Category Archives: Lexicon

What do Christians mean by ‘leave the World’?

As with many things in Christianity, there are words or phrases used which sound familiar coming from a secular perspective, but which have a different sense when used in Christianity. It is easy to misunderstand or get tripped up by these statements.

To ‘leave the World’ is not to leave everything here-and-now behind. Rather, it is to embark on a ‘revaluation of values’, to borrow a phrase.

In particular, to leave behind materialism and hedonism (cf. Stoicism) and instead put value on God (= the Good) and the Christ (= our connection or ‘Way’ to the Good).

Since the Christ has “come that they might have life, and have it more abundantly” according to Christianity (John 10:10 – i.e., it is our connection to the Good that allows for us to live a human life fully), to ‘leave the World’ is to see through those things which detract from a life fully lived, and instead to focus on the most important thing.

It includes, of course, self-discipline – the reigning in of impulses that are good in the short-term but have a net negative effect in the longer-term. More over-archingly, though, it involves a leaving of one’s ‘self’, which is to say, of an ego-centric way of habitually viewing things, and instead a focusing on the Good (which involves focusing more on the good for others).

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).

What is religion?

What is Religion? The dictionary tells us that religion is a man’s belief in God or gods. Everyone believes in some kind of a god, therefore, everyone has some kind of religion. […] What we wish to avoid is not religion, [so understood,] but dogmatism and superstition.

(Ernest Holmes, The Bible in the Light of Religious Science, p. xii, 1929)

It is illuminating to examine the roots of the word ‘worship’, which is often tied up with a definition of what is ‘religious’. Worship comes from a word meaning something like ‘having worth’, and worship is where one attributes high value to something. One can worship God, a god, ancestors, a football team, and so on – with various gradations of the intensity connoted by the term ‘worship’.

When the First Commandment says to ‘have no other gods before Me’, it basically is saying to not value other things as more important than one’s relationship with God (but rather, ‘seek ye the kingdom of God, and all these things shall be added unto you’ (Luke 12:31) – in other words, God is conceived as the primary good and ‘lever’ by which other goods can be brought about). When someone values, say, the stock market highly, the stock market has become to that extent one of their gods. Whether they like to think of it this way or not, they are worshiping the stock market through their valuations and consequent actions.

Similarly, what is to be avoided, whether it is in one’s conception of economics, politics, some area of the physical sciences, and so on, is not valuing something highly, but rather a dogmatism of belief, such that one refuses to revise and expand one’s conception of the world.

This occurs in almost every social institution, because what is (rightly) criticized as belonging to aspects of religions (dogmatism) actually is a more general social phenomenon.

Jesus and Christ

Q. What is the difference between Jesus and Christ?

A. Jesus is the name of a man. Christ means the Universal Principle of divine Sonship – the generic human, the Divine Pattern, the ideal toward which humanity evolves, the apex of individual evolution, the conscious union of the person with God. Jesus embodied the Christ. Jesus increasingly became the Christ as his mentality increasingly perceived the relationship of the human Jesus to the Christ principle, which is inherent in all people. This Christ has come in a certain measure of power throughout the ages to different individuals, and still does come, and is ever inherent within each of us.

(Ernest Holmes, Questions and Answers on the Science of Mind, 2011)

Holmes was a prominent figure in the New Thought movement, which started in the 19th century in the United States and reached a significant level of prominence. I first heard of it tangentially through William James. What I didn’t realize is that much of the New Thought writing was explicitly Christian, and in particular formed a new Early Christianity movement – the idea that they were recovering something in early Christianity that had come to be downplayed or misinterpreted through centuries of theological and political ossification.

The above characterization of Jesus Christ has some similarities to the Mormon view – another Early Christianity movement that started in the 19th century. Mormons take God the Son (Jesus Christ) and God the Father to be one God in the sense that they were united in mind and purpose, although separate beings.

Contrast this with the more orthodox view of the trinity in Christianity – God the Son and God the Father are separate ‘persons’ but the same ‘essence’. Although the view of Holmes, and the Mormon view, makes some sense to me, I am unable to make much sense of the more orthodox view, unless it is translated along the lines of something like the view of Holmes or Mormonism. It becomes a mere verbalism – God the Son is God and God the Father is God, but God the Son is not God the Father. It doesn’t make much sense, and is probably the result of too much theologizing – exactly the concern of Early Christianity movements.

Something like the Holmesian view makes sense of certain Gospel passages – for examples, Jesus ‘grows in wisdom’, talks about himself and God the Father as different in certain respects, talks of God the Father knowing something that Jesus does not, and so on.

A better concept than ‘worship’

I think a better phrase than ‘worship’ could be something like ‘love, reverance, and awe’ – which to a significant extent is what worship means, anyway, but makes it more fresh and relevant to a typical, contemporary English speaker’s ear.

Worship

Etymologically, ‘worship’ seems to come from Old English ‘condition of being worthy’, and to worship God is to recognize something of value. This makes some sense of the first commandment, to have no gods before God. I.e., to not value other things (such as money or power) more than you value your relationship with God. This makes sense if God exists, because God is good for you, according to Christianity.

You can think about it like this: things are potential goods. They are tools that, to create good in one’s life, require skillful use. Money, for example, can do great good, but it can also damage someone. Being aligned with God is like being aligned with a master craftsman, who can then guide you in using (or disregarding) those other potential goods to add to your life (and your society’s).

Love

The Christian God is the god of a kind of love (which is captured by the idea of willing the good of the other for the sake of the other), and so the major decision in Christianity is to love God back, and then let that love from and to God flow through one to other aspects of the universe (other people, primarily, but also the environment and ultimately the entire universe, which according to Christianity it is our role to steward, guided by a divine wisdom, i.e., the living Christ).

Reverance

To revere something flows fairly simply from valuing it. You can revere your parent, for example, which is to say you care about them and want to honour them.

Awe

Awe flows naturally from the nature of God – when you realize He has coordinated some outcome that seems unfathomable, say, this naturally leads to awe. If you view the starry sky, and believe God is tied up in the creation of it, this naturally leads to awe. And so on.

Listening

Added to love, reverence, and awe could be ‘speaking’ and ‘listening’ (both understood spiritually), which seems like a central aspect of understanding God (i.e., guidance, discernment, and so on).

These four aspects are associated with the Christian idea of God as a spiritual Father, or ‘Abba’.

So, if the word ‘worship’ gets in the way of building a relationship with God, you can instead think of love, reverence, awe, and speaking-listening. More simply, instead of ‘worshipping’ you can say ‘valuing’.

Christianity has to be understood emotionally

To understand Christianity, it helps to understand it not just on a theological or abstract level, but on an emotional level – because Christianity is not just abstract theorizing, but a set of practices.

This is why music that demonstrates Christian ideas is important, or movies, or paintings, and so on.

Consider the concept of ‘peace’ in Christianity. I didn’t realize that when people say ‘Peace be with you’ at Mass, say, this is meant to refer to an emotional state. It is a blessing – so they are willing that the other person have inner peace, and at the same time (in theory) creating that peace in themselves (which they then intend to the other person). This reflects the saying attributed to Jesus of Nazareth that

“Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you.” (John 14:27)

For people to really get that Christians are talking about something good (an inner calm or peace), it helps to connect that with something which makes sense to contemporary people – nature, meditation, and so on, or to convey it through music, paintings, and so on.

(Indeed, things like spending time in nature, contemplative prayer, and so on can be part of the practice of developing an inner calm or peace in Christianity – which in turn is understood as part of connecting to God.)

So, this focus on inner peace, say, is important and useful, but to make an actual connection with people who are in, say, the secular world, one has to go beyond rote words and to effective conveyance of what those words refer to – i.e., create an emotional understanding.

The cross as a symbol of light

The history of the cross as a symbol in European or Mediterranean society is an interesting one, but what’s clear is that the cross has changed significance, and even within Christianity contains and has contained many different forms with different significances.

I think a useful way to think of the cross is as a pulse of light, as in a star.

This can be a dual meaning – cross as crucifix, and cross as new star, perhaps.

This better captures to me the dynamic, experiential nature of a central part of Christianity (‘light of the Holy Spirit’) as well as what the crucifixion is supposed to represent (a new light or link or possibility that has entered the universe).

Christianity as star-burst.

What is ‘divine revelation’?

Revelation, etymologically, means a ‘revealing’, and the word just means a revealing of knowledge.

Revelation occurs through things, the most obvious example being people who write things down.

How do they write things down? Well, they are inspired, which is a type of guidance.

In this sense, divine revelation occurs anytime someone is guided by God, whether that ends up in them writing something down or taking some other action.

According to Christianity, this isn’t some unique sort of event that occurred 2,000 years ago – people are constantly being guided by God, typically through the practice of discernment.

So, divine revelation is just guidance by God, whatever the action that follows from that is.

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.

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.