Scapegoating Descartes

It feels right that this would be my first blog post in my newfound role as a "scholar" of Comparative Theologies and Philosophy. It feels right, in that, it is a sufficiently difficult topic to unpack, and that I will inevitably sound ignorant about three-quarters of the way through and you will understand why "scholar" is in quotes.

I was raised in a conservative evangelical Christian environment and through my undergraduate and graduate studies I have been influenced by Eastern traditions (Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, Jainism) as well as Western traditions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam). I also own that, as a white male, I carry a level of comfort and status with me that can be disadvantageous for those persons of color around me. I too comfortably sit in the world of academia and posses scholarships and employment that allow me to do so. I am not Black nor do I understand the Black struggle. Yet, as I sit here I feel the need to advocate for Black Americans, not as a salvific figure, but instead as one who seeks to surrender my previous perspective and privilege in hopes that others will follow.  

As  "March of the Witch Hunters" from Schwartz & Holzman's musical Wicked plays in my head, I welcome to the post, our sacrificial lamb, Rene Descartes. 

The traditional Western world roots its mechanistic view of the world in the philosophy of the Greek atomists of the fifth century B.C.E. Here I am speaking specifically of Leucippus and his student Democritus who proposed that "all matter was composed of small indivisible particles called atoms." It is worth noting that both Leucippus and Democritus thought that these atoms were purely passive and in order to be moved needed an external force. The majority Greek understanding of this time was that these atoms were moved by an external force assumed to be of a spiritual origin, and thus "fundamentally different from matter. (Stay with me... through this history lesson)

It was this thinking that gave rise to the dualism between the spirit and matter, and more specifically, between the mind and the body, which today exists as characteristic of Western thought. It is this fifth century B.C.E. dualism that Descartes formulated into its most well known form in his philosophy dating to the seventeenth century C.E. 

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In short, Descartes formulated a philosophical world view with said, "The material universe was a machine and nothing but a machine. Nature worked according to mechanical laws, and everything in the material world could be explained in terms of the arrangement and movement of its parts... Plants and animals were inhabited by a rational soul, but the human body was indistinguishable from an animal-machine." This dualistic view of the universe, body and mind, would become known in popular parlance as "Cartesian Dualism."

I will not bore you with the science or details of the entrenchment of Cartesian dualism into the modern consciousness other than to say: Isaac Newton... Newtonian physics, (Do your Googles.) Needless to say, the natural sciences, as well as the humanities and the social sciences, all accepted this mechanistic view of reality; and modeled their own theories accordingly. In short, Cartesian dualism is still as evident in the West today, as it was in the seventeenth century. This has been my experience of Christianity. Don't believe me? Have you heard these things? Do you sing these words in church?

  1. We are not of this world...

  2. I am a spiritual body living a worldly existence.

  3. This earth is not my home, I'm just passing through.

Cartesian dualism abounds. 

**You are now leaving the three-quarters area of this post. Come back now, ya hear!**

I want to be intentional in stating that I am not bashing Christianity or Western thought. I am a proud Christian, a mostly proud American, and a child of Western philosophy. However, I believe that both science and religion have advanced beyond the base understandings of fifth century B.C.E atomists and seventeenth century C.E. philosophers. We now live in a world where we know "an elementary particle is not an independently existing unanalyzable entity. It is, in essence, a set of relationships that reach outward to other things." It turns out that Disney was right all along: It is "a small world after all." (Earworms are free.)

If we as Christians would examine our text, I believe we would find God (through the text) calling us to an understanding of interconnectedness with nature and humanity.

Case in point, 

  1. "...restore him gently... carry each others' burdens... share... let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers." Galatians 6

  2. "There is no faithfulness, no love, no acknowledgement of God in the land. There is only cursing, lying and murder, stealing and adultery, they break all bounds and bloodshed follows bloodshed. Because of this the land mourns, and all who live in it waste away; the beasts of the field and the birds of the air and the fish of the sea are dying." Hosea 4:2-3

  3. "Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ." 1 Corinthians 12

Things are not always good or bad, hot or cold, yes or no, Black or White; this dualism is a falsehood, an understanding of the world for a bygone age. We know better today; and today, we are called to live more full lives.

The fact that I fail to understand the life experience of the Black Americans around me does not negate their experience. My failure to see injustice does not mean that the injustice doesn't exist. Just because I didn't understand the intricacies of Beyoncé's Formation video doesn't mean I need to. Not everything is Black or White, good or bad, right or wrong; life happens in the grey between the dualism. It is my job to recognize our interconnectedness, our shared humanity, and to lay down my privileges for the advancement of those around me, even when I fail to see the full picture. Perhaps most importantly sometimes, I can just sit in silence. 

In closing, I want to share this story as recounted by Henri J.M. Nouwen in his book Reaching Out. You can find this full story on page 45. Speaking about one of his former students who returned to visit him, he writes, 

We sat on the ground facing each other and talked a little about what life had been for us in the last year, about our work, our common friends, and about the restlessness of our hearts. Then slowly as the minutes passed by we became silent. Not an embarrassing silence but a silence that could bring us closer together than the many small and big events of the last year. 

We could hear a few cars pass and the noise of someone who was emptying a trash can somewhere. But that did not hurt. The silence which grew between us was warm, gentle and vibrant. Once in a while we looked at each other with the beginning of a smile pushing away the last remnants of fear and suspicion. It seemed that while the silence grew deeper around us we became more and more aware of a presence embracing both of us. Then he said, "it is good to be here" and I said, "Yes it is good to be together again," and after that we were silent again for a long period. 

As a deep peace filled the empty space between us he said hesitantly, "When I look at you it is as if I am in the presence of Christ." I did not feel startled, surprised or in need of protesting, but I could only say, "it is the Christ in you, who recognizes the Christ in me." "Yes," he said, "He is indeed in our mist," and then he spoke the words which entered into my soul as the most healing words I had heard in many years, "From now on, wherever you go, or wherever I go, all the ground between us will be holy ground."

May all the ground between you and I be holy ground. 

- Jason