Book Review: The Gospel of Happiness

Book Review: The Gospel of Happiness: Rediscover Your Faith Through Spiritual Practices and Positive Psychology by Christopher Kaczor

Introduction

I found out about this book from twitter, when James K.A. Smith mentioned anticipating it’s release. I had never heard of the author before, but he’s an ethics professor with his PhD from Notre Dame.

The aim of the book is stated on page 18:

In this book, I highlight the many ways in which positive psychology and Christian practice overlap. I point out empirical findings in positive psychology that point to the wisdom of many Christian practices and teachings. I also provide practical suggestions on how to become happier in everyday life and how to deepen Christian practice based on contemporary psychological insights. All of this points us toward deeper fulfillment in this life, and in the life to come. This is why I titled this book The Gospel of Happiness – because this is good news, very good news indeed (18).

The argument is fairly obvious from chapter to chapter. The chapter titles are:

  1. The Ways to Happiness
  2. The Way of Faith, Hope, and Love
  3. The Way of Prayer
  4. The Way of Gratitude
  5. The Way of Forgiveness
  6. The Way of Virtue
  7. The Way of Willpower

Dr. Kaczor looks at the relevant psychological research concerning each topic as well the Biblical and historical teachings of Christianity and shows their coherence and overlap. After he makes these comparisons he makes recommendations for personal practice.

The Bad
I really found very little objectionable in the book. Perhaps a more New Testament studies oriented definition of the word gospel would have been nice. The gospel is not merely, “good news” because it makes us happy. It is good news because it is an announcement about God’s kingdom. But this weakness is forgivable because the author isn’t a New Testament scholar. Also, it makes very little practical difference to the content of the rest of the book.

There are two formatting issues though: the book uses endnotes which are as annoying as having socks full of fire ants. Also, there is no index. An index would have been wonderful.

The Good
Where shall I begin? For starters, the book takes on Nietzsche’s notion that Christianity makes people weak, miserable, and stupid (183). Many Christians feel guilty about pursuing happiness, power, or success and I think that this comes from adopting a Nietzschean understanding of Christian ethics instead of Biblical one.

Another wonderful aspect of the book is the content of the endnotes. The amount of helpful literature cited is a great library builder.

More importantly though is the content of the book. As stated above the author means to show how positive psychology and Christian teaching over lap and offer practical advice for improving happiness. I’ll summarize the first chapter to show how the author does this so that you can see that he performs his objective admirably:

The Ways to Happiness
In this chapter, Kazcor uses Martin Seligman’s PERMA definition of happiness and shows how Christian teaching and practice, at its best, fulfills the requirements of each piece of the puzzle (21). It is important to recognize that Kaczor and Seligman define happiness as flourishing and well-being, not merely as positive emotion (as you’ll see). PERMA stands for positive emotions, engagement, relationships, meaning, and achievement (21). Here are summaries of Kaczor’s explanation of each.

  1. Positive Emotions
    Kaczor cites several lines of research that indicate that religious people generally have higher positive emotion than irreligious people (22-23). He does observe that Christians are “called to love God and neighbor regardless how they may be feeling at the moment” (24). He also observes that doing the right thing while experiencing negative emotions is harder. I would add that Kant would say that makes it even more moral. Essentially, Kazcor notes that since we know the our emotions impact others and how we make decisions, we are obligated to care about fostering positive emotions in ourselves in ways that are not contrary to the Christian life. In doing this, we are able to foster well-being and emotional happiness in others (26). What I wish he did observe here was that doing the right thing for our neighbor can lead to positive emotions (he does say this on pages 66-67).
  2. Engagement
    Engagement is our flow or activation of our strengths in order to accomplish some task. Kaczor reminds readers that in Genesis, man was made to “tend the garden.” With this in mind, he notes the importance of legitimate work as a way of experiencing unity with God (29). I’ve written about this  myself.
  3. Relationships
    Seligman’s taxonomy of happiness includes relationships as a “rock-bottom fundamental of human well-being” (30). Kaczor here writes about the obvious place of human relationships in the teachings of Jesus. His main focus here is Jesus’ command to “love one another as I have loved you” (John 13:24). I would have added the importance of embedded personality in ancient thought is simply assumed in the Bible, so much so that while individuals are responsible for their actions, their identity is not merely related to achievements like in Proverbs, but it is linked integrally to their community associations (in Christ, the body of Christ, the church of God, etc).
  4. Meaning
    Kazcor notes that Seligman defines meaning as “belonging to and serving something you believe is better than the self” (32). Kaczor points to the subjective experience of Christian obedience in small things as a level of meaning added to people who aren’t famous for their contributions to the world (33). He also notes the objective question of whether or not anything actually has meaning and notes that Christianity claims to offer objective meaning to the life of the Christian and to explain the objective meaning of the cosmos and human existence in general. If Christianity is true, then meaning is provided for like Paul says, “your work in the Lord is not in vain” (1 Corinthians 15:58).
  5. Achievement
    Here Kaczor notes the importance of feeling successful for human happiness, but also notes the traps that Christian morality trains us to avoid: greed, vanity, and social comparison which are all things that positive psychology notes do not actually contribute to overall happiness (40). In my opinion, many Christians are so concerned to talk about God’s grace saving us from sin despite our failure to do good works that they fail to talk about the importance of tackling small and big tasks for God, neighbor, and self in order to be happy. But the Bible does say that with toil there is profit and with mere talk there is only poverty. Paul also approves of a certain measure of pleasure in spiritual growth (Gal 6:4).

Conclusion
Over all I find the book to be a wonderful clarification of the position of Christian theology and the Biblical witness on happiness, but it is not merely that. It also functions as a defense of Christianity because it shows that Christianity is actually good for you. Finally, the book is a great book for devotional reading or for pastors to read in order to help Christians in their pursuit of Christ and of earthly and eternal happiness. I highly recommend it.

Burning off dead wood

What is a human being and how does it grow? Two men offer helpful and constructive answers can be found below. To be human is to be the sort of creature whose mind can incorporate struggles and trials into itself to become more. Marcus is commenting on the Stoic concept that human beings are rational animals, Peterson is commenting on Scripture in the first quote and on Jung’s understanding of Solve et Coagula[1] in the second. I hope what follows is helpful and encouraging:

Marcus Aurelius

Our inward power, when it obeys nature, reacts to events by accommodating itself to what it faces— to what is possible. It needs no specific material. It pursues its own aims as circumstances allow; it turns obstacles into fuel. As a fire overwhelms what would have quenched a lamp. What’s thrown on top of the conflagration is absorbed, consumed by it— and makes it burn still higher. (Aurelius Meditations, Hays Translation 4:1)

 

Because we can accommodate and adapt. The mind adapts and converts to its own purposes the obstacle to our acting. The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way. (Aurelius 5:20)

Jordan Peterson

It’s not just a little linear, it’s step-wise, right? It’s that the you that emerges as a consequence of your latest catastrophe is everything that you were before plus something more. And that actually constitutes what you might describe as measurable progress, right? And that’s another argument against moral relativism, because if you can do everything that you could do before, and you can do some more things we could just define that as better. It’s not a bad definition. And then we have enough. It’s like, what you’re trying to do is to differentiate the world and differentiate yourself and every time you undergo one of these revolutions then hopefully both of those things happen. And then there’s a moral to that story, too, which is do it voluntarily and maybe do it don’t wait for it to happen catastrophically. Keep your eyes open and when something goes a little bit wrong that you could fix it. Don’t say, “No, that doesn’t matter.” Maybe it does matter. Maybe it is matter. Maybe it’s exactly the matter out of which you should be built.[2] 

 

[confronting the unexpected and undesired good is…] It’s a forest fire that allows for new growth, and that’s how those things are put together and, and it’s useful to know too because if you burn something off you might think well there’s nothing left. That’s not true! If it’s dead wood, then you have room for new growth. And you want to be doing that on a fairly regular basis. That’s the snake that sheds its skin and transforms itself, right? That’s the death and resurrection, from a psychological perspective. It’s exactly the same idea! Now, we don’t know the upper limit to that, right? Because we don’t know what a person would be like if they let everything that they could let go let go and only let in what was seemly, let’s say. But you can see, that’s funny we know that to some degree you can see people vary from you can see people start to do that, it’s not a rare experience. And people improve very rapidly. They can improve their lives very rapidly, a lot of it is low-hanging fruit. If you just stop doing really stupid things that you know are stupid your life improves a lot so and it frees you up. It also means there’s a there’s an element there that’s also associated with pride because people tend to take pride in who they are, and that’s a bad idea because that stops you from becoming who you could be because if you’re proud of who you are you won’t let that go when it’s necessary you won’t step away from it you know and then you end up being your own parody That’s also a very bad idea. You want to be continually stepping away from your previous. Part of that too is that you have to decide, are you order, or are you chaos, or you the process that mediates between them? If you’re the process that mediates between them you are the thing that transforms. And that’s the right attitude for human beings because that’s what we are. The thing that voluntarily confronts chaos and transforms. That’s what we are. And so, for better or worse, you know, that’s our deepest biological essence, you might say. So, you can let things go if you know that there’s more growth to come.[3] 

 

Reflections

Aurelius’ meditations and Peterson’s broader argument provide a helpful rationale for learning the dialectical arts, adopting asceticism, and a more positive approach to life’s trials.

References


[1] One of my dear friends was deeply interested in Jung and before his tragic death wrote the song linked above.

[2]

Abraham’s Virtues

God Blessed Abraham in All Things

Yoram Hazony makes the case that in Genesis, Abraham is painted as a paradigmatically virtuous character. The primary evidence is that while Abraham is not perfect, God has confidence that he will “command his children and his house after him, and they will keep the way of the Lord, to do justice and right.[1]” Also significant is Genesis 24:1, “And the Lord had blessed Abraham in all things.”

Abraham’s Virtues

What are Abraham’s virtues (According to Hazony):

  1. He can be generous to strangers.
  2. He is troubled by injustice to the point of taking great risks to obstruct it (he even argues with God).
  3. He insists on only taking what is his and paying for what he gets.
  4. He is pious.
  5. He is concerned to safeguard his own interests and his family’s.

Many Christians tend to think of self-interest as a vice rather than a virtue. I made my own based on the Abraham story. It nearly matches Hazony’s:

  1. Abraham’s willingness to enter covenants is both altruistic (bless the earth) and self-interested (make a great name, you’ll be blessed, etc)
  2. Abraham rejects human sacrifice (see Genesis 22).[2]
  3. Abraham believes in right and wrong as absolute categories and challenges God’s actions on their basis.
  4. Abraham doesn’t fear conflict, or rather, shows great courage in the face of battle (when it comes to the power of giant cities, he has a harder time, but in his defense fighting tribal kings is a different animal that opposing the might of emperors in their walled megacities).
  5. Abraham insists on hospitality.
  6. Abraham trusts God (Genesis 15:6).

The Good Life in the Bible

Virtues are the mean between extremes and can easily become vices without careful introspection. And in Abraham’s story, we see time and again where his self-interest conflicts with the well-being of his wife (letting her into a royal harem!) and his trust in God (having a child with Hagar).[3]

In academic Biblical studies, the focus is typically on the apparent evils committed by this or that Biblical character that they tend to miss the idea that the authors are painting pictures of the good life. Because of this, they highlight the necessarily difficult task of making wise and just decisions in light of a hierarchy of goods which are often in conflict.

The idea that Abraham was virtuous despite nearly killing his son and that he was deeply concerned with his family’s riches and reputation is intellectually difficult. While I take the story of Isaac as a rejection of human sacrifice, most people I know think Abraham was really going to do it. But despite Abraham’s flaws, anybody could read through the Abraham story (Genesis 12:1-24:1) asking, “what does this say about living a full and good life?” The food for thought would be filling.

References

 [1] This is Hazony’s translation of Genesis 18:19. The Philosophy of the Hebrew Bible, 112.

[2]  In my mind, Genesis 22 makes it clear that Abraham, never for a second, was going to submit to the demand to kill Isaac. The New Testament has readings of the story implying that perhaps God could raise Isaac from the dead if Abraham did it. That may be true, but in the story, Abraham tells Isaac that God would provide an offering for the sacrifice.

 [3] 113

Adler’s Moral Axiom

As far as I can tell, there are three major problems in ethical thinking today:

  1. Disconnecting ethics from happiness and therefore thinking that personal well-being and pleasure have nothing to do with ethics.
  2. Hedonism: The idea that right and wrong is only a matter of what leads to the highest personal pleasure. In social ethics, this means allowing people to do whatever they think/feel will make them feel the best. We might call this unscientific utilitarianism (because it isn’t based upon actual knowledge of what is good for the individual or collective human organism.
  3. The is/ought problem: That since knowledge is all descriptive, no understanding of what is can lead to a conclusion about what one ought to do.

In my opinion, all three of these problems are solved in one way or another by Mortimer Adler’s one self-evident moral premise: We ought to desire whatever is really good for us and nothing else.

Below are the paragraphs where he introduces the axiom in his book, 10 Philosophical Mistakes:

The two distinctions that we now have before us, distinctions generally neglected in modern thought—the distinction between natural and acquired desires, or needs and wants, and the distinction between real and merely apparent goods—enable us to state a self-evident truth that serves as the first principle of moral philosophy. We ought to desire whatever is really good for us and nothing else.

The criterion of self-evidence, it will be recalled, is the impossibility of thinking the opposite. It is impossible for us to think that we ought to desire what is really bad for us, or ought not to desire what is really good for us. The very understanding of the “really good” carries with it the prescriptive note that we “ought to desire” it. We cannot understand “ought” and “really good” as related in any other way.[1]

While Adler’s claim is presented as an axiom, a truth about which one cannot accept the opposite proposition, it can probably only be accepted once it is properly understood. Here are some questions to help us think it through:

  1. Is it possible for there to be desires that are bad for us?
  2. Are there desires that are good for us but desired wrongly?
  3. Are there desires that are more important than others?
  4. We desire food, but is there a reason to desire food?
  5. We desire to live, but is there a reason we desire to live?
  6. We desire pleasure, but is there a reason we desire pleasure?
  7. We desire sex but is there a reason for sex?

If Adler’s axiom is axiomatic, we have a proposition upon which to build our ethics, dispute them as our understanding of human nature advances, and upon which to build theological ethics for those who accept divine revelation about the purpose and nature of humanity.

References

[1] Mortimer Jerome Adler, Ten Philosophical Mistakes (New York: Macmillan, 1985), 90-91

 

Effort Habit: Keep the Faculty of Effort Alive in You

William James on the Effort Habit

One of my favorite selections from James’ psychology text book is about developing an effort habit:

Keep the faculty of effort alive in you by a little gratuitous exercise every day. That is, be systematically ascetic or heroic in little unnecessary points, do every day or two something for no other reason than that you would rather not do it, so that when the hour of dire need draws nigh, it may find you not unnerved and untrained to stand the test. Asceticism of this sort is like the insurance which a man pays on his house and goods. The tax does him no good at the time, and possibly may never bring him a return. But if the fire does come, his having paid it will be his salvation from ruin. So it is with the man who has daily inured himself with habits of concentrated attention, energetic volition, and self-denial in unnecessary things. He will stand like a tower when everything rocks around him, and when his softer fellow-mortals are winnowed like chaff in the blast. – William James, The Principals of Psychology, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1983), 130.

That little paragraph has been very helpful to me. James makes the excellent point that exercising yourself in self-denial until it becomes a habit for you to handle discomfort is an an incredible down payment on handling trials. I agree. Self-mastery of this sort is practically a super power.

Your Bad Habits are a Hell on Earth

He also notes later that “the physiological study of mental conditions is thus the most powerful ally in hortatory ethics. The hell to be endured hereafter, of which theology tells, is no worse than the hell we make for ourselves in this world by habitually fashioning our characters in the wrong way. Could the young but realize how soon they will become mere walking bundles of habits, they would give more heed to themselves while in the plastic state (James, 130).”

In the Christian conception hell is an experience in life and post-mortem. Even if you reject the existence of God and of eternal judgment, you cannot reject the existence of hell if you’ve seen the state people get into because of their own awful habits.

You must develop good, challenging, creative habits in for your mind, body, spirit, career, and relationships and you’ve got to do it little by little every day. And if you don’t want to, imagine for a moment the hell you’ll be in if you let yourself continue down the path of your worst possible self.

Develop Christian Habits

In the present age we American Christians have become soft. Too much comfort, entertainment, easy to prepare food, and soft chairs should have given up more time to read Scripture, contemplate God, improve our skills, perfect our bodies, and care for our neighbors. William James has a lot to say to the religious today: keep the effort habit alive. Being a Christian does not excuse us from self-denial, it demands it of us!

A Parting Quote

As we become permanent drunkards by so many separate drinks, so we become saints in the moral, and authorities and experts in the scientific and practical spheres, by so many separate acts and hours of work. Let no youth have any anxiety about the upshot of his education…If he keep faithfully busy each hour of the working day, he may safely leave the result to itself. He can with perfect certainty count of waking up some fine morning, to find himself one of the competent ones of his generation in whatever pursuit he may have singled out ( James, 131).”

A Medievalist’s Take on Milo

Over at Fencing Bear at Prayer, Dr. Rachel Brown comments on Milo Yiannopoulos:

But people like Sarsour’s supporters are not willing to debate Milo with facts, reason, and logic, as the protestors who showed up to protest his talk this afternoon proved by blowing whistles and yelling throughout his remarks. Milo is not going to change anybody’s mind with his arguments if his audiences are already provoked.

So what does he think he is doing? I think I know. He is embodying a myth. More precisely, he is embodying the myth at the heart of Western civilization: the myth by which, as Professor Peterson puts it, articulated truth brings the world into being. He is embodying the Word.

Milo describes his campus talks not just as speaking, but as doing something. Other conservatives, he insists, think that they can change people’s minds by writing a column or publishing a book, but that isn’t doing anything. And yet, it would seem, all Milo does is talk. (Or, occasionally, sing.)

Why give the talks on college campuses? Partly, because Milo cares about education. And partly, because college campuses are the place where students are introduced to the arguments Milo is trying to expose in their most articulated form. But mainly because college campuses are the one place in our contemporary culture (other than places of worship) where people come together to speak in person….

Milo understands this [that one must risk the attacks of chaos to speak into it and make order]. Seriously, it is why he wears a cross. Every word that we say matters because every word we speak either moves us closer to the truth or entangles us further in lies. Truths about the basis of our civilization, whether in the divinity of the individual or in the submission of the individual to God. Truths about the proper relations between women and men. Truths about speech and its effect on the world. We can choose not to speak and become, as Professor Peterson puts it, miserable worms. Or we can choose to speak, take the consequences, and bring a better world into being.

Now, Milo represents himself as a moral degenerate along several domains, he particularly enjoys attempting to trigger the disgust response of the very conservatives on whose behalf he argues. Nevertheless, viewing him as intentionally appropriating the archetype of Christ as one who speaks the truth or an approximation of it at personal risk is an interesting interpretation from a university professor, since most professors appear to endorse the violent student responses to him. In other words, professors view Milo as so dangerous as to justify the destruction of campus property to prevent his presence (look up the Berkeley riots).

Of course, I doubt that in the case of anybody who knows about Milo there is any chance of moving your picture of him from negative to positive or positive to negative. He’s an example of Scot Adamstwo movies theory of reality. It’s as if we were watching the Dark Knight and one group of individuals was primed to think of it as a movie in which a clown, disfigured by a totalitarian vigilante is seeking revenge through a series of games meant to psychologically break with narcissistic and megalomaniacal figure. And the others just heard it was a sequel to Batman Begins.  The contrast in analyses of the film would be stark.

But an important question is this, can a non-Christian figure with admittedly degenerate moral tendencies be an archetype of Christ for the world? I don’t know. Paul would seem to say, “No.” (Romans 1:31) But is that final or is it just generally true? Or does it matter if you’re approving of the person for his sins or for his virtues? And is Milo virtuous, self-serving, both, just a disagreeable jester who loves trouble?

 

 

Neurotic worldviews and their cure

An Anxious Worldview

In Alfred Adler‘s essay, The Neurotic’s Picture of the World: A Case Study, he describes the pampered lifestyle of the neurotic:

Extreme discouragement, continuing doubt, hypersensitivity, impatience, exaggerated emotion, and phenomena of retreat, and physical and psychic disturbances showing the signs of weakness and need for support are always evidence that a neurotic patient has not yet abandoned his early-acquired pampered life style. These show that a patient endowed with a comparatively small degree of activity, and not possessing sufficient social interest, has pictured to himself a world in which he is entitled to be first in everything.

Later, when such a favorable situation does not obtain for him, he is not prepared to render any response other than a more or less spiteful accusation of other people, of life, of his parents. This limitation of his activity to a small circle results in his leaving important questions unanswered, and when he is brought face to face with a problem which he is not prepared to cope with, he suffers a shock and responds with a shock reaction. (Superiority and Social Interest 98)

The Neurotic in Scripture

Adler describes the man who won’t accept reality because he has a worldview in which he is secretly the best, the secret king. Sadly, he is unaware that this reality is purely imagined. When contrary evidence arises, he blames everybody but himself. While this constellation of traits can be associated with personality, it can also arise from poor habits of thought and action.  It reminds me of Cain‘s approach to life in Genesis 4, the disciples wanting Jesus to put them in charge, the various potential disciples who would only follow Jesus if Jesus did things their way, or Nabal when he discovered that his wife protected him from David. When we want the world to bend to our will without accepting it first as it is, then it will break us. Not only so, but if we want excellence without effort, we will be frustrated at every turn.

The Neurotic Today

In modern life, political pundits or protesters who cannot emotionally cope with evidence against their ideas (even if they’re right despite that evidence!) seem to fit this type. It’s similar to the student who resents the need for effort to achieve excellence, the parent who resents their children for being imperfect, and so-on. I suspect that the hyper-reality of the internet exacerbates this personality type and develops it in those who otherwise would not experience these negative traits. Dallas Willard once defined reality as, “What you run into when you’re wrong.” The secret king won’t change his mind when this happens, but doubles down. It’s a sad way to live, but it’s a temptation most of us face.

How to stop resenting the world

Those who resent the world do so because its truth doesn’t align with their beliefs about how it ought to function. The tendency is to act on the basis of how we wish the world was before we see what it actually is. Like Abel in Genesis 4, we have to accept that there is chaos, understand fully what that chaos is, and then use it to our advantage to create order (there are weeds…sheep eat weeds!).

According to Proverbs, wisdom is acquired by being exposed to the truth of the world, accepting that truth, and then acting:

  1. The tongue of the wise commends knowledge, but the mouths of fools pour out folly.
    (Proverbs 15:2 ESV)
  2. The heart of him who has understanding seeks knowledge, but the mouths of fools feed on folly. (Proverbs 15:14 ESV)

The wise seeks to understand the world, the fool needs falsehood. Adler, I think, helps us understand why? The fool feeds on folly to maintain his self-image. To overcome this state of being, you must seek and speak the truth as far as you understand it and be open to criticism every single time.

 

 

Vengeance is Good?

One of my biggest critiques of Aristotle as a young man was his assumption of the essential goodness of vengeance. As a Christian, all I could think was that such a notion could not be more at odds with divine revelation:

Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.”[1]

But reading Aquinas helped me see a method of reconciling the two points of view:

We should look to God for nothing save what is good and lawful. But we are to look to God for vengeance on His enemies: for it is written (Luke 18:7): Will not God revenge His elect who cry to Him day and night? as if to say: He will indeed. Therefore vengeance is not essentially evil and unlawful.[2]

In other words, vengeance. Now, Aquinas goes further and elaborates a theory of governance and punishment, I’m not interested in that. But rather in the idea that vengeance is a good to be desired by God’s people. It’s a frightful good, especially in light of St. Stephen’s prayer that his evil murderers be forgiven. But are there circumstances, perhaps after Christians have prayed for their enemies to repent, showed them mercy, and even fasted on their behalf that it becomes appropriate to ask God to do justice, and if they hold an official position, to distribute that justice (read: vengeance is the distribution of justice for wrongs done)?

A few verses later in Romans, Paul makes clear that human beings can justly punish from the perspective of governing officials:

For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer.[3]

Not only so, but King David prayed:

11    Malicious witnesses rise up;

they ask me of things that I do not know.

12    They repay me evil for good;

my soul is bereft.

13    But I, when they were sick—

I wore sackcloth;

I afflicted myself with fasting;

       I prayed with head bowed on my chest.

14        I went about as though I grieved for my friend or my brother;

       as one who laments his mother,

I bowed down in mourning.

15    But at my stumbling they rejoiced and gathered;

they gathered together against me;

       wretches whom I did not know

tore at me without ceasing;

16    like profane mockers at a feast,

they gnash at me with their teeth.

17    How long, O Lord, will you look on?

Rescue me from their destruction,

my precious life from the lions!

18    I will thank you in the great congregation;

in the mighty throng I will praise you. [4]

 

References

[1] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2016), Ro 12:19.

[2] Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, trans. Fathers of the English Dominican Province (London: Burns Oates & Washbourne, n.d.).

[3] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2016), Ro 13:2–4.

[4] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2016), Ps 35:11–18.

Atheists and Toleration

 

John Locke famously argued that atheism/atheists ought not be tolerated in a religiously free society:

Lastly, those are not at all to be tolerated who deny the being of a God. Promises, covenants, and oaths, which are the bonds of human society, can have no hold upon an atheist. The taking away of God, though but even in thought, dissolves all; besides also, those that by their atheism undermine and destroy all religion, can have no pretence of religion whereupon to challenge the privilege of a toleration. As for other practical opinions, though not absolutely free from all error, if they do not tend to establish domination over others, or civil impunity to the Church in which they are taught, there can be no reason why they should not be tolerated.

While this makes me uncomfortable, I am reminded of what Rosenberg wrote, of atheists, in his book The Atheist Guide to Reality:

The interesting thing is to recognize how totally unavoidable [the answers to the questions below] they are, provided you place your confidence in science to provide the answers.

Is there a God? No.
What is the nature of reality? What physics says it is.
What is the purpose of the universe? There is none.
What is the meaning of life? Ditto.
Why am I here? Just dumb luck.
Does prayer work? Of course not.
Is there a soul? Is it immortal? Are you kidding?
Is there free will? Not a chance!
What happens when we die? Everything pretty much goes on as before, except us.
What is the difference between right and wrong, good and bad? There is no moral difference between them.
Why should I be moral? Because it makes you feel better than being immoral.
Is abortion, euthanasia, suicide, paying taxes, foreign aid, or anything else you don’t like forbidden, permissible, or sometimes obligatory? Anything goes.
What is love, and how can I find it? Love is the solution to a strategic interaction problem. Don’t look for it; it will find you when you need it.
Does history have any meaning or purpose? It’s full of sound and fury, but signifies nothing.
Does the human past have any lessons for our future? Fewer and fewer, if it ever had any to begin with.[1]

Aside from the hilarity of an Atheist writing ‘ THE guide to reality’ for other atheists while decrying as stupid those who believe in sacred literature, in what you read above there are two major incoherencies:

  1. If you can learn nothing from the human past, then you can learn nothing from science for every experiment was done in the past.
  2. If there is no difference between any opinion, moral or otherwise, and no meaning to human history, then it makes no difference to believe in illusions or not, so the book is frivolous and without meaning.

But aside from atheism’s ability to inject such incoherencies into one’s thoughtspace, it also does precisely what John Locke feared: it devalues the keeping of promises because the reason to be moral is that “it makes you feel better than being immoral.”

There is no valuation attributed even to the individual life nor to the project of civilization. Even evolution, for all its transfer of data and information and the thousands of years it took for luck to yield beings who experience the universe as a series of ecstasies and horrors, has no point and the information given to offspring through culture and DNA has no meaning (this is false on the surface because our cells find plenty of meaning in DNA).

Anyway, if human contracts, human civilization, and human life have no meaning in this worldview, then Locke was right to be suspicious of those who held it.

References

[1] Alex Rosenberg The Atheist’s Guide to Reality: Enjoying Life Without Illusions (Digital Edition), 22.9/669.

Of Saints and Serpents or the Christian and Inner Darkness

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In Revelation 20:2, the dragon is the Serpent, both Satan and the devil. Why did Jesus say to be as wise as serpents when the connotation of the day was frequently one of evil cunning? 

Part of my work as a teacher is to help students acquire good habits which ultimately become dispositions. To do this, I’ve been studying the cardinal virtues. To study courage, I’ve been reading up on fear, evil, and the psychology of both. On the popularly level, I found Gavin De Becker’s The Gift of Fear. In the book, I ran across this old quote from Nietzsche that I hadn’t heard in quite a while:

146. He who fights with monsters should be careful lest he thereby become a monster. And if thou gaze long into an abyss, the abyss will also gaze into thee. – Friedrich Nietzsche Beyond Good and Evil aphorism 146

This line took me to Matthew 10:16. I wondered, “Why on earth does Jesus say ‘wise as serpents’?” He could have said, “As wise as Solomon” or “clever as a fox.” By the time of Jesus, the serpent of the Old Testament had pretty well become associated with Satan or some demonic personification of evil. So, why be clever in that way? I’m speculating below, I don’t presume to know what Jesus was thinking, but things are written to be understood and “be wise as serpents” has a reference point. This means it was chosen for a reason.

In the passage, I see several layers of potential meaning:

  1. Jesus says to beware of people and “behold I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves.” So for his disciples to avoid being the victims of predation, he challenges them to think like a more dangerous sort of predator.
  2. The fact of the matter is that we are all sinners. The mistake we make is that we pretend not to be. Admittedly, pretending to be put together is very important in polite society. But we too often lie to ourselves about just how evil we really are. In doing this we make ourselves more likely to fall prey to the evil of others. De Becker observed that, “the rapist might first be the charming stranger, the assassin first the admiring fan. The human predator, unlike the others, does not wear a costume so different from ours that he can always be recognized by the naked eye. (De Becker 47)” Thus, in order to be safe in a dangerous world, we have to be aware of what we’re really like in order to predict what others are really like. Finding the evil in ourselves and the ease with which we slip into sinful behavior protects us from others.
  3. There are more reasons than avoiding evildoers to look at our own sin. We must also look at the direction our own sinfulness and our cunning at sin may take us in order to run away from it. In The Hammer, Father Brown was asked if his apparently supernatural knowledge of sinful motivations was indicative of a demonic identity:
    “Are you a devil?” “I am a man,” answered Father Brown gravely; “and therefore have all devils in my heart.”
    So, perhaps the reason Jesus says to think like the serpent is that in Genesis, the serpent is the cleverest of all the animals and we could easily, find circuitous routes to justifying, planning, hiding, and calling others along with us in our sins. And so Jesus uses the image not only for its predatory imagery, but also for its demonic imagery. In our very efforts to preserve ourselves, we’ve also got to be aware of ourselves. This is why he says, “be wise as serpents and as innocent as doves.” Jesus is reminding us of the temptation faced by those who fancy themselves clever. And this, tragically, is a sin which befalls members of the churches in Ephesus when travelling teachers use their abilities to seduce neophyte Christians into sexual sin (2 Timothy 3:6).

Your thoughts?