Philosophy, Psychology, and Parenting

To anybody who approaches parenting reflectively, the knowledge of personal imperfection should be obvious.

That being said, on ye olde Internet, many people become very offended by the parenting efforts, advice, or suggestions of others. I think I understand why.

We all know that we fall short as parents, but we desperately want to believe that we’re doing the best than can be done. Indeed, while it may or may not be true that our parenting is the best we can do, we certainly want to project as a fact (even to ourselves) that we’re doing the best that anybody could do. In other words, our own parenting is the ideal. Thus, we feign offense at any suggestion that we are not, as destrablizing our ideal implies that our very method of parenting and therefore our children are being attacked. It’s weird. I’ll try not to do it. My wife and I talked about the upcoming advice barrage. We’ll aim to learn what we can and ignore the rest. Being angry and resentful all the time is no way to live, parent, or enjoy yourself.

Evolution and Its Uses in Education

 

Too long won’t read:
In my experience, evolutionary theory holds a weird pride of place as the litmus test of a good education in common conversation. When one is discovered to be religious, they are often asked, “but you believe in evolution…don’t you?” Darwinian theory and its modern permutations have their uses, but those uses are not practical for young people. On the other hand, learning basic home economics, learning about nutrition, gardening, andexercise in biology, how to read, basic civics, and logic.

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Source

Actual thing:
When it comes to the theory of evolution by natural selection I find myself in a weird place. As far as the technical aspects of the theory goes, it explains things. On the other hand, it is a theory that is so reflexively considered to be the height of contemporary education that people go into conniption fits if somebody thinks it is false or claims to not understand it.

The problem I have with this is that the theory really is quite complicated and deals with such a high level of abstract reasoning about so many high non-abstract fields of empirical inquiry that it really is very difficult for almost anybody to understand who has not spent a tremendous amount of time in the field.

I say this based on conversations with biologist friends as well as based on email correspondence with a professor of evolutionary psychiatry. Some of these people have also pointed out to me the relative unimportance of evolutionary theory for the process of gathering and interpreting data about organisms and trends in ecosystems.

One microbiologist told me that most biologists he knows seem to misunderstand what evolution by natural selection actually entails. So, then, here’s my beef with the current state of play regarding the theory: a great deal of people graduate from high school without the ability to read proficiently. What’s the point of teaching an advanced scientific theory that is, by any metric, harder to understand than basic reading (seriously, read this post using basic game theory to explore the evolution of compassion)?

There is very little obsessive push, that I’m aware of as an educator make sure that misunderstandings about the ancient world or the Medieval and Renaissance are corrected. Yet, in high school I was taught that the ancients believed in a flat earth until the time of Columbus despite the fact that every cosmological discussion from that era (religious or not) assumed or explicitly required a round earth.

The point being that simply because something is true is not typically considered a good enough reason to demand that everybody knows it when they graduate. We don’t do that with Optics, Economics, the Canons of Rhetoric, how to use a soldering gun, exercise science, etc. Yet, when a highly technical meta-theory that requires input from game theory, physics, statistics, economics (of resources), chemistry, genetics, paleontology, cellular biology, and advanced skills in inductive and deductive logic comes along…that is just like totally necessary for people to learn.

Personal experience
The only time knowing about evolutionary theory and the authors who write about it and the finer points of the theory has every helped me is when people who found out I was a Christian wanted to make fun of me for believing the earth was 6000 years old (which I don’t). So the greatest benefit I’ve received is rhetorical one against a group of people who saw me as a place holder for an ideology with which they disagreed. In almost every case, btw, I’ve discovered that my reading about the topic is deeper and broader than the person (whom I’ve usually barely known) attempting to make fun of me when they find out I attend church Sunday morning. I suppose another benefit might be the rich experience of learning for learning’s sake.

I question the value of accruing facts for human flourishing. Evolutionary theory helps my biologist and agricultural engineer friends to do their work, but it is doubtful that having a hamfisted and outdated understanding of Darwinian theory does anything helpful for the average person outside of the intelligentsia (seriously, do we make people understand assembly language so that they can use computers?).

It seems like the better method is to say, “the state of play in biology when this text book came out was x, y, z because of evidence a, b, and c. As new evidence comes along or new ways of interpreting that evidence are produced, you can expect that our understanding will change. Now on to taxonomy, cellular processes, dissections, human anatomy, and applications to basic health and self-care.” The kind of help that a biology class could provide if basic data on human nutrition, exercise, and well-being were provided as well as tools for further research would be so useful. Learning what scientists said about Darwinian theory when an eight year old text book was being written is so much less useful.

 

Simplify: a review

Back in 2008, I saw a review for Simplify by Paul Borthwick over at Internet Monk, back before Mike Spencer died. I bought the book immediately. I found that despite it’s pricetag ($16.99), it contained a wealth of valuable information. It’s exactly what it says it will be. A book about the practical side of simplifying your life, especially with respect to finances and time. I read it as soon as I purchased it and starting applying its principles. My wife then read it (I lent it to her before we were even dating). And it has helped us to live rather simply. It’s principles are worth revisiting periodically. I was reorganizing my library (it must be done often because I always pull volumes off the shelf and lazily put them wherever I can reach), and saw it and reread it.

The downside to the book is that everything in it is available free in thousands of online articles or sites like Wiki-How. But the upside is that all of the useful information is available in one volume in a format which could easily be utilized for family reading time, church study groups, or accoutnability/holiness meetings with other Christians.

One of the funniest things about the book is that the author suggests it may not be useful on the back. As a sincere question it’s a helpful reflection. As a marketing piece, it’s genius.

Anyway, the book offers helpful advice for saving money, uncomplicating your life, and managing your time. I highly recommend it to read with your spouse, read before you get married, or to read as a sort of guide to subtle but helpful pathways out of bad habits.

4/5, highly recommend unless you’re willing to look this stuff up online.

John Wesley on Foreknowledge and Election


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By George Romney – National Portrait Gallery: NPG 2366

Below, you’ll find 1 Peter 1:1-2 and John Wesley’s comments on vs 2. Over all, I find what he says to be convincing. The idea that the descriptions of God’s fore or after knowledge in the Bible are metaphorical is perfectly reasonable. It is just as much true that predestination is a metaphor as it is true that God’s being surprised or ignorant is as well.

 

Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ, to the strangers scattered throughout Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia, Elect according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, through sanctification of the Spirit, unto obedience and sprinkling of the blood of Jesus Christ: Grace unto you, and peace, be multiplied.
(1 Peter 1:1-2 KJV)

[Quote] According to the foreknowledge of God – Speaking after the manner of men. Strictly speaking, there is no foreknowledge, no more than afterknowledge, with God: but all things are known to him as present from eternity to eternity. This is therefore no other than an instance of the divine condescension to our low capacities. Elect – By the free love and almighty power of God taken out of, separated from, the world. Election, in the scripture sense, is God’s doing anything that our merit or power have no part in. The true predestination, or fore – appointment of God is:

  1.  He that believeth shall be saved from the guilt and power of sin.
  2. He that endureth to the end shall be saved eternally.
  3. They who receive the precious gift of faith, thereby become the sons of God; and, being sons, they shall receive the Spirit of holiness to walk as Christ also walked.

Throughout every part of this appointment of God, promise and duty go hand in hand. All is free gift; and yet such is the gift, that the final issue depends on our future obedience to the heavenly call. But other predestination than this, either to life or death eternal, the scripture knows not of. Moreover, it is:

  1. Cruel respect of persons; an unjust regard of one, and an unjust disregard of another.
  2. It is mere creature partiality, and not infinite justice.
  3. It is not plain scripture doctrine, if true; but rather, inconsistent with the express written word, that speaks of God’s universal offers of grace; his invitations, promises, threatenings, being all general.

We are bid to choose life, and reprehended for not doing it. It is inconsistent with a state of probation in those that must be saved or must be lost. It is of fatal consequence; all men being ready, on very slight grounds, to fancy themselves of the elect number. But the doctrine of predestination is entirely changed from what it formerly was. Now it implies neither faith, peace, nor purity. It is something that will do without them all. Faith is no longer, according to the modern predestinarian scheme, a divine “evidence of things not seen,” wrought in the soul by the immediate power of the Holy Ghost; not an evidence at all; but a mere notion. Neither is faith made any longer a means of holiness; but something that will do without it. Christ is no more a Saviour from sin; but a defence, a countenancer of it. He is no more a fountain of spiritual life in the soul of believers, but leaves his elect inwardly dry, and outwardly unfruitful; and is made little more than a refuge from the image of the heavenly; even from righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Ghost. Through sanctification of the Spirit – Through the renewing and purifying influences of his Spirit on their souls.
Unto obedience – To engage and enable them to yield themselves up to all holy obedience, the foundation of all which is, the sprinkling of the blood of Jesus Christ – The atoning blood of Christ, which was typified by the sprinkling of the blood of sacrifices under the law; in allusion to which it is called “the blood of sprinkling.” [End Quote]

Hopefully Wesley’s point of view is helpful to you.

Headship and Submission in Marriage

The Glass of Wine – Jan Vemeer I have no idea if they’re married or not, but this picture always struck me as a relaxing vision of an evening in the good life.

A friend recently asked about this topic, so I thought I’d give a sketch of my thoughts. I won’t be citing any sources, but hopefully what I cite as evidence is either self-evident or easily obtainable.

The basic question is this:

What does is mean to submit to your husband as the head of the household in the Bible?

Put more theologically:

Does being a Christian mean that a woman loses her autonomy to her husband?

And here is the question with a twist toward defending the faith:

If male/female equality is true and the Bible teaches husband/wife hierarchy, does that mean the Bible is wrong?

So there are three layers of discussion here:

  1. What does the New Testament actually teach about husband/wife relationships?
  2. What does it mean to be a Christian?
  3. Is the biblical picture of a well functioning marriage true/workable today?

Question 1: What does the NT actually teach about husband/wife relationships?

If somebody asked me, “does the Bible say wives should submit to their husbands,” my straight forward answer would be, “Yes.” If they said, “What do you think that means?” I’d say, “She should respect him, in public and private.”

If I were asked to give further explanation, I’d elaborate like this.

For the sake of argument, let us assume we’re talking about married Christians who aren’t having significant problems worthy or counseling or legal intervention (being physically assaulted is a problem for police and the legal system, the church can excommunicate an abusive spouse but can do relatively little to get them out of your life).

First, the Bible is clear about the core behavioral principle of Christians toward each other:

“Love one another even as I [Jesus] have loved you. ” (John 13:34)

“Whatever you wish others would do for you, you do unto them.” (Matthew 7:13)

The first principle of all relationships between Christians is love for one another because the first aim for the Christian is to seek first the kingdom of God and its righteousness (Matt 6:33).

The second principle for understanding the Christian instructions regarding husbands and wives is that the household was seen as a microcosm of society in the ancient world, as such a household was in competition with other households for prestige and resources and all human societies had a leader or, as the Bible says, “head.” This is just how things were conceived, or at least how they were written about. For instance, in Ephesians 1:22-23, Jesus is the head of the church and all spiritual reality. And so families/households had a head, the husband.

For the husband to be the head of household usually means four things:

  1. He is the provider for the family.
  2. He is the protector of the family.
  3. He is the representative of the family’s needs in the broader society. (this fits well with the previous two)
  4. He is the de facto leader of the group.

Now, in the case of Jesus Christ and his church, submitting to him as the head of the church means obedience, worship, and persistent deference to his will. In the case of Christian marriage it means what you might see in Proverbs 31. The woman there submits to her husband’s headship by ensuring that the well being his household is achieved:

  1. she cares for his health
  2. she raises their children
  3. she manages the in-house financials
  4. she uses her resources to improve the financial situation of the house in the market
  5. she seeks to maintain the honor of the household among the neighboring families.

In other words, to submit to your husband is to promote his interests and those of the family generally. Paul puts it this way: “…let each wife respect her husband.” In other words, submission isn’t a matter of obedience as it is toward Christ. Instead, submission is meant in the sense of admiration and pursuit of his well-being and honor.

Now, the interesting thing in the New Testament is that no specific rules are set forth for how husband/wife relationships should be pursued, but rather general principles. Husbands are to put extra effort into loving their wives and wives into respecting their husbands. My guess is that the general temptation of a wife is to gossip about or mother her husband and that the general temptation of a husband is to treat his wife harshly (like one of the fellas), neglect her needs, or talk down to her. So Paul give instructions to address each of these in Ephesians 5:33, “Let each husband love his own wife as himself and each wife respect her husband.”

As a tip, I recommend that men go out of their way to be admirable (to make your wife’s job of respect easier), and that women go out of their way to be sweet/lovable (to make your husband’s job easier).

As an aside, there is a sense in which husbands are to respect/honor their wives (Proverbs 31 says that a good husband praises his wife in the gates) and wives are to love their husbands, as the general command to Christians is to respect each other, encourage one another, listen to one another, and love each other.

Briefly, nowhere in Scripture is a husband instructed to boss his wife around, abuse her, or run her down as a function of his headship. That has happened in history and been perpetrated by Christians, but is forbidden in Scripture (1 Peter 3:7).

Question 2: What does it mean to be a Christian?

Some people feel that women might lose their autonomy in a marriage that uses the language of ‘headship’ or ‘submission.’ I want to address a few things here:

  1. People are justified by faith in Christ. So one does not become a Christian by figuring out how to be a spouse. Rather, one learns to be a better spouse by discipleship to Christ. This particular issue, while important, is secondary. Not only is it secondary, it’s disputed. The picture I painted above may not be accurate.
  2. One loses and gains autonomy as a Christian. When you become a Christian, you’re committing to be crucified to the world with Christ. But in doing so, you can find your life and find it to the full.
  3. When you get married, whether you’re a husband or a wife, you’re more specifically defining who you are. To define oneself at all is a simultaneous gain and loss of autonomy. If you become Jackie’s husband or Jerry’s wife, then you’re making a choice to be a specific person bound to another specific person. In that sense, you put on an identity within which to make a wide range of previously unavailable choices (gained autonomy) and you’ve severely limited your choices as well (lost autonomy).

Converting to Christianity or getting married is to lose/gain autonomy, but this is how all choices are. I do fear that certain quarters of the feminist movement want a world in which choices lead only to gained autonomy:

It would appear that while no woman needs a man for companionship, women need men and other women to pay for their birth control.

Thankfully, such a world is impossible.

Question 3: Is the picture of headship prescribed in Scripture good or workable?

I think the answer is yes. Most of what comes next is just a sketch, and maybe even speculative, though the psychological (esp. evo-psych) and anthropological research is there.

The notion that headship means domineering is clearly wrong. The notion that it means to protect, provide, represent, and lead is generally what children want in a dad and wives in a husband. In cases wherein things are different, the Bible is clear that people should treat others as they want to be treated and discussion and compromise are necessary. But I think that in the majority of civilizational history, women have had particular duties which made it difficult for them to be, in any sense, “head” of the family. Once a baby was born, mom became attached to the duties of feeding, educating, and otherwise caring for baby. This did not mean that they weren’t leaders, influencers, creative thinkers, or productive. It just meant they did it as mothers.

Insofar as biological sex differences are products of divine creation and/or evolutionary processes, the development of the headship model is rather natural and the Paul’s method of attaching the mutual ethics of love and respect to that model help to make it work in a fashion, not of biological necessity, but of Christian spiritual formation.

Concluding Thoughts

It’s best to remember that the New Testament commands all Christians to love and honor/submit to one another and that the character of married couples must include both of those traits, because in many places those characteristics are encourages without reference to gender roles or any roles in particular. So, Christian wives ought to respect their husbands and Christian husbands ought to love their wives.

The other details (the nature of roles) are definitely cultural, but culture comes from human beings whose behavior comes from their nature. And so it’s best to determine if the roles mentioned in the New Testament work before rejecting them outright. And like many of the social rules in the New Testament, there are likely exceptions.

Proverbs 31: A Biblical Interpretation Case Study

A money lender and his wife, by Quentin Metsys

In an article at Relevant magazine, a competent and articulate writer named Lauren Oquist challenges readers of her article to stop obsessing over the Proverbs 31 woman. The point of this post is not to be critical of the author of the post quoted (though I will be critical of her post), the point is to demonstrate how a fuller reading of a Biblical book might help it yield its treasures.

Brief Personal Interlude: I don’t like the phrase “Proverbs 31 woman.”

Over all, the title of the article is good advice. I think that people, in general, should avoid obsessions. On top of that, I find the theme of her article very helpful. She essentially says that no particular Biblical type should become the primary focus of our lives, except for the imitation of Jesus Christ. Such types were never meant to be the primary metaphors we use to govern our lives. I quote her article because it brought up a conversation my wife and I had several months ago that came up again this morning, so even where I disagree with this or that point she makes, her article inspired my blog post and ultimately concludes the same way.

Exercise in Thoughtful Reading: Go read Proverbs 31:1-31.

Asking the Right Questions
In good rhetorical fashion (like I said, competent writer), Oquist simultaneously relates to her readership as well as establishes the need for the problem she attempts to solve:

Maybe you, like me, read this passage [Proverbs 31:10-31 ] and think to yourself well sheesh. Is every woman supposed to try and fit this mold? And how would that be possible if every woman is different? What if she can’t sew or cook or hires a nanny for her kids during the week? What if she never even gets married? Does that mean she’s not living up to her God-given potential as a female? Does that mean she’s living in sin?

And what if you don’t want to be a Proverbs 31 woman?

 

When she admits that the passage is difficult to put into practice she also grasps the interpretive crux of the issue when she asks, “is every woman supposed to try to fit this mold?” In general, Christians should ask questions like this of many of our favorite Bible passages. If we thought of the immediate context of a Biblical book, its genre, and where that book fits in the timeline of Scripture before we tried to emulate a character or obey a saying, then Christians would make more sense. Examples:
  1. Should I try to be like King David?
  2. Should I take up my cross and follow Jesus?
  3. Should I put the Sermon on the Mount into practice?

These questions have answers that can be found by examining the books of the Bible containing these people and precepts as well as by examining the whole canon of Scripture.

Oquist asks the right question for spiritual growth and personal assessment and the wrong question for Biblical interpretation: “what if you don’t want to be a [fill in the blank]?” Asking this question to help me understand the Bible opens up circumstances like this:

I read the Sermon on the Mount and ask, “Do I even want to love my enemies?”

That is a good question for assessing the state of my soul, but it is a poor question for assessing whether the gospel authors are prescribing Jesus’ teachings to their readers. For instance, if I don’t want to obey Jesus, I cannot then infer that Matthew wrote his gospel without meaning for people to obey Jesus.

The same goes for Proverbs 31:10-31. It is a tall order, but simply because it is idealistic does not mean that it is not prescriptive. The first question must be answered, “Is this passage for personal application?” Before we move on, it is important to note that the article I am quoting does not claim to answer the question about whether the passage should be obeyed by using the question about “wanting to,” though it may imply as much.

Who is the “Good Wife” of Proverbs 31? A Heuristic for An Ancient Near-Eastern King
The Proverbs 31 woman is clearly not a particular woman because the author sets her up as a type, in fact precisely as an ideal to appreciate specific instances of (and, we’ll see later to emulate):

 Proverbs 31:10 An excellent wife who can find? She is far more precious than jewels.

This is advice to a King from his mother, who apparently played the role of a prophet to the royal court. King Lemuel’s mother gave him the following paradigm for being a good king. The advice ranges from the need to be chaste to the need to heed the rights of the poor. Recall from your earlier reading that Proverbs 31 starts like this:

Proverbs 31:1-9  The words of King Lemuel. An oracle that his mother taught him:  (2)  What are you doing, my son? What are you doing, son of my womb? What are you doing, son of my vows?  (3)  Do not give your strength to women, your ways to those who destroy kings.  (4)  It is not for kings, O Lemuel, it is not for kings to drink wine, or for rulers to take strong drink,  (5)  lest they drink and forget what has been decreed and pervert the rights of all the afflicted.  (6)  Give strong drink to the one who is perishing, and wine to those in bitter distress;  (7)  let them drink and forget their poverty and remember their misery no more.  (8)  Open your mouth for the mute, for the rights of all who are destitute.  (9)  Open your mouth, judge righteously, defend the rights of the poor and needy.

The Proverbs 31 woman appears to be an expression of the type of woman whose activity King Lemuel is to laud as worthy of public praise for the good of society (see the counter point of Lady Folly in Proverbs 5-9). He is to do this so that that these traits will be sought as virtuous and those who have them will be seen as venerable. The result is a sort of ethic of the city-state that we see in Aristotle. Certain behaviors, if lauded by respected/respectable people, will be valued by those who respect them. The same principle is in play when young people dress like and parrot the values of favorite band members, local politicians, or movie stars.

Essentially then, the king’s mother says that being a good king necessitates recognizing the moral agency of women and praising the upright women in the land. See the end:

Proverbs 31:30-31  Charm is deceitful, and beauty is vain, but a woman who fears the LORD is to be praised.  (31)  Give her of the fruit of her hands, and let her works praise her in the gates.

Thus, all of the traits are to be praised as explicitly virtuous in any particular woman. The passage is not addressed to men or women per se, but to kings or people of influence. On the other hand, even though the passage is not about particular women, it is explicitly about the virtues of women who are in the attendant circumstances in which those virtues or behaviors make sense.

A Paradigm for Praiseworthy Living
Which brings me to my own final point. The book of Proverbs itself is largely instruction to men about how to grow up wisely, “Proverbs 1:8a Hear my son…” But it would be weird to think that it cannot apply to women or that since it would be hard for one man to have all of those traits the book shouldn’t be seen as applicable to men. In fact, one of the most frequent observations concerning Proverbs is its almost universal applicability in the lives of those who read it daily. If we return to the early chapters of Proverbs we can see a figure commonly referred to as Lady Wisdom. She is put before the readers to represent several realities:

  1. She is a prophet who represents God (Proverbs 1:20)
  2. She is like your mother, whose sound words can save you (Proverbs 1:8)
  3. She is like a woman to court over against lady folly (Proverbs 8:17)
  4. She is representative of God’s mind as he upholds the cosmos (Proverbs 8:22-30)
  5. As such, her ways are to be emulated (Proverbs 8:32)

Therefore, by virtue of the analogy between the type of woman that King Lemuel is supposed to praise in the gates and Lady Wisdom, the male or female reader of Proverbs should find concrete examples of wise and virtuous behavior to put into practice when they read about the good wife of Proverbs 31 just as much as they would find as they read the rest of Proverbs. For example, Jesus would wake up before sun rise to pray as a matter of custom (Mark 1:35, cf. Proverbs 31:15) just as the woman of Proverbs 31 does.

Conclusion
A hermeneutic that dismisses Scripture before it is determined to be applicable is not a best practice. In this case, the wife figure of Proverbs 31 is most likely a paradigmatic expression of virtues in many circumstances, particularly of praiseworthy women, rather than a purely impossible or offensive ideal which is best left ignored or dismissed.

 

Sacrifice is built into life

One of the least noticed features of Genesis 4 is that, as far as we can tell, Abel and Cain invented the concept of sacrifice as a human mode of worshiping God.

What’s strange about it is that God accepts the sacrifices despite the apparent brutality (Abel kills lambs) and even simple waste (Cain burns up vegetables). The reason it doesn’t seem as strange to us is that sacrifice is so normal for the rest of the Bible. But it ought to strike us as strange because it was an absent concept in the first three pages of Genesis and it is, in the forms we see in Scripture, absent in our lives.

It’s important to pay careful attention to what sacrifice is and does on the most basic level. It basically says that in order for a limited being (human) to manipulate reality/nature in a positive direction, it must give up something beneficial (which was hard to obtain in the first place) to a stronger actor in the scheme of the cosmos. And that in this way, reality itself (God) will be pleased to continue in its beneficence.

In other words, sacrifice is a dramatization of the idea that there is a hierarchy of value and that certain valuables cannot be obtained without the voluntary release of those previously obtained. Indeed, with sacrifice comes the idea that life must carry on “on the steam” of death. Now, sacrifice is an acting out of significantly more than this, but it isn’t less. Sacrifice wasn’t quite the same as magic because magic always exists outside of a coherent worldview. Sacrifice was performed in the context of believing in gods who were place holders for principles of nature. Magic is the attempt to bypass nature altogether (see Rodney Stark’s Acts of Faith, 104-106).

One might say that sacrifice was a way of acting out your view of the ultimate good and the need to do without lesser goods in order to obtain the ultimate bit by bit. For instance, one might sacrifice a child to Moloch so that you can eat in the future. Of course, this would be the grossest idolatry in the Old Testament because children are in God’s image, so one is literally sacrificing the image of the true God to an image of a false god created by man out of material supplied by the true God in order to get something less than God like food.

It’s important to see this by way of example in the modern world:

  1. The person who sees pleasure as the highest good, might eat junk food every day. They don’t realize it, but they’re sacrificing health and feelings of wholeness in order to seek their vision of the highest possible good.
  2. To the person who sees virtue as the highest possible good, any number of advantages will be sacrificed in order to escape temptations to live a life of vice.
  3. The athlete who sees winning as the highest possible good will sacrifice their future mobility to nevertheless lose. But they will trade joint integrity for the shouts in the stands and admiration of the team.
  4. The parent who wants perfect children will sacrifice their children’s love to pursue the goal of pushing their children into their own narrow vision of perfection. Or, more hopefully, a parent might sacrifice their vision of the ideal child in order to raise their child to be autonomous, virtuous, and happy insofar as it is possible for them to do so.

Sacrifice, then, is baked into the cake of human existence. It’s simply what we do. So when Jesus said, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me,” he was relying on one of the simple realities of human existence: you must go without in order to have what is best.

Given what I’ve said about sacrifice, Jesus’ claim raises two important questions:

  1. What is your vision of “best”?
  2. What will you do without to have it?

The Christian answer to these two questions is:

  1. The kind of life Jesus offers.
  2. Everything about yourself.

Now, Jesus understands that those who follow him “see through a glass darkly.” In fact, one of the things we’ll most have to sacrifice in order to follow Jesus is our own conception of him, for as we approach the ineffable light of God we will realize we were pursuing an illusion that resembled him but was insufficient. We await the day when we’ll see Christ face to face, and in that day we will be like him. But until then, the goal is to daily deny ourselves, even to purify ourselves of what distracts us from the vision of the “best life” that Christ offers. Until now, it’s sufficient to be fully known by him whom we long to know.

In what sense is Christianity comforting?

One of the many conceits of the modern era is that religion is believed precisely because it provides irrational comfort to those who refuse to see things as they are.

And while I have no doubt that many believe various religious dogmas for this purpose, it simply isn’t true that Christianity can be believed, by those who understand it, solely because it is comforting. Why? Here are a few reasons:

  1. Christianity says that the world is your fault. The problems in the world are simply because of wrongs you’ve done and you’re responsible for them. Not only so, but it teaches, at its best, that while you must somehow make all of this right, that you cannot.
  2. Christianity, in its Calvinist iteration, says that all the evils of the world are God’s idea, and really and truly good, and that nothing can be done about them except that God undo them. There isn’t much comfort here if the wheels of providence oppose you.
  3. Christianity, in its non-Calvinist iterations, teaches that the earth has fallen under the control of a cosmic socio-path who hates God and pursues destruction as though it were the good. Not much comfort in knowing that not only is nature dangerous and that your sins put you cross-ways with God, but also that supernatural forces which influence human behavior and ideologies hate you.
  4. Christianity teaches that Jesus demands that you give up several legitimate goods, which God made for you to enjoy, in order to do what is right.
  5. Christianity teaches that your inmost secrets are under the scrutiny of a being of infinite goodness and justice.
  6. Christianity teaches that the creation is subject to meaninglessness (vanity) and that we must live as though the world is imbued with meaning even when it feels pointless.
  7. Christianity teaches that our prayers may go without answering because of supernatural incidents beyond our control (see Daniel).
  8. Christianity teaches that even at your most miserable, you’re responsible for your neighbor.
  9. Christianity includes the Old Testament.

The idea that one would adopt beliefs of this sort for emotional solace is a fiction. I do believe that Christianity offers comfort and that Christians are to comfort each other. I’m of the opinion that people would only subscribe to beliefs with such potential to crush their spirit for one of three reasons:

  1. They think they’re true (for good or bad reasons).
  2. They find, in Jesus, an irresistible personality.
  3. A deep fear of hell which lead them to bet on Christianity for redemption.