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I think, therefore I am not sure what I am

By Peter Sellick - posted Monday, 18 May 2015


When Descartes attempted to ground all knowing on the thinking subject he let loose a bad idea that has corrupted the life of civilizations. With the cogito "I think therefore I am" he shifted the focus of human living from doing to thinking. In this new formulation we are what we think, our Being is defined exclusively by our thinking. A wedge has been driven between thought and action that mimics Descartes division between mind and body, otherwise known as Cartesian dualism.

This is reflected in how we understand religion as a private preoccupation with certain ideas. We imagine that religion can be reduced to whether or not we believe in God or whether we have been saved or accepted Jesus into our lives. This is where it ends. While we may think seriously that we are Christian (we can say the Nicene Creed without crossing our fingers behind our backs) our actions may betray us. Indeed, it may be a rude shock to us that our involvement in the church has barely touched the surface of our character and our actions.

This is because our Church involvement is purely theoretical. The Apostle Paul had this problem when he complained in Rom 7:15. "I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do." This demonstrates that you do not need Cartesian dualism to find a split between understanding and acting.It seems to come with being human.

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I remember some years ago it was all the rage to teach business people ethics. The rage died out and obviously did nothing to deter financial services people from misleading and defrauding their clients and bringing the world's economy to its knees in what has become known as the Global Financial Crisis. The fact that one dealer described a deal as "shitty" demonstrates that these people were not ethically confused; they knew exactly what they were doing.

We do not recognise our malaise because we have stopped thinking in theological terms. The problem is one of idolatry. "Where you treasure is, there your heart will be also. " (Matt. 6:21) The hearts of many in the financial services industry was on the bottom line, it was on the private jet and the house in Paris. It is not what we think that determines behaviour but where our hearts are. Our actions are governed by our idols.

There is duplicity here. Outwardly, we pretend to be good citizens, but that is not where our hearts are, they are on the main goal, power, influence, money. The giant corporations pose as good citizens while defrauding the tax office of millions via the fiction that they are based in low tax regimes.

In the absence of theological thinking we give ourselves permission to do what we desire and we rationalise our behaviour. We may pose the question: "If everyone around us is getting rich why not us?" We do not have Being separate from those around us. This means that we are not, we do not possess Being, we are ontological chameleons.

The fact is that we all know what is right and wrong. That is simple: if a client will be worse off taking our advice then we are doing wrong. If we use tax havens to avoid tax in our own country, we are doing wrong. If we are having an adulterous affair, we know we are doing wrong. We may find all kinds of ways to rationalise our behaviour but, somewhere, we know we are wrong.

The Church has always held thinking and doing together in the formulation: "Lex Orandi, Lex Credendi, Lex Vivendi" or "So we Worship, So we Believe, So we Live"

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Only God is to be worshipped, as we are reminded in the first commandment. This displaces all of the gods that the heart manufactures. It does not take a lot of introspective thought to find out what these gods are. But today, even if we know that we worship money it is not seen as a bad thing. For who is to say so? If I am the author of my own life then I will judge how I will spend it. An epistemology that is based on the thinking individual isolates the individual and anything is possible.

The resulting secular liberalism give us permission to be anything we want to be as long as we do not infringe upon the rights of anyone else. Censure is not allowed. James Packer may spend all of his money building casinos, the multinationals may dodge tax in the countries where they earned their profits, retirees may arrange their super so that they pay little or no tax and no one can say that this is wrong.

Worship has a lot to do with believing. There is no real believing without it, only lip service, only the theoretical. Worship is something we do, we pray, we sing, we listen and we take the sacraments. In worship, believing grows substance; it changes character and prepares us for life as a members of the community of God. This is how we come to live, not theoretically but so our actions stem from who we have become. It is a mistake to understand Christianity as essentially an ethical system. Rather, it involves a life-long journey into being fully human. This is the wellspring of action.

We become attuned to the needs of the people we meet, the neighbour. Care of the neighbour is not only a moral precept it is the promise of the fullness of life. We come to know that our lives are inextricably mixed up with the person next to us. We do not have to repeat to ourselves the golden rule (do unto others…) to have this happen, it becomes instinct. For behaviour does not come out of a constant examination of an ethical system, it comes out of the kind of person we have become; it comes from Being.

Being comes from the unity of worship, belief and living. It is to love one thing. When we worship false gods, money, power etc. Being is fragmented and we act in fragmented ways and no number of courses in ethics will help, for we have sold out our souls and we have become the living dead.

Despite what Descartes says; Act and Being are one. Divide them and we are men most to be pitied.

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About the Author

Peter Sellick an Anglican deacon working in Perth with a background in the biological sciences. He has a website called Coondle Art Presentations.

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