I’m Bigger Than You

A friend recently texted, as a joke, “Calvinism is true because I’m bigger than you.”

But being big has advantages.

Physically

Being obese is unhealthy. And being too tall can be harder on your heart as you age.

But being physically bigger is good.

Height provides advantages to lawyers, salesmen, teachers, principals, managers, and most athletes.

Not only so, more muscle mass makes you harder to kill, even for diseases.

It makes you look more competent, to an extent more attractive, and requires a lifestyle that will typically improve your health all around.

Mentally

Becoming more expansive in your way of thinking, more capable of entertaining new evidence, strange ideas, or unexpected outcomes is generally better.

Reading more books, though not too many, gives you the thought world of another person without your having to go through their experiences.

Learning new skills gives you more opportunities to make money, to bless others, and to have fun. Man was made to tend to things, this can only be done with a skilled and active mind, lest reality become boring.

Psychologically/Spiritually

Growing bigger spiritually is something like this: “with every challenge or disaster, you learn to conform ever so slightly more to the logos or to nature in order to avoid that disaster next time.” This is very close to what Marcus Aurelius says. Jordan Peterson also says something like it. So do Nemeck and Coombs in their books.

For the Christian the spiritual growth must go further than this because the logos is not only available in nature, but is specified in Jesus Christ and revealed in bits and pieces through the Bible as well. And so we not only grow spiritually by seeking to avoid the catastrophes of nature in order to perfect our will and then impose it upon the world, but we also conform ourselves to the character and calling of Christ.

To grow bigger in the Christian sense is in some ways to shrink as Christ grows in our estimation (John 3:30). It is to go into the depths of ourselves and say no to every evil thing which resides there. But it is also to grow larger than we could imagine as we approach the full stature of Christ (Ephesians 4:13). There is often a chasm in the teaching of the church between the aspirational values of Proverbs and the condescension pattern set by Christ. In reality they are not opposed but in a hierarchy. But my main point is this, when the Christian faces the disasters of life and responds with love to God it will work to the good, especially the good of becoming like Jesus (Romans 8:28-29).

Being bigger is better.

To the Christian who Can’t

One of the saddest claims I hear from Christians struggling with suffering, sin, or bad circumstances is “I can’t do anything about it so I’ll just have to let God do it.”

It’s a claim that sneaks into so many contexts. Even questions like, “What are some helpful tips that could make us better listeners?” elicit responses like, “rely on God’s grace.” My guess is that churches have accidentally provided an environment where phrases with very little actionable content are considered wise.

There are several reasons this way of speaking has become popular. I’ve written about them here before.

But the ancient church simply did not see it that way, nor should we. Here are two passages from a wiser age:

The chief part then of our improvement and peace of mind must not be made to depend on another’s will, which cannot possibly be subject to our authority, but it lies rather in our own control. And so the fact that we are not angry ought not to result from another’s perfection, but from our own virtue, which is acquired, not by somebody else’s patience, but by our own long-suffering.[1] – John Cassian

 

And the consequence of this [the manner with which the demons became evil] is, that it lies within ourselves and in our own actions to possess either happiness or holiness; or by sloth and negligence to fall from happiness into wickedness and ruin, to such a degree that, through too great proficiency, so to speak, in wickedness (if a man be guilty of so great neglect), he may descend even to that state in which he will be changed into what is called an “opposing power.”[2] – Origen

Both of these men believed thoroughly in God’s grace and man’s moral weakness, but when it comes to Christians, they wrote that we are thoroughly morally responsible for our spiritual state. And this makes perfect sense. The Bible says that God’s grace enables us add virtue to our faith, it does not say or ever even imply that grace enables us to passively become virtuous:

His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence, by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, that through these you may escape from the corruption that is in the world because of passion, and become partakers of the divine nature. For this very reason make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love. For if these things are yours and abound, they keep you from being ineffective or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.[3]

Now this is not to imply that I’ve attained great virtue or learned to fully take responsibility for my own spiritual state. Like Cain I tend to wonder why circumstances don’t make it easier (which is an indictment of God) rather than wondering why I haven’t made myself more adept at managing myself. But I do strive to make such a practice my own. And if I have a central message or theme as a Christian educator other than, “believe the gospel about Jesus,” it’s “take full responsibility for yourself, sort your life out, and then take responsibility for the world around you.”

I don’t think any of that is opposed to God’s grace, any more than Jesus telling people to “go and sin no more” or “the greatest among you shall be the servant of all” is opposed to God’s grace.

References

[1] John Cassian, “The Twelve Books of John Cassian on the Institutes of the Cœnobia,” in Sulpitius Severus, Vincent of Lérins, John Cassian, ed. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, trans. Edgar C. S. Gibson, vol. 11, A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, Second Series (New York: Christian Literature Company, 1894), 262.

[2] Origen, “De Principiis,” in Fathers of the Third Century: Tertullian, Part Fourth; Minucius Felix; Commodian; Origen, Parts First and Second, ed. Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe, trans. Frederick Crombie, vol. 4, The Ante-Nicene Fathers (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, 1885), 260.

[3] Catholic Biblical Association (Great Britain), The Holy Bible: Revised Standard Version, Catholic Edition (New York: National Council of Churches of Christ in the USA, 1994), 2 Pe 1:3–8.

Jesus and Conservative Family Values

I saw a goofy journalist on Twitter claim, in essence, that Jesus opposed “conservative family values.”

Leave aside for a moment that Jesus wasn’t much of a screamer (Matthew 12:19-20).

As an experiment let’s see what the gospels related concerning Jesus’ views about the topics of conservative family values:

Marriage/Celibacy/Divorce

Matthew 19:3-12 ESV
And Pharisees came up to him and tested him by asking, “Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife for any cause?” He answered, “Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.” They said to him, “Why then did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce and to send her away?” He said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery.” The disciples said to him, “If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry.” But he said to them, “Not everyone can receive this saying, but only those to whom it is given. For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let the one who is able to receive this receive it.”

Non-conservatives outside of the group that identifies as asexuals are typically astounded any promotion of intentional celibacy. Similarly, non-conservatives overwhelmingly support no-fault divorce. Jesus utterly rejected the ancient equivalent. Jesus also endorsed sexual dimorphism as the divinely instituted rfoundation of marriage.

Children

Matthew 19:13-15 ESV
Then children were brought to him that he might lay his hands on them and pray. The disciples rebuked the people, but Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven.” And he laid his hands on them and went away.

Jesus, who taught that the kingdom of God was the highest value, made it clear that it was meant for children. In other words, Jesus supports the having of children, through the means mentioned in marriage.

Parents

Matthew 15:3-6 ESV
He answered them, “And why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition? For God commanded, ‘Honor your father and your mother,’ and, ‘Whoever reviles father or mother must surely die.’ But you say, ‘If anyone tells his father or his mother, “What you would have gained from me is given to God,” he need not honor his father.’ So for the sake of your tradition you have made void the word of God.

Jesus says that honoring mother and father extends to financial care in their old age. He then claims that any tradition or practice that gets in the way of doing so constitutes rejection of God’s word. This is so, even if that practice is explicitly connected to worship.

Jesus’ Teaching Goes Beyond

Now, Jesus’ teaching goes beyond conservative family values. But he’s certainly not opposed to marriage, having children, raising them to live in God’s kingdom, or even going to work to support your family (which he did). He goes beyond when he said to love your enemies and choose moral rectitude over family loyalty, but Jesus never contradicts family values. He actually makes them harder.

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.