Category Archives: Theology

Explaining ‘Give us this day our daily bread.’

The central text of Christianity is probably the Gospel according to Matthew, and the core of the Gospel according to Matthew is probably the Sermon on the Mount. Within that, the two most important parts are probably the Beatitudes and the Our Father. However, these are both effectively summaries of Christianity, and both are essentially aphoristic – to understand them it helps to have significant context.

‘Give us this day our daily bread’ comes in the Our Father just after Jesus speaks of the new Kingdom and before he talks about forgiving. The obvious reference by ‘bread’ here is to the daily manna which sustained Moses and the ancient Israelites as they moved from political slavery (in ancient Egypt) to political freedom (in the promised land). This was a central event in ancient Jewish history, and Jesus consciously conceived of himself as the new Moses (of which Moses himself had prophesied). Many Jews of the time expected the new Moses to lead his people again to political freedom (this was part of what was expected by many of the ‘Christ’, or new king who was prophesied to be in the Davidic line and whose kingdom was to have no end – Jesus consciously was acting as both the new Moses and the new David). Jesus, however, considered his Kingdom spiritual instead of political (confounding many people’s expectations of what this new Kingdom would be like – ‘My kingdom is not of this world’). His purpose, rather, was to lead people from spiritual slavery to spiritual freedom (“Ye shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free.” John 8). Jesus is referring here, then, to a kind of manna that will help us as we move towards spiritual freedom – that’s the goal.

So, what is this new kind of manna or ‘bread’ which Jesus is referring to? Bread here is meant in an expansive sense, as all that nourishes us on a spiritual level. John 6:32 makes clear this spiritual sense of ‘bread’: “Moses gave you not that bread from heaven; but my Father giveth you the true bread from heaven.” Interestingly, with the daily manna of the ancient Israelites, they were only allowed to use it for that day, with the next day requiring a replenishing by God. Similarly, the focus here is on ‘this day’, and Jesus is saying that should be our focus in the spiritual life (see Matthew 6:34 “Worry not for tomorrow”). In particular, spiritual nourishment comes from a daily lived, experienced connection to God. This experience of God will refill and nourish us, spiritually speaking, and it is a major object of Christian practice to clear away the obstacles to this kind of daily connection.

Jesus emphasizes elsewhere in the Sermon on the Mount that we must ask, and the corresponding part in the Our Father is ‘give us’. Consider his discussion in the Sermon on the Mount where he says “Ask and it shall be given you” (Matthew 7:7) and then “What man is there of you, whom if his son ask bread, will he give him a stone?”, which ties that discussion even more clearly to this line in the Our Father about daily bread.

So, Jesus is here pointing out that we ought to ask, every day, for God to give us things that spiritually nourish us (love, divine wisdom, a connection with God and experience of Him, and so on) which will help us to move towards spiritual freedom, which is to say freedom from negative patterns of thought and action, and freedom to align ourselves with God’s will, that is, the Good – the new promised land.

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.

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.

The virgin birth

One aspect of Christianity that is prominent is belief in a virgin birth – Mary conceived of Jesus ‘directly’ from God. If we take the story literally (it resonates with various other myths, many of which would have been known in the Mediterranean at the time, so it is not clear to me what the reader is supposed to take from the claim), then an argument against it goes as

a) The claim is that Jesus was conceived from God by a virgin, but we now know that virgin births do not occur naturally among humans. Therefore, Jesus was not conceived by a virgin.

I think many secularists actually follow this line of thinking when denying the virgin birth. Yet, a moment’s reflection shows it is not a good argument.

The problem here is that ancients also knew that virgin births among humans do not occur naturally. The whole point of the virgin birth is that it is an unusual (perhaps unique) event. Saying we don’t see it happening today or that it doesn’t occur in nature (which would condition our sense of what can or can’t happen) is true but not to the point.

Rather, there is a premise required for the argument a) above, which is

There is no such thing as miracles.

If there are no miracles, and if virgin births don’t occur naturally, then the conclusion is much stronger.

However, now the argument has to rely upon a much more sweeping argument, namely, the argument to show there is no such thing as miracles.

My guess is that most debates about supposed miracles between secularists and theists aren’t primarily about the evidence for the miracle in question, but a more general claim. As in many beliefs, there is a cyclical component to this (if you don’t believe miracles can occur, you are less likely to think a specific instance of a supposed miracle actually occurred, which in turn helps support your more general belief).

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.

The Christian conception of God and the start of science

It was only because Europeans believed in God as the Intelligent Designer of a rational universe that they pursued the secrets of creation. In the words of Johannes Kepler [(one of the most distinguished astronomers in the history of science)], “The chief aim of all investigations of the external world should be to discover the rational order and harmony imposed on it by God and which he revealed to us in the language of mathematics.” […] Perhaps the most remarkable aspect to the rise of science is that the early scientists not only searched for natural laws, confident that they existed, but they found them! It thus could be said that the proposition that the universe had an Intelligent Designer is the most fundamental of all scientific theories and that it has been successfully put to empirical tests again and again.” – Rodney Stark, Bearing False Witness (2016), p. 162

My guess is that Stark is probably correct, and that the standard story that Christianity stood in the way of the rise of science is just about the opposite of what actually happened.

Simulation theory is a new theism

This article titled ‘Is our world a simulation? Why some scientists say it’s more likely than not’ describes an intellectual movement, including Elon Musk, which holds that we live in a computer simulation.

I’ll leave to the side the arguments for such a position (including arguments about the ‘hard problem’ of consciousness), and focus on what the position is. They are positing that the universe was created by an intelligence (or intelligences). It’s a kind of theism (my impression is that many advocates seem unaware of this – it is irrelevant that the creator is a ‘posthuman civilization’ or what have you), and generates similar problems to ones Judaism or Christianity attempt to answer (do we get an insight into the creator’s mind or purposes in seeing the universe? how does the creator effect the universe? can we interact with the creator? is the creator something like omniscient in this universe? omnipotent? and so on).

It is not surprising that a powerful aspect of technology (computer simulations) would be applied to create a new form of theism. It is similar to the historical movement to think of the universe as a precisely tuned machine (such as a clock), when machines like that became common several hundred years ago (often, this form of theism emphasized something like a form of deism – the machine maker set up the universe and then let it work away).

So, developments in technology cause developments in theology.

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.

 

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’.

Heuristic questions

Two useful questions to ask habitually are

“What can I learn from this?”

and

“How can I use this?”

To use Nassim Taleb’s neologism, these are ‘antifragile’ heuristics.

Christianity lends itself naturally to these questions, because it views the universe as essentially purposive. God has a plan for the universe -> that plan can (if we so choose) involve us -> therefore, events that occur (can) fit into this plan.

Therefore, it’s a natural question for a Christian to ask

“What purpose can God have for this?”

which leads fairly naturally to the two above questions.

If you think of God as a creative, on-going God, then you also can think of God as consistently asking himself the two above questions, and then coordinating people and things (to the extent they are willing – see process theology) in creative solutions.