Wednesday 19 July 2023

The difference between old-fashioned discernment, and Romantic Christianity

There is a sense in which all Christians have always practiced "discernment". 

That is, Christians could only seldom - and never continuously - live in complete and perfect obedience to The Church (whatever that church might be). Because the situations of life are specific, while rules are general; and because there was always a degree (sometimes a very large degree) of disunity (or at least ambiguity) among the statements and instructions of church authorities. 

So people might not know exactly what to do, and would need to make up their own minds; or people would have to decide who to obey when contradictory instructions were given - and so forth. 

But this kind of discernment acknowledged that ultimately - legitimate authority lay externally from each Man - in the church - mediated by the church, not the individual person; and that therefore discernment was being used to discover the true nature of that authority. 

The core purpose of ancient unity was a life of obedience. 

This ancient kind of discernment was essentially passive and partly unconscious - indeed, it had something of the quality of an 'unfortunate necessity'. Ideally, as little discernment as possible would be necessary in life - because church guidance was clear and unified, and people would be naturally obedient. 

And when life did not change much from one generation to another: such an ideal could be approached closely. 

Indeed, the ideal of ancient discernment was to forget itself, and to assume that the Christian life was a life of simple obedience to the church; unchanging and clear guidance for in navigating-through the recurrent, repeating, problems of human life. 

At all costs, awareness of the discernment of individual persons was not supposed to extend to a sense of active responsibility for one's salvation and conducting life. The desired discernment was externally-directed, towards discovering the true-source of guidance within the church - and was not striving to be self-aware.   

The consciousnesses of modern Men are differently constituted; and this affects both laymen and priests, those within and outside the churches: all churches.

Overwhelmingly; Modern Man experiences himself (whether he likes it or not) as starting from the situation of being cut-off from the institutions of his society. His condition is one of alienation.

He no longer takes institutions for granted, can no longer un-consciously follow their guidance, can no longer actually-be passive and obedient merely. 

This alienation, cut-offness, is now simply taken for granted as the basis of our society, in multiple forms of discourse. It does not need arguing - it is just assumed as a situation, as a problem. 

Life is experienced as choices; and these choices impinge on consciousness - we choose and are aware that we choose. 

Such awareness permeates modern discourse - it is the subject matter of the vast bulk of modern stories and narratives - such that we simply take it for granted. Yet to experience life as multiple choices is recent, modern; and was not an aspect of ancient human life (except maybe for a very few exceptional individuals). 

What this modern consciousness means is that the ancient discernment is not possible

I would also argue that ancient discernment is not desirable either; that ancient discernment is now "not a good thing" - but the fact of its impossibility is one reason why striving for it is not desirable.

But what we have nowadays instead of ancient discernment is self-blinding and dishonesty. In other words people who claim to be anciently-discerning are actually obscuring their own acts of conscious discernment (perhaps by not-thinking, by distraction, by projection...) - or else they know they are consciously discerning but lie about the fact - maybe for exploitative, maybe for manipulative reasons.   

At the very least; ancient discernment is nowadays something chosen, rather than something spontaneous; it is something we are aware or doing (or, more often, as aspiring to do) rather than something so natural that it Just Happens. 

What Romantic Christianity does is to recognize the change in consciousness; and to assume (from an understanding of world history, and the nature of the divine plan) that this change was of-God. 

In other words; modern man's consciousness is different because (and in so far as) God wants it that way - for our own good, for the good of our actual, specific souls; as these were incarnated into this mortal life. 

God wants for us to make conscious choices, and to know we are doing so: and to take responsibility for doing so! 

God does not want for us not-to-think, to distract or suppress awareness; to pretend that 'nothing has happened' and that the religious life Now is the same as for a Catholic peasant in the Christian-permeated (no-alternatives) societies of the Middle Ages. 

God does not want us to be dishonest with ourselves or with others - even (especially!) when this dishonesty is self-justified as a "necessary lie" for the public good... Does not want that we try and pretend that our Christian life can be, or is; one of 'simple obedience' to a church whose ultimate goodness and authority should simply be taken for granted. 

Surely? God wants for us to be honest: therefore wants us to be honest about our situation - and honest that it is what it is

Nowadays discernment is far more necessary, more frequent; and far more conscious - than ever in the past; and this Just Has overturned the earlier ideal of the Christian life as being one of passive, unconscious, self-forgetful obedience to an external institution - A Church.  

We now actually-have (like it or not) an active role in chiseling-out our own path through life. We are aware of being personally responsible for many discernments about which we could, in the past, have been unconscious. 

Our situation is what it is, our discernment ought to be active, we should take full responsibility for the necessary and frequent choices of Christian living, and we should strive-for, and explicitly acknowledge, the fullest-possible consciousness of all this! 

That is perhaps one fundamental assumption of "Romantic Christianity": deliberately taking conscious and personal responsibility for that which - in the past - were often matters of obedience to an external (ideal) institution.  


William Wright (WW) said...

I don't think it takes any assumption of a change in human consciousness, awareness, or the need to make choices over the ages to explain a shift in how individuals interact with Christian institutions. It seems a shift in belief and power, at both a population and individual level, might be a simpler way of interpreting things.

Modern Man recognizes the external authority of political, social, and even religious institutions just as passively, blindly, and obediently as you described ancient Men doing so with Christianity, with recent and ongoing events, I think, validating this. What has changed is the nature of which institutions are believed in, followed, and thus which ultimately have power.

The feeling of being cut off in this scenario may also have more to do with the proliferation of these institutions (made possible through modern tools and technology) and the inherent discord and strife they are causing as their various adherents do battle with each other.

Bruce Charlton said...

@WW - I completely accept, indeed I insist!, that one cannot derive the truth of the development of consciousness from empirical observations.

So - yes, *of course*! - the data of history and of the present Can be explained without assuming that there has been a development of consciousness.

This is the vital distinction between metaphysics and natural science. Metaphysics comes first and is more fundamental, because it can neither be refuted nor confirmed by observations.

All I am doing in the post is showing *how* the observations can be explained by the metaphysical assumptions I hold; I am certainly not trying to *prove* the validity of the metaphysics by listing compatible observations - because that would be to reverse the causal relationship.

The important thing for someone who wishes to explain - as nearly everybody does, usually unconsciously - the observations of history *without* any change of consciousness; is to try and relate this assumption to God's plan of creation.

*I* am saying that God is primarily concerned with the nature Man's consciousness, individually and collectively; and that God uses such changes as a causal driver of history.

Other possibilities are to assume that God is indifferent to Man's consciousness, that all Men in all societies throughout all of history have identical consciousness, or that God made Men with a passive consciousness that is driven-by social factors.

Some of these possibilities seem absurd to me; when God the creator is known to be a loving parent/s -- but these are exactly the kind of assumptions that needs to be exposed, acknowledged, and intuitively evaluated.

William Wright (WW) said...


Your statements on metaphysics assumptions make a great deal of sense.

To be clear, I am not stating the consciousness hasn't changed or explaining reality through that lens. I would actually argue that consciousness has changed a great deal, but in the opposite direction that you are suggesting. Whereas you assume a more aware and conscious Modern Man, I think we are far less aware and conscious then were Men anciently, and our current condition reflects this.

In a world dominated by entropy, as you have written about, and with the reality of choice and consequence, one would almost expect this to be the case.

This scenario doesn't need to mean God is indifferent or not a loving parent. It only means that there are 'rules of the game', and these rules are real. The hope is that God knows this - the rules and their implications - better than anybody, being more intelligent than all of us, and his plan for our redemption takes all of this into account.

It may mean, however (and counterintuitively) that it has been further down into the abyss and darkness, a deterioration of our collective and individual condition and capabilities (with perhaps some way to go) before the light comes, rather than a gradual evolution upward.

Bruce Charlton said...

@WW "It may mean, however (and counterintuitively) that it has been further down into the abyss and darkness, a deterioration of our collective and individual condition and capabilities (with perhaps some way to go) before the light comes, rather than a gradual evolution upward."

This comment makes me suspect you have fundamentally misunderstood what I am saying.

I am Not asserting that we are engaged in a gradual evolution upward in any kind of moral sense, or theosis; and I Do believe (and have stated hundreds of times on this blog over the past 13 years) that the world Now is far more evil than at any time in human history (so far as I know history, anyway).

Because never before have value inversions been so widespread nor regarded (officially, by leadership) as good; nor has common sense, basic human virtue, and traditional/ spontaneous truth ever before been so systematically regarded as evil.

William Wright (WW) said...

Yes, I am likely misunderstanding.

My last comment, however, wasn't about good or evil and whether more or less, but rather about our condition and capabilities - including our awareness, consciousness, and recognition of choices and their consequences - with a view that these are potentially impaired and getting worse and not better or sharper, even as we face an environment such as you describe which puts increasing demands on them.