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What We Do Not Want to Know about Ourselves


""...the dividing line between good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?" Alexander Sol;zhenitsyn

There is a shadow side of ourselves we would rather not acknowledge, but must if self-knowledge is not to devolve into wishful thinking. Failure to address our own darker sides is something about which Enlightenment thinking seems to be in denial. I would like to suggest that this may constitute just one example of the sorts of things we all too easily miss in knowing ourselves, and do so at our own peril and the peril of others. This is precisely the sort of thing out of which our perilous times are likely to be constituted, and for which our intimate relationships may be the best counterbalance. “Beware the Dark Side, Luke.” Ignorance, temptation, and concepts like original sin are important parts of the Western theological tradition. Such devils are also important to other traditions, the tricksters of mythology, of Coyote and Kokopelli, of Pan with his pipes, and of Hermes, god of thieves and crossroads. Could we not understand such warnings as about our natural tendencies to think ourselves better than we are?

Terry Eagleton’s Reason, Faith, and Revolution proposes that, at their most convincing, the Jewish and Christian scriptures have valuable insights into human emancipation, and much to say about vital questions like death, suffering, love, and self-dispossession. There is a common ground between science and religion in the “tragic humanism” that Eagleton draws from theology, Freud, and Marx. This the Jesuit Naptha’s opposition to Settembrini’s Enlightenment in Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain. In a post-Holocaust, post-Hiroshima era, the broken body of a political prisoner who has been tortured to death might provide a more realistic picture of human nature than does “liberal humanism.” A crucifix might be a more useful signifier of the human condition. Eagleton holds out for a more nuanced view of religion than one that reduces it to a flawed explanatory system based on unsupported beliefs about a supernatural agent, a view he attributes to “Ditchkins” the so-called “new atheists” of Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and Christopher Hitchens. Eagleton suggests that his alternative view has value in noncircular justifications of rationalism, and may temper the political self-contradictions of an increasingly totalitarian ideology of tolerance and diversity. Most important, from my perspective, it helps provide a critique of the self-origination, self-authorship, and self-sufficiency that presume, in the words of Stanley Fish’s review, “to pull progress and eventual perfection out of our own entrails.”

Yes, there is a “dark and troubled side, too.” But the “sunny side” to which religious communities may be built to direct us includes family support, wedding vows, social action, and charity, just as they direct us away from our illusions about ourselves, and do so with the power of love and forgiveness. It is also clear that the only real power of humanity has been acting collectively, a particular challenge in an era of fragmented individuality, as argued by Michael Lerner in The Politics of Meaning and in Spirit Matters. There are also real religious encouragements against self-deception, and our capacity to see flaws in others like attending to the beam in your own eye before trying to take the speck out of your neighbor’s (Luke 6:42; Matthew 7:3-5). We can also blind ourselves to our own virtues, as this means we have to take the responsibility for them, but being drawn out by others to take on larger roles, to attempt greater things, to take up our crosses, is no less a part of a loving community. We have a shadow side of which we are often unaware, but we also have a “golden shadow,” with which we get in trouble when its projections onto others keeps us blind to their humanity, and our own overflowing cups, the banquet we may have for others, the surplus of love from which only fear, uncertainty, and lack of faith prevents us from giving freely, and loving wastefully.

Our culture turns everything into a commodity, abstr