Category Archives: Pragmatism

Applying the 80-20 rule to Christian scripture

The basic idea with the 80-20 rule is that for many events, roughly 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes. For example, 80% of sales might come from 20% of one’s customers, 80% of exam questions might come from 20% of a textbook, 80% of peas might come from 20% of pea pods, and so on. It is a rule-of-thumb for focusing limited resources of time, focus, and so on, on what’s most important.

Can one apply the 80-20 rule to canonical Christian scripture? I think the answer is ‘yes’.

Applying the 80-20 rule to The Bible as a whole, it is the New Testament, which contains the core of what Christianity is about. In a print version I have here, the Old Testament is 994 pages, while the New Testament is 400, so approximately 29% of the printed length.

(Confusedly, the New Testament is put after the Old Testament, because The Bible for historical reasons is typically arranged in roughly chronological order. So, for someone interested in understanding more about Christianity through reading The Bible, it would require, if reading from the start and then straight through, 994 pages to get to the start of the core of what Christianity is about!)

We can possibly get more insight by iterating the 80-20 rule. (By 80-20 rule in this case, I simply mean a part that has disproportionate importance.) In this case, we can apply it to the New Testament itself. So, what is the most important part of the New Testament? I would say the Gospels, which take up 166 pages in the version before me, so approximately 42%. (= 12% of The Bible.)

Iterating the 80-20 rule again, what is the most important part of the Gospels? I would say it is the Sermon on the Mount, which is 6 pages, so approximately 4%. (= 0.4% of The Bible.)

One more time, what is the most important part of the Sermon on the Mount? I would say the ‘Our Father’, which is approximately 1/6th of a page, so around 3%. (= 0.01% of The Bible.)

One form of evidence

One form of evidence that something is right about a belief is technologies based on that belief (i.e., based on that theory).

Christians ought to, therefore, focus on psychological and sociological technologies. They have, of course, but they don’t talk about it this way. They ought to do studies, figure out how effective they are, publish the results, experiment with new forms, and so on. To some extent, this is being done.

It should be a primary focus, because it will help them to 1) recognize what they have right, and 2) get better at getting things right.

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.

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.

Christianity with Jesus of Nazareth as a Spiritual Master

Common to Trinitarian, Mormon, and New Thought conceptions of Jesus of Nazareth is that he was (at least) a spiritual master.

Central to this is the notion that Jesus developed or was born with a kind of consciousness or habitual mental state. What is this?

The basic idea is that he created or had a close, personal link with God the Father. He aligned his will and purpose with the Father to a very high degree, had a felt connection with God the Father, and was able to allow certain things to happen by the Holy Spirit moving through him (these things would sometimes cause wonderment to those around him, hence the term ‘miracle’, from the Latin ‘miraculum’ meaning ‘object of wonder’).

We can call this sort of state a ‘Christ consciousness’.

Classical Trinitarian, Mormon, and New Thought traditions all hold that we can, to varying extents, become like Jesus of Nazareth in this way. Although there is a difference in language, all hold that a process called theosis can bring us closer to this sort of state.

What is interesting here is that there is nothing theoretical or abstract about this. Rather, it is something that we know happens in people, as it is direct and experiential. The only question left is how to interpret what happens when people approximate in varying degrees to a Christ consciousness (for example, are they really connecting with something like the Christian God, or are they misunderstanding the experience, and so on).

New Thought understands ‘Christ’ primarily to refer not to a specific human being (Jesus of Nazareth), but rather things related to this state of Christ consciousness, which he most fully has embodied, but which is open to any human being. (Hence, ‘Jesus Christ’ refers to his embodiment of this state.) So, when there is talk of ‘the Christ’, the reference is at least to some extent to the kind of state exemplified by Jesus of Nazareth. For example, people’s lives might be transformed by the Christ, by which we mean the psychological transformation which occurs in those people and which to some degree approximates to Jesus Christ’s habitual state.

This makes talk about ‘the Christ’ very direct and straightforward, for those who have experienced the ‘Christ consciousness’ in varying degrees. Instead of primarily being a historical question (“is there something to the Christ?”), it becomes an everyday, practical one – testable.

What did Jesus teach?

One approach to figuring out what Jesus of Nazareth taught is to assume that the canonical Christian Gospels are infallible. Although the word ‘infallible’ covers a variety of views, the basic idea is this

If Jesus is depicted as saying something in a canonical Gospel, then he said that.

The questions on this approach mostly revolve around getting a proper translation and interpretation of what he meant.

This approach has strengths – it is fairly simple and gives us some fairly detailed ideas.

Often, people seem to argue that the primary weakness of this approach is of reconciling the different Gospel accounts, where it seems there are some discrepancies as far as the accounts that overlap. However, I don’t think this is an insuperable problem for an infallibilist – the inconsistencies are mostly minor details, involving supposed chronology, say. These can be explained as the result of copying errors, or by noting certain texts don’t say they are in exact chronological order, and so on.

Rather, the primary weakness of the infallibility approach is this. It’s not clear why one should assume infallibility, as one’s starting position, when it comes to these texts. The working position with regards to most any text isn’t to assume infallibility – one doesn’t do this anywhere else. If, after significant work on the texts, one comes to the conclusion that they’re completely correct, that’s different – but it should be borne of significant research, study, divine guidance, and so on. In short, it should be a conclusion, not a premise, just as the idea that these texts were inspired seems to have been a conclusion reached by the early Christians who put the canon together in the first place.

If you don’t start with an infallibility assumption, then what approach to understanding what Jesus taught makes sense? I think it is to look for larger trends of thought in the work.

What are some candidates? Jesus taught to focus on the inner spiritual life instead of the outer (prayer, for example, is about what you actually think and feel, not about being seen to be pious and uttering words in a rote manner). He taught a ‘dying to oneself’ in order to live in God (i.e., aligning one’s will with God’s, and then acting on God’s guidance). He taught loving one’s neighbour as oneself. He taught the attainment of inner peace (“Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you”). He taught the importance of a kind of ‘faith’ (active trusting) in achieving certain results (“Therefore I say unto you, What things soever ye desire, when ye pray, believe that ye receive them, and ye shall have them.”). He taught loving God with all one’s heart, mind, and strength. And so on.

The point is that broad trends can emerge. When you can see certain basic points of his thought, it also can make sense of passages that originally seem baffling.

If you are taking an infallibilist approach, then it’s easy to get tripped up by this line or that in the Gospel accounts. Taking an approach that looks for basic ideas, though, you can ask what teachings appear in multiple points, across texts, make sense of otherwise baffling sections, and so on, and then put them into practice to see if they actually work.

The Way of the Spirit

The Master’s Way of the Spirit, the finding of the Kingdom within, leads into no blind alley. It leads out and triumphantly out onto the great plain of clear vision, of un-self-centred activity, of heroic endeavour and accomplishment.

(Ralph Waldo Trine, In Tune with the Infinite, 1897, p. 225)

Beautiful!