Why Metaphors Matter: There’s an ‘I’ in society…

Today’s blog is a digression from the series I’ve been working on regarding a Christian perspective of forgiveness.  I intend to come back to forgiveness in the near future.  However this week I read something which caught my eye and believe it is worth sharing.

Last week I read an article by James Gustafson called “Theology Confronts Technology and the Life Sciences”.  In this article Gustafson makes the point by-the-by that our ethical opinions about particular matters such as euthanasia, abortion, etc are impacted by how an individual views their relationship with society.  Gustafson suggests that there are two competing metaphors that are used:  mechanistic and organic.

Mechanistic metaphors are those which understand society as if it is a contract.  Individuals are seen as voluntary participants in a society without a “natural bond” between them.  An example of the mechanistic metaphor at work can be observed in the advent of human rights.  Human rights such as free-speech are things which have been agreed upon by participants of a society for the good of the individual.  The state functions to ensure these rights are maintained.  In this model the individual is valued above the whole.

The organic metaphor understands society as interrelated and interdependent.  Individuals are naturally connected.  In this metaphor the parts make up the whole; however the whole takes precedence over the individuals.  A good example of how the organic metaphor manifests itself is that of the environmentalist who cites the health of the planet as the highest good.

I believe that the metaphor we use has great implications for how we engage with society.  The example of Anne Coulter helps illustrate this point.  I heard an interview on the radio between a Canadian editor of “Now Magazine” and a journalist who works for Fox.  The journalist from Fox argued that preventing Coulter from speaking at the University of Ottawa violated her right to free-speech.  The Canadian responded by saying that in Canada free-speech and individual rights are not seen as the end or goal but rather the greater good of accepting minorities is the end. 

The point in citing this example is not to argue for one side or the other but rather to illustrate the impact that an organic (Now magazine) or a mechanistic (Fox news) has on particular ethical issues.  We are all part of many different societies:  work, country, province, church, school, family etc.  In each of these societies the metaphors we implicity use and the ones being advocated for by its other member may differ. Regardless of circumstance metaphors matter—it’s worthwhile to try and figure them out.


The Heart of the Matter III: I/Thou

The extent to which we see forgiveness as significant is determined by the importance we attach to relationships.  I believe that relationships are the source from which humans derive their very identities—without an “other” there can be no me.  This belief in philosophical language is called “I and Thou” and was first articulated by Jewish philosopher Martin Buber.  Because the idea of needing relationships in order to have some sense of self seems so foreign to the Western mindset I think two examples are required to comprehend this point.

Example #1 comes from Walter Brueggemann’s The Covenanted SelfIn the first chapter of this book Brueggemann explains I and Thou in the context of a baby and its mother.  He notes how a baby is dependent on her mother in every sense—not only for food and basic care but also for forming her identity.  When a baby is newly born the mother gives attention and praises everything the baby does–whether it smiles, burps, etc.  This display of love celebrates the baby for who she is and thereby encourages and allows her to gain a sense of self.  Of course as time goes on the mother must inevitably distance herself from her child and allow the baby to experience other “thous” and thereby obtain a healthier and more complete identity as she comes into contact and relates to other “I’s”.  This validity of Brueggemann’s example is most tragically driven home through the many cases of neglected infants who struggle the rest of their lives with their inability to form a healthy sense of self.

If example #1 provides a positive example of how identity is shaped through relationship then example #2 provides a negative example of what occurs when there is no “thou”.  What I have in mind here are the extreme cases where a human child is raised by animals.  These cases have been brought to the public’s attention through T.V. documentaries and books such as The Boy Raised as a Dog.  What these stories tell us is that if a human child is separated from other human contact at an early age and is instead surrounded by animals the child will actually behave more like the animal and less like a human.  In fact much of the damage caused by being raised by animals are irreversible.  In cases where humans raised by animals have been found and studied, scientists have noted that parts of their brains are missing—most notably the part which allows us to learn language.

Despite the fact that the two examples listed above may represent extreme examples, the principles of I/Thou still apply in more everyday examples.  We can imagine for instance how a spouse, child, parent, or friend draw out in their own unique way different parts of who we are and even to some extent shape our identity.  From basic examples such as the way we talk, the music we listen to, dress, and joke—to more important matters such as what we think about ourselves, God, and the world.  If we think about contact with others in this way then forgiveness becomes a serious matter indeed.  When I lose any thou, I lose a part of me.  The significance of this loss is obviously dependent on the closeness of relationship—however even still one fact remains:  we need each other.

The Heart of the Matter II: Those good ol’ fashioned values

I’ve decided to modify my approach and defer “I/Thou” to Part III since I think a more basic issue needs to be discussed first.  In Part I, I mentioned that forgiveness is a virtue–however it occurred to me that although many have a vague understanding of  “virtue” its technical or more nuanced form remains unexplained and so unknown.  For this reason I present a brief sketch of virtue theory.

Broadly speaking there are two types of ethical theories–theories of obligation such as utilitarianism (i.e. we ought to do what causes the most happiness) and virtue theory.  In contrast to theories of obligation, virtue theory assesses morality on the grounds of character.  There are two types of character traits:  virtue and vice.  Virtue are those character traits which allow one to fulfill their function in a society and are often found between two opposing destructive character traits called vices.

In the case at hand forgiveness can be seen as the trait which falls between being a “push over” and holding a grudge.  It is this type of thinking that leads to pop-philosophy like “everything in moderation”.

Because virtues are seen as character traits they are things to be practiced habitually.  Thus the virtuous person is the one who consistently models positive character traits as often as the situation calls for it.  Forgiveness is therefore not a one and done action but a habit practiced so often that it becomes a part of a person’s character.

Traditionally another significant component of virtue theory is what in the “olden days” was called telos.  Telos is a Greek word which refers to the purpose of life.  In the context of virtue theory this means that virtues are those character traits which when practiced allow the individual or group to fulfill their function/purpose in society.  Christians identify their telos as bringing reconciliation (forgiveness) to all spheres of life:  with God, other people, and with the physical environment.  Forgiveness is therefore an intrinsic and signficant virtue in the Christian life.

One of the more troubling points of Virtue Theory is the role of the community.  Because it is so rooted in fulfilling function, Virtue Theory requires people to view themselves as existing as a part of a whole rather than as an isolated individual free to do as they please.  This point will be addressed in more detail in part III

Community dovetails nicely into another aspect of virtue theory:  narrative.  Narratives are stories which a community (family, country, church, religion, etc) tells which shape life goals, attitudes, priorities, etc.  What one sees as virtuous thus largely depends on the type of story being told.  From a Christian perspective the story of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection causes forgiveness to be seen as one of the supreme virtues.

A final significant aspect of Virtue theory is its emphasis on the particular.  Unlike obligatory theories which stress a more or less cookie-cutter, one-size-fits-all approach, virtue theory has much greater flexibility.  Although virtue theory maintains that the virtues should be practiced constantly, the form they take changes greatly depending on the situation.  For example we can imagine how practicing the virtue of generosity can look differently depending on your class/age/situation:  as a child you may share a toy, as a student your time, and as a wealthy person you may share your riches.  In each situation the act is different but the virtue remains the same.  With forgiveness this is also true.  We can imagine, for example, how forgiving someone for cutting us off on the road may look different from more extreme situations like forgiving someone of physical abuse.

The heart of the matter…Part I

One of the hot topics in theological circles right now is the atonement.  Opinions regarding how salvation has been provided by Christ to humans are numerous.  Some people believe that there is only one right way to understand what happened in this event whereas others are content to believe that the various theories of atonement are better thought of as metaphors which help explain the event.

 To be frank, I find most discussions about the atonement to be a crashing bore.  I know this may be borderline blasphemous considering that I am, after all, a master’s student of theology.  However what I have found is that there appears to be some sort of disconnect between how people view the atonement and how forgiveness works in human relationships.  It seems likely to me that the way humans practice the virtue of forgiveness should at least be analogous to the way God has provided forgiveness through the Christ event. 

For this reason I wish to present for your amusement and edification my understanding of forgiveness.  It is my hope that the suggestions I make will help you make sense of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus and eradicate any ‘formulaic’ understanding of God that may be lurking in your life.

These thoughts originate in a lecture I gave last April on the virtue of forgiveness.  The impetus for these musings stem from my own attempt to integrate my life experience with “theoretical data”. 

The first entry coming soon will be on “I/Thou”

To Thine Own Self Be True: Authenticity as a Helpful Guide for Making Ethical Decisions

For the past several weeks I have been thinking about an article in the Vancouver Sun written by Douglas Todd.

The article, written in the context of the Olympics, suggests that a helpful tool for making ethical decisions is authenticity–i.e. the ethical merit of a decision can be measured by the extent to which it reflects “being true to oneself”. The importance of making tough ethical decisions remains significant even as the morally “mixed-bag” that was the Olympics fades into the rearview mirror.

The question Todd asks is therefore an important one:  should our ethical decisions take into account our own unique identities?

Before answering this question a little more needs to be said regarding what is exactly meant by the words “be true to yourself”.  Certainly authenticity should not be taken to mean that a person can in good conscience suspend their moral faculties and merely respond to situations with a “gut-reaction”.  Rather Todd argues that authenticity should be understood in light of the good of the community.  In other words when an individual is making an ethical decision part of the process should include asking themself how they, in light of who they are as an individual, could best contribute to the good of the community.

If understood in this light the idea of being true to oneself suddenly seems like a helpful criterion.  For instance it holds together in healthy tension the worth and autonomy of individual people and humanity’s intrinsically communal nature.  For this and other reasons Todd’s approach is one that I find helpful provided the following nuance is added:  rather than making decisions on who we are vis-a-vis the community we should make decisions based on who we ought to be.   Because it is fresh in my experience I’ll use my Olympic experience as an example to explain what I mean:

In a previous blog I expressed my mixed feelings towards the Olympics but also noted that I wouldn’t be donning a balaclava for the purpose of protesting.  Instead I engaged in moderate participation in the Olympic festivities including several trips to Robson Square and a medal ceremony at B.C. place highlighted by an excellent performance by Burton Cummings.  My participation was not a matter of being caught up in the moment or compromising my convictions about the Olympics by giving in and joining the party but rather a matter of being “true to myself”.  I am not a protestor.  It’s simply not a part of my makeup–rather I believe that my role vis-a-vis the communities of which I am a part requires me to participate in the good while trying to abstain from and draw attention to the bad.  That being said it is difficult for me to understand how I would have become aware of the Olympic “darkside” without people being true to their “calling” as protestors.  It is equally difficult for me to perceive how I would see the good without people in my life who simply enjoy the party as it presents itself.

It therefore seems most likely to me that the potential of ethical success in a given situation is maximized when individuals make the best possible and authentic decisions in the context of what is best for the community.  Although it is difficult for those of us who tend to find themselves on the ends of the spectrum (an Olympic e.g. are protestors and Olympic fanatics) to recognize the value of those on the opposite side the fact remains that our various communities whether they be families, cities, churches, or country may be less than they are today without the presence of the other.