Monthly Archives: May 2015

Stoicism and Christianity

A world view that seems to be increasing in popularity, particularly among contemporary libertarian-leaning secularists, is Stoicism.

That Stoicism says much that is important and true seems obvious to me, and reading people like Epictetus or Aurelius is probably well worth many people’s time.

Christianity says much that Stoicism says. For examples, focusing on what is the ‘good life’, cultivating inner peace, practicing non-attachment towards ‘things’ (i.e., skepticism about materialism or hedonism), self-discipline, letting go of anger or negative emotions, and so on.

In a way, Stoicism is a tradition which captures much of Christian practices, without invoking the figure of Jesus of Nazareth (and so making tendentious historical claims) or bringing in the theological or creedal add-ons that organized Christianity tends to focus on.

It is obvious why, if someone is living in what is basically an existential vacuum of post-Christian thought, such a tradition might be found to have potentially significant value.

What is the relation between one’s will and God’s will?

To the minds of the many the true meaning of the will of God has not been made perfectly clear; therefore the majority, even among those who have strong spiritual tendencies, hesitate to give up to the absolute direction of higher power. There is a slight dread in the mind of the average person whenever he thinks of entering the uncertainty and the mysteriousness of the seeming void, and as long as things are reasonably well he does not care to give up to some power he knows nothing of. And as a true understanding of higher power can not be found among the many, there are, accordingly, but few who can actually declare, with the whole heart, “Thy will be done.” We frequently pray for His will to guide us, nevertheless we inwardly expect to use our own wills in mostly everything we do. But such prayers are not true to the spirit, and therefore they prevent the soul from actually discerning the real meaning of God’s will ; and also prevent the mind from becoming a perfect channel for the expression of His will.

(Christian Larson, The Pathway Of Roses, 1912)

A good summary of what happens. So what is the true meaning of the will of God?

To align oneself with the will of God is to align oneself with the Good. That is to say, to do things because they are good. The idea in Christianity is that the Good is moving towards a bringing about of a complete actualization of Goodness. In more Christian terms, God has a plan to bring about the Kingdom of Heaven.

The Kingdom of Heaven is a bringing together of the mundane and the divine, which is to say the bringing into the world of goodness. The Kingdom of Heaven is the result of a transformation of aspects of the world that are out of harmony with the Good. In part, that transformation is the result of our actions being guided by the Good (the Good acts through us).

Yet, often when people think of doing the will of God (i.e., the Good), they think of “entering the uncertainty and the mysteriousness of the seeming void.” Of course, God is Good, and so aligning one’s will with the Good leads to … good.

This good is two-fold, both for the person who aligns his will, and for the rest of the universe, which is thereby brought into closer harmony with the good – so the idea goes in Christianity.

As Larson goes on to say

The true will in every soul is an individualization of Infinite Will, and the true use of the individual will means the doing of the will of God. The Infinite Will does not seek to control things, but seeks eternally to give itself to things. And here lies the secret in correctly using the human will, and in placing the human will in perfect harmony with God’s will. When you can say with the whole heart, “Thy will be done,” you are not giving up your own will, but you are placing your own will and the whole of your life in oneness with God and in harmony with the universal order. Therefore, when you do the will of God your own will becomes right, and becomes infinitely stronger than it ever was before.

That is, it is not an extinction of the will, but a right alignment, which magnifies it and the power of your actions to bring about good.

Does the supernatural – natural distinction collapse?

A common view in Christianity is that God acts ‘super-naturally’. Because God is ‘above’ nature (nature being a creation of God), when God acts it is a ‘super’-natural act, and the act does not obey ‘natural’ laws, as God is ‘above’ or ‘prior’ to nature.

To say God is ‘above’ or ‘prior’ is meant in a logical sense, as space or time are aspects of the natural universe (so the standard idea goes) – this is metaphorical language to express something that is difficult to think about. Similarly, to say God created the universe is not to say there was a sequence of events in time, where beforehand the universe did not exist, and then it did. Again, ‘created’ past-tense is meant to reflect a logical sense of priority in understanding nature.

How would one be able to distinguish between something acting according to ‘natural’ principles and something acting according to ‘super-natural’ principles? There are two problems here.

The first is that our knowledge of natural laws is limited. Whatever seems to be non-natural may actually be natural, but just something we don’t understand yet. Since there is a strong inductive argument that can be made to the effect that our understanding of the universe is in the beginning, not near the end, it very well may be that things which occur and seem to surpass natural law are actually adhering to natural law.

If we were to investigate a cause-and-effect situation, and it did not seem to comply with what is believed to be known natural law, then we are left with three major options. 1. We misunderstand the situation, and it actually does comply with known natural law. 2. We are mistaken in some of our views about natural law. 3. There is a non-natural cause in effect.

The question then becomes how to distinguish between situations where 2. applies, and where 3. applies. This leads to the second problem in distinguishing between natural and super-natural acts. If God acts from ‘outside’ of nature, then presumably God doesn’t act capriciously. Rather, there is an order or logic to God’s actions, even if it might be difficult for us to understand them (just as it was difficult for humans to understand various natural laws that are now better understood).

So, even if there are super-natural causes in effect in the universe, there would still be patterns to these. The question would then be how we would distinguish these non-natural patterns (‘laws’) from natural ones?

I think to answer this question would require a detailed concept of how God supposedly acts and why that would be involved in something logically ‘above’ nature. At what juncture would we say this effect comes ‘from’ something ‘outside’ the universe, while this effect does not, outside of the criterion outlined above (i.e., something not complying with what is believed to be known natural law)?

The problem here is that we determine that something exists from its effects. We do not have access, even in cases of supposed natural law, to the acts themselves.

Consider something like lightning. How do we know that the causes and effects are all natural? Because we can describe them coherently as operating with the natural order. Yet, what sort of effects would defy this? It is important to remember that the nature of nature has constantly been revised. Electromagnetic phenomena, for example, at one point in the history of science wouldn’t plausibly have been classified as physical, but then the definition of ‘physical’ changed. And so on.

Take, for example, supposed synchronicities, which are sometimes taken as evidence of God acting (sometimes called ‘providence’, other times ‘miracles’). If we grant that synchronicities occur, and that they defy what are believed to be known natural laws, on what basis would we say they are not natural as opposed to saying they work in accordance with some hitherto poorly understood natural law? Presumably, this basis would have to do with our understanding of something logically prior to the universe. Yet, saying what that might be, without entering into a circular argument (this is attributed to God, God is super-natural, therefore this is super-natural) becomes very difficult.

In the end, my guess is that the debate about natural and super-natural causes is not that important where we are epistemically. Rather, there are patterns in the universe, we can detect them, and we can develop models to explain them. Beginning this should be the focus.

Developing a robust picture of nature, what was ‘before’ nature, and the causal interactions between them, and how that maps onto various effects commonly attributed to God – these are all important questions – but answers to them are not required to begin investigating those effects and developing models.

Most importantly, one should not focus on debating the words, which it seems occupies a large amount of the debate on these issues (for example, if someone believes there can’t be super-natural causes, they won’t bother looking at evidence for God’s effects – this is to mistake concepts, ‘super-natural’ and ‘God’ in this case, for the effects, and hence potentially miss veritable cause-and-effect situations, however the cause is to be understood).

Christian Larson and cultivating a Christian habit of thought

Christian Larson writes in The Pathway of Roses (prologue, 1912)

To live always in the Secret Places of the Most High, To think only those thoughts that are inspired from above. To do all things in the conviction that God is with us, To give the best to all the world with no thought of reward, To leave all recompense to Him who doeth all things well, To love everybody as God loves us, and be Kind as He is Kind, To ask God for everything and in faith expect everything, To live in perpetual gratitude to Him who gives everything, To love God so much that we can inwardly feel that My Father and I are one, This is the prayer without ceasing, the true worship of the soul.

New Thought Christianity – of which Larson was a prominent writer – focuses on theosis – the transformation of one’s habitual nature. The above quotation gives a relatively good summary of prominent aspects of Jesus of Nazareth’s thought related to theosis, as far as we can tell from the Gospel accounts.

One thing that is important here is that all aspects of the ‘prayer without ceasing’ can be applied – tried out here and now. For example, if one cultivates a sense of gratitude, does it make one’s life on the whole better or worse? It’s relatively easy to try and see. Similarly with doing things with no expectation of reward. Does this work? One can try and find out.

For a secularist, there is probably some translation that has to be done, as the terms might not be intuitively understandable. For example, an approximate synonym for ‘God’ would be ‘the Good’. ‘Inspired from above’ doesn’t mean up in the clouds, but coming from a higher psychological or moral sense (from ‘Heaven’, i.e., from God). ‘In faith’ means trusting, as one might trust someone one knows well, say. And so on.

Matthew 4

Then was Jesus led up of the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted of the devil. And when he had fasted forty days and forty nights, he was afterward an hungred. And when the tempter came to him, he said, If thou be the Son of God, command that these stones be made bread. But he answered and said, It is written, Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God. Then the devil taketh him up into the holy city, and setteth him on a pinnacle of the temple, and saith unto him, If thou be the Son of God, cast thyself down: for it is written, He shall give his angels charge concerning thee: and in their hands they shall bear thee up, lest at any time thou dash thy foot against a stone. Jesus said unto him, It is written again, Thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God. Again, the devil taketh him up into an exceeding high mountain, and sheweth him all the kingdoms of the world, and the glory of them; And saith unto him, All these things will I give thee, if thou wilt fall down and worship me. Then saith Jesus unto him, Get thee hence, Satan: for it is written, Thou shalt worship the Lord thy God, and him only shalt thou serve. Then the devil leaveth him, and, behold, angels came and ministered unto him. (Matthew 4, KJV)

What is going on here?

It seems obvious to me that this is a dramatization of an inner process. The devil is whatever it is that causes certain kinds of thoughts – in this case, sub-optimal thoughts about personal comfort (hedonism) or glory. It is a posit to explain a process that is observed to occur.

It is important to note that the devil is tempting Jesus with much less than Jesus actually gets after rejecting the offers (according to the standard Christian narrative). This is common to many kinds of thoughts people have, where what is tempting us will turn out to be significantly less than what will happen if we do otherwise.

Intuitively, anyone can understand this. Sometimes it is the ‘pleasing lies’ that we sometimes think might be true, such as ‘I can eat this cupcake, it won’t make a difference’ and so on.

More generally, the devil can be thought here to be the principle by which these kinds of thoughts enter our conscious mind. In Christian thought, it is often broadened to include all sub-optimal thoughts – in particular, things that may help us in the short term but harm us longer term, or disconnect us from the good.

So, what initially seems to the contemporary mind like an obviously untrue story – silly – becomes something more readily understandable. Jesus goes away for a process of purification (getting rid of distractions, clearing his thoughts, focusing on what he is to do next), during which he successfully dismisses certain thoughts that would have led to a sub-optimal outcome.

The devil as depicted here is a personification (of a mental principle or kind of process, with which everyone is familiar). ‘He’ did not whisk Jesus up to the top of a temple, or go up to the top of a non-existent mountain where one supposedly could see all the nations of the world. It is reasonable, rather, to conclude that this personification is a literary device intended to make something that one cannot see in a story form (an inner process, in this case) more visible and memorable.

A side note on the use of ’40 days’. This is a common number in various ancient Judaic texts, in particular with Noah enduring 40 days of rain and Moses being on the mountain for 40 days. This is an obvious reference to those texts, and more generally to the idea of a time of preparation. Again, it is easy to make mistakes about what the writers are intending to be conveyed – what is important to them – (was it exactly 40 days? how can we know that?) by being unfamiliar with the context in which they were writing, or making various anachronistic judgments about what the writers are trying to do.

Why care about Christianity?

Why care about Christianity?

1. Christianity is a central part of 1,500 years of Western Civilization. If you don’t understand Christianity – understand it not just on an intellectual level but also ‘from the inside’, understanding the content of the concepts and not just the abstract symbols – then you can’t understand most of Western Civilization’s history. You cannot understand a significant amount of the motivations, emotions, world views, and so on, of most of the painters, musicians, politicians, philosophers, scientists, writers, and so on.

2. The humanities haven’t undergone similar progress as the sciences. The painting, music, literature, sculpture, architecture, and so on, if anything has gotten worse in the last two hundred years, say, not better.

Since Christianity largely is in the realm of the humanities, there might be much of use – much beauty, goodness, practical psychology, and so on.

This applies not just to Christianity, which to a large extent is based on the Gospels, written approximately 2,000 years ago, but also works by or about Cicero, Epictetus, Siddhartha Guatama, Confucius, and so on.

Much of what these works deal with contains psychological or sociological insights or interesting leads, even though written long ago. In some cases, they might contain a lot of these.

3. Having said that, we can now approach these things with new knowledge, and see how we can improve on them. Positive psychology, for example – a branch of academic psychology that actually gets results – uses lab tests and more rigorous testing that sometimes corroborate or give further insight into what people were saying in various places, albeit hundreds or thousands of years ago.

What is God?

God is love. (1 John 4:8)

According to the Christian account, we can say that God is love (or that God is the good). Yet, what does this mean?

One way to answer it is through theological, abstract language (such an approach is seen in Pope Benedict XVI’s letter titled Deus caritas est, which means ‘God is love’), and this approach could prove useful for certain people.

Yet, all the theological language in the world isn’t going to tell you what this means. Rather, it requires a kind of experience. Once you have the experience, then the theological language (and so on) becomes tangible – you are no longer just dealing with abstract symbols, but have an understanding of that which you are talking about from the inside.

There are kinds of experience that map onto the claim that God is love. It is important to note that this is in part constitutive of what Christians mean by ‘God’. That is, in part, God is that which causes these types of experiences.

We know that these types of experiences are or are correlated with certain kinds of brain states, and neurotheology in large part is about imaging brain activity of this sort. However, the concept ‘God’ contains elements that are incompatible with God being just one’s own brain activity. For example, God is thought to be involved in what in secular terms are called ‘synchronicities’, or in Christian terms could be called ‘providence’ or, in more specific situations, ‘miracles’ (from the Latin ‘miraculum’, meaning object of wonder – synchronicities cause one to wonder at the chances of something occurring the way it did).

If the sorts of experiences of goodness or love that Christians are referring to are just about some activity of the brain, then this doesn’t seem to be able to account for things like synchronicities, and so the concept ‘God’ would have to be broken up, and seen to be in significant ways incorrect. (Or, perhaps, synchronicities don’t point to anything beyond errors in intuitive probabilistic assessments – again in this case, the concept ‘God’ would be shown to be significantly incorrect.)

So, how to test the two hypotheses (God is just in the brain, and God is more than the brain)? Some may say that, if we can recreate these experiences by stimulating the brain in this or that spot, that shows these experiences do not come from God. This is an error in logic. Consider perceiving a house. This correlates with certain brain activity. It is plausible to think we could recreate the experience of seeing a house by directly stimulating certain kinds of brain activity. Yet, it does not follow that, therefore, houses do not exist.

So, the question is whether there is something causing the brain activity, which at least to a significant degree satisfies the main criteria of the Christian concept of God. It seems to me this is a methodologically difficult question (due to the nature of the phenomena attributed to God, such as synchronicities, but also because God is thought to be transcendent of space-time, and so interpreting what is going on requires extra thought), but it can be (and is being) informed by empirical discoveries and various kinds of testing.

Practically speaking, it’s a different matter. Certain Christian practices work to connect to this love (however we ultimately might conceptualize it), and connecting tends to lead to not only the states themselves (which are good) but good acts that follow from the connection to love.