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God’s will be done – by whom?

Hello Daddy! We want to know you. And be close to you. Please show us how. Make everything in the world right again. And in our hearts, too. Do what is best – just like you do in heaven. And please do it down here, too. Please give us everything we need today. Forgive us for doing wrong, for hurting you. Forgive us just as we forgive other people when they hurt us. Rescue us! We need you. We don’t want to keep running away and hiding from you. Keep us safe from our enemies. You’re strong, God. You can do whatever you want. You are in charge. Now and forever and for always! We think you’re great! Amen! Yes we do!

This paraphrase of the Our Father, in The Jesus Storybook Bible by Sally Lloyd-Jones, inverts the meaning of a key part of the Our Father, which is “Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done in earth as it is in heaven.”

The point of this line in the original Our Father isn’t that God should do His will, and our role is to encourage him enough that he actually does it. What kind of God would God be if we had to make him get off his backside and actually do the Good? It seems absurd.

Rather, the line is about us doing God’s will. God’s will be done – by whom? Us. When? Now. The line’s point is to remind us to seek to do God’s will, and this is why it makes sense to incorporate it into a prayer, as prayer is primarily about refashioning our own habitual thoughts and therefore actions.

In the background is a theological problem, namely the idea of God’s classical omnipotence (you can see this in the “You can do whatever you want.” part). Yet, the idea of classical omnipotence is hard to find in the Gospels (presumably, the correlate is ‘thine is the Kingdom, and the power, and the glory’, but saying God has ‘power’ isn’t saying he has classical omnipotence). If God can do whatever He wants, then why does He need to wait around for us to remind him to do the Good?

Almost all forms of Christianity posit that God is limited in some radical way – typically, this is understood as involving the gift of free will to creatures. Whatever the theology, though, the point is that God is limited, and that we have to act. Jesus’ focus is almost entirely on our actions, and on the importance of us taking action to make the world a bit better. For example, love your neighbour, forgive others, help the poor, and so on.

So, this is an example of taking theology developed after the Gospels were written (by Augustine, among others) and then reading that back into the Our Father, so as to almost invert the intended meaning of the prayer! In the process, as it is a kid’s book, it is setting up children for cognitive dissonance – it is a natural and obvious question to ask ‘If God can do whatever He wants, why do I need to constantly nag him about it?’

A significant part of Christianity’s problems nowadays is a) focusing too much on theology (Jesus is almost entirely practical) and b) being unable to come up with adequate answers to obvious questions about certain theologies developed after the Gospels (which leads to the obvious question, ‘Is this bad theology?’).

Swear not at all

Again, ye have heard that it hath been said by them of old time, Thou shalt not forswear thyself, but shalt perform unto the Lord thine oaths:

But I say unto you, Swear not at all […]

But let your communication be, Yea, yea; Nay, nay: for whatsoever is more than these cometh of evil. (Matthew 5)

I didn’t know what to make of this when I originally read it. It seemed peculiar, and an outlier of what Jesus is saying in other parts of the Sermon on the Mount. I did not see the import of it. Yet, Emmet Fox reverses that. He says (The Sermon on the Mount, p. 68-70)

Swear not at all is one of the cardinal points in the teaching of Jesus. It means, briefly, that you are not to take vows. You are not to mortgage your future conduct in advance; to undertake to do or to refrain from doing something tomorrow, or next year, or thirty years hence.

This is striking, because Fox claims this is not peripheral but cardinal. Why would ‘not taking vows’ be central to Jesus’ thought? As he continues,

It is an absolutely vital part of [Jesus’] teaching that you are constantly to seek direct inspirational contact with God, constantly to keep yourself an open channel for the pouring out of the Holy Spirit into manifestation through you. Now, if you make up your mind in advance as to what you shall do or shall not do, shall believe of shall not believe, shall think or shall not think, shall be or shall not be, tomorrow, or next year, or for the rest of your life – and especially when you crystallize this determination by a solemn act of the will like a vow – you are not leaving yourself open to the action of the Paraclete; but you are, by that very act, shutting him out. If you are to receive the guidance of God, Divine Wisdom, it is absolutely essential that you have an open mind, because it so often happens that the part of wisdom is not in accord with your own personal feelings or present opinions. But if you have taken a vow or made a promise concerning your soul, for tomorrow, you are no longer uncommitted; and unless you are uncommitted, the action of the Holy Spirit cannot take place. This, in fact, is nothing less than the sin against the Holy Ghost of which the Bible speaks, which has caused so much terror to sensitive hearts, and concerning which there seems to be a very general misunderstanding.

What is the sin against the Holy Ghost? The sin against the Holy Ghost is any action on your part which prevents the activity of the Holy Ghost from taking place in your soul; anything which shuts you off from the ever-fresh energizing action of God that is spiritual life itself. The penalty for this mistake is spiritual stagnation and, since the only remedy in such a case consists in the direction action of the Holy Spirit, and this mistake in itself tends to prevent that very action from taking place, a condition of vicious deadlock results. Now it is obvious that this condition must necessarily remain as long as the mistake is persisted in, and so, in this sense, the sin is unforgivable. The problem cannot be solved in any way until the victim is prepared to change his attitude. The symptoms of this malady are spiritual stagnation, and all-round failure to demonstrate [(i.e., concrete results of God’s actions in one’s life)], and these are only too often accompanied by much self-righteousness and spiritual pride.

So Fox takes something that seems peripheral (‘don’t make vows’), and then interprets it in light of something central to Jesus’ thought (one should aim to be in constant, live contact with God). This is the right way to do Scriptural exegesis in general – to throw light on what seems incongruous or irrelevant in terms of what is known to be central. In this sense, the odd claim to not make vows can be seen as an application of a central part of Jesus’ thought (be open to God’s Wisdom, and do His will).

Furthermore, Fox then extends that to making sense of another, seemingly singular and confounding claim Jesus makes about a ‘sin against the Holy Spirit’, which is a natural implication of the point about making vows!

To conclude, Fox then draws the obvious conclusion if this is the correct interpretation – Jesus didn’t mean to not enter into everyday business contracts and so on.

Of course, Jesus does not mean that you are not to enter into ordinary business engagements, such as taking up the lease of a house, signing an agreement for certain services, entering into partnership, and so on. Nor does he mean that the ordinary oath administered in a court of law is inadmissable. These things are matters of legal convenience for the transaction of business between man and man, and they are right and necessary in an ordered society. The Sermon on the Mount, as we have seen, is a treatise on the spiritual life, for the spiritual controls all the rest. One who understands the spiritual teaching of Jesus, and practices it, will be in no danger of breaking honorable agreements. He will be an ideal tenant, a desirable business partner, and a reliable witness in court.

In other words, the superficial and tempting interpretation is almost the opposite of what is meant, just as a material interpretation of, say, the second Lukean beatitude (‘blessed are the hungry’) isn’t at all the proper sense (rather, ‘blessed are those who hunger for righteousness’, the key being given in this case from Matthew, a completely different idea).



Food and drink indeed in Christianity

Jesus saith unto them, My meat is to do the will of him that sent me, and to finish his work. John 4:34

A key part of Jesus’ thought is that when he talks about food, he is usually talking about spirituality. You see this again in the Beatitudes in Matthew.

Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled.
 Matthew 5:6

Once you get this link, it seems what Jesus is talking about in the following line of the Our Father is spiritual.

Give us this day our daily bread.
 Matthew 6:11

Indeed, this line seems to express a similar thought to the first quoted in John above (‘My meat is to do the will of him that sent me’), because Jesus precedes the talk here about bread with doing the will of God (‘Thy will be done, in earth as it is in heaven; Give us this day our daily bread’). One reasonable conclusion from combining this with the passage from John, therefore, is that Jesus is implying in the Our Father that when one becomes a spiritual master, daily bread and doing the will of God on a daily basis are closely connected. I.e., if you continually do the will of God, you will get lots of spiritual nourishment on a daily basis.

So, ‘food’ = ‘spiritual nourishment’ for Jesus in many cases. This leads us to a more contentious passage.

Verily, verily, I say unto you, He that believeth on me hath everlasting life. I am that bread of life. Your fathers did eat manna in the wilderness, and are dead. This is the bread which cometh down from heaven, that a man may eat thereof, and not die. I am the living bread which came down from heaven: if any man eat of this bread, he shall live for ever: and the bread that I will give is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.

The Jews therefore strove among themselves, saying, How can this man give us his flesh to eat? Then Jesus said unto them, Verily, verily, I say unto you, Except ye eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink his blood, ye have no life in you. Whoso eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, hath eternal life; and I will raise him up at the last day. For my flesh is meat indeed, and my blood is drink indeed. He that eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, dwelleth in me, and I in him. As the living Father hath sent me, and I live by the Father: so he that eateth me, even he shall live by me. This is that bread which came down from heaven: not as your fathers did eat manna, and are dead: he that eateth of this bread shall live for ever. John 6:48-58

Some Catholics claim Jesus meant this literally – that we must literally eat his flesh and drink his blood to have salvation. They use this to justify the Eucharist. Some anti-Catholics claim a literal interpretation of this passage is disgusting, and therefore the Catholic interpretation is disgusting, and if Jesus meant that, the many in attendance who left would have been right to do so.

The point I want to make here is that neither the pro-Catholic or anti-Catholic positions outlined above are accurate, because the actual Catholic position isn’t that Jesus literally becomes the bread and wine, and therefore any anti-Catholic positions based on that have a mistaken premise.

Consider. If I say I am literally eating a hamburger, I don’t mean I am eating something that doesn’t look, smell, or taste like a hamburger, or have a hamburger’s chemical structure, but rather has a hamburger’s ‘essence’ or ‘substance’ as opposed to its ‘accidents’. That is not a way of speaking literally about eating something. Since what Catholics claim is exactly that they are eating Jesus’s substance as opposed to his accidents, they aren’t talking literally. They too are saying Jesus meant by eating his flesh and drinking his blood something spiritual, but they then tie this to a theology of Jesus’ substance and the Last Supper. This is to push the question of what exactly is being claimed back a step (what do we mean by Jesus’ substance?), but it is still a spiritual, non-literal understanding of eating and drinking something.

What shall you do to inherit eternal life?

And, behold, a certain lawyer stood up, and tempted him, saying, Master, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?

He said unto him, What is written in the law? how readest thou?

And he answering said, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy strength, and with all thy mind; and thy neighbour as thyself.

And he said unto him, Thou hast answered right: do this, and thou shalt live.

(Luke 10:25-8)

There is a lot of clutter in Christianity – ideas, theologies, doctrines, and so on, that have built up around the core of Christian teaching, and around ideas of ‘salvation’.

Yet here, Jesus is quite clear. Do two things and you have everlasting life – love God, and love your neighbour.

This is the essence of the Christian message, everything else is more of less footnotes.

The centre of Christian character

In Christianity, given the sheer variety and complexity, it is important to identify the centre and periphery, not just in terms of scripture but also in terms of character and praxis.

So what is the centre of Christianity in terms of psychological attributes? I would say the top 3 are

  1. Love. (‘Love one another,’ and so on.)
  2. Courage. (‘Fear not,’ and so on.)
  3. Serenity. (‘My peace I give you,’ and so on.)

These attributes work together to amplify each other. For example, serenity makes courage easier, and love drives courage (if you don’t love something, what reason do you have to be courageous?).

If this is right, then the next question a Christian ought to ask himself is “How do I amplify these attributes on a day to day basis?”

This then leads to the centre of praxis for an individual. Jesus gives many techniques to cultivate these psychological habits in the Gospels.

Explaining ‘Give us this day our daily bread.’

The central text of Christianity is probably the Gospel according to Matthew, and the core of the Gospel according to Matthew is probably the Sermon on the Mount. Within that, the two most important parts are probably the Beatitudes and the Our Father. However, these are both effectively summaries of Christianity, and both are essentially aphoristic – to understand them it helps to have significant context.

‘Give us this day our daily bread’ comes in the Our Father just after Jesus speaks of the new Kingdom and before he talks about forgiving. The obvious reference by ‘bread’ here is to the daily manna which sustained Moses and the ancient Israelites as they moved from political slavery (in ancient Egypt) to political freedom (in the promised land). This was a central event in ancient Jewish history, and Jesus consciously conceived of himself as the new Moses (of which Moses himself had prophesied). Many Jews of the time expected the new Moses to lead his people again to political freedom (this was part of what was expected by many of the ‘Christ’, or new king who was prophesied to be in the Davidic line and whose kingdom was to have no end – Jesus consciously was acting as both the new Moses and the new David). Jesus, however, considered his Kingdom spiritual instead of political (confounding many people’s expectations of what this new Kingdom would be like – ‘My kingdom is not of this world’). His purpose, rather, was to lead people from spiritual slavery to spiritual freedom (“Ye shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free.” John 8). Jesus is referring here, then, to a kind of manna that will help us as we move towards spiritual freedom – that’s the goal.

So, what is this new kind of manna or ‘bread’ which Jesus is referring to? Bread here is meant in an expansive sense, as all that nourishes us on a spiritual level. John 6:32 makes clear this spiritual sense of ‘bread’: “Moses gave you not that bread from heaven; but my Father giveth you the true bread from heaven.” Interestingly, with the daily manna of the ancient Israelites, they were only allowed to use it for that day, with the next day requiring a replenishing by God. Similarly, the focus here is on ‘this day’, and Jesus is saying that should be our focus in the spiritual life (see Matthew 6:34 “Worry not for tomorrow”). In particular, spiritual nourishment comes from a daily lived, experienced connection to God. This experience of God will refill and nourish us, spiritually speaking, and it is a major object of Christian practice to clear away the obstacles to this kind of daily connection.

Jesus emphasizes elsewhere in the Sermon on the Mount that we must ask, and the corresponding part in the Our Father is ‘give us’. Consider his discussion in the Sermon on the Mount where he says “Ask and it shall be given you” (Matthew 7:7) and then “What man is there of you, whom if his son ask bread, will he give him a stone?”, which ties that discussion even more clearly to this line in the Our Father about daily bread.

So, Jesus is here pointing out that we ought to ask, every day, for God to give us things that spiritually nourish us (love, divine wisdom, a connection with God and experience of Him, and so on) which will help us to move towards spiritual freedom, which is to say freedom from negative patterns of thought and action, and freedom to align ourselves with God’s will, that is, the Good – the new promised land.

Explaining the Third Beatitude

“Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.” (Matthew 5)

The Beatitudes form the start of the Sermon on the Mount. If there is a textual core to Christianity, it is the New Testament. If there is a core to the New Testament, it is the Gospels. If there is a core to the Gospels, it is the Gospel according to Matthew. If there is a core to the Gospel according to Matthew, it is the Sermon on the Mount. If there is a core to the Sermon on the Mount, it is the Beatitudes and the Our Father.

Yet, for many the Beatitudes are not easy to understand. Indeed, it is only from gaining the context of much of Jesus’ thought, which also requires understanding key aspects of the Old Testament, that they begin to make sense. Once this happens, they become like a key – a very short summary of his entire thought, much as the Our Father is, and in turn bring together and enlighten other things happening in the Gospels.

Blessed means something like ‘happy’, but with a focus on it being active, and can be translated as ‘joyful’. This is common with all the beatitudes which all start with ‘blessed’ – these are the keys to joyfulness, according to the Sermon on the Mount.

It is important to note here that Jesus does not mean ‘happy in the next life’. The idea of heaven, as it is often conceived of nowadays, was not a focus of Jesus’ teachings. The whole point of the Kingdom of Heaven is that it is here and now (‘Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand’). The joyfulness Jesus is referring to can and does happen here and now. You find this kind of beatific happiness or joyfulness in the lives of many Christians. Jesus is saying what he means here – do these things, and you will have inner joy.

The meekest man of his time was Moses. Moses was not cowardly, nor was he a doormat, and those are not the senses with which this term – which is translated into English as ‘meek’ and has no simple English correlate – is intended to impart. Meek here means someone who can be guided by God, who trusts God, who believes God’s guidance will be good. Moses was able to lead the ancient Israelites because he was very meek in this spiritual sense – he could tap into God’s guidance in an almost unsurpassed way, according to the Old Testament.

Indeed, the word ‘meek’ very well may have reminded the ancient Jewish listener, for whom the Gospel according to Matthew was primarily written, of Moses. If that wasn’t enough, however, the second half of the beatitude would have. Moses’ main accomplishment in Jewish history was leading the Jews to the promised land. They were led to the promised land from Egypt, where they were in slavery. This movement was one from political slavery to political freedom. The promised land primarily signified this freedom.

Jesus is self-consciously the new Moses, which many Jews were expecting at this time as the Messiah, and which Moses himself had prophesied would come. This is part of why Jesus repeatedly invokes Moses in other places in the Gospels (‘It has been said to you of olden days’, by whom? Moses. Jesus is giving the new law, which fulfills the Mosaic law.) The error that many made was in expecting the new Moses to reclaim the promised land from (at this point) the Romans. Jesus’ kingdom, however, is a spiritual one, as he makes clear to Pontius Pilate (‘My kingdom is not of this world.’).

In this beatitude, Jesus is invoking this idea of a promised land. However, Jesus is not leading a political movement to establish a geopolitical kingdom. The new promised land is spiritual. In essence, he is saying the meek shall move from spiritual slavery into spiritual freedom. It is from true spiritual freedom that ‘blessedness’ (happiness, joyfulness) shall result.

Consider John 8, where Jesus says that ‘you shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free’, where he makes this very clear. His interlocutors respond ‘We’ve never been slaves, how can you say we will be set free?’ Jesus responds ‘Everyone who sins is a slave of sin.’

So, what is spiritual freedom? It is not independence, which is the hallmark of spiritual pride, the first sin, and the antithesis of the first beatitude. Spiritual freedom is in a sense freedom from fear, worry, anger, and other negative emotions, and Jesus focuses on how to remove these negative emotions almost relentlessly throughout the Gospel according to Matthew. True spiritual freedom, as understood in Christianity, is harmony with the will of God, i.e., alignment with the good.

So Jesus here is marking a trajectory from an ability to be guided by God to true inner freedom, which in turn leads to joyfulness. It is the Exodus of Moses, but brought to a spiritual level.

Just as with the exodus, the points from spiritual bondage (a propensity towards sin) to spiritual freedom can take a significant amount of time and effort to traverse, and Jesus gives many tools to enact this transformation (such as ‘don’t forgive 7 times, forgive 70 and 7 times’ or ‘if your eye offends thee, pluck it out’ – these refer to the process of expunging negative thoughts in the former case, and removing negative influences in the latter). Indeed, another beatitude is ‘blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God’. The beatitudes, then, work together to create and amplify joyfulness.

In what sense do Christians ‘eat the body and drink the blood’ of the Christ?

““Unless you gnaw on the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.” We hear that “many of Jesus’ disciples …said, ‘This saying is hard; who can accept it.’” Knowing their murmuring, Jesus says, “Does this shock you?” Now, if his words were meant in a symbolic sense, they wouldn’t have had this explosive, shocking effect on his listeners. Given every opportunity to clarify his meaning along symbolic lines, Jesus does nothing of the kind.” Robert Barron (2017)

Yet, if it isn’t symbolic, in what sense is it meant? It was these sorts of passages which led to the belief in the Roman Empire that Christians engaged in cannibalism.

It cannot be meant in a literal sense – that is, the straightforward way we would typically mean such language. Christians don’t believe they are eating Jesus burgers at Mass.

So, it might not have been intended in a symbolic sense, but the concept of ‘body’, ‘blood’, and ‘eat’ must all have been significantly different than what it usually means.

The standard Catholic explanation is that the Holy Spirit transforms the substance of the bread and wine into Jesus’ body and blood. Yet, this seems no clearer than the original passage Barron quotes. What does it mean to transform the substance of the bread into Jesus’ body?

I think the Catholic, theology-heavy approach is exactly the wrong approach to take. It is demanding theological exactitude where none is available.

Rather, we can speak only suggestively. Perhaps Jesus is proposing something like allowing God into oneself, as eating allows something into oneself, which is beyond a mere metaphor (it is at certain points the same as literally eating and drinking something), and is tied up in the ritual of the bread and wine – a process that gives sustenance, as food does.

We can inform this with an understanding of the original Passover, the role of lambs in Passover in 1st century Judaism, the daily manna that sustained the ancient Jews in their travel to the promised land, the bread and wine of priest and king Melchizedek, and so on.

Trying to go beyond this sort of understanding, I think, is likely to lead to mistakes.

Theism and marriage

For Christians, the basic notion of marriage involves God. It is theistic from the get-go. Primarily, it is about God and the two individuals being married. This is why priests officiate.

Yet, public and civic discourse in the West is increasingly secular – a basic premise is operational atheism. Marriage is not about God, and this is why judges increasingly are the ones who officiate.

This is why much of the public marriage debate isn’t a debate about things, but about words. Until Christians are able to recognize what has happened, their arguments won’t make any sense.

To put it simply, to regain a Christian understanding of marriage in the public sphere would require making civic discourse theistic in its basic premises. The changes in marriage are downstream of this.

What can Christians do about this? First, simply realize that civic discourse is no longer Christian, and that this is what has caused the dislocation of Christian marriage. Second, insist in discussion about marriage that what they’re talking about by marriage is something that is first and foremost about God. From that comes conceptual clarity.

Belief and science

“You can only convince people who think they can benefit from being convinced.” Nassim Nicholas Taleb, The Bed of Procrustes (2010), p. 64

Probably one of the most important ideas in rhetoric.

The basic motion to change one’s mind comes internally, from a person’s volition. They decide they want to change their mind, then look to see if it can be justified.

For science, this is why it is important to cultivate a valuation of truth for truth’s sake, and why money and status in science can be problematic. If a large amount of money depends on a belief, a person will typically look every which way to see how it can be defended.