Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Centrifugal vs Centripetal Living

In Surprised by Joy, CS Lewis writes about the authentic life that Lonergan refers to below as "real self-transcendence," which is where one goes beyond oneself to find greater meaning in life. Lewis contrasts Centrifugal Living with Centripetal Living, which I summarized in a paper I presented at Oxbridge 2008, entitled Your Neighbor’s Wife or Your Soul’s Husband: Sigmund Freud and CS Lewis on Heaven:

Freud views mental processes and social interactions solely in terms of efficient causes (see Aristotle's Physics II.3: αρχη την κινεσθεον). Instinct (A) occurs within given individual (B) in the context of environment (C), and the outcome is behavior or perception (D). One would be justified in conceptualizing psychic events as the outcome of formula: ƒ(A+B+C)=D. To speak of meaning or higher natural teleology in this conception is an absurdity, since the terms occur in time and have no external referent. There is not a why, only a how. Atom A nudges Atom B, full stop...

The first kind of lifestyle is called Centrifugal Living. Centrifugal Living is born naturally out of the materialist’s manner of thinking. Since events are linking only by efficient causes, there is an atomization of experience. Just like the matter upon which our illusory consciousness is founded, true structures of meaning do not exist. There is only fact, not truth. There is only room in the universe for pleasurable D; anything else is a mirage on the moon. Centrifugal Living is characterized psychologically by adult dismissal of qualities inherently natural to children (e.g., desire for healthy fantasy, play, vulnerability, spontaneity, simplicity, etc.) and qualitatively by a dismissive attitude towards one’s ancestors (e.g., ‘our wretched, ignorant and downtrodden ancestors’ Freud in The Future of an Illusion). One who lives by this view might catch oneself thinking, “science has freed us up from all that old silly stuff; we humans have finally grown up.” Due to its obsession with pleasurable D, it is decidedly subjective in essence. One rarely gets beyond oneself, beyond one's immediate needs and desires.

Lewis was never satisfied with the disparate data produced by centrifugal thoughts (e.g., “We mortals, seen as the sciences see us and as we commonly see one another, are mere ‘appearances" Surprised by Joy, 221b).  Not until he became convinced that, “Joy was not a deception,” (Ibid., 222). but “rather the moments of clearest consciousness we had,” did Lewis step into what may be called Centripetal Living. Centripetal Living flows naturally from minds that recognize final causes (See Aristotle’s Physics II.3: τελον). You may remember that efficient causes ask how questions to discover the cause of an event. Final causes ask why questions. Why was the philosophy paper written? The how involves a neurotic personality type who is obsessed with the first four letters of the alphabet, a laptop computer with a historically suspicious lighted emblem of fruit upon its backing, and obscene amounts of overpriced burnt-bean infused hot water rations semiotically signified by the characters “c-o-f-f-e-e.” The why answer to the question of the cause for the paper entails a belief held by the aforementioned neurotic that questions of utmost importance are routinely assumed by moderns to have already been settled a certain way, when they certainly have not been, and that Viktor Frankl was correct when he said one of the best things a person caring for another person can do is to “startle him out of his metaphysical thoughtlessness.”

The Centrifugal Life is taken by facts, the Centripetal Life by meaning. Instead of swirling the world up anew to match the demands of individual moments, the centripetal pilgrim travels through each moment in this world with an eye toward Heaven, towards an external referent that is absolute. We can keep our equation from earlier, but the significance of term B, and ultimately the meaning of terms A and C following this change, must be altered dramatically. For the centripetal pilgrim, term B is no longer merely a cacophony of instincts and drives, but rather something with “a root in the Absolute" (Surprised by Joy, 221), that naked Other towards whom Joy points. We have been invited to become sign readers, to interpret meaning and significance in our circumstances and in our neighbors, and this meaning and significance stretches far beyond raping them or murdering them to obtain pleasure, as Freud suggests in his The Future of an Illusion. Lewis counters Freud’s conception of social life in this world from his centripetal perspective:

      "The load, or weight, or burden of my neighbor’s glory should be laid daily on my back, a load so heavy that only humility can carry it, and the backs of the proud will be broken. It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you can talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare" (The Weight of Glory 105b).

This passage from the Weight of Glory is perhaps one of the most frequently quoted from Lewis’ canon, and the reason is self-evident to any reader sympathetic to Lewis’ overarching project. It captures the gravity of even the most mundane social interaction. The way I treat those around me is a small, incremental contribution to that person’s eternal destiny. If I act like a person is beneath me, too low to greet or to make eye contact with, I may confirm that person’s low view of him or herself, or of the world around him or her. Conversely, if I take the time to affirm a fellow’s value through even a minor act of charity (such as a smile or an easy lane-change), I give that person the gift of my seeing him or her through God’s eyes. I have no control over that person’s own assent to God’s plan for the universe, but I am required by Christ to love others as I love myself. I am required to give the gift of significance to others, even if they cannot receive it or if I don’t feel like giving it.

To interpret my neighbor in this manner is decidedly centripetal in nature. It requires understanding beyond what lies immediately before me in my neighbor, to be open to the potential that God has gifted that person with in his or her own future. It requires me to act contrary to my emotions about a situation in those cases where the reason I don’t want to reach out is simply because a person inconveniences or annoys me. It forces me to remember my own flaws when I become judgmental towards my neighbor; otherwise I am frozen by my self-righteousness. As the head of my own family, I have to question every selfish inclination in relationship to the consequences of my choice for my wife and daughter. I choose what I do with my vocational aspirations in part by what I believe I will contribute to the world after I am gone. This all requires understanding beyond what is immediately before me in the world, and I do this by my orientation to meaning, to understanding the significance and interrelatedness of beings in my life.

Reading Lewis’ work helps me tremendously on this centripetal journey. I read the Great Dance at the end of Perelandra, and a new understanding of what the universe might be arises in my mind. I read an essay like Transposition, and I suddenly understand how the sacraments effect the thing signified in this world, how scripture genuinely communicates divine truth. I see myself in Shasta in The Horse and His Boy, and I am deeply moved by God’s faithfulness in my own life, even when it seemed like all hope should have been abandoned. The real grit comes for me in the daily living out of the charge to love my neighbor. As I encounter ever-greater pathways to higher meaning in Lewis’ works, I understand and relate evermore to the center of Centripetal Living, the Author of All Creatures, the nexus of right-living and full self-hood. I am emboldened in my ability to love others, even as I become more open to God’s love. So, here’s to swirling inwards!

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