Monday, June 15, 2009

Symptomatic Theology Revisited

I'm at the point now where self and symptom are hard to differentiate. Its a very interesting place to be existentially, and it has brought me back to a point I have made in the past about the "symptomatic" nature of any theology, including mine.

What I mean by "symptomatic" is that our theology comes from us - not from space, or from the Platonic ideal realm, or from an objective viewpoint detached from our experience. If I learn a lot about a person's history and experiences, I can probably tell you a lot about their theology. The two are intrinsically connected, and I have yet to meet or hear of or read a book written by anyone whose theology is not determined to a large degree by their experience. To me, this is inevitable, and even good. I like that there are as many theologies as there are experiences - I just wish we didn't spend so much time and energy pretending this wasn't the case.

In the past few months, however, I've found myself in a position once again where symptoms have a lot more weight than they do in other situations. If my knee hurts or if my blood pressure is high, then those are physical things, and I can seek physical remedies - physical therapy, or ibuprofen, or eating fewer saturated fats. But when the symptom is my inner world, my psyche (just the Greek word for "soul"), things get a lot dicier.

I don't imagine that I have some immoveable kernel that is immune to change, but I do have a consistency of experience. That is, when I wake up, I feel like myself most of the time. The world feels like the world. My relationships feel like my relationships.

So lets posit that you take a medicaiton (as I am) and these perceptions begin changing. I feel like a somewhat different self. The world feels like a different world. My relationships feel like different relationships.

Fortunately, perhaps, I don't have any kind of myth to tell you about self-determination, of grabbing my soul's bootstraps and lifting msyelf out of the mire. That kind of garbage is for Scientology and Ayn Rand and The Secret, if I may be so bold. What I did was I realized what I was feeling was, in some part, symptomatic of something wrong. I tried one medication that made me feel better and worse in a new way, and then another medication that just made me feel better.

I have to say, when someone talks about objective truth, I'm just going to laugh all the harder. If my experiences can be symptoms, what does objectivity mean?

My experience of myself
I have more energy, more creativity, and more focus. I feel more confident about myself and less anxious about what I have to do during the course of a day. It is a little less painful to accept compliments and gifts. I trust my intuition more, even though I don't think it has suddenly become a lot more reliable. I am more willing to say what I think.

My experience of the world
I don't face the next day with dread. I don't think of the world as out to get me, as just waiting for me to make some kind of misstep before it's jaws close over me and snuff me out. The world feels like it is less on a default setting of "threatening". I wouldn't say I'm a starry-eyed idealist (that might be another symptom), but I definitely feel different; as if everything I face is fundamentally manageable, like I'm in a fight I have a chance of winning.

I wrote the following in my third unit self-evaluation a few weeks ago:
I'm not very good at realistic self-evaluation. Kirby has pointed this out in various ways, and its pretty clear to me at this point. Every time I feel like I am doing something of importance, or have to be dependable, or don't have a lot of room for mistakes, I have the sensation of betting against the house - the more important the moment, the bigger the bet. That is, I have the sensation that everything will fall apart, because of something I will do or fail to do, and it is just a matter of time. It is hard to figure out what of this is something I do to myself, what of this might be reasonable care and fear, and what is just a symptom of depression twisting my feelings. I still don't have a clear idea of what health is for me. I end up having to try to use my intuition and ignore it at the same time - like trying to walk a balance beam with an inner-ear infection. In short, I don't think I've demonstrated self-supervision consistently yet, this unit or any unit.

My experience of relationship
I feel a lot more available to other people recently. I am more comfortable in groups, and it is easier for me to pay attention without my mind wandering. I also find that I am more willing to push back - part of this is the result of some boot-strappy effort on my part, but I also felt a big change that seems to have to do with little pink pills. But I am more apt to make room for myself socially, to make my thoughts known even when they might be uncomfortable.


I find that I still hesitate to write posts like this, and I treat it as a spiritual discipline. I know quite well that there is a stigma around taking medication for something like depression. Most of us, me included, buy into the lie that we are who we make ourselves. Does my thinking and my attitude and my behavior play into depression? Sure. Can't say no. But is it the chicken, or the egg? Is my thinking shaped by the symptoms, or are the symptoms arising from my thinking?

How the heck would I be able to tell?

The truth is, for me at least, that there is no way to tell, and I just have to make do the best ways I know how - to take what help is offered, to do what work I am able to do, and to try to be satisfied with the mess that results.

What does this mean for theology? Who cares? Well, for me it means that I believe more strongly in symptomatic theology over systematic theology. Guess what - theology is human after all, subject to all of our foibles - writing them larger than life even, conflating them with God and ultimate reality. I'm not chiseling down to the hard, shining core of truth. I'm not climbing towers of academic Babble to the heavens. I am baring my soul and my highest aspirations and my deepest fears.

This is better, to me, and not worse.

It is, at the very least, quite honest.


Aric Clark said...

I agree with you that "objectivity" is a joke. In many ways I think this is a helpful push.

On the other hand, I like the realm of "ideas". I can't pretend that my ideas about God are eternal and immutable truths, but I'm not really happy with a collapse into solipsism either. Isn't theology about "God" and isn't "God" a person (or three) outside ourselves? God is not just one of my symptoms. That conviction would make me an atheist in a heartbeat.

Calvin (yes I'm bringing him up) said: knowledge of God starts with knowledge of Self. I take it you are saying something similar here.

But he also said the reverse: knowledge of Self starts with knowledge of God. It's this second impulse that I think I feel lacking from a symptomatic approach to theology.

If God is real (a big if, but aren't we assuming that already?), then we're not alone in our quest for truth. There is the genuine possibility of God communicating with us and if that is true we can say things that are transcendent.

Doug Hagler said...

I think I agree that it is possible to say things that are transcendent - but my question, I guess, is say them how? Definitively in logical language? By definition, I would say, no. That which transcends our normal experience also transcends our rational capacity and our language.

I think we can definitely imply things that are transcendent, or perhaps point toward them - as the Zen saying goes, "All instruction is a finger pointing to the moon". I think we habitually confuse the finger for the moon, and defend the finger out of fear, saying we are defending the moon.

I also think that knowledge of self is like knowledge of God (see, I agree with Calvin here) in that it is never complete, and if healthy should always been changing, deepening and growing. There many ways to meaningfully understand yourself - why can't we say the same about ways to understand God?

Aric Clark said...

How do we say transcendent things? Definitively in logical language?

Definitively no. Never definitively. I am also on board with it being poetic and coy and ongoing and changing etc.. etc..

I'm not sure it makes sense to dismiss logic though. Why can't something transcendent be said logically? I think logic/reason get misused to imply that they are exclusive of other modes. As if a rational person is not also fundamentally poetic. Or as if reason excluded experience and subjectivity. How does it? Isn't reason just another human activity, bounded by subjectivity as much as anything else we do? If so, and we affirm subjective epistemology what make reason less useful?

Doug Hagler said...

Maybe that's part of my point. The definitions I've mostly encountered of "reason" is rooted in (assumed) objectivity. I think that affirming subjective epistemology, reason means something different from what it commonly means. Maybe I'm wrong.

Also, just to be even more frustrating - maybe we can even know things that are transcendent. Maybe we can even communicate them to each other.

My main point is still that I've been persuaded that Self is not as knowable as I had thought, and it makes me feel like I should reiterate that God is probably not as knowable as I had thought.

Also that theology should, IMO, lead with subjectivity.