Wednesday, February 10, 2016


Today is Ash Wednesday, which marks the first day of Lent on the Western Christian calendar. Many observant Christians fast or practice some other manner of self-denial for the duration of the Lenten season, commemorating Jesus' forty days in the desert where (as recounted in the canonical Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke) he was tempted by Satan three times. Jesus emerged from the desert and returned to Galilee after refusing each of Satan's temptations, only to be betrayed by Judas, taken prisoner by Pontius Pilate, and eventually crucified by the Romans.  Easter Sunday, which celebrates the resurrection of Jesus, marks the end of Lenten season. Whatever one's religious persuasion, the story of the temptation, crucifixion, and resurrection of Jesus is a powerfully symbolic and deeply moving one, from which there are many non-Christianity-specific valuable lessons to learn.

I'm a PK and was raised in (a Wesleyan version of) Protestantism, but I've never actually succeeded in resisting any particular temptation for the entire forty days of Lent, though I've given it a try once or twice in my lifetime.  I am convinced that the discipline required to do so is eminently admirable, and I genuinely do believe that there are many valuable things to be learned about oneself (and about the sorts of temptations one identifies as dangers-to-oneself) in the process. Over the years, I suppose I've learned that self-denial is not a particularly motivational, reformative, or even measurably productive practice for me, despite witnessing first-hand its dramatically transformative power in others.  That may be because I have, through experience, realized innumerable and invaluable insights not from denying temptations, but rather from succumbing to, sometimes surrendering to, and sometimes voluntarily indulging-- often over-indulging-- exactly the sorts of things, both vicious and virtuous, that tempt me.

From time to time, I do engage myself in what might be called "practices of self-care" that require protracted attention, effort, and discipline (because self-care practices are always also disciplinary practices, after all).  For example, this month I'm attempting to blog every day in February (and I do a similar project every June on this blog with the #30DaySongChallenge).  Any sort of concentrated, deliberate, focused activity like that requires some manner of self-denial or resistance to other temptations, I suppose, but that self-denial is a secondary quality of the project, not an essential one. I prefer to reckon with the hold my particular temptations have on me in that more indirect way: I'll positively commit myself to doing something for some determined amount of time and within certain arbitrarily-defined parameters and, in the dark of that struggle to finish what I have set out to do, if I happen to pass by a temptation I might ought rebuke, I'll make a concerted effort to acknowledge the power, the allure, and the nature of that temptation.  Hopefully, I'll learn something about watching it approach, exert its magnetic force, and then move on by that I don't think I could learn by simply denying it.  I like to think of this strategy as a way of coming to know my temptations other than the way I know them when I encounter them head-on, when I find myself, despite myself, intimately in their grip.

I'm not giving anything up for Lent this year, again, though just writing this post has given me pause to think more seriously about the traditional Lenten practice of fasting or self-denial.  I don't think that practice is meant to be about self-denial simpliciter.  Even in the "model case" of Jesus' denial of Satan's three temptations, as the two wrestled abandoned and alone in the desert, wasn't about self-denial simpliciter. It was, as I read it, about prioritizing values, ordering commitments, properly arranging instrumental goods and intrinsic goods in a relationship of superiority and inferiority. To borrow a trope from Buddhism, I think it was about cultivating right mindfulness (sati).

So, this Lenten season, for the next forty days, I'm going to commit to being mindful of the very same temptations that tempted Jesus.

First, the "stones into bread" temptation, which tempts us to believe that those things we need for sustenance and survival are, solely for that reason, the highest goods. This ought to be an easy temptation for philosophers to resist, one would think, as it is fundamentally an instance of the naturalistic fallacy (i.e.,deriving an "ought" from an "is".) Would that it were so easy!  "Man does not live by bread alone," Jesus said, and in so avowing marked the qualitative distinction between bare life and the good life, a distinction that has remained, for as long as we've been talking and thinking animals, as elusive as it is desirable to know. For the next 40 days, I will endeavor to direct my attention to the manner in which quick-fixes, stopgaps, and instrumental goods-- even those that offer themselves up in the form of necessities, like bread-- often serve to win the battle at the expense of the war. The battle for mere survival, for bread, for sustenance, is never a trivial one for the needy or the hungry, but in my everyday life, thankfully, that that is not my battle. I am not starving, I am not in any substantive sense of the word "needy," I have no cause to justify my moral and political decisions via desperately instrumental arguments. I enjoy more than enough privilege to deny myself immediate satisfactions for the sake of greater, principled goods.

Second, the "pinnacle of the temple" temptation, which tempts us to trust in the salvific "power of angels," to have confidence that a Deus ex Machina will reach down and intervene in tragic moments and make things right, to assume the arrogance of the blessed.  For the next 40 days, I will endeavor to employ my core belief that "the Just and the Good ought triumph in the end" as a motivation to act in such a way that makes justice and goodness happen, rather than simply trusting that the Universe is ordered such and will make it so in my stead. When Satan challenged Jesus to effectively prove that he was beloved by God, to jump from the pinnacle of the temple and see if God (or the angels) would rescue him, Jesus responded "You shall not put the Lord, your God, to the test."

I am often reminded, when I read the account of this temptation in the Gospel of Matthew, of the scene in Don DeLillo's White Noise where the narrator (Jack Gladney) recounts his experience of visiting the most photographed barn in America. Everyone goes to see the most photographed barn in America because it is "the most photographed barn in America" but, paradoxically, no one actually sees the most photographed barn in America anymore, Jack speculates, because everyone only visits it in order to photograph it. To the extent that they "see" it at all, they only see it through their camera-lens, i,e,, qua representation, no differently than looking at a photograph of the most photographed barn in America, This scene is mirrored in White Noise in another scene, in which Jack is injured and while he is in the hospital, he asks a nun treating his wounds about heaven. The nun replies that she believes in no such thing as heaven; she understands her primary function (qua "representative" of the Church) as "having faith" for the benefit of those who have no faith of their own.  That is to say, there is a function that belief all by itself, as well as the symbols and representatives of belief all by themselves, have independent of their being tested, confirmed, verified, or legitimated.

Jesus' second temptation, which required of him that he believe in his God without requiring that God Himself confirm that belief, is more or less consistent with how I think of my belief in Justice, in Humanity, in the Collective Good, and in any number of other fundamental beliefs of mine which I would and do "put to the test" on a daily basis, but which I do not and would not "put to the test" as an ultimatum, a requirement for confirmation or disconfirmation of them as (ultimate, ideal, aspirational) beliefs. The temptation to do so is strong, but must be resisted, I think, in those cases where the ideal under consideration can only ever be imperfectly realized by metric calculations or utilitarian calculus, least of all by jumping off the pinnacle of a temple to verify their verity.

Third, the "Kingdoms of the World" temptation, which tempts us with the promise of power, but only on the condition that we betray some fundamental, core belief. This is the temptation with which I think I am most frequently confronted, though in much more quotidian ways. (I mean, as far as I know, I've never actually been tempted with anything even remotely resembling actual power but, at the same time, I do recognize that I do things-- professionally and personally and digitally-- that accord me a certain amount of influence that could very easily be parlayed into something like real power.)  For the next 40 days, I will endeavor to be especially attentive to the manner in which I am tempted to compromise my principled commitments for some more or less advantageous power-gain.  As a white, able-bodied, middle-class, educated, professionally-employed women living in the most powerful country in the world, I am by default invested with a tremendous amout of privilege that, in my everyday life, amounts to a perpetual confrontation with the Kingdoms-of-the-World Temptation. I will endeavor to be mindful of this temptation both to exploit my privilege for my advantage and also to ignore my privilege to my advantage.

Survival, Salvation, Empowerment. Are there any greater temptations?

These will be my self-discipline projects for the next forty days: (1) to subordinate instrumentalist or merely survivalist, self-serving interests to fundamentally principled moral or political interests, (2) to act in the service of the Just and the Good as much as, or more than, I believe in the Just and the Good, and (3) to actively disinvest myself in the privileges and powers accorded to me by default and, correspondingly, to actively refuse any accordance of power or influence that I gain at the expense of the least advantaged.

For the record, my Lenten projects are not projects of penitence, of fasting, or of self-denial.  They are (I hope) willing, engaged, and mindful confrontations with temptation, the sort that (I hope) allow me the opportunity to make of my temptations devils I know, rather than devils I don't.

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