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A Look at Fate, Chance and Providence… From a Humble i3

angel by MC via Flickr

In the early 1990s while thinking about converting to Catholicism I met with a Monsignor in the Church.

Monsignor is an honorary title with no real power, basically for smart guys aware of ecclesiastical problems but not actively involved in the development of doctrine.

Gifted and diplomatic, Monsignors for the most part toe the line and work their tails off ensuring all the wheels spin right within the ancient, all-male hierarchy that is the worldly side of Catholicism.

I liked this particular Monsignor. He was on the ball. Instead of regurgitating stale, varnished and philosophically weak arguments during the homily, he extemporized and used current metaphors like “Black Holes.” He also encouraged applying the intellect, a gift God gave us, to unpack and interpret scripture.

Myself, I was home from a two-year sojourn in India where I had been studying Comparative Religion. Reverse culture-shocked, adjusting to a new city and unfamiliar graduate environment, I was plunged into a whole new realm that made my India experience seem like junior school, spiritually speaking.

So meeting with the Monsignor, I told him I believed in fate, which is more of an Asian (karma), Arabic (kismet) and Greek (moira) idea than a Catholic one.

“You mean providence,” he pointedly replied.

Back then I didn’t consciously know the difference between fate and providence, but something sparked.

Saint Wolfgang and the Devil, by Michael Pacher via Wikipedia

Providence is a theological term referring to the belief that God maintains and sustains all of creation and the plan for our eternal redemption.

The idea is found in both the Old and New Testaments. Not surprisingly, providence is partly framed by the notion of linear time, partly by a belief in eternity. We march along the walk of creation and, although we choose our lives, an eternal God is actively helping us make the right choices.

Providence also means that God freely chooses how things go by guiding us – not forcing us – through a kind of “divine government.”¹

When things go well, we cooperate with divine guidance. But we also make mistakes through original sin. God permits these mistakes, at least to a degree. God would never permit enough mistakes to, say, allow all of creation to be utterly destroyed.

That’s how some see it. Others say we are totally free so, in theory, could destroy our planet and all life on it.

For many thinkers, the idea of providence is directly opposed to fate, which points to a fixed, unalterable sequence of events. It also differs from the concept of chance, which implies a random, unregulated universe.²

The distinction between free will (through providence) and determinism (through fate) is an important one. But most writers gloss over it, probably because it’s a tricky question that nobody really understands nor has a definite answer for.

Image – Wikipedia

One sort of slippery theological solution to the problem of free will vs. determinism maintains that we are free to choose but God knows in advance how we will choose.

When you think about it, this explanation isn’t too satisfying. For me, the question and answer are just too big for the human mind to comprehend. It’s like a Pentium i3 trying to figure out all the mysteries of the universe and beyond. After a few moments the processor just chokes… our limited human brain, that is.

The other night I was surprised to see the topic of providence/free will vs. fate/destiny arise in an episode of Vikings, a TV show that dramatically recreates the story of Ragnar Lothbrok, Lagertha the Shield Maiden, their offspring, friends, victims and enemies.

Two of Ragnar’s sons, Ivar the Boneless and Hvitserk discuss providence vs. fate with the slightly demented, bellicose Christian bishop Heahmund. The discussion, although brief, is far better than what you’d find in most Catholic homilies or graduate seminars, for that matter (starts at time 1:26).

Opponents to the idea of providence are found in the ancient world. St. Thomas Aquinas notes in his Summa Theologica:

Certain persons totally denied the existence of providence, as Democritus and the Epicureans, maintaining that the world was made by chance.³

Other ancients add an interesting twist to the debate by claiming that natural events are ruled by God, but particular human events are not. To this St. Thomas replies with the standard Catholic teaching:

All things are subject to divine providence, not only in general, but even in their own individual being.4

Image – Wikipedia

Related to providence is the problem of theodicy.

Theodicy is an attempt to maintain God’s goodness given the reality of evil. If God is all powerful and in total control, why does S/He permit evil in the first place?

This shifts the debate from cosmology and metaphysics to ethics.

At some point I think these categories must merge if we are to find better answers. But most philosophers and theologians still prefer to slice up the onion of reality, trying not to cry.

¹ Van A Harvey. A Handbook of Theological Terms 1992, pp. 198-200. This is one of my favorite single reference works for theology. Concise, detailed, and not preachy. The Maryknoll Catholic Dictionary (1965) says that God “ordains all things to an intended end so that His purpose of creation may be accomplished.” Just what ordains means is a bit unclear to me. And this kind of wording ignores questions about the relativity of space-time, how we all live in different space-times, and how that complicates the Biblical notion of linear time.

² Just thinking about a universe guided only by chance leaves me cold, so I won’t discuss it further. For me, those upholding a doctrine of chance are unwise and locked into a manmade, conceptually biased map of the universe.

³ Summa Theologica, “The providence of God,” Prima Pars, Q. 22

4 Ibid.

Related » Determinism, Epicureanism, Fatalism, Free will, Social Darwinism, Soteriology, Teleology

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Proclus – A good example of how all spiritual beliefs are not the same

Lycia-46

Lycia-46 by Phoebe Luckyn-Malone via Flickr

Proclus (410-85 CE) was an influential Greek Neoplatonist philosopher. Born in Lycia, he moved to Athens for the remainder of his life.

A lawyer by trade, Proclus came to realize that he preferred philosophy so made a study of the classics and beliefs of his time. Plato, Aristotle, the Stoics, mathematics and the ancient mystery cults were all under his purview.

Modern writers often call him the last of the classical Greek philosophers.

Proclus’ works include extensive commentaries on Plato’s dialogues and on Euclid’s Elements of Geometry. He also wrote several major treatises, to include Platonic Theology, Elements of Theology, and Elements of Physics.

Like his better known predecessor, Plotinus, Proclus attempts to combine the Platonic notion of the ideal Forms with Aristotle’s concept of a prime, unmoved Mover (the first cause of all creation).

Proclus’ synthesis of Platonic and Aristotelian systems culminates in his theory that an overall, divine action coordinates all cosmic elements as the soul returns back to the One from which it originally emanated. This One is unlike the monotheistic God of Jewish, Muslim and Christian faiths, mainly because it is not a being but rather some kind of creative principle.

The first principle in Neoplatonism is the One (Greek: to Hen). Being proceeds from the One. The One cannot itself be a being. If it were a being, it would have a particular nature, and so could not be universally productive.¹

Woman teaching geometry, from Euclid's Elements.

Woman teaching geometry, from Euclid’s Elements via Wikipedia

Due to the non-Christian aspects of his teaching, the emperor Justinian closed the reknowned school of Athens after its (more or less) nine century run.

But the ecclesiastical powers couldn’t suppress Proclus’ ideas indefinitely.

Considerable interest in his work reappeared during the medieval and renaissance periods, as scholars and monks gained access to a considerable array of classical literary, religious, mythological, biographical, historical and scientific sources.

¹ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Proclus

Realated » Platonism

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Politically Correct – Beyond the definition

Antonio Ciseri's depiction of Pontius Pilate p...

Antonio Ciseri’s depiction of Pontius Pilate presenting a scourged Christ to the people Ecce homo! (Behold the man!) In the New Testament account, that assembly found it acceptable to crucify Jesus instead of Barabbas, a convicted murderer – Image via Wikipedia

politically correct

conforming to a belief that language and practices which could offend political sensibilities (as in matters of sex or race) should be eliminated

political correctness

noun

First Known Use: 1934

“Politically Correct.” Merriam-Webster.com. Merriam-Webster, n.d. Web. 4 Jan. 2018.

Well that’s a dictionary definition, which is a good start. But I think the term “politically correct” demands a little amplification.

From my perspective, “politically correct” describes a belief that the majority (or a highly visible group) at a given moment in history see as true or, if not ultimately true, acceptable or appropriate.

Alexis de Tocqueville, French political thinke...

Alexis de Tocqueville, French political thinker and historian – Image via Wikipedia

When a politically correct idea takes hold, many follow suit and boldly proclaim with an almost religious zealousness a belief or agenda that, in reality, could be an ephemeral, ideological trend.

Along these lines, the classical French sociologist Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859) argued that democracy’s emphasis on equality could possibly squelch individuality, leading to a suffocating majority rule marked by total conformity.

In the New Testament narrative, Pontius Pilate voices the philosophical essence of political correctness when he says to Jesus Christ:

What is Truth!  ~ John, 18:38 NASB

Andrew Lloyd Webber’s rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar has Pilate sarcastically ask

But what is truth? Is truth unchanging law? We both have truths. Are mine the same as yours?

The following New Testament passage gives a scathing account of worldly wisdom, which could be seen as a type of political correctness:

What is truth? Deutsch: Was ist Wahrheit? Fran...

What is truth? Christ and Pilate – Image via Wikipedia

Let no man deceive himself. If any man among you thinks that he is wise in this age, he must become foolish, so that he may become wise. For the wisdom of this world is foolishness before God. For it is written, “He is THE ONE WHO CATCHES THE WISE IN THEIR CRAFTINESS”; and again, “THE LORD KNOWS THE REASONINGS of the wise, THAT THEY ARE USELESS” ~ I Corinthians 3:18-20 NASB

Okay, so there is a lot of b.s. in the world. I think we all get that. But that doesn’t mean all politically correct ideas are bad or untrue. Many seem to contain virtue.

The key is to avoid blindly accepting majority opinion – and the political correctness that often goes with that – without first researching and thinking for oneself.

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Predestination – Software is updated… why not theology?

Icon depicting the First Council of Nicaea.

Icon depicting the First Council of Nicaea – Wikipedia

The Chairman of the Bored

Not sure if it’s because of the holiday season and all the extra activity – inner and outer – during this time. But I’ve been letting this entry hang, fully aware it’s in need of revision. Which is a nice way of saying… I’m bored of theology!

Actually, I’m not bored of theology per se. If I’m predestined for anything, it’s to think about God and creation, trying to figure out how it all works, realizing I’ll always fall short due to my human limitations.

But that’s just it.

Human limitations.

I’m finding it dull and uninspiring writing about what a bunch of men thought about God over the centuries, some of whom were probably misogynist and racist.

It just seems so stiff and wooden.

So I’m going to boil it down to two main points. Or rather, the two main forms that, historically speaking, the idea of predestination takes.

Predestination in a nutshell

The first type of predestination, articulated by St. Augustine, is that some individuals are divinely predestined to reside in an eternal heaven. Many believe the following New Testament passage supports this belief:

Jesus said to them, “You will indeed drink from my cup, but to sit at my right or left is not for me to grant. These places belong to those for whom they have been prepared by my Father” (Matthew 20:23, NIV).

English: Laszlo Szlavics Jr.: John Calvin memo...

Laszlo Szlavics Jr.: John Calvin memorial medal, 110 mm, bronze, cast, 2008 – Wikipedia

The second type, called “double predestination” (or dual predestination), is the belief that God predestines some for everlasting heaven and others to eternal hell.

Gottschalk of Orbais, an unorthodox 9th-century theologian was imprisoned for advancing the notion of double predestination.

Centuries later, the Protestant reformer John Calvin made double predestination a key feature of his theology, differentiating it from the Catholic take.

Leading questions

Again, this is only the simplest of outlines. The idea of predestination has been debated for centuries among world religions. Some of the leading questions are:

  • Is God good?
  • How could a good God allow some souls to suffer an eternal hell?
  • Does God actively plan or passively allow eternal damnation?
  • Is God all-powerful?
  • Is God all-good?
  • Are we in a position to understand or judge God?
  • How do we envision God, after all?
  • Are we free to make good or bad choices?
  • Are we determined in some grand web of cause and effect?

The questions and answers are, indeed, many.¹

Time for an update?

Plasma Lamp by Luc Viatour via Wikipedia

Historically, it seems that theologians play word games to try to justify their limited outlook on God, space-time and creation.

God knows in advance how we will choose, for instance. Similarly, God permits but does not enforce our evil actions, we often hear.

This doesn’t intellectually satisfy most people because the answer is way beyond our human capacity for understanding.

With our imploding/exploding 21st-century cosmology where matter/energy and space/time are not absolutes, the old ways of looking at the issue come off even more stale and regimented.

Carl Jung picked up on this problem. His solution was to say that God is half unconscious and, really, half bad. For Jung, God learns to be ethically better through God’s own creation.

I think this is rubbish. Jung, despite his best efforts to differentiate the ego from the archetype became a bit egotistical in my opinion. True, I never met him. But from his work and biographical material it seems he occasionally fell into the power trip trap.

This morning I noticed a new article about Near Death Experiences.² It adds an intriguing piece to the puzzle.

solarein – Coma Domine via Flickr

The author says he died but came back.

During his comatose “death” he literally felt all the bad things he had done to other people. And each hell, he says, is custom made for a particular person’s transgressions.

Whoa.

My solution

Rather than speculate too much, I think it’s more practical to just try to do our best at being good. Deep down I believe we all know what that means. Some of us may be so messed up, touchy and unhappy that we do bad things to compensate for our hurt. We try to rationalize our bad behavior.

But in the end, we know.

And so does God, I believe.

* “The Chairman of the Bored” are lyrics from the Iggy Pop tune, I’m Bored.
¹ See Wikipedia entry for more interfaith details.
² My tweet:

 

Related » Book of Job, Determinism

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Psychological Projection – When fiction becomes fact

Freud exhibition

Freud exhibition by Amira Elwakil via Flickr

If we’re all projecting onto one another, where is true, authentic relationship? – Lee Beach

Lee Beach was a professor at Trent university. He taught psychology but was also interested in English literature. Dr. Beach’s reading list contained just about every neurotic in literary history, categorized by the psychoanalytic system of the day.

It was a great course. A bright moment amidst a sea of competent but sometimes superficial psych professors.

Two types of projection

Projection is an old idea, alluded to in religious scripture, literature and philosophy since ancient times.¹

Sigmund Freud conceptualized projection within a systematic theory of mind. Freud had a knack for doing that. Many of his ideas had been around for centuries. He was just the most successful in naming and fitting concepts into a larger theory of his own making.

Signboard of Freud Museaum

Signboard of Freud Museum – Wikipedia

Projection for Freud has a dual meaning. The most popular use in everyday speech refers to attributing our good and bad qualities to someone else. We “project” our own overlooked qualities onto another.

If it’s Tiger Woods, for example, some might project their own impulses toward infidelity onto him. Woods becomes a bogey man and the projecting person feels self-righteous and justified.

Likewise, a good deal of Trump detractors seem to project their own undesirable, unconscious shadow onto the American president.

That sexist, unstable Man is not a role model nor fit for office!

On the other hand, Trump supporters may project their own desire for prosperity onto equally simplistic images, tropes and slogans.

Make America Great Again!

The second meaning of projection is similar to the first, but more disturbing. Here a person believes that what is going on inside their head is outwardly real. For them a dream or hallucination becomes reality.²

Gulácsy, Lajos – The Madman and the Soldier (1909-11) via Wikipedia

A tragic aspect of the second type of projection is found in the violent psychotic who cannot distinguish between their turbulent inner fantasy world and personal acts of violence.

These people walk around in a kind of waking dream state, not realizing they’re harming real people as they live out their twisted desires, defend against non-existent threats or blindly obey inner voices.³

Positive aspects

Projection is often perceived as negative. Freud, in a letter to his disciple Carl Jung, jokes that one should not be “led like Faust see a Helen [of Troy] in every woman.”4

However, projection can be positive. When projection involves our first love, we tend to project our own idealized hopes and aspirations onto another. Love is blind, the old saying goes. Bodily chemicals rush through our system and our love object becomes a goddess or god. We are supremely happy, even exhilarated. For a while, anyhow. Once reality kicks in our dreamy cloud-like romance usually comes tumbling down.

Jung and the mythographer Jospeh Campbell also believe projection can be positive, providing the activated material is mutually beneficial and facilitates What Jungians call the individuation process.

John Duncan – Tristan & Isolde via Wikipedia

A (usually) young man and woman under the spell of projection reenact the archetypal contents symbolized in tales like Romeo and Juliet or Tristan and Isolte. Here we see the perfect, idealized other in our lover’s eyes—again, for a while.

Dear Mr. Fantasy

Like professor Beach, some ask if we can ever entirely rid ourselves of our projections. If not, human relationships are mostly mutually agreed upon fantasies or temporary infatuations.

Thinkers like Erich Fromm disagree. They say our ability to love makes us uniquely human. For Fromm, reducing this divine mystery to a psychoanalytic or philosophical dynamic does great injustice to the beauty and sanctity of love.

Perhaps the goal is to progressively move beyond projection to develop more profound relationships, realizing that we will always fall short of true, selfless love.

¹ See my highlights at LINER for more. http://lnr.li/0zfjV/

² (a) For some, dreams and hallucinations are also real. This issue is touched on elsewhere at earthpages.ca. (b) Charles Rycroft says projection literally means “throwing in front of oneself” and both types of projection are one of Freud’s defense mechanisms. See Charles Rycroft, A Critical Dictionary of Psychoanalysis, Harmondsworth: Penguin 1977, pp. 125-126.

³ These voices are imaginary or demonic, depending on your belief system.

4 Carl Jung, Memories, Dreams, Reflections, New York: Vintage, 1965, p. 363.

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Possession – Another spiritual idea largely ignored by consumer culture

The controversial figure, Rasputin. Depending on one’s worldview or politics, he was mad, possessed or inspired – via Wikipedia

The idea of spiritual possession is found in many different cultures. Some see it as entirely involuntary, unwanted and evil. Others take a less extreme view.

Depending on the cultural context in which it is found, possession may be considered voluntary or involuntary and may be considered to have beneficial or detrimental effects on the host. Within possession cults, the belief that one is possessed by spirits is more common among women than men.¹

In Catholic teaching possession refers to the belief that a person’s body – but not the soul – is inhabited or controlled by demons or other evil influences. Possession in this sense may be temporary or permanent.

Over the centuries diverse exorcism prayers and rituals were developed by the Catholic Church to repulse what are regarded as spiritual attacks from Satan. An example of an exorcism prayer still in use is Prayer Against Satan and the Rebellious Angels, published in 1967 by order of His Holiness Pope Leo XIII.

The Swiss psychiatrist C. G. Jung used the term possession to describe the unhealthy influence of an archetype on the ego. Jung’s discussion suggests that many archetypes are equivalent in character to pagan gods, which for many are perceived as lesser than a monotheistic God.

Psychiatry complicates the belief in possession. When explaining this belief, contemporary psychiatrists look to delusional systems possibly rooted in faulty brain functioning.

Hacker – Hacking – Symbol by Christoph Scholz via Flickr

However, most psychiatrists do not consider the prospect that faulty brain functioning and spiritual attack may go hand in hand.

Just as a hacker finds weak spots within a computer operating system, the devil, some maintain, exploits physiological and psychological vulnerabilities within human beings.

Could possession be permitted by God to bring about some greater good? If God permits evil, as most traditional theologians say, and if possession is another instance of evil, then it follows that God does permit the possession of souls for some unknown reason.

It’s hard for us to understand why God would permit evil when a seemingly possessed person commits an enormous sin against others. Where’s the logic in that? most cry out afterward.

For me, it is less challenging to consider the “greater Good of good and evil” when we make small mistakes, mistakes that might be at least partially explained by the notion of temporary possession.

Huh?

Let me explain.

In times of extreme stress and fatigue most of us have probably experienced or witnessed someone being “beside themselves,” as the old saying goes. People say or do things they normally wouldn’t do, like hurting another person’s feelings or sparking an argument. This dynamic fits with an idea I’ve been thinking about since the 1980s—The notion of the necessary mistake.

Philosophically speaking, the necessary mistake is nothing new. It’s another way of saying inevitable sin, a concept that has been talked about since the dawn of ethical thinking. Because we are all imperfect, we are going to make mistakes (or commit sin) in life. But some believe that God may bring about a greater Good, despite our blunders. And hopefully the timing of our mistakes fits within a larger dynamic of overall improvement. That is, we all learn together.

BK via Flickr

The difference between a healthy and unhealthy response to a necessary mistake hinges upon how we respond. Do we resolve to do better next time or simply not give a damn and carry on, repeating the same mistake over and over to the detriment of self and others?

It may seem like I’ve wandered pretty far from the idea of possession. But again, possession can be temporary and, as psychiatry suggests, at least partly brought about by factors like genetics, personality, sleep deprivation, malnutrition, drug use and stress.

Conceivably, a dark spiritual force could influence us toward making mistakes if we let our guard down. And I think psychiatry, its patients and the general public would do well to consider this possibility.

In a world becoming more techno-crazed every day, it is time to bring soul, spirit and God back into the discussion of mental health and illness.²

¹ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spirit_possession

² I once had a professor who, almost like Rasputin, seemed to have enormous powers of influence over other people. I’ll call him or her “Raspy” (not the real name). In Jungian terms, Raspy seemed to be gripped (or intermittently possessed) by an archetypal power. Raspy almost had me fooled for a while, until I saw through her or him. As the New Testament puts it, you can always judge spiritual powers by their fruit (i.e. moral outcome). In Raspy’s case, the fruit seemed rotten.

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Who’s got the power?

The Power of Choice

The Power of Choice: Simon Greening via Flickr

Way Back

The ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle defined power in a way that remarkably prefigures Sir Isaac Newton‘s three laws of motion.

Aristotle says power is

  1. The agent causing a change in something
  2. The ability or potential in an object enabling it to act
  3. The ability in an object to remain unchanged

Image – Wikipedia

Today

In the social sciences and political life power usually means the ability to make decisions that influence, regulate or coerce.¹

For democratic countries political power is limited to the extent that the next elected representative has the ability to change or modify a set of power relations, as we see with US President Trump trying to unravel or remedy, depending on how you look at it, many of former President Obama’s initiatives.

But power goes far beyond big politics and weighty issues. It is found in the doctor’s office, the workplace, the schools and our neighborhoods. And thinkers like R. D. Laing suggest that power manifests within family dynamics.

Oliver Twist – Wikipedia

A Little Theory

Different cultural critics hold diverse views of power and how it is best applied. From Machiavelli to Marx, power is always present. But just how it is interpreted is a uniquely human act.

Postmodern and other social thinkers often overlook the fact that power, as a noun, is ethically ambivalent. Both good and bad can things be modified by the adjective “powerful”—for example, powerful love and powerful hate.

The 17th century philosopher Thomas Hobbes argued that knowledge gained from philosophical understanding creates power. Hobbes added that such power should be applied in ways good for the Commonwealth. His argument is echoed in the G-8 countries’ rationale behind military strikes against the enemies of democracy and freedom. In Catholicism, this is called the “Just War.

Good and Evil – Wikipedia

Michel Foucault says power is embedded in our social relationships but he doesn’t emphasize an ethical dimension to power. Rather, Foucault sees power as an ongoing struggle of competing intentions.

To some observers, it is almost as if Foucault portrays ethics and morality as historically relative products of social power.

If true, good and evil are not absolute, timeless and universal truths. They are relative to a given social time and place. That is, good and evil are social constructions.

However, Jules Evans argues that Foucault’s later work, such as The Care of the Self (1984), reveals a developing interest in an ethic of wellness. As Foucault says:

Perhaps I’ve insisted too much on the technology of domination and power. I am more and more interested…in the mode of action that an individual exercises upon himself by means of the technologies of the self.²

Whether or not Foucault’s interest in wellness was purely intellectual or, perhaps, an emerging practical concern remains open to debate.

Anthropology, Depth Psychology and Religion

Supernatural – Juliana Coutinho via Flickr

Terms like mana, numinoustapas and orenda refer to a form of magical, mystical or spiritual power originating from beyond the realm of scientific predictability.

In keeping with Max Weber‘s idea of charisma, individuals with a lot of social power may possess, command or mediate a good deal of spiritual, otherworldly power.

I think Weber’s concept of charisma is important because, for some, it links spiritual and political power.

Science vs Religion

Power ON – Wikipedia

Another central question is whether or not a given set of otherworldly powers are good or evil. This issue was once of great importance. It is now pretty well passed over by the media and most everyone else.

In its place we have the popular mindset of “health” and “illness.” In a nutshell, science and technology have moved in where religion and ritual once held sway.

So the 21st century mass murderer is “mentally ill” and not “possessed by Satan.”

At least, this is how the courts see it. And they, to return to our initial topic, have the power

¹ See my highlights at LINER for some recent distinctions in the ongoing dialog about power:

Hard Power – http://lnr.li/C0mV7/

Soft Power – http://lnr.li/IQQXv/

Smart Power – http://lnr.li/0rJdk/

² Michel Foucault, lecture given in 1982 cited in Jules Evans, “Philosophy as a Way of Life,” Eurasian Home Analytical Resource, August 15, 2007.

³ Most traditional theologians would say the courts only hold as much power as God permits, God being the bearer of all power.

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