Sunday, August 23, 2020


Christian writers today do not address their books, or even chapters, to geographic churches.  There are no Letters to the Californians, let alone San Franciscans.  Books today are meant for individual consumption, or occasionally as a designed group study. This has parallels in other church practice.  The liturgical churches stick with a lectionary, so that everyone is hearing the same lesson in a given week (or day). Even then, there are varieties of that, and some congregations chafe against that discipline. That was the practice of our ancestors until quite recently.  Even psalms, the songs of the congregation, were associated were particular holidays, and eventually solidified into prescribed psalms for morning prayers throughout the year.  At the other extreme would be the pentecostal churches that insist preaching be in the moment, and even the scriptures for that day are subject to change as the the spirit leads.

Commenting on this, I have usually focused on this as a group vs individual understanding of the self, as I think most other observers have.  That is certainly so, and I am not trying to movie away from that. Americans in particular think of themselves as individuals, and even if defining themselves by family, are more likely to do it around the nuclear family. Western Europe has this tradition also, though less strongly.  The Anglosphere in general is more individualistic. Still, even Americans of the most individualistic sort tend to see themselves as members of groups and include that in their definitions of self. (BTW, I think increased general prosperity, so that people defined themselves increasingly by profession, plus the increased contact with other groups because of trade led this change.) Most of the rest of the world defines itself much more completely in terms of their clan or their ethnic group, with a thoroughness that often takes us by surprise when we encounter it.  I will note in passing that Europe leaning against war after WWII may stem more from everyone moving until they were largely with their tribes than from the myth they tell themselves: that they have learned from the experience of the horrors of war. Only in the context of homogeneity could they then band together as the EEC and then EU.  As the ethnic solidarity of boundaries has eroded in the past few decades because of immigrants who don't look the least bit Dutch, they find the old angers rising in themselves again.

I have distracted myself already.  I would like to add to that bit of understanding of different cultures with the idea of internality, of a concept of an internal self which controls the external self. This is new in human experience.  It's not brand new. We see the beginnings of it in the New Testament and among the Greek philosophers before (implying in both cases that there was something of those ideas floating around the culture even before that).  Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks is the sort of idea that doesn't seem to show up in the OT.  As for the Greeks, they seemed to strongly believe that the elite few were capable of all sorts of cognition that eluded the regular folk.  Even so, I don't recall any discussion of internal states.  In fact, Greek Drama has the chorus on stage demonstrating the opposite.  Moderns keep trying to fit the purpose of the chorus into some sort of internal dialogue of the main characters, but it was never anything like that.  It is supposed to be the voice of the audience onstage, the voice of the community. Only in that sense, that the audience can't shout out during the performance, is the chorus there to give voice to the silent thoughts of others.

Julian Jaynes's idea of the Bicameral Mind was famous in the 1980's, and after rejecting it then I did give it a second try six years ago. I remain unconvinced, but I mostly want to note that this is not what I am talking about here, though I think it might be related.  The silent contemplative life and way of approaching things grew up slowly in the West. People could not believe that St Augustine was really reading because he didn't say the words out loud.  Reading was supposed to be a communal activity.  It was not until the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215 that the RCC got around to advising everyone to take regular confession that included things that were internal.  The examen was not new because of its intensity.  the Church had always had that from a few.  It was a new and diffficult approach.  Jesus had spoken about sinning in the heart and mind by entertaining sinful thoughts, but most of the early church references to this (or so I have heard) can only get so far as to condemning plans to sin. That particular teaching of the Messiah seemed to give people trouble for a long time.  They weren't quite sure what he was talking about is my take.  What is automatic to us was new and strange to them.

A good deal of what we read as internality in the psalms or much of the OT is projecting back our current distinctions. Meditating on the law did not mean analysing its possible components and possibilities, it meant thinking about what it meant one should do as a practical matter.  Variation was a matter for discussion and debate, but not resolution and summary.  The Talmudic tradition includes the four strongest strands of thoughts in a box around the scripture, with additional notes as possibilities.  It's a different method of learning and understanding - one that may have advantages over later practice, actually.  The Jews may have been leaders in the type of analytical, conclusion-drawing approach to scripture of Rashi and Maimonides, but they came to it later as well.

I often find it a useful exercise to try to hear Scripture with the mind of those who first heard it.  I can't do any such thing, of course, but sometimes we can get closer.  The letter were written to specific churches but were passed around as everyone saw they had more general applicability.  The Gospels were written more to "whoever will listen, anywhere," but even those had slants toward particular audiences.  The Revelation to John was addressed to everyone in that time period. We don't know if John ever considered whether it should have more time-independent usefulness, but those who came after decided that it did (presumably under the influence of the Holy Spirit). We don't know whether Luke was writing his Gospel and Acts with an eye to the future, but that is the book where it looks at least possible.

Whether the Eastern traditions had contemplation or internality in this same sense I am not qualified to judge.  To my outsider's eye their practice does not look the same, neither to the older or newer Western traditions until recently when there has been more exchange and some borrowing in both directions. 


james said...

Does Evagrius' plan of the "eight evil thoughts" imply internality? Evagrius

I'm not a Platonist, but it would seem as though the model of a soul trapped in a body might also lend itself to thinking in those terms--pushing back against the mental effects of living in a body.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Excellent. this will take some thought.

Famcaps said...

When I read things like:

Why, my soul, are you downcast? Why so disturbed within me? (Ps 42)

My heart is not proud, LORD, my eyes are not haughty; I do not concern myself with great matters or things too wonderful for me. But I have calmed and quieted myself, I am like a weaned child with its mother; like a weaned child I am content. (Ps 131)

it's more natural to think that he who wrote it, probably was more or less like me, than to think he was a completely different kind of creature.

And Jesus wasn't first to think that you could sin internally:
Early in the morning he would sacrifice a burnt offering for each of them, thinking, “Perhaps my children have sinned and cursed God in their hearts.” (Job 1:5)

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Let me start here: I think that the belief in a soul or spirit as an essential self as opposed to the (often despised) purely physical body does go back quite a ways. Not with everyone, but certainly with some. I don't think that is quite the same thing as the internal conversation I am thinking of here. Yet now that I come to define that, I realise I cannot quickly describe it. This suggests, as CS Lewis often noted, that I likely have not thought it out fully.

We are also hampered by translations which use words according to their modern meanings that might not be good reflections of past thoughts. Hebrew nephesh does not mean "soul" in our sense, but something closer to a physical body. Still, I don't want to call your comment wrong, because I haven't got mine quite clear yet myself. Have a go at the distinction if you like.

I think I will have something on Evagrius as well. I hadn't known of him, but I think I see his thought, at least a bit. I would again say that this is an important step but not quite an internal dialogue, an interior self.

Famcaps said...

I always start with the assumption that others (even king David) are similar to me and I can relate to them, instead of assuming that they are fundamentally different and strange. Saying that someone have a different mechanism for thinking, demands proof.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

I don't think proof or disproof is possible given the remoteness. As they don't alk about internal states (which would be some evidence for my point), we can only judge by the end product of what comes out of the black box. However, as for evidence I think the Talmudic practice and the reference to nephesh as having a demonstrably different meaning than we expect would be a start.

I think it was good that you identified where your default comes from Brassfjord, as I immediately asked myself if I shared that initial assumption. I think I used to, but no longer do. I find in reading history that I am constantly surprised to find that people in other times don't see things as I do, not quite. Particularly when it is my own ancestors or a forerunner of church as I see it now, I expect that they are mostly me in different clothes. Then they write something in a diary that makes me blink in astonishment and wonder if I have misread the text. I have gradually moved to a mild opposite, probably under the influence of CS Lewis's On The Reading of Old Books.

I have not thought even a touch about Evagrius since I lost commented, but I haven't forgotten. Something there, I'm sure.