Behind each set of eyes is profound mystery, a tender, unique, fragile, and special creation which identifies the self as theological artist. And in such artistry, the self is always a social creature.
W. Paul Jones, Theological Worlds
Thursday, 26 February 2015
Or, Jones and the Theological Worlds
A Taxonomy of Religions Post
I started the series comparing Stephen Prothero’s God is Not One and W. Paul Jones’s 1989 Theological Worlds; this was a typical bit of arrogance on my part, since I hadn’t read the latter. The review was enough for my purposes, of course, and I think it all turned out well enough. But I have now read Theological Worlds, and there’s more to say about it.
To begin, theological is perhaps inaccurate, or not reflective of how we tend to use the word. The Worlds Jones describes are not only Christian or religious ones; a lot of the examples he uses are non-religious (Camus and Sartre and Marx feature often). Each of these Worlds is characterized on one pole by an obsessio—literally, “to besiege,” here a central concern or anxiety for a person—and on the other pole by a corresponding epiphania—that idea or experience that promises to absorb the obsessio and make it tolerable. The obsessio is greater than any merely human response; the epiphania, then, is more-than-human. For Jones, the word and idea of God does not have a specific content so much as a functional meaning: for each of us, God is that which can promise epiphania. For some of us, the obsessio is more prominent; for others, the epiphania is. Thus while Jones’s Theological Worlds is written from a strictly Christian perspective, the worlds described are theological in a strictly functional sense: even a dyed-in-the-wool atheist has a “theology” if “God” refers merely to that which makes life livable. A Christian, for Jones, is a person who identifies Jesus of Nazareth (as either a historical figure or as a legend) as God in this sense.
According to the introduction, Jones used typical social studies methods to determine what these Worlds most commonly look like: he interviewed a number of people, determined common threads, looked to find these threads articulated in theological and cultural literature, formulated Five hypothesized worlds using the patterns that arose, and then ran those worlds past another independent set of subjects to test their validity. I can’t speak to the method further than that, but I will try to talk about the usefulness of this typology in a moment. But first, let’s look at the Five Worlds he discovered.
People living in World One are struck, and horrified, by the way in which contingency determines the universe. Everything seems so arbitrary; so much has happened by chance, and it could easily have happened another way. The fact that I am alive right now, that I did not die five seconds ago, is true only by luck. The fact that the churning, teeming mass of evolutionary history spat out creatures capable of self-awareness was neither necessary nor even likely, as far as we know. If we look up, we see a jumble of planets and stars strung out in great empty spaces, none of which have anything to do with us; if we look inward, we see atoms and quarks and fundamental forces, all of them bumping about with no regard for you or me. The world seems pointless. A person in World One lives as an Alien; the longing Alien’s obsessio is thus a sense of isolation experienced as abandonment by whoever or whatever made us. Any epiphania must involve a new way of seeing the world as containing hidden mystery: epiphania is a glimpse of homecoming or reunion with some great plan hidden behind the veil. Jones mentions Paul Tillich, Kafka, E.T., the painter El Greco, and Beethoven’s Opus 132; I would mention Northrop Frye and H. P. Lovecraft, noting that Lovecraft seems wholly without epiphania.
People living in World Two are much more concerned with history than the universe. In particular, history is marked by war and violence; that is, history is marked by evil. The evil is so pervasive and resistant to change that anyone in this World quickly realizes the problem isn’t people but the system itself. People do evil but only because of the systems that control them, and even those systems are themselves the products of death (or entropy or, in a fancier term, the Nihil). In many Worlds death can come as a boon; in World Two, death is nothing but bad, and against both death and history one can do nothing but fight. A person in World Two lives as a Warrior; the angry Warrior’s obsessio is chaos experienced as the evil and violence of history. Because of this focus on the present world, the epiphania cannot be a promise fulfilled in an afterlife. Instead, the epiphania must take place here, at the end of history and as a product and redemption of history, a sort of New Earth. Jones mentions Karl Barth, Karl Marx, Moby Dick, Van Gogh, and Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5; I would mention Richard Beck’s powers and principalities (and almost everything else Beck has written) and Scott Alexander’s Meditations on Moloch.
People living in World Three do not find their obsession in the world around them: for people in World Three, the problem lies within. Or, really, the problem is that there isn’t much of a within at all. They feel empty, or unfulfilled, or unlovable (or, I would add, worthless). They feel like they are wearing a mask and that if anyone saw what was beneath that mask, they would be horrified—perhaps because whatever lies under that mask is loathsome, or perhaps because there’s just nothing under there at all. This World is marked with regret at lost opportunities, and the kind of exposure these people fear is not death but nakedness. And yet, whatever drive a person in this world might feel to make something of themselves, they usually feel guilty whenever they do so: they aren’t worth their own attentions. Unlike people in other Worlds, inhabitants of World Three do not necessarily generalize their problem to others. A person in World Three is an Outcast, not because anyone cast them out but because they cast themselves out, at least emotionally speaking; the aching Outcast’s obsessio is self-estrangement experienced as impotence or emptiness. The only epiphania that can rescue a person in World Three is an enrichment that allows them to make something of themselves, either in Sartre’s sense of self-creation through every decision or in Kierkegaard’s sense that each person has a unique identity given to them by God which they must discover and become, or something in between these views. Jones also mentions Tolstoy, Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, and James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. I would add that Echo’s character arc in Dollhouse is pretty much pure epiphania of this sort.
People living in World Four also find that the problem with everything is inside: that problem is that they’re awful. They are selfish and arrogant and striving and cruel, but so is everyone else. In order to thrive, we must compete; we must kill to eat; whatever we do, we do damage. So each and everyone one of us is guilty and condemned. Even in our attempts to make reparations, though, we are guilty: we try to make amends because we are afraid of punishment. Reason becomes only a tool for rationalization; charity becomes a way of promoting ourselves. A person in World Four is thus a Fugitive; the guilty Fugitive’s obsessio is idolatry, specifically the idolatry of self-interest and arrogance. Any epiphania must then be a kind of forgiveness, in particular one unearned. Even accepting forgiveness, though, is difficult, since accepting forgiveness is a selfish act; in order to be free of guilt, the epiphania must in some sense give such a person both forgiveness and the ability to accept it unselfishly. Jones mentions Nathaniel Hawthorne, William Faulkner, and American Gothic. The Buffy-spinoff Angel hovers between this World and World Two, I think.
People living in World Five are not worried about any of those things; the obsessios of the other worlds are perhaps out of reach for those in World Five. Here, people are just overwhelmed with suffering. This is the world of hard living, of slaves and miners and poverty. Hope, in such a world, is always false: hope is merely the prelude to disappointment. Suffering is perpetual, and it can always get worse. There’s a certain pride to this world, at times: one mustn’t pity the old or the scarred, because they survived. A person in World Five is a Victim; the overwhelmed Victim’s obsessio is engulfment, engulfment in life itself (which is to say, suffering). Epiphania cannot take the form of hope here; epiphania is only endurance and survival. Often this is a survival in a community, where people suffer with (com-passion) one another if they cannot suffer for them. Jones mentions Elie Wiesel, Tennessee Williams, and Rembrandt. I would mention strains of Buddhism.
So for a Christian in each of these worlds, it is Jesus, the Christ, that offers epiphania, but in very different ways. In World One, Jesus offers access to the Creator who made the world and made it good; Christ offers reunion with God. In World Two, Jesus promises to make a New Earth and cast down empires; Christ is God entering history. In World Three, Jesus tells us that we are beloved by God and invites us to grow and be fulfilled in him; Christ is license to love yourself so that you can love your neighbour. In World Four, Jesus condemns us and then forgives us; Christ is God taking on guilt and punishment so that we do not have to. In World Five, Jesus is crucified in his compassion for us; Christ is God suffering with us in solidarity.
One of the problems in Christianity is that most people consider their own world to be the legitimate one. When an evangelist turns to someone and says, “Jesus washes your sins away,” they are not going to interest anyone who does not live in World Four. When a progressive mainline church promises to help congregants grow and affirm themselves, anyone who does not live in World Three will probably roll their eyes at best and mutter about children starving in Africa at worst. (That said, many World Three people will do the same, since the problem is that they don't believe in self-affirmation or growth.) Or, when an atheist points to the randomness of the world and says there are no traces of God’s plan, no one living outside of World One will even see the point of the objection. (This might well be what happened when I wrote about how wonderful it is to be an alien.) Thus so much discourse is just people talking past one another; Jones looks to fix this.
However, every example Jones gives in this book suggests that no one lives in a single World; every person has their own World, which is some mix of the obessios and epiphanias of the five he describes. Jones himself is mostly in World Two, with World One’s fear of abandonment, raised in a small World Five town which deeply impacted him. These five worlds are more like clusters of data points, patterns arising from all these idiosyncrasies aggregated. No one, or almost no one, is a pure type.
There’s a lot more to say about these Worlds, I think, that I don’t have space to say: Jones does not at any point discuss the relation between these Worlds and what the world is actually like, though this might be outside the scope of his project; psychoanalysis lurks throughout the whole book, often without consideration; race and gender play sophisticated but strange and problematic roles in his discussion; his ecclesiology, which relies heavily on sub-congregations segregating people with different Worlds, seems pretty improbable and maybe undesirable, especially when no one is a pure type.
What I want to spend a moment asking, though, is how exhaustive these Worlds are. In 1989, perhaps, these were the dominant Worlds; were there smaller ones that he did not detect? Were there others in other countries, or cultures, that did not enter his sample? And are there other ones now? Might there be others in the future? What could they look like? Or are these five Worlds representative of some deep and fundamental orientations, exhausting all possibilities? I can maybe imagine a spectrum between the Human/Self and Universe/Outside: World Three is entirely concerned with the human’s own self, and the Outcast makes no claims about anyone else at all; World One locates the problem entirely outside the human, in the Universe’s lack of human meaning; between them, World Four focuses on universal human sin, World Five on a harsh world, and World Two on a system of humans shaped by death to be destructive. I don’t know. This seems to be a stretch, but since it’s an empirical question, it’s one we can test.
Posted by Christian H at 21:57