Every Some third Saturdays of the month I intend to re-post something I wrote for one of my assorted old blogs or tumblogs. This week I am revisiting the Thinking Grounds for “Other People’s Epics.” The first sentence is no longer quite true, but otherwise I think it holds of reasonably well. I spun out this theme quite a lot, possibly ad nauseum, at the Thinking Grounds. Immediate sequels included “Other People’s Mystery Novels” and “Other People’s [Insert Genre]s.”
Briton Riviere’s Una and the Lion. Una is the romantic interest of Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene: Book One. Source: Sofi at flic.rk/p/ftjgXA
Other People’s Epics
One of my recurrent pastimes is to imagine what another person’s epic might look like.
As far as genres go, the epic is one of my favourites to think about. No individual epic counts among my favourite books (though, you know, Paradise Lost is pretty great). The reason I like thinking about them is that, at least in the English tradition, they have become a kind of formal game, thanks to the humanists of early modern England. (Note to readers: “early modern” is the new PC term for “Renaissance;” in England the early modern period spans the 1500s and 1600s, but it got started earlier in Italy, France, Spain, the Netherlands, etc.). Let’s dive into a bit of history, shall we?
[You may want to read Part 1 and Part 2 first.]
Source: Ruth at flic.kr/p/rQKEbo
W. Paul Jones seems to have two uses in mind for his Theological Worlds construct: self-diagnosis and pastoral planning. First, the Theological Worlds can help individuals understand themselves. Second, the Theological Worlds can help churches organize their congregation into sub-congregations according to Theological World so that the congregants are engaging with people who fundamentally understand them. If the Inventory is mostly useless to you because, as I discussed previously, the questions make no sense to you, the first use does not apply to you. If you aren’t part of a congregation or other group that might reasonably organize itself in the way Jones imagines, the second use also does not apply to you.
These aren’t the only uses, though. My first exposure to Jones was through Richard Beck, and one of his insights was that if people don’t understand that everyone has their own Theological World, standard attempts of proselytization will fall flat:
Now, it’s a big shocker for some Christians to find out that many of their brothers and sisters don’t live within this theological world. Sin isn’t their obsessio. Not that they deny the existence and problem of sin, just that sin isn’t the defining quandary of their spiritual lives.
I am an example of a Christian of this stripe. Sin and guilt isn’t my obsessio. If you tell me that I’m going to hell I’ll just blink at you blandly and yawn. I’m emotionally unmoved. To be clear, it’s not that I don’t want to go to heaven. I do. I just don’t spend my life trying to save my own skin.
(Read Part 1 first.)
Source: the LAMP at flic.kr/p/ejNXiW
Having read his book, I had expectations about which theological world(s) W. Paul Jones’s Theological Worlds Inventory would place me in. World 3—that of T. S. Eliot’s “hollow men,” of people who feel like they might be wearing a mask over a personal emptiness—had most appealed to me in the book. Immediately on reading about it I felt an overwhelming recognition that I felt when reading about neither World 1 or World 2. (This was itself a bit of a surprise: based on the book’s introduction, World 3 did not look promising.) I had expected World 2 (animated by a conflict between violent chaos and small bastions of peace) to follow it fairly closely, and then World 4 (concerned with personal sin and forgiveness) a bit after. I did not expect to have much in common with World 1 (haunted by the universe’s apparent meaninglessness) or World 5 (characterized by unremitting suffering and endurance).
So while I was not surprised that the Inventory placed me high in World 3, I was surprised that it placed me just as high in World 5. (World 2 followed close, and Worlds 1 and 4 were equally and very far behind.) Indeed, the results are a bit flat and I think there might be problems with the Inventory itself, but on reading the descriptions in the Inventory I’m inclined to agree that I’m just as much an inhabitant of World 5 as World 3. I’ll discuss this in detail toward the end of the post; first, I want to look at the Inventory itself and the reasons I think it has problems.
One of the lenses through which I look at ideas and the people who hold them is W Paul Jones’s theological worlds concept. I wrote about Jones’s theological worlds before here, having learned about them in his book of the same name; they are personality types of a sort, though they pertain more to a person’s root cosmology than to whether or not a person enjoys going to parties.
Source: Classic Art Wallpapers at flic.kr/p/nKDY9i
I want to talk a bit more about the theological worlds now that I’ve taken Jones’s “Theological World Inventory” and gotten somewhat surprising results. As such rather a lot of this discussion will be navel-gazing, but I think even so that will throw off some useful material nonetheless. In this first post I’ll re-introduce the concept; in the second I’ll discuss the Inventory and my results; in the third I want to think a bit about the typology’s usefulness (including to whom the typology is useful).
Each theological world represents the fundamental dynamic, or perhaps dialectic, underlying a person’s engagement with the world. Jones’s own words from the introduction to his inventory will work as an introduction to the idea:
A World results from the interaction between two poles. The first is one’s obsessio, that lived question, need, ache, or dilemma which has its teeth into us at the deepest level. Other concerns are variations on that basic theme, standing in line behind its importance. The second pole is one’s epiphania, that which through one or more events, moments, and/or persons brings sufficient illumination, satisfaction, or healing to provide a lived answer worth wagering one’s life upon. One’s epiphania is what touches promisingly one’s obsession as fact or as hope.1
Source: Kaysha at flic.kr/p/sK8Pe3
Watching Mad Max: Fury Road (Miller 2015), which I very much enjoyed, I was struck by how existentialist the film was; indeed, it made me realize that all post-apocalyptic fiction has an existentialist seed. But then, there is also something post-apocalyptic about existentialism. God is dead, spake Friedrich Nietzsche in 1882. God remains dead. And we have killed him. If that doesn’t announce an apocalypse, I don’t know what does.
When Nietzsche declared God dead, he was not making a metaphysical claim but rather a moral and psychological claim: at one point, humanity relied on the authority of God to guarantee moral questions. In order to decide what to do, what kind of decision to make, they appealed to God; moreover, this appeal was beyond question. But as Nietzsche pointed out, by the end of the seventeenth century God no longer had ultimate moral authority. People might well still believe in God and derive their morality from that belief, but it was no longer the case that any moral code, any moral prescript, was unquestionable. God as a figure for absolute norms was dead. This was not a physical apocalypse but it was, at least, a social and ethical one. And as with so many apocalypses, some of us survived it (though, as Dallas Hunt might point out, the question is not so much “did we survive?” but “who is the ‘we’ that survived?”).
Even if you’ve only been paying attention to me since I started this blog, one thing you might have noticed is that I am interested in other people’s various worldviews. In particular I find myself compelled by their structures or their shapes.* I enjoy looking at these worldviews on their own, but I also like gathering together different tools for analyzing each worldview. For instance, I wrote about contextual and idiosyncratic theology and philosophy, and in the course of that I described W. Paul Jones’s theological worlds. Even more than Jones, Richard Beck’s writing at Experimental Theology on Terror Management Theory, derived from the insights of Ernest Becker, especially influences my thought. Beyond my own favourites there are many ways of describing the shape of a worldview.
Source: Rob Deutscher at flic.kr/p/bF8brf
When I mention these general ways of organizing worldviews to friends, family, and acquaintances, some people respond well and some people are resistant. I suspect that many people resist because looking at the forms and functions worldviews generally take calls into question how true those worldviews can or might be. Should we be suspicious of a worldview that looks quite generic in its shape, if not in its details? What are the odds that a worldview is true if it is good at resolving psychological tensions, what many people call wish-fulfillment? I think, though, that this is the wrong way of looking at the problem.
[Note: An unedited version of this post slipped my notice and was published. The changes were in the order of the material presented, in correcting typos, and in adding links.]
I have another question for you.
Last week I asked about a possible analogy in philosophy for contextual theology; if all theology is contextual, because in different contexts people have different questions and people who ask different questions find different answers, surely the same must be true for other forms of inquiry, like philosophy? And if some theology makes explicit its origins in a particular context, is there or could there be some philosophy that makes explicit its own origins in its own context?
Source: Steve Rhodes at flic.kr/p/e8p8tR
Well, now I have a new question.
While describing W. Paul Jones’s 1989 Theological Worlds with my brother the other day, it occurred to me that psychology, personality, or idiosyncrasy might play a role in a person’s philosophy as well. Of course it is obvious to say this in the sense of lay philosophy, of the attitudes and approaches all people carry about with them, but I’d like to think about how academic philosophy might be idiosyncratic as well. Bear in mind, of course, that my experience of academic philosophy is distant at best (I read it now and again, and I took a few courses in my undergraduate: an Intro to Philosophy, the Philosophy of Mathematics, and an Ethics and Social Philosophy course).
Let’s begin with Theological Worlds and then move on to more general ideas. (I am going to describe the Worlds at some length in order to help you get a sense of what Jones means; if it becomes too much, read only the next three paragraphs and then skip to the bottom.)
Annabel Lyon’s The Golden Mean is a first novel that does not read like a first novel, likely because the author was first a poet; the pacing and characterization are both very professionally done, and tie in well with the novel’s central themes. That connection is important, given that this is a novel about Aristotle as he tutors the young prince of Macedon who will become Alexander the Great, and that its themes include philosophy’s effects on life, and life’s influences on philosophy. You can see traces of the way Aristotle’s experiences sow the seeds for his philosophy, to the extent that late in the novel Alexander accuses Aristotle of creating a philosophy out of how great it is to be Aristotle. Like everything Alexander says, this criticism is unfair and it is also very close to the truth; its perversity is in how he can fumble or limit the truth just as he grasps it.*
Of course The Golden Mean is about Aristotle in Macedon, and Aristotle’s life to that point; it is also about depression, at times, or the soul’s vicissitudes generally; it is about the relationship between teachers and students, fathers and sons, and the ways they fail each other. Toward the end of the novel it seems as though Lyon wanted us to understand that the novel was about what counts as the good life: certainly this is Aristotle’s question, but in the last fifth of the novel particular versions of this question—“What is the mean between extremes?”; “Is it better to live a life of action or a life of contemplation?”—become more obvious and insistent. I do not know whether this is primarily my failure or primarily the novel’s, but it was not clear to me until the end that these were the novel’s major questions, and I would not have noticed if Lyon had not made it so obvious, almost too obvious, in the final pages. But of course the question about the good life is the one that most occupied the Greek philosophers, so it makes sense that it should occupy a book about Aristotle.