Individualism and Community

I really enjoy being a part of a University community. Even though I’m staff and not faculty, I like the sense of shared purpose, identity, and value of knowledge that it implies and conveys. At the same time, I often want to think/exist as an individual, and believe that mindlessly accepting communal ideals is an insufficient substitute for defining one’s own ethical code. I like to think that part of my day job advising students on their careers is helping them identify their own values/goals and pursue those, even when their friends and family may have other opinions about what job they “should” take.

Several years of Latin study in middle and high school informed my interest in etymologies, appealed to my fondness for mythology (that began in elementary school), and was my first experience reading ancient primary sources in their original text. In a way, this whole project may be connected to that focus: the internet makes it easy to find opinions about a wide range of topics, but I’m skeptical of being told what to think and would draw my own conclusions from original sources. Tertullian predated Augustine, so from that (simplistic) perspective, his writing is even more “original.” I gleaned three major insights from Robert Sider’s work on Tertullian’s Definitions of Christian and Pagan:

  1. Tertullian essentially accuses the Romans’ accusations against the Christians of projection; each claim (of cannibalism, adultery, and disloyalty) is contrasted with a Roman practice.
  2. Tertullian lays the groundwork for Ephrem of Syria’s anti-Judaism (see: What Do You Believe?) in his concern with distinguishing Christian from other; he highlights all of the Roman festivities (theater, circus, gladiatorial contests, and athletic competitions) as pagan rituals.
  3. Tertullian is a pragmatic pacifist: he states that one cannot be a soldier in the imperial army and a Christian, but also that a soldier who converts to Christianity may remain enlisted.

The first point felt particularly prescient to me because of the blood libels that took place in medieval Christian Europe, when Jews were accused of murdering a Christian child for the purpose of making Passover matzoh. This calumny led to violent pogroms, but in its own way may have been a transference of accusations of cannibalism made against Christians centuries before due to the ritual of the Eucharist (particularly given the Last Supper’s origins as a Passover Seder). I am currently choreographing fights for House of Ithaqua’s production of “Pillowman,” and one of the theses that I hope to illustrate through that violence is how victims of abuse can perpetrate and perpetuate that abuse on others.

The second set of concerns targets the most popular events in Tertullian’s Rome and declares them idolatrous. This is partly about self-definition in opposition to local culture, as it is for Ephrem of Syria, but I believe is also connected to a particular concern around communal entertainment. Whether sports, music, film, or popular literature, a shared set of intense emotional experiences and vocabulary helps to bind us together. There are probably more Americans who watched the Super Bowl, can sing along to Toto’s “Africa,” or have gone to a Disney theme park in the past 5 years than can articulate a shared belief in the consubstantiation of the Trinity. I am not active on social media and don’t use a smartphone; I feel that this allows me to preserve greater independence of thought and read more books, but it can also lead to a feeling of detachment from people who are more up-to-date than I am with respect to memes or the latest viral event.

Lastly, Tertullian raises an interesting question regarding one’s duty to honor previous commitments v. one’s duty to one’s beliefs. There isn’t an inherently obvious answer to this question: it feels morally/ethically important to be a person of one’s word, possibly even if your understanding of the situation has changed. A cynical view might simply state that Tertullian wants to enable as many converts as possible, and that the penalties for desertion (or once again, the social bonds of group loyalty) might inhibit a potential Christian from acting on the impulse to convert. I’m inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt, though, and think that he’s trying to balance these ethical concerns, which in fact can arise in many situations: do you quit your job if you no longer believe in its mission or leaders? What about your relationships/communities? What are your obligations to those who’ve made commitments or depended on your support? It’s unclear how far Tertullian would take this professional responsibility, but at an extreme case, it suggests that he might disagree with Masterpiece Cake Shop’s claim that by baking for a gay wedding they would indicate support for the activity; he is willing to distinguish one’s personal and professional beliefs. In a truly minority-Christian community, there would be limited feasibility in trying to avoid any action that supports pagans, so Tertullian is content to say that practicing Christians ought to avoid the state-sponsored expansion of polytheistic beliefs (and violence) and the entertainments associated with that worship.

I had never read Kierkegaard, and had no idea what his primary theses were, but I knew the name. Partly out of vanity, I thought that I should read something by him (so I can say I’ve read Kierkegaard!), and I selected the invitingly-named Fear and Trembling and the Sickness unto Death. I was first struck by his deeply sympathetic, even poetical spirit in Fear and Trembling. He focuses on the story of Abraham and the sacrifice of Isaac (a story about which I’ve done a fair amount of thinking/writing in the context of my annual Rosh Hashanah email) as an example of perfect faith on the part of Abraham, highlighting the fact that Abraham has already been told by God that he will have innumerable descendants through Isaac. In order to reconcile this promise with the meaning in sacrificing Isaac, Kierkegaard requires Abraham to simultaneously believe that he will, in fact, be required to sacrifice his son (that it’s not simply a game of chicken/bluff), and also believe in God’s ability to accomplish the “absurd,” that is, to keep His promise to continue the line through Isaac. Kierkegaard tries to thoroughly explore what this means for faith, contrasting it with the pagan example of Agamemnon’s sacrifice of Iphigenia, where Agamemnon recognizes his moral duty to preserve his army, and cannot conceive of (or lacks faith in) an alternative. This is also less impressive to Kierkegaard than Abraham’s conduct as a “knight of faith,” because Agamemnon could communicate his rationale to the community, while Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac would have been incomprehensible to those around him, and therefore he must act alone. What stuck with me most, even years after completing the book, was Kierkegaard’s imagined interaction between Abraham and Isaac immediately prior to the sacrifice, where he posits Abraham claiming to be a pagan and not a monotheist so that Isaac would not have reason to doubt God’s goodness (risking damnation), but instead his father’s. It’s a powerful image, if one without scriptural support. “The Sickness Unto Death” focuses on two types of despair, weak and defiant, but criticizes both for their lack of hope (i.e., faith). Despair, as Kierkegaard defines it, is an unwillingness to be one’s self in the world. I believe that this is one of the core existential challenges of philosophy/life: to define what it means to be oneself and to believe in the rightness of that being without degenerating into selfishness or triviality.

As a side note on the Library Reading Project: I had a sudden realization about this book project, that I started on the “wrong side” of the 3rd floor of Olin Library. There are two sections, and I started on the right hand side as you walk down the middle aisle, which is to say, when I finish that half the next books (by call number) would be on the 4th floor, but that would leave me unable to say that I’d read one book from every aisle on even a single floor. I think it’s more important to me to try and finish the single floor than to continue in order, so I’ll have to go back to the left-hand side some time (maybe as soon as next year?) when I finish these ones. And that will be my act of individual faith, even if the order is harder to explain to the community.

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