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The proper aim of ecumenism

Ecumenism in Christianity aims at unity between branches of Christianity. It’s important to distinguish, however, between unity in spirit and unity in organization.

That Christians have better dialogue, exchange of ideas, and a sense of kinship all sounds like the right approach to me. However, there is also a sense in Christianity that there needs to be unity of organization – one church, say. This to me seems an error.

First, understanding various denominations is important for 3 reasons. 1. It allows you to see what’s working in another approach, and consider how to modify it and apply it yourself. 2. It allows you to see what’s not working in another approach, avoid it, and also give constructive feedback. 3. It allows you to cooperate or coordinate on areas where there is overlap between your approaches.

Having said that, diversity of approaches can be highly useful. The basic idea is the same as in free markets. Different approaches = experimentation = success of certain approaches, iterated. This is similar to various ideas in evolutionary biology – having a certain amount of diversity of approaches is useful.

Therefore, it seems wrong-headed to me for Christians to want all Christians to move to the same church, or even to see it as primarily a competition between churches. Christianity, as a whole, probably benefits from different approaches, learning from other approaches, and being critical of approaches that seem obviously wrong. Understanding what is actually happening in other churches benefits all these points, and ecumenism properly should be about better understanding of other approaches with an approach to unity in spirit.

Swear not at all

Again, ye have heard that it hath been said by them of old time, Thou shalt not forswear thyself, but shalt perform unto the Lord thine oaths:

But I say unto you, Swear not at all […]

But let your communication be, Yea, yea; Nay, nay: for whatsoever is more than these cometh of evil. (Matthew 5)

I didn’t know what to make of this when I originally read it. It seemed peculiar, and an outlier of what Jesus is saying in other parts of the Sermon on the Mount. I did not see the import of it. Yet, Emmet Fox reverses that. He says (The Sermon on the Mount, p. 68-70)

Swear not at all is one of the cardinal points in the teaching of Jesus. It means, briefly, that you are not to take vows. You are not to mortgage your future conduct in advance; to undertake to do or to refrain from doing something tomorrow, or next year, or thirty years hence.

This is striking, because Fox claims this is not peripheral but cardinal. Why would ‘not taking vows’ be central to Jesus’ thought? As he continues,

It is an absolutely vital part of [Jesus’] teaching that you are constantly to seek direct inspirational contact with God, constantly to keep yourself an open channel for the pouring out of the Holy Spirit into manifestation through you. Now, if you make up your mind in advance as to what you shall do or shall not do, shall believe of shall not believe, shall think or shall not think, shall be or shall not be, tomorrow, or next year, or for the rest of your life – and especially when you crystallize this determination by a solemn act of the will like a vow – you are not leaving yourself open to the action of the Paraclete; but you are, by that very act, shutting him out. If you are to receive the guidance of God, Divine Wisdom, it is absolutely essential that you have an open mind, because it so often happens that the part of wisdom is not in accord with your own personal feelings or present opinions. But if you have taken a vow or made a promise concerning your soul, for tomorrow, you are no longer uncommitted; and unless you are uncommitted, the action of the Holy Spirit cannot take place. This, in fact, is nothing less than the sin against the Holy Ghost of which the Bible speaks, which has caused so much terror to sensitive hearts, and concerning which there seems to be a very general misunderstanding.

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 direction 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.

So Fox takes something that seems peripheral (‘don’t make vows’), and then interprets it in light of something central to Jesus’ thought (one should aim to be in constant, live contact with God). This is the right way to do Scriptural exegesis in general – to throw light on what seems incongruous or irrelevant in terms of what is known to be central. In this sense, the odd claim to not make vows can be seen as an application of a central part of Jesus’ thought (be open to God’s Wisdom, and do His will).

Furthermore, Fox then extends that to making sense of another, seemingly singular and confounding claim Jesus makes about a ‘sin against the Holy Spirit’, which is a natural implication of the point about making vows!

To conclude, Fox then draws the obvious conclusion if this is the correct interpretation – Jesus didn’t mean to not enter into everyday business contracts and so on.

Of course, Jesus does not mean that you are not to enter into ordinary business engagements, such as taking up the lease of a house, signing an agreement for certain services, entering into partnership, and so on. Nor does he mean that the ordinary oath administered in a court of law is inadmissable. These things are matters of legal convenience for the transaction of business between man and man, and they are right and necessary in an ordered society. The Sermon on the Mount, as we have seen, is a treatise on the spiritual life, for the spiritual controls all the rest. One who understands the spiritual teaching of Jesus, and practices it, will be in no danger of breaking honorable agreements. He will be an ideal tenant, a desirable business partner, and a reliable witness in court.

In other words, the superficial and tempting interpretation is almost the opposite of what is meant, just as a material interpretation of, say, the second Lukean beatitude (‘blessed are the hungry’) isn’t at all the proper sense (rather, ‘blessed are those who hunger for righteousness’, the key being given in this case from Matthew, a completely different idea).

 

 

The centre of Christian character

In Christianity, given the sheer variety and complexity, it is important to identify the centre and periphery, not just in terms of scripture but also in terms of character and praxis.

So what is the centre of Christianity in terms of psychological attributes? I would say the top 3 are

  1. Love. (‘Love one another,’ and so on.)
  2. Courage. (‘Fear not,’ and so on.)
  3. Serenity. (‘My peace I give you,’ and so on.)

These attributes work together to amplify each other. For example, serenity makes courage easier, and love drives courage (if you don’t love something, what reason do you have to be courageous?).

If this is right, then the next question a Christian ought to ask himself is “How do I amplify these attributes on a day to day basis?”

This then leads to the centre of praxis for an individual. Jesus gives many techniques to cultivate these psychological habits in the Gospels.

Belief and science

“You can only convince people who think they can benefit from being convinced.” Nassim Nicholas Taleb, The Bed of Procrustes (2010), p. 64

Probably one of the most important ideas in rhetoric.

The basic motion to change one’s mind comes internally, from a person’s volition. They decide they want to change their mind, then look to see if it can be justified.

For science, this is why it is important to cultivate a valuation of truth for truth’s sake, and why money and status in science can be problematic. If a large amount of money depends on a belief, a person will typically look every which way to see how it can be defended.

How does God act?

How does the Christian God act?

I want to suggest an hypothesis, which is summarized as follows.

1. Miracles are marked out by (as the name suggests – ‘miraculum’ meaning wonder) their tendency to cause wonder.

2. They cause wonder because the observer notices the event seems highly unlikely to have occurred in the way it did, even though, for example, they witnessed it (hence, wonder at how it occurred).

3. What is unlikely is the coordination of things in the world.

4. These sorts of events are on-going and widespread.

Before discussing the advantages of this hypothesis, a brief aside on the supernatural-natural notion.

Supernatural vs. natural causes

Consider if someone claimed electromagnetic phenomena were ‘supernatural’ and contact mechanics was ‘natural’. OK, but in what way does that distinction make a difference in the cause-and-effect world? For the people drawing up equations and models of electromagnetic activity, it’s not clear why this kind of distinction would matter. Electromagnetic phenomena operates in a very different way from contact mechanics, but so what?

What I’m interested in here is how God (supposedly) acts, not in theological speculation about what ‘kind’ God’s acts are. Instead of theology -> theory of how God acts, I rather observation -> theory of how God acts.

Consider. The idea of supernatural causation is about a creator ‘outside’ of nature. Nature (the universe) is a creation of God. Involved in this notion of God being the creator of nature are theological ideas, such as God being necessary, unchanging, outside of time, and so on. These are all important theological topics.

That the Christian God is such a being is debatable. Christians need not look to the Old Testament to figure out how the universe came into being, but if a Christian is looking to the Old Testament, the accounts of what God did don’t seem to be a creation ex nihilo (out of nothing), even though creation ex nihilo is the standard Christian theological view nowadays. Rather, God is portrayed as shaping or ordering something – perhaps as a potter crafts clay to form pottery.

Yet, to what extent does the idea of a God existing outside of the universe impact our understanding of how God acts? For example, if Jesus healed someone, was this a natural or supernatural event? Well, it was unusual, and no one knows how it would have happened, but for all that it could have occurred within creation, i.e., without any kind of (special) outside-of-nature activity. That it’s unusual, or because we don’t have a well worked out model of how it works, doesn’t mean it’s supernatural. This is an old point, and I hope it’s obvious.

Now consider 3. If it’s right, then when looking at miracles, the ‘efficient causes’, so to speak, at least in most cases, should be findable. Yet, you don’t explain the miracle of the donkey Jesus rode into Jerusalem on, say, by saying ‘there was a donkey, and someone found it’. Instead, you have to explain the likelihood of it. It is the unlikeliness that points to God’s activity, i.e., a miracle.

This is why the Catholic church’s attempts to discern if something is a miracle are misled (and this mistake is based on their theology, and in particular the supernatural-natural distinction about God’s activity originating ‘outside’ of nature). They attempt to see if any known natural cause could account for the miracle. Being unable to find one, they conclude it is a miracle. This leads to ignoring large amounts of what Christians take to be everyday miracles, and excludes ascribing to God these miracles by definition.

Yet, when Christians talk about everyday miracles, they are almost always talking about natural causes that have been coordinated in an unlikely way. What’s key (under the theory I am here expounding) isn’t natural causes but how likely it is that those causes came together in the way they did. We can say God’s activity can be found in the ‘final’ cause, not a lack of natural ‘efficient’ causes.

Advantages of this characterization of miracles

1. It describes a large number of miracles Christians report, where there are conventional operators but unconventional coordination of them.

2. For miracles where it is not clear if it’s just the coordination of conventional operators, this is a matter of our knowledge. We don’t know what’s going on, and so it could be just a coordination.

3. It is compatible with either supernaturalism or naturalism – God can be conceived as the creator in the sense of being ‘outside’ of the universe and creating all things ex nihilo, or a creator in the sense of being ‘inside’ of the universe and creating all things as a ‘shaper’ of pre-existing aspects of the universe.

 

Why care about Christianity? Examples

Following this post, if you don’t understand Christianity it will be very difficult to understand Western Civilization. Some examples, and associated general patterns.

1. Tolkien was a devout Christian, and Christian themes pervade his The Lord of the Rings. It is entirely possible to read his works and simply enjoy the escapist fantasy, adventure, and so on. Yet, if you really want to plumb the meaning of his novels, you have to understand significant parts of Christianity. A similar case can be made for much of Western literature.

2. Columbus. The experts of the day thought the world was much bigger than Columbus thought (and they turned out to be right). It just so happened that there was a land mass near abouts where Columbus thought Asia would be. Columbus thought he was being told by God to sail west. You can’t understand the history of western exploration without understanding the pivotal trip of Columbus, and you can’t understand that without understanding something of Columbus’ Christianity. A similar case can be made for much of Western geographical expansion – it is difficult to understand it without understanding something of Christianity, not just at an abstract level but on an individual level.

3. Newton, besides being probably the most important scientist yet, wrote a large amount of theology. Most of this was unpublished, and discovered after his death (so he wasn’t writing it to ingratiate himself with the authorities, or what have you). It’s clear that theological issues mattered greatly to Newton. How can you understand what he accomplished without understanding some of the Christian ideas that motivated or informed him? Similarly with Boyle, Faraday, and on and on. Most of the pillars of modern science were devout Christians. How can you understand the unique development of science within the Christian West without understanding Christianity?

4. Bach. It’s straightforwardly clear that Bach’s music is beautiful, and one can simply enjoy it on that level (as with Tolkien’s works). Yet, Bach was a very well-informed Christian, and you can’t really understand what’s going on in his music without understanding the (supposed) events he is writing about. So on and so forth for much of Western music.

Big fish in small pond, or small fish in big pond?

Ought one to aim to be a big fish in small pond, or small fish in big pond?

As a rule of thumb, you want to be a big fish in a small pond.

Consider two examples.

First, if looking at joining a basketball team where one wants to improve one’s skills, actually playing games probably outweighs the advantages of being around better players. Here, being a bigger fish in a smaller pond probably makes sense to a degree.

Second, though, consider a case where one wants to get degree primarily for recognition. In this case, it is not so much about improving one’s skills, but about simply getting into an institution. Think Harvard or Stanford. In this case, being in as ‘big’ (recognized) a pond as possible is probably a better strategy.

I think the best general strategy is to be a big fish in a small pond, and then pond hop, to consecutively larger ponds.

Virtuous strands of Western Civilization

Just as one trait becomes a virtue as it works harmoniously with other traits towards achievement of the good on a personal level, so there are multiple strands within real Western Civilization that come together – Christianity is one strand, another is Stoicism, Platonism, Aristotelianism, and so on. These strands can balance and enhance each other – when used in the proper way together, they can help to bring about a virtuous civilization, i.e., achieve the good. They can be complementary or synergistic, and indeed, my guess is that this synergy is part of what makes Western Civilization as important as it has been.

The Amish Option

The Amish Option is meant here as, simply, to reduce one’s contact with standard pop. culture, and to instead focus on cultivating projects, experiences, personal relationships, and so on, of a higher quality.

A focus on different cultural sources -> different society.

This is not a binary option, nor is it exclusive of various other options that are responses to aspects of contemporary society.

(Nor does it mean relinquishing various technologies, such as electric-powered light or automobiles. Of course, being critical of the consequences of a given technology on one’s quality of life – on whether it’s moving you towards or away from the important stuff – is an important habit. Adopting a technology simply because others have is a bad idea.)

For examples of the Amish Option, to watch significantly less television, to read more high quality books, to get started on meaningful projects, and to network with like-minded people. All these are simple, compatible with the reality of most people’s immediate circumstances, and allow for gradations or variations of implementation.

Contra some who would consider this a retreat from society, I think it more accurately is an advance. It is not so much to run away from pop. culture as to move to something better.

Consider, if you leave a city behind, and instead move to the countryside – because the traffic’s better, people are more friendly, you get to experience more of nature, and there’s less crime per capita – then this is more relevantly an advance, a movement to something better.

Similarly, if you hear of an island somewhere, with a significantly higher quality of life than the country you are living in now, and you endeavour to move there, this is better characterized as an exploration and adventure of moving to another, possibly better place.

Pithily, any movement is in a sense a retreat in one direction and advance in another. The Amish Option is an advance towards a possibly better way of living.

For example, I haven’t watched television for something like 12 years. Because it freed up time, it opened up aspects of culture I wouldn’t have experienced otherwise (books, architecture, projects, and so on). It was an advance towards a better culture. However, it was a deliberate removal of an aspect of pop. culture from my life – a ‘retreat’.

Similarly, when you ratchet down the pop. culture noise in your life, and start focusing on more important things, this is an advance – an ascent. It is an – I think – erroneous mentality which treats the removal of pop. culture from one’s life as a ‘retreat’ – i.e., the person has internalized that pop. culture is what is important in the world, except it isn’t – not from most individuals’ perspectives.

This isn’t to say that bridges between pop. secular culture and better cultures aren’t important – of course they are. However, my guess is that is a specific calling – for most people, simply dramatically improving their immediate environment by implementing aspects of the Amish Option is more important and relevant.

Thy problem-solving be done

Why ask God for solutions, according to Christianity?

Because God’s solutions are typically way better than only-human solutions. There is a harmony to them*, where things come together in a way that is typically beyond human engineering. (See satisfying endings to stories as an example, if unfamiliar with examples of this sort yourself.)

* (harmony is similar to the concept of wholeness, from which we get the term ‘holiness’ – holiness, not surprisingly, involves a kind of harmony)

So, it probably makes sense for a Christian to cultivate the habit of “God, help guide us to a solution on this.” I.e., the instinct should be to seek God’s guidance and coordination when encountering a problem. Whenever one finds oneself worrying about a problem, this is the habit to replace that thought pattern with. (This is an Iteration on “Thy will be done,” a part of the set of keys for Christian practice given by Jesus of Nazareth in the ‘Our Father’ in the Sermon on the Mount, supposedly.)

It is important to note that this isn’t about inaction (although non-action is an important component of any problem-solving tool-box – waiting for the correct circumstances, for example, before springing into action). Too often, it seems to me, Christians pray for God to ‘do something’, when an important point in Christianity is the Christians themselves doing things, guided by God.

Instead, the basic cycle is asking for guidance -> getting guidance -> acting on the guidance. This is part of the practice of ‘discernment’. If you don’t act (“Thy will be done“), then the cycle doesn’t complete.