Kirk Schneider’s “The Polarized Mind”

corybeckersite | October 1, 2009

The Polarized MindOf Recent Interest… is the new book by Kirk J. Schneider, The Polarized Mind: Why It’s Killing Us and What We Can Do About It (Colorado Springs: University Professors Press, 2013). This book nicely summarizes a lot of what is already found in a number of Schneider’s books and places it right in the center of current discussions of politics and the fundamentalist mindset. In this way, Schneider adds significantly to that discussion, by helping us to view it not simply through the lens of power politics but rather through the more sensitive eyes of existential-humanist psychology.

The Polarized Mind as Schneider presents it is characterized as reflecting elevation of one point of view to the utter exclusion of competing points of view. It is extremism, to be sure, but extremism of a particular kind. It is an extremism motivated fundamentally by existential fear, the fear of groundlessness, extinction, powerlessness, and of feeling that the only way it can establish itself in relation to that fear is by essential annihilation of any and all competing forces. It is a type of thinking that says, in effect, the only way I can exist securely is to rule the very cosmos.

The problem here, of course, is that even the conqueror of the universe is never really secure, because the very act of conquering plants the seeds of backlash among the conquered. The conqueror is stuck in a dynamic cycle of needing to eternally expand the conquered sphere (outward expansionism) and remain constantly vigilant to sniff out and snuff any whiff of rebellion within the conquered area (internal oppression). Ultimately, this is a self-defeating dynamic, which Schneider sees running through the history of families, communities, nations and empires. We might say that in Schneider’s view, the root of all human evil is the inability to live with ambiguity, uncertainty, doubt and the simple willingness to let others be themselves, rather than wanting to make them like ourselves. The need to conquer, to make them like ourselves, to fight against them, to eradicate them if necessary in the process, results in a history strewn with corpses, tears and violence. This, in a nutshell, is the first half of this book.

For the second half of the book, Schneider takes up Ernest Becker’s challenge, to recognize this more or less inevitable fact about human nature and motivation (inevitable not in the mechanical or deterministic sense, but in the sense that it is predominantly our culturally contoured response to the human condition itself) and to “…harmonize this knowledge with the possibility of a humanistic science…” (quoting Becker, p. 105).

Here once again, Schneider largely summarizes a lot of what is already found in his earlier books, especially his book Awakening to Awe (2009). He takes the reader through much of the same historical material as was examined in the first part of the book, but this time demonstrates that at each crucial juncture, the option for increased polarization (rooted, as we said, in fundamental fear and leading to acts of conquering violence) was opposed by another option presented, to accept the vulnerability of refusing to conquer and create “enemies,” but rather to embrace life as a mystery, as a source of deep and mystical awe and wonder, and to join “with” those unlike ourselves in the mutual appreciation of life itself, thus establishing affinity (rooted in love) where polarization (rooted in fear) can only create ever more foes and enemies.

Although Schneider doesn’t cite the work, this is largely the vision laid out by Albert Schweitzer in his lengthy history of civilization, undertaken as a supplement to his philosophical work, Ehrfurcht vorm Leben. That phrase most famously has been translated as “Reverence for Life,” which though adequate all too quickly was tamed as expressing some sort of esoteric vegetarian sentiment. But Schweitzer’s summary philosophical phrase could much better (if with less poetically) be translated as something like “Deep Awe – tremendum et fascinans, if you will – in the Face of the Mysterious Life Force.” This is really, I think, what Schneider has in mind here, a sense of awe rooted in embrace of life’s many paradoxes, rather than the obsessive attempt to resolve those paradoxes in order to feel secure.

Schneider has taken a very big bite with this book, and it would be easy to critically snipe at his efforts. As one, for example, who spent a whole seminary semester (and claims absolutely no expertise in the topic) slogging through the fine nuances of “Ancient Near Eastern Literature Before the Hebrew Bible,” I chafed at Schneider running us through this material in less than 5 pages, followed by a page and half to get us through the Hebrew Bible itself. But on the other hand, the academic preference for only taking tiny little mini-bites, and even those only tenuously and tentatively, is in our time probably a part of the problem, and a big reason why we mostly only read our own stuff. So Schneider has forged ahead with the big bite where the more cautious, such as myself, would hesitate. God bless him for it, he has produced a really “good read” here that speaks boldly to our time and has at least the possibility of reaching a significantly large audience. I certainly hope so!

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