Category Archives: Virtues

Be perfect

Be perfect, as your Father in Heaven is perfect.

(Matthew 5:48)

The Christian long game is essentially to work towards inner perfection, which then goes together with changes in behaviour. Eastern Orthodox traditions tend to get this right, with an emphasis on ‘theosis’, or becoming more like God.

How does one change one’s inner self? One important tool is through actions of thought. Collectively, these are called prayer in Christianity. It is important to note that ‘prayer’ is not a simple kind, but rather embodies different practices, many of which have as their goal the achievement of inner perfection.

This is to say, prayer is often not about changing the world ‘directly’, but changing oneself, which leads to things that change the world.

So, movement towards Inner pefection is typified by an increase in a kind of inner peace, a gradual change in one’s habitual thoughts, and these are then accompanied by changes in behaviour such as Jesus references before the quotation above.

So, certain kinds of prayer are different practices by which one can gradually refashion one’s habitual thoughts (and, therefore, actions or effects in the world).

As a rough categorization, these involve kinds of listening, meditation, visualization, contemplation, recitation that approximates what is known as ‘mantras’, and so on. This is complex, with some practices probably not achieving a significant result amongst some or most practitioners, while others have significant results.

So, within Christianity there are many practices. The question for an individual Christian is, which ones are the most relevant and effective for me at this point?

Spirituality is everyday, concrete, and widely applicable

Spirituality is everyday, concrete, and widely applicable.

It’s about developing will-power to overcome short-term behaviour (i.e., the point of asceticism). It’s about the habit of breathing deeply, say. It’s about experiences related to being in nature. It’s the habit of asking ‘How can I make this a bit better?’ Of getting closer to habitually treating others as you would like to be treated. Of tending to focus on beauty, truth, and goodness.

These aren’t esoteric or ‘airy-fairy’ – or, at least, they don’t need to be. Spiritual practices have obvious, everyday results – or, they should.

In Christianity, cultivating these practices is part of what’s known as ‘theosis’, which on the Christian understanding is to become more Godlike (theo-, God-, which is to say, the Good).

Similarly, the societal goal for Christians is the ‘Kingdom of God.’ This isn’t an airy-fairy, disembodied state. Rather, it’s a highly-functioning society with humans who are physical, who are engaging in (real) relationships with other humans.

It is obvious to see how ‘spiritual’ practices such as listed above (and many more) can contribute to this state of affairs.

My impression is that some Christians think spiritual practice is equivalent to going to a Church service for an hour or two a day a week. Rather, it is better to think of this as the cherry, on top of the icing, on top of the cake.

Put another way, ideally, something like a weekly Church service is a lever, that can help as one way to catalyze further spiritual growth. The growing, learning, and so on can often be done or catalyzed in the other 110 hours, not just the 2 hours when one is in a Church – and there are many other potential catalysts.

So, the point of spiritual practices is to create habits that have impact on everyday happenings, both personally and societally. Spirituality is all about implementation.

What is the basic idea of sacrifice?

The word ‘sacrifice’ comes from the Latin, meaning ‘to make sacred’. A sacrifice is an act of making something sacred. Typically, this means a transfer, a giving up of something to the divine.

Why give something to a god or Gods? The basic idea – as the current usage of the word sacrifice suggests – is that by giving up (or letting go of) something, there is some greater good that comes out of it or is returned.

So, when Nestor makes a sacrifice of a cow with gold-foiled horns to Athena, he believes that it will or may increase the chances of a propitious journey. This is an understanding of sacrifice within a pagan context. What of a Christian one?

A part of the understanding is still the same – by giving something up, the chance of some greater good is increased. Yet, the focus is different. Instead of a sacrifice that is intended to placate a potentially moody or capricious god, sacrifices are rather intended as a sign and instance of (‘sacrament’ of) trust in God.

For example, a common practice was to sacrifice a male, un-gelded sheep to God. Why? These sheep were intended to strengthen the flock (un-gelded), and giving one to God was a sacrament (i.e., sign and instance) of trust in (i.e., ‘faith in’) God that He would strengthen the flock. The relevant entity is not the sheep but something more like ‘the strength of the flock’, and this is not killed but entrusted to God in a symbolic and literal act of transfer or entrusting.

So, in the Christian context sacrifices are essentially about building a relationship with God through acts of trust, and in particular by mentally transferring ownership of something to God. Basically, this means accepting His guidance vis a vis whatever is ‘given up’. Sacrifice does not necessarily entail killing a, say, sheep – rather, with the case of a sheep, they were killed to mark the giving up of them to God.

The problem with the word sacrifice in current English usage is that its predominant sense is of losing something, instead of entrusting something. The latter is probably a more accurate sense of what the term is supposed to signify within Christian practice.

Sacrifices are tied to the Christian virtue of humility (you don’t control everything, and shouldn’t pretend you do) and the practice of aligning one’s will with God’s (I give this up to God to do as He wills).

In this sense, whenever we entrust something to God, we are in a way performing a sacrifice to God. Again, because sacrifice isn’t centrally about losing something, but about mentally transferring something (i.e., entrusting something) to God.

Why is the notion of sacrifice important in Christianity? One reason is that one basic idea in Christianity is that Jesus of Nazareth sacrificed himself for us, and each Mass (say) is partially a recreation (or rememberance) of this sacrifice. This sacrifice was important because it a) shows Jesus trusted God, and b) was an entrusting to God in the short term of his life and so on, in order that a greater good may come about in the longer term. It wasn’t a losing of his life, as (according to standard Christian belief) Jesus was resurrected in a glorified body after his death.

If we misunderstand what sacrifice is, we might misunderstand a basic part of Christianity. Indeed, it might seem absurd (“what was he sacrificing? he was supposedly resurrected and now reigns at the right hand of the Father!”, and so on). Central to sacrifice is not the notion of loss but of entrusting, and this is of course done because of a belief in a longer-term gain or greater good. That Jesus was (supposedly) resurrected is a sign of God’s benevolence for each of us – if we trust in Him, then in the long-term there will be a greater good not just for society in general, but also for ourselves, according to Christianity.

Again, Christianity is not about lack, but about abundance – through a trusting of (i.e., habitual sacrificing of, fundamentally, one’s ego to) God. I.e., sacrifice is fundamentally not about lack but about abundance, and therefore the symbol of the cross is not about pain and suffering but rather about what that has gained. That’s the idea, anyway.

The point of free will

Humility keeps us cognizant of where we have power, and where we don’t – and why it’s useful to align ourselves with God’s will, according to Christianity.

On the other hand, Christianity emphasizes that we have free will, and therefore ultimate responsibility over our own actions.

The key here is that we have ultimate responsibility over our own actions. It also (correctly) notes that we have little ability to control anything beyond that. Instead, by choosing to do so, Christians can align themselves with God, who can then pull off amazing (‘miraculous‘) things beyond the power of any given human (or so the idea goes).

So there is an interesting balance, between us not being in control (God is) and us having ultimate control over our own actions. ‘Ultimate’ means that there is, in a moment, an ability to be self-conscious and control our action. However, in many cases we simply decide to do something (eat food that isn’t good for us long-term) because we decide to prioritize the moment, for whatever reason. What’s important to note here is that we can also begin to work toward changing the circumstances, such that some context doesn’t occur as much, or at all, say.

The goal in Christianity is to align ourselves with God’s will, but Christianity recognizes that free will isn’t sufficient. As noted, often we will prioritize short-term over long-term. This is where the development of will-power comes into play. There are various Christian practices aimed at increasing one’s will-power, and these are often called ‘ascetic‘ practices. The word ‘ascetic’ originally was applied to bodily training (for example, going to the gym). In the Christian tradition, it has come to be applied to spiritual training, and in particular to spiritual training aimed at increasing will-power.

Why is will-power important? You can think of the equation as free will x will-power = practical freedom. So, although we have ultimate freedom, often our will-power is so weak that we constantly make short-term decisions. It’s not that we don’t have the ability to decide, but that we haven’t trained our ‘spirit’ to make decisions that tend to benefit us long-term instead of short-term.

The first step in claiming the implicit power of free will is to simply be aware that it exists. Once one remembers one can choose, one can begin to put into place the actions which lead to things like increased will-power (through various spiritual practices, such as certain Christian ascetic practices).

(In this sense, the awareness of free will is the basis of all virtues, which are more or less habits of the mind, because free will ultimately is what allows us to make the decisions which might lead to the creation of those habits of the mind.)

The point of humility

I used to think of the Christian notion of humility as misplaced. It seemed like a good way to avoid responsibility.

Old idea: ‘humility’ is at best false modesty, at worst a way to avoid responsibility, and so tends to make people’s lives worse.

I think this is actually true in some (many?) cases. However, humility can also be very useful:

New idea: humility, as far as it is useful, is a proper understanding of one’s knowledge and ability to influence various things in the world.

That is to say, in reality, it is far easier to over-estimate our knowledge or power than to under-estimate it. In this sense, having a kind of ‘humility’ becomes useful. It’s not something to limit you, but to expand your ability to act, by accurately seeing where the current limits of your ability to influence a situation are. (Similarly, often when one gets frustrated, say, it’s because one thinks that one’s ability to control things extends beyond what it actually does.)

A further benefit of humility in this sense of proper understanding of one’s knowledge and influence on various things in the world is that, in Christianity, this thought process can also remind us about God’s acting. God is much, much more powerful than any given human according to Christianity, and so it makes sense to ground oneself (conceptually) in God and align oneself with God’s will. It makes sense to align oneself because God, who is goodness, also wants what is good – abundance, joy, and so on – for us, according to Christianity.

Christianity also tends to emphasize free will, and so there is an interesting balancing act between free will (one can do something) and humility (proper understanding of one’s knowledge and ability to influence things). In a sense, though, they are complementary notions properly understood, but that deserves a separate post!