In the previous post, I claimed that everyone bases their understanding of the world and of themselves in it on a set of doctrines: indemonstrable beliefs that people presuppose to be true, often without even being conscious of them or being able to articulate them. These “faith commitments” are displayed in how we live.
One specific area of doctrine that we seek answers to in order to make meaning of our lives concerns questions of origins and identity. In the first chapter (appropriately titled “The Garden of Eden”) of the popular book Sophie’s World, which introduces the history of philosophy through the fictional account of the intellectual journey of a young lady, the 14 year old Sophie begins to ponder for the first time the fundamental questions “Who are you?” and “Where does the world come from?” Different answers to these questions result in profound differences in how people approach life and see the world.
In the book Total Truth: Liberating Christianity from Its Cultural Captivity,philosopher Nancy Pearcy contrasts the answers provided by the major worldviews of our times. I will describe two of the non-biblical alternatives in this post and then contrast with the biblical answer in the next post.
To represent a secular humanist or secular liberalist worldview, she explores the ideas of the French Enlightenment philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau. I associate Rousseau with the book The Lord of the Flies by William Golding, which you probably studied in high school, because the entire book is a critique of Rousseau’s idea of the noble savage, which says that human nature is essentially good, but is corrupted by society and oppressed by the obligations of civilization. In other words, according to Rousseau, our natural, ideal state is to exist as isolated, autonomous individuals, implying that we are not fundamentally social beings and that therefore living under social arrangements is contrary to our true nature. Social obligations are thus seen as artificial and oppressive. This is what is meant by one of Rousseau’s most famous lines, “Man is born free, and everywhere is in chains.” The chains do not represent politico-economic oppression, that we as Americans associate with oppression, but with normal social obligations like marriage, family, and church.
As Pearcy insightfully observes, if our original, natural state is that of lone, disconnected individuals, motivated primarily by the desire for self-preservation (or self-love in the words of Rousseau), the social relationships are not inherent to our identity as humans, but are instead secondary, created only by individual choice, or imposed on us against our will.
Perhaps on the opposite end of the continuum of the importance of the autonomous individual in questions of identity and origins is New Age pantheism (think Eastern religions like Hinduism and Buddhism adopted to Western sensibilities). “Pan” is the Latin world for everything. Thus in pantheism, god, or ultimate reality, is a single spiritual essence that pervades and unites all things. In such religions, God is not personal, having a will, purpose, thoughts, desires, etc., but is a nonpersonal spiritual force: “an undifferentiated Unity beyond all categories of thought – beyond the divisions of good and evil, subject and object.”
In contrast to secular humanism a la Rousseau, pantheism holds that individuality is not our natural state, but is an illusion that we must escape from. We achieve this escape by recognizing the illusion, extinguishing our self-awareness, and deepening our sense of connectedness to this universal spiritual essence. In sum, one worldview sees the disconnected individual as ultimately real, the other sees the individual as ultimately illusory because all individuals are really One.