Monthly Archives: June 2014

On monotheism and polytheism

A phrase sometimes heard from atheists is that atheists and (say) Christians agree on 99.9% (or what have you) of the gods they don’t believe in, but atheists just add one more.

This statement seems to ignore the kinds of evidence which are often a common cause of theistic world-views – that is, gods or God are theoretical posits to explain partially overlapping phenomena.

For example, where an ancient Greek might say Athena was in operation in inspiring someone to speak in a particularly wise and eloquent way that subjectively felt in retrospect in some sense to originate from an unusual source, a Christian will say the Holy Spirit is in operation.

Or consider non-chance coincidings. An ancient Greek polytheist might say a certain god brought about a particular situation that seemed unlikely given mere chance. Similarly, a Christian monotheist would say God in some way brought it about.

The network of the gods (or a particular god) in a polytheistic framework is posited in order to cover some of the same ground as God in a Christian framework. This is why polytheistic paganism in certain forms is closer to Christianity than many forms of secularism – indeed, why Christianity is in a sense a solution to problems that can be more clearly seen (so the idea goes) within various polytheistic world-views than within certain secular ones.

I.e., polytheists and monotheists may disagree on the nature of reality, but they have a significant agreement over certain (so they think) phenomena that call for explanation.

As an analogy, consider an agravitist, who does not believe in gravity. He might respond to a gravitist – someone who thinks the evidence points towards there being something like gravity – by saying they agree on 99.9% (or what have you) of the theories of gravity (for there have been many of these in the history of the world), but the agravitist has merely taken one step further in not believing in one more kind of gravity.

This is to implicitly misstate the evidential situation, because there are large amounts of common evidence which support different theories of gravity.

This is not to ignore that the Christian God is philosophically or theologically very different from most other gods. For example, in classic, Thomistic Christian theology, say, God is not a being (like, say, Thor) but the ground of being, not a good person but the good, and so on. Yet, this is not because the Christian God is therefore not covering a significant amount of similar evidential ground as various gods. Rather, the theoretical understanding has been radically reconceptualized in, say, Neo-Platonic Christianity, just as certain theories of gravity involve radical reconceptualization while still seeking to explain a significant amount of similar going-ons.

So, there are significant differences between the typical conception of a god or gods in polytheistic ancient Greece, say, and of God in contemporary Christianity. Yet, to think of them as almost arbitrary, discrete units, as the atheist sentiment does, is to show an unfamiliarity with some of the similar phenomena that prompt certain theist conceptions.

Why would holy people reincarnate in Heaven?

Why would holy people (in whatever relevant sense of ‘holy’) reincarnate in Heaven?

Heaven, according to Christianity, is not a disembodied state for ‘spirits’. Rather, it is a future society consisting of fully embodied, physical, robust people who are engaging in highly optimal relationships with other people.

The idea is that holy people will reincarnate (‘resurrect’) into this society.

Assuming reincarnation is plausible (and it may not be, see here – but this is the idea in Christianity), a question is: why would certain people reincarnate in this future society, as opposed to others (i.e., why would some people ‘go to Heaven’ and not others)?

One possible answer is somewhat obvious – people who are ‘holy’ are people who would choose to be in this kind of society.

(This leads to the idea that people who are currently incarnated in some sense may have chosen to do so, for whatever reasons – perhaps.)

So, if people indeed are reincarnated at some future point into this kind of society, it might be because they choose to do so, while others don’t. I.e., Heaven isn’t a reward by God while Hell is a punishment, but rather they are the results of a choice (a kind of ’spiritual physics’), which is set up by our actions here and now. Also see here .

What is the methodological core to significant scientific breakthroughs?

The best description of (real) science I have heard is a response Susan Haack once gave at a talk – it is “doing one’s d***ed best to figure things out.”

When you look at how scientific breakthroughs actually occur (instead of descriptions of the ‘scientific method’ given in grade 9 textbooks, say) there are all sorts of tools and techniques, some of them contradictory.

It’s not really a method but a (constantly changing) toolbox, various conceptual or methodological tools which are useful in certain situations, others in others, and where application involves an in-flux know-how on the part of the scientist. It is, broadly speaking, just investigation, with the complexity that brings.

Distilled to two ideas, though, my guess as to the methodological core of scientific breakthroughs would be inspiration and coincidence.

Interestingly, phenomena commonly attributed to God are (divine) inspiration and (non-chance) coincidence.

What is the basic idea with ‘repentance’?

‘Repentance’ is a word that secularists don’t tend to understand well – it sounds strange, and perhaps is primarily associated with guilt. This doesn’t really get at the basic idea of repentance.

The basic idea with repentance is to turn away from sub-optimal behaviour, and turn towards what is good.

Another way to put it is as realizing one is off course (the destination in Christianity being theosis, which is becoming more like the Good, i.e., God), and then to start to work to get back on course.

So, when one ‘repents’ one says ‘I don’t think I’m on course right now, time to get back on course.’

It’s not much more complicated than this. Often, we have emotional signals that we are significantly off course, in certain cases involving guilt or remorse, in others something more like ennui. In other cases it’s just a realization one has probably made a mistake somewhere.

Whatever the case, the point isn’t the emotion – rather, the point is to course correct, to re-orient oneself towards the Good and then get going towards it.

Holiness = expansive notion of health

There is a reason why the words ‘holy’ and ‘health’ have common root in a word that means ‘whole’, and that is because the concepts have a significant overlap, while being developed in certain different ways.

To be holy is, basically, for an organism to be functioning well, and in particular as relates to God, i.e., the Good. This suggests states not just of what we would call ‘well being’ in a secular sense, but also things from a Christian perspective like an indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit, say, and more generally having a disposition of aligning oneself with and being guided by God.

To be healthy is, basically, for an organism to be functioning well, but it doesn’t specify something like God, so the concept as it is typically used in English-speaking culture has a secular or agnostic virtue to it.

In both cases, there is an idea of ‘wholeness’, or well-integrated functioning of an organism that brings it towards what is good.

In its essence, I think, it is useful to conceive of ‘holiness’ in its full state as including the secular concept of health, but then adding to it by drawing out and emphasizing a spiritual component of health in addition.

(Indeed, in Christianity ‘Heaven’ is a society that is brought about where citizens have vigorous, robust, bodily or physical health. Similarly, consider the idea in Christianity that the Christ is ’the way [to God], the truth, and the life.’)

It seems obvious on reflection that optimum human functioning includes something like a spiritual aspect, and therefore the concept of holiness is or can be useful, whether one is monotheistic, polytheistic, atheistic, or what have you.

Christianity is not a set of derivative ideas (static), but an on-going process (dynamic)

The basic idea in Christianity is that something important happened with the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth (i.e., that he is in some important sense the Christ).

The next question is: what next?

I.e., Christianity for the last 2,000 years has been an attempt to work out and apply ideas that received a kind of start with the appearance of the Christ in human form, which represented a new link between humans and the divine (and then the on-going, ‘living Christ’ ever since, hence A.D. – or so the idea goes according to Christianity).

Therefore, that the interpretation of certain phenomena within Christianity broadly understood might change over the span of 2,000 years and on as more lines of evidence come in is not a good argument against Christianity, just as changing interpretations of certain phenomena in science as more lines of evidence come in is not a good argument against science.

In both cases we work with various evidence, with new evidence appearing, and we then do our best to put that evidence together – to make the best interpretation of it we can. The commitment is to truth and the good, not to ideology or a given set of ideas, however correct, judicious, warranted, and so on they might seem at a given moment.

So, science is about making the best interpretation of what the truth is with the evidence and tools at hand, and then applying that in ways to make the world better. The same is the case with Christianity.

I think this more general picture is worth bearing in mind when thinking about disputes in Christianity (or science) – a kind of epistemic humility is probably a good idea, as we’re (according to Christianity) in a process, both epistemologically and ontologically (bringing about the ‘Kingdom of God’, i.e., a society of the Good). I.e, we don’t have all the answers, and part of our job is to create a better picture of what the most reasonable position is at a particular time.

Certain ideas become clearer, others are changed, others are largely discarded as being erroneous, there are sometimes dramatic changes in how evidence is brought together, other times incremental changes, and so on. This is because new evidence may be (and often is) brought into the picture.

Indeed, these changes are probably instrumental in bringing about the ‘Kingdom of the Good’, from a Christian perspective. The basic Christian stance is that we are going somewhere, i.e., a useful basic stance is one of epistemic adventure.

The gist of Christianity and science

Getting the gist of what Christianity is about is, I think, often difficult for contemporary secularists.

To really get what Christianity is about on a psychological level – to make it seem more real – and why people have been excited about it at various points, it helps to bring in an analogy.

Consider the saying in Christianity that the Christ (i.e., the chosen one of God, historically Jesus of Nazareth, but understood more generally as the living Christ, an on-going link between humans and the divine) is the ‘way, the truth, and the life’. When I first heard this, it just sounded strange – I didn’t know what to make of it.

Psychologically, though, the idea of the Christ and what this is supposed to mean can be, to some extent perhaps, captured in contemporary streams of thought by thinking about science.

Some people are excited about science (or real science) because they believe it represents the way to various good things, and in particular leads to truth and life (health and perhaps even something like immortality). The potential for good, truth, and life in science is – in a nutshell – what makes people excited about it.

So, the idea of what science represents to many contemporaries can be used as an analogy for what Christianity represents or should represent – the intended psychological sense of Christianity.

Christianity is centrally the idea of a possible future – what Christians call ‘bringing about the Kingdom of God’, which means a society that is very good (God = the Good). This society involves fully vigourous, healthful life in a highly functioning society.

A significant part of the excitement over science is that it is a tool that can help to bring about something that in ways is similar to this picture.

According to Christianity, this society doesn’t just happen, rather it is created in part by our actions (guided by God which is mediated by the Christ), and which historically kicks off to an extent with the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth (just as science really gets started during a particular time in history).

Hence, according to Christianity we are now in a new era (A.D., or anno domini, ‘year of our Lord’, which is to say of the Christ).

The difference is that secularists often think this sort of picture can be brought about through science simple. Christianity, on the other hand, thinks that science is a possible and actual vehicle for bringing this about, but where the ultimate cause is properly understood to be God, mediated by the Christ.

So, just as it is a popular idea that science is the way to good things, the truth, and potentially the life (health, and so on), so the living Christ is the way to good things (the Good, or God), the truth, and the life.

That’s the idea, anyway, and can help get one closer to understanding what Christianity is about.

‘Worthiness’ and Christianity

In the Catholic Mass, most people at a certain point say

“I am not worthy for you to enter under my roof, but say the word, and my soul shall be healed.”

Here, to the extent people think about it, they probably conceive of ‘roof’ as meaning the roof of one’s mouth, as it is said just before eating bread that (at least) symbolizes the opening up of one to having God enter into one’s life (both at the moment and in general, hence the usefulness of repeating this action of the mind-heart as an aspect of spiritual training).

My guess is that most people saying this do not realize it is a paraphrase of part of the Gospels (Matthew 8). Here, a Roman soldier is talking to Jesus, and says

“I am not worthy for you to enter under my roof, but say the word, and my servant shall be healed.”

The key change is servant -> soul. We can divide the Mass sentence version into two parts. First the ‘I am not worthy for you to enter under my roof’ and second ‘say the word, and my soul shall be healed’.

For the first part, what is going on in the original Gospel situation? This is usually described as the soldier displaying great humility and spiritual awareness. I have to wonder, though, if the soldier is displaying a knowledge of Jewish ritual cleanliness rules, which are things like wash your hands before eating, don’t touch corpses, don’t kill cats (which in turn feed on vermin, a key vector of disease in cities), and so on. A key part of these laws seems to be (consciously or not) to prevent infectious disease, and part of this was not entering houses of people who weren’t also abiding by these rules (this idea appears again in Acts 10). This makes sense if you’re trying to avoid infectious disease, just as not sending your child to school can help to avoid the latest round of the flu, cold, and so on.

So, according to notions of ritual cleanliness, Jews were not to enter the houses of non-Jews, in order to prevent the spread of infectious disease. If this is at play, the soldier might be referencing this when he says “I am not worthy for you to enter under my roof.” In other words, “I am a non-Jew, so according to your rules of ritual cleanliness, you’re not supposed to enter the house.” If so, this doesn’t have to do with the soldier’s worth so much as with ritual cleanliness rules.

Regardless, the emphasis in the Gospel passage seems to be on the second part (the first sets it up), which is “Say the word, and my servant shall be healed.” The basic point is that of a trusting relationship between the soldier and God (and the role of the Christ in mediating this) and not a comment on the soldier’s worthiness.

Indeed, the core message of Christianity seems to be opposite of what one might initially get from the paraphrase that is used in Mass. 1. In Christianity, Christians are sons or daughters of God. It is perhaps difficult to hear this language in the way a typical ancient listener would – sons or daughters of the gods were very important people, beautiful, wise, great warriors, graceful, and so on, with a great deal of ‘worth’, as far as these things go. Think Hercules, say, supposedly a child of Zeus (etymologically close to deus, the Latin word for God), or Achilles, child of the nymph Thetis. 2. Moreover, God is not just one’s spiritual Father according to Christianity but ‘Abba’, a familiar term for father suggesting a close relationship. 3. Finally, it is irrelevant whether one is ‘worthy’ or not of having God enter into one’s own body-mind, as God (the Holy Spirit, and so on) is transformative, and this transformation according to Christianity is of course what God wants (i.e., theosis).

This is not to ignore the important points of emptying oneself out, getting beyond fear coming from the ego, getting a better approximation of one’s own influence (i.e., humility), and so on – all useful practices. If this is what the phraseology in the Mass accomplishes, then that’s fine and useful, but it’s important not to go on and make an error which contradicts the core of Christianity because of it. In a way, there is a useful tension between these concepts in Christianity, but I find it is easy for people to err on both sides. One has incredible worth and one should be humble and align oneself with God’s will – the balance is key here.

So, my guess is that we have what is for many people some misleading wording at work in the Catholic Mass at this point.

What is the basic idea with original sin?

What is the basic idea with original sin?

To ask what is the basic idea with original sin it is helpful to ask what is the basic idea with sin. Sin is – in its essence – sub-optimal behaviour.

(Theologically, this can be understood as action leading to separation from God, where God = the Good. Also see here. From a secular viewpoint, however, this is to confuse the issue, as it brings God in first, where the idea of God is in question. In more secular language, we can say sin is behaviour leading to separation from the Good. In Christianity, this idea is refined and developed, and often related to other theological concepts. That sub-optimal behaviour is the essence can be seen by considering things like the 7 deadly sins, which are typical sub-optimal behaviours such as over-eating, laziness, and so on.)

Original sin, then, is the idea that there is something heritable in human nature that can lead to sub-optimal behaviour. Often, people can get pulled off the track by details in the story of the Garden of Eden – was there really a garden, were there really just two primordial humans, was there really a serpent, and so on.

In more secular terminology, we might say there is something related to the brain that can often lead to sub-optimal behaviour in humans, especially in a non-natural environment. This latter point can use some expansion.

Adam and Eve leave the ‘garden’ – my guess is that this comes from a cultural memory of entering agricultural society, including, among other things, more difficult child birth (Genesis 3:16), something that tends to be easier in hunter-gatherer societies for some reason (including increased pelvic depth, perhaps due to nutritional differences), and ’toiling the land’ (Genesis 3:17), a seemingly direct reference to some kind of shift to agriculture as opposed to hunting-gathering or primarily pastoralist society.

So, the basic idea is we now have a mismatch, where part of how our brains often work (captured by the change in human cognitive nature told in the story of the garden) tends to lead to certain kinds of sub-optimal behaviour, at least in a society like we have now (having left ’the garden’).

So understood, the idea of ‘original sin’ seems relatively obvious. Many people engage in sub-optimal behaviour, like gambling, over-eating, and so on, and this probably has something to do with our evolved cognitive structures, and perhaps in specific with a mismatch between our agricultural (industrial, and so on) society and the one we evolved for a longer period of time in.

It seems part of getting this point for many people is probably switching from an articulation of what is going on in traditional theological terms to a conceptual vocabulary that connects more easily with other contemporary ideas.

The future and Christianity

The basic idea with the future and Christianity is that there will be a fully divinely infused society, where people have ‘glorified’ bodies. You could call this the grand vision of Christianity.

Glorified is a theological term, but what it translates into is bodies that are full of health, and aren’t programmed to die at a specific point, i.e., immortality. It is important to note that Heaven in Christianity isn’t about a disembodied existence (Heaven is full of people who are fully embodied, physical) and that Christianity posits this occurs through reincarnation (that is, a person becoming bodily again).

(This leads to the question, is reincarnation plausible? The problem is that we don’t understand incarnation, much less reincarnation. That is, why am I ‘in’ this body, or similarly, why am I ‘in’ this body while you’re ‘in’ that one. It is not enough to equate the subject ‘I’ in these cases (and corresponding subjective experiencer) with the stuff of the body, as this changes throughout one’s life. It is also not enough to equate it with specific functioning, as this also changes throughout one’s life. So, we don’t really know how to answer this question within a standard, ‘physicalist’ framework, at this point.)

So, the purpose of this life, as far as it relates to God’s purpose for us according to Christianity, is to a) move towards theosis oneself, and b) to help to bring about this future society which is fully divinely infused (theosis in a broader sense) and in which humans are full of health and immortal (‘glorified’).

One interesting aspect of recent history is that, as we have moved closer to something like ‘glorified’ human bodies with contemporary technological breakthroughs, we have simultaneously moved away from Christianity – even though Christianity predicts this is what will happen.