Descartes and Jesus
The cacophony of the season that includes Black Friday, Small Business Saturday, Cyber Monday, Happy Holidays, and Seasons Greetings just gets a bit too much for me sometimes. It becomes such a tsunami of self-promotion, masquerading as normality, that it leaves one breathless. I must admit that I struggle for some reasonable explanation about what happens in the last quarter of the calendar year. I may have found some personal consolation or at least insight from the French philosopher Rene Descartes. Centuries ago he struggled to find one certain thing from which he could build a framework for life. Famously, he settled on the statement "I think, therefore I am." (In Latin, Cognito, ergo sum). From this statement, Descartes built ideas that have had incredible influence over the centuries. In one sense, the 21st century reflects a massive family who might just be the children of Descartes!
Descartes' famous dictum undergirded his belief that the only thing we can really be sure of and name as reality is our own reality. We are inside of ourselves and that reality is massive, real, and simply undeniable. In 21st century parlance, we might even allude to it as virtual reality. It is our own creation and its root is self-defined. Everything outside the world of ourselves is less real and is real only in relation to us. Catholic theologian Ronald Rolheiser puts it this way when he paraphrases his understanding of Descartes in contemporary terms: "I am real. My life, my thoughts, my feelings, my heartaches, my headaches are real. Everything else is outside of me and less real. I can relate to it, but it is separate from me. I am independent of it and it is independent of me. In the end, we are all separate from each other, lonely little nomads floating in space, able at times, temporarily, to penetrate each other's reality, but ultimately separate, alone, independent. What's real is myself-my life, my experience."
The Western world has certainly drunk deeply at Descartes' well. There are noticeably positive things to say about Descartes' influence. Western democracy and certain historic charters of freedom, like the Declaration of Independence here in the United States, have certainly resulted in a liberating understanding of individual freedom and human dignity, but his focus on human individuality also has a shadow side. Valuable religious creeds or cultural social traditions that have given continuity to life for centuries are increasingly cast aside with scant consideration, viewed as the uselessness of past wisdom, and rejected as "old school." Reference to Christmas becomes objectionable because someone else's reality is offended, so the great equalizer becomes our allegiance to the market economy and "Seasons Greetings" becomes the lowest common denominator by which the consumers' frenzy can continue during this last quarter of the calendar year.
Descartes' dark shadow is thus seen in a false sense of human autonomy that manifests itself so visibly during this time of the year. Ronald Rolheiser puts it this way: two voices, two choices, and two visions of individuality. Rene Descartes and Jesus: One speaks of independence, loneliness, and private reality; the other of interdependence, community, and shared life.
As we blast through Black Friday and Cyber Monday toward the Happy Holidays, just let me say, "Oh Come, Oh Come Emmanuel and Ransom Captive Israel!" And just so I can get it off my chest ... Ho! Ho! Ho! Merry Christmas!
Byron D. Klaus, President
Assemblies of God Theological Seminary