Friday, 4 January 2013

We are dying from abstraction


Our culture is dying, is killing itself, from abstraction.

We take abstract concepts like equality, freedom, justice; concepts which nobody understands - and we use these remote and un-understood abstractions to 'problematize' - to challenge, question, subvert, invert and destroy - perfectly obvious and commonsensical realities such as men and women, marriage and families, love and hate.


We denigrate obvious realities, comprehensible to everybody; and subordinate them to un-understood abstractions, comprehensible to nobody.

We replace sex-differences between males and females which are understood even by very young children; with 'gender', which is an abstraction that means nothing or anything (amounting to the same thing).

We take the idea of Father and Mother, which are spontaneously known by small children - and render them taboo, render them evil and unusable in public discourse - and replace them with... what? Abstract gibberish about 'equality' (a concept that nobody can define operationally, and never has).


As Christians, we must escape these nets of abstraction; we must bring our explanations back to that which is common sense and comprehensible to a child.

Christianity is a story, with characters; and behind it is God who is a character, a person, who participates in the story - and if we don't think of God as a person, then he might as well be nothing, for all the good it will do us.


Christianity began to lose its grip on the human imagination when it began to ridicule and subvert God as an old man (perhaps with a beard) in a place called Heaven, who is our loving Father, and we his children.

Yet that is about as much as we can understand about God, and certainly our true understanding is of this kind; and if we replace this kind of understanding with something abstract about omnipotence, omniscience, unchanging eternity and the rest of it - then we simply remove God from our life.

The abstract God becomes something like gravity or magnetism or 'evolution' - all the qualities that might make us love and willingly obey God are dissolved away.


Christians must be bold to be simple-minded and simple in expression and simple in explanation; and humble to acknowledge that that is all that we can truly comprehend and live-by.


Abstractions are not more true, because we cannot handle abstractions in the way that we quite naturally handle stories about people. Indeed, it is doubtful whether humans can handle abstractions at all - except briefly, in very specific spatio-temporal and subject-limited ways (e.g brief eras of mathematical and scientific genius).

Christians must therefore never answer a concrete question about God with an abstraction - must never pretend to clarify a comprehensible problem with an incomprehensible solution.

(The questioner may be silenced, but they will never be satisfied. And it will inculcate a habit that is not just bad, but potentially lethal to salvation.)

If we do not understand life - including salvation - 'anthropomorphically', as a story about of the motivations and relationships of people, then we have eschewed understanding of life.


To sweep aside God our perfect loving Father in favour of a God of abstract attributes operating in a universe of matter and forces, is not only to break the wholeness of this world and sever our relation to it; it is to open the gate to infinite error and uncorrectable sin.



Matthew C. said...

This is really a key insight.

And this is the "why" of the incarnation. Not the abstract God of the deists, but the immanent, concrete, undeniable truth of God in person, with us, acting as one of us (but with a perfect nature, not weak and flawed like us).

Bruce Charlton said...

@MC - Indeed.

And this is one reason why Christ should be the focus for Christians.

But God the Father is essential to our understanding, because he *sent* Christ; and therefore (I say 'therefore' on the basis of the argument in the post) we need to have as *personal* a conception of God the Father as we do of the Son, IF we are to understand salvation.

We must know (in other words) what God the Father was (and is) trying to do, what are his motivations.

And we have to get rid of the pseudo-sophisticated idea that talking in this way (e.g. about God the Father's motivations) is childish or falsely distorted.

And also of the Holy Ghost - if he is to be real and operative in our daily lives (as he should be), we must conceive of him as a person with personal attributes (presumably therefore a spirit; not incarnated, but certainly a person).

Anonymous said...

That's why I like the Gospel of Mark best. Jesus doesn't say too much, he mostly does stuff. What he said can be debated, analyzed, and abstracted ad nauseum but there is no arguing with the deeds.

Ariston said...

I think it's largely the opposite: A big part of our problem is concretizing the abstracts. Concepts like justice, equality, etc. are real things, but they are abstract exactly because they are not able to be understood.

This is clear in the Platonic & Aristotelean heritage that Christianity inherited. Christian theology is full of abstract concepts— they are not explanatory in the scientific sense, but they do provide safeguards, aids to apprehension, and so forth. Concepts like ‘three persons in one being’ are highly abstract, but their very abstraction is what allows them to be true rather than false. An abstract is an approaching, not a description; it defends the truth.

Vogelin's (supposedly) coining of the idea of immanetizing the eschaton is instructive, here. The eschatological state can only be understood in the here & now in the abstract; it is the very attempt to make the abstract concrete that is so deadly. You even understand this yourself:

We replace sex-differences between males and females which are understood even by very young children; with 'gender', which is an abstraction that means nothing or anything (amounting to the same thing).

Simply put, the problem was trying to define sex differences in a concrete, ‘scientific’ fashion. What is the difference between male & female? From a scientific point–of–view it can only be that of the organs of generation and some gaps in the standard deviation of certain skills and genetic propensities. There is no way to make concrete the traditional roles of the sexes— ergo, they must be mere abstractions and be discarded as relics of the pre–Baconian realm. Ah, it is good to cast off the traditional philosophy of Western civilization in exchange for our new, pure, and existent world order!

Christianity began to lose its grip on the human imagination when it began to ridicule and subvert God as an old man (perhaps with a beard) in a place called Heaven, who is our loving Father, and we his children.

The depiction of God as an "old man with a beard" is relatively late in Christianity, and is still highly suspect among many Orthodox Christians. The Father (and the Spirit) never took human form, so concretizing the Father by depicting him as such is—at best—risky, and—at worst—destructive of the proper relationship of man to God… a relationship where the very mystery of the Incarnation is subdued and pushed away!

Bruce Charlton said...

@Ariston - well, yes, but the point of this post is to take a good hard look at the kind of thing your are saying; and whether it really is what ought to be considered the bottom line for Christianity.

It seems to me that (with a few exceptions, of course) the most Christian people don't think this way; but at most pay their respects to these forms of words, while actually thinking in a very concrete and personalized fashion.

And there are shoals of other who turn away in disgust from what appears to them as evasive nonsense.

For example: "Why do bad things happen?" (War, Torture, vile disease).

Abstract answer: "Well... blah blah blah, yawn, zzzz (etc)" (Understood to mean I have no idea/ there is no satisfactory explanation).

Or concrete Answers: Sometimes because God our Heavenly Father loves us and wants us to be happy forever, and things that are nasty and make us miserable in the short term make us happier in the long term...

(Or sometimes because God is punishing us for sin to make us realize our wickedness and bring us to repentance - this makes him sad but he does it for our own good; sometimes because evil spirits are active in the world and trying to destroy all that is good - but because these evil spirits are also God's children and make free choices, God cannot completely stop them doing evil without bringing the world to an end; sometimes because God made us free, and free people will sometimes choose to harm each other which makes God very sad (etc).)

Ariston said...

What a coincidence!

Elsewhere, I have been addressing the fact that theodicy is perhaps the topic most unsuited to any sort of reasoning— abstract or concrete. This is in part because we can't even coherently separate the two in this instance, which makes our thinking even more scattered than usual! This is indeed a place where the tradition has most appealed to brute force, and rightly so, because it is an issue of belief or unbelief; if you are not convinced of belief, you cannot be convinced if you think the problem of evil is conclusive proof of God's nonexistence, and vice–versa. If you believe, you simply have faith that everything does work out, because God would not be God otherwise, it's that simple. Your ‘concrete’ answer is not concrete— it is an appeal to emotion and faith simpliciter. That doesn't make it wrong, but it is actually just as abstract as the more reified arguments; one can experience God's love, but one cannot experience it as an answer to the problem of evil except insofar as the experience God's love is evidence in favor of faith.

In contrast, subjects like the Trinity, or the wills of Christ are subjects which lend themselves to rational argumentation, because one can have faith and disagree on them. Indeed, such reasoning in the description & defense of abstract concepts serves the purpose of safeguarding faith.

It seems to me that (with a few exceptions, of course) the most Christian people don't think this way…

This line of argument is irrelevant. It's like saying, ‘most Christian people are not priests’, and therefore negating the reality and necessity of a priesthood. I think these sorts of appeals are essentially appeals to a strict equality; not all persons are suited to such thinking, or even capable of it. For the mass of Christians, the abstract principles of the Nicene Creed have and will always be statements they make in unison and under the authority of the Church and its tradition. The concrete is far more approachable to the mass of men, which is why even amongst otherwise faithful communicants, you see increasing resistance to those ideas; other than to the mystic (another minority), how can the Trinity be a concrete experience? From my observations (and personal experience) perhaps the only abstract doctrine of the Church a does also lend itself to experiential contact is that of the reality of the eucharistic banquet.

JP said...

We take abstract concepts like equality, freedom, justice; concepts which nobody understands

Most people think they understand these concepts. Few appreciate that their "understanding" is the product of Leftist indoctrination, not actual thought. Fewer still appreciate that these concepts, properly defined, are not mutually reinforcing but mutually contradictory (true freedom and justice produce inequality; equality necessarily demands restriction on freedom and perversion of justice).

Bruce Charlton said...

@JP - When I was a psychiatrist most people claimed to 'understand' depression; on the basis that they diagnosed and treated something they called depression.

But they mistook the mechanical process of following a protocol for understanding.

They 'knew' who had depression, 'knew' what to treat it with - but they could not say what depression actually was - who had this thing and who did not have this thing - they didn't even know what kind of a thing depression might be, and they did not notice that they did not know.

Same with antidepressants. The drugs were given to correct an abnormal psychological state, but people explained the drugs in terms of supposed effects on brain receptors - which is another matter entirely.

Nobody could explain what an antidepressant did in terms of psychology - and they didn't even notice they could not do this.

I am a sufficiently abstract thinker to notice that following a protocol was not the same as understanding, so I knew I did not understand. After about 15 years I had developed an understanding of these matters (i.e. the malaise theory of depression) - whether or not it is correct (in *some*, not all, depressed people), it is at least the *kind* of explanation that could count as understanding.

So even in an area as precise (and simple) as science it is possible for people to imagine they understand concepts - and it is not that their understanding is false, rather that what they are doing does not count as understanding.

How much more so in theology!

Bruce Charlton said...

@Ariston - I just ask you to consider what I am saying. There is a real and vital distinction between spontaneous understanding stories about human motivations and relations, and the understanding of abstract principles.

Intellectuals and church leaders almost always give primacy to the abstractions - e.g. to people 'believing' in high abstract formulations concerning the nature of the Trinity and Christ - and people who will not verbally endorse these abstractions may be accused of error, heresy, excommunicated or worse.

But I am suspicious of this; and of creeds as being regarded as the essence. It is, at least, very difficult to hold the line without sliding into legalism. And the less comprehensible, the more hazardous are the formulations.

There are large differences between Christian denominations in terms of the dominance of abstractions; and between people in these denominations - between, say, African Pentecostals or Chinese Home Church members (the growing zones of Christianity) and Roman Catholics or Calvinists.

And some of the most holy Christians are the least abstracting - and they would presumably be among the most likely to reveal 'heretical' beliefs under close questioning. Is this a defect?

Probably not, probably it is a strength - probably this is how Christianity is meant to be. Probably this (and not a more comprehensive and internally consistent theology) is what we should be striving for.

Steve said...

Reading this post reminded me of a favourite passage from Les Mesirables in which Victor Hugo touches on the "endless vistas of abstraction"...

"...putting aside the huge questions that fascinate and terrify, the endless vistas of abstraction, the chasms of metaphysics, all those depths which for the believer converge in God and for the atheist in limbo: destiny, good and evil, the conflict of man with man, the consciousness of men and the sleep-walking thought of animals, transformation by death and the recapitulation of lives in the tomb, the mysterious additions made by successive loves to the continuing self, the essence and the substance, the Nihil and the Ens, the soul, nature, liberty, necessity; problems sheer as precipices, sinister densities beckoning to the giants of human intellect; abysses which a Lucretius, a Paul, or a Dante explore with blazing eyes, steadfastly turned towards the infinite, which seem to kindle the stars....[the Bishop] was simply a man who observed these mysteries from outside, not looking too closely, not stirring them with his finger or letting them oppress his mind, but in a spirit deeply imbued with reference to the hereafter."