Convivium - Faith in our common life

Convivium Premiere Issue


Why One God Matters

by Diane Weber Bederman

Somewhere along the way to po litical correctness nirvana, God and religion became four-letter words. Western philosophy has developed a bad odour. So in the name of authenticity, we are being directed to "more authentic" locations. Religious fundamentalists on the right—so close-minded that nothing new can get in—and atheistic, agnostic and secular ideologues on the left—so open-minded that everything falls out—have become the modern incarnation of the serpent in the Garden of Eden. Western culture is being stifled in the middle. It is chic to look for oneself in Eastern meditative philosophies, religions and foreign cultures as if all the answers were there. Looking for oneself in a foreign world view is like trying to find your missing keys in a place you never visited.

What is the "self "? What does it mean to be authentic? What is an "authentic self "? Religious scholar Huston Smith asks, "What is the secret of the 'I' with which one has been on such intimate terms all these years yet which remains a stranger? What lurks behind the world's façade, animating it, ordering it—to what end?"

What is the self ? We cannot see it. We cannot touch it. It is not corporeal. We can lose parts of our body, but the self is still there in its entirety. Many sociologists, biologists and philosophers have defined and described "the self." Buddha defined the self (anatta) as things perceived by all of the senses, including the mind; but as they are merely percep tions, they should not be considered as things that can be owned or embraced by the "self." In the 20th century, sociologist George Herbert Mead envisioned the self as consisting of two parts: the "I"—the core that is creative and spontaneous yet unknowable—and the "me"—the social self, the image we have developed of ourselves through interactions with others. Erving Goffman's theory of dramaturgy is similar to Mead's in that there is a part of the self that is unknowable. What we do reveal are different faces that depend on time, place and circumstance. It is reminiscent of Shakespeare's concept of self from As You Like It: "All the world's a stage. And all the men and women merely players. They have their exits and their entrances; And one man in his time plays many parts."

Erik Erikson, a developmental psychologist and psychoanalyst, referred to the self as "the core" of a person's being. We are learning from neuroscientists such as Dr. Antonio Damasio, that humans, unlike animals, are aware of their own bodies—their own "self," which is the root of consciousness. To be conscious is to be open to the "Self," the universe and one's own unique self in the universe.

Philosopher Allan Bloom described the essence of the self as "mysterious, ineffable, indefinable, unlimited, creative, known only by its deeds; in short, like God, of whom it is the impious mirror image." There is a part of God that is concealed from us, a part that He would not share even with Moses. He insisted that Moses turn his face away when He moved past him. Perhaps we will come to know God and our authentic selves when the unknowable part of us, the divine spark, placed within by this unknowable God, comes face to face with its Creator.

The dictionary defines authentic as "genuine, true and reliable." To be authentic, one must be true to one's beliefs, values and goals, and then behave according to those beliefs, values and goals. This begs the primary question: upon what does one base one's beliefs, values and goals? In the West, for millennia, it has been ethical monotheism as revealed in the Hebrew Bible and the Gospels, Judaism and Christi anity. Ethical monotheism elevated the human being to a level just below that of the angels and brought about the greatest change in the collective uncon scious of humanity since the caveman made fire. Pantheism and paganism had kept us in bondage to the whims of nature, with constant sacrifices to the gods, and never allowed us to believe that we had any control over our lives. Time was cyclical rather than linear and we lived our lives like hamsters in a wheel. There was no sense of history with a begin ning and an end. And then came Abraham, and God calling out to him: "Come with me. Trust me."

And Abraham followed this one ineffable, unknow able, ethereal God who told him that we have control over our lives. We are still connected to the earth like all living things, but more is expected of us. This loving, caring, compassionate God demanded moral and ethical behaviour from us. Social justice and prophetic law obligate us to care for the weakest in society, the hungry, the poor, the sick, the widow and the orphan. And that we bury the dead. Among the obligations in a book written thousands of years ago, burying the dead is so important as to be specifically mentioned in social justice. Think of the implications. Think of the sa credness it places on human life. And yet, He made these demands available to us all.

"For this law which I am laying down for you today is neither obscure for you nor beyond your reach. It is not in Heaven, so that you need not wonder, 'Who will go up to heaven for us and bring it down to us, so that we can hear and practise it?' Nor is it beyond the seas, so that you need wonder, 'Who will cross the sea for us and bring it back to us, so that we can hear and practise it?' No, the word is near to you. It is in your mouth and in your heart for you to put into practise" (Deut 30:11-14).
The Hebrew Bible and the Gospels, Judaism and Christianity, provide moral absolutes that are the line in the sand, the bar to which we can aspire while others around us try to define right from wrong based on their wants and feelings. It was Machiavelli who decreed that selfishness is somehow good. And in the 21st century we have prophets of selfishness teaching us that the good man is not the one who cares for others. Rather, today's good man is the one who knows how to care for himself. We are encouraged, today, to define our authentic selves by the wants of the heart, rather than by the needs of the head. This is an immature, Manichaean response to serious ethical dilemmas. Cultural constraints are demeaned, forgetting that the ordeal of civility is required for an empathic, compassionate response to others. There are many times when we must sublimate our wants for the needs of others. In 1946, Lutheran Pastor Martin Niemoöller wrote this famous poem that speaks to the absence of a true authentic self:

First they came for the communists, and i did not speak out—
because i was not a communist.

then they came for the trade unionists, and i did not speak out—
because i was not a trade unionist.

then they came for the Jews, and i did not speak out—
because i was not a Jew.

then they came for me—
and there was no
one left to speak for me.

And this brings us back to Rabbi Hillel and authenticity. The authentic self does not solely concern itself with its wants (if I am not for myself) to the exclusion of the needs of others (if I am only for myself). We must define our values in order to begin the journey. Choosing to believe in one God, one accepts the obligations laid down in social justice and prophetic law. Moral and cultural relativism do not fit into this paradigm. Moral relativism lacks the universal principles and absolutes that would guide one's behaviour. Without absolutes each culture can have its own "truths." Cultural relativists do not compare or contrast behaviours between cultures because, to them, behaviour is considered right or wrong within its own culture. What are we to do, then, when we are faced with behaviour in other cultures that we consider morally repugnant? How do we respond to behaviours such as ethnic cleansing, human trafficking or stoning women to death? Can we con done child brides or young children forced to work in dank factories for barely subsistence wages?

Are we to accept these behaviours because these behaviours are accepted in those cultures where they occur? Or do we judge that behaviour and say "no" to it? If we stand up and say no, then we have made an absolute moral judgment. How do we reconcile relativism with the knowledge that some behaviour must never be tolerated? If you find your authentic self in a system with no hierarchyof morals, values and ethics, no obligations or con comitant responsibilities, what does that say about the authentic you?

The modern quest for the authentic self seems to focus on personal feelings, a turning inward for answers at the expense of behaviour—our respon sibility and obligation to others, to society. There is reluctance, especially in post-religion spirituality, for rules, for cultural or religious constraints on the self. Jean-Jacques Rousseau pondered the self and its relationship with society. He chose the way of feeling to learn about the secrets of the self. He learned about his self through "reverie, the dream, the old memory, a stream of associations unham pered by rational control." Socrates, by contrast, found the true nature of the self through reason, thinking and discussion. To him, authenticity was a vague criterion for distinguishing a healthy self. Bloom described the difference between Rousseau and Socrates as: "... Socrates talking to two young men about the best regime, with the image of Rousseau lying on his back on a raft floating on a gently undulating lake, sensing his existence."

i believe that authenticity has become a popular secular word for a secular world because it takes guilt away from selfishness.

To be authentic today means to be tr ue to one self, to prioritize one's needs and the wants of the per petual subject "i." this moder n concept of being tr ue to oneself has the potential to affect relationships within a community.

If ever yone in a community decides to be tr ue to one's self, what becomes of the common good? what defines the common good? who defines the common good?

It is ethical monotheism that questions the un bounded, "natural" authentic self and finds it wanting. It is ethical monotheism that teaches us that more is expected of us than pursuing individual rights and happiness. True authenticity comes from binding ourselves, like Abraham binding his son Isaac, to something beyond ourselves: to God and His teachings. As His children, created in His image, we have responsibilities, obligations and duties to others, and we must think beyond our own wants and needs and act with empathy and compassion.


 

About Diane Weber Bederman

Diane Weber Bederman was born and raised in Toronto but moved four years ago to a place she calls The Garden of Eden. Diane graduated from university with degrees in science and the humanities. Her love of religion led her into a residency in Clinical Pastoral Education at Toronto Hospital. Living with mental illness prompted Diane to write, produce and narrate The Many Voices of Mental Illness, a six part radio series which can now be found on her website, The Middle Ground, The Agora of the 21st Century at www.dianebederman.com which also includes topics about religion in the public square. Diane wrote for Huffington Post Canada, and now writes for Times of Israel and CanadaFreePress.