Thursday, November 22, 2018

Called Into Being

In my Jesus People shared house days, I came home from work late one evening in 1976 to a morbidly obese baby-faced man of about 40 sitting at our kitchen table. Housemates and a few recognized frequent visitors were seated around him.  I seem to recall he had a bad hairpiece, but at this distance I may have confused him with someone else.  “Don’t worry about the Jehovah’s Witnesses,” he was saying. “That cult is dead in this town.” No one quite seemed to know what to say. “I claimed it,” he explained.  “I claimed it last week in prayer.” That seemed my cue to nod to the troops and head up to my room.

Nor was he the only one. “Positive Confession” was a phrase, declaring that you were not sick. That would make it so.  Saying that “I think I’m coming down with something” was chastised, because your very act of saying it was going to make it so. There were many flavors of this, from a relatively mild “Power of Positive Thinking” to full on “Name It and Claim It” theology. The Kenneth Hagin, RHEMA Bible Institute was particularly popular at the far edge of my crowd.

It was a derivative of New Thought, a 19th C mind-cure and mind-over-matter theology. It was related to Christian Science, Religious Science, Unity Church and had considerable penetration into not only fundamentalist but mainstream denominations. I knew lots of them, dropping their snuffly kids off at church nursery saying they weren’t sick: “Positive Confession!”

Ideas don’t descend automatically from one belief to the next. They are pushed about by the weather of the culture they are in.  One can sense some Bishop Berkeley, who believed material substance existed only as ideas in the mind in the history, yet not everyone influenced by Berkeley came to believe that whatever they uttered in a particular fashion was bound to happen.

Today we are awash in people insisting that things are so simply because they have said them.  An accusation of racism or sexism is sufficient evidence for conviction. Even more interesting is people declaring they are not male but female, solely on the basis of their internal impressions. My friend Dale Kuehne in his book Sex andthe iWorld  shows that the idea of defining oneself without reference to the larger community is new, and alarming. The story of the 69 y/o man who wants a court to declare him 49 because he thinks that would be better for him (Australian, I think) is humorous, but how is that different from declaring oneself to be a different gender? What arguments would one advance that do not apply to both? Is the experience of gender different for different people?  So too are age and time. Are there hard physical facts that ground one’s age to being born in a particular year?  How is that different from the grounding of birth genitalia?

We have attributed these modern redefinitions of self to narcissism or immersion in one’s own fleeting needs and impressions, but that might have only been possible atop a philosophical foundation of immaterialism, and ultimately of New Thought.  The ideas of Pirandello’s Right You Are (If You Think You are) and absurdist works like it (Stoppard’s “After Magritte” may be my favorite) have been in the air for a long time, even among the many who don’t know their origin. Can we declare things into being?


Christopher B said...

On the flip side, there's been some interesting results with placebo research that seem to indicate the old 'people believe the illusion' theory of how it works is not accurate. You can get the same results even if people know they are getting an inert pill, and your body will eact as if you drank a lo-fat drink even if what you actually got wasn't.

69 to 49 guy is Dutch, and it appears that allowing gender-bending is his argument for letting him change his age. Since people have lied about their ages forever, it's interesting that now we also seem obsessed with making these things official.

Texan99 said...

Jordan Petersen points out that the new thinking goes like this: if you're a man who thinks he's a woman, that's biologically determined, but if you're a woman who thinks she's a woman, that's a social construct.

The funny thing, of course, is that you really can will crazy social conventions into being by the abstract power of magical thinking, as long as you can persuade enough people to go along with you--and we know that persuasion, at most times and with most people, is only tangentially related to reality, especially when consequences are personally remote.

Grim said...

Hmm. Perhaps I should declare myself 70 so that I can begin receiving Social Security, while there’s still any left.

james said...

In one sense, we actually _do_ something like this. When I make some decision and act on it, there is something new in the world that I have created--a turn to the left out my driveway, perhaps. That didn't exist before; now it does.

Magic promises shortcuts. So does a careless take on Jesus' words (faith as a mustard seed...). So, I take it, does extreme nominalism.

From Hill of Dreams:
"Here, he thought, he had discovered one of the secrets of true magic; this was the key to the symbolic transmutations of the Eastern tales. The adept could, in truth, change those who were obnoxious to him into harmless and unimportant shapes, not as in the letter of the old stories, by transforming the enemy, but by transforming himself. The magician puts men below him by going up higher, as one looks down on a mountain city from a loftier crag."