Christians on High Horses

HHsA recent comment by the U.S. president led me to wonder:  What’s the difference between a modern ISIS terrorist and a Christian Crusader from 1000 years ago or an Inquisition interrogator from 500 years ago, from the point of view of their victims?

The answer: not much.

Now what’s the difference between those two above and a modern Christian, whose faith has spent the last 500 years ridding itself of crusades and inquisitions, whose faith has undergone massive social and cultural reformations when the Age of Enlightenment contributed to the secularization of European democracies and the founding of the secular democracy of the United States, events which liberated Christianity from being a tool of the State, a liberation that allowed Christianity to completely restructure itself from a political force at the command of kings to a growing and still-emerging body of Christ who take their inspiration from the actual teachings of Jesus – how would modern Christianity compare to the Dark Ages church that was more a political force than a spiritual one?

The difference would be something like the mother of Coptic Christian brothers who were beheaded by ISIS expressing her forgiveness for her son’s murderers and hoping for their killers’ salvation; it would be calls for prayer rather than calls for revenge in response to the persecution of Christians in many parts of the world, it would be the universal condemnation by the Christian community of hate and provocation that occasionally arises among them by those claiming to act in the name of Christ.

Christianity remains at or near the top of the worlds fastest growing religions, and it has successfully transformed itself into one of the world’s more pacifistic and also among the most generous of religions for global foreign aid.  Much has changed since the days the president was referring to. That Christianity existed in another time, another place, for an entirely different purpose and with a polar opposite reason for existence than the Christianity we know today.

So I don’t know if protesting the violent slaughter of those who will not convert to the perpetrators’ religion means that Christians are on a high horse of some kind.  I believe that everyone is protesting these acts of violence regardless of their spiritual tradition, and I believe that most reasonable people also accept the perpetrators’ own stated rationale for committing those acts.

Clearly the president is as horrified by this violence as everyone else is.  But the comment about being on a high horse about it made no sense at all to me, and I find that I cannot resist a brief response.

Spirituality vs Religion: Seekers and Dwellers At the End of the Road


Back in 2003 a paper was published that examined the effects of two different kinds of spirituality on psychosocial functioning in old age. The study, Religiousness, spirituality, and psychosocial functioning in late adulthood: Findings from a longitudinal study (link accesses the pdf), used life course data from a longitudinal research project done by the Institute of Human Development at the University of California, Berkely.  The results reflected a few things that seem intuitively obvious, but found other things that some might find surprising.

The types of spiritual experience they measured were what they termed “dwellers” and “seekers”.  From the paper:

Religious dwellers tend to accept traditional forms of religious authority; they inhabit a space created for them by established religious institutions and relate to the sacred through prayer and communal worship.

By contrast, for spritual seekers individual autonomy takes precedence over external authority and the hold of tradition-centered religious doctrines.  Spiritual seekers are explorers who create their own space by typically borrowing elements from various religious and mythical traditions, and they frequently blend participation in institutionalized Western religion with Eastern practices.

…What differentiates dwellers and seekers is not the seriousness of effort to incorporate the sacred in their lives but their relation to religious authority and tradition.

Much is known about Dwellers.  They have better intergenerational family interactions, large supportive social networks, and are much more likely than others to engage in voluntary  community caregiving activies.

By contrast little is known about the late life psychological functioning of Seekers.  Some sociologists, and not just dweller sociologists, have hypothesized that the self-referential emphasis of spiritual seekers is evidence of “excessively narcissistic self-absorption” that may in fact undermine the community obligations promoted by institutionalized religions.

Fortunately for those of us who live in both worlds, that turned out not to be the case.  What emerged instead was something positive for both groups, something that hints at fertile ground for future research now that exploration of alternative spiritual lifestyles has become more common in Western culture.

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Spirit of Consciousness: A Brief Summary

MC Escher Hand Reflecting SphereTo wrap up this series of posts, I just want to add a few words to indicate the direction my thoughts are going on this matter.

In the first post I discussed the idea that when the Bible refers to human “spirit”, what its talking about is self-aware consciousness, which is a level of consciousness that differentiates humans from all other animals.  “…and the dust [the body] returns to the ground it came from, and the spirit returns to God who gave it.” (Ecclesiastes 12:7).  Genesis spoke of God creating man “from the dust of the ground”, and then giving him the “breath of life.”  This breath wasn’t air into the lungs, all animals breathe but only man got this gift.  In the story in Genesis, what this breath gave man was the only thing that truly differentiates us from other animals: self-aware conscious intelligence.

The second post talked about how our conscious minds create “schemas”, or mental maps of the world as we perceive it, and it is these schemas that determine what events and experiences mean to us, and therefore how we react to them. Schemas reflect our “core beliefs” about the world, and these can be changed or replaced.  Christianity’s emphasis on belief, “believe and you will be saved”, is an ancient means of replacing an unhealthy schema (in Biblical terminology, “sin”) with one that by-passes ego by surrendering the schema’s maladaptive behaviors and defenses to God.

In the third post I discussed the two primary authorities that have held dominion over humanity for as far back as we have historical records: the church and the state.  These two forces have often worked together, but since the Enlightenment and the introduction of secular democracies, especially in the Western world, spirituality has been liberated from state control and has blossomed as a direct result.  As stated elsewhere, the Christianity that sent Crusaders to the Middle East, supported slavery, and gave us the term “Inquisition” no longer exists precisely because Christianity is no longer a tool of the state.

And with that liberation, our concept of God himself has been freed from the chains of human authority. He is, finally, a personal God. One who loves and does not condemn, one whose only request of us is that we love others with the same selfless love with which he loves us.

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Follow-up: A bit more on Carl Jung’s perspective

carl-jung2In the previous post I quoted Carl Jung as follows:

The churches stand for traditional and collective convictions which in the case of many of their adherents are no longer based on their inner experience but on unreflecting belief, which is notoriously apt to disappear as soon as one begins thinking about it.  The content of belief then comes into collision with knowledge, and it often turns out that the irrationality of the former is no match for the ratiocinations of the latter.  Belief is no adequate subsitute for inner experience, and where this is absent even a strong faith which came miraculously as a gift of grace may depart equally miraculously.

At the end I concluded, hopefully after building a halfway decent case, that:

…once the relationship between you and Spirit begins to solidify and expand the initial belief, that belief is transformed into inner experience where it transcends belief to become knowledge.

One of Jung’s major themes was the power of symbolism in the human psyche.  A symbolic system provides a structure for belief.  The mind automatically tries to interprete events to see whether or how they might affect the self, and this automatic evaluation is done even when the event happens to others.  For this reason stories about events that happen to others (or even stories that are fictional) are evaluated by the mind almost as carefully as are incidents that you experience directly.

The part of the mind that does all this is the “schema”, first described in depth by Piaget and which was discussed briefly in Spirit of Consciousness part 2.

Within the schema are bedrock beliefs about oneself.   It is from these “core beliefs” that our self image is generated.  From within this structure, using Piaget’s terminology, events (or reports of events) are automatically examined to see whether we assimilate the news into our existing schema, or accomodate our schema to include events we weren’t prepared for or else had little information about.  Or we could dismiss them entirely as either untrue or else as being meaningless to us.

Something feels meaningingful if it resonates with our personal schema; events that we do not regard as having anything to do with us will be acknolwedged as being part of the reality we live in, but not things that reflect in any way upon our selves.

Stories resonate with us when the events fit into our cognitive-emotional framework, i.e. we understand them both on a cognitive level and on an emotional level, and that is true regardless of whether the stories are news accounts or works of literature and fiction.

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Spirit of Consciousness, Part 3: Church and State

church-state-stopI want to start with a couple of quotes:

“They have cut man in two, setting one half against the other. They have taught him that his body and his consciousness are two enemies engaged in deadly conflict, two antagonists of opposite natures, contradictory claims, incompatible needs, that to benefit one is to injure the other, that his soul belongs to a supernatural realm, but his body is an evil prison holding it in bondage to this earth—and that the good is to defeat his body, to undermine it by years of patient struggle, digging his way to that glorious jail-break which leads into the freedom of the grave.

They have taught man that he is a hopeless misfit made of two elements, both symbols of death. A body without a soul is a corpse, a soul without a body is a ghost—yet such is their image of man’s nature: the battleground of a struggle between a corpse and a ghost, a corpse endowed with some evil volition of its own and a ghost endowed with the knowledge that everything known to man is non-existent, that only the unknowable exists.

Do you observe what human faculty that doctrine was designed to ignore? It was man’s mind that had to be negated in order to make him fall apart. Once he surrendered reason, he was left at the mercy of two monsters whom he could not fathom or control: of a body moved by unaccountable instincts and of a soul moved by mystic revelations—he was left as the passively ravaged victim of a battle between a robot and a dictaphone.”   -John Galt

The second quote was published the same year:

The churches stand for traditional and collective convictions which in the case of many of their adherents are no longer based on their inner experience but on unreflecting belief, which is notoriously apt to disappear as soon as one begins thinking about it.  The content of belief then comes into collision with knowledge, and it often turns out that the irrationality of the former is no match for the ratiocinations of the latter.  Belief is no adequate subsitute for inner experience, and where this is absent even a strong faith which came miraculously as a gift of grace may depart equally miraculously.  -Carl Jung

Both of these were published in 1957, which was a perilous time for the world. The Cold War was reaching terrifying new heights, the Soviet Empire was in bloody, merciless expansion in Europe, Asia, and Latin America with the volatile Nikita Khrushchev at the helm.  President Eisenhower was warning Americans to build nuclear fallout shelters and prepare for the worst, and our children were watching for flashes in the sky and practicing duck and cover in grade-school classrooms.   The two countries were fully capable of nuking each other into oblivion, and were playing a game of brinksmanship that would have erased all the gains of the Enlightenment and set Western Civilization back hundreds of years if either side had blinked.

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Spirit of Consciousness, Part 2

Ape Vs Human BrainIn Part 1 I talked about the development of the brain in animals and in humans, and noted that while differences between human brains and the brains of the great apes are clear, they’re not as drastic as one might expect given the huge leap in intelligence that human consciousness represents.  Research shows that the difference between our brains and the brains of the Great Apes have more to do with inner connectivity and higher efficiency in processing in human brains than ape brains are capable of.

For example a recently published paper on Albert Einstein’s brain showed that the corpus collosum, the pathway between the brain’s two hemispheres, was better developed than most.  The same was true of the frontal cortex and particularly the prefrontal cortex, the front part of the frontal cortex, which is an area most associated with uniquely human cognitive abilities like imagination, problem-solving, complex planning, and other aspects of human intelligence.  Einstein may have had an advantage over other humans in this regard, but the point is that the brains of our closest ape relatives don’t have some of this functionality at all, or if they do it is nowhere near as well developed as it is in human brains.  Our mental processing power is comparable to a computer running on integrated circuits rather than on vacuum tubes or mechanical mechanisms.

This unique quality of intelligence gives humans the ability to think about what we think about.  We can examine our own thoughts, we can follow chains of speculative ideas that we ourselves are creating entirely within our own minds.  We can examine the patterns of our thoughts and actions as if we were operating in two or more levels of consciousness simultaneously.  One level is reading these words, another is thinking about them or reacting to them, a third might be a barely perceived thread off in the corner somewhere figuring out how or where or even if such an idea fits in to the way you see things.

In this post I want to edge a little closer to the question of how this capacity gives us a doorway to Spirit.   For that I’ll need to return to Jean Piajet, whose work on childhood development included the concept of the schema as a functional product of the developing conscious mind.

A schema is a mental map that we have of the world.  It represents our conception of what the world is composed of, how the pieces fit together, what makes them go, and how they affect us personally.  The sense of what the world means to us is a product of our internal schemas.  Our minds begin constructing the schema in our earliest infancy, and as we mature the schema grows more and more complex as we incorporate knowledge.

As adults, this schema reflects the core of who we are as individual human beings.

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All-in or Die: A Few Words About Abraham and Sacrifice

abraham-and-isaac-sacrifice-craftWe all know the story of Abraham and his son Isaac, and God’s test of Abraham by calling on him to sacrifice his son.  As the story goes, God appeared to Abraham and told him to go to a specific place and sacrifice Isaac, the son that had been conceived and born in miraculous fashion when Sarah was in her 90s.  Abraham obeyed, but at the last instant God stopped his hand, and a ram showed up to be used as a sacrifice instead.

It is one of the most (pick one) shocking, moving, horrifying, glorifying, thought-provoking and emotionally wrenching tales in a Bible that is full of stories that are totally alien to post-Enlightenment sensibilities.  Biblical supporters, Biblical critics, and everyone caught in between have ideas about it, because the story affects us at multiple levels.

The story in the Bible itself can be read here:

Abraham Tested

Also I should add that this post was prompted by an article I read while sipping my coffee this morning, here:

The Five Most Terrifying Words in the Bible

In the article, the five most terrifying words are, “But where is the lamb?”, Isaac’s heartbreaking question to his father when everything was made ready for the sacrifice.  Scholars generally believe that Isaac was a young adult at the time of the story.

The tale is an archetype of the story of Jesus, a father sacrificing his beloved son for the sake of humanity.  But I want to look at another aspect of it, one that I rarely see mentioned.  That is, who was testing whom?  Could this have been a rational decision on Abraham’s part?  One that we might understand, regardless of the fact that we could never approve?  Nobody could approve of such a thing, but we might nevertheless glimpse a rationale that might have been going through Abraham’s mind at that point in his life.

God may have been testing Abraham, but for me to understand the story at all, I have to also believe that Abraham was testing God.

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The Odds of Evolution

bonoboOne of the common Christian arguments against natural evolution concerns the odds of it happening without divine intervention.  Its an understandable objection, this is an amazing world we live in and the sheer variety and extraordinary nature of the life forms that share this planet with us are sometimes so unique in form and function that it is difficult to imagine them appearing by random chance.

But those who use this argument should understand that it is an ineffective and even counterproductive tactic for use on anyone knowledgeable about evolution.  The “odds” argument is used by both young-earth Creationists and by Intelligent Design proponents and it goes something like this (from the Institute of Creation Research):

One of the strongest direct evidences for special creation is the existence of innumerable highly complex systems in the universe, systems composed of components occurring in a pattern of “order” rather than disorder. Creationists maintain that highly ordered systems could not arise by chance, since random processes generate disorder rather than order, simplicity rather than complexity and confusion instead of “information.”

For example, consider a series of ten flash cards, numbered from one to ten. If these are thoroughly and randomly mixed, and then laid out successively in a linear array along the table, it would be extremely unlikely that the numbers would fall out in order from one to ten. Actually, there are 3,628,800 different ways in which these numbers could be arranged, so that the “probability” of this particular ordered arrangement is only one in 3,628,800. (This number is “ten factorial,” written as 10!, and can be calculated simply by multiplying together all the numbers from one to ten.)

It is obvious that the probability of such a numerically ordered arrangement decreases rapidly as the number of components increases. For any linear system of 100 components in specified order, the probability is one in 100!, or one chance in 10158 (a number represented by “one followed by 158 zeroes”).

The main problem with this argument is its failure to understand the clear, naturally-ordered process that is the heart of the theory of evolution.  The old saying “Know your enemy” is crucial here, because the ‘odds’ argument counts on a lack of knowledge or understanding of the theory (the “process”) of evolution in its audience, and thus is counterproductive in the extreme for the large group of people who do understand evolution, but who may not understand the message of Jesus.  Efforts by modern Christians to maintain as literal our ancient origins story is seriously interfering with the spread of the message of the love of Christ to people in the modern era.

That origins story fullfilled its purpose, it laid the groundwork for Judaism, the spritual tradition within which Christ was born and which was the foundation for his message of salvation to the entire earth.  Our salvation is based on our spiritual union with him, our belief in him.  That is the Christian’s foundation.  Our salvation does not depend on our beliefs about how literally we should accept the first few chapters of Genesis.

The ‘odds’ argument, however much it may comfort those with little knowledge of either statistics or the theory of evolution, ignores the simple, orderly nature of the process proposed by Darwin.  And if you cringed at me referring to evolutionists as the ‘enemy’, there’s hope for you.  🙂  We’re not the enemy, and many of us are indeed devout Christians.

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The Spirit of Consciousness, Part 1

aniołki rafaela santiI want to expand on something I brought up in an older post. From Salvation Part 2:

I have been associating self-aware human consciousness with the Biblical use of the term human “spirit” in my posts, and I want to point out that this connection has a Biblical basis.  It is seen in the comparison of two verses, one in the Creation story in Genesis, the other in the book of Ecclesiastes, Solomon’s meditation on the mortality of man.

Genesis 2:7, on the creation of Adam:

Then God formed man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and man became a living being.

Ecclesiastes 12:7, from Solomon:

…and the dust returns to the ground it came from, and the spirit returns to God who gave it.

“Breath of life” does not mean the movement of air through the lungs.  Other animals do that and they didn’t get any ‘breath of life’.  Solomon connects the two: the Biblical term “breath of life” as used in Genesis is the same thing Solomon calls “spirit” in Ecclesiastes.  And both refer to the only thing that separates humans from the other animals, namely intelligence and self-aware consciousness.

The evolutionary significance of our capacity for conscious awareness cannot be overstated.  3+ billion years of biological evolution produced many different life forms.  Some fast, some tough, some strong, some with sharp claws and teeth, some gigantic, some that swim, some that fly, etc. etc. But no matter how extraordinary their physical attributes, even the most powerful among them have been limited to specific niches in the web of life.

None of those species took over the entire planet, adapted themselves to thrive in every remote corner of it, and subjected every other species to its will.  No physical attribute allowed humanity to do that. Self-aware consciousness and the leap in intelligence that came with it represents more than just another life form: we represent a whole new category of life, in some ways as “distant” from the other animals as those animals are from plants.

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Cosmic Perception

FlammarionA few days ago I was driving with my 6-year old grandson and we could see the moon in the sky.  It was late afternoon, and the moon was somewhat behind the car.  When I made a turn the moon was still visible behind us, but now from the other side of the car.  My grandson, who is beginning to transition from Piaget’s pre-operational to concrete-operational thinking, and whose worldview is still embedded in the belief that his immediate perceptions accurately reflect reality, concluded that this perceptual phenomenon could only mean one thing: the moon must be following us.

If we had been living in a society that knew nothing of science, with nobody to tell him any differently about the behavior of moon and sun and stars, who’s to say what impressions he would have carried with him into adulthood about the way the universe operates.  Without adults around who have transcended pre-operational thinking, without people to explain things to him until he develops a more accurate worldview, would he grow into adulthood without ever maturing any further in his beliefs?  Very likely his adult view of the world would be every bit as simplistic as the viewpoint he had in childhood.

Now imagine humanity’s view of the universe 50,000 years ago, before we developed mathematics, before we had instruments like microscopes or telescopes or electronics for observing and measuring beyond what could be seen with our naked eyes, before we established any scientific methodology or principles for the rigorous study of natural phenomenon, before we had science journals to record the findings of other scientists and communicate those findings around the world to be replicated and verified and confirmed or rejected, in a time when all knowledge had as its starting point, as its most basic foundation, whatever our local priest/elder/witch-doctor/shaman told us about the gods and our place in the universe.

50,000 years ago? What am I saying, how about 500 years ago, when the Copernican Revolution was just getting underway?  How about now for much of the world?  It has taken hundreds of millenia for humanity to begin transcending that ancient view of the universe.  That worldview was all that was needed for hunter-gatherer and agrarian societies to thrive and prosper, but from the perspective we have now it seems childish.  From our modern vantage point it is easy to forget that for the 2 million years of our existence as upright apes with growing intelligence, humanity has spent at least 1,999,500 of those years seeing the universe the way my grandson does.

How must it have been to be on your way back from a hunt or a foraging trip or a raid on a neighboring tribe, carrying your spear in a treacherous world, and realize that the moon is following you home?

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