If we are faithless, He remains faithful;
for He cannot deny Himself.
2 Tim. 2:13
There are three instinctively known things that have been discussed for thousands of years. One: A thing is what it is. Its unique composition of qualities and distinctives, its essence, make it what it is.
Two: “A thing can’t both be and not be” (Bertrand Russell). Better, a thing can’t have two different unique compositions of qualities and distinctives, or essences, that contradict each other, at the same time. “[T]he point in question is not this, whether the same thing can at the same time be and not be a [hu]man in name, but whether it can be in fact” (Aristotle).
Three: “Everything must either be, or not be” (Russell).There is no state halfway between being and not being; no third option.
These three classical “laws of thought” date at least to Plato, according to the historical record. They continue to be the source of debate and argument at the core of philosophy, sociology, religion and metaphysics. For instance, sociologically, when traditionalists appeal to biological sex as the arbiter of gender, they’re appealing to these laws: A thing is what it is, and it can’t both be and not be.
However, we have a problem, and that problem is knowing in the first place what a thing really is. As social challenges have stripped away the cultural elements of gender, for instance, people have found that much of the broad cultural definition of the thing is fabricated by custom and consensus, not through known essence. A whole other culture has arisen, performing the same old trick in new ways, through establishing new cultural consensus and new customs. Whether that has any better relationship to the essence of gender than the old consensus is a question I leave to the reader’s private consideration.
Hume, Kant, Derrida and many others have made their places in history considering this field of problems, known as epistemics. It’s the favourite trick of the master storyteller, playing with the beholder’s perception in order to manipulate the sense of what a thing is and is not. The more we learn, the more we understand the essence of the matter and reshape our conclusions. That’s the joy of experiencing a story well told.
The problem with reality is this: What are facts? Are they knowable or merely a consensus of perception? When is our perception ever complete? Question that even a little bit, and the brink of madness reaches back toward us. Maybe nothing is knowable. Maybe reality is illusion and invention.
But before we plunge off that chasm’s edge, lo! A cowboy philosopher rides the brink. Once upon a time, my brother wrote,
Things include those entities, propositions, or events that are rational; that is, they conform to what is analytically and formally possible pursuant to the rules of inference and basic laws of logic. For instance, the basic law of thought and rationality, the law of non-contradiction, states that a thing cannot be A and non-A at the same time and in the same relationship. Any thing that breaks this law is not a thing; it is no-thing.
In short, for thousands of years, people have used these classical foundations to examine whether their sense of reality is realistic. We have an inversion in this day and age, where reality’s realism tends to be questioned, rather than one’s sense of reality. Those sound the same, but they work out of entirely different self-perceptions: One states, I may be wrong in what I know to be real, while the other states, the world is wrong about what I know to be real.
Digging further beneath the surface, we soon find that one view must first assume reality is made up of things, from which we sort the nothings by improving our perceptions. The other must first assume that reality is made up by consensus alone, without any further anchor or framework. If that’s true, we can change reality simply by changing the consensus, either in our immediate circles or in wider society.
But which is a more accurate description of human existence?
A Case Study: Love
What is love? Is it defined by consensus, or is it something discoverable? Does it have a unique composition of qualities and distinctives?
Can love be love, and at the same time not be love? Can it be love when it holds traits that are self-contradictory?
Is there a fading middle between love and not-love? Is there a third option, other than “love must either be, or not be”?
Our culture, for hundreds of years past and even up until recent decades, has referenced the Christian Bible’s “love treatise,” 1 Corinthians 13. It’s been read at many weddings where the couple had no other use for the Christian scriptures, simply because it encapsulates what our culture’s consensus has been.
The traditional romantic legend is that love is discoverable. It has certain essential traits, and when you find someone who treats you that way, (A) you’ve found love and (B) you will live happily ever after.
All the most heartwrenching stories tell us that people meet, and enact this kind of passionate faithfulness to each other, and each receiving party discovers the feeling of truly being loved, even (or especially) if they’ve never known it before. The moral of the story is always, Don’t give up, love is real.
This runs entirely perpendicular to the pop narrative of love as consensus. Maybe love is sex. Maybe love is something you fall into and then out of. Maybe love hurts you sometimes. Maybe self-love is the only thing strong enough to ward off someone else’s love being hurtful to you. The only intersection point with the traditional picture is at the mournful sigh of yet another thwarted rom-com protagonist: “Why can’t I find love?”
Love is patient… kind… doesn’t envy… isn’t boastful… isn’t prideful… doesn’t dishonour others… isn’t self-seeking… doesn’t keep a tally of wrongs… always protects… always trusts… always hopes… always hangs on… love never fails.1 Cor. 13
If love is defined in terms of what one person’s pride can or can’t bear, is it love?
If love keeps a running record of wrongs, is it love? Worse, if it gives one party survival reasons to keep that record, is it love?
If love dishonours a loved one, is it love? We all betray each other sometime.
If love fails to protect, or to trust, is it love?
If love fails to last… is it love?
In Which Love Falls Off the Cliff’s Edge
This here is what philosophers, cowboy and otherwise, might call the horns of a dilemma. If we answer yes to the above — yes, it’s still love — then love is a consensus issue only. In that case, love can hurt. Love can abuse, it can abandon, and break, and dishonour, without being discredited by anything more than the recipient’s perception that this love doesn’t feel good. Society as a whole has no moral ground on which to arrest abusers, protect children, or prosecute partner rape or murder, other than a consensus that these are bad. The consensus could change if the culture changes, and in fact, international women’s rights advocates are up against that exact problem in many parts of the world. They’re trying to change the reality by changing a consensus that people may strongly believe should not be changed, for cultural or religious reasons.
Consensus does not necessarily protect, does not necessarily honour, doesn’t have to be arbitrated by patience or kindness, and it may fail whenever the wind shifts. Consensus is nothing more than a form of blind power dynamics, arbitrated by whoever controls social influences. Consensus is not rational. It’s in no way obligated to logic or consistency.
To put it in my brother’s terms: Consensus is nothing. In which case, love is nothing either.
In Which Firm Ground is No Consolation
On the other hand, love might be discoverable. That is, it might consist of a unique set of qualities and characteristics that are essential to its being. There might be some standard by which to measure and adjust our perceptions.
But what then? The harsh conclusion waiting to spear us on this horn of the dilemma is that we aren’t really capable of love. We catch glimpses of it. We manage moments here and there. But overall, we aren’t consistent. We don’t measure up to any external definition of love, whether the Bible’s or some other one, because we’re inherently changeable and whimsical.
Eternity Bends Toward Us
The consolation for the Christian is in the starting point of faith: That’s right, I don’t measure up to love. The starting point of Christianity is in the Law of Identity: I am what I am. The next step along the path is the Law of Non-Contradiction: I can’t both be and not be what I am. There’s no pretending I measure up once I know that I don’t.
And finally, we come to the words of the Pauline hymn: “When we are faithless, He remains faithful, for He cannot deny Himself.” This is something we can identify with. Sometimes a person or situation pushes us too far, and we face a choice of ceasing to be who we are — dying inside in some way — or setting a boundary that says, “No. I choose life. Your relationship to me can’t override my relationship to myself.”
That’s identity. In fact, in philosophy, it’s that first law, the Law of Identity.
At those moments, we realize that the Law of the Excluded Middle (the third one) really does apply: We either are, or we aren’t. There’s no middling state, no third option, though we spend most of our existence trying to live within such a fantasy. This is how we find the pieces of ourselves over a lifetime: By dragging them out of the shadows of irrationality and self-contradiction. The Christian scripture calls this bearing the image of God: The fact that our sense of identity is so tied to our sense of life and of death.
And yet, we can deny that image. We can deny ourselves. We can make ourselves no-thing, a self-contradicting irrationality, for a season; but eventually, we become. Either we embrace the no-thing, or (to quote the old poet of Job’s tale) “repent in dust and ashes,” rejecting the nothingness of a contradictory internal world and reaching for the One who remains faithful at all times and seasons.
We are saved by the fact that there are things God cannot love, or even tolerate: things for which He would have to deny Himself, like partner abuse, putting pride over personhood, various kinds of betrayal, indifference to a partner’s emotional and physical safety… all those things that we instinctively know are not love.
God is love, wrote the Apostle John. And so, by condemning sin, God lives up to Himself.