Category Archives: Spiritual Training

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.

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.

What is the purpose in Christianity?

The purpose is not pleasure, nor is it even happiness. Rather, the purpose is to do important things.

This is specifically Christian because it is to do important things that God calls one to do. One figures out what God is calling one to do through the practice of discernment.

Why do important things that God calls one to do? Because God is able to see what’s really important.

God and learning

God said: I send people adversity in this life to teach them that this imperfect world is passing away, and this life is not their goal. I am their goal. – St. Catherine of Siena

If spiritual mastery (‘theosis’) is one of the main goals, then there are going to be experiences in life that can move us towards that mastery. If spiritual mastery is roughly cumulative (you have to learn a before moving on to b, as in many domains), then it would make sense that you keep getting a similar opportunity to learn something, until you gain the relevant skills. (Think Groundhog Day, where Phil experiences the same day over and over until he transforms, or moves towards theosis.)

Now consider this talk from Sal Khan, in which he discusses mastery-based learning. His basic point, using mathematics as the main example, is that in certain domains learning is cumulative, and if you want to master it, you can’t just get 75% of the material at level 1, and so on. If that happens, you will soon reach a block before you achieve mastery. Instead, you need to get near 100% at each level. The basic idea is in cumulative domains, you are greatly benefited by going again and again until you get near 100%, then moving to the next level. (Therefore, the main method of learning in most schools is basically flawed.)

If spiritual mastery is similar in ways to mathematics, and God is indeed sending situations to help in theosis (as St. Catherine of Siena claims), then you would expect that people will experience a certain situation until they get the relevant spiritual skills, just as a wise teacher would do when it comes to any cumulative domain.

So, the basic question when encountering a situation is ‘What can I learn from this?’ and ‘What transformation can I make on the inside, that will make me better?’ Often, once you change, things change.

Spiritual warfare and secularism

Christians typically are familiar with the concept of spiritual warfare, but to a secular modern, the term might sound like gibberish. It is presumed false at best and nonsense at worst, because it probably refers to nothing.

The thinking goes like this. ‘Spiritual warfare’ refers to the devil or demons (fallen angels, purely intellectual beings who have disobeyed God, triggered by the sin of pride) acting to persuade humans to disconnect themselves from God. Yet, the devil or demons don’t exist. Therefore, spiritual warfare doesn’t exist.

The error here is in focusing on the theoretic instead of the practical. Since spiritual warfare is all about the practical, what ought to be of interest is how Christian strategies on this impact day-to-day life – does it help people to get better at or respond better to things? If so, there’s something important about the concept of spiritual warfare in the Christian tradition, even if the theory is ultimately in some way significantly mistaken.

To begin to show why ‘spiritual warfare’ is a relevant and interesting concept, even to a secular modern, I want here to map the term onto a term that modern seculars will understand. It is probably the best equivalent in the secular lexicon to ‘spiritual warfare’. To begin to understand it, we can think about psychological warfare.

Psychological warfare, from psyche (‘soul’ or ‘spirit’), is something most people can easily see is regularly occurring around them. For example, different countries have different interests, and will try to persuade people to take this or that position on some issue. Similarly with political parties, or companies.

The main tool with which these organizations fight is the media. Obviously, the extent and duration of media exposure is increasing. This means there is more potential for those organizations to engage in psychological warfare.

Many Christians believe there is unprecedented spiritual warfare occurring now. To see how this might map onto something important, consider that many Christians also believe that the main conduit of much of this is the media.

So, recognizing spiritual warfare or psychological warfare being conducted through the media is a point of contact for both Christians and critical-thinking secular moderns. It also opens a way for secular moderns to understand what Christians are talking about, without merely dismissing it as gibberish.

What is the Kingdom?

Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, in earth as it is in Heaven. (Matthew 6:10, King James Bible)

And when he was demanded of the Pharisees, when the kingdom of God should come, he answered them and said, The kingdom of God cometh not with observation: Neither shall they say, Lo here! or, lo there! for, behold, the kingdom of God is within you. (Luke 17:21-22, King James Bible)

What is the ‘Kingdom’? In contemporary terms, it is a grass-roots, metapolitical movement, which comes out of the theosis (spiritual development) of individuals and then the actions they take.

 

Antifragile processes

Norman Vincent Peale’s The Power of Positive Thinking (1952) is largely a collection of practical tricks for changing how one thinks on an habitual basis and therefore acts (i.e., theosis).

These practical tricks are part-and-parcel of kinds of Christianity, and Peale (a pastor) explicitly couches them in the Christian Gospel. The Gospel isn’t incidental to many of the practices – rather, the practices are closely connected to parts of the Bible, and probably generated in part by reflection on those texts (so, the texts acted as a kind of heuristic).

In light of work by Nassim Taleb on antifragility, the following one in particular I found interesting

6. Avoid argument, but whenever a negative attitude is expressed, counter with a positive and optimistic opinion. (p. 172)

The trick here is to create an ‘antifragile’ process (something that gets stronger when exposed to intermittent stresses, such as a muscle gets stronger when lifting weights, say). A negative attitude, which ordinarily might damage a positive attitude, is used as a stimulus to create a stronger habit of focusing on positive or optimistic ways of thinking. A nice trick.

Many antifragile processes are part of Christian practice, just as they are with certain kinds of Stoic thought and practice. For example, detachment from material wealth means low downside to lack of material wealth, but upside to having material wealth (as with Seneca).

Antifragility and Heaven

It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God. (Matthew 19:23)

An often erroneous conclusion is that, therefore, it is easy for poor people to enter Heaven. Yet, this is an error, as the answer Jesus gives to the follow-up question ‘Who, then, can enter Heaven’ isn’t ‘Poor people’ but rather

With God, all things are possible.

What is often missed in discussions of these passages is the concept of ‘Heaven’ (‘kingdom of God’). Quite often, people think of Heaven as a ‘place’ you are ‘transported to’ after bodily death.

If, however, Heaven is understood along the lines of Benedict XVI’s definition – wherever God’s will is being done (see his discussion of ‘Our Father who art in Heaven’ from Jesus of Nazareth) – then the significance of the passage changes.

If this is our understanding, then the passage becomes ‘… than for a rich man to actively align himself with God’s will.’ This comports nicely with Jesus’ teaching that a man cannot ‘serve two masters, God and Mammon’ (Mammon being a personification of material possessions). To serve is to carry out the will of, i.e., we are talking about something active.

Why can’t a man serve material possessions and God at the same time? I think Nassim Taleb’s discussion of Seneca – a Stoic – and antifragility is relevant here (Antifragile, p. 151). Seneca is a very wealthy man, one of the most wealthy in the Roman Empire. Yet he recognizes that material possessions tend to possess their owner, rather than the other way around (this is a great theme in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, where the ring of power comes to control its owner).

Yet, Seneca also recognizes that wealth can be a good (otherwise, as Taleb points out, why wouldn’t he have gotten rid of it?). Therefore, he cultivates practices which reduce the ‘fragility’ of owning a large number of material things. In particular, he writes them off in his mind. Therefore, the thought of losing them no longer bothers him, and so they lose part of their grip on him, while still retaining the good they can do for him, his family, and so on.

To connect this with the passage from the Gospel of Matthew, men who have great material wealth tend to be owned by their possessions instead of owning them, and this leads to an inability to follow God’s will. Therefore, these men can’t really ‘enter Heaven’, i.e., be part of the communion of Saints who are aligned with God’s will. Heaven is not a place you are passively transported to (a popular and erroneous conception), but a place you actively ‘go’ to, and which begins in this life (‘thy will be done’ – when? now. by whom? you.).

When Jesus tells a wealthy man to give away all he owns, and come, follow me, the man refuses, demonstrating he is, in fact, owned by his possessions instead of owning them. The proper response would be to cheerily cast off one’s possessions at that moment!

It is only if a man can do so, and is willing to do so if the right circumstances arise, that he can truly make use of material wealth for the Good – i.e., align those material resources with the will of God, which is to say that he can ‘enter into Heaven’.