Monthly Archives: July 2014

N. T. Wright and intercessory prayer

I do not, however, find in the New Testament or in the earliest Christian fathers any suggestion that those at present in heaven or (if you prefer) paradise are actively engaged in praying for those of us in present life. Nor do I find any suggestion that Christians who are still alive should pray to the saints to intercede to the Father on their behalf. [… If] part of the work of the ascended Christ is indeed to be ruling the world as the agent of his Father, we might indeed suppose that the dead are somehow involved in that[. … But] I see no evidence in the early Christian writings to suggest that the Christian dead are in fact engaged in work of that sort, still less any suggestion that presently alive Christians should, so to speak, encourage them to do it by invoking them specifically.

(N. T. Wright, Surprised by Hope, pp. 172-3)

I see no evidence in early Christian writings to suggest all sorts of things that we have fairly good evidence for – that the Earth orbits around the Sun, that one can generate electricity from running water, and so on.

More specifically, Wright’s response is a good way to not figure something out. Intercessory prayer through saints is an empirically investigable phenomenon. Instead of saying “I don’t find evidence that supports this idea in early Christian writings” and then stop there, it is better to ask: what is the evidence that intercessory prayer through saints works?

People pray to the saints for help in specific things. One example in Catholicism is St. Anthony, and one thing he is commonly asked for help on is finding lost things. So, does this practice work?

There are many Catholics who attest to it working, and many anecdotes that seem hard to explain conventionally. A pattern is: they try to find something for an extended period of time, then they pray to St. Anthony for help in finding it, then not long after they find it through an unlikely coincidence.

If there is evidence, then you have to develop a theory to explain it. Wright doesn’t even get to this point, because he’s so blinkered by what is or isn’t in early Christian scripture. Early Christian scripture is not a guide to every empirical matter, or (in specific) every practice relevant to Christians.

Saints are prayed to for help because it seems to work, and some people seem to find this practice more tangible or practical than praying directly to God, say.

Yet, in a more general sense, it seems odd to say one shouldn’t ask another human (whether they are in the presence of God, i.e., a saint, or not) for help on something. If I ask someone to help me in building a house, we don’t say that’s idolatrous or semi-paganism, or some such thing. We recognize these are human beings, not God. We further recognize that certain things in the universe have certain influence and are appropriate to talk to or work with (whether it’s another human, a draft horse, a lever, and so on) when it comes to certain tasks. This is compatible with and if done properly complementary to developing an ongoing relationship with God – God works through things, according to Christianity. Just as human beings here and now have certain abilities, it seems saints in the presence of God would also have certain abilities (as Wright himself seems to think in a nearby section of the book).

So, Wright’s underlying concern about what praying to saints entails is wrong-headed, and his specific treatment of the issue is, however correct in terms of early Christian scripture (and regardless of how relevant that method is when trying to figure out what early Christians did and believed), beside the point. We are not living in A.D. 70.

Trust

A phrase that can often be heard in Christian circles is ‘faith in Jesus Christ’.

What does this phrase mean?

It is probably not most useful to formulate it as believing that he exists, as in one wills oneself to believe he exists. This idea has always struck me as odd – it is reminiscent of something like ‘blind faith’, and seems to make as much sense as blindly believing anything. See here.

Closer, people often paraphrase ‘faith in Jesus Christ’ as believing that Jesus is the Son of God (which is to say, the Christ). Yet, I think this is a secondary meaning – it doesn’t get to what is important.

Rather, primarily the phrase ought to mean ‘trusting in Jesus Christ’.

It doesn’t make sense to trust in a person unless there is a relationship. So this phrase includes the idea of a relationship with the Christ.

(The Christ is typically personalized by thinking of the Christ as Jesus of Nazareth – this being an historical phase of the ongoing or living Christ, according to Christianity. Typically, it is easier to relate to someone recounted in stories where they walk around, talk, and so on, instead of relating to something that would typically be conceived fairly abstractly, like the Logos).

Yet, what kind of thing is this relationship? Well, to have a relationship, two people (in this case) have to have ongoing communication.

So, implicit in the idea of trusting in Christ is the idea that one can talk and listen, the latter through a practice (set of skills that can be developed) known in Christianity as ‘discernment’.

Discernment is about figuring out what the Christ (in this case) is saying, and then using that to help guide one’s actions (helping you to figure out what to do, and helping you to figure out how to do it).

What is important to note here is that ‘faith in Christ’, therefore, is not about sitting around believing that the living Christ exists, or some such thing. Rather, faith in Christ – which I think to many ears sound passive – is actually about trying to discern what the Christ is saying, and then taking actions with it in mind – it is highly active, the opposite of what it might sound like.

It is not an assent to a proposition but rather an attitude and habit of mind and consequent action.

(Aspects of the process of discernment (again, a skill or know-how which is learnt through practice) include the feeling of love, of joy, and a kind of divine serendipity (also see here), among other things.)

So, why would one trust in Jesus Christ? For the same reason one trusts anyone – one starts building a relationship, extends some trust, and then sees what happens, and so on.

So, the idea with ‘faith in Christ’ is usefully understood as trusting in the ongoing or living Christ’s guidance, which is about building a relationship with him, which implies one can build a relationship, and one does that by (in part) building the tool-set of discernment.

Anyone can, therefore, start this process as a conditional phase – to see if it actually works – by starting to practice discernment – atheist or theist.

Denominationalism

Just as one does not need to agree with everything in a book to think it useful, one does not need to agree with all of a church’s official positions in order to participate with the people in that church or be part of it in an important sense.

Rather, the purpose of a church is to be a set of resources for individuals, who can then use those to increase the development of their spiritual lives (theosis) and coordinate with others to work on good things in their society (societal theosis).

Also see here.

What to do in a post-mass media world?

If you agree that most mass media isn’t that good for you, then what next?

The first step seems obvious enough:

1. Rarefy input.

So, become more selective, and read-watch-listen to less.

Search out media (mass or otherwise) that is higher-quality and fits more with your values, interests, and projects.

This leads to …

2. Switch from passive consumption -> active projects.

So, instead of listening to music, start to learn an instrument. Instead of reading the latest pop. news articles, start your own blog on an area of your expertise. And so on. Build, create, explore.

Which goes with …

3. Spend more time in nature, in contemplation, relaxing without the constant stimulus, and so on.

This lets your mind work on a level that is often deeper – to process things in a different way. This can also help to inspire with projects.

4. These things naturally lead to linking up with others who have similarly rarefied mass media inputs, and so feeds back into the steps above.

What is your purpose?

According to Christianity,

First of all, the universe is purposeful (because God is an intentional being, and God created and then interpenetrates with the universe).

Second, God has potential purpose(s) in mind for you (whether this is an on-going or recent, creative act of God, or something he has seen since ‘before’ the universe was created, or a mix of both).

Third, this purpose is good (good for you and good for the universe – in Christianity, God = the Good).

Fourth, God can guide you in discovering and achieving this purpose (or purposes).

Whether you buy this view or not, it seems compelling.