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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.

Tithing as creating non-attachment

“To this end always dispose of a part of your means by giving them heartily to the poor[.]” St. Francis de Sales, Introduction to the Devout Life (1609), p. 123

St. Francis de Sales recommends tithing (almsgiving) as a way to guard against avarice, while taking due care of our temporal interests (wealth).

Most people think of tithing as helping the target of the money, but de Sales’ point here is that tithing helps the giver by reducing attachment to wealth.

This is a problem Seneca (one of the wealthiest men in the Roman Empire) also worked on (see here), where he suggested we write things off in our mind, and practice going without whatever things at intervals.

So, in order to reduce one’s attachment to wealth, a) tithing, b) writing things off in our mind, and c) practicing going without whatever things at intervals are all practical, simple strategies. These could be useful for both a Stoic and a Christian.

More on tithing here.

de Sales and Seneca on problems with wealth

“It is the Christian’s privilege to be rich in material things, and poor in attachment to them, thereby having the use of riches in this world and the merit of poverty in the next.” St. Francis de Sales, Introduction to the Devout Life (1609), p. 121

This is similar to Seneca’s idea, where it is also to figure out how to create non-attachment (see here).

Whereas a Stoic such as Seneca’s view might be captured as ‘use wealth, don’t let it use you’, the Christian such as de Sales’ view is a little different, more like ‘use wealth for God, don’t let it use you against God’ – don’t let it interfere with aligning oneself with God’s will.

The way to both is similar, however, as de Sales’ quotation suggests. Key aspects of Stoic thought are very much captured in Christian thought.

Regress

A common mistake of contemporaries is to think that there has been progress towards something better across-the-board, because there has been technological progress over the last (say) 100 years.

This is obviously false. Look at painting, sculpture, architecture, music, and so on from then and now. There is a devolution in spirit, cultural depth, and in many cases technical skill.

What is interesting from the point of Christianity is how much of this is tied to the leaving behind of an authentic Christian culture by almost all of Western culture.

Which problems to solve?

An overriding concern used to be too little food, now it is too much food (obesity, diabetes, and so on). It used to be too little access to information, now it’s too much (distraction, manipulation). It used to be too little light available at night, now it’s too much (sleep disruptions, difficult to see stars). And so on.

Christianity is about solving problems, and it’s therefore relevant for Christians to figure out where the new problems are.

Against hedonism II

“Don’t talk about “progress” in terms of longevity, safety, or comfort before comparing zoo animals to those in the wilderness.” Nassim Nicholas Taleb, The Bed of Procrustes (2010), p.7

A good way to convey the basic anti-hedonic intuition.

Also see here.

Against hedonism

We can define hedonism as the conjunction of two propositions.

  1. One ought to seek out pleasurable experiences.
  2. One ought to avoid painful experiences.

where ‘pleasurable’ and ‘painful’ are understood expansively.

What is problematic with this view? At first blush, it seems unproblematic – almost trivially true. Of course one ought to want more pleasure and less pain. All I want to show here is how this is problematic from a biological perspective. Let’s consider the second proposition first.

What is a painful experience? Biologically speaking, painful experiences exist in order to guide an animal in avoiding a situation where there is damage to that animal. In other words, from a biological perspective, the important part isn’t the experience of pain but what that indicates.

Similarly, consider pleasure. In natural conditions, feeling pleasure would probably indicate that what one was doing was helping the organism to reach its goals, where the goals would typically be designed into the organism, centering around things like getting nutritional food, reproducing, keeping the right temperature, and so on.

Nowadays, we can see how the sensation of pleasure can misfire, biologically speaking, leading us to behaviour that moves us away from the things the sensation was designed to move us towards. Overeating, for example, can be motivated by a pleasure in the foods, yet given various ‘junk food’ available today it can lead to nutritional deficiencies, obesity, diabetes, and so on.

So, it seems obvious that biologically speaking, hedonism doesn’t make sense at least when operating in an environment that is substantially different from that for which the organism is designed.