Category Archives: Spiritual Training

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’.

Scott Adams and prayer

In giving a guess on why certain of his affirmations seem to have been successful, Scott Adams says (How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big, 2013)

I think a deep and consistent focus on what you want is all that is required.

The idea is that affirmations – repeatedly focusing on a sentence such as ‘I am a world famous cartoonist’ (one of Adams’ own examples) – causes or is correlated with a deep and consistent focus thereof, which in turn helps to create the outcome.

One thing I find interesting about this is that a deep and consistent focus is in this context more-or-less a deep and consistent belief, which is a key part of faith-in-prayer. The point isn’t to ‘repeat words vainly’, but to go into your ‘inner chamber’ and pray there.

In this sense, it seems things like affirmations are a kind of secular prayer. Like certain kinds of prayer, they are used because they seem to work, whatever mechanisms might be in operation.

Indeed, affirmations seem to have entered secular culture from Christianity (in particular, New Thought Christianity).

Why fast?

It seems there is renewed interest in periodical fasting. What are the basic ideas?

First, an idea is that fasting turns on ‘garbage collection’ in body. The key time span seems to be 16 hours – at about this point, the mechanisms kick in. This is real fasting for 16 hours (no food or drink, except water).*

*This is easier than you might think. Finish dinner at 6pm. Wake up the next morning at 6am. You have now fasted for 12 hours. Wait until 10am. Voila, 16 hours.

Second, an idea is that fasting allows for the digestive system to heal itself more efficiently (I am guessing because you have less or no food in it after a period of time). It seems various health issues are linked to unhealthy digestive tracts – allow the digestive tract to heal, and you solve the problem to a large extent.

For contrast, consider how fasting is being treated in this new movement as opposed to how fasting is treated by the Catholic church for Lent. The Catholic church now has a watered-down version, where the time is reduced and ‘fasting’ is now meant to include 3 snacks during the course of a day.

It seems plausible that watered-down religious practices no longer do what they once did – that calling something, in this case, ‘fasting’ doesn’t mean it is, and doesn’t mean one can expect to get the results that people in the past would (even when it comes to building will-power, a traditional reason given for periodical fasting).

Prayer and nature

It seems increasingly clear to me that there is a key to Christian practice in the amount of time Jesus spent outdoors. I previously wrote about the idea of Jesus going into nature as removing distractions (similar to getting rid of WiFi for a certain period of time). Yet, I think there is another aspect to this which is important.

Being in nature helps one to see and reconnect with the beauty and energy of the natural world. In doing this – in connecting to the beauty of the stars, the energy of being in a rainstorm, and so on – a connection is opened spiritually. This sense of connection is probably important for various spiritual practices, such as various kinds of prayer.

What are the major problems in one’s contributing to real Western Civilization?

The problem isn’t access to information – the public library, Amazon, AbeBooks, electronic books, and so on, have made that problem for most people a minor part of the equation.

Rather, the problems are 1) motivation (why should one invest time and energy in building one’s understanding of the world, trying to tackle difficult problems, and so on), and 2) getting guidance on exactly what one should be focusing on (finding the right material to focus on at the right time).

Given this, one can see why answers like ‘books’ or ‘the internet’ are not real answers. It is not books but the right books at the right time approached in the right way, and so on.

What to read?

What to read? If you are going to add to the (real) Western tradition, how do you get started and figure out what to read, and so on (whether at the outset or in media res)?

One answer is with standardized curricula. Big books that one plods through, set out at the beginning. The idea here is that an expert already knows how best for you to approach an aspect of Western tradition.

Obviously, experts are useful in this area. However, I think the Christian perspective can add something to this. Discernment.

Just as Christianity is in part habitually asking God for guidance, listening for that guidance, and acting upon it (and improving one’s ability to do these things – collectively known as the practice of ‘discernment’), one can apply this habit to reading, exploring, and building upon Western Civilization.

This can apply to all of education (and has points of contact with ‘free learning’ or ‘unschooling’ movements), where a focus on developing a relationship with God and listening to what He is guiding you to explore is what fuels the educational flame, instead of curricula that are often set by bureaucrats.

Within the Christian practice of discernment, there are various tools available to figure out how to move forward with one’s education. For examples, keep a lookout for things that catch a certain element of fascination within you – that ‘call’ to you. Similarly, keep a lookout for non-chance coincidences where a certain idea or element recurs or strikes you in a significant way. And so on.

This isn’t to say curricula set up for exploring the classical Western tradition (say), or for learning a language, and so on, aren’t useful. Of course they are! It is to say that one should, from a Christian perspective, all the same be listening for prompts from God. It turns out that navigating the terrain of education is a very complex task, one which ought to (from the Christian perspective) be made more effective by working with prompts from God.