In part 1 we asked whether we were primarily mind or body. While acknowledging both we sought to discover which one most often ran the show. We concluded that most often we follow the inclination of our bodies over our minds. Therefore we answered the question, “Who am I?” by saying, “We are embodied creatures.” In this article we want to add a layer to that. I want to suggest that we are “teleological creatures.”1
The word telos (from which we get “teleological”) is a Greek word which means something like “goal” or “purpose” or “aim.” By saying that we are teleological creatures I am saying that we are always “aiming” at something. We aim at all sorts of different things in all sorts of different ways but the thing common to it all is that we are aiming. To illustrate, take a moment and think. Don’t think about anything. Just think. You can’t do it can you? Now try this: want. Don’t want anything in particular, just want. It’s impossible. See, none of us can simply think or want or hope or fear. All of these things are always aimed at something. We must think about something, even if it’s just thinking about thinking. Neither can we just want. We want pizza or excitement or rest or sex but we want something. The same goes for all of the other ways that we intend or “aim at” the world. There is always an object. We are intentional beings. We are teleological creatures.
When we combine the fact that we are embodied with the fact that we are teleological this helps us further the conclusion in our last article. If I were primarily a thinking-thing then I would aim at things through thinking. Most of what I did would be based upon what I thought or believed about the world. I would seek abstract ideas like peace, justice, pleasure, and happiness. But there are two problems: 1. I am not primarily a thinking-thing. I am an embodied creature. I am primarily a desiring-thing, and therefore thinking is not primarily how I intend the world. 2. Even if I were primarily a thinking-thing that would be a difficult life. Take a moment and imagine justice. Not a just society or a just household. Just justice. Again, it’s impossible. Or how about peace? You cannot imagine just peace. You can imagine a peaceful relationship, peaceful scenery, a peaceful government, even world peace. But you cannot imagine just “peace.” And it is incredibly hard to aim at something that you can’t “see.” As James K.A. Smith puts it,
“[W]hat we love is a specific vision of the good life, an implicit picture of what we think human flourishing looks like … implicit in it will be assumptions about what good relationships look like, what a just economy and distribution of resources look like, what sorts of recreation and play we value, how we ought to relate to nature and the nonhuman environment, what sorts of work count as good work, what flourishing families look like, and much more.”2
This is because I am primarily a desiring-thing (not a thinking-thing). I aim at a vision, not ideas/beliefs. “It is important to emphasize that this [vision of the good life] is a picture. This is why I have emphasized that we are fundamentally noncognitive, affective, creatures. The telos to which our love is aimed is not a list of ideas or propositions or doctrines; it is not a list of abstract, disembodied concepts or values.” 3
As was mentioned in the previous article we might be tempted to consider the imagination under the control of the mind instead of the body. However, our imagination works on us in a different way than our reason does. Listening to a definition of chaos (which would target our reason) is different than considering a painting of chaos (which would target the imagination). A definition engages the intellect, a vision engages the guts. It works on our passions and our emotions. Consider the different reactions you experience when you hear statistics about poverty in Africa compared to when you see a photo of a poor child with a swollen belly and belabored breath. That’s the difference in idea and vision, intellect and imagination, mind and body.
In general, we do not seek to obey a set of rules/convictions. We desire to live into a vision, a picture of life, like the Pevensie children of C.S. Lewis’ Voyage of the Dawn Treader. We may think, like Edmund, that looking at a picture doesn’t do any good. ” ‘The question is,’ said Edmund, ‘whether it doesn’t make things worse, looking at a Narnian ship when you can’t get there.'” He thought that no matter how badly they wanted that vision of life, picturing it wasn’t going to get them there. But they were wrong, and so are we. The children stared at the painting of the ship and eventually found themselves transported into the world of their imagination. “The things in the picture were moving … Down went the prow of the ship into the wave and up went a great shock of spray … Eustace jumped to try to pull it off the wall and found himself standing on the frame; in front of him was not glass but a real sea.”4 Just as their longing for the Narnia of the painting was able to transport them there, so we will be transported into our vision of the good life, however we paint it.
“A vision of the good life captures our hearts and imaginations not by providing a set of rules or ideas, but by painting a picture of what it looks like for us to flourish and live well. This is why such pictures are communicated most powerfully in stories, legends, myths, plays, novels, and films rather than dissertations, messages, and monographs.”5
When we are captured by a vision we live into it. I once listened to an episode of the early morning radio show Kidd Kraddick in the Morning where J-Si described his misplaced motivation to cut his son’s hair. He said something like, “I was at the salon getting my hair cut and the lady did it so fast! She made it looks so easy. So when I got home and my son said he wanted hair like mine, I thought, ‘I can do that.'” It did not go well. He and his wife, Kenzie, had to take their son to have a trained professional fix his hair. The point, however, is about what made J-Si want to do it in the first place. It was the skill and ease of his hair dresser. He was fascinated by her. She did not reason with him while he was in the chair to convince him of why he ought to cut his son’s hair, why it would be a good idea, or how it would be an economical decision. None of those things are the “reason” why he cut his son’s hair. This was a visceral bodily phenomenon. He was moved into a vision where he could cut hair with the same ease as she could. He tried to live into that life he had imagined, and failed. But he tried none the less.
In the movie Adjustment Bureau David Noriss (played by Matt Damon) meets the girl of his dreams (Elise–played by Emily Blunt) but is suddenly separated from her and unable to find her again. Upon serendipitously meeting he explains his efforts to locate her. He says, “I didn’t have your number. And I didn’t even have a last name to go by. You know, if you Google just ‘Elise’ you get seven-hundred and …” “You did not!” she objects. “… fifty seven thousand hits. And none of them are you.” See, Noriss was captured by a vision. No one convinced him that he should find Elise. No one argued with him to prove that this course of action was right or good or profitable. Noriss imagined a world in which he and Elise were together and he put forth tremendous effort to make that vision a reality.
We do the same thing. Because we are embodied creatures we are captured by a vision of our life and because we are teleological creatures we then proceed to live into that vision. But our lives are not isolated from others. We live in families and communities and therefore our vision is always a social vision. We imagine that we are rich or famous or good looking or successful or healthy and we try to be that. (Notice also that these are not things which are “right” or “wrong”–the are things which are desired or not). We imagine that we have a dog in the country or we imagine that have a loft in the city where we can bike to work and walk to the coffee shop. We imagine a home with large open windows, the smell of apple pie in the kitchen, kids playing in the floor, and ourselves reading a book by the fire (at least I certainly do). The point is, these are the things that move us. And even these more local visions are always situated in a wider contexts. All of the pictures I described above are set in a peaceful America, not a world at war. They are pictures of economic prosperity, not poverty. The vision of the city is ethnically diverse, not racially divided. These visions have universal implications and we live towards them. This is how we operate as human beings.
We are all seeking a vision. The danger is that different visions are constantly vying for our affection. Some visions are communities which are hospitable to being fully human while others are dehumanizing and inhumane. But how do we know that we are seeking the right one? That will be the concern of future articles. Let me say for now that as a Christian I believe that the vision of the future towards which God is headed is a New Heaven and a New Earth. It is a place where Jesus reigns as king and we reign with him. It is an ethnically diverse kingdom of peace. It is a place where all have justice and none are oppressed. There are parties with music and celebration without the debauchery which often infects our own festivities. There are feasts without the bad health that accompanies our gluttony and bad decisions. There is art without pornography, technology without war, dance without lewdness, family without death, friendship without deception, and joy without sorrow. This is what it means to be fully human. This is the vision I live into. This is the vision we are all invited to live towards. So join me in being simply human. You were born to.
©M. Benfield 2016
1. James K.A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom, (Grand Rapids: BakerAcademic, 2009), 52.↩
2. Ibid, 52-53.↩
3. Ibid, 53.↩
4. C.S. Lewis, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, First Harper Trophy Edition (New York: HarperCollins, 2000), 9-10.↩
5. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom, 53.↩