Category Archives: Theology

What’s important

When trying to understand Christianity, two of the most important things are

  1. To distinguish between what is central and what is peripheral and
  2. To distinguish between practical and theoretical.

Consider 1. when applied to scripture. There are many passages in the Old Testament which portray God as a kind of tyrant. Yet, in the New Testament in the person of Jesus, God is portrayed very differently. Christians who try to hold onto both kinds of characterizations intellectually, tend to lose both, because they are incompatible.

If you get clear about what is central, then objections to Christianity based on God supposedly ordering slaughter, for example, lose their import. This is because it is very easy to hold that those characterizations are in some way wrong, even if you don’t know exactly in what way. You have to give up something (scriptural infallibility, say), but you don’t have to give up everything, and the former is a lot better from the perspective of Christianity. You can do this because you have clarity about what is central and what is not, scripturally. Christians risk losing everything if they try to make everything central – they create an intellectually and empirically very fragile worldview. If someone prioritizes aspects of Christianity, however, it is not difficult to create a robust worldview.

Consider 2. There are all sorts of theories about all sorts of things in Christianity (as in life in general). Some of these theories lead to things that cause seeming paradoxes, or perhaps seem to have absurd implications. Many theories that have been prominent in the history of Christianity are also very difficult to test. Practices, however, speak for themselves to a large extent, and tend to be much easier to test qua practices.

For example, it is very difficult to test the Catholic theology regarding the Eucharist and transubstantiation of the bread and wine. However, it is relatively easy to test what kinds of effects regular Communion has on people who do so in a particular attitude. For one to lift weights, it doesn’t really matter if some of the standard consensus about why weight lifting causing increases in muscular strength hold up. It just matters if weight lifting does cause increases in muscular strength. The latter is easy to test, and easy to make us of. It would be ridiculous to not weight lift just because you thought some of the standard theory behind why it works isn’t right.

What does ‘the Way, the Truth, and the Life’ mean in Christianity?

What does ‘the Way, the Truth, and the Life’ mean in Christianity? The Way is fairly straightforward from the context, it means ‘the way to the Father’, i.e., to God.

The Truth is more tricky. Nowadays, people often equate truth with objects, their location in space, their momentum, and so on. Jesus here is referring to spiritual truth. It is about proper action, values, and relates to meaning or purpose. This is a more ancient notion of truth, and is related to reliable systems for guiding us in our actions. The idea here is that Jesus teaches spiritual truth, and also embodies this truth in his actions.

The Life again means spiritual life. “I have come so you may have life and have it fully.” The obvious connotation here is eternal life, but it is not just life, rather full life. Jesus is the path to full and eternal life, and also embodies it in his own life story (with the resurrection). Full and eternal life comes, at root, from a relationship with the Father, according to Christianity. Jesus is the link between us and the Father, offering us his teachings, his example, and the precedent of his own death and resurrection, which changes on a fundamental level the possibilities for other people, according to Christianity.

Peterson and the sin against the Holy Ghost

That’s why the logos is the thing that’s at the top of the hierarchy. That’s how the hierarchy should be structured for everything else. You have a structure, and you think, what should the structure be subordinate to? The answer should be something like, the structure should be subordinate to the process that generates the structure, or the structure should be subordinate to the process that generates and maintains the structure. Obviously. How could it be any other way, unless the structure’s perfect? In which case you dispense with the thing that generates it and improves it, but then you’re a totalitarian. It’s like, hey, we got the answer. No. You don’t. People are still suffering, and they’re still dying. You don’t have the damn answer. Maybe you have an answer that means there isn’t quite as much suffering and dying as there could be, but there’s plenty of road to be travelled, yet. So it all makes perfect sense that all of this should be nested within this. I think of it as the highest order of moral striving. And then that also gives you a moral hierarchy. That’s the most important thing. You do that with attention and honest speech. That’s how you do that. You don’t sacrifice that to any of this, because if you do, then you’re hurting your soul.

There’s this idea in the New Testament that the sin against the Holy Ghost is the one sin that can’t be forgiven. No one knows what the hell that means. Maybe it doesn’t mean anything. But I think this is what it means: because this process generates all this, if you violate that process, then there’s no hope for you, because that’s the process by which you improve yourself and everything else, too. So if you decide you’re not going to engage in that, it’s like, well, there’s no fixing that. You’ve blown apart your relationship with the thing that does the fixing. (Jordan Peterson, Biblical Series VI: The Psychology of the Flood, 2017)

Emmet Fox gives a similar answer, 80 years earlier.

What is the sin against the Holy Ghost? The sin against the Holy Ghost is any action on your part which prevents the activity of the Holy Ghost from taking place in your soul; anything which shuts you off from the ever-fresh energizing action of God that is spiritual life itself. The penalty for this mistake is spiritual stagnation and, since the only remedy in such a case consists in the direct action of the Holy Spirit, and this mistake in itself tends to prevent that very action from taking place, a condition of vicious deadlock results. Now it is obvious that this condition must necessarily remain as long as the mistake is persisted in, and so, in this sense, the sin is unforgivable. The problem cannot be solved in any way until the victim is prepared to change his attitude. The symptoms of this malady are spiritual stagnation, and all-round failure to demonstrate [(i.e., concrete results of God’s actions in one’s life)], and these are only too often accompanied by much self-righteousness and spiritual pride. (Emmet Fox, The Sermon on the Mount, 1938)

Peterson’s answer is compatible with Fox’s, but Peterson’s is more abstract. It’s too abstract, and this is a general problem with Peterson’s Bibilical exegesis. He gets lots of things right, and often draws connections between Biblical stories or motifs and very interesting psychological insights, but the basic framework he seems to be working in for much of his commentary is basically secular. This is not surprising for someone who works in a public Canadian university in the humanities, where among the faculties Christianity is largely considered obviously false or even anathema, or for someone who is trying to connect with people who are secular themselves. If the latter, that is good as a starting point, but the answers need to move to things that are more specifically Christian and spiritual, such as Fox’s take in this case, which as far as I can tell is getting more at what Jesus is talking about.

God’s will be done – by whom?

Hello Daddy! We want to know you. And be close to you. Please show us how. Make everything in the world right again. And in our hearts, too. Do what is best – just like you do in heaven. And please do it down here, too. Please give us everything we need today. Forgive us for doing wrong, for hurting you. Forgive us just as we forgive other people when they hurt us. Rescue us! We need you. We don’t want to keep running away and hiding from you. Keep us safe from our enemies. You’re strong, God. You can do whatever you want. You are in charge. Now and forever and for always! We think you’re great! Amen! Yes we do!

This paraphrase of the Our Father, in The Jesus Storybook Bible by Sally Lloyd-Jones, inverts the meaning of a key part of the Our Father, which is “Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done in earth as it is in heaven.”

The point of this line in the original Our Father isn’t that God should do His will, and our role is to encourage him enough that he actually does it. What kind of God would God be if we had to make him get off his backside and actually do the Good? It seems absurd.

Rather, the line is about us doing God’s will. God’s will be done – by whom? Us. When? Now. The line’s point is to remind us to seek to do God’s will, and this is why it makes sense to incorporate it into a prayer, as prayer is primarily about refashioning our own habitual thoughts and therefore actions.

In the background is a theological problem, namely the idea of God’s classical omnipotence (you can see this in the “You can do whatever you want.” part). Yet, the idea of classical omnipotence is hard to find in the Gospels (presumably, the correlate is ‘thine is the Kingdom, and the power, and the glory’, but saying God has ‘power’ isn’t saying he has classical omnipotence). If God can do whatever He wants, then why does He need to wait around for us to remind him to do the Good?

Almost all forms of Christianity posit that God is limited in some radical way – typically, this is understood as involving the gift of free will to creatures. Whatever the theology, though, the point is that God is limited, and that we have to act. Jesus’ focus is almost entirely on our actions, and on the importance of us taking action to make the world a bit better. For example, love your neighbour, forgive others, help the poor, and so on.

So, this is an example of taking theology developed after the Gospels were written (by Augustine, among others) and then reading that back into the Our Father, so as to almost invert the intended meaning of the prayer! In the process, as it is a kid’s book, it is setting up children for cognitive dissonance – it is a natural and obvious question to ask ‘If God can do whatever He wants, why do I need to constantly nag him about it?’

A significant part of Christianity’s problems nowadays is a) focusing too much on theology (Jesus is almost entirely practical) and b) being unable to come up with adequate answers to obvious questions about certain theologies developed after the Gospels (which leads to the obvious question, ‘Is this bad theology?’).

Food and drink indeed in Christianity

Jesus saith unto them, My meat is to do the will of him that sent me, and to finish his work. John 4:34

A key part of Jesus’ thought is that when he talks about food, he is usually talking about spirituality. You see this again in the Beatitudes in Matthew.

Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled.
 Matthew 5:6

Once you get this link, it seems what Jesus is talking about in the following line of the Our Father is spiritual.

Give us this day our daily bread.
 Matthew 6:11

Indeed, this line seems to express a similar thought to the first quoted in John above (‘My meat is to do the will of him that sent me’), because Jesus precedes the talk here about bread with doing the will of God (‘Thy will be done, in earth as it is in heaven; Give us this day our daily bread’). One reasonable conclusion from combining this with the passage from John, therefore, is that Jesus is implying in the Our Father that when one becomes a spiritual master, daily bread and doing the will of God on a daily basis are closely connected. I.e., if you continually do the will of God, you will get lots of spiritual nourishment on a daily basis.

So, ‘food’ = ‘spiritual nourishment’ for Jesus in many cases. This leads us to a more contentious passage.

Verily, verily, I say unto you, He that believeth on me hath everlasting life. I am that bread of life. Your fathers did eat manna in the wilderness, and are dead. This is the bread which cometh down from heaven, that a man may eat thereof, and not die. I am the living bread which came down from heaven: if any man eat of this bread, he shall live for ever: and the bread that I will give is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.

The Jews therefore strove among themselves, saying, How can this man give us his flesh to eat? Then Jesus said unto them, Verily, verily, I say unto you, Except ye eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink his blood, ye have no life in you. Whoso eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, hath eternal life; and I will raise him up at the last day. For my flesh is meat indeed, and my blood is drink indeed. He that eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, dwelleth in me, and I in him. As the living Father hath sent me, and I live by the Father: so he that eateth me, even he shall live by me. This is that bread which came down from heaven: not as your fathers did eat manna, and are dead: he that eateth of this bread shall live for ever. John 6:48-58

Some Catholics claim Jesus meant this literally – that we must literally eat his flesh and drink his blood to have salvation. They use this to justify the Eucharist. Some anti-Catholics claim a literal interpretation of this passage is disgusting, and therefore the Catholic interpretation is disgusting, and if Jesus meant that, the many in attendance who left would have been right to do so.

The point I want to make here is that neither the pro-Catholic or anti-Catholic positions outlined above are accurate, because the actual Catholic position isn’t that Jesus literally becomes the bread and wine, and therefore any anti-Catholic positions based on that have a mistaken premise.

Consider. If I say I am literally eating a hamburger, I don’t mean I am eating something that doesn’t look, smell, or taste like a hamburger, or have a hamburger’s chemical structure, but rather has a hamburger’s ‘essence’ or ‘substance’ as opposed to its ‘accidents’. That is not a way of speaking literally about eating something. Since what Catholics claim is exactly that they are eating Jesus’s substance as opposed to his accidents, they aren’t talking literally. They too are saying Jesus meant by eating his flesh and drinking his blood something spiritual, but they then tie this to a theology of Jesus’ substance and the Last Supper. This is to push the question of what exactly is being claimed back a step (what do we mean by Jesus’ substance?), but it is still a spiritual, non-literal understanding of eating and drinking something.

What shall you do to inherit eternal life?

And, behold, a certain lawyer stood up, and tempted him, saying, Master, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?

He said unto him, What is written in the law? how readest thou?

And he answering said, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy strength, and with all thy mind; and thy neighbour as thyself.

And he said unto him, Thou hast answered right: do this, and thou shalt live.

(Luke 10:25-8)

There is a lot of clutter in Christianity – ideas, theologies, doctrines, and so on, that have built up around the core of Christian teaching, and around ideas of ‘salvation’.

Yet here, Jesus is quite clear. Do two things and you have everlasting life – love God, and love your neighbour.

This is the essence of the Christian message, everything else is more of less footnotes.

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).