LIFE WITHOUT GOD:
THE LOSS OF SELF IN CONTEMPORARY SOCIETY
Stephen John Pasko
B.A., University of Colorado at Denver, 1986
A thesis submitted to the
Faculty of the Graduate School of the
University of Colorado at Denver
in partial fulfillment
of the requirements for the degree of
Master of Arts
This thesis for the Master of Arts
Stephen John Pasko
has been approved for the
Lucy C. Ware
Michael S. Cummings
$pnJZ 1 ^ 14.5 -3
Pasko, Stephen John (M.A., Political Science)
Life Without God: The Loss of Self in Contemporary Society.
Thesis directed by Doctor Lucy C. Ware.
The thesis under investigation is the loss of self in contemporary society.
Life without God constitutes the loss of self in contemporary society.
Christian theology can make a contribution to the investigation of the loss
of self. The foundational Christian concepts of existence and estrangement
contribute methodologically to the investigation of the self and the loss of self.
The concepts of the holy and the divine are explored in this paper. The
formation of the concepts and the reality of personhood and the self are
investigated both historically and sociologically. The distinction between the
pre-modem person and the modem individual self is investigated.
The modem individual self is threatened and suffers existential anxiety
under the conditions of disrupted existence. Existential anxiety is investigated
as the threat of non-being in the form of meaninglessness.
The modem self seeks meaning and purpose amid the competing gnosis and
Human life under the conditions of disrupted existence has the
potential to be mediated and reconstructed through the grace of the New
Being in Jesus as the Christ.
This abstract accurately represents the content of the candidates thesis.
I recommend its publication.
Lucy C. Ware
1. INTRODUCTION..................................... 1
2. FINITUDE, CREATURELINESS AND
Estrangement and the Existential
3. THE HISTORICAL DIMENSIONS
OF THE PROBLEM OF THE LOSS OF
From Heteronomy to Autonomy:
An Historical Survey........................... 23
The Emergent Modem Self:
Disenchantment and the Belief
in Progress.................................... 40
4. THE ONTOLOGICAL-PSYCHOLOGICAL
DIMENSIONS OF THE
LOSS OF SELF IN CONTEMPORARY
The Problem of Purpose......................... 59
Anxiety and the Fragmented Self................ 79
5. THE SOCIO-MORAL DIMENSIONS OF
THE LOSS OF SELF IN CONTEMPORARY
The Problem of Meaning:
The New Gnosis.................................... 89
The Haven of Competing Values..................... 94
Freedom and Unfreedom: The
Determinate and Indeterminate
Vitalities of Creation and Destruction........... 103
6. LIFE WITHOUT GOD: THE SPIRITUAL
DIMENSIONS OF THE LOSS
OF SELF.......................................... 115
Life Without God and the
Contemporary Situation............................ 118
7. CONCLUSION: INDIVIDUAL CONCERNS
AND THE ROLE OF THE CHURCH
AMID THE DISINTEGRATION OF
INDEX OF BIBLICAL
Human being seeks right order, purpose and meaning within and through
the manifoldness of experience. Life, then, constitutes a multi-dimensional
It is the thesis of this paper that a life without God constitutes the loss of
self in contemporary society. In contemporary society, this situation is both
an historical and a sociological reality. The conditions of human existence
have been disrupted. The disruption of human existence requires an
investigation into just how and why a life without God constitutes a loss of
self. Historical determinations and sociological insights must be explored and
presented. Key concepts of the self must be presented and explored for the
investigation to bear fruit.
Theology presents such key concepts of the self. Theological
investigations can be likened to the widening ripples upon a body of water.
A theological investigation explores the ontological, philosophical, historical
and socio-moral dimensions of life and the self under the existential conditions
of estrangement. For human life is existence under the conditions of
Theology begins and ends with the relations between God and the creature
and between the creature and God. God as Being-Itself is the ground and
abyss of all experience within the multi-dimensional unity of life. The self,
then, is a finite creature seeking ultimate reconciliation with the ground and
abyss of its being. It is the essence of being human to have the potential for
this reconciliation. It is the existence of being human to be estranged from
this essential potential under the manifold conditions of experience within the
multi-dimensional unity of life.
Theology, then, has an explanation of and exploration of the self and the
loss of self, through history and into the contemporary situation. Theology
has a contribution to make to the investigation of the self. This contribution
can be a genuine contribution to a dialogue that concerns all people of good
will in the contemporary situation.
The self is a finite human creature seeking order, dignity, purpose,
meaning, and freedom under the conditions of existence. The expression of
human potential under the conditions of existence can lead to a worthy and
meaningful constitution and integration of the self, i.e., self-integration which
has staved off the threat of meaninglessness. Or, the expression of human
potential under the conditions of existence can be disrupted, thereby
threatening self-integration with the specter of non-being rendered as the
threat of meaninglessness with all attendant human anxieties.
The specter of meaninglessness has haunted Christian thought since the
formulation of the Pauline Christology. The question of human self, of
meaning, and of reconciliation has been the purview of a theological
anthropology for two thousand years. The Alpha and the Omega for any such
anthropology or existential theology is the New Being in Jesus as the Christ.
The New Being in Christ is the establishment of any and all conditions of
existence. This means that existential theology is also inclusive Christology
in the truest sense. The justifying and mediating grace of the New Being in
Christ overcomes the disruptions of human experience under the conditions
The motifs of theology offer fertile ground for the investigation of the self
and the loss of self. The Biblical heritage is the heritage of human suffering
under the conditions of existence. Human suffering seeks dignity,
reconciliation, and mediated reconstruction of its own potential. How close
or how far away the mediated reconstruction of human potential is
approximated, sets forth the guidelines for the investigation at hand.
Chapter two introduces the ontological foundations of Being and human
being. Estrangement, finitude, and creatureliness under the conditions of
existence are the reality of human life.
Chapter three investigates the underlying historical antecedents of the self
and its problems. Every self has a conception of the self, just as every
culture has a conception of the holy and the divine. A distinction can be
made between the pre-modem concept of personhood and the emergent
modem concept of the self. The example of Parzival is a case in point. The
pre-modem personhood of Parzival conformed to an ideal of personhood still
imbued with the enchanted reality of the encountered world. Christian culture
in the West from Paul to Luther can be likened to the progress from
heteronomy to autonomy. With the breakdown of the High Gothic period,
life and reason in the service of God degenerate into heteronomy in the
service of hierarchy. Renaissance and Reformation introduce to us the
emergent modem self. Disenchantment of the world and the belief in
progress present a new conception of the self, replete with new problems and
Chapter four explores the ontological psychological dimensions of the self
amid modernity. The loss of the conformity to ideals of personhood sets the
modem individual adrift amid the vicissitudes of the encountered world. In
modernity, existential anxiety is attendant upon the problem of purpose.
Human life is integrated through the purposeful activities of religio-ethico
belief systems and their ensuing supra-norms of conduct. Within and under
competing relativities, anxiety and despair are a threat to human being.
Chapter five explores the socio-moral dimensions and responses of the self
as it grapples with the problem of meaning. The relativities offered for
self-integration present a variety of perplexing gnosis and competing values.
The free and indeterminate expression of human self and moral
personhood is presented as a counterweight to the historical and sociological
determinations of the anxiety-ridden self. In investigating the vicissitudes of
the creature under the manifoldness of experience, theology must not lose its
foundational standpoint. Moral personhood is imbued with and invigorated
by the New Being in Christ.
Chapter six presents a theological explication of the reality of a self
that lives a life without God. It is here that the spiritual dimensions of the
problem are acute. Penultimate concerns are here investigated in relation to
Ultimate concern. Human limitations and incapacities are highlighted amid
the secularizing totality of the encountered world. Recognition of Ultimate
concern is a key to understanding the "courage to be." A proper
understanding of the relation between God and the creature is an
understanding of justification under the conditions of existence. God as
Being-Itself is the ground and abyss of all experience within the
multi-dimensional unity of life. As such, God accepts and justifies the
creature, even and especially under the condition of disrupted existence. The
threat of meaninglessness is reconstructed and mediated through Gods loving
The conclusion to the paper explores the concerns of the individual and
the role of the church as spiritual community amid the present disintegration
of cultural forms. The Catholic and denominational Protestant perspectives
are explored. The church as spiritual community bears the tasks and
responsibilities of implementing the mission of the New Being in Christ.
Those tasks can be threatened by fundamentalism and the rising "mega
The paper ends with the expression of the noneudaemonic attitude of
existential theology. Human life, when justified and sanctified under the
rubric of the New Being, fulfills its direction within the history of salvation.
FINITUDE, CREATURELINESS AND ESTRANGEMENT
No study of the self, whether in this contemporary culture or any other,
begins without underlying assumptions concerning what it means to be human.
A human is a unique, finite being.
Throughout history, both oral and written, various doctrines of human
nature have appeared. Through variegated cultural forms, the different
doctrines explain the self and its encounter with an already existent,
structured world. The self is bom into an ordered cosmos and the
encountered, structured reality of the world contains the vitalities, both
determinate and indeterminate, for the great drama of human freedom and
In the great drama of life, the human being encounters the vitalities of the
world. Indeed, each human being is a vital force, determining and
interpenetrating the encountered world. It is clear that the above brief
description already indicates a particular doctrine of human nature and one
with universal tendencies and dimensions.
It should be made clear that the heading of this chapter points to the
dimensions of the doctrine of human nature drawn from the biblical tradition
in the West. The Bible is the word, the Logos, heard and interpreted both
symbolically and literally as the case or the confessional creed may be.
Modem historical and philological criticism has done much to supplement our
understanding of the lessons drawn from the biblical drama. But modem
criticism is a study tool and not a replacement set of ideas for the
universalizing Logos we have inherited in the West.
It must be said at the outset that the biblical tradition views the human
condition within the context of linear, temporal history as a tragic drama with
tragic tendencies and assertions. Only the eruption of the divine presence into
the mundane, human order can break the stranglehold of alienation and
tragedy. However, before proceeding to the concept of the Kairos (Christ as
the fullness of time), we must lay the groundwork at hand.
All human beings are finite, fragile and fallible. As Heidegger has
explained to us (through his veiled Augustinianism), we are "thrown into the
world" (Heidegger  1962). And this world is not of our making. We
are finite because we enter this created world, exist in it for a time, and leave
it by dying. As finite beings, we have no certainty of knowledge concerning
our existence before birth or after death. The ontological speculation argues
that our finite being is but a moment of general Being, of Being-Itself as both
the ground and abyss of all being, of all that is (Tillich [1951-63] 1967,
vol.l:235-238). If it be objected that Being-Itself might call for a fundamental
ground beneath or beyond it, it must be remembered that the finite human
mind can only comprehend the literalness of non-human Being by employing
symbolic human language (Tillich [1951-63] 1967, vol.l:238-239).
We find ourselves as finite creatures, encountering a structured world.
We act upon the world and it reflects back upon us. We are creatures capable
of much, for we have human potential; but we often achieve little, for our
potential is bound by the dimensions of our own human creatureliness, by
who we existentially are. We cannot break beyond the fundamental veil of
finite human being. We can only intuit but we cannot know Godhead.
The Old and New Testaments of the Bible explain the dimensions of
human finitude and creatureliness. The early books of the Old Testament are
stories full of wonderful mythological trappings. But if we pierce the veil of
cosmogony (as Bultmann has done), we see a core of essential truths
emerging about what it means to be a human being in the world (Bultmann
1951-55). Since these truths are based upon existential experience, they are
real and hence universalizable.
Adam and Eve as man and woman encounter a created world. The time
before the Fall is idyllic. They are not aware of harsh temporal and corporeal
necessity. There is indeed a Fall (I stress here its symbolic-literal nature) and
all time after the Fall is harsh, human, temporal history. The consciousness
of human existence, its vicissitudes, joyful birth and painful death, the
struggle with a harsh environment, is introduced into our legacy. We have
knowledge of the human condition.
The time after the Fall is the human world that all of us participate in and
recognize as history. It is a world populated by finite creatures who display
their vitalities for both good and evil, right and wrong.
Both the individual qua individual and the structured world that comprise
cultural groups are encountered in the Old Testament. A great pageant and
covenant between God and his chosen people the Jews is unfolded. The
finitude and creatureliness of human existence are given meaning and purpose
through the mediating covenant between God and his people. The hope of
redemption is bom, a Messianic hope that still lingers in Twentieth Century
secular culture. The redemptive hope of the Old Testament is that life as
human history will constitute purpose and mean something. The suffering of
human existence will be relieved and transposed by God into a higher order.
As many authors have commented, the Jews have bequeathed to theology and
philosophical anthropology the realization of the tragic human condition, a
consciousness of lost human potential, and the hope of a mediated
The Old Testament stories chronicle the progress of human finitude and
creatureliness. A succession of individuals and groups display a plenitude of
human potential and human misery. Faith and charity are manifested as
readily as cupidity and arrogance. The voice of Job still cries out. Imbued
as finite creatures, human beings are painfully aware of their estrangement
Finitude and creatureliness merge in the doctrine of estrangement. It is
a Christian doctrine and borders the transition from the Old to the New
Testament. It has served the Western tradition well until the advent of
modem psychoanalysis, and there is some proof it may well transpose modem
The Jewish Messianic hope encountered the Hellenized world
two-thousand years ago. The chosen people are estranged from God, and
they pay the consequences of this estrangement. For the Hebrew prophets,
the historical proof lay in the succession of foreign conquerors and exiles of
the Jewish people. In the encounter with Greco-Roman culture, the Messianic
hope became a hope of redemption within physical, temporal history. God
would overcome the estrangement of his people, and their tragic suffering
would be given purpose and fulfillment in history.
What concerns us here is the assertions that can be drawn for an
existential theology. For those who are wary of approaching theological
explication, I can only request patience. We are concerned in this paper with
the existential dimensions of the loss of self. The contemporary investigation
of the loss of self can be weighed and measured by the roots upon which it
draws. In the West, the biblical tradition lays the groundwork for the analysis
at hand. The historical/ethical and the anthropological/theological
implications for such a study are drawn from the definitions of the human and
the divine orders. The finitude and creatureliness of human being stands in
contrast to the ground from which it ensues: the divine presence as
Being-Itself. If this ontological assertion is argued correctly, the existential
implications become clear. Human beings are estranged from the divine
presence and hence from the essential properties of their own being. Since
existence is the manifestation but not the essence of being, what we call the
human condition is an existential condition determined by the dimensions of
the estrangement (Tillich [1951-63] 1967, vol.1:202 204). To ground the
above assertion with some sense of certainty, we must explore the synthesis
of Old and New Testament themes. Only then are we qualified to remark
upon the condition of estranged, existential being.
Estrangement and the Existential Assertion
What students of religion today call estrangement or the doctrine of
estrangement, the early patristic fathers of Christianity simply called the
"Fall." It is important for us to investigate the fuller dimensions of
estrangement, for only then do the existential assertions concerning the self
emerge in clear form.
The New Testament of Christianity proclaims the reconciliation between
the divine and the human orders. Fallen humankind is redeemed from sin and
corruption by the manifestation of the God/Man Jesus Christ and his
atonement and sacrifice on the cross. The hope of Israel is fulfilled, and a
new covenant between Godhead and humanity is manifested in history. The
divine presence has interrupted the human flow of finitude and creatureliness.
By assuming the creaturely form of corporeal man, Godhead has reconciled
the tragic misery of humanity with the divine order.
The Jesus of personal piety is also the Christ of universalizing Logos.
The order of creation is fulfilled. Kerygmatic theology explains to us the
meaning of the Christ (Tillich [1951-63] 1967, vol. 1:3-8). If the order of
creation emanating from the divine presence is truly perfectible, then God will
reconcile the fallen creatureliness of humanity.
What are the ethico/historical assertions to be drawn from the
manifestation of the Christ in the temporal order? While the element of faith
is obvious, faith alone is not the purpose of the present exposition. Rather,
what do we gamer at the moment, concerning the human condition?
The appearance of the Christ synthesizes and transposes the Old and New
Testament themes. God has redeemed the fallen elements in the perfect order
of creation. The prophecy to suffering humanity has been fulfilled. But if so,
then why has there been so much suffering and human misery over the last
two thousand years? Has the perfect order of creation been redeemed? These
are not idle questions. The varied responses to these questions have had
determinative impact upon our conceptions of human freedom and dignity in
the West. In other words, the universalizing Logos is a question of
The eruption of the divine presence into the temporal realm redeems
humanity. It offers the example of perfection, but not the perfectibility of the
human order. The human realm is not transposed into the divine order. The
two orders are still separate. Humanity, though reconciled with Godhead, is
Paul suffered through this question, and his response still lies at the heart
of the Christian legacy. When bequeathed to and merged with early patristic
thought, the Pauline Christology speaks readily to the suffering concerns of
the existential self (Cambridge Bible Commentary 1967).
If God created the world perfect, he also created the estranged creatures
we call humans. God fulfilled the prophecy of the Redeemer, but left humans
with the choice between good or evil. The Pauline response to evil and
human estrangement is not a speculative ontology. It is a call rather to come
and live within the redeeming grace offered by Jesus Christ. As such, it is
a phenomenological Christology in which faith, hope, and charity lead the
sincere Christian to emulate and receive the grace of Christ as personal
redeemer. Now this is the message of Christianity, and for the faithful, it is
real. But it does not fulfill the philosophical/theological requirements that
enabled Christianity to take its place as one of the worlds major religions.
In spreading his message to the Gentiles, Paul encountered the pressing
questions I have raised above. The Platonic Sophists were skeptical of Pauls
Christology, especially his eschatological assertions concerning the fulfillment
of all things in Christ, both temporal and divine. After his disastrous
encounter with Greek Sophistry, Paul stressed again and again the virtuous
and graceful conduct of life under Christs rubric.
In Augustine (following the apostolic age) we find the synthesis between
Pauline Christology and Greek rationalism which made Christianity a potent
intellectual force. The post-Classical Platonic conception of fixed Being
serves well to explain the two orders, the divine and human, their
estrangement, reconciliation, and ongoing estrangement. Post-apostolic
theology explains the split between God and humankind, yet also explains how
Godhead is immanent in the human, temporal realm. Like Pauls, Augustines
thinking was Christological and trinitarian in nature. But unlike Paul,
Augustine sought a suitable, cogent theological explanation for human
estrangement and the two orders. Christianity, then, was a theology in search
of an underlying philosophical cogency. The post-Classical Plotinian
synthesis of Greek rationalism provided the intellectual underpinnings that
Augustine sought. A brief summary of this intellectual underpinning is now
The God of Christianity is Being-Itself, the universalizing Logos from
whom all being emanates. Being-Itself then, is the ground of all being, of all
The order of creation is perfect, the divine order is perfect, because
nothing imperfect can issue from the divine. The "Fall" (estrangement) is the
work of human pride, the result of human choice and responsibility. Human
beings have a free will. They can emulate the divine or sin and assume
responsibility for their culpability. Yet human beings are created in the image
of God and God sent his Son as the Christ to actualize redemption and grace
(Augustine [421 A.D.] 1965).
Our nexus here is the concept of free will and responsibility. Without
free human will we are left ontologically with a conditioned state of sin, a
foreordained and created state of estrangement. The threat of Manichean
dualism emerges here. But Christianity is not a dualistic religion. The
appropriation of Greek rationalism allows for the doctrine of immanence, the
interpenetration of the divine into the temporal order, while still maintaining
the perfection of the divine order and species.
It is the task of humans to live through their suffering, existential
concerns. The human order, the realm of being, attempts within temporal
history the perfectibility of the divine order. This effort is, of course,
ultimately impossible, but it is a human task, one we have been set to. Greek
rationalism is transposed into the form of analogical theological reasoning.
The imperfect human order becomes the aspiring microcosm of the divine
Estrangement then, is real, but a dualistic identity is not established.
Immanence implies that divine grace can manifest itself in the temporal realm.
It is at this point that Greek rationalism accounts for the existential
concerns of this paper. If we pursue the ontological assertions of fixed Being
as Being-Itself, we see a series of existential situations arise.
If Being is Being-Itself, then human being is clearly a manifestation of
Being in the mode of being. The existent being is estranged from its essence
as Being. Existence is in contradiction with essence. As an existent human
being, being is in contradiction with its own essence, if by essence we here
mean the potential which imbues every human being as a manifestation of
universal Being (Tillich [1951-63] 1967, vol.1:253-256). Here then is a
rationalistic account of the divine and human orders. It accounts for both
separation and interpenetration. It accounts for evil as the product of free
human choice (avoiding dualism). And it accounts for sin, if by sin we mean
the contradiction between being and its essence (potential). Except for Jesus,
Buddha, or Socrates, how many human beings have ever lived up to their full
This synthesis answers many early questions and sets the stage for many
concerns. Human beings are attempting to achieve perfectibility within the
harsh and imperfect realm of human affairs. Estrangement is a reality and
empirically verifiable if one observes the last several thousand years of human
history. The decency and dignity that human beings achieve is the result of
a choice to do good and bear the responsibility for ones actions. The onus
of perfectibility and salvation is placed upon the existential personhood. The
long history of conscience in the West has a beginning and an ongoing
At this point (like Bonhoeffer) I wish to place a firm responsibility and
moral personhood upon the individual. The Christian doctrine of
estrangement is not a macro-ontology that excuses all the misery that humans
have wrought upon each other. We are not searching for "cheap grace"
(Bonhoeffer  1967). Humans have a free will, and they can act upon
it for good or ill. A Christendom which issued forth Cortez also issued forth
The tension within the mode of being human, outlined above, is an
existential condition. I would assert it is the existential condition. The
exploration of this assertion will consume much of the paper that follows.
We have here a workable representation (arguably valid) of humanity
estranged from the source of its being.
Each human being is a unique creation (attempting perfection in its own
life) of Being-Itself, the ground of all that is. That which issues forth from
creation will one day return to it, for the ground is also the abyss to which all
things return (Tillich [1951-63] 1967, vol.l:156). Separated, yet attached and
accepted by the divine order, human life has struggled to achieve its
humanity. The Pilgrim is set out upon the road.
The concerns of this journey are the concerns of human life, of human
suffering. The concerns of an existent human being are the concerns of other
existent human beings. Human life is an existential concern (Tillich
[1951-63] 1967, vol. 1:14). This concern shows an historical and cultural
preoccupation with human freedom and dignity, as well it should.
For the universalizing Logos that grounds all being also gave to being the
Sermon on the Mount.
The question of human freedom or unfreedom, of human dignity or
indignity, finds its exploration and representational dimensions through an
investigation of the vitalities (both determinate and indeterminate) of the
individual and an investigation of the vitalities (both determinate and
indeterminate) of the structured world that each individual encounters upon
his or her sojourn.
THE HISTORICAL DIMENSIONS OF THE PROBLEM
OF THE LOSS OF SELF
Chapter two laid a definitional groundwork for the exploration of the loss
of self. The tragic biblical view of life and the existential concerns of the
human creature estranged from Godhead were introduced.
The themes of chapter two lead to an investigation of the themes that will
follow in chapter three. Before I can discuss and analyze the contemporary
self in chapters four, five, and six, it is first necessary to conduct a
macro-historical survey of the self and its problems until our arrival at the
The first section of chapter three surveys the inheritance of the biblical
self in the West. In this section, as in the following, the existential self will
be explored in relation to the structured, cultural, societal setting of the
In the second section of chapter three, I will explore how Reformation,
disenchantment, and progress have transformed the Western self into a
creature that we recognize as ourselves.
From Heteronomy to Autonomy:
An Historical Survey
The following historical survey is necessary to our exploration of the loss
of self in contemporary society. To have an awareness of loss, one must
first have some knowledge of what has been lost. To attempt a recovery of
what has been lost, one must know the dimensions of what is at stake. What
is at stake in the West is the individual autonomous self, not the inauthentic
autonomous self (as I shall explain in chapter four) but the authentic
autonomous self, related to the sacredness of the self and the sacredness of the
life world the self encounters.
As Rudolf Otto has observed, every culture has its "idea of the holy"
(Otto 1924). The Western cultural mode and its transformations are no
different in that respect from any other cultural mode of life. One may even
assert that the study of the holy through its societal modes and transformations
is indeed the key to the study of history. I would not go quite so far. But I
would assert that the manifestation of the holy (both the idea and the reality)
in the individual and in the historical culture at hand, offer determinative and
insightful clues to the historian. Ignorance of the holy makes for bad
As Toynbee has instructed us, there are rhythmic patterns in the life of
cultures and civilizations, just as there are patterns in the lives of individuals,
not to mention the seasons of nature (Toynbee 1961). Civilizations do rise
and fall (they have their ebbs and flows). The high moments of a great
civilization produce impressive achievements in the arts and literature, as well
as refined technical accomplishments. However, a detailed study of the
rhythms of civilizations is not the same as a morphological study. A
morphological study of culture and civilization is premised upon a cyclical
conception of time. This conception of time has its origins in classical
Athenian culture. This conception of time is not the biblical conception of
time which has come down to us. This point must be made because it ties
into our explorations in this chapter.
Augustine, while absorbing the ontological ideas of Greek rationalism,
also rejected the Greek conception of cyclical time. The progress of the holy
was not to be the myth of eternal return, but rather the linear road of and
toward Christian perfectionism. This is key to our historical understanding.
It also provides a clue to the importance of allegorical thinking and expression
in the pre-modem West.
Historically, Christianity rose to prominence during the breakdown of the
Hellenized ancient world. The political expression of this world (and its
power) was the Roman Empire. Toynbee, defying Gibbon, places the
authentic origins of the breakdown during the Antonine Age, before the rise
of the Christian ecclesia. I am inclined to agree with him. In post-Antonine
Rome, amid the shattering of the Empires imperial borders, amid the
turbulent breakdown of social life and disintegrating culture, the Christian
ecclesia rose to prominence. That prominence lasted until the Reformation,
and among hundreds of millions of Catholics worldwide, important vestiges
of that former prominence still survive.
The early ecclesia filled the institutional vacuum amid the breakdown of
Rome. It seemed inconceivable at the time, even to the Christians, that Rome
would no longer exist. Rome was the world, and the world was collapsing.
It is reported that St. Jerome burst into tears when he heard that Rome had
been sacked. Amid the post-Roman chaos that historians still call the Dark
Ages, a Christian ecclesia that had married itself to Greco-Roman culture kept
the remnants of that culture alive. The Constantinian settlement had been a
fortuitous circumstance for Christianity. Now, during the Dark Ages, the
ecclesia maintained and fostered the imprimatur of Roman moral authority.
So began a long road of missionary Christianization and latinization of the
peoples who occupied Europe after Romes fall.
Operating on a leveled playing field, so to speak, the Christian ecclesia
was able to redefine both culture and the idea of the holy. The Gothic
tribesmen were capable of great physical force, but these warriors had not the
wit nor the training to debate with the budding schoolmen.
The ecclesia of the nascent Western Christendom replaced the
post-classical Stoicism (its main competitor) with theology. An early form of
analogic, theological thought imbued the concept of Christian perfectibility.
The Christian person would live and function in a world structured by a
specific idea of the holy. The holy included of course the Christian belief in
the Trinitarian God. The Gnostics and anti-trinitarians were suppressed and
their ideas banned.
The post-Roman person was a pilgrim on lifes road. The road was
fraught with the dangers of temptation and sin. To avoid these pitfalls,
penance and the sacraments were of utmost importance. For this life was
only one road on the longer journey to eternal life. Ones very soul was at
We see continued here the cultural/theological emphasis of the two orders, the
human and the divine, that will later find their culmination in the great
The road here is the road toward perfection through the perils of an
imperfect world. The human order (imperfectly, of course) emulates the
royal road of the divine order. It is here that estrangement is mediated via
the Christian sacraments. And it is here that the linear progress of time (and
progress in time) became the institutional facets of cultural life in the West.
These institutional facets, once in place, will retain their cultural dominance
until Martin Luther.
I have looked here at the determinate vitality of the ecclesia in the West.
What of the vitalities of the individual? What were the individuals existential
concerns? The historical record itself is not always clear. Obviously, most
individuals of culture and learning were aggregated in the early Church. It
is safe to say, however, that the weight of the holy pressed deeply upon the
average European Christian at this time. Human being was considered a
corrupt form of nature, especially when juxtaposed with the species of the
Divine Trinity. The finer points of the two orders were not argued among the
average folk (most were illiterate). Their theology was a sacramental
theology, which kept them off the road to hell, as the ecclesia advised. If life
was a tragedy, it was reflected in the Romanesque art, which showed the
penalties of those who failed in their sacramental duty. The idea of the holy
was counterbalanced by the idea of demonality. Life did have a certain
sacredness then (despite its corruption and imperfectability), to be protected
from the forces of evil.
As modems, it is difficult for us, but not impossible, to understand the
vast mosaic called the Middle Ages. The High Middle Ages or High Gothic
period, culminated, of course, in the great hierarchical synthesis of nature,
man and the divine species. The cosmological weight of this synthesis is
reflected in the socio-political and cultural expressions of the Western
Christendom, which achieved both the high papacy and the spires of Chartres
While dispersing the remnants of paganism and suppressing the
anti-trinitarian Albegensians, the medieval church achieved the cosmological
synthesis of post-pagan remnants into a universalizing culture, imbued with
sacramental theology. The Celtic legends of warrior kings were transposed
into the Arthurian romances (Loomis 1991). The land struggles and
blood-feuds of tribal people issued forth the quests for the Holy Grail. The
High Gothic period absorbed and transformed the enchanted world. The
world was enchanted, but the axis mundi was the sacrifice of the Savior.
The blood of the Savior, and the relics of his Passion, transformed the
diversity of belief systems into what we now call the universal Catholic
It was a brilliant synthesis, accounting for both the ethical needs of the
person and the political/cultural demands of institutional life. It had its
blunders and stupid arrogance, as well as crowning spiritual achievements. In
short, the universal Catholic culture fulfilled and determined both the person
and the world he encountered.
Catholic culture both inherited and invigorated the themes of the two
orders and Christian perfectibility. The keys to the synthesis and the
invigoration are hierarchy and heteronomous reason in the service of
The papacy achieved its ultimacy under Innocent III. From the spires of
Chartres and Notre Dame, the weight of heaven pressed upon the person. In
the fields of Assisi, the mendicant friars of St. Francis displayed a selfless
Christian charity. The world, as part of the divine cosmos, was ordered.
It was an ordered world, considered worthy and universal.
It was considered real, good and workable, from the episcopal seats to the
fields of Provence.
As modems, we are horrified by the socio-political inequality displayed
by the medieval hierarchy. How could such a world, strange to us today,
have fulfilled the needs of personhood within the mode of universalizing
We must recall that the Divine species of the Trinity and the sacrifice of
the Passion were taken in all seriousness during this time. God was the
religious entity which imbued the creation and life of the cosmos. The priestly
caste were the ordained keepers of the sacraments and proponents of the
cosmic hierarchy. The theological hierarchy of the two orders found its
earthy counterpart in the hierarchy of the medieval culture and society. The
concept of the two orders was argued, but here argued to justify the
hierarchical relations and the feudal obligations between the Church and
aristocracy and the mass of peasantry that comprised feudal, Western
The lower order, the earthly order of human affairs, aspired through
analogical reasoning to the perfectibility of the divine order. As God sat upon
the throne of heaven, so the royal prince sat upon the earthly throne. As the
species of the Holy Spirit'manifested the wisdom of heaven, so the priestly
caste upheld and distributed the life imbuing sacraments. The theology of the
high Gothic period was a sacramental theology, argued through the exercise
of reason in the service of God. The implication and the end result was
theonomous reason in the service of theonomy. The lower order was
hierarchical in nature, yet aspired analogically to the emulation and service
of God. For the person within the lower order, the task of Christian
perfectibility was lifes task and the species of Christ during the Mass, the
food of life and heaven.
The implications of analogical thinking in the service of political hierarchy
has not been lost on a host of sociologists and historians, just as the reality
was not lost on the European Princes who finally broke the back of the
medieval papacy. But the investigation here is concerned with the progress
of the idea of the holy and the resultant implications for the existential
concerns of the self.
Let me be clear. Life as we know it was not fair for many millions of
people during the medieval period. There were blundering, lies and forgery
on the part of the papacy and its many denizens. The common folk were
often at the mercy of clashes between the papacy and secular princes. The
taxes on the peasantry were often high. Their occasional revolts were often
ruthlessly suppressed. There was uncertainty of wars and foreign invasions.
Many died young from incurable diseases or superstitious treatments. The
Crusades themselves constituted a bi-polar conflict between the two competing
civilizations, Christendom and Islam. The insecurity of the Islamic threat
caused tension for hundreds of years in Western Europe (Dawson 1968).
Yet, for all its blundering and mistakes, this universal Catholic
Christendom worked and upon its own terms, it worked well. It is hard for
us to conceive a society where everyone actually believed in God. And the
belief was real, not rhetorical, it was acted upon in every facet of life, from
the throne of Henry V to the charity hospitals of Rheims. Every act, every
decision, was weighed with a view to the heavenly consequences. The
pilgrims who died on the way to the Holy Land were consumed with penance
and care for their immortal soul. Their compatriots, the Crusaders, were
concerned perhaps with land and booty, but the liberation of Jerusalem would
restore their souls to the proper pentitential states.
Now, this may smack of hypocrisy to us today, and perhaps it was, but the
average chivalric knight was aware of the imperfectibility of the lower order,
even as he aspired to achieve perfectibility. Our modem notions do not help
us here. For the theonomous notions of medieval scholasticism were broad
and expansive in the most universalizing sense; so expansive, that the center
could not hold. Theonomous reason without the critical counter balance of
prophetic insight degenerates and results in heteronomous reason in the
service of mundane, social hierarchy (Tillich [1951-63] 1967, vol.l:83 86).
Here is the point where critical theology finds its agreement with the scores
of revising sociologists and historians. The prophetic insight necessary to
counter degenerated heteronomy manifests itself as a reforming, protesting
principle, in short, a Protestant Principle (Tillich [1951-63] 1967, vol.1:227).
Before moving on to the next section, we must amplify the themes and
concerns discussed in this section. The theonomy of the High Gothic period
(before its degeneration to heteronomy in the service of hierarchy) laid the
groundwork for the spiritual goals and concerns of Western personhood which
still concern us in contemporary society. The existential concerns of the
modem period find their nascence in the allegorization of life in the High
An allegory is a story which contains symbolic significance for those who
tell or write or listen to or read the story. The symbolic significance or
lessons of the story are lessons that are real or become real in the life of the
reader or listener. The lessons of the story are verifiable in that they
symbolically reflect the goals and experience of the listeners and readers. Of
course, allegory does not work and breaks down if the universal reality of the
story and the audience are different. In the Middle Ages, allegory worked
because the beliefs of the story and the audience were one and the same.
Just as the dimensions of Chartres reflected accurately the physical planes
of the medieval world, so the great romances and Grail quests reflected
accurately the ethical and spiritual concerns of the medieval person. Now,
albeit many of the Grail manuscripts are mundane in composition and content,
some aspire consciously to something higher, most notably the Oueste del
Saint Graai (the fourth member of the vast Vulgate cycle) and Wolfram von
Eschenbachs Parzival (Loomis 1991). I must here also disassociate the
present discussion from Sir Thomas Malorys exquisite yet fanciful
post-Gothic rendering of the allegory. If it be objected that the significant
allegories were the properties of the courts and literate clerics, I must remind
the reader that the allegories, like the synoptic Gospels, were told and retold
for many generations, in oral as well as written form.
In the Oueste and Parzival we observe the spiritual themes and existential
concerns of medieval personhood. Now, these themes are highly focused and
provide insight into the self and the encounter of the self with a structured
world. Hence, we see the vitalities (both determinate and indeterminate) of
both the self and the world. The implications for the idea of the holy and its
interpenetration upon the freedom and dignity of medieval personhood are
manifested clearly through the allegories.
The temporal world of the Oueste del Saint Graal is a sacred, enchanted,
yet mundane order. It is a sacred, yet pale reflection of the sacred, cosmic
order, as designed by God. The knights of this Grail quest are persons in
search of Christian perfection. Like the average Christian, their journeys and
adventures are full of gains and accomplishments, as well as losses and
setbacks. They must make themselves ready for the Grail, through long
sojourns and hard trials. The road to salvation is not an easy one.
It is a wasteland, littered with the debris of broken lives and broken spirits.
(This insight was not lost on T.S. Eliot, among others.) As these knights
grow in spiritual strength, the meaning of their world, the idea of what is
most holy to them, becomes manifest. All that comprises their world and
cosmos is imbued with the sacrifice of their Savior. The blood of Christ and
the sacrament of his bodily species is the life blood of the world. The Grail
itself is the theological/ontological foundation upon which sit the planes of
physical reality and all life within the temporal order.
It is hard for us to accept this cosmology with our scientific minds and
technical accomplishments. Yet the cosmology of the Oueste served well its
purpose. For the Cistercian monks, who compiled the manuscripts, the
explanatory mode and its implications were sincere. Life in the human order
and the reality of the Middle Ages were harsh. As Aquinas would argue,
within the hierarchy of the lower order, a dual perfectibility could be sought
and achieved. The non-monastic life had its mundane tasks and goals. The
monastic or higher order within the overall mundane order could seek (and
sometimes achieve) the emulation of the Christ ideal and the contemplation
In the Oueste. the creatureliness of the mundane is absorbed into the
higher ideal of the monastic search for Christian perfectibility. The
appearance of the Grail transposes the quest for Christian perfectibility onto
a higher plane, if only momentarily. The holiness of all that is, is
transformed, and appears in a new light.
To the modem individual who prides himself for his authentic sovereignty
(a theme I will explore later), Wolframs Parzival teaches valuable lessons
(Eschenbach [c. 1200] 1986). In Parzival we see a person with great personal
concerns who must achieve an arduous journey across life, before the
integration of his personality into an authentic selfhood. Parzivals finally
integrated personhood is the pre-modem prototype of the healthy ego we all
so desperately seek. He did not and could not make his journey alone,
without the aid of more powerful forces. It is ironic that Parzival sought and
found God, while we modems are merely envious of the personality type that
could achieve such a quest.
Parzival, the young knight errant, is ignorant, brutal and sometimes
uncaring. In the quest of the Grail he learns to integrate and transpose the raw
materials of his mundane personality into a higher sense of self, a self with
a higher sense of purpose. He discovers that when faced with the idea of the
holy, his brute strength and nonpurposive will are simply inadequate. He is
part of the world, but the world is not his oyster. Parzival learns of the
redeeming qualities of love, charity, humility and compassion. He learns that
the weaknesses he once laughed at are now the strong and enabling centers of
his own personality. In short, he has become a decent person with a sense
of integrative self and purpose, now on the genuine road of Christian
It was not all of Parzivals own doing. The recognition of the holy and
the integration of the holy into his own existential concerns transformed this
rude knight into a sacred person of Gods own creation. We see here the
highest spiritual lesson of the Middle Ages. This is food of the highest
spiritual nourishment, and its sacramental aura can still be faintly detected
even to this day.
The telling of the tale of Parzival comprises a highly focused integration
of the medieval person and his world. The allegory works, for the aspirations
of the medieval person merged and dovetailed with the structured cosmos of
the medieval reality. The world (and its orders) and personhood aspired to
the perfectibility of a sacred universe. There are few moments in the history
of cultures when both the concerns of personhood and the needs of the
structured institutional setting converge and transpose themselves into
perfectionism. Parzival is one of those moments. The legacy of this
pre-modem individuation process will have bearing upon my investigation of
the modem self and its vicissitudes.
It is necessary to draw a few lessons before we move on to the next
section. We see in the High Gothic period the inheritance and transformation
of the theological themes of the idea of the holy and the two orders (the
divine and the earthly, human, temporal). Christian perfectibility is further
clarified and aspired to under the rubric of the hierarchical, human order.
Analogic reason and allegorization transform and transpose the search for
perfectibility of personal concerns into a universalizing ethic of a sacred self
integrated into a sacred world and cosmos. It seems as if, through sheer
spiritual will, the profanities of the Middle Ages were excised and the
enchanting sacredness of the world maintained.
The Emergent Modem Self:
Disenchantment and the Belief in Progress
The road from Wolframs Parzival to Edvard Munchs painting The Cry
(1893) is a long one. And along the way there are the literary and visual
mediations of Dante and Albrecht Durer. It is a long road, but the outlines
of the journey and its implications for the modem self are discernible.
As historians tell us, the medieval Catholic universalism gave way to the
Renaissance appropriation of classical humanist themes. The Renaissance,
when coupled with Reformation, produced an emergent modem self
encountering a structured world vastly different from the static hierarchy of
the High Gothic period. A newly emergent self has new concerns. The
existential concerns of the modem individual in the West are the concerns of
an autonomous self (in both its authentic and inauthentic dimensions). The
explanation of this reality and our arrival upon it lies in the investigation of
the emergent modem West. One important clue to the investigation is the
explication of the transition from heteronomy (and heteronomous reason) to
autonomy (and autonomous reason). The current investigation should lead us
to an understanding of the dimensions of the problems now facing the
contemporary self and society.
The breakdown of medieval allegory was facilitated by the Renaissance
appropriation of classical, Greek humanist themes. The poetry of Petrarch
represents an individual expression not possible in medieval allegory.
Whereas medieval allegory sanctified the search for Christian perfectionism,
Petrarchs poetic journey is a solitary one (Petrarch [1327-74] 1981). The
universal themes of Greek Stoicism imbue an individual on his search for love
and the meaning of his life, but a classical universalism has replaced a
Catholic universalism. The individual is faced with the vastness of Gods
creation. But individuals are integrated via the meaning that they search for
and achieve. There is no sacramental mediation in these early Renaissance
The Renaissance art of Michaelangelo is a Christian art. And the artist
was subsidized by both the secular pretensions of the Italian aristocracy and
the counter-reforming tendencies of the Tridentine papacy. But
Michelangelos Christian art reveals a human expression in the service of
human needs and concerns.
The sculpture of his late period reveals the intense human suffering of the
chosen subject figures. This also is art, but not in the service of hierarchy.
Here we are looking at a transformation of the idea of the holy in the
West. Human suffering is not to be synthesized under the rubric of an
aspiring Christian perfectionism. There is still a Pilgrim upon the road, but
the road is more solitary now and less crowded with other Pilgrims. The
Tridentine papacy had a large hand in sponsoring Renaissance visual art, but
it could not suppress the individualizing tendencies that burst forth from this
The emergence of the modem self is more than the history of art. It is
also the history of a newly structured reality which the self encounters. The
intellectual explanation for the new reality is best described as the transition
from heteronomy to autonomy. The spiritual explanation details the transition
from a sacred to a profane world. The social explanation details the transition
from static hierarchy to the openness of modernity (fraught with all its
dangers). The understanding of a world and its transition to modernity is best
exemplified by an understanding of the belief in immanent progress. It is this
belief (still with us in altered form) that makes the world of Erasmus appear
as but a distant dream.
The idea of the holy was altered with the breakdown of allegory and its
transformation via the Renaissance appropriation of humanist themes. This
alone does not produce Modernity, as the latent universalizing tendencies of
Erasmus still revealed. Reformation and Enlightenment produced the
Modernity that we still recognize today. And just as Renaissance art
reproduced an intensely individual human suffering, so Luther and Calvin
reproduced an intensely individual human conscience. The consequences for
this individual conscience (and the world) unmediated by a priestly
sacramentalism produced the dimensions of the modem, existential self to be
investigated in chapters four, five, and six of this paper.
If art was the expression of the discovery of human autonomy during the
Renaissance, the Protestant Reformation imbued human autonomy with the
imprimatur of divine grace and will. In short, the Protestant Reformation
transformed the idea of the holy and redefined the two orders of divine
presence and human creatureliness. To do this, Luther had to attack the
priestly caste of Catholic sacramentalism and reappropriate the Pauline
doctrine of justification.
The implications for the redefinition of the two orders were tremendous.
Although it was not Luthers primary intent, the redefinition of the two
orders, coupled with nascent scientific skepticism and enlightened rationality,
led to the disenchantment of the cultural life world. A disenchanted world is
a profane world, the modem world that we recognize readily. A world of
commerce and industry, of cosmopolitan relations, of scientific skepticism and
enlightened rationality, this world today is the heir of both Protestant
Reformation and secular, material progress in the West.
Martin Luther was at first a reluctant church reformer. He was an
eminent Catholic theologian, a Doctor of the church universal. In a previous
generation, perhaps Erasmus universalizing and conciliatory gestures might
have swayed Luther to stay in the church, but that was not to be. Luther
broke with the church universal, through the depth of his spiritual and
theological conviction, and through fear for his life. Since the contemporary
existential self has roots in the Reformation personality, it might be best to
describe just what Luther actually did.
First, as is well known, Luther attacked the Catholic hierarchy and the
sacramental monopoly of its priestly caste. "Every man a priest" was a
theological reality as well as a doctrinal polemic for Luther. With this
assertion, Luther was redefining the Catholic explanation of the two orders.
Yes, there were still two orders and yes, man was still estranged from the
divine presence, but the aspiring perfection of the lower order was not the
analogic hierarchy of Catholicism which justified spiritual as well as
To explode the Catholic doctrine of the two orders, Luther had to redefine
the idea of the holy and transform the concept of estrangement. In Luthers
German translation of the Greek New Testament (Romans 3:28), justification
by faith is amplified, rather than the deeds of the law (Harbison 1956, 130).
It is through faith and faith alone that the human individual is confronted in
his existential nakedness before God. God both judges and redeems the
naked, sinful individual. Justification is both judgement and mercy. God
judges the sinner as unworthy, as unacceptable, but God also accepts the
unacceptable individual as worthy of love and grace. Gods grace is the
mediation between the corrupt and estranged individual and the loving,
forgiving divine reality, a reality that comprises all that is (Tillich 1948,
153-163). The acceptance of ones own unacceptableness and the acceptance
of Gods grace and loving acceptance is the result of faith. It is a faith
rendered possible (and necessary for Luther) by the atonement of Christ upon
the cross. The implications for a sacramental theology were not lost on
Luthers contemporaries. The individual conscience stands before a personal
God. Catholicisms monopoly of sacramentally administered grace was not
only superseded; it was rendered theologically wrong.
By redefining the holy and the individuals relation to God, Luther had
cast aside the heteronomy of Catholicism. There were still two orders, to be
sure, but now their reality was completely transformed through a redefinition
based upon an individual reading of scripture. Luthers doctrine of
justification asserts the existential dimensions of personality. Certainly from
a scriptural standpoint, the world is in Gods hands. But justification through
faith means precisely faith, and faith is an individual act, the outcome of a
freely choosing free personality. A free personality implies a free thinking,
Now, traditionally, the Lutheran confessional is concerned with penance
and forgiveness, the atonement of our unworthiness in the light of Godss
grace. The secular self-assuredness that has marked the Western personality
until recently is not exclusively the product of Luthers theological and
historical contribution. A fuller understanding of the emergent Western self
also requires an investigation of the Calvinist heritage and its implications.
But we can state that Luthers assertion of individual autonomy is a unique
contribution to the development of the modem self, with far-reaching
The current investigation must be deepened with a more adequate
understanding of the self that emerged when the Calvinist personhood was
married to the immanent belief in progress. This belief itself was married to
the general European Enlightenment and its social application of instrumental
A brief digression is necessary. The present purpose is neither to uphold
Catholic universalism, nor to debunk it to uphold Reformation Protestant
theology. The purpose is to explore the development of the modem,
existential self, then to explore the contemporary situation, its problems, and
contradictions. The contemporary existential self did indeed emerge from the
myriad conditions of Renaissance and Reformation history. The post
Reformation self, when determined by the elements of bourgeois freedom and
industry, will represent a self for fuller investigaion.
My point in this section is that an emergent autonomous self appeared in
post-medieval European history. This is also the historical era when the age
of discovery begins. The Europeans who colonized the Americas brought
their faiths and their religious contradictions with them. I would assert that
European origins are convenient for study, especially when we consider the
Calvinist legacy in America, the heritage of the New England Colonists.
As for Catholic universalism, it still survives today among hundreds of
millions of Catholics worldwide. Its vestiges are strong (and some of them
are noteworthy), but Catholicism is no longer the universalizing religious
culture it once presupposed itself to be.
We know of the Catholic Counter-Reformation in Europe. Millions of
Europeans in the Latin Mediterranean countries either accepted or were forced
to accept the reforms of the Council of Trent. But my investigation here will
concentrate on the Northern European personality type and its pervasive
influence in the modem age. It was this personality type that imbued both
Europe and the new American Republic with an immanent belief in progress.
"The human mind," said Calvin, "is a factory for idols." Calvins
Institutes of the Christian Religion reveals to us a vast summa of
post-Lutheran Reformation theology (Calvin  1960). Calvins
summation is both ahistorical in exegesis and sternly doctrinal. For Luther,
the human person was depraved in the sense that the finite realm cannot
overcome the gap between humanhood and the divine Presence without the
mediation of Gods grace. For Calvin, among other things, the human order
is totally depraved, even as it seeks to bridge the seemingly unbridgeable gap.
There appears in Calvinism what we call today the neurotic personality.
Ones total depravity in the face of Godhead is complete. Only the
predestination (predisposition) towards salvation and the election by God of
the chosen few to be saved rescues the individual sinner from the utter
depravity of the earthly realm. The weight of Gods judgement is a severe
super-ego which presses down hard upon the personality of the Calvinist type.
The Calvinist conscience must labor long and hard in the earthly vineyard
where God has placed the individual. A human transgression, such as singing
or dancing, can cast the individual from the body of the Elect into the fires
The pressure on this personality type can be severe and intense. The
outbreak of hysteria at the individual and social level is always a threat.
Every American schoolchild is told of the witch hunts at Salem (in the New
England colony). When Calvin controlled Geneva, he controlled the
socialization processes of the chosen body of believers. Complete
socialization of this personality type integrates the severe super-ego with the
austere Christian ego, producing a personality capable of strong selfhood, and
the threat of personality fragmentation is staved off. It appears in New
England that the socialization process was threatened or disrupted, producing
The purpose of observing the Calvinist personality type is historical as
well as psychological. Calvinism produced a body of "Elect" believers
strong in will and purpose. This is the typology of the "Christian soldier,"
if you will. The structure of the encountered world for the Calvinist self was
depraved, and to stave off the depravity of oneself, clear-sighted Christian
strength and purpose of will were the constant necessity and goal. The
encountered world was a structure to be acted upon, worked upon and
transformed. Ones individual talents were the endowments of Gods
Not to fulfill ones potential talents was an insult to the Creator, resulting
in depravity and sin. This resolute personality type is described by Weber in
the ideal typological sense (Weber [1904-5] 1958). What concerns us here
is the reality of this Northern Protestant personality type and its marriage to
the immanent belief in progress. Unlike the Latin, Catholic mindset, it was
this Northern type that fueled the coming Industrial Revolution.
Calvinism has links to the general European Enlightenment that pervaded
post-Reformation Europe. It is no secret that John Locke was considered by
Diderot to be the father of the Enlightenment in France, or that Lockes own
father was a severe English Calvinist.
The great reformer Luther can in many ways be considered the last of the
Schoolmen. Calvin, however, was an austere modernist. The nexus of the
difference is ascertained easily on theological grounds. Luther did not diverge
fully from the scholastic conception of the eucharistic species during the
sacramental offering. Luthers doctrine of justification is certainly a break
with Catholic theology, but it is not a total break with the traditional concept
of the sacramental offering. Calvin disputed the divine species of the
eucharistic offering. For Calvin, the sacramental bread and wine were
symbols only of an earlier sacrifice. Calvin was a modernist in the sense that
symbols replaced the ever present sacredness of the created cosmic order.
For Calvin (since the human mind merely produced idols anyway), the idea
of Gods reality in the earthly realm superseded the actual sacredness of the
world. When physical reality is objectified thus, the austere personality can
work upon, transform, and control the stuff of nature. Nature is to be
transformed, and the transformation will represent in reality the body of
objectified ideas that determined the project.
There is a determinism that pervades the Calvinist conception of nature
and human nature. Predestination itself is certainly a deterministic concept.
For the Calvinist personality, it is rational as well as necessary to labor hard
in the vineyard of the earthly realm. If the world is to be transformed into
an austere image of Gods creation, one must instrumentalize both ones
attitude and the stuff of nature worked upon.
As mentioned, the European Enlightenment has links with the Calvinist
personality. Enlightenment presupposed the debunking of Catholic
universalism and the perceived superstitions of the Catholic ecclesia. The
world was to be understood and explained in rational terms. The world was
both reasonable and knowable. Human reason, not superstition, would
explicate, order and move the rational reality of the encountered world.
Enlightenment, then, presupposed a primary skepticism towards all
non-rational belief systems. This skepticism linked up with and pervaded the
growing scientific European mindset.
Whereas the Calvinist mind was decidedly religious, the Calvinist
objectification of the encountered world, coupled with the technical
application of science to industry, reveals the mindset of those early
entrepreneurs who fostered the industrial revolution. The English
entrepreneur who labored hard to accumulate capital was a Calvinist who
labored in Gods service upon a disenchanted reality.
In one sense the history of modernity in post-Reformation Europe is the
progress from discredited heteronomy to progressive autonomy. The
autonomy of the Reformed and post-Reformed thinkers was certainly a break
with the previous heteronomy. The Enlightenment thought of Diderot and
Voltaire presupposed the autonomy of human reason. For the French
thinkers, man was to be the measure of all things. The skepticism of
Enlightenment thought fueled the rise of scientific rationality and its technical
application to science and industry. The disenchantment with the world led
to increasing human technical control over it. The Northern Calvinist
Protestant personality was able to fuse the control of nature with a severe and
religious super-ego. The world, then, was transformed from the previous
feudal relations to a world of detached individuals and autonomous relations.
Now, autonomy carries with it both gains and losses, responsibilities and
necessities, which I shall explain shortly. The modem European world (of
which our society is in part a legacy) became and for the most part still is, a
world imbued with a belief in material progress both for the individual and
society. It was the autonomy and self-governance of the free and
free-thinking individual that was deemed to both fuel and fulfill the progress
of a heavenly bounty here on earth. The bourgeois elements of this ideology
are readily discernible. The bourgeois concept of individual autonomy grew
from both post-Reformation theology and Enlightenment thought. The new
bourgeois classes clamored for the socio-political equality commensurate with
their increasing material prosperity. They appropriated the Protestant and
Enlightenment ideas of individual autonomy and created a socio-political
ideology which explained and justified the bourgeois conception of freedom
they sought. This fusion of religious, Enlightenment and socio-political
themes was expressed in the competition of nascent bourgeois ideologies
during the French Revolution; and the precursor can be observed in the fusion
of religious-autonomous themes in the English Civil War. The end result of
this modernity is a devaluing of the religious outlook and its replacement by
a modernizing immanent belief in progress. It is material progress that will
fulfill the heavenly concerns here in the earthly realm. The Pilgrims
progress is now a different kind of progress. There is good reason why the
Calvinist and not the Lutheran personality type fueled the Industrial
Revolution. The aspirations of the individual are now secular aspirations, his
relations are market relations. A disenchanted world can have only secular
concerns in that the secular socio-political ideologies promise the fulfillment
of all concerns and aspirations, here in the temporal, physical realm.
Ideology replaces theological concerns in the modem world. Ideology so
often takes the rhetoric of theological concerns and uses it to its own purpose.
The replacement of the religious outlook by the immanent belief in
progress lasted from John Locke until the Somme and Verdun. Its strong
vestiges can still be seen in contemporary European and American society.
What concerns us here is the implications for the existential self and the loss
of self. The medieval society had been overthrown and a new and
autonomous personality type asserted. The new autonomous personality was
not only asserted; it was socialized into new relations during a historical
development spanning hundreds of years. The world had changed and so had
the individuals that comprised it. The individual fulfilled his obligations in
the marketplace of ideas and commodities and judged his worth by the value
the market attached to him. A devalued religious outlook offered solace, but
it did not offer the meaning and purposeful activity necessary to healthy
With the Industrial Revolution and the accession of the bourgeois classes
to political power, the victory of the autonomous world outlook and the
ideology of the autonomous individual was complete. The world was
disenchanted and material progress was to fulfill the needs both of society and
Let us examine some problems and contradictions inherent in this victory
of autonomy and the belief in progress. These problems and contradictions
exist at both the structural and individual level and set the tone for the further
investigation which follows.
In the modem world, the divine presence and the sacredness of all that is,
does not pervade our societal or individual relations. The autonomous self
searches to fulfill material needs, and the modem society searches for the
Holy Grail of aggregate economic growth. Social and political ideologies
have replaced authentic religious outlooks, with regrettable consequences.
Millions of people wander between obligations and relations, unfulfilled and
unhappy, with no sense of higher purpose. It is not only religion, but modem
psychology that maintains higher purpose as necessary to any healthy
personality integration. The historical result of the autonomous self is an
inauthentic self, full of pressing existential concerns, whether on the conscious
or unconscious level. The traditional biblical idea of estrangement has been
replaced by an almost totalizing estrangement within the human order. People
are alienated from each other and from themselves, the end result being a vast
aggregation of fragmented selves unhealthy at the psychological-emotive, as
well as spiritual level. This condition is tragedy, tremendous tragedy at the
individual and societal level. For those skeptical enough to believe that the
tragic sense inherent in the Biblical tradition is merely shopworn superstition,
I would ask them now to ponder the immensity of human suffering that
surrounds us in the modem world. The self in the modem world is adrift with
a denatured and desacralized idea of the holy. For the belief in progress did
replace, absorb, and transform the traditional idea of the holy. And now the
existential concerns of the individual are longing for a reality to fill the often
purposeless activity of modem life.
THE ONTOLOGICAL-PSYCHOLOGICAL DIMENSIONS OF
THE LOSS OF SELF IN CONTEMPORARY SOCIETY
This chapter will investigate the dimensions of the contemporary
existential self, its concerns, problems, and contradictions. The historical
survey of chapter three presented us with an emergent, modem self. Already
with the bourgeois self we can discern those historical determinations of the
self which present the problem at hand. It is necessary to strip the self of the
vestiges of bourgeois ideology and its legacy. Now, the modem self is an
autonomous self (with all its problems and concerns). If the self is stripped
of its ideological moorings, we can focus upon the genuine autonomous
concerns of this self. This also presents us with a serious problem, for the
modem self experiences both anxiety and lack of purpose, and an
investigation of a naked self in all its concerns presents us with a fragmented
self. It is questionable whether a fragmented self can retrieve authentic forms
of autonomy amid the present chaos and breakdown of contemporary cultural
The Problem of Purpose
Until quite recently, the prevailing social ideology of the West was a
belief in immanent progress. All counter-concerns or counter-ideologies were
dismissed as heresies. Marxism, the prevailing supra-counter ideology, was
also deeply imbued with the belief in material progress as the panacea to the
ills of the human condition. The modem Western outlook, in both its liberal
and Marxist forms, contains tragic pretensions. Modem political social
ideologies and industrialization accelerated and completed the transition to a
desacralized and profane, secularized Western life-world. Christian
perfectionism, in both its Catholic and Reformational modes, was transformed
into a belief in material perfectionism within a human, secular realm. What
sociologists call alienation within the social setting, theologians call the
historical loss of God. Such loss is a tragedy if one supposes that human life
seeks meaning and purpose beyond the scope of economic growth at the
individual and societal level.
In contemporary society, we are still working out the dimensions of the
problems raised, for if the individual today is a post bourgeois individual, the
bourgeois legacy of the autonomous and self-sufficient individual is a haunting
concern of contemporary life. And despite the fact that the European belief
in material progress for its own sake suffered a crushing blow with the First
World War and the rise of fascism, the need for economic growth still
compels the modem economies of the West.
The modem self that emerged after the Industrial Revolution was a self
socialized into the structural forms of the bourgeois cultural-life world. The
hallmark of this world was economic progress, and the middle-class individual
was seen as both its fuel and fulfillment. The philosophy of enlightened
liberalism pushed aside the perceived chains of superstition. The new middle-
class man was bom. This man was to be self-sufficient in the economic
realm and autonomous in both moral choice and moral obligation. The goal
of individual self-improvement fired the Victorian imagination. The
free-thinking and self-governing autonomous individual was the ideal typology
that spanned the liberal imagination from Adam Smith to John Dewey. Its
democratic pretensions are still observable in contemporary society. What
exactly did the autonomy of this individual comprise?
The prevailing liberal idealogy supposed an increasing democratic society
comprised of clear thinking, democratically minded middle-class individuals.
The pretensions of aristocracy had been overthrown (most violently, of
course, in France). The self improvement of the middle-class individual
could only lead to the improvement of society as a whole, which in turn
reflected back upon the individual. We can readily observe this in the
utilitarian ideas that pervaded much of the 19th century. Hence, the idea of
progress imbued both the individual and institutional outlook. Class
differences were recognized and exacerbated by both the financial overlords
and the organizing proletarian masses. But the prevailing liberal theories
maintained that aggregate economic growth would lead to the advancement
and improvement of all members of society.
The fostering and maintenance of the autonomous middle-class individual
was furthered by the victory of the modem, scientific world view. The
scientific view melded with industrial progress. The technical application of
science to industry did produce a richer and more improved material
life-world. Modem lighting and modem sewage disposal, as well as modem
medicine reduced the rigors of everyday life in the cities dramatically. The
invention of industry fostered the invention and self-improvement of the new,
autonomous middle-class consumer. A host of gadgets for personal use and
consumption created the consumer culture we still live in. However, the 19th
century individual purchased gadgets and textbooks and artprints with the
avowed goal of improvement.
Textbooks brought knowledge that could be parlayed and applied to practical
problems of everyday life. The artprints that hung in middle class homes
were meant to foster aesthetic appreciation, a component of any
In short, the 19th century middle-class individual believed himself to be
an assured and confident autonomous individual. His consumerism and
educational self-improvement both fulfilled and furthered the goals of the
prevalent bourgeois social-political ideology. Of course, an ideology of
middle-class life fulfills only the middle-class individual. The Victorians of
the 19th century were certainly proud of their material and educational
achievements. The train stations of London, composed of wrought iron and
glass, were the monuments to a modem material era, proud of its
accomplishments and seeking more with no reasonable end in sight.
The modem autonomous individual of the 19th century was, as we have
seen, to a large extent the product of middle-class culture, and this culture
was extolled by the liberal proponents of economic growth. The improvement
of all classes of society (but especially the middle-class) was to be the
foundation for increased democratic participation.
It is certainly true that the material progress of the age made life easier
for many millions, but we also know of the physical hardship and suffering
of the industrial masses who created the wealth so integral to the 19th century
middle-class culture. We also know that self-improvement was the province
and goal of the self-assured bourgeois father. The nuclear family of this
middle-class culture was anchored by the patriarchal father. If the mother
was equally important, the prevalent ideology strengthened the hand of the
father and sanctified it through the application of English common law and
positive law here in America.
The modem autonomous self is a mixture of historical truth and
ideological fancy. It is certainly true that the modem individual is
autonomous. The world of a Catholic universalism cannot be returned. The
individual is thrown upon the devices of individual choice amid competing
ideologies and belief systems. This situation is the end result of the victory
of middle-class bourgeois culture and its ensuing dissolution in the
contemporary life-world of society. What concerns us here is this
autonomous individual and the disintegrating autonomy that has been
bequeathed to us in contemporary society.
The self-governance of the free-thinking, autonomous, 19th century
middle-class individual presupposed self-governance in the sphere of ethical
and moral choice and obligation. A liberal, democratic ideology was
accompanied by a liberal, post-Reformational Protestant theology. The
theologians of the late 19th and early 20th centuries were also infected with
the prevalent belief in progress. As the material progress of the 19th century
was to improve and uplift all the classes of society, so too was the progress
of society to lay the groundwork for the implementation of the reality as well
as the message of the social Gospels.
Before the Somme and Verdun, the 19th century middle-class individual
did not experience the Angst of 20th century modem life. Bourgeois culture,
although dominant, was not totally prevalent. It had its critics and was not
accepted in all quarters of life. The Bohemian movement in art and literature
is, of course, a telling example of the rejection of middle-class culture. Not
only the poetry, but the life of a Baudelaire was a direct attack upon
middle-class beliefs and pretensions. Against the appearances of the propertied
classes was asserted the rejection of their values and the life-world maintained
by those values. Bohemian art questioned the purpose as well as the existence
of middle-class culture and its self-governing autonomous individual.
Bohemian art questioned the whole progress of modem society, its scope and
goals. This questioning on the part of Bohemia (as well as post-Romantic
German philosophy) was effectively glossed over by the middle-classes until
the First World War. With the advent of August, 1914, the tantalizing
rejection of progress became an agonizing reality for all the classes and strata
of European society.
The Angst of 20th century life, although intimated by Bohemia and certain
philosophies (notably Schopenhauer and then Nietzsche) did not pervade the
general cultural climate of the 19th century middle-class life. As described
earlier, in both Europe and America the age was one of material
improvement and individual confidence. The proletarian masses were to be
feared. But they and their socialist tendencies were also to be neutralized
and absorbed through the general economic improvement of society as a
whole. Except for the anathema of revolutionary Marxism, the socialist
tendencies of the proletariat could be harnessed and deflected into the task of
achieving economic, national, and imperial goals. To a certain extent, this
happened in both England and Bismarcks Germany.
In America the ever widening Republic offered mobility and new land to its
burgeoning masses, increased each year by the influx of immigrants.
The 19th century was a time of powerful nation-states and these European
nation-states (as well as America) had imperial pretensions. It seemed to
many among the educated middle classes that the economic, material progress
of the West and the marked improvement of its societies were the long
outcome of an evolutionary progress. The Darwinian-Spencerian outlook was
common currency among much of late Victorian and early Edwardian society.
But a Darwinian-Spencerian outlook is not an adequate substitute for an
authentic, autonomous self. The self-improving confidence of the 19th century
requires closer examination, and before detailing the prevalent anxieties
pervading the contemporary situation, we must discuss more closely the
liberal theology of the late 19th and early 20th century.
What purpose does progress have within the larger scheme of things?
What is the purpose of the Christian individual within progress and its
relation to Gods ordering of life and the world? These questions consumed
post-Reformation, liberal Protestant theology from roughly the mid-19th
century till the First World War. At the beginning of this theological period
we have the romantic naturalism of Schelling, which associated God with the
natural movement of all things (Schelling  1978). Schellings thought
is both romantic and captivating and offers great solace in a life-world where
values are separated, and where the religious outlook is detached from the
secular realm amid the march of material progress. At the end of this period
we have The Philosophy of Civilization put forward by Albert Schweitzer
(Schweitzer  1964). Surviving as a liberal theologian into the
inter-war period, Schweitzers religious/ethical thought project represented
the last attempt on the part of pure liberal theology to maintain a categorical
imperative amid the ensuing chaos of the rise of European fascism.
Just what were the liberal theologians doing amid the era of progress?
What was the purpose of theology for them? First (and certainly important
from a theological standpoint) the liberal theologians historicized the synoptic
Gospels and the social message of these Gospels. Schweitzers Quest for the
Historical Jesus outlines the efforts to understand and explain the historical
person known as Jesus (Schweitzer  1966). Who was this man, and
where did he come from?
Because the impact of the scientific outlook upon this period was
profound, it seems likely that the impact of scientific skepticism would force
theologians towards a critical, historical examination of the Gospels. The
liberal theologians were forced to acknowledge that their religious values
existed amid a secular life-world. They were keenly aware of this fact. The
kerygmatic message of the Gospels was downplayed. Troeltschs Jesus of "a
free personal piety" became the ethical standard-bearer of religious morality
(Troeltsch  1981, vol. 2:993). There was little discussion of the Christ
as the receptive and commanding Logos of creation. With major wars and
fascism still on the historical horizon, liberal theological thought jumped on
the bandwagon of progress. Jesus had become a pantheistic symbol of the
moral perfection to be achieved during the long march of economic, material
prosperity. The increasing prosperity of modem society would eliminate
social injustice. As all rose in society, the social message of the Gospels
would be fulfilled.
The liberal theologians believed in the inherent goodness of man, both as
individual and as a member of collective society. The doctrines of finitude,
creatureliness, estrangement and sin were downplayed. It was the purpose of
the liberal theological explication to explain mans goodness as part of the
general creation. This goodness, when harnessed to material achievements,
fulfilled the order of creation.
At the end of the 20th century we are, perhaps, struck by the naivete of
this liberal world view. However, as we know, people are often children of
their own times. What concerns us here is the liberal explication of goodness
and the capacity for goodness both at the individual and societal level. This
concern also stirred Karl Barth, who led the Protestant neo-orthodox charge
against theological liberalism.
The First World War and the rise of European fascism exploded the
middle-class belief in progress and its theological justification. The
confidence of the middle-classes was disrupted. Life in contemporary society
became unsettled and still is to this day. Angst replaced security and
confidence, and peace of mind replaced improvement as the goal of individual
selfhood. The moral imprimatur that liberal theology had placed upon
progressive society was weakened. What does this mean for our investigation
of the self?
The 20th Century has been a violent century, to say the least. The
immensity of destruction and human suffering defies calculation. Two World
Wars, fascism, Holocaust and nuclear brinkmanship are not good examples
of the underlying goodness of humanity within the order of creation. The
systemic upheavals of modem societies and the violent destruction of global
conflicts point to a need for a deeper understanding of humanity and its place
and role within the order of things.
It is here that the orthodox response to liberal theology and liberalism in
general arose. Kerygmatic theology is evangelizing theology, and this is an
apt description of Karl Barths theological thought project (Barth 1936-62).
For Barth, liberal theology had failed because of its marriage to the age of
progress. For orthodox Barthianism, the word of God and the commands of
Christ are a constant in human affairs. The Christ as Logos of Creation is
not something to be clothed in the ephemeral cultural costumes of modem
European societies. Christs message is not dependent upon the
achievements, whether material, cultural or scientific, of a modem society
which may choose or not choose to recognize the order of Creation.
For Barth, liberal theology had failed to uphold the Christological order
of Creation. This failure was evident by the liberal appropriation of modem
cultural forms and its decidedly non-Christocentric picture of modem society.
If Barth did one thing of importance, he exposed the belief in humanitys
capacity for goodness to rigorous investigation.
For the Barthians, human beings have an incapacity as well as a capacity
for goodness. The violent destruction and systemic insecurities of our times
called forth the re-examination of the doctrines of finitude and estrangement.
Now, we may not agree with all of Barths conclusions, but our concern here
is the existential dimensions of selfhood which are reopened for examination.
For Barth, the Word of God is the command of Creation. This is the one
overriding constant of the divine presence and its interpenetration into the
affairs of the human order. Failure to recognize this constant is bad theology.
Mans search for fulfillment within the divine presence is a search fraught
with estrangement. Sin is real in the modem world. In the doctrinal sense,
it is fully understandable that wanton destruction and moral stupidity should
accompany great material and cultural achievements. Man is a sinful
creature, and he displays readily his capacity for evil as well as his capacity
for goodness. It is unwise and poor theological doctrine to expect a fallen
creature to display only goodness and never the capacity for sin and evil. For
Barth, only the historical constant of the kerygmatic message of the Gospels
lifts humanity above the fallen state of creatureliness.
It is valuable at this point to look at what Barth is here telling us. The
theological investigation of evil in the modem world explodes the middle-class
ideology of progress and its presupposed attendant moral worth. The question
of the freedom and dignity of human beings is attendant upon the question of
their capacity for both good or evil. Human beings are creatures capable of
selfless sacrifice. They are also capable of moral stupidity and flagrant evil.
The world has its Gandhi but it also has its Hitler.
At this point, theology takes the lead over many modem social theories
of man and the state. A good many of these social theories are valuable and
sincere in their thrust, but they do little to examine the basic question of what
it means to be human in contemporary society. Human beings are capable of
many things for both good or ill, but they do not seem capable of
understanding their own capacities or incapacities. An understanding of
incapacities can be as important as an understanding of capacity, for this
understanding can lead to a realistic view of humanity and the individuals that
comprise the collectivities of modem societies. This view is also tinged with
the tragic. After all the destruction of this century, it should be clear that the
kingdom of God is not going to be built here on Earth.
Orthodox Barthianism is not the only modem theology. I am concerned
here with the appearance of Barths theological explication. The appearance
of the Barthian theology and its critique of liberalism raised a host of
questions that Barth himself either could not or simply refused to answer.
These questions concern the existential dimensions of selfhood in
contemporary society, and will concern the rest of this paper.
In its heyday, between the World Wars and immediately following,
Barths orthodoxy was called the critical theology. There were two streams
within this overall critical theology and its critique of liberalism. This critical
theology was also sometimes called dialectical theology because Kierkegaards
concept of paradox had been appropriated by Barth and his students. Within
the overall critical theology, debate was lively and often intense. Two main
schools emerged and their outlines are still visible today. On the one hand,
Barth and his followers moved even closer to orthodoxy. Barth himself had
little use for modem science and its bearing upon critical, biblical exegesis.
A personality such as Bultmann was completely untheological to Barth. It
seems understandable that Barth, so displeased with liberal theology, would
reject its erstwhile scientific ally. On the other hand, there arose out of
critical theology a group of theologians deeply concerned with individual
selfhood and the existential concerns of the individual in contemporary 20th
century society. Their roots in Barthianism were strong, but they were not
orthodox theologians. They owed a debt to liberal theology, for liberal
theology had sought to keep alive the social message of the Gospels; and they
owed a debt to Barth, since Barth had questioned and explored human
capacities and vicissitudes amid a troubled and unsettled world. This second
school that arose out of critical theology has been called existential theology.
It is associated especially with Paul Tillich, whose monumental Systematic
Theology synthesized the main themes of post-liberal and orthodox theology
with the existential concerns of modem philosophical anthropology (Tillich
[1951-63] 1967). In America, the post-liberal and orthodox theological themes
merged into the insightful social and ethical commentaries of Reinhold
Niebuhr, known as Christian Realism (Niebuhr 1989). The missing link that
arose out of critical theology is the thought project of Dietrich Bonhoeffer.
Bonhoeffer died before writing his systematic theology, and the world is the
worse for it. We do have his fragmentary writings as well as his Ethics.
however. The Ethics reveal to us a thinker kerygmatic in outlook yet deeply
aware of the immense suffering surrounding him (Bonhoeffer  1967).
I am concerned with the problem of purpose. We have seen how the
purpose of the autonomous individual and his or her place in society was
exploded in the maelstrom of 20th century history. The progress of the
individual and of society was both exploded and called into question. The
theological justification for the purpose of the individual and society was
questioned and critiqued, in turn presenting a new set of questions and
problems for investigation.
The increasing destruction and systemic upheavals of this century have
called the whole concept of autonomous, individual selfhood into permanent
question. The individual, like modem contemporary society, is now a
problematic. The dimensions of authentic or inauthentic selfhood are under
continual investigation and scrutiny. The problem of purpose for the
individual in contemporary society lies at the heart of this scrutiny. Purpose
is, of course, tied deeply to meaning. Before an individual can seek meaning
in existence, he or she must first have an awareness of why one is here,
especially within the bigger scheme of things. Now, if this question is not
asked, life can be lived at a level not much higher than that of animal
existence. But it is in the nature of humans to ask this question.
Traditionally, through many variegated cultural and religious forms, human
beings have posed their own answers.
The acceptance of human life (and suffering) as part of a higher order and
plan, has enabled countless individuals to achieve purposeful activity in life.
The religious need of humans and the religious answers offered, seem to be
a constant in human culture and anthropology.
But the autonomous individual of modem secular, contemporary society
appears to be different, at least at superficial glance. The modem world and
its contemporary societies are unsettled, to say the least. Accelerated change,
whether in technology or social relationships, is a constant in human affairs.
Unsettling change appears as the order of the day, but change is not
necessarily a happy ingredient in human affairs. To have purpose, one must
have a sense of what is permanent and stable amid the relative flux of
everchanging things and ideas, and social and economic arrangements. In the
20th century, the very things which afforded a sense of permanence amid
relative flux have been to a large extent destroyed. Traditional political
arrangements, whether of the liberal or conservative stripe, were rendered
inadequate in the face of fascism and global upheaval. In the post-War world,
the nuclear threat and bi-polar conflict rendered insecure the so-called
American century. As the Cold War ends, new problems threaten the
autonomy and integrity of individuals. The new capitalist division of labor
on a global scale transforms many formerly productive individuals into
cast-offs. Bureaucratic socialism, and perhaps Marxism itself, no longer seem
to offer an attractive alternative. In short, the general sense of Angst that
first pervaded European society during the inter-War period is still with us
Modem psychology has outlined for us the goals and vicissitudes of
authentic selfhood amid the relative flux of an insecure, threatening and
ever-changing social life-world. The Holy Grail of modem psychology
appears to be a healthy and integrated personality structure, capable of
positive value creation and affirmation, yet capable of weathering the storms
that any ego must undergo in our ever-changing environment. Again and
again, forms of neurotic and self-destructive behavior have emerged in the
modem personality type; and again and again, new psychological theories and
therapies have arisen to deal with these problems. It might be asserted that
life in the modem age itself is conducive to the prevalence of generalized
forms of anxiety. These generalized forms of anxiety can be called existential
anxiety; and existential anxiety can be distinguished from the pathological
anxiety that pervades the neurotic behavior of the patently unhealthy
personality (Tillich 1952, 41). Existential anxiety reveals lifes inherent
concerns (Tillich [1951-63] 1967, vol. 1:191-201); and these concerns are
ontological as well as psychological in nature. The language of modem
psychology reveals the age-old human problem of seeking purpose and
purposeful activity amid the life world. Modem secular culture offers little
purpose to the individual beyond the goals of economic self-sufficiency. It is
certainly obvious that in a market society, individuals must strive to achieve
economic goals to provide for themselves and their families. However, on
a deeper level, the existential self is really seeking meaning that will affirm
the self and affirm the myriad forms of purposeful activity undertaken by the
self in the cultural life-world (Tillich [1951-63] 1967, vol. 1:210). Meaning
implies a special quality or relevance attached to the self and the purposeful
tasks undertaken by the self. In this sense, the self seeks worth, a special
sense of worth of ones own selfhood and its activities within this time and
place, and ultimately within the larger scheme of things. Now, worth implies
the special quality of uniqueness. As each individual self is unique, so unique
also is the worth sought and attached to the accomplishments of each discrete
being within the larger context of the life-world. Without begging the point,
the key here is our understanding of the uniqueness of each discrete self.
Human beings are like roses. There are no two alike in the world. It is easy
enough for social-political ideologies to twist and mutate the definitions of
selfhood, so that the self becomes the autonomous consumer facing a myriad
of choices within the market society; and psychology also appears to stamp
out dozens of typologies of assumed healthy or unhealthy personality types.
But I am here concerned with a deeper understanding of the self.
Anxiety and the Fragmented Self
Existential anxiety and concern render the autonomous self problematic.
It is difficult enough to seek purpose and meaning when one has a strong
sense of self. It becomes an anxiety laden-task when the uniqueness and
worth of ones own self is constantly called into question. We have seen how
in the previous era of progress the middle class autonomous individual sought
and achieved integration in the life-world. This autonomy and the age that
produced it were replaced by the Angst and existential anxiety of
contemporary society. The word existential implies a deeper need and
concern with the problem of selfhood. In an earlier chapter I described the
traditional concepts of fixed Being. Existence was described as existent being
in contradiction with essence. Essential being is a component of Being.
Being as both ground and abyss of all that is, is Being-Itself. Being-Itself is
the intimation of the divine presence, of Godhead.
Our concept of unique' selfhood implies a contemporary self ladenwith
anxious concern for the meaningful worth of its purpose and activities.
Anxious concern for ones worth is existential concern. Existential concern
is concern for the worth of ones own existent being. The anxiety of existent
being is the anxiety manifested when existent being is faced with the abyss of
non-being (Tillich [1951-63] 1967, vol. 1:191-201). A unique, worthy, and
valued being presupposes valuable and worthy activity. Only in the
purposeful fulfillment of a beings potential can the qualitative properties of
that being be manifested. Traditional ontology maintains that no existent
being can ever manifest all of the qualitative properties inherent in potential.
To do so would render being into a form of perfect Being, which is
qualitatively impossible. So, existent being has concerns for its own existence
and the manifestation of that existence.
The anxious concern of the existent being is faced with the possibility and
reality of non-being. For non-being is death rendered ontologically.
Non-being is the negation of the purposeful activity of the existent being and
its concerns. In its highest moments of self-actualization, purposeful existent
being is negated and the manifestation of its qualitative properties halted.
Existent being, which ensued from the ground of Being, falls into the abyss
and effectively returns to the ground from which it issued. This ground,
which contains the abyss also, can only be rendered as Being-Itself.
Being-Itself then, is the symbolic, ontological-theological rendering for the
literalness of God; for God is the Being from which all Creation issues and
to which all Creation returns.
The ontological-theological explication of the self as existent being, its
concerns and anxiety, is deeper and more fundamental than the previously
discussed ideological and psychological definitions of the self. The existent
self is unique and worthwhile because it is a particular and non-repeatable
expression of Being in the form of existent being.
This is another way of saying that we are all Gods children and that human
beings are created in the divine image, as part of the order of divine Creation.
The anxieties of the contemporary self are on the one hand the age-old
anxieties of existent human creatures. What is my purpose and meaning? Can
I fulfill my tasks, can my life mean something? What do I represent in the
face of death, what will I mean then? On the other hand, the utter drift of
contemporary secular society and the individuals that comprise it pose these
questions in a qualitatively new light. We are faced with the distinct
possibility that we cannot answer these questions to the satisfaction of the
anxiety-laden existent being. Modem life offers constant change where
permanence and anchor are needed. A self cannot die fulfilled unless a sense
of permanent accomplishment is actualized not only in physical reality, but in
the fibers of ones consciousness. Traditionally, family, productive work and
ethico-religious belief systems provided the parameters for purposeful activity
and the sense of the actualized potential and finality of ones time here on
The family is currently undergoing great change in contemporary society.
The whole question of what it means to have a family and what it means to
be part of a family is under revision and reconsideration. This new reality,
for better or worse, has broken the traditional, historical bonds through which
value-creating and value-affirming forms of the self were created and
nurtured. The socio-moral dimensions of this situation will be explored more
in chapter five. The nature of productive work has undergone revolutionary
change during the age of capital. In our generation, the ongoing
reorganization of capital and division of labor on a global scale has made
economic insecurity a facet of everyday life. In a post-industrial,
service-oriented economy, men and women do not make things which endure.
Instead, they serve things and other people. There is little produced today
that ones grandchild will point to with pride. The things of endurance, the
suffering, the love, and the humanly created objects that comprise the bonds
from generation to generation are disappearing. The current ideologies and
the explanatory psychological typologies presuppose the acceptance of
ever-moving change as the permanent factor of the contemporary life-world.
But beneath the veil of anxiety-ridden selfhood lies an existent being insecure
and unsure of its worth and place amid the changing and relative flux.
A fragmented self is threatened by the loss of self, even as self attempts
arduously the necessary task of integration into the larger life-world. For the
self always encounters a structured reality. The current structured reality of
contemporary society offers a myriad of cultural forms and meanings for the
purposeful integration of the self. The self attempts to find meaning for its
activities via the integration of ones self with other selves in the larger life
A fragmented self, threatened with the loss of its own self, confronts the
socio-moral implications of its purpose and activities, its meaning, in the
encounter with the larger life-world. It is in the life-world of society and its
collectivities that the existent being seeks the social and historical meaning
and fulfillment of its individual activity. The question of fragmentation
beyond anxiety leads to the investigations of chapter five. This, in turn, leads
to that necessary missing link, to be explicated in chapter six. At the
ontological-theological level, there is a sense and reality of the worth of self
that is both deeper and beyond the confrontation of the self with its own self,
and the confrontation of the self and the encountered world.
THE SOCIO-MORAL DIMENSIONS OF THE LOSS OF SELF
IN CONTEMPORARY SOCIETY
The threat to existent being is non-being. This threat is real, since it
carries the ultimate finality of death. But the self seeks purposeful activity to
actualize its potential, to render meaningful its brief existence and activity
before returning to the abyss. This chapter is concerned with the interaction
between the existent self and the larger life world. The socio-moral
dimensions of the interchange between the self and the larger, encountered
world reflect back upon the self and the investigations of the existential
concerns of the self.
Simply put, what are the socio-moral implications for the self as it
encounters the myriad forms of cultural and social activity in contemporary
society? Do the forms of purposeful activity offered to the self reinforce and
affirm the existential need for significant affirmation of self and ones own
activities? Does contemporary society offer meaning to the individual self?
Are the forms of meaning offered either authentic or inauthentic? Do these
authentic or inauthentic forms of meaning reflect back upon and reinforce the
needs and goals of an authentic or inauthentic form of selfhood? If the
question of selfhood in contemporary society is approached as problematic,
then the need also arises to approach the socio-moral dimensions of
contemporary society as problematic. The larger life-world is the place where
the self seeks to actualize its potential in a series of accomplishments. The
sense of purposeful accomplishment (or the sense of failure) to a large extent
determines the sense of self-worth and the worthy significance of ones
activities. To understand the sense of worth achieved by the self, we must
explore the determinative belief systems, ideologies, and supposed lifestyles
of contemporary society, for these are the structured socio-cultural realities
that the self encounters and participates in, with varying and problematic
results. These realities, themselves ever-changing amid relative flux, propose
the goals and accomplishments for the activities of the individual self. They
also hold forth the sense of approval or disapproval for the activities of the
self. It is necessary to explore these socio-cultural realities and to investigate
what sense of meaning they offer to the individual. As explained in chapter
4, the anxiety-ridden and fragmented existent being must seek meaningful
affirmation. This is a constant in human affairs, although its explanation can
certainly vary. I am here concerned with the issue of whether or not
currently encountered socio-cultural structures are up to the task.
A problematic self currently encounters a highly structured and
determinative, problematic contemporary reality. The self is offered several
and various opportunities for activity, accomplishment, to render for itself
meaning. The self searches for and attempts to implement an enduring sense
of significance for its activities and goals. The self needs meaning to affirm
the self and so stave off the threat of non-being, for non-being is rendered
as the threat of meaninglessness to the self and the activities of the self in the
societal setting. The sense of accomplishment or failure in the societal setting
reflects back upon the self and its sense of self worth. In society, the
existential concerns of the self are both reinforced and exacerbated. The
existential self incorporates the approval or disapproval of his fellow beings
into the task and goal of personality integration and the life-long individuation
process. The task of meaningful integration is fraught with existential
concerns and anxieties, as distinguished from pathological anxieties.
The existential self is deeply concerned with the prospect and achievement
of a sense of enduring worth and permanence in its life and life-long
activities. But as discussed earlier, contemporary modes of reality offer
changing and relative forms of approval amid ever recurring change. The
existential concerns of the self are therefore buffeted by the lack of
permanence in contemporary society. What was approved ten years ago is no
longer approved today. The historical truth of generations is now under
reconsideration and revision. The self, it would appear, desperately requires
sovereign modes of conduct and achievement; but these sovereign modes can
only be manifested in a life world that subscribes in totality to sovereign
values, both in their manifestation as supra-ethical norms (formerly the
exclusive province of religious systems) and their manifestation as meaningful
modes of conduct within an inclusive cultural context.
The hallmark of contemporary society is a decided schism of ethical
norms and a splintering of modes of conduct within and between various
cultural contexts. Here in America, the problem is more exacerbated than in
contemporary Western European society. These problems, of course, have
roots in the particularized American history. The main point here is the
reality of relativity both at the individual and societal level. This concept of
relativity will consume much of this chapter and point to a new set of
problems for chapter six.
The Problem of Meaning:
The New Gnosis
In contemporary America today, we are experiencing the appearance and
the current vitality of the myriad forms of competing ideologies and belief
systems. All of them, each in its own way, seem to presuppose the
assumption of ethical and moral authority in their confrontation with each
other. But the question is, where does this leave the individual self? How
does one achieve meaningful activity amid the plethora of competing and
relative belief systems?
It is an accurate social observation to assert that many insightful and
concerned persons in contemporary America are seeking to make sense of the
relative flux of our time and to gather insight concerning the breakdown of
functioning supra-norms in our society. The problem is approached from
disparate viewpoints (itself an indication of chaos) by politicians, academics,
church leaders, community activists and everyday citizens; but the various
approaches to the problem all highlight the pervasive sense of insecurity and
unease felt when approaching a problem of great and systemic nature.
America was meant to be a land for all (historical research can certainly
qualify this assertion). The underpinnings for this assertion manifest a
prevalent ideological belief in the democratic nature and direction of
contemporary society. But contemporary America appears to be increasingly
splintered. The exclamation of democratic notions still begs an answer.
The answer is provided. It is an inadequate answer, for all its
suppositions. The liberal spokespersons in society support unity through
diversity and seek to foster pluralism in both political and cultural
participation. They have, overall, a vision of society in which competing
interests and belief systems somehow merge and overlap, thus mysteriously
producing a social and democratic bounty for all. I, myself, am at a loss to
explain how competing ethical belief systems can merge to produce an
overarching supra-ethical norm that will steer this country into the next
century. Traditionally, what the liberals seek has been the province of
religious-ethical belief systems. It seems unlikely that secular cultural forms
are equipped to impose the commanding ethical restraints upon the individual
that religion traditionally imposed. Religion seeks and offers to the
individual a higher purpose and higher meaning to ones social activities. To
place the State and the myriad activities of its citizens above the higher
purpose of divine Creation is a well known form of idolatry. This form of
idolatry is not only decried by Christianity, but by Judaism, Islam,
Buddhism, and Hinduism, as well.
The conservative spokespersons in society also provide an answer to the
question. This answer, too, is inadequate, for all its suppositions. The
conservative position assumes the rhetoric of political and cultural pluralism,
while actively seeking to implement a program with a decidedly different
intent. A pyramid is erected, with ascending conservative values of family,
church, and politics. At the top of the pyramid is a chosen and mandated
political elite. This elite maintains a moral imprimatur, as well as the
financial backing of vast and powerful corporate interests. A kind of
medieval hierarchy is asserted with the political elites at the top of the
pyramid presupposing the mandate of heaven as they pick and choose which
ethical norms should direct the overall American society and its individuals.
This, too, is a form of idolatry, perhaps a worse kind. Political responsibility
implies a tremendous responsibility to serve the genuine needs of a vast
constituency of everyday citizens. To suppose that one can impose ones own
political norms upon the whole of society, asserting relative political norms
as the transcendent supra-ethical norms, is the worst kind of intolerance. The
Hebrew prophets railed incessantly at the complacency of David and later
Solomon. It is not the place of finite creatures, however highly placed, to
presuppose a special knowledge for the direction of Creation.
The disparate viewpoints and approaches to pluralism and unity within
diversity overlap and reveal both the problematic reality and the great sense
of unease and insecurity. These disparate viewpoints are akin historically to
the myriad beliefs and values which arise during the socio-political breakdown
and cultural chaos of powerful civilizations. Concurrently, the attempt is
made by concerned educators and medical people to make sense of this ethical
morass and its impact upon the individual. There is also no dearth of
religious and social commentary issuing from many books. In the modem
age, the press and television stir up the insecurities of the individual with an
avalanche of words and a host of recurring but ever-changing visual images.
This concoction is shaken and when drunk can produce a sense of aimless
moral drift among individuals and among the vast modem collectivities that
Since contemporary America is wandering through its current moral drift,
there is little doubt that this situation reflects intensely upon the individual.
The individual seeks moral affirmation for the sense of ones own worth and
worthwhile activities. But the individual is seeking approval under the aegis
of supra-norms of culture and conduct. These are, however, the very
supra-norms of ethical participation and conduct that contemporary American
society is either incapable or unwilling to produce. The result is both
surprising and destabilizing.
The individual is thrown back upon his or her own moral devices. For
all the appearance and rhetoric of a participatory American society, the
reality presents huge masses of individuals, each making their own way in
society, each one drawing upon their own moral reserves. Each individual
today seeks meaning, and seeks to overcome the atomizing tendencies current
in contemporary society. The end result is a huge mass of discrete
individuals set out upon the path of individuation, each one hoping their path
will be the special path of positive value creation and affirmation,
self-affirmation, and positive personality integration. The Holy Grail of
successful personality integration amid troubled times replaces the sense of
self within the higher order of Creation. A new self is longed for and a new
self is bom, along with all the ensuing attendant problems. The special
knowledge for the path of integration is chosen by the individual from
amongst the plethora of competing value and belief systems. The
knowledge, once chosen, becomes ones own esoteric art. Sociologically
speaking, this specially chosen knowledge constitutes a new form of Gnosis.
The new Gnosis is the search for individual salvation amid the wasteland of
competing value systems. Historically, this was in a sense to be expected.
A society incapable of nurturing directive ethical norms will find itself
segmented into differing socio-cultural realities. Thrown to their own devices,
individuals will seek their own solutions and, of necessity, adapt to the
The Haven of Competing Values
The new Gnosis is the product of three determinative factors. First, there
is the inability of society as a whole to nurture and maintain supra-ethical
norms with directive content. Secondly, the individual, aware of the
situation, falls back upon ones own moral devices and chooses a value system
from the plethora of competing systems. Thirdly, the educators, political
leaders, psychologists, church leaders, and concerned minds of society debate
the issue, but are unable to reach consensus regarding the determinative
factors, nor posit possible solutions for the resolution of the problem. This
lack of consensus, this lack of ethical will, in turn reinforces the whole
progress of dichotomy and separation between the individual and the