Passions: Natural or not?

The Passions

In Christian theology, the passions are the desires of the mind and body that often tempt people to sin. One of the big debates among ancient theologians and writers was over the passions: are they created by God or are they a deformation of character as the result of having sinned? I’m simplifying what follows by a lot, but not in a way that damages that debate.

Scripture

The Bible weighs in on this indirectly in James and Hebrews:

  1. In James 1:13-15 and James 4:1-3 we find that temptation is not the result of God trying to entice us to sin (this helps make sense of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil). Instead, temptation is the result of our desires [passions], reasoning, and choices.
  2. In Hebrews 4:15, we find that Christ was tempted in every way that we are.

If temptations came upon Jesus, he must have had the sorts of desires that could lead one to sin if managed with impropriety. And if Jesus is the “new Adam,” presumably his capacity to be tempted in analogous to our own.

The Passions: Crucified and Resurrected

This doesn’t end that debate, but it’s the summary of an argument that is convincing to me. One other way to put it is that for Paul the apostle, disciples are those who crucify the flesh with its passions and desires (Galatians 5:24), but for Paul crucifixion is always conceptually connected to resurrection. In other words, the flesh and it’s passions and desires are resurrected and reformed by the action of the Spirit. For instance, joy can be a sort of spiritual fruit (even though positive emotions could easily lead one to sin). Paul can also say to “put off all anger (Eph 4:31)” and “be angry, yet sin not (Eph 4:26.)”

On the other hand, Paul never once uses “passions” in a positive way. But he rarely uses the word flesh positively either, but that doesn’t mean that the basic principle of bodily existence is evil in his mind.

Now, the church fathers were split on this issue, some saw the passions as an unmitigated evil. I don’t accept that, but I’m open to the possibility. I think that the passions are like the will. They are a source of evil when estranged from God, but in themselves they are a good (like the mind, the will, or the body). Anger tells you that something seems off about the world, lust (which in the Bible  is always the word for sexual desire) is a driving force behind entrance into holy marriage, pleasure is a motivation for seeking God (Psalm 16:11), and greed is just an exaggerated desire for prestige and material security. All of these desires are commended in Scripture.

Gary North on Training to Lose

Gary North wrote an article in 1980: Training to Lose, in which he observed:

The athlete has to train before he enters the race. He must discipline his body and his will, in order to be fully prepared for the exertion of the contest. The contest has winners and losers, and the Christian is not supposed to be a loser. This means that he must enter into the contest with self-confidence, enthusiasm, and a strategy for victory. He is not to spend time looking over his shoulder to see how far he has come from the starting- point, or how well his competitors are doing. He is to look straight ahead at the finish line, pacing himself so that at the end he will have spent all of his reserves. He should give the race everything he has– emotionally, physically, and strategically.

 

If we look at modern Christianity, we find very little of this sort of training for life’s race. Christians act as though victory is achieved passively, as it the race were not worth training tor, as if the hope of victory were not part of the motivating factors in running. If we were to regard modern Christianity as a training program, and it lite were viewed as a race, how would we judge the success of the program? Would we conclude that modern preaching has raised up a generation of skilled athletes who are ready for the competition? Or would we have to conclude that the program has produced a lot of overweight, under-motivated weekend joggers who would collapse half way to the finish line?

I fear that North’s criticisms are right on.

 

Cro-magnon vs Cro-Ipod

Geoffrey Miller offers this thought experiment on the differences between ancient and modern life. While I enjoy the trappings of modern life, thought experiments like this make it easy to see how much of it is contrary to human nature (in an Aristotelian sense):

Consider the average Cro-Magnon of thirty thousand years ago. She is a healthy thirty-year-old mother of three, living in a close-knit clan of family and friends. She works only twenty hours a week gathering organic fruits and vegetables and flirting with guys who will give her free-range meat. She spends most of her day gossiping with friends, breast-feeding her newest baby, and watching her kids play with their cousins. Most evenings she enjoys storytelling, grooming, dancing, drumming, and singing with people she knows, likes, and trusts. Although she is only averagely intelligent, attractive, and interesting, most of her clan mates are too, so they get along just fine. Her boyfriend is also only average, but they often have great sex, since males have evolved wonderful new forms of foreplay: conversation, humor, creativity, and kindness. (About once a month, she hooks up secretly with her enigmatic lover, Serge, who has eleven confirmed Neanderthal kills, but whose touch is like warm rain on Alpine flowers.) Every morning she wakes gently to the sun rising over the six thousand acres of verdant French Riviera coast that her clan holds. It rejuvenates her. Since the mortality rate is very low after infancy, she can look forward to another forty years of life, during which she will grow ever more valued as a woman of wisdom and status.

 

Now consider the average American worker in the twenty-first century. She is a single thirty-year-old cashier, who drives a Ford Focus and lives in Rochester. She is averagely intelligent (IQ 100), having gotten Cs in a few classes before dropping out of the local community college. She now has this job in retail, working forty hours a week at the Piercing Pagoda in EastView Mall, fifty miles from her parents and siblings. She is just averagely attractive and interesting, so she has a few friends, but no steady boyfriend. She has to take Ortho Tri-Cyclen pills to avoid getting pregnant from her tipsy sexual encounters with strangers who rarely return her phone calls. Her emotional stability is only average, and because Rochester is dark all winter, she takes Prozac to avoid suicidal despair. Every evening she watches TV alone. Every night she fantasizes about being loved by Johnny Depp and being friends with Gwen Stefani. Every morning she awakens to the alarm clock next to the fake Chinese rubber plant in her six-hundred-square-foot apartment. It wears her out. Thanks to modern medicine, she can look forward to another forty-five years of life, during which she will become ever less valued as an obsolete health-care burden. At least she has an iPod.[1]

There’s a synthesis, but what is it? Miller’s account doesn’t reckon with the possibility of objective meaning in life from religion or with morality. But nevertheless, the apparent gulf between the two lives he describes is vast. And while it’s easy to claim that one is painted in a negative light intentionally or that we have no idea that any ancient woman lived the life he describes, both accounts are plausible. I’ve know of many people living the unhappy version of the modern life he describes. It’s not beautiful and from a purely naturalistic standpoint, has very little meaning.

References

[1] Geoffrey Miller, Spent: Sex, Evolution, and Consumer Behavior (New York: Penguin Books, 2014), 20.9 / 758

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).”

William James, God’s Word, and James’ Mirror

William James and the Four Selves

In Principles of Psychology, William James outlines four aspects of the self:

  • The material Self; (this is constituted by your physical body, clothes, property, and family)
  • The social Self; (this your perception of the recognition you get from your fellows)
  • The spiritual Self; (our estimation of ourselves as active players in reality)
  • The pure Ego. (over all sense of I-ness)

I’m interested in the first three.

We usually put tremendous effort into maintaining our material and social selves. Some maintain the body by seeking to perfect it and others through giving it as much pleasure as they can without killing it, but it is maintained. We do the same w/property, clothes, etc.

The social selves are selves we put a great deal of effort into maintaining. We won’t tell the truth to keep from being criticized, we don’t do what we perceive to be right, we’ll buy things we cannot afford, and so-on to maintain our various social selves.

And for both of these selves we use, rightly, a mirror. The mirror tells us of what’s wrong wrong, how to hide it, or how to fix it. Some of us avoid mirrors because we either fear the effort it would take to change and some of us obsess over the mirror to cover up what’s wrong so we don’t have to change. But all of that is to say that we use the mirror to clean our various selves.

Hiding from the Spiritual Self

But what of our spiritual self? The Bible makes a point rather early on about the embarrassment of an unclean spiritual self:

So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate. Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked. And they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves loincloths. (Genesis 3:6-7 ESV)

Sometimes when we see what our real self is like, it gets the better of us and we hide. Just like the people who avoid the mirror, refuse to look at their bank statements, or won’t go into a messy room in their home. Other times, we go into hiding mode. We don’t just avoid the mirror. We, like Adam and Eve cover up! Imagine the examples earlier, except the person who looks in the mirror, buys baggier clothes. The woman who looks at the her bank statements, buys pricier items to look rich. Or the depressed father uses the messy room for “storage” instead of cleaning it. In other words, we hurt ourselves to maintain an illusory self. In Adam and Eve’s case, they hurt themselves by lying to God and hiding from him. When we do this to our spiritual self, we call it hypocrisy.

James’ Mirror and God’s Word

Another James, the brother of Jesus, wrote of this very issue, but proposed a solution:

Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God. Therefore put away all filthiness and rampant wickedness and receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls. But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks intently at his natural face in a mirror. For he looks at himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like. But the one who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer who forgets but a doer who acts, he will be blessed in his doing. If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world. (James 1:19-27 ESV)

Observe the connection between the mirror and the spiritual self. We can remain defiled, stained, filthy, and even deceive ourselves if we just walk away from the mirror! Similarly, our moral self might be in fairly shabby condition. In response we might avoid the mirror (in this case the Scriptures) to avoid seeing our true selves. Or we, like the Pharisees, use the mirror to hide our stains rather than clean them.

James’ solution is so simple it beggars belief! Like the person who notices a stain on their face in the mirror and washes it, so expose yourself to the word of God and practice it. We can theologize all we want about how justification, election, atonement, faith, and so-on fit into the equation, but James says to hear the word [which implies thoughtful understanding] and to do it.

 

 

 

 

Milton’s Psychology of Sin, Death, and Desire

One of the most horrifying depictions of the relationship of sin to death appears in Milton’s Paradise Lost. It carries with it all the archetypal horror that makes Ridley Scott’s Alien and Prometheus[1] so utterly frightening. In the excerpt below, Sin, personified as a gorgonesque creature explains to Satan how they came to know one another in Heaven: [2]

 

“Hast thou forgot me, then; and do I seem

Now in thine eyes so foul?—once deemed so fair

In Heaven, when at the assembly, and in sight

Of all the Seraphim with thee combined

In bold conspiracy against Heaven’s King,

All on a sudden miserable pain

Surprised thee, dim thine eyes, and dizzy swum

In darkness, while thy head flames thick and fast

Threw forth, till on the left side opening wide,

Likest to thee in shape and countenance bright,

Then shining heavenly fair, a goddess armed,

Out of thy head I sprung. Amazement seized

All the host of Heaven; back they recoiled afraid

At first, and called me Sin, and for a sign

Portentous held me; but, familiar grown,

I pleased, and with attractive graces won

The most averse—thee chiefly, who, full oft

Thyself in me thy perfect image viewing,

Becam’st enamoured; and such joy thou took’st

With me in secret that my womb conceived

A growing burden. Meanwhile war arose,

And fields were fought in Heaven: wherein remained

(For what could else?) to our Almighty Foe

Clear victory; to our part loss and rout

Through all the Empyrean. Down they fell,

Driven headlong from the pitch of Heaven, down

Into this Deep; and in the general fall

I also: at which time this powerful Key

Into my hands was given, with charge to keep

These gates for ever shut, which none can pass

Without my opening. Pensive here I sat

Alone; but long I sat not, till my womb,

Pregnant by thee, and now excessive grown,

 

 

Prodigious motion felt and rueful throes.

At last this odious offspring whom thou seest,

Thine own begotten, breaking violent way,

Tore through my entrails, that, with fear and pain

Distorted, all my nether shape thus grew

Transformed: but he my inbred enemy

Forth issued, brandishing his fatal dart,

Made to destroy. I fled, and cried out Death!

Hell trembled at the hideous name, and sighed

From all her caves, and back resounded Death!

I fled; but he pursued (though more, it seems,

Inflamed with lust than rage), and, swifter far,

Me overtook, his mother, all dismayed,

And, in embraces forcible and foul

Engendering with me, of that rape begot

These yelling monsters, that with ceaseless cry

Surround me, as thou saw’st—hourly conceived

And hourly born, with sorrow infinite

To me: for, when they list, into the womb

That bred them they return, and howl, and gnaw

My bowels, their repast; then, bursting forth

Afresh, with conscious terrors vex me round,

That rest or intermission none I find.

Before mine eyes in opposition sits

Grim Death, my son and foe, who sets them on,

And me, his parent, would full soon devour

For want of other prey, but that he knows

His end with mine involved, and knows that I

Should prove a bitter morsel, and his bane,

Whenever that shall be: so Fate pronounced.

But thou, O Father, I forewarn thee, shun

His deadly arrow: neither vainly hope

To be invulnerable in those bright arms,

Though tempered heavenly; for that mortal dint,

Save He who reigns above, none can resist.”

 

Milton plays on three of the deepest fears of humanity: death or malformity in childbirth, rape, and incest, followed by two more deeply unsettling images: being turned on by your own children and being forgotten by your own father.

In case you missed it (the archaic language makes it difficult), Milton essentially has Satan think of Sin so obsessively that his thoughts become personified as a beautiful woman otherwise utterly in his own image. He then, in his deep obsession with himself and with rebellion against God, rapes her (as he must both possess and destroy that which is most beautiful to him) and she conceives a child (Death). After the rebellion and angelic war, all are cast into hell, and Sin is left to guard the gate, but in the process gives birth to her monstrous kin as he tears himself from her womb (was Scott reading Milton?). Her angelic nature provides her with regenerative abilities which cause her to recover utterly deformed. Death, overcome by lust at what remains of her beauty, rapes her again (and again, etc). She then gives birth each time to hordes of hellish hounds.

Now, why does Milton play on such deep fears? I think he’s trying to help the reader see how horrible sin and its effects are. On one layer, Milton is trying to help people see how awful evil is and so he associates evil with some of our most fundamental drives, those associated with reproduction.

On another level, Milton is explaining psychology at a profound level. He points out that sin starts in the mind, is entertained until it becomes deeply attractive to us, then to such point it that it moves from fantasy to reality, then to such a point that we have to hide it for shame, then to such a point that it results in horrible consequences (which lead to death!), finally followed by numerous equally horrifying thoughts, actions, and desires which we use to defend ourselves from the death/hell of our own creation.

Biblically, this makes sense:

  1. In Genesis 4:7, sin’s desire is for Cain and the word for desire there is used for sexual desire elsewhere in the Bible.
  2. In Genesis 4:7, sin is also crouching at the door, like a hungry lion or tiger, waiting to devour Cain.
  3. In Genesis 4:8, Cain refuses to take mastery over sin as God recommends, and instead murders his brother (the very person whose blessing Cain wishes to obtain).
  4. In the Cain and Abel story, we also read that after Cain resentfully dishonors God by killing a man made in God’s image, Cain is forced to, for a time, roam the earth, thus becoming a nomad like his brother despite his vocation as a farmer and not a shepherd. In other words, he becomes deformed with respect to his nature (not his visage).
  5. In Hebrews, we discover that sin is often committed due to the fear of death, rather than the fear of God. (Hebrews 2:14-15)
  6. In James, we read:
    Let no one say when he is tempted, “I am being tempted by God,” for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one. But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death. (James 1:13-15 ESV)

Anyway, I hadn’t read Milton. I need to reread it. Attempting to “justify the ways of God to man” is a task perhaps no mind as great as his has undertaken.

References

[1] What I mean may not be entirely obvious, but the core is that Alien and Prometheus play on the fears men have of rape, pregnancy, and death by childbirth. In the first alien film, from an egg a creature attaches itself to a man, impregnates him, and bursts from his body. Then a cyborg, made in man’s image, becomes obsessed with the entire notion of violent reproduction and attempts to orally rape the protagonist utilizing a rolled up pornographic magazine. And so the progeny of man (machine) turns on man, and the progeny of man and the creature from the egg (the titular alien) turns on man as well. It’s a haunted house movie on the surface (people hiding from a scary creature in the shadows in a small space) but a disturbing psychological thriller at its core. Prometheus operates on the same level at its core, but is a sci-fi epic on the surface.

[2] John Milton, The Harvard Classics 4: The Complete Poems of John Milton, ed. Charles W. Eliot (New York: P. F. Collier & Son, 1909), 129–131.

Trinity Sunday: Thomas A’Kempis on

The doctrine of the Trinity, is meant to be, as far as is possible, an expression of something God has revealed in Scripture. Insofar as it is, indeed, revealed by God it is designed to do no other than encourage piety, virtue, and the pursuit of truth, goodness, and beauty in the gospel and in creation. Thomas A’Kempis, in the first reading of his classic The Imitation of the Christ gets at this beautifully.

“HE WHO follows Me, walks not in darkness,” says the Lord. By these words of Christ we are advised to imitate His life and habits, if we wish to be truly enlightened and free from all blindness of heart. Let our chief effort, therefore, be to study the life of Jesus Christ.

The teaching of Christ is more excellent than all the advice of the saints, and he who has His spirit will find in it a hidden manna. Now, there are many who hear the Gospel often but care little for it because they have not the spirit of Christ. Yet whoever wishes to understand fully the words of Christ must try to pattern his whole life on that of Christ.

What good does it do to speak learnedly about the Trinity if, lacking humility, you displease the Trinity? Indeed it is not learning that makes a man holy and just, but a virtuous life makes him pleasing to God. I would rather feel contrition than know how to define it. For what would it profit us to know the whole Bible by heart and the principles of all the philosophers if we live without grace and the love of God? Vanity of vanities and all is vanity, except to love God and serve Him alone.

This is the greatest wisdom—to seek the kingdom of heaven through contempt of the world. It is vanity, therefore, to seek and trust in riches that perish. It is vanity also to court honor and to be puffed up with pride. It is vanity to follow the lusts of the body and to desire things for which severe punishment later must come. It is vanity to wish for long life and to care little about a well-spent life. It is vanity to be concerned with the present only and not to make provision for things to come. It is vanity to love what passes quickly and not to look ahead where eternal joy abides.

Often recall the proverb: “The eye is not satisfied with seeing nor the ear filled with hearing.” Try, moreover, to turn your heart from the love of things visible and bring yourself to things invisible. For they who follow their own evil passions stain their consciences and lose the grace of God.[1]

This passage is, at its heart, about mindset. In the Bible, there are essentially two mindsets: the mindset of the flesh and of the Spirit. The mindset of the Spirit is the collection of attitudes, processes, and ideas used to approach life from a Christ-like point of view. Right ideas without right action is fundamentally anti-Christian mindset. A’Kempis here explains this.

References

[1] Thomas à Kempis, The Imitation of Christ (Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, 1996), 1–2.

Trinity Sunday: Wesley on the Trinity

Today I taught a brief Sunday school lesson on the doctrine of the Trinity. It got me to thinking about this sermon by Wesley: On The Trinity. Here are some selections and my annotations:

Hence, we cannot but infer, that there are ten thousand mistakes which may consist with real religion; with regard to which every candid, considerate man will think and let think. But there are some truths more important than others. It seems there are some which are of deep importance. I do not term them fundamental truths; because that is an ambiguous word: And hence there have been so many warm disputes about the number of fundamentals. But surely there are some which it nearly concerns us to know, as having a close connexion with vital religion. And doubtless we may rank among these that contained in the words above cited: “There are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: And these three are one.[1]

Wesley acknowledges that one may make many errors with regard to religious ideas and still be a Christian. But in this very paragraph, he does go on to say that one must still believe some version of the doctrine of the Trinity to be a Christian. The bold passage of Scripture above is a problematic textual problem, Wesley deals with this later on in the sermon, but for out purposes, it will suffice to say that the basic tenets of the doctrine of the Trinity Wesley will later explicate are contained in Scripture.

I do not mean that it is of importance to believe this or that explication of these words. I know not that any well-judging man would attempt to explain them at all. One of the best tracts which that great man, Dean Swift, ever wrote, was his Sermon upon the Trinity. Herein he shows, that all who endeavoured to explain it at all, have utterly lost their way; have, above all other persons, hurt the cause which they intended to promote; having only, as Job speaks, “darkened counsel by words without knowledge.”[2]

I agree with the essence of this. That the Bible teaches the basic tenets of the doctrine of the Trinity is a case easily made depending on what one means. But the cases for some theoretical framework of the doctrine are problematic and confusing at best.

I dare not insist upon any one’s using the word Trinity, or Person. I use them myself without any scruple, because I know of none better: But if any man has any scruple concerning them, who shall constrain him to use them? I cannot: Much less would I burn a man alive, and that with moist, green wood, for saying, “Though I believe the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Ghost is God; yet I scruple using the words Trinity and Persons, because I do not find those terms in the Bible.” These are the words which merciful John Calvin cites as wrote by Servetus in a letter to himself. I would insist only on the direct words, unexplained, just as they lie in the text: “There are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: And these three are one.”[3]

Wesley pulls no punches here in his criticism of Calvin burning Servetus. I agree with Wesley’s willingness to use the words Trinity and Person in expressing his understanding of the Bible’s teaching about God the Father, the Son, and Holy Spirit. But I’m unwilling to insist that others grasp those concepts of assent to that terminology to call themselves or to be called Christians.

“[A]s strange as it may seem, in requiring you to believe, “there are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: And these three are one;” you are not required to believe any mystery. Nay, that great and good man, Dr. Peter Browne, some time Bishop of Cork, has proved at large that the Bible does not require you to believe any mystery at all. The Bible barely requires you to believe such facts; not the manner of them. Now the mystery does not lie in the fact, but altogether in the manner.
For instance: “God said, Let there be light: And there was light.” I believe it: I believe the plain fact: There is no mystery at all in this. The mystery lies in the manner of it. But of this I believe nothing at all; nor does God require it of me.
Again: “The Word was made flesh.” I believe this fact also. There is no mystery in it; but as to the manner how he was made flesh, wherein the mystery lies, I know nothing about it; I believe nothing about it: It is no more the object of my faith, than it is of my understanding.[4]

Again, the Bible never says to believe anything about the manner in which Trinity exists, but only that Father, Son, and Spirit are divine, distinct, and one. In other words, the point is not, in any manner of speaking, to get us to figure out the manner of God’s existence in this respect, but to reveal enough of God as to inspire us to live for Christ and worship rightly.

Not that every Christian believer adverts to this; perhaps, at first, not one in twenty: But if you ask any of them a few questions, you will easily find it is implied in what he believes.[5]

Not every Christian, especially new Christians, explicitly will hold to the doctrine of the Trinity, but you can ask them questions long enough to discover that they implicitly accept the doctrine. Earlier and then later in the sermon (not quoted above) Wesley observes that some through invincible ignorance or involuntary rejection (through misunderstanding of Scripture, the doctrine, or personal confusion) who reject the basic tenets of the Trinity will still be saved. This seems reasonable. In my mind, it’s an open question as to whether or not the basic tenets of the gospel imply the Trinity so clearly that any Christian implicitly believes the doctrine. I will say that anybody who believes in God implicitly believes in the Triune God as the only God (if the doctrine of the Trinity is true). But do all who believe the gospel even know that the Holy Spirit is anything other than their own emotions due to poor instruction or that God is uncreated? I mean, the “who made God” question of the atheists confused so many genuine Christians who just had no knowledge, might many true Christians have such little knowledge of Scripture as to have no set of beliefs which imply the Trinity? I would say, “Yes.” That seems to be obvious. But that doesn’t make the doctrine less true, less essential (in terms of definitive of historic Christian orthodoxy), or less helpful for those who understand it.

References

[1] John Wesley, The Works of John Wesley, Third Edition., vol. 6 (London: Wesleyan Methodist Book Room, 1872), 200, “Here are the arguments Wesley marshals in favor of this often excluded passage from 1 John:  “(1.) That though it is wanting in many copies, yet it is found in more; and those copies of the greatest authority:—(2.) That it is cited by a whole gain of ancient writers, from the time of St. John to that of Constantine. This argument is conclusive: For they could not have cited it, had it not then been in the sacred canon:—(3.) That we can easily account for its being, after that time, wanting in many copies, when we remember that Constantine’s successor was a zealous Arian, who used every means to promote his bad cause, to spread Arianism throughout the empire; in particular the erasing this text out of as many copies as fell into his hands.””

[2] John Wesley, The Works of John Wesley, Third Edition., vol. 6 (London: Wesleyan Methodist Book Room, 1872), 200.

[3] John Wesley, The Works of John Wesley, Third Edition., vol. 6 (London: Wesleyan Methodist Book Room, 1872), 200–201.

[4] John Wesley, The Works of John Wesley, Third Edition., vol. 6 (London: Wesleyan Methodist Book Room, 1872), 204.

[5] John Wesley, The Works of John Wesley, Third Edition., vol. 6 (London: Wesleyan Methodist Book Room, 1872), 205.

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.

 

 

Cain and Abel: An Interesting Reading

In almost any commentary from the last century, the Cain and Abel story in Genesis 4 is typically explained as a justification for/explanation of the conflict between agricultural and nomadic life. There’s something to this, but it’s not merely about two modes of food production. The distinction is between two approaches to ethics.

Cain and Abel

When you commentaries enough you just kinda think: Here we go again. I’ve never really read it explained beyond the surface distinction. But in The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture by Yoram Hazony, he explained the distinction in terms of the ethic represented by the two characters. Here it is in full:

The life of the farmer. 

Cain has piously accepted the curse on the soil, and God’s having sent Adam to work the soil, as unchallengeable. His response is to submit, as his father did before him. And within the framework of this submission, he initiates ways of giving up what little he has as an offer of thanksgiving. In the eyes of the biblical author, Cain represents the life of the farmer, the life of pious submission, obeying in gratitude the custom that has been handed down, which alone provides bread so that man may live.

The life of the shepherd.

Abel takes the curse on the soil as a fact, but not as one that possesses any intrinsic merit, so that it should command his allegiance. The fact that God has decreed it, and that his father has submitted to it, does not make it good. His response is the opposite of submission: He resists with ingenuity and daring, risking the anger of man and God to secure the improvement for himself and for his children. Abel represents the life of the shepherd, which is a life of dissent and initiative, whose aim is to find the good life for man, which is presumed to be God’s true will. (108)

Hazony goes on to observe that while God did not command shepherding, God did make man to be good. God told downcast Cain, “If you do well, won’t you be lifted up? (108)” Meaning, “If you have a problem with the world, make the best of it, bucko!”

Hazony’s Omission

Some details in Genesis that he left out make Hazony’s argument tighter. God made man “very good” and commanded man to subdue the earth. So, it doesn’t seem like God wanted man to submit directly to the curse. Instead, he wanted humanity to continue the mission from Genesis 1. The curse did not nullify God’s purpose for creation, it simply made it more difficult to obtain.