that what the economy demands is workers who are flexible. The ideal seems to be that they shouldn’t be burdened with any particular set of skills or knowledge; what is wanted is a generic smartness, the kind one is certified to have by admission to an elite university. This fits well with our ideal of the unencumbered self, and with Kant’s exhortation to view ourselves under the generic heading ‘rational being.’ We are told the economy is in a state of radical flux; ‘disruption’ is spoken of as though it were a measure of value creation, and so a twenty-first-century education must form workers into material that is similarly indeterminate and disruptable. The less situated, the better.
“But consider that when you go deep into some particular skill or art, it trains your powers of concentration and perception. You become more discerning about the objects you are dealing with and, if all goes well, begin to care viscerally about quality, because you have been initiated into an ethic of caring about what you are doing. Usually this happens by the example of some particular person, a mentor, who exemplifies that spirit of craftsmanship. You hear discussed in his voice, or see pleasure on his face, in response to some detail that would be literally invisible to someone not initiated. In this way, judgment develops alongside emotional involvement, unified in what Polanyi calls personal knowledge. Technical training in such a setting, though narrow in its immediate application, may be understood as part of education in the broadest sense: intellectual and moral formation.
“Technologists who work in a long tradition with inherited forms also offer a useful contrast to our current image of the innovator-entrepreneur as a sort of existential hero who creates the New ex nihilo. After a period of solitary gestation in a California garage, he emerges to disrupt us and deliver us.
“What emerged in my conversations at Taylor and Boody is that the historical inheritance of a long tradition of organ making seems not to burden these craftspeople, but rather to energize their efforts in innovation. They intend for their organs still to be in use four hundred years from now, and this orientation toward the future requires a critical engagement with the designs and building methods of the past. They learn from the past masters, interrogate their wisdom, and push the conversation further in an ongoing dialectic of reverence and rebellion. Their own progress in skill and understanding is thus a contribution to something larger; their earned independence of judgment represents a deepening of the craft itself.”
— from Matthew B. Crawford, The World beyond Your Head: On Becoming an Individual in an Age of Distraction (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015). Crawford discussed this book on Volume 128 of the Journal. He talked about his 2020 book, Why We Drive: Toward a Philosophy of the Open Road, on Volume 150. A reading of his 2006 article “Shop Class as Soul Craft” is available as one of our Audio Reprints.
Matthew B. Crawford on the psychic satisfactions of manual work
“I began working as an electrician’s helper shortly before I turned fourteen. I wasn’t attending school at that time and worked full-time until I was fifteen, then kept the trade up during the summers while in high school and college, with steadily increasing responsibility. When I couldn’t get a job with my college degree in physics, I was glad to have something to fall back on, and went into business for myself, in Santa Barbara.
“I never ceased to take pleasure in the moment, at the end of a job, when I would flip the switch. ‘And there was light.’ It was an experience of agency and competence. The effects of my work were visible for all to see, so my competence was real for others as well; it had a social currency. I was sometimes quieted at the sight of a gang of conduit entering a large panel in an industrial setting, bent into nestled, flowing curves, with varying offsets, that somehow all terminated in the same plane. This was a skill so far beyond my abilities that I felt I was in the presence of some genius, and the man who bent that conduit surely imagined this moment of recognition as he worked. As a residential and light-commercial electrician, most of my work got covered up inside walls. Still, I felt pride in meeting the aesthetic demands of a workmanlike installation. Maybe another electrician would see it someday. Even if not, one feels responsible to one’s better self. Or rather, to the thing itself — craftsmanship has been said to consist simply in the desire to do something well, for its own sake. If the primary satisfaction is intrinsic and private in this way, there is nonetheless a sort of self-disclosing that takes place. As the philosopher Alexandre Kojève writes: ‘The man who works recognizes his own product in the World that has actually been transformed by his work: he recognizes himself in it, he sees in it his own human reality, in it he discovers and reveals to others the objective reality of his humanity, of the originally abstract and purely subjective idea he has of himself.’
“The satisfactions of manifesting oneself concretely in the world through manual competence have been known to make a man quiet and easy. They seem to relieve him of the felt need to offer chattering interpretations of himself to vindicate his worth. He can simply point: the building stands, the car now runs, the lights are on. Boasting is what a boy does, who has no real effect in the world. But the tradesman must reckon with the infallible judgment of reality, where one’s failures or shortcomings cannot be interpreted away. His well-founded pride is far from the gratuitous ‘self-esteem’ that educators would impart to students, as though by magic.”
— from Matthew B. Crawford, Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work (Penguin Press, 2009). A reading of the article on which this book was based is available as one of our Audio Reprints.