Knowledge of Self and Knowledge of God:
A Reconstructed Empiricist Interpretation
By William Spohn
and Thomas A. Byrnes
John Calvin opened his Institutes of the Christian Religion with
the following thesis:
Nearly all the wisdom we possess, that is to say, true and sound wisdom,
consists in two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves . . .For
quite clearly, the mighty gifts with which we are endowed are hardly
from ourselves; indeed our very being is nothing but subsistence in
the one God . . . Accordingly, the knowledge of ourselves not only arouses
us to seek God, but also as it were, leads us by the hand to him.
Part One: Knowledge of Self
In Self-Consciousness and Self-Determination Ernst Tugendhat has
scrutinized modern philosophy's preoccupation with the special nature
of self-consciousness and self-knowledge. He argues that the accounts
of self-knowledge originating with Descartes, Locke and Kant are radically
misconceived because they rely on two misleading models of knowing: the
subject object model and the observer model. In the subject-object model,
the subject turns in upon itself and takes its won consciousness as the
object of its awareness. In the observer model, that act is likened to
inner visual perception which occurs when the subject turns its knowing
gaze to this inner object, which is variously called the self, the ego,
or consciousness. Tugendhat demonstrates the conceptual absurdities into
which these models lead us.
Heidegger and Mead offer constructive alternatives to this dead end
of modern philosophy since they understand the self as a process of practical
engagement in the world. They address the problem of self-knowledge in
the practical form posed by the Delphic motto "Know Thyself." The person
who truly knows herself knows who she wants to be and what she wants to
do with her life. Tugendhat believes that a fully adequate account of
self-knowledge must incorporate the complementary insights of Heidegger
For Heidegger, the self (Dasein) knows itself only as it relates
itself to its very act of existence. In the affective mode of "care" the
self chooses its own existence by freely and authentically deciding who
it wants to be and what it wants to do. The self becomes authentic by
setting itself over against others and asserting its independence of the
social and even rational norms which others would use to constrain its
decisions. The self defines itself in autonomous solitude, always retaining
the freedom to step beyond social and rational norms.
Tugendhat credits Heidegger with finding an essential aspect of the
self in this mode of authentic decision whereby it relates to itself in
terms of what it is to be. However, Heidegger disregards questions of
truth and the process of reasoning which evaluates and justifies options.
Authenticity divorced from normative rational processes of reflection
will be either vacuous or arbitrary. A necessary corrective to Heidegger
is found in Mead's account of the self in which society plays a constructive
Mead describes the emergence of the self as a social and moral construction.
The self is an internalized conversations in which one takes toward oneself
the attitudes taken by others. Choices of what to be or to do can be evaluated
by comparing the various perspectives which would be taken on the options.
Society presents different social roles to the self which enables its
deliberations to be guided by the norms of the community. The identity
of the self, its choice of what sort of person it intends to be, is not
determined in existential isolation but deliberating on what is presented
by society. The self accepts or rejects the descriptions and norms of
the community of which it is a member. While Heidegger is correct that
the self must finally take responsibility for its decisions and choices,
mead is also correct that those choices must take place within social
and rational processes to which the self is responsible.
Unfortunately, Mead's account falters at this point. On what grounds
will the self critique the set of its communities roles, its norms and
descriptions? Mead can only suggest that one can take the perspective
of another community to acquire critical distance. Can the self find within
its own individual being a standard to make decisions about what is morally
better with respect to the communities in which it lives? Authentic participation
in a community structured by norms and roles requires just such a standard.
We propose that such a standard can be found within the individual and
that the tradition of American empiricist moral philosophy has developed
a way to identify that standard. The standard is found in what Aristotle
called the character of the individual, the set of behavioral dispositions
which organize, orient and motivate the self. We propose that a sense
of piety toward nature as a whole, God, provides the means to overcome
both subservient compliance to social roles and arbitrary willfulness
in defying them. Character guided by natural piety, particularly by trust
and loyalty, can enable one to be a critical participant in communal life.
We now turn to thinkers in this American empiricist tradition for our
contemporary reconstruction of the notion of the self.
Part Two: Knowledge of God
An American religious perspective derived from Edwards,
Josiah Royce, John Dewey, and H. Richard Niebuhr concurs with Calvin that
knowledge of the self and knowledge of the divine are mutually implicated.
The two are related, however, not theoretically but practically. This
perspective does not focus on the question of the existence of God or
on an absolute ontological order that transcends experience. Instead,
the discussion centers on a dimension within experience which orders and
sustains its coherence. There is an irreducible religious dimension to
experience which is a necessary ingredient in the constitution of the
self as engaged and responsible in the world. Whether these philosophers
attribute distinct ontological status to God or not, they portray the
religious dimension as a pervasive ingredient of human living which enters
into the constitution of the self. If this dimension is ignored, certain
aspects of experience are obscured and action is frustrated.
These American thinkers expand Mead's social account of the self to
include a religious dimension. When we attend to this dimension we appreciate
the microcosm of intimacy and the macrocosm of ultimacy which were neglected
in Mead's social psychology. Investigating the relations of trust and
loyalty that establish intimate relations leads to ultimate questions
about the trustworthiness of that on which the self depends and the value
of the causes to which it commits itself. A "thicker," more adequate description
of the self cannot be attained without probing the depths and comprehensive
context of social relations.
Knowledge of the self and knowledge of the divine imply each other on
a practical and affective level. God and the self are not known through
introspection or abstraction. The two forms of knowledge imply each other
because God and the self are intimately and ultimately related. The religious
dimension has practical consequences for self-constitution because it
organizes the self by relating it to an ordering environment,
orients the self by sustaining participation in the world, and
motivates the self by engendering dispositions to appreciate the
world and to act constructively. Ironically, these benefits do not
occur when the individual concentrates on developing the self but
only when the person is captured by a reality and goodness beyond
A. Organization of the Self: from Constriction to Expansion
The image of the constricted self and its expansion through authentic
religious experience runs through this American discussion. Individuals
are naturally plagued by a narrowness of affect and imagination. This
constriction is remedied by locating their meaning in a more comprehensive
framework than that offered by society alone. The social roles that help
shape the emerging self tend to constrict its loyalties to certain groups
and defend their interest against other groups. When properly engaged,
the religious dimension counters the parochial identity of the self which
is defined by social roles.
In late twentieth century America there is ample evidence of social
fragmentation and the constriction of social sympathy. "Identity politics"
encourages the self to find its meaning in the particularities of ethnic
group, class, gender or sexual orientation rather than in shared values
and processes. As common ground shrinks, a pluralistic society can deteriorate
into an angry crowd. Identity politics creates closed societies organized
around group preservation. The religious dimension challenges members
of these enclaves to expand their concerns and loyalties. Identity politics
breeds a defensiveness because others are valued only insofar as they
resemble the self or can be enlisted as allies to the favored group. By
contrast, expansive affections evoked by the religious dimension promote
a community of universal intent which seeks the good of all. Persons,
natural objects, the material world are valuable simply because they exist.
At the beginnings of American philosophical thought, Jonathan
Edwards graphically portrayed the tension between the parochial self
and the expansive transformation effected by genuine religion. One need
not concur with his mythology of the Fall to recognize the centripetal
force in human concerns:
Immediately upon the Fall the mind of man shrunk from its primitive
greatness and extensiveness into an exceeding diminution and ...as
soon as he transgressed, those nobler principles were immediately
lost and all this excellent enlargedness of his soul was gone and
he thenceforward shrunk into a little point circumscribed and closely
shut up within itself to the exclusion of all others.
Natural moral dynamics contract to the narrowness of self-interest when
divorced from the attractive comprehensive environment which religion
appreciates. Genuine religious transformation has the opposite, centrifugal
effect since it restores "an excellent enlargement and extensiveness to
the soul." Once people have been freed from obsessive concern over private
interests, they can appreciate the goodness of God, nature and fellow
humans for what they are. The self can begin to interact with them in
a new way marked by appreciation and respect.
From Edwards through the pragmatists the American self seems capable
of transformation, even reinvention. The self does not so much have experiences
as it is constituted by experience, deeply felt and adequately interpreted.
New experiences break open the confines of the old self and yield a new
self, as when Edwards sensed the beauty of God and William James, in the
midst of depressive anomie, choose to act as if he were free. These transformations
were not accomplished by self-determining, autonomous freedom. "Experience"
is radically interactive in this American idiom. The self emerges in historical
interaction which is shaped by the challenges of its environment and its
practical responses. Openness to the possibilities of life's interactions
depends upon the self's predominant affective dispositions. A defensive
agent will tend to interpret life's challenges as threats. The resulting
actions may be more appropriate to a sense of precarious existence than
to what is actually going on.
Affectivity feeds insight since the more expansive the interpreter's
affections are the more comprehensive will be the framework in which possibilities
are understood. Likewise, a more comprehensive framework of meaning will
"put things in perspective" and encourage a more generous affective response.
In these American thinkers the extension of affective scope makes possible
a larger perspective of understanding. The transformation of the self
does not come from assuming the standpoint of universal rationality but
expanding the scope of the heart by the attraction of a goodness larger
than the individual.
This expansion for Edwards meant consenting to the beauty of finite
realities in appreciation of their connection to the primary beauty of
"Being itself." He contrasted a narrow self whose loyalties are limited
to "private systems of being" with a self which endorses every value in
relation to the full range of reality. For James, when one believes that
God exists and makes claims, "the more imperative ideals now begin to
speak with an altogether new objectivity and significance, and to utter
the penetrating, shattering, tragically challenging note of appeal." John
Dewey's commitment to egalitarian democracy was driven by the affection
of socially inclusive sympathy and a sense of communion with the whole
universe realized particularly in aesthetic experience.
Openness to the religious dimension can prevent the self from constricting
its sympathies and prematurely closing off challenges. By evoking an appreciation
of a comprehensive community, it can prevent the agent from inflating
finite goods into infinite importance. The primary function of the "sense
of the divine," therefore, is not to prove the existence of a transcendent
object but to provide experience with an ordering general environment
which keeps it open, expansive, and reconciling. The centrifugal pull
of the religious dimensions can counteract the perennial human tendency
to self-absorption and conferring ultimate devotion on causes that are
limited. This model of expansion of constricted experience through the
recovery of the religious dimension recurs often in the subsequent American
conversation from Edwards to H. Richard Niebuhr.
B. Orientation: Natural Piety and the Unity of the Self
The second feature of these American accounts is the role which "natural
piety" plays in bringing orienting the self to the world and unifying
the self. Natural piety is an affective relation of dependence and purpose,
of trust in and loyalty to the ultimate context of experience, which is
variously described as nature, God, or "Being itself." These dispositions
give the agent a sense of engagement in the world and orientation to worthwhile
causes. When the self is viewed as an epistemological construct, as in
Kant and idealism, the focus is on consciousness and universal rationality
which guides morality through universal truths. The individual is related
to the ultimate context as finite self to the Absolute or as reasonable
being to the universal structures of ahistorical reason. In contrast,
when the self is morally and socially constructed, as in this American
perspective, the focus is on character, commitments and affective dispositions.
This American approach portrays the self as engaged in the world, deriving
integrity and meaning from interaction with others. These thinkers do
not begin from an epistemological division between subject and object
or between subject and world. Instead, Edwards' language of "consent"
indicates an active engagement at the core of experience, a relation which
is typical of American thinkers. It is an active agreement between the
aspirations and projects of one portion of experience, the self, with
other finite entities and with the most comprehensive, open context of
experience. Later, John Dewey made experience the central term of his
philosophy when he defined it as the process of transaction between the
organism and its environment. For humans this transaction occurs principally
through scientific reflection driven by practical aims and through democratic
involvement in institutions motivated by social sympathy and justice.
Selves are not constituted by reflex awareness but by loyalties, commitments,
and actions that define the self's character through engagement with others.
The project of self determination is disciplined by the potentials of
the social and natural environment, unlike existentialism and deconstructionism
where human decision and valuational engagement seem to occur in a vacuum.
While Mead showed how social roles and standards construct the self, Edwards,
Dewey and Niebuhr argue that the religious dimension and the affective
dispositions which it evokes are equally important in constituting the
Even John Dewey, the most secular of these thinkers, recognized the
importance of the religious dimension for pragmatic engagement in the
world and providing a sense of unity and integrity to the self. For Dewey
the self finds direction by meeting the challenges of the immediate environment.
At a deeper level it finds unity through engagement with general ideals.
One of these ideals is expressed in the term "the universe," namely the
holistic environment of all the conditions of action, the projected whole
of which they are parts. The self requires some sense of a universal context
of experience in order to achieve its own integrity:
It is pertinent to note that the unification of the self through
the ceaseless flux of what it does, suffers, and achieves, cannot
be attained in terms of itself. The self is always directed toward
something beyond itself, and so its unification depends upon the idea
of integration of the shifting scenes of the world into that imaginative
totality we call the Universe.
Dewey was so convinced that the individual requires a sense "of an extensive
and unifying whole" to demarcate personal experience that he believed
a person would go insane without it.
The integrity of the self depends upon a unique relation to the whole
context of experience, a relation which bears rich affective import. Although
Dewey would not hypostatize the ideal of a unified environment into a
supernatural divine entity, he explored the affective relation under the
rubric of "natural piety." As we shall see below, H. Richard Niebuhr singles
out the affections of trust and loyalty in relation to God as constitutive
elements of selfhood. The traditional theist gains a sense of personal
uniqueness from relating to the one God; the unity of the individual correlates
with the presence and calling of the One God. For Dewey the unity of the
individual correlates with the unified attractive power of general ideals
like truth and justice. Imagination naturally tends to unify these ideals
into a single principle, just as it unifies personal experience into a
whole and natural occurrences into a universe. The unity of ideals, their
common power of attraction, forms the correlate for the unity of the individual
Dewey used the term "natural piety" to refer to particular moral dispositions
which are evoked by the lure of this unity of ideal ends. Natural piety
is "the sense of the permanent and inevitable implication of man and nature
in a common career and destiny." Although the union of ideals is imaginary,
it has real effects because it elicits dispositions that sustain human
commitments. Dewey believed that this naturalist conception of the divine
would liberate the religious dimension inherent in all experience and
perform all the practical functions which the concept of God formerly
did. It would harmonize the self with the universe in a sense of dependence
and support as well as marshall moral sympathy and commitment to improve
the conditions of life. These dispositions will anchor the self in nature
and sustain it affectively. Dewey agreed with Santayana that piety
is "man's reverent attachment to the sources of his being and the steadying
of his life by that attachment." Piety, which engenders a sense of gratitude
and duty, is complemented by the more active dimension of "spirituality"
which is more forward looking and includes "a devotion to ideal ends.".
This piety is natural because it connects the self with nature,
unlike militant atheism which depicts the individual as a Promethean character
defying hostile nature.
The religious dimension of experience, therefore, provides a basic affective
orientation to the world and contributes to the unity of the self. Dewey
might ask contemporary proponents of virtue ethics whether character can
be explained by moral traditions alone. Does a more pervasive natural
piety locate moral selfhood in relation to a larger framework of meaning?
Some versions of environmental ethics have recently revived naturalism.
Concentrating on the unity of the ecosystem, they tend to overlook the
human species' particular challenge of achieving moral selfhood and unique
capacity for ultimate questions. Although Dewey's naturalism acknowledged
that the part depends upon the natural whole, it refused to confer quasi-divine
status on nature itself.
As an account of ultimacy, however, naturalism is problematic. If natural
piety rests upon forces in nature and society that support human aspirations,
they seem to lack the comprehensive character of the object of religious
trust. If natural piety stems from a set of imagined ideals, it would
leave the religious dimension without the natural grounding possessed
by the moral and aesthetic dimensions of experience. In Experience
and Nature Dewey held that moral and aesthetic traits of experience
have their roots in nature and reflect nature as surely as do the mathematical
models used in physical sciences. If these traits operate in experience,
they cannot be subjective projections. To be a consistent empiricist Dewey
should ask whether natural piety's trust and loyalty are also rooted in
human experience and not products of the imagination alone.
H. Richard Niebuhr pointed out the constricted range of Dewey's naturalism:
"Being is greater in extent than nature as is indicated by the place naturalism
must accord to ideals that attract and compel men, which, it believes,
somehow emerge out of nature yet are not actual in it." In effect, Niebuhr
retrieves Calvin's more comprehensive notion of nature to challenge Dewey.
Nature is not finally the context that serves human purposes but "the
ultimate environment" that evokes a piety which challenges the tendency
to make human aims central to the universe.
C. Motivation: Trust, Loyalty and the Emergence of the Self
H. Richard Niebuhr argued that trust and loyalty are the main affective
components of the emergence of the self. Individuals are not automatically
selves in this American perspective. They must consolidate their experience
through a moral process of commitment and interpretation in order to attain
the integrity of selfhood. Niebuhr found the dynamics of trust and loyalty
operating from the microcosm of intimacy through the midrange of sociality
to the macrocosm of ultimacy. Because the interactions which produce trust
and loyalty extend beyond the human and natural world, the constitution
of the self is necessarily a religious process as well as a moral one.
He provided a more adequate description of the religious dimension by
grounding natural piety in a framework more comprehensive and more actual
than the naturalists allowed. The self is constituted by social relations
that are more intimate than the ties described by Mead and more ultimate
than the bounds of nature on which Dewey relied.
1. Trust and Loyalty in Intimate Interaction
Trust is the first component in constituting the integrity of the self.
Trust poses the first challenge in infancy and possibly the final challenge
provoked by death: upon whom or what can I rely? Before we rely on the
social roles which Mead described we depend on significant others, as
object relations theorists have discovered. Without these early bonds
of trust, the self is crippled and disoriented. As life develops we rely
on others to be faithful to us--parents, friends, spouses, partners. Our
social relations depend upon the trustworthiness of others in speech,
in making contracts, in being reliable colleagues.
We rely on these other persons in terms of some specific values. They
are explicitly or implicitly committed to something we also value and
which stands beyond our specific relation: fidelity in marriage, honesty
in speech, or justice in society. Josiah Royce was accurate to describe
the basic human relation as triadic. The self is related to the other
in terms of some common interest or cause. Every "I-Thou" relation requires
an "It" beyond the two persons. Intimacy withers when it lacks some purpose
beyond the immediate delight of the lovers. If they resist the common
future to which love is drawing them, they undermine their present. Friends
have certain aspirations and interests in common; they are responsible
to each other in relation to common interests, from sports to politics
Loyalty to some common interest shapes the trust of the I and Thou.
It makes them dependable and accountable to each other. The immature individual
wants others to be dependable without the responsibilities of being loyal
to them. Loyalty to a cause matures the individual into a self. Personal
integrity is established over time by commitment to a cause larger than
the individual because devotion to a cause unifies disparate personal
drives into a self. At the same time this commitment brings accountability
to others who share devotion to the same cause. Accountable to others,
I become responsible to myself. Intimacy feeds sociality and social bonds
make intimacy substantial. They convey criteria which guide responsible
choice and action. The self makes choices not only out of authenticity
to itself but also out of responsibility to other persons and loyalty
to shared values which it has deliberately embraced.
The individual attains a distinctive character by making and keeping
promises. Promises coalesce the agent's transient experiences into the
personal consistency of selfhood. They also forge the links to others
which stabilize personal identity. The self is a moral construction because
it comes into being by forging moral bonds of trust and loyalty, reliability
and fidelity. Commitments to others extend personal consistency over time
because they state that we will be reliable then as now. Niebuhr wrote
that the self emerges from the exercise of human faith which underlie
all social interaction. "Without interpersonal existence of which faith--as
exercised in the reciprocities of believing, trusting, and being loyal--is
the bond, there might indeed be experience from given moment to given
moment but the continuity of the self in its experience would be hard
to define, if such continuity would be thinkable."
Loyalty and trust also undergird the process by which discrete experiences
are integrated into the story of one self over time. They unify the work
of memory and interpretation. The attitude of trust arises from a positive
relation to one's past and the attitude of loyalty and fidelity directs
the self to a worthwhile future in continuity with who one has been pledged
to be. Broken promises and betrayed causes attack the very integrity of
the self and defy any piecemeal, pragmatic remedies. Unlike the naturalists,
Niebuhr explored the existential crises of mistrust and betrayed faith
to unearth their religious depths.
2. Trust and Loyalty in Ultimate Interaction
The experience of finitude and the fragility of existence make us question
whether reality itself is trustworthy. If neither nature nor society can
account for my existence as a self, what can? I am not the cause of my
own existence since I neither willed myself into being nor can assure
my survival indefinitely. Is the act by which I have been thrown into
existence arbitrary or hostile? Mead's description of the social origins
of the self did not resolve the question of the self for Niebuhr; it only
posed it at a more comprehensive level.
"Why is there something rather than nothing?" is not a question that
can be silenced by pointing to Darwin's account of evolution. While evolution
and other natural processes can explain certain characteristics of the
individual, they cannot account for the existence of the self since selfhood
arises from personal relations. "Why am I?" and "Why am I this I and not
another?" pose the question of existential finitude on a more personal
level. Examining the self's relation to society, humanity or nature cannot
answer these questions; they point to a more comprehensive environment.
Limiting the scope of meaning to anything less than the ultimate context
of being itself makes it impossible to answer these existential questions
or to heal the anxiety and despair caused by ignoring them.
Loyalty, the second constituent of the self's integrity, also depends
on a context that is more comprehensive than society or nature. If the
self is constituted by its relations to other persons, groups, projects
and purposes, how can it be a single self? Multiple social roles and accountability
to many diverse "others" tend to produce multiple selves, a different
persona for each constituency. Niebuhr detected a fundamental human flaw
in the pursuit of integrity from sources that cannot provide it. Although
we seek a sense of identity from the nation, the scientific community
or democracy, they can provide only a provisional identity since they
engage only part of the self. In addition, when we find our meaning exclusively
in terms of a finite community, we become defensive about rival communities.
This misplaced devotion leads to the constriction of heart described above.
Making any finite community the point of reference for value and meaning
mistakes a limited scope of reality for reality itself. In Edwards' language
it is consenting to "a limited system of being" as if it were the whole
of reality. Loyalty which fails to be sufficiently inclusive eventually
becomes exclusive. Militant nationalism, racism, and a host of other "evil
imaginations of the heart" proceed from defensive loyalties. If human
action and discourse are to be kept open, moral consent needs to extend
beyond any finite community to a community that includes all that exists.
The interpersonal dynamics of trust and loyalty which generate consistency
in the self extend from finite relations to an ultimate Other for whom
all that exists is valuable simply because it exists.
Ultimacy here does not refer to an end-state, that terminal condition
of resolution and rest which the naturalists considered a distraction
to the practical efforts of humans. Ultimacy signifies for Niebuhr a regulative
concept which prevents one from making the relative absolute or conferring
infinite devotion upon finite purposes. He criticized the naturalists
for putting ultimate confidence in scientific progress and democracy as
absolute arbiters of meaning and for making the human species the center
of the universe. When pragmatism construes the world anthropocentrically
and human purposes are assumed to be final this does violence to the organic
balance of the natural environment.
Niebuhr's theology of "radical monotheism" reflects the Edwardsean vision
of a sovereign God. Both insist that the part--events, agents,
commitments, causes, institutions and societies- make sense only in respect
to the whole--the comprehensive interaction of humans with all
reality. When we confer ultimate loyalty upon finite objects, it leads
to the fatal parochialism which he described in a blend of Edwards and
Henri Bergson: "Responsive and responsible to each other in our closed
societies, we are irresponsible in the larger world that includes us all..."
This moral parochialism lies at the root of the closed worlds of discourse
which frustrate the search for meaning. Driven by a hermeneutics of suspicion
about every position except their own, closed communities thrive on ideology.
In order to prevent arbitrary cloture on the process of discourse, the
self needs to locate itself in a community of universal intent. Such a
community becomes possible when others are valued not in relation to private
interest or group interest but to God who is the source of both being
and value. The value of all existents comes from their existence since
they are all valuable to the ultimate Center of Value.
3. From Horizon to Presence
The intimate and ultimate reaches of experience come together for Niebuhr
in the religious dimension. The divine enters experience as a presence
and not only as the universal horizon of action which Dewey described.
Integrity rather than fragmentation becomes possible for us because God
meets "us not as the one beyond the many but as the one who acts in and
through all things, not as the unconditioned but as the conditioner."
The self can make an integrated response to the multiple interactions
of experience because there is One to whom the self responds in all its
responses to others. The purposes of this One are not transcendent in
an otherworldly sense but pervade all relations in experience. What is
demanded is "not the static unity of established order but the unity of
life aspiring toward and impelled by an infinite purpose. This is not
the one in whom we come to rest but the one through whom life comes to
us." God intends the universal reconciliation and flourishing of all and
calls every agent to be loyal to this cause. It elicits an overall direction
which resists the temptation to form closed systems of thought, allegiance,
or institutions. Insofar as religious institutions defend their own interests
they are betraying the cause of the God to whom they claim to be faithful.
How does this possibility of allegiance to a community of universal
intent enter into experience? What invites us towards universal discourse
and a comprehensive community? This American religious perspective points
to the experience of disclosure to account for the attractive power of
these ideals, an attraction which leads to participation and moral responsibility.
We do not think our way into this presence; it occurs as the gift of an
Other. The divided self cannot be healed by an idea of unity or a theory
of faithfulness. What is needed is for an Other to disclose its covenant
fidelity to the self. This renewal of faith does not come from logical
inference but from an event of disclosure that enables the self to respond
with radical trust and genuine loyalty. "We sought a good to love and
were found by a good that loved us." Knowledge of the self arises from
being known and valued by the Other; knowledge of God arises in this gift
through the self's dispositional response to this Other.
H. Richard Niebuhr, like Jonathan Edwards, believed that the attractive
possibility of a "life aspiring toward and impelled by an infinite purpose"
was disclosed in experience. The religious dimension opens up through
an act of divine self-disclosure is called "revelation" because it unveils
a pervasive presence which was obscurely realized before. The healing
of fragmented faith comes from One who enters into interaction with selves
by demonstrating its trustworthiness and disclosing its cause. This event
is a gift which evokes gratitude, confidence in the source of the self's
existence, and fidelity to the cause of the One who has shown itself loyal
to the self. Revelation of this Other decenters the self and revolutionizes
This event of disclosure of One who values the self stands in marked
contrast to the divine of Dewey's Common Faith. God is not a term
for all that humans value, but the One who values humans and all being.
Because the divine in Dewey functions only to conserve human ideals it
is inevitably anthropocentric. Such an ideal would resist moral innovation
since it canonizes the values of a given era as the ideals behind the
universe. If the divine is an instrument, those values are the true absolutes.
The divine in Niebuhr's thought does not principally function to support
human values. Faith demands moral expression because loyalty is inseparable
from trust. In responding to the Center of Value we must also respond
to all that is genuinely worthwhile. However, faith like friendship has
value in itself which is undermined when it is made an instrument of something
This proposal for a reconstructed notion of the self drawn from American
thinkers addresses some of the problems posed by contemporary philosophers
of knowledge. It does not seek ahistorical universals as the ground of
the self but seeks the One who conditions the many in experience. It identifies
the tendencies which lead to closed societies and arbitrary limitations
on the process of rational discourse. It indicates that the dynamics within
experience which expand constricted discourse are the same ones which
expand the constricted heart. With the existentialists it recognizes that
the most radical choices are not about what to do but about who we are
to become. At the same time, it does not leave authenticity bereft of
moral criteria. The self is constituted by specific social relations and
guided morally by the affective behavioral dispositions which they engender.
Social roles, however, are not the only source of moral consistency
for the self. The most crucial dispositions for self-constitution, trust
and loyalty, point beyond society and nature. The self is constituted
by interaction with an environment that does not stop at the boundaries
of nature. The intimate and ultimate reaches of experience converge in
the engagement of God with the self. This American perspective holds that
we cannot understand the microcosm of intimacy or the macrocosm of ultimacy
without referring to the meaning disclosed in the religious dimension.
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