Descartes: To do is to be.
Voltaire: To be is to do.
Sinatra: Do be do be doo.
That always made me chuckle, because it seems so true to life - both philosophy-life and life in general. Quite often we divide people into two camps, the people content to contemplate life from their armchairs and the ones that get out there and do the work of saving the world.
I am naturally the first sort. I like to think that I have a special gift for thinking about philosophy and that in a way I am saving the world (a very small way), because truth matters and it's important to think about these things and maybe occasionally blog about it. Anyone can organize a consciousness-raising bake sale or occupy Wall Street or the like. Or more precisely, someone else can; I know that this "to be is to do" mode is hard work and skilled work, and not just anyone can do it. Still, I don't feel drawn to it and would rather deal with things in theory. Which is important, too.
I'm not so convinced things separate out that easiily, though. There are two news stories, both from HuffPo's religion section, that have me thinking that we need a bit of both.
Rev. Dr. Mark Achtemeier: Coming Out as an Evangelical Supporter of Gay Rights
Rose Marie Belforti, Town Clerk, Has Conservatives Rallying Around Her Over Same-Sex Marriage
The first concerns a Presbyterian minister whose denomination recently ordained the first openly gay clergyman. (Nice job, guys, btw!) Dr. Achtemeier talks about how he at first was convinced that homosexuality was not only sinful but that "with pastoral compassion, gay and lesbian people could become "normal" through repentance and prayer." Hearing him describe it, it sounds like his heart was in the right place even then. But his actions I definitely can't condone. He actually helped push for the denomination rule keeping homosexuals out of the clergy, but now in 2011 he actually spoke at the ordination - and blogs openly in praise of it, which I know takes a kind of courage.
He didn't have what might be labeled in Christian metaphor a Damascus moment: the blinding flash of light when the scales fall from our eyes and we see things clearly, all at once. Rather, it was a series of experiences with devout Christians who were also homosexuals, and also some serious soul-searching (and Bible searching) of his own. He was willing to face the logical implications of his belief and try to change what he believed. Whether or not you agree with his starting point or his ending one, I think you have to admit that took courage, too. It was crucial, though, to letting him grow into the man who can take real joy in an event he once would have dreaded.
And that change took more than just being buffeted on by life's events. It took real effort on his part.
The second link is about a clerk in Ledyard, NY who has refused to register same-sex couples in defiance of the recent law. Her reasoning? "I am a Christian. The Bible tells me that marriage is between a man and a woman so I don't feel I can endorse the new (state) law. I don't feel it is right." Setting aside the many issues about representing the law and duties to fulfill promises (and there are many!), I find it simply astounding how someone could state so simple that "the Bible tells me" anything. As if it was a simple, distinct moment of revelation and not the continuing promise. She is so sure that she doesn't think the law should apply to her, or even her special duty to execute the law.
That kind of certainty always rubs me the wrong way. Of course, I do not know her thought-process beforehand, and to be fair I imagine Dr. Achtemeier might have acted similarly at various points in his life. But even so, from what we are told it looks to me like she is so driven toward action (here non-action is a type of action) that she is blocking out proper reflection. To much doing, not enough being. And while it seems Dr. Achtemeier has things sorted out now, I wager he can look back and think of times when he wished he'd acted. I know I have. I can easily imagine him with too much being, not enough doing.
So how do we find the balance? There's an idea in my favorite philosopher Anselm that I think is useful. He's most famous for the ontological argument that people say proves God exists; like it was a completely logical enterprise. Not quite. Anselm is trying to understand something he already believes, to find a key that will allow him to conceive of the inconceivable. And this whole process starts with conclusion:
leave behind for a time your preoccupations; seclude yourself for a while from your disquieting thoughts. Turn aside now from heavy cares, and set aside your wearisome tasks. Make time for God, and rest a while in Him. Enter into the inner chamber of your mind; shut out everything except God and what is of aid to you in seeking Him; after closing the chamber door, seek Him out. Speak now, my whole heart; speak now to God: I seek Your countenance; Your countenance, O Lord, do I seek. (Proslogion Ch. 1; tr. Jasper)
It's a familiar process. Robert McMahon named it the medieval meditative ascent, and he actually lays it out pretty well in the first chapter of his book. It's a technical concept, but the ninety-second version is it's a journey toward enlightenment, where we anchor ourselves in the "real" world but are drawn in stages toward God. Think of it like a person bound by elastic to some spot. At first he goes just a little away before being pulled back, then a little more and a little further still as the elastic loses its ability to hold him in. But what's key to the MMA, at least in Anselm, is you alternately flee from what we would call reality (but that is anything but real), really. You do a stage of the journey, come back to us, live with it, and then pick up the journeying again.
Anselm's not alone in this, by the way; he's just the example that's clearest to mind. We also have Descartes, who in the Meditations sets aside the physical world for a while to really dwell in his thoughts - but only so he can figure things out and use them practically. Plato's Cave allegory has the same motif: the escaped prisoner, having encountered the Good, turns around and teaches the truth he has learned to his fellows. Even if it means his death! We learn, and then we use.
Only it's misleading to say that the using doesn't also bring about its own learning. I find I truly start understanding things when I have a thought in mind and open up my eyes to the word around me. When I think about what language means and start talking about whether a Republican is just what the majority of Republicans believe, or if there is an intrinsic quality to it all (so "true" Republicans aren't just the latest philosophy du jour). And without knowledge and understanding, our actions won't be at all organized. We do need time away, to "find ourselves" - but we also need to come back from it.
Or, as Rich Mullins put it:
It's about as useless as a screen door on a submarine
Faith without works baby
It just ain't happenin'
One is your left hand one is your right
It'll take two strong arms to hold on tight
Okay, enough thinking. I need to get off my duff and go administer an exam. Time to see if anyone has ascended to the heights of knowledge and returned with evidence thereof!
Written for the October synchroblog. Check out the other posts:
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