I have now lived quite a long time with my particular cluster of habits of thought. I am capable of following pretty extended lines of reasoning and layerings of figurative language, but I also at some point have to have a pretty literal and explicit place to rest my figurative head, especially when it comes to my beliefs and attitudes about myself and how to live in the world.
I take things to extremes. I think I take things literally that few other people do. Take, for example, how strictly I adhered to the implicit mandate, “Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” Better get right down to making myself miserable, then! I mean, my efforts to make myself miserable were pretty pathetic and heavily punctuated by outbursts of addictive behavior (mostly seeking the intellectual high of strategy games or relentless shallow reading), but the habit of thought was clear and persistent.
I have had to literally spell out what I think about this line from the Gospels for myself. I think I have to take this as hyperbole aimed to shock people out of a self-satisfied mindset of primarily looking out for their own pleasure or security. I think I have to take the literal approach that I take care of myself because when I’m functional, I can do Jesus’ work and help other people. I have a lot of experimental evidence that trying to hate myself “enough” or make myself miserable “enough” makes me pretty worthless to other human beings, and I don’t think I can square that with the rest of the New Testament or any of my own experience of prayer.
Of course, I bring this up in this context because I think human cultures also take things to extremes. In particular, we overreact and bend the bow too far in the opposite direction. Once we identify an abuse, we collectively decide to throw away everything that seems even tangentially related. Often we become focused on something very tangential and counterproductive.
The Reformation came, and something of the sort was inevitable, because of the hypocrisy of wealthy clergy, welded into the political establishment, and often flagrantly dismissive of their promises of celibacy. Yet the Reformation did not focus on repairing these breaches, but instead gave up on humanity entirely and went after ludicrous ideas like sola scriptura and sola fides.
The Enlightenment came, and something of the sort was needed, because intellectual culture had become fixated on theology and philosophy of a kind that had gone stale. The practice of criticism, and seeking an answer within the material order for natural phenomena whenever they could be found, is absolutely of benefit to humanity. Yet it went too far, and arrogantly decided that religion was bad in all ways and at all times, completely losing sight of the fact that the faith that formed the culture in which it grew was already a critical faith and had originally spread because it actually changed people’s lives. Not only that, but the Enlightenment rapidly became enamored of its own preliminary findings… and all findings from the critical method of science are to some degree preliminary. It has been a century since the people actually doing science had to reluctantly accept that Newton’s laws don’t tell the whole story, overturning the sense of complete certainty those laws had engendered. Philosophers of science have seen the point, and agonize, justly, to this day over whether science “proves” anything… but you wouldn’t know that from listening to the contemporary self-anointed heirs to the Enlightenment.
There is a place in the middle, an Aristotelian mean at which to come to rest, but I guess that bores us.